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.

 

Posted in Caz AAR, LinnieGayl AAR, Maggie AAR, Mini reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

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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Speaking of Audiobooks: Latest Listens and Audio News

See Jane ScoreNote: Our “For the New Listener” feature appears in the latter half of today’s column.

Rachel Gibson – Can it finally be happening?

Before March 2015, Rachel Gibson’s books had been sporadically released in audio format – one here – one there – and rarely with a really good narrator. I had listened (or attempted to listen) to all eleven of those audio titles, each time just wishing for that perfect listen as I’m a BIG Gibson fan. She knows how to make guys sound like guys and her style of contemporary romance is what I seek out when I want a fun listen.

But those eleven listens never reached that point of audio listening bliss; although the superb writing was present each time (most rated an A for me in print format – a few were Bs), I just didn’t feel the narrator was talented enough to pull off the entertainment I expected (with the exception of Tanya Eby’s A- narration of Run to You).

As I perused the new releases over at Audible last month, I spotted See Jane Score, one of my Gibson favorites. There had been no Coming Soon notice (that I could find and I’m pretty good at searching those out) – it was one of those complete surprises that often occurs with new audiobook releases of older titles. My hope spiked just as it had upon discovery of her earlier audio releases and then dipped as I saw narrator Kathleen Early’s name. She narrates two of Gibson’s earlier titles and, although I thought her adequate, I didn’t feel like her talent equaled the writer’s content. I mean, I’m always looking for the next Anna Fields!

Determined to enjoy in audio format (even with an average narrator), I started listening to See Jane Score and found another one of those audio industry surprises we don’t expect but always hope for – a much improved performance by a narrator I had considered only average. Kathleen Early’s higher voice register had lowered and her ability to effectively perform male characters had greatly increased as well. She obviously understands the nature of the romance within See Jane Score and her pacing is spot on as well. She uses micro pauses for emphasis, which may prove problematic for some listeners but those pauses didn’t bother me in the least – in fact they often worked favorably to break up the general narrative. It ended up being an A listen for me. And, although I had read See Jane Score at least four times over the years , I still completely enjoyed it as though it was my first time around. If you want to see a review on content, check out AAR’s DIK review. My final grade for the audio version – Content: A and Narration: A- .

s DayJust last week, I discovered another Gibson oldie but goodie – Daisy’s Back in Town, once again narrated by Kathleen Early. I’m listening to it now and I’m happy to say, Ms. Early continues to shine in her narration. It inspired me to start diligently searching for more upcoming Gibson releases. Happily, I discovered three more in Blackstone’s Coming Soon list for libraries. The Trouble with Valentine’s Day is scheduled for June 2nd and will be narrated by Kathleen Early. Sex, Lies, and Online Dating (see my 2006 review of the print version) is scheduled for July 7th and Ms. Early is scheduled to narrate it as well. On August 4th, we’ll see the release of I’m in No Mood for Love – no narrator has been named. I can uncover no further scheduled releases of her backlist but my fingers are crossed for more, especially my favorite of all – True Confessions!

Other Recent Listens

Infinity + One – Amy Harmon

Narrated by Tavia Gilbert

I discovered Amy Harmon’s writing last year when I decided to try A Different Blue (Shannon’s A+ audio review here) based first on Tavia Gilbert’s narration and second, on the publisher’s synopsis. I’m now completely entranced by this author’s distinctive voice, her beautiful writing, and her ability to pen a different yet realistic sort of romance. In Infinity + One, a young mathematical genius of a guy, troubled and trying to establish a new life after time in prison, meets up with a famous country star (also young) as she is preparing to take her life – literally. Theirs is certainly an odd coupling it seems – on the outside – but the two find they have so much in common as they travel across the country. He’s going to Las Vegas. She’s fleeing from her manipulative grandmother who is also her manager and just wants to ride along with him.

Tavia Gilbert performs it all with such talent as I have come to expect from her narrations. She clearly differentiates her characters, understands the emotions at play, and stays ever so true to the author’s written word. I discovered that Tavia sings beautifully as well as she performs bits of songs – a number written by the author. Content: A-  Narration: A

 

The Liar – Nora Roberts

Narrated by January LaVoy

Although we expect Nora Roberts’ big annual release to be Romantic Suspense that is big on suspense (think The Witness, The Collector, The Search, etc.), The Liar isn’t all that suspenseful when it comes to action or mystery. However, I happen to love a pure contemporary romance and that’s what this one felt like. And although I’m not one who prefers a large cast, here, the involvement of those numerous characters proved successful.

The LiarThe Liar tells the story of a Shelby, a woman who returns to her small hometown with a young daughter after the death of her husband. She’s been left with crippling debt and the discovery that her husband had multiple identities. Griff, a local contractor who lives a simple but satisfying life, is immediately taken with Shelby. The development of their relationship is a slow and gentle one.

While I’ve listened to better Nora Roberts’ titles (The Witness comes to mind first), I don’t really know this author’s backlist. Much of what I have tried just hasn’t worked for me. Perhaps, it’s my lack of familiarity with Ms. Roberts’ vast backlist that accounts for The Liar’s success as a story in my eyes. It has a fresh feeling although there are definitely more than a few romance clichés within.

January LaVoy has talent – there’s no doubt about it. She clearly differentiates characters and tells a good story. However… the hero’s business partner sounds cartoonish (!) – a turnoff for me every time. When he entered a scene (which fortunately isn’t all that often), I had to fight to forget his characterization and concentrate on the story again. Also, Ms. LaVoy’s intakes of breath are very obvious and I had to talk myself into disregarding each occurrence (which is often) as the production is perfect. I imagine Ms. LaVoy made this choice to audibly breath at the beginning of a sentence or section rather than it being a result of a lack of training. Still, the caliber of narration surprises me for a book expected to have such a large audience. Content: B+  Narration: B-

 

A Stone in the Sea – A.L. Jackson

Narrated by Andi Arndt and Sebastian York

First in the new Bleeding Stars series, A Stone in the Sea is a different sort of rock star story. The band is famous and its lead singer, Sebastian, is loved by his fans but known for his short temper. Showing his protective side, he severely beats a man in defense of his younger brother. Needing to take a break from the public eye, the band A Stone in the Seasettles in a small Georgia town for a while to allow Sebastian time to calm down and wait out the possible assault charges against him. There he meets Shea, a waitress at her uncle’s bar, and the two slowly develop a relationship – all with Shea having no idea just who Sebastian is in his everyday life. But Shea has secrets too and what follows is New Adult at its best.

Andi Arndt and Sebastian York are excellent in their separate POV narrations. The romance audio community holds Sebastian York in high esteem with past performances such as Emma Chase’s Tangled and he shines here as well. Andi Arndt is pretty fabulous too with her light Southern lilt for Shea and her spot on performance of Sebastian. I’ll definitely be returning this summer to listen to Book 2, Drowning to Breathe. Content: A  Narration: A

 

Someone to Believe In – Kathryn Shay

Narrated by Jeffrey Kafer

I reviewed the print version of Someone to Believe In for AAR back in 2005, giving it a B+. Despite its lack of a DIK grade, I remember the plot clearly all these years later due to its unlikely setup for romance – the hero is a Senator in his mid-forties and the heroine heads an anti-gang youth organization. He’s known for being tough on crime. She’s known as the Street Angel.

I’d been waiting for the right book to try a Jeffrey Kafer narration. I’m always on the lookout for another successful male narrator to add to my “can be relied on” list. You won’t hear a different pitch for Kafer’s female characters – it’s not even slightly high. But he still manages to clearly differentiate his males from females. I’ll definitely be listening to him again. Now for the caveat…

How many of you recall Jack Webb’s portrayal of Sergeant Joe Friday in the TV series, Dragnet? Well, at times, Jeffrey Kafer sounds just like Joe Friday delivering his signature “Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to see is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” It didn’t remove me from the story all that much but I couldn’t help seeing Jack Friday in my mind a few times. And I knew I just had to mention it! Content: B+ Narration: B

 

For the New Listener – Accustoming Your Ear to Listening

Success in listening to an audiobook is a process. Seldom does one listen to their first book and think, “That was easy! I absorbed every word.” So, don’t get discouraged if you missed out on a bit on information here and there. That improves with time.

In my first For the New Listener feature in February, I talked about Choosing Your Audiobooks. To start, you need a book that has a good chance of working for you with both the author’s words and the narrator’s performance. When researching that first book, go ahead and select three that you believe are right for you and then listen to all three. Promise yourself that you will listen to multiple books before you decide against audiobook listening.

Why make a commitment to listening to multiple books? You actually learn to listen. It’s a new way of reading for your mind and you only need to accustom your ear to doing so. When I first started listening, I listened only to those books I had already read in print format. Gradually, I started listening to those books I hadn’t read and found I processed all I heard easily although, as a beginner, I wouldn’t have thought it possible. I can now listen to non-fiction books full of happenings and not get lost in all the details.

It’s not unusual for a non-listener or even a new listener to say that they are visual learners rather than audible learners and therefore, they assume audiobooks won’t work for them. Although in extreme cases that might be the case, it’s more likely they just haven’t dedicated the time to attuning their ear to hearing a story rather than reading it.

I’m a visual learner – no doubt about it. While attending college, I realized I retained a lot more from a lecture (and therefore didn’t have to study as intensely) if I took extensive notes in class. Learn a foreign language by ear? Nooo – give me Latin where I can see what I’m learning. However, I’m one of the best at listening to audiobooks today. It’s by far the method I use for the majority of my new reads. I encourage you to try more than one audiobook – it will pay off.

 

Audio Release News

Remember Shannon McKenna and all those McCloud men and their friends? Tantor has picked up the series, and the first, Behind Closed Doors, will be released on May 19th with Nelson Hobbs narrating. I’m expecting very good things although I’m wondering if I will be as tolerant of Seth’s over-the-top alpha behavior as I was in 2002.

For those of you who have been anticipating more Loretta Chase in audio format, we’ll see two more titles on May 12thThe Last Hellion and Miss Wonderful (no audio links yet) – both narrated by the exceptional Kate Reading. Oh yeah!

 

Ending Notes

Check out our Speaking of Audiobooks Facebook page to see romance audio updates, industry news, and links to articles on interest.

For those new to our Speaking of Audiobooks column, be sure to check out our audio archives for further recommendations and discussions.

Our affiliated Goodreads group – Romance Audiobooks - keeps growing and now has 1010 members. We started this group five years ago for discussions in between Speaking of Audiobooks columns. Come on by to share your latest listen or contribute to a number of our ongoing romance audiobook discussions.

Enjoy your listening.

- Lea Hensley

Posted in audio books, Lea Hensley | 23 Comments

Poldark: A BBC Winner

Ross and DemelzaWhen Dabney recently asked for ideas for new TV shows to watch, shows with well-developed relationships and strong female characters, I chimed in immediately to suggest she might like to watch the BBC’s new adaptation of Poldark, an eight part costume drama set in late 18th Century Cornwall. It’s due to air in the US in June on PBS, and has just reached the end of its run here in the UK, with the promise of a second series to come next year. Continue reading

Posted in Book news, Books, Caz AAR, Characters, Heroes, Heroines, Television | Tagged , , , | 29 Comments

Midweek Minis

This week, in our new column Midweek Minis, five of AAR’s reviewers share short takes on nine books. We assess five contemps, two historicals (one set in post Restoration London), one steampunk, and a m/m sci fi. Our grades range from a DIK to a flat out D. Enjoy!

Continue reading

Posted in Caz AAR, Dabney AAR, Lynn AAR, Maggie AAR, Melanie AAR, Mini reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Mother of All Reading Slumps

blytheI’ve heard of reading slumps before. I mean, I’ve been at this for awhile now. Others have written about them at length, both on our news blog and at LLB’s old At the Back Fence column. But until now, I’ve never had one. Really. I’ve gone stretches where I struggled to find time to read, but that isn’t really the same thing as not wanting to. And right now, I don’t want to.

This is absolutely unheard of in my life. The only thing that even comes close would be my college years, when I was so busy reading history that I had very little time to read for pleasure. Even then, I read like a fiend during my breaks. This? Well, it’s different. I haven’t finished a book since November. I haven’t started a book since then either. I’m not sure how to change that or when it will change.

Why, you might ask? Well, it’s definitely related to my divorce and life changes, because my reading struggles date from exactly that point. In fact, while I finished a book in November, that was the first one I’d read since September. My reading pace slowed down to glacial when my life turned upside down. While that sounds completely dramatic – maybe even catastrophic – the truth is that it’s been exactly the opposite. I’ve never been happier. But at the same time, I’ve never been so unmotivated to read. I find it somewhat hard to explain the why of it all. The short version is that I have a) filled my life with about a hundred other things and b) can’t concentrate. But it’s more than that somehow too.

What have I been doing with myself, you may ask? Well, while you have all been reading good books, I have been:

1) Quitting my job. Not here at AAR, of course, but my job that paid the bills, or at least part of them. I was a full time retail manager, and about the first thing I knew going into a divorce was that my job was no longer going to work for me. You would think that someone who quit working full time would have plenty of time to read! But I promptly filled my life with other things like…

2) School. And to be fair, I have read for school. I started a paralegal program, which I really enjoy. In fact, if I never needed to work and could just go to school forever, I think I would like that job. Let me know if there is any money or future in getting a PhD that you have absolutely no intention of using. I’m guessing not, but you never know. I’d probably still have some reading time if I hadn’t started…

3) Training. I figured since I wasn’t working crazy retail hours, I should probably run a half marathon. I’d been wanting to do that for awhile, but couldn’t fit it into my schedule. But I started running farther and faster as a natural development from the divorce. I am a person who thinks and processes in motion, and I had a lot to think and process. So suddenly instead of running three miles I was running six and seven, without even trying to. I figured if I was already doing that, I was half way through half marathon training! What’s 13.1 miles anyway? Well, it’s actually kind of hard, and those long runs take awhile. And no, I don’t want to hear audiobooks while I run; I prefer loud music with lots of swear words. But maybe I’d still have time if I hadn’t started…

4) Dating. I did…really. When I was ready, I was ready. And it didn’t take me long to be ready. I really wish I could tell you the stories. I actually considered starting an anonymous blog because some of the stuff that happened was so funny. Let’s just say that I actually found dating pretty easy, time-consuming, and distracting. But I have no idea how people did it before the advent of the internet. I started dating in December and felt more or less like I had fallen down a rabbit hole. I mean, I married at nineteen, and dated very little before then. So this was a really new experience, and it was fun. But not conducive to reading. Since dating was fun, I really thought I would do it for some time. I didn’t have a timeline exactly; I just knew I probably wouldn’t focus on just one man. Until…

5) Yep, you guessed it. I focused on just one man. I so was not planning on that, but when you meet someone and are suddenly completely uninterested in anyone else with a Y chromosome, well, you focus on just one man. I know what you are wondering: Is he a sheriff?. Surprisingly, no. I mean, I was under the impression that sheriffs were my only option. But silly me! Even a romance reader in the middle of a slump should know there are also former special-ops certified marines out there. No, I’m not making that up; he really is. It’s pretty funny, because my ex is a CFO, and I thought that was my type. This is different. Different in a good way.

That’s the big stuff, but I also am juggling kids (a son graduating from high school), family, moving, track meets, and band competitions. I do, in theory, have time to read. But when I try to actually do it I have trouble focusing. I’ve read no review books for months, and I haven’t finished any of my book club books either. What I have read are lots of text messages and about a gazillion perfume reviews, because I suddenly got into perfume. My ex didn’t care for it, and one man I dated suggested that I might consider whether I liked it. I thought he had a point, so I started experimenting and reading perfume reviews. I hadn’t worn perfume since I was a teenager, so I knew nothing. The reviews suited my limited attention span because they were short and surpassingly entertaining. (In case you are similarly inclined, I like Fragrantica, Perfume Posse, and Makeup Alley).

So where does that leave me now? I am used to being the one who tells people what to read, but right now the tables have turned. What have you read that is so engaging that it could unslump even a distracted, scattered book reviewer? And while I’m at it, does anyone have a good (probably non-romance) book club idea?

Posted in AAR Blythe, Book news | Tagged | 19 Comments

A Guest Pandora’s Box: Thoughts on Justified

justified_season_6_picture_collectionEarlier this year, I asked Twitter for suggestions for great TV. Many in the romance community suggested Justified.  This show, which just concluded its six series run, stars Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, an old-school U.S. Marshal who returns to the place of his troubled childhood in the deadly poor towns and hollers of Eastern Kentucky.  Like many–Thomas Wolfe was indeed right–Raylan’s return to the people of his past is full of tragedy, heartbreak, and betrayal. The show began as it ended, showcasing the complicated relationships between Raylan, Boyd (Raylan’s nemesis), and Ava. The three, brilliantly portrayed by Olyphant, Walton Goggins, and Joelle Carter, made for addictive watching. Lexxi and Laura (they are social media friends of mine) were among those who suggested the show to me last year–for which I thank them–so I asked them whether they thought Justified had a great love story in it. This Pandora’s Box is their answer.

(Warning: This blog may contain spoilers.)


 

Laura: Justified is obviously not a romance, but the vast majority of romance readers who watched it loved it (except those for whom the violence was too much). I’ve been considering why that is. Do you think there was a great love story on Justified that might have drawn them in?

Lexxi: Strangely enough I think there was but it was unrequited. I think Boyd sincerely loved Ava but I don’t think Ava ever got over Raylan. So I guess it was really more of a triangle that does not resolve in a happily ever after for any of them. Although Raylan and Ava do seem to find some peace.

Laura: I agree that Boyd truly loved Ava, but I don’t think Ava loved anyone but herself, really. I think she cared very much about both Raylan and Boyd, but her number one priority was Ava. She teased and flirted a lot with Raylan and tried to play on his feelings for her, but I don’t think she really believed he would change. And when Ava kills Delroy, and then plans to kill—or have Boyd kill—Ellen May, I think it sort of seals the deal of her as both stronger and less romantic than Boyd.

In fact, in many ways, despite everyone talking about Raylan as the hero, I think that’s debatable. I think it would be just as easy to see Boyd as the hero, albeit a violent one. At the beginning of the series, it is Ava’s action—shooting her husband—that sets the stage for Boyd and Raylan to come up against each other. It’s worth remembering that Boyd doesn’t start out as all that bad a guy. He “finds God” at the beginning of the series and then goes a wee bit overboard, blowing up meth houses, etc. Yeah, it’s violent, but until Ava kills Delroy, Boyd’s violence has a perverse morality. It’s not until the Ellen May mess that Boyd really goes over to the dark side.

Lexxi: Well, other than his hat, Raylan doesn’t really have any other heroic traits. He uses his friends, his co workers, and pretty much anyone to accomplish his goals. He’s not a good husband to Winona and sacrifices his marriage for his job. He constantly puts Art and Rachel’s careers at risk. And his pursuit of Boyd depends on whether or not it meets Raylan’s immediate goals. With the exception of Loretta and Constable Sweeney, I don’t see where Raylan really does anything to help anyone. He even delivers a gangster to the ganster’s boss so he can be executed. None of his actions are heroic. So, for me, Raylan is more of an outlaw who finds himself on the right side of the law. Similar to Lucas Hood in Banshee. And looking back, I don’t think Raylan really changes over the course of the series.

What do you think? Am I being to hard on Raylan?

Laura: I am laughing so hard right now. “Other than his hat…” I don’t watch Banshee, but in many ways Raylan does remind me of another Lucas, Lucas Davenport in the Prey series by John Sandford. And Sandford said once that he though Lucas might be a sociopath. I agree, Raylan doesn’t change much. He’s charming, suave, and willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. I do think that over the series he grows up a bit but his fundamental personality doesn’t really change. I think the thing that’s Raylan’s saving grace is his sense of responsibility to people he considers weaker than himself. He’s willing to throw Art to the wolves because he’s pretty sure Art can take care of himself, but he really does care about Loretta and he even is even tries to get the Marshal service to let Ava go after she’s given them minimal information.

So if Raylan’s not really heroic and the great love story is unrequited, what do you think Justified has to recommend itself to romance readers?

Lexxi: Raylan is a true alpha male, similar to what you find in romance novels. Hollywood prefers beta male leads so it’s hard to find a true alpha on television who isn’t also a criminal. So I think that has some appeal. Plus Timothy Olyphant could read the phone book and make it sexy and charming. Then there’s Boyd Crowder. If you like bad boys in serious need of redemption, then Boyd is your man. He’s the charming outlaw that really wants to do better. He just hasn’t found the right woman to help him walk the straight and narrow. (Like Arlo, Raylan’s father, did. Raylan’s mother kept Arlo straight but then died.) I think romance readers who like westerns might find Justified appealing, because that’s really what it is. A modern day western. Plus the hat. You’ve gotta love Raylan’s hat.


Laura K. Curtis has always done everything backwards. As a child, she was extremely serious, so now that she’s chronologically an adult, she feels perfectly justified in acting the fool. Her first book written at age six, was released in (notebook) paperback to rave reviews and she’s been trying to achieve the same level of acclaim ever since. Although she’s published three romantic suspense novels, a contemporary romance, and several short pieces of crime fiction, her mother still thinks nothing measures up to that first book. Laura lives in Westchester County, NY with her husband and a pack of wild Irish Terriers, which has taught her how easily love can coexist with the desire to kill. Her latest book is Echoes

Lexxi Callahan writes sexy, contemporary romance novels set in the deep south. Lexxi stays online so you can usually find her on Twitter @callahanlexxie. Solving for Nic, the second book in her Southern Style series, was released in December of 2014 and book three is expected later this year.

Posted in Guest Posts, Television | Tagged , | 20 Comments

Midweek Minis: the RITAs, Part Two

The RITA nominees, the highest awards of distinction in romance fiction, are out. (The entire list is here.) We’ve reviewed many of the books nominated this year. (A list of all of our reviews with links is at the end of this post.) We’ve had a great response to our mini-reviews so I thought it would be fun to ask our staff for their takes on the RITA nominees they’ve read.

So, without further ado, here is Part Two of AAR’s RITA Minis.


Heather’s takes:

In Tanya Michaels’ Her Cowboy Hero Colin Cade has suffered past trauma, losing his wife and toddler son in a car wreck. After the accident, he abandoned his veterinary practice and now works as a ranch hand. When accusations of sleeping with the boss’s wife arise, he’s forced to seek employment elsewhere.

When Hannah Shaw’s dilapidated truck has a flat tire, Colin stops his motorcycle to assist her. With a storm gathering, Hannah invites him back to her ranch to wait it out. She needs help and he needs work. While he’s attracted to the young widow, he fears getting involved with her and her young son will leave him vulnerable to loss once again.

A Harlequin American Romance, this is the third book in The Colorado Cades series. Hannah and Colin are well suited to one another, with her optimism balancing his sometimes growly persona. Their reasons for not becoming involved initially were realistic and understandable. I’m a sucker for stories in which the protagonists find love after experiencing loss and this one is poignant and done well.

I found it a little dull though. Potentially dramatic moments are downplayed and there isn’t much sustained tension. The climactic scenes were particularly egregious in this regard.

It’s still a story that is told well, with an emotional HEA that provides for new love while honoring the memories of the spouses they lost. Grade: B-.


I’m breaking out of my reading box. I haven’t read a lot of m/m romance and NA hasn’t proven to be exactly my thing, but I picked up Heidi Cullinan’s Fever Pitch and am I happy I did. What a delight!

Giles Mulder and Aaron Seavers have just graduated high school and are at the same party reluctantly. When Giles, who is out, ducks into a laundry room to avoid trouble with a group of jocks, he finds Aaron. Aaron doesn’t want to be at the party any more than Giles so they leave together. They grab a burger and head to the lake for their own party, as Aaron is sending a few signals and Giles can’t get enough.

Aaron has had only limited experience with another guy, so getting jiggy with Giles overwhelms him. He closes himself off afterwards, making Giles think he’s regretful. Aaron is being pressured by his dad to pick a college though, and when pressed he names the college Giles plans to attend in the fall. Aaron follows Giles to college, hoping that he will have another chance with him. When Giles sees Aaron, he freaks out, fearing that his problems from his hometown have followed him to what is supposed to be his fresh start.

I loved Giles and Aaron separately and adored them together. The characterization in this book is so strong that when I stopped reading, I felt bereft. It was as if I had been hanging out with a group of friends and had to say goodbye. I was completely engrossed in not only the story of the main characters, but the secondary characters as well.

There is a lot of conflict in the story and the author packs a ton of story into the book. I occasionally felt like a lot of the action happened off of the page, but even with the multiple plot points the romance between Giles and Aaron remained front and center. There are a lot of descriptions of Giles and Aaron’s musical performances, but if you’re a Gleek or a Drama Club/Chorale person like I am, you won’t mind. Grade: B.

 

Her Best Laid Plans by Cara McKenna is part of the Cosmo Red Hot Reads from Harlequin series. This likable novella features an American heroine in Dublin for a brief stay. Upon arriving at the house of one of her mom’s friends, Jamie Webb ventures into town for a pint at the local pub. There she encounters sexy bartender Connor Kelleher. A wager, a game of snooker, and a steamy kiss later, Jamie finds herself wanting to throw caution to the wind and start a vacation fling before returning to the States to attend college. Her vacation has an expiration date on it, but does their romance?

This is a fun, light read that kept me entertained from beginning to end. The main characters have superb chemistry, frequently exchanging witty banter. The sole drawback is the brevity of the story, making the relationship development rather shallow and the conflict resolution fairly easy. I believe this to be the constraint of the format, rather than the fault of the author or story. I would quite happily have spent more time with Jamie and Connor and would have enjoyed delving deeper into their pasts and exploring their personalities more completely. Still, I recommend this for a quick and dirty read, particularly if you require more sexy Irishmen in your life. Grade: B.

 

In A Game of Brides by Megan Crane, Emmy Mathis’s spoiled sister demands that she spend three weeks in Montana in preparation for her wedding and Emmy has little choice but to leave her life in Atlanta and return home. She’s resentful of her sister Margery’s demands, yet feels obligated to indulge her whims and stay with their grandmother. But when she arrives at the airport, it isn’t a family member who is there to meet her. It’s Griffin Hyatt, the grandson of her grandma’s best friend and the guy she fell for over ten years ago. She’s less than happy to see him though, as the last time she saw him he was walking away, leaving her alone and humiliated. With Margery’s wedding looming, Emmy will have to work through her hurt and anger with Griffin, who keeps tantalizing her with his sexy ways.

This novella is part of the Montana Millionaires series. It’s a quick, fluffy read where the conflict centers mainly around Emmy’s anger at Griffin’s past actions. I found her level of anger with him a bit disproportionate and the acrimony between the two was too much for me to truly enjoy their relationship, at least initially. The writing is smooth though and I liked that Emmy was feisty and unafraid to go toe-to-toe with Griffin when he misbehaved. By the end of the story I felt like they had worked through their issues and achieved the beginnings of an HEA. Grade: B-.


 

Caz’s takes:

In my original AAR review of Katharine Ashe’s My Lady, My Lord, I said that this isn’t a book for historical purists, given that the method the author uses to bring together her protagonists is one rooted firmly in the 20th century rather than the 19th. Personally, however,  I was completely won over right from the start by the humour, the strong characterisation and the crispness of Ms. Ashe’s writing.  I’m a sucker for a good “we say we hate each other but really want to get into each others’ pants” story, and this is a very good one indeed.

Lady Corinna Mowbray and Lord Ian Chance have known each other since childhood, and have detested each other for just as long.  Her nickname for him is “cretin”, and he thinks she’s a starchy, dried-up spinster who is incapable of feeling emotions other than scorn and pride.  But when the supernatural takes a hand, our protagonists are suddenly forced to re-evaluate their lives and their attitudes towards one another.  Ian comes to see how limited Corinna’s choices really are, and discovers how patronising it is for a woman of her spirit and intelligence to be constantly dismissed on the grounds of her sex.  And Corinna finds out how hard Ian has to work in order to maintain his estates and look after his mother and younger brother, while society continues to tar him with the same brush as his wastrel father.

Ms. Ashe has a real talent for witty dialogue which is much in evidence here, but she’s also able to create moments of true poignancy and emotion.  The sexual tension between the leads is scorching, and overall, My Lady, My Lord is a refreshingly different, fun read. Grade: B.


Darling Beast is the seventh book in Ms. Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series. The novel has a gentler feel than some of the other titles in this series, and is no less enjoyable for that, as the author is able to spend more time concentrating on illuminating the characters and developing the central romance. The hero is Viscount Kilbourne who was wrongly imprisoned for murder.  At the end of the previous book, Kilbourne is sprung from Bedlam by the Ghost of St. Giles, and is now hiding out in the ruins of the pleasure garden known as Harte’s Folly.  He’s doing more than hiding, however –he is also a skilled landscape designer and is working on the garden restoration following a devastating fire.

The heroine is Lily Stump, a celebrated actress who is between jobs and is living in a small apartment on the site of the folly with her young son.  When she first encounters Apollo –a massive hulk of a man who is unable to speak because of injuries suffered in prison, Lily believes him to be a simple-minded labourer.  But she soon realises that there is more to this man than meets the eye, and when he begins to regain the use of his voice, he is able to tell her something of his circumstances – although not that he is a nobleman.  He is determined to prove his innocence of the murders of which he is accused, but has to run when his hiding place is discovered, and Lily despairs of ever seeing him again.

The mystery element of the story is very well thought-out and realised, and the romance between Lily and Apollo is beautifully developed.  They’re both likeable, complex characters and the palpable attraction between them just leaps off the page. Grade: B+.


 

Dabney’s takes:

It’s in His Kiss by Jill Shalvis is the tenth book in Ms. Shalvis’s contemporary romance series set in the picture perfect coastal town of Lucky Harbor or, as I think of it, the place I can’t seem to leave. There are so many things about these books that drive me crazy–no real poverty, death, every dining establishment has perfect food with a charmingly quirky staff, every hero is beyond buff and has friends he shares–in a super manly way–his feelings with–but, despite that, I’ve read and enjoyed almost all ten. And, I’m happy to say, I really enjoyed It’s in His Kiss.

Becca, like many a Shalvis heroine, has found her way to Lucky Harbor because she’s running away from a painful past. The night she arrives she meets Sam who, with his two friends, owns a successful charter business. The two have the hots for each other from the start–Ms. Shalvis is a master of writing sexy, believable flirting–and before you can say, damn that man is hot, Becca and Sam have gotten to know each other naked.

But Becca needs a job more than she needs a hot surfer in her bed and Sam needs help at the office more than he needs a wounded woman in his arms, so they give up sleeping with each other and, in ways that are nicely rendered, become parts of each other’s lives instead.

I liked everything about this book. Becca’s demons are handled with care–both by Ms. Shalvis and by Sam–and Sam’s struggle to make peace with his father is portrayed with deft realism. Ms. Shalvis should teach a master class on how to write sex scenes. She manages to make using condoms, asking repeatedly for consent, and seeking out female pathways to pleasure natural and sexy and inherent. I always enjoy the humor in her books and It’s in His Kiss was full of banter that made me smile. Grade: B+.

 

It turns out I do have to leave Lucky Harbor–Ms. Shalvis is kicking me out. One in a Million is the twelfth and final book in the series. It’s the story of Callie, the wedding planner who is never the bride, and Tanner, an injured deep-sea diver who’s partners and best buds with Sam. But it’s also, and much more pleasurably, the story of Lucille, the racy senior citizen whose presence has graced every Lucky Harbor book and who is consistently deeply amusing.

Callie is Lucille’s grandmother and she–Callie–has come to Lucky Harbor to see whether or not Lucille still has all her marbles. (Lucille, of course, has ALL the marbles.) Callie and Tanner are a forgettable couple and their romance is one that offers no surprises. The two have decent chemistry but their romance is a bit blah and Tanner, in particular, is too flawless for my taste.

But, in this book, who cares about the leads? One in a Million must really refer to Lucille because, in this swan song tale, Lucille steals the show. The book is a must read for any Lucky Harbor fan. Lucky Harbor was always Lucille’s world and her final machinations are great fun to read. Grade: C+.

 


I’ve liked the books in Virginia Kantra’s Dare Island series, some more so than others. Carolina Man is not one of my favorites, but it’s still a good, well-told tale. The hero, Luke, is a Marine who’s come back to his small coastal home town to take care of Taylor, the ten year daughter he’s just recently found out he has. Taylor’s (dead) mom’s lawyer is Kate, a prickly woman who is determined to make sure that Taylor’s future is settled properly.

I didn’t find the romance between Luke and Kate compelling. The story takes place during Luke’s three week leave and this time constraint combined with a complicated backstory involving Taylor’s mom’s family seeking custody made for too much too soon. Luke and Kate are both very wary people and I didn’t buy their almost insta-love. Luke’s family–his siblings have been the leads in two other books in the series–takes up lots of pages in this book and, while I like the Fletchers, I wanted more time spent on Luke and Kate. Grade: C+.


I’ve enjoyed several of Caroline Linden’s historical romances so it was fun to see what she would do with a contemp. Will You Be My Wi-Fi? was first published as a novella in the anthology At the Billionaire’s Wedding but is now available as a single title. Like most novellas it suffers from its forced brevity. But, given that limitation, I found it a fun romp of a read. High-tech lawyer Archer finds himself in in a castle in the middle of nowhere Scotland–he’s attending the aforementioned wedding–where there is, gasp, no Wi-Fi. He can, however, get a signal on the patio of a nearby cottage. Chef Natalie is hiding out a said cottage and baking up a storm. Archer comes for the Wi-Fi but finds himself coming back to chat with Natalie whom he falls for in a vanilla-scented minute. I like both the leads and believed in their chemistry. Their HEA isn’t as viable but, hey, it’s a novella. Grade: B-.

 


If there’s a better writer of romantic suspense publishing today than Carolyn Crane, I’ve not read her. The first two Associates books are off the charts great and the third, Into the Shadows, is a DIK read too. Ms. Crane won the RITA last year for the second book in this gripping series, Off the Edge (my review is here), and it won’t surprise me if she wins again this year.

I devoured this book on my cross country flight to RWA. It’s one of the tightest suspense novels I’ve ever read. It is terrifying in all the best ways. (She puts an adorable toddler at real risk for much of the novel. OMG. ) Every time the nice lady in the seat next to mine tried to chat, I answered monosyllabically and without eye contact. I HAD TO KEEP READING. The love story is also wonderful–both leads are so damaged and so in need of the love the other offers.

For much of the book, I didn’t actually like either the heroine Nadia–she’s a former party girl who doesn’t take crap from anyone–or the hero Thorne–he’s an undercover agent so deeply undercover he’s in danger of losing whatever moral center he possibly ever had. I don’t like secret baby plots–that would be the adorable toddler–or a high body count. This book has all of that and I loved it.

Ms. Crane’s writing is both gripping and crystalline. You have the sense she’s weighed and chosen every word she puts on the page. Her characters evince themselves by their speech–these are men and women you hear as you read their words, and each is distinct and unforgettable. Her imagination seemingly knows no bounds and yet it’s grounded in details that seem unimpeachably real.

And, after all the death and the fear and the pain, the love her characters allow themselves to give and be given is a thing of careful, wondrous beauty. By the novel’s end, not only did I care deeply for Nadia and Thorne, I cherished the joy they’d seized out of the darkness. Grade: A.


RITA nominees reviewed at AAR:


A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev. Review by Lynn. Grade: B.

 


The Sweetest September by Liz Talley. Review by Maggie. Grade: C.

 


Fool Me Twice by Meredith Duran. Review by Blythe. Grade: B+.

 


Where the Horses Run by Kaki Warner. Review by Mary. Grade: B+.

 


Darling Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt. Review by Caz. Grade: B.

 


The Gentleman Rogue by Margaret McPhee. Review by Caz. Grade: B.

 


Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare . Review by Caz. Grade: B+.

 


My Lady, My Lord by Katherine Ashe. Review by Caz. Grade: B.

 


A Yorkshire Christmas by Kate Hewitt. Review by Lynn. Grade: C.

 


Concealed in Death by J.D. Robb. Review by Blythe. Grade: B.

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