Friday, May 26, 2017

Review: Blood Oath

Blood Oath by Melissa Lenhardt was originally supposed to come out last August, and yes I'm still bitter about it.  After reading and loving Sawbones last year, I thought I only had a few short months to wait for the second book in the trilogy.  Instead Blood Oath got pushed back until May 2017.  I'm not usually one to whine over having to wait on books (I've got more than enough in my TBR to entertain me during such a wait), but when this book got pushed back, I damn near burst into frustrated tears. Then it showed up on NetGalley (finally!) and Hachette took like 2 weeks to approve my request.  So after all this, what did I think of the book?  Well, it's a classic book two in a trilogy, and just like Sawbones, it's problematic as heck and I can't figure out who to recommend this too.  So looks like I may be writing this blog post for myself.

Events from Sawbones see our heroine, Laura Elliston (the former Catherine Bennett) on the run with her lover, Captain William Kindle.  A doctor by trade, she fled New York City when she was accused of murdering the husband of one of her patients.  A female doctor is sensational enough, but one believed to have murdered someone?  It's not terribly shocking that the story has continued to dog Laura.  She escapes with Kindle and now they're on the run from bounty hunters.  As if that weren't enough, the "Indian problem" in the West is hitting a fever pitch and circumstances from the previous book have left Laura with a heaping helping of post-traumatic stress.

I don't care what genre we're talking about, when you have a trilogy that follows the lives of one set of characters they all read the same.  Book One = OMG, this is great!  I want more!  Give me more!  Book Three = OMG, this is a great!  What an exciting conclusion!  So action-packed!  Which leaves us with Book Two.  What is Book Two?  Book Two = The Bridge.  It's the carry over book.  It's the occasionally ho-hum middle book that you have to read because it wraps up some stuff from Book One and carries you over into the exciting conclusion of Book Three.  I don't care who the author is writing it, when you have a connected trilogy like this no reader anywhere ever says that Book Two is the best one in the series.

Just as in Sawbones, this is historical fiction with some suspense and some romance - although the romance isn't quite as satisfying here.  Namely because Kindle and Laura are past the courtship phase and have begun to realize that 1) they don't know everything about each other and 2) they're both very difference people.  Kindle may love Laura but that doesn't mean he's always accepting of her independent, feminist ideas.  Laura loves Kindle, but she's no Suzy Homemaker and she's beginning to realize that she doesn't know everything about his past.

Just like the first book, this one has problematic elements (really ugly history) and is violent.  Frankly there's a rape scene in this book that was A Bridge Too Far For Me - and that's saying something.  I have a strong constitution when it comes to violence in fiction.  I was the teenager reading Patricia Cornwell, not Georgette Heyer.  Blood guts, violence against women - I'm not saying it doesn't bother me, but I can generally handle it in fiction.  I was a suspense fan long before I discovered romance.  So if something violent in a book bothers ME?!  Just saying.

The story itself is good, but I didn't love it as much as book one.  My biggest quibble with it is how Laura's PTSD is handled.  It's not surprising how screwed up she is at the start of this story. Sawbones was epic and violent and OMG, a gut punch.  But then she has an experience that leads to her working through some of this traumatic past and....I'm sorry, I'm not entirely buying it.  I mean, does PTSD ever "go away?"  I don't think so.  It features prominently in the first half of the book and then kind of drops off the map.  Who knows, it may all come back into play in the third book.  Only time will tell.

If you read and liked Sawbones, this one is a must read.  It sets everything up for the final book in the trilogy, Badlands, which is due out in June.  I've really enjoyed this series so far, even when I've been questioning whether I should or not.  But it has the kind of epic scope and drama that is hooking me at a time when finding books that truly engage me is getting to be a tall order.  This certainly won't be for everybody.  But, so far, they've been for me.

Final Grade = B

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review: The Forever Summer
Even when Jamie Brenner was writing romance (under her own name, and the pseudonym Logan Belle), she always kind of skirted around the edges of the genre.  Erotic elements, high drama of the soap opera variety, and with her most excellent (seriously read it!) Now or Never she blended the very best of erotic romance with women's fiction and it was simply divine.  She's now gone full-blown into women's fiction territory with The Forever Summer and oh man, I loved this book.  Even when I wanted to throttle some of the characters (and that's a compliment), I positively wallowed in this story.

Marin Bishop is a driven, ambitious woman who has had her life plan mapped out for a long as she can remember.  She's a lawyer at a prestigious Manhattan law firm with a handsome fiance.  Her father is proud, her mother over the moon, and then it all comes crashing down.  Marin calls off her engagement because she's fallen in love with a partner at her firm.  Then the affair is found out (and there's a strict no fraternization policy) and she's fired.  Coming on the heels of this disaster?  A home genetics kit unearths a unknown half-sister.  When Rachel shows up on her doorstep on her way to visit the grandmother she didn't know she had, Marin goes completely off the rails and decides to join her on the trip.  They head to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where their grandmother and her wife have operated a bed & breakfast for the past twenty years.

My one paragraph plot description really doesn't do this book justice.  It reads as if Marin is the main character, and she sort of, kind of is - but this is one of those ensemble cast books.  There's a load of interesting, well fleshed-out secondary characters and the author alternates points of view between a handful of the players including Marin, Rachel, Blythe (Marin's mother) and Amelia (the grandmother).  Amelia's wife, Kelly, also plays an extremely prominent role in the story.  As a one week visit morphs into a summer long stay, the author keeps folding in more drama, some of it with nods to soap opera, without making it over-the-top or of the "Oh no she didn't!" variety.

As always seems to happen in books written with large casts, there are inevitably story threads the reader finds more interesting than others.  Blythe, Amelia and Kelly were easily my favorites.  Marin slides in behind when she's past her wallowing, bitter stage, and Rachel was....well, young.  She probably grated on me the most, but I'm a big enough person to admit it's because she was young, inexperienced in many ways, and kinda clueless.  But Rachel illustrates perfectly what I loved so much about this story.  How real the characters felt to me.  I got irritated with them. I celebrated their joy, cried tears with them, and felt their pain.  They felt real.  Like I could go to Provincetown tomorrow, walk down the street and possibly run into them.

There is a lot of drama in this book, not surprising given the main story line.  That said, more drama comes in through side doors, with all the characters experiencing some sort of loss and awakening over the course of the book.  They all go on a journey, and mostly come out OK on the other side.  That said (I'm going to tap dance around this a bit to avoid spoilers) there's tragedy in one of the story lines and a loss that's devastating.  If your reading mood is currently Must Have Happy Sunshine All The Time, take this under advisement.  What's truly remarkable is that even as more and more drama gets piled on (to the point where I was like "seriously?!") it never feels over the top or overstuffed.  Don't ask me how Brenner pulled that off, but she did.

For romance fans, Brenner does weave in some of that - but I have to be honest and say that pretty much all the straight men in this book annoyed me no end.  They're not evil, it's more like I got so frustrated with them that I wanted to slap them into next week.  I didn't find this a satisfying romance read mostly because of that, but then that's not what this book is.  As women's fiction, it's dynamite.  Multi-layered with characters that come to life.  Drama, drama, drama.  Satisfying, rewarding, heartbreaking and tender.  If this is your kind of thing, read it now.

Final Grade = B+

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

#TBRChallenge 2017: The Gangster's Kiss

The Book: The Gangster's Kiss by Ginger Ring

The Particulars: Historical romance, First in Series, Self-Published, 2016, Available in Digital and Print

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: I bought this at the RT Convention Giant Book Fair in Las Vegas 2016.  When I'm at conference book signings I try to impulse buy at least one new-to-me author.  It's good karma I like to throw out into the universe.  Anyway, the cover caught my eye and it's set in the 1920s, so I plunked down $10 to buy a print copy and as they say?  No good deed goes unpunished.

The Review: This was not a good book, which is a shame since there are the bones of a good story here.  There's even a quick tease of what could have been interesting characters.  But none of it is helped by flat writing, a romance that goes from zero to sixty in 3 seconds, and a hot-and-cold running heroine.

John O'Malley's sister, Eryn, is missing.  He's working the docks in Chicago, trying to get together the money to find her, when he comes to the aid of a man getting beaten to a pulp by hired goons. Mickey Flynn is so thankful he offers John a job - a job that isn't exactly legal - but it gets him to Wisconsin, which is where he heard his sister might be.  The gangster-types in Chicagoland have infiltrated the backwoods counties in Wisconsin, setting up vacation retreats and it being closer in proximity to Canadian booze.  John is driving a truck filled with whiskey when he almost runs over a man lying in the middle of the road.  It's the local judge, having a heart attack.  The judge's son, the local sheriff (cozy!), soon comes upon them and John aids the man in getting his father to a doctor - but it's too late.  The judge dies.

Daniel Sullivan is so grateful to John that he offers him a job - protecting his sister Grace, just back from St. Paul.  Something Bad happened in St. Paul, so Grace has come running home to Daddy - only now Daddy is dead, her brother seems to be on the take, and The Bad Man she fled St. Paul to get away from is now sniffing around her hometown.  Then John is hired to be her bodyguard and life suddenly gets a whole lot sweeter.

Oh how I wanted to love Grace.  We meet her when she's on the train heading home to Wisconsin, hungover after going on a bender to forget her troubles.  We also find out during this time that she essentially ran away from home because she didn't want to shrivel up and die in her tiny home town and she did away with her pesky virginity while playing flapper in St. Paul.  So I'm liking this girl already.  Instead the author then morphs her into someone who is supposedly "shy" and that's misconstrued by the locals as her being "stuck up" so Grace has no friends (boo hoo).  Oh, and she's the best darn cook ever!  Because of course she is.  One minute she's mooning over John, the next she's all feisty and fiery with him.  Hot for him one minute, cold the next.  What my grandmother would call "sassy" and not in a good way.  To give you some illustration of how problematic this girl is - she confesses to John that she left St. Paul after she witnessed three murders and after she spills out this shocking tale (she's drunk - because of course) - she comes on to him.  Then she begs him to sleep with her (as in, share her bed know...) and when she wakes up the next morning she has no memory of spilling her guts to him.

Can we just shoot her now and beat the Christmas rush?

John is an OK sort, but he's the kind of guy who magically falls into things - including any clues he may get about his sister's whereabouts.  He's also fantastically stupid about his friend Mickey Flynn who is hiding something - and it's not a huge leap to guess what that something is.

I'm kind of glad I didn't DNF this because there's a twist towards the end that spurs us on to the conclusion.  It's a common device pulled from the Soap Opera Bag O' Tricks, but it's at least interesting.  Unfortunately the writing itself is wooden and could have benefited from, at the very least, a ruthless critique partner.  The history itself was OK some of the time, but there are some doozies.  Al Capone overseeing the loading of trucks with alcohol in 1928 even if it was backwoods Wisconsin where the law is on the take strains the seams considerably.  And the use of the term "club fed" raised my eyebrows so high I think a light bulb singed off some hair (for those that don't know "club fed" is a pun for "Club Med," which didn't exist until 1950 and hello, Wikipedia is your friend people!)

And yet, here I sit thinking about the second book in the series, The Gangster's Woman because Mickey Flynn is the hero and he takes up the task of finding John's sister, Eryn.  So apparently John decides to just, oh not pursue that search anymore now that he's found twu luv with Grace.  Ugh, whatever dude. Seriously Wendy, do not read the second book.  You didn't like this one.  It's OK to never know where Eryn disappeared to and what happened to her.  Just say no.

Final Grade = D

Friday, May 12, 2017

Reminder: #TBRChallenge for May

For those of you participating in the 2017 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, May 17.  This month's theme is Something Different.

Another theme that is open to interpretation.  Maybe "different" means an unusual historical setting, or a sub genre you don't actively read, or maybe you want to read something that's *gasp* not a romance.  Brain storm away and let your imagination run wild! 

Ah, but I can hear you thinking, "Wendy, have you lost your mind? Have you been paying attention to current events? I don't want different right now!  I want comfort food!"  Hey, no problem! Remember: the themes are optional!  The whole point of the TBR Challenge is to read something, anything, that has been languishing for far too long.

You can find more information about the challenge, and see the list of participants, on the 2017 Information Page.  (And it's never too late to sign-up!)

Saturday, May 6, 2017

#ShallowReader Bingo for April 2017

April was a Lost Month for me.  Between work and visiting family I only finished three books (and the last one was completed on April 30 - that's the kind of month it was).  So it's rather amazing I was able to complete two full BINGO rows.  Also, because I made BINGO last month, Vassiliki let me suggest another square - and for the curious "Hollywood" was my suggestion.

Squares: Sweet City Woman, Sleepless Nights, Wild Ride, Drinks O' Clock, No Questions Asked, West Side, Hollywood and Party.  What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin is a suspense novel set in southern California about a woman who spent 30+ years in prison for murdering a famed Hollywood director.  She falls under suspicion again when her father-in-law, a legendary Hollywood actor is found shot dead in his home - killed in the same manner as his BFF, the director the heroine was convicted of killing when she was just 17-years-old.  Lots of secrets, lies, and shady shenanigans in this one and it was nominated for the Edgar for Best Novel.

Squares: Exploring, Now, Morass.  My TBR Challenge read, The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers. There's an exploring theme to the romance, it's a contemporary and I found the whole thing rather sluggish.  The writing didn't work for me.  At all.  And the more I think about The Big Secret the angrier I get.

Squares: Chasing the Light, The Perfect Kiss.  The Lighthouse Keeper by Cynthia Ellingsen. When her life implodes in Boston the heroine impulsively bids on (and wins!) a lighthouse in northern Michigan.  It's there that she meets the hero, who, when he kisses her, sets off all sorts of sparks her former fiance' failed to ignite.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Review: The Most Beautiful: My Life With Prince
The Most Beautiful: My Life with Prince was written by Prince's first wife, Mayte Garcia and dropped on the world close to the first anniversary of his untimely death.  Garcia has taken some flack for that, and for the book in general, as Prince was a notoriously private person while he was alive and OMG HOW DARE SHE?!?!?  

Slow your roll people.

Garcia is extremely candid in this book, admitting that it's "her truth," and for morbid celebrity gossip seekers - well this book is going to be a disappointment.  Does Prince always come off looking good?  Well, no (hey, the marriage did end in divorce).  But Garcia avoids mud slinging. Nothing in these pages shocked me, but they wrecked me all the same.  This is a love story between two people who, I believe after finishing the book, really, truly loved each other.  They lost their way in a fog of unspeakable grief and weren't able to find their way back to each other.

Mayte Garcia is a Puerto Rican girl who fell in love with belly dancing.  A military brat, her family lived all over the world and before she was a teenager she was dancing professionally, running her own business.  She was mature beyond her years.  Her parents marriage is...colorful.  They went through periods of infidelity, the fights were often legendary, and by the close of the book she tells readers her parents have divorced each other, and remarried each other, twice.  This girl was all business by the time she hit 16.  That's the year she met Prince.  Her family attended one of his concerts in Europe and struck by the Arabic vibe of the song "Thieves in the Temple" - her mother convinced Mayte to make him a compilation tape of her dancing.  Incredibly, he actually watched it (can you imagine how many tapes people pressed on Prince over the years?  Thousands, I'm sure!).  They struck up a friendship, and that's all it was - until she was legal.

Mayte was grown-up beyond her years and knew how to handle herself - but she was a virgin, Prince being her first (take a moment to wrap your mind around that).  This girl didn't stand a chance.  Prince kept it all above board, but the way he slowly woos her - it's rather spectacular.  And it's not like he showered her with endless gifts (although, yes - there was some of that) - but it was his actions, his gestures, his long conversations with her.  While she had a career, and was not a "typical" teenage girl - I think back to my first and holy cow - Mayte Garcia's "first" was PRINCE! 

What ultimately made me want to pick up this book is, no surprise, the man himself.  I love Prince's music and think he's a genius artist - but that translates to put this delicately....well, eccentricities.  I wanted to know about the woman who 1) captured his heart enough to get him to settle down and 2) what it was like to be married to Prince, the genius artist with the eccentricities and foibles that come along with that level of genius.  And Garcia doesn't disappoint.  She spends the early chapters talking about her life, and then moves into entering the orbit of Paisley Park, her marriage to Prince, and the heartbreak that eventually tore them apart.

As a romance reader I loved this book because Garcia's love for her ex shines through on the page and listening to her words, I think it's obvious that Prince loved her as well.  I positively swooned over pages, even though I recognize that a 16-year-old Mayte never had a chance.  It was delayed gratification.  A slow seduction built up over years of friendship and working together.  So I can vibe to the fact that some would be uncomfortable with this relationship even though nothing "officially" happened until she was legally an adult.  And I do think, for a while, Prince did only see her as a friend and fellow artist.

For those who know anything about this relationship, read any of the press back then or right before the book's release - you'll know Mayte and Prince had a child, a baby boy (Amiir) born with Pfeiffer Syndrome who only lived for a week after his birth.  There was another pregnancy that resulted in a miscarriage.  Ultimately, I was left with the impression that this grief is what led to the demise of their marriage.  So while the romantic moments, their friendship, the happy days of their marriage, will be something I think romance readers will adore - it's a punch in the gut during the second half.  I listened to this on audio, which Garcia narrates, and she's a tour de force (cut to the chase and give her a Grammy right now).  I can only imagine how hard it was for her to read, out loud, those chapters that dealt with her pregnancies and her son's death.  And yes, she does get choked up, including in the final chapters when she talks about adopting her daughter, Gia.  I cried with her as I was driving my car down the freeway to get to work.

Nothing I type here will likely change the minds of hardcore Prince fans who feel that Garcia is poo-poo'ing all over his legacy.  What I can tell you is that listening to this book, hearing her story, hearing her truth - I believe strongly that she loved this man, and still loves him to this day.  He shaped so much of her adult life, they shared immeasurable joy and unspeakable tragedy.  That binds two people together - that's something that never goes away.  This book is a gem.

Final Grade = A (and seriously, if audiobooks are your thing - I cannot recommend experiencing this story in that format strongly enough).

Monday, May 1, 2017

Review: The Lighthouse Keeper

How's this for a disclaimer: I went to high school with the author. Cynthia Ellingsen is a couple years younger than I am, her older sister, Carolyn, was in my class, and we were all "band kids."  I reconnected with Cynthia in 2011, at RWA (yes, my Librarian of the Year year) right before her first book with Berkley came out. Since then she and her husband have had a couple of kids and her latest book, The Lighthouse Keeper sees her moving over to Amazon's Lake Union imprint (print everywhere, ebook exclusive to Amazon, but if you're a Kindle Unlimited person you can read this book for free!).

Dawn Connors has her life mapped out before her, until her family's past comes back to haunt her.  Her parents were treasure hunters, diving and recovering ship wrecks.  They now own an antiques store in picturesque Starlight Cove, Michigan but they made their money thanks to one really well-documented treasure recovery.  So it's not unheard of that they would be the subject of a television documentary.  Dawn spent her childhood being constantly uprooted and longed for a "normal" existence.  She somehow gets talked into hosting a viewing party for the TV special and that's when all hell breaks loose.

The on-air personality resurrects the family scandal.  Dawn's great-grandfather was a sea captain who lost his ship off the cost of Starlight Cove.  On board?  Prohibition era whiskey and a pile of Morgan silver dollars - neither of which was ever recovered.  The TV show digs up all this dirt, leading to Dawn losing her boyfriend and her job in the ensuing publicity.  That's when the insurance agency comes calling.  Hand over the silver dollars and all will be forgiven.  If not?  Her parents lose their house.  At the end of her rope, lost in despair, Dawn does something rash.  She notices the Starlight Cove lighthouse is for sale via online auction.  She makes a bid, and wins it.  So now she's on her way to northern Michigan to look over the albatross she just bought, reconnect with her parents, oh and she has to figure out a way to find the silver dollars and clear her family's name.  Which means she has no time to waste getting sucked into the orbit of Kip Whittaker, the town's most eligible bachelor.

You know those cozy mysteries that the Hallmark Movie Channel is running non-stop these days?  Yeah, this book.  However enjoyment of the story hinges on the reader's ability to "roll with it."  Is this probable?  Honestly?  I have no idea.  But it does strain a bit that an insurance company would make threatening overtures regarding a ship wreck that happened in the 1920s.  Although who knows?  Maybe they would.  Insurance companies don't exactly have a warm and cuddly past (or present for that matter....).

It also requires patience on the part of the reader.  This is one of those Throw The Reader In Head First when it comes to character development.  Ellingsen tosses you right in and then employs the backtracking method to reveal more about her characters.  It's not a slow build kind of read - it's sink or swim in the early chapters.  But once Dawn wins the lighthouse and the action moves to Michigan, the author finds surer footing and we're off to the races.

It is an engaging read.  I would label this women's fiction with a touch of romantic mystery.   If you're a fan of small town contemporaries, this is the book for you.  The author does a great job of creating the town of Starlight Cove and all the residents - some welcoming to Dawn and some not.  It's the kind of small town where even if your family has been there for 20 years, the old guard is still going to consider you an "outsider."  It's also the best of both worlds, since the mystery of the shipwreck dates back to the 1920s and there was a great love affair between Dawn's great-grandparents - so there's a little something here to engage the historical fan.  I got invested in the mystery and the author sprinkles in various puzzles for the characters to, well, puzzle over and it kept me engaged all the way to finish line.

Fair warning, this is one of those books where the big city heroine ditches it all for the small town (Dawn's living in Boston when it all goes bust), but given Dawn's unhappiness in Boston (and the fact that her life implodes there) I didn't have an issue with it.  The editing could have been a bit tighter in spots for me, but I'm the sort of small town contemporary reader who wants less of the small town world-building (which, again, the author does exceedingly well) and more of the main couple - so take that for what it's worth.  The one solid detraction I have for the story is that the author leaves Dawn's ex-fiance' twisting in the breeze, but by then the mystery is in full swing and things are heating up between Dawn and Kip so.....a quibble more than anything else.

There's some history, some mystery, and some romance (kisses only, fade-to-black style).  If you're a reader who cannot get enough small town contemporary, this one will likely be a winner for you. Personally it made me a little home sick (and that's a compliment).

Final Grade = B-