In advance of RWA 2016 next week and the announcement of the winners of the RITAs, the AAR team has taken a look at some of this year’s nominees. The full list of nominated titles can be found here. Have you read many on this year’s list? And if you’ve read the same listed books as we have, what did you think?
Our mini reviews cover titles listed in the contemporary, erotic, historical, paranormal and romantic suspense categories, and are spread across two posts. Today, Maria Rose, Sara, Heather, BJ and LinnieGayl take a look at the various contemporary romance nominees; the others will be covered in our second post tomorrow.
CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE: SHORT
Chance of a Lifetime by Marissa Clarke
This is the third story in the Anderson Brothers series, all standalone romantic comedies featuring brothers who are different in temperament but likable and engaging characters. Chase works with his brothers at their family firm but is also an adrenaline junkie who loves to do big and bold things. He’s never forgotten his first love Genny, a woman who has been blind from birth. Their friendship as teenagers was destroyed as a result of some unfortunate incidents that forced Chance to keep his distance. Ten years later, Genny is determined to get out from under her family’s thumb and embarks on a bucket list to prove that she can go it on her own. One of the items on the list is to kiss a stranger in a bar and she makes her move – only she knows as soon as it’s done that he is no stranger after all, but her long lost friend Chase. With this sudden re-introduction to the man who broke her heart, can the two of them make peace with the past and make a new future together?
Genny is completely delightful! It’s refreshing to see a character with a disability as the heroine of a romance novel. Genny doesn’t wallow in self pity over her blindness, she just does what she needs to do. She’s moved out of her family home and gotten a job in a recording studio. She’s feisty, funny, sweet and a wonderful, caring friend. Though her reintroduction to Chase is a little unorthodox, she engages his help in addressing some of the more daring items on her bucket list. Chase goes one better, challenging her to do things that even she has doubts about. I love the way he treats her, with respect and admiration but never seeing her as an invalid. And even when they were apart, he went through the effort of learning braille and doing things in his own life that would keep her with him in spirit if not in reality. Genny and Chase share some definite chemistry, and now as adults there is no hesitation on their parts (despite some minor guilt Chase feels about Gen being his former friend’s little sister) to explore this. They share some steamy scenes together that help them to reconnect physically and emotionally. The author does an excellent job of bringing to life the challenges a blind person experiences while at the same time showing how overcoming those same challenges gives that person a new sense of self. This is truly a delightful story and one with a lot of heart to go along with the humor. ~ Maria Rose
Grade: A – Sensuality: Warm
One Night With Her Bachelor by Kat Latham
This is part of the Bachelor Auction series and it’s the story of Molly and Gabriel. Gabriel is a reclusive wounded ex-soldier, living in an isolated cabin in the woods. When he has a hand in rescuing Molly’s injured son Josh, it creates a bond between them, one that goes deeper than the one that has existed between them since childhood. Coerced into being one of the bachelors at the auction to raise money for Josh’s care, Gabriel ends up with the one woman he can’t resist – Molly. But he’s hiding a painful secret and when the truth comes out will it strengthen their bond or push them apart for good?
Kat Latham is an author that I quite enjoy reading, whether she’s tempting us with players on the rugby field in her London Legends series, or spiriting us away to small town Montana like this story here. She has created a very empathetic hero in Gabriel, who is wounded (in body and spirit) and hides himself away from the rest of the world, preferring to nurse his wounds in silence. But Molly gets to him – her courage, her laughter, her smile and he can’t help but realize that continuing to hide is not what he wants for his future. Molly is a strong female character, a single mom trying to do the best for her son. She is embarrassed that she can’t do it all on her own and needs financial assistance, but is learning that asking for help and receiving it is okay. And when Gabriel looks at her, she knows he sees the real woman inside. The sexual attraction between them sizzles and leads to some emotional and steamy love scenes. There is a lovely happy ending for the couple and you’ll be left smiling when you finish this story. ~ Maria Rose
Grade: B Sensuality: Warm
Tempting the Knight by Heidi Rice
This is the second story in the Fairy Tales of New York series but can easily be read as a standalone. This particular story features Zelda, the bad girl of the group and Tyrone, her friend Faith’s older brother. When Tyrone reluctantly answers an emergency call from Zelda at the precinct where she’s being held on public indecency charges for some midnight swimming, he thinks that he knows everything about this woman and that it’s all bad news. But to his surprise, Zelda is much more than he bargained for, including having a heart that’s been battered and bruised and in need of some TLC. When Tyrone finds that he wants to be the man to give that to her, Zelda is afraid to accept his overtures at face value. Can she learn to trust this man who embodies a white knight to her damaged princess?
I really enjoy bad girl/good guy romances and this one is written in an engaging and delightful manner. Zelda has suffered through the childhood trauma of losing her parents and subsequent abandonment by her brother,who dumped her off in the boarding school where she was finally able to make some friends. For several years she was on a downward spiral, but with the help of those friends she’s picked herself up, gotten help with her addictions and is not the woman she used to be. I liked her character, her strength of will, and her friendly and vivacious nature. Beneath her facade of flippancy though is a woman who is still searching for love. Tyrone, on the other hand, is the quintessential protective alpha male, a lawyer who champions the downtrodden and those in need of legal aid. Meeting Zelda again as an adult, he has expectations that she will be the same spoiled, willful girl she was as a teenager. But as they spend time together he realizes how wrong he’s been and how much he has misjudged her. The chemistry between them is smoking hot and leads to several steamy love scenes. What starts out as a weekend fling turns into more for both of them, though Zelda doesn’t want to admit her vulnerability to Tyrone. I love how the plot progresses as they open up to each and there is a very sweet and satisfying happy ending to their story. ~ Maria Rose
Grade: A – Sensuality: Warm
Three Nights before Christmas by Kat Latham
This is a standalone novella in the Montana Born Christmas series. Lacey and Austin have a pretty unpleasant history. He was the arresting officer in a case that Lacey was inadvertently involved in due to her relationship with the leader of the drug ring. Imprisoned for three years, she’s finally free to try to pick up the pieces of her once thriving life. Working at her family’s tree farm is a chance to rebuild, but for one reason or another Austin seems to always be around. Despite their best efforts to stay uninvolved, there is a strong attraction between them and they can’t resist giving in. But can they develop the trust needed to put their troubled past behind them?
Kudos to Lacey for embracing the real spirit of forgiveness because I’m not sure that I would have been able to consider developing a relationship with a man who was responsible for the worst three years of my life. But Lacey is determined to move on, and Austin is realizing that things might not have been what they seemed, to his (most likely) everlasting guilt. The friendship they develop starts out very slowly, but eventually they find a place where they can just be themselves at the moment, and not what they were to each other before. I really like both characters, Lacey’s strong will and determination balancing well with Austin’s dedication and wish to make amends. They share some steamy scenes together, and the spirit of the Christmas season definitely shines through. ~ Maria Rose
Grade: B Sensuality: Warm
CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE: MID-LENGTH
The Marriage Contract by Katee Robert
The Marriage Contract is the start of new mafia romance series featuring three families whose lives are intertwined by violence and intrigue – the O’Malley’s, The Sheridans and The Hallorans. Each book is a standalone romance, but there’s a clear sense that there will be a continuing story arc from one book to the next for those who like to read things in order. Callista Sheridan is a mafia princess, ready to take on her family responsibilities after the accidental death of her only brother Ronan. Aligning her family with the O’Malley’s by marrying Teague will create a strong force to keep them in power over the Hallorans. Teague is no more thrilled with the union than Callie, but he’ll do what’s expected of him. To their surprise, Teague and Callie find that the sexual attraction simmering between them when they meet might just make their marriage bearable, if not downright pleasurable. But they both have secrets to keep, secrets that could start a mafia war. Will their loyalty lie with family or each other?
I really like Callie’s character. She’s trying to keep a level head on her shoulders, playing the dutiful daughter even if it means marriage to an enemy. Teague is equally interesting as a very conflicted man, desperately trying to figure out a way to keep his siblings safe from the mess that is the mafia world he lives in. He has a harsh relationship with his father, but he won’t go against him if marriage to Callie is what will give him the time to figure out a plan to escape this world he never asked for. He comes across as a more stoic figure – strong, smart, and protective. The couple meet formally for the first time at a family planned engagement party and the sparks fly between them. Their attraction to each other leads to several steamy scenes and it’s not long before they are a couple committed to making the best of their situation.
But it’s clear that there are others who aren’t happy with the alliance between these two high powered families. The story is enthralling from the very start. The action scenes are intense, danger stalks them both and this is a world where knowing who to trust and who might betray you can mean the difference between life and death. While the story is told mostly from Teague and Callie’s points of view, there is also the occasional chapter from secondary characters to give us more background into what makes these families tick. It’s a fascinating view into a crime world full of people doing their best to live full lives amidst their violent reality. The steamy romance combined with the healthy doses of action and suspense make for an exciting read. ~ Maria Rose
Grade: A Sensuality: Warm
You can read our full review HERE.
Romancing Miss Right by Lizzie Shane
Author Lizzie Shane takes a look behind the curtain of reality TV in her adorable Reality Romance series. In Romancing Miss Right readers are introduced to Marcy Henrickson, the latest Miss Right searching for her perfect match in a television series quite similar to The Bachelorette. Being last year’s runner-up for the affections of Mister Perfect, Marcy is willing to play the part of a rejected woman still looking for true love as long as it gives her national exposure for her latest book release. What she doesn’t count on is one of the potential Mister Rights being just as willing to pull out all the stops to gain fame and fortune through debasing himself on TV.
Shock Jock Craig Carrow knows that playing the “Bad Boy” on Romancing Miss Right will open doors for him and his locally produced radio show. Prepared to be as lewd and crude as necessary to make good TV (and keep the producers from kicking him off too soon), Craig doesn’t count on actually liking Marcy or getting caught up in the manufactured dramas of the show. The line between their fake relationship on screen and the real one simmering when the cameras are off is crossed when Marcy has to return home for a family emergency and Craig goes with her. Could Miss Right fall for a man who might be all wrong for her?
Even a reader who’s never watched an episode of The Bachelor/The Bachelorette will enjoy the funny and somewhat snarky look at how a television show like it comes together. Ms. Shane doesn’t pull any punches about how un-real Reality TV can be, showing a cutthroat producer pulling the strings or the other contestants vying for the most camera time with the star. When real life intrudes on the fantasy is when the relationship for Marcy and Craig truly comes together and I loved seeing that other side of the coin; where a person’s true character carries the day rather than how they present themselves. ~ Sara Elliott
Grade: B Sensuality: Warm
Falling for Mister Wrong by Lizzie Shane
The lighthearted look at the reality of romance continues in Falling for Mister Wrong. Filming of the latest season of Marrying Mister Perfect has just wrapped and the winning suitorette Caitlyn Gregg is trying to lay low back in her home town until the series begins broadcasting. Caught up in all the manufactured emotions of the show it was quite easy for Caitlyn to say “Yes” to a proposal from the handsome Mister Perfect. It’s only after being back in the real world does she consider that Mister Perfect might not be perfect for her.
Caitlyn’s feelings become even more confused when she meets local firefighter Will Hamilton. He’s handsome, funny and likes Caitlyn for who she is away from the lights and cameras. A relationship with Will could be everything she went to Hollywood looking for except for one small problem – she’s technically engaged and soon the whole country will know it. The more Will and Caitlyn fall for one another the harder it becomes to hide her feelings from the producers and their confidentiality agreements or her media loving fiancé. Will her sexy firefighter stick around or will their new love be extinguished when everything is made public?
Ms. Shane moves her Reality Romance series in the right direction, putting Caitlyn into a true situation of dealing with her new found celebrity while still trying to live a normal life. Finding Will and getting to know him without pretense allows Caitlyn insight about how much of herself she sacrificed in order to be the right choice for Mister Perfect. It’s very easy to like Caitlyn even knowing what she’s hiding from Will and wishing she’d make different choices about their relationship. When all is revealed I appreciated that Will and Caitlyn were able to fall back on what was real between them. ~ Sara Elliott
Grade: B Sensuality: Warm
Him by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy
This story is told alternately from the points of view of Wes and Jamie. Wes is a rather promiscuous, closeted gay hockey player although at least one of his college teammates knows he is gay. He’s also echnically ‘out’ to his family – which consists of a rather awful, wealthy father whom Wes dislikes intensely and a mother who exists merely as her husband’s shadow.
Jamie is now a hockey goalie, and erstwhile best friend of Wes. At the beginning of the book we learn of their intense friendship as youngsters. They roomed together every summer at a hockey camp and became best friends, until during their last summer, a bet between them ended up with a sexual act. After this, Wes ceases all contact with a very confused Jamie.
When they do meet up as adults, the sexual tension is extremely well written. Jamie has a girlfriend, and the author thankfully avoids the awful ‘bitter female’ trope, when it is revealed that Jamie is interested in Wes. The men’s evolving story is an enjoyable romantic read with excellent secondary characters. I particularly liked Jamie’s family – as an exaggerated juxtaposition, they worked well.
There are a few things, however, that didn’t work for me, hence the B grade review. Firstly, the Bi-erasure. During one early scene, Jamie is in bed with his girlfriend and the reader is made aware that girls aren’t quite doing it for him. Yet we are meant to believe he has never even looked at another male. When Jamie reveals his feelings for Wes he suddenly starts staring at male arses, appreciating physiques and checking out gay porn. Being bi isn’t about suddenly developing ‘gay eyes’ in your twenties – the attraction is always there for both sexes – even if you never romantically fall for someone of the same sex.
My other negative comes from the preponderance of descriptions of the acres of golden skin, ridged abdomens, rangy muscles and perfectly muscled thighs. The male genitalia, unsurprisingly in proportion to the huge muscles. The few hockey players I have met were as pale as I was because they spent all of their time on the ice. They also tended to have broken noses, split lips and Neanderthal brows. Romance is a dangerous fantasy if it only depicts societal ideals.
Overall, however, Him is an enjoyable if musclebound, contemporary romance with some genuinely lovely touches and well written secondary characters. It is one of a tiny number of LGBTQ romances to be chosen as RITA finalists, and as such should represent the best in contemporary queer romance. For me, it fails in that representation. ~ BJ Jansen
Grade: B Sensuality: Warm
CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE: LONG
Second Chance Summer by Jill Shalvis
This is the first in the author’s Cedar Ridge series featuring the Kincaid siblings who run a popular – but financially troubled – resort in the Colorado mountain town of Cedar Ridge. Second Chance Summer offers a variant of a second chance at love story. Aidan Kincaid and Lily Danville grew up together, and we learn early on that they shared a passionate kiss ten years earlier. Ms. Shalvis gradually reveals what happened after the kiss – from both Aidan’s and Lily’s perspectives – to lead Lily to leave town.
Aidan hasn’t seen Lily in 10 years, but even though he has thought about her repeatedly, when he hears that she’s coming back he doesn’t want anything to do with her. In his mind they crashed and burned and he doesn’t want to risk it again; he already has his hands full with a whole host of responsibilities. Aidan is on the town fire department, is a member of the local Search and Rescue team, and also helps run his family’s resort. Additionally, he has always been the glue that holds his family together, including the children from his bigamist father’s second and third marriages.
Lily never wanted to come back to Cedar Ridge, and not just because of Aidan. Blaming herself for the deaths of her father and sister, she left town for San Diego. But when she was fired and blacklisted from her job as manager and cosmetologist in a high profile beauty salon, the only job she could get was a temporary spot at a friend’s salon in Cedar Ridge. What she didn’t know is the salon is in the Kincaid family resort. The minute Aidan and Lily see each other again the sparks fly, and with both of them living and working on the resort property they run into each other at every turn.
Despite the fact that Lily and Aidan are both dealing with major issues there’s a lot of humor in the book. I particularly like the scenes in the resort salon in which Lily interacts with various townspeople, and gets conned into giving Aidan various treatments. I found both principals to be fully developed characters, and appreciate that they each grow over the course of the book. ~ LinnieGayl Kimmel
Grade: B Sensuality: Warm
Ransom Canyon by Jodi Thomas
Staten Kirkland has had a rough few years, enduring the deaths of his wife and teenage son. He’s found solace in the arms of his wife’s close friend Quinn O’Grady. Their relationship has been purely physical though Quinn has harbored feelings for him for years. When she receives unexpected news, everything between them may change.
The book begins with the promise of a deeply emotional read due to the subject matter of older protagonists receiving a second chance at love and family. Somewhere along the way this is derailed and the book never lives up to that promise. I wanted more from Staten and Quinn’s relationship and didn’t feel it was given the depth or exploration it deserved. The burgeoning romance between the high school kids was okay, but I couldn’t have cared less about the ex-con and the nurse.
It’s likely that the book suffers for being the first in the series and tries too hard to set the stage for stories to come. It has a strong sense of place and was able to hold my attention even during the sections in which I wasn’t particularly invested. I’ll definitely try the second book in the series, Rustler’s Moon, to see if that works better for me. While the writing was engaging, I was left somewhat unsatisfied. ~ Heather Stanton
Grade: C Sensuality: Warm
Have you read any of these, or indeed any of the other RITA nominated books? Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? Or have we missed out on something great? Stop by and tell us in the comments.