Happy Monday, friends!

The Ex Talk, Rachel Solomon

Here’s a twist on fake dating I’ve never seen before: Fake exes. In order to save their small public radio station, Shay Goldstein has to team up with the pretentious hotshot at her work, a man named Dominic Yun who’s beloved of their sexist boss and can’t stop talking about his master’s degree in journalism. They’ll be working on a podcast called The Ex Talk, where two exes discuss the world of relationships and dating, as well as their own unsuccessful relationship. Except Dominic and Shay have never dated; they’ve barely even talked.

cover of The Ex Talk: a microphone is in the center, with a woman's mouth open to the left of it and a man's mouth open to the right of itFor as silly as this premise is (I say that with affection; I love a ridiculous romance novel premise), Solomon brings real emotional weight to bear, exploring Shay’s history of too-early declarations of love, Dominic’s insecurity about how to date after the collapse of his longest-slash-only relationship, and Shay’s widowed mother’s pursuit of romantic happiness with her new husband.

I’ve talked in the past about my fondness for romance novels that build a network of supportive relationships around their leads. The Ex Talk doesn’t exactly do that — it’s closely focused on Dominic and Shay — but it has a really smart twist on the isolated romance protagonists: Dominic and Shay are lonely. Both of them have struggled to build networks of friends in Seattle, and part of their budding relationship is the pact they make to go out on more (separate, unrelated-to-each-other) friend dates. It was so lovely to see a romance novel acknowledge how hard it can be to make friends as an adult, and I finished the book with the feeling that Dominic and Shay were now much better positioned to have happy and fulfilling lives — with each other, yes, but with their friends-and-relations as well.

Apart from all of that, this book was just fun. Solomon does some great banter, and the relationship is a very satisfying slow burn that hinges on a great deal of forced proximity of the “we have to get to know each other so our fake history of dating will seem more realistic to the podcast audience” genre. Shay and Dominic have lots of terrific, thoughtful, bantery conversations before they ever get down to boning, which is obviously A+ to me, a slow burn fanatic. This book was a ton of fun, and I am grateful to my lovely mum for pushing me to read it ASAP.

Sweet on the Greek, Talia Hibbert

Speaking of variations on a theme, I recently interviewed Talia Hibbert (that podcast will come out next week, in concert with her amazing new book Act Your Age, Eve Brown), and she mentioned that she has a particular fondness for one of her lesser-known books, Sweet on the Greek.

cover of Sweet on the Greek: a bare-chested man with many abs stands in front of, like, some Greeky architecture

The premise is that there’s this very hot Greek retired footballer1 who falls in love at first sight with a very gothy woman who won’t give him the time of day. Afraid that she’ll get away, Nik tells her that he needs a fake girlfriend for a week away with his teammates; he’ll pay her a hundred thousand pounds. Aria agrees. Nik does not need a fake girlfriend at all; it has all been a tangled web of lies. This makes me giggle every time I think about it.

While Sweet on the Greek doesn’t feel quite as substantial as some of Talia Hibbert’s more recent work, her strength as always is in crafting characters you have no choice but to adore. As in The Ex Talk, our heroine here tends to give her heart away quickly, and she has suffered for it in the past. A former boyfriend of Aria’s turned out to be her best friend’s stalker, using Aria to gain access to Jen, whom he kidnapped and nearly killed; and Aria’s terrified not just of getting hurt again, but of placing her loved ones at risk.

(This is a great reason for me to read the previous books in the series. I love a romance series with this kind of operatic drama; see below wherein You Had Me at Hola.)

To Have and to Hoax, Martha Waters

After oodles of people on Romance Twitter had recced me To Have and to Hoax and I had checked it out of the library after much impatient waiting, I very belatedly realized that it’s about an estranged married couple that does a prank war on each other and eventually realize they are still in love. I almost returned it to the library out of hand at this news! I am not a woman who has any truck with pranks. Even very kind, gentle pranks can end with the prankees feeling foolish and duped. Don’t do pranks!

To Have and to Hoax, Martha Waters

However, in the case of To Have and to Hoax, the two main characters are both terrible at doing deceptions. While Violet and James each come up with one or two ways to trick and pester each other, there isn’t anything that I would say rose to the level of a prank — whether because they were so incompetent at executing the pranks they came up with, or because the other person immediately twigged what was happening and foiled the prank. Really it was more of your very classic second-chance romance! It’s also one of those romances where if you try to put too much real-world morality on the things the characters are doing, it all falls apart. So just do not do that! Accept the book on its own terms as a Jolly Madcap Romance! If so, you will enjoy it.

As with Bringing Down the Duke or, frankly, any first romance in a series, about 30% of my fun while reading To Have and to Hoax was inspecting the other characters to see who else was going to get their own romance. I was maybe not quite so excited about a few of these couples, but at least one of them made me perk up very much and look forward to more books by Martha Waters, even though like, Jolly Madcap Romances are probably not my top-tier romance subgenre. There was just enough true feeling and emotional honesty in this one to keep me on the hook for future books.

You Had Me at Hola, Alexis Daria

Oh my GOD I loved this book. Alexis Daria has carved out the funnest niche2 in the funnest genre, writing romance novels about performers (dancers, actors) who have to navigate their public and private lives while finding love. I live for it.

cover of You Had Me at Hola: a Latina woman leans against a Latina man against a colorful, cinematic backgroundThis one — an absolute gem, an unbelievable treasure, I adored it — is about tele!novela! stars! Soap star Jasmine Lin Rodriguez has resolved never to show up in the tabloids again, following a messy public breakup. This is all well good until she gets cast on a TV show opposite telenovela darling Ashton Suárez. Both of them see their current show as their best chance to save their careers — it’s a bilingual romcom for Not!Netflix — so they agree to practice privately to ensure that their chemistry is the best it can be. SPARKS FLY.

I’ll be honest: I was so thrilled about the premise that I kept having to put the book down and shriek quietly to myself. Alexis Daria writes a damn good romcom, with enough soapy elements to satisfy the heart of a woman who came up watching Guiding Light and has no regrets.3 Daria’s clever about using social and psychological obstacles to keep her leads apart, including in the Big Misunderstanding moment (which is not so much a Misunderstanding as it is that one character has kept a giant secret from another character, but it’s for really sympathetic reasons), most of which arise from the very success they’re courting with their show, Carmen in Charge. I enjoyed every minute of reading this book and can’t wait for the sequel.

Two Rogues Make a Right, Cat Sebastian

When Will discovers that his oldest friend Martin is holed up miserable and sick in a London garret4, he promptly kidnaps him and takes him to the country for some fresh air. Prickly, broke, and unwilling to be dependent on his old friend, Martin is determined to go through with his aunt’s plan of marrying for money — no matter how much it breaks his and Will’s hearts.

Two Rogues Make a Right, Cat Sebastian

Cat Sebastian fears neither death nor pain, and I know this is true because she has come on this very blog to say she loves that there’s a genre of fanfic where a character helps another character feel better about their dick. That said, her books are on a career-long trajectory of becoming softer and softer (see also her contribution to He’s Come Undone), and I think with Two Rogues Make a Right she has finally achieved a softness singularity. I, a noted angst fiend, was no proof against this much softness. In one sense there’s a plot, but the plot is mainly “how okay can things become after a very not-okay past?” and the answer is “with kindness and help to fend off structural inequities, things can become very good indeed.” It is a good message for These Times — especially because Cat Sebastian’s not ignoring the corrupting influence of money and power, nor the necessity to have some measure of those things in order to thrive.

It was also great to see a chronically ill protagonist grappling with the ways his sickness has shaped his life and will go on doing so. One of the emotional problems the book has to solve is that Martin’s awful, abusive father spent years telling him he was a burden, and it’s left Martin a) convinced he’s a burden; and b) desperate to not be a burden on Will, the person he loves so dearly. But though the narrative of burden weighs down the character quite a bit, the book gives it no quarter. There is a happy life available to Martin, in which he’s supported by kind people who care about him, and the thing he has to overcome is not his poor health but the societal narratives around poor health that have made it hard for him to accept love and support.

Which is, in fact, fundamental to my love of this book and also Cat Sebastian. The obstacles that Will and Martin must overcome for their HEA have nothing to do with whether they love each other, want the best for each other, or know that the other one wants the best for them. Some of their problems really can be solved by having a conversation, but they have to first become the person who’s able to have that conversation, and Cat Sebastian shows the hard work of reaching that point. And then they also need some source of income to live, and enough people around them who can be cool about their queerness, which are things that the author can swoop down and give them. Which she did. Five million stars.

Conventionally Yours, Annabeth Albert

Conrad and Alden have been longtime rivals at playing Odyssey for their mentor’s YouTube gaming channel, Gamer Grandpa, and they’ve both been given the opportunity to attend a massive con for their beloved game, and even compete in the big tournament. Alden is struggling to discover what he wants his future to be, while Conrad is holding on by the skin of his teeth to even have a financial future. They’re each willing to do anything to win the tournament — even take a cross-country road trip together to get there.

Conventionally Yours, Annabeth Albert

I! Love! A road trip! Conventionally Yours is a glorious enemies-to-friends-to-lovers road trip story, hitting all the beats you want it to (they get lost! they exchange confidences! there’s only one bed!) while delicately building up the relationship between these two characters. Alden is neurodivergent in a way that nobody’s ever been able to conclusively diagnose, and his moms have always been certain that he’s destined for great things (category: doctor or similarly prestige career). Conrad is handsome and popular and charming, but secretly he’s barely getting by. Ever since his father found out he was gay, he’s lost his family’s financial and emotional support and is working several jobs at once just to make rent. As the road trip goes on, the two begin to soften, learning more about each other’s lives, working out how to take care of each other, and giving themselves permission to be taken care of.

While a dual-POV is kind of a norm in romance novels, I find it particularly satisfying in enemies-to-lovers stories. Annabeth Albert excels at depicting how Alden and Conrad look from the outside vs how they experience their own lives and interiority. At the beginning, as you’re seeing Conrad through Alden’s eyes and vice versa, you’re well able to believe the unpleasant versions of the other person. I fucking love this kind of reminder that people look different on the outside than they really are on the inside, and honestly when it’s done well, it is one of my favorite things about the romance genre. I enjoyed this a lot (despite not understanding the Odyssey game, like, at all) and will definitely look for more in the series!

WHEW that was so many romance novels! What romances have y’all been reading?

  1. obviously I was into this straight away, because I have just rewatched Ted Lasso and have feelings about British football
  2. I reserve the right to call other niches the funnest niche if I feel like it because I am in charge of this blog and you’re not the boss of me
  3. I mean, I regret that it was canceled. I regret that it’s not available on CBS All Access.
  4. Quarantine is murdering my brain cells; I had to ask Twitter to find me the word garret because I could only think of gutter and garter and I knew neither of those was right.

The post Just So Much Fake Dating: A Romance Novels Round-Up appeared first on Reading the End.