January was kind of a bust for me, but I caught up in February. I’ve been trying to read further afield, going past the usual m/m and category and trying more historical romance. They didn’t all work perfectly, but I’ve no regrets in this batch.
Twice Fallen: Ladies in Waiting by Emma Wildes. I discovered Wildes when she was writing for smaller presses and really liked the relationships and the type of sensual/sex scenes she writes. I tried one of her major-publisher releases a while back but it didn’t work for me. This one did, for the most part. Wildes’ historical milieu is somewhat superficial, but she stays out of mistorical terroritory. This book is part of a series but I found it easy to read as a standalone. There are two romantic storylines, one between an unmarried Earl’s daughter and a Duke’s younger son, the other between the heroine’s cousin James and his mistress, who is an artist, an older woman, and illegitimate. There are a lot of standard romance ingredients in this novel, but Wildes does interesting things with them. For example, Lord Damien is a spy and Lord Lillian has a scandal in her past, but both plot points develop somewhat unexpectedly. There’s a mystery, but it doesn’t overwhelm the romance. Full review to come.
Irregulars, by Nicole Kimberling et al. This is a paranormal anthology comprising four novellas that are set in the same universe, with characters that overlap slightly. The Irregulars are members of a NATO investigative division that keeps track of other-worldly beings who are on Earth out of choice or necessity. The stories, by Kimberling, Josh Lanyon, Astrid Amara, and Ginn Hale, feature goblins, elves, demons, humans and combinations thereof. Each story revolves around a mysterious death (or deaths) and a pair of protagonists who solve them, and they all have HEA or HFN endings. The worldbuilding is excellent across the board, and the characterizations are equally strong. The settings range up and down the West Coast, from Vancouver to Mexico City. For fans of these authors and of well-written gay romantic fiction more generally, this is a must-read. Full review to come.
Sydney Harbor Hospital: Lily’s Scandal, by Marion Lennox. As readers of DA know, Marion Lennox is an autobuy for me, but this story didn’t work as well as hers usually do. The book is the first of the new Sydney Harbor continuity series in the Medical Romance line, and it has to introduce a lot of characters, including the recurring characters Finn Kennedy and Evie Lockheart. This installment centers on the romance of Luke Williams, a plastic surgeon, and Lily Ellis, a temporary nurse at the hospital. Lily is fleeing the fallout from her mother’s latest scandal, while Luke is avoiding romantic entanglements altogether after an unhappy marriage that ended in tragedy. They are thrown together in their work and personal lives, and they slowly, reluctantly fall in love. It may be that I’ve read too many Lennox romances in a row, because the characters felt overly familiar to me, and the writing style felt choppier and less compelling than usual. If you haven’t read Lennox as often, you are likely to enjoy it more. Luke and Lily are both engaging, realistically drawn characters, and the supporting cast is well done. I’m definitely reading the next installment in the series. Grade: B-
Dauntsey Park, by Nicola Cornick. I bought this when it was first published as The Last Rake in London and dug it out of my TBR after the Downton Abbey discussion. I really wanted to like it, and the Edwardian setting seems very well done as far as I can tell. Unfortunately, I had a number of problems with the characters and the storyline. The heroine, Sally Bowes (I had a difficult time not picturing Liza Minnelli in Cabaret), runs a gambling house and takes care of her no-good younger sister and her perpetually broke suffragette sister. The hero, Jack Kestrel, confronts Sally when he’s looking for the Miss Howe who is blackmailing his seriously ill uncle. The pair go from insta-lust to fake engagement to insta-love in about three days, and there is way too much telling through internal monologues. Sally is a martyr who defends her sister beyond any reasonable point, Jack is only mildly rakish on the page, and the supporting characters are predictably stock. I liked the setting so much, but I wanted to knock sense into both the leads. Great idea, disappointing execution. Grade: C.
Once a Ferrara Wife, by Sarah Morgan. Another autobuy author, but this time the story lived up to my expectations. From the first scene you know this is going to be an angsty ride, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I’m not big on full-on angst, but it is well motivated here; this is a marriage in trouble book and the storyline is about their paths back to each other. Laurel Ferrara and her billionaire hotelier husband, Cristiano, have been estranged for two years. When they meet again at his sister’s wedding, they are forced to revisit both their unresolved conflicts and their reignited attraction for each other. Laurel still hasn’t forgiven Cristiano for the crisis that drove them apart, and watching him comes to grips with what a true apology is, not to mention accepting responsibility for his mistakes, is something to behold. But Lauren isn’t blameless; she has to overcome her inability to trust anyone, even those she loves. Cristiano’s billions and Lauren’s business success are almost beside the point as we watch them try and forge a healthier relationship (although the usual Presents accoutrements certainly help the background scenery). The scenes where Cristiano thinks he is making huge strides while we (and Laurel) know they are inadequate are especially effective. My least favorite aspect of the novel was the epilogue, especially considering what had caused the rift in the first place, but I give props to Morgan for making it less predictable than usual. Grade: B
Dark Soul, Vol. 2 by Aleksandr Voinov. I wasn’t sure what to expect after the thrill-ride of Volume 1, but Voinov maintains the intensity and the emotional complexity he established in the earlier episodes. These comprise two short stories that move both the plot and the relationship between Silvio and Stefano forward. The first story is basically an extended phone-sex episode between Silvio and his mentor/lover, Gianbattista, but that bare description can’t do justice to the emotion. The reader suspects this relationship is over, but there is still a strong attachment between the men, and the conversation and the sex are suffused with a bitter melancholy. Reading it is arousing but so very sad. The second story shifts gears and is more plot driven, as the Russians who have been threatening Silvio show up to challenge him. There is plenty of on-page violence and mayhem, expertly depicted, and the fallout from the confrontation has consequences for all the major and minor characters in the story. Silvio and Stefano share an intimate scene toward the end, about which I have mixed feelings. I think this is an It’s Not You It’s Me issue, but it didn’t work for me as well as everything else in the novella. Not that that stopped me from moving directly on to Vol. 3. Grade: B