Never Been Kissed by Timothy Janovsky

Film buffs rejoice! Timothy Janovsky has written the ultimate romance for you in Never Been Kissed, featuring summer at the drive-in, a cranky and reclusive legendary film director, and second-chance romance with a childhood crush.

Wren has never been kissed – not only a big regret for him as a lover of rom-coms, but also a major source of teasing from his friends. Considering he’s also graduating college without a plan beyond his regular summer job at the drive-in, it’s especially hard for Wren to feel like a grownup. After a few too many at his 22nd birthday he decides there IS something he can do about one of his problems – he can send out all the emails he’s written to the boys he almost kissed over the years, and launch a quest to get himself kissed. In the morning, this was obviously a terrible idea, but it did reopen communications with childhood friend (and major crush) Derrick, who just so happens to be ALSO working at the drive-in this summer… awkward! Not to mention he’s juggling being a manager at the drive-in, for the first time, with also trying to save it from shutting down by hosting a big event featuring the the local film legend, reclusive director Alice Kelly. Through it all there’s Derrick, and some uncomfortable conversations about what happened to them in high school that need to be faced if there’s a future for them now.

At first I wasn’t sure about the 90s rom-com vibes of this book, or about how immature Wren seemed, dodging his problems and clinging to the past. But over the course of the book, while the film nostalgia stayed strong, Wren started to change, to learn and grow and face his uncomfortable truths. By the end his confidence has grown and he’s acting like a real adult — making the book not only satisfying but relatable, as we all face that moment of growing up and taking responsibility sooner or later. In general, this book was strongly Gen Z, both in terms of lingo, film references, and openly affirming things like mental health, found family, and a wide spectrum of identities. It’s a major milestone for the romance genre that this book openly discusses being demi (which means only feeling certain attractions once a strong emotional bond has been formed) and how important it is to have words to understand yourself. In fact, the atmosphere of acceptance was strong and unquestioned, which was refreshing to read.

This is the 90s romantic comedy movie rewrite I didn’t know I always needed — if you like New Adult coming-of-age stories, second chance romances, or just jump at the chance to go to the movies, I definitely recommend you read this book and then take a trip out to your nearest drive-in theater to keep tradition alive.

Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

I’m a bit of a picky reader, wanting mostly to read books with LGBTQ-diverse characters. Often (as you’ll know if you’ve read my posts) this leads me to fantastic books in the romance genre. However, there are more titles available in other genres, though they’re trickier to find. Most recently I’ve been exploring sci-fi titles, starting with Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell.

Kiem is a very low-level royal in the Iskat Emperor’s family, and he’s got a bit of a bad reputation from his student days that he just can’t shake. Jainan, meanwhile, is well-respected and has been representing the planet Thea for the empire quite well with the help of his Iskat partner Taam. But just as the Empire enters high-stakes negotiations with the ominous Auditor of the Resolution, Taam is killed in an accident, and it’s very important Jainan remarry to present a strong and united front. Enter Kiem – whose main qualifications are his bloodline and his ability to look confident in photos. One quick marriage ceremony later, Kiem and Jainan are struggling to navigate dangerous galactic politics, trying to find out if Taam’s death was really an accident, and feeling surprisingly attracted to each other…

I saw this described as Ancillary Justice meets Red, White, and Royal Blue and I do think that’s a cleverly apt description – although I personally think Boyfriend Material is a closer fit (and the book I prefer between the two). The space opera / imperial conspiracy / political maneuvering elements are a big part of the story and its setting, but Kiem adds some much needed humanity and humor to the story. Throw in a murder mystery and it’s practically a gay version of Star Wars. Better yet, this is a universe that’s very honest, frank, and unconcerned about LGBTQ relationships and identities – which was delightfully refreshing to read.

If you’re a sci-fi reader looking for more representation, don’t miss this critically-acclaimed book!

I’m So (Not) Over You by Kosoko Jackson

If you like classic rom-coms and stories where hard lessons come with plenty of laughs and inevitable happily-ever-afters, you’ll want to try I’m So (Not) Over You by Kosoko Jackson. Characters leap off the page, warm, diverse, and real, and none of their thorny emotions are swept under the rug; readers will root for Kian as he learns to grow up and love himself.

Kian will be the first to admit his life isn’t going great. His dream of being a journalist seems to be just out of reach, while his younger brother seems to have effortless success. He’s not even doing well at getting over his ex, partly because his ex just texted to ask for a favor…Turns out Hudson never told his parents they’d broken up, and needs Kian to pretend they’re back together for an evening. In exchange, Hudson will put in a good word with a journalism bigwig he knows. Unfortunately, the dinner doesn’t go as planned and Kian finds himself going to a wedding with Hudson’s family in Georgia. Will this be a second chance at love – or a repeat of the worst heartbreak Kian ever had?

I loved reading from Kian’s perspective, because he’s so extra, larger-than-life and full of wit and pop culture references. Watching him embody the modern proverb “If I’m too much, go find less” was empowering and delightful to read, since his attitude and general chaos occasionally caused major disruptions around him. Reading from his first-person POV also meant seeing his vulnerability, insecurity, and deep love for his friends and family. In places the introspection and wildly pop-culture-packed internal monologue is almost too much, distracting from the plot so it feels rushed or uneven (not to mention giving rise to concern that the novel will age rapidly out of relevance) but the narrator’s self-awareness, emotional maturity, and excellent friends balance out the faults to make a very enjoyable reading experience.

If you’re looking for a wild romantic ride, or love 90s rom-coms and Crazy Rich Asians, this is the book for you.

The Best Corpse for the Job by Charlie Cochrane

A satisfying cozy mystery woven with a well-drawn gay romance, this book reads like a modernized Agatha Christie Miss Marple story or a more diverse Midsomer Murders adventure.

In The Best Corpse for the Job by Charlie Cochrane, Adam is a young teacher expecting nothing but boredom and sniping from the process of selecting a new Head Teacher for St. Crispin’s school. The board of governors is prickly at the best of times, after all. But things go beyond gossip when one of the applicants is found dead. The police send Robin, a police Inspector and an alumni of St. Crispin’s, to investigate, much to his regret. Memory lane only brings up the traumas of bullying he endured, so he’s eager to get the case resolved. But the case is trickier than it appears, not least because Robin and Adam feel an instant attraction to each other that’s hard to fight. They start to work together to piece together clues, but struggle to keep up after a second body is discovered. The stakes have never been higher with justice, love, and careers on the line.

In terms of plot and pacing this is a highly readable mystery, with sympathetic characters and a relatively believable resolution. The balance between romance and mystery was good, which kept both the calm domesticity of the characters’ attraction as well as the methodical police procedural, from getting dull or repetitive. There’s also a very strong sense of place rooting the story strongly in England, and as an Anglophile I was delighted  a cozy mystery that is true to the genre and evokes classic tropes while seamlessly including gay main characters.

If you’re looking for a light, quick read that is thoughtful and positive in its depiction of LGBTQ life, but focused on a mystery plotline, this is a good pick for you.

The Lights on Knockbridge Lane by Roan Parrish

Roan Parrish continues to rise to the top of the list of my favorite authors with The Lights on Knockbridge Lane, a book where you come for the steamy romance but stay for the good parenting and cozy domesticity. Perfect for the holiday season, this story is a festive entry in the Garnet Run series, while keeping up its themes of healing from trauma and forging new futures.

Adam has been raising his adopted daughter August (Gus to her friends) alone since a painful divorce. It’s been hard for them both to move back to Adam’s hometown, and so Adam desperately wants to make Christmas magical for her. Enter their reclusive neighbor Wes, who Gus aggressively befriends in order to see more of his unusual pets — including a tarantula named Bettie. Together they embark on a mission to have ‘the most lights ever’ on their house – Gus’ only Christmas wish. Meanwhile Adam and Wes grow closer and they start imagining a future together. But when their project goes viral, Wes’ fear of the spotlight threatens to ruin their fragile relationship.

As always, Parrish pairs her warm romance with deeply felt insights; in this case exploring the intrusive, destructive side to celebrity culture, what it really means to embrace differences, the bumpy road to making a family, and – most of all – how important and possible it is to break generational cycles of trauma. Both Adam and Wes struggled with toxic parents growing up, and both make it their mission to be gentle and honest with Gus. It was so refreshing to read consistent examples of good communication and transparency in parenting, so that Gus feels not only like a fully fleshed-out character but it’s also clear how seriously Adam takes his great responsibility of raising a child.

If you’re looking for a romance that can be spicy, cozy, and wise all at once, that can heal your heart and give you hope, you may want to read this book.

The Bookseller’s Boyfriend by Heidi Cullinan

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.

Sebastian and Waite: Historical LGBTQ Romances

When we were teenagers, my sister and I loved reading Avon romances. Now that I’m older and want to read more diverse books, I’ve been delighted to find a few authors that provide steamy period pieces for an LGBTQ audience. Here are two entries published in 2021, both involving career criminals transformed by true love.

In The Queer Principles of Kit Webb, a nobleman needs a highwayman’s help retrieve something precious, but the thief is retired and will only help by teaching the man what he knows about stealing. As the lessons go on, though, they each want more than just a business arrangement… Cat Sebastian is a writer with a number of series under her belt, including Seducing the Sedgwicks (featuring Two Rogues Make a Right) and the Turner series (featuring The Soldier’s Scoundrel and The Ruin of a Rake).

The Hellion’s Waltz focuses on a Robin-Hood-style swindler and the swindler-hating woman she must seduce to bring off her heist. But though funding a weaver’s union is a good cause, morality and unexpected love may lead them astray. Olivia Waite has also written The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics and the Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows in this same universe of historical sapphic feminists.

Though perhaps not going to win any literary awards, everything I’ve read by these authors is funny, heartwarming, poignant, addictively readable, and just generally good romantic escapism. If Downton Abbey, Bridgerton, and other swooning period pieces have captured your heart, you may want to try the work of Cat Sebastian and Olivia Waite. (And if you’re just looking for unconventional bodice-rippers, I can also recommend the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger, starting with Soulless).

Better Than People by Roan Parrish

I’ve reviewed one of Roan Parrish’s earlier works before and while I loved it, it had some issues. I’m happy to report that in her more recent Garnet Run series many of my complaints have been fixed! The first in a duology, Better Than People is a sweet romance for animal lovers and mental health advocates alike.

Jack is a prickly artist who has surrounded himself with a menagerie of animals, finding their company more enjoyable and trustworthy after a recent betrayal. Unfortunately, he can’t find his usual joy in taking care of them after breaking his leg in an accident. He’s going to need help – his least favorite situation to be in. Enter Simon, a man burdened with crippling shyness soothed only by the company of animals and his recently-widowed grandmother. But that’s his problem: his grandmother is terribly allergic to animals, keeping him from having a pet of his own. Having Simon walk Jack’s dogs (and cat) solves both their immediate problems AND their underlying loneliness, as a business arrangement blooms into love. But there’s a reason they both prefer animals to people; can their love triumph?

Being a shy animal lover myself, I really sympathized with the characters in this case, and I appreciated that Parrish’s take on anxiety and shyness is NOT “they need to get out more”, but rather a compassionate observation that some people are just built differently and have different social needs. To have Jack respond empathetically to Simon and listen to what he needs was exactly what I, as an anxious mess myself, needed to read.

If you take comfort and company from animal friends, if you find other people difficult to navigate sometimes, and if you like stories of supportive, affirming love (with spicy scenes mixed in), this may be the book for you.

The Hate Project by Kris Ripper

The master of unconventional happily-ever-afters has struck again! Kris Ripper’s The Hate Project, follow-up to The Love Study, is another compassionate and honest look at love in the midst of anxiety, focusing on being honest with yourself about what you really want.

Oscar struggles with just about everything, weighed down by his almost-manageable mental illness. One way he copes is by being a grouch, avoiding people where possible and sniping at them when he can’t. Since Jack joined their friend group, he’s taken on most of Oscar’s sniping, and giving back as much snark as he gets. But all that changes after Oscar is laid off – again. In desperate need of a purpose and structure, he agrees to help Jack clean out his grandmother’s house so it can be sold, in return for financial payment and a no-strings sexual arrangement. But soon he’s seeing a new side of Jack, and of himself as he starts to actually enjoy being in someone’s company. Even stranger, Jack seems to enjoy HIS company. Oscar tries to run away, as usual, but he just can’t forget how good it was being with Jack (both in and out of the bedroom). Could it be possible to face his fears and ask for a second chance?

I read this book in a day, I was so charmed by how relatable, funny, and frustrating Oscar is as a narrator. Ripper doesn’t gloss over any of the realities of living with anxiety and depression, but while it’s hard to read Oscar’s depressive sections, it just makes it more gratifying to watch him grow, admit the truth to himself, and try something different. Moreover, the depiction of an unconditionally loving and supportive chosen family is very heartwarming, a good example of how to support loved ones with mental illness. AND, as is the case in The Love Study, Ripper does an excellent job showing alternative ways for people to be intimate and make a relationship that works for them.

If you’re looking for a compassionate romance with plus-size representation, good depictions of mental illness, sharp banter, and a couple you’ll root for, you might like The Hate Project.

Burn Zone by Annabeth Albert

If you like steamy romances with an age gap, a hint of danger and lots of angst, I may have a book for you!

Annabeth Albert’s Hotshots series features brooding smoke jumpers – firefighters who parachute into wildfires to keep them contained – falling reluctantly into love, and it starts with Burn Zone, starring Lincoln and Jacob, two smoke jumpers who have been fighting their attraction to each other for about as long as they’ve known each other. Lincoln is the older man, a veteran smoke jumper who was best friends with Jacob’s late brother. His difficult past has made him slow to trust and quick to leave, but Jacob makes him want to stay. Jacob is the new recruit, eager to get out of his brother’s shadow and prove himself, and just as eager to explore the heat between them. Lincoln wants to honor his friend’s memory, but can’t resist Jacob’s charms; neither man is prepared for the true and tender connection that blooms.

Now, for me, some of the writing and plot were a bit clunky, and I was less engaged by the steamy scenes than I might’ve expected. However, I was totally hooked by the emotional journey of the characters as they navigated the miscommunications and unspoken feelings threatening to separate them. The cultural immersion into the world of smoke jumping firefighters was interesting, and the threat of rejection from unsupportive family members and conservative communities was heartbreakingly real.

This might not be a masterpiece of the genre, but it’s a stirring and exciting story of love that just won’t quit. If you’re looking for an escapist read with heat both in and out of the bedroom, try Burn Zone by Annabeth Albert.