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What to see, taste and read in Puerto Rico

At this time last year not a single romance could hold my interest. Instead all I could do was hit refresh on the twitter #hurricanemaria #hurracanmaria hashtags, and check the weather website between texting with my mother as the storm moved into the island. While the storm didn't land till the 20th by the 19th the effects were being strongly felt.  My mother was hunkered down in her apartment after filling all her jugs and garbage cans full of water.  She felt as ready as she could be. We would later learn, that her preparations as good as they were weren't going to be as good as she would want them to be. I am so thankful for all the interest and support we received from folks in Romancelandia,

Thankful for the people who as the months crawled past still cared about what happened in PR, even as the rest of the world moved on.  In the past few months I've had friends and twitter folk ask about visiting PR, for recommendations about places to see and things to do. I can tell you that tourism has been a priority since the storm.  There has been a lot of effort put into restoring access to historical sites, and tourist hot-spots.  My mom whose apartment in PR is in the middle of tourist zone of Isla Verde had her power and water there restored very quickly after the storm (2 weeks) versus the months it took to get to other locations are around the San Juan Metroplex.  So if you are considering a trip to Puerto Rico, know that you can will find plenty to see and do.

What should you see and do in Puerto Rico?

Absolutely visit Old San Juan. El Viejo San Juan is beautiful, and the historic heart of the Island. Its cobblestone streets, colorful colonial buildings, lively bars and restaurants are worth your time, even if it feels a little cliche because every other tourist makes a stop there.   Take your time, explore the callejones, and you might find out why every Puerto Rican leaves their heart there even if their body across the world and why all of us in the diaspora sing to ourselves the "En mi viejo San Juan" when homesickness hits. And if you are facebook makes sure to follow the Puerto Rico Historical Building Society, their daily pictures from San Juan never fail to ease my heart.

If you go to Old San Juan. I very much recommend you visit both El Morro and San Cristobal.   I grew up having picnic lunches on Sunday afternoons on the wide fields of El Morro, under trees that overzealous park rangers robbed us of after another terrible hurricane (Hugo). However Puerto Ricans of all ages still fly kites there and delight in climbing on the fortifications.  From the walls you can spy down to one of the most famous cemeteries on the island, where many of our famous writers and dignitaries have been buried. 

 While in the Old City treat yourself to a piragua or some coco and pina sherbert and find a bench to people watch from. You won't regret cooling off in such a delicious way as you walk around.  If you want something hardier for lunch, visit La Bombonera.  This spanish restaurant and bakery is one my favorite places to visit on the island. They offer good solid food and delicious sugar-powdered Mallorcas, whose carby goodness are worth every buttery calorie.

As you wander around, stop in the San Juan Alcadia (Town Hall) and sneak a peak at the beautiful stained glass windows of Flamboyans just inside.  Amble down Calle Cristo, till you spot the Parque de Las Palomas unless pigeons freak you out.

  If you love history to to see the Casa Blanca museum is it open.  The home was build by Ponce de Leon's family in 1521 and it is a marvelous example of architecture from that era. The walled gardens are quite beautiful. There are tons more things to look for and explore there, but these are some of my favorites. 

If you  read romance, maybe pick up Mia Sosa's One Night with the CEO, for a story that partly takes place in Puerto Rico, with the leads, staying at the famous El Convento Hotel in Old San Juan and traveling to Luquillo Beach to eat the beach front kiosks there. (I beta read this for Mia Sosa).

Outside of Old San Juan, there other can't miss stop in Puerto Rico is El Yunque.   El Yunque National Rainforest, is magnificent mountain that the Tainos of Puerto Rico once thought was home to the creator god Yukiyu.  El Yunque was hit hard by Maria. A lot of trees were snapped in half and while the vegetation is recovering, not all the trails or roads in the park are yet open. But what is open is still absolutely worth your time.  I have so many memories of crawling up the mountain roads up to El Yunque for a drive, and running up Yokahu tower to see the misty, view down to Luquillo beach.  It is an easy day trip from the San Juan area, and a hike in El Yunque is easy to combine with an afternoon spent on Luquillo's famous beach after grabbing some lunch at the kiosks. I'm not sure which kiosks have opened back up after Maria, but there is always some crispy fried beach food  (Alcapurrias, Bacalaitos, or Pastelillos) available there.

Further down the east coast you will find the town of Fajardo, the home of one of several bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico. I grew up visiting the one La Parguera, that sadly  has dimmed over the years because of too much gas-fueled tourboat activity. However the ones in Fajardo and Vieques were better protected and are only toured via Kayak or electric boat.  The one in Vieques is harder to reach, but the brightest of them all.  Vieques, is a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico and absolutely worth visiting, if you have time and are able arrange transportation there.   

My own place in Puerto Rico is even further down the coast, on the Caribbean ocean, in the town of Maunabo.   Maunabo was hit very hard by Maria, as it made landfall just a few miles up the coast in Yabucoa.  It took over 9 months for water and power to be restored to the area.  It gorgeous and well off the beaten path, with gorgeous beaches and beautiful Punta Tuna Lighthouse.

As you drive around the coast make sure to try some mofongo and asopao de Langosta, one of my favorite Puerto Rican foods.  There are tons of little roadside restaurants along the southern coast, with fresh seafood, including many near the marinas in Salinas.

Puerto Rico's second city is Ponce on the southwest end of the island. It is home to a fantastic art museum, and has a very cool little downtown, with its picturesque Parque de Bombas. If you visit make sure to travel up to El Castillo Seralles  and the nearby Cruceta El Vigia for its panoramic views of the city. Just outside Ponce you can also visit, La Hacienda Buena Vista, an former coffee plantation, run by non-profit committed to protecting Puerto Rico's natural treasures.

For the beach lover, I would certainly recommend you continue to travel down the coast, and enjoy delicious pineapples grown in Lajas before exploring the beaches of Cabo Rojo.  You can also travel up to Mayaguez on Puerto Rico's western shores. This is the town my grand-father Sammy was raised in.  

On the northwestern coast is the town of Rincon, whose beaches are famous with surfers across the world and where one can sometimes spot whales during their migrations.

Along the northwest coast, the town of Arecibo's most famous landmark is it radio telescope, at the Arecibo Observatory.  I usually combine a visit there with a trip to the Camuy Caves but since they haven't reopened yet, the  Cueva Ventana  with its breath-taking views might be a better alternative.

Don't miss traveling into the center mountainous regions of the island. Up in Ciales, you can find a Coffee museum, that my mom and sister have enjoyed visiting. My maternal grand-mothers family is from Naranjito, and I will always associate driving up to the mountains to Naranjito, with feelings of home, making pasteles with my extended family and eating spit-roasted pork at Christmas time. You can have some delicious Pernil from the lechoneras in Guavate.

If you end up driving toward Cayey, see if you can spot El Palito solitario, the lonely tree one of the peaks near the El Jibaro statue. It was one of the trees I was most happy to hear survive the storm as I looked for it every time we crossed the mountains from the San Juan area toward Ponce.

Whatever type of vacation you prefer, active, beach or relaxing, you can find in Puerto Rico.

Who should you read?

D1wYve0bxCS._SY135_IIf you plan to read on the beach or on the flight over make sure to pick up some great romances written by amazing women of the Puerto Rican diaspora before you travel to Puerto E1bxNPU73wS._SY135_ Rico.

Make sure to check out Priscilla Oliveras, Alexis Daria, & Mia Sosa's work. Oliveras, Daria and Sosa all write very different women whose Puerto Rican roots ground them and drive them. The help me feel see as one of the many Boricuas in the diaspora, living and working far from my island but whose heart beats to the rhythm of the coqui.

And D1a4-NdYJXS._SL250_FMpng_ for historical romances set in the Spanish Caribbean, check out 51ofF1WqwOLLydia San Andres

 

 


Free Fall by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner (Fly me to the Moon, Book 5)

Free Fall coverOne of the best things that can happen to you as a reader is to find a writer whose books just work for you, whose core story is the story you love to read. As a reader I have been very lucky, over the last 5 or 6 years I've found several such writers. Emma Barry is one of those writers. Whether she is writing nerdy accountants, swaggering astronauts or uptight engineers as heroes or workaholic public servants, managing housewives or sultry sorority girls are heroines, I am here for it.

At the start of Free Fall, Vivy is just 19, daddy's little girl, a college girl is majoring in sociology, who loves her sorority sisters and is too loud, too big and much too much for her  prim and petite society mother. She is in that middle space, no longer a child but not a full-fledged independent adult yet.  One night she accompanies her father, a defense contractor with big contracts with the space agency, to a party at an astronaut's house. After a while she decides to go outside and get some air. Dean Garland, one of the astronauts, follows her out.

"It was unfair, and so like a man, to look that good and that cocky."
                                                                                        Vivy in Barry and Turner's Free Fall

He claims to have been lured out by the bigness of her laugh, which instead of pleasing Vivy, cools everything off

"Settle down, quiet down, sit down, look down: all her life, her mother had tried to wrestle Vivy into a smaller space, a smaller size. But Vivy couldn't be less"
                                                                                    Vivy in Barry and Turner's Free Fall.

But Dean recovers, not letting Vivy slip away back inside offended, frank in his interest and ignorant of who her daddy is. He doesn't flinch away from her sharp teasing, clearing liking it just as much as he likes the look of her.  The combination is irresistible and Vivy is soon kissing him in the dark under the moon and then following him to his house down the block for more.


Ocean Light by Nalini Singh (Psy-Changeling Trinity #2)

Yellow backlight cover of NaliniSingh's Ocean Light a man and a woman in profile  superimposed on the skyline of venice_Ocean Light is the second book in Nalini Singh's second Pys-Changeling series, Psy-Changeling Trinity.  While Silver Silence was successful in becoming an accessible new entry point for readers intimidated by the expansive original Psy-Changeling series, Ocean Light is a much more demanding book.  This book deepens the new series central mystery, expanding the players, establishing new relationships and continuing to grow the world, while at same time having to find way to catch new readers up on Bowen Knight's backstory. I am curious to see how successful this was for new readers. As an established reader, I was well acquainted with Bowen Knight, who has been a long-running secondary  POV characters in the Psy-Changeling series. I felt we got to see a whole new side of him as he falls in love with Kaia, especially learning new information about what has driven him to be so passionate about seeking a way to protect Humans from unscrupulous and predatory Psy via technological interventions.

As a romance, I loved how play played a huge part of Kaia and Bowen's courtship. While Kaia starts out deeply suspicious and wary of Bowen, just like the rest of BlackSea, she gets to know him better challenging and teasing him. His natural curiosity pushes him to try to figure out Kaia and make sense of her relationships with other BlackSea packmates.

I loved meeting the BlackSea changelings, and comparing and contrasting their way of behaving as pack and how it differs from the SnowDancer and DarkRiver (both more communal and more individualistic) and exploring the ways the Human Alliance has grown into its own kind of pack under Bowen's leadership.

Once aspect of the story that I am going to have to sit with a bit longer and tease out my feelings about was the way Kaia's long-term anxiety issues was used narratively. While I loved that her anxiety issues were not easy to resolve and were not simply something she could will or power away for the sake of love, I wasn't entirely comfortable about how contained and specific it was.  I wish her struggles with Anxiety had been introduced less obliquely earlier in the novel rather than packed into an already frenetic second-half as an unexpected obstacle to their HEA.

As a long-time fan of Nalini Singh's Psy-changeling series -- I've been reading her books for as long as I have been reading romance -- I love that we are exploring parts of the Psy-Changeling world that had not been previously explored, and that she continues to correct the erasure of queer identities in her previous books by making little mentions here and there.  I really liked the casual way Kaia's mom explicitly acknowledges and accepts that Kaia could fall for a boy or a girl, as she whispers a loving warning to her baby about her family's predisposition for falling hard and fast in love. These little mentions are small steps, but they make feel more welcomed in the world that I've read for so long and it affirms that the changes she made in Silver Silence were not one offs.

 

 

I received a ARC for review consideration from the Publisher via NetGalley.


A Study in Scarlet Women (Lady Sherlock Mysteries #1) by Sherry Thomas

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Charlotte Holmes, the  youngest Holmes daughter's incisive, logical mind and assertive attitude at first  delight, but  later irk her conventional father. Beautiful, soft and feminine, he wants her to satisfy herself by becoming a triumph in the marriage mart, while she rather be educated, so she might provide for herself without having to accept the many compromises and humiliations she has seen her parents endure in their loveless marriage.  When her father fails to honor his word to her, she takes drastic measures and leaves the family home to see employment and take control of her life.

Sherry Thomas's Lady Sherlock is not infallible, instead keenly observant, decisive, but occasionally naive Most importantly however is her determination to succeed and survive in a world that would very much like to see her fail. Thomas's reinvention of Holmes and Watson was fantastic.  The way the mystery unfolds, with it is twists and turns was incredibly engrossing. I listened to the middle five hours of the audiobook (engagingly ready by Kate Reading) yesterday and after reluctantly going to bed, immediately listened to the last two hours this morning as soon as I woke up because I need to know how things would turn out for Charlotte.

The real triumph of the book was the rich characterizations and fascinating motivations of all the major characters. There was great banter & tension and I loved the complicated multi-layered relationships, and their embedded hard to resolve conflicts. I feel bereft upon finishing the book, so much so that I might listen to it again and I can't wait for the rest of stories in this series. Thomas has created a rich world for Sherlock, established a strong cast of allies and antagonists and many fascinating mysteries to come.

One caution for  romance lovers, while Sherry Thomas is fantastic romance novelist and there is romantic tension in this book is very rich, it is neither the focus of the book nor is the romantic conflict one that will easily resolve itself into a HEA.


The Bollywood Bride by Sonali Dev

The Bollywood Bride gave me a lot to think about. Sonali Dev followed up her romantic comedy, The Bollywood Affair, with a very different kind of romance.  Although both novels are set in boisterous Indian-American household, frantically hosting grand weddings, filled with doting Aunties, the stories couldn't be more different in tone. While Dev once again celebrates the sounds, sights and taste of Indian-American culture while capturing the tensions of bi-national immigrant life, but she goes deeper, tackling the stigma and isolation mental illness within the context of modern Indian society.

Ria Parkar is the Ice Princess, a cool, untouchable heroine on the Bollywood screens.  Her icy demeanor off screen hides her painful shyness and pain. Ten years ago she sold her sell for a chance at Bollywood stardom, leaving her old name and loves in the past in desperate attempt to keep the one promise she could bear to break.  The rigors of staying star-shaped, the pressures of production and crushing loneliness make it harder and harder to keep up the smiling facade from cracking. When her beloved cousin Nikhil asks her to come home for his wedding, she can't refuse his request even though she desperately wants to. Distracted and preoccupied she makes an impulsive decision that gives a blackmailing paparazzo the shot of a lifetime.  A brief vacation to a family wedding in Chicago is just the respite she needs, even if it means risking seeing the first love she betrayed once again.

In Ria, Dev creates a complicated character, guilt-ridden, fearful  and fiercely independent.  As a child she felt the sting of her mother and grandmother's mental illness, physically and emotionally. Her father sends her away to school, and later to his sister's home in Chicago out of desire to protect her. To Ria, a child who does not understand what is happening with her mother or why she was sent away, it feels like being punished and banished.  As adult, she fears that she will become dangerously ill herself one day. She fears becoming a burden those she loves, and she can't understand the choices her parents made. She hides all this confusion, and vulnerability behind her perfect looks and a practiced smile. She feels dirty and soiled after being coerced into a sexual relationship with her first co-star.  She harshly judges herself, though it is clear to the reader that she was a victim,  sexually exploited.   The paralyzing anxiety, panic attacks and self-loathing depressive thoughts that haunt Ria are easier to hide than her mother's schizophrenia but not less needing of care and support. These jagged edges make her a vastly different character than wide-eyed Mili from The Bollywood Affair.

Vikram Jathar, is no less complicated even though he is not the central focus of the story. Vikram was once Ria's first-ever friend, then her best-friend and eventually her first love before Ria left him without explanation.  He has spent the last ten years of his life trying to get over her. His reaction to seeing her again is far from perfect, although his anger, and confusion are understandable.  His initial selfish prideful choices in reaction to his hurt expose him to be darker than the perfect first love Ria holds in her memory.  

A happily-ever-after for Ria involves much more than being reunited with her first love. Ria and Vikram have to peel back layers of pain, before she can let herself be loved and before he can make the choice to love. While Vikram is stead-fast in insisting that she is worth loving, he has his own growing up to do in order to do it.

In Bollywood Bride,  love does not magically heal hurts, protect from horrible things from happening at some future date. Love is choice not to fear and take chance on happiness together, to chose to partner through what could the darkest of days. 

While I liked The Bollywood Affair, it didn't sink it hooks in me like the Bollywood Bride which I read in one sitting, unable to stop once I started reading and I am looking forward to reading whatever Ms. Dev writes next.

 

I received a ARC of The Bollywood Bride a gazillion years ago from its publishers Kensington Books

via NetGalley. The novel has been available at all the usual retailers since Sep. 29, 2015


A Taste of Heaven by Penny Watson

A-Taste-of-Heaven-by-Penny-Watson-250Ever since Sophia Brown's husband died, she has been faking her way through her days.  She feels lost.  She doesn't taste the flavor in the perfect meals she makes, her mind wanders while she weeds, and she is in a rut, doing the same things over and over because it is familiar and comforting. Although she thought she was doing a pretty good job at keeping it together,  her daughters have noticed and have decided to intervene.  They want to insert a little excitement and positive challenge into her life so they sign her up for cooking competition reality show,"A Taste of Heaven", filming in their home state of Vermont. Ambushed by her daughters' s concerns and intervention Sophia is determined to face up to challenge. Sophia doesn't know what to expect when she shows up on the set but soon her competitive spirit overcome her fears and worries.

Grumpy, stubborn and desperate, Elliott Adamson, a Scottish professional chef with lots of skills and talents and many restaurant failures has agreed to participate in "A Taste of Heaven" in hope the cash prize and exposure will save his latest and maybe last restaurant. He is livid when he discovers that the competition will team amateurs like Sophia with experts like him, but he can't walk away as much as he wants to.

The competition is full of twists and surprises, and Sophia and Elliott end up teaming up despite having taken an initial dislike of each-other. They must negotiate how to work together as Sophia is not about to let Elliott run right over her.  Sophia does most of the heavy lifting in the partnership, working to smooth Elliott's rough edges, stressing presentation and strategic choices that will appeal to the judges and generally behaving with maturity that balances out Elliott's sullenness. Elliott slowly warms up to Sophia, realizing that she has great instincts and the strength to challenge him.  While he fights her every step of the way, she makes his Scottish dishes shine, while showcasing her own knowledge of Vermont's fantastic produce and products, eventually breaking down his resistance.

I really liked that Sophia and Elliott are a mature couple (Sophia is 47 and Elliott almost 50). They both have long relationship histories and that informs how they react to each other and what they want.  The sexual tension, the confusing feelings and the uncertainty about their futures are great complications.

There were a couple of subplots in the story that I felt were left unresolved. Maybe they were only supposed to add background color and interest to some of the secondary characters but I felt we were building up to something (especially the one about the possibly predatory judge) and it didn't go anywhere which was a bit frustrating.  I would however welcome reading more about other secondary characters in their own books.   The ending was a bit over-the-top for me, while it tied up everything in a lovely bow, it felt slightly more sweet and fantastical than the story had been up to that point.

A Taste of Heaven was a very enjoyable romance that will appeal to fans of cooking competitions, mature couples and growly Scottish men who can cook.

 


TBR Challenge Book Review: The Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev

July's TBR Challenge Theme was RITA books.  Just last Saturday I was privileged to be in the audience for the RITA awards, on the closing night of the RWA conference in New York City. Sonali Dev was there looking gorgeous in gold sari but sadly she didn't win for best first book, although her book was the only one in the category that I read. 

The Bollywood Affair had been sitting in my TBR since it came out last fall.  It had received enthusiastic recommendations from both Jane and Sarah on the DBSA podcast (a very rare thing) and it gorgeous cover was all over my newsfeed at the time.  But the hype and fear of unrealistic expectations kept dropping it further down my TBR pile. I was scared to read it and not like it, or of not loving it enthusiastically enough. 

I am glad that I waited to read it, so I could judge for itself not the hype.

It was a fun book,  very pleasant with a surprising amount of emotional depth.  The story opens with a mass wedding ceremony in a small village in India.  Mili at four years old is crying desperately through the ceremony as her 12-year old groom wanders away bored.  Twenty years later Mili still considers herself married, even though she doesn't remember the ceremony and has not seen her groom since then.  She has been able to use the privileges of being a considered a married woman to secure for herself an education and a future outside her family's old-fashioned village but still waits impatiently for her groom's return.

Virat Rathod has no intention of ever returning for Mili. Virat believed the wedding annulled till threatening letters from lawyers claiming to represent Mili start arriving.  He fears for the validity of his second marriage and for the security of his pregnant wife Rima's future.  Virat asks his younger brother Samir to track down Mili and make her understand that they have no marriage.  

Sam Rathod, a famous Bollywood writer and director embroiled in tabloid scandal and experiencing serious writer's block, jumps at the chance to leave his own troubles behind and be of use to the older brother he adores. He tracks Mili down to Michigan where she is studying, and soon becomes over-involved in her life, while hiding his true identity and his reason for looking her up.

There were several things about Mili that didn't work for me (she is romance-novel clumsy, unaware of her own beauty, etc) but at her core she is a young woman who turned an awful situation (child marriage and abandonment) into opportunities. Her resiliency, loyalty and faithfulness were truly something to admire. Her internal conflict over her feeling for Sam and her conviction about the trueness of her first marriage was fantastic.  She misjudges her feelings for Sam and the safety of her own heart.

Sam also had many romance hero elements that didn't work for me but I was fascinated by Sam, and Lata Rathod's backstory and relationship. I could have read a whole book about Lata,  Sam's mother, who seemed like a truly remarkable, generous and courageous woman who faced much sadder and uglier choices than Mili ever did as a result of her own childhood marriage. 

The depth of betrayal Mili feels at Sam's hand was breathtaking and even though the resolution was mad-cap in tone, it felt genuine to who Mili and Sam were and I cried happy tears for both of them.

I am looking forward to reading Sonali Dev's next book, The Bollywood Bride.

 

 

 


The Brightest Day: A Juneteenth Historical Romance Anthology with stories by Lena Hart, Kianna Alexander, Piper Hugley & Alyssa Cole

The stories in this historical romance anthology move forward through American history from 1866, post-Civil War New York City through to 1961, Civil Rights Era Virginia. They are stories about finding and nurturing love in the face of adversity and oppression. The stories in The Brightest Day are tied together by references to celebrations of Juneteenth.  Juneteeth celebrations commemorate July 19th, 1865, the last of the Freedom days, when slaves in Galveston, TX finally received their freedom. The celebration of that day spread beyond Texas to different black communities around the United States.  The stories express the diversity of African American experience in the United States and get better and better as you move through the anthology. 

Amazing Grace by Lena Hart:  In post-Civil War New York a young black woman, Grace Shaw, agrees to an arranged marriage to a wealthy Montana miner she has never met in order to provide for her family. On her way West, she falls in love with the last person she expects. Logan Foley is looking to start over for the second time in his life. Once the half-Mexican bastard son of white plantation owner, he reinvented himself as teenager, when he father claimed him as a heir. Now he is starting over again, moving West to Colorado to homestead, abandoning his father's ruined plantation and his slave owning past. Logan and Grace meet by chance but are tied together in ways they don't expect.

The romance centers on identity and intentions.  Both Grace and Logan must both come to terms with the choices they have made in order to secure their futures and please their families. These choices turned into bad ones that place them in difficult situations with lasting life consequences. Logan has the most to overcome as his slave owning past nearly cost him Grace's love. I enjoyed this story even though it felt compressed. There was certainly enough material & conflict to justify more pages. I didn't feel we spent enough time with Grace and Logan to fully develop why they fell for one another beyond their instant awareness and attraction but I still believe that they have what it takes to make a life together.

Drifting to You by Kianna Alexander: A prominent black Fayetteville family inaugurates their new boat with a celebratory Juneteeth Cruise of Cape Fear,NC in 1875. The family contracts Rosaline Rhodes a successful and hard-working baker to provide her famed spice cake for the outing. Having Rosaline on board all day provides Will Pruett, the local shipbuilder with the opportunity to finally let Rosaline know of his feelings for her. But Will Pruett is not the only one interested in courting Rosaline and soon Rosaline will have to choose.

I thought this books did a very good job addressing the social tensions within the black community post-Civil War. There is stigma to having been born a slave, and Rosaline for however much she has raised herself up, still faces that. I did feel however that I was dropped into the middle of a story, as Rosaline and Will have been denying their attraction for good long while and are only really getting started by the end of the story. There was also several interesting secondary characters who seem ripe for stories of their own.

A Sweet Way to Freedom by Piper Hugley: It is 1910 and Missouri "Missy" Baxter the pride of Milford and the first black teacher in Winslow, GA can no longer hide she is in "a family way". Arlo Tucker is the sweet-talking good-time man responsible for her condition.  Missy is determined not succumb to his charms again, less she be disappointed again. Arlo has always been able to evade responsibilities and emotional entanglements but for the first time he doesn't want to be let off the hook.  He wants Missy and wants to do right by her, and he needs to figure out away to convince her to give him another chance.

I just loved this story. I was crying for Missy and Arlo after the first few pages.  I strongly felt their conflicted emotions.  Arlo is full of fear, sure that he will only bring Missy pain, and Missy is hurt, determined not to be a fool again. Despite the fear and hurt they do truly love one another and I loved how they come to show each other forgiveness and grace. Hugely is fantastically skilled at characterization.  The large cast of secondary characters making up the Winslow community are all distinct and well developed without stealing focus from Arlo and Missy. I already have a one of Hugley's novels in my TBR, and will been pushing it toward the top of the queue.

Let it Shine by Alyssa Cole: Sofronia "Sofie" Wallis has done her best since her mother's death to be the good girl her father desperately wants her to be. She quieted her voice, she has lowered her eyes and done her best not to run into trouble. As the struggle of the Civil Rights movement is brought close to home, she longer feels that being quiet and meek is going to protect her and she is motivated to go against her father's wishes and join the non-violent protest movement.  Ivan Friedman has never forgotten Sofronia, he remembers vividly the hours they spent together at children.  To him she shines as brightly as always and he doesn't want leave her side again even if the whole world looks at them with derision. 

This story had great internal and external conflict and the way Sofie and Ivan interact was fantastic. I believed the intensity of their attraction, their awareness of the tension and danger they face by reconnecting.  I had previously read the epilogue to this story (it has been published on Cole's blog as part of a Hanukkah blog hop this past winter) but it was even more meaningful and beautiful after reading the rest of their story.

While I think the last two stories in the Anthology are certainly the strongest, the anthology as whole was enjoyable and worth reading. It was well balanced, and provided a great journey and I will be on the lookout for more books by these authors .

 


Acute Reactions by Ruby Lang

9781440590641-194x300Fresh out of medical school Dr. Petra Lale is trying to figure out how to keep her solo practice afloat, learning how to market herself to patients, network with peers, and establish professional boundaries with the few patients she does have.  

Ian Zamora is a workaholic restaurateur, disillusioned with himself, and trying to salvage the most serious relationship in years by undergoing immunotherapy to overcome his allergy to cats. But when Ian walks into Petra's office he has a hard time remembering why he is putting in the effort since he quickly feels a stronger connection & attraction  to Petra than he has ever felt for his girlfriend Danielle.  Petra is dismayed and conflicted for feeling attracted to Ian and enjoying his company.  When Ian dumps his girlfriend and starts to tentatively pursue Petra,  she is startled, confused and scared. Her interest and feelings for Ian make her question her professional judgement and her already shaky confidence.  She firmly cuts all connection with Ian in an effort to protect her practice and her heart.

The novel then picks up five months later when Ian and Petra run into each other again and try to figure out if the attraction can ever turn into a relationship given the way they met.  Will any relationship be forever tainted by the way they met, can they build something together that will withstand scrutiny. 

Both Petra and Ian have complicated feelings about their parents, the way they were raised & the insecurities they developed as children while very different has had a significant impact into the way they behave and interact with the world and is part of why connect so strongly.  They both often second guess their feelings and instincts out of fear of repeating their parents' mistakes. Their hesitations, confrontations and misunderstandings felt realistic and believable. They are both ambivalent about their racial and ethnic identities, acutely ware of their otherness within their families and the culture at large, despite becoming outwardly successful adults.

I thought Lang did a great job developing the secondary relationships in the books.  Petra's loving but mutually frustrating & maddening conversations with her mother and the restoration and healing of Petra's fraught relationship with her best-friends Sarah and Helen were as significant to the HEA as Ian and Petra choosing to trust each other enough to risk loving each other.

There were a few things that didn't work for me or downright annoyed me.  The character of Kevin, one of Petra's few initial patients, never worked for me. Even with a neglectful and distracted father, I had a hard time believing that even Petra would routinely allow a child under-13 to routinely come to her office unsupervised.  At 12 he was supposed to be a somewhat annoying, somewhat endearing figure who is able infiltrated both Petra's and Ian's lives, but I just found him all around annoying  even before his boundary flouting came back to bite Petra.

I also didn't like Petra struggle with her "Inner Hippocrates" and was happy when that device disappeared for the most part in the second half of the book. I was less than enamored with the way Danielle, Ian's ex was used in the second half of the book.  I appreciate how Ian came to regret the way he has underestimated and treated her during their relationship but instead of becoming a more rounded fuller character, she became less sympathetic and more of mustache-twirling villain in the second half, making her undeserving of Ian's regret. 

Overall I was happy to have read this book, despite the small annoyances. I give credit to Ms. Lang for being able to take treacherous premise and succeed in building a funny and sweet story.  Her protagonists are flawed, their relationships messy but their story was engaging. 

I received a review copy of this book from the author, Ruby Lang.


Once Upon a Rose (La Vie en Roses #1) by Laura Florand

Once upon a time in a rose-filled valley in southern France, Layla Dubois, lost and stranded, walks into a stranger’s house and is nearly mauled by the big resident bear. Matthieu Rosier, heir to that rose-filled valley is the blushing, growling, sweetly fumbling but very drunk bear of a man, she encounters.  Having drunk much too much wine with his cousins, while celebrating his 30th birthday, Matt really wants to pick up and kiss the beautiful “Bouclettes” who walked in his house and keep her. Thankfully Matthieu’s friends and family intervene before any harm is done except to his pride. The following morning Matt wakes to a huge hangover, a great deal of embarrassment and the discovery that Layla is unexpectedly his new neighbor.  He soon is torn between wanting to scare Layla “Bouclettes” Dubois away from his valley, and wanting her to stay forever.

Layla, has just finished the last gig on her European tour supporting her first hit album as Belle Woods. She has three weeks till she is due back in the studio to start work on her second, but she hasn't written any new songs. She is running away from the crushing weight of the studio’s expectations and her own fears that she won’t be able to match her first album’s success by retreating to the small house she has recently inherited in the middle of the Rosier Valley. The little house Layla has inherited was supposed to be Matthieu’s and it is right in the middle of his family’s rose fields, in lands central to his family’s perfume business.

This romance was delightful. Layla and Matthieu set up to be opponents, as she has something he wants and she doesn't want to give it up.I loved their flirtation, how Matt’s burning blushes make Layla bolder and saucier and how Matt's sweetly romantic gestures, surprise and unbalance her.

I loved that they can’t quite trust each other’s intentions even if they can’t deny their attraction. Is Matt trying to seduce her to get her little piece of the valley back? Is Layla simply playing with Matt to build her own confidence?  

 At first glance they seem to opposites that can’t help but be attracted to each other. Matthieu  a farmer so tied to his land it is his whole identity, and Layla a nomadic musician, running away from expectations,and unencumbered by family but that is not the whole story. Matt and Layla have huge vulnerable hearts, that they  handle very differently. Those hearts and how they respond to hurt and vulnerability come into play when they come close to having “Big Misunderstanding” moments. Twice their relationship comes close to dissolution but the fights don’t quite work out the way they usually do in Big Misunderstanding books.  I loved that they work out their anger before confronting each other or stay to figure out what they misunderstood.  Layla lays out her feelings and emotions for all to see, and Matt does his best to hid his gentle heart but neither can hold a grudge. That they are unwilling to tear each other when they are feeling extremely vulnerable and exposed is what most convinced me of their HEA despite the obstacles they will have to surmount to make their lives one.

I loved the way Florand depicted the family relationships in this book and how it forms and affects the way Layla and Matthieu respond to each other. The Rosiers are complicated, prickly and full of history.  Tante Colette & Pépé Rosier both deeply love their shared family, have sacrificed much for it but have long ago stop listening & speaking to each other. Despite their missteps and machinations they have raised a band of Rosier cousins who are in turns playful, loving and infuriating. I loved how much the cousins tease Matt,  while loving and protecting him.  I loved that their love & camaraderie  doesn't erase family rivalries and true tensions exist.

Florand gives Layla a very different upbringing & family relationships to contrast with the Rosier's without casting one as better than the other. Layla knows little of her family history, almost nothing about her absent father’s family and has few ties to any particular place in the world. She has her mother, and her grand-parents, Lebanese-refugees torn from their homeland by war. They are physically far away in the US, but always a close as phone-call. The closeness and love they share is never in doubt even if they are world's apart.

In the end, Matt and Layla's love and the machinations of Tante Colette & Pépé Rosier work to push the Rosier's to redefine their ideas about roots & belonging opening up doors for HEAs for all of them.

4.5 Stars 

I received a review copy of "Once Upon a Rose" from Ms. Florand.