I think I may have been overthinking TBR Challenge a little bit. When I tried to pick out a book from my bookcase that would be “unusual”, I found myself wondering, “Unusual to whom?” After all, Romancelandia is becoming an ever larger and more varied place. Settings I consider unusual based upon what I’m normally able to find may feel like home to someone else. In the end, I chose a book that turns a familiar trope (doctor-nurse) on its head, and looks at a favorite category romance setting from a different angle. Caz went for an uncommon historical setting, and a book which features a new slant on Arthurian legend.

Island Fling With the Surgeon by Ann McIntosh

Earlier this year, I read and enjoyed Night Shifts with the Miami Doc by Jamaican-born author Ann McIntosh. I wanted an excuse to read her August 2021 release, and I think the “unusual” prompt definitely works here. I’ve read more than a few category romances (mostly Harlequin Presents) set in lush, tropical locales. However, many of those books featured Western tourists discovering themselves and finding love in a beautiful, foreign place.  In this novel, the fictional island of St. Eustace is where the lead characters live, and they work at a hospital, taking care of their friends and neighbors. When the tropical island is home rather than an “exotic” vacation destination, things take on a different feel.

The setup in this story also takes a familiar plotline and turns it on its head a bit. I’ve read plenty of doctor-nurse romances, but just about all them involve strong male doctors and sensible, sweet female nurses (think Betty Neels). This time around, Genevieve Broussard is a skilled trauma surgeon, and British Army vet Zach Lewin is one of the most capable nurses she has on her team.

Things get off to a fun start with a bit of fake dating. It turns out that Dr. Broussard’s ex-boyfriend dumped her in order to take up with her (now former) best friend, and she decided that leaving New Orleans to start over in St. Eustace would be a good idea. She clearly enjoys her professional life, but since her mother pressures her about her personal life, she has been inventing a relationship with Zach to keep Mom off her back.

No one will be surprised to learn that Mom now plans to come visit Genevieve (Gen), and in a burst of panic, Gen asks Zach to be her pretend boyfriend. He agrees, and the two start getting to know one another. They’ve always worked well professionally, but the scenes between them outside of work are fun – and spiked with chemistry.

This book is delightful largely because it has a wonderful blend of fun romantic comedy moments and serious issues. Gen has had health struggles and lost a relationship, and Zach has had his own toxic relationship. In addition, there are class issues to deal with. As the story moves along, it becomes clear that Gen came from a fairly privileged background in New Orleans while Zach’s father, on the other hand, grew up on St. Eustace before moving to London in search of better opportunities. While Zach’s parents built a solid life for themselves in London, his background is far more modest than Genevieve’s. Zach is proud of his career as a nurse, but there are points in the story where it becomes obvious that he feels a tad insecure.  It’s a believable source of conflict, and the author handles it well.

Sometimes in category romance, stories feel a bit too much like insta-love, but this one has a good balance to it. The author does a great job of showing attraction evolving into friendship and fondness, and then into a deeper love and the focus remains firmly on Gen and Zach. However, as the two of them discuss their lives and interact with others around them, readers get to see an entire world coming to life. We see Gen and Zach falling in love with each other, but we also see them as friends, colleagues, and members of families. This made for a richer reading experience.

In the end, I liked both characters. Zach and Gen are both strong people, and as they learn to be honest and to communicate with one another, they become a strong couple. Island Fling With the Surgeon mixes warmth, humor and drama to create a solid romance.

Grade:    A-          Sensuality: Warm

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at Amazon or your local independent retailer

Marked by Fire by Mia West

I really had to wrack my brains to recall if I already had a book that would fit this month’s prompt of “unusual”, and I was coming up with a big blank – until I found Mia West’s Marked by Fire, book one in her Sons of Britain series, and decided that an m/m romance set in sixth century Wales definitely fit the bill!

Ms. West has mined Arthurian legends and given them a new slant, so that while the characters are mostly familiar, they don’t always fit the roles we may be used to seeing them in – for instance, Arthur isn’t the son of Uther Pendragon (or Uthyr, the Pen y Ddraig) and Bedwyr, who is often related to the sidelines in the myths, has a central role – and given there are so many legends and so many variations on them, I had no problem with that.  This is certainly not the Camelot of chivalric legend and the Lady of the Lake; no, this is the Dark Ages, mere decades since the Romans departed Britain, and life is tough and brutal.  The author does an excellent job capturing the feel of the period – it’s dark and gritty and very real – and of setting up the network of relationships that will populate her version of the story.

Eighteen-year-old Arthur ap Matthias is restless, hotheaded and eager to prove himself in battle and impress not only his leader, Uthyr, but also Uthyr’s son Bedwyr, who Arthur has watched and longed for from afar for years.  His chance comes when a small band of Saxons is spotted advancing into Cymru, but he fails to heed instructions and his recklessness has dire consequences – and in trying to defend him Bedwyr loses a hand.  His survival is in doubt, but Matthias – who is the village healer – is able to save him. (The author doesn’t sugarcoat the treatment he undergoes, so there are some scenes that might not be for the squeamish!). Arthur is distraught and desperate to beg Bedwyr’s forgiveness, but Bedwyr point blank refuses to see him.  Of course he’s furious with Arthur for costing him his sword hand, but he’s fearful, too – what use is a warrior who cannot fight?  Bedwyr’s worst fears come true when his father banishes him to a small shepherd’s hut outside the village.

Uthyr summons Arthur and makes it clear he expects Arthur to pay a price for causing Bedwyr’s injury.  Arthur at first thinks Uthyr is going to take his own right hand, and is shocked when Uthyr tells him to take his and Bedwyr’s armour to the hut and that he’s going to retrain Bedwyr to fight with his left hand – and that he must not, under any circumstances, tell Bedwyr that Uthyr sent him.  Relieved and pleased to have a chance to make amends, but worried Bedwyr will refuse to see him, Arthur nonetheless sets out for the hut, determined to do whatever it takes.

Bedwyr has pretty much given up and succumbed to self-pity when Arthur turns up, and he wants nothing to do with him.  But Arthur is stubborn and determined, and – begrudgingly – Bedwyr starts to acknowledge him and then to take an interest in what he’s come there to do.  A tentative friendship forms, and as the days pass, Bedwyr begins to pull himself out of his funk and to become the man – and warrior – he has always been meant to be, while Arthur’s remorse and desire to do right by Bedwyr engenders a new maturity and self-control.  And as Bedwyr comes to know Arthur as a man and not just as his best friend’s foolhardy younger brother, he takes his first step towards accepting the truth of his desires.  (Although the fact he has a bit of a crush on Matthias at the beginning of the book made his growing interest in Arthur a bit… ick?  I had to blank that out!)

Marked by Fire is a well-paced and enjoyable story with a strong setting and engaging, flawed characters who are both trying to learn from their mistakes and have undergone considerable growth by the end.  The romance between Arthur and Bedwyr is a slow-burn, and I enjoyed their progress from awkwardness to dawning friendship, playfulness and trust as their attraction to one another strengthens.  They have strong chemistry and the love scenes are nicely steamy, but I’d like there to have been a little more depth to their relationship overall.  That said, their story continues in book two (Bound by Blood); this one ends on an HFN (with a final scene that is a bit of a cliffhanger) so there is clearly more to come and I’m intrigued enough to want to know what happens next, so I’ll be reading that at some point.

Grade: B-             Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

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I enjoy spending as much time as I can between the covers of a book, traveling through time and around the world. When I'm not having adventures with fictional characters, I'm an attorney in Virginia and I love just hanging out with my husband, little man, and the cat who rules our house.