Saturday, October 22, 2016

Review: Black Diamond
Black Diamond by Susannah Sandlin was brought to my attention by a publicist.  Having never heard of the author before (she also writes urban fantasy as Suzanne Johnson), I took a chance on this in the hopes that falling back on suspense (the genre that hooked me on reading oh so many years ago now....) would help alleviate the year-plus long reading slump I've been in.  While this wasn't a perfect read for me (issues, I had them), this was successful enough for me that now I'm curious about keeping up with this series.

Jena Sinclair is back on the job as a Louisiana wildlife agent after recovering from gunshot wounds and a suicide attempt.  Needless to say, her colleagues are treating her with kid gloves and her clueless parents have ordered her kid brother to move in with her (but is Jackson there to keep an eye on Jena or vice versa?  Seriously, her parents are the worst).  She's also got a new partner, a young go-getter named Mac who talks too much and is a bit of a playboy.  It's while she and Mac are out on routine patrol that they find the body of a dead fisherman who lost a battle with one ticked off alligator.  Even more troubling?  This is just the latest body in a string of attacks.

Besides angry alligators using humans as hors d'oeuvres, their tiny parish has been overrun with a highly addictive synthetic drug called "black diamond" (think meth times 1000).  Jena's been ordered to stay away from the drug investigation and to stick with working the aggressive alligator problem - and that investigation leads to Cole Ryan.  A handsome recluse (for "reasons"), the last thing Cole wants to do is get involved - even if the first sight of Jena causes his heart to skip a beat.  But when the alligator "thing" literally washes up at his back door?  Get involved he does. 

Black Diamond is the second book in a series (followed by Wild Man's Curse) and for the most part stands alone well.  It's obvious that the author has already laid some ground work for these characters in the previous book, but she catches newcomers up to speed quickly and I felt like I wasn't missing anything by reading out of order.  The strength of this book was definitely in the characters.  In some ways it's like the author has built herself a "small town contemporary" romance with a wide array of cast members but instead of cutesy cupcake shops we get angry alligators and a fictional drug epidemic - which as far as romantic suspense goes I found quite inventive.  I like romantic suspense but even I can only read so many women in peril serial killer stories before I become bored.  This plot definitely kept me intrigued and invested.

What didn't work so well?  The romance and the execution of the writing.  The romance here is straight up Insta-Love.  Jena and Cole meet, the attraction is instant, and viola!  Where the author saves this from being a total disaster is that she doesn't cram in a bunch of ill-timed, out of place sex scenes (as far as sex, this book is pretty G-rated, although the violence and suspense content override that) and she ditches a Happy-Ever-After in favor of the much more believable (especially given the character baggage!) Happy-For-Now

As much as I liked the plot and the characters, the writing wasn't always entirely smooth for me.  There are some abrupt transitions between chapters and action scenes.  The author makes some choices to have some events take place "off page" that didn't make any sense to me.  Just two examples include Cole having to dig a bullet out of another character (and given Cole's traumatic past the fact that this scene didn't play out on page is just jaw-dropping), and a big ol' gunfight/showdown scene towards the end.  And there are more examples, but I wasn't taking notes and I literally lost track.  To confuse the issue, I'm not sure why these cuts were made.  While this is category length (around 260 pages), it's published by Amazon Montlake - so presumably word count wouldn't be a huge issue.  We're not talking scenes where Cole is taking a shower or Jena is eating a sandwich at her desk.  These are big moments to the narrative, to the suspense thread in particular, and to have them take place "off page" deflates a lot of that suspense. 

Ultimately what saves the day for me are the characters, the world-building and the inventiveness of the plot.  Unfortunately the execution detracts from those strengths leaving me totally confused about what my final grade of this book is going to be.  I was feeling generous and thinking B- until I got to the end and that big ol' gun battle, final showdown was literally left off page (grrrr!).  So, I'm copping out.  Hey, my blog my rules.

Final Grade = C+/B-

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

#TBRChallenge 2016: Agent Bride
The Book: Agent Bride by Beverly Long

The Particulars: Romantic suspense, Harlequin Intrigue #1608, 2015, Book #2 in Return to Ravesville series (stands alone well)

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: It is a truth universally acknowledged that when Wendy is at conferences she will grab any Harlequin not tied down.  I picked up this one at RT 2016 mostly because of the striking female cover model (Her make-up is flawless and that veil? Swoon).

The Review: Cal Hollister is a former Navy SEAL (because of course he is) now honorably discharged, with no job, and at loose ends.  As much as he's loathe to return to the tiny Missouri town where he grew up, he knows he can no longer avoid it.  His older brother shouldn't have to carry the entire burden of fixing up their stepfather's house to sell.  Complicating matters is that a freak snowstorm has blown through Missouri and travel conditions are not ideal.  So it's really amazing that Cal happens to notice what looks like a white flag flapping along the side of the road.  When he stops to investigate he discovers it's an unconscious woman, wearing no shoes, and in a bridal gown.  That white flag was actually her wedding veil.

"Stormy" has no idea what has happened.  She wakes up half frozen to death looking into the eyes of a stranger.  And when he asks her what her name is?  She has no idea.  She has no idea about anything.  Who she is, how she got on the side of the road, and why she's wearing a wedding dress.  What she does know is that something is not right and it becomes apparent to both her and Cal that whoever she is?  She's in deep doo-doo.  Because some very bad men are out looking for her.

I read this book while traveling and it truly was perfect airplane reading.  The suspense hooked me right away and the amnesiac bride angle?  I mean, how can you not LOVE that?!  Stormy's memory comes back in drips and drabs, and as resourceful as Cal is (hey, the guy was a SEAL), our heroine isn't entirely helpless, faulty memory aside.  Once Cal realizes that she's in some type of danger, his hero instincts kick in and they work to solve the mystery of her identity together.  I loved reading about them fitting the puzzle pieces back together.

What doesn't work so well?  The romance.  As compelling as the suspense and the amnesia storyline is, the romance felt like an afterthought.  I bought into these two as "a team" but as far as sexual tension?  Not so much.  Also this story takes place on a very abbreviated timeline - Cal finds Stormy on a Wednesday and she "knows" that Saturday is somehow super important.  She's not sure why, she just knows it is.  So to have them solve the mystery, have sex, save the day, and fall deeply in love to the point where Cal is talking "let's get married" at the end?  Yeah, no.  Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.  Why oh WHY could this not have been a Happy-For-Now (HFN)?  This is the 21st century - we don't need all our romances to end with a marriage proposal (no, really - we don't).  Especially in books where the couple hasn't even known each other for a week and one of those characters is SUFFERING FROM AMNESIA!

Which leaves the suspense.  Remember how I said the suspense was really good?  Well it is, until it isn't.  It kind of falls apart at the end.  Namely, why Stormy was wearing the wedding dress.  Long explains it, but dang if it isn't weak-sauce. As in, super weak.  Look, I know villains don't always think in a logical manner, but this strains the seams considerably.  It just doesn't hold up to any kind of scrutiny.

What we have here, ladies and gents, is the very definition of a meh read.  The suspense starts out great, the romance is ho-hum, but then it all kind of falls apart at the end.  But you know what?  It kept me entertained while I was traveling to the point where I didn't want to put it down and I inhaled it in a matter of hours.  So wasn't all bad.

Final Grade = C

Friday, October 14, 2016

Reminder: #TBRChallenge for October

For those of you participating in the 2016 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, October 19.  This month's theme is Paranormal or Romantic Suspense!  Our traditional October theme to celebrate Halloween - or as I like to call it: Wendy Lacks Imagination. 

But what if you don't like paranormal or romantic suspense?  Hey, no problem!  The themes are optional.  The goal is to read something, anything, out of your TBR.

You can find more information about the challenge (and see the list of participants) on the Information Page

Monday, October 10, 2016

Review: Romancing the Fashionista
Disclaimer:  K.M. Jackson and I both write for Heroes & Heartbreakers.  We're Twitter friends and when we run into each other at conferences we chit-chat.
Romancing the Fashionista by K.M. Jackson fits my definition for a Chocolate Chip Cookie read.  It's on the shorter side (it's a novella) with a light, fun plot featuring likeable characters.  It didn't change my life but I had fun reading it - which given my reading mood for the past year (short answer: the pits) is practically a #1 With A Bullet recommendation from me.

Nothing good ever comes from mixing margaritas with social media - which big shot Manhattan fashion editor, Melinda Mitchell has just learned the hard way.  A girl's night in with her BFF Lexi has led to Mellie starting a Facebook page - which inevitably has led to all her old high school frenemies tagging her in unflattering photos.  Two words: Hammer pants and crimped hair (::shudder::).  Another unexpected development?  A friend request from Nolan Parker, former high school football star, now a plastic surgeon working with Doctors Without Borders and Mellie's secret former crush.  What she doesn't realize?  He had a secret crush on her as well - and oh look!  The Facebook Debacle has happened just in time for a high school reunion where Mellie and Nolan will reconnect live and in person.  Ooh la la!

I'm a sucker for reunion plots and Jackson writes an engaging one.  The novella length does lead to a few instances of "info-dumping" but otherwise the writing is crisp, smooth and I settled right in to the story.  Mellie is a driven career woman (who stays driven throughout the whole story - thankyouverymuch) and past hurts have led to her calling all the shots in her personal life for fear of being taken for a ride ever again.  A past relationship that went really sour did leave her with a daughter, Bailey, whom she adores - but let's just say the fallout was rather unpleasant.  So keeping her personal life limited to casual hook-ups with pretty boy toys is about as deep as she goes.  Nolan, while very pretty, is not the casual hook-up sort.  This is a man in every sense of the word, he's all business, and he's making reconnecting Mellie priority number one.

I like Nolan, I like Mellie, I like the friendship she has with Lexi, and daughter Bailey stays mostly off page so no worries about Cutesy Plot Moppet Syndrome.  The high school reunion provides the suitable shenanigans you would expect and once our couple hits the sheets is when everything hits the fan.  Mellie panics and Nolan feels like he's landed back at square one.  This would be where the bump in the road hits the story - as the more Nolan exhibits himself to be Mr. Wonderful (seriously, this is the guy you want to take home to Mom five minutes after you meet him) the more unreasonable Mellie comes off.  I wanted to smack her upside the head and tell her to "Snap out of it!"  There's also a tacked on scene regarding daughter Bailey at the end that just felt weird and out of place.  It does tie up the happy ending, but it's rather extreme.

However, minor quibbles.  There were some minor bumps in execution for me, but I largely enjoyed this.  It was light and fun.  It's the sort of book that is tailor-made to be read on your lunch breaks at work and I was engaged to the point where I want to see where Jackson takes this series next.  Please Lord, dare I hope for a Lexi and Ian romance?

Final Grade = B

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

I know, I know - I'm a hypocrite.  All I ever seem to do is bitch complain about how Hollywood is gutless, lacks imagination and sticks the audience with Superhero Movie #498 and endless remakes.  So what did I do?  Practically wet my pants when I saw the teaser trailer for The Magnificent Seven.  Not only a remake, but the second remake.  So why was I so excited about this movie?  In case you're new around here:

1) Western
2) Denzel.  As a cowboy.
3) Western
4) Cowboy Denzel.
5) Western
6) Denzel riding a horse. Oh, and he's a cowboy.

I walked into this movie wanting one thing, and one thing only.  A Popcorn Movie.  I wasn't expecting Citizen Kane.  I was expecting cowboys, cowboys shooting bad guys, action, and fun.  Basically if Ocean's Eleven was a western - that's kind of what I wanted.  I wasn't expecting depth.  I wasn't expecting deep.  So what did I get?  Well....

The story opens in a traditional, throw-back, heavy-handed sort of way.  Peter Sarsgaard is our one-dimensional villain, a robber baron mine owner named Bogue who wants to run everybody off their land because...well, he wants it.  An altercation at the town church leaves Emma Cullen's husband, Matthew (Matt Bomer in a blink and you'll miss him role) dead.  Emma and some other guy (named Teddy Q, their relationship isn't really explained), end up another town over or so which is where they meet Chislom (Denzel) a bounty hunter who rides in and shoots up half the saloon.  They convince him to help dispatch of Bogue, and in turn pick up wandering gambler Faraday (Chris Pratt).

On their way back to town they recruit confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), his knife-throwing partner Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), Mexican bandit Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), ex-Indian hunter (niiiice) Jack Horne (Vincent D'Onofrio), and a lone Comanche with no tribe, Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). 

One of the reviews I read slammed the use of the cast - basically saying that hey, it's great that we have a diverse cast but they're literally shallow pools.  To be fair?  None of these characters, regardless of race or ethnicity can be confused with "deep."  This is a very surface movie.  Even Denzel, who is The Star, is kept at arm's length.  Further highlighting the shallowness is that there are frustrating teasing glimpses of what could have been.  The relationship between Goodnight and Billy Rocks is destined to launch a thousand slash-fiction ships (and I'd read them all).  There's a history between Chisholm and Goodnight that doesn't really go anywhere.  Jack Horne made a living hunting Indians and now he's fighting alongside a Comanche.  Vasquez is a wanted man recruited by the bounty-hunting Chisholm.  Faraday is the comic relief but beneath the surface you can detect self-loathing.  There's a lot of dynamics that could be put in play here that never really are.

What we have is a movie that clocks in at a smidge over 2 hours, and that's the problem.  It's an action movie and given the plot you know there has to be a fair amount of time spent on the fight to free the town.  The big long action scene is great, but what is sacrificed along the way is any sort of character development that goes beyond the surface broad strokes.  Everything about this movie, from the surface-only characters to the music to the villain is about as subtle as a sledgehammer and it's all telegraphed very early on.

All that being said, I didn't hate this - and I didn't hate it for a couple of reasons.  1) Those teasing glimpses are compelling and 2) Haley Bennett as Emma Cullen is a revelation.  If you are a romance author, especially if you write historical westerns - heck, even if you're just thinking about it?  This is a romance heroine right here.  When everybody else in town is too scared to fight, she goes out and finds Chisholm.  She doesn't dissolve into a puddle of goo when she gets around all those handsome men with dubious reputations and she gets to shoot a rifle.  A lot.  And she doesn't need any of the men to TEACH her how to shoot that rifle!  She already knows how and she's darn good at it!  This. Girl. Is. Awesome.

I can see all the faults of this movie (which I've just blathered on ad nauseam about...) and you know what?  I'm not sure I care.  And if you are already inclined to like westerns and, you know, Cowboy Denzel?  You'll likely feel the same way I did.  If you're ho-hum on westerns?  This one is unlikely to change you mind.

Western Fanatic Wendy Grade = B-
More Realistic Grade = C-

Final Note: Given the plot of this movie it's a given that not everybody is going to walk out alive.  Even though the characterizations are mighty thin, I still found myself kind of bummed about that - although who ends up living and who ends up dying is a fairly compelling statement unto itself. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Mini-Reviews: Sheikhs and a DNF

Work has been busy, which means Wendy has been tired, which means Wendy is still limping along with her reading and not blogging a whole lot.  Plus I had to watch my Detroit Tigers not make the post-season.  Well, hey.  No more baseball to watch, so maybe I'll start reading again?  One can hope.  That said, I do have a few recent reads where I don't have a ton to say, so it's time for another round of mini-reviews!
The Widow and the Sheikh by Marguerite Kaye is the start of a new series and was a garden variety "It's OK" read for me.  It was a pleasant way to pass the time, but it didn't light a fire in me the way some of Kaye's other work has.

Julia Trevelyan is a botanist and widow now traveling in the middle of the Arabian desert fulfilling her husband's dying wish.  Complete his magnum opus on exotic plant species, see it published, and get him all the accolades he so richly deserves.  Julia is a skilled illustrator and while not a love match, she did share her husband's passion for the work.  But now she's stranded in the middle of an oasis after her feckless guides drug and rob her.  She's rescued by Azhar, a wealthy merchant passing through on his way home.  Turns out Azhar is a Prince, and with his estranged father's death is now the sheikh - a position he's conflicted about considering his father's last words to him involved disowning him.

Azhar wrestles with his past, family baggage, and expectation.  Julia wrestles with memories of an unhappy marriage (no abuse, more like disinterest) and completing the book.  They spend time together, fall in love, yada yada yada.

There was nothing overtly wrong with this story, I just wasn't entranced by it.  I generally like Kaye's work (the Armstrong Sisters series is especially strong), so I'll read the next book in the series.  I've seen other positive reviews so this is likely a "It's me, not you" sort of thing.  Final Grade = C+
 Never Seduce a Sheikh by Jackie Ashenden was a Kindle freebie that I downloaded based on author name recognition.  Many moons ago I was asking the Twitter hive for recent sheikh books, and Molly O'Keefe suggested another title in this series, but since I already had this one in the TBR I started here. 

Lily Harkness is the newly minted CEO of Harkness Oil and has a lot to prove.  1) She's taking over for her father and 2) She's a girl.  She's visiting Sheikh Isma'il al Zahar's country in the hopes of securing their oil rights.  Isma'il has inherited the kingdom from his tyrannical father and has a lot to prove.  He needs to work out the best possible deal for his country and he's not convinced Lily Harkness is the woman for the job.

In a nutshell - ball-busting businesswoman trying to make everyone get over the fact she's a woman and a hero who felt like a bit of a throwback to me.  Very Alpha.  Very challenging.  A heroine who is supposedly tough (and a former Olympic swimmer to boot) but is vulnerable and still struggling with past event that haunts her (spoiler: not rape, but a sexual assault by a trusted adult).  I found this to be a very challenging read mostly because of the skewed power dynamics.  There were elements at play here that felt Old School Harlequin Presents in some ways.  Also I can totally see some readers being displeased by yet another portrayal of a "tough businesswoman" who really isn't all that much.  Then there's the ending.  While I appreciated that the author addressed ethical issues, the final resolution will likely displease some. 

All that being said, this is the first book I've read in a while that really stuck with me in the respect that I thought about it afterward.  It had me puzzling over issues addressed, the authorial choices made, and I spun it around in my head for a couple days after.  This is, quite frankly, a minor miracle given the way my reading mood has been of late.  Certainly not for everybody, and my recommendation is really reserved, but I'm not sorry I read this.  Final Grade = B-
Magnate by Joanna Shupe is a book that was tailor made for me.  Gilded Age New York!  Robber barons!  A hero raised in Five Points!  This should have been Wendy Catnip.  And it was...until it wasn'tMinor spoilers ahead.

Elizabeth Sloane is a blue-blooded miss with a head for stock trading.  The problem being that she's a woman, women can't trade on the exchange, and her brother would never hear of it.  She wants to open her own brokerage firm and goes to see Emmett Cavanaugh, steel magnate, and a man she thinks in her brother's friend (ha ha ha ha ha! Uh, no.) to propose a partnership.  A self-made man, Cavanaugh has a massive chip on his shoulder and Lizzy's proposal has him suspecting that maybe her brother's railroad isn't as healthy as it seems.  He sees this as an opportunity to take William Sloane down a few pegs.

So this sounds great, right?  A heroine bristling against society conventions, who wants to work, meeting her match in a ruthless self-made man who has an ax to grind with her brother.  The world-building is wonderful, Shupe paints the opulent excess of the Gilded Age marvelously and doesn't shy away from portraying her robber baron characters as ruthless and skirting the boundaries of fair business practices. Basically, they're jerks of the first order.  Hey, Carnegie did build a ton of libraries but he wasn't a nice guy either.

And then it all goes to heck in a hand-basket.  Lizzy and Emmett get caught in a compromising position and William basically blackmails Emmett into "doing right" by his sister.  Lizzy is shocked, SHOCKED I TELL YOU, that her brother thinks she needs to now marry Emmett (why should anyone care?) and is horrified when she finds out that blackmail was involved and that Emmett was "forced" to marry her and doesn't love her.


Given how great I found the world-building to have this devolve into yet another historical romance featuring a heroine who has nary a care in the world when it comes to societal mores and who is determined to marry for twu wuv drove me batty.  The Sloane parents are dead - but Lizzy gets out in society.  She has a best girlfriend.  How could she think for one second that she couldn't NOT get married after being caught in a compromising situation?  Of course her brother would force the issue to protect her reputation.  As a woman YOUR REPUTATION IS ALL YOU HAD!!!  A passionate kiss in a private dining room?  Lizzy girl, you're basically a whore now.  She's never heard gossip about other society chits who "got into trouble?"  She never saw a "whore" get shunned by her former social circle?  Really?!?!?!  REALLY NOW!?!?!?!?!

I cannot express how much this irritated me.  It irritated me so much that even though I'm halfway through the book the thought of finishing it just irritates me even more.  For some this will seem like a silly thing to nit-pick over, but ugh - Wendy irritated!  Wendy smash!  There's a lot glowing reviews out there, so obviously I'm in the minority here - and Lord help me I'll likely try another book in this series to see how it goes because after all...Gilded Age New York.  I am nothing, if not predictable.  But seriously, what could have been.  Final Grade = DNF

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Mini-Reviews: Women In Peril
I've gotten in the habit of "wish listing" potential audiobook listens from work.  Instead of putting myself on a wait list, when I need something to listen to, I check my wish list, gauge my mood, and download what's currently available.  I was ready for suspense, so went with The Pocket Wife by Susan Crawford.  For those keeping track, this is post-Gone Girl and was published the same year as The Girl on the Train.  It reminded me more of the latter, but it's similar to both in the fact that it's a book about miserable people, living miserable lives and the moral of the story seems to be don't get married.

Dana lives in a quiet New Jersey suburb not far from Manhattan, is at a loss now that her son is off to college and the cracks in her marriage to her lawyer husband, Peter are starting to show.  Complicating matters is Dana's bipolar disorder, and the brutal murder of her neighbor and friend, Celia.  Dana was the last person to see Celia alive, they were both drunk, they argued and....that's it.  Dana has blacked out.  Between the alcohol and being in a manic phase she's not sure what's reality and what are just thoughts bumping around in her head.

This is another thriller that employs the Look At Me I'm A Serious Writer method of writing.  There's a lot of musing and rambling words strung together and yada yada yada.  It mostly works given Dana's mental state, but thank Jeebus that this book isn't only told from her point of view.  I found myself much more interested when Detective Jack Moss was the one at the narration wheel.

This is OK.  I pretty much had it figured all out by the 75% mark and it wraps up tidy.  It's not the sort of book I will scream from the rooftops about, but if you loved The Girl on the Train and want another book in that vein?  Yeah, this one.  For me it was a pleasant way to pass the time but I wasn't enthusiastic about it.

Final Grade = C
Her Forbidden Gunslinger by Harper St. George is a short (around 60 pages) western that was an impulse download.  I wanted a quick, one-sitting read for my lunch break at work, went diving into the Kindle TBR and pulled this out.  This was OK, a pleasant way to kill an hour, but ultimately rather forgettable. 

Sophie Buchanan's uncle wants to marry her to one of his loathsome cronies.  She is going to run away and, being skilled in billiards, decides to hustle the few funds she has to a bigger payday.  However the bloke she's playing doesn't take kindly losing to a woman and she finds herself getting pulled out of the fire by Gray, a half-Comanche gunman who works for her uncle.  Naturally these two have had the hots for each other, but haven't acted on them because - well white woman, Comanche man, he works for her uncle yada yada yada.  With her wedding day looming closer, can Gray find a way to rescue Sophie?

This was an OK read, but suffers from the short word count.  Even making it a longer novella (150 pages) would have gone a long way to fleshing out this story.  This did the job of entertaining me on my lunch break, but it's not something I would say you have to drop your life in order to read.  Since the publication of this short St. George has gone on to write full length Harlequin Historicals (which I have in my TBR - because of course I do).  I liked the writing here, which means I'm now looking forward to bumping up those longer books in my reading queue.

Final Grade = C+