Here’s another in our occasional series of mini reviews in which AAR staffers talk about what they’ve read lately.  Not all these books are romances (although most of them are), and some were obviously more well-received than others. Here’s what Kristen, Lisa, Maggie, Maria Rose, Melanie have to say about their recent reads.


Kristen:

We Were On A Break by Lindsey Kelk

This one is perfect for fans of Sophie Kinsella – the humor and cultural settings are very similar. Liv and Adam’s Mexican holiday is sure to end in an engagement, or so Liv thinks. They’ve been dating for an age and surely, SURELY, he wouldn’t take her from England to Mexico without a real purpose, right? Well, imagine her shock when instead of giving her a ring, he asks for a pause. Dejected, confused, and heartbroken, they head back to the UK and to their separated lives.

One of this book’s strength is that it alternates PoVs between Liv and Adam as they go on their break. We get to understand Adam’s decision from his perspective before Liv does, which added to my sense of rooting for the two of them throughout the whole book. I wasn’t sure if they were going to end up together, but lawd alive did I hope so. They meet other people, they make some mistakes, they mope a lot, they think they move on; but in the end the break only proves that they do actually belong together.

Highly recommended for fans of books with deep dives into relationships, authentic adult conversations about commitment, and sparkling humor.

Grade: B+                      Sensuality: Warm

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Lisa:

An Italian Wife by Anne Hood

Anne Hood’s encapsulation of life spanning four generations of the Rinaldi family starts out admirably.  Dreamy-minded teenaged spitfire Josephine is married off to Vincenzo, a man with some prospects, who plans to emigrate soon to America.  These initial chapters are extremely amusing, as young Josephine plans to poison her husband and protests the marriage by soaking herself to the waist in a mud puddle, ruining her gown.  He emigrates after a brief honeymoon, and we skip ahead several years, to the day when he finally sends her the money to follow him.  The story could take a hundred different turns from here: the Josephine of the first chapter could easily steal the money and go elsewhere – or perhaps she could come to love her husband?

Why no, none of these things happen! Instead Josephine is stuck at home because she neglected to learn much English and becomes a broodmare for her husband, and the victim of a lecherous local priest.  Things slowly slip downhill into a thicket of misery and Josephine’s sole joy comes in the form of a summer-long affair with a blond-haired iceman.  He’s her true love because he gives her orgasms.  No, I’m not kidding. He also conveniently dies just after she becomes pregnant, and she gives up her daughter for adoption and regrets the action for the rest of her days.  After this the narrative starts to PoV hop from character to character and misery to misery.

And I’m serious when I tell you that every single character in this novel is a walking vessel for tragic events.  From a son who becomes emotionally and physically impaired thanks to his service in World War II to a granddaughter who becomes ensnared in a miserable nest of casual sex because she cannot confront the fact that she’s a lesbian, the book becomes an almost comical parade of bad news.   By the time Josephine and her cancer-stricken long-lost daughter are denied a reunion at the eleventh hour, I had had enough.  Hood gleefully revels in the non-stop angst she rains on her character’s heads, seemingly having confused depth with pointless emotional bloodletting.

In Hood’s world, the only escape from the American dream for women is quite literally the sweet release of death, after which you get to spend eternity bonking the hot ice man who pumped and dumped you in your youth.  God bless America, indeed.

Grade: F                        Sensuality: Warm

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Palisades Park by Alan Brennert

Here’s an unexpected, unheralded treat of a novel, set in the fondly remembered but long-closed Palisades Park in New Jersey.

Focused on the Stopka family, who run a French fry stand in the park’s busy, colorful environment, our protagonist is seven-year old Antoinette, who insists on going by the moniker Toni and who dreams of becoming a daring high diver at the park’s saltwater pool.  Toni’s mom and dad, Adele and Eddie, hold down the fort at the stand while living with their frustrated ambitions, Adele to be a star and Eddie to open his own restaurant. Completing the picture is Toni’s brother, Jack, who loves comic books and superheroes and hopes to be a writer.

Both time and the world’s events challenge the Stopka family, from the belt-tightening great depression to the twin disasters of World War II, which separates Eddie from the family as he’s drafted to service, and a massive fire that destroys large swaths of the park, traumatizing Toni and leaving an exasperated Adele looking for a way to pursue her dreams before it’s too late.

A grown-up Toni achieves her dream of becoming a high diver, but a disappointing first love and the pain of her fractured family keeps her from home.  In the end, both the park’s waning days and Toni’s frustrated, fractured relationship with her mother draw her back to New Jersey – and to true love, healing, and the culmination of her ambition, a star turn as the lead attraction at Palisades’ high diving pool.

I honestly don’t have words enough to laud Brennert’s writing; he sinks the reader easily into each era he explores, from the radio days of Toni’s youth to the civil rights struggles of the sixties – his portrayal of a real-life event in which African-American youth protested the segregation of the waterpark area by swimming in its famous salt water pool is especially delivered with punch, as is his description of the fire that claimed lives, rides and businesses at the park in one ugly afternoon.  He sprinkles the narrative with colorful real-life characters and incidents, managing to make the park a character all its own, proud and scarred, breathing to its closing night.

Toni is one of my favorite narrators of recent memory; selfish and ambitious, kind and loving, bright and giving, she’s everything I enjoy in a literary heroine.   Her journey is a great one and well worth seeking out.

Grade: A+                        Sensuality: Kisses

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Maggie:

Some Small Magic by Billy Coffey

I’ll start with a disclaimer: I don’t find magic in the charm of Southern hill people’s poverty. I don’t find ignorance endearing. I don’t find struggle necessarily enlightening. I think to enjoy this book you would have to appreciate all three.

Abel Shifflet is used to things not going his way. A young man with brittle bones who can be hurt just by tripping he literally lives a “hard knock life”. When he discovers a set of letters from the father he believed to be dead but who is very much alive, he decides to set off for the town of Fairhope to meet him. Abel’s desire is to discover some magic to alleviate the pain and poverty of his existence. But like the song says, we don’t always get what we want, we get what we need. Along the way he will meet people who will change his perspective, remind him of what’s important, and ultimately, will lead him to the home he’s been longing for.

A celebration of the quaint quirkiness of life in the South, I found this tale a painful reminder of everything that has created the division this country experiences right now. My heart ached every time I read the phrase “Dumb Willy”, which was a descriptor of one of Abel’s good friends who was mentally handicapped. And while I appreciated the effort to write a Christian perspective into an Of Mice and Men style tale, it just didn’t work for me. Mr. Coffey gets full credit for being able to produce lyrical prose  but his loving, nostalgic look at people who made me long to slap them hard in the face left me feeling disgruntled and dissatisfied.

Grade: C                        Sensuality: N/A

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Maria Rose:

A Fare to Remember by Opal Carew

I’ve enjoyed previous books by this author, and the concept of this one definitely intrigued me – a female cab driver who meets a sexy billionaire? Yes please! As it turns out, I’ve got mixed feelings about the execution. Yes, some of the sex scenes are super hot, including ones where Reid’s best friend Dylan is part of the mix. The story quickly turns from a twosome into a ménage, and there are m/m and m/f and mixed scenes here as Dylan and Reid discover that in pleasing Stevie they enjoy pleasing each other too.

But there were some things that were problematic for me. There’s a scene early on where Reid uses a ball gag and ties Stevie up – and there has been no conversation about consent and safe words or signals. What if she doesn’t like it? What if she wants to stop? She’s got no way to tell him. If you want to introduce BDSM elements into a story, then you need to bring up everything that makes it viable including consent and after care. Later on there’s a double penetration scene with no prep – ouch! The conflict and surprising plot twist that comes in the second half is a bit out of the blue and I’ve a hard time believing that if you are in a somewhat committed relationship, you’d let the things happen that do happen in this story. Eventually we get a happy ending with Reid and Stevie professing their love for each other and Dylan along for the ride (not sure how long he will fit into the picture as it isn’t a triad relationship exactly, more of a twosome with an extra). If you’re not so concerned about plot details and just want some hot sex scenes, you’ll find lots to enjoy here if you can overlook some of the things that troubled me. I’ll still read more from this author in the future, but this one is a miss.

Grade: D+                        Sensuality: Hot

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Melanie:

Packed: Lunch Hacks to Squeeze More Nutrients Into Your Day by Becky Alexander and Michelle Lake

I try to take my lunch to work daily, but honestly, it gets pretty boring. Sandwich or leftovers! Which do I want today?  Sigh. And my other option is to spend at least $10 and purchase something nearby (I work on a college campus, so there are a ton of nearby options, but none are particularly cheap). When I saw Packed, I was more interested in seeing some alternatives to my boring routine. While the nutritional information is kinda fascinating, it’s not really my focus – I like to eat healthier, but right now I’d go for not caving and eating a greasy cheeseburger every day (again, college campus).

Overall, Packed definitely offers up some interesting thoughts on lunch options – yes, you have your salads, but why not add chorizo, walnuts and chickpeas to some fresh arugula? Or put various fixings in a mason jar, and then pour in some hot water to make soup? Or, if you really want to keep your sandwiches, make an open faced one with crawfish and avocado. The options are pretty endless, and even though I may not make the actual recipes (for one, I’m allergic to crawfish!), I can definitely see about a million different ways to take the basic recipe and change it out for things that I can eat and will enjoy. Goodbye burgers, hello chicken and broccoli soup in a mason jar!

Grade: B-                        Sensuality: N/A

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Guarding Mr. Fine by HelenKay Dimon

Recently, BJ posted a lovely review of Guarding Mr. Fine by HelenKay Dimon, and really, I’m just gonna sit here and second everything she said. I won’t go into the full story, but the brief version is: Seth the spy expects a one night stand to be just that, and when it’s not, he has to deal with protecting and working with the man he’s been obsessing over, Rick. The third in the queer romantic suspense series Tough Love, this installment brings more fun, sexy romantic spy thriller-lite stories and characters. Seth’s story is better for having read the previous two books, but brand-new Rick Fine shares all with both Seth and the reader. The suspense side of things worked pretty well, and the romantic side had me quite pleased overall. I enjoyed the rather snappy dialogue, but do wish, like BJ said, there was more world-building to flesh out the story. Again, though, the characters were quite fun, and the book reads very easily.

Grade: B+                        Sensuality: Warm

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Have you read any of these?  What did YOU think?  Jump in and let us know in the comments.