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Do You Want to Start a Scandal

Tessa Dare. Avon, $7.99 mass market (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-234904-0

Dare’s latest novel, which links her popular Spindle Cove and Castles Ever After series, opens in 1819 with a sizzling, scandalous encounter in a velvet-draped alcove at an English country estate. Charlotte Highwood and Piers Brandon, who have only just been introduced, hear—but don’t see—a pair of passionate lovers and inadvertently duck into the same niche in order to avoid them. Charlotte is shocked to find herself chest to chest with Piers, but her mortification truly sets in after the mysterious lovers leave and others who overheard them insinuate that Charlotte and Piers were the ones enjoying intimate pursuits. Piers and Charlotte hastily arrange a private engagement to salvage Charlotte’s reputation before word gets around, but Dare’s unconventional heroine is reluctant: she wants to marry for love, not honor. Charlotte tries to identify the mysterious lovers to clear her own name of scandal so she can get out of her engagement to Piers, a dashing yet cold marquess who’s also a spy for the Crown. But her intrepid sleuthing alarms Piers, who has his own secrets to hide. Artful diversions, a clever heroine, and intense passion are all brought together by Dare’s smart writing and spot-on matchmaking. There’s just the right amount of intrigue, and even the minor characters have layered personalities. The irresistibly provocative, classy love scenes set the bar high for other historical romance novels. Agent: Steve Axelrod, Axelrod Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Rebecca’s Bouquet

Lisa Jones Baker. Zebra, $7.99 mass market (352p) ISBN 978-1-4201-4158-0

In the first Hope Chest of Dreams contemporary, Baker lays the familiar groundwork of a close-knit Amish community, but the heart of this romance goes far beyond stereotypes. Rebecca wants to marry her sweetheart, William, and start a life together in their hometown of Arthur, Ill., but all plans are put on hold when William finds out that his father, who lives outside their Amish community, is ill and needs his help. It’s a scandal for an unmarried Amish young woman to be left alone with her fiancé, much less to live under the same roof with him and his Englischer parents, but Rebecca is adamant that her place is by William’s side, officially married or not. In many romances featuring Amish couples, the focus is on the woman and how she navigates her faith, but here Rebecca is the bystander. She’s a little tempted by William’s parents’ lifestyle, but William is the one who struggles with his estrangement with his father and seriously considers leaving his insular community to enjoy the trappings of modern life. All Rebecca can do is give sincere advice and pray that William will return home with her. The prayers and faith are respectfully illustrated, and Baker emphasizes the conviction required to hold to Amish traditions while surrounded by 21st-century conveniences, providing an unusual and welcome level of insight into the characters’ inner lives. Agent: Tamela Hancock Murray, Steve Laube Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Feast of Sorrows: Stories

Angela Slatter. Prime, $15.95 trade paper (296p) ISBN 978-1-60701-474-4

Australian speculative fiction author Slatter’s U.S. debut is a compilation of her most notable stories along with several new ones, all of which showcase her incredible talent for enlivening fairy tale and folkloric fiction. Some, such as “Light as Mist, Heavy as Hope,” rework familiar tales, often bringing female figures into the limelight as the protagonists. Others, such as “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter,” feature women struggling against those who have wronged them. The bonds of family are sometimes treacherous, as in “By the Weeping Gate” and “Sister, Sister.” Slatter’s prose is reminiscent of oral storytelling; there is a sense that these stories are legends that have been handed down from generation to generation. But the women who star in them feel like real people, not mythic figures, and are agents unto themselves, with a variety of flaws and skills that shape them into fascinating characters. Slatter’s worlds are many and diverse but feel somehow linked, and she renders them vividly. Her fiction will appeal to readers who enjoy highly inventive fantasy rooted in age-old tradition. Agent: Ian Drury, Sheil Land Associates (U.K.). (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Under the Midnight Sun

Keigo Higashino, trans. from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith with Joseph Reeder. Minotaur, $26.99 (560p) ISBN 978-1-250-10579-0

Though Higashino’s previous puzzle mysteries, like 2011’s The Devotion of Suspect X, matched cleverness with well-rounded characters, the Japanese author ups his game with this epic whodunit featuring an intricate plot that spans two decades. In 1973, Osaka homicide detective Sasagaki looks into the fatal stabbing of pawnshop owner Yosuke Kirihara in an abandoned building. From the tidiness of the victim’s clothes and other signs that suggest there was no struggle, Sasagaki concludes that Kirihara knew his killer. Interviews with Kirihara’s widow and a coworker lead nowhere, but Sasagaki refuses to give up on the case. His continuing investigation plays out against the story of Kirihara’s 10-year-old son, Ryo, and Yukiho Nishimoto, the daughter of a customer of the dead man who may have had more than a professional relationship with him. Higashino successfully sustains momentum, despite the book’s considerable length, as he traces Ryo and Yukiho’s different paths to adulthood and plausibly portrays their psychological development. Subtle clues fairly set up the dramatic and surprising resolution. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Comet Seekers

Helen Sedgwick. Harper, $25.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-244876-7

Former research physicist Sedgwick mines the mysteries of the solar system and human desire to craft a haunting and wonderfully ethereal debut novel about first loves, inescapable loss, and the search for one’s place in a complicated world. When Róisín, an Irish scientist studying comets, and François, a French chef, reunite at a research base in the frigid wilds of Antarctica in 2017, the two seem virtually broken because of their respective pasts. Róisín, who followed her intergalactic studies from Ireland and France to Hawaii and New York over the course of decades, spent just as many years trying to make sense of and move beyond an illicit relationship with her cousin Liam. François arrived at the base with his own baggage: Severine, his dying mother, had insisted throughout her life that the ghosts of her ancestors are real. Sedgwick tackles a centuries-spanning interconnected narrative by placing each chapter within the context of a comet’s appearance in the sky. The sections that chronicle Severine’s conversations with her dearly departed are marked by their magical realism, but those that explore Róisín and Liam’s star-crossed romance are the standouts, both quietly moving and delicately portrayed. Uniquely structured and stylistically fascinating, the multilayered story comes full circle in a denouement that is both heartbreaking and satisfying. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Wangs vs. the World

Jade Chang. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26 (368p) ISBN 978-0-544-73409-8

In Chang’s sparkling debut novel, a family whose fortune has been lost in the 2008 financial crisis takes a cross-country road trip in an effort to regroup. Bouncy patriarch Charles Wang, who immigrated to Los Angeles from China by way of Taiwan when he was a young man and made a fortune manufacturing makeup, drives his daughter, teenage Grace, an avid fashion blogger, and his son, Andrew, an aspiring stand-up comic, across the country with Barbra, their stepmother. Their destination is a little town in the Catskills, where his oldest daughter, Saina, a conceptual artist who has retired in shame from the New York City art world, lives. The family stops in New Orleans, where virginal Andrew becomes temporarily involved with an older woman, and in Alabama, where Charles attempts to deliver a U-Haul full of custom makeup to a boutique country store. Various small crises, notably Saina’s attempt to decide between a sweet new lover and an unreliable older one, keep the plot percolating. Chang’s charming and quirky characters and comic observations make the novel a jaunty joy ride to remember. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Not-So-Straight Sue

Cheyenne Blue. Ylva, $15.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-3-9553359-7-7

A melodramatic closeting backstory, an implausible motivation for a character’s huge change of life, and limp pacing mar Blue’s latest feel-good fluffy romance (after Never-Tied Nora), but at least her love for the Australian landscape comes through clearly. Newly promoted London-based lawyer Sue Brent, who has insisted she is straight even to her best queer friends, makes a sudden decision to return home to the outback of Queensland, Australia, to confront the trauma of her youth and restart life as an out lesbian. On hearing the news, Texas-based Mon, Sue’s gay email buddy for the last three years, takes a job in Queensland with the Flying Doctor Service, hoping to get to know Sue better. Of course the two women click. The family scenes are heartwarming, and the sex scenes are sweet, loving, and hot, but Sue’s processing of her history over and over—both in her own head and when interacting with the woman who treated her poorly in high school—is shallow and annoying, making the coming-out portion of the narrative unrelatable. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Can’t Hide from Me

Cordelia Kingsbridge. Riptide, $18.99 trade paper (338p) ISBN 978-1-62649-444-2

In this intense contemporary romantic thriller, estranged lovers reunite under adrenaline-charged circumstances. When ATF agent Charles Hunter and his team extract a fellow agent who’s spent two years undercover in a Mexican drug cartel, Charles is stunned to realize the agent is Ángel Medina, the only man he’s truly cared for. Before Ángel can adjust to life away from the cartel, he becomes the victim of a stalker who follows him around the American West and Southwest, seeming to know where he is at all times. Evidence suggests the stalker is the drug lord he slept with while undercover—a man Ángel thought was dead. While Charles tries to keep Ángel safe, they renew their own relationship, a highly charged affair mainly consisting of sizzling sex and intense arguments. Charles is reluctant to come out as bisexual, and the stalker is determined to have Ángel for keeps; it seems as though the two men will never get their happy ending. Kingsbridge crafts a fast-paced story filled with emotional ups and downs, spiced with explicit sex scenes and twined with a convincingly nerve-racking tale of ruthless obsession. The combination of romance, eroticism, and the mystery of Ángel’s stalker is sure to keep readers turning the pages. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Hero in the Highlands

Suzanne Enoch. St. Martin’s, $7.99 ISBN 978-1-250-09541-1

Enoch (Some Like It Scot) produces another bold Highland fling in this stirring historical romance. Maj. Gabriel Forrester is enjoying the Duke of Wellington’s 1812 campaign near Salamanca in Spain when he receives the unexpected news that he is now the Duke of Lattimer, a title that comes with a 10,000-acre estate in Scotland. The estate was originally owned by Scottish lairds, and it’s been cursed ever since it was taken over by the hated English. He arrives to find the place run by black-eyed Scottish spitfire Fiona Blackstock, who despises all Englishmen. She predictably goes weak in the knees in Gabriel’s presence, disguising it by raging at his English arrogance—which is a cover for his own developing attraction to her. Gradually, they manage to overcome all the barriers that separate them. Enoch alternates Fiona’s spunky feminism with Gabriel’s down-to-earth pragmatism in this adventurous tale of sex and war, and Gabriel proves himself a dashing expert at both. With colorful secondary characters, judicious lashings of Scots dialect, and lush summertime Highland landscapes, Enoch creates a heady romantic atmosphere that’s sure to captivate the genre’s eager audience. Agent: Nancy Yost, Nancy Yost Literary. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Change of Address

Jordan S. Brock. Riptide, $17.99 trade paper (312p) ISBN 978-1-62649-464-0

Brock combines heat and heart in this enjoyable contemporary. Michael, an Air Force veteran, is the son of a wealthy state governor who doesn’t know Michael is gay. On top of the constriction of the closet, he’s struggling with PTSD and aphasia after a career-ending head injury. He and his service dog move into his parents’ vacation home on Hartsbridge Island, somewhere on the east coast of the U.S. The first time Michael walks into the island’s bagel shop, he inspires a major crush in Josh, the shop’s owner. The two quickly become serious romantic partners, and everything is great until a photo of the two men kissing shows up in a local newspaper. Michael’s conservative Christian father is livid and pressures Michael to leave Josh—and the best relationship he’s ever had. Brock thoughtfully and unflinchingly covers many serious subjects, including adult illiteracy and the culture clash between Michael’s background and Josh’s liberal, working-class Jewish upbringing, adding gravitas to the romantic story. Sometimes playfully loving and other times intensely thought-provoking, this tale is a pleasure to read. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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