Elle Reads

Elle Reads (1/15/21)

As a firm believer that reading helps me become a better writer, I’ve decided to track some of the books I read over the course of a week. I’m not going to set any specific reading goals because, as those Nationwide commercials say, life comes at you fast.

This week I ended up reading two books that have similar subject matter: tabletop RPGs! I have played a few in my time and always enjoyed it, though sometimes I don’t feel I have the patience to do them long term. That and I tend to want to spend too long creating my character and pouring over all of the details. But my nerdy heart definitely enjoyed that they were an important detail in these two books!

Please note that these reviews will feature some spoiler-y aspects of these stories, though I promise not to give away any major plot twists!

Roll For Initiative by Alex Silver

Roll For Initiative is a novella focusing on video game designer Gui and his friends, who are all avid tabletop RPG fans. His new roommate Paz works at the local coffee shop and is responsible for delectable and indulgent baked goods popular among Gui’s group of friends. However, Paz is initially icy and pedantic about the space that he and Gui share. He takes to leaving his complaints on sticky notes for Gui to find the morning after, as their work schedules are opposite one another. This combined with Gui’s late hours as he slogs through a pre-release crunch for his work’s new release, Day Dreamer, leaves Gui feeling equal parts frustrated and exhausted, enough for him to confront Paz, where their tension boils over into some much-needed stress-relief.

First off, can I just say how relatable the whole roommate situation is? They’re such a necessary evil that almost everyone has had to deal with. I feel like the tension between Gui and Paz was nailed perfectly, especially when it comes to a steamy head. I’m kind of a sucker for frustration sex, and Paz gets Gui riled up in all the best ways that leads to some pretty hot encounters.

I also love books where we get to see some intimate details of a character’s hobby or passion. For this story, it’s Paz’s baking. As someone who enjoys baking myself, I absolutely loved all the descriptions of baked goods that Paz creates (especially because CHOCOLATE). Baking is a special kind of love language on its own, and Gui is precious in the way he adores and inhales Paz’s confections.

Coincidentally, I’ve read a few criticisms of romance stories lately where readers DNF based on miscommunication between the main characters. What I enjoy about Gui and Paz’s story is that eventually they do break down their walls and talk things out, and only then do they allow their feelings for one another to grow.

Roll for Initiative is the first book in the Table Topped series. The series is set to follow others in Gui’s friend group, and I think Roll for Initiative does a fantastic job at introducing these characters. I definitely want to know more about them, especially Theo, who is trans, and Jude, Gui’s younger brother who also aspires to work in video game design. Theo and Jude are featured in the book of the Table Topped series, Charisma Check, which releases on January 18th, 2021.

Favorite lines:

“The last thing I need is another scramble to find new housing because my dick thinks it has good ideas. It doesn’t.”

“This week I’ve learned there is a correct way to align the boxes in the pantry, hand the toilet paper roll, put away the cutlery, and just about everything else. A correct way that differs from the way I’ve always done it. Not that I’m bitter about it.”

Natural Twenty by Charlie Novak

Natural Twenty is the story of Leo, a florist who loves flowers to the extent that they cover his body as the subject of his tattoos. He runs Wild Things, a florist shop in the city of Lincoln, and outside of work his only obligation is to his needy Staffordshire terrier, Angie. On his way to work one morning, Leo notices a new storefront opening down the street from his flower shop, a bookstore called The Lost World. Intrigued by a clever sign and some LGTBQ+ friendly decor, Leo makes a point to stop in, where he meets Jay, the bespectacled curly-haired owner, who he is immediately smitten with. Soon Leo is invited to The Lost World’s game nights, where he plays D&D with Jay and Edward, Jay’s gloriously fashionable best friend. As Leo and Jay grow closer, bonding over books and a trashy 80’s cop show, they both learn how to open up to one another.

I don’t even know where to start with this book. A tall, hunky florist with sleeves of tattoos? An adorable rambling bookstore owner with an amazing back piece with pierced nipples? Leo and Jay are both such wonderful characters and the love that blossoms between them is stunning. I also loved Edward and the many references to Castlevania that came along with describing his eccentric style and cosplay persona.

I loved how the use of flowers and their meanings gave a time honored tradition a new spin. Whether the author already had this knowledge or did their research, it absolutely worked for me. I enjoyed pausing the story and looking up what certain flowers looked like, as I hadn’t heard of a lot of the varieties mentioned. The chapter subtitles that mentioned a type of flower and its meaning were a lovely touch.

The steam in this book is extremely hot and contains some of my favorite tropes: height difference, titillating dirty talk, partners switching up their roles in bed. And it’s perfectly counterbalanced by gorgeous, romantic prose that never felt contrived or corny.

I also enjoy walking away from a romance book with a message, no matter how simple. One of the main conflict resolutions in Natural Twenty is asking for help from those you love, and it’s one that resonates with me personally. It’s tough, and it takes a lot of vulnerability to rest your burdens on others. I think it was handled with grace in Leo and Jay’s story.

Oddly enough (because there are only so many D&D puns) the second book in the Roll for Love series is also called Charisma Check and comes out January 19th, 2021. It focuses on Edward, the elegant and eccentric best friend of Jay, and his cosplay arch nemesis, The Masked Gentleman.

Favorite lines:

“You can’t trip and fall into somebody’s ass.”

“So why, hours later when I was lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling, could I feel nothing but a heavy weight on my chest and a sinking feeling of loneliness?”

Elle Says Stuff

Some notes on why I do it

Someone asked me recently what got me into writing romance. It’s kind of like one of those “where were you when…” questions, except I actually remember.

At some point during the pandemic, I discovered Kindle Unlimited. I haven’t read for fun since before college, and though I enjoyed some of the assigned reading, I rarely read for fun during and afterwards.

I signed up for the trial, and here’s where my memory gets a little hazy. The first book I “borrowed” was an erotic romance. It was hetero and written for the bullies-to-lovers trope. I don’t even remember what encouraged me to check it out. But I devoured it. Binged it like a comfort show.

And then, I started poking around. I found the subreddit r/eroticauthors and started reading experiences and researching the trade. I discovered a whole system behind self-publishing romance to make money, an entire process that could be learned and implemented and potentially mastered. The more I read, the more it felt like something I could actually do.

I grew up like a lot of other queer writers probably did—reading a shitload of fanfiction. I wrote some too, though thankfully it is all lost to the sands of time (not for lack of trying—I still have documents on my computer that pre-date high school). Back then I gravitated toward m/m slash and often stayed up late chatting with my fanfic writer friends over AOL. At some point, I grew out of it, or I stopped making time for it, because you can’t exactly turn in slash fanfiction for your school writing assignments.

The first teacher who saw something in my writing was my sixth grade English teacher. She gave me extra credit projects where I published mini poetry books. She encouraged me to try out for a specialized school in the area, where I later attended.

I participated in a lot of academic writing classes. In high school I was able to “major” in creative writing. In junior year we were required to take a class that delved into the possibilities of taking our craft further—colleges, submissions to lit journals, all that jazz. I found a college in Chicago that had an entire department devoted to Fiction (may it rest in peace) and I was hooked.

The fiction department’s methods were unlike the rigorous peer critique I’d experienced in high school. We sat in semi-circles and read our stories aloud, after which classmates recalled the parts that spoke the loudest to them and talked about what was working. We didn’t revise, we rewrote. We studied forms of storytelling and then imitated them and then read published works that also imitated them. It drew me back to loving writing at a more basic level—just get the story on the page. Worry about everything else later.

But after college, I struggled to keep writing. I don’t think it’s fair to say that academia ruined my ability to write, but post-college I couldn’t seem to get my ass back in the chair. I moved home from Chicago and got an adult job and got caught up in life for a while. I think there was too big of an expectation to “make something” of my writing, and even though I had come in contact with a lot of different ways to write and be published in college, nothing fit for me. I didn’t want to be a journalist, I didn’t want to write clever copy for Groupon, and I didn’t want to teach.

I’d lost my love of reading, too. I couldn’t focus on the words on the page long enough to get invested in any story, no matter how interesting it sounded or how much I felt I should read it or how many people said it was the best thing they’d ever read. Instead I put my post-college time into video games, stories I could interact with and control to some degree. I caught up on movies and TV shows I’d missed out on during childhood.

So, fast forward (almost a decade now, sheesh), and I have a spouse and a kid and it’s a global pandemic and I decide I’m gonna start reading again, goddamn it. Turns out it was the skeleton key that unlocked my need to write like discovering an abandoned workshop.

The first romance book I read wasn’t even a niche I wanted to read again, but it cracked the newly unlocked door wider. Of course after spending so much time in academia I thought romance was beneath me; that’s a hard stigma to escape regardless of where you study creative writing. But now I was reading something that actually did captivate me, had me reading at night before bed like a kid under the covers with a flashlight. And there was sex.

How the fuck did I forget you could write stories with sex in them?

I happened to be working on a Serious Piece at the time that was going nowhere. I was 40k words in and vaguely knew what I wanted to happen, but I kept chopping it up, taking parts out that I later slid back in, changing characters, changing plot. It was like I wanted too badly for it to be something instead of just letting it grow.

As a break, I started toying with one of those fresh out of bed ideas you get sometimes. I’m an avid user of Google Keep, so I jotted down a note: “High end restaurant run by vampires, only open at night, and only hires vampires.”

From just the idea, I sat down and wrote 20k words over the course of a weekend. I sat back from it and wondered how it had come so easily, realizing it was fun, and it didn’t feel like it had to be anything.

And now I’m self-publishing it. I wrote a book, edited the fuck out of it, made a cover, made the inside fancy, sent it to a few friends to give me their thoughts (all positive and encouraging!) and now it’ll be posted to a place where other people can read it. It’s kind of surreal, even though it’s not exactly something I can write home about.

As I started down the path of branding (ick) and marketing (ugh), I discovered there was an incredible queer writing community on Twitter. I dug through Amazon, following authors and adding books to my “to read” list as if I was scavenging for rations. Then, when I actually got around to reading some of my finds, I encountered stories that pushed the shallow boundaries of romance in my head. Stories with raw feelings and flawed characters who sometimes hurt one another and then had deliciously dirty make up sex. There were stories that touched on mental health, consent, and BDSM safety without detracting from the story at all.

I wanted to write stories like that, because I was beginning to learn that romance didn’t have to just be about getting the girl or the guy in the end—though if I took anything from all my research, it’s that you better have a goddamn happy ending or so help me! Romance could be about growth, about the complexity of relationships, about how we see ourselves anew when someone accepts the good parts with the bad. An entire world I hadn’t thought possible seemed to bloom in front of me, and I realized the bi teenager writing Harry Potter slash that I’d grown up as was still very much a part of me. I’d done a disservice to myself as a writer by leaving her behind, by forgetting the things that made me love writing, because of what I thought storytelling was supposed to be. I feel impassioned again, I have ideas that I want to grow and flourish, and I’ll be damned if I let myself lose that again.

Book Releases, Nocturne's Thrall

Listen to an audio sneak peak of Nocturne’s Thrall!

With the release of Nocturne’s Thrall right around the corner, I thought I’d dust off the old “bought this to make a podcast that never happened” microphone to record an excerpt from the first chapter. You can find the excerpt linked below on YouTube:

Book Releases, Nocturne's Thrall

Nocturne’s Thrall – M/M Vampire Romance – Coming February 1, 2021

Introducing Nocturne’s Thrall, a breakout m/m erotic romance set in Chicago, featuring vampires, fancy food, and good wine. Available on Amazon & Kindle Unlimited 2/1/2021!

Brokenhearted aspiring chef Javi del Toro starts a promising new position at Nocturne, a high-end restaurant only open at night. He falls in love with everything about the job—except for Nocturne’s owner, the cold, disinterested Adrien Volt. Javi is determined to win Adrien’s approval but quickly realizes his goals may be about more than just professional validation from his boss.

Adrien Volt hides in plain sight as a member of Chicago’s vampire collective. He devotes himself fully to running his business and has little personal life to speak of. But then the new hire in his restaurant catches his eye, and Adrien is drawn to Javi’s unbridled passion and natural talent in the kitchen. When Adrien discovers something sinister is lurking in Javi’s past, he’s suddenly compelled to do everything in his power to keep Javi safe.

As Javi and Adrien stumble through their feelings and learn to trust each other, their lives clash and overlap in dangerous ways, forcing both human and vampire to decide what it will take for them to be together.

Preorder on Amazon (Available for Kindle Unlimited)