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REVIEW: Carol of the Bellskis by Astrid Amara

REVIEW: Carol of the Bellskis by Astrid Amara

Dear Ms. Amara.

Carol of the BellskisI was reminded about your Holiday Outing by Jessica’s review of it at Racy Romance Reviews. I read Holiday Outing and enjoyed it, I think when it first came out, before I was reviewing. I especially loved the perfect depiction of a Jewish family, with all their lumps and bumps, but I thought that the family situation got too much attention and the relationship too little. Carol of the Bellskis rectifies this situation and is, I think, going on my keeper shelf.

The story opens with Seth breaking up with his boyfriend, who also happens to be his boss. He’s furious and desperately hurt when Lars refuses to go to Seth’s aunt and uncle’s kosher B&B like he said he would because of what people might say. Lars is afraid of being outed. Despite it being completely obvious to the reader and to Seth that he loves Seth, he refuses even to treat Seth with civility at work in case people suspect. Seth can’t take it anymore and breaks up with Lars. He then drives the five hours to the B&B only to discover that his aunt and uncle are missing and there’s an inn full of guests expecting kosher food and Hanukkah celebrations every night. He muddles badly through the first evening and is despairing in the kitchen when Lars shows up. Lars saves his bacon (harhar) by being a brilliant cook and they work through their relationship issues while catering to a houseful of guests and dealing with the search for Seth’s missing relatives. It sounds like a full story, especially for just less than 100 pages, and it is, but it’s perfectly done, because no matter what’s actually happening — searching for a lost dog under the house, say — the focus is always on Seth and Lars working things out.

And I love how Seth doesn’t immediately take Lars back. He’s furious and hurt and aching and he makes Lars sleep on the couch. I love how Lars is desperate to get back into Seth’s good graces that he puts up with anything from Seth but doesn’t back down about coming out. I love that Seth is still furious with Lars, still terribly hurt and that he isn’t afraid anymore to let Lars know, no matter how much it might hurt Lars to hear it:

"I don’t trust you. I know you love me, but not enough. Not more than your ego or your career. You care, but just not enough. So I can’t trust you to put my well-being on par with yours. I don’t trust you, Lars, and it’s killing me."

I love Lars’ obvious fight with himself:

Lars immediately entered the room and crouched at Seth’s feet. He looked up. For once he appeared uncertain.

"How can we resolve this?" Lars asked quietly. "There has to be a compromise we can settle on."

"This isn’t a lawsuit," Seth told him. "Sometimes there isn’t middle ground. I don’t want to be hidden, and you don’t want to be outed. Where’s the compromise?"

Lars ran a hand over his face. "I don’t know. But we have to try."

"I don’t want to be something you’re ashamed of anymore."

Lars hesitated. But he didn’t pull away. He bowed his head and rested it on Seth’s thigh.

They sat there like that a long time.

As Seth asks himself at one point:

Why the hell were relationships so fucking hard?

And that’s what I love about this story. Seth and Lars obviously have a good relationship, but they’ve hit a bump and they have to work on it, and its every bit as emotionally wrenching as it should be. Every relationship in the book — and there are quite a few of them with so many guests in the house — has a small or large issue that has to be worked through. It shows what happens AFTER the HEA and does it so well.

One drawback to the story was also one of its strengths. The story is told entirely from Seth’s perspective. You’re very good at making it obvious what Lars is thinking and feeling, so I didn’t miss his perspective too much, but it almost felt like an Old Skool Harlequin in that we only got one point of view. It’s very well done and by no means lacks emotional impact because of it, but it’s basically a first-person perspective, told in third person.

But it’s also laugh-out-loud funny in some places:

Lars’s cock was already hard, obtrusively begging for attention, nudging little Excuse me? Hello? Morse code against Seth’s hip the entire shower.

Neither does the story shy away at all from the fact that these are Jews we’re talking about:

Lars had tremendous prospects of becoming a very good Jewish mother. He had the food portions right, at least.

The main issue I had with the story was Lars’ motivation. He was terrified of being outed, convinced somehow for some reason that his life would be over if he came out. I am somewhat impatient with this motivation, especially since it’s never really fully justified. Yes, Lars is worried about the response of his homophobic business partner, but as Seth says, it’s his fucking business too. I guess I think in this day and age, in a metropolitan setting, generic fear of coming out is no longer an adequate reason not to come out and needs more explanation, rather than less. Or at least, in this story, I was just impatient with Lars’ stubbornness about the issue — which is perhaps precisely what you wanted. However, that said, it was obvious that Lars fully believed in his own fear and his change of heart at the end was strongly felt and signaled his full and total commitment to his relationship with Seth, so that almost made it all okay.

All in all, I adored this story and now plan on glomming your entire backlist. The hectic situation of the B&B was handled beautifully in that the focus of the story was always 100% on the relationship between Lars and Seth and by the end of the story, I fully trusted that they’ll make it.

Grade: B+

Best regards,
-Joan/Sarah F.

This book can be purchased at Loose Id.

REVIEW:  Sleep No More by Susan Crandall

REVIEW: Sleep No More by Susan Crandall

Dear Ms. Crandall:

I liked Pitch BlackCover of Sleep No More by Susan Crandall, a romantic suspense enough to buy two other backlist titles of yours: Seeing Red and Back Roads. I found I liked your overall balance of suspense and romance so I was excited to read Sleep No More.   The   tone of this book was quite creepy, particularly in the beginning.

Abby Whitman sleepwalked as a child.   One night she apparently starts a fire which results in her younger sister suffering terrible burns.   Abby thought she grew out of the sleepwalking but she’s been forever touched by her family tragedy.    She lives alone in a smaller house in her family property, close to her father who has been increasingly forgetful.   She fields phone calls from her bitter, lonely sister.   She misses her mother and she is alone.   While she never suffered a sleepwalking incident as an adult, she always feared it would return so she lives by herself so as not to endanger any other person, as she endangered the lives of her family members.

As the story opens, Abby finds muddy footprints in her house and realizes that she has started to sleepwalk again.   The situation escalates when Abby awakens in her flower delivery van to find a body of a young man laying near the road.   He’s dead and she cannot remember if she struck him.

Jason Coble, a local psychiatrist, is struggling to be a parent to his daughter and former stepson after Jason’s divorce.   His former wife was an alcoholic who simply could not or would not stay dry.   His stepson, Bryce, misses Jason’s presence in his home.   He’s convinced that if he and Brenna are good enough, Jason will return and they will be a family again.   But his mother is drinking again and she was gone missing the night of the young boy’s death.

You present more than one possibility for the young boy’s death.   Certainly all points seem to implicate Abby and her inability to remember, the return of her sleepwalking, the crisis with her father, all provide good tension for the story.   Complicating this is that Abby becomes the target of some increasingly scary vandalism.

Jason has seen Abby around but was either married or unready.   When she delivers flowers to a funeral of the young boy and the parents are distraught and attack Abby, Jason intervenes.   In short order, Jason finds himself deeply attracted to Abby.   While all the characters voiced the right reservations about the speed at which their feelings developed, I was never really convinced of their attraction.

I wondered if you recognized this because the story often references how Jason and Abby grew to care so quickly for each other. Jason:

Abby Whitman had already crawled more deeply under his skin than he should allow-’and astoundingly quickly.

Although it was far too soon to make such a statement, he felt he could fall in love with her.

It blindsided him how quickly he’d become emotionally involve with her.

Later Abby notes “Even after this short time, Jason Coble was going to be a bad habit to break.”   It’s possible the multiple references to how fast the romance was progressing actually emphasized this point to its detriment.   On the other hand, significant attention was paid to the emotional conflict in the relationship which added depth to the romance.

Another problem I had with the story was that Jason seemed more like a detective than a psychiatrist.   At one point, he smelled gas when no one else was able to.   He noted that the glass inside Abby’s van indicated that it was broken from the outside rather than from the inside out.   He was able to shoot a handgun like a sharpshooter.

I really like the portrayal of Bryce who was suffering from the loss of his father figure and struggling with his mother’s alcoholism.   His reactions to his family disruption were believable and   provided another good emotional layer.   I also appreciated that the local police were competent and not corrupt.

I worried about a possible pedophilia aspect when the Jason’s daughter and a down syndrome girl were introduced and thankful the author didn’t go down that path.

There was some spark missing for me between Abby and Jason.   While the suspense plot was good and lacked the usual serial killer, I felt that the romance was forced.   C+

Best regards

Jane

This book can be purchased at Amazon (affiliate link) or in ebook format from BooksonBoard or other etailers (no affiliate link).

This book was provided to the reviewer by either the author or publisher. The reviewer did not pay for this book but received it free.