Kayla Bell reviews Mangoes and Mistletoe by Adriana Herrera

cover of Mangoes and Mistletoe

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Another holiday season, another sapphic Christmas romance. Cozy up with your favorite holiday baked goods and a cup of hot chocolate, because Mangoes and Mistletoe by Adriana Herrera is an awesome addition to the genre.

Our story begins in Scotland, where our protagonist, Kiskeya Burgos, is getting ready to compete in the Holiday Baking Championship. She wants to prove to the world that she is a amazing baker that deserves professional acclaim, and is laser-focused on winning the contest. To Kiskeya’s chagrin, she gets paired with Sully Morales, another Dominican baker who is the bubbly, optimistic extrovert to Kiskeya’s serious, driven introvert. As the contest begins, the two bakers have to learn how to work together if either of them want the chance to win. And, as you can imagine, romantic misadventures ensue.

While this novella definitely served up the holiday fun and whimsy, it also touched on some genuinely powerful themes. Kiskeya and Sully are both Dominican, but they both have very different experiences of the culture and desires for how to showcase that in public. The discussion of how queer people can love their culture but also feel pain at homophobia within it really hit home for me. And the plotline with the Holiday Baking Championship TV show also managed to explore ideas of tokenization and how culture can become commodified. For a novella that was jam-packed with plot as it was, I found it impressive that the book managed to touch on such an important topic in a nuanced way.

At the same time, Mangoes and Mistletoe was also an adorable romance novella. Personally, grumpy sunshine (where one partner is bubbly and happy while the other one is, well, grumpy) might be my favorite romance relationship dynamic, and this story executed it so well. Instead of having flat characters, this book really went into the backgrounds of why Kiskeya and Sully became the way that they are. I really enjoyed seeing them go from being at each other’s throats to truly understanding and relating to one another. Plus, the book is chock full of your favorite romance tropes. There was only one bed! If you aren’t into these tropes, your mileage may vary, but I love seeing couples who historically have not had the chance to star in romances get their turn.

Because I enjoyed the book so much, my only gripe was that I wished it could be longer. Don’t get me wrong, the pacing was great and I love reading a lot of shorter books during the holiday season, but I just wish I had more time with the characters. The author did such a great job of exploring backstory at this length that I wish she had more room to do so further. Hopefully, if books like this are successful, publishers and authors will realize that there is a market for longer f/f romance novels, especially holiday ones.

Based on Mangoes and Mistletoe, I can’t wait to dive into Adriana Herrera’s other books and see what she does next. Happy holidays, readers!

Shannon reviews Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake cover

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I’m not someone who watches a lot of TV, so I was super surprised to find myself gravitating toward books centered around reality tv shows. There’s something about these stories that captures my attention in a way the actual shows airing on television never have. Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake, the first book in Alexis Hall’s Winner Bakes All series, is a gem of a novel I read earlier this year, and something I’m beyond pleased to recommend to anyone looking for a story full of fun, tears, and a healthy dose of self-discovery.

Rosaline Palmer is tired of sacrificing her own dreams to make others happy. She got pregnant young and decided not to go to medical school, choosing instead to devote the bulk of her time and attention to raising her daughter. Her parents, who are classic overachievers, don’t fully understand or approve of Rosaline’s choices, and she’s pretty sure she’s a huge disappointment to them. Still, she knows she has to find a way to live life on her own terms, even if it turns out to be the hardest thing she’ll ever do.

To this end, she decides to harness her love of baking and becomes a participant on a new reality show for bakers. She’s pretty sure she won’t win, but winning isn’t as important to her as building her confidence and gaining some valuable baking experience. However, as things heat up both in and out of the kitchen, Rosaline begins to take her spot on the show much more seriously than she ever thought she would. Suddenly, winning the whole thing seems like a distinct possibility, and it’s a possibility she likes a lot.

One of the best things about this book is Rosaline’s journey toward self-acceptance. She’s bisexual, but has done her best to keep this part of her identity under wraps until now so as not to offend her parents or confuse her young daughter, but now that she’s fully committed to living life the way she wants, she’s unwilling to keep hiding who she is. Rosaline is smart, warm, and incredibly funny, but those aren’t the characteristics that drew me to her. Instead, I fell in love with her vulnerability and I found myself cheering her on from practically the first page of the book.

There’s definitely a romantic arc here, but I can’t say too much about this aspect of the story without spoiling some of the fun. Still, I think it’s important to be aware that this book feels more like women’s fiction than contemporary romance. Love is a big deal for Rosaline, but it takes a back seat to her own inner journey, and I loved the way the author chose to put the focus solely on Rosaline.

This book stirred up so many emotions as I read, some that were light-hearted and pleasant and others that were a little more difficult to sit with. The author packs a lot into the story, but it’s handled in a way that makes it super easy to read even if some of the subject matter is on the heavier side. Hall’s writing hooked me in right away, and I’m really excited to see what he has planned for the rest of the series.

Danika reviews Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall

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This is a romcom starring a bisexual woman in a love triangle between two guy love interests, so if you’re not looking for an M/F romance, I recommend checking out another Lesbrary romance review!

This is a queer romcom that is essentially set at The Great British Bake Off, so I was immediately sold. Rosaline is a bisexual single mom whose life plan went off the rails when she dropped out of university when she unexpectedly got pregnant at 19. Now, she works at a stationary store–which is far from the doctor’s career she and her parents had expected. She adores her precocious 8-year-old (who’s obsessed with weird underwater animals), but she hates being reliant on her judgmental parents as well as constant favors from her best friend/ex-girlfriend. That’s how she ends up applying for a baking showing with a cash prize.

While this is an M/F romance with two male love interests, Rosaline’s queer identity is central to the story. The first chapter has her confronting Amelie’s teacher about biphobia, and she’s very close with her ex-girlfriend (who is now married to anther woman). Lauren stole the show a little bit for me, with sarcasm, inappropriate language, and unwavering loyalty. How can I resist a woman described like this?: “Lauren reserved the bulk of her enthusiasm and insight for her twin loves of satire and sapphism.”

Rosaline is a charming character for the most part, but she has one major flaw: she’s classist. She was raised in a wealthy family that cares deeply about status, and she’s internalized that–while resenting her parents’ judgements of her life choices. It was a little painful to read, but I knew that was her arc. At the competition, along with a cast of other characters, she meets the two competitors who form the other points of the love triangle: Alain, the suave, parent-approved guy who forages his own mint, and Harry, an electrician whose first interaction with her is being called out for calling her “love.”

Here’s the thing, and I don’t think you can call it a spoiler: we know she’s not going to end up with Alain. Any love interest whose selling point is “parent-approved” is not going to get the girl. But she is with him for the majority of the book. I understand that’s part of her emotional process–she learns about herself over the course of the novel and what she really values–but it did begin to drag a bit. I loved the (faux) Bake Off with its on-camera charm and off-camera stress, I thought the characters were engaging, and I even enjoyed most of the beats of the plot–it just lost me a bit in the middle.

I want to include a content warning for attempted sexual assault, but I think it’s worth a little more context, so spoilers in this paragraph: Alain tries to set up Rosaline and his ex-girlfriend/friend in a threesome. The ex is drunk and tries to force herself on Rosaline, who then locks herself in the bathroom until she can get a ride. I don’t think this was necessarily “problematic,” but I think I would have rather it wasn’t included. For context, within the first conversation Alain and Rosaline had, I thought, “I hope I am not supposed to like this guy.” I flipped to the back and saw he was the “parent-approved” choice and was reassured that I wasn’t. He is a judgmental dick the entire time, and I personally didn’t like that they broke up because of this extreme situation. I don’t like love triangles where one love interest ends up just being Bad–then there’s no real choice or tension. Harry was already the better choice; I don’t think Alain needed to be involved in an attempted sexual assault for Rosaline to chose Harry over him. (End of spoilers.)

As a small aside, I appreciated the healthy communication modelled during sex. Now that I think about it, Rosaline and Harry demonstrate good communication anyway, but the sex scene stood out to me. I’m not used to reading sex scenes where characters actually tell each other what feels good (and what doesn’t), or navigating the awkwardness of the first time sleeping with someone. I thought it was really well done!

If you like shows like The Great British Bake Off and the content warning isn’t a dealbreaker, I think you’ll enjoy this one. Despite having some issues with it, I definitely am looking forward to picking up the next books in this queer romcom baking competition series!

Danika reviews Space Battle Lunchtime Volume 3 by Natalie Riess

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I adored the first two volumes of Space Battle Lunchtime. It’s an all-ages graphic novel of a cooking competition(!) in space(!!) with a cute F/F romance (!!!) What more could you want? The first two volumes felt like two halves of a whole story. It finished with a happily ever after that made me sigh contentedly when I closed it. I wanted more, sure, but it had wrapped up. I accepted that this was a precious gem of a self-contained two volume story.

And then! I randomly stumbled on a third volume! I didn’t know this was coming out! As someone who obsessively tracks new sapphic book releases, this was a shock to me. How could I have missed that this was getting a sequel at all, never mind one that was already out? I could hardly believe my luck.

This volume has everything I loved from the first two. There’s no baking competition this time–instead, Peony is baking for a fancy jubilee hosted by a space empress! It’s crucial that everything goes perfectly. Of course, that’s not what happens. In fact, the empress is poisoned, and now it’s a murder(-ish) mystery! This is a fun little puzzle set on a spaceship that is part plant.

I also really enjoyed Peony and Neptunia’s developing relationship. We get a glimpse into Neptunia’s past that explains why she’s so guarded and secretive. There is no drama here, though; they continue to be a happy, adorable couple.

If you are looking for a cute, cozy, comforting queer read, I can’t recommend Space Battle Lunchtime enough. Will this be the real final volume? I can’t find any information on there being a volume 4, but there was also 3 years between volumes 2 and 3, so that’s not saying much. Whether this is a charming epilogue to the original story or the beginning of an ongoing series, I am a big fan.

Kalyanii reviews Starting from Scratch by Georgia Beers

 

starting from scratch

An author skilled at her craft has a way of holding a mirror to the psyche of her reader – which is often not the most comfortable of experiences, as enlightening as it may be – and, Georgia Beers is no exception. In fact, while writing in the seemingly innocuous genre of lesbian romance, Ms. Beers adeptly yet inconspicuously infiltrates our inner mechanisms, unearthing the rustiest bits and pushing buttons we forgot we even had.

Graphic designer by day and avid baker by night, Avery King doesn’t miss a single wayward glance, much less the passing of an appreciable hourglass figure. If truth be told, she even admits to a tendency to drool, which she deems not worth the effort controlling – especially in the presence of Elena Walker, the manager of her local bank branch, who it turns out may have the additional tie or two to her daily life. Yet, Avery hasn’t dated much since the demise of her relationship with Lauren, who continues to call every couple of weeks to catch up on the latest, generous enough, at one point, to share the news that she has decided to have a baby so many months after Avery put the kibosh on the idea back when they were still together.

It’s not that Avery doesn’t like children. Her best friend Maddie and even her own grandmother, who raised her from the age of four, contend she is quite good with them. She’s simply uncomfortable making conversation with the little crumb snatchers and has never envisioned motherhood in the grand scheme of things, given the residue from her own early childhood. It’s a moot point, really, when one spends her off-time alone, attempting to elicit the affection of her pampered shelter-adopted terrier, Stephen King, while baking muffins and other sweet treats to bring into the office the following morning, is it not?

With knee surgery and several weeks of rehab looming, Maddie discovers that she’s neglected to consider her obligation to coach within the upcoming season’s youth tee-ball league. Given that, back in the day, Avery professed owing Maddie and her wife, J.T., big time after they helped to extricate her from her toxic pre-Lauren ex, Maddie decides that it’s time to cash in on the favor. After ample protesting, Avery resignedly agrees to lead practices until Maddie is able to return, presumably in time for the team’s first game.

Days later, while Maddie is rehabbing and quickly tiring of the requisite rest and relaxation, she relieves her boredom by taking it upon herself to create an online dating profile for her friend, which miffs Avery to no end, in spite of the fact that Maddie’s initiative has generated a handful of viable prospects. Most notably, Pinot72, a single mom who works in finance, captures Avery’s attention; and, in the midst of one of several rounds of chat, she startles to a knock on her door.

Yes, Starting from Scratch is an endearing love story. There are titillation and intrigue, sexual tension and moments smack on the cusp of heartbreak; yet, it is the exploration of what it means to navigate a relationship with a woman devoted to her young son when childrearing was never part of the plan that gives the meat, the savoriness, to the otherwise toothsome sweetness of a burgeoning romance.

As for the mirror held, Avery’s over-the-top lustfulness would have easily resonated with me ten years ago, when I was in my early thirties, fresh out of a heaven-and-hell-bent relationship, or even last summer, when I (in not my finest moment) assumptively slid into bed, after several incredibly delicious glasses of cabernet, beside Julia, my best friend from way back when; but, in the present, Avery’s acute awareness of the female form struck me as undermining to her other assets – her intelligence, creativity and generosity of spirit. And, as the mother of a now twenty-something, highly-evolved, metrosexual male, I could identify all too well with the varied perspectives on the parenting issue. After all, I once had a small child to consider, have lost a fair number of loves, had at one point determined that both I and my son would have fared better had I sworn off dating altogether during his formative years and, now, if honest with myself, doubt I’d be up for taking on the challenges of motherhood once again.

But, then, I remember what it was to love such a precious being, to take in the scent at the nape of his neck….

Fortunately, the novel was nearing its conclusion as the baby cravings began.

I’ve got to hand it to Ms. Beers. Within Starting from Scratch, she’s created a remarkable narrative that extends far beyond the parameters of lesbian romance and straight into the glorious muck of compelling literary fiction. I’m quite certain I’m not the only one who has been given pause by her wordsmithing, for I can only imagine the number of relationships that have been touched by the gleaming shards of wisdom interwoven within this thoughtful tale as well as the multitude of women who have benefitted from the gentle prodding to contemplate that which was once beyond the realm of consideration, much less possibility.

Ms. Beers, “just” romance writer? I think not.

Anna M reviews For the Love of Cake by Erin Dutton

fortheloveofcake

Erin Dutton’s latest book, For the Love of Cake, is set in a reality show competition that pits pastry chefs against one another for the ultimate prize: sweet victory. I confess, I would have read it for the title alone: my love for cake is just that powerful. I read an advance copy of the novel, which was published in February, through Netgalley.

For the Love of Cake features Shannon Hayes, a talented second-career pastry chef who is trying to earn a big break playing the reality show game. She’s also had a longstanding crush on one of the competition’s judges, Maya Vaughn. Maya was the winner of the show’s inaugural season, and has been brought back this year to revive interest in the show. She’s also a well-known bisexual playgirl who has recently gotten tabloid attention for her presumed abortion.

Shannon, an adoptive mother and expectant grandmother, isn’t quite sure what to make of Maya in person, other than confirming that she is, in fact, incredibly attractive. As Maya and Shannon get to know each other, it’s clear the attraction is mutual, although there are very clear rules about judges fraternizing with contestants that prevent them from doing much more than moonstruck looking and exchanging flirtatious comments for the bulk of the novel. Will they ever have a chance at a real relationship? Will Shannon win the competition? What about the abortion hullabaloo and the prying paparazzi? And what about the cake?

The difficulties I had getting in to this book had more to do with the subplot, which follows up on characters from Dutton’s earlier food-based romance, A Place to Rest. Not having read the previous book, I found myself irritated each time I was pulled away from Shannon and Maya’s developing romance to check in with Sawyer and Jori and see how they were dealing with their relationship stresses. I would have preferred a separate book with their after happily ever after report, and more focus on the progression of Shannon and Maya’s relationship and perhaps some of their own aftermath. The structure of the reality show competition also made it so that the physical intimacy between the leads was long delayed (not necessarily a bad thing!)–however, having no emotional investment in Sawyer and Jori, I didn’t care whether or not they were having a good time.

I think I’ve read at least one other book by Dutton (it may have been Fully Involved?), but my reaction to it is lost to the mists of time. I enjoyed the reality show aspects and romantic tension of For the Love of Cake, but not the secondary characters, so would advise readers to pick up A Place to Rest before slicing in to For the Love of Cake, for the sake of continuity if nothing else.

Anna M can most often be found on Twitter: @helgagrace.