It’s been hotter than the devil’s backside where I live so, whenever possible, I’m staying indoors. And when the thermostat is still topping 100 degrees at the end of the day, I indulge in chilled rosé and hot romance and all is right in the world.

I’ve been on a re-reading tear–I’ve burned through most of Kristan Higgins’ backlist (my favorite is The Next Best Thing) and next plan to treat myself to Jo Goodman’s westerns (I’m partial to True to the Law).

AAR staff have been reading too. This week, Melanie, Maggie, and Caz give you their takes on nine books.

Enjoy!

Dabney


 

Melanie’s takes:

Axbridge by Sasha L. Miller is another short and sweet fantasy novella with more of a first blush of romance rather than a full-blown relationship. We have Tannis, a soldier regularly partnered with mages, searching for the village healer when his partner is badly injured by a rogue mage. The healer, Isani, has experience with said mage, Corric, and offers his help and the hospitality of the village while Tannis continues to hunt the rogue.

Since this story is all of 18,000 words, we don’t get a whole lot of background in the world or the characters, but I thought the author did a pretty good job of showing who the characters are. Tannis is strong and loyal to both his partner and his country. He’s also incredibly open-minded and actually quite sweet and respectful towards others, even when they are less than wonderful to him. He’s confronted by both the village leader and Isani, and he doesn’t get angry, he just explains. I wish I had that ability! Isani is prickly, but obviously cares about his village and people in general. He’s had issues and his current situation certainly doesn’t help – he’s overly sensitive to people coddling him (when we first meet him, we find he only has one leg), and it takes a confrontation with Tannis for him to calm down about it. There are also all these aborted looks between the two – like they are watching each other, but trying not to be noticed. It’s adorable.

Basically, it’s short and sweet like a good first date – you meet each other, you hang out, and you’re left wanting more. The romance is still a possibility, but nothing is set yet. It’s really more about the fight and the fantasy than the romance. The story is more a way to get the two to meet. I really wanted there to be more, but I loved the potential we were left with. Grade: B. Sensuality: Kisses.

 

In The Other Side of Winter by G.B. Gordon, our two heroes, Bengt and Alex, are being reunited after a year apart, hoping that their week-long romance was enough to keep them together now that they are in the same place. Alex is one of many refugees from Santuario, a poor and corrupt nation, hoping to find a new home. Bengt is a homicide detective, and wants nothing more than to take care of Alex, and give him anything he could possibly want. Unfortunately, both Alex and Bengt are alpha males, and Alex pulls away each time Bengt tries to reach out.

Alex’s reactions to Bengt and to the whole new culture he finds himself in strike me as pretty true-to-life – he’s obviously suffering PTSD, and actually sees a therapist! That was wonderful! And the power imbalance (especially since both of the heroes are fairly dominant) was the most interesting part of the story (and led to a lot of angry sex. Like, most of it, actually). The problem is the entire plot is based around this, and it’s just not enough to keep the story moving. There’s a murder mystery that occupies a large part of the story, but it actually pulls the reader out of the whole sci-fi genre bit.

I cannot harp enough on the importance of world building, especially in sci-fi and fantasy, and sadly, that’s where this one failed for me. It literally took reading the spoiler tags on the publisher’s website to confirm that yes, this book is sci-fi, is actually on a different planet and in the far future, and not in some made-up Scandinavian countries. I honestly thought we were in Iceland or something.

I’d be interested to read the prequel to this, and try the author again, but while it was an enjoyable read, there wasn’t anything particularly great about it. Grade: C. Sensuality: Hot.


Caz’s takes:

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of marriage-of-convenience stories, so this one was right up my alley! Ian, Marquess of Sutcombe has recently inherited an empty title.  His father’s profligacy and his step-mother’s greed have bankrupted his estate and he has no alternative but to marry an heiress. He is naturally not thrilled at the prospect, but beggars can’t be choosers, and he settles on Hannah Leeds, daughter of a wealthy businessman and mill-owner. Hannah is on the rebound, however, having recently been dumped by the young man she thought had loved her, and Ian is too preoccupied with his own humiliation at what he sees as being bought and paid for to pay much attention to the fact that his new fiancée is overly subdued.

The best thing about this book could also be regarded as its biggest downfall.  Both Ian and Hannah are such sensible characters who, as they get to know each other, open up more and more and actually TALK to each other (Gasp!  This is so often not the case in historical romances!) that there isn’t a great deal of conflict in the book. The upside to that is that there aren’t any silly misunderstandings (so far), and what we actually get to read feels like quite a realistic portrait of a marriage between two people who come together under trying circumstances who have to work out how to get along. It isn’t always easy; Ian is very touchy about the fact that he feels as though he’s been bought, and reacts badly to even the faintest intimation that he is obliged to do whatever his new wife wants – even taking her to bed becomes a minefield full of who wants what and is doing what to please whom! – and Hannah is still suffering the hurt and humiliation of rejection.  She is also unsure of Ian, who is so inscrutable that she despairs of ever coming to know him or being able to have a companionable relationship with him.

The book proceeds along these lines until around the 75% mark, which is when the silly misunderstandings begin, and the author injects a bit of melodrama with the introduction of Ian’s wicked step-mama, who really IS evil, and brings back Hannah’s youthful love just to throw a spanner in the works. It’s completely superfluous and I could have done without it; and I didn’t at all appreciate the manner in which Ian seemed to suddenly believe that Hannah would betray him in spite of her repeated assertion that the man meant nothing to her.

I’d have graded A Bride for His Convenience in the B range but for the final quarter of it;  I liked the way Ian and Hannah gradually came to understand each other, but the silliness and melodrama towards the end mean I’m giving it a C+. Sensuality: Subtle.

 

Set in Restoration London, The Marigold Chain is a book I’ve re-read many times since the first time I read it almost thirty years ago, and it is still every bit as enjoyable as it was that first time. While quite spectacularly drunk, Alex Deveril wins the hand and dowry of Chloe Herveaux in a card game. Not prepared to stay under her wastrel half-brother’s roof any longer, Chloe is only too ready to depart with Alex, intending to go to stay with friends for the night, but she has reckoned without Alex’s stubbornness.  He won a bride and a bride he will have – and he won’t take no for an answer. He and Chloe are married that night.

The next morning, amid a hangover of Biblical proportions, Alex comes to the realisation of what he’s done, apologises and suggests to Chloe that they seek an annulment. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick, but he thinks it may be possible, especially if the final decision ends up resting with the king.

What follows is a thoroughly enjoyable romance, set amid the intrigue of the court and against the backdrop of the war between the English and the Dutch, and later, the horror of the Great Fire of London. Alex is a delicious hero, gorgeous, charming, and highly intelligent, with a quick wit and sharp tongue that can wound at twenty paces, but who, beneath it all is a man of courage, honour and deep loyalty. Chloe is no simpering miss, but a strong young woman who metaphorically rolls up her sleeves and gets on with it, quickly adjusting to her changed circumstances and the mercurial husband who keeps her constantly on her toes. The historical background is comprehensively researched and in the scenes which take place amid the streets of London, the reader is completely immersed in the sights and the sounds of the city. The cast of supporting characters – including His Glorious Majesty, King Charles II – is very well fleshed out, and another of the things I enjoy very much about Ms Riley’s work, her skill in writing strong male friendships is very much in evidence.

Ms Riley has the knack of writing the most delicious romantic and sexual tension between her principals, and the gradual progression of the romance between Alex and Chloe is masterful, and something to be thoroughly savoured. Some fondly-remembered books turn out to be disappointing upon a re-read years later, but fortunately, The Marigold Chain is not one of those and pulls me in every time. Grade: A. Sensuality: Warm.

 

I’ve said before that it takes a truly gifted author to turn out a novella which gives the reader the same degree of satisfaction upon finishing as can be found on the completion of a full-length novel, and I suppose the fact that The Mad Earl’s Bride by Loretta Chase should be recommendation enough.

At the age of twenty-seven, Dorian Camoys, the Earl of Rawnsley is dying, plagued by the same illness that killed his mother.  She died alone, in an asylum for the insane, and Dorian expects that before long, he will begin to exhibit the symptoms of madness. He already suffers from the blinding headaches and visual flashes that she endured, and knows he doesn’t have long left.

His remaining relatives, however, are concerned for the title and have decided that Dorien should marry and beget an heir while he is still able to. The duc d’Abbonville, the head of the French branch of the Camoys family – and who is also the fiancé of the redoubtable Genevieve, Jessica Trent’s grandmother – believes he can persuade Dorian to do his duty by the title, and has already selected him a bride, Miss Gwendolyn Adams, who is another of Genevieve’s granddaughters.

Like both her grandmother and her cousin Jessica, Gwendolyn is a very formidable young woman. She is passionately interested in the medical sciences but as this is a time when formal training was not possible for a woman, she has to content herself with studying on her own. Marrying the Earl of Rawnsley will give her the funds and influence to enable her to build and run a new hospital, and it’s that which is her primary motivation for agreeing to the duc’s proposal – well, that, and the opportunity to perhaps help Dorian and gain some insight into his illness.

Despite his initial reluctance, Dorian agrees to the marriage, and even though he is determined to maintain a distance from his bride, Gwen won’t let him, encouraging him to talk about his illness and conducting her own researches into the nature of it. To his surprise, she treats him as a normal, sane and intelligent individual, and one, moreover, who makes her melt into a puddle of lust:

“I wish you could see the way you look at me.”

“Like a lovesick schoolgirl, you mean?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Well, what do you expect? You are shockingly handsome.”

He leaned forward, his eyes narrowed.  “I have a brain disease.  My mind is crumbling to pieces!  And in a few months I shall be a rotting corpse!”

After which, she basically pats him on the cheek, says “there, there, dear, never mind” and changes the subject.

I suspect that most readers will be able to work out what is actually wrong with Dorian before Gwen does, but she is working without the benefit of current medical knowledge, and one of the things that keeps the reader hooked is wondering when Dorian will realise that he doesn’t have one foot in the grave after all.

Both Dorian and Gwendolyn are likeable, well-drawn characters, their relationship is beautifully developed and their interactions are by turns funny, tender, sexy and heart-rending. Dorian’s desire not to be pitied and to have control over his life for as long as he can is poignant and quite understandable, and I loved the way he encourages Gwen in her studies. The Mad Earl’s Bride is a fabulous, quick read and one I heartily recommend if you’re looking for a quick romance fix! Grade: A-. Sensuality: Warm.

 

Duty and Desire is the second book in the author’s Hearts of Honour series, but can be read as a standalone.  The two protagonists are both gentry fallen on hard times – so no dukes or debutantes – and the slow-burn romance between them is really well-developed and the problems they face feel quite realistic.

Grace Daniels is the bastard daughter of a baron and was brought up alongside his legitimate family until his death, when she was cast out and left to her own devices. Fortunately, her great-aunt – a midwife and healer – took Grace in and taught her the tools of her trade, so that now, Grace has a large and respectable local practice among the ordinary people in and around the village of Hartley.

Former military officer Jonathan Loring is a widower with a young son who is seriously ill.  Born into the aristocracy, he resigned his commission in order to care for Peter following the death of his young wife.  Although he was formerly the commanding officer of the local landowner, Viscount William Blackthorn, Jonathan now works as the viscount’s estate manager, a job he enjoys, even though his snobbish mother hates the idea of her son doing something so lowly as paid employment.  But Jonathan has no alternative.  His profligate brother has brought the family to financial ruin – stealing Jonathan’s inheritance in the process – and he is supporting his mother and sister, and in addition, the medical consultations and treatments he employs for Peter are expensive.

At the beginning of the story, Jonathan and Grace don’t like each other very much at all.  He dismisses her natural, traditional methods as little more than “witchery” and Grace quite naturally gives as good as she gets, rather enjoying baiting him at times.  But when he is finally desperate enough over his son’s situation to swallow his pride and ask Grace for help, the two begin to see each other in a different light, and gradually to fall in love.  Unfortunately, however, neither of them is in a position to marry – Jonathan is close to penury and cannot afford a wife, and Grace’s profession allows little room or time for romantic attachments, so they are faced with a difficult choice.  Do they part forever, or embark upon a clandestine affair, something which, if discovered, could destroy Grace’s reputation and livelihood forever?

Jonathan and Grace are both well-rounded, engaging and compassionate characters, and the storyline dealing with Peter’s illness is both unusual for an historical and realistic.  My criticisms are mostly confined to the latter part of the book, when things are resolved rather too easily, and I wasn’t quite convinced by Grace’s “I can’t marry you because of my career” stance.  But otherwise, Duty and Desire is an enjoyable read in which the emotional connection between the protagonists is deeply felt and their physical encounters are imbued with sensuality and tenderness. Grade: B. Sensuality: Warm.


Maggie’s takes:

I was surprised to realize Blueprints is the first book I’ve read by the prolific Barbara Delinsky. We’ve both been around the romance community so long I would have expected us to meet long before now.  Better late than never, right?

Caroline MacAfee is the host of Gut It! a home renovation show on local public television which revolves around women in the construction business. Caroline, a skilled carpenter, her daughter Jamie, a talented architect and her best friend, Annie Ahl, a gifted landscape artist are the backbone of the series. The show has been a surprising success and the ladies are justifiably proud of their work.

Then the network decides that the show needs a younger host and they want to promote Jamie over Caroline and shove the equally aging Annie into the background. Jamie is asked to be the messenger of this bad news, information she knows will devastate her mother.  Caroline has already been replaced once for a younger, hipper model by her ex-husband. Just when the two women are grappling with this painful dilemma Jamie’s father dies leaving her the guardian of a toddler.

Suddenly the two women find themselves overwhelmed as they deal with a devastated head of the family, a young boy who longs for his parents, a network determined to pick a fight while they are still trying to meet a deadline and a company catastrophe which could mean the end to their construction company.

Into this fray enter our two stalwart heroes. Dean Brannick, the general construction manager is the only male who appears in every episode of Gut It! He’s long had a thing for Caroline and as he watches her struggle with all the sudden changes in her life he realizes just how much she could use a supportive guy like him. Charlie “Chip” Kobik, toddler wrangler extraordinaire, is there for Jamie as she starts down the parenting road with her little half-brother. The two bond over games of tag, milk and cookies, pizza and art projects. Pretty soon Jamie can’t imagine being a single mother when it’s so clear the perfect dad is right in front of her.

The book has some flaws. It leans towards instant chemistry equaling love and saccharine solutions to life’s big problems. That’s okay. The story deals with some dark subjects – such as the unfair treatment of women as we age – and giving such issues a hopeful, happy conclusion gives the whole story a wonderful, feel good vibe. Grade: B. Sensuality: Warm.

 

The Bones of You by Debbie Howells is a psychological thriller that revolves around a missing teen. Kate is stunned when she receives a call from a woman she knows named Jo who is asking if Kate has seen Jo’s daughter. As the hours turn into days with the teen still missing, Kate finds herself absorbed by the situation. She has a daughter the same age as the missing young woman and simply can’t imagine what Jo is going through. The two women had never been friends but Kate finds herself spending more and more time with Jo as the situation grows darker and more desperate.  And then the unthinkable happens. . .

Examining the ties between women – mothers, daughters, sisters and friends – this is a story that reiterates what we all know: no family is exactly how they appear from the outside. While the middle lags a bit this debut novel will keep you turning the pages to the end. Grade: B- Sensuality: Subtle.

 

Minutes to Kill is the second book in Melinda Leigh’s Scarlet Falls series. In this thriller, attorney Hannah Barrett comes between a hooker and her pimp when she is leaving a work related party at a ritzy Vegas club. Hannah, daughter to a former U.S. Army Ranger colonel, knows how to handle herself in a fight but this time a well timed punch sends her to the hospital with a concussion. Fortunately, she was already planning for vacation time with her family and she heads to Scarlet Falls to dog sit and recuperate while the rest of the clan heads out of town. But Hannah can’t get the young hooker out of her mind. Nor can she resists the wiles of Detective Brody McNamara, who set her blood to boiling the last time she had visited the area and looks to be doing it again this time around.

The positive of the book is the solid romance between Brody and Hannah. The two take ample down time to know each other as the mystery portion of the book slowly builds to a climax. Both characters are mature adults who handle their relationship like grownups and the author does a good job of skillfully showing what draws them to each other. That portion of the book was very well done.

The “mystery” was a big problem in the book for me since there was no real mystery. I knew who the villain was from the start and since this is a romantic suspense, I knew both characters would make it. I felt no tension as the pimp from the start of the novel stalked Hannah and waited for a vulnerable moment. The secondary mystery involving who hired the hookers was equally tension-free.

So a strong romance and weak mystery combined to make the grade a B-. Sensuality: Warm.