TBR Challenge: The Late, Great Mary Stewart

1967 cover image of The Gabriel Hounds by Mary StewardI bought this book last year at a charity sale in aid of the reconstruction of a Thomas Telford church in Ullapool, Scotland. I have never read anything by Mary Stewart except her Merlin books, which I read and loved in high school and college, so I bought this to try her Gothic/romantic suspense writing. I pulled it out when Ms. Stewart died in May, and this month I was home enough to actually read a printed book.

I don’t really worry about spoilers for a book published 47 years ago, but I won’t give too many details. I went into the book knowing nothing about the plot, and that was definitely part of its charm. I will say that it’s a romance with a happy ending, though.

The novel takes place in the Middle East, mostly in Lebanon. Our protagonist is Christy Mansel, an English heiress whose family lives in the USA. She comes on a package tour, but plans to stay on in Beirut a few extra days on her own. While in Damascus with the tour, she encounters her cousin Charles, who is in the area on business but has also been hoping to see her. Charles reminds Christy that they have an eccentric great-aunt who lives near Beirut in an old palace, seeing herself as a modern version of Lady Hester Stanhope. They plan to visit her together, but when Charles is delayed by business, Christy finds herself visiting the palace alone.

The emir’s palace is a good, spooky setting. There are mysterious and suspicious events that make Christy (and later Charles) worried about their relative, and they get caught up in dangerous activities trying to figure it all out. While some elements of the mystery seemed really obvious to me, the book was still enjoyable to read. I gather this is a hallmark of Gothic novels, that they may have elements of self-parody and melodrama that make some aspects of the plot seem obvious.

Christy is a great narrator. She is smart and funny, and brave when she needs to be, but she’s also a bit vain, selfish and, as she herself says early in the book, “rather spoiled.” Her commentary on other people, as well as herself, brings the book to life. The descriptions of scenery and events are engrossing, and it’s to Stewart’s credit that her eloquent descriptions sound believable coming from Christy.

Who else has read non-Arthurian Stewart? What are your favorite titles?

Classic Quality: TBR Challenge

This month’s TBR Challenge theme is “classic” romance – classic books, authors, themes, whatever. I thought I might do a classic trope like “amnesia” or “secret baby,” but in browsing through my TBR list, I found the perfect choice – a Georgette Heyer historical romance!

I was a latecomer to Heyer; I think I read one of her books in college, as an “Austen homage” (there were a LOT fewer of those before Colin Firth). When I started reading romance again (a little more than six years ago), Heyer’s name kept cropping up. I soon realized that some of the readers/bloggers/reviewers whose opinions I most valued were big Heyer fans, so I went to the library and checked one out. The book was Faro’s Daughter, and I got about four chapters in and hated it. But a few months later, I tried again – I think it was The Foundling – and I realized what all the fuss was about.

Since then, I’ve read quite a few Heyer novels, the mystery novels as well as the romances. I’ve liked some, loved others, hated only one (The Grand Sophy), and never finished Faro’s Daughter. I buy a bunch every time they go on sale, and I was pleased to find one that I hadn’t read lurking on my Kindle.

311156Beauvallet is unusual amongst Heyer’s historical romances, because it is not set in the Regency. Beauvallet, the main character, is an adventurous Elizabethan; when the book opens, he and the crew of his ship are defeating a much larger Spanish ship in naval combat. On that ship are a deathly ill Spanish nobleman and his beautiful daughter, Dominica, with whom Beauvallet falls in love. He agrees to return them to Spain, rather than leaving them somewhere to be rescued with the rest of the ship’s crew and passengers, even though it is risky for him to land his vessel on Spanish shores. More audaciously, he vows to return to Spain within a year to claim Dominica as his bride.

“El Beauvallet,” as he is known among the Spanish, is a larger-than-life personality. He believes absolutely in his personal good fortune, boldly taking risks and chances in the belief that he will not fail. He enjoys the life of a privateer (having previously been an explorer, sailing with Sir Francis Drake), and he has built up quite a reputation for reckless bravery and success in his ventures. He laughs always, even in the face of danger, and even when he knows he is taking a risk, he presents a brave and bold face to the world. For the most part, this is the face the reader sees, as well. The narrative voice rarely gives you a glimpse of Beauvallet questioning or uncertain, with the result that he is almost too perfect and rather inaccessible.

Dominica, on the other hand, is full of doubt and uncertainty. She has trouble reading Beauvallet; since he’s always laughing and joking, she doesn’t know when to take him seriously. She finds him charming and infuriating, and of course very attractive. Even though she doesn’t really believe that he can and will come find her in Spain, she can’t help being impressed by his determination and bravado in claiming that he will. When he actually shows up in Spain (in disguise), she loses her heart completely over his fidelity and willingness to risk his life to marry her.
As is the case in some other Heyer novels, all the character growth and development in this book is the heroine’s, making her a more interesting character to me. She’s young and somewhat sheltered, but she’s also spirited and intelligence – she has been raised in the West Indies, not Spain, so she is used to more freedom of both thought and action. She also has “heretical” (Lutheran) sympathies, making her even less suited to life in Spain and more suitable as a match for an English Protestant such as Beauvallet. She gets stronger and more sure of herself as the novel goes on, determined by the end to be a woman worthy of a man like Beauvallet. I was glad that the narration was fairly evenly divided between their two perspectives, since they spend most of the book separated.

There’s a lot of swashbuckling and adventure in this book – Beauvallet’s masquerade in King Philip’s court, followed by his escape and his elopement with Dominica, are a series of close calls, clever plots, and feats of agility and skill with a sword. The romance is the central motivation for the action, but this is definitely a story about overcoming external obstacles. The Elizabethan setting gives Heyer some new elements to play with, and as an adventure the book was fun to read. But as a romance, it was less satisfying to me than some of her other novels.

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Title: TBR Challenge Review

This month’s TBR Challenge was to read a book by “an author who has more than one book in your TBR pile.” Bypassing romantic suspense (sorry, just not in the mood for that these days), I found that I didn’t have many options. One author whose books I’ve purchased more than once, but never read, is India Grey. Her work comes recommended by readers who like the other Harlequin Presents authors whose work I tend to enjoy — Sarah Morgan, Sarah Mayberry, Maisey Yates, Caitlin Crews, Abby Green, and a few others.

A dark-haired man in a black suit holding a dark-haired woman in his arms. She's wearing a purple dress with skimpy straps. They are standing in front of Italianate pillarsI remember reading in someone else’s review of this book that it was much better than the title suggests, and yet I’m sure it’s the title that kept me from picking it up until this challenge.

Sarah (short for Seraphina) is an never married single mom who recently lost her job with a big London catering firm under embarrassing circumstances. She has serious self-esteem issues, particularly over her appearance, and specifically over her weight. The first few chapters of the book are full of her references to dieting, failing to diet, being heavy, needing to lose a few pounds, and so on. (I got to the point that I was highlighting them.) Of course she’s actually not fat; she can squeeze into, although it doesn’t cover the gap above her jeans, a size small t-shirt. She’s just not skinny, and not athletically toned. I would have been angry at her being considered heavy, except that the only point of view from which she’s presented that way is her own — she has internalized skinny model beauty standards (as exemplified by her step-sister), and this becomes one more way in which she feels like she can’t measure up — as a woman, a mother, or a daughter.

Sarah meets her “powerful Italian,” film director Lorenzo, when he is visiting Oxfordshire and she’s attending her sister’s hen weekend (that’s bachelorette party in the US). They have an embarrassing meet-cute moment, but it’s more than that — he’s in the UK because he wants to make a movie of her dead father’s novel, set there in Oxfordshire. As he soon learns, she has control of the film rights, and she always refuses film offers.

When they meet again, it’s right before the wedding — she’s catering it at her stepsister’s new renovated barn home in Tuscany, which is adjacent to Lorenzo’s estate. Rain brings the roof down, so the whole wedding party ends up taking refuge with Lorenzo. He offers to let them have the festivities there, because he wants time to get to know Sarah and to get her to like him before trying to change her mind about the film. She has no idea that he’s the director interested in her father’s book, and she has a hard time believing that he’s interested in her. He keeps seeing her in embarrassing/partially clothed/messy hair situations, and he finds her beautiful and “natural,” unlike his movie star ex-wife who is all about image over substance. Sarah, of course, compares herself to his ex and thinks that he can’t possibly find her attractive after such glamor and beauty.

Lorenzo hires Sarah as his housekeeper for the summer, so that she and her daughter Lottie can stay longer in Italy, which they have come to love. This gives him more time to get close to her before asking about the film rights, although by this time he’s growing less concerned with those and more concerned with making Sarah happy and building up her self-esteem. Seeing her with her family and hearing her talk about her relationship with her father gave him insights into her reasons for being so hard on herself, and he is determined to show her how he sees her.

The reader can see the problems coming — the confrontation with his ex, the eventual revelation that he’s after the film rights — but each of those is handled with a unique spin. So is the issue of why he’s divorcing the pregnant actress but has no problem with Sarah’s daughter. (I’m resisting the spoiler, but I have to say that I rarely see this plot device in romance, especially the Presents line.) Amazingly, there is no last-minute appearance by Lottie’s father; I was shocked, because that seems de rigeur in romance, unless the father is dead. I guess it’s usually seen as tying up a potentially messy plot point, but I was glad that everyone accepted that Sarah was Lottie’s only real parent and didn’t keep trying to give authority or power to the man who walked out on them.

Of course, there’s the ugly duckling transformed into a swan moment, but again, it’s handled well. There’s a lot of work involved in achieving the “red carpet” look, and the story makes clear that even Sarah’s “natural beauty” needs professional help to meet film industry standards. Sarah’s issues about her appearance, especially her weight, vanished a little too unremarked for my taste; after all the references to excess weight at the beginning of the book, I thought there should be a real moment where she accepted her body, separate from the rest of her feelings about Lorenzo.

Despite that, I enjoyed this novel. Both characters were believable, and the romance really worked for me. I look forward to more of Ms Grey’s work.

Scary Places on the Way to Happy Endings: The Romance Safety Net

I recently read two books that got me thinking about why I read romance. Both of these books were about “long shot” relationships — pairings of people who have so many challenges that in real life, you know the odds would be stacked against them. I probably wouldn’t pick up either of these books in any other genre, but in romance, by authors whom I trust, I can read (heart in my throat much of the time) knowing that it HAS to work out, and it will.

hardtime_134 Hard Time, by Cara McKenna, features a librarian main character, one of my favorite romance devices. But the other main character is a prison inmate, doing time for violent crime, and that is WAY out of my comfort zone.
Here’s the blurb:

Annie Goodhouse doesn’t need to be warned about bad boys; good sense and an abusive ex have given her plenty of reasons to play it safe. But when she steps into her new role as outreach librarian for Cousins Correctional Facility, no amount of good sense can keep her mind—or eyes—off inmate Eric Collier.

Eric doesn’t claim to be innocent of the crime that landed him in prison. In fact, he’d do it again if that’s what it took to keep his family safe. Loyalty and force are what he knows. But meeting Annie makes him want to know more.

When Eric begins courting Annie through letters, they embark on a reckless, secret romance—a forbidden fantasy that neither imagines could ever be real…until early parole for Eric changes everything, and forces them both to face a past they can’t forget, and a desire they can’t deny.

The first third or so of this book was hot and sexy, with an edge of the forbidden. I’m a sucker for epistolary devices, too, and the letters between Annie and Eric really worked for me as erotica. Annie’s sexuality really opens up under Eric’s attention, and of course her letters and their brief, chaste physical encounters add a much-needed positive dimension to Eric’s life in prison.

Eric’s release was handled pretty well; Annie doesn’t just rush to continue their relationship, and all the right questions get asked. Eric is patient, not really expecting her to want to be with him, and yet hoping that they can keep their connection and see where things go. The relationship doesn’t develop smoothly, as there are obvious bumps in the road, and yet the couple’s good times are easy to enjoy, even amidst the uncertainty. I really liked the back-and-forth of this part of the book; it felt believable, as Annie negotiated between the powerful emotional pull of Eric and the powerful rational pull of common sense.

The big problem is that Eric isn’t sorry for the assault that put him behind bars; in his world, you have to be willing to fight on behalf of your loved ones, and he’d do it again if he had to. This is a huge challenge for Annie, the daughter of a law enforcement officer who has always gone along with the social model that says that only “bad guys” break the law, especially in violent ways.

Eventually, Annie goes with Eric to visit his family in the rural Michigan trailer park where he grew up, and in that context she has to confront the ways in which his background has shaped him. This was the point in the book where I nearly gave up, because I don’t deal well with graphic violence, and it seemed to me that the potential for that was quite high. But I had a powerful emotional investment in Annie and Eric by that point, so I read on, trusting because this is a romance, it had to work out. And it did — better than I expected, and without the violent confrontation I feared. Annie and Eric’s connection actually got deeper as she realized that this place and these people shaped him into the man she loved — and that some of the qualities she found most attractive in him were part of that, not in spite of that.

beyondrepair_msrBeyond Repair, by Charlotte Stein, wasn’t as scary for me on the surface. But once I started reading the book, it felt very risky.
The blurb didn’t really capture that:

When Alice Evans finds a bona fide movie star on the floor of her living room, she has no idea what to do. Ordinary men are frightening enough, never mind someone as famous and frankly gorgeous as Holden Stark.

However, once she realizes that Holden is suffering behind that famous facade, she knows she has to help. He needs someone like her to give him a taste of sweetness and desire and love. He needs normality. The only problem is—Alice is hiding a secret that is far from normal. In fact, her name isn’t even Alice at all.

And once Holden finds out, the intense connection they are just beginning to build may well be torn apart.

Alice is weird, there’s no question about that. She makes odd mental connections, has strange fantasies, and is a big bundle of fears and phobias. That’s clear from very early in the book, although the extent of her fears and the reason for them are only gradually revealed. Holden (or Bernie, as Alice calls him) is less complicated — although the story begins with his suicide attempt, he has a pretty straightforward story arc towards health and healing, thanks to his connection with Alice. She brings joy, fun and love into his life for the first time, since she’s really the first person not to see him as a meal ticket or celebrity connection.

As their relationship develops, they engage sexually in ways that accommodate Alice’s many fears. Their exploration of sexual boundaries parallels their discovery of other things they have in common — movies, a quirky sense of humor, and a powerful emotional connection. But Alice’s problems make her want to hide away from the world, while Holden is a celebrity, and that seems to be an obstacle that love and compatibility may not be able to overcome. Alice’s reasons are good ones, so (like Holden) the reader wants her to get better without blaming her if she can’t. It makes for an involving story, which is very internal — there’s literally nothing keeping them apart towards the end except Alice’s very real, very crippling fears. In hindsight, the steps on their road make sense, but as I was reading it, it was messy and unpredictable, as seen through Alice’s eyes. I agonized for her, and was glad that I could trust that it would come out all right.

Usually when I talk about romance as comfort reading, I don’t mean books like these — these both had elements that were definitely outside my comfort zone. But the genre meant that I could go ahead and hope for these couples to find their path to happiness together, and that safety net was what I needed.

TBR Challenge: Contemporary Romances in Petal, Georgia

LostInYou Lost in You was in my TBR because it is one of my favorite romance tropes: big brother’s friend (or friend’s little sister, from the hero’s POV). I don’t have a big brother, but I like the way family, friend and romance relationship demands and loyalties play against each other in books with this device. As it turned out, that dimension wasn’t the only, or even the most important, way that dynamic operated in this novel.

Joe Harris is back in Petal, Georgia, to help out with his father, who has been having episodes that frighten Joe’s mother and suggest some sort of psychological problem (confusion, wandering, unexplained outbursts). Joe’s reputation in town is as a bad boy, but he’s served in Iraq since those days. Mostly this serves as a reason for his friends to be wary of him dating their sister, and as the reason guilt plays a role in his determination to put his father’s welfare ahead of anything else in his life. The people in town don’t seem to have any problem accepting that his years in the army and away from Petal have matured him, so the reformed bad boy isn’t really the basis of this plot.

Beth Murphy finds Joe attractive, and she doesn’t take her brothers’ objections seriously. But Joe does, at first, which means that Beth ends up pursuing Joe until she can change his mind. I liked that aspect of the book a lot — Beth wants to date Joe, and his reluctance is because of her brothers, so she goes after him. It’s sweet, believable, and normal — no crazy romantic comedy stunts, just a woman showing a man that she’s interested and not waiting around for him to make the moves.

The real conflict here isn’t about Beth’s family at all, although there’s a lot of the book devoted to her family history as backstory. The problem is Joe’s; he is both protective of his father and ashamed of his family’s problem, so he doesn’t tell Beth what’s going on. He views his relationship with Beth as something that takes him away from his parents and their problems, and he sees his family trouble as something that would unfairly burden Beth if she knew about it. Beth feels shut out when he won’t share what’s bothering him, and she is hurt when she finds out and he still won’t accept help and support from her. Ultimately the book is about learning that love means sharing burdens as well as joys, and that a romantic partner can be a help with family rather than either competition or mere distraction.

While this book was enjoyable to read on its own, it was pretty obvious that it was part of a series — not just the second book, as I thought, but actually the sixth. I didn’t realize that Dane’s four Chase Brothers books were also set in Petal, and Lost in You is heavily populated with characters, particularly couples, from earlier books. I didn’t feel lost, as there was plenty of explanation, but I suspect that a reader who had read the earlier books would appreciate that aspect more than I was able to do.

I enjoyed this book enough that I purchased and read the book just before it, since the next book hasn’t been released yet.

OnceandAgain_rev300-220x330 Once and Again has some of the same themes — in this book, it’s the heroine who has come back to town to deal with family issues. Lily’s concern is her teenage brother, Chris, who is failing at school and getting into trouble since their parents’ divorce. Their father isn’t around much, being caught up in a new relationship with a younger woman, and their mother is abusing alcohol and prescription drugs, unable to cope with losing her husband.

I loved Lily’s take charge attitude and willingness to do whatever it takes to turn her brother’s life around. She knows that Chris needs boundaries, but also that he needs a sense of security and the knowledge that someone loves him too much to allow him to fail. I thought their relationship was depicted really well.

Nathan is Chris’s English teacher; he is also Lily’s ex-boyfriend. Those two factors make him off-limits as far as she’s concerned, but as one of Chris’s teachers, she can’t just ignore him while she’s working to create an academic plan that will keep Chris from failing. Nathan pretty quickly realizes that he wants Lily back, but he has to prove to her that he’s trustworthy and really interested in a commitment. Lily is busy with her family issues, not to mention trying to find enough freelance work to replace the job she quit to move back to her hometown, so it’s as a helper rather than a lover than Nathan manages to show her that he has changed.

These books are realistic about mental illness and addiction — someone has to accept help and admit they have a problem, and even then, it’s not a straight or easy road to recovery. Family support makes a big difference, and the role reversal that happens when we have to guide our parents’ decisions is unsettling for everyone.

I also enjoyed that these characters are middle-class folks, some with lower-class backgrounds. They deal with practical issues that are recognizable from the lives of people I know personally. Petal isn’t as idealized as some romance small towns, although sometimes the wonderful Chase family got to be a bit much for me. Again, YMMV, especially if you’ve read the earlier series.

I’ll definitely be reading the next book in this series, which comes out in June. I’m not so sure about going back to the Chase brothers books, although I might for Beth’s sister (Chase wife number four), because the bits of her story that appear in these books are intriguing.

Football Romance FTW: Skin in the Game by Jackie Barbosa

BarbosaSkinAs an NFL fan, I am a sucker for a good football romance. But as they say about good science fiction (it must be good science AND good fiction), I need it to be good football AND good romance. I’ve read some where the football was wrong (or completely unbelievable), and others where the romance didn’t work for me. I’m happy to say that this book has good football, good romance and a huge bonus: a woman football coach.

Angie Peterson is a math teacher and the assistant coach of the high school football team in her hometown in Minnesota. She’s a whiz at spatial visualization, so she understands and crafts football plays really well. She has loved the sport all her life, and the chance to coach (and to replace the current head coach when he retires) means a lot to her. But the head coach has a heart attack and develops pneumonia, and Angie doesn’t get along well with the other assistant coach, who’s sexist ass-hat. Worried that this friction will end up costing Angie the chance to replace him, the head coach goes looking for an interim replacement for himself, someone who can be a sort of figurehead coach, and who couldn’t possible be considered a long-term replacement.

His choice is an old protégé, Cade Reynolds, the star quarterback of the team in the year they won the state championship, a college and then an NFL star, who is currently not on a team because of a long rehab for a shoulder/arm injury. Coach figures that Cade can come take his place and make everyone happy. However, before anything can be done about the coaching position, Cade and Angie meet in a coffee house and hook up for a night of passion — Cade because she’s hot and available, Angie because she’s had a crush on him since high school, and she wants to get one night with him before he figures out who she is.

I liked so much about this book. I liked that Angie, and eventually Cade, really cared about the high school students — the one time Angie feels that she has put her own interests ahead of her students, she reacts exactly as I’d expect of an ethical teacher. I enjoyed the way their relationship developed from insta-lust and sexual compatibility to respect, shared humor, and real admiration for each other’s abilities. They made a good team, and they brought out the best in each other — that was refreshing.

In addition to helping with the high school team, Cade is pursuing a return to the NFL. That subplot was developed believably, I thought, and with a good appreciation of the choices involved. The resolution surprised me a little, but it worked, and I was impressed that the ending included a “public proposal” that worked for me, since usually I hate those.

Probably the only things that bothered my about this book were the times Angie and Cade got caught in compromising positions at the high school. While I like a good strong sexual attraction, I also like to think that intelligent adults can restrain themselves at clearly inappropriate times and places, especially when they are responsible for supervising minors. But I realize how much of that is my own background talking!

All in all, I’m really glad that I read this book, and I hope it’s not too long before we see a sequel — the book is billed as the first in a series, and there’s a pretty broad hint at the end about which couple might figure in the next book. I’m eager for more!

Context note: I know this author through interactions on Twitter. The timing of this review is deliberate; Jackie lost her teenage son in a car accident recently, and many of us in the romance community want to help by supporting her work while she’s not in a position to do much promotion or online interaction. I have also contributed to the Julian Fraire Memorial Fund.

DABWAHA From Where I Sit

It’s time again for the Dear Author Bitchery Writing Award for Hella Good Authors, DABWAHA, a March-madness popularity contest of romance and related works run by Jane of Dear Author and Sarah of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Voting begins in just a few minutes!

I’m participating by listing, and commenting on, the nominated books that I’ve read. As usual, there are a lot in some categories, fewer in others, none in one group. For once, one of the LGBT* nominations is f/f, and one features a trans* character. There’s also an f/f book in the Paranormal/Science Fiction/Fantasy category, illustrating one problem of this classification system. An astute commenter points out that I got this wrong; this is the m/f book in between the two f/f books in the series. Which still leaves me wondering about those categories, but never mind.

Love Irresistibly by Julie James. I liked this book, but I didn’t love it as much as I have some of the author’s previous books. I will always remember it as the book where the main characters open champagne bottles with corkscrews.

Sleighbells in the Snow by Sarah Morgan. Another reliable author, and this book was really good. It has elements of romantic comedy, with the heroine very much a fish out of water. It was a warm, fuzzy read.

Run to You by Charlotte Stein. This wasn’t as compelling as some of her others, but it’s a very hot book. Stein writes interesting erotic romance — I never feel like her characters are types, as they are unique individuals with complex sexual desires, not just standard fetishes.

Paranormal/Science Fiction/Fantasy
Caught in Amber by Cathy Pegau. Lesbian science-fiction romance, and it’s good in all three of those ways. Okay, so I was thinking of the third book, not the second, in this series. The main couple in this book is straight. It’s still a good story, though. Original world building and strong characters made me recommend this series to folks who don’t usually read f/f.

Last Hour of Gann by R. Lee Smith I DNFed this book. I read the first section (in the heroine’s point of view), and it made me very uncomfortable; what I heard from others and read in reviews made me decide that it wasn’t going to get better for me.

Skies of Gold by Zoe Archer. The world of the Ether Chronicles is very well done in the whole series — strong steampunk, with an interesting vision. Archer’s writing often includes very strong heroines (of the “kick ass” variety) and powerful action scenes. I loved this third book even more than its predecessors in the series, which is saying a lot; both main characters are damaged and wary, but they are also strong and intelligent, and the romance and action plots balance in an almost perfect way.

Ripped by Sarah Morgan. I had a little trouble getting started with this one — I just couldn’t buy the initial set-up. But I trust the author, so I picked it back up and ended up liking it. I thought the “how could this hot rich guy want little old scientist me” was a bit thin as a conflict, but I guess that’s why it was written as short fiction.

Unbuttoned by Maisey Yates. I felt that this conflict, in contrast, was almost too much for the length of the story. It felt rushed in a couple of places, and I’d have preferred a little more development instead of the epilogue — I liked the pre-epilogue ended. But this is a solid novella, featuring “big brother’s best friend,” a favorite trope of mine.

Back to the Good Fortune Diner by Vicki Essex. We did a group read of this book. I liked parts of the book very much, and I was glad to see a romance with Asian American characters. But there were some unquestioned stereotypes and other problematic elements that kept it from being a real hit.

His Until Midnight by Nikki Logan. I enjoyed this book; it has an interesting set-up that reminded me of Same Time Next Year. The tight focus on the two main characters, and their focus on each other during their meetings, really drew me into the intensity of their feelings. It’s always tricky when a romance novel features attraction that began when one party was married, but this one takes pains to ensure that there’s no infidelity.

The Other Side of Us by Sarah Mayberry. Mayberry is one of my favorite authors of contemporary romance, and this book is a good example of why. I got sucked right into the characters’ lives, and the things keeping them from committing to love were believable, so that I got really caught up in whether they’d be together or not. The heroine is physically rehabbing, and both characters have reason to want solitude, but they each have a friendly dog, so they are forced to interact. Funny and touching, if a little cliché at the end.

The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas. If I had to settle for one romance author’s books for the rest of my life, it might be Thomas. Every book is different, but they are all terrific. In this one, Thomas takes on the marriage of convenience (my favorite!) and puts her own twist on it. A couple of time she came perilously close to the edge for me — that edge being the point where you just want to smack both characters for being afraid of trust and honesty when they so obviously love each other. But we never went over the edge, because each time I accepted the psychology for why these two couldn’t trust each other (or themselves) sooner.

The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin. Lin’s Tang Dynasty romances just keep getting better and better. This murder mystery takes us deeper into the Pleasure Quarter of the Imperial City and also offers another look at law enforcement. The hero is a delightful Scarlet Pimpernel figure, and the heroine is one of Lin’s best — a quiet woman who discovers her own value while mostly concerned about others. As with the author’s other books, I don’t feel like I’m having too much information shoved at me, and yet I feel that I understand enough about the time and place to appreciate what the characters are experiencing. That’s not a balance that all authors can manage, especially while telling a powerful love story AND a mystery. The mystery aspect may be a little under-developed, if you like detective fiction that gives you enough clues to possibly solve the crime yourself. I was so caught up in the romance that it didn’t bother me at all.

The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan. This is a really good book. Jane and Oliver are wonderful main characters; there’s a nice balance of comedy and drama in their romance. Like a lot of readers, I was almost more interested in the secondary romance between Jane’s sister Emily, who has epilepsy, and an young Indian law student. I wanted more of that! As usual, Milan combines strong writing, excellent research and innovative thinking into a romance that kept me guessing and then left me satisfied.

Any Duchess Will Do by Tessa Dare. I spent this whole book wondering how the author was going to pull off the ending — I mean, it’s a romance, the two main characters are obviously in love, but the situation seems impossible. At least, it seems impossible. It’s the Pygmalion problem: you *can* teach a lower-class girl to “pass” as a member of the upper class, but what then? Does she return to obscurity (“What am I fit for now?”), or does she live a lie, denying her real past and any family connections, living in fear that she’ll be discovered? I have been disappointed by plots like this before (Julia Quinn’s An Offer From a Gentleman comes to mind, because the book/characters don’t seem to acknowledge the very real difficulties faced by those who want to fool the ton. I should have known that I could trust Tessa Dare. I won’t say how she manages it, but I was not at all disappointed in the choices made that brought about the story’s happy ending. And along the way, signature Dare humor (some with a twist of pathos), delightful repartée, intelligent and strong characters, good friendships and family relationships (and some not-so-good ones repaired), and a really, REALLY strong romance.

Sweet Revenge by Zoe Archer. A lot of action and risk-taking make this an exciting book; the series concept of a company trying to avenge injustice in Victorian England is a little much for me to accept, but if you just go with it, it works. There are strong women who can think and shoot, and men who can accept those things. Those wanting historical romance that’s not all about the aristocracy should welcome this book and its sequels.

Young Adult / New Adult
I read a few YA books this year, but nothing that made this list.

His Kind of Woman by Nona Raines.This was my TBR Challenge read this month (see the post before this one). It’s novella length, a sweet sexy read, and it has an adorable transwoman heroine.

Code of Honor by Radclyffe. This is a series I’ve been meaning to read. I bought this one, and I’ve read a few chapters, and it’s solid. I love the idea of the President’s daughter being an out, married lesbian! The only reason I haven’t read more is that my series compulsion is twitching, and I’d have to go back and read seven books to read in order.

Captive Prince Vol. 1 by SU Pacat & CS Pacat. A DNF for me. I tried because there was a lot of squeeing on Twitter, but it was not for me.

Novel with Strong Romantic Elements
A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn. I liked this story, set in colonial Kenya in the early 20th century. It’s a rather dark romance, because mostly it’s about life in Africa being harder and more dangerous, although also more rewarding, than the heroine expects. Both main characters are rather misfits, and their coming together is difficult. I thought the book characterized indigenous people fairly, and it certainly doesn’t glorify the British Empire, but I know some readers objected to the appropriation of the Masai experience. Longer review is here

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. Another DNF. I didn’t feel that this book was working for me as a romance.

The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley. Another fabulous book by one of my favorite authors. As usual, she blends paranormal, historical and romantic elements — this time much of the action in the present and the past happens in Russia. I thought all three aspects of the book were brilliant.

Longbourn by Jo Baker. I just got this on digital loan from my library. I hear mixed things from other readers, but if it makes it past the first round, I’ll probably have read it and have my own thoughts.

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