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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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DUELING REVIEW:  Betrayal by Sandra Schwab

DUELING REVIEW: Betrayal by Sandra Schwab

Dear Ms. Schwab:

The next time I see someone bewail, “they don’t write historical romance like they used to,” I’m going to recommend this. The intense, angsty, sometimes uncomfortable story is very reminiscent of older books such as those by Brenda Joyce or Kat Martin, though terser and less epic. Which was perfect for me, because I could get my old skool fix without having to be up all night. I read this in what felt like about five minutes, totally engrossed.

betrayalTwo seventeen year old boys meet by chance in Tuscany and are startled by their uncanny resemblance to each other. They’re even more startled when they discover they have the same last names. Yes, this is a historical romance version of “the Parent Trap”! Or more accurately, it was inspired by Das Doppelte Lottchen, the German book that inspired “The Parent Trap.” The book isn’t really about separated twins Gareth and Finnian though — they’re mainly the catalyst to reuinite their parents, two lovers who were torn apart, each feeling betrayed by the other.

The time is not specified, though I would guess the Victorian era. In Germany, Finnian’s mother Georgina is working as a companion, and after years of celibacy is starting to think about letting love and sex into her life again.  But even her fantasies about her employer’s secretary hint that she isn’t completely free of the past:

She would look down on his dark head, run her hands –

Georgina frowned.

Fair hair. She would run her hands through his fair hair.

Meanwhile in England, Georgina’s ex-husband Lord Ashburnham is still nursing his bitterness against the wife he believes was unfaithful, and leading as cold and proper a life as possible. Later, after Georgina reappears, he’ll think, “He could feel himself unravelling and he hated it. An Ashburnham did not unravel. An Ashburnham was always in control of himself.” What he doesn’t realize that he’s been emotionally unraveled for the past 17 years, caught up in a resentment that’s effectively kept him from getting close to anyone, including his own son Gareth.

This may be the stickiest part of the book — that its hero has rejected his son because of uncertain parentage for the past 17 years. It helps that he’s obviously repressing some genuine affection: “it did not befit the Earl of Ashburnham to race to the front door the minute his heir returned from his travel through Italy.” And Gareth’s upbringing has probably not been substantially different from that of his peers. Still, it’s a pretty ugly behavior for a romance hero. Gareth finds love and comfort when he takes Finnian’s place in Germany, but Finnian’s experience in England is far different.

The appeal of this sort of book is in the passion and intensity, and Betrayal is all about that. Rage, bitterness, vengefulness — tempered by unwilling love and concern.

 The expression on her face that last time in his study. Milky-white skin, shock that he had seen through her masquerade, through all her scheming and lies. Large as saucer her eyes had been.

Her eyes…

Ash’s stomach dropped. For a moment he had to lean his forehead against the smooth wood of the door-jamb.

He couldn’t remember the colour of her eyes.

Some unknown, unwanted feeling constricted his throat, almost as if the vanishing of this particular memory was a keen loss. Fool. Fool. What did it matter what the colour of her eyes had been?

And of course Ash’s hatred towards his ex-wife can’t overcome his distress at seeing her dressed in dark, drab clothes instead of the bright colors she once loved, and he dashes to rescue her when she’s in trouble.

Originally a serialized audiobook, Betrayal is the first self-published book by Sandra Schwab, who last published a romance in 2008. (She’s digitizing her previous books, so they should be available again soon.) It has a few editing errors, especially towards the end, and it’s a bit uneven. The old-style story is told in a suitably old-style way, but the first half feels more leisurely, with room for atmosphere and some enjoyably quirky touches, while the England sections seem to rush by, focused almost entirely on the emotions of the characters, their warring bitter and sensual memories, and some over the top villainy. But though it’s not the most substantial book, I happily devoured it. B-.

Sincerely,

willaful

 


Dear Ms. Schwab,

Erich Kastner’s Das doppelte Lottchen was one of my favorite books as a child. I read it in Israel, in translation to Hebrew, and found it utterly charming. In adulthood, I even tracked down the English translation, Lisa and Lottie, which is sadly disappointing. I’m not able to read Das doppelete Lottchen in the original German, but compared to the Hebrew, Lisa and Lottie is a travesty.

BetrayalEnglish speakers will likely be most familiar with the bare bones of Kastner’s story of twins who switch places to uncover what went wrong in their parents’ marriage from its screen adaptations, The Parent Trap and sequels. Now comes your historical romance, Betrayal, which pays homage to Kastner’s beloved children’s book.

Betrayal first appeared in 2006 as a free podcast serial. When I saw that it has been reissued as an ebook and realized it was inspired by Das doppelte Lottchen, I decided to purchase it, due to my childhood love for the Kastner and also because I enjoyed your debut, The Lily Brand.

Finnian Crawley and Gareth Crawley, Viscount St. Asaph, meet in Tuscany one summer while on tour. The two seventeen year olds don’t recall meeting before, and yet they look so alike they can only be identical twins. After comparing notes, Finnian and Gareth decide to switch places. Finnian will go to Sussex, where Gareth resides with his father, the Earl of Ashburnham, while Gareth will go to Frankfurt, where Finnian lives with his mother, who serves as companion to a tradeswoman who deals in fabrics.

And so the twins switch places. In England, “Ash,” the Earl of Ashburnham, finds his heir much changed. Whereas Gareth was always rebellious and difficult to manage, he is now quieter and more thoughtful. In Germany, Georgina Crawley discovers that her son’s shoulders have broadened, and that he is becoming a man – one who puts her in mind of another man she once loved and lost.

Some of the changes are disconcerting to Ash and Georgina. “Finnian” no longer knows how to sort fabrics in the Frankfurt warehouse his mother’s employer owns, as he has done in the past. “St. Asaph” has learned to play the piano beautifully, and shows an affinity for a haunting melody that reminds Ash of the woman he only wants to forget.

Though Georgina is being courted by a gentleman she finds attractive, one whose suit she weighs accepting, and Ash’s mother attempts to introduce him to marriageable women, neither Ash nor Georgina can put the other out of his or her thoughts.

Ash, in particular, struggles with these feelings, since he believes Georgina betrayed him. When he blurts as much to his heir, a boy he has never fully treated as his son, “St. Asaph” refuses to believe him and takes off on a horse ride that causes him injury.

In Frankfurt, Gareth, posing as Finnian, begins to worry that something has happened to his brother. Ultimately, things come to a head when Georgina sees her son’s birthmark and realizes he is not the same son she stole when she left England, but her other son, Ash’s heir, whom she was forced to leave behind.

Georgina must journey to England with Gareth to confront Ash after seventeen years of separation. But what will her former husband’s reaction be? And will an old enemy, the person who poisoned her marriage, allow her to get close to Ash once again?

As I say, I loved Das doppelte Lottchen so perhaps it will come as no surprise that I enjoyed the big and small nods to Kastner’s classic children’s novel. The description of the giant statue of Neptune watching as the two boys first met reminded me of a bit in Kastner’s novel, in which the moon watches through the girls’ bedroom window at summer camp to see them make up. This, and the two siblings moving to different countries, the parents’ awareness of “changes” in their children, one child’s struggles to master “old” skills and the revelations of “new” ones in both, all delighted me.

The whimsical prose and side characters reminded me a little bit of Eva Ibbotson’s romances, of which I’m very fond. And as for the main characters, both were likable and appealing, which surprised me in Ash’s case since the plot requires him to distrust Georgina almost until the very end. But despite this, and despite the fact that Ash doesn’t allow himself to view his heir as his son, I could see he was a good man who loved Georgina intensely and suffered greatly from her loss.

It was a nice irony that although Ash had wealth and position, Georgina, who had been cast out due to his anger at her supposed betrayal, fared better than he did. Though she missed him and the child she had left behind, she was less tortured, and ready to consider moving on. I especially liked that she was attracted to her employer’s secretary and thinking of marrying him.

There were, however, some significant problems and most of these had to do with the development of the romantic relationship. First, it takes over 40% of the novel for Ash and Georgina to meet. Until then, they are not shown interacting in the present day, only recalling past interactions.

Second, the majority of these flashbacks focus on Ash and Georgina’s satisfying sex life as a young married couple. While there is a nice role reversal in that Georgina is shown to have been the sexual aggressor, the flashbacks felt intrusive to me. For the most part, they amounted to mental lusting.

At a length of 170 pages, Betrayal is a short novel, and very little attention is given to the development of Ash and Georgina’s relationship. We don’t see much of their original courtship, and while it’s nice to know they had good chemistry in bed, I would have preferred to see some of their first interactions outside the bedroom in the flashbacks.

Once Georgina and Ash meet again, we see that their feelings for each other remain as powerful as ever. But seventeen years is a long time, and we never see them become reacquainted once they are in each other’s spheres again. Both think about how attractive the man and woman they have become are, relative to the boy and girl they used to be, but neither one takes the time or trouble to truly learn who the other has grown into and what changes time has wrought.

Instead the story is dependent on the resurrection of old feelings and on the plot conflict in the form of the obvious villain machinations and attempts to come between the two. This part of the story feels more predictable than the rest.

The conflict between Ash and Gareth is one we never see resolved between the two. While I have no doubt that Ash would try to make amends for his unfair treatment of Gareth, I would have liked to at least see him begin this process. But like most of the relationships in this novel, this was glossed over.

In thinking about Betrayal, I can see that it might have worked better for me as a free podcast. The chapters keep the plot moving forward, the characters are likable, the prose would have been nice to listen to. But as a novel it falls short because the characters and their relationships don’t get sufficient attention. C.

Sincerely,

Janine

 

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