The taste of personal growth

If When the Devil Comes Courting by Courtney Milan was an ice cream it would be the sweetest, purest, creamiest vanilla. It’s a heart melting epistolary novel with a fun historical-techie twist: Ocean telegraphs!

Captain Grayson Hunter and Amelia Smith are attracted from their meeting, but they have goals to achieve that separate them. As Amelia is brilliant, she devises a way for them to stay in contact though the ocean divides them and it’s 1870. Thus a shower of love letters are telegraphed across the ocean. Spoiler, some of them are quite steamy.

At first I was doubtful and downright disappointed Grayson and Amelia were going to spend so much of the novel apart. But I shouldn’t have doubted Milan. Though the couple meets just a handful of times over the many months they are separated, these meetings are powerful and moving. They hold hands one morning, and the moment undid me. Grayson and Amelia’s slow fall into love is so achingly sweet and a refreshing change from the mad rush more typical of the romances I read.

Grayson and Amelia’s HEA is also unique to them. They don’t sacrifice any of the personhood they’ve gained as their story progresses. That feels so satisfying. There will be no children and her engagement ring is a megalodon tooth. ❤

But here is where this review gets more personal (because this book was a personal revelation of sorts for me):

Previously Milan’s novels have been too difficult for me. Her characters experience real suffering that isn’t simply absolved by the love story. I’ve shunned that emotional depth in my confection-ist consumption of romance. But I’ve been working through some shit and come to realize that abuse/trauma and love/happiness are not mutually exclusive experiences. In fact in the sad messy world where we live they are frequently parallel roads we’re forced to walk. Milan’s depiction of this difficult-for-me-to-swallow reality is hopeful. A person can suffer abuse at the hands of someone loved and trusted, but can grow and develop into a whole person who finds happiness and true love. I’ll raise a spoon to that.

Is it Autumn yet?

If Sarah MacLean’s A Duke Worth Falling For was an ice cream it would be a pumpkin spice milkshake. Yes, yes, it’s the last muggy month of summer where I am, but this novella is so deliciously Autumn and set in the English countryside no less. Nubby sweaters, fire in the grate, crisp starlit walks, and a duke that tastes like Autumn or “wheat and smoke and sun and rain.” I love my husband, but if he tasted like autumn, I’d love him more.

Our couple meets in a sheep field on the ancestral home of the Duke of Weston. Max despises Lilah, even as he’s attracted to her, because he finds her with a camera and assumes she’s come to snap a picture of him, the Dusty Duke. Through her own attraction, Lilah despises Max too because he is a prat.

Their attraction wins out. They fall in lust over darts, then love over a two week deal where they’re supposed to be simply indulging in desire. (Like it’s ever that simple.) Their love story is sweet, but their lust story is smoking. Seriously read some stuff in there I’ve never read…or done…or even considered.

Through it all, Max refuses to tell Lilah he’s the duke and not the land steward she assumed he was upon their first meeting in the field. He’s never felt desired just for himself and not the title, and I can’t fault him for the secrecy. But Lilah does. She takes him back after a heroic punch, bespoke suit, and a heartfelt confession, though.

Besides the delish Autumnal aura, this book has another element I just can’t get enough of: an unapologetically confident heroine. Lilah has just gotten her career wrecked by the patriarchy, but that doesn’t get in her head. She still knows she’s an amazing photographer. She’s got a comeback plan. She acknowledges the hurt and doubt, but she is still proud and in love with herself and her work. I read for the day when heroines like Lilah are not a breath of fresh air but simply the norm.

Twi-hard Revisited

Temptation seeds anyone?

If Midnight Sun where as ice cream it would be crème brulee strewn with pomegranate seeds. To be honest, this book doesn’t feel like a romance to me; it’s something broader. (Hence I didn’t pair it with ice cream.) It’s an exploration of two worlds colliding, with love hanging in the balance. Where Twilight needed the vampires to be more than just a bland, blithering tween melodrama, Midnight Sun doesn’t need the romance to be engaging. It has action, adventure, and struggle.

The plot of MS is Twilight exactly, but from Edward’s perspective, so it surprises me that the books can feel strikingly different. The perspective change shifts MS out of the realm of romance. Bella’s narrative in Twilight is all about falling in deeply self-deprecating love with Edward. But Edward’s narrative is about confronting an alien life force and battling his own inner demons…as a demon. It’s not that Edward doesn’t fall in love with Bella; he simply has a lot more going on. Which makes his book a lot more palatable to this reader.

Edward’s battle is symbolized by pomegranate seeds, which incidentally look like a rotten heart on the front cover of the book. He can’t decide what is right or wrong, good or evil, real or imagined in his own mind and immortal body. So he continues to drop blood-red, juicy seeds to his Persephone, frequently against his better judgement, because he just can’t help himself. And damn that’s just about as human and monstrous as anyone can get. This struggle makes MS just plain better than Twilight, but it’s also possible Meyer simply became a better writer in the 15 years between publication dates.

Another way MS is better than Twilight is Bella’s character. She’s actually likeable! Which is necessary as the book is told through the eyes of the vampire that loves her, but seemed impossible based on the mopey, mundane, blank page heroine of Twilight. Bella is brave, compassionate, and wise through Edward’s eyes. I can only hope Meyer herself matured and realized giving young girls a helpless, self-destructive heroine is at best missing a chance to empower them.

I’m not sure MS is a stand alone book. Readers almost need to have read Twilight to know the plot as Edward and his internal monologue keep readers up in the clouds. However, MS is complex. Creamy and sharp, sweet and tart, cool and flaming. It’s a tantalizing read for the Twi-hard turned SAHM.

“Why yes I’ll take a bite,” saide Persephone, knowing exactly what she was getting herself into.

Vermont, Apple Cider, and Bears–Oh MY!

If Bittersweet by Sarina Bowen were an ice cream it would be a hard cider float. If I can make red wine ice cream, (which you should try!) then I can also plop of scoop of vanilla in a nice fruity cider.

The plot of this book isn’t really there. Not much happens, and what does occur readers can see from a mile away. That said, a lot of cider is made and consumed which made me THIRSTY. The detail of the yummy setting and the hot couple kept this reader sipping along.

Griffin and Audrey had a fling in college, and after years of silence, they find themselves professionally in need of the other. As they spend the required time to meet their professional goals, they discover they are sexually in need of the other as well.

They fall in love in the majestic hills of Vermont at Griff’s organic family farm/orchard. They eat amazing food because Audrey is an aspiring chef. They are friends and family with a cast of likable characters who will spin off into their own novels to complete Bowen’s True North series. This book is homey, comforting, and delicious. It could be apple pie a la mode, but it’s drenched in alcohol, a prize-winning, sex-based varietal, and I just can’t ignore that.

I also can’t ignore that this book falls in the “lumbersexual” category. There’s so much flannel, shirtless men, and bear comparisons that I should maybe throw some cinnamon bark in my float to maintain the comparison. I like my man bearded as much as the next woman, but Griff’s hands were called paws so many times I began to suspect a supernatural transformation for the ending. Unfortunately all characters remained human.

Does he turn you on?

More is More

Who Doesn’t like a well worn paperback?

If Sarah MacLean’s A Scot in the Dark was an ice cream, it would be a big old scoop of spumoni, a lovely combo of chocolate, cherry, and pistachio. This book, just like spumoni, knows that some things are better together. Chocolate–yum. Cherry–Sweet. Pistachio–Interesting. Put these three together, and you’ve got a mouthful that is better than any one of the flavors on their own. Life’s like that. We all need a complex combination of things/experiences/relationships etc. to make us happy, no matter how much romance tells us all we need is a good man.

In her novel, MacLean (who is a genius; it can’t be said enough) does not tell readers all they need is a good man. Lillian Hargrove has been alone, no friends, no companions, no family, more than half of her life. So she trusts the first person to spare her a bit of attention. Mistake. In charges the Duke of Warnick, Alec, to save his lonely ward.

Admittedly this is NOT spumoni ice cream, but a combination better than the sum of its parts.

Alec is definitely the yummy yummy chocolate in this scenario. In a normal romance Alec, and his broad shoulders and Scottish bur, is all the heroine wants and gets. But this is MacLean, and she is a genius, so along the journey Lily acquires a gaggle of strong, awesome friends–who are the pistachio because these ladies keep things interesting. Most importantly Lily finds strength and confidence to be in the world as she previously hasn’t known. Coming into herself is the sweetest cherry flavor of this the sundae. In A Scot in the Dark we don’t get just a hot romance (which is yummy on its own, don’t get me wrong) readers get that plus a heroine who learns the strength to take up space in the world and fabulous female friendships. A delicious trifecta.

Side note: I reread this book because we get to know Sesily Talbot as one of Lily’s awesome friends, and Sesily is FINALLY getting her own book this August. Who wants the summer to fly by? Not me, but I WANT this bombshell book in my hands NOW.

Tapioca Balls

If Laura Florand’s The Chocolate Temptation was an “ice cream” (and I know I’m stretching the term now) it would be a beautifully whipped bubble tea. It’s a confection I want to enjoy, but one of those gooey beads always catch me by surprise in the back of my throat, and I gag. Similarly, I want to love this book. The characters are likeable, the setting is exquisite, and the backdrop of chocolate everything is mouthwatering, but there are a few points that creep up and gag me.

The plot is more balanced than my last Florand read. Patrick and Sara start as enemies, of sorts. She hates him, and he is willing to fuel any fire she has for him. They quickly fall in bed together and begin the tumultuous journey to true love, happily-ever-after etc etc. Each is deeply insecure and thus refuses to trust the obvious feelings the other demonstrates. But this shared flaw manifests in quite endearing characters: Patrick maintains a nonchalant veneer out of self-protection and cracks in the most heart squeezing moments. Sara steadfastly (or stubbornly) holds on to independence, so when she lays it aside for him it’s a clear voice not obligation. Plus they have HOT. SEX. It wouldn’t be Florand without smoking hot sex.

So what are these lurking tapioca balls that ruin an otherwise palatable read? First: the description of Sara as an Asian American dings EVERY stereotype I’ve ever encountered: She’s diminutive in size, luminous and regularly compared to the moon/moonlight. She obsessively paints her finger nails, then her toe nails as Patrick fetishizes her tiny feet. The couple shares an inside joke about her being a ninja princess. She wears a tiny backpack and has typographically perfect handwriting. Diversity in characters is great, but it’s best done authentically. Not by beating readers over their heads with stereotypes. There’s no depth to Sara’s cultural identity. Maybe she could’ve missed her mother’s best Korean dish? But instead she has her Asian-ness stamped upon her with with mainstream signals.

The second, and most retch-causing tapioca loogie, comes when the couple is unloading their deepest, darkest secrets to each other. Here’s where romance authors give their characters wounded pasts to justify all the ways they wound their true loves in the present. Patrick’s past is yawn worthy: as a sick form of punishment his mom made him switch from the science focused track to the culinary track in French high school. I guess that’s a reason to not be able to tell a woman you love her? *sky high eye roll* For Sara, however, the hits just keep coming. Her mother and sister escaped from North Korea after her mother was tortured for buying rice on the black market for her starving family. Sara doesn’t know her father because she was conceived immediately upon arriving in the US as an insurance plan for her mother and sister to remain out of North Korea…her dad was never going to be a part of her life. As if that weren’t enough to fuck up a heroine we find out Sara had a little brother, one who did not make it out of North Korea. As her mother and sister fled, the three year old couldn’t keep up, so the desperate mother left him with some farmers vowing to come back for him. When she did come back, she learned the farmers simply left him there to die.

“He died. Wandering the fields, calling for his mother until he was too weak to keep calling.” I read that line and threw my book across the room. What the hell is this doing in my chick-lit book about romance and chocolate in Paris? Talk about a stomach turning tapioca ball. Maybe it upset me because I have a three year old son, and my brain just can’t go there, even though I know some people are forced to. But this is also representative of a general black mark against romance. This dead baby demonstrates the careless emotional hyperbole that makes romance laughable to some. He never shows up again and is absolutely unnecessary for Sara’s emotional back story. There’s no depth, no decency just pulling all the stops to force readers to feel. It’s as shallow as those dead baby jokes told in high school cafeterias. *shudder* Romance doesn’t need this kind of thing to be good.

I wanted to like this one, I really did. It looks so pretty and enticing on the counter, and much of it delivers. But those gummy, flavorless beads get caught in my throat, and I upchuck my contents every time I try to swallow it down.

Too Chocolatey

If The Chocolate Heart by Laura Florand was a dish of ice cream it would be too chocolatey. Now I’m not one to throw “too chocolatey” around like a casual insult, unlike my mother who has been known to accuse an exceptionally chipped chocolate chip cookie of the faux pas. In my opinion, usually “too chocolatey” is a good thing, but for this book, the over-the-top-ness is a downfall. Full disclosure, there will be discussion of eating disorders because Summer, the heroine, suffers from disordered eating, and I’m a recovering anorexic.

Summer Corey is a spoiled brat who has just been given a hotel by her neglectful, elitist parents. I call her a spoiled brat because it’s a common insult hurled at her by every character, including herself. The devastating part is that Summer was raised on deprivation, but more on this and her resulting disordering eating later. Luc Leroi is the street brat turned three Michelin star chocolatier who is not about to let Summer woo him with her casual smiles and billions.

They hate each other, but they want each other. Not a unique situation. They are actually very hard to like for this reader, as well. They compete to see who can hurt the other worse, and it is cringe worthy. Three quarters of the way through the book they stop being mean, and I’m honestly not sure why. Maybe Florand just noticed she had less than a hundred pages to get to their happy ending, and they were still spitting fire?

Summer and Luc do get a happy ending, one that happened so quick it was fleshed out mostly during a conversation in a hammock in the last chapter and an epilogue. So plot development isn’t exactly an asset to this book either.

That said, this book is SEXY. Florand has a way of keeping the smolder simmering even in the most mundane plot moments. Maybe it’s the luxurious settings, unctuous desserts, or maybe she’s just good. Whatever the reason, a sous chef makes some eggs, and it’s hot. But she takes her power to ramp it up too far in other aspects of the book.

Here we go:

Summer, raised to view her beauty as her best asset was deprived desserts as a child. It was punishment for….existing? This memory is excruciating for her, and not easy for me to read. A child watches as everyone around her licks their spoons. So as an adult Summer refuses to eat desserts because why let go of the pain of your past? Luc tries to woo her with desserts, and she does things like dig her nails into her legs until it hurts and flirt with men she knows are bad for her to avoid the temptation. Also countless costly desserts are presumably thrown away, and I just can’t handle it. Eventually Luc gets her to break (There’s a lot of discussion of Summer breaking in this book. Not fun.) with an artfully displayed mango. How many anorexics out there pretended fruit was the best dessert you could imagine? (me raising my hand). The worst part about the way Summer’s disordering eating is handled is that it’s just dropped. That’s it. she eats his mango, and then she’s down for all his other desserts (hehehe). She never gets to say “hey that was shitty” or “I deserve more.” To be clear, if you don’t like desserts that’s fine. But Summer longs for the desserts. It physically and emotionally hurts her to turn down what Luc offers her. Then Summer enacts self harm to (and reminisces about past self harm) to cope with her emotions. These are the unhealthy habits Florand writes into her heroine. If an author is going to dip her plot into eating disorders, she needs to resolve it. As Florand did it, getting a man made Summer healthy. Not good.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, there is a sex scene that just doesn’t have enough consent. Readers are in Summer’s head, so we know she is turned on, but she is saying things like “Not here.” Unfortunately it happens there anyway, and it made me super uncomfortable. There is a lot of hot, rough sex in this book, and eventually safe words are discussed, which is helpful. But ultimately most of this book left me feeling yucky.

Florand has done better, and I want to give her another try, but this one was just much to much chocolate. And by chocolate I mean unhealthy behaviors brushed off as “being spoiled” and fixed by “finding a good man.” Yuck.

Author Bio

Spring is showing her beautiful face in southern Ohio!

Today is my three year anniversary with this blog. It’s been that long since I’ve had anything to say about myself. Some things have changed in my life. So allow me to re-introduce myself.

I’m a thirty-something stay-at-home-mom who has been doing much too much staying at home since the pandemic hit. I live in the suburbs of southern Ohio. During the forty-seven minutes and eighteen seconds per day I have not taking care of my two small children, I like to do yoga and craft. If I’m a stereotype, so be it.

I first experienced a romance novel in the fourth grade when a friend smuggled in one of her mom’s to recess. We read the dirty part in a circle full of giggles. There was a bucking stallion on the cover.

I didn’t read a romance for another twenty years. When in graduate school, I needed something fun to balance all of the tedious linguistics reading. My friend suggested Tessa Dare, and I fell in love. Dare remains one of my favorites, though she’s had a longer than normal pause in publication.

I like romance because it reminds me of why I like being a woman. We get to take our pleasure and adventure, and threaten the status quo while doing so.

My hope is to keep reviewing romance novels here while also including some of my own writing. I’d love to receive requests and recommendations.

Spoons up!