In Kissing Games of the World, single mother Jamie McClintock has neither the desire nor the time for romance. After all, motherhood under the best of circumstances can be overwhelming, and for novelist Sandi Kahn Shelton's latest heroine, an already precarious life caring for her asthmatic son and struggling to pay the bills is thrown off - kilter by the sudden death of her beloved elderly landlord.

When the late landlord's estranged son Nate arrives in town to settle his father's affairs, Jamie discovers that the spirited old gentleman devoted to raising his young grandson was actually a philandering, deadbeat dad in his day. At least, according to Nate, a widower whose late wife's accident left him bereft and entirely incapable of caring for the boy. Now, Nate is reeling from the loss of a father whose transgressions he never forgave, and terrified by the prospect of raising a son he barely knows.

In Shelton's capable literary hands, this is not merely a romantic tale, but also a credible story of a man determined not to let his family's grim history repeat itself. Nate is charming and charismatic, but he can be pathologically insensitive and self - absorbed, too. And Jamie - an artist, whom Nate at first mistakenly assumes was one of his dad's lovers - is not just another pretty face to be seduced and promptly discarded.

Of course, it's not long before Jamie's defensive self - preservation and Nate's blustery bravado crumble under the laws of attraction. Nonetheless, passion is not enough to mend a pair of broken hearts suffering from major trust issues. Shelton's greatest talent is a gift for juxtaposing comedy and tragedy to the pulsing beat of the modern - day mating dance. One moment the reader is laughing out loud at Nate's unconventional parenting practices, and seconds later, nearly weeping as Jamie searches frantically for an asthma inhaler that can save her wheezing son's life.

As the novel reaches its denouement, Jamie and Nate will seem like old friends, beloved despite, or maybe because of, their idiosyncratic personalities. Kissing games, like literature, rely on rules that are meant to be bent but not broken. The same holds true for Shelton's novel, which allows a hopeful ending to unfold gracefully.

Karen Ann Cullotta writes from Arlington Heights, Illinois.

This review refers to the hardcover edition.

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