The RITAs, the highest award of distinction in romance fiction, were announced last month. (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 One of AAR’s RITA Minis.
I’ve been on a huge Sarah Mayberry glom over the last year; thankfully she has an enormous backlist. While I haven’t loved all of her books, I’ve liked the vast majority, and Her Kind of Trouble is near the top for me, a clear DIK. Parts of the book are very sad, parts are very funny. Ms. Mayberry tugged at my emotions throughout, but I enjoyed it all. A hallmark of Ms. Mayberry’s books is her ability to make interesting, complex characters; this is no exception.
The story begins ten years earlier when Vivian – the flighty sister and aspiring fashion designer– is preparing to attend her sister’s pre-wedding dinner. She meets Seth – the brother of her sister’s fiancé – right before the wedding. Seth’s a wannabe rock star, touring with a band. Everything about his bad boy persona appeals to Vivian, and aided by too much champagne, the two have hot sex in a limo at the reception. They each agree it’s a one-time thing, and that neither is interested in marriage.
The story picks up ten years later with Vivian – a professional stylist – back in Melbourne after years in the U.S. Seth gave up his dreams of rock stardom and owns a bar in Melbourne. The attraction is still there, but neither really knows who the other is, and they each make judgments that the other is still as irresponsible and wild as they were during their hook-up. To make the situation more complicated, Seth is having a baby with a former, very casual girlfriend. When his ex is critically injured in a car accident, the doctors save the baby, while his ex’s life is in jeopardy.
I loved this book, but it won’t work for everyone. There’s major sadness involving Seth’s ex and her parents. Then there’s the critical role his infant daughter Daisy plays. And for some, Seth and Vivian’s final, happy resolution may come at a bad time. For me, it all worked, and I look forward to many more books from Ms. Mayberry. Grade: A-.
After avidly reading each In Death mystery within days of release, I’ve been on a break from Eve and the gang for over a year; I just got tired of some of the serial killers featured in the latter entries. But about a month ago I began missing all of the familiar characters and downloaded Concealed in Death. I started reading it at the start of a long flight, expecting to read for about an hour and then fall asleep. Instead, I read all night, finishing it one sitting. Yes, I really enjoyed it, and am so glad I’ve picked up the series again. I enjoyed both the mystery and personal parts of this story.
I found the mystery interesting and different, focusing on some long ago murders. At the start of a rehab of a newly purchased building, Roarke and his crew discover the bodies of 12 girls – murdered over a decade earlier – hidden within a secret wall. As a huge fan of Bones, I appreciated the involvement of a new forensic anthropologist, and the techniques use by her and her assistants to help identify the victims. But more than anything, I really enjoyed the personal parts of the story. Eve and Roarke have come so far, as have many of their friends and colleagues. We got some interesting insights into Mavis’ past in this entry, as well as into just how much Mavis and Eve have meant to each other over the years. I’m eager to see where the future takes all of the characters, but am also considering a reread of Naked in Death just to remind myself of how drastically they’ve all changed. Grade: B+.
The Gentleman Rogue by Margaret McPhee
I thoroughly enjoyed this story of a self-made man who, despite the wealth he has amassed, still finds himself drawn to the less salubrious areas of London where he grew up, and the young woman fallen on hard times who is searching for her missing brother.
Emma Northcote and her father had to leave their home after her brother Kit gambled away their family fortune, and she now supports them by working in a Chop House. One customer in particular catches her eye – a young, shabbily dressed young man who intervenes to save her from the unwanted advances of a group of rowdy drunks, and who then falls into the habit of walking her home. It’s not long before Ned Statham and Emma fall into a friendship which then turns to more, and the author does a terrific job in setting up the depth of the attraction between them.
I really liked that Ned isn’t your usual, commitment-phobic historical hero – he’s in as deep as Emma and isn’t afraid to admit it, but of course the fact that he has concealed his true situation in life (and the fact that Emma hasn’t told him the truth of hers either) drives a wedge between them. This might not be the most original of plotlines, but what kept me reading The Gentleman Rogue was the depth and sincerity of the emotion on display, and I can forgive much in the plotting department when an author tugs at my heartstrings as Ms McPhee did in this story. Grade: B.
Douglas can be read as a kind of ‘prequel’ to Ms Burrowes’ Wyndham books, as much as it stands on its own as one of her Lonely Lords series. Anyone who has read The Heir will have already met Douglas, Gwen Hollister and her daughter Rose, and here, their backstory is fleshed out. Douglas Allen seems at first to be rather cold, unfailingly correct and a bit stand-offish, although to be fair, he has good reason to be all those things. His older brother has just died, leaving him with a mountain of debts, an estate that he has never been trained to run and a younger brother and mother who complain of his every effort to curb their spending. In the previous book in the series (Andrew), he was also suspected of attempting to cause harm to Astrid (his brother’s widow), although now, as the truth of the situation has come to light, the Alexander brothers – Gareth and Andrew – have extended the olive branch and are on the way to becoming steadfast friends.
Struggling to manage his estates, Douglas is at sea until Andrew suggests he visit their cousin, Gwen Hollister, who runs one of Andrew’s properties very successfully. She is all but a recluse, having retired there after the birth of her illegitimate daughter, Rose, who is now five years old. Gwen is very self-reliant and even the mighty Alexander brothers are somewhat in awe of her and have tended to leave her to herself, because it has seemed to them that that is what Gwen wants. It’s what Gwen thinks she wants, too – until she is brought to see the disadvantages such isolation could bring to her daughter, as well as to realise that perhaps having someone else to shoulder some of her burdens may not be such an insupportable idea.
As ever with a Grace Burrowes book, there’s a nice dose of angst, as well as very strong characterisation all round, fantastically written male friendships and a deeply passionate central romance. It’s one of my favourite books of this series. Grade: A.
Fool Me Twice is a beautifully written story that goes to some dark places, as its hero (or anti-hero) is a snarling, bitter, husk of a man, one so filled with rage at the woman who betrayed him and the world in general, that he seems on the very edge of madness. Lord Alastair de Grey, Duke of Marwick, was a rising star in the political firmament. Tipped as a future Prime Minister, the death of his wife exposed the truth of his marriage; that she was regularly unfaithful to him with his enemies and frequently gave them sensitive information. Turning his fury inwards, he doesn’t leave his rooms, he barely eats and takes no interest in anything at all. His servants are terrified of going near him because of the threat of violence and as a result are running wild in the house with nobody to care what becomes of either house or master.
Olivia Johnson applies for the position of housemaid, and ends up running the household – but she has motives other than working for a duke. She’s seeking information with which to bring down the man who is seeking to destroy her, and believes she will find it in Marwick’s residence.
What follows is a delicious slow-burn of a story in which Alastair is gradually coaxed back into the world of the living by OIivia, who stands up to him, regularly disobeys his orders, answers him back and, most importantly, tells him the truth and refuses to allow him to wallow in self-pity when he has so much to offer. Ms Duran sails pretty close to the wind by making her hero so thoroughly unpleasant at the beginning of the book, but it’s a mark of her talent that she can make the reader care about him even when he’s being a total arse. The writing is wonderful and the protagonists are among the most strongly characterised I’ve read in the genre. The romance is beautifully written, and Ms Duran takes her time with it, building the sexual tension gradually but potently, giving even the slightest touch a real emotional and sensual punch. Grade: A.
Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare is a variant on the Beauty and the Beast theme, with penniless spinster, Isolde Goodnight – Izzy – meeting her beast in the form of the blind Ransom Vane, Duke of Rothbury when she unexpectedly inherits the castle of which he is actually the owner. Ransom had lived rather a dissolute life before being blinded some months earlier, and has now retired to his remote home in order to lick his wounds and have the biggest self-pity party in history. He doesn’t want Izzy there and tries everything he can think of – including kissing her senseless –to scare her away, but she’s having none of it. The only child of a famous author, Izzy’s life consisted mostly of parental neglect and Making the Best of Things, so she’s used to having to shift for herself and sets about putting Ransom’s ruined home to rights.
Making Izzy the child of a famous author enables Ms Dare to take some rather delightful pokes at fandom but also to explore a darker side to Izzy’s existence, in which her father was too preoccupied with his own success and fame to pay much attention to his only child except when it suited him, his public persona meaning she could never speak out and say how she really felt. She’s spent her life being “little Izzy Goodnight”, the girl for whom her father’s famous tales were written, and living up to the public’s ideals of her. Ransom may be blind, but he’s quick to notice how frustrating that has been for her and is the first person ever to see her as a soft, curvaceous and enticing woman.
Ms Dare is justly renowned for her ability to write sharp, witty banter, and she has penned some terrific exchanges between Ransom and Izzy. In addition, both protagonists are very well-drawn, engaging characters who clearly need each other very much. I did have a few niggles with the book – the ending was too silly for my taste, and there are a number of historical inaccuracies in the story, but in spite of that, I enjoyed it very much. Grade: B+.
RITA nominees reviewed at AAR: