Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Review: The Nanny Plan

Disclaimer: I presented a workshop with Sarah M. Anderson at RWA 2013

When I first got over myself and started reading category romance, the Desire line was my favorite. But then the Desire line started to shift more towards the Presents end of the spectrum and my interest turned towards SuperRomance and Special Edition. I met Sarah M. Anderson at RWA in 2011. I was Librarian of the Year. She was a newbie author whose first book hadn't quite come out yet. She handed me a card and, hello - cowboys?  She writes about cowboys?  I was there.  I've since gone on to read many of her books, liking them to varying degrees.  The Nanny Plan, despite having a baby on the cover (::shudder::) is balls-out amazing. I loved this book.

Trish Hunter is a long way from the reservation, but she can never forget. Working on her master's degree in social work, she has also started a charity to help kids back home in South Dakota. She has big plans, but for right now her focus is on school supplies. Trish remembers when a teacher once gave her two brand new pencils and it was like being given the greatest gift of all. She wants ever kid on the rez to have new backpacks filled with everything they need for the school year and she just won a $10,000 grant thanks to an award her professor nominated her for.  But Trish has plans and for that she needs more money.  Which means taking her oversized novelty check to a local university symposium where Nate Longmire is speaking. She's going to corner him into matching the grant she just won.  Once his presentation is over, she just has to find the right moment during the Q&A session.
Well. Yay for him acknowledging the state of the Native American reservations in a five-second picture, even if the montage did irritate her. All the people of color had been relegated to the poor section of the talk.
Nate is a tech bazillionaire who made his money on an Instagram-like concept. He now has more money than he knows what to do with, so he started his own foundation. He's new money, having grown up in a comfortable middle-class world, but he's a touch socially awkward. Growing up he was overshadowed by a handsome, jock older brother, and now he's got women falling all over him just to get near his money.  Trish intrigues him and when they meet to discuss her proposition after the symposium, he's sunk.  The attraction is instant and he's comfortable with her business-like approach.  Here's a women who wants him for his money yes, but for her charity. Flirting, banter? Nate freezes up.  But a business traction, dollars and cents?  He's all in.  They agree she should stop by his office in a couple of weeks and that's when all hell breaks loose.

Nate gets word from home - his older brother and sister-in-law have died in a car accident. His six-month-old niece is now an orphan and because of "stuff" his parents cannot raise the child.  Hence, Nate, who was also named guardian in the will.  Except, of course, Nate knows nothing about babies. Like, zero. With all this going on it's only natural he forgot about his appointment with Trish, but when she turns up again, and is frankly a natural with the baby, he convinces her to become a temporary nanny.  Trish has nine siblings and a mother who wasn't much of a mother.  Frankly she's full up on raising babies and tells Nate as much, just not in so many words. But then he says the magic word (money!) and she cannot say no.  For a girl not very far removed from extreme poverty, Nate's offer is impossible to refuse.
She tried to reason that at least Nate had a reference - her mother had hooked up on far less - but it didn't change the fact that, for the first time in her life, Trish had followed in her mother's footsteps. When a good-looking man had said jump, she'd asked how high and tossed everything to the side to take care of another baby.
Similar plots have existed in category romance since the dawn of time, but what makes this one work so well is how Nate and Trish interact with each other.  The attraction is instant, but for reasons (compelling ones I might add), they resist.  Trish having no desire to repeat her mother's history, among other things.
And the reality of the situation was that Nate was not her type. She didn't have a type, but whatever it might be, a Boy Billionaire clearly wasn't it. She would probably never have a total of five million dollars in her entire life - and he was the kind of guy who spent that on a comic book.
While Nate wasn't born into money, there's no denying that his experiences are vastly different than Trish's. That's not to say Nate didn't have hardships, or obstacles - just different ones.  The reason why Nate's parents cannot raise baby Jane are compelling, as is his complicated relationship with his now deceased older brother.  He's ready to fall totally in love with Trish, but her moving on from her baggage is easier said than done.
The intensity of this need scared her. For once in her life, she understood her mother, how she could overlook the health and safety of her children in favor of a man who might make her feel like Nate had made Trish feel. Because if she stayed here with Nate and raised Jane - became a permanent nanny during the day and his lover at night - well, then what would happen to One Child, One World?  How was Trish supposed to look her baby sister in the eyes and say, "Yes, I know I said you should put your education and career ahead of any man, but he's a really great guy!" Because that's what her mother would say. That's what her mother would do. Trish was not her mother. And that was final. 
All this from a book with a baby on the cover.  I know, right?  And even when the author falls down a well-trod romance trope path (Nate's got an ex who did him wrong then of course shows up again having obviously had "work done") Anderson reigns it in by actually making the woman somewhat sympathetic.  OK, she's not totally sympathetic, but she's also not cartoonishly vile.

This is a Desire, so every word in the word count is precious.  The author could have spent more time on Nate's family relationships, but I don't think the romance at hand suffers from what the author probably could not address because of word count.  Still, this is a really good one folks.  Yes, with a baby on the cover.  The chemistry between Trish and Nate. The dialogue. The baggage.  It's really good.  The kind of book where I was highlighting every other paragraph good.  Drop everything and read it now.  And yes, I know - baby on the cover.  You won't catch cooties, I promise.

Grade = A

Monday, July 27, 2015

Mini-Reviews: RITA Winners and Comfort Reads

I had a long flight on my way to RWA in NYC, in which time I managed to finish two books.  One of them, His Road Home by Anna Richland, then turned around and won the RITA for Best Novella on Saturday night.  For once, my timing didn't stink.

Rey Cruz is a Special Forces medic over in Afghanistan and has just told an Afghan warlord that he must regretfully decline his generous offer of the man's daughter to marry because well - Rey already has a fiancée.  OK, not really. As proof that he has a beloved waiting for him back home, he hits upon Grace Kim, a girl who went to school with Rey's sister and is now a biologist working in Seattle.  Grace is perfect fiancée material, so Rey prints up her photo off the ol' Interwebs, writes a touching endearment on it and viola!  Instant fiancée!  Until Rey almost gets blown to kingdom come and is rushed back to Walter Reed to learn to live without his legs.

Grace finds out she has a fiancé after Rey arrives at Walter Reed (with that photo) and word gets back to her small hometown in the Pacific Northwest. Needless to say, her family is a little concerned she failed to mention she got engaged! Grace's supportive boss is giving her time off and a plane ticket he purchased with his airline miles so she can be with her beloved. So Grace goes - if only to find out why a stranger claims they are a couple.

The set-up of this novella is just implausible enough to sound completely plausible.  Definitely one of the more interesting meet-cutes I've come across in a long while. I also liked that while Rey and Grace legitimately "like" each other, it's not instantaneous fireworks when they lock eyes for the first time. Besides losing his legs, Rey has a traumatic brain injury, but they soon discover that through text messages he can effectively communicate - which is how they get to know each other better.  I also LOVED that Rey isn't your standard issue "wounded hero."  Yes, he lost his legs.  Yes, he's learning to function with prosthetic limbs.  But he's not suicidal, he's not wringing his hands thinking his life is over, that no one will ever love him, and Grace isn't a heroine put on the page to "teach" him that life is still worth living.  Rey is, quite simply, getting on with his life.  Yeah, it sucks he lost his legs, but the man is still alive.

What didn't work as well for me was the writing style - and I can't quite put my finger on why that is. The dialogue didn't flow for me, and maybe that can be attributed to Rey's brain injury?  I'm not sure. But I had a hard time sinking into this novella and zipping through it.  In other words, I was able to put it down and walk away from it for long stretches at a time.  Take all this with the usual grain of salt.  However, there is a lot to recommend it. It's emotional. The author avoids common pitfalls of the Wounded Hero trope, and the characters aren't Midwestern White Bread.  Worth a look.

Final Grade = B-

Romance readers talk about "comfort reads" and Cheryl St. John is mine.  She writes historical westerns (which I love!) and there's something about her writing style that just flows for me. I don't mean this in a bad way, but it's simple. St. John writes straight-forward, clean and simple. She's not flowery. She doesn't toss in $25 word, and she tells a good story.  After a bit of a hiatus, she's back with Sequins and Spurs, which I liked, but didn't love.

Her Daddy abandoning their family hit Rudy Dearing so hard that at 16 she ran away from home to make her way in the world. She became a performer, singing, dancing and acting her way across the US. Now, after years away, she decides to come home to her mother and sister.  She wanted to come home before now but didn't quite know how, and now it's too late. She finds a man living in her mother's house who turns out to be her sister's husband.  Mama and younger sister are both dead.  One from illness, the latter from an accident. Ruby has come home looking for a second chance only to find out that she's too late to mend those fences with her family.

Nash Sommerton didn't know Ruby but heard plenty about her. While his wife and mother-in-law never said an unkind word about her, Nash can't help but be bitter.  His mother-in-law's illness, his wife's accident, Ruby should have been there to help....and she wasn't.  Now she's back and Nash has no idea what to think of her.

St. John's westerns have a similar feel to Americana and come across as more "homespun" than "gritty."  It's why I think I classify her books as "comforting." I sank right into this story and zipped through it on the plane to New York without coming up for air. Nash and Ruby are two characters who bristled against family expectations and therefore do have quite a bit in common.  And while it's kind of "icky" that Nash moves on to the other sister?  While he cared for his wife, it wasn't a love match. He had hoped it would eventually generate into one, over time, but they never got the chance.

My issues with this story are conflict related.  The author throws in plenty of conflict, both internal and external road-blocks to the happy ending, but they lacked urgency.  The best way to describe it is that while the conflict exists, the characters didn't have to work very hard to move past it. I normally like this about St. John's characters.  She writes exceedingly practical characters who aren't prone to dramatics or flightiness, but here the conflict fell flat.  That being said, St. John has a way of conveying so much with a few well chosen words. Here was one of my favorite moments, Ruby is talking to Nate about her father leaving them and Ruby's hesitancy in attending Sunday church services.
She pursed her lips before speaking. "Mama acted like nothing had happened. She believed God was taking care of us." 
"She had a strong faith, your mother." 
"God didn't pull weeds from the garden or gather us hand-me-down clothes from the church storeroom.  God didn't send money home to Mama all those years. That was me."
No, I didn't love it - but I'm not sorry I spent time reading it.  Of course I'm rarely sorry after spending time in the worlds that St. John creates.

Final Grade = C+

Saturday, July 25, 2015

RWA Round-Up

Once upon a time, when Wendy would attend RWA conferences she would blog every day - sometimes staying up until 2AM to get posts written. I ran on caffeine, very little sleep, and there were blog posts. However now I am old and choose to stay up until post-midnight having a grand ol' time with romance peeps and hence, no blogging. Or pictures.  I'm crap for taking photos.  Sorry about that folks.  Anyway, so how has RWA been this year?  Mostly good. I don't think this is the best conference I've ever attended (hard to top winning Librarian of the Year in 2011!), and while I've had nothing but positive interactions this year, the vibe seems a little off. But more on that in a moment.

My conference starts a day earlier than everybody else because Wednesday means Librarians Day. The photo is the giant pile of books that was at all of our seats before the day started - and that was before they opened up the Librarians Only Goody Room (MORE STUFF!).  I presented a panel with author Laura Florand on librarian/author partnerships and how we can work together.  Laura designed this presentation with Jennifer Lohmann (author and former Librarian of the Year 2010) but sadly Jennifer couldn't make the trip this year.  So Wendy was sent in to pinch-hit.  Luckily I had seen them give this presentation before, so I had a good feel for it already, and people seemed to like it, so go Team Laura, Wendy & Jennifer!

The Literacy Signing on Wednesday night was a madhouse - which I was prepared for.  Having been at RWA in NYC the last time it was here (2011), I remembered how cramped the ballroom was.  I will say it was well organized though.  They had us "wait in line" in a separate ballroom, where there WERE CHAIRS (!) where we could SIT DOWN (!) instead of standing in line for eternity.  Do that again next year will you RWA?  Sometimes you're standing in line forever and you're exhausted before they even open the doors.  Not so this year.

I spent most of Thursday going to various publisher sponsored booksignings and talking to authors. I also attended part of Barbara Freethy's keynote speech before I had to hussle out of there for a 9AM appointment.  Honestly, I can't remember what else I did now until the evening hours, when I had a couple of invites to cocktail parties.  Since I write for Heroes & Heartbreakers (a Macmillan Publishing entity), I made my way to St. Martin's party where I ran into Megan Frampton and KM Jackson.  Then, while waiting for my bartender to pour me the biggest glass of chardonnay I've seen in my life (I could have gone swimming in it), I saw Jamie Brenner AKA Logan Belle.  I've reviewed a lot of her books (Now or Never is the gold star winner) and she was so happy to see me, and so gracious - well it was a nice ego boost.  I discovered her work when I was at RWA in 2011 and got one of her books at a Kensington booksigning, so I feel like we've come full circle together.

After St. Martin's I made my way to the Avon party, where I hung out with the gals from All About Romance, had a nice chat with this year's Librarian of the Year and ran into Sarah from Smart Bitches.  I never see Sarah at these conferences - she's always busy doing her thing and I'm busy doing mine - so it was nice to chat with her.  I closed down the Avon party, having WAY too much fun, then came back to the hotel to gossip with Rosie and LB Gregg.  Kristie was the only sensible one of us - as she was already asleep.

Friday. Oh, Friday. Did I mention I had fun at the Avon party?  I didn't get a ton of sleep, so my butt was kind of dragging.  I went to breakfast and listened to Julia Quinn's keynote that I'm still processing.  I haven't had the chance to read any chatter about it outside of Twitter, but my reaction was mixed.  I can't exactly pinpoint why it irritated me at times, but it did.  Basically it was about not being able to please all of the people all of the time, crazy-ass reader mail, and then heartbreaking, emotionally soul-lifting reader mail.  Someone smarter than me needs to write about it. Jessica, this would be your queue.

I attended a panel that LB Gregg was sitting on - about conflict in LGBTQ romance and hit most of the publisher signings.  Then for dinner, Rosie, LB and I went to Bareburger, a crunchy granola sort of burger joint and OMG, was that ever yummy!  We got back in time for LB to get herself all fancy for the Harlequin party, and the rest of us ended up hitting the bar. Hilcia came in for the evening - and a huge group of us ended up closing down the bar.  So much for Wendy catching up on her sleep.

This morning my alarm went off and I knew it wasn't happening.  So I skipped breakfast and the Nalini Singh keynote to get some more rest.  I shipped the last of my boxes of books back to the office (I got so many books for work - So. Many.) and Rosie, Kristie and I had a nice lunch.  Now it's rest time until a 4PM appointment and getting ready for the RITA ceremony.

As for the vibe at this year's conference?  It seems off to me. I don't think it's because people are mean girls or jerks - I just think everybody is tired, possibly feeling discouraged. Some conferences feel so uplifting and positive, and this year people just look tired to me. Maybe that's because I'm tired? Maybe it's the chatter I'm hearing from authors who feel overwhelmed?  This new model of having to publish 39 books a year in order be "a success."  The drive that if you don't have something new out there every month readers will "forget" you and move on?  But again, this is just MY perception.  Other authors, other bloggers may be getting a totally different vibe.  I will say that the conference has been a positive experience (it usually is for me). I don't want anyone to read this blog post and think otherwise. Hey, it could be I'm just projecting (because I'm tired!) - but I don't think so.  Which means I hope the takeaway from this RWA conference is be good to yourself, take care of you.  Readers who will forget you in 2 weeks if you don't have something new out aren't necessarily readers you want (easy for me to say, but there you have it).

I've also gotten some nice, encouraging comments about this blog from several people. Folks who lurk and don't necessarily comment.  I want to say that I appreciate those encouraging words more than you know. This hasn't been the easiest year for me, blogging-wise. I do think there is room out here for quirky, goofy little individual blogs like mine, but it's really easy to lose sight of that in the wake of Big Blogs and Promo, Promo, Promo. Blogging is different from what it was when I started doing this a billion years ago (OK, 12), but there's still value in being out here on the fringes.  Which means like romance heroines being heroes of their own stories?  I guess Wendy is the hero of her own blog.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Calm Before The Storm

Yesterday was my one free day before I hit the conference running.  The last time RWA was in New York, I did all the stuff I really wanted to do then, so this year I'm feeling much more leisurely.  I decided to go to The Morgan Library and Museum after AnimeJune blogged about it and had a nice visit.  They currently have an Alice in Wonderland exhibit, but I'll be honest.  I was mostly there to see some JP Morgan's private collection, library and study.  It didn't disappoint. It almost makes me want to consider a career on Wall Street - except, you know, I'm not ruthless.

After that I met up with my former college roommate who has lived in the City for over a decade now (I'm not sure when we got old, but it happened).  She caught me up on the lives of mutual former drinking buddies friends and I gorged myself on sushi.  As you do.

I made it back to the hotel by mid-afternoon just in time for the arrival of KristieJ!  We talked books, and gossiped (as you do) and then I had to make my way downstairs to meet up with author Laura Florand, who is my partner for today's Librarians Day presentation.  By that point Kristie was getting hungry and hey, Wendy can always eat - so off to the bar.  Rosie, who had gone to a taping of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon with Nath and Ames was back by this point, and along with World Famous Author, LB Gregg joined us.  Nath and Ames arrived, and eventually Limecello arrived to regal us with her travel day (short versions: long and not good).

All of this adds up to Wendy staying up way too late and now here it is 7AM and I'm blogging.  When I need to be downstairs in roughly 30 minutes for Librarians Day sign-in.  As you do.  Which reminds me it's time for my annual RWA blogging disclaimer - links, spelling, grammar are all a crap-shoot this week folks.  I know those things are normally pretty dicey around here even without RWA going on, but just roll with it, OK?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Travel, And Finding The Bar Bash Tribe

So I'm typing this from New York City where the humidity is somewhere around 350% (true story). My travel day was fairly uneventful except for flying with The Stinky Musician Hippy Twins.  OK, so they weren't twins.  But they were musicians, one of whom I overhead say he was approaching 40-years-old.  Which means way too old for them to be Stinky.  As in stale body odor stinky.  As in, we rolled out of bed and didn't bother to at least sponge themselves off stinky.  So that was fun.  Luckily they weren't sitting next to me, but one row back - which meant I was only assailed with odor during boarding and unboarding.  And go me - I got two books read in flight!  Wahooey!  Reviews will have to wait until post-RWA because no way they're getting done while I'm here.

Tomorrow I plan on meeting a college friend for lunch and then it's back to the hotel to start catching up with The Tribe.  Speaking of The Tribe - for those of you hoping to swing by the hotel bar after the Literacy Signing - the bar is on the 8th floor near hotel registration.  Look for me - wearing this scarf (look, martini glasses!).  I'll also be rocking black slacks and a gray Oxford shirt with the sleeve rolled up to my elbows.  And, you know, I'll have my name badge on.  Hope to see a bunch of you there!

On My Way!

Today's the day! I'm on my way to RWA in New York City! For those of you looking for me this week, here are the places I guarantee I'll be: At all the librarian shenanigans on Wednesday, making the rounds at the Literacy Signing, and afterward I'll be in the conference hotel bar sorta, kinda hosting (but not really) a get-together for online folks to stop by, say hello, have a few drinks, have a few laughs.  If you've got time after the Literary Signing, swing by the bar and track us down.  We never have any set "end time" - just whenever everybody is so tired they head upstairs to the their room to crash.

I'm going to try to blog while I'm in New York (ha ha ha ha!).  Some years I do better than others.  My goal this year?  Try to blog a couple of times and not lose my voice (I ALWAYS lose my voice at conference. ALWAYS.)  See in the Big Apple Romancelandia!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

#TBRChallenge 2015: Crazy Thing Called Love
The Book: Crazy Thing Called Loved by Molly O'Keefe

The Particulars: Contemporary romance, Third in Crooked Creek trilogy, 2013, Bantam, In Print, RITA Winner Best Contemporary Romance 2014

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: O'Keefe is an autobuy.

The Review: All readers have their quirks, and Molly O'Keefe's career trajectory illustrates one of mine.  I love category romance.  Love it. Gimme, gimme, gimme.  And when I find an author I like in category I'll read them until the wheels fall off and they're driving me over a cliff a la Thelma and Louise.  But when/if they leave category to jump to single title?  It's like my brain freezes up.  I'll be blunt: a very common issue I have with single title contemporaries is that they feel bloated.  I'm so in tune with the category format that it's like I go into single title contemporaries with a mental red pen poised in my hand.  I don't feel this way about historical romance, just contemporaries.  Yes, I know it's discriminatory and makes no sense, but there you have it.

Crazy Thing Called Love marks my first single title read by O'Keefe, which means I'm confident in saying that this third book in a trilogy stands alone well.  I also tore through it.  1) Because my own TBR Challenge snuck up on me and 2) Because I literally could not go to sleep one night until I finished every last word.  This story flowed for me from the first word to the last. And given that this is The Year of the Slump?  Cue the music, commence with the happy dancing!

Madelyn Cornish is picture perfect. Host of a local Dallas TV morning show, she's come a long way from the girl who grew up poor in Pittsburgh.  She's everything you expect from a TV host - polished, confident, razor sharp, and thin.  Her entire life is diet, exercise, work, control.  She took the lump of clay that was Maddy Baumgarten and has her eye on the prize - a shot at the big leagues.  What Would Matt Lauer Do?  However what nobody knows?  When Maddy was 18 she married her high school sweetheart, Billy Wilkins.  Billy Wilkins, notorious NHL enforcer (ahem, goon), who her producer now wants to feature on their show.  Maddy did a lot to bury the past, she's not about to dig it up.

Billy's career is in a tailspin.  Everyone loves a goon until they get old and the league decides they want to "clean up" the game.  After a devastating loss that kicks their team out of the playoffs, Billy who has been riding the bench, kinda, sorta - well punches out an opposing player during the hand-shake line at the end of the game.  The owner is pissed, his coach is pissed, his agent is practically begging, and the NHL is likely to bring the hammer down.  What he needs is spin. Damage control. While he'd normally run in the other direction of a "make-over" on a daytime TV show he ends up saying yes.  Not so much because of spin but because it means Maddy.  Billy is still in love with her and moving on since their divorce has been impossible.

The prologue opens with their marriage imploding and kicks things off with a devastating start.  What I enjoy about O'Keefe's couples is that she rarely makes one person "the bad guy" when things go south.  I suspect some readers will have issues with Maddy who is very hung up on "losing herself" in Billy's wake, who has a way of sweeping her off her feet and making her forget she's her own person.  I got this though - as let's be brutally honest - women losing their own identities in the wake of becoming wives (and/or mothers) isn't exactly uncommon.  Also given Maddy's background (loving parents, but still kind of a tough childhood), her hang-ups make sense.  For his part Billy is young and a touch selfish.  There's plenty of blame to go around when their marriage implodes.

As the author carries the story along the angst gets progressively heavier.  On the surface we have the fairly common reunion theme.  In reality, with Billy and Maddy back in each others orbits, the skeletons of their past don't stay buried for long.  Things get real complicated, real quick - which leaves Maddy, in particular, running scared.

This book got a fair share of praise when it was released, and obviously winning the RITA means a lot of folks really loved it.  I'll be honest, it was just pleasant for me for the first half.  A good, solid B read, but nothing that I was squee'ing about.  And then the second half happened.  I was hesitant, at first, about the turn O'Keefe takes, but it ended up really working out well.  So well in fact that by the time I was finished reading the epilogue it was 1AM and I was choking back tears.  Always a good thing.  Well, maybe not the 1AM on a "school night" - but, oh happy sigh!  I'm still undecided if I'll ever reread this, but hot damn, it's a good 'un.

Final Grade = A-