Nat reviews Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree

the cover of Legends and Lattes

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I must confess that I’d seen the cover of Legends and Lattes pop up a number of times and thought to myself, eh, too much of a high fantasy book for my tastes. Well, I should know better by now than write off a book based on genre, and I finally gave it a shot after my wife enthusiastically recommended it. If I could leave only a single comment it would be that this book is PRECIOUS. Is there anything more wholesome than a bone crushing, mercenary orc with a heart of gold just looking to get on the straight and narrow and live a quiet, simple life? How about that misunderstood orc finding a new group of loyal, steadfast friends and maybe even love along the way? Did you love Brian Jacques’s Mattimeo when you were a kid? How do you feel about cinnamon rolls? This is the book equivalent of a fresh-from-the oven baked good. 

After years of life on the road, Viv decides to cash out on her wandering, mercenary ways and settle down. Her dream is to open a coffee shop, a risky endeavor considering no one outside of her chosen city of Thune has even heard of coffee. We follow Viv as she embarks on a new adventure, literally hanging up her sword as she takes a different sort of risk. While this is generally considered a low stakes book, I would argue these are at least medium stakes, as the coffee shop is Viv’s dream. While that may not be life or death, it means the world to her. 

In some ways reading this novel feels a bit like playing a RPG in a magical realm with an epic storyline. Watching Viv gradually build her dream cafe, acquiring a motley cast of friends along the way, all while encountering enemies and perhaps stumbling on a surprising ally –  there is a video game-like quality to the way the story unfolds and it’s not surprising that Baldree has a background in game development. 

We are on a journey that feels almost as rewarding to the reader as it does to our book’s hero. 

Of course, Viv can’t live out her dream on big ideas alone – she needs a carpenter, a barista, and perhaps a baker. And most importantly, she needs customers. Viv’s first hire is Tandri, a succubus who’s saddled with an unjust reputation for “manipulating” people, especially men. I love the dynamic between Viv and Tandri as they remind each other not to give into prejudice and assumption. As their business relationship strengthens, so does their personal bond. While there’s a very strong romantic element to this book, most of the conflict is centered around Viv working to attain her goals and becoming a new version of herself. The momentum comes from her personal development and internal struggles, rather than solely on her budding relationship with Tandri. 

A fun fact about this book is that Travis Baldree started writing it for NANOWRIMO in 2021 and self published it in 2022. This is his debut novel, and it met with enough success that it was picked up by trad publisher Tor only a few months later! The backstory of the book is even warm and fuzzy! 2020 2021 2022 2023 is off to a rough start, so why not read more warm and squishy books to pad those rough edges?

Nat reviews How To Excavate a Heart by Jake Maia Arlow

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Sweet yet angsty. Coming of age and coming out stories. A meet cute that’s…not so cute. Jewish holiday rom com. All the big, tender feels of young love. Non-stop cackling, except when you take a break to have a good cry. A prominently featured corgi. These are a few of my favorite things about Jake Arlow’s How to Excavate a Heart.

College student Shani Levine is determined to spend the holidays alone doing a winter internship at the Smithsonian—that means she’ll be away from her family, her mom specifically, which she feels guilty about while also desperately feeling the need to get away. There are a lot of complicated feelings around this stage of life, and Arlow’s character portrayals feel very authentic—the main characters are both first year college students figuring out what it means to be independent, to manage this in-between phase of life, caught between home and their new freedoms. This is also where Arlow nails the post-teenage angst humor. 

We meet May in a rather abrupt manner—and this is not really a spoiler as it’s in the book’s synopsis and in the first chapter—with the front of Shani’s mom’s Subaru. May is also spending the holidays in DC with her dad, but not because she wants to be there. She’s having her own family issues, and being rudely greeted by the bumper of a car doesn’t exactly put her in the holiday spirit. May initially comes off a bit frosty, but of course we’ll eventually see those walls melted away. 

The book is told in first person from Shani’s perspective, so you really get into her mindset. As she works out her feelings and makes self discoveries, you’re along for the ride. While this book is a holiday romcom, it’s also just as much a coming of age story, and we see a lot of Shani trying to figure out how and when to talk about her “new” life with her mom, when she doesn’t quite know how to come to terms with it herself. This includes keeping her first real relationship a secret, along with her sexuality. 

(Spoilers and Trigger Warnings:) We kind of see this coming, like the Titanic about to hit the iceberg, as we see more snapshots of Shani’s first relationship. Each memory reveals more specific—or perhaps more accurate—details, as her relationship with May progresses. Our narrator is holding back so much in part because she’s just not had certain realizations herself about the abusive nature of her first relationship. Acknowledging these truths is a big turning point in the book, and it’s clear Shani can’t move forward with May until she’s come to terms with her own past. (End of Spoiler)

The supporting character cast gets major points, especially Beatrice (Aunt Bea) who is her own one woman comedy show, and Shani’s mentor at work who’s a few years older—the wise lesbian we all wish had been in our lives to dispense advice. And yes, the corgi (dogs absolutely count as characters). Overall, Arlow’s given us a sapphic holiday romcom that will excavate your own frozen little heart.

Trigger warnings: abuse, sexual assault

Danika reviews A Merry Little Meet Cute by Julie Murphy and Sierra Simone

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Note: This a HarperCollins title. The HarperCollins union has been on strike since November 10th, asking for better pay, more diversity initiatives, and union protections. Learn more at their site.

I have never read (or watched) such a horny holiday romance.

This is an M/F bisexual/bisexual romance that follows Bee, a plus-size porn star, and Nolan, a former bad boy boy band member, as they film a Hallmark-esque Christmas movie together while trying to keep their scandals under wraps.

I really enjoyed both Bee and Nolan’s perspectives—it turns out that an easy way to have me like the male love interest in an M/F romance is to make him bisexual. Bee is trying simultaneously to act for the first time, hide her porn career from the squeaky-clean Hope Channel, and fight against sleeping with and/or falling for her costar. If people find out that they’re having sex, that will threaten the image rehabilitation they’re both trying to get from this movie.

Meanwhile, Nolan is also struggling not to fall into bed with his costar. But what he’s hiding from the Hope channel is his family situation. His mom has bipolar disorder, and he’s usually home with her and his teenage sister, helping out. His mom is amazing and capable, but requires some support, especially with her switching medications right now, and he feels incredibly guilty being away from home–but the only way to support the family is with this job.

I thought this aspect of the book is really well done. We see his mom as a three dimensional person who has been an amazing parent to Nolan, and he fights against the ableist ways people can paint her as a victim or helpless. He cares about his family so much, and he has trouble letting go and trusting that they can handle problems on their own–he especially feels guilty that his teenage sister has to be so capable. This subplot adds a lot of depth to an otherwise romp of a romance novel.

In addition to discussions about ableism, we also touch on fatphobia, biphobia, and misogyny. While Nolan has a scandal in his past involving speed skaters and an up-and-coming figure skater at the Olympics, it was the female figure skater whose career was threatened by the media coverage. And if Bee and Nolan’s secret comes out (that they’re sleeping together), Bee will be the one to take the brunt of the fallout. Also, Bee has experienced so much fatphobia on sets that she initially assumes Nolan’s discomfort meeting her is because he’s fatphobic, when really he is just losing his mind because he’s wildly attracted to her.

Nolan already followed Bee’s ClosedDoors account, which I thought might be a weird dynamic, but it is matched by Bee having been a big fan of Nolan’s boy band, with posters in her childhood bedroom and some fanfics written about him then, too. So they both have the same degree of parasocial relationship with each other going into it, and it doesn’t feel unbalanced. They both tease each other some about it when it comes out, and neither seems uncomfortable.

The sex scenes—of which there are many!–were a mixed bag. Some of them were truly steamy, while others had language that made me cringe. But overall, I though it was fun to read a Christmas romance that had so much sex and sexual tension, given that they’re usually so PG-13.

So, if you want a last-minute queer holiday romance read, I highly recommend this one.

Nat reviews Errant (Volumes 1-3) by L.K Fleet

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I’m always impressed by books that are co-written, but a book with three writers?! A menage-an-author? The Errant series is written by L.K. Fleet, the pen name for a trio of writers: Felicia Davin, K.R. Collins, and Valentine Wheeler. For those of you who are very online and have perhaps pined for Touraine’s arms in CL Clark’s The Unbroken or Gideon’s very large biceps in Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, may I present to you: Aspen Silverglade’s well-muscled thighs. (Not that her arms aren’t also worth mentioning.) Aspen is a tall, dark, and mysterious do-gooder with impeccable swordsmanship but a troubled past. When Aspen meets Charm Linville, an actress whose skills extend to pickpocketing, she’s trying to protect the woman from a handsy fellow in a pub. This doesn’t go quite as planned for Aspen, but it does kick off the start of a series of adventures involving a secret organization called the Scale and a troupe of bawdy actors. 

One of the reasons this series gave me such warm fuzzies is its treatment of gender as well as  the casual introduction of characters with their pronouns. Gender roles are an interesting part of this book, but presented so subtly, woven into the world building, that you can’t help but appreciate the ease with which it’s done. Just about everyone gets some rep here: Polycule of domestic bliss? Check. Genderqueer/fluid, trans, and bisexual characters… triple check. Aspen, a tough but sensitive butch, is bisexual and has previously only had relationships with men/genderfluid characters, not following the stereotypical gender role script. Our curvy, secretive femme Charm is a lesbian. The people of the Sun have genders that change with the color of their scales! There are so many things to love about the book. (Including a horse named Mouse!)

My only minor issue was some confusion about the world our characters were living in. “Earth” people vs those of the Wood and the Sun (etc.) threw me off course a bit, thinking that perhaps there was off planetary travel, which seemed weird with the horses and swords, but who knows: it could have been a sci-fi mash-up or a Wheel of Time situation (where a once high tech world is thrown into the dark ages). This worked itself out for my brain about halfway through the book, where it becomes clear these are regions and the terms are more geographically based, but all on the same planet. 

This review is for the series as a whole, which reads quickly. As far as the romance goes, this is a slow burn, folks. We might have flirtation and heated glances, one horse, one bedroll and the like, but get cozy, because these lovebirds are going to take their sweet time consummating the relationship. It’s a bit like watching a TV series draw out the chemistry between the main characters until you are ready to throw something at the screen. In a good way, of course. 

Errant is relatively angst free; it does deal with issues of past trauma such as emotional abuse, but nothing incredibly heavy or triggering. These books are also meant to be read as a series. The authors do a decent job filling you in on a few details you might have missed or jogging your memory if you’ve taken a break between reading them, but you’ll likely feel lost if you don’t start from the beginning – although I can’t think of any reason you wouldn’t want to read all three of these delightful novellas! 

Danika reviews Doughnuts and Doom by Balazs Lorinczi

the cover of Doughnuts and Doom

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I love silly, fluffy sapphic graphic novels. I also seek out queer witchy books to read in October. So I thought this book was going to be a slam dunk! It’s about Margot, a witch who runs a potions business out of her kitchen and starts off the story failing her spell exam to get her license. In a mood, she goes to get a donut and then throws a temper tantrum at the person behind the desk, Elena, who would rather be working on her music career. Could Elena have had better customer service? Sure. But did she deserve having the donut shop crash down around her and getting cursed? No. Now Margot has to make it right

We’ve got sapphic witches, donuts, a snake familiar, and a make-or-break concert. We’ve got two queer women whose snark turns into flirting. We’ve got a romantic broom ride together. It should have been perfect!

But the truth is, I felt like this fell a little flat. It was a cute romcom, but it felt very short, like watching one episode of a TV show instead of the full story. While I generally love a fluffy comic, I just didn’t connect to this one.

Susan reviews Above All Things by Roslyn Sinclair

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Above All Things is the second part of Roslyn Sinclair’s Carlyle series. Vivian and Jules have committed to each other, and now they have to find a way to stay committed to each other during upheavals at work, family drama, and the small matter of Vivian’s pregnancy.

To start off: this really feels like the second half of Truth and Measure, and it benefits from reading it as soon after as you can. Again, this is a 200k fic that’s been rewritten and split into two books, so this isn’t a surprise! But it’s still something to be aware of going in.

Above All Things does something that feels rare to me, in that the characters are out of the getting together phase. A lot of romances focus on how the characters get into a relationship and not how they stay in it, so seeing Jules and Vivian have to negotiate and renegotiate their relationship is really satisfying. There are so many obstacles – Vivian’s fame, Jules’ family, their own ability to communicate—but they choose each other, and they keep choosing each other in the face of all of them! It helps that the characters are still very much themselves as well. Being in love doesn’t soften Vivian at all; she is still ruthless and terrifying, and not always in a way that Jules enjoys. Jules desperately wants to prove herself, and that she doesn’t need Vivian’s help, despite how much Vivian would help her. They have to negotiate the power dynamics, the perception of their relationship, and their contradictory wants, and seeing the way it balances is glorious.

The scenes with Jules’ family are quite hard—well-written, but hard. Being understandably worried about your daughter in a relationship with heavily skewed power dynamics is fine, but the undercurrent of homophobia that her parents have carried from the previous book is there in force. There are some supportive and affirming reactions from other characters, but I thought it best to highlight that Jules’ parents are a whole thing.

For those who want to know how it compares to the fic version of Truth and Measure:

  • Above All Things doesn’t have as much of Jules being aggressively competent as T&M did Andy, but what we get is very good.
  • There’s an actual discussion of heteronormativity and the optics of Vivian and Jules’ relationship in light of the #MeToo movement. I’ve really appreciated how much more casually queer the New York of the Carlyle series is than that of The Devil Wears Prada, so I enjoyed that the characters could be out—even if only to have a media strategy in place to prevent abuse allegations. (Feel free to join me in feeling old because T&M came out in 2013.)
  • “Does [x] big confrontation still take place?” Yes and it’s GREAT. That is the least spoilery way I can put that.
  • If you were like me and appreciated that Miranda didn’t give birth on-page: I’m so sorry.

The long and short of it is that I enjoyed the level of drama and relationship dynamics in Above All Things. I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as Truth and Measure, but I enjoyed the novelty of what it was doing and the finely tuned drama of it all. If you want fashionable queer women earning their peaceful ending, you should definitely pick up this series.

Caution warnings: Homophobia, pregnancy, birth, age gap romance, coming out

Susan is a queer crafter moonlighting as a library assistent. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for Smart Bitches Trashy Books, or just bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Danika reviews Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper

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If you’re looking for a book equivalent of watching Hocus Pocus or Halloweentown–but as a bisexual romance novel–this is the book for you. Emmy Harlow left her childhood home of Thistle Grove after a humiliating breakup. She was determined to make a new life for herself in Chicago, leaving behind her friends and family and cutting her waist-length hair to her chin. And she did reinvent herself: she’s happy with her new life and her new job… even if she is a little lonely. Now, though, she’s on her way back to Thistle Grove to visit, because she has duties to fulfill as the scion of House Harlow. Because Thistle Grove isn’t your average small town: it’s magic, with 4 families of witches that date back to the 4 founders.

Gareth Blackmoore is the scion of the Blackmoore family, the most powerful one in Thistle Grove, as they are happy to tell you. Their family has run the town for generations, slowly squeezing out the other families. And he’s also the one who broke Emmy’s heart.

Emmy has returned to town to be the arbiter of the spellcasting tournament, a competition between the families that Blackmoore has won every year. It gives the winner more power as well as leadership over the other families. This time will be different, though, because Emmy quickly realizes she’s not the only one Gareth has wronged. Her high school crush, Talia, and her best friend, Linden, have since had relationships with him–and for each of them, he insisted on keeping their relationship a secret and then dumped them because they didn’t live up to his standards of greatness. The three of them make a pact to get revenge on Gareth, and the competition might be the perfect opportunity to give him a taste of humiliation.

I cannot overstate how much Halloween is packed into this book. Not only is it about witches, but the town itself doubles as a Halloween tourist trap, with visitors blissfully unaware of the real magic going on just out of sight. Every restaurant or bar is decked out in decorations and has witchy cocktails. Mixed in with the fake stuff are real seances, spells, and more. It even got a little bit over the top for me sometimes, like being punched in the face with Halloween, but I know that’s what a lot of people are hoping for.

While this is a fantasy novel, there’s also a strong romance component. Emmy and Talia immediately have a lot of heat between them, and you know it’s only a matter of time before they give into it. It’s not instalove, because they knew each other a bit in high school, but it is insta-attraction. Insta-lust. The romance builds based on that. I never got fully invested, I’ll be honest, because I couldn’t get a good sense of their dynamic (other than Emmy drooling over Talia), but I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority there.

More than the romance, the revenge, and even the competition, though, this is about Emmy’s struggle with where she belongs, where home is. When she left Thistle Grove, it meant leaving behind her magic–which was never very strong, but it was a part of her. Her cousin is eager to step into the role of scion, waiting for Emmy to officially give up that title, but she’s not sure. Returning has made her realize how much she missed this place, her family, and Linden.

There’s an aspect of “blood family is the most important” and “there’s nowhere like home” that I don’t love, but it is discussed some. She left town to run away from a bad relationship with a guy. Yes, she balked at how Thistle Grove slots people into roles based on their family, but she wouldn’t have left if Gareth didn’t taint the place for her.

If a bisexual romance novel version of Halloweentown appeals to you, definitely pick this one up. It’s perfect for diving headfirst into Halloween, and it’s a cute, fun read–just what you want from a holiday romance. The competition aspect is also exciting and cinematic: I’d love to see it on screen. This is the first in the series, with the next following another Thistle Grove inhabitant!

Kelleen reviews Patience & Esther by SW Searle

the cover of Patience & Esther by SW Searle

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I don’t know why more people haven’t read this book. I don’t know why I never see this book discussed whenever folks are talking about historical romance, or graphic novels, or the greatest sapphic graphic novel historical romance (is that a genre?) novels ever crafted. 

To be honest, I’m not big on graphic novels (I have a learning disability and read mostly with my ears, so graphic novels don’t always work for my brain), so it never occurred to me that I need a romance novel with pictures. I have a great imagination! And I love narration! And isn’t it maybe weird to write sexy scenes in graphic novel form? But alas, this book is exactly what I needed and so much more. 

This interracial erotic historical Edwardian romance graphic novel (whew, lots of adjectives) tells the story of two women working in service in England—one an Indian lady’s maid and one a new Scottish maid of all work—as they fall in love and navigate a changing world of industry and identity at the turn of the century. It is domestic and comforting and beautiful and I simply could not get enough.

It is so deeply romantic, and so steamy (there are historical sex toys)! The illustrations are exquisite and beautifully detailed, and show real, beautiful bodies. One of the heroines is fat and is drawn with rolls and stretch marks, and it was such a profound experience for me to see a body like that (a body like mine) being loved and desired and sexy in illustrations along with text. 

Because of the identities of the heroines as Indian, Scottish, working class, and sapphic, there was so much interesting conversation about how these women fit into the social political movements of the time. We see the racism, classism, and exclusivity of the Suffragists Movement and the way that the horrors of colonialism strip people of their names, families,  cultures, and identities. The exploration of the changing social and political atmosphere at such an integral, fast-paced time in history was so engaging and was intertwined so well with captivating the emotional span of the romance. 

One thing that I really loved about the romance is that these two are always on each other’s side. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t hard and emotional and conflict-ridden and romantic, but these two are such a good team, fighting for each other and for their relationship every step of the way. 

This book is literally everything I love. It’s like a steamy, sapphic Downton Abbey, and my heart was going pitter-pat the whole time I was reading. I cannot recommend this genre-bending book enough. If you are a sapphic reader (or a reader of sapphics, whichever), pick up this book. You will be charmed, you will be delighted, you will be swooned and amazed and intrigued and you will not be sorry. 

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Meagan Kimberly reviews A Lot Like Adiós by Alexis Daria

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Gabe and Michelle had been best friends since childhood. As they grew into teenagers, their feelings took a turn toward romantic, but before they did anything about it, Gabe left.

Over 10 years later, Michelle works as a freelance marketing specialist in the Bronx and Gabe owns a gym in LA, and they haven’t had contact since he left, until now. Gabe makes a return to New York to work with Michelle on a marketing campaign to open a new branch of the gym. Emotions run high, lies become tangled and it’s time for both of them to face the past if they’re going to reach their happy ending.

This is a Latine story on every level. Sprinkled with Spanglish and Spanish throughout narration and dialogue, mentions of Puerto Rican and Mexican foods and their families being way too involved in their relationship all create a familiar environment for Latine readers. Gabe’s strained relationship with his parents is also a familiar situation that many children of immigrants can relate to and plays a central role in his character development. Throughout the novel, Gabe begins to untangle his old feelings and realize a great deal of miscommunication occurred between them.

Meanwhile, Michelle works toward untangling her relationship with work and burnout, especially as how those parts of her life act as a crutch to keep her from making meaningful relationships. As she reconnects with Gabe, she begins to let go of control and stop doubting herself and her abilities.

As the story unfolds, there are inserts of a fanfic Gabe and Michelle wrote together as teenagers called Celestial Destiny. They shared a love for a sci-fi TV show that finally gave them Latinos in space and then was canceled after only one season, a stituation too many of us are all too familiar with. But these inserts serve as a fantastical way to convey a lot of character development that Michelle and Gabe keep from one another and even themselves.

Bisexuality is dealt with subtly in this book. There’s a conversation early on between them where Michelle states, “Gabe, are you telling me we’re both bisexual?” They have a brief conversation about their past relationships regarding being bi and that’s the last you hear of it. It’s a different way for bisexuality to play a role in an f/m romance story than I’ve seen before. There’s never a big deal made about it. It’s addressed but it doesn’t make up the bulk of the plot or character development. But that doesn’t make these characters any less queer.

Within the little bit about the characters’ sexualities, however, there is more nuance given to Michelle. She speaks about dating people of different genders but never having sex with women. She doesn’t hide her sexual orientation from her family, but she doesn’t discuss her dating life with them either. It seems like she’s still getting comfortable with her bi identity.

For those who like their romance novels extra steamy, you’re in luck! A Lot Like Adiós includes lots of hot sex, dirty talk and wonderful examples of consent. Alexis Daria did a fantastic job of portraying a passionate relationship without shying away from sex, desire and pleasure, making it all guilt-free and without shame. It’s totally sex-positive,

Nat reviews Guava Flavored Lies by J.J. Arias

the cover of Guava Flavored Lies by J.J. Arias

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Ever since I read J.J. Arias’s Guava Flavored Lies, I’ve wanted to go to Miami so bad, just to hit up a Cuban bakery or three for a pastelito de guayaba and a cafecito. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book by Arias, and, as with a lot of prolific authors lately, this recent work is a departure from her normal MO (in this case, exemplified by Vampires and the Goode series).

From two households alike in dignity, Sylvie Campos and Lauren Machado are business rivals and lifelong enemies thanks to a decades long feud between their families. But the conflict for our main characters may be more complex than it seems on the surface – details about Sylvie and Lauren’s past will be revealed along the way that give us a bit more insight into why the anger between the two seems so very… extra.

The story is largely centered around the feuding between the Campos and Machado families, who both own popular Cuban bakeries in Miami, and who each accuse the other of having allegedly stolen family recipes when the founding families parted ways. Opening with a flashback to Lauren and Sylvia’s schooldays, we get a glimpse of how the families’ long time squabbles have affected their kids, who are literally at each other’s throats, though it’s tempered with a hefty dose of humor.

Lauren and Sylvie end up thrown together in the foodie version of the only one bed trope; that is, one food festival and only one functional espresso machine. Aside from their day to day struggles while being stuck side by side at a high profile event, and all the verbal sparring that comes along with it – Sylvie is still determined to try to solve the mystery of the family feud and to prove once that Lauren’s family are recipe thieves.

By the end of the book you’ll have some intense cravings for croquetas and a strong cafe con leche. But the food is also a vehicle for themes of old vs new, as the younger generations of both rival bakeries are being groomed to take over. Lauren wants to modernize some aspects of her family’s business, trying out vegan recipes and experimenting with (much to Sylvie’s dismay) oat milk in her Cuban lattes. Sylvie just wants to perfect the classics and build on her family legacy. Food is the love language of both our MCs, and rather than being at odds, their styles are complimentary, though it takes some translation to realize it.

A satisfying enemies-to-lovers romance, Arias gives us an example of the amazing quality of writing coming from self published authors and small presses these days. Solid, witty prose and dialogue, and pacing and intrigue to move the story along. I hope this is a book that finds its way into a lot of e-readers! And as a long time independent publisher of Sapphic romance, Arias has a backlog of works in the event you fall for her recent bakery wars romantic comedy.