In another of our series of mini-reviews, AAR staffers Keira, Maria Rose, Rike and Sara share their thoughts about some of their recent reads. If you’ve read any of them, what did you think? And please feel free to share your recommendations with us.
The American Earl by Joan Wolf
Julia Marshall is the daughter of the Earl of Althorpe. Following her father’s rather gruesome death, she now has the burden of the house and the impoverished estate of Stoverton on her young shoulders as well as the future of her younger sister to worry about.
While Julia is struggling to make ends meet at Stoverton, the new earl has been informed of his fortune. He is an American from Salem and is enormously wealthy, but his wealth comes from a vast shipping business. To him, the earldom is a burden he doesn’t want, and he is reluctant to leave his business to travel all the way to England. Likewise, Julia can’t believe an American will be able to appreciate the responsibilities and duties that go with an earldom.
Joan Wolf does people so well. It is what I enjoy most about her stories. I love how Julia and Evan come to understand each other’s lives and cultures and what is important to each of them and why. It’s wonderful to see how they come to care for each other as their understanding of each other grows.
And through it all, Evan struggles to decide what to do with the earldom he has inherited. Should he stay in England, steeped in old-fashioned rules and strictures and a societal code that is at odds with his upbringing? Or should he become an absentee landlord and return to his shipping business in Salem? And what does Julia mean to him? And what does he mean to her? Will his sacrificing his life in America be worth it? Wolf’s characters always have genuine dilemmas to work through; they’re never manufactured conflicts and thus are very enjoyable to read about.
I’m very glad Wolf is writing traditional Regencies again. I look forward to reading her other new stories.
Grade: B Sensuality: Kisses
All The Missing Girls by Megan Miranda
I’m not entirely sure I can fully articulate my feelings about this book, but I’m going to give it a go. All the Missing Girls is the story of Nicolette Farrell, who left her hometown immediately after high school and has not really returned. Summoned back by her father’s rapidly progressing dementia, she’s forced to face old demons and wrestle with the idea of being truly known.
When they were in high school, Nic’s best friend Corinne went missing. It’s the seminal event of Nic’s life and Corinne has never been found. Now, over a decade later, Nic is living in Philadelphia with her fiancé, far away from the rural mountain town of Cooley Ridge. At the beginning of the book, she’s poised to move forward into this new chapter of her life when her brother calls, requesting her to come home and help sort out the sale of their childhood home.
What happens after she arrives is where the book sets itself apart from the other female-centric suspense books of recent days, like Girl on a Train or The Passenger. Another girl goes missing, in the same fashion as Corinne all those years ago, but instead of us following the investigation and resolution in a linear fashion, this book is told backwards. Chapter Two of the book is “Day 15”, where Chapter Three is “Day 14”, etc. By the time we reach the day the girl actually disappeared, everything has both unraveled completely and repaired itself.
If that sounds like a gimmick to you, one where the device overwhelms the story, let me assure you it is not. Instead, Ms. Miranda uses the format to peel back layers slowly in order to heighten the suspense and suck the reader in so completely to this world she’s created that I could not mentally remove myself from it. I inhaled this book, and once finished, sat in stunned silence. Not only did I not foresee the conclusion fully, but the arresting nature of the format meant that I was still piecing things together long after I turned the final page.
This is an absolute must read for any suspense fans.
Grade: A Sensuality: N/A but there is frank discussion of sex and sexual acts
Maria Rose’s Reads:
Falling Under by Lauren Dane
Falling Under is the second story in the Ink and Chrome series by Lauren Dane. The first in the series, Opening Up, was one of my favorite reads of 2015 and I’m happy to say that this one is also an entertaining and enjoyable read.
Duke has been lusting after Carmella since they became neighbours. Knowing she’s been looking for a job, and with her background in the car industry from working at her uncle’s repair shop, when the opportunity arises to offer her an accounting job at Twisted Steel he jumps at the chance. He wants to develop a real friendship with her by having her close at hand, with the possibility of more. Carmella can’t say no to the opportunity. It’s the perfect fit for her and her skills, plus she needs the money. Her attraction to Duke is equal, though she worries about the whole ‘sleeping with her boss’ fallout. Assured by Duke that she’ll still have a job if things go south, she dives headlong into an affair with him. She’s used to keeping her secrets though, wary of getting emotionally involved after years of heartache. When Duke wants more, will she be willing to give him her heart?
Duke’s got that laid back ladies’ man thing going on, but he has a core of steel that comes through when you least expect it. He’s a loyal man, a giving one too, and he is always willing to help out a friend. He makes mistakes sometimes, but he owns up to them fully, and this only makes him more attractive as a partner. Carmella is a woman who is used to being underappreciated (by her drug addicted mother, her criminal father, and an ex who took advantage of her time and again). It takes a lot for her to trust someone, but Duke slowly eases his way into her life with his words, but more importantly with his actions. The two of them share some very steamy scenes. Carmella is a woman who isn’t shy about her sexual desires and she and Duke have no problem communicating in the bedroom. When it comes to letting him in emotionally though, it’s a whole other ball game. I like how the story progresses, how they start to share more about their lives with each other and build that trust that is necessary to sustain a relationship.
The setting is unique and well described, the Twisted Steel custom motorcycle shop getting lots of attention as the new showroom is being built over the course of the story. Duke, Asa and Mick are the three friends and co-workers in this story, with their military team background making them brothers in arms, if not by blood. They look out for each other, but they also tease each other mercilessly when necessary, and there are lots of amusing and heartfelt scenes between them. I’m looking forward to reading Mick’s story next.
Grade: B+ Sensuality: Warm
When Was the Last Time by Kelly Jensen
This Valentine themed novella isn’t about new love, but about rekindling the love you already share. In this case, Evan and Paul have been together for fifteen years, but truth be told they’ve fallen into a rut (as many committed couples do). Paul works long hours and travels a lot with his job and Evan is the backbone of his support, taking care of the house and all the domestic chores. The more Paul has worked to build his reputation, the less time he’s had to invest in keeping his relationship with Evan from becoming one of complacency. When Evan brings up their lack of intimacy in conversation one day, it’s a wakeup call to Paul as to how long he’s been taking Evan for granted. Making plans for a big Valentine’s splash to show Evan how important he is sounds great, but when work intrudes once again, will Paul make the right choice?
This is a lovely read, a short novella told all from Paul’s point of view. He’s the one with the full time job, travelling around the world and it’s quite a fascinating job too, inspecting art collections and cataloguing them for clients. It’s never an issue of whether he and Evan love each other – it’s just that he’s been taking Evan for granted and realizing this, he also sees that if he doesn’t change things, he could lose him. We get a good look at his thoughts and feelings as he struggles with how to make Evan feel appreciated while at the same time dealing with the challenges of his current assignment. We do get a sexy scene with the couple as they make their way to a new and better relationship, and a sweet happy ending for the couple. It’s low angst, but with lots of emotion. When was the Last Time is a reminder that all relationships take work to flourish.
Grade: B+ Sensuality: Warm
APB: Baby by Julie Miller
APB: Baby is the first volume in Julie Miller’s new series about the Kansas City Police Department, The Precinct: Bachelors in Blue. As usual with Miller, it is carried over from her last series, The Precinct: Cold Case, with the the leads from Kansas City Cover-Up getting married in the very first scene of the new novel. There are two crimes asking to be solved in this romantic suspense story: A retired KCPD detective is shot and seriously wounded during the wedding service, and a baby is left at the apartment of social worker Lucy McKane. She lives next door to Niall Watson, grandson of the wounded detective and a criminologist with the KCPD. In fact it’s Niall who first discovers the baby and takes care of him. For the baby’s sake, Lucy moves in with Niall for a few days, and they try to find out who the baby’s parents are, why they abandoned him, and who has been following Lucy in a silver car.
The novel’s strength lies in the descriptions of the police work and the police force. Leads from other novels turn up, but they do so in a very unobtrusive way. Niall is a charming hero, unusual in that he is almost certainly somewhere on the Autism spectrum, so focused he is on his work and so awkward in any social situation. Lucy is a nice contrast to him with strong social instincts and no fear of telling him what is what. You can see them dealing well together. The heat between them is built up nicely and convincingly.
On the other hand, I found it very hard to warm to Lucy. She has an overall rotten past – so much unhappiness for one person! – and this has caused her to suffer from helper’s syndrome. She needs to feel useful all the time, and constantly butts in where angels feat to tread. This includes running after criminals and searching a crime scene by herself. This kind of character development is actually plausible, but it galled that she is never called out for her behavior. Having first-hand experience of how thoroughly damaging such “helpers” can be, I found this rather disturbing.
Add to this some details that don’t quite work out: Tommy – the baby – is said to be one or two weeks old, but his behavior is that of a child of several months. The shooting of Niall’s grandfather is presented very dramatically, but then next to nothing happens with that case – it will surely be solved later in the series, but a small step now wouldn’t have harmed.
All in all this is a weaker Julie Miller novel. I will pick up the next in the series anyway, because usually her writing is much better, but I don’t think I will reread APB: Baby.
Grade: C- Sensuality: Warm
Soldiers in the Mist by R. H. Burkett
R.H. Burkett’s story of war, love and redemption was not at all the book I was expecting. Soldiers in the Mist is a reissue of a book originally published in 2011 and the storyline is what I can only describe as convoluted and pretentious.
The book opens with the author herself, Ruth Weeks Burkett, being visited by the ghost of her ancestor Charles Ely. His ghost and those of his fellow soldiers have existed in limbo ever since their deaths during the Civil War and they need Ruth’s help to find eternal rest. Charles believes that only if their story is told will their spirits move on so Ruth takes on the task to commune with the spirits. She records everything about their lives before and after the nation was divided and how the tragic war affected their families forever.
What follows is a strange historical account of how Charles was drawn into the Confederate army under pressure by his closest friends and the guilt he carried with him on the battlefield for leaving his widowed mother behind. His journey moves the reader through all the horrible costs of the Civil War on the Southern way of life and how the soldiers themselves sacrificed too much for an ideal of a Confederate States of America that was doomed upon inception.
Along the way we are reminded that the author herself is just as important to the story, being the means by which each ghost can reveal their regrets or triumphs before passing on. It’s a strange way of framing the narrative because Ruth Weeks is committed to the “reality” that the ghosts were visiting her and guiding her pen. She needlessly makes herself into a main character of a story that was more compelling as a historical fiction than a ghost story with a gimmick.
Grade: F Sensuality: N/A
Bella and the Beast by Olivia Drake
My reaction to the RITA nominated Bella and the Beast just goes to show just how subjective readers’ tastes can be. Obviously the book was highly regarded by the RWA and I suppose some people are comfortable ignoring the triggers that I thought slightly distasteful. Unfortunately I found myself seeing red too often by a dull premise and horribly one-dimensional characters.
When a story is patterned after Beauty and the Beast there needs to be someone who either looks or acts in a completely “beastly” manner and Miles Grayson fits the bill. He is a brooding recluse who is more interested in studying Egyptian artifacts than socializing or even concerning himself with his dukedom. Into his lair walks Bella Jones, a woman raised around the ruins in Egypt by her archaeologist father and recently returned to England to fulfil a promise she made at her father’s deathbed to find the Duke of Aylwin. Years before. the two older men found a map to a Pharaoh’s treasure but the elder Aylwin was murdered before they could uncover the tomb. His son Miles believes that Bella’s father may have been responsible for his father’s death so he hires her on as a curator so that he can question her about the past.
To say that both Miles and Bella have daddy issues would be an understatement. Bella and her younger siblings always came in second to their father’s obsession with Egyptian relics. Miles feels it’s his burden to bring his father’s murderer to justice while fulfilling that man’s dream to find the Pharaoh’s treasure. Unconsciously they have both assumed the same obsessions that destroyed their parents; however working together to solve the map’s mystery lets them both slowly let go of the past and begin living life for themselves.
If the storyline had just focused on the Egyptology and solving the Pharaoh’s mystery (with a little romance on the side) the book might have worked better, sort of like the Regency version of The Mummy. Instead it concentrates on the fairy tale retelling and making Miles as beastly as possible. His behavior towards Bella is inexcusable, bordering on sexual harassment, and then crossed a line when he attempted to seduce her while still smelling like the perfume of the prostitute he’d just slept with. I was only excited by their relationship when Bella stood up for herself and showed she was an intellectual equal to Miles, and yet those moments began to dwindle to better serve the romance. That, along with several other story choices that pricked at my sensibilities, made this an incredibly frustrating read.
Grade: D Sensuality: Warm