Concourse by Santino Hassell with Avocado Tostones and Aperol Spritz

30364779It’s Friday! And man this book made my week. For real, between studying for finals and this fuckery with congress things were looking grim, but Santino saved the day. I’m just going to say it from the get go, this book is my favorite in the series so far. I loved it SO MUCH.  I don’t even know where to start. First of all, the intensity. I literally lost all feeling in my hands from holding my kindle so hard while reading it on the BX12 bus…I don’t know if it was just all too much, what with reading about the Bronx (Fun Fact: not many books set in the Bronx out there), while being IN the Bronx, and then Ashton making me cry while also being super hot with Val…Good LORD. This book IS IT, guys. Concourse, is the fifth book in Santino Hassell’s Five Boroughs Series, which is an absolute favorite of mine, and honestly with as much as I’ve loved the other books, I could not envision a book that could top them. And yet, here we are, with Ashton and Val, Santino achieved the Holy Grail of good romance, the perfect combination of angst, top notch chathartic erotica, and enough swoon worthy moments to fell a sperm whale. I won’t even go into my feelings about Santino’s writing, I already waxed poetic about that in my review of Insight. Before I get to the story though, let’s talk food!

OK! So, this book, as I mentioned, was amazing, and Ashton is now my favorite person, so what to make for him and Val?! They are both so delicious, and there are lots of foodie things happening in the book, so there was definitely inspiration, lots of possibilities. In the end I decided to make my own version of the infamous Avocado Toast that Ashton makes for Val in the beginning of the book. However, since the story is set in the Bronx and I AM Dominican, I gave the whole thing a twist.  I made these boys Avocado Tostones (See what I did there?!).  For those who don’t know tostones (or have spent any time north of 137th street in Manattan), a toston, is a crispy plantain fritter. They are delicious, and go perfectly with avocado and limey things. To make the recipe extra fancy for Ashton, I made quick pickled red onions and a cilantro pesto for garnish. These little avocado bites  are seriously delish, and go perfectly with the champagne cocktail I selected. Which leads us to the alcoholic beverage for this book…

Since summer is near, I made an Aperol Spritz, one of my go to sunny day drinks. Aperol is an Italian aperitif (pre-dinner drink), very popular during warm months.  It is delicious mixed with prosecco, and a slice of orange. I can literally picture Ashton downing these all day long sitting in an outdoor cafe, while forcing Val to take sips. Guys this recipe and cocktail pair is a total WIN!!! Perfect for reading Val and Ashton’s romance. But now back to the story…

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This book worked for me at many levels. The connection between Val and Ashton was so intense and raw that every scene with them together felt electric. In so many ways this this is a classic trope, friends to lovers, prince and pauper romance. And yet, Santino took to it another level and crafted a character driven, stunning love story with, with a strong sense of place.

Val and Ashton have been friends forever. Val’s mom was Ash’s nanny, and they sort of grew up together, even though their worlds were completely different. Ash was always the black sheep in his wealthy family, the outcast, so Val, his mom and sister took him under their wing and gave him the affection he never got from his own flesh and blood. Ashton has always loved Val, and Val has always loved Ashton, but now that they are grown ups (well sort of), their lives are still too different, Ashton is a wealthy Instagram NYC celebutante and Val is an amateur boxer that drives cabs during the day to put this sister through school. They might as well be on different planets. And yet they are each other’s touchstone. They just can’s seem get past all those differences though, and even if there is history and genuine affection between them, they don’t seem to know how to come together.

Ashton’s character made this book for me, his vulnerability and his yearning to be SEEN, to be wanted by someone for who he really was, man it was heartbreaking. His character was rendered with such nuance and feeling, I wanted to weep for him. And yet, he was bright and funny, gave as good as he got from Val. Val was the stoic protector, and yet in the end he had to be saved too, and what saved him was Ashton. Then there’s the sex…The chemistry between these two was some next level shit, I mean how do you even do hotness, angst and humor ALL AT THE SAME TIME? Every scene with Val and Ashton was delicious, and felt so genuine.

I can’t do a review about this series without going to the setting. There are no superlatives that come to mind that are enough to convey how much Santino’s portrayal of NYC affects me. To see every borough treated with the care that he does, and to show ALL the parts which make this city the amazing place it is, makes me kind of weepy to be honest. I love his writing, but this series, these New York City stories? They’re his sweet spot.

Finally, the cast of characters and squads that he’s brought to life made their appearances and I thankfully it seems like there is more to come from this universe. I can’t wait.

I HIGHLY RECOMMEND this book and the entire series.

Now the recipes!

Avocado Tostones with Pickled Onions and Cilantro Pesto

Ingredients

Tostones

2 plantains (if at all possible purchase at C-Town, they have the best plantains! ;))

5 tablespoons of canola oil

salt to taste

Avocado Mash

2 Avocados

Juice of one lime

1 garlic clove minced

1 teaspoon of chopped cilantro

salt and pepper to taste

Pickled Onion

1 red onion thinly sliced

1 jalapeno thinly slice

1/2 cup of red wine vinegar

1/2 cup water

1/3 cup of sugar

1 teaspoon salt

Cilantro Pesto

1 cup of cilantro

1/3 cup of oil

1 clove of garlic minced

juice of one lemon

1/3 cup of oil

Directions

  1. Picked onions, put all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat to low medium and simmer for 10 minutes. Let cool for 20 minutes.
  2. Avocado Mash. Mash avocados in a bowl and mix with the rest of the ingredients. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Cilantro Pesto. Pulse all ingredients in food processor until well blended.IMG_0394
  4. Tostones. Peel the plantain (if you don’t know how, click here.) and cut into half inch slices. Heat oil in a skillet, when hot start frying the plantains, fry them until they start to look yellow and brown. Take out of pan, and smash each slice until they are flat (look like a cookie). Once you have flattened them all return to the oil for a second fry. Once they are brown and crispy, transfer to a plate lined with paper towels. Sprinkle with salt.IMG_0393.JPG
  5. To make your avocados tostones, spoon a dollop of the mash onto the toston, top with a few pickled onion slices. Add a bit of the pesto, and if you’re feeling really frisky top that with a bit of feta cheese. SO GOOD.

Once you have your tostones, pop that prosecco and top your glass with a bit of the Aperol. You will be in heaven with this book,  recipe,  and cocktail combo. I GUARANTEE IT! Also the left over cilantro pesto and pickled onions are DYNAMITE on top of street style tacos…My dude just eats the onions by the spoonful, they are so good.

Alright guys hope you enjoy the book, and the food and drink!

You can buy Concourse HERE.

You can buy the rest of the Five Borough Series HERE.

You can read more about Santino Hassell HERE or visit his Patreon HERE.

Have a great weekend.

Cheers and Happy Reading!

 

 

 

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A Gathering Storm by Joanna Chambers with Savory Scones

34093599I don’t have the skills to impress upon the page the level of joy I felt when I saw that Joanna Chambers was back with a historical romance, all I can say is that the joy was substantial.  Joanna’s Enlightenment Series is one of my absolute favorites. Her writing just works for me. Her novels are exquisitely set, they always have pointed commentary on the issues of the time, and most importantly her love stories are gorgeous to read.

“A Gathering Storm” is exactly the kind of novel I have come to expect from JC, smart, well researched, and with a solid and lovely romance. But, before I get to the review, I’ll share the recipe!

What could I make for this story? A historical sent in Britain…Scones, of course! I love me a good scone and I don’t think I’ve read a novel by Joanna that does not feature a delicious scone at some point, so I thought it would be fitting. So, I made savory Wild Ramps (wild ramps are a wild spring onion that grows here in the Northeast, it is also know as wild leek in some places) and Gruyere scones to go with this book, and I know I am biased, but they are to die for.  Delicious, crumbly and the subtle garlic/onion taste of the ramps with the Gruyere is just YUM. I made a double batch and it they did not last through the day…

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Now the book…As I said before I think Joanna Chambers is one of the best historical romance writers out there. What I loved about this story, in particular,  is that she gives us two heroes with a lot of insecurities and a bit of callousness, but who  are so genuine in their search for ways to be good to each other. I love a story where people are just people, you know? Most of us would like to think that in the face of certain circumstances, true love or adversity, we will be our better selves, but the reality is that most times, we are just our human selves. That does not mean we are not truly questing to be the best we can be for the one we love.

So Ward and Nick…Ward is fixated on finding a way to gain some connection to his dead brother, even when it comes at the cost of his own reputation. He is adrift without his brother and losing the one person who made him feel known. Nick has never belonged anywhere, his mother, the only person who he had a real connection to is now gone, an he is also adrift.  Finding each other gives both Nick and Ward a place to be anchored.  And yet, they are so different, their birth and stations in life are so distant from each other.

One of the things I love about this novel, is that is does not sugarcoat the disparity between Nick and Ward. They were born to very different circumstances, and this has shaped their worldview.  Nick is guarded and cautious, because he knows a man like him is at the mercy of the will of those who have a higher station than him. Ward expects the world to bend to his will.  Yet, they can still fill the empty spaces in each other. What made this novel so good for me, was how true the emotions felt. It was almost like that supernatural plane that Ward was so preoccupied with was always there for him to find, he just had to fall in love.

Lots to love here, the happy ending is locked tight, the erotica is solid and the book will read again very nicely I reckon…So, get the book and make some scones!

For the recipe:

Wild Ramps and Gruyere Scones (Adapted from Not Derby Pie Blog)

1 3/4 cup flour, plus some extra for rolling
1 tablespoon & 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup Shredded Gruyere
1/4 cup chopped ramps (or very finely chopped chives)
3/4 cup heavy cream, plus 2 tablespoons for brushing scones
1/4 cup buttermilk

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt. Add the butter. Put bowl in freezer for 5 minutes to chill the flour. Then beat the mixture on low speed if using a mixer) until the butter is broken up into pebble-sized pieces, about 3 minutes.

Add the cheese and ramps. Then pour heavy cream and buttermilk into the bowl and mix just until dough comes together. Scone dough can be very sticky, so make sure you have a well floured surface to knead. Don’t knead too long, just enough to get the dough into a ball. Mold the dough into one or two disks, and refrigerate about 2 hours or stick in the freezer for 15 minutes.
IMG_0170Preheat oven to 375. Roll out disk on lightly floured surface to form one 7-inch round or two 3-4-inch rounds. Cut 12 slices from the large round or 6 wedges from each of the smaller rounds, and arrange on a baking sheet (no need to leave much room between the scones). Brush with cream (this will aid the browning process).

Bake about 20 minutes, until golden on top and browned on the bottom. Serve warm with some butter, I also had a bit of ramp pesto at hand and it was delicious.

Enjoy the book and the scones! Come back and let me know how they turned out!

You can buy “A Gathering Storm” HERE.

You can read about, and buy Joanne Chambers back list HERE.

Cheers and Happy Reading!

Laura

Social Justice in Romance Series: J.E. Birk Talks Balancing Light Romance with Serious Topics

33632459In  her second novel, “Dating Ryan Alback”, J.E. Birk blends a pretty serious issue into what is for all intents and purposes a sweet and light romance. In her story, Jason, one of the main characters is a public high school teacher in Colorado. He is also trying very hard to start a nonprofit that will provide support to students whose parents have either been deported or are at risk of deportation due to their immigration status. When I read the novel, I was struck by how deeply J.E. went into the issue of immigration and how our current policies are disrupting and some times tearing apart families, all over the country.

When I decided to explore the presence of social justice themes in romance, I wanted to intentionally look at topics that were not about LGBT rights. I think it is important to broaden the outlook of the social justices issues that fit in romance, and that there there are vast numbers of ways in which injustice and oppression can intersect in a person’s life.

Immigration or the treatment of undocumented  persons in the U.S. is a topic that comes up occasionally in romance. An though it is a tricky subject, I think the authors who choose to write about it do so because it has somehow touched their lives personally. I think this makes a difference in how the story is approached.  They  seem authentic and heartfelt.

The topic of immigration has been a hot one for awhile now in this country. I found it particularly brave for J.E., a newer author, to decide to go with this story line. So I asked a couple of questions about why she went in this direction with her second novel.

Here is what J.E. had to say…

The Tipsy Bibliophile: In your latest novel, “Dating Ryan Alback”, one of your two main characters is a public high school teacher, on the side he is working on starting a nonprofit that will support kids who have undocumented parents. What struck me the most about this, was not just that you chose to put forth such a controversial issue in our country right now, but that it was such an important part of the story. You could have been vague about what the program was about, who it would help, and it would have still made the character likable. Why was it important to you to highlight this issue to the degree that you did?

J.E. Birk: That’s a great question. The weird thing is that I never even considered making the nonprofit vague. Jason teaches in southwest Denver, where I used to teach, and this issue was/is hugely important to students and the entire community there. It just made sense to me that Jason, who cares deeply for his students, would tackle this particular issue if he was going to start any kind of nonprofit in that area.

I’ll never forget the first time one of my students told me their mother had just been deported and they were worried they’d never see her again. A lot of my teaching life is in Jason, so he too has never been able to forget that moment.

 TTP: As a romance reader (and an social justice advocate IRL) I am always surprised when social justice topics are done well in the stories I read. However it is not a common practice to explore these issues in romance. Do you think there is more space in the to explore injustices and difficult topics?

J.E. Birk: Many people have asked why I chose to add this subplot to a story which is largely very fluffy and feel-good in nature. I personally think social injustices should be explored everywhere, especially in the books we read more for entertainment and escape purposes…because when we read those books we are at our most relaxed. We’re more likely to be able to separate ourselves from the politics and simply consider the issue on a humane and real-world level. I too love when romance novels tackle social justice topics, and I actively seek those novels out when I’m looking for my next read.


Like I mentioned earlier this theme has been occasionally done in gay romance. Most recently Heidi Cullinan went deeply into it in her sequel to “Dance With Me”, “Enjoy The Dance”. I think this another book that does this topic justice, and recommend it highly.

If you would like to read “Dating Ryan Alback” you can buy it HERE.

If you want to know a little bit more about immigration and how you could help organizations that are assisting families. the ACLU has great resources and information HERE.

Thank you for reading my Social Justice In Romance Series, if you this is the first post you read, there are three earlier posts which explore other social justice themes to read, you can start HERE.

Thank you to Roan Parrish, KJ Charles and J.E. Birk for the amazing conversation, and I hope this has sparked some chats within our community of readers and authors.

My hope is to do a series like every month…My next one will be on Trauma. How do authors research and write characters with severe trauma? So stay tuned!

Cheers and Happy Reading!

 

Social Justice and Romance: Are those two a good fit?

How social justice is portrayed in gay romance is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately.  I think partly it’s due to the current state of the world, and all the things happening daily that are essentially eating away at the small gains we had made in the fight towards a more just society. But also, because in the past year, I have gone back again and again to the authors who have delved deeply into social justice in their stories, and reading those stories has been very meaningful for me.

Over the next week  I will post a series of posts on different social justice themes and will share my conversations with authors who have “gone there”, and not only delivered powerful love stories, but have opened readers up to some very important issues.

So, what is Social Justice? According to The Social Work Dictionary, social justice entails upholding the condition that in a perfect world, all citizens would have equal “rights, protection, opportunities, obligations, and social benefits”, regardless of their backgrounds and membership in diverse groups…A lofty goal if there ever was one, and so elusive. And yet, in the Social Work profession (my day job), pledging to advocate for Social and Economic Justice is embedded in all we do.

I think about Social Justice a lot, it’s literally my job,  and one of my passions.  My other great passion is reading, romance novels in particular are a big source of joy, and my go to when I need self-care. However Romance and Social Justice, sadly are two passions of mine that rarely overlap.  It’s not to say social justice never comes up, the fight for LGBTQ rights is a theme that is covered well in gay romance, as it should be, and in my opinion is one of the things that make this genre very special for readers.

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Social justice is much broader than LGBT rights though, and it intersects through many different parts of what makes a whole person, not just their sexuality. It is also gender identity, race, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, country of origin, immigration status, education…and the list goes on.  The combination of all these things will determine whether a person navigates this wold from a place of privilege or disadvantage.

So what does any of this have to do with Romance Novels? Well, for me, a lot.  I’ve struggled a lot with the idea of there being a place for topics like income inequality, systemic racism, mass incarceration, sexual violence, immigration reform and so many others in romance. Is it even appropriate to get so heavy when romance should help readers escape? I think the answer is yes, especially for those of us who already read gay romance. Because, we already are seeking stories of  people who have struggled so much to be able to love openly. I think romance readers are the ideal audience for books that address injustice, and I wanted to hear from authors and readers about their opinions on this.

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My first conversation is with one of my favorite writers (in any genre) Roan Parrish author of the Middle of Somewhere Series published my Dreamspinner Press. We talk about the second book in this series “Out of Nowhere” one of my favorite romances. In this book Roan presents to us, the prison industry complex, decarceration, internalized oppression, and political activism, just to name a few, and does it all while giving us a sweeping and passionate love story. Roan will share about her thoughts on writing with purpose, and why more people need know about decarceration.

My second conversation will be with KJ Charles , author of the Society of Gentlemen Series published by Penguin Random House. KJ will talk with us about her novel “A Seditious Affair” and why it was important for her to delve so deeply into the politics of her two heroes. She’ll also share on why she writes persons of color in her stories, and the importance of their presence in historical romance.

My third and last conversation will be with author J.E. Birk author of “Dating Ryan Alback” published by Riptide Publishing. J.E. will share why she decided to highlight the struggles faced by the children of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. in her novel, and why she thinks romance is the perfect space for stories with a focus on social justice.

So LOTS of good conversation coming up on the blog. I do hope that this gets a conversation started in the gay romance community from readers and writers. I also look forward to hearing from you and your thoughts on this.
So please come back tomorrow for my talk with Roan Parrish!
Cheers and Happy Reading!
Laura

Home the Hard Way by ZAM Maxfield w an Oregonian Pinot Noir and Sweet & Sour Stir Fry

home the hard wayEvery time I start a review for a ZA Maxfield book I feel like I need to disclaim my intense LOVE for her stories. So, just for the sake of tradition, I will state that ZAM has not ever written anything I haven’t loved. This book is no exception. Actually this one might be in my opinion some of her best writing. My stomach was in knots the whole time. The tone in this story is dark and dreary, with a mystery that kept my stomach in knots from beginning to end. The characters were a mixed bag of personalities that ranged from ethereal, to strange, to deeply twisted. The tone, the setting and the humans in this book all flowed though. It was bleak, but it was also very easy to connect with the heroes. Dare and Finn are a mess, so much baggage yet all I wanted for them was to be able to have at least a chance, just a chance for some happiness.

For this book I selected a wine from Oregon wine country, the Rascal Pinot Noir is a pretty light red wine. Not too full, but still flavorful, definitely a red that can be enjoyed even in the warm summer weather. It goes for about $10 a bottle which is a pretty nice deal. For food I decided to make a quick and easy meal. I figure neither of these two guys have much interest in the kitchen, so I went with something easy and flavorful. I made a Sweet & Sour Stir Fry that you can make with pretty much any kind of protein or even just veggies. Served on top of rice it’s a fast and filling meal.

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You can never go home…Dare only wishes that were true. Dare was a guy who lost his anchor after the inexplicable suicide of his father, and from then on he just drifted. Sometimes he let his dick mess things up for him, sometimes he let his drinking do it. The kid who had it all together growing up in Palladian, Oregon was not the man that came back to the little town  after essentially destroying his career as a homicide detective in Seattle. He’s to come home in shame to Palladian to take a job he only got as a favor to his father memory at the local police department. Dare has failed everything and everyone in his life. Especially Finn Fowler.

Finn the little kid Dare rescued from a bully back from elementary school and protected fiercely for the next four years. Finn who he walked away form without a single word for the next fifteen. Finn the only thing in Palladian that had even a hint of home. Finn he’s always been a yearning in Dare. The things he feels for Finn, he’s never felt for anyone else. He wants to protect Finn, to save him. But he failed his friend when he left him without a second glance, and the Finn that he’s found is not the Finn that he left. This man is harder and darker and has secrets. SO MANY secrets. He’s also had a lot harder life than he deserved. Finn has gone through so much, it’s made him cynical it seems and so shut off. The only thing he seems to care about is his aunt who is in the last stages of cancer.  Dare wants to help, he needs to step up, but he is such a mess himself. It seems like everything in his life went off the rails the day his father took his own life and it never got back on track. Maybe if he finds out once and for all what really happened to his father than the dark cloud over his life could dispel. Just seems the more he uncovers the less he understands.

I think this book is some of ZAM’s best writing. One thing I enjoy more and more with everyone of her books is that her stories and her men are not subscribed to any sort of formula. So even though I recognize her brand, the stories feel new. When ZAM does a darker story, her men are flawed yes, but they are also incredibly easy to empathize with. Because they are broken  in ways we can all relate to. Dare and Finn were easy to love and even easier to root for. Palladian was also an incredibly rich setting, there is a saying in Spanish “Pueblo Chico, Infierno Grande…Small Town, Big Hell” and that in a few words was Palladian. A town that thrived on secrets, lies, gossip and pettiness to a level of gluttony where it was literally eating it’s young. What a place. I hope we get to visit Palladian again, because the drama in that town definitely captured my interest. It was like a blend between Wisteria Lane and Twin Peaks. Very intriguing place Palladian was.

This book was solid. A hefty mystery which kept me guessing, very interesting characters, a love story that although was not high on the romance it had plenty of depth to make my heart ache at the right moments. The writing itself was pretty wonderful too.

Totally recommend.

Home the Hard Way is out today from Riptide Publishing and is available for purchase here.

Sweet and Sour Stir Fry Recipe

1 cup of rice (cook according to intructions)

2 cups of chopped veggies (I used onions, baby corn, brocoli, carrots, bell peppers and mushrooms)

1 cup of shrimp (you can use any other protein you want like chicken or beef)

1 clove of garlic minced

olive oil

For the sauce:

1 tablespoon of sesame seed oil

1/4 cup chicken broth

2 Tbsp soy sauce

2 Tbsp rice wine vinegar

1 Tbsp agave nectar/brown sugar

1/2 tsp hot red pepper flakes

3 teaspoons of cornstarch

Directions:

Combine all the ingredients for the sauce in a bowl stir until the are well blended and set aside. In a large hot skillet saute the garlic for a  minute, add the protein and stir until it is cooked. Remove the protein and set aside, in the same pan  add a bit of sesame seed oil and saute the veggies for about two minutes.

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Add the sauce to the skillet and stir for a minute. When the sauce starts to thicken add the protein and simmer on low for a couple minutes. Serve over white rice and enjoy with your glass of wine!

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Hope you enjoy the book, the meal and the wine!

Cheers and Happy Reading!

Laura