In another of our series of mini-reviews, AAR staffers BJ, Em, Lisa, Maggie and Sara share their thoughts on some of their recent reads.


BJ:

Oren’s Right by Blaine D’Arden

This is a beautifully gentle, caring story in the Tales of the Forest series. The world author Blaine D Arden has created is sublime – I could just wish the stories were longer, but this edition has an extra scene at the end, which completes this tale perfectly and is very sexy.

Scarification may not be to everyone’s taste, but the author writes about it so sensitively, you can see how this might be part of a BDSM Master/slave style of loving relationship.

Blaine D’Arden introduces Veld a dark elf from another tribe, and details the prejudice he first encounters on reaching the village around which these stories are set. However, he is a Forester, a tree elf in great demand, and his talents and loving personality help slowly to overcome prejudice. He also brings with him the skill and art of scarification, which fascinates the healer Haram, who is in a Dom/sub relationship with the gentle, mute baker, Oren.

This story also includes a series of attacks to be looked into by Truth Seeker Mir, and these become interwoven with the lives of Oren, Haram and Veld. For a novella of about eighty-five pages, the story is rich in plot and world building.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a thoughtful, enjoyable fantasy with an extra sexy twist at the end.

Tales of the Forest stories can be read as standalones and in any order. Oren’s Right is chronologically #4

Grade: B+               Sensuality: Warm

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Em:

What Matters by Gracie Leigh

Writing as Gracie Leigh, well-known queer romance author Garrett Leigh ventures into m/f romance with What Matters.  I liked it, though What Matters is a particularly apt title.  I’m grading it based on what matters most to me, versus some specific problems I think some readers will have. (Spoiler: the principals forego condoms when they have sex).

Opposites Eddie Dean and Sam Novak find themselves working together and falling in love.  Eddie is a college student and musical prodigy who has grown up surrounded by wealth and privilege.  Her life takes a radical turn when her father declares bankruptcy and abruptly tells her she’ll have to foot her own bills moving forward.  After reaching out to her boyfriend (and soon to be ex) for comfort and not so great sex, she realizes her relationship is only slightly less depressing than her financial situation.  The next morning, she stops for breakfast at Jimmy’s Café and spends the meal worrying about her precarious financial situation and lack of marketable job skills.

Her luck is about to change.  Jimmy’s needs a waitress, Eddie needs a job, and the next morning when she shows up to work, she meets Sam Novak – the owner’s grandson and her new boss.  To her dismay, Sam is handsome, arrogant, and unimpressed with Eddie’s waitressing skills or designer jeans.  With little instruction or guidance, they get to work and as days and shifts pass, the relationship begins to evolve.

Early on, Eddie struggles trying to balance work, school and Sam’s disdainful and dismissive attitude.  But the more time they spend together, the more Eddie thinks about him.  And dreams about him.  And wants him.  Fortunately, Sam seems to have a similar change of heart and it isn’t long before he corners her in the kitchen, anda passionate kiss leads to their ending up naked in her bed later that night.

I liked both principals and their prickly relationship, and I loved their crazy chemistry and lust for one another. However, it’s clear from the beginning that Sam and Eddie struggle to communicate – secrets and dumb misunderstandings nearly sabotage the relationship before it has a chance to grow.  I’m not a great fan of the Big Mis trope in general, and Ms. Leigh throws a couple of them in here, but I think they work in context.  This is a young couple learning how to love – things are great when they’re naked, and not so great when they aren’t.  They slowly struggle their way forward, but I like their odds and I’ll be rooting for them.

Grade: B                Sensuality: Warm

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Lisa:

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

This is an extremely difficult book to rate.  At turns beautiful and gruesome, much like the fairytales that surround and weave through it, it chronicles the largely unknown life of Dortchen Wild, a next door neighbor of the sprawling Grimm family.  Dortchen has as many sisters as the Grimms have brothers, which is why she becomes best friends with the only female Grimm sibling, Lotte. Dortchen’s imagination and innocence make her a believer in and collector of fairy tales, which becomes a useful commodity when Wilhelm and Jakob, two of the brothers, start collecting local folktales to be printed.

Dortchen becomes infatuated with Wilhelm, a feeling she holds onto all of her adolescence, and one that slowly blossoms into shared love as she and Wilhelm reach adulthood.  Unfortunately, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, Dortchen’s father’s descent into abusive alcoholism, and the brothers’ move into exalted circles wrench Dortchen and Wilhelm apart.  Can they solve their problems?  Will they ever again see each other?

Forsyth produces an impeccably researched novel, with some achingly beautiful prose.  The romance between Wilhelm and Dortchen is beautifully realized from beginning to end, and the barren in-between time desolate and painfully hard to endure.  The novel is richly rewarding, even with the difficult material it contains.

Grade: A               Sensuality: Warm   (NOTE: Contains Incestual Rape and Abuse)

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Maggie:

The Take Down by Corrie Lynn Wang

If you had to describe your high school experience in one word, what would it be? Awesome? Horrible? Rad or cool? According to the heroine of Corrie Lynn Wang’s The Take Down there are only two ways to emerge from high school: Scarred or Worshipped. By the end of senior year though, she’s fairly certain there’s only one way to emerge – and it’s not worshipped.

Kyla Cheng doesn’t care if you like her or not. She’s smart, she’s beautiful, she’s with the school’s hottest guy and she’s in the “in crowd”.  All that changes with just one upload. The day starts out normally – she walks down the hall with her besties in coordinating outfits, does an air kiss with their Docs (futuristic smart phones) and then slips off to meet Mac, her guy, in the boy’s bathroom. Why? Cause they aren’t public yet. Anyhow, next thing she knows the creepy countdown that’s been coming in on her Doc gives place to an epic video of her doing it with her English teacher. Only thing is, it never happened. The video gains amazing traction very quickly and before she can quite grasp what is happening, her guy has dumped her, her friends are calling her a liar, the world has labeled her a slut and her college admissions are in deep jeopardy. Naturally, she is about to go through one of those big teen experiences wherein she learns what true friendship is and why life is about more than just looking good on screen, it’s about actually being good for real.

Tackling the dangers of our current technical connectedness, feminism, how to deal with female sexuality, dating, labeling, the importance of authentic friendships and how easy it is for us to miss the obvious when we’re focused on the unimportant, The Take Down fails under the weight of its own aspirations. Too many issues are woven throughout the text, resolutions tended to raise more questions than provide answers and the difficult heroine made going on the journey less than enjoyable. I’m sorry to say it but I would definitely give this book a pass.

Grade: D+               Sensuality: Kisses

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Sara:

The VIP Doubles Down by Nancy Herkness

Nancy Herkess creates perhaps her darkest hero in The VIP Doubles Down.  Each of the men brought to life in the Wager of Hearts series has demons they have to battle, but Gavin Miller is perhaps the only one who has been losing the war.

Gavin is a popular suspense author fighting the world’s worst case of writer’s block.  Everyone around him can see that he’s fallen into a depression after the death of his father but Gavin is the kind of man to shun help of any kind.  His literary agent forces him to get treatment for the physical problems his emotions are creating and she hires a therapist without his permission.  The beautiful Allie Nichols needs the job after her ex-husband got her fired from her last one but the agent warns her that Gavin isn’t happy with the arrangement.  In their first session together, Allie sees that Gavin desperately needs her help but is unwilling to acknowledge there’s a connection between his physical pain and the mental block he’s experiencing.

It takes a while for Gavin to become the kind of hero that a reader can fall in love with.  He’s prickly, snarky and uses his gift with words to try and out-talk an opponent.  Allie is plain spoken and grounded, so while she’s enamored by Gavin’s celebrity she’s more concerned with the wounded man behind the cutting remarks.  Allie’s passion and love for Gavin’s books lets him rediscover his own love of the characters and stories that saved him from an upsetting childhood.  Allie becomes his muse, not only to create again but to open himself to the joys that exist outside of his penthouse.

When Gavin’s trust issues rear their ugly head it takes the story into a direction that feels wrong given how the relationship was unfolding and the final resolution is rushed to make up for his mistake.  This lowered my grade a bit, but shouldn’t discourage a reader from taking a chance with the story.  It’s an enjoyable contemporary featuring a Billionaire who knows how to treat a woman right.

Grade: B               Sensuality: Warm

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Duchesses in Disguise (anthology) by Grace Burrowes, Susanna Ives, Emily Greenwood

Duchesses in Disguise contains three very different stories that all spring from one small accident.  Three noble ladies traveling incognito are stranded after their carriage is damaged in a storm.  When a local gentleman and his two companions come upon the accident, they immediately offer their assistance but the women are hesitant to reveal their true names to these good Samaritans.

Each story focuses on a matched couple who seem totally wrong for each other but somehow discover commonalities that they can build relationships upon.  Grace Burrowes focuses on the academic side of love in her story, with a scientist matching wits with an intelligent Italian duchess who prefers his practical side.  Emily Greenwood takes a more humorous look at a rogue meeting his match in a woman unwilling to play at his games of love.  These two shorts highlight how first impressions are rarely the correct ones and that to know someone intimately can take time.

The highlight of the collection is Susanna Ives’ story The Love of His Life.  Lady Mary Alice, Duchess of Pymworth is only just out of mourning for a husband she loved very dearly, and due to the accident she’s reunited with Colonel Nathaniel Stratton, who treated her very poorly during her début season.  Stratton used to run with a popular crowd in London but his attitudes about social status have been changed after surviving the war in France.  When he rescues Mary Alice he immediately apologizes and clears the air between them.  They find that they like spending time with each other but she is torn about her new attraction towards Stratton and remembering the love she had for her husband.  Added into the mix is a special needs child who doesn’t understand or handle change well.  How Mary Alice and Stratton find understanding and love together is a special and heartwarming story.

Grade: B               Sensuality: Warm

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The Bohemian and the Businessman by Katy Regnery

You don’t often see a marriage of convenience plotline brought into the 21st Century.  Katy Regnery does her best to translate this old-timey idea into a modern format in The Bohemian and the Businessman with somewhat mixed results.

Pricilla Story, second youngest daughter of an esteemed Philadelphia family, is the black sheep of the family.  A romance gone wrong with a Frenchman leaves her back in the US without a home, a job and two months pregnant by her ex.  Her father’s outdated views about a woman’s place in the home don’t give Pricilla much hope that he will let her stay at the family’s estate and without a job she has no way of getting insurance for her medical bills.  Her only chance at getting access to money fast is her trust, but she’ll only get it on the date of her one-year wedding anniversary.

The perfect candidate for a convenient husband is her father’s lead salesperson Shane Olson.  Shane has been trying hard to secure a promotion but learns the bitter truth that Mr. Story will only promote members of his family.  Pricilla catches Shane after overhearing him strike out with her older sister Margaret and offers him another chance at becoming a son-in-law to her stodgy father.  If Shane will marry her and stay legally wed until their one-year anniversary she’ll make certain that Mr. Story gives him the promotion he desperately wants.

If this were the early 1800’s I could see this mercenary trade working well to put two unlikely people together until they fall in love.  With the modern setting it’s much harder to sell me on the idea that Pricilla had no options other than marrying a stranger to help care for her unborn child.  Shane saves the book from being completely ridiculous since he sees how crazy Pricilla’s plan is but his own old-school ideas about being a gentleman keep him from dismissing her right away.   He’s really a sweetheart and is the more inexperienced when it comes to relationships.  That’s a nice change from most contemporary love stories and it kept me reading when Pricilla’s drama went too over the top.

Grade: C+               Sensuality: Warm

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Have you read any of these?  What did YOU think?  Jump in and let us know in the comments.


Please note that links are provided for ebook editions of these titles, and some may not be available from all retailers. Where no link is given, an ebook is not available from that retailer.