We first meet Alec Halsey in Lucinda Brant’s Deadly Engagement, where he investigates the death of a friend, and then again in Deadly Affair, with another murder and a mystery. Now, Alec is dealing with something completely different – his diplomatic past and the imprisonment and torture of his good friend Sir Cosmo Mahon and the young Emily St. Neots. Picking up basically right where the previous book left off, the reader follows Alec into Midanich, a small Germanic principality at civil war and ruled by madness, both in its populace and its Margrave.
Alec packs up immediately and, along with his love, Selina, uncle, aunt and assorted servants, heads out to the one place he wanted to never to see again. His past has definitely come back to haunt him, and now not only does he have to face it, he has to tell Selina about it as well. And, considering exactly what that past entails, it isn’t surprising that it’s basically his biggest secret that’s barging its way back into his life.
First of all, if you’ve never listened to an audiobook by Alex Wyndham, drop what you’re doing, and try him out. His voice is fabulous, his differentiation between characters spot-on, and his pacing is perfect. The only bad thing I can say about him is that I find him relaxing. I couldn’t listen to this in the car, because it was relaxing me too much! But that’s it. He so much more than narrates this book – he truly performs the story.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the book. Overall, I found Deadly Peril to be quite dark. We’re in a place that is experiencing civil war, fully evident with the numerous guards and the danger to Alec and his party. I absolutely fell in love with Alec, who is smart and charming, and has a mysteriously dark past. There is a perfect amount of angst as Alec deals with his past and has to dive in head first to confront it. Love it!
Unlike the two previous novels, this feels less like a mystery and more like a historical thriller. There’s no death to investigate, or problem to solve; Alec has to handle a diplomatic emergency, and free Cosmo and Emily. There are, however, some amazing twists to the story itself that keep things interesting and the setting is absolutely perfect, with the dreary winter matching the depressed population of the area. Everything works together brilliantly, from the characters to the setting.
The thing is, I feel like not a whole lot happened for a good portion of the story. There’s very little sense of urgency, even with the glimpses of what’s happening to Cosmo in Castle Herzfeld. We still end up spending the vast majority of the time traveling to Midanich, dealing with the guards, rescuing a young deaf girl and her grandfather, and staying in town. There’s even enough time for Selina and Alec to work out their issues and become closer as a couple. As much as I loved seeing that, I couldn’t help but think about poor Cosmo, imprisoned and slowly going insane.
If I had been reading Deadly Peril instead of listening to it, I probably would have plowed straight through it. Maybe it would have felt like there was more action. But not listening to Alex Wyndham is simply not an option for me, not anymore. I definitely want to go and listen to the first two titles in the series now, just to get more of the narrator. And of Alec Halsey. He’s pretty wonderful, too.
One of the features I love most about AAR is the extensive, easily searchable review database. There are literally thousands of romance reviews at my fingertips and anytime I need a book recommendation, that’s where I turn.
If you’re new here (Hi!!), you’ll see we frequently use the term DIK or Desert Isle Keeper. These are our books receiving A grades, the ones we would want with us on a desert island where resources may be scarce and space limited. With a few clicks, you can access solid recommendations in a variety of subgenres.
The AAR staffers started wondering, “Who are our most reviewed authors? And how do their grades stack up?” A lively discussion followed as we tried to guess which authors would have a number of reviews and recommendations. Of course we felt there would be those who would be near the top based on how prolific and popular they are, as well as those who are known favorites around here. AAR has been online since 1996 and seen a number of changes as the publishing industry has evolved. In the early days the pool of books to review and number of authors producing those books was far smaller than it is today. Hence our results skew somewhat toward those authors writing during the late ’90s/2000s.
As you may imagine, Nora Roberts is near the top of the list with 97 reviews, 30 of which are DIKs. With an extensive backlist and titles in print, ebook and audio formats, La Nora is a perennial favorite for our reviewers. And she’s still going strong! The Obsession came out on April 12. If romantic suspense isn’t your thing, you might enjoy one of her much beloved trilogies/series such as the Chesapeake series beginning withSea Swept or one of her series set in Ireland such as the Irish Born series beginning with Born in Fire. But if you’re not in the mood for contemporary romance, you might like her futuristic/scifi In Death series written as J.D. Robb (50 reviews, 16 DIKs.) You’ll want to read this one in order, so start with the first book,Naked in Death.
Carla Kelly is another author who is a favorite among reviewers here. Her historical novels depicting the lives of the non-aristocracy in Regency England as well as her American frontier romances have garnered praise from many of our reviewers. Her most recent release, Doing No Harm, received a DIK from Mary. With 20 DIK reviews out of 34 reviews overall, it’s clear that Carla Kelly writes books that resonate with many of us. My personal favorite is One Good Turn, followed closely by Marriage of Mercy.
Also among authors who consistently produce books that are much beloved by readers and reviewers here is Mary Balogh. OnlyaKisswon Favorite Tear Jerker and Best Historical Romance Set In the UK in our 2015 Annual Poll. With 62 reviews, including 25 DIKs, her books are connecting with readers in a big way. Only Enchantingwon the 2014 Best Historical Romance Set in the UK and Slightly Dangerous came in at #7 on our most recent Top 100 Romances Poll. Other favorite Balogh titles from the Top 100 Romances Poll (2013) include More Than a Mistressat #54, The Secret Pearlat #82, and Simply Love at #92.
What discussion of prolific, favorite romance authors would be complete without mentioning Linda Howard? Certainly not this one. We’ve logged 51 reviews of her books, including 13 DIKs. Her new release Troublemaker comes out on May 10. And there’s good news for those of us who are ebook hoarders collectors. Many of Howard’s backlist titles are being released in ebook format, which means I can replace my falling apart copy of Midnight Rainbow.
Other authors we love include Mary Jo Putney (38 reviews, 14 DIKs), Lisa Kleypas (37 reviews, 13 DIKs), Anne Stuart (37 reviews, 9 DIKs), Julia Quinn (34 reviews, 9 DIKs), and Nalini Singh (33 reviews, 10 DIKs.)
Are you surprised by our favorites? Which titles written by the authors mentioned here would you recommend? If a reader wants to try a Mary Balogh book, where should they start? Do you have to begin at the beginning with J. D. Robb’s books? What’s your favorite Carla Kelly? Let us know in the comments!
I’ve been desperate to read The Earl Takes All since I finished Falling into Bed With a Duke, the first book in Lorraine Heath’s Hellions of Havisham Hall series. Even though at that point no synopsis had been published, I had an inkling of where this story might be going – which says a lot for Ms Heath’s ability to bury hints and subtext in whichever story she happens to be telling at the time – and I have been really, REALLY curious as to how she was going to pull off such a difficult premise.
Edward Alcott, younger – by an hour – twin brother of Albert, the Earl of Greyling, was introduced to readers in the previous book as a bit of a scoundrel. Although physically identical to his brother, Edward is completely different in temperament, and while it’s clear they share a strong bond of affection, it’s also clear that Albert is perhaps a little disappointed in his scapegrace brother. The biggest bone of contention between them, however, is that Edward just can’t get on with Albert’s wife, Julia, and in fact, makes a point of being unpleasant or outrageous whenever she is around.
But now, Albert is dead, killed while he, Edward and their close friend Viscount Locksley are in Africa on safari. With his dying breath, Albert exhorts Edward to “be me” – needing him to take care of Julia, who is expecting their baby. But he asks more than that Edward should provide financially for his widow – Albert wants his brother to take his place as Julia’s husband, believing that news of his death could cause her to lose the baby they both want so desperately. Edward can do nothing other than agree, and after a long and arduous journey, he arrives back in England ready to carry out his brother’s final wishes until after his child is born.
It’s not long before Edward realises the enormity of the task he has taken on. Not only does he have to take great care not to give himself away, which is difficult because he doesn’t know all that much about his brother’s relationship with Julia; he also has to take on the responsibilities of an earldom, which turn out to be far more detailed and numerous than he expected. Complicating things still further, Edward also has to contend with his long-banked desire for Julia and with Julia’s bewilderment at her husband’s strange reluctance to get physically or emotionally close to her.
Edward’s intention has always been to tell Julia the truth after the birth of her baby, but as time progresses and he comes to know the witty, generous and sensual woman that she really is, he finds himself racing well past desire and headlong into love with her. When she discovers the truth, she’s going to despise him more than she ever did – but what if he doesn’t tell her?
For her part, Julia has discovered things she never knew about herself during her husband’s four month absence. She missed him dreadfully of course, but also liked having her own space and being able to do what she liked when she liked. She feels she has changed somewhat since he has been away and learned to relish her independence, but Albert has changed, too. She puts some of that down to his mourning for his brother, and suggests that perhaps they have to learn how to be a couple again. Even so, there is more to the changes in her husband than those wrought by grief; he is more daring, more spontaneous, his kisses are more intoxicating than ever, and incredibly, she finds herself even more deeply in love than before.
While I loved The Earl Takes All, I can see that it might be the sort of book that readers will react to strongly and will either love or hate. The fact that the hero spends half the book deceiving the heroine is difficult to get to grips with, even though Edward’s motivations are understandable and he continually questions his decisions. He is torn between duty and desire and while the situation he is in is certainly an unusual one, his emotions and inner conflict feel very real. I understand why some might find the initial premise problematic, and indeed, Lorraine Heath set herself quite the challenge. As she says in her author’s note, she had to make sure that readers didn’t fall in love with Albert before she killed him off; and also, she had to contend with the English marriage laws at the time, which did not allow a woman to marry her late husband’s brother. (This law wasn’t changed until 1921). She also has to convincingly turn Edward from the reprobate we met in the previous book into a responsible and compassionate man. Before, he was given to hard drinking, gambling and womanizing, and his relationship with Julia was a very difficult one; he seemed to resent her for taking his brother away from him, and made no bones about showing that resentment. But even then, Ms Heath managed to convey the sense that here was a man who wasn’t quite what he seemed, and also to plant the idea that there was more behind Edward’s dislike of his brother’s wife than he let on.
What she does very skilfully here is to show readers the real Edward while not making him into an entirely different person. The old, roguish Edward is still there under the surface, but the ‘new’ Edward is a man who has never been tested before who rises to the challenge and discovers he’s more than up to it; and he is ultimately revealed to be a truly swoonworthy hero.
Emotions run high in this book right from the first page, and again, I realise that won’t suit everyone, but for me, it’s like catnip. We watch Edward struggling with his grief for his brother and his feelings for Julia; Julia devastated by grief and guilt when she learns the truth; both of them coming to terms with what it will mean if they want to be together, and Julia coming to fully understand the magnitude of the sacrifice that Edward is willing to make for her. It’s complex, it’s messy and Ms Heath handles it all with confidence and sensitivity, never negating the truth of Julia’s feelings for one brother even as she is falling for the other.
This author’s ability to explore the gamut of human emotions is what draws me to her books time and again, and I admit that I was choked up on several occasions while reading this one. My one criticism is that perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that Julia wouldn’t have known it wasn’t Albert who had returned from Africa, but that really is a minor point and isn’t something I found myself dwelling on because the story is so well set-up. The Earl Takes All is an angsty, gorgeously sensual and beautifully developed romance, the chemistry between the leads is scorching hot and the emotions are real and leap off the page. It’s definitely going onto my keeper shelf.
On the strength of Maggie Boyd’s DIK review, I tried Uprooted by Naomi Novik. I found one of my favorite writing ideas in there: metaphor sex! I’m not talking about sex scenes written with metaphors (“velvet swords” and “moist flowers” and similarly purple terminology). I’m talking about a scene in which the two characters engage in a non-sexual activity as if it were sexual. They might be cooperating in a physical task like climbing, an intellectual one like negotiating, an artistic one like singing, and so forth.
In Uprooted, the male wizard called the Dragon and the heroine Agnieszka have very different approaches to magic. The Dragon’s spells are meticulously crafted, precise and identical each time they are cast. Agnieskza, by contrast, casts organically. Like a cook who doesn’t bother with a recipe, she adjusts everything from ingredients to spell words according to what “feels right.” When the Dragon and Agnieszka go to cast the illusion of a rosebush together, science meets art. The result is not only magically spectacular but physically and emotionally compelling. Continue reading →
When I begin working on a new story I always do something I call “walking the land.” I take a few weeks, or sometimes a few months and wander through museums, bookstores, old houses, cemeteries and the stories begin. Since I’m doing books right now set on modern day ranches, I visit several, go to rodeos and sale barns, etc.
Last month I went to the Dove Creek Ranch and Equine Rescue. I was tagging along with a friend doing an interview but within minutes of driving down into the small canyon, stories were popping in my mind. The lady who owned and ran the place had a true love for horses and spent a great deal of time helping horses that had been abused and abandoned.
She told me the first thing she does when she gets an animal who has been left alone in a small corral or barn for sometimes months is she lets them roam the land with the herd. She says they’ve forgotten how to be a horse.
I was around horses growing up and I’ve spent my time riding and brushing them down, but I’ve never seen them until I saw horses through her eyes. She said, “After my husband died and I was raising kids and trying to run the ranch, I would sometimes go out at night and just walk among the herd.”
Then, she made my day. She asked me if I wanted to go with her. We slipped through the fence and walked onto ranchland that used the walls of the canyon as its boundaries. We moved slow, not directing the herd, not invading, just joining. We moved closer. Just letting the horses slowly surround us.
I think it was one of the most peaceful, alive feelings I’ve ever had. She probably thought I was an idiot because I couldn’t stop smiling.
As a writer of over 40 books I sometimes feel I don’t live, I just do research. Like a person who doesn’t see Paris because he’s too busy taking selfies, I’m too consumed with stories dancing in my head to sometimes stop and enjoy the grand, wonderful things in life.
Like walking with a herd of horses on a cloudy day when the wind still whispers winter and the grass crunches beneath your boots.
I may never make it back to Dove Creek Ranch, but you can bet I’ll go there many more times in my mind.
Ms. Thomas is giving two signed copies of Lone Heart Pass to two lucky US readers. Make a comment below to be entered in this drawing.
A fifth generation Texan who taught family living, Jodi Thomas chooses to set the majority of her novels in her home state, where her grandmother was born in a covered wagon. A former teacher, Thomas traces the beginning of her storytelling career to the days when her twin sisters were young and impressionable. Her latest book is Lone Heart Pass.
Eva Leigh’s Temptations of a Wallflower brings to a close her Wicked Quills of London trilogy, which features heroines who write for a living – a newspaper editor, a playwright and, finally, the author of a number of popular erotic novels. In each book, the heroines have been independent, spirited and intelligent, determined to succeed in their chosen field in spite of the fact that, as women, the odds are very much stacked against them.
It’s no big secret that Eva Leigh is in fact, the alter ego of Zoë Archer, who has penned a number of successful historical/adventure/steampunk/fantasy novels, most recently, the Victorian-set Nemesis Unlimited series, which I’ve also read and enjoyed. So when I was offered the chance to have a chat with the author, I couldn’t resist asking her about her different writing personas and about the themes she has explored in her most recent books. Continue reading →
Fans of Kiera Cass’ Selection series won’t want to miss The Glittering Court, book one in Richelle Mead’s trilogy of the same title. It’s a captivating story of forbidden love set against the backdrop of a world not so different from Great Britain and America. Continue reading →
Liam Carroll and Robert McKenzie grew up together in the worst part of Glasgow. When Liam came out to his best friend Robert, Robert stuck by him. And when Liam joined Glasgow’s all-LGBT football team, the Warriors, he insisted his bestie be welcomed onto the team, even though he was straight. Since then, Liam and Robert have become the best-coordinated pair of center backs in the amateur league. They form one of the keystones to the team’s growing success and reputation.
So now, the valiant footballers from Glasgow, who have already provided two great romantic pairings, turn their sights on the B in LGBT; and that means Robert.
This lovely book—the third novel in the Glasgow Lads series, which also boasts a novella and a short story—continues to deal with issues of class and education and social welfare against the backdrop of a varied group of young men and women who share a love of football. Liam and Robert both grew up in the same schools, but Robert went on to university and has developed his skills as a computer whiz and video game designer to the point that he’s looking at a bright future. Liam ditched school as soon as he could, and is happy tending bar in an east end pub. In spite of their different paths and orientations, the two have stayed best friends.
But now Robert wants to come out, to let the world know what he’s known all along: that’s he’s bisexual. And he also wants to let his best friend Liam know that he’s the object of his fantasies. And thus Avery Cockburn centers her new novel on a subject that pushes a lot of buttons all over the LGBT world: bisexuality. Every prejudice and myth about bi guys is brought forth as Liam and Robert do their dance of friendship and love. Their long-established love for each other has to adapt or wither in the face of this new information. Liam is once burned and twice shy; Robert wants to be out and proud but has to face the way bisexuals are perceived in both straight and gay culture.
The author provides us with a loving, vivid portrait of Scotland’s brawny industrial city, a city famous to American museum-types like me because of its celebrated design school, but famous to other folks because of its industrial collapse and high levels of violence and crime. In the context of this city she presents us with a gay-friendly culture that is at the same time full of gritty reality and simmering with love thwarted by poverty and disappointment. She spices up her literate, elegant writing with dialect and thereby gives the outsider (i.e. American readers) a lesson in Scottish life across class and economic boundaries. Playing with Fire is intense and true and emotionally captivating.
Our reviewer Haley enjoyed the first book in Katee Robert’s O’Malleys series, The Marriage Contract (her review is here). The second one, The Wedding Pact, comes out next week. Ms. Robert’s kind publicist gave us this sneak peak excerpt.
A pause, as if she’d shocked him. “You’re hitting on me.”
“Are you complaining?” She twisted around in her chair and stared into the mirror on the wall across from her. When he didn’t immediately respond, she kept going. The only alternative was to back down, and Carrigan was so goddamn tired of backing down. The only reason she kept taking James’s calls was because of the distraction he offered her. If he wasn’t going to play, there was no reason for her to stay on the phone.
She really wanted him to stay on the phone. “Shy? That’s okay, I’ll go first. I’m wearing a thin white tank top and a pair of black panties.” She was a liar, but it would take all of five seconds to make it the truth.
“Lovely, you’re testing me.” His voice gained an edge.
Good. At least someone was feeling as out of control as she was. “I suppose you’d like photographic proof.” She stood and shimmied out of her long skirt, and then pinned the phone between her ear and shoulder while she unhooked her bra and took it off. “Hold, please.”
Ignoring his cursing, she adjusted her angle so he would have to be blind to miss the faint outline of her nipples against the fabric of her tank top, and snapped a picture. She knew she was playing with fire. Good lord, of course she knew. But she wasn’t about to stop. She grinned as she sent the picture.
Carrigan put the phone back to her ear in time to hear his sharp inhale. “Your turn.” She held her breath, waiting to see if he’d actually do it. Receiving pictures was one thing. Putting them out in the world was entirely another. Really, she shouldn’t have taken the risk in the first place. There was no telling what he would do with them—they might show up on the Internet. Then who would want to marry her?
Funny, but the idea of countless men checking out her rack didn’t bother her nearly as much if it meant she dodged the marriage bullet. The shame on her family might be enough that her father would send her away permanently. She’d like to spend some time in New York or LA or even New Orleans. Maybe Rome or Paris or Tokyo. The world was so damn big and she’d only seen a little slice of it.
Her phone beeped, pulling her out of her thoughts. She glanced at the picture he’d sent and started to shake. Oh my God. James was shirtless, wearing only those goddamn jeans she couldn’t seem to get enough of. And they were unbuttoned—a clear invitation if she ever saw one. An invitation she desperately wanted to accept. “Damn, James. Somebody taught you how to selfie.”
“Maybe I’m a natural.” His voice was little more than a growl. “You started this, lovely. Tell me what’s next.”
The strange mix of command and handing her the reins got her head back in the game. She walked over to her bed and climbed onto it, trying to ignore the trembling in her legs. She could be in charge. She wantedto be. “I’m lying on my bed.”
“What color are the sheets?”
The question seemed to carry far more import than it should. “White.”
“They don’t suit you. Red is your color. Go on.” He sounded so damn imperial, as if he actually knew her. He didn’t. No one did, really. She wore so many masks, sometimes she worried she’d forget the woman at the center of them all.
But this time he was right. She would have chosen red for herself.
Carrigan put the thought away and focused on the now. “You talk too much.”
“My mistake.” He didn’t sound the least bit sorry. Good. She wasn’t, either. “How do you want it, lovely? Rough, I’d bet. You’re not fucking breakable, and I think you love to be reminded of that fact.” Something rustled on his end of the line. “Close your eyes.”
She obeyed without thinking, and then instantly snapped them open. “I thought I was in charge.”
“You let me know if I get something wrong.” His laugh told her how unlikely he found the possibility.
It’s always a bit of a scramble for me to find a contemporary romance for this prompt, because I don’t read them very often and don’t own many. And I like to choose my challenge books from books I already have, as buying something new rather defeats the object of the exercise! Fortunately, I found Sarah Mayberry’s Her Best Worst Mistake among my Kindle books; I know she’s a popular and highly-rated author, so that was it, job done and choice made.
The story is pretty much a classic enemies-to-lovers one, which is a trope I enjoy when it’s done well – and that’s certainly the case here. But even in a relatively small page count (170 pages), the author has done more than simply write a couple that gripes, snipes and then falls into bed with each other; she’s fleshed out both protagonists in such a way that it’s easy to see why these two people who, at first glance, are completely and utterly wrong for each other are actually so perfect together.
Violet Sutcliffe really can’t understand what her best friend Elizabeth sees in Martin St. Clair, the man to whom she’s been engaged for a number of years and is on the verge of marrying. In Violet’s opinion, Martin is old before his time; a stuffy stick-in-the-mud, he’s leeched the life out of Elizabeth, who seems intent on becoming the perfect corporate wife. Violet supposes Martin must make her friend happy on some level, but even after six years, isn’t able to tamp down the strong reactions he evokes in her or curtail her persistent need to provoke him. She tries, for Elizabeth’s sake… but rarely succeeds. Violet is a free spirit, a “wild-child” type who often says and does outrageous things as well as dressing, in Martin’s opinion, like a cheap tart. He’s as antipathetic towards her as she is to him, but plays nice for Elizabeth’s sake, knowing that Violet is like a sister to her.
But with six weeks to go before the wedding, Elizabeth makes a discovery that changes the course of her life. She calls everything off, breaks up with Martin and flies out to Australia in order to find the father she never knew – leaving Violet inwardly cheering at her decision to take charge of her life. But even though Violet has never liked Martin, she can’t help feeling sorry that he was dumped so summarily and maybe feels just a bit guilty for the fact that she’s happy about it; so for reasons she doesn’t really understand, she turns up at his office some weeks later with a peace offering – a bottle of the peach schnapps she’s remembered he particularly likes – wanting to make sure he’s okay. Continue reading →