Tag Archives: contemporary romance

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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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.

Practice Perfect Series: Hard Knocks by Ruby Lang

I feel so on trend! It’s another love story with a concussion plot point as I continue to recover from one.

Acute Reactions was a well-written romance with some comeheregoaway issues in the plotting. It’s looking like a consistent issue with Ruby Lang, but it’s a minor quibble, I really enjoy her dry, funny style, and will be looking for her books. Hard Knocks has less of the vacillation issues and, from what I’ve read of the third book, Clean Breaks, it’s stronger still.

Transplanted Canadian Helen Chang Frobisher is a reasonably newly minted neurologist who has gone into practice with her friends Petra (Acute Reactions) and Sarah (Clean Breaks). When Helen consults on a concussed hockey player from Portland’s sad-sack Oregon Wolves team, she meets Adam Magnus. He’s not the concussed player, he’s at the hospital with his teammate. Helen and Adam are into each other and they share an incendiary one night stand.  She bolts, he’s disappointed, and they move on.

Except that Helen’s visits her family in the Okanagon Valley where her father is sick and declining from Atypical Parkinsons disease. Distressed and aware of the negative impact of repeated head injuries, though she is unable to confirm this is what happened to her dad, she decides to write an editorial suggesting Portland ban hockey for player safety. Adam responds and the two find themselves in public forum discussions about the issue at the same time as Helen is fighting her attraction to him for all she’s worth.

While he’s not fighting the attraction, Adam is dealing with his declining career and what to do next with his life. He’s a really great guy, seemingly perfect at first, but Lang provides excellent background details to let the reader understand how he has gotten where he is. He knows he’s not one of the greats and his hockey playing days are numbered, but he needs to keep his job as he figures out what he’s going to do with the next phase of his life.

Ruby Lang’s writing is really strong when presenting the reality of getting a career/adult life going and the distraction that falling in love can represent. Love, like life, finds a way, but it’s nice to see work being an obstacle to togetherness and emotional availability.

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.

London Celebrities Series: The Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker

YAY! Lucy Parker is back with another wry, gratifying, and witty romance featuring a difficult man and a delightful woman.

Freddy Carlton is theatre royalty, descended from generations of performers and the granddaughter of the playwright of a seminal masterpiece called The Velvet Room. Poised to move into the highest ranks of Serious Acting, she’d rather do work that brings joy to herself and others. We met her as a late teen in Pretty Face and she is now a full adult, though only 23. With her father strong-arming her career from youthful roles towards mature glory, a showdown is coming.

J. Ford-Griffin (Griff) is a theatre historian, critic for one of the serious London papers, and family gatekeeper for a cluster of privileged eccentrics. Acerbic and observant, the reader first meets him as Freddy overhears his incisive and insightful review of her latest stage turn. She can enjoy his wit, even as she is discomfited by his seemingly innate understanding of her ambivalence towards the state of her career. Her exuberance makes him equally uncomfortable, but he gets used to it.

Conveniently, Freddy gets cast in a Jane Austen murder mystery/choose your own adventure play to be performed at the family manor Griff is trying to save from ruin. The live broadcast will provide income for the estate and the weeks of rehearsal mean Freddy and Griff will get lots of chances to find themselves thrown together.  Running alongside this marriage of convenience is a subplot involving a passionate affair between Griff and Freddy’s grandparents. Family secrets and discoveries play a large role in bringing the leads together and complicating the hell out of their relationship to threaten their public and private lives.

Particularly good at both prickly banter and showing the soft underbellies of her characters, Parker provides sparkling acrimony and intimate recognition between Freddy and Griff.  One moment I really enjoyed was Freddy telling Griff not to be so high-handed when speaking to her. Arch verbal repartee is all well and good, but  a real relationship requires sincere interaction.

The live televised theatre production and family histories provide a ready supply of potential sturm and drang  throughout The Austen Playbook. As Freddy and Griff become a couple, they move themselves into the eye of the storm and an entertaining relationship.  I sometimes find it hard to believe that a man this high in the instep could be quite so demonstrative in his affections, but that’s the wish fulfillment part of the genre.

London Celebrities Series:
Act Like It – SO GOOD!
Pretty Face – EVEN BETTER!
Making Up – Good, I’ll get to a review, I have re-read it
The Austen Playbook – see above

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.

Practice Perfect Series: Acute Reactions by Ruby Lang

Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I’ve read a contemporary romance that featured neither so-called new adults, nor athletes?

There is so much to like in Ruby Lang’s Acute Reactions that I could get past what I thought needed work; however, I would like some reassurance that the same structural problems  aren’t found in all of her books.

Instead of starting out with an established medical group, allergist Petra Lale has opened her own practice right after completing her training. Ian Zamora co-owns a successful restaurant and needs allergy shots to cope with his girlfriend’s cat. Things go sideways for him when he visits her practice and is instantly captivated by Petra. She has the same reaction, but her Hippocratic oath provides a road block.

Establishing their careers, Acute Reactions’ leads are driven people. It is their main priority and Lang reflects just what that means for their home lives and romantic entanglements. Ian and Petra are likable, upright, engaging characters in their early thirties. Their motivations and backstories are clear and, while not belaboured, do well to explain their personalities and reactions. Petra should be horrified and distracted by becoming involved with a patient. Ian’s counterbalance is that, as a product of discord, he tries to resolve issues for those around him, acting as peacekeeper.  Their stumbling blocks are significant and believable, but being young and healthy,  love, like life, finds a way.

Lang’s writing is charming and she creates excellent smolder. My challenge with Acute Reactions was the plotting issue of Petra’s repeated comeheregoaway response to her relationship. New couples can go through ups and downs, but she had a retractable leash tied to Ian. He’s smitten, she’s wary, they collide, she runs away. It got old. I shouldn’t be thinking, “maybe these two should just move on”,  while reading a romance; in fact the conceit was repeated enough times, that I was reluctant to start on the next two books in the series Hard Knocks and Clean Breaks . I did because I bought the Practice Perfect trilogy as a set, but I’m giving each of them some side-eye.

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.