The Last Hellion is out on audio! Here’s our DIK review.

The Last Hellion is the last of the four books in Ms Chase’s Scoundrels series, which are linked via a number of recurring characters; and it can perhaps be seen as a sequel to the wonderful Lord of Scoundrels. We met Vere Mallory, Duke of Ainswood, in that story when, drunk as a lord (!), he mistook the newly-married Lady Dain for a light skirt and was immediately pummeled into the dirt by Lord Beelzebub himself, and forced to apologise.

Ainswood is the appropriately titled “Last Hellion” of the title, and comes from a long line of ne’er-do-wells. He never expected or particularly wanted to be a duke, but a series of tragic accidents and illnesses sees him attending a seemingly never ending succession of funerals, the last of them for his beloved nine-year-old nephew and ward, Robin.

Anyone familiar with Lord of Scoundrels will recall how skilfully Loretta Chase recounted Dain’s backstory in the book’s prologue, introducing us to an unloved child who believed himself unlovable. Here, the author yet again introduces her hero in an incredibly poignant manner, and all I will say about the prologue to The Last Hellion is this – have a box of tissues handy. You’ll need them.

In the months following his accession to the title, Vere has thrown himself into an unending round of debauchery, cut himself off from his remaining family and eschewed his responsibilities, both to his title and to his remaining wards, Robin’s two sisters. He presents himself to the world as a dissolute, cynical rake who cares for nothing and nobody, but behind that façade is a grieving, angry man who despises himself, his position and his life, a man who wants so badly never to be hurt again that he pushes away everyone he cares for and walls off his emotions.

Lydia Grenville is a crusading journalist who is currently working to expose the underhand practices of one of London’s most notorious madams. She is on the verge of catching the bawd abducting a young woman but is prevented at the last minute by Ainswood, who mistakenly believes that Lydia, the madam, and her quarry are merely ladies of the night engaged in a quarrel. Furious at the interference of the ill-dressed, ill-mannered but gorgeous lout she recognises as “one of the most depraved, reckless and thickheaded rakes listed in Debrett’s Peerage, the encounter ends with Lydia knocking Ainswood on his arse and stalking off – but not before the sparks have well and truly begun to fly and both have recognised something of a kindred spirit in the other.

Like Vere, Lydia has suffered the pain caused by the deaths of loved ones, in her case, her mother, who died when she was ten, and her younger sister who died from consumption contracted during the year the girls spent locked up in debtor’s prison with their neglectful, drunken father.

The relationship between Ainswood and Lydia is jam-packed with wit, humor, and enough sexual chemistry to blow a hole into the middle of next week. Neither of them wants to desire the other at all, let alone with such intensity, and they fight their fascination with each other every step of the way. The way Ms Chase conveys their extremely reluctant mutual attraction is nothing short of masterful – the listener is never simply “told” anything; instead, we’re shown time and again through dialogue and action that these are two people who are meant to be together and who really need each other in order to become the person they’re meant to be.

There are several sub-plots running through the book. Following the encounter which Ainswood disrupted, Lydia rescues the girl the madam had been trying to abduct, who turns out to be a runaway from Cornwall, Tamsin Price – a sensible, well-bred young woman who becomes Lydia’s friend and confidante. Bertie Trent, still the lovable buffoon from Lord of Scoundrels gets to show another side of himself and comes into his own, Lydia discovers the truth about her past, and there’s a dramatic kidnap plot as well as the various scrapes Lydia gets into as the result of her journalistic investigations.

Both Ainswood and Lydia are extremely well-drawn, complex characters, who hide the truth of themselves from the world. Vere is, deep down, a decent, compassionate man who has been so severely affected by the losses he has suffered that he can’t bear to open himself up to more. Lydia is a woman trying to make her way in a man’s world – she’s frequently subjected to ridicule because of her height (she’s taller than most men), her quick temper, sharp wit, and willingness to stand up and be counted; yet beneath it all, she’s soft-hearted and a bit of a romantic at heart.

The Last Hellion is a terrific listen. The quick-fire dialogue between the principals is to die for, the romance is brilliantly written, and I loved the glimpses of the friendship between Ainswood and Dain that we got to see. I did find that the pacing slowed a bit in the middle, and that the ending meandered a bit; the truth of Lydia’s parentage is revealed alongside the aforementioned kidnap plot, and although both are relevant in that they help the protagonists in making peace with their pasts, I was so invested in Lydia and Vere’s relationship that I wanted to spend the time with them rather than focused on something else. But that really is my only complaint, because otherwise the book is every bit as good as its predecessor.

Kate Reading’s name attached to an audiobook is like having it stamped with a seal of quality. She’s someone I’ve enjoyed listening to for some time – her recordings of Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series are terrific, and I really enjoyed her performance in Madeline Hunter’s Dangerous in Diamonds, which was the first book I’d heard her narrate – but I remember bemoaning at the time that she hadn’t recorded a great number of historical romances. A little bird must have heard me, because since making that stupendous recording of Lord of Scoundrels last year, she’s gone on to narrate more books by Ms Chase as well as a number of other historicals, including His at Night by Sherry Thomas, which has quickly become one of my favourite audiobooks.

Her performance in The Last Hellion is every bit as good as it is in the other books in this series – and may, in fact, be even better, which is really saying something. Her characterisations of all the principals and main secondary characters are excellent and very well defined; Ainswood and Dain are easy to tell apart as are Lydia and Jessica, and Bertie Trent sounds just as sweetly bluff and slightly bewildered as he ever did. Tamsin’s Cornish accent sounds authentic but isn’t so thick as to make it unintelligible, and the various servants and city dwellers are given accents appropriate to their ages and situations.

Both narrative and dialogue are perfectly paced and delivered. Ms Reading gets to the heart of the characters and the story in what is an incredibly nuanced and emotionally resonant performance. In a recent interview, she said that she is going to be recording a number of Ms Chase’s other books, and if they’re all as good as this one, we’ve got a lot to look forward to.

Narrated by Kate Reading

Narration: A+ and Book Content: A-

Unabridged length 12 hours 59 minutes

Available at Audible for 1 credit or $17.46 for members; $24.95 for non-members. It can also be purchased from Audible via Amazon.


–Caz Owens

Posted in audio books, Caz AAR | Tagged | 1 Comment

Pitch Perfect 2. I liked it. Here’s why.

Pitchperfect2I just returned from seeing Pitch Perfect 2 with my 19 year old daughter. We both enjoyed it thoroughly. I, however, am in the minority in my social media feeds. The movie is being soundly criticized for being not funny enough, not genuine enough, not interesting enough. And those are just the nots. It’s also taking heat for its overproduced musical numbers, its flat portrayal of ethnic stereotypes, and for not giving Anna Kendrick enough room to charm.

I don’t care. In fact, I see much of the same criticism of the film as being like that so often directed at romance. In review after review, movie critics see the flaws–which bedevil so many major mainstream films (almost all of which are hyper-violent and/or animated)–and not the pretty fabulous accomplishments.

First of all, the gender-bias in hiring in Hollywood is so bad that the industry is currently being investigated by the ACLU. Only seven percent of the 250 highest grossing films have been made by women. So to have this movie, which is expected to be a huge summer hit and has been marketed as such, be directed by Elizabeth Banks is a win. (Her video interview with The Independent is great.)

Secondly, this movie has a decidedly female gaze. This term has come up lately both here at AAR and on many an other site when discussing the difference between the ways sex, women, and rape are portrayed on Game of Thrones as opposed to how they are on Outlander. In Pitch Perfect 2, there is little interest–with the exception of the expected low-brow humor provided by Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy–in depicting the young women in the film in a way that would, first and foremost, draw in the coveted American male demographic. As AO Scott said in his New York Times review of the film:

It’s all very cute, and kind of beside the point. The glory of “Pitch Perfect” is that it’s devoted, above all, to the friendship and shared ambition of young women, and that it finds plenty of room within that premise for raunchiness, ridiculousness and warmth. The casual busyness of the plots does not distract from the essence of the movie, which is the pleasure and occasional stress of hanging out with like-minded girlfriends as you ease your way toward adulthood. Dudes are nice to have around, but the pursuit of them is a whole lot less than the meaning of life.

“Pitch Perfect 2” is not as barbed as “Girls” or as anarchic as “Broad City” (it’s also studiously PG-13), but it lives in their neighborhood — or maybe a nearby suburb. And its arrival is another sign of the extent to which feminism is reshaping the landscape of American comedy, and not a moment too soon.

Thirdly, the film reflects the kind of world many many women would like to have as true. It’s a realm where the fat girl is alluring, the butch lesbian plans for marriage, boyfriends are always supportive of their girlfriends’ dreams and jobs, moms love their daughters and can still be their friends in a fairly sane way, men acknowledge their fears, and being kind and deeply connected to the women in your world pays off.  Is it unrealistic? Who cares? It’s a summer blockbuster, for gods sake. Is it a vision I hope will have more truth for my daughter’s generation than it has for mine? Absolutely.

I guess I’m tired of defending pop culture, as done by or for women. Taylor Swift just made music industry history  at age 25 and comment thread after comment thread suggest she has breast implants and no talent. The world’s big papers rarely review Nora Roberts–unlike male genre authors–and yet  her “books have spent a total of 1027 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list…that’s equivalent to over 19 consecutive years of weekly bestsellers.” Whether you like the 50 Shades books or not, they are an extraordinary publishing accomplishment. 

So, yes, I liked Pitch Perfect 2. (And I’m thinking it has the Obamas’ blessing as well–if you’ve seen it, you’ll know why I make that claim.) If you didn’t, that’s just fine. Taste is a preference, not a virtue.

Posted in Dabney AAR, Movies | Tagged | 6 Comments

The Second Half of the First Season of Outlander is almost over. We have thoughts.

Today AAR’s Melanie–who is all caught up on the show–shares her thoughts about this season of Outlander. She watches the show each week with her sister, Natalie. Here’s their take:

With much ado, the current season of Outlander, the Starz adaptation of the novels by Diana Gabaldon, is coming to a close, and I have been an avid watcher since the beginning. While I don’t have the cable channel myself, I’ve enlisted my sister’s subscription and DVR to the service of romance series television, and I’ve gotten her hooked.

As I start to write this, I have to admit two things: one, I have never read Outlander, or any of the series by Diana Gabaldon (I’m perpetually stuck at 6% of Outlander, for no other reason than I have too many things to read in a limited amount of time); and two, I drank an entire bottle of wine during last Saturday’s penultimate episode of the season, Wentworth Prison.

 In case I’m missing things (like large chunks of my memory and my liver), I’ve asked my sister, Natalie (who has read the books and is now on the fifth book of the series) to help me fill in the blanks. Her additions are in red.

We’re almost at the end of the first season of Outlander, and I’ve been loving it. Well, up until this last episode where (spoilers!) terrible things are happening. I knew something big was going to happen (Dabney sent me this link about the episode which this little sister found highly disappointing as reviews go. I mean, having read the books I know what to expect and after reading that review I find that it was highly melodramatic in relation to the latest episode), but no matter how much I asked, Natalie just would not tell me what was going to happen. So mean.

Most definitely NOT mean!! Just want to save all the good stuff until you see it. Plus as far as the book form goes I was not sure how they would portray certain events.

The loveliness of this series being transferred to television for our viewing pleasure is that they have stuck to the books very well. I mean if you sat there and followed along they use a good 80% of the dialogue from the book. <3

I’m trying to keep things spoiler-free here, so I’m not going to discuss any major plot points (plus, unless it was part of the show, I definitely wouldn’t know anything about it).

First of all, Jamie is a beautiful man.

No matter what terrible things are happening on screen, Sam Heughan makes me happy. And in this last episode, many terrible things happend. But Sam’s Jamie made me feel a little bit better about it. Plus, his character is masterfully created – Jamie is vulnerable in interesting ways, strong in others, more than a little headstrong, and definitely suffers from acting before thinking.

Lies!!! While I will have to agree that he is vulnerable, strong, definitely headstrong (like an ox), he does not, I repeat DOES NOT “suffer from acting before thinking.” Jamie was raised in a time when you have small windows to react, but he is always thinking. Just unlike Claire, you cannot always ken what he is thinking.

Secondly, Claire has the survival instincts of a lemming. She’s smart and strong, obviously a trained nurse, and used to working near the front of World War II. Why does she continue to act as though she’s in the 1940s? What is it that she just doesn’t get about the 1700s?

The little sister disagrees! Claire knows how to be independent, but she takes the highroad when she is back in time, in part, because she knows she must allow her husband, Jamie, to be a man in his time. As the story goes on you learn just how strong of a woman she is and you understand better why she acts like such a sissy or lemming, as Melanie calls her most of the time.

I do really like her, though. Caitriona Balfe is a fabulous actress, and her beauty fits well in both the 1940s and the 1700s. Claire really is a strong female character and is unapologetic about the things that make her fit in less in the 1700s. For example, she’s quite fond of drinking. I fully support this.

She’s able to translate a lot of her skills (from nursing to building a fire you don’t have to get up constantly to add logs to) to things useful for the 1700′s time period, and also use her knowledge of the era, thanks to her modern-day husband, to navigate the political scene. I doubt I would be able to do as well in that situation.

It has been really hard to watch that whole scenario from the outside (by which I mean my living room).  In the beginning I LOVED Frank, but Randall (Tobias Menzies plays both men.) has poisoned my sense of him and so you get that awkward uncomfortable, squirm in your seat feeling when you think of them. But, alas, Claire handles it with the utmost, unnatural calm that she uses in almost all situations.

And oh, the chemistry between Claire and Jamie!

I wasn’t expecting it to be quite as wonderful as it was. They really are quite beautiful together, and it’s not just because actors are generally a beautiful species. When they work together, they really work together. It’s definitely more about how their characters mesh than how they look kissing. And doing other things. Though again, they are pretty people, so that certainly doesn’t hurt.

Speaking of chemistry, all of the sex scenes (of which there are many – be prepared to see Claire’s breasts, and so much Jamie butt) are beautifully done, even some of the more awkward ones. The show is very careful about keeping the sexual moments (and really, the entire show in general) in realm of the feminine gaze. The sex is all about Claire and her pleasure, instead of watching her as Jamie, which keeps things from being pornographic while still getting pretty darn specific. It actually fits perfectly with romance as a genre, and I’m quite pleased with the result.

And, of course, the scenery is absolutely stunning. Each image works like a beautiful picture, and I want to be there with them. Except with electricity. And the internet. And a bathtub with hot running water.

Looking back over the course of the season, there are very few moments that do not move the plot along, which is amazing for a world that is so huge. As I said, I haven’t read any of the books, so I don’t know if there are things missing, but I’m looking forward to more – I’d watch the whole series this way.

Having read the books I will say that I hope they get to complete the whole series. There are moments that have you sighing with the beauty of it, moments I find myself giggling all by myself whilst reading the series, and times I cringe and worry and read as fast as I can to resolve whatever has happened. I have thoroughly enjoyed this series. I dread the day that I get to the final chapter of the final book.

Have you been watching Outlander? Are you waiting for the season to end, so you can binge watch the whole thing (which, now that I think about it, is a great idea. Which they are actually doing on the Starz Channel Memorial day Weekend starting at 2 pm CT and leading up to the Season Finale!!!!!)? Let us know what you think!

AAR’s Melanie and her sister Natalie

Posted in Melanie AAR, Television | Tagged | 68 Comments

TBR Challenge – Old School Romance month

tohaveandtohold I got a bit carried away with this months’ prompt of “Kickin’ it old school” and read several books which were published more than ten years ago. I’ve chosen to post reviews of two; one is a Traditional Regency which, unusually, tells the story of an older couple whose marriage has fallen apart, and the other is a perennial favourite in the AAR Top 100 although it’s clearly a “marmite” book – people love it or hate it.

The latter is Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and to Hold, published in 1995, the middle book of her Wyckerley trilogy. Its male protagonist, Sebastian Verlaine is twenty-nine, handsome as sin, rich and morally bankrupt and the whole story has some very dark overtones that make it hard to read at times.

Sebastian’s pleasure-seeking lifestyle has reached the stage where he’s so steeped in dissipation that he doesn’t feel anything anymore.

“But the older he got, the less fun he was having. It took more every day to divert him, and lately he’d begun moving gradually, with misgivings, into excess.”

Having agreed – while drunk – to take his place as local magistrate in the village of Wyckerley in Devon, he turns up at the hearings and discovers that he may have found his latest plaything – a widow called Rachel Wade who has just served ten years in prison for the murder of her husband. Mrs Wade, unable to secure employment, has been arrested for vagrancy, and even though she’s skinny, dowdy and very poorly dressed, Sebastian is surprised to find that she interests him sexually. He offers her a position as his housekeeper and, knowing straight away that won’t be the only “position” she is expected to adopt, Rachel agrees. It’s that or back to prison, so she really has no other choice. Continue reading

Posted in All About Romance, Caz AAR, Lynn AAR, Romance reading | Tagged , , , , | 21 Comments

Your Special Title Lists Team Hasn’t Abandoned You!

imageWe’re happy to announce that this morning we’re opening four Special Title Lists for new submissions. That’s right, your Special Title Lists’ team hasn’t abandoned you. The lists that will be open for the next two weeks are: (1) Beta Heroes; (2) Marms, Teachers, and Governesses; (3) Favorite Funnies; and (4) Villains.

Beta Heroes: When we began updating the Special Title Lists in late 2012, we asked AAR readers to pick their favorite lists; Beta Heroes was near the top. The romances in this list feature kinder, gentler heroes, the kind of men who will change your flat tire, open doors for you, help your kid with his homework, and bring you soup when you are sick. They are the antithesis of the testosterone-filled chest beaters found in many earlier romances.

Marms, Teachers, and Governesses: Last updated in March of 2010, the romances in this list feature heroines who are either teachers, nannies, or governesses. While the title of the list may evoke notions of historical romances, many of the romances currently on the list feature contemporary school teachers, such as Grace Emerson in Kristin Higgins’ Too Good to be True and Fiona MacPherson in Janice Kay Johnson’s Snowbound.

Favorite Funnies: This was another of AAR readers’ most requested lists when we began updating the Special Title Lists in late 2012. Last updated in September of 2012, it’s time to revisit those romances that make you laugh.

Villains: Last updated in January of 2010, this list features romances with dastardly and evil villains and villainesses you’ll remember forever. While many romances feature a villain of some kind, in this list we’re interested in those special, memorable villains. A number of the villains on the list — featured in a series of romances – have ultimately been turned into heroes in their own stories.

We look forward to seeing your submissions for these lists starting today Monday May 18 and going for the next two weeks ending Sunday May 31 at midnight. As a reminder, any additions to the list have to be: (1) the best of the best, (2) stand the test of time, and (3) actually fit the list for which they were submitted. To read the selection criteria and vote, go here.

Now how about the submissions, you may ask, that you entered back in March for the For the Love of God and the Scots & Irish Romances lists? Well, we had a severe case of Real Life Intervening (nothing serious, but very time-consuming) and have not managed yet to revise both lists. The newly revised version of For the Love of God is being published today, but for the Scots & Irish Romances we have to ask for your patience for a bit longer. We apologize for the delay, but as we are all volunteers here, when our day-job intervenes, there is only so much we can do.

But we are pleased to announce that 27 new titles have been added to the For the Love of God list – although “new” is to be understood loosely here, as some of them, like Carla Kelly’s Miss Whittier Makes a List and Carola Dunn’s Miss Jacobson’s Journey are beloved classics. On the other hand, some recent books like Hadrian by Grace Burrowes, A Notorious Countess Confesses by Julie Anne Long and Forbidden by Charlotte Stein, all of which received very favorable grades at AAR, were submitted as well. So while the mainstream romance which deals with religion remains a niche product, there are strong new titles in this category.

We hope you enjoy the new entries and find interesting titles to read, and we are looking forward to your new submissions.

- LinnieGayl Kimmel, Rike Horstmann and Cindy Smith

Posted in Cindy AAR, LinnieGayl AAR, Rike AAR, Special Titles Lists | 9 Comments

Carolyn Crane tells all (OK, some) about Behind the Mask

behindthemaskI am not going to even bother to pretend I am anything but a Carolyn Crane fan. I have enjoyed the hell out of all four of her Associates books. I had lunch with her last year at RWA and she was smart, charming, and kind. Plus she wore the best ever dress to the RITA awards which, woo hoo, she won. (She’s nominated again this year for Into the Shadows.) So, I was happy to get a copy of her latest book, Behind the Mask, and even happier she agreed to answer my questions.

Be warned: While there aren’t any big spoilers in this interview, if you don’t want to know anything about the storyline, stop reading now.

Carolyn: Hey, thanks so much for having me here, Dabney! It’s lovely already and I’ll try not to use too many exclamation points. (!)

Dabney: OK, I have to ask: Forensic botany? That’s a thing? How on earth did you come up with that as a career for Zelda, your kick-ass heroine?

Carolyn: This actually is a thing! Forensic botanists help narrow down information about crimes by studying plant material at the scene of a crime or on a suspect, that sort of thing. For example, they could tell if a suspect visited a certain area by studying the pollen on his clothes, they could tell if a body was moved and where from, or glean clues from broken branches or mold, things like that. Fun fact: the Lindbergh baby case involved forensic botany.

Dabney: And is that obscure plant that figures in the story, Savinca, an actual kind of flora? If so, how did you learn about it? If not, why did you create it?

Carolyn: The Savinca verde plant is totally made up. My earliest idea for the story involved Zelda posing as a prostitute trying to pretend that she didn’t understand about plants while trying to solve a botanical mystery, and a villainous scientist who realizes she knows more than she’s letting on. I had coffee being grown at first, and Yacon (a root vegetable), but flowers were somehow more dramatic and evocative, and that was something I reached in discussions with author Penny Watson – she consulted on a lot of the botany stuff, and she was great! A lot of this stuff and even the key to the mystery was her idea. There is nothing like having somebody who is both a subject matter expert and author helping in a case like this.

Dabney: Your hero Hugo is a man with a great deal of darkness in him. We hear his backstory through Zelda and she acknowledges there’s lots about him that remains unknown. How would you define Hugo? Is he a hero? An anti-hero? A different man in different times?

Carolyn: When Zelda encounters him, Hugo is holding onto an outdated image of himself, as I think a lot of us can do. He’s this retired killer on his windswept mountain who sees himself as this dark person, a self-image that stems from his bloody past as a ‘murderous Robin Hood’ (as a very astute reader recently put it!) as well as from his childhood as an unwanted boy. Yet he’s caring for this orphan and living on the same remote mountain as this tiny rural flower growing village, to which he is a reluctant benefactor. His relationship with Zelda is transformative—she shows him what he is, and also what he can be and helps him grow into that. His relationship with the boy is like that, too, a little.

Dabney: Zelda is the first female Associate lead you’ve written. Zelda has quite the toolbox of skills–you make it clear that without her, the Associates would flounder. How does being female help Zelda? Do you think there are ways it hurts her?

Carolyn: With her CIA agent background, Zelda brings a lot of understanding of the realities of the field and the realities of running agents to the Associates, and she grounds Dax, who is the big picture visionary. I guess that’s not necessarily a matter of being a female, though I do think women tend to be smart about details and realities. I think being female hurt her because she’s in the background as a leader, and I think that’s easy to do as a woman, to let a guy take over. That is her mistake with Dax.

Dabney: Behind the Mask is the second book in a row you’ve where there’s a child (frequently put in danger: Stop that!) as a significant character. In both Behind the Mask and Into the Shadows, the hero’s feelings about the kid illuminate who the hero, fundamentally, is. What calls to you about that emotional journey?

Carolyn: Hugo is so lethal, such a dangerous person, he would be soulless without that boy. I loved him with Paolo to show his tender side—or as much of a tender side he is capable of at first. And Paolo is also a great flash point for him and Zelda. She’s cool-headed in lots of ways, but fierce about a kid not growing up right. I also really love characters growing and learning from each other, and with Paolo, we could see Hugo learning things from Zelda. He sees how she relates to Paolo and we see him slowly learning from that. I like to see a character grow and evolve, and the Hugo/Paolo relationship helps illuminate that.

You know who inspired me to use kids more and in a smart character-based way was Jill Sorenson. She is the ultimate master of the kid secondary character. Sometimes I worry I won’t do kids right because I don’t have any, but I ask a lot of questions and my CPs let me know when I get something wrong.

Dabney: One of the things you do really well in the Associates books is, for lack of a better term, “make shit up.” You create technologies, governments, and agencies that aren’t real–although they’re immensely readable. What’s your favorite thing you made up for Behind the Mask?

Carolyn: Aw, thank you! I think it’s those rare flowers, because of how metaphorical they turned out to be. They are a deep blood red; blood is life, but it also signifies death. Also, the savincas can never be allowed to bloom or they lose their value for the wholesale florists, so when the flowers do bloom, it is a sign of death or trouble for the farmers. Hugo sees himself in the flowers at first, in that you never want to see their blood-red hearts. Later, he and Zelda allow a patch of the flowers to bloom. Both of them come to embrace their complexity.

Dabney: So, do you have an opinion on how to teach fractions? I ask because I found the parts of the story where Zelda and Hugo disagreed about how Zelda should be teaching Paolo math both fascinating and funny. Did you talk to math teachers when you were writing  the book?

Carolyn: My mom and sister are both teachers, so it was kind of natural to go there, to have that be a flashpoint. But to research that specific sort of thing, I did lurk around math teaching blogs and I read about the importance of bringing lessons to life in a tactile way for kids over rote memorization.

Dabney: And then there’s Dax who, for the first time, we see somewhat clearly. We learn, I think, that he’s Greek, that he is haunted by the calls he makes (the greater good routinely requires sacrifices), and that he uses sex–possibly combined with pain–to dull his pain. Did I miss anything? Some how I imagine that his will be the last Associates story you tell. Yes? No?

Carolyn: Yes, you have him down perfectly. He is also a billionaire who uses his fierce understanding of cause and effect to make tons of money as a way to fund the Associates. The really dangerous thing about defining Dax this much is that once I get to Dax’s book, I might wish I had more flexibility with him. With Thorne’s book, I went back at the last minute and changed things about him that I’d written in Macmillan’s book to make things I wanted to do with Thorne possible.

But I kind of love Dax the way he’s evolving, and I have this vision of him really imploding. I did imagine that I’d write him last, but the way I pick the next Associate is through emotion, or just who has the most energy for me in the current book, and that is kind of Dax, though I’m liking Rio, too. I have this thought of putting Rio with a nun with amnesia. (Er…twins, secret babies and amnesia…are my years of watching soap operas showing?) I’m not sure if I’ll really do that.

Dabney: Do you have an end point in your mind for when this series will be finished?

Carolyn: No. I chose to work in romantic suspense because I think it is such a flexible subgenre where I could tell as many types of stories as I please. So, I’ll keep going until that runs out.

Wow, these were such great questions. Thank you so much for having me!!

Dabney: Thanks for being here. Readers, Behind the Mask comes out on May 19th.



Posted in Authors, Books with Buzz, Dabney AAR, Interviews | Tagged | 3 Comments

Midweek Minis

This week, in Midweek Minis, three of AAR’s reviewers share short takes on six books. In an effort to make these mini-reviews consistent with our long-form reviews, we’ve added a sensuality rating for each book. I also have a question: Would readers like to see re-read mini-reviews here as well? I ask because I’ve been on a re-reading binge and wondered about sharing my perspective. Let us know in the comments.

LinnieGayl’s takes:

Once Upon a Rose by Laura Florand was a mixed read for me. I’ve enjoyed many of the author’s books set in Paris; this story moves to a gorgeous part of southern France, the rose fields of a small valley. The heroine Layla is a burnt-out rising rock star. Unable to produce music for her next album, Layla takes advantage of an unusual inheritance and goes to the south of France to claim a house she mysteriously inherited. Lost trying to find the house, Layla stumbles into Matthieu Rosier’s home. Matthieu is the owner and heir to a hidden valley filled with roses. While they’re attracted to each other from the start, Matt is horrified when he discovers why Layla is there; he believes the home she’s inherited is rightfully his, and wants her to leave immediately. But he’s essentially a good guy – and very attracted to her– so Matt can’t stop himself from insinuating himself into Layla’s life.

The setting comes alive in the story as the characters visit numerous sites in the area. I felt I could smell the roses, see the sites, and definitely taste the wonderful food they eat. I enjoyed seeing this beautiful valley helping to bring Layla back to life. So why doesn’t this love story get a higher grade?

While I liked Matt and Layla, as well as many of the secondary characters, the dialog often felt repetitive. For example, Matt constantly thinks “she’s cute” and Layla constantly thinks, “He’s hot.” Over and over and over. For the most part, though, it was an enjoyable read and I will definitely pick up this next book in this series. Grade: C+. Sensuality: Warm.


An Early Wake by Sheila Connolly is the third in this author’s mystery series set in a small town in County Cork, Ireland. In the first book, Maura Donovan, a poor bartender from Boston visited the town and learned she’d inherited the local pub Sullivan’s along with a home. She also inherited a cast of locals who work at or visit the bar.

In this book Maura is still struggling to make a success of Sullivan’s, although she has yet to check on the actual bar accounts. Sullivan’s is dirty, run down, and doesn’t have a lot of customers. Maura is surprised when a college student appears at Sullivan’s to do research and tells her the pub was once the heart of the Irish music scene. And when a number of music stars descend on Sullivan’s for an informal event, it seems as if things may be looking up for Maura and Sullivan’s. That is until the inevitable murder occurs.

As I finished this book I found myself wondering, “Why do I keep reading this series?” It definitely isn’t because the mysteries are compelling. While the mystery is a bit stronger here than in the previous two, it’s still a “mystery light.” And it’s certainly not because the main character is endearing. In fact, I find Maura rather hard to like, including her dithering over two men who have expressed interest in her. And while there are some potentially interesting secondary characters in the town, there’s been little character development over the three books. I’ve finally concluded I’ve continued to read the series because I’m captivated with the notion of an American moving to a small Irish town and becoming immersed in the local community. But after three books I think it’s time to start looking for other Irish-set mysteries and romances. Grade: C-. Sensuality: NA.

Caz’s take:

Kilts and Daggers by Victoria Roberts is the second book in the author’s Highland Spies series, and although not by any means a terrible book, it lacks substance and that je ne sais quoi that makes for a truly memorable read.

Lady Grace Walsingham is attending her elder sister’s wedding to a Scottish laird, but really doesn’t understand her sibling’s decision to leave the civilisation of England for the wild, untamed highlands of Scotland.  The weather is dreadful, the food is horrible, the language is impenetrable and the men are too large and unsophisticated – in short the place has nothing to recommend it, and she can’t wait to get back to England, where she will marry her handsome, refined betrothed.

Our hero is Fagan Murray, captain of the guard, and he and Grace most certainly don’t see eye-to-eye.  Their antagonistic verbal sparring is one of the things I enjoyed most about the book, not least because I’m a sucker for romances in which the protagonists start out disliking each other.  Fagan is detailed to escort Grace back to England following her month-long stay in Scotland, and during the journey, the pair become closer to each other and eventually act on their mutual attraction, but then find themselves enmeshed in a kidnap plot which ultimately threatens both their lives.

I enjoyed the book for the most part, although it’s nothing to write home about and not a read to which I’m likely to return.  Grace is a difficult character to warm to – she’s only eighteen and I’m not a fan of very young heroines – and her continual disparagement of her host’s nation is discomfiting and makes her come off as snobbish and overly self-important.  That’s not to say that the Scots don’t similarly disparage the English – after all, the book is set in 1610, just a few years after the two countries were united under the rule of King James I – but the constant criticism left an unpleasant taste in my mouth regardless of who was doing the insulting.  Grace is also one of those heroines whose decision to refuse the hero’s proposal of marriage after they’ve slept together makes me want to spit.  Throughout history, women have been judged – and one  might say, still are – according to their “purity,” so that whole “no strings” thing just doesn’t fly.  On the plus side, however, she does mature during the latter part of the story, as shown by her admission that perhaps her idea of becoming a spy for the crown (like her sister before her) is not such a great one after all, and this character growth meant I liked her more by the end of the book than I did at the beginning.  Fagan is an attractive, but somewhat stereotypical hero – brave, honourable and gorgeous, and while the secondary spy/kidnap plot is well integrated into the romance, it’s a little superficial and the villain is very much a one-note character.

Kilts and Daggers is a well-written, entertaining and easy read, which might suit if you’re in the mood for simple brain-candy.  Grade: C+. Sensuality: Warm.

Maggie’s takes:

Deeanne Gist has caused quite a stir in the inspirational romance community with her new novel Tiffany Girl. Some have gone so far as to call the novel porn and those same reviewers are advising Christian readers to avoid it lest it lead them straight to hell.

What exactly has everyone in such a tizzy? Well, it’s not the basic plot which is as follows: Flossie Jayne is an aspiring painter who finds herself in need of money to pay for art school. She does the unthinkable for a middle class girl of her time and accepts a job!  She works as a Tiffany Girl, one of the artists who contributed to the mosaic chapel made entirely of stained glass which Louis Tiffany unveiled at the 1893 World Fair. Flossie has loads of adventures as she moves into a boarding house, meets some fascinating characters, and falls in love.

What makes the book controversial is that Flossie’s love interest, Reeve Wilder, expresses sexual interest in her. Not overtly but there is a scene where the two are kissing and he would very much like to take it to the next level. Since he is a fellow boarder at the rooming house she is in, the two happen to be standing in his bedroom while these passionate kisses are exchanged.  Reeve pushes Flossie out the door before anything untoward can happen but alas! the damage has been done in some readers’ minds.

Then Ms. Gist goes for the gusto and invites us into the opening sequence of Flossie’s wedding night. The two characters remain more clothed than most 21st century people do walking the streets during the summer but some readers still found it shocking that the author would depict a couple kissing while wearing trousers and an undershirt (him) and underwear that covers more than shorts and a t-shirt (her). Hopefully absolutely no one will listen to these naysayers.   Tiffany Girl is a charming, fun book and the author doesn’t deserve the bad publicity. Grade: B+. Sensuality: Kisses.


Jeffe Kennedy concludes her Twelve Kingdoms fantasy romance series with The Talon of the Hawk. While this book didn’t quite live up to the standard set by the first in the series, The Mark of the Tala, I did enjoy it.

Since she was a very young child Ursula has trained to be her father’s heir. She knows everything from how to run the castle kitchens to how to defend against attacks from neighboring kingdoms. It is in the latter that she truly excels for Ursula is a warrior at heart. She leads her elite unit called the Hawks on all of the king’s most critical forays and handles all his most crucial military tasks. When she comes home from her latest assignment to find the walls of her home guarded by foreign mercenaries Ursula realizes that she’s been deceiving herself. Her sisters had warned her there was something wrong with her father and now she finally sees it. Once she enters the castle things get worse. Her father has allied himself to a foreign witch who practices the darkest of magics and he quite suddenly has no use for a female heir.

Surprisingly, Ursula’s truest ally at the court turns out to be the mercenary captain, Harlan. Together they set out on a desperate journey that holds the only hope of saving the kingdom. But the trail is one fraught with peril, not least of which is the danger to Ursula’s heart. She wants to let Harlan in, to become the passionate, fiery lover he desires. Yet her heart holds a dark secret she has no intention letting go of. Will she be able to share her hurt with him and finally cauterize the wound that has been paining her for so long? Or is she destined to become a lonely queen on a cold, sterile throne?

I loved the romance between Ursula and Harlan; it truly is a mating of equals. I also loved the fantasy aspect of the novel. I liked that Ursula is such a strong warrior and great strategist and yet is always open to others’ ideas and always willing to learn and adapt.  But her big secret bothered me a great deal and the center portion of the book where she turned into a sort of blubbering marshmallow over it annoyed me. I’m not saying it wasn’t a big deal (it was, it really, really was) but I would have liked to have seen it handled in a way that didn’t involve such a complete meltdown on her part. Her father issues were a tad irritating as well; see him for who he truly is already! But those are minor quibbles, the series overall is wonderful fantasy romance. Grade: B-. Sensuality: Warm.


Remember Me This Way by Sabine Durant is the story of Lizzie and Zach, a couple who meet through an online dating site. At first, everything is bliss. Then come the rough times, with the roughest time of all being the car accident in which Zach dies. Lizzie grieves hard for a year and then slowly starts to blossom back to life. She dreams of being whole again until she goes to their country house a place that causes her to question everything she had believed about Zach, her marriage and most importantly, his death.

Like Gone Girl this is a book that examines the dark corners of marriage and makes us question how well we can really know another person. The story is told in the point of view of both Zach and Lizzie, which lets the reader realize from the beginning that everything is not what it seems and that Zach is hiding some dark secrets indeed. One thing I really liked about it is that Lizzie is not taken by surprise as she discovers the evil that hid behind her husband’s charm. She wonders, in fact, if part of why she loved him was because he wasn’t all sweetness and light as he pretended. I like also that the ending is not definitive, we don’t really feel we know what we know. My one quibble is that Lizzie is almost too forgiving and accepting. Still, interesting characters, a fascinating mystery and deft writing make this a must read for fans of psychological thrillers. Grade: B+. Sensuality: Warm.


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You’re Never Too Old for Children’s Books

I was considerably older than the recommended age group for Harry Potter when I first picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Frankly, at that time, it had been years since I perused a children’s book just for pleasure and this was no exception. I was planning to read a bit, get a feel for whether or not my second grader would enjoy it and then read it to him or not, depending on how those first chapters went. I finished the book in one sitting and have since re-read it numerous times. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, I’m an avid fantasy fan and the Harry Potter books are excellent, fun fantasy. But I am surprised. I wouldn’t think that a children’s book, which Sorcerer’s Stone most certainly is, could keep my attention.

Since then numerous children’s stories (books written for readers 9-14 years of age) have nabbed my interest. I picked up The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop by Kate Saunders expecting a young adult read. The story, which is about a mysterious chocolate shop once run by sorcerers, was skewed towards younger readers. Still, magic and chocolate? I couldn’t resist. The tale was cute and fun, a lighthearted easy read that I found perfect for an afternoon at the pool. My only regret after reading it was that my children were too old for it and too young to have the confidence to ignore the recommended reading age. That has been one of the great things about adulthood – I am the perfect age for whatever book I feel like reading.

For example, Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. I missed reading this sweet story as a child but after hearing about it in You’ve Got Mail and then learning that a movie was being made with Emma Watson from the Potter films, I decided to give it a go. I’m glad I did as it is a wonderful tale about three young girls determined to do the family name proud. Anyone who was ever a little girl with a dream can relate to it.

I donated a copy of Ballet Shoes to a book drive and got to chatting with another mom who has loved sharing the books she grew up with with her children. She has also loved using her kids as an excuse to read some of the young reader books on the market. The Percy Jackson books were a big hit with her family and she admits she enjoyed them almost more than the kids did.

Those of you who watch The Big Bang Theory will know that Amy Farrah Fowler, one of the lead characters, loves the children’s book Little House on the Prairie. Amy is not alone. Numerous moms have told me that this is one of the first books they read aloud to their elementary school children and that one reason for that is because they themselves want a chance to re-read the book.

Perhaps my favorite of the young reader books I’ve read, behind the Harry Potter series, is Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. Ms. Funke is a wonderfully lyrical writer who creates an incredible magical world in which stories can be brought to life by reading aloud, villains can be defeated by determined little girls and those we love can be rescued with the power of imagination. An absolutely awful movie was made of it but the book itself? Just about perfect.

Artemis Fowl is a series created for junior high students that many adults, myself included, love. Artemis is a 12 yr. old criminal mastermind who hatches a cunning plot to rob the Faerie of their gold. His plan? To kidnap one of their kind and then wait for the ransom to arrive. Unfortunately for him he kidnaps Captain Holly Short of the LEPrecon (Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance) Unit. Holly’s not the kind of girl to take this kind of insult lying down. Soon Artemis finds himself in the middle of a boat load of magical mayhem.

My latest young reader obsession is the Thrones and Bones series by Lou Anders. I finished the first novel, Frostborn in a single afternoon. In this book we meet Karn, a young man who is being prepared to take over the family farm Norrøngard. This is not a destiny of his own choosing as Karn’s big desire is to travel, have adventures and play his favorite board game Thrones and Bones with a whole host of new people. But when strangers come to his village flying mysterious creatures known as wyvern Karn starts to realize that there just might be people out there he would be better off not meeting.

Enter Thianna. A young woman who is half-human, half- frost giant she is wholly out of place wherever she goes. She is too short to be taken seriously in the giant community; Too freakishly, frighteningly tall to be easily accepted by the people of the human community. She meets Karn at a trading festival held at Dragons Dance and falls into a surprisingly easy camaraderie with him. Which is a good thing because when they find themselves separated from friends and family as they fight off two groups of people anxious to kill them it will take their combined wits to battle dragons, trolls and the undead and make it back home again.

In book 2 of the series, Nightborn, Karn finds himself kidnapped by a wyvern and delivered to the dragon Orm. Orm tells him Thiana was on a mission to get a magical horn when she mysteriously disappeared. Determined to help his friend, Karn takes off for the city of Gordasha where he makes friends with a deadly elf, finds Thiana and lands himself in the middle of a war. Together they encounter numerous new and exciting creatures, save an empire, and rescue a forgotten king. I loved meeting the new character Desstra, seeing new parts of the realm and watching Thiana and Karn grow as characters.

It’s my firm belief that a good book transcends age and language, politics, gender and every other barrier to deliver a story that delights the reader. What about you? Do you have a favorite book for young readers that still appeals to you as an adult? Have you picked up any children’s books as a grown up? Which books from your childhood were you most anxious to share with your children?


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A Guest Pandora’s Box: Rose Lerner’s Sweet Disorder

Hello everyone and welcome to the fourth of our AAR blog columns. The basic idea is that we choose a book every month and have a discussion about it. We’re still Elisabeth Lane (of Cooking Up Romance), a long-time romance reader who now creates recipes inspired by books and then blogs about it, and Alexis Hall (author of, most recently, Waiting for the Flood), relative newcomer to the romance genre and occasional writer. Continue reading

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Politics in Romance: An Often Uneasy Blend

Sometimes life can be terribly ironic. Just as I was arguing on the message boards how much I dislike politics in my books I found myself reading a book that defined exactly why that was. The Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll is the story of TifAni FaNelli, a young woman who has had the same goal from the ages of 14 to 28: To finally get in with the “in crowd”. To that end, TifAni has buffed and polished her body until it is a work of art. She spends a great deal of time sharing with the reader nuggets of wisdom such as just what designers mark you as Nouve Riche and which mark you as chic, which restaurants mark you as “in the know” and which diets show you are committed to your beauty. She tells us how smart she is and how working at a glossy magazine writing sex articles on how to pleasure your boyfriend is just a step she is taking on her way to the New York Times. Included in all this is TiFani’s guide to love. She is “the luckiest girl alive” partly because she is marrying Luke, with the beautiful, WASPy last name of Harrison, who comes from old money and who, by marrying her, will give her that final, societal stamp of approval she has been waiting for far too long.

I didn’t like TifAni. It seemed childish to spend 14 years trying to become popular but even beyond that, TifAni is just mean. She’s judgmental of stay at home moms and extremely critical of the family she is about to marry into, she says nasty horrible, things about any woman carrying an ounce of fat anywhere, and judges every other woman by how “New York” she manages to appear. Here’s a lovely scene where she talks about her fiancés cousin:

Hallsy is only thirty-nine and already her face is pulled tight as a pair of Lululemon yoga pants across a plus-sized girl’s rear. She’s never been married, which she’ll tell you she never wants to be even though she hangs all over every remotely f*ckable guy after a single drink, while they gently untangle her Marshmallow Man arms from around their stiff necks. It’s no wonder the only ring on her finger is the Cartier Trinity, what with the way she’s ruined her face and the fact that she spends more time sunning on the beach than she should running on a treadmill. . . Women like Hallsy are my specialty. You should have seen the expression on her sci-fi looking face the first time I met her, when I had the audacity to say that while not everyone in the room may support Obama’s politics, I think we can all agree he is a supremely intelligent man.

If you can’t tell from that scene, TifAni is a self-described feminist and democrat. She’s also a hypocrite:

Luke and his entire family, his friends, their wives voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. His pro-personhood bullshit could prevent rape and incest victims, women whose lives were in danger, from having an abortion. It could shut down Planned Parenthood.

“How can you vote for someone with a stance like that?”

“Because I don’t care, Ani.” Luke sighed. My silly feminist wrath had been cute once.

She does not break up with Luke, her fiancé, after this scene.

TifAni had me rethinking my vote in the 2012 election. It is deeply disturbing to me to think that I could have anything in common with such a hypocritical, nasty person. From the moment she betrayed her friends for the cool kids in high school till the end of the novel, she was nothing more than a shallow, social climbing little witch. Any changes she made over the course of the 352 pages we spent together were insufficient to erase my extreme dislike. (Not to add that even when she changed she stayed the same in that she hurt several people who had done nothing but be kind to her.)

TifAni is why I don’t like politics in my books. The mouthpieces are often people who don’t live out the so called standards they eschew. For example, a feminist who ridicules single women, mocks women who are overweight and lives off her boyfriend. Oh, and who feels that getting a ring from a man is some sort of status symbol! She judged Mitt Romney but felt comfortable marrying someone who would vote for him because the guy had money. I am not saying we have to marry only those who agree with us politically but TifAni had no courage behind her convictions. It would have been far better to have cut any scenes depicting her political leanings.

I can remember another time that politics dragged me out of my enjoyment of a novel. Lady Liberty by Vicki Hinze was a 2002 release that had a scene which made many deeply uncomfortable. It is the story of Vice President Sybil Stone and Agent Jonathan Westford, who are dealing with a world crisis. The nation believes them missing or dead. In this scene, Sybil talks about her close friend the president.

“I’m concerned about David. He promised to restore integrity to his office and he meant it. Lying to the public about us has got to grate at him.”

“I’m sure it’s had him on his knees in the Oval Office. But if it can keep us alive then he has to do it.”

His meaning escaped her, but a fearful shudder rippled through her chest. “On his knees in the Oval Office?”

“Never Mind.”

“No way.” No one had forgotten the events that previously occurred in the Oval Office, and if David had broken his promise to the people, then she damn well needed to know. “Tell me what you meant.”

Jonathan picked up on the distrust in her tone and gave her a look laced with reprimand. “He prays there often. Privately.”

Given the timing of the novel – and the fact that someone being on their knees caused Sybil to be upset – it is pretty clear just who Ms. Hinze felt disgraced the Oval Office. I found the idea of a President disturbed by command decisions that involved deceiving the enemy and who didn’t have a clear separation of church and state as disturbing as she had clearly found the Clinton administration. While this scene was far milder than the scenes in Luckiest Girl Alive it turned me off of the writers work. I have one of her books languishing on my TBR and haven’t been tempted to pick it up in years. Which is a shame because her early romantic suspense novels sans the politics were really good.

I’ve read plenty of novels that don’t speak to party affiliation but show it. For example, having the republican senator turn into a homicidal maniac might not come with a direct statement on how much better the democrats are but it does make it pretty clear what the author thinks of that party. When the democrat is a boozy sleaze that is an equally clear message. No matter how subtly this is presented I am almost always pulled out of the tale. Why? Because it reminds me that I am reading a book. It gives me a glimpse of the woman behind the curtain who is pulling all the strings.

Before I upset too many, yes, I know that politics can be done right in a story. Tiffany Girl by Deeanne Gist deals with equality for women by having the main character need money and showing how some men made it difficult for her to earn a living. The story is effective in how it depicts everyday injustice while still delivering on the romance. Changes by Pamela Nowak showed the terrible cruelty and bigotry the government utilized in the treatment of Native Americans while still delivering a heartwarming romance. Badlands by Jill Sorenson dealt with racism and politics without ever derailing the love story it was telling. What each of these tales had going for them is that the issues discussed arose naturally from the characters’ story. It wasn’t just filler so that we knew where the author stood politically.

In the best case scenarios the author will leave us guessing as to what she thinks of the situation. Or they will at least humanize the opposing side. Chris Brohan did this with a Nazi soldier in The Light in the Ruins. In the Arms of the Enemy by Lisbeth Eng is another book that shows a German soldier in WWII as more than just a mindless killer. If we can find positives about people who worked for Hitler, I am convinced we can find it in Americans who take a slightly different view of politics than ours.

But for the most part I am of the conviction that it is better to just leave the subject alone.

What do you think – do you like politics in your books? Have you ever been turned off by an author’s verbalizing of a political situation, even if you agree with her? Which authors do you feel do it right?

–Maggie Boyd

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