AAR staffers are avid readers – Caroline, Dabney, Emily, LinnieGayl, Maria Rose and Sara are here to share their thoughts on some of their recent reads.

Caroline’s Read:

Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex

Sally Kent’s brother Richard lets the family tradition down when instead of joining the Navy, he escapes to the clergy. So it’s Sally, who’s got the family saltwater blood, who dons midshipman’s blues and sets sail on the Audacious just before Trafalgar. She finds herself under the supervision of Lieutenant David Colyear, an outstanding officer and old friend of her brothers.

I adore competent, intelligent heroines, Sally’s natural bent for the sea is developed in a way that is completely convincing without seeming over the top. From her love of the wind and water to her ability to manage onboard rivalries, she’s a sailor to the tips of her fingers. I believed completely that if she’d been born today, she’d be an admiral herself. Colyear, or Col, is a solid hero without being incredibly distinctive. This is Sally’s book, and she owns it. (And if you don’t like cross-dressing books, don’t give up on this one. Sally’s disguise isn’t perfect and characters do figure out her deception.)

The book is brimming with naval authenticity without once seeming long-winded, and I’m definitely not one of those people who can read endless passages about pulleys and ropes. The biggest flaw, to me, was an unnecessary land mission lifted from Hornblower and shoehorned in to give Sally and Col time away from scrutiny.

If you are looking for a highly original historical with excellent prose, definitely give this a try.

Grade: A-                Sensuality: Warm

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Dabney’s Read:

His Very Own Girl by Carrie Lofty

I loved this book when I first read it in 2012. I picked it up again for our blog on Activist Heroines and fell hard all over again. This is the story of Lulu Davies, a pilot for the English Air Transport Auxiliary, the only organization that allowed women to fly planes in WWII. She falls in love with American medic Joe Weber whom she meets when he’s the medic sent to save her after she makes a crash landing.

Lulu and Joe and their WWII context are brilliantly rendered by Ms. Lofty for whom this book was a true labor of love. His Very Own Girl is a my favorite wartime romance. Joe and Lulu meet in January of 1944 and in June, Joe heads to Normandy as part of the D-Day invasion. Lulu stays in Britain, flying planes and pushing to be allowed in the combat zones. Joe survives in part by staying focused on the life he wants when the war ends, a life with Lulu. Lulu takes on increasingly dangerous missions and writes Joe letters she’s worried he’ll never get. Their romance is so real–it’s rather like reading a movie. This is a love story that showcases genuine heroes; Joe and Lulu are willing to give up their lives if it means defeating Hitler and his armies.

Will Lulu fly combat planes? Will she and Joe find a future together? What happened to the women who were given so much responsibility in WWII only to see it whisked away when the men came back from war? Ms. Lofty answers all these questions deftly. His Very Own Girl is a DIK in every way.

Grade: A       Sensuality: Warm

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Emily’s Read:

The Star King by Susan Grant

Though I rarely read sci-fi romance, I made an exception and picked up The Star King after we recently reposted a B+ review and it was free on Amazon.  I was entertained by the story but not as fond of it as my fellow reviewer.  Underdeveloped relationships and world-building, combined with one too many significant plot twists/crises resolved with little to no angst left me unsatisfied and frustrated.

The book opens mid-air during a shoot-out over a desert landscape.  The narrative is deliberately disorienting and intense from the start.  Told in dual PoVs, we watch as Jasmine  ‘Jas’ Hamilton, an American fighter pilot in the dogfight of her life, parachutes out of a damaged jet.  She loses consciousness, and the narrative picks up in the PoV of Romlijhian ‘Rom’ B’kah, an alien Vash Nadah warrior/pilot, as he lands on a different? desert landscape and races to his brother’s nearby crashed jet when he’s hit by enemy fire.   What follows is a weird, dreamlike sequence wherein Rom regains consciousness and discovers an Earth Angel (Jas) has saved his life.  Somehow she can sense his thoughts and emotions and despite their injuries, in a heated moment, they kiss and nearly have sex.  Both then begin to regain consciousness in very different worlds – Jas, in an anonymous Arabian desert, and Rom, on the alien planet Balkanor.  Confused?  So was I.

Flash forward twenty years.  Jas is a newly divorced mother of two, has left the military and is an artist based in Arizona.  She’s never forgotten her encounter with the alien, but has put it behind her and is trying to move on with her life.  Rom is now an intergalactic smuggler with unresolved guilt over his brother’s death and a longing for a woman he never knew.   When aliens make contact with Earth and Jas spots Rom on TV during a press conference, she decides to track him down and follow him into space.  Fortuitous connections and excellent timing enable her to board Rom’s spaceship just before he’s about to depart Earth.  He’s surprised, she’s thrilled, and intergalactic shenanigans ensue.  Ahem.

Though the set-up to the romance is compelling, Ms. Grant tries to do too many other things. Both Jas and Rom are likeable principals with an intense attraction to one another, but the author doesn’t spend much time developing them as individuals before they become a couple.   Once they finally have sex, she throws twist after twist into the narrative (all of which are overcome with little to no fanfare) to keep them apart and/or insert gravitas into their relationship, but it’s all just fluff.  Cults, family conflict, kidnapping, Jas’s long repressed desires…IT’S TOO MUCH crammed into 358 pages.

The Star King can’t decide if it’s a romance or a space thriller and ultimately, it doesn’t succeed on either level.

Grade: C-                Sensuality: Warm

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LinnieGayl’s Read:

Fall by Karina Bliss

In Fall we see the repercussions of incidents that occurred toward the end of Rise, when rock star Zander, the lead singer of Rage, stopped the band’s tour in order to have surgery on vocal polyps. The rest of the band and Dimity Graham (the band’s PA) are still waiting to find out if Zander will be able to sing again. Making matters worse, Zander is being sued by insurers claiming the polyps were a pre-existing condition, further threatening the future of the band.

As the book opens, Dimity plans to have some hot sex to celebrate her freedom from her needy, recently remarried mother. She doesn’t have anyone particular in mind, but figures if she goes to a club she will meet someone to suit her needs. She makes the mistake of telling Seth, who insists on going with her to the bar. He is still reeling from his breakup with his childhood sweetheart, and when his ex- texts him while they’re at the bar, Dimity sends a photo of her and Seth with their arms around each other. The texts escalate, clearly giving the impression they’re an item.

Seth’s known as the nice guy of the band; everyone loves him, making him clearly not Dimity’s type. They’ve been friends for years, but faking a relationship in the bar for Seth’s ex- leads to a hot sexual encounter between the two. There’s a fantastic scene between them early on in which Seth tells Dimity that nice guys make the best lovers. When she asks why, he responds, “Because we pay attention. Every woman has a sexual fantasy. We find out what it is, and give it to her.”

We learn a lot about Dimity and Seth over the course of the book. As she says, her favorite thing to do is machinate: scheme, plot, intrigue, strategize. And she follows through with this throughout the book, at times leading to hurtful actions in her quest to get what she wants. We also learn Seth is more complicated than he appears, with a complicated family history.

I’m not convinced this would work as well for someone who hasn’t read Rise. Once the book shifts to New Zealand, Zander and Elizabeth (the leads from Rise) play a major role in the story, continuing threads that began in the earlier book. As for me, I thoroughly loved Fall and can’t wait for more in the series, and hope subsequent books continue to feature – at least in part – Dimity, Seth, Zander, and Elizabeth.

Grade: A-                Sensuality: Warm

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Maria Rose’s Read:

Stroke of Midnight by Andie J. Christopher

Andie J. Christopher’s debut romance novel  begins on New Year’s Eve in Miami. Growing up in a traditional Cuban family, Alana Hernandez has to work harder and longer than the men in her family to prove that she deserves a top place in the family business. It’s particularly galling because her brother Javier, recovering from a bad breakup, is drinking and whoring it up and not pulling his weight at work, leaving her to fix his messes. When her sister, Carla, convinces her to put the paperwork aside and head to a club with her for New Year’s Eve, she’s determined to make the most of it. A sexy stranger, no names, and a one night stand that knocks her socks off is just what she needs to forget her trouble for a few hours.  But Cole Roberts, a retired Navy SEAL is hoping he’ll see the woman who rocked his world again, and gets his wish when she turns out to be none other than his buddy Javi’s little sister.

This book has a fairly typical romance storyline. Javier warns Cole away from Alana but that doesn’t stop them from indulging in a secret (and very heated) affair. What makes the book unique is the Cuban flair. The setting of little Havana, the cultural expectations, the food, and the politics make for an enjoyable background. The family dynamics are a key part of the plot; Alana’s relationship with her parents and siblings drive the story and make her affair with Cole the one place where she can be free to express herself fully. Naturally there is conflict to overcome, and the reality that Cole is only in Miami for a vacation while he sorts out what to do next with his life means he has to make some decisions that will affect both his and Alana’s future. It’s a good solid start to this series, and I’m looking forward to reading more by this author. And one last note – I’m counting this one as my first success in the  ‘New to Me’ challenge I picked to do this year from The AAR Seventeen in 17 Reading Challenge. (I’ve yet to decide if I’ll mark it as ‘debut romance’ or ‘new to me’ author, since it technically qualifies for both!).

Grade: B                Sensuality: Hot

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Sara’s Reads:

Penelope and Prince Charming / The Mad, Bad Duke by Jennifer Ashley

I’ll admit that I bought both these titles because I was really in the mood for a fantasy and Jennifer Ashley has been promoting the re-release of her Nvengaria series as being chock-full of magic and romance.  She’s a go-to author for me so I figured these would be a hit.  Unfortunately I could tell right away that they were written quite early in her career so they didn’t have all of the flair and finesse of her more recent titles.

Penelope and Prince Charming sets up the small European principality of Nvengaria as isolated from its neighbors and still embracing the old ways of magicians and half-human creatures that live in the surrounding forests.   Sounds like it should be a great foundation to showcase a romantic story of a Prince destined to reunite the royal families through a fated marriage – but none of the story is actually set in this magical land.  It all takes place in merry old ordinary England where we get the typical Historical elements of a pompous Prinny, a spinster heroine who never thought to marry for love and the spunky sidekick destined for her own book.  The little bit of magic we do get is all used against our main couple rather than wielded by either one of them.  There is much more of a focus on mundane ideas like the political climate on the continent and how Nvengaria would survive European imperialism.

Grade:  C                  Sensuality:  Warm

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The Mad, Bad Duke has a little more of the paranormal elements that Ms. Ashley is known for but these prototype Shifters are more feral and tribal than they are a subsect of a progressive kingdom.  The intriguing part of the story is how it recasts the former villain into a romantic hero by shattering his self-image and having him reconstruct himself though the love and understanding of his heroine.  The problem, however is not the lack of supernatural elements but because tonally it’s all rather boring.  Once again the setting isn’t in the magical land of Nvengaria but just normal, everyday Regency England.  There are plots afoot to undermine the Nvengarian government by their neighbors Austria and Germany; however it’s all presented through mustache-twirling villains who scheme in back rooms while our hero is dealing with some hairy issues.

There are more stories in the Nvengaria world but I was content to stop here rather than frustrate myself with more non-magical politics and vaguely reimagined fairy tales.

Grade: B-                 Sensuality:  Warm

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Please note that links are provided for ebook editions of these titles.  Some may be available only from Amazon; where no link is given, an ebook is not available from that retailer.