I waited a long time on hold to get this book, and I’m excited to finally talk about it! The Bookseller’s Boyfriend by Heidi Cullinan is a heartwarming happily-ever-after about a bookseller and his favorite author pretending to date and unexpectedly falling for each other. In a nice coincidence, the author uses they / them pronouns and is from Iowa – so they and I have a lot in common in addition to loving a good happy ending.
The novel switches between the perspectives of Rasul, a successful author struggling with writer’s block and a bad breakup, and Jacob, a bookstore owner who’s always loved Rasul’s work. Jacob knows you should never meet your heroes, so he’s apprehensive when Rasul moves to town on a temporary academic residency. Rasul is on a tight deadline and desperately needs to get away from his toxic ex, but is surprised to find Jacob’s store and apartment such a calming haven – not to mention the heat of their attraction. They pretend to be dating to help clean up Rasul’s image, but slowly their feelings become real, and they both have to face their demons to reach the future they want to create together.
There was so much I loved about this book. Cullinan packs in a crowd of well-drawn supporting characters, with backstory that’s clearly been deeply thought out. The plot is aware of romance tropes (in this case, “fake dating” applies, and the concept echoes Beauty and the Beast) but doesn’t get bogged down in them, choosing instead to follow what really works to help the characters work through their issues and come together naturally. Thoughtful engagement with the publishing process and the dark side of social media is a really effective thread that runs through the romantic story. Book lovers might also appreciate the loving nods to the fantasy and speculative fiction genres. Best of all, the inclusion of LGBTQ and racial identities is detailed, intentional and touches on the struggles of bi and pansexual men in the larger landscape. My only concern was that Cullinan put so much into this book that not everything could be covered in a comprehensive way, but I think for the space they had they did a fantastic job crafting a story, and a relationship, that’s grounded in deep emotions that will really resonate with readers.
A novel of mutual courtship, healing, creating community, and the struggle of creativity, The Bookseller’s Boyfriend is a sweetly simmering slow burn that romance fans won’t want to miss. If you’re looking for a romance with a lot of community, intelligence, and heart – and a good pinch of passionate heat – definitely try this book.
Date Me, Bryson Keller is a book whose premise sounds trivial (anybody else remember ‘Win a Date with Tad Hamilton’?) but which turns out to be poignant as well as quite fun. An uplifting story of fake dating, self discovery, identity, family, and how hard it is to be yourself when it might not be safe, I highly recommend it to readers of romance, YA, and gentle reads alike.
Kai Sheridan is an anxious mess, trying to navigate his senior year at a high-end prep school without revealing his deepest secret: he’s gay. Growing up in a religious family, he knows all too well how risky it is to ‘out and proud’; he’s just trying to get through to college, where he can finally be himself. Throwing a wrench in his plans is Bryson Keller, the school’s ‘it boy’: star of the soccer team and all-around nice guy who has frustrated his school’s entire female population by refusing to date in high school. Finally someone dares him to prove he’s really not interested by dating someone new every week for three months – with a few rules. The first person to ask him out each Monday morning is dating him until Friday, when each relationship must end. Bryson has to say yes, nothing physical can happen, and it definitely has to end on Friday. One very rough Monday morning, Kai gets carried away by his frustrations and does the unthinkable: he asks Bryson out. And then Bryson does something even more surprising (for Kai): he says yes. He’s even willing to ‘date’ privately to keep Kai’s secret safe. Over the course of a soul-searching week, Kai and Bryson grow closer and realize that while it may have started out fake, neither one wants their relationship to end. But Kai’s in the closet for a reason – can fragile young love survive when it’s no longer a secret?
I was really impressed with this book. The whole plot happens within a week or two, but it doesn’t feel too rushed. The romance is sweet, but balanced with some sobering realities about homophobia and religion. The author also does a good job representing ethnic diversity and the struggles that come with it: Kai and his sister discuss the unpleasant attention they get as mixed-race kids, and Kai’s best friend Priyanka faces cultural appropriation and insensitivity. Perhaps most refreshingly, Bryson is a sweet and supportive ally from the start, truly caring about other people and standing up for the marginalized. Despite the heavy subject matter, the book’s tone remains hopeful (if cautiously so) as Kai’s stressful realities and strained relationships are coupled with the wholesome flush of first love and the warm support of his friends. If you like realistic fiction, fake-dating romances, or young adult books about standing up to the haters of the world, this book may be for you.