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REVIEW:  How Sweet It Is by Melissa Brayden

REVIEW: How Sweet It Is by Melissa Brayden

how-sweet

Some things are better than chocolate…

Molly O’Brien is a sweetheart. Her friends and neighbors all think so. While she enjoys her quiet life running the town bakeshop in Applewood, Illinois, she wonders if there could be more. After losing the love of her life four years prior in a plane crash, Molly thinks she’s ready to navigate the dicey dating waters once again. However, you can’t always pick who your heart latches on to. When Jordan Tuscana, the beautiful younger sister of her lost love, returns to town, Molly finds her interest piqued in a manner she wasn’t prepared for.

As secrets are uncovered, Molly and Jordan must figure out how to navigate the difficult terrain of their multi-faceted relationship. Especially when something much deeper seems to be bubbling between them.

Dear Ms. Brayden,

At first this appears to be just a sweet – sorry, no pun on Molly’s job intended – story of second chances and small town life but soon layers begin to develop. Is Molly truly over the loss of her first and only love and ready to date again? Has Jordan finally developed the confidence needed to shrug off her parents’ disappointment in her career choice and need to match up to the high standards her older sister so effortlessly achieved?

And what about their professional lives? Can Molly save her bakeshop – the place where she grew up and the business into which she’s poured her heart? And what will Jordan’s next move be now that the big Hollywood studio is demanding what she won’t give?

Finally can Molly and Jordan navigate the rough waters of falling in love with the memory of Cassie – Molly’s first love and Jordan’s older sister – hanging over their heads? There’s a lot going on here.

These women are real with faults and flaws to go along with their sexiness in a tank top and cut-offs. Molly’s initial forays into the dating world start humorously but eventually serve to show her just how right Jordan is for her. Still Molly’s flight response to the family disapproval when the relationship is discovered reveals the fact that she and Cassie might have been deeply in love but were operating more on smooth sailing autopilot. Life with Jordan will challenge Molly to plumb the depths of emotion and might be a bit rockier. Is Molly willing to risk the hurt that might follow?

I like that Molly can be exasperating at times. And it’s realistic that she’s going to hurt Jordan while she’s finally working out her unresolved grief for Cassie and seeing that a relationship can be so much more. Still, Cassie isn’t vilified to make Jordan look better and Molly’s heartfelt visits to Cassie’s grave show how deeply they were in love.

Jordan has old demons to deal with. As a younger sister myself I can identify with how difficult and, at times, frustrating it can be to try and live up to a high achieving older sister. I didn’t act out as Jordan did but I can certainly understand wanting to match up yet stand out as her own person. It’s hard to watch her fall prey to the whisperings of someone who clearly wants to drive a wedge in her relationship with Molly but even worse, though understandable, when her family also falls into old patterns of comparison.

There are a lot of old habits that are dying hard here but I appreciate that they are shown in all their ugliness and that the characters are given time to work through and change them. While some of the external conflicts are a bit too neatly resolved, I also like that no one has completely dealt with everything – though the epilogue shows great progress – when the story ends.

For readers looking for a quieter, character driven story, I think this is a good one to reach for. Molly and Jordan are both out and comfortable with their sexual orientation and it appears the small town of Applewood accepts them as well. Perhaps this is more a magical LGBT Never Never Land but the emphasis of the story is not gaining community or family acceptance but rather working out their relationship on its own. B-

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  Sonata for a Scoundrel by Anthea Lawson

REVIEW: Sonata for a Scoundrel by Anthea Lawson

Dear Ms. Lawson,

I finished Sonata for Scoundrel just as Robin’s Reading What You Know post set off an epic discussion of book-trance-killing pet peeves. As I read through all the replies, I realized that my inner red flags were at the ready when I started your story of a Romantic-era female composer. I’ve been disappointed before.

Sonata for a Scoundrel by Anthea LawsonThe Muse…

Clara Becker is a supremely gifted composer–a talent of little to use to a woman in 1830s Europe. Her compositions only have worth when they are published under her brother’s name, yet this deception barely enables them to scrape out a living in the poorest quarter of London.

Meets the Master…

Darien Reynard, the most celebrated musician in Europe, pursues success with a single-minded intensity. When he comes across Becker’s compositions, he knows that this music will secure his place in history. Darien tracks the composer down and, with some difficulty, convinces the man to tour with him. Mr. Becker agrees, but with the most unusual condition that he bring along his sister…

None of those red flags were needed for the “glittering backdrop of 19th century celebrity.” The world-building made my inner geek very, very happy – so much so that I didn’t even flinch at the blatant name-dropping of Chopin, Berlioz, Liszt and even George Sand. I think that’s because this is very much Clara’s story, and we get to see that world from her shadowy place off-stage.

Clara is a bit heart-breaking because she’s never allowed to embrace her musical gift for herself. When we first met our heroine, she’s pulling an all-nighter to keep her father’s creditors at bay, only to be forced yet again to let go of her latest masterpiece:

Papa felt it best that Nicholas play the music as soon as she had finished the composition. It was a ritual now. Nicholas would play it, and the music would no longer be hers.

And later, on tour with the maestro, she must hide in hotel rooms or forgotten salons in empty palace corridors to keep up with Darien’s demands for new compositions at every stop on their tour. But like any artist, Clara finds inspiration even in the depths of her frustration:

Yes. Yes! At last she heard it—the quick staccato beat of the piano, rapping notes out while the violin played with the fury of a fallen angel. Fire and passion and wickedness all coiled together in a mad rush of melody.

She rushed back to the desk, grabbed a new sheet of paper, and began to write furiously.

***

From her vantage point in the hallway outside the half-open door to the music room, Clara could see Darien Reynard’s lifted brow as he accepted the pages from Nicholas. She rested her fingertips on the elaborate gilt doorframe and leaned closer, straining her ears to catch their conversation.

El Diavolo?” Darien asked. “Do I dare ask what inspired this piece?”

Nicholas tapped his fingers nervously against his trouser leg. “It’s a composite,” he finally said. “Drawn from a number of experiences.”

“I see.” Darien flipped to the second page and studied the notes scribed there. “This is a bit more… technically ambitious than your previous works. You plan to put me through my paces.”

Oh, yes. Wait until he attempted the cadenza. Clara swallowed back a sharp, bitter laugh. Her composition served him right enough; served them both. She might be invisible, but there was no denying her presence. Not when she was the one quite literally calling the tune.

It’s not until her brother Nicholas drinks himself into a stupor and Clara takes his place in a rehearsal that the self-obsessed virtuoso finally sees her as a true musician – and a woman. Clara’s life begins to open in ways she never imagined, and her compositions begin to take on more complex themes that push Darien’s star ever higher. However, as the muse/master relationship deepens artistically and romantically, Nicholas descends into a shame spiral that threatens the trio’s carefully constructed façade.

The remainder of the story plays out in a musical duel between Darien and his Italian Arch-Nemesis, who is truly the 19th-century equivalent of an epic douchebag. The final concert is totally Hollywood-esque, complete with the obligatory Royal Standing Ovation. By then I was all, “what the hell, bring it on,” because I am a huge sap for schmaltzy endings.

And, of course, I completely geeked out over the Author’s Note. I shall never reveal how many new mp3s were added to my playlists or how many hours I spent Googling the sex lives of Romantic-era composers (Lisztomania, indeed) or how guilty I felt when I remembered I had a novel about Clara Schumann mouldering at the bottom of the toppling stack of hardcovers beside my bed. I want to go back in time and give Fanny Mendelssohn a big ol’ “You GO, GIRL.”

For the most part, I really enjoyed Sonata for a Scoundrel. So many lovely telling details, like Clara’s nervous foot-tapping that unconsciously matches the unfamiliar rhythms of her first cross-country carriage ride, and the way she counts repetitions in the patterned carpet to keep from nodding off at the latest snobbish patron’s after-party, and Darien’s post-bar-brawl panic until he realizes it’s only his bowing hand that’s bruised.

But too often (this is where the inner red flags started unfurling), those revealing moments were overshadowed by increasingly purplish prose. At first, the metaphors are both clever and relevant, letting the reader know that we’re in the minds of professional musicians who think very differently from the rest of us mere mortals:

…The final movement burst like constellations through her, jubilant sprays of notes flung out over the audience.

… His hands ached with the need to play that brightness into being.

… Instead, he studied her as though she were an unexpected dissonance in the score of his life.

… The piece was full of shadows and silvery silences, the beginning a subtle interplay of long-held tones exchanged between the piano and violin. Her every sense was attuned to Darien as the music reached the first abyss—two beats of stillness they must hold for an identical interval before ascending again into the dark melodic waters.

That last one? THAT was glorious. It’s a bit all over the place, but it fits the scene perfectly, revealing the characters using their own vocabulary. Early in the story, I was so enamored I could even forgive sentences like this:

… Darien tossed long skeins of notes from his violin into the welcoming waves pouring beneath her fingers.

Tossing skeins of notes? All righty, then. I kinda like it.

However…. *~*sigh*~* The Mixing of the Metaphors eventually began to take center stage (sorry, I just COULD NOT resist):

…This kiss would be a bright, burning star for her to chart her life by, the only thing in a dark sea full of night. She would look up and navigate her future by its light, by the memory of Darien’s kiss.

… There were undercurrents here he did not understand; some family secret that lay like a sandbar, treacherously close to the surface. Was it going to wreck his plans on the shoals?

… Dare could not sip the liquor that was Miss Clara Becker—but that did not stop him from thirsting.

And whenever flowery metaphors invade the bedroom, it’s just a short, perilous journey into the realm of (brace yourselves) Simile Sex:

She teetered on the brink of a vast, thundering mystery. The boat of their bodies had come to an endless plunge of waterfall. She clung to his shoulders, eyes fixed on his, and fell over the edge. The current seized her, thrust her headlong into sensation, a glittering sheet of water and air and pure noise. It was like standing in the center of a cacophony of drums, the rhythm shaking her apart until she hardly knew where her body ended and Darien’s began.

Sometimes there’s a fine line between authorial voice and purple prose, and passages like that make me feel the author is simply trying too hard to impress the reader with every tool in her arsenal. It wasn’t quite Death by Thesaurus, but the book trance had vanished by that point, and I never did get it back.

While I loved Sonata’s focus on Clara, I did get frustrated with the unfulfilled bits of backstory about Darien’s similar impoverished childhood and Nicholas’s previous bouts of depression. There’s even hints that Nicholas might be gay, which would make a damn good sequel, especially if he gets his HEA while squashing the Italian Arch-Nemesis like a bug on the empty stage of La Scala. Or maybe dropping a piano on his head.

And the Big Reveal. Oy, the non-event of the Big Reveal. The blurb sets up the expectation there will be a Dark Moment; the story really could have used the build-up towards a confrontation – which sorta occurs when Clara deliberately seduces Darien to silence his questions – but then all that tension just kinda peters out as Darien gradually figures out the big secret (maybe because all those wave-crashing, bass-clef-reverberating orgasms made him smarter).

So. (I need a musical metaphor for “final analysis.”) I guess I’m more conflicted than I thought. I fully admit I geeked out a few times, but this story definitely isn’t for everyone. I’d recommend Sonata for a Scoundrel to any and every classical music lover, but all others must have a high tolerance for florid storytelling. Grade: B-

~ Kelly

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