Friday, December 15, 2017

Reminder: #TBRChallenge for December 2017

For those of you participating in the 2017 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, December 20.  This month's theme is Holiday.

Otherwise known as the theme Wendy makes y'all suffer through because she can't say no to Christmas romances.  However any holiday will do.  If you have Valentine's Day or Halloween covered in your TBR those totally work!  But what if the idea of a holiday romance sets your teeth on edge and you'd rather be boiled in oil than slog through a Christmas book?  Hey,  no problem! Remember: the themes are optional!  The whole point of the TBR Challenge is to read something, anything, that has been languishing for far too long.

I want to thank everyone who participated and followed along with the 2017 TBR Challenge.  Join us in 2018!  You can participate on any social media platform by using the #TBRChallenge hashtag.  If you're a blogger who would like to sign-up, please see this post for more information.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Top 5 Unusual Historicals for December 2017

For those of you who pay attention to publishing cycles, December traditionally tends to be a dead month.  Thank heavens for self-publishing otherwise this month's Unusual Historicals column would have been a non-starter!  There's a nice bit of variety this month and hopefully a few gems just waiting to be discovered.  Here is what caught my eye for December: and Betrothed by Jenni Fletcher (medieval)
Bound to her enemy

Ruthless warrior Lothar the Frank has laid siege to Castle Haword, but there’s a fiery redhead in his way—and she’s not backing down!

More tomboy than trembling maiden, Lady Juliana Danville would rather die than lose the castle. When she’s caught on opposite sides of a war, a marriage bargain is brokered to bring peace. But is blissful married life possible when Juliana has a dangerous secret hidden within the castle walls?
Fletcher is a newer author to Harlequin Historical, and this is her third release with them (her second medieval).  Naturally I have her first two books lurking in the depths of my Kindle (because of course I do).  I love, love, love tomboy heroines and looks like our fiery redhead must choose marriage in order to save her home.  I'm all in on this one.
Miracle on Ladies' Mile by Joanna Shupe (novella, Gilded Age)

A holiday novella set in New York City's Gilded Age, where anything is possible...

After losing his beloved wife, department store owner Alexander Armstrong seems incapable of anything other than work, despite his ache to be a better father to his daughter.

When he encounters Grace, a charming shop girl designing the store’s holiday window displays, he struggles to accept that perhaps miracles do happen in the most unlikely of places…
There's been a lot of chatter about Shupe's new series with Avon but I haven't seen much (OK any...) mention of this self-published novella.  I'll be frank.  I am, literally, the only reader on the planet who DNF'ed Shupe's celebrated debut novel with Kensington and the "DNF stink" has kept me from trying another one of her books.  WHICH KILLS ME BECAUSE OMG SHE WRITES IN THE GILDED AGE!  But this is a novella and frankly it sounds like Wendy catnip.  I LOVE historical department store settings and the whole single dad thing gets me every. single. time.  I'm going to try this.
The Swan by Piper Huguley (novella, Americana)
A beautiful woman with secrets comes to Noelle to confront a powerful person with the truth...and only six days left to save the town.

Avis Smith is willing to go to Noelle to marry a man she doesn’t know in order to avenge a fourteen year wrong--her abandonment to a life of misery and abuse when she was just six years old. In order to get to Noelle, she has to lie about who she is, but her thirst for vengeance is so strong, she transforms herself into the pious, beautiful bride that JD Jones wants. Still, she never expected to be abandoned at the altar.

 His work as an abolitionist and fighter for justice will not allow storekeeper Liam Fulton to turn his back on the beautiful woman his archenemy is willing to leave at the altar. He figures a way to help Avis out of her predicament, offers to showcase her in his store so that other potential grooms in Noelle will see her and might want to marry the young woman with the long and elegant neck.

When swans mate, they mate for life. When Liam offers to help Avis, he never expects that in working with her to find a resolution to her problem, he discovers a fierce need to protect her. Avis doesn’t know that she might find something better than what she was looking for--a new way to a family and bonds of a strong and life-long lasting love.
This is actually book seven in the multi-author series, The 12 Days of Christmas Mail Order Brides.  It appears to be one of those series where the authors are all operating in the same world (and using the mail order bride hook) but the stories appear to function well as stand-alone reads.  I'm highlighting Piper's book because of my past experience with reading her (she tends to create a wonderful sense of place in her stories - you're reading a historical y'all, there's no mistaking that!) and I follow her on Twitter.  Note to those of you with Kindle Unlimited - it looks like the entire series is available there.  Gorge at the trough mail order bride fans!
The Rancher's Inconvenient Bride by Carol Arens (western)

A Wyoming marriage of convenience…

Agatha Magee has put her difficult past behind her and is living an independent life at the circus. But when William English rescues her—from being shot out of a cannon—their scandalous situation leaves them no option but to get married!

William has no intention of making this more than a marriage in name only. Agatha must somehow change his mind if she’s to have the family she’s always yearned for…

Arens has been writing for Harlequin Historical for a while and her backlist is chock full of westerns.  Has Wendy read her yet?  Of course not.  She's buried in the TBR of Doom. This sounds really interesting!  A heroine in the circus?  A misguided hero who "rescues" her?  I'll give this one a whirl.  And I know y'all usually rely on me for such information (HH, western, what do you mean you've never read her Wendy?!) - but opinions welcome.
A Lily Among Thorns by Rose Lerner (Regency, reprint)
London 1815, just before Waterloo...

After her noble father disowned her, Lady Serena Ravenshaw clawed her way from streetwalker to courtesan to prosperous innkeeper. Now she’s feared and respected from one end of London to the other, by the lowest dregs of the city’s underworld and the upper echelons of the beau monde, and she’ll do anything to keep it that way.

When mild-mannered chemist Solomon Hathaway turns up in her office, asking for her help, she immediately recognizes him from one fateful night years before. She’s been watching and waiting for him for years—so she can turn the tables and put him in her debt, of course, and not because he looked like an angel and was kind to her when she needed it most.

She’s determined not to wonder what put that fresh grief in his eyes. But after a betrayal even Serena didn’t expect, she must put aside her pride and work with Solomon to stop a ring of French spies and save her beloved inn, her freedom—and England itself.
Originally published by Dorchester, then reprinted by Samhain - I imagine Lerner throwing her hands up in the air saying "Screw it, I'm self-publishing it this time!"  OK, seriously - HOW DID I NOT KNOW ABOUT THIS BOOK?!?  OK, so I knew about it.  But not that the whole heroine gets disowned becomes a streetwalker then a courtesan then an innkeeper "thing."  I AM HERE FOR THIS ALL DAY LONG PEOPLE!  Ahem.  I'm blaming this on not reading reviews closely and new back cover copy.  For those of us who missed it the first...and second time around, at the time of this blog post it's a sweet 99 cents in digital.

What Historicals are you looking forward to this month?

Friday, December 8, 2017

All Aboard! #TBRChallenge 2018 Sign-Up

Of course I didn't forget.  It's that time again Bat Cave and Romancelandia residents!  Time to look ahead to the new year, when hope will (hopefully) spring eternal and we begin making big plans to finally (ha ha ha!) conquer our To-Be-Read piles mountain ranges.  It's time to sign up for the the 2018 #TBRChallenge!

I've decided to make some changes this year in the hopes that more casual followers of the Challenge will join in on the fun.  There's, technically, no official sign-up this yearWha?!?!  That's right.

  • If you're on social media all you need to do is use the #TBRChallenge hashtag.  
  • You can use this hashtag on any day, at any time - but we're still going to concentrate on the 3rd Wednesday of every month to kick our commentary into high gear.  
  • The idea is to have at least one day a month where we can always count on there being book chatter.

Participation can happen across all social media platforms and your participation can vary month to month (hey, life happens).  This all being said, if you're like me and plan to have the bulk of your commentary live on a blog please "officially" sign-up by leaving me a comment and a link to your blog.

Why?  Let's get real for a moment.  Blogs are dying and Wendy loves blogs.  So if you are a dinosaur, like me, and still have a blog, I'd like to promote it even if it's in this small way.  I'll provide a link to your blog on the #TBRChallenge 2018 Information Page and hopefully readers will follow you, like what they see, and become new blog followers.

Sound good?  Of course it does!  So what are the themes for 2018?  So glad you asked!

January 17 - We Love Short Shorts! (shorter reads)
February 21 - Backlist Glom (author with multiple books in your TBR)
March 21 - Sugar or Spice (closed door romance or spicy romance)
April 18 - Kicking It Old School (original publication date older than 10 years)
May 16 - Contemporary
June 20 - Comfort Read
July 18 - Favorite Trope
August 15 - Series (book that's part of a series)
September 19 - Historical
October 17 - Paranormal or Romantic Suspense
November 21 - Cover Girl (a book with a pretty cover - or a horrid one)
December 19 - Holiday (any holiday!)

As always, the themes are optional.  Don't like 'em, don't have to use them.  See how easy this is?  I mean really, how could you not want to join in on the fun?

Monday, December 4, 2017

#DeckTheHarlequin: Redeeming the Rogue Knight

There's that old saying about the villain being the hero of his own story, which is why I think so many romance readers love it when an author dusts off a villain from a previous book, redeems him and turns him into a hero.  There's always that added anticipation of "OK Author, how exactly are you going to pull this off?" and it makes for sigh-worthy reading when lo and behold, they manage to do it.

Roger Danby served as the villain in one of my memorable reads from 2016, The Blacksmith's Wife by Elisabeth Hobbes.  Roger isn't a twirling mustache kind of villain - no, he's somehow worse.  He trifles with the heroine, tries to "c'mon baby..." her into bed, discards her for greener pastures, and when she finally settles into marriage with his half-brother he comes slinking back around.  I'd say the guy has the morals of an alley cat, but that would be an insult to alley cats everywhere.

So how exactly is the author going to pull this guy off as hero-worthy in her latest, Redeeming the Rogue Knight?  Well, it's going to take some doing.

After wearing out his welcome in Yorkshire the last time, Roger left to fight in France, eventually joining a group of mercenaries.  He and his squire, Thomas, are back in England to deliver A Very Important Message and recruit men.  They're enjoying the hospitality of a Lord when Thomas makes the mistake of getting caught in a compromising position with the man's daughter.  As they beat a hasty retreat, Roger takes an arrow in the shoulder when they are, naturally, pursued.

However, as luck would have it, Thomas grew up in the area and his family's inn is close by.  Unbeknownst to Thomas, his father is dead and it's only his sister, Lucy, and his nephew, Robbie in residence.  Ahem, his bastard nephew Robbie.  Lucy, you see, never had the benefit of a husband. 

Her brother has been gone for four years.  Four. Long. Years.  So long that she had given up on his ever returning.  And now he's back, bringing trouble she doesn't need to her door.  As if this weren't shocking enough, the man who is with her brother is gravely injured, but still manages to accost her with a punishing kiss (that she enjoys) and a grope (which she does not).  Needless to say their relationship does not get off to the smoothest of starts.

This is a romance that offers sprinkles of both internal and external conflict.  Externally, we've got Roger's injury, the men who are pursuing him, and the message he has for King Edward squirreled away in his saddle bags.  Internally, we've got Roger's past (whoa boy...) and Lucy's tattered reputation.  She had other employment, but came home to the inn when she got pregnant, refusing to the name the father (although it's not kept a secret from the reader) and the only reason her father didn't disown her was because he was dying.  Needless to say, a woman with her reputation, with a bastard child, her inn isn't exactly thriving with business.

This will be a book that will likely divide readers as neither character is what you would call terribly "likable."  Anyone who read the first book already knows how problematic Roger is and he takes his sweet time redeeming himself into any semblance of decency for most of this book.  But you know what?  It works.  I would have loved more about his time in France, mostly because it would have sped up the redemption in the reader's eyes, but to have Roger go from smarmy to choir boy by the end of this book would have been too much.  Instead the author pairs him with the perfect woman and that's where the redemption comes into play. 

To call Lucy prickly would be the understatement of the century and I suspect there will be readers who will tar and feather her for it.  Our girl has had to make some questionable decisions and she spars with Roger for most of this book.  She doesn't trust him (at all) for at least the first half and after that it's wary at best.  I'm sure she'll be accused of being "too mean" to the hero but one, he deserves it, and two, when you factor in Lucy's past you can hardly blame the woman.

What I'll end up remembering most about this story are The Lady Truth Bombs that the author sets off like mini-grenades throughout the story (especially in light of current events). You know why Lucy is so mean to Roger?  Well, because he deserves it.  Even when he tries to do the right thing he's such a hypocritical ass about it that Lucy finally has to lose her last semblance of tolerance.
"I know you want me and you know I want you too.  I've resisted you and tried to ignore the feelings and desires I know will only lead to misery but it hasn't been easy."
"But even if my heart did not race when you look at me in that manner, I won't be one of those women.  All men leave eventually.  It's just a question of time."
There's a certain amount of genius at play here.  Lucy, a woman who had sex, got pregnant, had her son, and is now living with the consequences of her tattered reputation is paired with Roger who has dallied, flirted, and bedded half the women in England and likely a quarter of those living in France.  Yet he is celebrated while she is the pariah.  Ultimately this is the internal conflict at play in the story that I found the most intriguing and made this romantic match-up rather delicious.  Through Lucy Roger sees what a monumental jackass he's been.

The pacing felt a little off to me at times, a bit too leisurely in the beginning and too much of a race in the closing chapters, but the romantic match-up is memorable and what the author says, through the character of Lucy, speaks to the female experience since...well, sadly, the dawn of time. 

Final Grade = B

Postscript: Sigh, I should probably mention that there aren't any sex scenes in this book since readers seem to get bent out of shape over such things.  Honestly?  I'm glad there aren't.  Given the baggage (Lucy's especially!) these two characters burning up the sheets would have felt jarring and out of place in the story's narrative.  Instead readers get some passionate kisses and a rather tender closed door scene that serves to build trust between the couple and bring them emotionally, closer together. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

#DeckTheHarlequin All December Long!

This is all Willaful's fault.  She casually announced on Twitter that she was getting trounced by a friend of hers in their Harlequin GoodReads group and put out the call for folks to join in on a Harlequin reading binge the month of December.

That, naturally, perked up my ears.

Next thing you know Willaful has convinced Elisabeth from Cooking Up Romance to organize the whole thing and we have an official hashtag #DeckTheHarlequin (for all your social media needs).  But even if you're not entrenched in social media - there's still plenty of opportunity to join in on the fun.

Elisabeth has created this entry form.  You can submit one for every Harlequin title you read and at the end we'll be drawing names at random for a series of fabulous prizes!

Check out Elisabeth's blog post for a list of prizes and further details.

The rules are simple.  Any Harlequin, from any line - it all totally counts.  And yes, this includes Mills & Boon, Carina, HQN, Mira, all the category lines, old titles, new titles - really, the possibilities are endless.

Lord knows I have enough to choose from between the Print TBR Pile of Doom and the dumpster fire that is my Kindle.  I hope you'll consider in joining in the fun!

Monday, November 27, 2017

Review: The Baronet's Wedding Engagement
Let's address the elephant in the room shall we?  2017 has been a crap year.  Every morning sees me slowly gaining consciousness, grabbing my phone, checking the news, and immediately regretting that decision while wondering how on Earth people can be 1) this stupid 2) this ignorant and 3) such deplorable human beings.  Needless to say, it has made reading for pleasure rather difficult.  At a time when I desperately want to fall into a story?  I can't.  I simply can't.  It takes me weeks to get through a category length novel.  At this point, audio books are the only thing keeping me afloat while I'm aimlessly floating adrift at sea.

Which makes the return of Jessica Hart to romance a welcome respite.  A couple years ago Hart put that pseudonym on the shelf to focus on her historical fiction novels written as Pamela Hartshorne.  And since Hart was my absolute FAVORITE author working in the Harlequin Romance line?  I'm not proud - I pouted.  But she's been temporarily lured back by Tule Publishing and is part of a new continuity series centering around a royal wedding in the fictional country of San Michele.  People, I fell into The Baronet's Wedding Engagement.  It was comfort food.  Like macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes had a baby.

Flora Deare left her tiny English village of Combe St. Philip to train as a chef.  She loves London, even had herself a steady boyfriend, and then her beloved grandmother died.  Her grandparents basically raised her, and with her grandfather slipping into dementia, she puts her London life on hold and comes home to take care of him.  Naturally her relationship goes kaput and with her grandfather recently passed, she's staying behind in Combe St. Philip to take care of his beloved cat, eventually sell the cottage, and she bakes amazing pastries for the local merchants to sell.  Then wonder of wonders?  Her best friend gets engaged to a Real. Life. Prince!  Hope wants a "small" wedding at the family estate and she wants Flora to cater it.  So she strikes a bargain with Hope's brother, Max Kennard.  She'll cater the wedding at a cut rate, cook meals when he has his children, and in exchange she can use his huge kitchen for her catering business.  Win, win.

Max Kennard is a man with a lot on his plate.  His family, the pride of Combe St. Philip, took a tumble when his father was sent to prison over financial shenanigans.  The family finances in ruins, it was up to Max to save the day, which meant selling everything not tied down in the hope of saving Hasebury Hall (which he did).  But now his sister is marrying into royalty, wants the wedding at her family home and the place is looking a little worn around the edges.  Never mind the fact that it's largely empty of furniture.  The family scandal had a detrimental effect on his marriage, although his ex and he get on fairly well for the sake of their two children.  He's a loner.  A borderline recluse.  He's a pinstripe suit to Flora's bright vibrancy.  And naturally they are perfect for each other.

What we have here ladies and gents is a quiet romance where the characters spend a lot of time talking to each other - which may sound boring, but isn't.  It's happy sigh wonderful.  Max and Flora are both attracted to each other but recognize they have "nothing in common."  Flora is the life of the party, a tall girl with a big personality so different from the willowy wisps that Max seems to favor.  Max is still struggling under the weight of the family scandal and Flora seems well-adjusted on the surface, but is largely marking time and delaying grief over the death of her grandparents.

Inevitably what happens is that for the sake of satisfying a protocol driven future mother-in-law, Max and Flora pretend to be a couple to smooth things over for Hope.  They're both going to be in San Michele anyway - so why not pretend to be a couple to get the Crown Princess off Hope's back about "seating arrangements."

There's nothing flashy here, it's simply a lovely story, lovingly written, about two nice people.  The royal wedding provides a suitably romantic backdrop with the author taking readers through the English countryside and a fictional Mediterranean country (seriously, how romantic can you get?).  The contrast in personalities play well off each other, and when Max finally admits his feelings to Flora it is One. Big. Happy. Romantic. Sigh.

The characters do consummate their relationship, but this is a lovely closed door romance with all the fairy-tale trappings a reader could want.  Although book two in a series, it stands alone fairly well and I sunk right into this story desperately wanting to do nothing else but spend my time reading.  A minor miracle given the dumpster fire of 2017.  Now I'm off to pick up the other three books in the series.

Final Grade = B+

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Review: Call Me

I've known Alison Kent for about as long as I'm been kicking around online Romancelandia - so when her home was flooded during Hurricane Harvey I wanted to support her in the quickest way possible.  I bought some of her books.  I've read Kent before, but as incredible as this is going to sound - I've never actually read any of her early category romances.

I know, right?!  Me.  Wendy.  Category Queen. 

Call Me was first published by Harlequin Temptation in 1996 and Kent's path to publication is one of the more incredible "first call" stories out there.  She was featured on an episode of the CBS news magazine, 48 hours.  The quality isn't the greatest, but you can watch the clip on YouTube

Harley Golden is on a flight back to Houston when she makes eye contact with a devastatingly handsome man across the aisle.  As they're disembarking from the plane he hands her his business card with the words "Call me" scrawled on the back.  Things like this don't happen to women like Harley.  Her self-confidence all ready at a low ebb thanks to an ex-husband who couldn't keep it in his pants, the idea of calling a perfect stranger?  She's not that brave.

Gardner Barnes is one of those millionaire cowboys that crop up in category romance fairly regularly these days.  He's got a busy working ranch, an 18-year-old brother about to graduate high school, and an uncle who lives with them.  His parents are gone, his love life non-existent.  Gardner eats, sleeps and works the ranch.  He's not the kind of guy to toss around his business card in the vain attempt to pick up women.  It's not his style.  But he takes one look at Harley sitting across from him on the plane and he can't say no.  He doesn't want to say no.  So Gardner Barnes does something totally out of character for the first time in his life.

What happens next is that of course Harley calls and of course they keep on calling each other.  The conflict of the story is essentially the long distance nature of their relationship (they're on opposite sides of the state from each other) and that they both want different things out of life.  Gardner wants to find a wife to squirt out a couple of kids for him because he's concerned about "the legacy" of the ranch.  But he doesn't want to fall in love because he doesn't believe in it because his parents screwed him up.  Because of course they did.

Harley's self-esteem took a hit when she divorced Brad so she has decided that the next time around she wants it all.  The whole shebang.  A man who will be devoted to her, worship her, and love her with every fiber of his being.  Oh, and she's not wild about the idea of having kids because, you guessed it, her parents screwed her up.  Because of course they did.

This story starts out fantastic.  It's hard to explain to readers not entrenched in category, but when an author is firing on all cylinders, the tight, shorter word count really sings.  And it sings here.  Kent hits all her emotional beats.  You can tell this was a story where she had an ample amount of time to polish and hone her craft (no looming deadline) because it's very tight and very sharp.

What didn't work as well for me?  The conflict in the second half.  Frankly Gardner begins thinking of Harley as a potential brood mare and that's just about as sexy as it sounds. 
Harley Golden embodied everything female - from the mystery of innocence, to the madness of seduction, to the arousing potential to carry his child.
I liked the guy well enough in the beginning, but when he's all "give up your business and squirt out a couple of kids for me but I can't love you because I don't believe in it" I was hoping that a West Texas lightning storm would fry his behind back to the Dark Ages. 

The Temptation line was billed as Harlequin's sexiest line (at that time) and the heroines definitely tended to run more modern.  We have that here.  Harley is in her 30s, divorced, and runs her own antique business.  Gardner is a sexy, virile cowboy who helps her find her groove thang.  But then it devolves into more traditional roles.  While Harley says she doesn't want kids, but she really means is "Yes, I want kids but only with a husband who loves me" and Gardner is like the Regency era Duke who simply wants to find a woman to squirt out an heir and a spare without any emotional entanglements getting in the way.  The whole thing felt very 1990s.  One foot in "modern" and one foot in "traditional" roles. 

It's probably unfair for me to ding this story for that reason, but here I am - dinging away.  The further along I read the more annoyed I became.  Great premise, interesting characters, and then it devolves into this baby conflict which...ugh.  The long distance relationship, the fact they both have demanding businesses and screwed up childhoods?  Should have been enough.  So what started out as a solid B read slid downhill the further we descended into Baby Drama-Rama.

Final Grade = C