When Good Earls Go Bad: A Victorian Valentine’s Day Novella by Megan Frampton is a quick read and one I’d recommend to anyone who likes frothy, fun historical romance. Ms. Frampton is a reliably strong writer and in this novella she strives for and achieves an archly humorous tone. Each chapter starts with a maxim from the fictitious A Belle’s Guide to Household Management. In general, they cracked me up with insights such as “A housekeeper is similar to a man (even though she is always a woman!): She needs to know everything about a particular subject without ever having to do it herself.” and “Cleaning out the house is not the same as being cleaned out, even though by the end of the former your enthusiasm for the task might be the latter.” The heroine, Annabelle, is on the ditzy side and she’s just what the rather uptight hero, Matthew, needs to set him on a path to happiness. Their story is short and sweet and, once finished, forgettable. Grade: B.

Broken Open by Lauren Dane is not the book for me. I am in the minority, however. On Amazon, this book has almost 100 reviews and a 4.5 star rating. Perhaps it’s my current apathy toward rock star romances, but I just couldn’t finish this story which features a hunky rock star turned rancher and his brother’s girlfriend’s best friend. I read half of it, intrigued by its interracial romance but couldn’t finish it. Ms. Dane writes excellent sex scenes and she does a good job here of showing the pain of a self-aware recovered addict. Despite those pluses, this novel fell into my DNF pile where it languishes still. Grade: DNF.

In for the Kill is the last McClouds and Friends adventure by Shannon McKenna. It has less WTF than several of the recent books in this series, which is not necessarily a good thing. The heroine of this book, Sveti, first appeared in my favorite book in the series, Extreme Danger, as a child kidnapped by VERY BAD PEOPLE. In that book, Sveti fell in love with the heroine’s brother who is–somewhat to my disappointment, not the hero here. Ex-cop Sam Petrie is. He’s a typical McKenna hero–obsessed with fucking the heroine, brutally honest, and able to fight his way out of constant over-the-top violence. He’s a jerk but, honestly, he’s the winner in the story. Sveti is a TSTL heroine who makes such silly choices that after Sam saves her life for the third time, I wished he hadn’t. Grade: C-.

Rock Hard by Nalini Singh. I know I said I’m not that into rock star romances but I did like the first book and a half in this series by New Zealand author Singh. I thought this would be another tale about a member of Schoolboy Choir, the world famous super band featured earlier in the first two books. Sadly, it is not. The hero of this book is a very bossy CEO who decides to romance his shy and retiring employee. She has a traumatic past and he charms her right past it. This is one of these books where I liked both the leads individually far more than I liked them as a couple. The book is full of great one-liners and vivid descriptions but, as a love story, it didn’t rock my world. Grade: B-.

Time Served by Juliana Keyes left me ambivalent. On the one hand, this story of reunited high school lovers is sexy as hell and does a great job of illuminating the challenges of a cross-class relationship. (She’s a successful lawyer; he’s an ex-con out on parole who works at warehouse stacking pallets.) On the other hand, the hero, Dean, is so angry he’s scary and the heroine, Rachel, seems to hate all the other women she knows. Additionally, over and over again, Dean does shitty things to Rachel even as it’s clear he loves her as deeply as he is able. Time Served riveted me–I read it in one sitting and I’ve thought about it several times since I finished it.  If you like gritty contemporaries, this one fits the bill. But if books with morally ambiguous characters bother you, stay away from Time Served. Grade: B.

Trade Me by Courtney Milan is the first thing I’ve read by Ms. Milan that didn’t work for me. I am an unabashed fan girl of her historical romances and was sure I’d love her foray into modern times. I didn’t. To be fair, this is a New Adult romance and I like those even less than I like rock star romances. But even allowing for my non-propensity for NA, this book fell flat for me. The heroine, a dirt-poor pre-med student at Cal Berkley, is so precocious and perceptive that she seemed far older than 20. She’s determined to make a better life for her Chinese parents and her younger ADHD sister and thus has no time for gorgeous billionaire boys who have the hots for her. In fact, the hero, Blake (his father is the CEO of one of Silicon Valley’s most successful companies) irritates the hell out of Tina mostly because he’s seemingly so clueless about his wealth and the extraordinary privilege it affords him. So when Blake offers to switch lives for the rest of the semester, Tina doesn’t believe there’s a chance in hell he’ll be able to live in grinding poverty. The novel features Ms. Milan’s usual stellar prose but the story seemed forced. And while it was nice to read a book where being a billionaire is presented as a character flaw rather than a synonym for uber-sexy, I felt the moral message of the book swamped the story. Still, there is much to admire here. Tina’s roommate’s sexuality gender identity (she’s transsexual) is presented matter of factly and well, as is Blake’s emotional baggage. The lives of the Chen family and that of Blake’s father are interesting and enhance the plot. But the romance lacked credibility and the plot flew off the handle in the concluding chapters. I’m always interested in what Ms. Milan writes but this book is perhaps my least favorite of her works. Grade: C.

Dabney Grinnan

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