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…

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.)

What I read in March – a wry confession

Not too long ago, I wrote about how I had set this wild goal for 2014 to read fewer books and to think about them more.  I want you to know how well I’m doing on that goal.  Are you ready? I read the following books from March 1-31. (Click on any of the covers to learn more about these books.)  Oh, and I’m listing them in the order in which they were read, from March 1 through to March 31.

That’s 22 books (9 novellas, 13 full-length novels). Maybe I jinxed myself when I so publicly stated my goal. Maybe it was just a coincidence that I ended up binge-reading several authors (Sarah Mayberry, whom I started reading in February, Charlotte Stein, Cara McKenna, Laura Florand, and Maisey Yates). Maybe I just really wanted to read during the month of March, and I should get off my own back.  Either way, I think we can conclude that I spectacularly failed at my goal last month.

But, OH, you guys…. I don’t even care, because some of these books were just so damn good.  If you’ve not read Charlotte Stein (and you’re in the market for erotica), you should do yourself a favor and pick up Control. That book is simply beautiful. And Penny Reid’s Neanderthal Seeks Human will probably make my list of favorites for the year. And Unexpected was, well, unexpected — a contemporary, Oregon-set, cowboy-secret-baby-almost-engagement-of-convenience story that not only worked but also managed to fill me with hand-clapping, bouncing glee?! — and incredibly good (MissB: if you’re reading this, I think you’d love it.). And I really can’t wait until my bestest reading buddy Kim picks up Once Upon a Billionaire, so I can find out if she likes it as much as I did.

And don’t even get me started about those two Laura Florand books (or the one I just finished a few hours ago)… I didn’t think I could like a book better than I liked The Chocolate Touch but then I read The Chocolate Rose and realized maybe there could be a tie in my affections. But then I read The Chocolate Temptation (which I really want Tasha to read) and realized that, really, there’s no way to pick a favorite, and the best thing to do about it is just read all the books over and over and over again, the way my bestest friend in the whole wide world cycles through The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

So, there you have it. I may have failed at my goal, but I WON AT ALL THE OTHER THINGS. Stay tuned for future posts discussing these very books in greater detail. And happy Friday, everybody!

 

My best and worst reads in 2013

I read a lot of books this year (172 as of my writing this), and I thought it might be fun to identify the outliers at both ends of the spectrum.

The Best:

1.  The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers – There is so much life in this novella, complete with joy and pain, disappointment and transcendence. It is, without doubt, the best book I read all year. (*)

2.  Big Boy by Ruthie Knox – Hands down my favorite Ruthie Knox book (which is really saying something, guys), Big Boy is remarkably atypical for the genre.  It features characters whose sole, necessary, act of selfishness in lives governed by sacrifice is the small amount of time they take from each other.  And when they shift to giving instead of taking? It’s magic. (<3)

3.  Snow-Kissed by Laura Florand – Infertility, grief, and a broken marriage, these are the subjects of this beautifully moving novella that explores the jagged edges of two people, long in love, who were blown apart by grief but who find a way back.   (<3)

4.  A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant – I don’t know that I have ever been more surprised by a romance novel than I was by Cecilia Grant’s debut.  Thematically, the novel discusses trust, intimacy, and the slow development of love with humor so sly it’s easy to miss.  But it’s most remarkable (I think) for its complete lack of instalust and magical chemistry.  If you haven’t read this book, you really should. (<3)

5.  About Last Night by Ruthie Knox – I read this book in one sitting and, when I was done, I started it again immediately, because I just wasn’t ready to let it go. Through this book, Knox taught me how to be a better reader (and, by extension, a better woman, perhaps), to sit and savor the moments of truth that can be found in a book, to rediscover and embrace the reason I read.  (<3)

6 and 7.  The Heiress Effect and The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan – My favorite thing about Courtney MIlan’s writing is that when you start reading her books, her characters always seem so damn mysterious, and that mystery never seems like a clever device to snag reader interest.  It’s just that her characters are so full, possess such depth, that it takes a few hundred pages to get to know them.  And then you do, and your heart just breaks, because their issues are real.  You’ve met women like Jane, and you know your history — and your current affairs — so you know her plight (and her sister’s) is not unusual.  You know that all the pieces of Violet’s character really existed, lived out by real women throughout the ages.  And it hurts so much to know it, so deeply, so viscerally, a punch.  But you also know men like Oliver and Sebastian.  And even though it hurts so much to read and experience all that reality, at the end you are gifted a triumph, and it gives you the strength to keep putting your back into it, to keep living your life. (<3)

8.  The Mistress by Tiffany Reisz – By the time I reached the end of The Mistress, I was crying a little, laughing a lot, pumping my fist in the air, feeling intellectually alive and overwhelmed by joy.  And I felt rather like I did after I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for the first time, like this story that had always existed behind a veil had been revealed, and I’d had the good fortune to witness that unveiling.   (*)

9.  Too Hot to Handle by Victoria Dahl – This book is funny, but it isn’t lighthearted.  It’s like that moment when the seas of life have buffeted you about so much that you end up getting a mouthful of sea water, and you try to spit it out with some dignity, but it just comes out as warm, extra salty drool, and suddenly it’s fucking hilarious that — on top of everything else — you’ve just drooled, so instead of worrying about drowning, you just laugh.  Anyway, it’s kind of a coming of age story for people who waited until their thirties to figure themselves out, but it doesn’t have any of that angst because it just doesn’t have time for bullshit. (*)

10.  To Win Her Heart by Karen Witemeyer – This one made the list because it is probably the most romantic story I read all year.  I mean, come on: Eden and Levi fall in love writing letters to each other about Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.  It was a foregone conclusion that I would love this story, that it would stick with me all year. (<3)

 The Worst

Well, there are the obvious contenders for worst books read all year.  there’s even an obvious winner.  But there were also a slew of books that just disappointed me (or made me disappointed in myself).  Chief among these is:

Most disappointing book of 2013: And Then She Fell by Stephanie Laurens (<3 :~(…).  I cannot believe that I bought this, my 31st Laurens book.  I am deeply disappointed in myself.  On the other hand, it seems to have finally helped me break the cycle of addiction.  The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh, the next book in the series, has been out for six months, and I’ve had absolutely no desire to purchase it.

So there you have it.  Many of these books were published in 2013 but not all of them.  Some of these books were received as e-ARCs from publishers (marked with *) and some were purchased by me (marked with <3).

What are the best and worst books you read this year?