The battle of the stereotypes: douche-canoe vs. cat lady

Hi again! So a couple of months ago (or something? Whatever. Some time ago. Any mention of time gets really complicated when it takes me months to write a damn post.), I saw a series of tweets from Charlotte Stein about how much she loved Magic Mike XXL. I was particularly struck by these:

(I mean, sort of as an aside, I think your life is missing something if you’re not following Charlotte Stein on Twitter. She’s magical.) Anyway, these tweets struck me because I’d read and was sort of mentally circling Jessica Clare’s latest billionaire release, and they helped me identify an element about the book that I found both fascinating and a little problematic.

Edie’s an overbearing cat behaviorist who’s not big on people. Magnus is a newly-rich game developer who likes to be in control. When the two of them meet at Gretchen and Hunter’s masquerade engagement party, the loathing is mutual. Unfortunately for them—and everyone else—they’re in the wedding party together and must deal with each other for the next few months.

But when Magnus’s younger brother falls for Edie’s sister, he begs for his brother’s help in concocting a plan to win her over. If Magnus can keep the prickly Edie occupied, his brother will have time to woo Edie’s sister. Of course, Magnus isn’t interested in the slightest, but Edie is…intriguing. And stubborn. And smart. And sexy. And they might have more in common than they thought.

Before long, it becomes a challenge between the two of them to see who will be tamed first. But how’s Edie going to react when she finds out that Magnus is using her? And how’s Magnus going to handle the fact that he’s fallen for a cat lady?

I had to read this book, you guys. It had me at Shakespeare, of course, but there was the also the promise of Gretchen (one of my favorite romance heroines of all time) and the cat lady thing. And it totally delivered on all three fronts — as a Taming of the Shrew adaptation it worked almost as well as Ten Things I Hate About You (my favorite adaptation…); there was definitely a lot of Gretchen in the book, and she was as sassy and balls-to-the-wall as I’ve come to expect; and cats ended up figuring prominently in the plot of the book — but the meet cute very nearly derailed the whole thing.

Before Edie is introduced to Magnus, she overhears him and a few of the other groomsmen talking shit about the bridesmaids (dishing on their relative fuckability, basically), and she takes an instant dislike to him both because it’s just a shitty thing to do and because he makes a snide comment about cat ladies. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a Pride and Prejudice fan, and I like the heroine overhears the hero saying something objectionable and takes an instant dislike to him trope as much as anybody. My beef with this particular meet-cute is that Magnus acts in a decidedly unheroic manner (although not nearly as unheroic as the other douchebags in the scene), and that makes it really hard to root for him later on. (Actually, let me interrupt myself again… it’s entirely possible that Clare will make some of those other douchebags the heroes of their own books at some point, so it’s not just a question of Magnus’ being unheroic… I’m wondering if we’ve got an entire series built around — or at least involving — douchey heroes. Anyway, I guess that’s a worry for the future.) There’s a world of difference between “She’s tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me” and “Shut the fuck up…Or I’m gonna insist you hook up with the cat ladies. Just don’t get them too excited or you might end up with a hairball on your–”

I’m hesitating on letting that paragraph stand, by the way, because I’m not 100% certain that I wouldn’t love, just for the sake of its being subversive, a story that centered around a heroine who behaved pretty much the way Magnus does at the beginning of The Taming of the Billionaire. It feels different to me because Magnus isn’t being subversive here… he’s behaving exactly the way I’ve been culturally conditioned to believe all men behave in groups when isolated from women (or when interacting through the buffer of the internet, perhaps). But, honestly? This seems like lazy characterization, and that’s why it bothers me (beyond the obvious that it confirms and perpetuates a ridiculous gender myth; sure, the book seems to say, all men are douchebags, but only until they meet the right cat lady.). This is a Taming of the Shrew adaptation, so there has to be some antipathy between the main characters, and I would have liked it so much more if that antipathy were more complicated than the inherent conflict between a douche-canoe and a cat lady.

(It’s possible that someone out there is still wondering why 10 Things I Hate About You is my favorite adaptation of this story. It’s probably got more to do with my age than anything, but (and I just re-watched it) it still strikes me as funny and interesting and manages to balance its more questionable elements with some unexpected social analysis. I do wish that there were more groveling at the end, but I pretty much always want more groveling.)

Anyway, back to The Taming of the Billionaire… While I was tempted to give up on the book after the inauspicious meet cute, I’m glad I stuck with it. It features perhaps the grandest (certainly the most cat-filled) romantic gesture I’ve ever come
across in a romance novel, and it has all the groveling I could ever want. I’m going to keep reading Jessica Clare’s billionaire stories. Among the veritable horde of such stories, hers stand out for humor and a batch of truly badass heroines who are (for me) the antidote to all those stories about PAs who are swept away by money rain and terrible behavior. Bonus, as of this posting date, The Taming of the Billionaire is $0.99. I’d jump on that if I were you.

*FTC disclosure – I received an e-ARC from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. My opinion is my own.*

2014 – a summary of my reading, contemporary and quirky romance edition

Ok, I know I was supposed to post this earlier in the week, but then my kids got the flu. You know how it goes. Read on for my favorite reads in contemporary romance and the nonexistent subgenre “romance novels that are quirky, perhaps a little nerdy, and also don’t have a lot of sex.” Stay tuned in a couple of days for my final roundup post on erotic romance, erotica, and the two non-romance, non-erotica books I read (and liked) in 2014.

Contemporary romance:

Between the Sheets by Molly O’Keefe
The Chocolate Touch / The Chocolate Temptation by Laura Florand
Laugh by Mary Ann Rivers
Still Life with Strings by L.H. Cosway
Private Politics by Emma Barry
Truly by Ruthie Knox

Look at the list above. These ladies are my auto-buy list for contemporary romance (and, in Molly O’Keefe’s case, for historical as well). Between the Sheets is my favorite of all of O’Keefe’s contemporary romances (that I’ve read: I’ve been saving some of the backlist to savor later on) because its characters just sang to me, especially Shelby. She’s one of those difficult heroines I treasure — her choices may not be the ones “nice” women make, but they’re the ones that make sense for her, even when they’re unhealthy. Ty and Shelby’s story is not lighthearted, but O’Keefe gave me (because, yes, this book is all for me. Back it up, bitches.) a story that was believably gritty and intense without being depressing (despite its forays into elder care, school bullies, incarcerated parents, and the ramifications of abuse).

On a somewhat more lighthearted note, Florand’s The Chocolate Touch and The Chocolate Temptation (along with the other six Florand books I read last year) provided 100% of my hot, French, chocolatier hero needs. Kim and I went gaga for Touch and probably each read it three or four times in a few months (and we’ll probably read it at least once more, soon, because we still need to write our dueling discussion on it.), and Tasha and I discussed Temptation together. If you read the last roundup post, you’ve probably figured out that I’m a sucker for heroines, but it’s Florand’s heroes who always shine. Don’t get me wrong, her heroines are great, but Florand seems keenly aware that there is great power in a hot guy who smells strongly of chocolate, and she capitalizes on that power.

Kim and I reviewed Laugh, so I won’t add too much to my obscene word count here. I loved it for all of its details — the farming and Nina’s shorts, for instance — and for its portrayal of relationships in all their messy glory. Rivers’ characters, Sam grappling with his ADHD and Nina with her grief and fear for her friend, don’t have an easy time of it on their road to love, but sometimes the best things are hard-fought. Tasha said Still Life with Strings was good, so I read it and sent shouty texts to Kim that went like this: “KIM. KIM. KIM. KIM. Did you see Tasha’s post about Still Life with Strings? Have you read it yet? DOOOO IITTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT.” And she did. Lucky me, she loved it, too. (Would have been awkward, otherwise.) Ahem. This book is a tad unconventional (in all the best ways) matching a Stradivarius-wielding, slightly depressive, violinist hero and a bartending, street performing, avant-garde art enthusiast heroine. Mostly, I loved how fun it is and how it doesn’t shy away from class differences & the assumptions of the economically secure.

Private Politics is the second in Barry’s The Easy Part series (which is part The West Wing and part Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — especially the first book in the series — and all romance gold). Private Politics concerns the masks we wear and the stereotypes that can define our lives and limit our chances, if we let them. So blond, perfect, socialite Alyse, used to using her looks and image to get things done (and to being undervalued), learns how to take herself seriously and to demand the same of others. Liam, a somewhat soft, nice Jewish boy, infatuated with Alyse, transitions from lovesick doormat to equal partner (demanding respect along the way). My favorite part was Liam’s mom, but that’s neither here nor there.

Finally, there’s Truly. Now, I’ll be honest. Technically, I read this book for the first time in 2013. (It was serialized on Wattpad), but I read it as a complete book when it was released in 2014, so… I’m counting it anyway. While I’m being honest, I’ve got to tell you that Truly has two of the most potent pieces of Kelly’s reading catnip imaginable: a tall heroine matched with a grumpy hero. For reals, I love those two things so much that my bias is out of this world. But wait, there’s more: Meg starts as an extreme case of mid-western politeness and learns how to be more difficult (and more true to herself) in the wilderness of New York City (and on the road back to Wisconsin); Ben, a grumpy, beekeeping, former chef, alone and adrift, makes what peace he can with his past and does some extraordinary groveling to make up for all the times he was a douchepony. Of course I loved it.

Books I keep trying to get people who don’t like romance to read (a.k.a. quirky romance):

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
The Girl with the Cat Tattoo / The Geek with the Cat Tattoo by Teresa Weir
Neanderthal Seeks Human by Penny Reid

So, here’s the thing. I’m a romance novel enthusiast: I read romance almost exclusively, and I think that most people, if they could get past the mental image of Fabio (oh that we could all get past that image) and the idea that romance fiction — in its entirety — is guilty pleasure reading (Don’t get me wrong… there are things I read that I feel deeply conflicted about enjoying. That just proves to me that I’m doing it right.), could find themselves actually liking a romance novel or two. Romance is frequently not the problem. After all, it’s what makes pretty much any story ever interesting and relevant to humans. Buuuuuuuut…. highly descriptive sex scenes? Now, those are definitely not everybody’s cup of tea.

For those of you bravely reading this blog, certain that you’ll never, ever want to read any of the books I’m talking about because velvet-covered steel and dewy petals (and every synonym for “thrust”), this section is for you.

Attachments is a largely epistolary novel that weaves a story around emails exchanged between Jennifer and Beth, two employees at a newspaper, and narrative about Lincoln, the guy who’s been hired to monitor workplace email and ensure compliance with the company’s email policy. It’s funny and strange and ever so slightly creepy (but the creepiness didn’t bother me so much because Lincoln felt so conflicted about it). I loved it because (1) it was set around Y2K, (2) Beth and Jennifer’s emails are such an accurate depiction of friendship, and (3) it managed to have a totally believable romance even though the characters don’t actually meet until the very end.

The Girl with the Cat Tattoo is a romance and (kind of) murder mystery mostly narrated by the coolest cat ever. I’m a thwarted cat lady (my husband is allergic, so no kitties for me; otherwise, I’d happily end up with a houseful of cats and litter boxes), so the cat narrator appealed to me. The instant I finished it, I purchased The Geek with the Cat Tattoo, which I liked even better (no murder mystery to distract the story from the characters; Geek has a painfully shy human matched with a cat who controls minds and helps bring the reluctant hero and heroine together.).

Neanderthal Seeks Human self-describes as a “smart romance.” It begins in a toilet stall and follows the exploits of its narrator, Janie, an awkward architect/accountant/mathemagician who is two steps shy of autism spectrum. Janie’s POV is incredibly fun to experience, even when she misses all the obvious clues. Three reasons I love Janie: Panty Dance Parties, the way she uses the knitting group as a focus group to determine appropriate emotional responses, and her use of the moniker Sir Handsome McHotpants to refer to Quinn, the hero.  Honestly, I loved all the Knitting Series books, especially Love Hacked, but Neanderthal Seeks Human has a closed bedroom door, so I’m recommending it here. The later books in the series have significantly more sexy times (because their narrators aren’t Janie).

I hope you enjoyed this installment of my 2014 roundup. If you didn’t…

What I’ve been reading lately – books about librarians and trouble

It’s true. I mean, I’ve been pretty much on hiatus for two months (I started writing this post on Sept. 5), so you can safely assume that I’ve been reading lots of books about lots of things, but isn’t it more interesting to focus on just the books about librarians and trouble? (And isn’t it interesting that there has been more than one such book published in the last few months?)

I like to believe that there’s a collective consciousness that binds all creation (read into that statement what you will). A number of years ago, I read Paolo Coelho’s By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, my introduction to this concept. Pardon the paraphrase — my memory is not fantastic, and it’s been about a decade since my last read. In Piedra, one of the characters talks about simultaneous leaps that occur in human and animal populations (I’m fairly certain the book mentions monkey populations — possibly on different islands of Papua New Guinea (or some other place with islands) — that spontaneously and simultaneously began a new practice of washing bananas and that those populations did not have any contact with each other to share the idea). I like to believe that this collective consciousness is the reason that Deep Impact and Armageddon were developed and released within months of each other (and also Volcano and Dante’s Peak.)

And, now, it’s brought us two books about librarians who are involved in some kind of trouble. It seems reasonable to me to discuss these books in the order of their release, so first up is Victoria Dahl’s Looking for Trouble.

A good reason to be bad…

Librarian Sophie Heyer has walked the straight and narrow her entire life to avoid paying for her mother’s mistakes. But in tiny Jackson Hole, Wyoming, juicy gossip just doesn’t go away, so the last thing she needs is for history to repeat itself. Falling hard for the sexiest biker who’s ever rode into town would undo everything she’s worked for. And to add insult to injury, the sexy stranger is none other than Alex Bishop–the son of the man her mother abandoned Sophie’s family for. He may be temptation on wheels, but Sophie’s not looking for trouble!

Maybe Sophie’s buttoned-up facade fools some, but Alex knows a naughty smile when he sees one. Despite their parents’ checkered pasts, he’s willing to take some risks to find out the truth about the town librarian. He figures a little fling might be just the ticket to get his mind off of family drama. But what he finds underneath Sophie’s prim demeanor might change his world in ways he never expected.

This book brings together secondary characters from two of Dahl’s previous books, Alex, the missing brother who is mentioned but does not appear in Too Hot to Handleand Sophie, the sassy and awesome friend in Fanning the Flames. I loved so many things about Looking for Trouble, and I’m just going to throw them in a list:

  1. Sophie has such a wonderful blend of vulnerability and strength. She is confident in her sexuality, despite the complications of her back story, yet she is (understandably) cautious and reserved in sharing her sexuality with anyone who might know the story of her past. This reserve causes some dissonance between her outward appearance and her inner life, and Dahl does amazing things with it. Sophie owns her sensuality — she wears beautiful lingerie because she loves it, because it makes her feel sexy, not because some dude is going to see it — and she shares it, a gift, when she wants. I loved how sex-positive the narrative is, that Sophie accepts and delights in her own sexuality even as she keeps it hidden from her neighbors, that she recognizes that the problem is not that she possesses any sexuality but rather that those who know the story of her family can’t seem to resist judging her and finding her amoral.
  2. One of my favorite things about Dahl’s writing is that I can always count on her to give her heroines awesome lady friends. There is a tendency in romance fiction, probably for no nefarious reason and just in the interest of tight plotting, to isolate heroines — and sometimes heroes, too — and focus exclusively on the central love story. (Tangent: the result is that if heroines are shown to have friends, their conversation revolves exclusively around the love interest. It bothers me when I read books wherein the heroes have a group of friends who discuss all kinds of things — business interests, perhaps, or recreational plans — but the heroines are either completely isolated or only shown talking to their girlfriend(s) about the hot guy./tangent) Looking for Trouble (and the super awesome novella that sets it up, Fanning the Flames, which has a librarian heroine and a firefighter hero, you guys) is a spin-off on Dahl’s Jackson [Hole] series and focuses on a group of lady friends and their romantic hijinks. These lady friends have a regular girls’ night out, so they can catch up with each other, talk about work and family frustrations, tell stories, support each other, and make questionable decisions due to alcohol consumption.
  3. Dahl writes some of the dirtiest love scenes you can find outside of erotica/erotic romance. (I’m comfortable with all levels of heat in books, from smoldering glances to surprise AP (and beyond), but I prefer when the heat level reflects the characters and fits within the rest of the book. There’s nothing more jarring than reading a sweet, small-town romance that suddenly feels as though it took a sharp left to Pornville.) The love scenes in Looking for Trouble are intense because the characters are, because their motivations and desires are complicated and go way beyond hand holding and gentle embraces. I know the lines between genre romance and erotic romance are sort of blurry, but I think one could make an argument that this book is borderline erom because the sex scenes are crucial to the story and one of the key ways the characters relate to and discover each other.
  4. There’s also some great discussion about shaming within communities.

But my favorite thing about the book is the way it handles compromise. This is one of those stories where the characters seem to be on divergent paths. Alex seems pretty much like this guy (except, you know, in a good way.)

And Sophie seems tied to her community, unwilling or unable to consider leaving it. For a while, I wasn’t sure how things could work out for these two, and that made it all the sweeter when they decided to work together, to be partners in finding a solution to their geography problem. Characters working together as partners? What a novel concept.

About a month after I read Dahl’s book, I picked up Lauren Dane’s The Best Kind of Trouble. I follow Dane on Twitter, and I’ve been curious about her books for a while (but I thought she was a PNR/UF author, and I don’t read much of that. Turns out I was wrong, anyway, and she’s a versatile author of all the things.) I mostly liked this book and am planning on reading the next book in the series (out later this month). Plenty of other folks have absolutely loved this book, but there were a few things about it that kind of annoyed me. It’s possible that it just ran into some of my pet peeves. Whatever. Overall, I liked it.

She has complete control… and he’s determined to take it away

A librarian in the small town of Hood River, Natalie Clayton’s world is very nearly perfect. After a turbulent childhood and her once-wild ways, life is now under control. But trouble has a way of turning up unexpectedly—especially in the tall, charismatically sexy form of Paddy Hurley….

And Paddy is the kind of trouble that Natalie has a taste for.

Even after years of the rock and roll lifestyle, Paddy never forgot the two wickedly hot weeks he once shared with Natalie. Now he wants more… even if it means tempting Natalie and her iron-grip control. But there’s a fine line between well-behaved and misbehaved—and the only compromise is between the sheets!

The Best Kind of Trouble has wonderful secondary characters (I absolutely loved Paddy’s family, and Natalie’s group of friends reminded me of the friends other people seemed to make in college. <– I made all my friends in junior high and made a whopping 2 friends in college because… wait for it… I spent all my time with my nose in a book — or headphones on my ears.) that, to me, really made the book. I had a few issues with the romance between Natalie and Paddy, but I still managed to enjoy the reading experience because there were so many fantastic characters (building so much promise for future books in the series).

This book reminded me a little bit of a Harlequin Superromance (to be clear: that’s my favorite kind of category romance. I love those books; they are my reading catnip.). Dane builds a world around this group of brother musicians, their extended families, and their home town, and she weaves in the heroine (who has settled down in that town after a tumultuous past) and her friends. When they’re not recording new music or going on tour, the brothers are working the family ranch (to earn their rugged physiques, perhaps), so they’re kind of a lethal combo: rock stars and cowboys.

I really liked Natalie. She’s fought for the life she loves. Her family sucks, so she formed a friend family and relies on them for support. She’s got issues, but she’s remarkably well-adjusted. She’s a grown up, and she’s someone I’d want to hang out with. (And I related to her coffee and sweets fixation.) I liked Paddy before he and Natalie got together; he’s charming, funny, a little bit intense, and I loved that he pursued Natalie without being creepy about it, respecting her boundaries even while pushing his suit.

To be perfectly honest, I enjoyed just about every aspect of The Best Kind of Trouble except Paddy and Natalie’s relationship. And I’m a little surprised that I didn’t like it. I mentioned that I go nuts for Superromance titles… one of the things I like about those books is that they show relationships set within the context of life — all the messy work and family issues that can make it hard for a relationship to thrive. This book shows exactly that sort of thing — Paddy and Natalie struggling to make it work, to work past their issues, to find time for each other in their busy (and full) adult lives — and I should have gone absolutely apeshit for it. But I didn’t. For me, it all came down to Paddy: I just didn’t think he was a good boyfriend. He’s fantastic in the sack, sure, but every time an issue or misunderstanding comes up, Paddy responds with this line, “This is my first real relationship, you know, and I’m doing the best I can!” And that got kind of old to me. Paddy does a whole bunch of unbelievably stupid and/or hurtful things, and all he can say is that he’s new at this whole relationship thing, so we shouldn’t judge him? It makes him seem so childish and whiny, which is ridiculous! I can’t remember how old he actually is, but I’ll tell you what — it’s old enough to behave like a fucking adult.

By the time the end rolled around, I was just done with him, and I’m not sure that any amount of groveling would have won me over. I wanted Natalie to end up with someone who wasn’t (or — to be more fair — didn’t act like) a self-obsessed asshole. I wanted to believe in the happily ever after, but…

Maybe I’m being too hard on Paddy. Maybe this is just my issue. I know a lot of readers who have a hard time with difficult heroines, and maybe I’m just a reader who has a hard time with difficult heroes. (tangent: I do tend to have an expectation of lots and lots of groveling — not just showing up in a limo with a cheap bouquet of flowers — whenever the hero’s douchebaggery has been the cause of conflict in a book, and I tend to be incredibly disappointed when the dude just rides in with his limo and flowers as though just showing up, just publicly (if lamely) professing his love for the heroine, or even just professing “Hey, I’m here!” or “I’m back!” is enough. It’s not enough./tangent)

Let’s talk! Have you ever read a book that, by all rights, you should have loved (but didn’t)? Do you have a reading bias? Have you read any other books about librarians and trouble? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter! I love to talk about books.

*FTC Disclosure – I received e-galleys of these books courtesy of Harlequin via NetGalley 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.*

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.*