Review – The Beautiful Ashes by Jeaniene Frost

I was planning to have this post up first thing this morning, but an evil migraine intervened. And then once I could see again, I got kind of caught up in a book that I just had to finish, no matter how much it hurt to read. Anyway. My buddy Kim (from Reflections of a Book Addict) got me to read Jeaniene Frost’s Night Prince series (VLAD. ‘Nuff said.), and I surprised the holy hell out of myself by liking it. A lot. So when I was given a chance to read the first book in Frost’s new series, I jumped on it with hand-clapping glee. I guess this post is part of a blog tour (maybe?), so there’s a tour-wide giveaway of some sort. I wasn’t really paying attention to the details… I’m just here to talk about the book.

In a world of shadows, anything is possible. Except escaping your fate.

Ever since she was a child, Ivy has been gripped by visions of strange realms just beyond her own. But when her sister goes missing, Ivy discovers the truth is far worse—her hallucinations are real, and her sister is trapped in a parallel realm. And the one person who believes her is the dangerously attractive guy who’s bound by an ancient legacy to betray her.

Adrian might have turned his back on those who raised him, but that doesn’t mean he can change his fate…no matter how strong a pull he feels toward Ivy. Together they search for the powerful relic that can save her sister, but Adrian knows what Ivy doesn’t: that every step brings Ivy closer to the truth about her own destiny, and a war that could doom the world. Sooner or later, it will be Ivy on one side and Adrian on the other. And nothing but ashes in between…

I don’t foray much into paranormal/urban fantasy stuff, so you’ll have to take my thoughts with a giant bucket of salt. The thing is, I tend to set a fairly low bar for PNR/UF stuff, not because I think the genre unworthy but because I read it so infrequently that I haven’t yet learned how to set adequately high expectations of it. So this is what I expect from the PNR/UF books that I end up reading: 1. that they have words; 2. that they have fast-moving plots to distract me from all the elements that require me to suspend disbelief. The Beautiful Ashes had both those things, a dash of humor, a swoony, somewhat misunderstood quasi-antihero, and a morally ambiguous underlying theme. In other words, I liked it. A lot.

In many ways, The Beautiful Ashes reminds me of the New Adult lovechild of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The demon realms that our intrepid protagonists explore bear some resemblance to the grey town of Lewis’s allegory (though Frost’s version is quite a bit more horrifying); these realms are hackneyed imitations of human life, attempting the grandeur of some of humanity’s more inspired architecture but missing all the light, warmth, and inspiration. I’m a sucker for architecture as character or world development (one of the reasons I love Jane Austen), and I enjoyed that touch. As in American Gods, the characters in this story travel around the continental U.S. (and Mexico) searching for thin spaces (in this case thin spaces of the demonic variety), and, as in AG, the fictional vortexes and portals to demon worlds exist in our world and are completely believable as vortexes and portals. These places include the Oregon desert (I live one state south of Oregon, and I had no idea that state had any areas that aren’t green and perpetually rainy), a B&B somewhere in New England, a section of boardwalk somewhere on the east coast, etc. I hold out hope that in future books in the series the characters will visit the world’s largest thermometer, the Winchester house, and that giant ball of twine.

I don’t mean to imply that The Beautiful Ashes is a knock-off of American Gods. It’s not, mainly because it has a much more positive outlook and because its protagonist is a young woman whose goodness you never really question (rather than a gritty, down-on-his-luck, cuckolded, convict widower who also happens to be the son of Odin). If AG is a trickster mythology celebrating goodness alongside moral relativity and refusing to take a stance on which is preferable, The Beautiful Ashes is a good vs. evil mythology that dabbles in relativity but eventually concludes that things happen for a reason, that there is a divine scheme, that this scheme might suck occasionally, but that it is still important for “good” to keep its eye on the end game.

Much of the conflict in the book derives from the growing bond between Ivy, a genetically predestined savior-type, and Adrian, a genetically predestined betrayer-type. They feel drawn to each other; they learn to admire the other; but they know (Adrian more than Ivy) that there can be no true trust between them. Ivy and Adrian are united by their hatred of demons and their distrust of angels, but that unity is tenuous. I had a few issues with their relationship. For starters, Ivy is about 20 years old, and Adrian is well over 100. In nearly every conceivable way, Ivy is disadvantaged: she’s younger, both in actual years and in exposure to the whole angels vs. demons thing; she has almost no experience with relationships; she has almost no experience of physical relationships; she is naive; and — of course — Adrian, his demon-fighting cohorts, and the angelic host keep her at a disadvantage by feeding her the truth bit by bit, essentially manipulating her with incomplete information. That’s… annoying. (I also wondered if the conflict between Ivy and Adrian, their conflicting destinies, would be as compelling if it were not mentioned so often… and I thought their special bond looked an awful lot like celestial instalust from here.)

Oh, and I just have to tack this bit on here… I wasn’t real keen on the ending. Don’t get me wrong: I was all about Ivy breaking off on her own, sullying her goodness a little bit with some badassery, and journeying into some moral gray area, but… once a character embarks on that path, she doesn’t get to stand on a soapbox of self-righteousness. She hops off that soapbox pretty quick, but I was annoyed that she ever hopped on it.

Bottom line: I liked The Beautiful Ashes and I want more of it, but the romance in this first installment was the weakest element (and I love me some romance…). I hold out hope that the story’s continuation includes more character development, less insane chemistry, and a more even playing field for the protagonists. (I also hope that bit about Adrian being more than 100 years older than Ivy doesn’t come up again. It’s seriously creepy.)

The Beautiful Ashes was released on August 26, 2014 as a paperback and e-book by Harlequin. For more information about the book, click on the cover image above to visit its page on Goodreads. You can find out more about Jeaniene Frost on her website, Twitter, or Facebook.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an ARC from Rock Star PR and Harlequin for review consideration.*

What I’ve been reading lately – books with wounded military heroes

I’ve been doing these “what I’ve been reading lately” posts lately because (1) I’m lazy and can’t seem to write more than one post in a given 10-day period; (2) I read waaaaayyyyyy too much, and if I tried to write about every book, you’d be like — Whoa. Stop it with all the posts about these books I’m never going to read. Just stop it, Kelly; and (3) I tend to get into reading moods, and sometimes it’s more interesting to discuss the themes that occur across multiple books. So, in June and July, I read a bunch of books that had military heroes, and I just realized (because I’m slow on the uptake sometimes), that all those heroes were wounded in combat. In some cases, the hero’s military status is a huge part of the book (i.e. it really does fall in the military romance subgenre), and in other cases the hero retired or was medically discharged, and his service is just part of his back story (and identity).

One theme that unites the books that I’ll be discussing in this post is that a large portion of each story focuses on the wounded hero’s search for identity and vocation in light of his injury. All three books are new releases, and (it seems to me) it’s yet another indication of how the romance genre responds to modern culture and current events and remains relevant. In the U.S., at least, war is everywhere. Do you know anyone who hasn’t been touched by it in some way? Do you know anyone who doesn’t mourn a classmate or friend, who hasn’t seen a loved one change and struggle after too many too-long deployments? Do you know anyone who isn’t heartsick to think of the welcome we offer the veterans who are lucky enough to return: poor health care, few career options, and the continuing stigma of mental health issues? I don’t. So it doesn’t surprise me that (more than) 3 new romance novels deal with this subject. (To be clear: I picked these three books to write about, but I could have expanded this post to talk about six books that I read in June/July that feature a wounded military hero, and I’m not really a reader of military romance novels. I’m guessing there are a lot more books out now that deal with the wounded hero trope.)

He’s in for the fight of his life . . .

Army captain Trent Davila loved his wife, Laura, and their two beautiful children. But when he almost lost his life in combat, something inside him died. He couldn’t explain the emptiness he felt or bridge the growing distance between him and his family—so he deployed again. And again. And again . . . until his marriage reached its breaking point. Now, with everything on the line, Trent has one last chance to prove to his wife that he can be the man she needs . . . if she’ll have him

. . . to win back his only love.

Laura is blindsided when Trent returns home. Time and again, he chose his men over his family, and she’s just beginning to put the pieces of her shattered heart back together. But when Trent faces a court martial on false charges, only Laura can save him. What begins as an act of kindness to protect his career inflames a desire she thought long buried—and a love that won’t be denied. But can she trust that this time he’s back to stay?

Back to You is definitely a military romance novel — and I’ll be honest and admit that I haven’t read very many of those — but its story stays fairly focused on Trent, Laura, and their chance for reconciliation. I love reconciliation stories (mostly because I hate instalust), and this one was right up my alley. I loved quite a few things about this book.

  1. This book has fantastic primary characters who are very nicely fleshed out.
  2. The emotional narrative of Trent and Laura’s story is so well wrought. There is a weight to their encounters early in the book, and that weight lightens with each new bit of trust forged (and earned). I particularly enjoyed how Laura’s anger is supported and validated by the narrative, yet her forgiveness is allowed to grow naturally.
  3. The interactions between Trent and the kids — who are pretty much strangers to him — are beautifully done. My favorite of these interactions involved Trent getting super-duper overwhelmed by his kids’ madness and then feeling like a failure for not being emotionally prepared for it. I just might love Jessica Scott forever for having Laura reassure Trent by telling him about the time that she absolutely lost her shit with the children. Parenting isn’t easy, and sometimes it’s downright horrifying. I loved that this book showed how messy parenting can be and gave Laura the chance to act with compassion, to share the story of her own failures, and to validate — for every parent — that those failures are not the whole story, that it’s the successes, added up, that tell the real story of a childhood and a family. That was neat.
  4. The women soldiers in this book are soldiers.

And, of course, there were a few things that I didn’t like so much. The secondary characters (two couples who are friends of Laura and Trent) were distracting, possibly because I read Back to You as a stand-alone and was not invested in the secondary characters from having read their books. Another character seemed to be introduced in the narrative only so readers could feel sympathy for Trent later on (and so Trent could learn to confide in Laura), and that was unfortunate. There’s a lot of military jargon that I just didn’t get. “Down stream” seems to mean a lot of things, but I could not identify them from the context. Finally, I wanted a little more closure from the ending. I’m not much for epilogues, but — since so much of the story dealt with Trent’s adjustment to a new normal and his search for identity in the wake of his injuries and experiences — I wanted a clearer idea of where he and Laura ended up.

But the bottom line is that I enjoyed the book and am very glad that I read it.

Fighting for his country gave Jake Taylor’s life shape and meaning. Now as an injured war hero he struggles to find purpose, until he runs into the gorgeous woman he dated briefly—and disastrously—before being deployed eight years ago. Turns out Jake doesn’t just need to figure out how to be a civilian . . . he also needs to learn how to be a dad.

Eighteen, pregnant, and totally lost, Mira Shipley couldn’t track down the soldier who fathered her child, so she put college on hold and focused on making a good life for her son. Now she’s determined to be something more than Sam’s mom, her parents’ daughter, or Jake’s girl—as hot as she finds her old flame’s take-charge attitude in and out of bed. Soon Mira and Jake realize that their passion didn’t disappear when Sam was conceived—and that instead of running away, sometimes it’s better to hold on tight.

Yep, it’s a secret baby book. It’s one of my favorite tropes because it is so rarely done well (and yet so often done… I mean, I’m just going to make up some titles, here, but I bet some of them exist as actual books: The Rancher’s Secret Baby; His Baby, Her Secret; Triplets for the SEAL; The Firefighter’s Surprise Family. Yeah… I just looked those titles up… they totally exist.). Anyway. I’ve read a few of Serena Bell’s stories before, so I was really stoked to hear that she’d written a secret baby story. And do you know what? I loved it. Some of my favorite things:

  1. Mira. She’s gutsy, principled, intelligent, and she recognizes the value of finding and maintaining an identity separate from “mom” and “daughter” and “girlfriend.” An equal amount of narrative time was spent on Mira’s journey of self-discovery as on Jake’s, and I loved how interesting her journey was. Mira gets the best dialogue in the book, lines of acerbic wit and frank humor. Finally, Mira’s sexuality and self-confidence are so refreshing.
  2. Computer science gets a shout-out, and it’s not the typical nerd locked in a room writing code about how to get chicks variety. Instead, Mira discovers in computer science a language she can relate to, a framework through which she can develop and express her other interests (in this book, shoes.). Since that’s what computer science actually is but is so rarely shown to be, I was thrilled. (And I’m not a computer scientist…. just a CS enthusiast, I guess.)
  3. I found all the interactions between Sam and Mira and Sam and Jake to be heartwarming, at times poignant, and often very amusing.
  4. Jake’s angst. I am actually a sucker for a wounded hero story (so, you know, grain of salt and all that), but Bell’s handling of Jake’s internalization of his injury and his resulting identity crisis was powerful and felt authentic. So, too, was his journey towards healing, self-acceptance, and love. Jake’s angst about sex was really interesting (because usually romance novel heroes exhibit unassailable sexual confidence) and endearing.

And, of course, there were some things I didn’t like so much. While Jake and Mira have a past relationship that helps to explain some of the strength of their physical attraction for one another, it *almost* bordered on the insane chemistry of instalust. Maybe it’s just me, but it pissed me off that Jake, after he had his Aha! (Aha! I’ve been an asshole. OOPS.) moment, waited three weeks to make things up to Mira, because it was so important that he get himself sorted. It further annoyed me that he orchestrated this big production to surprise her. Nope. Love doesn’t need everything to be just so, and love doesn’t leave someone in suspense just for the sake of one’s pride. (As for the big production… those just annoy me in general.)

But the bottom line is that Hold on Tight is still one of the best secret baby stories I’ve ever read.

After surviving the Napoleonic Wars, Sir Benedict Harper is struggling to move on, his body and spirit in need of a healing touch. Never does Ben imagine that hope will come in the form of a beautiful woman who has seen her own share of suffering. After the lingering death of her husband, Samantha McKay is at the mercy of her oppressive in-laws—until she plots an escape to distant Wales to claim a house she has inherited. Being a gentleman, Ben insists that he escort her on the fateful journey.
 
Ben wants Samantha as much as she wants him, but he is cautious. What can a wounded soul offer any woman? Samantha is ready to go where fate takes her, to leave behind polite society and even propriety in her desire for this handsome, honorable soldier. But dare she offer her bruised heart as well as her body? The answers to both their questions may be found in an unlikely place: in each other’s arms.

Some of my favorite wounded hero romance novels are historical romances. (My favorite, in case you’re wondering, is England’s Perfect Hero by Suzanne Enoch.) I was poised to love this book — it’s about a widow who intends to go her own way, eschewing propriety, even, and a wounded hero — but, sadly, The Escape isn’t on my list of favorites.  It was still an enjoyable read…eventually.

It’s just that the beginning is so awkward. Part of that awkwardness may be attributed to the book’s position as the third in a series of six Survivor’s Club novels about the romantic antics of five wounded veterans and one lady quasi-spy. (I haven’t read the first two books in the series.) The Escape opens with all six Survivors gathered at the estate where they all convalesced some years before. That opening chapter reads like a strange prologue that sets up the stories of all the Survivors but otherwise does not pertain to this story. And the introduction of all those characters who don’t feature in this story is kind of awkward… so much name dropping, so little happening.

The story actually begins in chapter 2 (so it’s not a long, strange prologue), but the awkwardness continues in some truly odd lines of dialogue. Consider this line, delivered by Ben’s sister:

“…But — you jumped a hedge, Ben? Where is my hartshorn? Ah, I have just remembered — I do not possess any, not being the vaporish short, though you could easily make a convert of me.”

Who talks like that? The infodumping dialogue got to be distracting, and it was really a shame, because I liked Ben, Samantha, and their respective stories. Honestly, the only reason I continued reading the book after the fourth or fifth chapter was that it has amusing animal antics (a dog named Tramp). At about the halfway point, though, I started to enjoy myself, because the book shifted locales and became much more focused on the heroine’s story. (And either the writing got less awkward or I simply got used to it.) By the end, I was happy I’d read the book. I guess that’s the bottom line.

As in Back to You and Hold on Tight, the injured hero in The Escape must find a new identity (or, more accurately, uncover the identity that is enmeshed with his military vocation and apply it to a new vocation). The first half of the book (the half I didn’t like so much) spends a lot of time discussing Ben’s listlessness, and while some time is spent on introducing and developing Samantha, it’s accurate to say that Ben is the star of the narrative. But once Ben and Samantha arrive in Wales, Samantha becomes an active participant in the story — the second half of the story is about her just as much as it is about Ben. Overall, I would have liked the book much better if there were not an abrupt turning point where Samantha ceased to be a figure in Ben’s landscape and became her own individual, worthy of having her own story. (To be clear: Ben’s story was not diminished in the second half of the book: he still struggles to find himself, to work towards a healthy identity.)

By the way… this is the first Mary Balogh book I’ve ever read. I hear that her back list contains some amazing books… What should I read?

What do you think about the wounded hero trope? (Or about bananas… I just want to have a conversation, and I don’t care what it’s about.)

If you’re interested in any of these books, click on the cover images to visit their pages on Goodreads. Back to You was released on January 7 (e-book) and July 29 (paperback) by Forever. Hold on Tight was released on June 17 as an e-book by Loveswept. The Escape was released on July 1 as an e-book and paperback by Dell. For more information about the authors, check out their websites: Jessica Scott, Serena Bell, and Mary Balogh.

*FTC Disclosure – I received e-galleys via NetGalley from Forever (Back to You) and Dell (The Escape) for review consideration. I purchased my copy of Hold on Tight.*

What I’ve been reading lately – books by Charlotte Stein

So do you remember back in March when I said I was on a bit of a Charlotte Stein kick? All told, I read ten of her books over the last few months, and today I’m going to talk about two of them.

Stein writes erotica with a distinctive voice, one I like (obviously). The thing is, erotica doesn’t come naturally to me. My neurosis and overactive sense of humor work against me, and my hyper-awareness of awkward details tends to pull me out of whatever mood an author is trying to create. Further, I’m always 100% aware that I’m reading erotica, that — at some point in the not too distant future — the characters are going to get nekkid and start doing things to one another. Whenever it becomes clear that the nekkid moment is approaching, my mind starts playing a porn soundtrack loop, and nervous giggling is not far off. There is an incompatibility between my brain and most erotica.

Stein’s erotica, on the other hand, doesn’t pose the same difficulty. Even when her characters are engaging in absolutely filthy acts of depravity (says the pearl-clutcher within me), they seem just as surprised by it as I am. By acknowledging the awkwardness of human sexuality and yet embracing (with both hands) the unfettered joy of fantasy, Stein crafts erotica that is funny, touching, poignant, and, finally, beautiful, even when she surprises her characters into a foursome with a side of rimming.

When Alice Evans finds a bona fide movie star on the floor of her living room, she has no idea what to do. Ordinary men are frightening enough, never mind someone as famous and frankly gorgeous as Holden Stark.

However, once she realizes that Holden is suffering behind that famous facade, she knows she has to help. He needs someone like her to give him a taste of sweetness and desire and love. He needs normality. The only problem is—Alice is hiding a secret that is far from normal. In fact, her name isn’t even Alice at all.

And once Holden finds out, the intense connection they are just beginning to build may well be torn apart.

I read Beyond Repair in one sitting, pretty much, and I started reading it all over again the minute I finished it. After the third read, I had to force myself to move on to another book, because all I wanted to do was keep on reading this one until the end of time. Months later, I’m not sure that I can explain my reaction to the book. (Beyond Repair and I have insane chemistry together, maybe?) I mean, it has all my favorite things: neurotic heroine; story told from heroine’s POV; third-person past narrative (a narrative style that is — to me — as comfortable as cotton granny panties. Maybe it’s just me, but a first-person present narrative is about as comfortable as a cheap lace thong; you can’t ever forget it’s there, slightly abrasive, pressing up against your intimate areas. Just saying…); a mysterious back story; epic movie references; a smitten, supplicant hero; a spectacular ending. (Beyond Repair also managed to make butt-licking vaguely sexy — I didn’t think that was possible — and believable as something these characters would actually do and enjoy.) All told, the book is, to me, an exemplar of pitch-perfect erotica. And it made me cry (in a good way).

When Madison Morris decides to hire an assistant to help run her naughty bookshop, she gets a lot more than she bargained for. Aggressive Andy doesn’t quite make the grade, but continues to push her buttons in other areas, while uptight and utterly repressed Gabriel can’t quite take Madison’s training techniques. One makes her grasp control, while the other makes her lose it. But the lines are blurring and she’s no longer sure who’s leading and who’s following. In the midst of kinky threesomes and power plays, can Madison work out what she really wants?

Control is the second Stein book I read, after I begged folk on Twitter (thank you @mojitana, @LietoFine7 and @ruthieknox!!!) for recommendations. (I read Doubled first, which is awesome, hilarious, dirty as hell, surprising, and slightly disturbing, all rolled up in a glorious coming-of-age (ish) menage story involving a set of twins and their lady friend. Yeah. You read that right.) Control was completely unexpected — even though the blurb warned me — and wonderfully wrong. I mean, the book opens with a job interview/lurid encounter during which the heroine/narrator marvels — with impressive emotional distance — at its even happening. Later, Madison finds herself stumbling into a relationship with another guy, one whose issues are legion but who better suits her undefined, unexplored and mostly unacknowledged (but still accepted) wants and needs.  Actually, that’s an important point: Madison, like many of Stein’s heroines, “finds herself” doing all manner of things, and I mean that both literally and figuratively.

Madison is a slightly unreliable narrator whose emotional disconnect is explained (her father was “controlling”) but perhaps never quite understood (by me, I mean). But, even though I didn’t fully understand why Madison was so reticent to acknowledge the emotional nature of her relationship(s), I still thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading Control and have recommended it to a few people. I liked the way it discussed the power dynamics of a nontraditional workplace relationship (lady boss, man employee) and the way Gabe’s relationship with Madison freed him from some of his repression and fear. I wish it had been equally clear what Madison gained from the relationship (and all the nekkid shenanigans) — but perhaps that’s just part of a first-person narrative — and I wish that Andy had not been left swinging in the breeze. The things I loved about the book, however, more than made up for these slight reservations.

For more information on Beyond Repair and Control, click on the cover images above to visit the books’ pages on Goodreads. If you’re interested in Charlotte Stein (and you should be), check out her website and Twitter.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of Beyond Repair from the author in exchange for review consideration. I purchased my copy of Control. *

Dual Review: Tasha and I talk about The Chocolate Heart and The Chocolate Temptation by Laura Florand

When I read The Chocolate Thief, I realized Tasha (from Truth, Beauty, Freedom, & Books) just had to read it (and all the books in the Amour et Chocolate series. I mean: Paris, ’nuff said. We decided to talk about The Chocolate Heart and The Chocolate Temptation today.  Check out Tasha’s blog for the first half of our conversation and read on for the second half. (You can totally read the second half first.)

Charles Thévenin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 Happy Bastille Day!

She hated him.

Patrick Chevalier. The charming, laid-back, golden second-in-command of the Paris pastry kitchen where Sarah worked as intern, who made everything she failed at seem so easy, and who could have every woman he winked at falling for him without even trying. She hated him, but she’d risked too much for this dream to give up on it and walk out just so he wouldn’t break her heart.

But he didn’t hate her.

Sarah Lin. Patrick’s serious, dark-haired American intern, who looked at him as if she could see right through him and wasn’t so impressed with what she saw. As her boss, he knew he should leave her alone. The same way he knew better than to risk his heart and gamble on love.

But he was never good at not going after what – or who – he wanted.

He could make magic out of sugar. But could he mold hate into love?

Tasha: I kind of have an issue with this blurb. I mean, it’s a GREAT blurb in that made me really want to read the book, but it’s also totally inaccurate. It’s obvious from page one that Sarah doesn’t “hate” Patrick—totally the opposite. And I think the blurb ignores most, if not all, of the actual themes in the story, like following your dreams and how it’s a Cinderella tale.

Kelly: Except not really a Cinderella tale, because Cinderella stories suck. (That’s my favorite scene in the book, by the way, because I’m with Patrick: Cinderella stories suck.)

Tasha: Aw I like Cinderella stories. But you’re right in that both Patrick and Sarah end up being one another’s “fairy godmother,” so to speak.

Kelly: My antipathy towards Cinderella stories stems from the Disney movie and the number of times I had to watch it with my daughters. (Tangent: my eldest has issues with narrative conflict, so, for a while, we had to avoid all movies that involved any sort of conflict. Guess what that leaves? CINDERELLA. It’s got no conflict at all, really. I mean, at one point the Stepmother locks Cinderella up, sure, but it’s not really a conflict, is it? Cinderella’s such a passive character that it just rates as something that happens, another problem the mice will solve for her. UGH. /tangent) Anyway, I appreciated Patrick’s dismissal of Cinderella stories and his conclusion that his and Sarah’s story, while it might have the outward appearance of a Cinderella tale, differed in its content because he and Sarah were just not as lame as Cinderella and her Prince.

Tasha: lol I honestly don’t even remember that scene. I do agree that Cinderella is pretty passive, though, and that does pose a problem for modern readers. Florand did a good job of keeping the fairy tale elements of the story while making Sarah and Patrick act for their own self-interest in a believable way.

Kelly: Is Luc the evil step-mother?

Tasha: Haha! Obvs. Actually I would say they each have their own evil stepmothers, wouldn’t you? With Sarah it’s her mom and with Patrick it’s Luc. But they’re not straight-up evil.

Kelly: I was going to say that Sarah is her own evil stepmother…I mean, her mom definitely has things she wants for Sarah, but Sarah internalizes so much that I’d guess that most of the stuff that drives her or holds her back is actually from within.

Tasha: By the time she’s an adult, yes. At first Sarah kind of annoyed me with her obsession with perfectionism and her complexes over never being good enough.

Kelly: I loved all of that about her, because my reading crack is an insecure heroine whom the hero appreciates and who learns to appreciate herself. (Seriously. That’s the reason I liked the Twilight books the first time I read them. I was a goner at the bit about Bella just not seeing herself clearly. The books could have been ten times more crazy than they are, and I still would have been like, Gosh, this book is awesome. It’s a problem.) BUT, yes. When I struggle to ignore my madness and be reasonable about the whole thing, it is a trifle annoying that Sarah is actually super awesome at everything but has the self esteem of an utter fuckup.

Tasha: Patrick, on the other hand, I adored, even though I saw some readers complaining that he’s stalkerish. Which is actually pretty valid—he does go all Edward Cullen on Sarah (wait—is this book actually based on Twilight???).

Kelly: Maybe.

Tasha: Vampires do like their food, Kelly. ANYWAY, I agree that Patrick was a little stalkerish, but I think Florand was using that to address the power imbalance between him and Sarah directly instead of just ignoring it, which happens WAY too often in most romance novels. And I also think that the interpretation of him “courting” Sarah as opposed to stalking her was really sweet (and also probably why I have a weakness for stalky Edward Cullen heroes).

Kelly: I was OK with the “courting” bit because we got to view some of Patrick’s POV and were able to see that he was aware of the power imbalance and that he was trying to even it a bit. If the story had been told exclusively from Sarah’s POV, I might have found it creepy. You know, unless there was a bit of dialogue wherein Patrick told Sarah that she just didn’t see herself clearly. Because… *drool*

Tasha: Right. I also liked how Florand showed us the “dark side” of Patrick’s charm, and how he used it to push people away. On the inside he was SO DAMN BROODY. There was a point in the book where he literally did this:

LITERALLY. Except maybe for the signing.

Kelly: Surfer-boy Patrick with the internal brooding is pretty much my favorite thing ever. I’ve got that insane soft spot for insecure heroines, but I’ve got an even bigger one for broody, moody heroes. (If Patrick had been grumpy, to boot, he’d be my version of perfection…)

Tasha: I love me a broody hero, but a SECRETLY broody hero? *swoon*

Kelly: Yes, I’ll join you on that fainting couch. I love secretly broody heroes. (But my favorite heroes are always grumpy, grouchy, moody assholes on the outside and mushy on the inside. Like… sourdough bread.)  That said, Patrick’s internal broodiness is pretty much made of mush, so, YES, I loved him something fierce.

Tasha: If he was grumpy, too, then he would be Luc. Was there anything you didn’t like about the book?

Kelly: Yes, but Luc had that stifling sense of control, and my favorite thing ever is a hero who just can’t control himself (except, to clarify, I don’t include rapey heroes from the 80s, because, NO.). You know, like Edward not being able to control stalking Bella or Patrick not being able to keep away from Sarah.. all those feelings he just couldn’t control. Luc mushed out only in his desserts, and I want a bit more expression and passion from my favorite heroes.  Anyway, your question… I think I loved everything about the book, honestly, but I recognize that it’s because the book hit so many of my favorite buttons. Maybe I can’t be unbiased about it, you know?

Tasha: It hit a lot of my favorite buttons, too, but I also had some major problems with it. It took me a while to get into it because there was SO much internal monologuing in the first few chapters. Like I swear it took Sarah 5 paragraphs to pay for a beer because she kept thinking about why she needed to pay for the beer and not Patrick. I was like, “I get it already!” I think that’s an issue for Florand when she doesn’t have an editor riding her butt about it. I also thought the book was way too long. The ending dragged on and on and on.

Kelly: LOL. I was like a crack addict who didn’t want the high to end. I was like, “Just keep going! Explain all the things! Give me more!” because I have an illness.  But, yeah. You’re totally right.

Tasha: And I think it bothered me that much because it’s a *Laura Florand* novel, and if it had been edited down more it would have seriously been one of the best novels I’d ever read.

Kelly: Yeah, it’s true. For the record (and, also, somewhat obviously), I’m willing to overlook a whole pile of crap if an author delivers me my drug of choice, but… it is probably better if that crap isn’t there to be endured or overlooked. (Especially because we all have a slightly different drug of choice, no?) This is sort of beside the point, but I had some similar thoughts when reading Sun-Kissed recently. I would have loved the holy hell out of that book if it had been edited a little more harshly.

Tasha: Yeah, I felt the same way about Snow-Kissed, actually. So of the two, is there a better one, do you think?

Kelly: Well, I think Temptation is better than Heart, but… well, I was going to say I think that not because of my bias but because Temptation tells a clearer story and doesn’t rely on miscommunication as a plot device, but I just remembered that it totally does. (It’s there in the blurb that isn’t 100% accurate: Sarah “hates” Patrick because she loves him and she’s convinced that he’s just dallying with her. Patrick loves Sarah but has some issues and is unable to let anyone (including Sarah) know what he wants. Shenanigans ensue.) Soo.. I don’t know if one is better than the other, but I know that I’m very glad I read them both.

Tasha: I think Heart is better written than Temptation, so I’d probably recommend that one first; but I agree the story in Temptation is better. Not just clearer and with more likable characters, but more transformative and more fully-realized. I do love Persephone stories, though… In more than one way the novels balance each other out. They’re kind of a paired set of books—not a series so much as companion novels. You really do have to read both if you’re going to read one.

Thanks for recommending these books to me, Kelly!

Kelly: You are welcome. I’m just glad you liked them. :)

Remember to head on over to Tasha’s blog to check out our discussion on The Chocolate Heart. Let us know in the comments (or on Twitter) if you’ve read these books — or if you haven’t — and if you’ve ever read a book that you just loved to pieces even though it had some issues.

Kelly & Kim’s dueling review of The Chocolate Thief (Amour et Chocolate #1) by Laura Florand

So about a year ago, Ruthie Knox recommended The Chocolate Thief on one of her What-to-Read Wednesday posts, and I picked it up because leather pants ass grabbing. I’d already read (and loved) Florand’s Turning Up the Heat (La Vie En Roses # 0.5), but I’ll be honest and admit that I wasn’t sure the Amour et Chocolate books would be up my alley. I’m not super interested in either chocolate or Paris, and the cover of the book made it look like a Kinsella book about shopping and/or horrible people (totally not my thing). But the hope of leather pants ass grabbing proved irresistible. I bought the book, read it in one sitting, and then started recommending it to everyone. (Folks on Twitter, my mom, that lady in line in front of me at the cafeteria… Seriously, everyone.) And I pestered Kim about it almost incessantly until she agreed to pick it up.

Here’s the blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

The Parisian sorcerer of artisan chocolate, handsome Frenchman Sylvain Marquis, and the American empress of chocolate bars, Cade Corey, play a decadent game of seduction and subterfuge that causes them both to melt with desire.

Kim: Kelly likes to think she pestered me into reading The Chocolate Thief but she didn’t. I trust her judgment implicitly with book recommendations. She only had to tell me it was a good story and I was in. And honestly, the plot summary above was so simple and lacking specifics that the “seduction and subterfuge” line had me immediately interested. (Plus the whole leather pants ass grabbing thing…..)

Kelly: I think Florand should add a few words to the end of the blurb… It should read, “…seduction and subterfuge that causes them both to melt with desire and leather pants ass grabbing.” IMHO.

Kim: To which I add – “seduction and subterfuge that causes them both to melt with desire and leather pants ass grabbing…on the stairs.”

Kelly: “…leather pants ass grabbing… on the stairs…and on a marble countertop.”

Kim: Those two scenes. HAWT. Seriously though, the scene of foreplay UP the stairs was so well written. The heat was palpable and the sexual chemistry between Cade and Sylvain flew off the pages.

Kelly: Yes, that stairway scene is one of my favorite scenes (in any book) ever.

Kim: The only one (for me) that could top it would be the night Cade doesn’t break into Sylvain’s laboratoire. He is so heartbroken over her not showing up, that he pours his soul into making her a dark, bitter chocolate.

Kelly: Honestly, that whole section of the book is my favorite. Sylvain’s dark, bitter chocolate of unrequited love (also the first moment I realized that Sylvain meant business); the scene with Christophe the food blogger (and the unwillingness of French people to sell Cade anything, including milk); and Sylvain wandering around the city trying to find her, then going to sleep and discovering the next morning that she broke into his laboratoire again and made him a s’more. Except he doesn’t know what the fuck it is, and… he’s so right. S’mores are disgusting when you think about it — especially from the perspective of a different culture’s palate — but he still treasures it, even though it’s a sign she’s completely nuts. I love those three scenes, because they show so clearly why Cade and Sylvain love each other (and they’re funny scenes, which is always nice).

Kim: The scenes with Christophe were so funny! Sylvain getting jealous every time Christophe would talk to Cade helped me get a sense of the depth of his feelings. (If Florand hasn’t already written a book starring Christophe, may I heartily recommend that she do so soon?)

Kelly: That would be lovely. OK, switching gears real quick… can we talk about Sylvain’s family? I want to be invited to one of those parties. God… the cows!

Kim: Yes! Those parties seem wild! Their quirkiness was a perfect contrast to Sylvain’s abrupt, arrogant personality.  His dad is this super friendly guy, his sister a confident businesswoman, and his mom a stereotypical French woman of class, fashion, and arrogance.

Kelly: But you get all of them together and they throw themed parties and dress up like farmers and cows and whatever else. They are irrepressible and so fully alive, and it’s neat to see that Sylvain comes from that, from a place of love, acceptance and fun, especially because Cade has a tendency to take herself too seriously.

Kim: Do you know what I thought was the best scene that helped us as readers see that Sylvain could relax and enjoy life? I think it’s when he buys Cade the little teddy bear finger puppet. Just because it was fun. Just because it made him think of her.

Kelly: And I loved that she didn’t really understand what had possessed him to get it for her, but she took it with her as a talisman — in addition to her traditional Corey bar — when she had to leave. Anyway, I loved that Sylvain recognized that Cade was the type of person to need (or just appreciate) a token of affection.

Kim: And also, as you said, she needs talismans. She finds strength in the objects that she holds close to her heart. That Corey bar represents her family, her business, and in a way the personal identity she’s held all the years prior to meeting Sylvain.

That teddy bear finger puppet begins to represent the individual she’s becoming, as well as Sylvain himself. It represents her changing personality, her changing dreams, and a new “Cade” defined not by her family, name, or money but by her own (new) aspirations.

Kelly: I wasn’t sure what to think of Cade at first. Even though I knew the book eventually contained leather pants ass grabbing, I still thought it was about shopping and vacationing in Paris — and consuming outrageous amounts of chocolate — for much of Cade’s introduction. It’s a little stupid how tightly I held to my preconceived notions about the book. (Especially stupid given that Ruthie Knox’s recommendation specifically mentioned that the book was not as it appeared, that there was leather pants ass grabbing and general awesomeness.) My slowness to catch on really should not be held against the book.

Kim: I enjoyed Cade a lot! She was a woman with ideas. Dreams.  I also like that she was the billionaire of the story. She has financial independence (which is always nice to see in a romance) and is powerful in a business context. AND she’s ballsy.

Kelly: Yes, I agree. It’s so rare to find a book with a lady billionaire, and I thought it interesting that (1) her being a billionaire isn’t really a big thing in the story, not a defining characteristic, outside of her typically American free-market capitalist assumptions, of course; (2) she never buys Sylvain clothing; (3) Sylvain is vaguely uncomfortable about her wealth because of the cultural imbalance (his French and her American approaches do not exactly mesh) not because of a power imbalance in the relationship… The money doesn’t have anything to do with his masculinity or her femininity. Those three things were pretty damn refreshing.

Kim: Agreed! High marks for the money not mattering! I also enjoyed how passionate she was about the things that mattered to her. Cade (along with her sister Jaime) worked to change the corporate policy of Corey Chocolate to get their ingredients from farming co-ops. Cade also wanted to make Corey Chocolate better – trying to get a Parisian Chocolatier to help her make a high-end chocolate bar that appealed to the foodies out there. It was refreshing to see a character that was passionate about stuff outside of what women are “normally” passionate about.

Kelly: Yes, like magic penis.

Kim: YES. And shopping. And marriage. And finding a man.

Kelly: I think my favorite thing about Cade is that she comes from this wealthy, powerful family, but her dream is to create a (yes, mass-produced) higher quality line of chocolate that is still accessible to the masses. She enjoys Sylvain’s chocolate so much, and I think it breaks her heart a little bit that only the privileged few get to enjoy it.

I’m not sure that Sylvain quite understands Cade’s strong egalitarian streak, but I started to fall in love with him a little bit when he follows Cade’s lead and starts giving his beautiful chocolates to the homeless man in the gardens.  I needed that demonstration to fall in love with Sylvain, because I didn’t immediately connect with him. (I thought he was kind of a jerk, actually.) Maybe I needed to read a few Florand novels to adjust to her voice and characterizations — because I honestly seem to be loving them more and more with each one I read — or maybe I just needed to read The Chocolate Touch to pick up on some of Sylvain’s better character traits that I missed the first time around. I’m not sure if that means that I’m just dim or if the book was too subtle in stressing Sylvain’s fine points. Either way, on the first read-though, I thought he was kind of an arrogant ass — albeit a sexay one — and I wasn’t really sure if I wanted him to have an HEA with Cade until I reached the ending; on the second read-through, I fell in love with him (again) during his first scene.

Kim: I myself did not like Sylvain either. To be honest I’m still not his biggest fan. I think Kelly is on to something when she says that his fine points are stressed too subtly. The very few times we see the non-arrogant side, he’s great! But his constant remarks about how Corey Chocolate is ridiculous, and about American wealth, and blah blah blah – it just doesn’t leave much to see about his personality besides arrogance. He is an arrogant chocolatier first and foremost and that’s a-ok. But his other dimensions needed to be developed better.

Kelly:  Here’s something I find interesting — when he’s internally reacting to Cade, the word he uses to describe her over and over is “arrogant.” He finds her American approach to business, her unassailable confidence as a businesswoman, arrogant. At the time, I was bothered by that, because I was like, hey now. Your only character trait other than chocolate making — so far — is arrogance. Sooo…. I dunno, pot or kettle?

Kim: I think that because his arrogance is so in your face you, as a reader, are unable to see any of his other qualities. Having to read a character’s story multiple times to understand them isn’t unheard of it. (Holla any English major/minors out there!) Reading them several times over is how you analyze them. How you get to know all their nuances. But your average reader of The Chocolate Thief is not reading it to analyze it. They are reading it for fun. Or for an escape.

Kelly: Maybe… but one of the things that I like so well about Florand’s books is that they are so layered that I can enjoy them as an escapist read (that is going to make me yearn for delicious chocolate) or as a journey into the psyches of these fascinating characters, an exploration of love, what it means, and what it does.  Part of the difficulty with Thief, perhaps,is that it is a world-building book. Florand’s Paris is a distinct character in these books, and the development of the setting almost distracts from the story in Thief from time to time. (Could just be me, though. I don’t have any kind of comfort with the French language, and all the French words sprinkled in forced me to subvocalize with a terrible French accent. It was like this in my head.

It’s been a year since I first read The Chocolate Thief, a year that I spent binge reading and rereading all of the other Amour et Chocolate books. I liked Thief when I read it — certainly enough to buy and read all the other books — but it didn’t blow me away. I’ve read it three times, now, and it improves considerably on each read. (I’ve read a lot of reviews of this book saying that it doesn’t feel as strong as Florand’s other books, and I wonder if it’s because you have to read it twice. And I wonder if that’s actually a bad thing.)

Kim: Normally I’d be ok reading a book more than once. (I in fact normally do read books more than once. Like finish it and pick it right back up to read immediately.) BUT, when I’m binging on a series (read: most series’ I read) I want to read the first one, pick up the next, then the next, and so on and so on. With The Chocolate Thief I finished it then went on to the next books, still disliking Sylvain any other time I saw him in the surrounding books. And the more time I spent away from The Chocolate Thief the less I liked it. (It probably didn’t help that I absolutely fell head-over-heels in love with The Chocolate Touch and The Chocolate Rose) I found other works that stood out to me in her series and felt the need to like Sylvain lessen over time. Had I picked up Thief immediately after finishing it I may have liked Sylvain and felt the need to reread the book again down the road. As it is, you’ll be more apt to find me rereading The Chocolate Rose over and over and over and over and over again. Until the binding breaks and the pages fall out, all out-of-order.

Kelly: Thank God for e-books.

Our final thoughts

Kim: In the end, though I found the story well done, I felt that the characters were slightly underdeveloped. Upon additional reads the characters do begin to make themselves known more. While reading a book multiple times to get a sense of who the characters truly are is slightly bothersome, I can’t complain when that book takes place in a Parisian chocolate laboratoire.

Kelly: And on the stairs. To be perfectly honest, my favorite thing about this book is that it paves the way for all the Amour et Chocolate books to follow. Well, my favorite thing besides the stairs. Because, oh my God, you guys. You need to read this book just for the stair scene. And the leather pants ass grabbing. And the bitter chocolate of unrequited love. And the ending. Just… just read it, OK?

(You know you can click on the cover above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads and learn more about it, right? You can also check out Laura Florand’s website to learn more about this and other books and to get tons of recommendations for artisan chocolate. And her newsletter is fun.. just saying.)

Kim and I did a dueling review of Laugh by Mary Ann Rivers

I get excited whenever Mary Ann Rivers releases a piece of writing, whether it’s a blog post at Wonkomance or a full-length novel. I get excited about her newsletter. I was particularly excited to read Laugh, because its hero, Sam, was my favorite secondary character in the first Burnside novel, Live. I really wanted to understand what made Sam so difficult, and I got what I wanted and then some.

Kim (from Reflections of a Book Addict) and I decided to review Laugh together (because it’s just more fun to write reviews together). For tradition’s sake, we’ve called it a dueling review. I’ll be honest, though. We didn’t actually duel anything in our review. Check it out!

Dr. Sam Burnside is convinced that volunteering at an urban green-space farm in Lakefield, Ohio, is a waste of time—especially with his new health clinic about to open. He only goes to mollify his partner, suspecting she wants him to lighten up. Then Sam catches sight of Nina Paz, a woman who gives off more heat than a scorcher in July. Her easy smile and flirty, sizzling wit has him forgetting his infamous need for control.

Widowed when her husband was killed in Afghanistan, Nina has learned that life exists to take chances. As the daughter of migrant workers turned organic farmers, she’s built an exciting and successful business by valuing new opportunities and working hard to take care of her own. But when Sam pushes for a relationship that goes beyond their hotter-than-fire escapades, Nina ignores her own hard-won wisdom. She isn’t ready for a man who needs saving—even if her heart compels her to take the greatest risk of all: love.

Laugh was released on May 6, 2014 as an e-book by Loveswept. To learn more about the book, click on the cover image above to visit its page on Goodreads. To learn more about Mary Ann Rivers (and join her mailing list, so you, too, can get excited about your email), check out her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley for review consideration from the publisher via NetGallley.*

Review – A Promise of More by Bronwen Evans

HI. It’s been a while, I know. I’ve been reading, but I have not had very much time lately for writing. I am hoping that over the next few weeks I can catch up a bit on my backlog of reviews. We’ll see how that goes.

I read A Promise of More in early April, and…well, I should let this tweet speak for me.

When Beatrice Hennessey sets out to confront Lord Coldhurst, the notorious rogue who killed her brother in a duel, her intent is to save her family from destitution. She’s determined to blackmail the man into a loveless marriage. She’ll make the wealthy Lord Coldhurst pay for the rest of his life. But while greeting his ship, Beatrice takes a tumble into the Thames—only to be fished out by a pair of strong masculine arms that tempt her to stay locked in their heated embrace forever. That is, until she realizes those arms belong to Sebastian Hawkestone, Lord Coldhurst himself.
 
The little drowned mermaid has an interesting proposition indeed; one that Sebastian is surprised to find quite agreeable. Although he’s had women more beautiful, she is pleasing to the eye, and besides, it’s time he fathered an heir. Beatrice promises to be the ideal wife; a woman who hates him with an all-consuming passion is far too sensible to expect romance. However, it isn’t long before Sebastian’s plan for a marriage of convenience unravels, and he’s caught up in the exhilarating undertow of seduction.

You may remember that I read (and was ambivalent about) the first book in this series, A Kiss of LiesI had fairly high expectations for A Promise of More based on the many things I enjoyed about the first book. I expected well-wrought characters, good writing, an interesting, fast-moving plot, and a compelling romance. I hoped that it wouldn’t contain any distressing social missteps. Maybe it’s my fault for expecting so much, but I was utterly confounded by A Promise of More. The characters made no sense, the writing was frequently weak, the plot was kinda crazy, and the romance was… well… not compelling.

In fact, I felt like I was reading my 32nd Stephanie Laurens book, if Laurens had fired all her editors and lost her mind a little bit.

Sebastian reminded me of the hero of All About PassionBoth heroes are convinced that love and passion are the source of all evil in a relationship and seek to marry women for whom they feel no passion; both heroes are thwarted in their goal and end up — through pure male stupidity — married to women for whom their loins BURN (but not in an STI way, thank goodness); both heroes spend an uncomfortable amount of time trying to deny the passion and love they feel, trying to convince the heroines that they will never, ever love them. Also, both heroes are total douche ponies.

Beatrice reminded me a little bit of all of Laurens’ heroines, because her entire character arc was focused — once she realized that Sebastian wasn’t a murderer — on getting Sebastian to say the magic words, “I love you.” I’m not exaggerating.

A Promise of More also has an intrigue plot (just like every Laurens book). The thing is, when the conflict between the characters is as lame as one character saying, “I will never love you, because I am opposed to love!” and the other character saying, “I am going to get you to admit that you love me, because… reasons!” you really need a solid intrigue plot to move things along and keep people reading. This book had a mystery — who killed Doogie?! — and an obvious and rapetastic villain who would have been improved by a sinister mustache. There is also an irritating she-villain. (Further, the intrigue plot is a bit problematic. It relies heavily on violence and the threat of violence against the heroine, and there is an actual ripped bodice.)

I might not have noticed the parallels between this book and Laurens’ canon — strangely enough — if the first sex scene in A Promise of More had not included a reference to flying and stars bursting and firestorms of desire. Laurens is famous for writing OTT sex scenes that are incredibly descriptive and employ strange, celestial references. Evans seems to be following in those footsteps. After that first star burst, the other similarities just stuck out to me.

I read an ARC, so it’s possible that some of the weird stuff in the book got cleaned up in a last-minute bit of editing. (I hope so.) There are plenty of conversations wherein the characters repeat themselves, and there was one hilarious moment where the heroine — who had been hanging onto the bed during some naked gymnastics — was suddenly clinging to the “bed head.” These things are minor and easily overlooked when the rest of the book is interesting; but when the rest of the book reminds you of a Stephanie Laurens book, it’s hard not to notice and be irritated by editing issues.

So where does this leave me? Except for one thing, I enjoyed the first book in the series, and I am inclined to hope that this book’s issues are a fluke. I’m not sure what it means about me that I could spend an entire post detailing all the things I disliked about a book and then conclude that I’ll happily pony up to read the next one… but it’s true.

A Promise of More was released on April 15, 2014 as an e-book by Loveswept. If you’re curious about the book, click on the cover image above to visit its page on Goodreads. To learn more about Bronwen Evans, check out her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley for review consideration from the publisher via NetGalley.*