Just Like That by Cole McCade. 2020.
Note: This review is part of the Blog Tour for Just Like That. It includes an excerpt at the end.
Content warnings for review: This review references MCs with anxiety, depression, trauma, and suicidal ideation, but does not describe these things in detail.
This is one of the first books released in Carina’s new Adores line, which is focused on contemporary romances where LGBTQIAP+ characters get happy endings. This line of books has a bunch of my favorite authors in the initial line-up, including Elia Winters, Chelsea M. Cameron, and Roan Parrish, and I’m looking forward to reading more titles and getting a sense of what this version of queer category romance might be like. Of the Carina Adores titles I’ve read so far, this is my favorite, and I’m excited that there will be another book in this series by Cole McCade.
This was exactly what I needed at the end of a hard week, and I’m really glad I read it when I did. We have a younger, soft, anxious, MC who is trying very hard to be brave and to reach for what he wants in life, and an older, guarded, grumpy depressed MC whose life has gotten smaller and smaller as he’s tried to keep himself safe from ever being hurt again. This is the kind of angsty romance that’s totally my thing, and I trust McCade to take me through the landmines in this story with care, and not to take the simplified road when it comes to mental illness. There is such a lovely mix of softness and heat and grudging tenderness and it just reaches inside and holds in this wonderful way.
Tropewise, this is a workplace romance between a teacher at a private high school and his new teaching assistant, who had been his student when he was in high school. It treads the line of playing a bit with the power position but not in a way that felt at all non-consensual to me personally as a reader. It felt very clear that Summer wanted and sought out the relationship, was the one pursuing it, and in effect daring Fox into it. They have a kissing pact, where Fox rewards Summer with a kiss for every brave thing he does, and this trope felt very well placed in the story. If you like kisses, this is definitely the story for you because there are so many gloriously detailed descriptions of different kinds of kisses in it, and I really appreciated that.
This feels fairly high heat, to me, though I wouldn’t call it erotic romance. Sex and sexual attraction are pretty central to how the relationship evolves, and there are several detailed sex scenes as well as a lot of explicit descriptions of kissing that felt highly sexualized. McCade is very good at writing sex that feels of the moment and specific to the characters, and that creates emotion, and this book is no exception. I was not in a place where I wanted to read detailed descriptions of sex, so I want to note that I skimmed these scenes. The romantic attraction between the MCs is strong, as is the aesthetic attraction, and I really enjoyed the moments where the story sunk into the details and sensory experiences of those aspects of their connection. This is something McCade generally does exceptionally well, and this book is no exception. I especially liked the way Summer was all about Fox’s hair, as it’s an aesthetic thing I often am all about myself and it was lovely to go there with him.
This story has a central grief arc; Fox is a widower and has been grieving his wife for a very long time, in ways that have made his life smaller and given his depression lots of room to take hold. When we meet him, he is really struggling with depression and with suicidal ideation, and his recovery arc around that feels quite slow, which I appreciated. It felt real to me, that he would be in this place, and that there would be this kind of struggle, and I liked that the relationship with Summer doesn’t do anything like a straightforward lightening or healing thing in his life. It’s more complex than that, and I really was glad nobody seemed to want it to be different. Summer is very explicit about this at one point, about how he doesn’t see Fox as something broken he wants to fix.
“What you don’t seem to understand is that I’m not trying to fix you…I love you just as you are, Fox. Broken bits and all. I don’t want to make you someone else. I want you, and for you to care for me as you would…not as anyone else.”
That scene was such a balm for me in so many ways. It was really lovely to have that named explicitly on the page, for Fox to get to be exactly as he was–depression, trauma and suicidal ideation included–and for Summer to just love him and want to be loved by him as he was.
Summer’s arc is about figuring out what he wants and how to be brave enough and hopeful enough to keep reaching for it, and I especially appreciated the ways that he was committed to being the kind of man he wanted to be, and that included being soft.
“Maybe I want to protect being soft,” Summer whispered. “And I want to make it safe for other people to be soft, too.”
The scene where he talks about protecting softness just filled my heart and made me happy. I want more queer stories that honor soft masculinity in this way; they feed something important in me.
I fell hard for both the MCs in this story, and would gladly spend more time with them in the future. I know there is a sequel, but I’m not sure what shape its taking, so I don’t know if we get more of them or if there is a new couple. Either would work; this definitely felt like a happy resolved ending to me.
The casual bi/pan inclusion was lovely. Fox had a wife, and is now with Summer, and there is no commentary on his identity, and no angst about multi gender attraction, it’s just quietly included in the story. I also really appreciated the herbalist inclusion in the story, the way it was woven through.
I appreciated the culturally specific ways that Fox thought about and framed intimacy and connection; the use of first names as deeply intimate and carrying a lot of weight was such an intense element in the story. From my perspective as a white reader, the ways that Fox engaged with Japanese culture as a biracial person who had a complex relationship with it felt nuanced and like they were woven into his characterization deeply. That said, I am not biracial and cannot speak to how it might feel to biracial BIPOC readers, and Japanese biracial readers specifically.
This story is tangentially related to McCade’s Criminal Intentions series, as Summer’s old professor is an MC in that series. Summer appears in the Backdraft episode, which I have not yet read. I’m now even more eager to read it, and continue to read CI, a series I adore, and highly recommend. I love it when authors have characters cross over from different books and series! Looking forward to the next book in this one, wondering what connections it will bring.
- Queer white man MC with anxiety.
- Japanese American biracial queer man (implied bi/pan, but not stated on page) and trauma survivor MC with depression.
- Native AmeriBlAsian POC demibisexual queer trans man author.
Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)
Central traumatic grief arc. References to former partner being killed in a car accident via drowning. MC with anxiety; panic attacks depicted on page. MC with depression, including suicidal ideation, depicted on page. MC with trauma including trauma-related drowning phobia. References to parental queer antagonism. References to bullying among high school students and attempts to intervene and change the bully’s behavior. Teacher/teaching assistant relationship is central, and the TA is a former student who had a crush on the teacher as a teen. Relationship begins when both parties are adults. Sex on the page, including semi-public sex with the likelihood of getting caught by others.
- Source of the book: ARC from the publisher via Netgalley
- I am friends with the author.
- All links to Amazon will be affiliate ones. If you buy through those links, I will make a small amount of money on that sale (which I plan to use to buy more books to review), but it will not add any to the cost of your product. It comes out of the company’s profits.
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Relevant Reviews and Posts:
- Interview with the author about his book Over and Over Again
- Review of Criminal Intentions: Junk Shop Blues, another book by the author
- Review of Xeni, another grief-themed romance
- Review of In the Middle of Somewhere, another grief-themed romance
- Review of His Perfect Partner, another grief-themed romance
- Review of On the Brink of Passion, another grief-themed romance
- Review of A Boy Called Cin, another age gap romance with a trans man MC
- Review of Just One Night, another age gap romance
- Review of Coffee Boy, another age gap romance
- Review of Take the Lead, another workplace romance
- Review of Merry Inkmas, another workplace romance
- Review of Better at Weddings than You, another workplace romance
- Review of Making Up, another workplace romance
Excerpt from Just Like That:
“Extinguisher first, then sand,” the voice ordered. “Dr. Liu, if you insist on getting in the way, at least make yourself useful and remove anything else flammable from the vicinity of the blaze. Quickly, now. Keep your mouths covered.”
Summer’s entire body tingled, prickled, as if his skin had drawn too tight. That voice—that voice brought back too many memories. Afternoons in his psychology elective class, staring down at his textbook and doodling in his notebook and refusing to look up, to look at anyone, while that voice washed over him for an hour. Summer knew that voice almost better than the face attached to it, every inflection and cadence, the way it could command silence with a quiet word more effectively than any shout.
And how sometimes it seemed more expressive than the cold, withdrawn expression of the man he remembered, standing tall and stern in front of a class of boys who were all just a little bit afraid of him.
Summer had never been afraid, not really.
But he hadn’t had the courage to whisper to himself what he’d really felt, when he’d been a hopeless boy who’d done everything he could to be invisible.
Heart beating harder, he followed the sound of that voice to the open doorway of a smoke-filled room, the entire chemistry lab a haze of gray and black and crackling orange; from what he could tell a table was…on fire? Or at least the substance inside a blackened beaker was on fire, belching out a seemingly never-ending, impossible billow of smoke and flame.
Several smaller fires burned throughout the room; it looked as though sparks had jumped to catch on notebooks, papers, books. Several indistinct shapes alternately sprayed the conflagration with fire extinguishers and doused it with little hand buckets of sand from the emergency kit in the corner of the room, everyone working clumsily one-handed while they held wet paper towels over their noses and mouths with the other.
And standing tall over them all—several teachers and older students, it looked like—was the one man Summer had returned to Omen to see.
He stood head and shoulders above the rest, his broad-shouldered, leanly angular frame as proud as a battle standard, elegant in a trim white button-down tucked into dark gray slacks, suspenders striping in neat black lines down his chest. Behind slim glasses, his pale, sharply angled gray eyes flicked swiftly over the room, set in a narrow, graceful face that had only weathered with age into an ivory mask of quiet, aloof beauty.
The sleek slick of his ink-black hair was pulled back from his face as always—but as always, he could never quite keep the soft strands inside their tie, and several wisped free to frame his face, lay against his long, smooth neck, pour down his shoulders and back. He held a damp paper towel over his mouth, neatly folded into a square, and spoke through it to direct the frazzled-looking group with consummate calm, taking complete control of the situation.
And complete control of Summer, as Iseya’s gaze abruptly snapped to him, locking on him from across the room. “Why have you not evacuated?” Iseya demanded coldly, his words precise, inflected with a softly cultured accent. “Please vacate the premises until we’ve contained the blaze.”
Summer dropped his eyes immediately—habit, staring down at his feet. “Oh, um—I came to help,” he mumbled through the collar of his shirt.
A pause, then, “You’re not a student. Who are you?”
That shouldn’t sting.
But then it had been seven years, he’d only been in two of Iseya’s classes…and he’d changed, since he’d left Omen.
At least, he hoped he had.
That was why he’d run away, after all. To shake off the boy he’d been; to find himself in a big city like Baltimore, and maybe, just maybe…
Learn not to be so afraid.
But he almost couldn’t bring himself to speak, while the silence demanded an answer. “I’m not a student anymore,” he corrected, almost under his breath. “It’s…it’s me. Summer. Summer Hemlock. Your new TA.” He made himself look up, even if he didn’t raise his head, peeking at Iseya through the wreathing of smoke that made the man look like some strange and ghostly figure, this ethereal spirit swirled in mist and darkness. “Hi, Professor Iseya. Hi.”