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REVIEW:  Sun-Kissed by Laura Florand

REVIEW: Sun-Kissed by Laura Florand

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Dear Ms. Florand:

Sun-Kissed unites two Florand worlds, that of the “Amour et Chocolat” series and that of the novella Snow-Kissed. (Reviewed here.) I was tickled that it also unites the Hershey-ish character with the Martha Stewart-ish character.

In Snow-Kissed, the off-stage Anne Winters represented the Snow Queen — not exactly evil in that version, but cold and remote, seeming to care more about perfect decorations and crafts than about her family. This book gives her a broader emotional life, as the family friend of the Coreys, who stepped in to help with the things she does best after the death of of chocolate mogul Mack Corey’s wife. (“The family had fallen to pieces. Anne knew how to pick up pieces. Carefully. Trying not to get anyone cut on them.”) For Mack she’s been a walking partner, business soundboard, date to keep eager young women at bay, constant source of unexpressed sexual fantasies, and generally his best friend:

The friend who had kept him centered for the past fifteen year. Ever since Julie died. Or maybe he should say the past thirteen years, because for those first couple of years after the car accident, he sure as hell hasn’t counted as centered, no matter how many elegant variations on comfort food Anne carried over in their exquisite packaging, in her version of caring.

She was persistent at it, caring. She wasn’t good at it. She couldn’t hug or emote like Julie had. But she kept at it.

They’re the same age (53), both very successful and powerful, and both feeling a little lost, with their children grown and finding happiness with others. The story opens at the wedding of Mack’s daughter Jaime, the heroine of The Chocolate Touch; it’s also shortly after Anne has been released from prison, where she served 6 months for insider trading. The experience has changed her:

…she’d known that she wouldn’t have any trouble with at least one of those prison tips she had found online: never, ever show them anything you really feel, not fear, not weakness, not joy. It could all be used against you. She’d gotten that part down so very long ago, layer after frozen layer separating herself from the world’s power to hurt her, accumulated year after year as she kept doing it, as no one ever broke through.

But prison had weakened something in her. She knew it had. Because now some other part of her melted under [her daughter-in-law] Kai’s laughter, surging up in this sudden geyser of grief for herself and hope for them…

Seeing all the loving couples around her at the wedding furthers this “weakening.” “How do women manage that? That’s all I want to know. All those women, so relaxed and trusting, all around her.” Anne has closed herself off from romance for decades, after multiple miscarriages and a divorce, but she’s now starting to think about how well she and Mack are matched:

He was the most powerful man in the room, easily. And he knew it. He knew how to dance, and he knew how to control her. But if she wanted to do something — a spin or a dip or just shift the direction to another part of the room so she could catch the caterer’s attention — she could give just the tiniest little signal with a pressure of her hand or a subtle leaning of her body and he would do it. He teased her about her need to lead, but what really happen was that, without losing his control of the dance, he acknowledged her control, too. And it never seemed to lessen his confidence in himself at all.

Anne’s prison sentence was also a kick in the pants for Mack, whose wealth and influence still couldn’t save his dearest friend. Now realizing how much he needs and desires her, he decides to trust that their friendship could survive an attempt to make it more.

The closed-off woman pursued by an unstoppable man is a common theme in Florand romances, often accompanied by some utterly delicious playing around with consent. (Never in any uncomfortable way, in my opinion.) This may have the best seduction ever — a fascinating erotic negotiation, in which Anne is simultaneously fighting off Mack and hoping she’ll lose. He rises to the occasion with perfect insight, countering everything she throws at him.

I loved how we get to understand these characters, previously seen only through their children’s sometimes conflicted eyes. Anne’s need to make places and things special is shown with much more empathy here, as is Mack’s type A aggressiveness.

Sun-Kissed isn’t the tearjerker that Snow-Kissed was, but infertility continues to be a theme. Anne suffered from secondary infertility (a situation that generally gets very little respect or understanding) and still has sadness around that, especially with the realization that she may never have grandchildren. She has an awareness not often seen in romance novels: “How easily people assumed something so magical would happen. How easily they took for granted that it you wanted kids, they would come.” Although quite a lot of time is spent on happy couples from all the previous books here, there’s no barrage of pregnancies and children; the one pregnancy is meaningful to this story, because it’s painful for the infertile characters to witness. Another awareness not often seen in romance novels.

I did think the past couples were over-present, although they do provide humor: ‘Do you know that a group of French chocolatier-pastry chefs who have never grilled a burger in their lives will still find ten ways to suggest a better technique? No, I have not tried balsamic vinegar, or bison, or an olive tapenade.’ And as previously mentioned, their presence affects the main characters. But Mack and Sarah think about them all a lot more than seems necessary or useful, other than to reassure fans that everyone they care about is happy. Consequently, the book feels uneven and is probably not the best entry to this world.

Although that aspect felt off-balance, the use of ice and melting imagery for Anne’s story was graceful and not overpowering:

So strange to realize that this blunt, tough businessman, with his square hands and his impossibly intense need to dominate the world, had this much tenderness in him. She’d known he had that much love — she’d seen it with Julie, with his children — but it had never even occurred to her that he could be capable of such a delicate touch.

It turned her delicate, too. It made her feel like a snowflake resting on a human palm, struggling not to lose her shape.

It was lovely to see a happy ending for the Snow Queen. It might be a trend. ;-) B

Sincerely,
Willaful

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REVIEW:  The Lucky Charm by Beth Bolden

REVIEW: The Lucky Charm by Beth Bolden

Beth Bolden The Lucky Charm

Dear Ms. Bolden:

Jayne forwarded me your posting in the Open Thread and it looked intriguing. I love sports books so I wrote to you asking if you had an ARC. You kindly sent me a copy of the book which I read that evening.

This book completely charmed me and broke a lot of “rules” about what is ordinarily allowed in romances, particularly in this highly eroticized period. First, the hero is 5′ 8″ and not as attractive as his best friend. Second, there aren’t many love scenes and the ones that exist aren’t super explicit.

But Izzy Dalton and Jack Bennett’s romance is sweet, fun, tender and yes, sexy.

Izzy is an orphan who has spent her life trying to find her calling. When her mother died of cancer when she was eleven, Izzy declared she would be a doctor but when she went to college and could barely pass Freshman Bio, she turned her attention toward journalism after watching a documentary on Bo Jackson. [Thirty on Thirty is actually a really great documentary and series overall even for non sports fans]

When her dad died in a car accident when Izzy was twenty-one, her fervor in being in journalism was set. This was the way she would make her dead parents proud. In her boss, executive producer Charlie, Izzy finds a surrogate father. When he falls ill, she’s devastated and worse, because Charlie wasn’t well liked by the network’s head of programming, she gets shuttled to a small station in Portland to be the sidelines reporter of the professional baseball team.

She hates baseball and knows absolutely nothing about it.

Jack Bennett had been told all his life he can’t. He’s too small, too slow, too weak to play sports. If you tell Jack Bennett he can’t do something, he’s going to prove you wrong. The first scene with Jack aptly sums up his personality.

Can’t doesn’t exist,” he said levelly. “Can’t is the one word in the English language that I won’t recognize as valid. You told me that I can’t put my feet up there. But I could. Very easily, as evidenced by the fact that they’re up there right now.”

She blinked, clearly a little surprised by his well-honed patter. After all, every smart big leaguer had their rehearsed cliche?s down pat. His were just a little…creative.

“You see, when I was seven years old, little Jimmy’s dad was our little-league coach, and of course, he wanted little Jimmy to play second base, but I wanted to play second base, too. He told me I couldn’t play it because I was too small. But one day, see, little Jimmy took a hit to the head and had to sit out half a game. I took that opportunity and played the best goddamned four innings of little-league second base that anyone had ever seen. Little Jimmy and his dad ate their words after that one. High school, same story. They tried sticking me on the JV team, thinking that if I was out of sight, I’d be out of mind. But you know what happened?”

Shell shock would be a generous term for the blank stare she gave him as he paused.

“Well?” he prompted.

“Obviously not,” she sniffed in annoyance, and he had to give her at least three mental points for the snotty curve of her lip. “You were in high school, I don’t have any idea what happened to you in high school.”

“I hit .458 that year and committed zero errors. Of course, they loved me on the JV team, but when the season started next year, you want to bet they didn’t leave me there. I made the varsity team, where I should have been all along.”

“Let me guess, the same thing happened in college.” The sarcasm dripping off her words gained her another few points. If he was feeling generous, she was just about to break even.

“Oh, no. I was recruited to play at Stanford, and don’t get me wrong, I loved those guys. They finally believed in me. But that wasn’t the end of it. I kept getting told I was still too small. It was like little Jimmy’s goddamn dad all over again. When I went in the third round of the major-league draft and only spent two years in the minors, I signed a ball and sent it off to little Jimmy’s dad. That was a great day.”

The flight attendant’s eyes went all calculating. Jack had a feeling she was mentally pricing out what a signed baseball by Jack Bennett would bring. So he swung for the very edge of the stands.

“See, if I’d listened to people who told me that I couldn’t do this, couldn’t do that, I wouldn’t be sitting here. I’d be back in the sticks, playing pickup ball on the weekends, wishing that I’d grown a pair and done something about my dream. But I didn’t listen to them.”

She gave up the ghost and fled right before he got to the moral of the story. “Great talk,” he murmured at her retreating back and settling back into his seat, and he couldn’t help but sigh contentedly. Peace at last.

“I see you finally managed to ditch your admirer.” Noah Fox, known to baseball fanatics and his friends as Foxy, drawled without even opening his eyes. “Now that was persistence in action. Nobody’s ever stayed long enough to hear the part about little Jimmy’s dad getting the baseball except reporters.”

When he sees Izzy, there’s one big can’t. He can’t date a reporter. Every action of Jack’s is focused on winning the pennant for the Portland Pioneers. Jake is a hometown boy and his dream is to win the World Series as a Pioneer. This year, the Pioneers need to make the playoffs or his dream will be all but snuffed out. He doesn’t care about a revolving door of women because he just wants to win games. But for the first time, he’s so interested in a woman that he’s willing to do interviews even though he hates them. And he’s pursuing her, even though it’s against the rules.

Jake is the heart of the Pioneers and a very successful second baseman. (He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting). In this new year, with Izzy on the sidelines, Jake finds himself to be the beneficiary of extraordinary luck. Despite the fact that he’s not at all superstitious, something strange is happening. He would be out of position and still manage to make a save. He should have been caught stealing but the opposing second baseman dropped the ball. He reached first on an infield single. He even had an in-park home run, an extraordinary occurrence.

Through the 162 game season and endless road trips, Jake and Izzy find themselves together repeatedly until they finally give in on all of that simmering lust between them.

There’s quite a bit of suspense in the book. What will Izzy say if she learns Jake thinks she’s his lucky charm? If they do go out, will they get caught? Can Jake’s lucky streak extend throughout the entire season?

The character growth in the story is primarily on Izzy’s side as she learns to overcome a lot of her inhibitions and starts to live a life based on what she wants instead of what she perceives others want for her.

But it really was the romance that captured me. Jake’s sarcastic, confidence was paired perfectly with his charming vulnerability when it came to Izzy. He toed the perfect line between being attractively aggressive without being overbearing. Izzy was just as authentic. She knew her flaws and faults and tried hard to be a good employee while dealing with a misogynistic boss who just wanted her to look good in front of the camera. Being away from Charlie, her surrogate father, was good for her because she had to learn to stand up for herself.

Finally, the baseball was so rich in this story. You really believed in Jake as a player:

Jack loved the way the world slowed when he entered the batter’s box.

He loved the dust settling on his tongue, the way his hitting gloves bit into his wrists, the weight of the wooden bat in his hands.

A lot of players let the pitcher set the tone of an at-bat, but Jack was somewhat fanatical about making sure that he and nobody else, was in charge when he stepped up to the plate. Sometimes that meant walking to the plate a fraction slower than good manners demanded. Sometimes that meant taking an extra moment to go through his mental and physical routine between swings. Sometimes that meant giving the pitcher one of his patented fuck-off glares.

This was a delightful romance. The characters were vividly drawn and believable. I can’t wait for more books about the Pioneers. B+

Best regards,

Jane

 

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