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Midweek minis

Here is another round of our occasional series of mini reviews.  This time Emily, Kristen, Maria Rose and Rike share their thoughts on some recent reads.

Emily’s Reads:

The Fixer by Jenny Holiday
Jenny Fields is on a crusade – she’s trying to save an historic art building on her college campus, convinced saving it will get her into Columbia for graduate school. At a staff meeting one of her colleagues on the college newspaper suggests they try to get a famous artist alumni on-board to promote the cause. The gossip columnist suggests Emmanuel Curry, who recently had a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  To date, he’s been unwilling to be interviewed for the Examiner, but Jenny has an idea on a different way to approach him.

Matthew Townsend is a senior art prodigy, with a moody and solitary reputation.  More importantly to Jenny, he’s required to have a mentor advise him on his senior portfolio – and Matthew’s mentor is Emmanuel Curry.  Jenny needs Matthew to get to Curry and save the art building.

Unfortunately for Jenny, Matthew has no interest in saving the building or helping her get to Curry – he’s just trying to graduate. A straight A scholarship student with no family or resources to fall back on, Matthew worries about keeping his job, paying his tuition and getting Curry’s sign-off on his senior portfolio.  He’s also keeping a big secret about what he does to relax late at night and he doesn’t have time for Jenny, her perky personality or her crusade. Things change when Matthew runs across her late one night and saves her from being assaulted by a fellow student.

These two are so focused on individual success and the wrong assumptions they’ve made about each other, they have a hard time admitting they like one another.  But when Jenny discovers what Matthew’s up to late at night, and they begin to open up and reveal their true selves to each other – warts and all, sparks fly.  A sexy one night stand followed by a Big Misunderstanding – set the stage for a sweet reunion and HEA.

The Fixer needs more pages to develop the romance between Jenny and Matthew.  The transition from adversaries to friends to lovers is a bit too quick to be believable and the characters are underdeveloped.  Originally released as part of an ‘80’s anthology, The Fixer’s setting and pop culture reference make sense.  As a standalone novella, I thought they were distracting.

Grade: B               Sensuality Rating: Warm

Empty Net by Avon Gale

This is the fourth book in Avon Gale’s Scoring Chances series  and is a heavy, emotionally challenging and entertaining sports romance.

Isaac Drake, team captain and goalie for the Spartanburg Spitfires, has just learned Laurent St. Savoy has been traded to the Spitfires as the back-up goalie for the coming season.  Isaac is an openly gay player on a team coached by a gay couple (it works – I promise!) and the last time he faced Laurent on the ice, St. Savoy was spitting on Drake and calling him a fag.  The Spitfires ultimately lost the series but much of their anger about the ugliness of the series (and the loss) is directed at Laurent and his father, Denis St. Savoy, coach of the Ravens.

As Empty Net unfolds, we discover Laurent isn’t quite the villain he (and everyone around him) believes himself to be.  Raised by a cruel and abusive father to believe the worst about himself and everyone else around him, Laurent copes with his lack of social skills by lashing out at anyone and everyone who approaches him – regardless of their intent.  When Isaac unexpectedly returns to the locker room one night and discovers Laurent in the shower sobbing with whip marks on his back, he reaches out to him and begins to understand the demons that drive Laurent’s behavior on and off the ice.  It’s a slow and painful process to gain Laurent’s trust and friendship but Isaac perseveres.  Along the way the two fall in love – and with Isaac’s love and support and the help of a therapist, Laurent begins to free himself from his tortured past.

One of my favorite aspects of this series is how unique each story is.  Though they’re all linked by hockey, the characters and relationships truly allow each to stand alone – though in this book it’s helpful to know more about the coaches who were featured in book 3, Power Play.  If I have a criticism, it’s that in Empty Net as in books 2 & 3, characters seem to discover their homosexuality/bi-sexuality/demisexuality (look it up!) only after falling for a specific man. I don’t think attraction to the same sex is something that surprises a man in his twenties (the average age of the men in this series) –  and it bothered me.  That criticism aside, Empty Net is an excellent addition to this charming sports romance series.

Grade: B+               Sensuality Rating: Warm

Kristen’s Read:

My Beautiful Enemy by Sherry Thomas

So, here’s where I make my confession that this is my first book by Ms. Thomas. It’s a literary crime that it took me this long to pick up one of her spellbinding stories, but I’m paying my penance by devouring her back catalogue, I promise. Regarding this work, while I really liked a lot of parts of this story, a lot of others didn’t really work for me. I have not read the first part of this duology, but upon finishing My Beautiful Enemy and spending most of the first hundred pages super confused, I’d recommend picking that up first if you’re going to read this one.

My Beautiful Enemy is the story of Leighton and Catherine/Ying-Ying. They meet several years before the main plot of this story, in Chinese Turkestan where she is masquerading as a boy. Leighton, who is undercover as a British spy, sees through her ruse almost instantly, but plays along until one fateful night in a cave. They pledge forever to each other, but that forever is snatched from them.

Fast forward about eight years later. Leighton is back in England to fulfill his duty of marriage and producing an heir, but has never stopped loving the woman whose name he never knew. Imagine his shock to find her in England and being called ‘Catherine Blade’. She’s there to steal back some jade tablets of her stepfather’s and to return home as soon as possible.

Besides being a touch confused at the back-and-forth nature of the first part of the narrative, as we catapult from ballrooms back to the cave to drawing rooms back to the cave, etc., I was pretty taken by Catherine as a narrator. Ms. Thomas’ prose is haunting and beautiful, and I look forward to encountering her style again. However, this one took me too long to figure out what was happening and while the suspense/martial arts/romance combo didn’t really work for me fully, neither did it leave me completely wanting.

I would recommend this one to any historical suspense fans, anyone looking for historical romances that take place outside of England (about half of this one does), and anyone who is into strong heroines.  Leighton’s almost a non-starter here, so anyone reading this is really reading it for Ying Ying.

Grade: B-               Sensuality: Warm

Maria Rose’s Reads:

A Princess Next Door by Noelle Adams

This is the first of a series featuring the Rothman royal family, rulers of a small Alpine country bordering Switzerland and France. Amalie is studying art in Minneapolis to the chagrin of her mother who wanted her daughter to follow the royal tradition of arranged marriages and had picked out a suitable partner. Still, Amelie feels the weight of her royal duties and isn’t sure for how long she can put her mother off. It doesn’t help that her sexy and kind and handsome (and did I mention sexy?) neighbour, Jack keeps showing his interest. Even knowing she’ll be leaving in a few short weeks, Amalie finally accedes to his friendly request for a pizza dinner at his apartment and for a little while is able to let go of the pressure of being a princess in hiding. When their friendship moves forward, they agree it’ll just be a casual arrangement without strings. Sex with Jack is fun and exciting and Amalie knows she’s going to miss him terribly when she moves back home. She’s been keeping the secret of her true identity from him but it’s getting more and more difficult, especially with the paparazzi having finally noticed her. When Jack finds out the truth of her heritage, will he still be interested in a relationship? And will Amalie get to choose her own future?

What a fun story! While the main focus is on Amalie and her struggles to do what is right for her versus what is right for her family and kingdom, we also get an introduction to her siblings and parents who each have an important part to play in Amalie’s life. Jack runs a successful sporting goods company and is a hard working professional who generally leaves the office at work and takes things casually at home. Public situations aren’t his favorite but they are part of his job. Amalie believes that once he finds out who she is, the public expectations of her position will put him off entirely and she’ll lose his friendship and any chance at a more serious relationship. Their easy camaraderie is bound to change but in the end, the decisions that are made give proof to the fantasy that a royal and a commoner can have a happy ending. It’s a lighthearted read with some sexy scenes and I look forward to reading more in the series.

Grade: B+               Sensuality Rating: Warm

The Marquess and I by Stacy Reid

In this sweet second-chance romance, Alasdair and Willow had a young love affair that ended when Willow’s father refused to accept Alasdair’s suit.  Following his rejection, Alasdair went on without her, to war and back again. While he was gone both families suffered. Willow was in a horrendous accident that caused her to lose her sight, and Alasdair’s two older brothers passed away.  Six years later, Alasdair is now the heir and needs to marry an heiress to fill his estates’ empty coffers. Can they put the past behind them and find love again?

The Marquess and I is a delightful novella.  The setting is well described and it’s easy to feel empathy towards Willow. When she wanted to marry Alisdair before, she was too young to stand up to her family’s demands that she set her sights higher than a third son.  Now her blindness makes things difficult for her to find a marriage partner who isn’t solely after her fortune. She comes across as courageous and steadfast, having come to terms with her disability and making the best of things. Alasdair is a war hero, a strong and upright man but he’s never forgotten the love of his life or how she rejected him. Though he at first relishes the chance to get back at her, it’s not long before he realizes that his feelings for her are still strong. He wants to be her protector again, even more so now because of her injury.  The chemistry between them still sizzles and leads to some steamy love scenes, even as Willow must decide whether to accept Alasdair’s interest in her once again. They’ve hurt each other in the past, now they must mend those wounds together.

Grade B                Sensuality Rating: Warm

Rike’s Read:

The Secrets of Wiscombe Chase by Christine Merrill

Christine Merrill is an author who can be relied upon to insert the unusual in her novels, and considering she writes regency romances, this is saying something. The Secrets of Wiscombe Chase delivers in that it takes a common trope – the marriage of convenience – and gives it several twists.

Lillian North is the daughter of a con-man hanging onto the fringes of society, but even she is surprised when her father orders her to marry untitled, impoverished, awkward university student Gerald Wiscombe. He is to receive a commission to fight on the Spanish peninsula, her family is to get free run of Wiscombe Chase, his family home.

Seven years later, heroic Captain Wiscombe returns to the Chase, which has been turned into a kind of gambling den for the aspiring London middle classes by his father-in-law and brother-in-law. He and Lillian have not been in contact for years, ever since he was congratulated by his comrades for becoming a father – an impossibility, as he and Lillian never consummated their marriage. Now he wants to revenge on his wife for her infidelity, and to turn out her bastard and the rest of her unsavory family. Lillian knows she will be penniless if Gerry throws her out, and she despises her family’s schemes and cronies anyway, so to his surprise she swears she is on his side in all matters and will assist him in reclaiming what is his.

So the novel is about how that uneasy alliance turns into something more, how Gerry handles his unwelcome guests, and how he deals with young Stewart, whom everybody assumes to be his son. Gerry’s methods of getting rid of his “guests” are quite funny. He and Lillian and are almost instantly attracted, and for the first time actually get to know each other. While their feelings grow, Stewart and what is to happen to him throws a huge cloud over their possible happiness. The solution here is moving without getting sentimental and one that I have not come across before in an historical romance. But what really had me sitting with my mouth open was what happens to the main villain. That scene alone made reading the novel worthwhile. On the other hand, I was not quite convinced about how Lillian suddenly grows a backbone, which is sadly lacking for about two thirds of the novel. It’s understandable considering her situation, but it made identifying with her difficult at times.

All in all The Secrets of Wiscombe Chase is an entertaining read, and Christine Merrill firmly remains on my autobuy list.

Grade: B-               Sensuality: Warm

Have you scored any great reads recently?  Let us know what you’ve been reading in the comments.


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