Pansies

Alexis Hall. Riptide, $18.99 trade paper (405p) ISBN 978-1-62649-307-0

Hall's skilled hand with men's emotional realms comes through in the sweetly optimistic, redemptive third standalone in his Spires contemporary gay romance series (after For Real), in which vulnerability takes center stage and difficult history dances with the glimmer of opportunity. London investment banker Alfie Bell abruptly comes out at his best friend's wedding in the small town of South Shields, where he grew up. He then picks up Fen, a beautiful, bitter man with pink-tipped hair at the local bar, and discovers after their encounter that Fen is actually the boy Alfie bullied all through school. Fen tries to keep Alfie at arm's length as he works through his self-hatred via letters to his late mother, whose flower shop he now runs, while Alfie seeks forgiveness from both Fen and himself as he makes his first attempts to impress someone he's truly interested in. Hall's sex scenes are a heady mix of hot play-by-play, breathy exhilaration, emotional discovery, and endearing awkwardness. The book goes on longer than the plot deserves, but Alfie and Fen are so delightful together that readers probably won't mind. Agent: Courtney Miller-Callihan, Handspun Literary. (Oct.)