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.
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.
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.
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.