A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

The Chocolate Heart by Laura Florand

(reviewed from an e-arc provided by NetGalley. A long time ago. Better late than never!)

If you’ve read other books in the “Amour et Chocolat” series, this is in some ways a familiar dance: an American heiress in Paris, and the French patissier who woos her with unbelievable desserts. But there’s a bit of a twist here: Summer Corey’s childhood love for both Paris and desserts have been twisted into hate. (Rather than Florand’s usual fairy tale source, this story draws on Greek mythology, with Paris as Summer’s Hades.)

Summer and Luc Leroi basically fall in love at first sight, each seeing warmth and comfort in the other. But their public images and private pasts work against them, and they constantly misunderstand each other. Both were deprived of love as children, but while Luc aims for constant perfection, Summer wears her spoiled bad girl rep as a shield. (Come to think of it, they are interesting representatives of two classic aspects of a dysfunctional family: “The Hero” and “The Scapegoat.”) Every time Luc unwittingly hurts her, she tries even harder to live down to his expectations.

As you might expect from the inspiration, this is dark in tone — not because anything overtly awful happens, though Summer has had more ugly experiences than the world would guess, but because both characters have so much pain in their lives. The story does a beautiful job of showing how two people who seem to have it all can still be so lost and justifiably unhappy. They’re perfect for each other because at heart they have the same need: to give love to someone who needs them and would never let them go.

There was a bit too much repetition of phrases, but the prose is gorgeous. I love the way Florand extends the metaphor beyond its original inspiration:

“That’s what makes it so incredible. What you do. You’re just a man. A human mortal man. And you do–what you do.”

There was a long silence. “Merci, soleil“, he said softly. “After all those people who call me a god, I never realized you could give me a promotion.”

I also liked the realism in the “baby epilogue.” Neither character is completely fixed by true love, and their happy ending requires commitment and care. (There’s also a sequel, Shadowed Heart: A Luc and Summer Novel, which expands on this.)

You don’t have to have read any of the previous books to enjoy this one, although several characters do recur. Just open your heart to a prickly couple who need love, and some astonishing desserts that need to be eaten.

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Working With Heat by Anne Calhoun

(reviewed from an e-arc provided by NetGalley)

Short, hot contemporary read, bad dates, no-strings fling with a friend… to be honest, this had “not really my thing” written all over it. But I thought this author might make it work for me, and I was right.

It’s not that the story doesn’t fulfill what it promises in the blurb, but it doesn’t feel the need to do it stereotypically. Milla, a travel blogger and youtube personality currently stationed in England, has a refreshing attitude towards her bad dates — she cuts her losses and moves on. They might be funny, but they don’t make her ridiculous. Her absorption in blogging, selfies, etc. isn’t played for laughs, either.

And being with Milla is a genuine risk for Charlie: he’s been badly burned by a (literal) East End Boy and West End girl marriage, and by social media. His trust in her as a friend and lover, nonetheless, is adorable. Of course there’s a conflict, but part of what I most liked about this story is that the characters change, but not through any kind of coercion. It’s always their decision.

If you like blokes with beards, this is the book for you. Many of the sexiest moments in the book involves Milla’s fascination with Charlie’s beard:

“The sharp edge of his scruff scratched deliciously at her lips as she brushed them back and forth across his mouth, tempting him to open them.”

“His beard, she discovered, had reached the soft, curling stage. She stroked it with her palms as his mouth coaxed hers open, savoring the sensation of smooth, hot tongue contrasted with the denser, soft hair around his lips.”

And then there’s a shaving scene…

Charlie’s art is also used for sexy metaphor. He “had learned patience handling sand heated until it became liquid, pliable. He’d learned how to seduce a woman by working with heat.” But it’s not just that, but an integral part of his personality. His commitment to his art, and what it says about him, gives substance to the story.

My only complaint is that the short format leads to a few initial short-cuts of telling rather than showing. I pretty much forgot about that as I read on. This isn’t a heartbreaker like Breath on Embers, but confirms my opinion that Calhoun is one of the authors who really makes short form romance worth reading.

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More Fun With Depression

I’m having a run of depressed heroes. (Not to mention a run of runaway wives in my category romance reading.) My First Look at Blue-Eyed Stranger by Alex Beecroft is up at Heroes and Heartbreakers.

For those not familiar with the site, a “First Look” isn’t a traditional review/critique. The focus is on what the reader loved most about the book, whatever that may be. For me, I loved the true geekiness of these devoted history buffs.

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Carry the Ocean by Heidi Cullinan

(Reviewed from an e-arc from NetGalley)

I ‘m always on the lookout for romances with autistic characters, and this New Adult romance is one of the most thematically interesting I’ve found. The two main characters are both disabled — Emmet is autistic, Jeremey has severe depression and anxiety — but the big difference between them is that only Emmet’s disability has been acknowledged and accommodated. So this is really not a story about an autistic person being rescued by love; if anything, it’s the other way around.

After ten months of crushing on his neighbor Jeremey from across the yard, Emmet finally manages to introduce himself. Jeremey hasn’t had a friend in awhile; if his mother didn’t drag him out of the house, he’d never leave his room. But after a lifetime of learning how to request and make modifications for himself, Emmet has no trouble understanding Jeremey’s similar difficulties with noise, overstimulation, and groups of people. Jeremey goes from thinking Emmet is “off” and “special needs,” to realizing he’s smart, cute, and very easy to be with. But even a good friendship, with the possibility of more, may not be enough to help him live with the ocean of depression he has to carry every day.

From the start, I was impressed with the fact that Emmet is genuinely disabled. (Although making him also a genius seemed like both a cliche and perhaps a form of compensating.). Autistic people in romance are rarely allowed to be more than reserved and quirky. Emmet is identifiably weird — he can’t pass. He rocks and flaps his arms and hums to himself. He can’t drive. Although he’s thinks of himself as having some “superpowers,” his autism is mostly not glamorous. Jeremey has what I guess you’d call neurotypical privilege, but his disability is also severe, particularly since it’s gone untreated for so long.

These aren’t your typical romance characters, and their romance isn’t exactly typical either. I found it sympathetic and believable, because they really care about each other and work hard to be good to each other. Trying to be “good boyfriends” brings out the best in them — but there are mistakes, and upsets, and sometimes they each need to put self-care ahead of the relationship. I liked the realistic imperfections; even Emmet’s mom, who initially seems like the perfect, understanding parent for a gay autistic boy, screws up by not seeing her son as someone who can have a boyfriend.

When you’re autistic, everyone acts as if you’re not a real human. I’m angry at my family because they said I was a real human. But when I say I’m your boyfriend, they say I can’t be. So they lied. I’m not a real human.

The story is told in alternating first person narratives, both of which are kind of info-dumpy. Jeremey’s worked better for me than Emmet’s, which I had number of problems with. One is that it sounds so much like other fictional autistic narratives I’ve read, and in my experience, it’s not that believable a voice to begin with. Autistic people don’t necessarily sound all that different from neurotypical people when they write. It also makes him sound like a young kid, which is uncomfortable when you’re reading a romance that includes sex. (He’s 19 and Jeremey is 18.)                                 

I did like the slow, thoughtful way their sexual relationship grew. It’s not a super sexy book, but their physical relationship is important to them. They both like Emmet to be in charge, which works with their characters.

The story is more slow-moving and everyday than I normally go for, but overall I really enjoyed it. But then, in a way, it’s exactly my fantasy. Not a sexual fantasy, but a mom fantasy, one about an autistic person gaining independence, and finding love just by being himself. You go, Emmet.

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Review: Jaimie: Fire and Ice by Sandra Marton

Review copy provided by NetGalley.

What tickled my fancy: Protective hero is protective.
What ticked me off: Both characters act like utter boneheads.
Who might like it: Readers who enjoy characters who are overwhelmed by their passions.

Trigger warning: There’s a fairly tame dubious consent sex scene. Also a gross skanky villain. 

“The Wilde sisters” is a self-published spin-off from Marton’s Harlequin Presents “Wilde Brothers” series, and though the tone is a bit rougher and it’s less editorially polished, this book read pretty much like a Marton HP. Which is great from my perspective, because I love Marton HPs.

Realtor Jaime Wilde is in Zacharias Castelianos’s penthouse apartment, trying to convince him to put it on the market, when the lights go out all over the city. Although both instantly fear some form of terrorist attack — a nice bit of realism for characters who live in Manhattan and Washington D.C. — the problem is just a massive storm. But that’s more than enough of a problem for Jaimie, who stubbornly insists on trying to walk down 50 flights in the dark anyway, to get away from the disturbing presence of Zach. Somehow unable to wash his hands of the whole situation, Zach winds up going after her, taking care of her when she falls, and then having passionate sex with her.

The next morning, Jaimie is gone, leaving only a terse note. Then Zach gets a phone call from a man named Steven Young, who claims to be Jaimie’s fiance, and he decides he has to write her off as a bad mistake. But of course he can’t forget her. And when his old friend Caleb Wilde tells him that his sister Jaimie needs protection against a stalker — Steven Young — Zach doesn’t know what to believe, but he knows he has to take the job on.

This was a highly charged, passionate, even over-the-top read. Jaimie and Zach are both closed-off kinds of people, and when they finally let go, they let go. Marton’s trademark is characters who fall in love against their will, and the mix of reluctance with devotion is an effective one.  

The downside here is that both are kind of idiotic. Jaimie is insanely stubborn, and pathetically ineffectual in regards to the stalker. Zach immediately buys Steven’s story, and then lies to Jaimie for no good reason at all, except to cause a narrative conflict. (Why doesn’t he at least admit he knows her brother? That lie is certain to come back and bite him on the ass.)

There’s some backstory about Zach’s special ops work and some grossness involving Steven, but on the whole the focus of the book is on the relationship, and also on Jaimie’s relationships with her siblings. So the tone is mainly romantic — with breaks for family lightheartedness — rather than suspenseful. Aside from my sometimes wanting to knock Zach and Jaimie’s heads together, I enjoyed it.

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