This week, in our new column Midweek Minis, five of AAR’s reviewers share short takes on nine books. We assess five contemps, two historicals (one set in post Restoration London), one steampunk, and a m/m sci fi. Our grades range from a DIK to a flat out D. Enjoy!


Maggie’s take:

In the Luckiest Girl Alive author Jessica Knoll attempts to combine Gone Girl with Sex in the City. It’s like a bad drink mix – some things just aren’t meant to go together.

As a teenager at the prestigious Bradley School all TifAni FaNelli could dream of was becoming popular and for a short period, that dream came true. But then something happened that made TifAni infamous not just at the school but throughout the nation. As an adult she has reinvented herself as Ani FaNelli, a sleek New York reporter with the ultimate prize – a rich, WASP,  old money fiance. But the past still haunts Ani – for in that past are some big secrets that could destroy everything she has worked so hard to achieve.

Psychotic heroines with dark secrets are the “in” thing right now and since Ani is so obsessed with looking effortlessly cool it is somewhat fitting that she is the star of a book trying to do the same. It’s also fitting that just like Ani, the book never quite achieves its goals.

I found Ani an extremely unsympathetic heroine.  Spoiled, mean and shallow, she is unable to tell the difference between people who genuinely care about her and those who plan to use her. She is supposedly bright but makes some of the most incredibly TSTL decisions possible. Since the book focuses almost exclusively on her, this makes for some uncomfortable reading. I have to add that at one point the author tries to point to a secondary character as psychotic but to me, Ani is the only one who truly fits that bill.

Overall, the story struggles because it tries to tell us how great Ani really is  while showing us a woman who is far from wonderful.  This disparity creates a novel that ultimately caves in on itself.  The prose is good but there is more to writing a novel than putting together a decent sentence.  Grade: C-


Lynn’s take:

The South Beach Search by Sharon Hartley explores the relationship that springs up when two people get thrown together by a freak event. In this case, both the hero and heroine have items stolen from their cars while parked at the gym. For federal prosecutor Reese Beauchamps, stakes are high because his briefcase containing sensitive notes on a volatile upcoming case have gone missing. However, yoga teacher Taki feels a sense of urgency over her theft as well. She has recently returned from a grueling quest to obtain a blessed bowl and she needed to gift that bowl to a local ashram in order to free herself from the bad karma piled up by her family.

It’s actually an interesting and very promising start to a story. In many ways, I felt as though I was reading an inspirational novel featuring a religion other than Christianity. Taki deeply believes and tries to live by yogic principles and this shows through quite genuinely in her character. Reese, not surprisingly has a very different outlook, and so both the chemistry and the clash of belief systems between these two make for compelling reading. 

Unfortunately, I can’t quite recommend this book because while it starts off well, the fantastical events that lead up to the Big Reveal of the culprits are just a trainwreck. I enjoyed reading a book with a well-drawn character whose beliefs differed so much from anything I normally encounter but oh, that crazypants ending! Grade: C.


Caz’s takes:

It’s been a while since we’ve had a new historical from Grace Burrowes, but she’s back with a bang with The Duke’s Disaster, a story in which she paints a very realistic portrait of what happens to two people who hardly know each other when they marry for the sake of expediency and then realise that they will have to work at it if they’re going to have any chance of making a go of things.

When the eminently suitable young débutante he had planned to offer for becomes betrothed to someone else, Noah Winters, Duke of Anselm instead asks for the hand of her companion, Lady Araminthea Collins. While it’s unusual for the daughter of an earl to be in service, her parentage does at least make her a perfectly acceptable match for a duke; she’s sensible, she’s intelligent and, in short, much more to his taste than one of that year’s batch of “giggling twits”. Thea is at first reluctant to accept the duke’s offer – but when she realises that accepting him will mean she is able to help her younger sister to avoid the pitfalls that she has faced, she accepts and they are married within weeks.

The thing I loved about the book is the way is centres almost entirely upon what happens after the wedding, showing us how difficult it can be to adjust to having another person to consider besides oneself. Both characters are proud, self-sufficient and don’t share easily, and it doesn’t help that they are both keeping rather big secrets from each other, ones which could destroy their fledgling marriage before it’s even got off the ground.

The characterisation is incredibly strong all round, the familial relationships – one of Ms Burrowes’ real strengths – are very well written, and the romance is beautifully developed. The author has a very distinctive writing style which I love – although I can see that it might not be to everyone’s taste – and she excels at the little things, highlighting those small, everyday intimacies and routines that are part of all long-term relationships that are so often overlooked because they’re so ingrained.

The Duke’s Disaster is a terrific read and has already made it on to my keeper shelf. Grade: A-  

 

I picked Jessica Cale’s Tyburn up principally because it’s set in a time period not often used in historical romance –post Restoration London (1671).   The heroine is Sally Green, a young woman forced into prostitution who longs to escape from her cruel, aristocratic pimp, but who spends more and more of her time finding solace at the bottom of the gin bottle and in the company of her closest friend, the “molly” (male prostitute), Bettie. The first part of the book is dark and gritty, and the author’s descriptions of the dark underbelly of the city and its denizens – both rich and poor – are vivid and really put the reader in their midst; whether it be with Sally and Bettie or the roistering, debauched young aristocrats on weeks-long binges of whoring and drinking.

The male protagonist is Nick Virtue, a well-educated young man who was forced to discontinue his studies on the death of his wealthy patron. He now has a position as a tutor to the young sons of a nobleman who neglects to pay him, and resorts to highway robbery in order to keep body and soul together. Both he and Sally turn out to be other than what they seem – and it may even be the case that Nick inadvertently holds the key to Sally’s freedom. Nick and Sally meet late one night after he holds up his employer’s coach, and the two of them fall into easy conversation. There is an undeniable attraction between them which blossoms when Nick tends to Sally following an attack which leaves her for dead.

Until around the 40% mark, I felt I was reading a strong B grade book; a somewhat grim but compelling story that doesn’t sugar-coat the conditions under which Sally and her ilk are forced to work, and in which the author’s descriptive prose is very evocative without being overly detailed. But then the writing loses its edge and, even leaving aside the problems of a book which describes itself as a romance in which the hero and heroine don’t interact very much until almost half way through, doesn’t live up to the promise of the first part.

That said, this is an intriguing début from Jessica Cale and I’d definitely consider reading more by her. Tyburn is worth reading for the first part alone, and it’s a great shame the second half is weak by comparison. Grade: C+

 

Of Silk and Steam is the final book in Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk series, in which steam and clockwork are powering technological advances, and England is ruled by the Echelon, the council of blue-blood dukes and the queen and prince-consort.   The “normal” humans chafe under harsh rule and punitive blood taxes, which has led to the rise of a humanist movement that is waiting for the moment to instigate rebellion.

Followers of this series will already know that Lord Leo Barrons, heir to the Duke of Caine, is not his biological son, a truth that could threaten his very existence. When it is unexpectedly and maliciously revealed, he is accused of treason and has to run for his life – taking with him as a hostage Lady Aramina Duvall, the Duchess of Casavian who is one of only two female blue-bloods and a close friend of the queen.

Leo and Mina have history. She holds Caine and Leo responsible for the death of her father and wants revenge – but is also fighting a reluctant attraction to Leo whose continual kindness and flirtatiousness tends to put her off-balance. But she’s become so used to having to guard every emotion that she finds it incredibly hard to trust him – even when it seems that they may actually be working towards the same ends. Their romance is passionate and sexy, and they forge a deep emotional connection as well, discovering that perhaps they have more in common than either of them had ever thought possible. My one issue with their relationship is that while Leo put himself out there time after time and proves himself worthy of trust, Mina keeps holding back and refusing to take that final step and let herself believe in him, which gets a little frustrating, especially in the later stages of the book.

Ultimately however, Of Silk and Steam is a fast-paced, action-packed read, full of political intrigue and unexpected plot twists that culminates in a revolution and a nail-biting showdown. Grade: B+


Melanie’s take:

Anyone else looking for more sci-fi romance? How about sci-fi m/m romance? Well, here’s one for you I really enjoyed: Chaos Station by Jenn Burke and Kelly Jensen.

Years ago, former soldiers Zed and Felix were lovers for five days, after which they were sent off their separate ways by the AEF (think StarFleet from Star Trek) and their separate ways damaged them both irreparably. Now Zed has hired Felix’s starship captain to help him rescue another former partner/teammate of theirs from a space station potentially controlled by a crime/drug syndicate. And after years of Zed thinking that Felix is dead, here they are, face to face. Along with the rescue mission, the two have to confront their past and what the military has done to the both of them. And jeez, have the two of them been through the wringer. Not to spoil much, but Felix was a POW, with both the mental and physical scars to prove it, and from early on, the reader can see that Zed has been part of some sort of experimentation (though you need to wait until the second half to find out what exactly – not telling!). The history between the two extends past their time in the military to their childhood, which was great to see. There’s a lot going on between them, and I really want to read the next book (out next month) right now. I’ve actually already preordered it.

That being said, I do have to say that the romance side of the story is incredibly lacking. I’m hoping that there’s more of it in the next book, but while Zed and Felix do reconnect (both in the bedroom and out), it was lacking the romantic emotional element I was hoping for. But, again, looking forward to the next. Grade: B-.



Dabney’s takes:

I had high hopes for Amy Adams’s Ask Me Nicely. It’s a semi-sequel to one of my favorite books of 2014, No More Mr. Nice Guy. Ask Me Nicely isn’t a bad book by any means but it isn’t one I cared for. Its heroine Sal is abrasive in ways I found irksome–and believe me, I love a smart-mouthed strong woman. But Sal’s issues, which were revealed very late in the tale, locked her into behaviors that made me wonder what on earth Doyle, the very nice guy she’s not very nice to, is doing sticking around. I found Sal and her insistence Doyle is just a hot not-friend with benefits frustrating. And irritating people having sex, no matter how steamy, isn’t erotic to me. I did really like Doyle–despite my conviction he and his dick deserved better than Sal doled out. He is a beta-ish hero whose kindness towards animals and their owners is so winning I wished he were my vet. (Sal and Doyle are both vets at a practice Sal runs.) Perhaps if I’d understood why Sal was so determined to make Doyle only someone on her crew she screws, I’d have connected more with her and with their love affair. But for much of the novel I found her impossible to invest in and thus her love story meant little to me. Grade: C.

 

I love Sherry Thomas’s historical romances and enjoyed her foray into YA. I didn’t adore her first run at a contemporary romance but I liked it well enough to look forward to her next try.

For starters, The One in My Heart is a SHERRY THOMAS novel which means the writing is like Mary Poppins: Practically perfect in every way. When I tell you I could read Sherry Thomas write about walking in the rain and be replete, I’m not kidding. The book opens with its heroine, Evangeline Canterbury, walking in the rain and the set-up is impeccable. Within just a few pages, I was desperate to know why Evangeline is so miserable, why Bennett (a descendent of my favorite Sherry Thomas couple, the Tremaines) pulls over and, despite the fact they two have never met, gives her the keys to his car and walks away, and WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. Well, what happens next is intense, interesting, and not quite believable. Bennett and Evangeline, for reasons far too complicated to explain here, begin a pretend relationship. Which includes sex. Sometimes.

But it doesn’t quite gel. The One in my Heart feels like a historical romance–it’s sort of a mashup of The Luckiest Lady in London and Beguiling the Beauty–dragooned into being a contemp. This is a fine book and a worthwhile read but it’s not Sherry Thomas at her jaw-dropping best. And while I feel guilty for having such high expectations–which make it easy to be let down–I can’t help myself. (It’s possible I’ve read His at Night too many times to count.) Grade: B.

 

If there is a wrong reader for Tessa Bailey’s Need Me, I’m it. If reviewing were a trial and I were a juror, I’d have to recuse myself from this book. And I’d have been much happier had that been an option. I confess this startled me. I had great fun reading Chase Me, the first book in Ms. Bailey’s Broke and Beautiful series (my review is here) and I was looking forward to Honey’s story.

Honey’s story is, for anyone who has ever been to college, plans to go to college, or has taught in college (or high school), flat-out icky. She successfully seduces her professor and that’s–in this utterly unbelievable book–a good thing. She’s a 19 year old freshman–nineteen!–and he (all you hard-working Ph.D. candidates burst out laughing here) a 25 year-old tenure track English professor at an Ivy League (Columbia) school. It’s just wrong and I do not mean that in a oh-it’s-nasty-but-sexy sort of way. Nope. It’s just wrong.

I couldn’t move past the premise. I have a daughter Honey’s age and a son who goes to Columbia. I live in a college town and have a beloved brother-in-law who is a liberal arts professor at a university. Everything about this book made me furious.

So, wrong reader.

If you can get past the premise, this book is full of all that makes Ms. Bailey’s work a good time. There are sexy times, lots of fabulous female bonding, and an intelligent and interesting discussion of Lolita. If it weren’t for the fucked up power dynamic and the clueless portrayal of academia, I suspect I’d have enjoyed this book. But, it is what it is and I hated it. Grade: D.