Book Review

Strawberries for Dessert, by Marie Sexton

B-

Title: Strawberries for Dessert
Author: Marie Sexton
Publication Info: Dreamspinner Press August 2010
ISBN: 978-1-61581-551
Genre: Contemporary Romance

Book CoverI found this book a few weeks ago when I noticed that it was one of the top reviewed titles at All Romance, and I wondered what the reviewers liked about it. Most of the comments focused on the unique emotional journey of the protagonists, and boy howdy, were they right.

Jonathan Kechter is a workaholic living a rather lonely life after a bad breakup. When he is set up on a blind date with Cole Fenton, it’s a total mess: Jonanthan’s cell phone won’t stop ringing – and of course all of the calls are ones he “has to take.” Cole is flamboyant, very confident and, in a word, holy flaming flamypants. Seriously. Cole seems to take deliberate steps to make sure that everyone in the entire tri-state area is fully aware of his Gayness, which he demonstrates at every moment. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cole’s pants were marked at the seam with patented GayFlaming technology, which comes equipped with special *Fabulous!* peach-colored ascot for repairs and polishing.

Meanwhile, Jonathan, if he were clothing, he’d be a regular, plain, somewhat boring suit: he isn’t in the closet but he’s also not comfortable with Cole’s public persona. He aims to fit in and move on with his life, not stand out and announce to everyone, particularly at work, that he is gay. Cole, on the other hand, he wants everyone to know he is not just gay, but he is Teh Gay. 

Surprisingly to them both, I think, they like each other, and after the horrible first date, they connect again and start a casual relationship based mostly on sex and food when they are both in the same place. Jonathan travels relentlessly for his job, and Cole can’t stay in the same place for more than a few months without getting restless.

What I admired most about this book is how the author took really negative traits – Jonathan’s inability to disconnect or set limits for his job, Cole’s inability to stay in one place – and uses them to both set an obstacle for the character to overcome AND to reveal something positive about them. For example, Jonathan can’t separate from his cell phone. His boss calls him at all hours, and intrudes on his life at really awful moments, and Jonathan never says no.

Yet while this isn’t mentioned in the narrative, consider the loyalty that Jonathan displays. Basically, with no one else in his life, his job is his spouse. It demonstrates how much loyalty Jon has to give to someone who captures his attention, feeds his ambition and drive, and satisfies his work ethic.

The work ethic is one of the major problems Jonathan has with Cole, in addition to the flaming flamboyant flamypants: Cole is independently wealthy and doesn’t do anything, from Jon’s initial perspective, anyway. But Cole also is a wonderful cook who finds a great deal of happiness and joy in preparing meals for Jonathan – and later for Jonathan and his father, who is slowly (VERY slowly) growing comfortable with his son’s sexuality. There is one scene involving old recipes that literally made me weepy.

Sexton’s achievement in this book is in two elements. First, she takes on a challenging and tricky conflict: the degree to which Cole is publicly and stereotypically demonstrative of his own sexuality and how he chooses to communicate it – and how that makes Jonathan feel. As the two men progress from casual-friends-with-benefits to a more potentially serious relationship, Cole’s public and private personas, and Jonathan’s increasing understanding of Cole’s life, reveal more about both men, making simple issues much more complex.

But how different was that for me as a reader: their initial problems center on outward and stereotypical expressions of sexuality, and how and why the characters act in response to those stereotypes.

Which leads me to the other aspect of this story that I appreciated so much: the layering of the characters, and how no moment or statement or scene stood on its own. Everything related to an earlier or later moment, and the structure of the novel reflected those layers. The book opens with Jonathan on an airplane, then jumps back in time, then makes its way back to the moment of the opening scenes. The timeline and the slow revealing of the characters created moments that collectively unified the narrative into a complex yet simple story. I still think about it.

I wish that the ending were stronger – and it is SO hard to review a book and discuss what about the ending bothered me without giving that ending away, so you’ll have to accept vagueness and oblique references up in this paragraph. I’m sorry. I felt that the ending removed some of Jonathan’s independence, and somewhat undermined the determined work ethic and the balance of power between the two men- no matter what kind of lip service (ha) they paid to the situation. I wanted a more balanced and definite happy ending for them both. I also wish the lone female character had been more of a flesh-and-blood, layered and dynamic individual in her own right. The other men in this story, with the exception of Jonathan’s boss, were complicated and fascinating. The female character was a mix of stereotypes and plot device, and always a true character in the sense that the others were.

I don’t think Cole became a “real” character until about 1/3 to 1/2 through the book because the story is told from Jonathan’s point of view, with the exception of email messages from Cole to a person who doesn’t appear in the story which start each chapter. Once Cole was established, and Jonathan was struggling with his attraction and fascination and frustration for Cole, I was hooked. I’m still pondering this book, thinking about scenes and thinking about the conflict and how it developed into a story that was not so much about sex but about intimacy, and trust.


Strawberries for Dessert is available as an ebook at Amazon.com and All Romance eBooks, as a print book from BN.com and from Dreamspinner Press as both an ebook and a print book.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Jrant says:

    First, I didn’t realize SBTB reviewed same-sex romances.  I think it’s fantastic (as opposed to FABulous). I always appreciate learning about new sub-genres, and I’m PRETTY sure my local B&N shelves same-sex romances away from the opposite-sex romances on the other side of store under GAY STUFF (where you can find travel guides, adoption advice and graphic sex manuals crammed onto one shelf.)

    Second, out of curiosity, do you know the intended audience for this book? I ask because my initial reaction to the review was, “huh, that’s an interesting choice for a review, especially considering women aren’t the intended audience…” But hold the phone, of course that’s not necessarily true. I mean, when I saw Brokeback Mountain, I didn’t think “what a beautiful story, too bad as a straight female I’m TOTALLY not the intended audience.” Anyway, my point is I hear/see an awful lot of gay/lesbian erotica, but not a lot of gay/lesbian romance. And I don’t hear very much about gay/lesbian romance readership during general Who Are Our Readers And What Are They Willing To Buy discussions. I don’t really have a specific question here, but do any members of The Bitchery have experiences/opinions regarding same-sex romance?

    “together99” – that is just so fucking sweet I won’t even try to make a joke about it.

  2. 2
    Donna says:

    I enjoyed the prior books in this loosely-linked series, but this one really stuck in my head—and surprisingly, it’s because of that lone female character, who gave one of the guys an amazing verbal smackdown for reverse bigotry.  So many of the women in m/m romance are either cardboard bitches or disposable friend-in-need types that it was incredibly refreshing to see one stand up and refuse to devalued by a gay man just because she was a stay-at-home mom.  I read m/m almost exclusively, and that’s the first time I’ve ever seen an author in the genre brave enough to point out the ugliness of the “breeder” meme. 

    She also displayed a wonderful sensitivity with Cole’s character, weaving a deft and sympathetic portrayal of a man who could have easily been a cartoon, but instead was fascinatingly multi-layered.  I’m looking forward to her future works.

  3. 3
    Sarah says:

    I’m an avid m/m romance reader and I’m a married mom of 2. :D I think just as many woman as men (if not more women) read this genre. It’s hard to find good ones that aren’t pure erotica, but when you do they are wonderful. No worries about a crying, why me, what do I do, TSTL female to mess up a great story line. And if you are reading them for the smex.. wow!!! And I mean wow! LOL.

    age54.. no, but I still plan on reading great roms when I get there.

  4. 4
    orangehands says:

    Jrant: My understanding is the biggest audience and majority of writers of m/m e-books are women (usually 25-55, white, somewhere on the middle class bracket, straight). I’m not sure how true that is at the moment (I haven’t, for instance, seen numbers), and I can’t tell you how much it differentiates between romance and erotica. As for m/m traditional print books (I mean by publishers who didn’t start with e-books or that have been around 15+ years), I think the audience is tended more towards someone on the GBLQ spectrum, and written by someone on that scale. (T tends to get shafted in all departments.)

  5. 5
    Amanda says:

    This is great. I would love it if you reviewed some f/f romance as well.

  6. 6
    HelenMac says:

    Even after reading the excerpt, I wasn’t really feeling it, but after the SB and DA reviews, I think I’m going to have to buy this. Not least of all because of you comment, Donna, regarding a femael character’s objection to the breeder thing.

    (FWIW, Jrant, I’m a British 25 year-old straight woman, and about 80% of the fiction I read at the moment is m/m romance. I do love me some angsty romance, and whoo boy, does m/m deliver as a genre. Plus, the well written smut is TEH HOTNESS.)

  7. 7
    HelenMac says:

    Ugh, can’t spell for toffee tonight, it seems! Apologies, all.

  8. 8
    jayhjay says:

    I am glad to see a m/m romance review!  I read this book a few weeks ago (along with the other three books in this series) and really loved it. I read m/m romance frequently (and am a straight almost-40 woman, fwiw) and I really liked this one b/c the characters were so different than most books. I enjoyed how unique they were and how this story doesn’t fit the typical m/m mold. 

    Sarah, I agree with you about the female friend being sort of an afterthought.  On the other hand, I don’t think the ending bothered me as much as it did you. I think Jonathon may have changed more, but Cole set the situation up in order to meet what both of them needed/wanted. 

    As I said, I loved this book and it is a good start for those of you new to m/m romances. There is definitely sex, and it is reasonably detailed (comparable to a mid-level m/f story), but definitely not gratuitous or what I would describe as erotica.  I would definitely recommend the others in the series. Matt and Jared’s story, Promises, is wonderful (Jared is the guy Cole e-mails).  I also liked Angelo and Zach (A to Z) and the combo story of all four (Letter Z).  But I think the first and last were the best. 

    Happy reading!

  9. 9
    jayhjay says:

    Oh, to Jrant, fwiw, Dear Author reviews a lot of m/m romances (and f/f).  If you are looking for some ideas or to read more reviews, I would check them out. Sarah F does most of their m/m reviews and her recommendations are great.

  10. 10
    jayhjay says:

    One more thought, sorry!

    For those of us who are cover crazy (as we have learned in the book club chats), that is Cole’s exact hair! The bangs get frequent mention. I love when the cover photos match the book!

  11. 11
    Sarah says:

    I also read m/m romance and erotica, although I mostly read m/f stories.  I agree with the person above who suggested that m/m romance is often compelling because the barriers that a same-sex couple have to overcome to be together are very believable (kind of like class barriers in historical romance).

    I too would like to see more f/f romance make it into the general romance readership.  There’s tons of m/m romance on Ellora’s Cave, and virtually no f/f romance, for example.  It seems that straight women are catching up with straight men in their fascination with homoeroticism featuring the opposite sex… (ok, now I’m going to share my personal theory about this, hope this doesn’t ruin it for anyone).  Why would straight men care about what lesbians do, and why would straight women care about gay men do?  Partly I think it’s like (for a man) one woman = hot, two women = hotter! and vice versa.  However, I also think this is a psychologically and socially safe way to explore your own homoerotic desires in an indirect way.  Like, there’s a part of me that would like to try out same-sex nooky, but I can’t admit that, so I can fantasize about people of the opposite sex engaging in same-sex nooky.

    Part of the problem, I think, is that we believe that if you’re interested in same-sex nooky, that means you’re homosexual.  It doesn’t.  Being homosexual means you’re primarily turned on by people of your own sex and, most importantly, you’re most interested in forming romantic bonds with people of the same sex.  I recently learned the term ‘heteroflexible’ and I find it an incredibly helpful concept.  You’re heteroflexible if your primary (especially relationship) interest is in people of the opposite sex, but you still think a good night of gay/lesbian sex is darned hot.  Spread the word!  I bet there are a lot of people out there who identify as straight, and some who identify as bi, who would find that heteroflexible (or the companion term, homoflexible) fits them even better.

  12. 12

    Or, as Jane from Coupling would say, she’s not bi-sexual or homosexual, she’s people-sexual.  Of course, Jane was a nitwit, too, and this books seems to be the opposite of nit-wittery. 

    I’ve not read any m/m (or f/f for that matter) but now I’m intrigued and this may have persuaded me to make a go of it.

  13. 13
    Alpha Lyra says:

    I’m a straight woman. I read mostly m/f, but I love m/m and think it is super hot. One thing I like about m/m romance is that it can leave most gender-related baggage behind. I’m a feminist, and when reading m/f romance, I can be hypersensitive to the power structure of the relationship, because I’m so aware of how vulnerable women are to mistreatment by men. But in a m/m romance, I’m less bothered by a power imbalance between the two heroes because I know it’s not a statement on sex roles but an expression of their individual differences. In m/m romance, I feel freer to appreciate a wider variety of partnerships.

  14. 14
    Merrian says:

    I agree with Alpha Lyra’s take on reading M/M when contrasted with M/F. When I read contemporaries, these days it is probably an M/M because I don’t have to engage with doormat or ditsy heroines or Greek billionaires. The barriers to be overcome before the HEA seem more realistic to me as well. I think I also like seeing guys be caring and in M/M there is a lot of that.  M/M is a central element of my romance reading not just an occasional book.

  15. 15
    Kaetrin says:

    This one’s in my TBB list, I heard such good things about it.  (Plus Heidi Cullinan did a really cute free short (really short) to promote it with Sam and Mitch from Special Delivery and Randy and Ethan from Double Blind – also great books – here’s a link if anyone’s interested:-  http://amazoniowan.livejournal.com/477270.html).

    A question – should I read the earlier books first or doesn’t it matter? 

    I read m/f and m/m romance – I’m a straight, married woman in the “target” age range (the things you learn on teh interwebs!)  I haven’t tried any f/f yet but I will probably one of these days.  I think the intrigue of m/m for me is/was partly the unknown (I’m becoming quite educated now *grins*) and partly because I, as a straight woman, certainly understand an attraction to men.  When there’s 2 men, well… *fans self*… 

    There are some awesome m/m romances out there – truly romantic and available on a scale from little more than kisses to explicit, just like with m/f romance.  For the kisses+ try Tigers & Devils by Sean Kennedy (excellent and romantic and funny) and for something, more,, the aforementioned Heidi Cullinan or anything by KA Mitchell, especially Collision Course, No Souvenirs or Regularly Scheduled Life. (I could go on but I’ll stop there!)  I also second the reference earlier to Dear Author – Sarah Franz mostly reviews the m/m romance and her recommendations are almost always gold for me.

  16. 16
    AgTigress says:

    The very concepts of ‘homosexuality’ and ‘heterosexuality’ have a lot more to do with culture than human biology.  There were no words for them in Classical antiquity, though we would not like Graeco-Roman sexual theory today, because it was based chiefly on unequal power relationships—an active, superior partner, and a passive, inferior one, the doer and the done-to.  The sexes of the two partners was fairly immaterial.

    The fear and hatred of male homosexuality in so many human societies and religious systems is probably based chiefly on the vital importance of procreation at times when infant and maternal mortality were high, and when under- rather than overpopulation was a danger;  it was necessary to have offspring, and therefore exclusively homosexual men were not doing their civic (or moral) duty.  Even totally lesbian women can breed if obliged to do so, so the issue is a different one for them. 

    Thus in Classical Greece, there was no animus at all against male-male relationships, but all citizen men were, nevertheless, expected at some point to marry and father children.  The Romans were possibly a little more disapproving of homosexuality, but not much.  People tutted a bit when the (married) Emperor Hadrian (reigned AD 117-138) openly showed his grief and anguish at the death of his young lover Antinous, but probably more because showing too much emotion was Bad Form and un-Roman, rather than because Antinous was male.

    Tastes in sexual activities can vary a lot between individuals.  The things that excite one person to lust may seem bland, or even disgusting, to another.  But love has no gender.  We all love members of our families, and our closest friends, regardless of their sex, because the person transcends his/her physical being. 

    I think that good popular fiction that deals with love between people of the same sex (with or without actual sexual content) is immensely valuable, as it might start to break down the cruel, blind bigotry against homosexuality that has characterised so many human societies in recent centuries.  A bigotry that is still powerful in some quarters of so-called civilised societies.  Helping to show that gay is not ‘other’, but is merely one normal facet of the complex construction that is the human condition, is a noble aim.

  17. 17
    diremommy says:

    Kaetrin, this is the third volume in the “Series”, but it can totally stand on it’s on. The only tie to the other books is Cole’s emails to Jared, who is the main character in Promises. As all Jared is in Strawberries is a name at the top of a few emails, it doesn’t hurt you to not really know who he is, other than a friend of Cole’s. I highly recommend this entire series.

    I fell into MM romances earlier this year, and haven’t looked back since. I love it, be it sweet or smutty.

  18. 18
    diremommy says:

    I wrote third volume, I meant fourth, so sorry! I tend to think of books two and three as one, because they are the most closely tied together in the series.

    required59- it should be required for me to re-read my posts 59 times before posting them.

  19. 19
    sam says:

    Thanks for an excellent review, look forward to reading more from you.

  20. 20

    I absolutely adore Marie Sexton. I’m biased, because I’m her friend as well, but I truly do love her work. She cares so much about the characters and struggles hard to get them right. I’ve never met an author more determined to do right by the characters. She’s at yaoicon this weekend in SF, by the way, so if you’re in that neck of the woods, go say hi.

    We took a crazy trip together too, and blogged the whole damn thing. (Here, if you’re interested. http://web.me.com/heidi.cullinan/Site/main.html)

    Thank you, Kaetrin, for the promo plug! That was terribly fun to write.

    Marie’s next book is awesome. She’s trying to sell it now, but I can already tell you it’s very good. (Not in the Coda series, either.)

    I really don’t think you need to read in order to get this at all. The only thing I think you need to have read books prior to is her novella The Letter Z. If you don’t read A to Z before it at least, you’ll be really lost.

    I will now stop my one-woman pimping show for Marie Sexton and get my ass back to work.

  21. 21
    SB Sarah says:

    I was offline yesterday so I didn’t get to respond – my phone battery lasted like, .03 hours, wtf!

    @Jrant et al: I do read and review m/m fiction. I don’t think this is the first I’ve read and reviewed, now that I think about it- – nope, a quick search reveals that I like Urban & Roux, too. I tend to read a few, then get burned out on them and go back a few months later. But Roux/Urban and now Sexton are on my list of authors to watch for.

    As for those who asked about reading this as a stand-alone, I didn’t read the other books in this series, and thought this book worked independently. I didn’t miss the other characters from earlier books, nor did I feel like I was missing major plot points.

  22. 22
    jayhjay says:

    This thread is interesting b/c I was just thinking the other day about what draws me to m/m romances.  Some of this has been mentioned, but here is my 2 cents to chime in:

    In m/m stories you can have different plot lines and characters than m/f stories. One of my favorites is the coming out story.  But there are other story lines that work better (or differently) in a m/m story. The relationship doesn’t always have the same power dynamic.  And despite the inherent sexism, there are things a male gay character can get away with that a female heroine can’t. Or even if she can, it paints a very clear picture of the “type of woman” she is, which may not be what the author really wants to portray. For example, a male hero can continue dating and/or sleeping with other men a lot longer into the story than most female heroines can and still not be perceived as unacceptably slutty. So there are plots you can create with two men that may not work with a man and woman. Especially when I am in a historical rut with lots of swooning virgin heroines, I like the change to a m/m contemporary.

    And as mentioned before, there is something really hot about two yummy men together!  After reading some I see why guys have all those lesbian fantasies!

  23. 23

    Definitely recommended. Even though this is Marie’s fourth book and uses previously introduced characters, I think this could easily be read as a standalone. In fact, if you read this one first and then go back and read the others, you’ll be able to see how much her writing and storytelling has improved over the course of the series.

  24. 24
    Alpha Lyra says:

    I read this book based on this review and enjoyed it a lot. I think one thing that’s particularly well done in this book is the sex scenes. In many romance novels, the sex scenes feel overblown and unrealistic—they go on and on about how huge the hero’s cock is, how amazing and transcendent the sex is, etc., and I just don’t believe it (which is why I skim most of them).

    This novel doesn’t do that at all. Most of the sex scenes aren’t even described in graphic detail, but I would not dream of skipping them because they say so much about the characters and the nature of their relationship. Right from the beginning, we see Cole’s intimacy issues manifest as a desire not to be kissed or held, and over time we see him work through those issues, both in and out of the bedroom. The sex scenes are realistic, and they aren’t just about sex. They develop character and carry plot. I wish more m/f romance handled sex scenes in this way.

    I agree that the ending wasn’t 100% satisfying. I did worry about Jonathan’s autonomy and independence, which was presented as important to him. I worry especially because Cole is rather emotionally unstable compared to Jonathan, and becasue of that I am not certain of the long-term viability of the relationship. I’m also concerned that Jonathan would become too isolated.

    I was prepared by the review not to be fully satisfied with the ending, however, and these minor issues didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book.

  25. 25
    MysteeBee says:

    So I’m a few days late to this thread…can anyone recommend a f/f romance novel they enjoyed?  I’m not having much luck finding anything, and the bitchery tends to have all the answers (right, RIGHT? :))

  26. 26
    Merrian says:

    @ MysteeBee
    I don’t have any to recommend but suggest you email the author Jill Sorensen. She reads f/f and is likely to have recommendations
    http://www.jillsorenson.com/index.php

    I read one by Roxy Harte( pub by Samhain last year I think). In the end it seemed to me to be more about the growth of the heroine – her personal journey rather than her relationship. I liked it as a book but while she ends up with a HEA and a girlfriend the arc of the story is her growing self awareness and valuation.

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