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REVIEW:  And Call Me in the Morning by Willa Okati

REVIEW: And Call Me in the Morning by Willa Okati


Dear Willa Okati,

I requested the sequel to this book, And Call Me in the Evening, for review (which will be posted soon) but when I started it, I remembered too little about the first book so decided to read this one again.   And Call Me in the Morning was among the first m/m romance books I read, recommended by a friend after a discussion about the Gay for You trope.  I guess revisiting it is kind of timely after the recent m/m roundtable where this trope was one of the subjects of discussion.  When I first started reading m/m was basically clueless and had no idea Gay for You was regarded as problematic.  As I understand it, it does sometimes happen in real life, so I think it’s not so much that the trope itself is ‘bad’ but more, that it is so prevalent in the genre and can give an unwary reader a false idea of gay experience.   Nevertheless, I don’t read a lot of Gay for You these days because there is something about it, at least in volume, which has a subtle suggestion that Gay for You = a more “socially acceptable” way to be gay.  By that, I mean, it could be twisted to mean, he’s not really gay because apart from that one guy, he’s totally straight and that’s not so bad right? That’s not what I think by the way but I think the trope in such numbers does some erasing of people who are not gay for anyone but are gay just because they are gay.

No matter how I twist my brain however, this book is definitely Gay for You, there’s just no denying it. So my conscience pricked as I was reading.  It probably explains, at least in part, why it wasn’t quite as successful for me the second time around.

Eli and Zane are both doctors at a Chicago hospital.  Eli is a working class guy, a former policeman who was injured in the line of duty and then decided to switch career tracks and become a doctor. He’s 43 and a year out of residency.  He’s a “hospitalist” which Google tells me is a kind of in-hospital GP.  Eli has found his vocation in medicine. Zane comes from a wealthy family of doctors and was always destined for medicine.  He doesn’t love it like Eli does but that seems to be mainly because he cares more about the patients than the politics and the money and he’s a bit jaded by the latter. He prefers to work in the free clinic (which is where Eli and Zane met when Eli came for a second opinion about his work injury) but funding is low and it looks like the clinic will be closed.

Eli was married but his wife left him after being too long alone as a policeman’s wife and then a medical student’s wife.  Ever since Eli and Zane met, there was a connection between them and they became very close friends.  Now, years after that first meeting, they are kind of joined at the hip.  They hang out together all the time and are casually affectionate – so much so that their other good friends in the hospital, Diana (a cardiologist) and Holly (a psychologist) tease them constantly about whether or not they are gay.  Holly and Diana ask Eli where his “wife” is and they don’t mean Marybeth, the ex; they mean Zane.  That it’s a gendered comment isn’t really addressed in the book.  Zane is a guy – shouldn’t he be a “husband” in this scenario?  I think what they meant is that Eli and Zane, to all appearances, get on like a (happily) married couple. That’s how I read it the first time but I admit the “wife” tripped me up a little on re-read.

The set up is basically that these two guys are just clueless and need Diana and Holly to give them a push in the right direction. In the end, Zane proposes an “experiment”.  He will kiss Eli and if, as they expect, it is gross, they will be able to tell Holly and Diana they’re wrong and the teasing will stop.  They’re both unprepared for what it means when it is anything but gross.

The story is told from Eli’s third person POV and he is extremely taken aback by the arousal he experiences from Zane’s caresses.  It opens a door to him seeing Zane in a new way and noticing him as a desirable being as opposed to being in the “best friend” slot to which Eli had previously assigned him.  It becomes clear that Zane had been thinking about a romantic attachment for some time but my impression was that both are nevertheless surprised at how much they desire each other and how right a sexual and romantic relationship feels. (Zane’s character is a little murky because we are never in his head – he’d been thinking about being with Eli sexually for a while but he says he’s surprised by how good it is when it actually happens – I took him at his word – I guess others might not.)

Eli is not a fan of public displays of affection by anyone to anyone. He didn’t even like holding hands with Marybeth in public back when they were married. Zane is much more openly affectionate and this represents a challenge to Eli.

I said earlier that the men were “casually affectionate” and this was part of why people assumed they were a couple.  But that kind of affection isn’t the same as a public display in the sense of holding hands or kissing and Eli sees those things as quite different. The kind of affection he’s comfortable with in public is more that buddy-jostling some guys do, with the faux-punch, etc.  And, they have little by way of personal space barriers between them, which sets them apart also.  So I didn’t think this aspect of Eli’s character was inconsistent.

The men try sex in all most of the various ways as the book progresses – some of it is kind of funny as they navigate the differences from previous experience which was, for both, entirely heterosexual.  Here I can definitely see the analogy to the “virgin trope” and the reader gets a twofer because this is uncharted territory for both men.   In some ways I think that aspect sets this book apart (whether in a good way or a bad way is perhaps open to debate) because most Gay for You I’ve read has one gay partner and one straight-until-then partner.

Eli and Zane are such good friends and so close, that even before the sex, they could virtually complete each other’s sentences.  They know each other so well that, once they commit to the romantic aspect of their relationship, there is very little conflict between them.  Zane isn’t close to his family and Eli doesn’t have any and all their friends are from the hospital.  Of course, everyone at the hospital thinks they’re gay already so coming out isn’t the same kind of experience as in other books. Even so, Eli does have occasion in the book, more than once, to specifically and categorically state that he and Zane are together as a couple and this challenges Eli so it’s not like coming out is without challenge for him. On the other hand, apparently, Zane has no such difficulty.

Much of the conflict in the story is apparently about career issues – the free clinic is closing and Zane needs to do something else; there is a potential opportunity elsewhere for Eli and, despite the fact that these guys are very close and talk about everything, they actually don’t in this instance. I think this sudden lack of communication is because they are finding their footing as a romantic/sexual couple rather than buddies and that leads to some mis-steps.  Still, when the proverbial hits the fan, it is kind of a whiplash moment. Things are great and then, literally, within ten minutes, things have turned to custard.  They are fighting about career issues but at its heart, it turns out to be not about that.  I didn’t make the leap between the two so I felt a bit left behind there.

I have mixed feelings about the book. I liked it well enough (perhaps in spite of myself) and there was angst toward the end (hint: Zane is allergic to strawberries) which worked for me even if the final argument confused me because I felt it hadn’t been set up sufficiently. But it stretched my credulity a little too much to think that Eli, having been such close friends with Zane for years, having been constantly teased about being a couple by other close friends and he never ever thinks about it at all? Never? And then, after one kiss, he’s all “okay then, let’s go”?  So I think there is a fairly large element of wish fulfilment in the story. I feel it was written with the female gaze in mind.

On the other hand, there are good things – the ex-wife isn’t demonised and the other females in the story are strong, positive and have lives of their own outside of the main couple.  The story features an older pairing which I liked and I liked how Eli and Zane talked about sex and how they navigated those uncharted waters.

I didn’t like it as much the second time around but it was still very readable and I breezed through it in a very short time.  And maybe it is shallow of me but I love that cover.

With my sensibilities having changed in the four years since I read the story however, I think it was a book which was better in memory.

All that, mixed up together to come up with a grade?  I think it probably comes out at about a C+.



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REVIEW:  Laugh by Mary Ann Rivers

REVIEW: Laugh by Mary Ann Rivers


Dear Ms. Rivers:

A romance genre version of Chekov’s gun: if an upcoming romance hero is kind of an ass in book one, we need to know why he’s an ass by book… well, whichever one is his story. (In this case, book two.) Laugh does a beautiful job of humanizing Sam, the difficult older brother from Live, without changing his character. What we didn’t know about Sam is that he’s living with ADHD — impulsivity and disorganization are inevitable parts of his life, even with medication and exercise. His intense love for his family and his need to see everyone happy and safe clash badly with his inability to control things, often making him volatile and overbearing.

When Sam meets city farmer Nina Paz, he’s attracted by her strong sense of community and the hands-on, systematic nature of the work she does, as well as by her beauty. (Both are on the mature side for romance characters, by the way: Nina is 38, Sam about the same. There’s some crows feet, silvering hair, and stomach pooching for Nina, if not for Sam.) Nina is equally attracted to Sam’s “surfer god” looks but after losing her husband, the boy she grew up with, it’s harder for her to dive right into strong feelings as Sam does. Having spent some time fighting her grief with extremely casual sex, she now keeps her affections centered on her extended family/coworkers; an unexpected crisis for one of them makes it even more difficult for her to let go.

The great strength of the story is a hero who’s unabashedly emotional. Sam is a born patriarch, in the best way: love and family are everything to him. He embraces his feelings for Nina with no reservations. And it’s the genuineness of his devotion, the fact that he truly cares about her more than he’s even in love with her, that wins out in the end. He’s also charmingly self aware, telling Nina this story about choosing to focus on family medicine: ‘nothing was clicking and everyone I met was an asshole. The thing is, I’m kind of an asshole, and I was worried about ending up a bigger one if I placed in some of these groups.’

Nina is less open and easily sympathetic, but as committed to the people in her life as Sam is to those in his. I was a little sorry more time wasn’t spent on her issues with her family of origin (as opposed to her family of choice); the child of legal Mexican immigrants, Nina is second generation American, a life experience that interests me. What we do learn about their conflicts around goals and choices seemed true to life.

I’m self-conscious about commenting on Nina’s portrayal as a Mexican-American woman, not having much of a knowledge base. Response to the book from Latina reviewers has been highly positive. But though this may well be a case of looking too hard for potential issues, some aspects of Nina’s past made me feel a bit squirrely. I’m glad to see a rare Mexican-American woman in a mainstream romance; I’m glad to see an even rarer woman who’s had an abortion (a decision made especially emotionally complex by the fact that it would have been her dead husband’s child) and still believes it was the right choice; I’m glad to see a woman who’s unashamedly had casual sex — but stereotypes being what they still are, I sort of wish they weren’t all the same woman. Or maybe I should wish that all of those things were so acceptable in romance, it wouldn’t even occur to me to question it.

Despite Nina’s cautiousness, she and Sam spark wonderfully together, both in and out of bed:

‘That’s the woo you’re gonna pitch? “Come on”?’
‘I already told you you’re pretty.’
‘When I come.’
‘All the rest of the time, too. I didn’t say that? I must have been too distracted by all the noises you were making while your tongue was in my mouth.’
‘I think you were saying that, too…’

Their sex scenes, which go a little past strictly vanilla, are long and quite explicitly described; I was a bit put off by a sense of the physical stakes being raised scene by scene, as if the emotional content wasn’t enough to keep us interested.

The story is abrupt in places. Nina and Sam first speak at 2% on my ereader; they’re getting intensely physical at 7%, and it’s not a short book. Nina also gets the devastating news about her friend right after we first meet the character, before their relationship has really been established; it could have used more build-up. On the plus side, the writing has a less overwritten, flowery feel than Live sometimes did.

Like Live, Laugh has a cozy neighborhood atmosphere — the small town story set in a city. (It stands alone just fine, but I recommend reading them in order, to get the full impact of Live without spoilers.) The secondary characters are strong — if you’re not jonesing for more about younger brother PJ’s utterly sincere love for his former babysitter, I’ll eat my copy of The Windflower — and the portrayal of Sam’s life with ADHD is moving and spot on. (Once again, a Rivers story hits me right where I live.) Even with some aspects I didn’t care for, the humor, emphasis on community, and passionate feeling make it a lovely read. B



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