Friday, March 15, 2019

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is March 20!

Hey, hey, hey!  For those participating in the 2019 #TBRChallenge, a reminder that your commentary is "due"on Wednesday, March 20.  This month's theme is Favorite Trope!

Secret baby? Friends-to-Lovers? Brother's Best Friend? Amnesia? Marriage of Convenience? Mail Order Bride? Pick a trope, any trope! They're all good this month.

A reminder that, as always, the themes are completely optional.    The goal is to read something, anything, that has been languishing in your TBR.

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.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Mini-Review: The Girl They Left Behind

Because I'm incapable of saying no, I've been neck-deep in what I call "obligation reading" since the dawn of the new year.  Sometimes this is a drag, and sometimes it's a way for me to flex my long dormant hardcore reviewing muscles, a reminder of those days when random books showed up on my doorstep and I read them.  Happily, most of what I've been obligated to read has turned out to be pretty good, which brings me to The Girl They Left Behind, a debut historical fiction novel, by Roxanne Veletzos.  It started out a bit slow for me, but caught fire once the Soviets got their claws into eastern Europe.

Inspired by family history, the story opens with an abandoned girl, no more than a toddler, being found outside an apartment building.  Her parents, fleeing into the night from the Bucharest pogrom, are faced with an impossible decision, ultimately leaving their daughter behind.  She is found by a building resident and taken to a nearby orphanage where she is adopted by a wealthy couple, Anton and Despina Goza.

Despite World War II raging across Europe, life is good for the Goza family.  Little Natalia is doted on, attends Catholic school, and is becoming an accomplished piano player.  Despina is a consummate hostess and Anton the successful owner of a stationary store, after a childhood of poverty and desperation.  There are atrocities all around them, and they carry on - until the war draws to a close, the bombings begin without ceasing, and Romania is "liberated" by the Soviets.  The Iron Curtain falls and life as the Goza's knew it is over.

The story is told in three parts - going from Anton and Despina, to Natalia, to Victor, a young man that Anton befriends during the war who becomes a high ranking official in the Communist government.  And behind the curtain is the story of Natalia's birth parents.  The young couple forced to make an impossible decision in the hopes they will all survive and be reunited one day.

It took me a while to sink into this story.  The first part, covering the adoption is necessary as set-up, but not as riveting as the latter portion of the book, when the tale shifts to an older Natalia's viewpoint and we get the tightening of the Soviet noose around the Romanian people.  To be perfectly frank, World War II as a historical fiction backdrop has taken on a been-there-done-that feel.  What's been less common is post-War stories.  Stories of people "liberated" by the Soviets.  In other words, yeah war is over - but at what cost?  And this story, in part, addresses that.

Since this blog is largely frequented by romance readers, the question probably foremost on your minds is: "Sure Wendy, but does it have a happy ending?"  Well?  Sort of?  Bittersweet is probably the best way to put it.  Natalia finds answers to what became of her biological parents, but it's not a book where everyone is reunited at the end, holding hands, singing Kumbaya and sharing bottles of Coca-Cola in a meadow.  It ends the way, I suspect, it did for many Eastern European immigrants post-World War II.  Trying to carve out better lives for themselves and reunite with the loved ones still back in the old country, stuck behind an Iron Curtain slowly suffocating them.

After a slow beginning I really fell into this story.  It was very engrossing in parts, and I learned stuff - which is always an added bonus when reading historical fiction.  This debut novel has garnered a fair amount of praise and it's easy to see why.

Final Grade = B

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Unusual Historical for February 2019

February: the shortest month of the year that always feels like the longest because hot takes on the romance genre - AMIRITE Y’ALL?! I’ve been neck deep in contest judging which has meant less time online (and aggravated), but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been scouring around for unusual historicals. Wild horses couldn’t keep me away from that. Here’s what looks enticing for February: 

Appetites & Vices by Felicia Grossman
He’s her ticket into high society…  
Banking heiress Ursula Nunes has lived her life on the fringes of Philadelphia’s upper class. Her Jewish heritage means she’s never quite been welcomed by society’s elite…and her quick temper has never helped, either.  
A faux engagement to the scion of the mid-Atlantic’s most storied family might work to repair her rumpled reputation and gain her entrée to the life she thinks she wants…if she can ignore the way her “betrothed” makes her feel warm all over and stay focused on her goal. 
She’s his ticket out…  
Former libertine John Thaddeus “Jay” Truitt is hardly the man to teach innocent women about propriety. Luckily, high society has little to do with being proper and everything to do with identifying your foe’s temptation—an art form Jay mastered long ago. A broken engagement will give him the perfect excuse to run off to Europe and a life of indulgence.  
But when the game turns too personal, all bets are off… 
Carina publishes a historical romance once every six months (yes, this is me being snotty about it…) and frankly that’s enough for me to beg everyone to one-click the heck out of Grossman’s debut. But it’s also a fake engagement trope (squee!) between two messy characters set in 1840s Philadelphia. If I can’t convince you, go read Margrethe’s recent review at Love in Panels

An Unconditional Freedom by Alyssa Cole
An assassination plot that could end the Civil War, and a hidden enemy that could destroy a secret league of unsung heroes …  
Daniel Cumberland, born free in Massachusetts, studied law with dreams of helping his people—dreams that died the night he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Daniel is rescued, but he’s a changed man. When he’s offered entry into the Loyal League, the covert organization of Black spies who helped free him, he seizes the opportunity for vengeance against the Confederacy and those who support it.  
When the Union Army occupies the Florida home of Cuban Janeta Sanchez, daughter of an enslaved woman and the plantation owner who married her, her family’s wealth does not protect her father from being imprisoned. Under duress and blaming herself for the arrest, Janeta agrees to infiltrate a group called the Loyal League as a double agent—and finds a cause truly worth the sacrifice.  
Daniel is aggravated by the headstrong and much too observant new detective he’s paired with, and Janeta is intrigued by the broken but honorable man she is tasked with betraying. As they embark on a mission to intercept Jefferson Davis and thwart European meddling, their dual hidden agendas are threatened by the ghosts of their pasts and a growing affection that could strengthen both the Union and their souls—or lead to their downfall. 
Cole continues her Loyal League series with a romance between a haunted man and a heroine working as a double agent to protect her family. I loved the high stakes conflict in An Extraordinary Union and really need to read A Hope Divided so I can catch up on this series!

The Songbird and the Spy by J’nell Ciesielski
As shells explode over Nazi-occupied France, American music student Claire Baudin is trapped behind enemy lines, struggling to protect her identity. Singing as a barmaid while she plans her escape, a handsome Third Reich captain threatens everything she knows to be true about the enemy.

Nazi Captain Michael Reiner isn't who he claims to be. A British language expert turned spy, he discovers the truth about Claire, but he knows the importance of a secret. Struggling to resist his attraction to the songbird, he's determined to complete his assignment, no matter the cost. His cover is threatened when a ruthless female Gestapo officer arrives, hunting Resistance fighters. The raid forces Michael's hand: complete the mission or save Claire.  
As the war threatens to tear them apart, they must rely on each other for survival. Is there hope—and a future—for an American songbird and a British spy? 
A British spy hero posing as a Nazi officer and an American heroine stuck behind enemy lines. I stumbled across a glowing Publisher’s Weekly review at work and that was enough to entice me to preorder this baby. Note: the Amazon blurb indicates this is light on s-e-x and “may also contain content of an inspirational nature.”

What the Parrot Saw by Darlene Marshall
Hijacking an Englishman from a brothel is all in a day’s work for Captain Mattie St. Armand. She needs protective coloration, and a naïve (and expendable) white man will keep the eyes of the authorities off her as she smuggles slaves from the Florida Territory to freedom in the Bahamas.

Oliver Woodruff wanted a spot of travel in the Caribbean before he settled down, but he never expected “Marauding Mattie.” He’ll help her, but he knows there’s no place in his world for the bastard daughter of a pirate and a freedwoman.   
As Mattie trains him for their ruse, she comes to realize he’s a man she can turn to for support and companionship, and Oliver grows to love the commanding and daring woman who refuses to fit society’s mold… but both are sure their relationship is doomed by society’s taboos.  
It will take danger and adventure (and Roscoe the parrot) to convince them that the passion between them is more than an island fantasy. 
Two words: Lady. Pirate. Also, I feel like I have to give any book a shot that has “a naïve (and expendable) white man” written right in the back cover blurb.

What Unusual Historicals are you looking forward to?

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Review: Finding Dorothy

I've always been fairly upfront about my dislike for the fantasy genre.  Nothing against the genre as a whole, it's just really not my thing. At all. Honestly, it's fairly shocking I enjoyed the Harry Potter series as much as I did - although it should be noted I haven't gone back to revisit it with the same regularly as I would say, oh favorite mystery series.  Still, it's kind of shameful to admit that I never have read, nor have the desire to, the Oz books by L.Frank Baum. Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts would therefore be a book that I, normally, would not pick up on my own.  However, Wendy Can't Seem To Say No. I'm helping out a former employer with an author event soon and this would be "homework reading."  It's an excellent example of being forced into reading something that turned out to be pretty great.

L. Frank Baum has been gone for 20 years by 1938 when his widow, Maud Baum (now 77 years old) shows up on the MGM studio lot to ensure Hollywood doesn't completely trample over her husband's legacy.  She essentially needs to strong arm her way through the gates and into the offices of Louis B. Mayer - but is indulged long enough to be invited back to witness some of the filming...even if she's been unable to get her hands on a final script that seems to change on daily basis.

This is a time slip novel, alternating between the filming of the movie and Maud's past.  In 1938/1939, she's meeting Judy Garland, concerned for the girl being squeezed into submission by a domineering mother and a studio system looking to grind her to dust to make a buck.  The Maud's "past" portion of the story covers her childhood, raised by famous suffragist, Matilda Joslyn Gage, her acceptance into Cornell University, meeting and falling in love with theater actor, L. Frank Baum, and their life together prior to him writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  It's the past portions of the story I enjoyed the most, almost as if Maud was the wizard behind the curtain all along.  Frank was the dreamer, Maud was the glue that kept the whole thing together.

While the Frank and Maud courtship and marriage would definitely be the stuff of a romance novel, readers of this blog (who are predominantly romance readers), should be aware it's not all sunshine and roses.  There are hardships, and events, that are difficult to read about.  Maud nearly dying after the birth of her second child, her sister Julia's weak constitution and disastrous marriage, the beginnings of Judy Garland's descent into drug addiction and the slime orbiting her as a child actor in the studio system.

What I enjoyed so much about this book is that it took completely unknown to me history and made it come alive - which, frankly, is what all good historical fiction should do.  It did get a little tell-y in parts, but I was so engrossed by Maud's life, her marriage, her struggles, juxtaposed with the making of one of the most famous movies of all time, I was sucked up by the magic of the all - even though we all know the magic to be an illusion often hiding ugly realities.

I'm still unlikely to ever read the Oz books, but I've walked away with an appreciation for a woman who I had no inkling about prior.  Maud Baum gets her turn in the spotlight and I can't think of anyone more deserving.

Final Grade = B+

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

#TBRChallenge 2019: Saved by the CEO

The Book: Saved by the CEO by Barbara Wallace

The Particulars: Contemporary romance, Harlequin Romance #4507, 2016, Eighth (and final) book in The Vineyards of Calanetti continuity series, out of print, available digitally.

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: 1) I'm a sucker for the Harlequin Romance line 2) I tend to enjoy Wallace's books and 3) I picked this up at an RWA conference...because of course I did.  It was a Harlequin and not tied down.

The Review: Never let it be said that Wendy half-assed the "Series" prompt for this month's challenge.  The eighth and final book in a multi-author continuity series when, you guessed it, I haven't read a single entry preceding this one.  I'm happy to report that while, yes, it's glaringly obviously that this part of a series, Wallace did a good job of keeping an ignorant newcomer engaged, and there's enough past characters here that I think those already familiar with the series will be happy.

Louisa Harrison went through a publicly humiliating divorce.  As a naive 21-year-old she fell for her older, rich boss.  She thought she was Cinderella, finding her Prince Charming.  Turns out the Prince was emotionally abusive, isolated her from everybody she loved, and in his spare time was running a Ponzi scheme.  Never mind that Louisa was the one who unearthed the evidence against him and hustled it straight to the authorities - as they say, never let the truth get in the way of good gossip.  After a messy divorce, where the tabloids crowned her "Luscious Louisa," she runs off to Tuscany, where it just so happens she inherited a distant relative's falling down palazzo.

Nico Amatucci is the successful vintner who grew up in the shadow of the palazzo, watched it succumb to neglect until the American heiress could be bothered to show up, and keeps the vineyards operational.  Well, more than that, he's turned them into a raging success - in no small part to his wine being the talk of the recent royal wedding that was hosted at the palazzo.  Sparks have been flying since he met Louisa, with tension aplenty, and it spilled over during the wedding when they shared a steamy kiss.  Then she got spooked and ran.

He finds out why she ran over the course of this story.  Thanks to the royal wedding Louisa has been found by the tabloid press and her reputation as a gold-digging hussy who led her "poor husband" to ruin is coming back to haunt her.  Nico, with his take-charge attitude, along with the fact that he's smitten, wants to protect her - not realizing that his "take-charge attitude," coupled with her ex's isolating, emotionally abusive ways, is going to send Louisa running as far and as fast as she can.

As already mentioned, this is the final book in a long-running continuity, but it doesn't take a genius to realize that the chemistry between Louisa and Nico has been simmering for a long time (especially since two previous books featured his siblings as main protagonists...).  So fans would be more than primed to finally get this romance.  As a newcomer, Wallace did a great job of introducing past couples without them sucking the energy out of THIS romance and I never felt like they were unnecessary filler to keep fans happy.  Every past character who shows up serves a purpose in this story.

I also really liked the world-building.  Wallace made me believe in this small, romantic Tuscany village that was seeing an uptick in tourist traffic thanks to a royal wedding.  The atmosphere was really lovely, to the point where I'm half tempted to run away from home.

What didn't work?  Well, this is one of those books where I felt like the characters needed a good therapist before a romance. Nico, bless his heart, is only doing what well-meaning Alpha heroes have done since the dawn of time. As the reader I knew he was only doing what he thought best because he cared for Louisa.  But to Louisa, who has lived through her nightmare of a first marriage?  She sees it as Nico wanting to control her.  She's wrong, of course, but you can see why she would jump to those conclusions. Which signals to me that she's still unpacking the majority of the baggage from her Evil Ex and yes....she needs a therapist.  She's got friends, but nobody she's felt comfortable enough to confide in until the paparazzi ferret her out.  And then she, naturally, confides in Nico.

For his part, Nico has baggage from his parents who had a love/hate/make-up/break-up relationship and he has vowed to never let "passion" rule his good sense.  He found a nice, steady, low-drama girl, got engaged, but when she got tired of being treated like a potted plant, she broke their engagement.  And Nico?  Well, he didn't love her, was mostly with her because there wasn't any of that messy ol' passion, and has pretty much resigned himself to being alone...because he doesn't see it being any other way.  Honestly?  I get it - but damn, I felt sorry for his ex.  I mean, she never shows up on the page, but she sounds like a positively lovely, low-drama kind of gal.  I hope she's somewhere in Italy getting her groove thang on.

I enjoyed the setting, the world-building is very good, and I loved spending a few hours getting swept off my feet.  I poked a few holes in the romance, but this was still very much a Calgon Take Me Away sort of read.

Final Grade = B-

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Reminder: #TBRChallenge is February 20!

Hey, hey, hey!  For those participating in the 2019 #TBRChallenge, a reminder that your commentary is "due"on Wednesday, February 20.  This month's theme is Series (book that is part of a series)!

A reminder that, as always, the themes are completely optional.  Although, let's be honest, the theme this month should be ridiculously easy to follow.  I mean, isn't everything a series these days?  But if a series title isn't gonna cut it and you find a mythical stand-alone book in your TBR calling your name - that's totally cool!  The goal is to read something, anything, that has been languishing in your TBR.

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.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Review: Texas Legacy

I started "seriously" reading romance in 1999.  That's 20 years, a lot of books, and Lord knows I can't tell you what I ate for breakfast this morning but I can tell you EXACTLY when and where I was when I read the Texas trilogy by Lorraine Heath.  It was 2001, I was a wee baby Super Librarian working in Michigan, and my employer sent me to San Francisco to attend the 2001 ALA conference to check out new ILS systems (for you non-librarian types - basically a new catalog system).  This was before ebooks and I took all three books in the trilogy, in print, with me and read them back-to-back-to-back.  I was punch drunk by the time I returned home and deeply in love.

Fans of the trilogy have been, quite literally, waiting for Texas Legacy for 20 years.  It's Rawley Cooper's romance.  Rawley, the abused boy that Dallas Leigh adopted in Texas Glory.  Rawley, who had the world's worst childhood and ultimately was destined to hook up with Dallas' biological daughter, Faith.  I had mixed feelings when Avon made the announcement that this romance, this book, was finally happening.  1) OMG LORRAINE HEATH IS WRITING A WESTERN AND IT'S RAWLEY'S STORY AND OMG SQUEEEEE!  2) Wait a minute, Avon Impulse. Shit, it's a novella and 3) It's been 20 years since I've read the trilogy, will I have time to do a reread?

Ultimately I ditched the idea of a reread.  Look, fans have been waiting for 20 years and a lot people haven't read the original trilogy - frankly this novella needs to sink or swim on it's own merits.  I didn't do a reread even though my recollections of Rawley as a character had largely faded from my memory (seriously, do you know how many books I've read in the last 20 years?).

Did this sink or swim? mostly floats.  It's definitely a novella for fans and I think readers who recently read the original trilogy will get more out of it but...

Meh.  I rewrote this story in my head the entire time I was reading it.  Which...not the greatest sign.

It's been six years since Rawley took off for parts unknown to "find himself" - but a letter from the woman he considers his mother has him coming home.  Dallas Leigh has a had a bit of a medical scare.  Meeting him at the train station is Faith Leigh, Dallas and Cordelia's biological daughter, the woman that Rawley has always loved but has felt is way too good for the likes of him.  And who should happen to meet him at the train station?  Yeah, you guessed it.  And her welcome home present is to sock him right in the jaw.

Rawley left six years ago without so much as a by-your-leave, so yeah - Faith is a tinch hurt and upset.  They grew up together.  She idolized him.  For him to just take off, without a word?  But Rawley's about to find out a lot has changed since he left the Leigh ranch.  Namely, Faith is not the innocent, young girl she once was...

So where did this go wrong?  Namely, in the fact that this is a novella.  And I say this as someone who LIKES novellas.  Heath writes a handful of chapters in flashback to detail why Rawley left six years ago, with the rest of the story taking place when he comes home.  You know what would have been great?  A full-length novel opening up with several chapters before Rawley left, a few chapters covering the period right after Rawley left, and then the final half of the book detailing Rawley coming home, reuniting with Faith, dealing with their respective baggage and living happily ever after.  Instead, as a novella, we get a climactic finish that strains credulity (really, the bad guy has been gone for SIX YEARS and suddenly just decides to show up right at the moment when Rawley decides to come home?) and a rushed romance that relies heavily on the fan's nostalgic feelings for the original trilogy.

Is this "bad?" No, it's not bad. It just could have been so much better. A historical western set in the early 20th century as civilization began altering the landscape even more (motion pictures, motor cars, oil men carving up Texas etc.).  It could have been so much bigger, more sweeping, and instead it's like a nice little novella love note instead.  Hey, nothing wrong with that necessarily, but it feels like Heath has wrapped up her saga with a postcard, as opposed to a letter. 

It's fine.  It's nice.  But....meh.

Final Grade = C