Monday, June 20, 2016

Prepping for July's #TBRChallenge

A few years ago I added a RITA-theme to the TBR Challenge. This year, in a bid to keep the challenge themes "broad" I morphed that theme into Award Nominee or Winner.  However, since this is still seen as a Romance-Centric reading challenge, here are some links to past RITA finalists and winners to help you go dumpster diving through your TBR.

All past RITA winners can be found on the RWA web site.

Finalists are trickier.  How I wish RWA had a database!  Alas, no.  Thanks to bloggers I got back to 2007.  Older than that?  It's thin on the ground and I didn't feel like dumpster diving through the depths of Google.  Here they are:

2016 Finalists
2015 Finalists
2014 Finalists
2013 Finalists
2012 Finalists
2011 Finalists
2010 Finalists
2009 Finalists
2008 Finalists
2007 Finalists

I'm thinking, surely, that should be enough to go on?  Even if you have some restraint and unlike me your TBR pile cannot be seen from space?  Lots to choose from.  Happy hunting! 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Mini-Reviews: Thrill-Seeking Librarian and Flapper Medium
Besides the obvious Librarian-Related reason, I have read and enjoyed shorter works by Anne Calhoun in the past - so that was enough for me to give The SEAL's Rebel Librarian a whirl.  The results were decidedly mixed.

Erin Kent is an academic librarian still recovering from a divorce.  Tired of hearing her ex-husband's disapproving voice in her head, she decides she's going to do the things she's always wanted to do. First on the list?  Buy a motorcycle.  Jack Powell is a former SEAL with PTSD and a case of bad nerves (he has tremors in his hands, doctors haven't found any physiological reason for them - hence, PTSD) and he's now at loose ends, post Navy.  He's taking a class at the college where Erin works and they meet through her work at the library.  What follows is an attraction, a Neither Of Us Is Looking For Serious "relationship," and Jack helping Erin with her adventurous bucket list, which also includes sky-diving.

I hesitate to mention it given that I read an ARC that has been languishing on my Kindle since earlier this year and I did not have access to a final copy - but this story had serious editing issues in the beginning.  A prime example?  In one scene Jack is driving a car, then riding his motorcycle, then he's back in the car but wearing a helmet and then when he gets home he finds his motorcycle in the garage.  Yeah, that's not good.  My library didn't have a copy of this and I'm too cheap to buy a final copy to check to see if the errors were corrected - so just take this as a warning.  The editing on the ARC was problematic.

I liked Erin a lot and for those of you who care about such things - the "library stuff" was good.  I got a huge kick out of seeing EBSCO mentioned in a romance novella, dork that I am.  I was less enthralled with how Jack's story wrapped up - namely that his tremors magically seem to vanish in the end, which he chalks up to helping Erin live out her thrill seeking.  Even though the tremors aren't physiological - this smacks way too much of Being Cured By The Love Of A Good Woman for my tastes.  In the end, I liked her and this is a sexy enough read but mostly....meh.

Final Grade = C+ The Other Side of Midnight by Simone St. James was a recent listen on audio and it's my second "read" by this author after her debut novel, The Haunting of Maddy Clare.  In just three short years between those two books, I feel like this one shows tremendous growth for her as a writer.
I listened to

Ellie Winter is a spirit medium who no longer contacts the dead and instead specializes in helping people find lost items.  She's contacted by the mysterious (MI5) George Sutter after his glamorous sister, a medium, Gloria Sutter is murdered.  Brother and sister were estranged, but Gloria left him a note prior to her death instructing him to seek out Ellie - which he does.  Ellie is compelled to help George because she and Gloria used to be friends - until the day that Gloria had Ellie's own mother debunked as a psychic.  Ellie's mother died shortly thereafter and needless to say the two friends fell out.

Once again the setting is wonderfully drawn (1920s London), the world-building keen, and St. James uses the ghost of World War I to optimum effect.  Romance comes into play in the form of our hero, a former soldier who works for an outfit that investigates reports of psychic phenomenon, and naturally he was part of the tests that ruined Ellie's mother (and by some extension - Ellie).  The mystery here is also quite compelling, which I found more advanced and layered than the author's debut.  The one thing holding me back on totally loving this story was Ellie's relationship with the dead Gloria.  I...well, I just didn't see these two as friends.  I get that Ellie latched on to Gloria because finally she had met someone (who was not her mother) who was a "freak" like she was - but Gloria is just so....unpleasant.  I mean she's vain and narcissistic and just not very nice (even if she does say some pretty smart things).  Other than being Just Like Me in the psychic department I couldn't for the life of me figure out why or how these two were friends.  But everything else?  Top notch.  If you like Gothics you need to be reading St. James.

Final Grade = B

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

#TBRChallenge 2016: Feels Like the First Time

The Book: A Royal World Apart by Maisey Yates

The Particulars: Harlequin Presents, 2012, The Call of Duty series #1, Out of print, available digitally

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: At the time this landed in my TBR I had just discovered Maisey Yates. So when I saw this book in a pile of library donations I was sorting through, I liberated it. (To feel less guilty about it, I donated a couple of bucks to the Friends of the Library.)

For the purpose of this month's Favorite Tropes theme: this one features a Virgin Hero.

The Review: I know the popularity of the Presents line mystifies a lot of romance readers, so let me see if I can help.  Emotionally speaking, these are high intensity stories. Angst, drama, ALL OF THE FEELS, packed into a tiny 185 page package. I started and finished this story in one Saturday afternoon.  It delivered characters who grew over the course of the story and a climactic emotional "black moment" that literally bumped my reaction of this story up by half a grade.  Frankly, I felt a little hungover after I finished reading it - but in a good way.

We've got ourselves a Presents staple here: a fake royalty story.  Evangelina Drakos is a misbehaving princess of a tiny, made-up country that smells faintly Greek/Mediterranean.  Eva is tired of living in a gilded cage, so she acts in a way most sheltered, pampered 20-year-old women would - she rebels for the sake of rebelling.  What she fails to think through is that if she acts like a child, her father (The King) will continue to treat her like one.  Which means after her latest escapade (ditching her bodyguards in a casino) he's giving her a new bodyguard.  One not so easily distracted - Makhail Nabatov.

Mak has read the princess's file and thinks he has her pegged.  Spoiled brat who wouldn't know a day's hardship if it smacked her on the ass.  Needless to say these two are verbally sparring almost from the on-set.  He's all about duty and honor and she's some Poor Little Rich Girl.  Of course it's all more complicated than that.  Mak has built his own empire (hey, this is a Presents - so OF COURSE even The Bodyguard is a Gazillionaire....), loved and lost, and carries around a serious amount of guilt over past tragedies.  Eva is a woman who doesn't know who she is, and because of that her rebellion against King and Country is petty at best.  But at the end of the day she just wants someone to see her.  To listen to her.  Hell, at the start of the story she just wants to be a person who can go out and buy her own lingerie.  On the surface, Eva may have First World Problems, but deep down it's about identity, knowing who you are, and having people who love you support who you are.

It's a good thing Presents are short (185 pages y'all) because I think this book wouldn't survive the DNF Test if it were longer.  Early on Mak comes off as cold and unfeeling, Eva as a spoiled brat trying to get Daddy's attention.  And that's what the author wants to make you think of them.  Otherwise their growth over the course of the story, their attraction to each other, wouldn't have the same weight behind it.  Mak learns to open himself up to another human being and Eva grows up.  And it's because of the personal growth of both characters, and their romance, that the Black Moment towards the end has the impact it does.  It's good stuff.

I picked this book up for two reasons really: 1) I've liked Yates' work in the past and 2) Virgin Hero.  I love Virgin Heroes.  That said, when it comes to contemporary romance, if the hero is a virgin it's like the author, editor, whomever, feels like there has to be some Convoluted Reason Why the Sexy Hero Still Hasn't Gotten Any.  He's still a virgin because he was kidnapped and raised by wolves.  He fell into a coma and woke up to find himself on The Planet of the Apes.  Crazy Train stuff like that.  And naturally, Yates gives us a reason - although in Mak's case it's wrapped up in bad luck, incredible tragedy, and personal sacrifice.

Here's the thing though - this genre has existed for years never making "excuses" for why heroines are virgins, so the fact we feel like we need an "excuse" for why the hero is one kind of bugs me.  OK, it bugs me a lot.  This is why, I think, it's harder to find Virgin Heroes in contemporary romances than say, historicals or paranormals.  It's easier to accept right out of the gate in 1817 or on the planet Alltran that's ruled by the oppressive Zootron alien race.  I do think we're finally getting to the point in contemporary romances where we no longer have to make "excuses" for the heroine's sexual experience (although there's still a ways to go...) - I just wish we'd start thinking about the hero with the same sort of mindset.

Despite me overthinking the Virgin Hero in a contemporary romance thing - I liked this story a lot.  It started out a little uneven for me - mostly because the heroine does come off as a spoiled brat, and the hero does come off like an emotional brick wall - but as it progresses, as the author develops her characters and the romance, I really fell into this one.  One afternoon, lying in bed reading, don't bother me unless your hair is on fire, fell into it.

Final Grade = B

Friday, June 10, 2016

Reminder: #TBRChallenge for June 2016

For those of you participating in the 2016 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, June 15.  This month's theme is Favorite Trope!  Boss/Secretary? Secret Baby? Amnesia? Beauty and the Beast?  Whatever trope flips your switch the hardest, this is theme for you!

But what if you've read all the Secret Baby books in your TBR pile and no other trope is calling your name?  Hey, no problem!  Remember - the themes are totally optional and are not required.  It's not about the themes but reading 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, June 6, 2016

Mini-Reviews: A Girl Without a Train, Brain Candy and a Historical Western

It's time for another round of mini-reviews!  This go-around Wendy, once again, succumbed to hype, revisited her favorite writer of "brain candy" and tackled a historical western romance written by an author who has published scads of Regencies.
I cannot remember exactly now why I put my name on the wait list for the audiobook version of The Widow by Fiona Barton - especially since the PR for it is heavy on the references to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.  Stylistically it reminded me of The Girl on the Train - with multiple narrators and to be honest, it's pretty heavy on "tell over show."  Flashbacks are employed, and the time line jumps anywhere from 2006 to 2010 to years in between.

It's a Bad Things Happen to Kids story.  A toddler girl goes missing.  A woman's husband is accused.  The story is told from the point-of-view of The Widow, The Mother, The Detective, The Reporter and eventually (for one chapter), The Accused Husband.  I wouldn't say this was overly graphic (I've read WAY more graphic) but the crime is pedophilia, and that's an automatic NOPE for a lot of readers.

Did I like this?  Meh.  I'm not going to lie, it's compelling as all get out.  The wait list was such at work that I couldn't renew the title, so I had to burn through the last couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon.  It kept me engaged, but as a suspense story? I kept expecting it to get all twisty (Hello? The PR is selling me on this being the next Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train!), but it never really twists let alone turns.  I guess I would call this "psychological."  You get deeply inside the heads of the characters, namely The Widow.  But suspense barreling down on you like a freight train?  Biting your nails compulsively towards the end?  Yeah, not so much.  I finished it and my immediate reaction was torn between "That's it?" and "Holy heck, parents everywhere should be terrified."  For lack of a better word?  I'd say this was a disquieting read.  You'll also never want to go on the Internet ever again.

Final Grade = I'm torn between a B- and a C+

Laura Levine is the only cozy mystery author I'm reading these days and her latest Jaine Austen book, the 14th in the series, Murder Had Nine Lives, is set to drop on June 28.  I'll be honest - this series fills the hole left behind when I finally got fed up and quit Stephanie Plum.  Levine definitely has her formula down cold now.  Jaine is a freelance writer, unlucky in love, with wacky parents, and a demanding kitty named Prozac.  There's always a dating disaster.  Her father always gets up to hijinks in his retirement village (this go around it's a Scrabble tournament) much to the horror of her long-suffering, Home Shopping Channel addicted mother.  Prozac destroys hosiery and sweaters while demanding to be fed, BFF Khandi always has a new love of her life and fabulous neighbor Lance takes a swipe at Jaine's personal grooming and dietary choices.

This is all a long-winded way of me saying that this book is more of the same.  It delivers exactly what I've come to expect and it didn't disappoint.  This time out Prozac has been plucked from obscurity (the vet's office) to star in a commercial for a diet cat food. But before you can say "That's a wrap!" - there's a dead body on the set, Jaine is a suspect, and Prozac's dreams of kitty stardom go up in smoke.

Levine is writing the cozy mystery equivalent of a TV sitcom.  They're fast and fun but I don't take them seriously.  I keep reading them because 1) I like them 2) Everyone needs quality Brain Candy now and then and 3) The mysteries tend to be solid.  These are category-length books (around 250 pages) and there's always, at least, half a dozen suspects and motives.  I'm not sure how it will play for newbies, but fans should enjoy this.

Final Grade = B

Julia Justiss has written a western!  The same Julia Justiss who has written numerous Regency historicals for Harlequin Historical and HQN.  It is exceptionally rare for an author to leave behind the Regency (even temporarily) to write a western, so of course I was going to read Scandal with a Rancher!

You can read a more in depth review over at The Good, The Bad and the Unread - but here are some quick hits:

This is a digital release from small press, Tule Publishing and is a prequel to the contemporary Whiskey River series by Eve Gaddy and Katherine Garbera.  I haven't read any of the contemporaries, so I can attest this historical stands alone well.  It did get a bit heavy on the mental lusting for my tastes, and I felt the heroine was too trusting of the hero (especially early on), but this was a solid read.  It didn't jump out as being OMG AMAZEBALLS! but the author handles the change in setting well, it's a readable story, and I liked it.  Trust me, I've read westerns that made my eyeballs bleed, and this isn't one of those.  If you're a Justiss fan, I think this is worth a look.  If you're in the mood for a western - also worth a look.

Final Grade = B

Monday, May 30, 2016

Review: Sawbones

I have Molly O'Keefe to thank for making me read Sawbones by Melissa Lenhardt.  Having recently discovered the Timothy Wilde books by Lyndsay Faye, and knowing my squee-worthy love for them, she asked me if I'd read Sawbones, a fairly recent release from late March.  I hadn't even heard of it, but it looked really interesting and voila!  Work had it.  So I put myself on the holds list and it landed on my Kindle in time for work-related travel.  I didn't read this book, I inhaled it.

I'd classify Sawbones as historical fiction with romantic elements. The publisher calls it "Outlander meets post-Civil War unrest..." which just makes me want to find the publicist responsible for that and punch them in the throat.  This is a book that will not be for everyone, but dagnabit if I didn't fall into this story fast and hard.  I was so immersed in the setting, so invested in the characters, I'm starting to think I need to spend more time reading historical fiction.

Catherine Bennett is a doctor in New York City and has been framed for murder.  She really has no other choice than to run.  The dead man is the husband of one of the society wives' she treats and her alibi is a resurrectionist.  Being a woman and a doctor is enough for most people to think the worst of her, so with the help of a childhood friend and a local madam (Catherine treats whores as well) she heads west with the vague notion of settling in California.  Taking the assumed name of Laura Elliston, she and her maid find themselves on a wagon train heading to Colorado.  However the story of a female doctor turned murderess in New York City is hot gossip, even out in the frontier, and Laura finds that she can only hide for so long - even as she finds herself filling in as a temporary doctor in a remote Army outpost.

This is a hard review to write because 1) I loved this story and 2) Darn near everything I want to say about it is a spoiler.  So I'll try my best.  This is very much a History Is Ugly book.  There's a lot here that I think many of my regular blog readers will have a hard time with.  First, this is a violent story.  People die, and in brutal ways.  Bad things happen to Laura (boy howdy do they...).  Secondary characters that we actually spend a decent amount of time with end up dead. Women are raped.  And while I wouldn't say these moments are the most graphic I've ever read, they're plenty graphic.

I also suspect that some readers will take issue with how Native Americans are portrayed in this story.  The book is set in 1871, so right at the peak of the Indian Wars that found General Sherman (yes, the scorched Earth let's burn down Atlanta during the Civil War Sherman...) working to quash Indian raids.  Most of the characters in this book (including the heroine) have strong, non-PC, opinions on the raiding Indians and an Indian raid is one of the more brutally violent chapters in this book.  There's also the belief that eradicating the buffalo would be a more "humane" way of dealing with the "Indian problem" than warfare - a view that the hero (more on him in a bit) thinks is a grand idea. There is a moment, later on, where a conversation takes place that maybe the Indians are raiding because they've been corralled on to reservations, their women and children are starving to death, and the US is, once again, not honoring signed treaties.  But for the vast majority of the story Indians are raiding, killing, raping and taking captives.  The other side of that coin, the "why," is only given that brief moment of lip service.

I belong to the Ugly History Happened and We Shouldn't Try to Rewrite It Camp.  So while all of the above did make me squirm in my seat a bit?  I appreciated that the author didn't try to whitewash over some of the more unsavory elements of American History.  But I can appreciate that not every reader is going to want to submerse themselves in this dark, violent, and oftentimes unpleasant world.

The romantic elements come into play about halfway through when Laura finds herself falling in love with an Army Captain whose life she saves.  By that point she's living in the remote Army fort, still concealing her identity, and finding that her past is quickly catching up with her.  For his part, Captain William Kindle also has his own dark secrets and pretty soon all those secrets come home to roost.  The romance is extremely well done in this story.  It's a slow, gradual build and by the time Laura admits her feelings for Captain Kindle I firmly believed that yes, these are two people who genuinely care about each other.  It's one of the better drawn romantic storylines I've read in a while and it's....not found in a romance novel.

There is also some mystery to this story but to be blatantly honest - it was the least well-done aspect of this otherwise enjoyable story.  It's all fairly obvious and about as subtle as a sledgehammer.  The author is basically laying down loaves for the reader as opposed to bread crumbs.  But by this point I was so well immersed in the characters, so riveted by the saga of the story, that the obvious mystery elements didn't bother me all that much.

Given the saga-like pace of the book the ending did feel a bit rushed to me, but it does end on a somewhat positive note, although there's still obvious challenges ahead for Laura and Captain Kindle.  It doesn't end on a cliffhanger so much as it ends in a way that as the reader you know the story isn't over yet.  Blood Oath comes out in August and frankly that cannot get here soon enough for me.

I recognize this isn't a story I can universally recommend to every reader I know, but my reaction to this story, how dire my reading mojo has been for the past year, and the fact that I was riveted so completely by this tale means I'm not going to apologize for loving it as much as I did.  I had originally thought I'd rate this a B+ because as much as I loved it, it's not like there aren't flaws here.  But damn, I want to go back and fall into this world all over again.  A B+ just won't cut it.

Final Grade = A-

Friday, May 27, 2016

Retro Review: Heart of Texas by Mary Lynn Baxter

This review of Heart of Texas by Mary Lynn Baxter was first posted at The Romance Reader in 1999.  Back then I rated it 3-Hearts (C grade) with a MPAA sensuality content rating of PG-13.


Clark Garrison is on a mission. He has been sent by his boss to purchase Quiet Haven nursing home in his hometown of River Oaks, Texas. The only obstacle is Sara Ann Wilson, chiropractor and part owner of Quiet Haven. Five years her junior, Clark knew Sara from the days when he was a high school football player and the town’s resident bad boy. Sara and her mother were not pleased that back in those days Clark was dating Sara’s younger sister, Alice. So, to persuade Sara to sell, he has try and convince her he’s a changed man.

Sara is 39, single, and a workaholic. She loves her practice, and her work at the nursing home. She gave up a lucrative practice in Dallas to return to River Oaks and take care of her mother. She’s happy and fulfilled with her job, but her personal life is none existent.

Clark and Sara meet up at her house after he throws out his back. Sexual tension is crackling in the air, and Clark (of course) does not reveal the real reason he’s returned to River Oaks. This makes up the story’s central conflict, although Sara’s insecurities also play a major role.

Heart of Texas has some interesting ideas, the story is too formulaic to make a real impact. The older woman -- younger man (even if it is only 5 years) was a nice change of pace. What I found disagreeable was Sara’s lack of experience with personal relationships. She’s 39 and a doctor. I find it unlikely that someone with her life experiences (college, living in Dallas) would be that na├»ve. Instead, Clark calls the shots through most of book, and Sara just coasts along having doubts.

The sexual tension between Clark and Sara is also well done. Baxter doesn’t mince words, and it’s apparent from the second chapter these two have it bad for each other. The progression of their attraction moves along nicely, and I never came across a chapter that was “dead weight.”

However, there are no new ideas here, and anyone who’s read at least five romances will know exactly where the story is going before they even get there. Some good ideas, wasted in predictability.


Note: This book was published in October 1999 and I started reviewing for TRR in August 1999 - not terribly long after I rediscovered the genre.  So in less than one year of devouring romance novels I thought this was predictable - which is saying something.

I'm almost tempted to reread this, but dang - that paragraph about Sara's "inexperience" has me thinking I probably shouldn't.  What I do recall?  I think the "leanness" of this book and other Desires I read in that era quickly led it to becoming my favorite category line at that time.  Even back then I had little patience for "dead weight" and "filler."

(Heh - if that cover model is 34-years-old I'm 25.)