What You Wish For by Katherine Center

Katherine Center’s newest novel What You Wish For is fast-paced, engaging, and whimsical. Even though it deals with heavy topics, Center manages to share the message that choosing joy in the midst of difficult and painful times will help you heal.

Samantha Casey is a school librarian. She has been in Galveston, Texas for only a couple of years, but in this short time she has managed to carve out a life that makes her happy. Sam loves her job, the kids that come to visit her in the library, and her school family. Her new school fits the new Sam: colorful, fun, engaging, and full of personality. After disaster strikes the school, Sam finds herself floundering. The new school year has been thrown into chaos, but with the hiring of Duncan Carpenter, Sam is hopeful that the school will begin to heal.

Sam knows Duncan. Well, she knew the old Duncan. The new Duncan is rigid. He lives by rules and regulations. He believes that he needs to upgrade the school because the way it is now is only asking for bad things to happen. The old Duncan did not care about rules. He was the cool teacher, the one who juggled, wore funny clothes, and advocated for anything and everything fun. Sam had the biggest crush on lovable old Duncan, but the old Sam was too timid. She has changed so much in just a couple years and is hopeful that she can turn Duncan back into the fun-loving man she remembered from before.

Sam and Duncan couldn’t be more different now. Duncan only wants to protect the school even if that means that he has to destroy it. Desperate to save the school, Sam and some other teachers work to remind Duncan of the joy he used to feel. While helping Duncan remember who he used to be, Sam finds herself wanting to know him again.

This book is also available in the following formats:

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.

Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto

Jesse Q. Sutanto has written a deliciously entertaining story that covers a wide variety of topics in her latest book Dial A for Aunties. Combining comedy, drama, murder, and culture, Dial A for Aunties tells the story of a Chinese-Indonesian family stuck in a humorous, yet deadly, situation.

Meddelin Chan loves her family. They may drive her slightly crazy, but they are always there for her. Her mother and three meddling aunts never hesitate to come whenever Meddy calls, which is something that she both loves and doesn’t fully appreciate. This loyalty comes in handy when Meddy suddenly finds herself with a dead body. Her aunties and mother quickly come to her aid to help her with this disastrous situation.

This couldn’t come at a more desperate time for the family though as it is the weekend of the biggest wedding job their family has ever had. Truly a family business, one aunt handles the cake, another is the singer, another the makeup and hair, her mother the flowers, and Meddy herself as the wedding photographer. Together they are responsible for an incredibly expensive and over-the-top billionaire’s wedding that is taking place at a brand new island resort on the California coast. Just as Meddy and her family think they have found a solution, something goes awry, leaving them scrambling to divert major disaster.

To make matters worse, Meddy’s greatest love, and her biggest heartbreak, shows up in the middle of this complete disaster. Can Meddy hide the body, divert the police’s attention, pull off this career-making wedding, AND get her ex back? With the help of her aunties, Meddy may be able to get everything she ever wanted.

This book is also available in the following formats:

Out of Character by Annabeth Albert

Conventionally Yours captured hearts with its story of card gamers falling from hate to love, and now Annabeth Albert is back with its sequel, Out of Character, the story of a devoted card gamer and the former jock who once lost his trust – and who now might steal his heart.

Jasper Quigley is usually the ‘funny friend’, the third wheel or the comic relief. And frankly, it’s getting old. But he’s not so desperate as to be happy when his ex-best-friend comes begging for his help. Milo wasn’t there for him when he needed it most, and that’s not something Jasper ever wants to forgive. But Milo’s been conned out of his brother’s rare, expensive Odyssey game cards and only Jasper can help him replace them. Since Jasper also needs someone to help with his cosplay group’s visit to the children’s hospital, he figures they can make a deal which helps them both – but also keeps Milo at arm’s length. But the more time they spend together, the more he sees Milo’s regret over the past, and his desire to make things right.  And if their friendship can get a second chance, who’s to say love isn’t on the cards?

There was so much to love in this book. The characters were so distinct, with unique perspectives, that it was easy to tell everyone apart and get invested. As in its predecessor, this book touched on the full spectrum of abilities, from the chronically ill to learning disabilities, which was a refreshing and grounded take. I liked that this book focused on a very different angle than Conventionally Yours, so the reader gets introduced to a different side of fan culture, including its mainstream reception: Milo is embarrassed to be in costume in public, until he sees what a difference it makes to the kids at the children’s hospital to play with their favorite characters. I also thought Albert did a good job showing the many different anxieties and coming-out experiences that people have, depending on their family life and circumstances. It’s an excellent story of mutual respect and meeting each other halfway to make a real relationship work.

If you like card games, cosplay, a quest for redemption, or a romance with just enough drama and lots of heart, this might well be the book for you.

The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun

Here is a fun rom-com with two appealing main characters, a modern setting and a classic will they-won’t they slow burn, all showcased in The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun.

Dev is the producer for long-running dating reality show called Ever After (think The Bachelor). He truly believes in happy endings and loves the idea of helping two people find true love. As a new season is getting started, the lucky bachelor is Charlie, a tech wunderkind. Charlie seems perfect – he is handsome and wealthy and smart, but the production crew soon learns that there is a problem – he is a wreck in front of the camera.

Charlie stumbles over his words and is awkward and shy with the contestants. This does not make for good television. So Dev is assigned to work with Charlie, help him relax and enjoy the adventures the show sets up for the program. And it works. Charlie learns how to steady his nerves and what to say to the women when he goes on dates with them.

But now there’s another problem – the more time Dev and Charlie spend together and get to know each other, the more they begin to fall for each other. This is not what the television show had in mind. The show insists that Charlie continue as outlined in his contract.

Will Dev get his happily ever after and will Charlie have the courage to go after his true love?

This is a quick read that’s lots of fun with witty banter and appealing characters who work against stereotype (including the women who are contestants on the show). Recommended for a lazy weekend read!

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

Morgan Rogers has created a masterful debut novel full of raw emotion and expressive language. Honey Girl is a coming-of age novel that deals with tough topics that many adults may find themselves dealing with today.

Grace Porter is confused. A 28-year-old woman who recently completed her PhD in astronomy, Grace and her friends are in Las Vegas to celebrate her major achievement. What no one expects is for Grace to get incredibly drunk and marry a woman whose name she doesn’t know. She wakes up the next morning with vague memories of what happened the night before, remembering that she got married to a mystery woman who she wants to know better. Armed with friends who support her no matter what, Grace goes back home to deal with the aftermath.

Back home with her friends, Grace struggles with her mental health, with her existing relationships with her family and friends, and with what she wants to do with her career. Hitting barrier after barrier as Grace works to get a job in her field, she is unable to find solace in her father who grows increasingly frustrated with Grace’s ability to adhere to her established life plan. Fed up and exhausted with her current life, Grace decides to search for the person who she believes may hold the answers: her mystery wife. Traveling across the country, Grace finally meets her wife and is forced to deal with all of the conflicting emotions raging inside. Grace cannot outrun reality though and even though she finds some escape with her wife, she must find a way to balance her fears, her new love, her career, and her family.

This book is also available in the following formats:

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.

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.