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REVIEW:  An American Duchess by Sharon Page

REVIEW: An American Duchess by Sharon Page

An-American-Duchess

At the height of the Roaring Twenties, New York heiress Zoe Gifford longs for the freedoms promised by the Jazz Age. Headstrong and brazen, but bound by her father’s will to marry before she can access his fortune, Zoe arranges for a brief marriage to Sebastian Hazelton, whose aristocratic British family sorely needs a benefactor.

Once in England, her foolproof plan to wed, inherit and divorce proves more complicated than Zoe had anticipated. Nigel Hazelton, Duke of Langford and Sebastian’s austere older brother, is disgraced by the arrangement and looks down upon the raucous young American who has taken up residence at crumbling Brideswell Abbey. Still reeling from the Great War, Nigel is now staging a one-man battle against a rapidly changing world—and the outspoken Zoe represents everything he’s fighting against. When circumstances compel Zoe to marry Nigel rather than Sebastian, she does so for love, he for honor. But with Nigel unwilling to change with the times, Zoe may be forced to choose between her husband and her dreams.

Spoiler (Possible Trigger Warning): Show

Zoe suffers miscarriages and attendant depression

Dear Ms. Page,

Oh, how I wanted to like this book. It’s got the hot setting of the British aristocracy in the 1920s, it’s American heroine meets British hero, it’s duty and love but it turned out to be – for me – guilt, grief and gaiety with a heavy helping of the first two elements.

From opening page, I can see that Zoe is a woman of determination and practicality. She’s all modern and fully aware that it’s only her money that has opened doors for her. But she’s going to get her money from her trust fund and then see to it herself, investing and managing it as she wants. She’s embraced the changes sweeping the world in the post-war era and won’t apologize for it.

Nigel is appalled at her and her American ways. He is old fashioned and is proud to cling to social norms, manners and gentility that seems to have got blown away by the four years of war that have scarred him mentally as well as physically. He’s not some romantic clinging to ideals of married love but he finds the arrangement made between this brash American and his younger brother to be vulgar and in the height of bad manners.

It’s modern vs old world, full speed forward against trying to maintain the standards of a lifetime. Yet even though these two look at the world in very different ways, they’re more alike than they initially think. Both are fiercely devoted to family, determined to see to the welfare of those dependent on them and grudgingly admit to finally seeing the good in the other’s way of thinking. Each also sees below the surface mannerisms the other uses to shield feelings – Nigel pretends to be icy and in control while Zoe rushes into wild society and either shocks or – in the case of Nigel’s older relations – lives down to their horrified expectations of her.

Zoe discovers in Nigel a man who has been raised on not only the word duty but the meaning. He sees to the needs of not only his immediate family and the family stately pile but also the tenants who live there and who would lose their livelihood if he’s forced to sell off estate land. In Zoe Nigel finds a woman who revels in the modern technologies that he saw at work during the war and which he sees the world racing to embrace. She shows him that fast cars and aeroplanes aren’t just things he must endure but things that can set you free and make you feel alive again.

So far, so good.

When I read the blurb, I wondered what event would precipitate the marriage. Well, these two certainly did flirt with propriety enough along the way and participate in so many possible public scandals that it was a wonder they didn’t get caught earlier than they did – tonsil tonguing outside a popular London nightclub, skinny dipping in the estate pond during a massive party attended by all society, public sex on the estate grounds… they all but stripped naked, dyed themselves orange and did backflips through the portrait gallery.

Unfortunately, once the engagement/marriage starts, my problems with the characters and story really began.

Zoe supposed to be so “in charge” and “not to be messed with” yet making her bold rebel statements, she keeps yielding to everyone about almost everything. True she’s doing it from the heart and to help people but in the end, her backbone is a touch bendy for how strong a woman she was initially presented as being. The section wherein engagements are broken and marriage proposals are made is draggy. Zzzzzzz. This is also the point at which the soap opera starts.

Zoe and Nigel just keep racing around the same closed track of their issues and not really getting anywhere for a long, dank, mournful time. This is not happy, light reading here – be forewarned.

Grief and woe abounds. Lots of grief and lots of woe. This is where the trigger warning applies and if it applies to readers, then I would strongly suggest they heed it. OMG – this is a never ending soap opera of angst and woe. Every chapter does a two step forward of slight healing followed by one and a half step back of horrible event. Zoe sinks to the depths of depression over their loss then Nigel goes all “woe is me it’s all my fault” about the war affecting the families of his dead men and how he ought to have saved them all.

Then Zoe treats us to another attempt at defying the restrictions placed on her – though they are really not many – followed by a reason why she must give up her dreams/plans which ends in still more grief. This time though, I totally agree with Nigel. What the hell was she thinking? I wanted to grab a chamber pot and bash her over the head.

By this time I was anticipating some new awfullness that was going to befall Zoe or Nigel, or both of them, in each chapter. It was morbidly fascinating to guess what new disaster would be heaped on them. Instead of continuing to read in hopefulness of them finally starting to get past the PTSD haunting Nigel and the grief felling them both, I frankly just wanted the whole book to be over.

Even when they’re attempting to reconcile they fight and flail at each other. Plus guilt – mustn’t ever forget that. Nigel has finally decided to break out of his shell – and BTW there’s no mention of if he continues to have his PTSD nightmares on the ocean voyage or rail trip – and go to American and get his wife back but he still argues and orders and they’re back to the same old, same old with few pages of the book left. Finally he tells Zoe, “maybe I should do the decent thing and let you go” and I thought – hell yes and put us all out of our misery.

Then we wind things up with some good old Southern California therapy wherein Nigel finally bears his inner scars to Zoe, does some cathartic crying while Zoe holds him close and soothes him followed by very public sex on the hood of a car on a street at night – yep that’s all that’s needed to overcome five years of PTSD. No wait, the guilt is still there even after hours of hawtness. Finally Zoe saves the day in a subplot of Nigel’s duty and guilt and responsibility.

Looking for an angsty historical with hawtness? Look no further. Want to watch two characters torture themselves with angst even up until the very end? It’s right here. Want the confessions to drag until the final page? This is your story. After a beginning that had me hopeful, came the second half that I just wanted to end. B- for the first half and D for the second.

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  Snow-Kissed by Laura Florand

REVIEW: Snow-Kissed by Laura Florand

Snow Kissed Laura Florand

Snow Kissed Laura Florand [Contemporary - Novella] ( A | BN | K | S | G )

Sunita

Dear Ms. Florand:

When you offered me this book for review, you warned me that it might be a bit too angsty for me, given my preferences. And Snow-Kissed was definitely an angsty read. But despite that, I found myself engaged by the characters and the story, and I read the novella in one sitting. I can’t say the book worked for me on an emotional level (with one exception), but I thought it was well executed and largely succeeded at what it was trying to do. I liked it enough to recommend it to DA’s readers, but I worried about being able to do it justice in a review given my somewhat cerebral reaction. Luckily, Willaful found that she connected with its emotions, and she suggested we do a joint review with a twist: Introducing our Head/Heart review of Snow-Kissed!

 

Willaful
Warning: I’m going to take base advantage of writing the “heart” review and let myself get as self-indulgent as I wanna be, starting with my soundtrack for the book. Although it’s set during Christmas, I could not stop thinking of Dar Williams’ “February”:

And February was so long that it lasted into March

And found us walking a path alone together.

You stopped and pointed and you said, “That’s a crocus,”

And I said, “What’s a crocus?” and you said, “It’s a flower,”

I tried to remember, but I said, “What’s a flower?”

You said, “I still love you.”

(A digression: my interpretation of this song was always that the relationship ended, but a youtube comment suggests that it was reborn instead. It turns out that’s the way my husband, the eternal optimist, has always interpreted it. Anyway, that makes it fit the story even better. )

A man paints powdered sugar snow on a woman’s body and licks it off… it sounds like a classic sexy scene from one of the charming “Amour et Chocolat” books. Except this man is in deadly earnest as he melts sugar and tries to melt the ice around his wife’s heart. Kurt and Kai have been separated for over a year, after Kai’s third miscarriage drove her into a grief too intense to be shared, and she left him. Now she’s holed up in a cabin, trying to lose herself in her work as a food stylist, only to find herself snowed in with the one person she can’t bear to be with:

She had so hoped that she had reach a point where she could — see him. Where all that long process of coming to peace with herself and her losses would be strong enough to withstand a glimpse of him. But all of her, every iota of strength and peace, had dissolved into pain and longing the instant she saw him step out of his car, a flake of snow catching on his hair.

Kai has worked hard to turn her overpowering feelings into something calm, “a slushy of grief that lay cold in her middle but no longer spilled out at every wrong movement, every careless glimpse of happy couples of children laughing in a park.” Being frozen hurts less than feeling. But it’s impossible to stay frozen around someone who whose love can cut her so deeply.

Her stomach tightened as if he had just pierced it with some long, strange, beautiful shard of ice. Kurt. Don’t take care of me. You always did that so, so — the ice shard slid slowly through her inner organs, slicing, hurting — well.

Cutting ice, a frozen heart… all clues to the inspiration for this story. The parallels are fairly subtle though (unlike Florand’s The Chocolate Rose, which I thought suffered from sticking too closely to its source.) I wasn’t even sure it was deliberate until I happened to think about Florand’s use of names in previous books — Jolie for the “Beauty” in The Chocolate Rose, Magalie, the heavily guarded Pearl of The Chocolate Kiss, and then it hit me – of course, her name is Kai. Kai, the boy with evil glass in his eye and his heart… no longer able to see what is true and beautiful… saved by the tears of the girl who loved him.

My mom telling me that story is one of my earliest memories, and I’ve always been drawn to adaptations of it (The Snow Queen by Joan Vinge is wonderful) so that might be one of the reasons I fell so hard for this. I’m also pretty much the perfect audience for it: not only do I live for emotional reads, but I’ve shared many experiences with Kai (but have some distance and closure so it’s not too raw) and know how exactly right Florand gets everything. What it’s like to not be able to have the one thing you want more than anything, what it’s like to have your body fail at its most basic task, with reminders of that failure everywhere, what it’s like to have a grief you can’t share with the person whom you love the most. I remember browsing through a book and coming across the phrase, “a miscarriage is the loneliest grief in the world,” and bursting into tears right there in the library stacks.

So I couldn’t help but love this for expressing those emotions so truly and beautifully. (I don’t have quite the same personal connection to Kurt’s point of view, but I felt it was equally honest and moving.) And it caught me in other ways as well. With the stakes so high, the sex scenes have a thrilling intensity:

Her own body didn’t know which would win, his tension or his gentleness. Such a tantalizing knife’s edge. She wanted to fall on both sides.

Oh, but that would cut her right in two. She would never get the pieces of herself back again.

And even amidst the angst there are playful and funny moments and tender sharing and — after all miss, this is Florand — wonderful food.

And most of all, there’s romance at its strongest and most powerful, as Kai discovers how intensely Kurt loves her and how real that love is. Snow-Kissed is obviously about grief and loss and their effects on the spirit, and it’s a beautifully done, insightful portrayal. But at its deepest heart it’s about love, the true, devoted, thick and thin kind of love — not uncritical, slavish adoration, which passes for it in a lot of romance, but love that is honest and clear-sighted, sometimes angry, yet unconditional.

Here’s what my head says about the book: the writing is perhaps overly lush in the first chapter or so — it loosens up as the story arc does — and gets repetitious in the middle section. I was leaning towards a lesser grade because of those issues. And then I got to the ending, the absolutely-perfect-exactly-what-I-needed-ending, and I knew this could only be an A.

Sunita

The first couple of pages, with their lush, expressive prose, told me I was in for an emotional ride, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t the right reader/reviewer. But despite my instinctive withdrawal from the intense emotional atmosphere, I kept reading, because even though I felt outside the target audience, the book was drawing me in. Kai’s voice was compelling, and when Kurt showed up, I had to read on. It’s an odd sensation to read a romance book from the outside, so to speak, because of all the genres, romance is the one where emotional engagement seems the most important. But I didn’t want to DNF the book, even though I wasn’t entirely sure why.

The food-related scenes and metaphors that set the stage were a little too plentiful for me, but I think that readers who enjoy impassioned atmosphere will find them compelling. Once Kai and Kurt started interacting, I settled into a reading groove. Kurt is very much in the style of Florand’s other heroes, not a copycat of any of his predecessors, but clearly related. The way he controlled and restrained his unhappiness made a great foil for Kai and helped provide balance for me as I read.

And the sex scenes? Oh, they are something. They were uncomfortable to read at times, because you know these two have a long, hard road to even an HFN, and sex between people who love each other but aren’t sure they can be together is so wrenching and bittersweet. I blogged a little while ago about closed-door romances and how I hope they aren’t going away, but this story is Exhibit A for what we missed when those were the norm. I’m not sure that what is communicated in these scenes, and the way the plot and relationship develop, could have been conveyed without them.

The novella is intensely focused on Kai and Kurt, which works well both in terms of the story development and the word count constraints. Kurt’s mother Anne, plays an important off-page role, and I really liked the way Florand integrated her role as mother and mother-in-law. She starts out sounding like Martha Stewart but the context in which her actions take place add an unexpectedly rich dimension to the story and remind us how often intimate tragedies extend beyond the immediate people who go through them.

I said that this was mostly a head-focused reading experience for me, but I also mentioned there was an exception, so here’s the heart part of my review: I haven’t been in either Kai or Kurt’s position, but I know what it’s like to be a couple’s only child by default and bad fortune rather than by choice. Coming at it from that history and experience, many years later, this book really rang true for me. Grade: B+

 

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