Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Mini-Reviews: Suspense, Billionaires and Fluff

I love it when other bloggers post mini-reviews or reading recaps, but I'm such a slow reader (also having spent most of 2015 thus far in a slump) that I don't capitalize on the format all that often.  However between books I just never got around to reviewing, audiobooks and books I wrote about at other places, I've finally got enough backlog to deliver some minis!

I tend to really like Jill Sorenson's suspense novels and Backwoods is part of her very loosely connected Aftershock series.  I find that Sorenson excels at writing complicated relationships, and that's certainly on display here - with the hero's ex-wife and the heroine's ex-husband having had an affair with each other and eventually marrying.  The heroine suffers from panic attacks and anxiety thanks to the earthquake that rocked San Diego.  The hero is a former baseball player who had a very public fall from grace thanks to his alcoholism.  They're now spending time together thanks to their college-aged kids and a family vacation hiking in the woods that their exes bailed on.  The suspense here is lighter than in previous books in this series, with the romance and relationships taking more of center stage.  I liked that both hero and heroine had "real" problems, and felt that the author handled the relationship between the 19-year-old step-siblings extremely well.  Honestly, that could have been a disaster.  I missed the stronger suspense thread that I've come to enjoy in the author's previous books in this series though - so it ended up being a B- for me. 

The only reason I would ever read a book with a title like How to Seduce a Billionaire is because of the author name attached to it - which in this case is Portia Da Costa.  Obviously I'm fine with billionaires, per se.  I mean, I do love category romance after all.  But the "new" breed of billionaire who digs BDSM because Mommy didn't love him enough and stalks the heroine in his spare time isn't really in my wheelhouse.  However I figured if anyone was going to make me tolerate the idea of a billionaire hero and a 29-year-old virgin heroine, it would be Da Costa.  I wrote about this for Heroes & Heartbreakers and on the Wendy scale this ended up being the very definition of a C read.  It was nice.  It was pleasant.  But I didn't love it, I didn't hate it and it didn't change my life.  If the idea of this story makes you break out into hives, there's probably not a lot within the pages of this book to make you change your mind.  Likewise, if you like the Alphahole billionaire and the virgin heroine who is so clueless that she doesn't have an e-mail address - there's probably not a lot here you're going to like.  Da Costa doesn't write clueless virgins and while the hero is selfish and a dreaded I'll Never Love Again Now That My Sainted First Wife Is Dead - she pretty much stays away from the tropes that made EL James a butt-ton of money for reasons that largely escape me - but hey, just because that's my yuck doesn't mean it can't be your yum.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins has been compared a lot to Gone Girl - mostly because people lack imagination and feel like they need to compare this with that in order to sell books.  It's similar in respect that it features completely unlikable characters - some of whom are women.  It's different from Gone Girl in the respect that egads, the beginning is slow as mud and the ending is much more traditional suspense (take a wild guess which ending Wendy prefers?).  Heroine who is raging alcoholic prone to blackouts rides train everyday and makes up stories in her head about couple who lives in a house near tracks.  Wife goes missing.  Husband suspected.  And they just so happen to live down the street from the heroine's ex, who cheated on her with a Hot Young Thang and naturally knocked her up.  If I had read this I probably would  have DNF'ed it because of the slow beginning and characters I generally loathed - but like Gone Girl, it's very good on audio.  I did see the ending coming, but I liked it.  A solid B for the audio version.

Royal Wedding by Meg Cabot is releasing on June 2 and I just submitted my First Look of it for Heroes & Heartbreakers.  This is the first adult novel in Cabot's wildly successful Princess Diaries series, with Mia and her friends now being in their mid-twenties.  The last book in the YA incarnation, Forever Princess, in 2009 was, I felt, a very excellent way to wrap up the series - so while I was insanely excited to read this book, I was also a little leery.  Was Cabot going to muck up all my fond memories by giving rebirth to Mia as a grown-up?  Turns out I had nothing to fear.  I really enjoyed this for what it was - pure fluff in almost a chick lit vein.  I have no idea if it will hold up for readers not familiar with the YA series, but if you're already a fan?  You'll want to read this.  As a fan I would say my grade is probably somewhere around a B+.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

TBR Challenge 2015: A Soldier's Heart

The BookA Soldier's Heart by Kathleen Korbel

The Particulars: Contemporary romance, Silhouette Intimate Moments #602, 1994, Out of Print, No Digital Edition

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?:  Adored by numerous readers, and a RITA winner in 1995, I was eventually pushed over the edge to adding it to the TBR because of Victoria Janssen's love for it.  Like me, Victoria is a major category ho so I tend to listen to her recs.

The Review: I love the "social history" aspect of reading older category romances.  In the days before digital and self publishing, if you wanted "current issues" in your romance novels you often found them in category romances thanks to the sheer volume of them that were published every month and the tighter turn-around in deadlines.  There were elements of this story that were a tiny bit dated (say hello to your car phone!), but it still feels fresh and relevant reading it 20 years after the fact.  I can only imagine what it would have been like to be a reader back then, discovering this book.  Nothing short of a revolution.

Twenty years ago Tony Riordan was pulled out of a Vietnamese rice paddy barely hanging on to life.  By the time he makes it to the evac hospital he's ready to give up, slip away.  And then a nurse with a soothing voice punches him in the jaw and tells him in no uncertain terms that he will not die - she won't allow it.  Tony does survive and makes it home - but not without demons.  He's found help for his PTSD and is ready to put the last of those demons to rest, which means finding his nurse.

Vietnam was a lifetime ago for Claire Henderson, one she's trying to forget.  She lost her parents (figuratively, not literally), her husband (another Vietnam vet) and keeps her demons at bay playing the always on-call caregiver.  She's trying to open up a bed & breakfast, still works part-time as a nurse, has two teenage children, one of whom is itching to enlist so he can fly jets.  She's barely holding it together as is - then the nightly news starts filling up with Somalia and Tony walks into her present, a ghost from the past.  Claire begins to crack and Tony, knowing the signs, having seen them and still living with the struggle, stays in town under the guise of helping her with her B&B (handily, he's a contractor).

Let's go back to the early 1990s, shall we?  The US has a long history of shame when it comes to helping our veterans and it took until the early 1990s for the idea of treating PTSD to gain some traction.  And even then?  It was a lot of veterans helping their own in street-side clinics.  But hey - that's just the men.  Nobody was really thinking about the women.  The idea that women would come home with PTSD was still a foreign concept.  Claire feels like she didn't have it so bad - not like the boys did.  She didn't suffer like they did.  What she won't acknowledge is that just because she had it different doesn't mean she didn't suffer.  Their experiences do not invalidate her experiences.  Because of all of this, Tony is at a bit of a lose as to how to help her.

This element to the story is very well done and by far my favorite aspect of the story.  I've got a huge soft spot for nurse heroines, and Claire is pretty much a textbook example of why I do.  Nurses tend to be pretty amazing people and any nurse who has served in a war zone is balls-out amazing as far as I'm concerned.
"I was just one nurse in one evac hospital.  There were hundred of us, nurses, doctors, corpsmen, medics."

"It wasn't the doctors who held my hand when I thought they were my mom."

Her smile was fleeting and tenuous.  "The doctors didn't look a thing like your mom."

"Neither do you.  But you were there."

Her eyes gave her away before she could ever manage the words.  Huge eyes, eloquent eyes, eyes that betrayed the old horrors she'd locked so far away.  "It was only my job," she said quietly, and nobody in the kitchen believed her.
The Vietnam portions of the story are epic, and so well-done.  They are what really elevated this from being a "very good" read to a "great" one.
"What happened was I quit," she told him.  "Quit fighting, quit asking, quit giving a damn.  I went over because I could make a difference, but I was wrong.  I couldn't do it.  I couldn't take every one of those boys looking to me to save them, to hold them, to be their mothers and sisters and lovers.  I couldn't let them die without trying and I couldn't tell them it was going to be all right when I was sending them home with only one limb.  So I quit."
So yeah.  My heart pretty much got ripped out repeatedly while reading this book.

But this is me we're talking about and honestly, as emotional charged as this book is in so many ways and for all the praise it has garnered over the years.....it's not perfect.  The romance does get a little lost in the shuffle at times.  I'm not entirely sure how Tony and Claire fall in love because the "stuff" going on with them and around them takes a bigger piece of the action.  There's also an element of alcohol use that the author totally skates over, I suspect because we're talking category word count.  Tony likes the occasional beer, but it's mentioned that Claire sometimes has to down a couple glasses of wine before bed in the hopes she'll actually sleep.  Wine bottles in her bedroom, in the kitchen, are mentioned more than once.  Now just because Claire drinks wine before bed does not automatically make her an alcoholic, but she's obviously using it as a crutch, and that's classic alcoholic behavior right there.

The author does do a bang-up job with the ending, and I never got the impression that Claire was "cured" by the love of a strong hunky guy with a mustache.  Also, gird your loins - we have an older couple!  Vietnam vets + parents of teenage kids + 1990s = a romantic couple in their 40s.  The romance genre has evolved and changed in 20 years, but some things haven't.  Older protagonists still aren't thick on the ground and while we love us our military heroes?  We still don't see a ton of military heroines.  So this revolutionary book in 1994 still feels a bit revolutionary 20 years after the fact - if for only those two reasons alone.

This was firmly sitting in my B range for the majority of the story, but once Korbel turns up the angst and emotion in the final half things really begin to cook.  I'm not sure I'll ever reread this, but it's just too strong of a story for me to not give it an A, quibbles and all.

Final Grade = A-

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Tiffany Girl

Disclaimer: Back in 2010 I won a contest the author hosted to attend an event at the Biltmore Estate.  I had to get myself to North Carolina, but the hotel room and admission was paid for.  After I met her in person, she named the town librarian in her book Love on the Line after me.  Do you think I've read that book yet?  Of course not.  But My Mom read it and really loved it (because, of course she did).
One of the things I love about being a reader is that sometimes you actually get to witness magic happen.  Those times in your life, as a reader, when the right book just magically happens to find you at the right time.  Such is the case with Deeanne Gist's latest historical romance, Tiffany Girl.  Is it a perfect book?  Well, no.  But what works about it, really works - to the point where I finished it lying in bed (instead of going to sleep) with my throat clogging up and tears rolling down my cheeks.  A story that generates that kind of emotional response out of me is a winner in my book.

Flossie Jayne is an art student who still lives at home with her parents in New York City.  By day, she paints at school.  The rest of the time she toils with her mother sewing fabulous clothes for the upper echelons of society while her barber father takes the money they earn straight to the race track.  By today's standards, Flossie is no radical.  But this is 1893 and a young woman making her way in the world, on her own, with her own job, and her own money, is pretty much viewed as the fall of western civilization.  When her father decrees no more art school, Flossie is determined to strike out on her own - which she does thanks to Louis Tiffany.  He's designing a glorious stained glass chapel for the upcoming Chicago World's Fair and the glass cutter's union has just gone on strike.  He shows up at Flossie's school with the plan to have women do the work, and handpicks her to join the ranks of his women's department.

But Flossie still has the problem of her father.  If she lives at home, he'll take her Tiffany earnings.
"I'd love to have children, Mother, but I can't seem to work up any enthusiasm for a husband who will withhold money from me when I'm the one earning it and who will keep me on a leash because he thinks he knows better than I what's best for me."
So she decides to move into a boardinghouse, practically giving her parents a fit of the vapors in the process, and soon befriends all the fellow boarders.  Well, except for Reeve Wilder, investigative journalist:
He'd mentioned the Tiffany Girl to his editor at the New York World.  It had spurred a long discussion between them which culminated in an assignment where Reeve was to write a series of exposes on this breed of New Women who were trying to infiltrate what had been - and what should certainly remain - man's rightful and exclusive dominions.
What follows is Flossie turning Reeve's world upside down and both doing a lot of growing up.

Honestly, this story could have been a disaster.  Flossie isn't a radical suffragette screeching on street corners and getting dragged off to jail.  She's simply a woman who wants more for herself than what society deems as "acceptable" for that time period.  And Reeve isn't an Alphahole jerk - he simply just thinks like, I'm sure, a lot of men thought about women in the late 19th century.  Gist makes neither of these characters wholly right or wholly wrong.  Reeve brings up valid points, like that Flossie is, essentially, a scab crossing the picket line.  Flossie brings up valid points, like that just because she's a "New Woman" that doesn't mean she has loose morals.

Flossie is, of course, a ray of sunshine that turns the boardinghouse world upside down.  Reeve begins to resent this intrusion for "reasons."  She somehow manages to escape falling into the Mary Sue trap, because frankly - she does have a lot of growing up to do.  Flossie is a touch naive and events happen over the course of the story where she finds herself learning some hard lessons.  I liked that everything she touched didn't automatically turn to gold.  Reeve is a lonely man, borderline hermit, who slowly changes his way of thinking about New Women the more he gets to know Flossie. The romance is a slow build, and as the characters grow up, so does the romance blossom.

A word now about The Sex.  Gist got her start in inspirational romances, but with the last couple of books she's strayed a bit away from that territory and gone more Straight Up Americana.  You get the impression that the characters attend church, read the Bible, and have faith, but calling this an inspirational strains at the seams.  The author has gotten a lot of flack in certain circles (cough GoodReads cough) for this "pornographic" turn of events - so let me address it here.

There isn't a single sex scene in this book.  Not a one.  What we have is a passionate kissing scene where Reeve and Flossie succumb after sharing a dance - but immediately jump apart when they hear a door slam in the boardinghouse.  Then (and I don't consider this a spoiler because hello, romance novel) the book ends on their wedding night with Reeve undoing the gazillion tiny buttons on Flossie's wedding ensemble and getting her (slowly I might add) out of her multitude of underthings. We don't actually GET a sex scene.  It's fade to black with Reeve helping her undress.

This all being said, I think I understand why some readers are up in arms because Gist does more with those "gentle" G-rated scenes then some erotic romance authors do with the most kinky of fetishes.  The slow build of the romance in this story gives the readers plenty of tension and chemistry.  I'd be totally comfortable giving this book to my teenage niece (if The Hunger Games didn't warp her, this book certainly won't) or to my long-past pious grandmother.  But I'm a deviant, so what do I know?

The story isn't perfect.  The pacing bogs down on occasion and while I liked the Tiffany "stuff" - I was much more interested in the boardinghouse dynamic.  I would kill for a historical romance that is all boardinghouse all the time actually.  But it's all worth it for the emotional scenes when Flossie confronts Reeve over a Big Secret, and Reeve realizes 1) crap, I'm in love with her and 2) she's right, I can't keep living like this - I'm lonely as hell.

There's a lot here I liked, and a lot I really loved - including the Americana-feel and the big emotional scenes that spur our couple to their happy ending.  I feel quite strongly that there aren't enough stories like this circling the romance universe and if you feel anything like I do?  Don't miss this one.

Final Grade = A-

Friday, May 15, 2015

Reminder: TBR Challenge for May

For those of you participating in the 2015 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, May 20.  This month's theme is Kickin' It Old Skool (Copyright 10 years or older).  Not to send anybody into a tail spin - but ten years ago was 2005.  If your TBR pile is anything like mine, you probably have an embarrassment of riches to choose from.  However, remember - the themes are totally optional and are not required.  Maybe you are an overachiever and you only have very recently published books in your TBR. Hey, that's fine!  Remember, it's not about the themes but reading something (anything!) out of your TBR.

For more information, or just to follow along with all the participants - check out the 2015 TBR Challenge Information Page.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Git Along Lil' Doggie!

I've over at Heroes & Heartbreakers today talking about some of my favorite historical western romances.  I've pimped out quite a few of these in the past (on this blog), but hey! There are some newer additions to the Western Carousel of Goodness at least as far as Wendy is concerned.

I limited myself to only seven, because really - the title for the blog post I came up with was just too good to not use.  So head on over, read about some westerns, and git ye downloading some samples to try!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

New Photo And Reading Updates

I love it when the DC Comics universe decides to release new photos of yours truly.  Apparently there's a new video game coming out (after a series of delays) called Batman: Arkham Knights and fans have been criticizing the yearly subscription rate as being "too high" when very little information has been made available about what the game entails.  So to appease the fanboys and girls out there, the studio behind the game released this image of Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) that you can play in a "prequel story" as part of the game.

Or as I like to title this image: Wendy, Working a Sunday Shift at the Library.  Seriously.  Just. Like. This.


So, in other news - how am I doing after my epic whiny post from earlier in the week?  Better.  Oh no mistake, I'm still whiny (Rome wasn't built in a day y'all) and my Tigers seem incapable of beating the Chicago White Sox at the moment, so blah.  But as for reading?  I'm getting there.

I burned through Anne of Green Gables on audiobook, which I enjoyed.  I think I'm going to go through the rest of the series, but am taking breaks in between so I don't gorge myself on Americana Goodness and hit saturation levels.

I'm also pretty well invested in Tiffany Girl by Deeanne Gist, despite reading reviews on GoodReads that made my head explode.  Gist has been moving away from inspirational with her last few books, but trust Auntie Wendy on this one - it's not like she's putting on latex, carrying a whip and going full blown Fifty on us. 

Ladies, I know filthy naughty times and this is so far away from that - well let's just say please do not come over to the Bat Cave and go merrily traipsing through my bookshelves.  The shock would either 1) kill you or 2) lead you to call a priest to perform an exorcism on me.  Wait, does the priest look like Ewan McGregor in Angels & Demons?  Maybe?


The "feel" of this story reminds me quite a bit of the Americana "sub genre" that existed in the 1990s and early 2000s.  Folks like Pamela Morsi, Stephanie Mittman and Stef Ann Holm.  That kind of vibe.  So while I wouldn't say this book is inspirational per se, I'd still classify it as a gentle read (thus far).  Time will tell, of course.  I mean, I've got several hundred pages left.  Full-length review will follow, I just need to read the whole book first.

I'm also finding myself hankering for Harlequin - which should shock no one.  Looking back at my reading year thus far, I haven't really read that many category romances yet and Lord knows the last Harlequin Historical I read.  I've got a couple library books I want to try, see if they hold my attention, but then I might go on a bit of a category binge.  I certainly have plenty to choose from.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Little Miss Crabby Pants Has A Come To Jesus Moment

There's no good way to write this post.  I've literally been debating it for weeks.  On one hand, I think it needs to be said.  On the other?  It's going to come off like Old Lady Wendy sitting in her front porch rocking chair with a shotgun across her lap and yelling at the damn kids to get off my lawn.  It's going to sound like I want reassurance, a pat on the back, or at the very worst?  Like a passive aggressive diatribe from a middle child constantly being overlooked.  But I've been doing this a long time.  I've been kicking around Online Romancelandia for 16 years and have been blogging for 12 of them.  Frankly at this stage in the game?  I'm Betty-frickin'-White.  The nice old lady who will bake you chocolate chip cookies then let loose with a string of F-Bombs because she's beyond caring what people think.  Pardon my French, but I think those 16 years have given me the right to say what I'm going to say.

The romance community as I knew it is on life support.

We are fractured.

We are broken.

Others have said this before.  Others began saying it years ago.  And I dismissed those others.  Because I felt as long as there was a gasp of breath in my body, the community would live on.  It would evolve, it would change, but the seeds that were planted would still exist.  As long as there was one blogger out there, as long as there was one lone voice typing out in the wilderness - the community would live on.  And then?  Lots of stuff happened.

Some will point to the widespread use of promo and ARCs as the problem.  Some will point to that the fractious political climate and social injustices in Real Life now spilling over into other areas that, in a perfect world, should be our safe havens.  Some will point to things like Katherine Hale, the entire debacle that is the Hugo Awards, and the complete eroding of trust that many have felt in the wake of the Ellora's Cave lawsuit and the handling of the Dear Author disclosure incident.

For me, personally, it's not one thing.  It's all those things piled on top of each other.  And then, you know, I've got a Real Life to live.  I'll be blunt.  I'm tired of feeling like the lone voice in the wilderness when nobody really seems to care anymore.  Now, to be fair, I think they do care.  I just think for the sake of sanity we've all burrowed into our personal bunkers with a stash of caffeine, a fair amount of chocolate and a stack of romance novels that, ironically, none of us feel like reading at the moment.  And that's the crux of it right there:

We don't feel like reading.  I know I'm not alone, I see you on Twitter.  We don't feel like reading.  All this stuff?  The what I see as an eroding of a community?  It has made us sad.  It has broken our desire, that one safe haven we could always go to - reading.  You know what I feel like doing right now - other than nothing?  Playing Candy Crush and watching Law & Order reruns.  That's what I have energy for.  Because when I look around the "community" as I see it today?  I feel spent.

I'm struggling.  Mightily.  I know this sounds completely pathetic.  We're talking about blogging.  We're talking about reading and discussing romance novels for cripes sake.  But there's no joy in Mudville.  I'm full up.  I'm tapped out.  I'm fully aware I'm not working on a cure for cancer, or taking care of terminally ill children, or finding my life force sucked away by working a seriously draining career like social work.  But when something you once took so much joy in is no longer bringing you joy - when you look around and all you feel is sadness and you think about what the word "community" should truly mean?

I'm a problem.

I need to get my head right.  I need to find the joy again.  I'm not sure how I'm going to do that. "Letting go" seems like the obvious answer - but it's hard to do that when you know you can't fix the problem by yourself.  The community as a whole has to want to fix it - and from where I'm sitting?  There are more than a few who seem perfectly content to wash their hands of it and traipse merrily along playing follow the leader.  I want to rail.  I want to point fingers.  I want to be angry.  I want to screech and yell and say to people, "WTF is wrong with you??!?!?!?!"



That solves nothing.

And at this point I've been around too long and have invested too much of myself and possibly planted a teeny, tiny, modicum of joy into someone's life by keeping this blog going for 12 years even if it was only in the form of a smile, or a giggle, or making them pick up that really awesome western to read that they loved when hey, they didn't know they even liked westerns.

Is the community dead?  Not entirely.  I catch glimpses of it on Twitter.  I see echoes of it at Heroes & Heartbreakers (although, ironically, they are owned by a publisher - go figure).  I see All About Romance standing tall with some infused energy into the Old Gray Lady of our corner of the Internet.  Which means I can whine, be unhappy, be a cranky malcontent - and that solves what exactly?  Nothing.  All I can do is offer some advice.  To you, yes - but mostly this advice is for me.

Find your community.  Find your tribe.  Hold on to your Twitter friends, your Facebook group, or even better?  Start your own blog.  Find your voice.  Even if you think you've got nothing to say - trust me, you do.  You don't need to be Big Business.  You don't need to review or accept promo or take ARCs.  You can write silly little blog posts about the illogically thinking Greek Tycoon hero you read about last night, or the heroine who actually, bless her heart, saves herself instead of waiting for the Greek Tycoon to do it, or how crazy your cat acts when she's all high on catnip.  Yes, it's about what you say - but more importantly - it's the way you say it.

Find your tribe.  Hold on to them tightly.  And never, ever take them for granted.  Treat them with respect.  Value them.  Appreciate that they are taking the time to be a part of the hive.  And if the time comes when they need it?  Throw them a lifeline.  Because they would do the same for you.  Never use them.  Be professional.  Be respectful. And never devalue yourself or your community.

Find your joy again Romancelandia.  Find the love.  I'll be over here trying to find mine.