According to All Romance Ebooks, Better Than a Dream is 40,400 words, which came out to 112 pages on my Nook. A paperback version exists, but it looks like it might be out of print.
Yuuki and Tsukada were a perfect, happy couple...until Tsukada, an avid mountain climber, died in an avalanche. Since then, Yuuki has done his best to run Fuuka, his café, and deal with his grief as quietly as possible. Hardly anyone knew what the nature of Yuuki's relationship with Tsukada was, or that Yuuki is gay.
Shin, one of Yuuki's old high school friends, is one of the people who knows. After Tsukada's death, Shin became a regular at Fuuka, eventually even going so far as to sit in Tsukada's former favorite spot. It's not unusual for him to spend the night at Yuuki's place. Although there have been moments when their relationship has almost crossed the line from friendship into something more, they both keep holding back. Yuuki is lonely, but the one he really misses is Tsukada. Anyway, he figures that Shin's feelings must not be strong enough to overcome societal taboos against homosexuality.
While Shin is away on business, a stranger arrives and shakes everything up. Yuuki intended to hire a waitress but instead finds himself hiring Kamishiro on as Fuuka's new chef. Kamishiro is a complete mystery - he's a professional chef with years of experience under his belt, and yet he's willing to work for minimum wage and a room at Yuuki's place. Yuuki wonders about him, his past, and whatever happened to him that scarred him and left him with a limp. Still, he turns out to be a surprisingly good fit for Fuuka.
Unfortunately, Shin does not react well to the news that Kamishiro has taken a room at Yuuki's place. All of the relationship issues and emotions everyone had been able to bury are now pushed painfully to the forefront.
Of the two DRM-free e-books Digital Manga, Inc. decided to sell through ARe, this one's description excited me the least. There seemed to be too many characters, and I'm not a fan of the “grieving widow/widower/lover” trope. It also didn't help that the excerpt on the publisher's website was boring and strange - DMI folks, please tell me you didn't seriously think the stuff from the POV of the dog would convince people to buy the book.
You know what, though? Better Than a Dream turned out to be an okay read. While I do think there are lots of better books out there, if you're going to try one of DMI's “yaoi novel” offerings, this wouldn't be a bad place to start.
Aspects of the book that worked for me:
- Sakuragi's fresh take on the “grieving widow/widower/lover” trope. Or at least it felt fresh to me – since I usually avoid the trope, it's quite possible that this sort of thing is common in m/m “grieving widower/lover” stories. Anyway, in most books I've read with this trope, the grieving character has some kind of outlet for their grief. In Better Than a Dream, very few people know that Yuuki is gay, much less that he and Tsukada were lovers. Although I didn't always like the way Yuuki acted, in this context I could sort of understand why he acted the way he did. I don't think Yuuki ever had an opportunity to properly grieve, and the one person around him trying to help him through his grief (sort of) had ulterior motives. Yuuki might have continued to keep things as they were, were it not for Kamishiro. Kamishiro was the catalyst who got him to start working through his post-Tsukada feelings.
- Sakuragi tried to write her characters as though they were actual people. None of that “you raped me, but you're hot and it felt good, so I love you” (yes, I'm still a bit angry about Kyoko Wakatsuki's The Selfish Demon King). When bad stuff happened, if affected characters' emotions, and they reacted accordingly, or at least somewhat accordingly. More on that in my "Aspects that didn't work for me" section.
- The mystery of Kamishiro. To be honest, I thought Sakuragi was working up to the revelation that Kamishiro was actually post-magical-reconstructive-surgery-Tsukada. Thankfully, Sakuragi came up with something more realistic, yet still shocking. Bravo.
- The WTF moments. Even when they horrified me, I couldn't help but be morbidly curious about what was going to happen next.
- The mountain-climbing and café aspects. It's not like Sakuragi included a whole lot of detail on these things, but it was still nice to see that the characters had lives outside of having sex or thinking about having sex. I do wonder, though, how Yuuki managed to stay in business. Even if Fuuka had had a better location, I doubt his clientele would have consisted of more than the regulars who had been coming there for years.
- The weak beginning. Is it even possible for a book to have a weaker beginning? It starts with a strange prologue written primarily from the perspective of a dog. There is a bit of confusing head-hopping in which Sakuragi slips in a little from some random elderly lady's perspective. Then the book switches to Yuuki's perspective. I was left wondering whether the man in the prologue was Shin or Tsukada and had trouble orienting myself until I reread the book's description.
- The “grieving lover” trope. I've mentioned this before on this blog, but I'm not a fan of the “widow/widower” trope, because so often the deceased person is cardboard, either a horrible person or unbelievably perfect. Tsukada was perfect. Yuuki worries that what he feels for Kamishiro is actually due to seeing aspects of Tsukada in him. He eventually comes to the realization that he loves Kamishiro because he is Kamishiro. To be honest, I didn't find the progression from Yuuki's earlier worries to his final revelation to be very believable. It seemed to come down to “good sex = love.”
- Several of the characters could have been fleshed out better. Shin and Kamishiro felt like sketches, at best. They were more fleshed out than Tsukada, but not by much.
- The sex scenes and any references to sexual feelings. They are the source of many laughable lines. Example: “As Shin became a bigger part of his life, Yuuki's feverish body often whispered sweet nothings to his senses.” (pg. 22 on my Nook). There's a lot of reliance on cliches that you'll be familiar with if you've read yaoi manga before, like really drooly kisses – as it turns out, I can take this much better in manga form than novel form. Ick. Also, I'm still not sure, but I think there was a bit where Yuuki used shaving cream as lubricant during sex with Kamishiro. Gah.
- The on-page rape, or near-rape. This whole bullet point counts as a SPOILER, but, to my mind, it's a totally necessary one. Sakuragi sets things up so that there's a bit of a love triangle. Shin is attracted to Yuuki, and Yuuki knows this on some level but refuses to do anything about that knowledge. Yuuki continues his spinelessness by not giving Shin advance warning that he has allowed Kamishiro to live in his home. I thought Shin was perfectly justified in feeling angry at Yuuki. I expected a horrible, tense, ugly fight. What I did not expect was that Shin would get drunk and rape Yuuki (or nearly rape him, depending on your perspective). All sympathy I might have felt for Shin was gone in that moment, and I was angry that Sakuragi used rape as a plot device. Up to that point, Shin had actively avoided forcing himself on Yuuki – all he did was put himself in Yuuki's company as often as possible and wait for him to eventually get over Tsukada's death. The rape seemed out-of-character. Also, while the rape did affect Shin and Yuuki's relationship (so much awkwardness), I still felt things were too easy between them. By the end of the book, they part on easy and friendly, if somewhat awkward, terms.
- Yuuki's spinelessness. While I at first attributed some of this to not being able to properly deal with his grief, I eventually came to believe that he was just a weak person. His non-handling of the situation with Shin played a big part in how I felt about him.
- Mysteriously abandoned story elements. Sakuragi sets things up so that it looks like one of Yuuki's regular customers, a teenage girl, is going to blackmail him into dating her, using her new-found knowledge (provided by Shin in bastard mode) that Yuuki is gay. Then nothing comes of that. It's not even mentioned again. Also, at one point, it's mentioned that Tsukada's boss had a habit of disappearing at “inconvenient times” (page 37 on my Nook), causing Tsukada to wonder whether he was really going where he claimed he was going. Nothing ever comes of that either.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Antique Bakery (manga) by Fumi Yoshinaga; Antique Bakery (anime TV series) - Those who'd like another contemporary drama (in this case, mixed with humor) starring adults might want to try this. It takes place at a small gourmet, Western-style bakery in Japan. The owner of the bakery was kidnapped as a child and is still trying to deal with his lack of memories about the event, as well as the fact that his kidnapper was never caught. I have written about the anime and all four volumes of the manga. Be warned - there are many, many spoilers in my posts.
- When He Was Wicked (book) by Julia Quinn - Those who'd like to read something else featuring the "grieving widow/widower/lover" trope might want to try this historical romance. This is one of the few books featuring this trope that I mostly enjoyed. I have written about this.
- For the Living (e-book) by L.A. Witt - This is also contemporary m/m fiction, but in this case one of the main characters, Jay Warren, was married to a woman. He wanted to tell her he was gay but couldn't bring himself to do it. After her sudden death, his conscience threatens to eat him alive, and things get rockier when the friendship and sympathy Scott Lawson, the funeral director, offers him turns into something more. I haven't read this, although I have one of Witt's other books on my e-TBR pile.
- Blue Fire (e-novella) by Z.A. Maxfield - Another contemporary m/m romance featuring a grieving main character who falls for a new man. I haven't read this, but I've read at least one of Maxfield's other works and if this is as good as that one, then it might be worth checking out if you'd like another story with the "grieving widow/widower/lover" trope.