Friday, September 13, 2019

Review: The Downstairs Girl

Books like The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee always turn me That Person.  The Old Person who shakes her fist at the "young whippersnappers" who don't realize "how good they have it nowadays" because "back in my day we read discarded newspapers left in the snow and the backs of old cereal boxes."  OK, not really.  But oh my, the wonders you can find in Teen Fiction in this day and age! 

Jo Kuan is seventeen, lives with her "uncle" Old Gin (the man who raised her), and is making her way working for a milliner in Atlanta.  Well, until Mrs. English has to "let her go" never mind she's light years a better employee than her white counterpart.  Old Gin tells her no problem! She can go back to work for Paynes', one of Atlanta's wealthiest, most elite families.  The problem being that Jo will be a ladies maid to daughter Caroline, who is a spoiled and spiteful Southern bell.  But work is work and frankly, Mrs. Payne is paying her well. 

Complications arise though when their housing is threatened.  For years Jo and Old Gin have been squatting in a basement underneath the home and business of the Bell family, who run one of the many newspapers in Gilded Age Atlanta.  The basement was once used by abolitionists, so it's very secretive and tricked out with all sorts of handy features like a "listening tube."  Which is how Jo knows the newspaper is in trouble.  If the Bell's go belly-up, that could spell doom for Jo and Old Gin.  They need to drum up sales, and Jo thinks she has the answer - an Agony Aunt column.  Which she writes and drops off anonymously.  And since Jo wrote it?  Well, there's plenty of sass, spunk, and controversy...which soon follows.  But hello?  Controversy sells.  The Bell's business is soon booming!

Sprinkled in between Jo navigating work at the Paynes' and writing the Agony Aunt column (while working to stay anonymous) is the story of her past.  She never knew her parents and other than saying she was literally left on his doorstep, Old Gin is tight-lipped on the subject.  Naturally, this being Teen Fiction, Jo's past eventually comes home to roost.

Lee starts this story with a number of threads, a number of characters, and eventually braids all those threads to reach our final conclusion.  It's kind of slow going in the beginning, with an array of secondary players and Jo's life juxtaposed between dealing with Caroline Payne, looking out for Old Gin, struggling with the secrets of her past, and trying to help the Bell's without blowing her cover.  Especially to Nathan Bell who Jo feels like she practically grew up with - just, you know, hiding underneath him in a old abolitionist's basement.

The author does an excellent job of addressing the harsh realities of Jo's life in Atlanta as one of a small population of Chinese, on the cusp of Jim Crow laws taking root.  There's racism and sexism, exclusion from the burgeoning suffragette movement (votes for women - but white women only thankyouverymuch) and yet there's a buoyancy to the narrative.  Jo knows her reality, but that doesn't make her powerless, and watching her navigate her way around obstacles is half the fun.  Anytime she backed Caroline into a corner was worth the price of admission alone!

While definitely Teen Fiction, this is a book I think many historical fiction and romance fans will enjoy.  This is definitely "romantic elements" and while I wanted MORE romance (I always want MORE romance!), I ultimately think the authorial choice to leave that part of the story as is was the best route to take.  This is ultimately a story of Jo's present reconciling with her unknown past and the complicated choices women throughout history have had to make for a bunch of super annoying, destructive and sad "reasons."  Buy it for a teen in your life, but maybe read it and enjoy it for yourself first.

Final Grade = B+

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is September 18!

Hey, hey, hey!  For those participating in the 2019 #TBRChallenge, a reminder that your commentary is "due"on Wednesday, September 18.  This month's theme is Kicking It Old School! (original publication date over 10+ years)

This would be the point in my reminder post where I drop the bomb that 10 years ago was 2009 (OMG!) - which means if your TBR is anything like my TBR - well, you've probably got a wealth of options.  Not to mention how many authors have been reprinting old backlist titles now that their rights have reverted back.  But maybe you're an overachieving and don't have older books languishing in your TBR?  Or maybe that book that's only a year old is calling your name?  Hey, no problem!  Remember that the monthly themes are always optional.

If you're participating on social media, please remember to use the #TBRChallenge hashtag so people can follow along.

And it's not too late to sign up!  Simply leave a comment on this reminder post.

You can learn about the challenge and check out the full list of blogging participants on the information page.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Retro Review: The Challenge

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00D2CM380/themisaofsupe-20
This review of The Challenge by Susan Kearney was originally posted at The Romance Reader in 2005.  Back then I rated this 2-Hearts (D Grade) with an MPAA sensuality rating of NC-17.

+++++

Another promising story shot down by an ass masquerading as a hero.

Tessa Camen is a Secret Service Agent charged with protecting the first female President of the United States. Despite a rough and lonely childhood spent in multiple foster homes, Tessa has become a self-reliant, self-sufficient adult with an excellent job and service record. And she doesn’t hesitate when the President is threatened. Tessa does what she is trained to do – she throws herself in front of an assassin’s bullet.

However instead of ending up dead, Tessa ends up several hundred years in the future. She’s on a spaceship with a hunky alien named Kahn who’s telling her she has been selected by Earth to compete in The Challenge. If she passes this mysterious test, Earth will be invited to join an intergalactic federation. This is vital since Earth needs the technology that the Federation can provide in order to clean up its highly polluted environment.

Kahn is shocked to realize that Earth has selected a woman for the competition. He’s totally ill-equipped to train her and flummoxed by her 21st century opinions. Silly notions like women are equal to men and can voice their own opinions, work outside the home, and fight in combat. Tessa may be living in the future now, but her trainer and love interest is stuck in Prehistoric times.

The positive in this story has got to be Tessa, who is actually a really kick-ass babe. She’s tough, trained extensively in martial arts, and used to men underestimating her abilities. While she was once in love, they never consummated their relationship and he was killed in the line of duty. Part of the reason Tessa was chosen for The Challenge is because she’s a virgin (2019 note: OF COURSE SHE IS!!!).  Kahn decides to awaken her latent psi abilities by putting her in a suit that sexually frustrates her. Tessa is obviously not happy with this plan, and begs instead for Kahn to train her like a man – you know, crazy ideas like hand-to-hand combat.

Instead Kahn spends the whole blessed book acting like a Neanderthal. After a while I forgot Tessa had a name because he kept referring to her as “Woman.” How’s that for romance? Then he proceeds to berate her over the entire course of the story because women from his planet obey their men, do as they are told, and don’t initiate sex. Men call the shots and that’s the way Kahn likes it. This leaves Tessa at a disadvantage since our poor girl has a mind of her own.

For her part Tessa puts up a bit of a fight, but eventually caves thanks to Kahn sexually humiliating her - and golly he’s just so dang hot! So instead of doing something useful, like finding a gun and shooting him, she continues to argue with him, train for The Challenge and look for ways to please him.

Excuse me while I cough up a hairball.

Original Tor Cover
The last 100 pages or so of the story do improve a bit because Kahn stops scrapping his knuckles on the ground. He still calls her woman – but we can’t expect miracles. The sex is also pretty hot, if you can get past the displeasure of Kahn humiliating Tessa on a couple of occasions by bringing her to the brink then abandoning her. My hero. It’s not really domination and submission play per se, but there is some kinkier stuff involved (such as spanking) that makes these scenes comparable to a romantica (2019 note: review written before we all settled on "erotic romance" as a term) novel.

Despite the intriguing promise of the plot, The Challenge is ultimately an extremely frustrating read. In her forward Kearney mentions that she first wrote this story in the early 1990s, but at that time no one was buying “sexy paranormals.” However it’s hard to find any book “sexy” when the hero leaves the reader so cold that it’s like shooting over Niagara Falls naked, in a barrel, in February. It’s really too bad Tessa never looked for a gun on that spaceship. She could have disposed of the hero that evolution forgot.

+++++

Wendy Looks Back: Oh, the mid-2000s. When paranormal became the hot sub genre du jour, publishers were begging for it, and every writer who read Warrior's Woman by Johanna Lindsey one too many times started unearthing every half-baked manuscript from depths of their filing cabinet. I remember this hero being of the intolerable Old School Bodice Ripper variety - and that was nearly 15 years ago.  I can't imagine he's aged much better in the intervening years....

Friday, September 6, 2019

Retro Review: Lion Heart

This review of Lion Heart by Tanya Anne Crosby was originally posted at The Romance Reader in 2000.  Back then I rated it 2-Hearts (D grade) with an MPAA sensuality content rating of PG-13.

+++++

Tanya Anne Crosby returns to the Scottish Highlands in this latest installment of her long running series. But while fans may find this return trip enjoyable, new readers will find this story less satisfying.

Broc MacEanraig was off playing on the day Englishmen murdered his whole family. Even though he was only 7 at the time, he felt he should have been there to defend them. Shortly thereafter, he is taken in by the MacKinnon clan, and grows up to be a loyal servant to the laird. Because of his guilt, Broc seems to be drawn into perilous situations by damsels in distress. So when he happens across the English Elizabet in trouble, he swears to see her to safety.

Elizabet is the bastard daughter of a courtesan, and her newly married father sends her and her half-brother, John, off to Scotland to live with his cousin, Piers de Montgomerie. Piers has no idea they are coming, and Elizabet fears they will be turned away. Even worse, her father sent her dowry along, and she fears that Piers just may wed her off. Traveling under the watchful eye of her stepmother’s brother, Tomas, Elizabet separates from the group in search of her wayward dog, Harpy.

She finds Harpy, along with Broc, and the two immediate begin bantering. But while Broc is intrigued, he’s not so distracted that he doesn’t notice a bowman in the woods, aiming right for Elizabet! He immediately takes her captive, determined to find out who would want to kill her. Not wanting to send her back into the path of danger, he decides to keep her hidden in the woods, until he can fully assess the situation.

Elizabet’s disappearance stirs up trouble in the highlands. Tomas wants her back, and enlists the help of Piers, his men, and several of Broc’s own friends to find her. None of them know Broc’s involvement, and Broc fears that once they do find out, the peace among the clans will be disrupted. The only way to keep Elizabet safe is to find out who the mysterious bowman is, and why he would want her dead. But that means hiding away with her in the woods, and their growing attraction is soon too intense for either of them to deny.

The main problem with long running romance series is that future books are soon overrun with characters. This story includes secondary characters that were once romantic leads in previous installments: Piers and Meghan, Colin and Serana, Iain and Page. Meghan and Colin are siblings and they have two brothers, Gavin and Leith. Iain also has children -- Cameron and Constance. Add to this menagerie Tomas and John, and while they don’t make appearances -- Elizabet’s father and stepmother -- and the list of characters to keep track of is out of control. Many of these characters simply take up space, which could have been better spent on Broc and Elizabet.

Original Cover
Elizabet is immediately problematic due to the ease in which she learns to trust Broc. She doesn’t have a very rosy view of men, no doubt due to her mother’s profession, and has sworn to never marry or fall prey to a man’s charms. Yet she almost immediately believes Broc’s story about the bowman, and voluntarily stays in hiding with him. She supposedly doesn’t trust men, but she quite willingly and expediently tumbles into Broc’s embrace. Some hesitancy would have made her more credible. 

Broc is a likeable sort of hero, but I soured on him the minute he begins to compulsively lie to not only Elizabet, but Iain (his own laird) and Colin (his best friend). Broc doesn’t tell the little white variety either, his lies are real doosies. And while he has his own reasons, they just aren’t good enough excuses to look past the things he chooses to lie about.

Readers who have followed this series from the beginning will probably get more pleasure out of Lion Heart than I did. Too many, unnecessary secondary characters cluttering the plot, Broc’s blatant lying, and Elizabet’s lack of hesitancy were just too much for me to overcome.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Retro Review: Never Trust a Lady

 Book Cover
This review of Never Trust a Lady by Suzanne Robinson was originally posted at The Romance Reader in 2008.  Back then I rated this 3-Hearts (C grade) with an MPAA-style content rating of "G."

++++

Lady Eva Sparrow is a young widow and squeezing all the fun out of life that she can. After an unhappy childhood, and dreadful marriage, Eva has spent the last few years traveling aboard and having various adventures. However, it is while visiting friends in Mississippi, at the dawn of the Civil War, that Eva finds herself called to action. Horrified by slavery, she is determined to help any way she can – and she gets her wish when she learns that her British political connections could aid the Union cause.

Ryder Drake owns a ranch in Texas, but the threat of war has led him to set up a Union spy network to keep tabs on the Confederates. He also wants to make sure that the South fails in rallying support from the British – and to do that he needs an insider who can introduce him to British political figures. He really doesn’t want to enable the help of Lady Eva Sparrow, thinking she’s just another bubble-headed female.

However Ryder soon learns of an assassination attempt that would surely mean Britain declaring war on the Union. He has exhausted all other possibilities and must try to gain favor with Lady Eva – a task that finds him in a perilous situation since he has grossly underestimated her intelligence.

I feel fairly confident in saying that Never Trust A Lady is not a romance. Oh sure, there’s a romance – but it is most definitely a subplot and not wholly satisfying. Lady Eva is normally the sort of heroine I like. She was dissatisfied playing the beautiful, empty-headed hostess to her much older husband and has spent her widowhood traveling, learning and basically having her own opinions. For the bulk of the story I found her rather refreshing – although there are a couple of instances where she comes off like a petulant child because the boys won’t listen to her.

Ryder has mommy issues. Like many romance heroes before him, his mother was a society shrew who only cared for baubles and parties, therefore neglecting her marriage and only son. Sigh. So naturally because Eva is a British Lady and moves in certain desirable circles, she must be a ninny. He eventually realizes that he’s the moron, but this same old song and dance routine was more than a little disappointing.

What does work much better than the romance is Robinson’s skill when it comes to writing history, and her inclusion of real historical figures was an added bonus. Notable secondary characters include Alan Pinkerton, Abraham Lincoln, and Queen Victoria herself. The Victorian London setting is also well done – right down to gaslights, seedy slums, and descriptions of the sewer system.

The mystery of the assassination attempt is middle of the road. The author does toss in an acceptable red herring – but sad to say that I pretty much knew where it was going before I had actually concluded the journey. Readers who pick up mystery novels with any sort of frequency may find themselves in the same boat. That said, I never got bored with the main focus of the story, and easily kept turning the pages.

Enjoyment of Never Trust A Lady hinges on what the reader is looking for. Those wanting a romance will probably find themselves frustrated, while those looking for a historical novel should be more satisfied. The ending also leaves this reviewer pondering if this is the potential birth of a new series – as while there is a happily ever after, it’s not exactly signed, sealed and delivered. It certainly wouldn’t be out of the question – which could make Never Trust A Lady of particular interest to fans of historical mystery series.

+++++

Wendy Note: Another book I have absolutely no recall on but my sleuthing indicates that this book never did spin out into a series.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Unusual Historical Best Bets for August 2019

I’m not sure where 2019 has gone, but here we are - already in August. RWA has come and gone, the kids are either already back in school or will be very soon, and large swaths of the US are looking forward to Pumpkin Spice Everything. While, on one hand, I felt energized at RWA to come home and “read all the things,” the reality has been “um, not so much.” Distracted and cranky seems to be the mood of the moment. So to snap myself out of it, why not browse for intriguing sounding unusual historicals? Here are the August releases that caught my eye.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B07Q3LDH34/themisaofsupe-20
Dalliances & Devotion by Felicia Grossman
A change in course can be refreshing…when it’s done together.

1871

After two disastrous marriages, beauty columnist Amalia Truitt’s life is finally her own—well, it will be if she can get herself back to Delaware and demand access to her share of the Truitt family fortune. After all, the charity she’s organized for women who can’t afford their own divorces won’t fund itself.

However, not everyone wants her to reach her destination. When her family learns she’s been receiving anonymous death threats, a solo journey is out of the question.

Enter David Zisskind, the ragtag-peddler-turned-soldier whose heart Amalia broke years ago. He’s a Pinkerton now, and the promotion he craves depends on protecting his long-lost love on the unexpectedly treacherous journey across Pennsylvania.

That their physical connection has endured the test of time (and then some) is problematic, to say the least.

In very close quarters, with danger lurking around every curve, with each kiss and illicit touch, the wrongs of the past are righted. But David can’t weather another rejection, especially with his career in jeopardy. And Amalia can’t possibly take a lover, never mind another husband…not with so much depending on her repaired reputation. Not when she’s hurt David—her David—so badly before.
Wendy general rule of thumb: it’s a historical romance published by Carina - one-click it on principle (seriously, they publish so little of it - I’m hoping the ol’ “vote with your dollars” might start to actually work). This is the second book in Grossman’s Truitt series and honestly what isn’t to love about this back cover blurb? A twice divorced heroine, a Pinkerton agent hero with a tattered past, and a reunion romance. Wendy catnip y’all.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B07MGRLZ3H/themisaofsupe-20
A Little Light Mischief by Cat Sebastian
A seductive thief

Lady’s maid Molly Wilkins is done with thieving—and cheating and stabbing and all the rest of it. She’s determined to keep her hands to herself, so she really shouldn’t be tempted to seduce her employer’s prim and proper companion, Alice. But how can she resist when Alice can’t seem to keep her eyes off Molly?

Finds her own heart

For the first time in her life, Alice Stapleton has absolutely nothing to do. The only thing that seems to occupy her thoughts is a lady’s maid with a sharp tongue and a beautiful mouth. Her determination to know Molly’s secrets has her behaving in ways she never imagined as she begins to fall for the impertinent woman.

Has been stolen

When an unwelcome specter from Alice’s past shows up unexpectedly at a house party, Molly volunteers to help the only way she knows how: with a little bit of mischief.
It’s like romance authors got together and decided to publish all the Wendy Catnip in the month of August. This novella, part of Sebastian’s Turner series, features a thief turned Lady’s maid and an upright Lady’s companion. Library Journal gave this a starred review and called it a “fun, sexy romp.” If I wasn’t sold already, that sealed it.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B07QKL63CD/themisaofsupe-20
Reclaimed by her Rebel Knight by Jenni Fletcher
Married to a perfect stranger…
Reunited with her warrior husband

When Constance inherited her father’s lands, she had no choice but to marry cold-hearted Matthew Wintour. He left her for the battlefield, without even a wedding night. Five years later, Matthew has returned a valiant knight! But Constance is no longer a frightened girl. And, this time, she must reach out to discover the honorable man behind the armor and what pleasures await them in the marriage bed…


Ah, the hero who takes off before the wedding night - seriously, will these guys never learn? And it was an arranged marriage no less. The back cover blurb entices me with the promise of a heroine with gumption and I’m a sucker for marriage of convenience tropes of all stripes.

A pretty light month as far as unusual historicals go. What are you looking forward to reading this month? What unusual historicals have you recently unearthed from your TBR?

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

#TBRChallenge 2019: Bound To You

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B07DZCSTDQ/themisaofsupe-20
The Book: Bound to You by Shawntelle Madison

The Particulars: Contemporary romance, first in series, 2016, In Print, Self-published reprint, originally published by Loveswept (check your digital TBRs folks!)

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: I have an autographed copy I picked up at RWA 2018.  I cannot recall specifics, but I think I may have purchased this at the Literacy Signing.

The Review: Books like this one depress me. Look, part of this is Wendy being Wendy.  There are BDSM themes in this book and anyone who has been reading this blog for any stretch of time will know that I was over BDSM by the time That Trilogy got a hold of the public consciousness.  So some of this on me.  But the rest of it?  There are bones of a good story here, one I think I would have really enjoyed - but the execution, what was focused on and what was not?  Oh, what might have been...

Sophie Ashton lives in Boston and is a personal concierge.  She's used to dealing with demanding clients who have more money than good sense. Her latest client is Xavier Quinn, a tech start-up hotshot visiting from the west coast.  He's trying to land a deal with a Japanese firm, and getting rebuffed as an "upstart" at every turn. His fish is currently in Boston, so Xavier makes the trip to hopefully get a sit-down and close the deal.  And for that he needs Sophie.  The problem?  They're both attracted to each other.  Xavier is cognizant of that fact that Sophie is his employee (even if only temporarily) and Sophie has been burned before by mixing business with pleasure - a relationship that ended poorly and that she's still not quite over.

So where does the BDSM fit in? Well, Sophie is "kinky" and a sub. Xavier is "kinky" and a Dom.  And naturally Sophie has a BFF and roommates all with various leanings - because, of course.  As far as how heavy the BDSM is?  It's pretty light.  Sophie is still wearing the leather cuffs given to her by her former lover and likes to be tied up in bed, given orders etc.  That's about the extent of it - and that's probably what my problem was.  It didn't always feel organic.  Like it was tossed in for "kinky flavor" but not really delved into too deeply as part of the character development.  Where it was interesting was in relation to Sophie's and Xavier's past relationships but the author only gives us teasing glances which added to my frustration.

Given the way the relationship ended, and WHY it ended, a "showdown" with Sophie's ex is inevitable.  When it arrives on the page?  It's a couple of pages.  That's it.  Oh, Sophie's part in it is great - she pretty much verbally slaps the guy into next Tuesday, but it could have been so much more.  And Xavier's ex?  She got ill and died.  It's teased that Xavier is still haunted by her death but the extent of that revelation was epic disappointment.
I was one of the richest men in the world, yet I couldn't even save a woman who didn't love me as deeply as I loved her.
THAT'S IT?!?!?!  You drop a bomb like that and don't go into any past history of why Xavier felt like his ex didn't love him as deeply as he loved her?  HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO PROCESS THIS?!  And this isn't the only way Xavier's character gets short-changed.  He has a strained relationship with his family.  He was once the golden child, something happened, now he's no longer the golden child.  The author dashes of an explanation at the end, but it's weak sauce and not delved into very much at all (an injury ended his athletic career which was apparently a big deal to his mother? I guess? Why? Who knows!).  Xavier's family doesn't come into play until the last couple of chapters and frankly that dynamic was just screwy and interesting enough that I felt like the author ended up short-changing it by not spending more time developing that angle.

Look, I get that the author was aiming to create a world and that a lot of romance readers get frustrated when the hero and/or heroine lack friendships.  But those friendships shouldn't come at the expense of the meat and potatoes of the romance. You know...the thing we're all reading romance novels for. Just when I thought I was going to get a deeper dive into the characters, their pasts, their complicated relationships with family and exes, the author veers left and skates around the edge of it.  It ends up being fairly surface and teases of so much more that never really pays off.  At only 263 pages (I read a print copy), I alternated between wanting a red pen to cut out filler or wishing this was beefed up to 300+ pages to flesh everything out.

Which makes it sound like I didn't like this book.  I did like it, but I could have loved it and that's my issue.  I was all geared up for some emotional heavy lifting and it just didn't bear fruit.  Oh well.

Final Grade = B-