Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review: Danced Close by Annabeth Albert

Cover of Danced Close, featuring two white people in suits dancing together. One suit is very pale grey; the other is dark blue. Both people wear bow ties. In true romance novel fashion, the top of the cover cuts off their heads, while the lower bodies are obscured by the title.
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Kendall, a genderqueer wedding planner, is in a bind. He’s committed to participating in a swing dance benefit in a few weeks, but his best friend has had to bow out of the event--and the dance lessons leading up to it--to deal with a family emergency. Kendall can’t give the benefit a miss or show up without a partner; not with his ex ready and waiting to sneer at him.

Enter Todd, a former competitive dancer and current assistant at one of the bakeries Kendall deals with. Todd agrees to help Kendall out, and the more they dance together the deeper their connection runs.

DANCED CLOSE [Amazon] is the sixth book in Albert’s Portland Heat series. The novellas all focus on small business owners and employees, and as with most romance series you do not need to read them in publication order. Newcomers can easily leap in here, though longtime readers will recognize Todd from his small role in BAKED FRESH and be glad to see cameos from a few other series couples.

This latest installment has tons to recommend it, starting with its genderqueer co-protagonist! I’d like to see more genderqueer (and agender, and nonbinary, and genderfluid) characters in fiction, please. Kendall’s secure in his identity as a genderqueer gay man, and Albert demonstrates his comfort with himself without downplaying the challenges he faces from some elements of society. Kendall’s used to people sneering at him, treating him as a performer rather than a person, or ignoring him outright because he makes them feel uncomfortable. He’s determined to live the way he wants to despite this.

Todd hasn’t known any genderqueer people besides Kendall, but his lack of familiarity with his new friend’s gender doesn’t translate into a lack of respect. He makes an effort to ask about pronouns and to avoid making insensitive remarks, keen to support the person who quickly comes to mean so much to him. When he fails--a hallmark of Albert’s protagonists, who are always willing but imperfect--he owns his mistakes and learns from them. It’s always a matter of Todd adjusting his own perceptions without demanding Kendall be anyone other than who he is.

Even though Kendall is the first genderqueer person Todd’s met, he’s not the only genderqueer person in the narrative. Another of the couples in their dance class is genderqueer, and since it’s a small business romance Kendall ends up planning their wedding. Entrepreneurs always gotta hussle, you know?

Identities remain front and centre throughout the story. Kendall knows who he is, but Todd, who’s a few years younger, is still in the process of figuring himself out. He’s a recovering drug addict who’s fairly new to having a settled living situation and a secure job, and who feels like his life is on hold while he processes how his time on the streets changed him. Consequently, he’s reluctant to trust the opportunities that come his way because he’s sure he’ll mess up, whether he’s dealing with his boss’s offer to teach him cake decoration or his friendship (and eventual romance) with Kendall. The new relationship gives him a framework to explore the passions that form his personality, including his love for dance and his newfound focus on the sorts of foods and fashions he gravitates towards (and shies away from).

Albert plays up the contrast between Kendall’s confidence and Todd’s uncertainty, allowing each of them to push the other in new directions while acknowledging change can be hard and scary, especially when you’re coming out of a dark period.

DANCED CLOSE is also notable as Albert’s first dual first person POV offering. She cuts between Todd and Kendall on a chapter-by-chapter basis and does a good job of giving each character a distinct voice and narrative outlook. It’s always easy to tell whose head you’re in.

This approach allows us to see the characters through each others’ eyes, too; a fun element missing from the earlier Portland Heat books (but very much on display in Albert’s third person #gaymers and Perfect Harmony series). I love first person because I love hearing characters’ stories in their own words, but I also love the way third person romances play up the lovers’ reactions to one another. DANCED CLOSE delivers the best of both worlds.

The POV shifts also generate much of the novella’s tension. It’s obvious to the reader that Kendall and Todd are great together and more than capable of supporting one another through any number of pitfalls, but their various hangups have them each convinced the other is looking for something completely different in the long term. It’s a tearjerker, as this sort of Albert narrative always is, but I did feel like there were a few emotional cues missing here and there. I knew what was going on, but I didn’t feel it as strongly as I normally do with Albert’s work because the groundwork wasn’t as solid as usual.

Despite that hiccup, this is another lovely entry in the series. It made me tear up, and it left me eager for whatever Albert comes out with next. I hope she’s got more Portland Heat novellas in the works!

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