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.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

“The things we fear the most are often the things we should fear the least. It’s irrational, but it’s what makes us human. And if we’re able to conquer those fears, then there is nothing we’re not capable of.”

If you are looking for a whimsical and darling story to whisk you away from reality for a bit, you need not look any further than The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune. One of the most popular fantasy titles of the past year, this book invites readers to indulge in moments of introspection about living life to the fullest while remaining light, fun, and magical. Intrigued? Without further ado, let me tell you more about this exquisite book that is definitely one of my favorite reads of the year thus far!

This story begins with Linus Baker, a middle-aged man who lives a very solitary life in a world with magical beings. A caseworker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY), he works to ensure that orphanages under the jurisdiction of the government are up to code and treating their young wards well. A strict follower of the rules, Linus never allows himself to form attachments with the magical children he visits; nor does he question the state of their well-being after he leaves. Although with good intentions and a kind heart, Linus naïvely and passively wades through life doing and believing everything he is told. This also carries over into what he tells himself, as he believes his life – complete with his verbally abusive coworkers and boss, his daily walks home in the rain without an umbrella, and listening to the same music at home each night alone with his cat – is as good as life is meant to be for him.

That is, until Linus receives a special assignment from Extremely Upper Management. Due to his impeccable attention to detail and impressive impartiality to magical orphans, Linus is selected for a month-long, confidential assignment in which he must observe six exceptional children, as well as their master, at an orphanage on an island no one knows about. What Linus also doesn’t know, however, is just how exceptional these children are. Despite his lack of comfort with the assignment, he is given no choice and leaves for this island the very next day. What unfurls at the orphanage after he arrives is the beautiful, comedic, and heartwarming story of how six magical children – a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, a were-Pomeranian, an unidentifiable green blob, and the Antichrist, to be exact – as well as their master, completely change Linus’s life forever.

Overall, this story pulls at your heartstrings and is truly innocent at its core. I wish I could meet all of the children – they are the sweetest, funniest, and most resilient set of characters, despite all of the challenges each has faced due to the prejudices hurled at them for having a magical background. One of the strongest tropes in this story (and also a favorite of the author himself) is that of the “found family,” or characters bound as a family not by blood, but by pure unconditional love for one another. Not only is this trope strong with the bonds shared between the children, all of whom come from different backgrounds, places, and lives, but also for Linus, as he develops relationships and finds love he never knew he needed or deserved. This story also features a beautiful, “slow-burn” romance between Linus and Arthur, the master of the orphanage, as Klune aspires to include positive LGBTQ+ representation in his stories. This book truly epitomizes how sometimes you can find love when you aren’t even looking for it.

It is also clear that some of the struggles faced by the magical beings in this story are also faced by people who are marginalized in our society today. With thoughtful and profound quotes from Linus, Arthur, and the children regarding the ways in which to make the world a kinder place, this story exudes empathy, love, and kindness toward those who are different. It urges characters and readers alike to choose love over hate, empathy and an open mind over prejudice, and understanding over fear. This message of unconditional kindness and love for others was absolutely my favorite part of this book, as it allows for the hopeful and optimistic vision of a future in which love does conquer hate.

All in all, I would highly, highly recommend this to anyone who is up for a book that will leave you laughing, thoughtful, teary-eyed, and in love with a family that finds itself together in the cerulean sea.

This title is also available in the following formats:

OverDrive eBook

Bloom by Kevin Panetta

As the summer gets rolling, you may want to read something restful, sweet, and nice to look at. If so, you might want to check out Bloom, a graphic novel written by Kevin Panetta and illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau.

Bloom is the story of Ari, who’s been working in his family’s bakery in a small beach town since he was a kid. Now he’s graduated high school and is under pressure from his band to move to the city – and he’s desperate to go, if only to figure out who he is and what he really wants. Unfortunately, his family’s not on board, and shames him for his trying to leave when the bakery is struggling. At his wits’ end, he decides to hire a replacement, someone to do the work with his parents so he’ll be free to leave. Enter Hector, an easygoing guy in town for the summer to clean out his late grandmother’s house. He loves to bake as much as Ari wants to avoid it, and so Ari starts to train him in the rhythms of the bakery so he can take Ari’s place. But nothing’s as simple as it should be; things with the band are changing, putting his plans in jeopardy, and being with Hector is starting to remind Ari of the love that runs through his family’s business and joy that comes from baking. Before long it’s clear that his relationship with Hector could also bloom into love — if only Ari could get out of his own way.

The good things about this graphic novel are many. Readers are immersed in the act of baking and in Ari’s Greek heritage, with the addition of Hector’s heritage later in the story. The art style is simple but charming, with a simple color palette highlighting beautifully rendered scenery with floral accents. The portrayal of family love and friendship love is starkly realistic and truly heartwarming, with both Hector and Ari finding comfort among their loved ones along with discomfort.

For me, being a graphic novel affected character development and plot too much; a lot seemed to be implied through brief scenes and imagery that I would rather have had spelled out and explained. I’m also never totally hooked by angsty characters with unsupportive parents and/or toxic friends. But overall it’s a sweet story and a quick read, and all the baking imagery gives off some definite Great British Baking Show vibes for me; if this sounds like your kind of coming-of-age summer romance, give it a try!

Bloom is available in print and on Overdrive.

Date Me, Bryson Keller by Kevin van Whye

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.

The Backstagers by James Tynion IV, Rian Singh, and Andy Mientus

Today I’ve got something to recommend for lovers of both prose chapter books AND graphic novels! The Backstagers, by James Tynion IV and Rian Singh, started out as a young adult graphic novel series, but then was adapted into middle grade novels of the same name by Andy Mientus, and both give you an avenue into a tale of high school theater as a gateway into fantastical realms.

Here’s the basics: a boy named Jory transfers to an all-boys private high school, St. Genesius, and is pushed by his parents to join a club. First he considers joining drama club, only to discover that it’s much more exciting (and welcoming) being a backstager, the techs behind the scenes that make all the magic happen. Magic in this case is also meant literally: the backstage corridors lead into wild and unpredictable worlds of odd creatures, shifting passageways, and general mayhem. Jory jumps in feet-first and quickly bonds with the Backstagers crew: Hunter, Aziz, Sasha, Beckett, and two kindly senior stage managers. Together, it’s their job to keep the theater safe AND make sure the show goes on. It’s not an easy task, but the power of new friendship and budding romance is more than up to the challenge.

I started with the graphic novels, and I thought the art style was charming and the characters were diverse and full of personality. I’m very excited to read the prose novels and see this world fleshed out in more detail, with new adventures to experience. If you were a theater kid, have a devoted squad of friends, or loved either Stranger Things or Ouran High School Host Club, I recommend you try reading about The Backstagers (one way or another)!

Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu

Have you ever unexpectedly read a book in a day? You sit down with it, figuring you’ll just start it, and before you know it, you’re done? That happens to me a lot, especially with fiction and graphic novels, so I wasn’t too surprised when I read Check, Please! Book 1 by Ngozi Ukazu from cover to cover in an afternoon. If you need a quick and lighthearted read, then I can’t recommend this book enough.

Originally published in 2018, this upbeat story follows Eric Bittle, dubbed “Bitty” by his teammates, as he starts school at Samwell University as part of the men’s hockey team. He navigates a much more challenging atmosphere than he’s accustomed to, including hockey that includes violent physical ‘checking’, of which he is deathly afraid. Luckily, his teammates are true friends – utterly supportive, relentlessly funny, and deeply appreciative of Bitty’s skill as a baker. Over the course of his freshman and sophomore years at Samwell, Bitty finds his place on the team and forges a strong bond (and an equally strong crush) on team captain Jack. But what happens when Jack and the others graduate?

I found this book completely adorable, with an endearing art style and lovable characters. The immersion into Canadian hockey culture was fascinating, and I appreciated that Ukazu didn’t overwhelm the reader with too many details, giving just enough information to keep you engaged. I also really liked that the story was told in the form of Bitty’s video blog entries; this was a clever narrative tactic that worked perfectly for the graphic novel medium. However, I wasn’t always satisfied with how the scenes were fleshed out: a lot of backstories and events had to be inferred from context or brief mentions, or understood only after multiple throwaway lines. Especially in the case of romantic storylines, I just wanted more. Luckily, there was a lot of additional material after the story – bonus comics and Bitty’s Twitter feed – which helped add some details and context.

If you’re a graphic novel lover, reluctant reader, hockey fan, or are looking for a fluffy read about friendship, falling in love, and LOTS of baking, this book may be for you.

Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

I recently came across this 2019 middle grade fiction book, Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn Bigelow, and I honestly can’t recommend it enough. It covers heavy subjects (content warning: including miscarriage) and doesn’t shy away from hard feelings and uncomfortable situations, but it does these things with incredible gentleness, authenticity, and hope. If you’re looking for a warm and wholesome read about family, friendship, and personal growth, you may like Hazel’s Theory of Evolution.

The main character of this book is Hazel, a thirteen-year-old going into 8th grade at a new school, thanks to local redistricting. She refuses to be open or optimistic about this development, determined to keep her head down and “hibernate” her way through one last year before being reunited with her best friend in high school. Unfortunately for her, her best friend grows increasingly distant and mysterious, befriending Hazel’s longtime bully and trying out for cheerleading (which Hazel has always deplored as a ridiculous and sexist activity). Meanwhile, in her new school, a green-mohawked classmate starts pushing his way into her self-isolation, and she makes an unexpected connection with Carina, a fellow transfer looking for a fresh start. At the same time as her social life grows increasingly confusing, her moms announce that one of them, Mimi, is pregnant again…after suffering two miscarriages. Unable to face the agony of hope and loss again, Hazel tries to live in denial: the baby isn’t real until its born safe and healthy. But painful or not, some things can’t be denied or ignored, and Hazel will have to find her way through her new realities.

There are many good things about this book, as mentioned above, including positive representation of multiple identities (ethnic, religious, gender, and sexual identities), and positive parenting: Hazel’s moms do a good job talking to her about her feelings as well as their own, while giving her space to process what she’s going through. I also appreciated reading a modern and well-formed school Health class, complete with discussions of family relationships and positive and comprehensive sex ed. The book is also peppered with Hazel’s articles for the Encyclopedia of Misunderstood Creatures she’s writing, which make delightful educational asides. I recommend this book for a wide range of ages (though be prepared to cry); Hazel has something to resonate with anyone who’s struggled with change and feeling misunderstood or alone in the world.

The Love Study by Kris Ripper

I’ve got two ways out of a reading slump: sweet, fluffy romances and children’s chapter books. Since I got into a bit of a slump as winter turned to spring, I went for a fluffy romance – that I liked – The Love Study by Kris Ripper. This book is a win for portraying happy endings, casual positive representation, and the power of friendship!

The main character and narrator is Declan, a temp with a great group of friends and major commitment issues. His friends love to introduce him by saying he left his last boyfriend at the altar, which he did. Since then, he’s sworn off romance, but now he’s starting to wonder if it’s time to try again. Enter Sidney, the group’s newest friend, who’s looking for someone to come on their YouTube show for a series called The Love Study. Declan agrees to go on a series of blind dates arranged by Sidney, and then to discuss them on the YouTube show, both to explore his relationship issues and to give dating advice to the viewers. The dates go okay, though he doesn’t really connect with any of them. That’s probably because the only person he is connecting with is Sidney — but since Sidney also doesn’t date, can they overcome their respective relationship fears and make something work for them?

I really loved how self-aware Declan is; he never tries to be macho or hide his feelings. He cares a lot, and he expresses that care in long, endearing rambles. He never stops apologizing to his former boyfriend, now good friend, Mason, who he left at the altar, but instead acknowledges how horrible it was for him to do that to someone he cared about and never fails to drop in a sincere “So sorry for that, again” every time it comes up. He’s always aware of his own faults and tries to make other people comfortable and put their feelings first. Frankly, I’ve never read a romantic hero like him before and I found it so refreshing. I also loved Sidney because they were such a distinct character with their own personality, their own fashion sense, and their own approach to things. They’re more reserved and thoughtful, but don’t hesitate to voice their honest and transparent opinion when asked. Two romantic characters that can and do communicate with each other? Shocking (and delightful)! Of course, their communication isn’t perfect, and Declan has some mental health issues to work through — or there wouldn’t be a story — but as these kind of issues, resolutions and happily-ever-afters go, I think this book did a good job of presenting a unique and realistic scenario.

The whole book was beautifully wholesome and transparent; I’ve never read a less problematic romance (or book in general) for adults. Sidney’s gender and pronouns are treated casually and with complete acceptance; no inappropriate or invasive questions were asked. Declan’s group of friends is loving and supportive, even though they don’t hesitate to roast Declan mercilessly; the group also includes a range of personalities, ethnicities, and gender identities which again receive full and unquestioned support.

I definitely recommend this book to anyone for a gentle read, a utopian view of the world, and a sweet romance.