Tag Archives: book review

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.

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.

 

 

Brooklyn Bruisers Series: Brooklynaire by Sarina Bowen

Brooklynaire was my first DNF of 2019. The story angered me enough that I  both jumped ahead and checked with a friend to see if its glaring blind spot was addressed. It wasn’t and I gave up.

Long Version: Sarina Bowen is a strong romance writer whose work can be uneven and, more importantly, problematic, but I keep reading her books. The Ivy Years series is truly excellent and includes a classic novella, Blonde Date; however, the last novel (The Fifteenth Minute) is, at best, tone-deaf. Co-written with Elle Kennedy, Bowen’s Wags series has similar issues and while I enjoyed Good Boy, in spite of questionable elements, I did not like Stay owing to some love scene issues and the way they blatantly excuse sexual harassment.

In short, Sarina Bowen is a good example of “YMMV’. But none of her usual items were my challenge with Brooklynaire. In it, a workplace romance between a billionaire boss and his operations manager takes off after years of longing and covertly enjoying each other’s scents. I don’t like the boss/employee trope, but I do like a marriage of convenience plot, so I overlooked it and started reading.

Nate is a self-made billionaire who, from a tech startup, has built an empire which now includes a Brooklyn hockey franchise.  Seven years ago, he hired Rebecca to run his small, but rapidly growing office and her role has evolved with the company. Secretly in love with each other, when Rebecca gets a concussion, she and Nate finally start to connect.

Ensuring she gets the care she requires, Nate supports and sends gifts to Rebecca as she recovers in the apartment she shares with her sister, her sister’s boyfriend, and their new baby. Realizing Rebecca needs calm, Nate asks her to come and stay at his giant house. It is a generous and logical progression of the marriage of convenience set up: She moves in, their long simmering interest boils over into a steamy encounter, love blooms, tra la la, the end,  were it not for this flashback to when Rebecca is first hired:

“Salary,” Stew mutters, and Nate makes a reply. Stew nods. “What about stock options?”

Nate’s nose wrinkles “Nah, not for the clerical staff.”

Whatever Rebecca thinks. She isn’t really sure what stock options are, but what she needs right now is a real paycheck, anyway.

Reading Note: Eff you, this better get fixed.

Reviewer’s Note: It doesn’t.

Rebecca has worked for Nate for seven years from a tiny startup to a multi-billion dollar corporation. He has enough money to buy a hockey franchise and he has never, EVER, given Rebecca any stock options or any kind of remuneration appropriately recognizing her contributions. What a dick!  She should be a millionaire. At the very least, she should be able to afford a larger apartment and not worry about her medical bills. This bullshit story decision was made to perpetuate the uneven power dynamic between the two leads. Why couldn’t they be more equal? Rebecca could still come and stay with Nate. Billionaire heroes aren’t my favourite to begin with and sending flowers is nice, but insanely successful bosses who don’t reward the staff that has been intrinsic to their success take a sledge-hammer to my willing suspension of disbelief. Nate was unredeemable, so I quit.

Reviewer’s Fun Fact: I read this book about a woman with a concussion while I had one myself which was pretty challenging. Rebecca’s was much milder than mine and while I started this review at 9 weeks in, I am finishing it at 16 weeks  since screen work is my biggest challenge; thus, even if Brooklynaire is lousy, at least it helped me track my progress.

Sarina Bowen’s Catalog

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

Even with a wink to romance standards, this cover is ridiculous:

Taken and Torn Series: Taken by Two by Sam J.D. Hunt

Sometimes I just can’t resist finding out how bad awful sounding romances can be. Taken by Two did not let me down. It’s terrible and not (just) because of the ridiculous love scenes. It’s a Cinemax movie from the 1980s with more graphic sex. I’ll let Amazon fill you in:

Taken by two enigmatic men, Penelope Sedgewick overcomes demons from the past to learn to thrive in a thrilling new dangerous world. When the missing billionaire Nathaniel Slater reappears from oblivion and kidnaps her, she’s sure his dark friend, Rex Renton, is the true one to fear. The nature of their close relationship intrigues her, and as the three are thrown together in a fight for their lives, the sizzling chemistry between them explodes with more heat than the exotic jungle Rex calls home. As each of the unlikely lovers seek redemption for past sins, the three-way love between them grows into an unbreakable bond.

Everything about Taken by Two is a cliché, facile, trite, and often all three at once – in keeping with the story. Nice hustle, Sam J.D. Hunt! The narrative, the characters, the settings, the plot, the Dallas-Dynasty details meant to evoke the trappings of wealth, it’s all just so much codswallop built to frame the love scenes with Penny and Rex, Penny and Nate, or all three of them together. And even that wasn’t enough to keep me from skipping through the story. I’m assuming it was free, I can’t possibly have paid for it.

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

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Girl Meets Duke Series: The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare

What was being a duke, if not arching a sardonic eyebrow?

[fires confetti cannon, then starts pointing and yelling, “YES!” at Tessa Dare]

Girl Meets Duke has all of Dare’s cleverness and less of her recent series’ tweeness. She’s back and I’m in! It’s not her best work, but it’s what I (and very possibly no one else as captious as I am) consider a return to form, and in some ways a step up. It’s like she unleashed her full wit and wordplay on this Regency romance.

Ash is a brooding, forbidding Duke. Manly, muscular, and scarred by cannon fire, he focuses on running his estates and wallowing in his despair. Aware of his responsibility to the duchy to provide an heir, he proposes to the first, well, second, acceptable young woman he meets. He threw over the first one when he discovered she was disgusted by his appearance which seems more than fair on his part. Emma arrives in his study to demand payment for that first fiancée’s wedding dress. Working as a seamstress, she left home when her father, a vicar no less, shamed her for a liaison with a local young man. Ash instantly proposes a marriage of convenience, Emma rightly declines, and then circumstances conspire to bring them together anyway.

The Duchess Deal continues with Dare’s tendency to make a kind of musical comedy of her romances while pulling in current cultural elements, in this case superheroes. The writing crackles and I found myself thinking this is what it might be like of P.G. Wodehouse wrote romance novels and worked blue. The book works to Dare’s strengths and I did not find myself as bothered by the overarching need to willing suspension my disbelief as I did with the Castles Ever After series. Yes, the servants love the above stairs folk, and it’s more of a family than an aristocratic household, and there were sundry other non-historical elements, but I will be buying the next Girl Meets Duke story and hope that Dare’s return to my autobuy list will be long-term.

Dare’s best works are A Week to Be Wicked , Any Duchess Will Do, and The Scandalous, Dissolute, No-Good Mr. Wright . A complete summary of Tessa Dare’s catalogue, with more recommendations, can be found 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 which includes the aforementioned observations.

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