Category Archives: book reviews

Victorian Fashion by Jayne Shrimpton

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Victorian Fashion is a slim volume that provides exactly what is described in its title. Jayne Shrimpton gives an overview of British dress between Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne in 1837 and the closing of her reign in 1901. Given that I don’t enjoy earlier 19th century costume, no matter how much more comfortable it looks, the Victorian era is my sartorial splendor sweet spot.  As we all know, the Edwardians had the best hair and hats, but my beloved decades for western women’s clothing are the 1870s and 1880s, i.e. the bustle era. Before I even learned my meager bit about the evolution of women’s dress, my wedding gown unconsciously referenced my favourite style.

Shrimpton’s work is divided into chapters based on gender, age, and specific topics such as mourning, weddings, and sports. Not surprisingly, the focus is of necessity largest on women’s wear. Conveniently, this is where my interest lies. For illustration purposes, she draws on fashion plates, advertisements, cartoons, and period photography. Victorian Fashion is not, however, a picture book, and there are plenty of those available elsewhere that I delight in poring over while sighing. As she moves through the six decades, Shrimpton succinctly describes the basic elements that comprise each metamorphosis, specifically volume, colour, materials, and the lines of garments.

Learning about costume history not only feeds my love of period clothing, but also helps refine my “all kissing books, all the time” insights when I imagine what is worn by the characters. For self-preservation purposes, I try not to think about what anyone’s coiffure or facial hair looks like because it is consistently very unappealing.  Shrimpton teaches very useful non-follicle-related information for me, wherein “useful” means I no longer have a little knowledge that is a dangerous thing and will be less captious when reading. Now I have some knowledge and plan to absorb more by rereading Victorian Fashion. I would recommend Shrimpton’s quick and straightforward overview to other interested fashion amateurs like myself.

Such is my grumpiness about fashion in kissing books, I avoid the 18th century settings because I loathe the men’s clothing. If you are interested in historically accurate 19th century costume detail in romance, I suggest Loretta Chase’s Dressmaker series. Silk is for Seduction includes a scene in which the heroine advises the hero not to bother removing her layers as it is too complicated and the classic Dukes Prefer Blondes takes great delight in describing the stylish heroine’s somewhat ridiculous ensembles.

Links to my other reviews (content warning: romance novels) can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful.

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Devil’s Bastard’s MC Series: Stacked and Say My Name by Aviva Blakeman

When we were little and my mother got lost while driving she’d say, “Well, children, this is a part of the country you haven’t seen before.” I feel that way about Aviva Blakeman’s recently published debut novels Stacked and Say My Name from her Devil’s Bastards MC series. The Biker/Tattooed Badboy/Legally Dubious Characters corner of the kissing book genre is not one I have visited much. They are not a group I find appealing, even secretly in a wish fulfillment genre, so the fictional criminal activities, particularly in Say My Name, left me clutching my pearls a great deal of the time while thinking:

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Although these books might not be my taste in terms of the romance sub-genre, they are well-written, seamlessly plotted, and the [insert funky bass line here] is intense, and, let’s go with, earthy and explicit. All of the characters know what they want and aren’t afraid to say it. My last review was of a Mary Balogh Regency romance. She’s a writer who pens things like “he gave her his seed”, so Blakeman’s forthright and enjoyably brazen love scenes were a bit of a shift, just as her wit and clever writing were a lot fun.

Stacked

In the Devil’s Bastards first novel, a sexy librarian with 1940’s pinup style meets a hot biker in, of all locations, her workplace. Imogene has just moved to rural Oklahoma to take over as head librarian at a long-neglected branch. Her co-worker isn’t exactly welcoming, but Imogene presses on as she’s been promised funding to bring the library up-to-date and make it a going concern. She is surprised to discover it’s the president of the Devil’s Bastard’s, a man named Banks, who is bankrolling the upgrades.

After a rough day, Imogene gets smashed at the local biker bar and Mags (Oscar Magellan) brings her home and repeatedly rebuffs her increasingly insistent sexual overtures. He spends a chaste night and, fortunately for him, she is clear-eyed and still interested in the morning. (Blakeman fits in issues of consent and bodily autonomy in both of these books and, worry not, she is in favour of both.)

Mags manages the motorcycle club finances and is also a surrogate father to his niece. Aside from being the bookkeeper for a thriving criminal enterprise, he seems a decent enough guy. Blakeman creates a relaxed and natural interplay between Mags and Imogene that nicely captures the initial spark of chemistry and recognition in a new relationship.

Stacked gets the series off to a good start. The characterizations are strong and vivid, especially Imogene, and it sidesteps the scurrilous nature of the hero’s business almost completely. Say My Name dives right in.

Say My Name

That woman was white collar. She wouldn’t understand the life he lead.

Reader, I am that woman and I have also read this book twice because it was really enjoyable despite my qualms.

Zelda Jurov is a woman from an upper middle class background who has moved to a large property in a small Oklahoma town and runs an online pottery business. Kept company by a ball-of-love Borzoi, she finds her peace disturbed when her new neighbours drunkenly stumble onto her property. Escorting a hammered young woman back to their house, and becoming progressively more covered it bodily fluids, Zelda meets John.  It’s immediately clear to her that he is one of the senior members of the biker club next door having a raging party and ruining her evening. The two are drawn to each other and there is an almost immediate and necessary “Do you understand who and what we are?” interplay between John and Zelda.

Based on the way he’d reacted when she’d asked him pointed questions, she didn’t doubt they were into illegal activity and she wondered…how illegal was illegal? What was her threshold for danger?

Reader, it’s really, really high. Zelda’s background, while financially comfortable, also has elements that have left her with an ability to cope with chaos. She’s going to need it since John represents both danger that clearly appeals to her and security at the same time. Zelda is a badass who finds herself a high-risk hero. John’s life possesses a kind of havoc she can manage, while he keeps her as safe as she feels she needs to be.

The key characteristic of the romance genre is a woman’s right to choose the life she leads and pursue her own idea of happiness.  She always gets what she wants. She always wins. The Devil’s Bastards books tested that for me. Say My Name was full of romantic chemistry, great characterization, and even sometimes laugh out loud funny, but I still need to understand who could love someone willing to hurt others for their own personal gain. The books’ answer is a woman who has no objection to this kind of mayhem and has a moral flexibility similar to that of  the man she loves. I don’t think that’s a profound conclusion, but it was one I need to come to amongst the aforementioned pearl clutching and wishing the characters all the best in their future incarceration.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful.

The Westcott Series: Someone to Honor by Mary Balogh

A forgotten pre-order delivery to my Kindle! Huzzah!

A Regency romance with a custody battle, Someone to Honor is the sixth book in Mary Balogh’s current Westcott series. I’ve read all of the novels, but only reviewed a couple. She’s a writer whose work I don’t bounce in anticipation of, but she is a confident writer who can be turned to for effective and sometimes fantastic romance (Only Enchanting). Her characters are generally sensible people attempting to manage their lives in practical, pragmatic ways then find themselves falling madly in love. It throws them for a loop, but they remain true to their essential selves. Balogh, like Carla Kelly, is blessedly light on sturm and drang.

From Amazon: Abigail Westcott’s dreams for her future were lost when her father died and she discovered her parents were not legally married. But now, six years later, she enjoys the independence a life without expectation provides a wealthy single woman. 

Gilbert Bennington [is] the lieutenant colonel and superior officer who has escorted her wounded brother, Harry, home from the wars with Napoleon. Gil has come to help his friend and junior officer recover…If at first Gil and Abigail seem to embody what the other most despises, each will soon discover how wrong first impressions can be. For behind the appearances of the once-grand lady and the once-humble man are two people who share an understanding of what true honor means, and how only with it can one find love.

Someone Gets a Bonus should be the next book in this series because that is one hell of a great synopsis.

Gil and Abigail are not light-hearted people. Gil is downright dour and can be more than somewhat forbidding. He also has a mild inferiority complex which tends to make him clam up or be obstreperous when he’s uncomfortable – which happens very consistently when  he is alone around Abigail. He is, however, a kind and thoughtful person as the reader and Abigail see in the unguarded moments that seem to erupt from him whether he wants them to or not. Balogh’s love story builds slowly as Gil and Abigail circle each other and tentatively reach out to each other for a convincing, though maybe slightly dragged out, period of time. 

All of the Westcott characters have had their lives turned upside down. Abigail, like the rest of her immediate family, had her mettle tested when she discovered her view of both herself and her world were false. What Balogh recognizes is that this kind of upheaval can ultimately be freeing, if one has the financial security and time to really ask oneself “Now what?”.  Abigail is beholden to no one, so when she is intrigued by Gil, she considers her choices and then leaps at the serious man who appeals to her, as well as the opportunity to help him. Abigail chooses the life she wants and that is the heart of the romance genre. 

For more Mary Balogh reviews you can go here. Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful.

 

Paris Nights: Trust Me by Laura Florand

An American Commando and Parisian pastry chef? Whyever not?

More time spent with some of the world’s finest pastry chefs? Yes, please.

Laura Florand’s frequent theme of learning to be brave in new ways or discovering that you already are? Absolutely!

Trust Me is the third book in Florand’s Paris Nights trilogy, each of which marries up a pastry chef or chocolatier heroine and a covert ops hero, including All for You and Chase Me.  This was the least successful of the three books for me and while I enjoyed the majority of it, some elements of the love story didn’t ring true, or at least were unconvincing to me.

From Amazon: Top Parisian pastry chef Lina Farah is used to fighting for her success. But when a violent attack shatters her security, she needs a new tactic to battle her dragons. Elite operative Jake Adams has never stayed in one place long enough to form a lasting relationship. Lina’s fire and beauty tempt him to give her the hot affair she craves. But her spirit and courage make him long for more. Can he convince a woman seeking forgetfulness to dream of ever after…with him?

I’ve read Trust Me twice now, once when it came out and again now while patiently waiting for author Laura Florand to return from her well-earned kissing book sabbatical. When I started to reread, I recalled that I had found Lina and Jake’s romantic relationship somewhat precipitous, even though that is common in Florand’s books, and was interested to see if that opinion held true. It did. I enjoyed the book for so much of it that I was questioning myself before arriving at an “Oh, ya. I remember now,” conclusion right towards the end there.

Lina, and Chase Me’s heroine Vi, were working in a Michelin starred restaurant kitchen during a horrifying terrorist attack. To make matters worse, if possible, when the members of the kitchen staff took down their attacker, it turned out to be the extremist cousin of Lina’s. Hailed as a French national hero for her quick thinking, Lina nonetheless is also made to feel her otherness as a Muslim woman embroiled in an Islamic extremist attack, so her recovery means not just dealing with the shock of the events but also reclaiming herself and LIFE.

As I said earlier, Florand’s characters generally have instant sparks that morph quickly into deeper feelings. Generally, the pair ends up engaged by the end of the story, but the wedding itself waits for a reasonable and rational period of time. In Trust Me, I didn’t like or buy Florand’s timeline. While Jake is an experienced military professional (who also, no doubt, has trauma of his own), Lina’s entire world imploded when her deranged cousin attacked the restaurant. The story begins very nearly immediately after. While it is admirable and kick ass that Linais defiantly taking control of her life and emotional well-being, the forged-in-fire connection with Jake just feels too soon.  It’s not that the novel lacks Florand’s seemingly small, but swoon-worthy and incredibly intense moments of romance, it packs her usual sweet punch, and it isn’t that I didn’t enjoy the narrative. She just asked that bit too much of my very willing suspension of disbelief.

The irony of my qualms above is that Florand’s The Chocolate Touch is one of my all-time, top five favourite romances. In it, a woman who has recently experienced an extremely traumatic event falls fast and hard for a man with the private personality of a teddy bear and the public persona of a pit bull. So what is the difference here? I guess maybe that the connection between Lina and Jake was not captured in the same way and therefore I found the intensity of their pair bond less believable. Their coupling just felt all too soon.

Laura Florand’s Catalogue gives an overview of her published works of which I recommend many. I ADORE her particular brand of romance.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful.

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The Palace of Rogues Series: Lady Derring Takes a Lover by Julie Anne Long

Huzzah, Julie Anne Long has returned to Regency historical romances. Granted, the cover is displeasing, but the contents are not.

Delilah, Lady Derring is not only recently widowed, she’s also discovered she is virtually penniless, and had the delightful experience of meeting her husband’s mistress, Mrs. Angelique Breedlove, immediately on the heels of the first two shocks. Showing disregard for the notion that they are competitors,  and demonstrating intestinal fortitude and chutzpah, Delilah and Angelique take the jewels they have from the erstwhile Earl Derring and invest them all in the only thing left to them – a derelict townhouse and former brothel called The Palace of Rogues.

Renaming the dilapidated building “The Palace on the Thames” and down to their last farthings, Angelique and Delilah open a boarding house on the London docks. One of her first patrons is Captain Tristan Hardy. He claims to be retired and working in trade, but in reality is working undercover to ferret out a tobacco smuggling ring. He’s not sure whether Delilah and Angelique are involved, but all roads lead to their new business. I cheered Long’s choice of making Captain Hardy fight the Regency version of organized crime. Criminals aren’t dashing or particularly appealing to me and acknowledging their frequent ruthlessness was bonus in my reading experience.

Long brings her trademark wry sizzle to Lady Derring Takes a Lover. The humour is quippy, the writing dry, and the connection between the lead characters carefully built and believable. Long is especially good at portraying even the most jaded hero finding himself in over his head emotionally.

There was nice steam in the build up, in particular Captain Hardy’s realization that while he might be all tough’n’stuff, he rather likes his creature comforts, including the company of a pseudo-family, and especially Delilah. For her part, she is strong arming her way to a new life without ever losing her innate kindness and desire to make a home for everyone around her. She’s a bit naive, but that’s hardly a crime and it’s what helps her succeed. Having spent her life in the roles created for her by other people, her self-discovery leads her to a carefully reckless and droll version of the woman her parents and husband thought they created.

But.

(Did you know there was going to be a “but”? I debated between it and a “however” and decided that “but” conveyed a weaker objection.)

But while the romance is solid, there just isn’t enough of it in Lady Derring Takes a Lover. Always a liability in the first book of a new series, I found the love story took too long getting started and wrapped up rather quickly. It needed more of either conversation and connection in the build up or in the period after they formally get together; however, none of this changes Long’s historical romance status as an autobuy for me, and the tease of the next book piqued my interest and I look forward to reading Angelique’s story Angel in a Devil’s Arms.

A complete summary of Julie Anne Long’s catalogue, with recommendations and a ranked order of the Pennyroyal Green series, can be found here.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author and Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful, or on my  streamlined recommendations list.

 

 

La Vie en Roses: A Kiss in Lavender by Laura Florand

Short Version: I liked Laura Florand’s A Kiss in Lavender, though it felt more serious than other books in the La Vie en Roses series. The love story was heartfelt, the happy ending earned, and it had a substantial, forthright hero and a deeply vulnerable, but assertive heroine with the heart of a lion. I’ve read it twice now and while it’s not as swoony as some Florand, it has a kind of grounded solidity that I appreciate.

Long Version Including Discussion of a Book in a Different Laura Florand Series:

Before going on a well-earned sabbatical, Laura Florand had three book series running concurrently: L’Amour et Chocolat, La Vie en Roses, and Paris Nights. As with any writer, I preferred some books over others, but A Kiss in Lavender is the first Florand in which I felt she managed to resolve character issues from a previous work. Not for the original characters themselves, but for similar ones.

From my review of The Chocolate Heart:

They are two wounded people hiding behind false fronts and suffering from painful miscommunication. Elements that had been successful in the preceding books reached an intensity that left me uncomfortable. Luc is so busy being in control that he becomes almost clinical and Summer is so vulnerable that it feels like she is being used.

In A Kiss in Lavender, Lucien Rosier is visiting his family for the first time after a 15 year self-imposed exile. He joined the French Foreign Legion after learning something that challenged his entire sense of self. Assuming a true nom de guerre, he disappeared and built a new life for himself of which he is justifiably proud.

When Lucien’s Tante Colette hired Elena Lyon to track Lucien and assorted other scattered family members down and bring them into the Rosier fold, there’s a good chance she knew or hoped sparks would fly. Without a functional family of her own, Elena has resolute strength, but a tenderness where relationships are concerned. She has learned the hard way what happens when the adults meant to protect you fail to do so and the lasting impact it can have on your life. The results of all-too-human caregivers are a frequent theme in Florand’s books, and I find that in contemporary romance especially, building a new family is a recurrent motif.

But back to Luc and Summer:  I have recently reread The Chocolate Heart and Shadowed Heart to cope with Florand’s publishing absence. The author seems to both have a soft spot for their broken, loving persistence, and for the characters themselves. She wrote them a book, a novella, and a bonus story. Luc and Summer were genuinely messed up people and neither of them had any business being in a relationship, especially since their personal demons were guaranteed to cause each other maximum stress. In contrast, Elena and Lucien clash, but learn and grow into each other to move forward as a unit which is pretty much the essence of a romance novel.

In A Kiss in Lavender, it’s like Florand has written Lucien and Elena as the psychologically healthier version of Luc and Summer. Lucien, like Luc, is very much in control of himself, but in this case, it’s a quality that nurtures his partner. He is proving his trustworthiness and reliability. When Elena is vulnerable and shuts down, she does so by drawing on inner strength rather than lashing out as Summer does.No longer painfully miscommunicating characters finding moments of bliss between rounds of angst, this alternate story has two people falling in love and persisting, then insisting on working towards shared happiness. None of the four are exactly happy-go-lucky, even in their insistent pair bonds, but at least Lucien and Elena seem like they are united in working towards a stable future.

La Vie en Roses Series:

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La Vie en Roses: A Crown of Bitter Orange by Laura Florand

I miss Laura Florand! She’s been taking a well-earned break from a prodigious output of swoon-inducing and charming contemporary romances set in the worlds of pastry, chocolate, and perfumery. Her great gift as a romance writer is in creating the heady intensity of small romantic moments, as well as portraying elements of sexual tension and anticipation. Creating characters, she excels at people who balance each other out, often providing a security or grounding that one of them has lacked.  I’m hoping Florand will return with her final book in the La Vie en Roses series, but I am rereading and reviewing some of her other works in the meantime.

A Crown of Bitter Orange

Tristan Rosier and Malorie Monsard have known each other their whole lives. They both come from old Provencal families devoted to the perfume trade, but while Tristan is grounded by his history, Malorie is torn at by hers.

Living in the same place for centuries means the sins of ones forebearers are sometimes carried by descendants. With scurrilous family members having acted shamefully during World War II and, admittedly, more recently, the marks born by Malorie caused her to leave home immediately upon finishing high school. After the death of her grandmother, she’s back to either finally shutter her family’s landmark company or settle in Grasse permanently.

All of this means nothing to Tristan Rosier. Well, not nothing, he wants to see the Monsard business restored to its former glory, but he doesn’t care about the negative aspects of her family, what he really wants, what he has always wanted, is Malorie. After being seated together to help keep him and his bouncy distractedness in line at school, he was quietly and awkwardly devoted to her for years. Not that she noticed. Malorie liked him well enough, but considered him a bit of a charming pest and was oblivious to anything more because, well, Tristan is lovely to everyone.

Beloved by his protective clan, nurtured in the family trade, and aided by his own hard work, Tristan’s challenges have always been managed. Hard work has brought him incredible success as a “Perfume Nose” for their perfume dynasty. His only major professional setback was when Malorie, in her role as a firm accountant (pun intended) suggested less expensive substitutes for the ingredients in a perfume Tristan created.

With all of that set up in place, the story begins and moves, as Florand often does, very quickly to a romantic alliance full of joy and delightful vignettes with an assortment of family members.  A Crown of Bitter Orange was never less than enjoyable and Tristan continues to be amiable and appealing, as he was in the other series books, but the story never really grabbed me. I liked and understood Malorie, but her relationship with Tristandjust kind of moved along nicely and reached its anticipated and sought out conclusion.

La Vie en Roses Series:
Turning Up the Heat (Daniel/Lea) – prequel novella
A Rose in Winter (Raoul/Allegra) – prequel novella –  Florand can and has done better
The Chocolate Rose (Gabriel/Jolie) – prequel novel I *really* like
Once Upon a Rose (Matt/Layla)  – fun, great light escapism
A Wish Upon Jasmine (Damien/Jess) – not her strongest, it had a lot of promise
A Crown of Bitter Orange (Tristan/Malorie) – not memorable, he’s charming, see above
A Kiss in Lavender (Lucien/Elena) – good, recommended

Laura Florand’s Catalogue gives an overview of her published works — of which I recommend many. I adore her particular brand of romance. Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful.