In our latest batch of mini reviews, Em, Lisa, Maggie, Maria Rose and Sara share their thoughts on some of their most recent reads:


Em:

Back Piece  by L. A. Witt

This is the story of two men who fall in love despite vastly different backgrounds and life experiences.  Unfortunately, because Ms. Witt has saddled them each with such heavy backstories, it’s mostly sex and angst and very little plot.  Once our principals meet, it’s a bit of a never ending (and unsatisfying) cycle of lust and sex, angst, apologies, lust and sex, angst… you know what I mean.  I liked this couple but the story drags, and the drama gets old – fast.

Colin Spencer is at the gym readying to workout with his trainer when he spots a group of men enter the gym.  One in particular catches his eye, and when he looks up from checking him out, it’s obvious the attraction is mutual.  Daniel Moore is stationed in Virginia Beach, and decided to join a local gym with some fellow sailors when they ran a membership special.  He can’t stop checking out the handsome tattooed stranger who’s also working out in the gym.  When they find themselves leaving at the same time, Daniel screwss up his courage and asks Colin about his tattoos and Colin invites him next door, to the tattoo shop he owns.

Their relationship starts as a friendly flirtation, but shortly after, they give in to their mutual attraction and become lovers.  Colin has a lot of experience with other men (though he’s reluctant to tell Daniel why), but Daniel is a virgin. A highlight of the story is Daniel’s confession and Colin’s reaction – he patiently, tenderly and slowly introduces Daniel to the pleasures of lovemaking.

Little by little, Daniel reveals why it’s taken him so long to have a relationship with another man.  Growing up in a religious, conservative and homophobic family kept him in the closet until recently, and he lives in fear of his family’s censure if they find out he’s gay.  Colin is sympathetic, though he has problems of his own – his last long-term relationship left lasting mental scars, and he fights a daily battle to love himself.

Back Piece introduces a lot of serious topics, but between rounds of sex and both Colin and Daniel’s chronic insecurity and self-loathing, the story just stalls and never quite lives up to its potential.  Though both men are likeable characters, Colin’s backstory is unique, and his unapologetic confession is surprising and honest.  Daniel’s constant self-doubt and apologies for his lack of experience make him relatable, but also annoying.  I’m sorry – but his inexperience goes from ‘ahh’ to ‘blah’ in short order.

Hot sex and fancy tattoos aren’t enough to save this story, and the rushed conclusion – a happy for now (I think?) is sweet but similarly unsatisfying.

Grade: C                                              Sensuality: Warm

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Lisa:

Saving Grace by Julie Garwood

Almost everyone I know has a favorite Garwood novel.  If you’re into medievals she’s de rigeur, if occasionally formulaic, and has a way of telling satisfying stories no matter the situation. My answer to the ‘what’s the best Garwood?’ conundrum?  Saving Grace.

This is the story of Lady Joanna, who, married at thirteen to an abusive elderly man and widowed at sixteen, plans now to remain widowed forever.  Sadly, she’s still young enough to be of political usefulness as a broodmare, so King John affiances to her the Scottish warrior Gabriel MacBain.

Joanna is a physically frail woman who has the spiritual and moral strength of an ox.  Gabriel puts on a tough front, being an uncompromising warrior, but that roughness is only a surface act, and he soon comes to see Joanna as a worthy, strong woman of surprising fiber; he has the right level of tenderness to ameliorate Joanna’s morbid fear of marriage.

There’s something lovely about the way Garwood pays tribute to the quieter strength of Joanna here – delivering justice to those who wronged her with an iron gong, so to speak.  You have an opposing tale going on with Nicholas, a man at arms who falls in love with Claire, who’s posing as a court jester and running from an abusive betrothal.  Everyone grows, bit by bit, in a lovely way.

The book’s biggest flaw is the first love scene – as with all Garwood historicals there’s some mild reluctance involved, though thankfully Joanna is spared the frighteningly nightmarish deflowerings that greet most of the writer’s heroines. Thankfully not all of the sex is of the forced seduction variety.

Saving Grace is one of Garwood’s last long-form historicals, and re-reading it makes one yearn for her return from the land of suspense.

Grade: A                                              Sensuality: Warm

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Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult

Sometimes, if you have a winning formula, the idea of changing it is akin to blasphemy.  When you read Jodi Picoult you know what you’re going to get: a family tragedy that turns into a court battle, with a last minute revelation that manages to change everything and one last, tragic denouement before hope rushes in.

In this case, we also get a layer of poorly researched wolf psychology thrown in on top of the family court drama – yes, we get a lot of tired and inaccurately old research on THAT subject thrown in on top.  That psychology comes courtesy of Luke Warren, a zoologist who became obsessed with wolves when he came face to face with one of the beasts while setting free a bunch of circus animals as a child.  Luke’s obsession has colored his entire life, since he lives with them and eats with them and tries to act like a wolf whenever he can, eventually leading to a divorce from Georgie, the mother of his adult son Edward and his teenage daughter, Cara. Cara has been living with Luke ever since Georgie gave birth to twins by her second husband, and Cara has slowly been absorbed into the cloistered, wolf-centric world that rules her father’s existence.  The family’s been fractured ever since a dark night where secrets of Edward’s and Luke’s came to light; they’re forced to heal those wounds when Luke is critically injured in a car accident with Cara beside him.  The doctors say his case is hopeless, but a guilty Cara refuses to let him go, while Edward wants to pull the plug.  Cue a courtroom showdown.

There’s Picoult and then there’s weak Picoult, and Lone Wolf is definitely the latter.  None of the characters are likable, Cara reads like a college student instead of a teenager, and a last minute, ludicrous twist arises from the deep to heal the children and absolve them of any residual guilt they might be carrying.  We end with reincarnation – out of the blue – because Reasons.

Picoult is always a hit and miss author for me, but here she’s rather missed the mark – by a wide, wide margin.

Grade: D                                              Sensuality: Kisses

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Maggie:

A Secret Courage by Tricia Goyer

World War Two remains one of my favorite settings for a novel and I’d enjoyed other novels by this author placed in that era, so naturally I was anxious to read A Secret Courage.

A picture is worth a thousand words; Emma Hanson knows this first hand. She spends her days at Danesfield House, peering at photos of Germany through a stereoscope, looking for anything that will help the war effort. Will Flemming believes in this old adage as well. He’s part of a contingent of artists capturing Britain’s changing landscape before the war changes it beyond remembrance. But that’s just his cover; his real job is to find the Nazi spy working out of Danesfield House. When he spots Emma at a café in London, it doesn’t take him long to make her as one of the AICU. He quickly strikes up a conversation and before you can blink, the two are making plans to meet again. Will is working in a town nearby; just close enough to make it easy for them to start seeing each other

I had some struggles with this story. For starters, the deprivation of the war years seems to have passed our characters by, with cream, sugar, and coffee all being readily available in England in 1943. Will’s cover assignment as an artist rather than being assigned directly to Danesfield House seemed odd to me as well. I didn’t find the arguments made for this choice to be very strong.

Add in the fact that the book depends entirely on the love at first sight trope and that the characters are two dimensional and you have a story that skims at a slightly below average range. There is some interesting history sprinkled throughout the text and a mildly intriguing mystery gives the tale a modicum of momentum but I found A Secret Courage to be slow-going overall. I will hopefully enjoy the author’s next book more but I simply can’t recommend this one to anyone but Ms. Goyer’s diehard fans.

Grade: C-                                             Sensuality: Kisses

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Maria Rose:

Tempting Her Neighbor by Laura Jardine

This Canadian-set erotic romance novella takes place in the small fictional town of Georgeville, Ontario – population 1200. Well, 1200 and one if you count its new resident, Cole Sampson. He develops educational software so he can work from anywhere and he’s moved here from Toronto for some peace and solitude. His neighbor Rachel Malone is quite a friendly young woman and makes it clear that she’d be interested in a sexual fling – but nothing long term, as her dreams are the opposite of his. She’s almost made enough money to move away from the small town she’s lived in her whole life and she won’t be deterred. Cole can’t deny that her not so subtle but welcome pursuit of him is flattering, as he hasn’t had much experience with women. Rachel takes that in her stride and introduces Cole to a whole world of sensual delights. But with both of them wanting different futures, can they find the common ground needed to make their affair permanent?

It’s refreshing to read a story with a female character who loves sex. Unfortunately it’s given her that stereotypical reputation as being ‘easy’ in this small town where everyone talks. Yes, she’s slept with most of the males of her age, and she has a current friends-with-benefits relationship with a man she trusts. She doesn’t let what other people say bother her, or deter her from doing what she wants. Though Cole hears about her sexual reputation from other men in town, he shows her with his actions and his words that he respects her and her choices. If anything, he admires this woman who fully owns her sexuality. They share an abundance of steamy scenes (including one with her hookup friend). The character development is pretty basic, with Cole coming across as a quiet, somewhat grumpy guy with a good heart and Rachel as a vivacious, flirty and fun woman. The sex leads to more intense feelings, much to Rachel’s dismay, since she doesn’t want to fall for someone in this town she plans to leave. It’s an interesting turnabout, as Cole is the one who wants more than Rachel is initially prepared to give. The conflict is predictable but dealt with well, and they reach the compromise needed to ensure a happy ending. It’s a light, very sexy read. I look forward to reading more from this author.

Grade: B                                              Sensuality: Hot

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Sara:

Romancing the Rogue by Erica Ridley

This novella was originally part of The Haunting of Castle Keyvnor collection of short stories themed in and around a gothic castle.  As a part of that series the darker elements of this novella probably worked well.  On its own it seems a bit dreary for a romance.

Miss Rebecca Bond is practically a ghost while still being alive.  Once, she had a caring family; however all of that was lost the day that her parents were killed in an accident and Rebecca was left as an unwanted guest at the Earl of Banfield’s spooky castle.  The old earl soon forgot Rebecca was there and she made herself useful while staying out of sight.  The night the old earl dies, Rebecca is confronted by the heir and told that she’s no longer welcome in the castle.  Due to their distant family ties the new earl decides that Rebecca will be married off to someone of his choosing.

Frightened by the idea of marrying a stranger, Rebecca uses the reading of the old earl’s will as a chance to make contact with the only person in the world who might help her.  Daniel, Lord North-Barrow used to be her good friend but his cutting actions during a dance killed their friendship and left Rebecca broken hearted.  Still, Rebecca naively hopes that Daniel’s reputation as a rake could be her chance to learn something about men that she can use to snare a better suitor.

Daniel fondly remembers Rebecca and has long carried guilt that his cruel words may have cost her more than their friendship.  Seeing her again reminds him that many of the affectations he’s adopted to fit into the rakish London crowd aren’t who he is underneath.  Spending time with Rebecca, tutoring her in the ways of seduction draws out the old Daniel.  He finds himself considering a different lifestyle, one with a beautiful old friend by his side.  Unfortunately his life has to be in London and Rebecca has no plans to leave the countryside she loves dearly.

At its core, Romancing the Rogue is a sweet story of childhood friends rediscovering each other and turning their adolescent affection into an adult love.  It’s heartwarming and several of the scenes where Daniel or Rebecca’s awareness of the other is described had me swooning.  Where I had problems with the story is the overwhelming sense of Rebecca’s melancholy.  She’s a rather depressed character who never seems completely happy even when Daniel is expressing his deep love for her.  There’s little joy in the telling of their story other than he regains a long suppressed part of himself and she escapes the shadows of the castle.

Grade: B-                                             Sensuality: Kisses

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Two Timing by Audra North

I wanted to like Two Timing, since stories of mistaken identities are always high on my TBR list.  Unfortunately that hook wasn’t enough to save a romance that isn’t quite sure what genre it wants to fit into.

By day Derek Brewer is a cop, but when his identical twin brother Alden begs for help, Derek finds himself moonlighting as a janitor.  Alden’s past history with drugs made it difficult to find work so Derek steps in to cover his shift for a few nights while Alden deals with the disappearance of his daughter’s mom.  Keeping a low profile during his first night, Derek is surprised when one of the cubicles is occupied by a beautiful woman.  She’s got curves in all the right places and immediately Derek is picturing the ways he could clean off her desk and take her on top of it.

Toni Park mistakes the new janitor for her brother’s old friend Alden.  The two boys used to travel in the same pack and fell into drugs together, too.  Alden’s recovery from drug use seems like a miracle – one that her own family has been praying her brother will receive.  Alden seems awkward when Toni calls out his name and she’s a little unnerved by her body’s physical response to the large, handsome man.  The following day Toni can’t seem to get Alden out of her mind so she takes the initiative and seduces him that evening while working late.  Fortunately, Derek’s been hung up on the sexy brunette, too, and is more than willing to fall prey to her seduction.  Their heat together is incredible; however Derek knows it will all fall apart once Toni realizes that he’s been lying about his real identity since the beginning.

Two Timing is full of missed opportunities.  The cover design and the characters’ constant thoughts about sex all lend themselves to an erotic romance; however the sex scenes are too tame to be considered hot or explicit. There are two pseudo suspense plot lines running in the background of Derek and Toni’s romance but both are weak, barely aiding the struggling love story.  It was difficult to like either of the characters since Derek gets angry or broods for rather childish reasons (i.e. sibling rivalry) and Toni is little more than a do-gooder out to save her family, her junkie brother and now “Alden” just because she can.  It was all quite a mess and I found little satisfaction with the end other than I could stop reading the book.

Grade: D                                              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.) And thank you for buying your books through AAR! We appreciate it!

We’d love to hear your thoughts on any of these if you’ve read them, or about anything else you’ve read lately. Jump in to the discussion in the comments.