It’s another edition of the midweek minis. This time we have three AAR reviewers, Caz, Maggie, and Dabney, sharing the short scoop on seven books and one series. Have you read any of these? We’d love to know your thoughts in the comments!


Caz’s takes:

All’s Fair in Love and Scandal is a novella in Caroline Linden’s current Scandalous series. It sits between books two and three, and features Douglas Bennet, the brother of Joan, who was the heroine of the first book, Love and Other Scandals.

In that story, Douglas was introduced as a bit of a jack-the-lad, a womaniser and gambler frequently to be found hell-raising with his best mate, Tristan Burke.  When Tristan unexpectedly marries Joan, Douglas finds himself at a bit of a loose end and returns to town to find it bereft of his usual cronies.

Mrs. Madeleine Wilde is a widow who regularly attends society events but who nonetheless maintains a distance from the other attendees. She never dances or engages in much conversation, and has a reputation for being somewhat cold and aloof.  Never one for attending balls and routs, Douglas has not encountered Madeleine before, but is immediately struck by her beauty and wants to bed her.  Knowing of Douglas’ penchant for a wager, one of his cronies, William Spence, bets Douglas that he won’t be able to secure a dance with her – and he immediately takes the bet, sure his good-looks and charm will win him more than a dance that night.

But Madeleine is no simpering miss to be won over by a handsome form and winsome charm.  She knows exactly who Douglas Bennet is and what he wants, and rebuffs him in no uncertain terms. Smarting at her rejection, Douglas is prepared to listen to another of his friend’s proposals – not a wager this time, but an offer.  A disgruntled member of the ton has offered a reward to the person who can find evidence of the identity of the infamous Lady Constance, author of the series of erotic pamphlets, 50 Ways to Sin.  Spence suspects Madeleine and offers to share the bounty with Douglas if he can provide the necessary evidence.

The stage is set for a rather reluctant courtship, but Douglas is so delightful, and so clearly careful not to do anything which makes her uncomfortable, that Madeleine finds it hard to maintain her resistance.  The development of the relationship between the couple is truly charming, and their interactions are full of warmth and genuine humour.

Novellas are notoriously difficult to do well, as it takes a very skilled author to invest something of around one hundred pages with the same quality of character and plot development as would normally be found in a full length novel.  Fortunately, Ms Linden IS one such author, and I found this to be as well put-together as the full-length books in the series.  AAR grade: B+. Sensuality: Warm.

 

thedarkaffairThe Dark Affair is the third book in Ms. Claremont’s Mad Passions series, and features James Stanhope, Viscount Powers, who was an intriguing secondary character in the previous book in the series, Lady in Red.  In fact, I found him so intriguing, that I was far more interested in him than in the hero, so I’m glad that he got his own book!

Powers has been struggling for years with the pain caused by the deaths of his late wife and two-year-old daughter, and started using opium as a way of forgetting.  He has become an addict, and at the beginning of the book, has been committed to an asylum by his father, who is desperate to stop his son from killing himself – which will undoubtedly happen if he continues on his present course.  The Earl of Carlyle has employed a highly regarded nurse, Lady Margaret Cassidy, who has made a name for herself as the result of her work treating the physical and mental injuries sustained by soldiers in the Crimea.

At their initial meeting, Powers wants nothing to do with Margaret, and makes that clear in no uncertain terms.  But she is persistent – he needs help and she can give it, but it’s not going to be easy for either of them.  When the earl asks her to marry James and give him an heir in return for a large financial settlement, she is horrified.  But the money he offers will enable her to do a lot of good – she’ll be able to get her younger brother out of a serious fix and send money home to Ireland, where people are still facing the ravages wrought by the potato famine.  So she agrees.

Powers’ recovery is difficult and sometimes debilitating, and the author portrays this very well. (One of the weaknesses in the last book was that the heroine, also an addict, seemed to be able to kick her habit with no problem).  Margaret is battling demons of her own, and has just as much of an issue with trust and as strong an aversion to letting someone get close to her as James does, so in that way, their journeys mirror each other.  Because the book centres so much on Powers’ recovery, the romance is perhaps a little underdeveloped and I did wonder at times if he was ready to fall for someone else given the depth of the grief and guilt he was trying so hard to ignore.  But their relationship is otherwise well done, and I enjoyed their interactions and the way in which Margaret refuses to allow James to wallow by making him face up to the fact that he doesn’t have a monopoly on suffering.

I also liked the way Ms. Claremont develops the relationship between father and son. At the outset it seems as though the earl is concerned only the future of his title and family line, but we’re gradually shown that isn’t the case and that he cares deeply for his son. There’s a sub-plot involving Margaret’s younger brother and his involvement with Irish revolutionaries which is rather under-developed, and while the writing is generally good, there are a few instances of an odd turn of phrase or word choice that are rather jarring.  Overall, though, I did enjoy the book, and will certainly be looking out for more from this author. AAR grade: B. Sensuality: Warm.


Maggie’s takes:

Beautiful Criminal by Shady Grace is a short erotica story about a young man who crash lands his plane in the Canadian Rockies. I found myself wishing it had been longer as I would have enjoyed spending more time with these characters.

Mima Etu lives a quiet life in the rugged Rockies. She hunts for her food, uses sled dogs as her main mode of transportation and has only one close friend in her neighbor Mary.  While out with the dogs one day she comes across a plane crash. Surprisingly, the pilot is still alive. Mima takes him home and provides the best bush medicine she can. There is no question of taking him to the nearest village for treatment; a storm has blown in and the trip would be far too dangerous. But spending days and nights in the cabin with the sexy Gabriel Miller presents its own kind of danger.

Gabe does not want to get the lovely Mima involved in his dangerous life style but he can’t help falling for the efficient, self-reliant sexy young woman. When the two act on their attraction the explosion of heat and emotion rock him to his core. There is more than just chemistry between them. He wishes he could stay with her and find out where this will lead but he is on a deadline and trouble will arrive if he doesn’t make it. With the clock ticking on his life and his love will Gabe be able to tell Mima the secret to just why he has to leave? And if he does, will she be able to accept him for who he is or will she turn away in disgust?

A fabulous setting and an interesting hero and heroine make this story an incredibly fast read. It was pretty easy to guess the big secret but the pacing and action kept that from being a factor that dragged down the tale. I wish the story had been a book – it would have been nice to see the whole thing fleshed out more. AAR Grade: B. Sensuality: Hot.

 

A schoolmarm turned kidnapper is the star of Karen Witemeyer’s new novel A Worthy Pursuit. Charlotte Atherton is working as headmistress of Sullivan’s Academy for Exceptional Youths when her boss advises her the school will be shutting down. Wise to just why this will be, Charlotte takes three of the most vulnerable students with her when she leaves in the dead of night. Along with an elderly caretaker the small group heads to a remote cabin in Texas.

Stone Hammond is the best retriever in the business. When a worried grandfather contacts him to rescue his granddaughter from a thieving teacher Stone knows he is the perfect man for the job. He would never leave innocent children in the hands of the depraved. He tracks Charlotte to the cabin, ready to take the children to their homes and place her in the hands of the law.

When he finally meets Miss Atherton and she produces documentation that shows her to be legally responsible for the kids, that puts a new spin on the situation. Then a conversation with the granddaughter of the man who hired him proves he is on the wrong side of this fight. Can he convince Charlotte to trust him to do the right thing and protect her and the children? More importantly, can he win the heart of the woman he has come to love and admire?

This frothy, humorous Inspirational romance made a perfect reading start to my summer. It has that just right mix of serious and sweet to be the ideal way to while away a sunny afternoon. I found the romance believable, the hero and heroine delightful and worthy and the children charming without being cloying. Issues of faith are definitely a part of the tale but they are woven naturally into the story line and our romance and adventure stay front and center. I’m happy to recommend this. AAR Grade: B+. Sensuality: Kisses.

 

Madeleine’s War is a very misleading title. This novel by Peter Watson about WWII espionage by the clandestine spy group SC2 should actually be titled Matt Hammond’s War. Matt is one of the high up muckety-mucks of the organization. He was wounded while in the field in France and now has only one lung. He still smokes and from what I could see it didn’t slow him down unless the author needed it too. Matt’s teaching new agents how to go about their jobs and it is in the course of this that he meets the lovely Madeleine. She’s the best in her class – the most beautiful, the most clever, the most talented. Yada yada yada – the gal is gifted. They fall in love and move in together for the brief time they have and then Madeleine is sent to France just before the invasion takes place. When she goes missing Matt has to wonder if she has gone to ground, been captured or if something much more sinister has happened. Was Madeleine so good at the training because she had been through it once before – for the other side?

I had several struggles with this novel. The first is that the rich historical detail is almost too much. I felt that with sufficient study of the text I myself could become a WWII spy. It’s fabulous to be supplied with enough facts to get a feel for h/h job but a line can be crossed and it was here. I also couldn’t reconcile to the lack of intimate knowledge I had about the titular Madeleine.  She was a shadow character, a driving interest for Matt but we weren’t given enough information about her to really get a feel for who she was. I think this was done for the sake of the big mystery of the novel – is she or isn’t she a double agent – but I felt the book didn’t really succeed in making me question her loyalty. I didn’t doubt Madeleine’s character; Matt is too much of a Gary Stu to have made such a big mistake about her. I just didn’t know her well enough to understand anything besides her loyalty to the cause. The story isn’t awful; it just didn’t work for this reader.  AAR Grade: C-. Sensuality: Subtle.


Dabney’s takes:

Harlan Coben’s latest, The Stranger, is so like the author’s earlier books that, as I read, I kept confusing plots. The hero, a lawyer named Adam who has his safe suburban world upended by the eponymous stranger, is interchangeable with the heroes of Hold Tight (a much better book) and Caught, just to pick two. Adam is a good man, a modern hero who loves his children, his wife, and sticks up for the little guy. His musings on the capriciousness and cruelty of life are smart and winning.

Adam is watching his eldest son play a stellar game of lacrosse when a man he’s never met comes up and tells him Adam’s wife Corrine, whom Adam loves in the way that admirable husbands love their wives, faked her last pregnancy–it ended in a miscarriage, or so Corrine said. Adam senses the man’s revelation is the truth and so he confronts Corrine about it later that night. The next day, Corrine vanishes–she sends Adam a text saying she just needs some time away. Adam begins to try and solve the mystery of why Corrine lied and, as he does, he slowly uncovers… well, I’ll let you read the book for yourself.

If you’re looking for a mindless mystery–this book should have come with the subtitle Beach ReadThe Stranger fits the bill.  I read the whole thing in under 48 hours and am not here to complain I wasted my time. That said, when I’d finished, I fretted.

Coben can usually be counted on as a man who doesn’t write sexist thrillers. His leads are routinely women. In most of his books, those who make the biggest errors are arrogant white males. But this book felt a bit like the Disney version of a Coben novel. Only women die, and those who aren’t victims–with one exception–are cardboard characters useful only as a tool for the men around them.

The plot doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and the ending is so rushed I had a hard time believing I’d reached the story’s end. It is not, by any stretch, my favorite by Mr. Coben. Still, even a mediocre book by Mr. Coben is better than most mainstream thrillers. His insights about white suburban life are keen and few write more convincingly about the relentless love parents have for their children. AAR grade: C+. Sensuality: NA.

 

So it turns out there’s a whole category of romance I wasn’t aware had a name: Dark Romance. Described as not for the faint of heart, with graphic and occasionally horrifying encounters, and often having captivity or violent themes, these books have heroes who do things like rape, kidnap, and enslave the heroines. One of my favorite authors, Carolyn Crane, writes dark romances under the name Annika Martin, so I decided to give the sub-genre a try. (Remember–I am the reader whose introduction to romance was Sweet, Savage Love.)  I read Ms. Martin’s Taken Hostage by Kinky Bank Robbers series (I am not making the title up.) and didn’t think it was especially dark at all. The heroine, an everyday girl dying to escape her humdrum life, is thrilled to be kidnapped by a hunky trio of thieves and their group sex is not only consensual, she’s never been treated so well in her life.

The Taken Hostage books weren’t very interesting–all sex and very little plot beyond crime and coming–but they didn’t seem very dark to me. I’d give the lot a C and call it erotica.

Then, I read Nina Jones’s Debt.  It is a dark book. I can’t imagine ever wanting to read it again and yet, I found myself pulled into the utterly fucked up relationship it portrays.

Mia is a good girl whose life is so uninteresting to her that she, in a rash act, hires someone to rape her. There’s a site a woman can go to where she enters her rape fantasy and later, at some time and place she can’t predict, a man will attack and take her. There are protections, of course. There’s a safe word, and the promise of condoms and disease-free assailants. Mia can barely believe she signed up for such a thing and yet she longs for it all the same.

Tax, the man who attacks Mia, is not what she signed up for. Completely coincidentally, he’s determined to destroy Mia–and I do mean destroy her–as revenge for a horror Tax and his family endured fourteen years earlier for which he blames Mia. Tax attacks Mia, they have sex–is it rape? I don’t really think so but it’s iffy–and, afterwards, neither of them can forget the other.

Tax is a bad guy–there is no getting around this. He’s a killer and an asshole and, for the first half of the book, watching Mia put herself in his hands is horrifying. But, as dark as this is, it is a romance and so, like all bad boy heroes, there is more to Tax than it seems. He initially writes himself a pass for all his criminal behavior but, as he falls for Mia, he begins to questions his actions.

Mia falls for Tax–or at least the kind of sex he offers–almost immediately. This is the thing about a rape fantasy–it is someone’s fantasy. Tax is Mia’s and, as such, he is just what she wants.

Their love story is well-told. Both Tax and Mia are complicated souls and Ms. Jones makes them compelling. Mia’s rape fantasy doesn’t mean she’s weak and, for most of the book, she is clearly the stronger character. I was drawn into the book from the opening pages and I was satisfied by the story when I finished it.

Since reading Debt, I’ve tried to read several other dark romances on the Goodreads top Dark Romances list. I disliked them intensely and, in all but one other case, found them unfinishable. But Debt I liked, or rather, enjoyed. If you want to tread on the dark side, I recommend it. AAR grade: B+. Sensuality: Hot.