The RITA nominees, the highest awards of distinction in romance fiction, are out. (The entire list is here.) We’ve reviewed many of the books nominated this year. (A list of all of our reviews with links is at the end of this post.) We’ve had a great response to our mini-reviews so I thought it would be fun to ask our staff for their takes on the RITA nominees they’ve read.

So, without further ado, here is Part Two of AAR’s RITA Minis.


Heather’s takes:

In Tanya Michaels’ Her Cowboy Hero Colin Cade has suffered past trauma, losing his wife and toddler son in a car wreck. After the accident, he abandoned his veterinary practice and now works as a ranch hand. When accusations of sleeping with the boss’s wife arise, he’s forced to seek employment elsewhere.

When Hannah Shaw’s dilapidated truck has a flat tire, Colin stops his motorcycle to assist her. With a storm gathering, Hannah invites him back to her ranch to wait it out. She needs help and he needs work. While he’s attracted to the young widow, he fears getting involved with her and her young son will leave him vulnerable to loss once again.

A Harlequin American Romance, this is the third book in The Colorado Cades series. Hannah and Colin are well suited to one another, with her optimism balancing his sometimes growly persona. Their reasons for not becoming involved initially were realistic and understandable. I’m a sucker for stories in which the protagonists find love after experiencing loss and this one is poignant and done well.

I found it a little dull though. Potentially dramatic moments are downplayed and there isn’t much sustained tension. The climactic scenes were particularly egregious in this regard.

It’s still a story that is told well, with an emotional HEA that provides for new love while honoring the memories of the spouses they lost. Grade: B-.


I’m breaking out of my reading box. I haven’t read a lot of m/m romance and NA hasn’t proven to be exactly my thing, but I picked up Heidi Cullinan’s Fever Pitch and am I happy I did. What a delight!

Giles Mulder and Aaron Seavers have just graduated high school and are at the same party reluctantly. When Giles, who is out, ducks into a laundry room to avoid trouble with a group of jocks, he finds Aaron. Aaron doesn’t want to be at the party any more than Giles so they leave together. They grab a burger and head to the lake for their own party, as Aaron is sending a few signals and Giles can’t get enough.

Aaron has had only limited experience with another guy, so getting jiggy with Giles overwhelms him. He closes himself off afterwards, making Giles think he’s regretful. Aaron is being pressured by his dad to pick a college though, and when pressed he names the college Giles plans to attend in the fall. Aaron follows Giles to college, hoping that he will have another chance with him. When Giles sees Aaron, he freaks out, fearing that his problems from his hometown have followed him to what is supposed to be his fresh start.

I loved Giles and Aaron separately and adored them together. The characterization in this book is so strong that when I stopped reading, I felt bereft. It was as if I had been hanging out with a group of friends and had to say goodbye. I was completely engrossed in not only the story of the main characters, but the secondary characters as well.

There is a lot of conflict in the story and the author packs a ton of story into the book. I occasionally felt like a lot of the action happened off of the page, but even with the multiple plot points the romance between Giles and Aaron remained front and center. There are a lot of descriptions of Giles and Aaron’s musical performances, but if you’re a Gleek or a Drama Club/Chorale person like I am, you won’t mind. Grade: B.

 

Her Best Laid Plans by Cara McKenna is part of the Cosmo Red Hot Reads from Harlequin series. This likable novella features an American heroine in Dublin for a brief stay. Upon arriving at the house of one of her mom’s friends, Jamie Webb ventures into town for a pint at the local pub. There she encounters sexy bartender Connor Kelleher. A wager, a game of snooker, and a steamy kiss later, Jamie finds herself wanting to throw caution to the wind and start a vacation fling before returning to the States to attend college. Her vacation has an expiration date on it, but does their romance?

This is a fun, light read that kept me entertained from beginning to end. The main characters have superb chemistry, frequently exchanging witty banter. The sole drawback is the brevity of the story, making the relationship development rather shallow and the conflict resolution fairly easy. I believe this to be the constraint of the format, rather than the fault of the author or story. I would quite happily have spent more time with Jamie and Connor and would have enjoyed delving deeper into their pasts and exploring their personalities more completely. Still, I recommend this for a quick and dirty read, particularly if you require more sexy Irishmen in your life. Grade: B.

 

In A Game of Brides by Megan Crane, Emmy Mathis’s spoiled sister demands that she spend three weeks in Montana in preparation for her wedding and Emmy has little choice but to leave her life in Atlanta and return home. She’s resentful of her sister Margery’s demands, yet feels obligated to indulge her whims and stay with their grandmother. But when she arrives at the airport, it isn’t a family member who is there to meet her. It’s Griffin Hyatt, the grandson of her grandma’s best friend and the guy she fell for over ten years ago. She’s less than happy to see him though, as the last time she saw him he was walking away, leaving her alone and humiliated. With Margery’s wedding looming, Emmy will have to work through her hurt and anger with Griffin, who keeps tantalizing her with his sexy ways.

This novella is part of the Montana Millionaires series. It’s a quick, fluffy read where the conflict centers mainly around Emmy’s anger at Griffin’s past actions. I found her level of anger with him a bit disproportionate and the acrimony between the two was too much for me to truly enjoy their relationship, at least initially. The writing is smooth though and I liked that Emmy was feisty and unafraid to go toe-to-toe with Griffin when he misbehaved. By the end of the story I felt like they had worked through their issues and achieved the beginnings of an HEA. Grade: B-.


 

Caz’s takes:

In my original AAR review of Katharine Ashe’s My Lady, My Lord, I said that this isn’t a book for historical purists, given that the method the author uses to bring together her protagonists is one rooted firmly in the 20th century rather than the 19th. Personally, however,  I was completely won over right from the start by the humour, the strong characterisation and the crispness of Ms. Ashe’s writing.  I’m a sucker for a good “we say we hate each other but really want to get into each others’ pants” story, and this is a very good one indeed.

Lady Corinna Mowbray and Lord Ian Chance have known each other since childhood, and have detested each other for just as long.  Her nickname for him is “cretin”, and he thinks she’s a starchy, dried-up spinster who is incapable of feeling emotions other than scorn and pride.  But when the supernatural takes a hand, our protagonists are suddenly forced to re-evaluate their lives and their attitudes towards one another.  Ian comes to see how limited Corinna’s choices really are, and discovers how patronising it is for a woman of her spirit and intelligence to be constantly dismissed on the grounds of her sex.  And Corinna finds out how hard Ian has to work in order to maintain his estates and look after his mother and younger brother, while society continues to tar him with the same brush as his wastrel father.

Ms. Ashe has a real talent for witty dialogue which is much in evidence here, but she’s also able to create moments of true poignancy and emotion.  The sexual tension between the leads is scorching, and overall, My Lady, My Lord is a refreshingly different, fun read. Grade: B.


Darling Beast is the seventh book in Ms. Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series. The novel has a gentler feel than some of the other titles in this series, and is no less enjoyable for that, as the author is able to spend more time concentrating on illuminating the characters and developing the central romance. The hero is Viscount Kilbourne who was wrongly imprisoned for murder.  At the end of the previous book, Kilbourne is sprung from Bedlam by the Ghost of St. Giles, and is now hiding out in the ruins of the pleasure garden known as Harte’s Folly.  He’s doing more than hiding, however –he is also a skilled landscape designer and is working on the garden restoration following a devastating fire.

The heroine is Lily Stump, a celebrated actress who is between jobs and is living in a small apartment on the site of the folly with her young son.  When she first encounters Apollo –a massive hulk of a man who is unable to speak because of injuries suffered in prison, Lily believes him to be a simple-minded labourer.  But she soon realises that there is more to this man than meets the eye, and when he begins to regain the use of his voice, he is able to tell her something of his circumstances – although not that he is a nobleman.  He is determined to prove his innocence of the murders of which he is accused, but has to run when his hiding place is discovered, and Lily despairs of ever seeing him again.

The mystery element of the story is very well thought-out and realised, and the romance between Lily and Apollo is beautifully developed.  They’re both likeable, complex characters and the palpable attraction between them just leaps off the page. Grade: B+.


 

Dabney’s takes:

It’s in His Kiss by Jill Shalvis is the tenth book in Ms. Shalvis’s contemporary romance series set in the picture perfect coastal town of Lucky Harbor or, as I think of it, the place I can’t seem to leave. There are so many things about these books that drive me crazy–no real poverty, death, every dining establishment has perfect food with a charmingly quirky staff, every hero is beyond buff and has friends he shares–in a super manly way–his feelings with–but, despite that, I’ve read and enjoyed almost all ten. And, I’m happy to say, I really enjoyed It’s in His Kiss.

Becca, like many a Shalvis heroine, has found her way to Lucky Harbor because she’s running away from a painful past. The night she arrives she meets Sam who, with his two friends, owns a successful charter business. The two have the hots for each other from the start–Ms. Shalvis is a master of writing sexy, believable flirting–and before you can say, damn that man is hot, Becca and Sam have gotten to know each other naked.

But Becca needs a job more than she needs a hot surfer in her bed and Sam needs help at the office more than he needs a wounded woman in his arms, so they give up sleeping with each other and, in ways that are nicely rendered, become parts of each other’s lives instead.

I liked everything about this book. Becca’s demons are handled with care–both by Ms. Shalvis and by Sam–and Sam’s struggle to make peace with his father is portrayed with deft realism. Ms. Shalvis should teach a master class on how to write sex scenes. She manages to make using condoms, asking repeatedly for consent, and seeking out female pathways to pleasure natural and sexy and inherent. I always enjoy the humor in her books and It’s in His Kiss was full of banter that made me smile. Grade: B+.

 

It turns out I do have to leave Lucky Harbor–Ms. Shalvis is kicking me out. One in a Million is the twelfth and final book in the series. It’s the story of Callie, the wedding planner who is never the bride, and Tanner, an injured deep-sea diver who’s partners and best buds with Sam. But it’s also, and much more pleasurably, the story of Lucille, the racy senior citizen whose presence has graced every Lucky Harbor book and who is consistently deeply amusing.

Callie is Lucille’s grandmother and she–Callie–has come to Lucky Harbor to see whether or not Lucille still has all her marbles. (Lucille, of course, has ALL the marbles.) Callie and Tanner are a forgettable couple and their romance is one that offers no surprises. The two have decent chemistry but their romance is a bit blah and Tanner, in particular, is too flawless for my taste.

But, in this book, who cares about the leads? One in a Million must really refer to Lucille because, in this swan song tale, Lucille steals the show. The book is a must read for any Lucky Harbor fan. Lucky Harbor was always Lucille’s world and her final machinations are great fun to read. Grade: C+.

 


I’ve liked the books in Virginia Kantra’s Dare Island series, some more so than others. Carolina Man is not one of my favorites, but it’s still a good, well-told tale. The hero, Luke, is a Marine who’s come back to his small coastal home town to take care of Taylor, the ten year daughter he’s just recently found out he has. Taylor’s (dead) mom’s lawyer is Kate, a prickly woman who is determined to make sure that Taylor’s future is settled properly.

I didn’t find the romance between Luke and Kate compelling. The story takes place during Luke’s three week leave and this time constraint combined with a complicated backstory involving Taylor’s mom’s family seeking custody made for too much too soon. Luke and Kate are both very wary people and I didn’t buy their almost insta-love. Luke’s family–his siblings have been the leads in two other books in the series–takes up lots of pages in this book and, while I like the Fletchers, I wanted more time spent on Luke and Kate. Grade: C+.


I’ve enjoyed several of Caroline Linden’s historical romances so it was fun to see what she would do with a contemp. Will You Be My Wi-Fi? was first published as a novella in the anthology At the Billionaire’s Wedding but is now available as a single title. Like most novellas it suffers from its forced brevity. But, given that limitation, I found it a fun romp of a read. High-tech lawyer Archer finds himself in in a castle in the middle of nowhere Scotland–he’s attending the aforementioned wedding–where there is, gasp, no Wi-Fi. He can, however, get a signal on the patio of a nearby cottage. Chef Natalie is hiding out a said cottage and baking up a storm. Archer comes for the Wi-Fi but finds himself coming back to chat with Natalie whom he falls for in a vanilla-scented minute. I like both the leads and believed in their chemistry. Their HEA isn’t as viable but, hey, it’s a novella. Grade: B-.

 


If there’s a better writer of romantic suspense publishing today than Carolyn Crane, I’ve not read her. The first two Associates books are off the charts great and the third, Into the Shadows, is a DIK read too. Ms. Crane won the RITA last year for the second book in this gripping series, Off the Edge (my review is here), and it won’t surprise me if she wins again this year.

I devoured this book on my cross country flight to RWA. It’s one of the tightest suspense novels I’ve ever read. It is terrifying in all the best ways. (She puts an adorable toddler at real risk for much of the novel. OMG. ) Every time the nice lady in the seat next to mine tried to chat, I answered monosyllabically and without eye contact. I HAD TO KEEP READING. The love story is also wonderful–both leads are so damaged and so in need of the love the other offers.

For much of the book, I didn’t actually like either the heroine Nadia–she’s a former party girl who doesn’t take crap from anyone–or the hero Thorne–he’s an undercover agent so deeply undercover he’s in danger of losing whatever moral center he possibly ever had. I don’t like secret baby plots–that would be the adorable toddler–or a high body count. This book has all of that and I loved it.

Ms. Crane’s writing is both gripping and crystalline. You have the sense she’s weighed and chosen every word she puts on the page. Her characters evince themselves by their speech–these are men and women you hear as you read their words, and each is distinct and unforgettable. Her imagination seemingly knows no bounds and yet it’s grounded in details that seem unimpeachably real.

And, after all the death and the fear and the pain, the love her characters allow themselves to give and be given is a thing of careful, wondrous beauty. By the novel’s end, not only did I care deeply for Nadia and Thorne, I cherished the joy they’d seized out of the darkness. Grade: A.


RITA nominees reviewed at AAR:


A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev. Review by Lynn. Grade: B.

 


The Sweetest September by Liz Talley. Review by Maggie. Grade: C.

 


Fool Me Twice by Meredith Duran. Review by Blythe. Grade: B+.

 


Where the Horses Run by Kaki Warner. Review by Mary. Grade: B+.

 


Darling Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt. Review by Caz. Grade: B.

 


The Gentleman Rogue by Margaret McPhee. Review by Caz. Grade: B.

 


Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare . Review by Caz. Grade: B+.

 


My Lady, My Lord by Katherine Ashe. Review by Caz. Grade: B.

 


A Yorkshire Christmas by Kate Hewitt. Review by Lynn. Grade: C.

 


Concealed in Death by J.D. Robb. Review by Blythe. Grade: B.