Friday, December 13, 2019

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is December 18!

Hey, hey, hey!  For those participating in the 2019 #TBRChallenge, a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, December 18.  This month's theme is Holiday.

That time of year when I make y'all suffer because I can't say no to a Christmas romance.  However, notice the theme is "holiday." That means ANY holiday. But if even that puts you in the Scrooge-y mood, never fear! Remember that the monthly themes are always optional.

If you're participating on social media, please remember to use the #TBRChallenge hashtag so people can follow along.

I want to thank everyone who participated and followed along with the Challenge this past year.  Will I ever read through my ginormous TBR? Doubtful. But at least this challenge exists so that I can continue deluding myself.

Sign-ups have begun for the 2020 TBR Challenge - which you can read all about here.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Announcing the 2020 #TBRChallenge!

First, I want to thank everybody who weighed in and shared their thoughts about the TBR Challenge.  I was having a bit of a crisis of conscience, having hosted since 2011 and temporarily misplacing my mojo.  After your comments, and my own soul searching, the Challenge will live on in 2020 with some minor theme tweaks.

But first, the "rules:"

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: once a month pull a dormant book out of your TBR pile and read it.  On the 3rd Wednesday of the month, talk about that book.

Participation is as easy as being on social media!
  • If you're on social media all you need to do is use the #TBRChallenge hashtag - there's no need to sign-up and your participation can vary throughout the year.
  • You can use this hashtag on any day, at any time - but we're still going to concentrate on the 3rd Wednesday of every month to kick our commentary into high gear.  
  • The idea is to have at least one day a month where we can always count on there being book chatter.
Want to let your blogging freak flag fly?  If you have a blog and want to post TBR commentary there, drop me a comment on this post with a link to your blog or hit me up on Twitter.  I like to post links to the various blogs on my TBR Challenge page so those who follow along can start following you.

Sound good?  Of course it does!  So what are the themes for 2020?  So glad you asked!

January 15 - We Love Short Shorts! (shorter reads)
February 19 - Friends
March 18 - Seasons
April 15 - Freebie
May 20 - Old School
June 17 - Getaway
July 15 - Family Ties
August 19 - Backlist
September 16 - Dress for Success
October 21 - Danger
November 18 - Series
December 16 - Festive

The concept for 2020 is to have more open-ended themes. Literally, make this challenge your own!  However you want to interpret these prompts? It's all good.  But if this sort of thing isn't your jam, that's OK too.  As always, the themes are optional.  Don't like 'em, don't have to use them.  See how easy this is?  I mean really, how could you not want to join in on the fun?

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Review: Dancing in the Dark
Cheryl St. John was one of my go-to authors over at Harlequin, having published some very good books with Harlequin Historical and Love Inspired Historical.  She took some time away from writing for personal and family reasons - and has reemerged thanks to self-publishing.  She's reprinted several of her older Harlequin Historical titles and Dancing in the Dark is the first in a new self-published continuity series, Aspen Gold, she's doing with several of her writer pals.  The series is set in a fictional small resort town in the mountains of Colorado where everybody seems to be distantly related (by blood or marriage) - so naturally, plenty of opportunity for drama and shenanigans.

There's no way for me to talk about this book, my experience reading this book without spoilers.  I'll try to keep them at a minimum but you've been warned: SPOILERS!

Kendra Price grew up in Spencer, Colorado "raised" by a single mother who had more boyfriends than good sense and a spiteful sister.  She had an aunt (her mother's stepsister) who took her under her wing and encouraged her love of dance.  Kendra was so passionate about dance, and so good at it, she's made a career for herself - touring with various companies and now parlaying her way into teaching.  During this time she also became fast friends with Dustin "Dusty" Cavanaugh.  Kendra spent a lot of time with the Cavanaugh clan, her and Dusty fell in love, made plans - and naturally it all went to hell in a hand-basket one fateful night when Dusty slept with another girl and got her pregnant.  This broke Kendra's heart and she hightailed it as fast and far as she could away from Spencer.

Oh, did I mention that the Other Woman who Dusty got pregnant is Kendra's evil sister, Erica?  She carried the pregnancy to term, signed away her parental rights, and now Dusty is a single dad raising his son with the help of his large, supportive family.

Unfortunately for Kendra the mountains and Spencer are in her blood.  Kendra inherited her aunt's lake home after she passed and Kendra spends the summers in Spencer, teaching dance.  She's also looking to regroup.  The grind of touring and performing are starting to wear her down.  Spending time in Spencer is dangerous - given her strained relationship with her mother, sister and the possibility of running into Dusty (not to mention her young nephew!) - but she can't stay away.  Naturally what happens, happens.  She and Dusty finally reconnect and secrets come home to roost.

You have to hand it to St. John - the conflict cannon is definitely loaded for bear.  The revelation of Dusty's Baby Mama doesn't come right out of the gate, and when it hits - it's a whammy.  I love emotional conflict where you really wonder how the heck the author is going to pull off the HEA - it's that intense.  And unfortunately? That's kind of the problem with this book.  The conflict and resolution of said conflict is problematic.  Because the only way to get to that happy ending is for Dusty to be absolved of his sins - and for that to happen?  The author has to villainize the Evil Other Woman to cartoonish proportions.  In the end Dusty = victim and Erica's motives are never really clearly defined other than she is a not a nice person.  I  also found the compare/contrast between the sunshine and roses Cavanaugh clan with Kendra's trailer trash slutty mom and sister to be uncomfortable. 

I'm not going to sugar-coat, it's problematic.  Especially if you're a reader like me who finds the Evil Other Woman trope problematic on it's face.  To be honest I'm not sure of any other way St. John could have resolved this conflict to get to the happy ending as long as Dusty was the hero.  Part of me wishes that Kendra's hero would have been some other dude and part of the conflict would have been her "forgiving and moving on."  But that's not the story St. John wrote and there's a lot I liked in this book.  It showcases how well St. John can wring out emotion in even the most deceptively simple passages and moments, plus I inhaled it in one sitting.  Yes, there's a fair amount of set-up and yes, there are a bunch of secondary characters, but I got invested and will continue on with this series even though I've never read a single book by any of the other authors.

I even signed up for their newsletter.  Seriously.

I'm not going to lie, this book is problematic and some of you may read it and think I'm totally insane - but this conflict is nothing if not gutsy.  If you're a new St. John reader I wouldn't recommend starting here, but if you're already a fan? It's an interesting read.

Final Grade = B-

Monday, December 2, 2019

Thoughts on the Future of the #TBRChallenge

The #TBRChallenge has been floating around Romancelandia for a lot of years and in 2012 I took over hosting duties.  I wanted to keep it alive and frankly it was a way to force myself into reading something out of my giant horde of books at least once a month.

However, times they are a-changing.  Blogs are starting to dry up (for various and sundry reasons), more readers are migrating to social media platforms and podcasts, and even though my hosting tenure has birthed a hashtag (#TBRChallenge) - our numbers have dwindled down to a loyal few.  Also, to be perfectly blunt, while I'm still holding on to this blog by my fingernails, my life has changed quite a bit since 2003 and the time I can devote to blogging ain't what she used to be. Reading to theme (even though the themes are optional) and getting reviews up on a specified day - it's hard even for me, and I'm hosting this thing.

But I don't want to just kill the #TBRChallenge like I'm some Supreme Romancelandia Overlord.  I'm proposing a slightly altered version for 2020:

1) Participants commit to reading out of their TBR at least once a month (1 book? 25 books? Whatever!)

2) Reviews/commentary can be posted at any time during the month.

3) No provided themes.  But participants should feel free to create their own (ex. I'm toying with the idea of doing an All Harlequin Print TBR Challenge...)

4) Use the #TBRChallenge hashtag on your blog/social media etc.

For those of you who have been participating regularly, does this sound like a welcome change or a terrible idea?  And for those of you who have never or sporadically participated - do these changes sound like something that may tip you into joining the fray?

Opinions welcome.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Review: The Painted Castle

I picked up The Painted Castle by Kristy Cambron because former RWA Librarian of the Year, Robin Bradford, tweeted about it. As part of her work as a Collection Development Librarian, Robin will regularly tweet about books she comes across in the course of her Day Job.  This was one of them, and she hooked me with the mention of "a lost painting of Queen Victoria."  We had it at work, and in no big hurry, I stuck myself on the wait list for the ebook copy.

I should mention that this book is published by Thomas Nelson (which is owned by Harpercollins).  For those of you who don't know publishers, Thomas Nelson publishes Christian books.  Outside of an epilogue where the God mentions get pretty heavy - this book is extremely light on the religious elements.  Like, seriously, the author could have wiped out a couple of sentences prior to the epilogue and this could have been published by plain ol' Harpercollins.  It's also more romantic elements than romance, but readers get three happy endings and some hot smooching action in the present-day story line so if you dig historical romance? You might dig this.

Keira Foley is an art historian whose career flamed out in New York. She's come home to Dublin to work in her family's pub, lick her wounds, and try to convince her overprotective brother, Cormac, that really, she's OK.  That's where Emory Scott finds her, a disreputable character and rumored art thief (although he was never charged).  He offers her a job at a rundown East Suffolk manner house, Parham Hill, where a walled off library and a long-lost portrait of Queen Victoria has been discovered.  At first Keira resists, but then her curiosity gets the better of her. Because of course it does.

As a young girl, Elizabeth Meade witnessed her father's murder and has vowed vengeance on the man responsible.  But it's 1843, and with she and her mother on shaky financial footing, only an advantageous match with do.  When Elizabeth meets her betrothed, the man her mother has brokered a deal with, she realizes that she's one step closer to closure on her father's murder and vengeance will soon be hers - she just needs to finish putting the puzzle pieces together first.

At the height of World War II, Amelia Woods is the mistress of Parham Hill, a young war widow watching over the estate's beekeeping operation and refugee children from London and Germany.  When her house is commandeered by American soldiers stationed at a neighboring airfield she finds her heart thawing to a dashing American pilot with his own pain and secrets.

This story is told over three alternating time periods, which is a tricky endeavor to pull off.  Unfortunately, I didn't always find it successful.  The long lost painting loosely ties together the three stories's loose.  It felt, at times, like the author was writing three separate stories and crammed them all into one book.  The painting doesn't have enough secrets and isn't featured prominently enough in all the stories.  In the end, I think the story would have been better served if the history of Parham Hill estate had served as the focal point.  The long lost painting angle implies mystery and...there's just not a ton of mystery to be had.  Great history? A nice feel?  Yes.  A mystery?  Not so much.  And it's not helped much by the resolution of the 1843 storyline - with the bit about Elizabeth's murdered father never being fully fleshed out to my satisfaction.

But, it's still a pretty interesting historical fiction piece even though I wanted the threads tying all three storylines together to be stronger.  And you have a romantic couple in each story, all get their happy endings - and really, that's pretty awesome.  It's also a inspirational fiction book where I didn't feel like the characters were neutered.  Oh sure, there's no sex - but there's tension, "feelings" and some good smooching action, so it left me the romance reader pretty satisfied.

I'm not sorry I read this, but I didn't feel like the parts came together into a fully formed whole.  It's the third book in a series (the first two books feature Keira's brothers) and it's doubtful I'll go back for their stories, but I certainly would read this author again.  So I'm counting it a success.

Final Grade = B-

Friday, November 29, 2019

Review: Herons Landing

There are two types of contemporary romance readers: those who turn up their nose at category and novellas because they're "too short" and those who look at single titles and think, "Dear Lord, how much filler crap am I going to have to wade through to get to the good bits?"  If you've been following this blog for any length of time you'll know I'm definitely the latter.  And yet?  I still occasionally dip my toes into the single title contemporary pool looking for...I'm not sure exactly.  One that doesn't make me feel like I'm wading through filler, I guess?  Herons Landing by JoAnn Ross is the first book in her Honeymoon Harbor series that sort of read like it was probably spun off another series.  While there's plenty of "filler" in this story, I'm here to tell you that if you love world-building and you love small town contemporaries?  This one is very, very good.  Even a hater like me has to recognize.

Brianna Mannion is in the hospitality business, a concierge at a ritzy Las Vegas resort/casino. She's used to the comically bizarre,  but after a run-in with a guest she not-so-lovingly dubs "Dr. Dick," she quits her job and heads home to Honeymoon Harbor, a quaint small town in the Pacific Northwest.  "Dr. Dick" was the final straw and when she sees a grand Victorian home that she's been obsessed with her entire life, Herons Landing, up for sale?  She takes it as a sign.  She's going home to open her own bed & breakfast - and for that she needs a contractor to help her restore the old gal to her former glory.

The best contractor in town is Seth Harper, her former childhood crush.  Like, serious crush.  Brianna has been pining after this guy since she was in short pants.  But Seth only had eyes for her BFF, Zoe - who went to nursing school on the Army's dime and was killed in a hospital bombing in Afghanistan.  That was two years ago and Seth is still heavily grieving. His routine of getting through the days, weeks and months since Zoe's death is so consistent that the town residents can set their watches by what Seth is doing at that moment.  Seth is at Quinn Mannion's brewery picking up dinner, so it must be 6:00PM on a Tuesday.  He's still got Zoe's car in the garage.  This guy might as well have "no fly zone" stamped on his forehead.

Brianna was Zoe's BFF and Seth is still mourning - so they share in that grief.  But as they begin to work on Herons Landing they are reminded of how much they think alike, how much they have in common, and naturally what happens in romance novels starts happening between Seth and Zoe.

Look, I'm going to be brutally honest.  If you strip out all the small town "stuff" from this book the romance between Seth and Zoe is essentially category romance length.  Like, probably the length of a Harlequin Desire (around 200 pages).  It's kind of frustrating actually because while I do think the author does eventually get there with the ending, I wanted a lot more of Seth working through his grief to see Brianna standing on the other side.  In the end I have every confidence that Seth is ready to move on - that he'll always love Zoe - but Brianna is a new happiness, a promising future if only he can get past his survivor's guilt.  I just wanted more lead-up getting to that point.

Ah, but that small town "stuff."  I have a low tolerance for such shenanigans, often suffering from cutesy overload - but Ross's world-building is so, so good.  Her characters are interesting without being overly saccharine.  She teases that some characters have a "past" that could become fodder for later books.  Plus she includes some added drama with Seth's parents - whose marriage has hit the skids. It's really clever - showing another side to Seth's character through his parents' pasts.

It did feel overly long to me at times and I did feel the pacing (especially early going) took a while to get anywhere - but oh how it pays off in the end.  Because y'all know what happens right?  Seth is a jackass, Brianna gets her heart broken, and the emotional aftermath that plays out is gut-wrenching.  Like cold-hearted Wendy almost leaked out some tears while listening to the final chapters of the audiobook gut-wrenching.

So, yeah.  Look.  I'm probably never going to be a reader to fully embrace long-ass single title contemporaries and I've never completely gotten on board with the small town contemporary craze - but folks, if this is your jam?  This book is a good one.  And the set-up of the series is also very promising.  Even I'm invested, which is saying something.

Final Grade = B

Friday, November 22, 2019

Unusual Historical Best Bets for November 2019

 Book Cover
Here we are, in November, and I’m in denial. Have I thought about Thanksgiving dinner or my holiday gift purchasing? Of course not. Because it just doesn’t seem possible that somehow nearly a whole year blew past while I was busy doing...stuff, I guess. Who the heck knows anymore. I’m sure it involved The Day Job, continuing to finely tune my tea snobbery and books, because of course books. Which brings us to the latest crop of unusual historicals that have caught my eye. Here’s what’s hitting my wishlist for November:

My Fake Rake by Eva Leigh
Lady Grace Wyatt is content as a wallflower, focusing on scientific pursuits rather than the complications of society matches. But when a handsome, celebrated naturalist returns from abroad, Grace wishes, for once, to be noticed. Her solution: to “build” the perfect man, who will court her publicly and help her catch his eye. Grace’s colleague, anthropologist Sebastian Holloway, is just the blank slate she requires.  
To further his own research on English society, Sebastian agrees to let Grace transform him from a bespectacled, bookish academic into a dashing—albeit fake—rake. Between secret lessons on how to be a rogue and exaggerated public flirtations, Grace’s feelings for Sebastian grow from friendship into undeniable, inconvenient, real attraction. If only she hadn’t asked him to help her marry someone else...  
Sebastian is in love with brilliant, beautiful Grace, but their bargain is complete, and she desires another. Yet when he’s faced with losing her forever, Sebastian will do whatever it takes to tell her the truth, even if it means risking his own future—and his heart. 
When Leigh hits her beats she writes really interesting romances featuring feminist heroines bristling at convention. I generally really dig Pygmalion tropes in romance but Leigh flips it by giving readers the less common version of the heroine making over the hero. Plus, the hero is a bit of a nerd and those aren’t exactly thick on the ground in historicals. This is also the start of a new series.

The Truth Behind Their Practical Marriage by Marguerite Kaye
A marriage hiding secrets
…but forged by passion!  
A Penniless Brides of Convenience story. Miss Estelle Brannagh has never met a man who’s tempted her to renounce her hard-won independence—until an encounter with Irish landowner Aidan Malahide blossoms into spine-tingling attraction. He’s carefree and charismatic; accepting his proposal seems practical and shockingly desirable! Yet Aidan is hiding a dark secret, and it will take all of Estelle’s courage to ensure it doesn’t tear them apart… 

Obviously I like Kaye’s books, having featured them more than once in Unusual Historical posts - but the description of this one has literally made me go weak in the knees. Why? Well if you follow Kaye on various social media channels she’s been referring to this book as her “Irish Gothic” since she started writing it. And if there’s anything I love more than “unusual historicals?” It’s Gothics. Gimme, gimme, gimme!

Scandalously Wed to the Captain by Joanna Johnson
Bound to a stranger
…in a secret ceremony!  
With her finances, reputation and heart all broken by a family scandal, Grace Linwood seeks employment. But the lady she’s companion to isn’t long for this world. She’s intent on seeing Grace protected and quickly wed to her son, curt and closed-off Captain Spencer Dauntsey. With little choice, all Grace can say is “I do”…but who is the man she has just married? 

Discovered as part of Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write, this is Johnson’s second book and the back cover blurb hits a ton of my sweet spots - a down-on-her-luck heroine, a stoic military hero, and a marriage of convenience.

Night of the Scoundrel by Kelly Bowen (novella)
Can he trust her with his darkest secret?  
Ruthless. Dangerous. Known simply as King. No one knows his true name or where he came from. And when he learns that the man who betrayed him has returned to London, King has only one goal: vengeance. But first, he must seek out an unlikely ally to aide him in his pursuit...  
Adeline Archambault is as mysterious as she is beautiful. Exiled after the French Revolution, she's determined to reclaim her birthright and deliver the justice that is owed her. King's offer to help her, in exchange for her assistance, is a bargain she can't refuse. But will this deal with a devil lead to a future she never dared hope for? 
Bowen has been racking up so many accolades it’s hard to keep track (by my count she’s got three RITA Awards under her belt and appearances on numerous Best Of lists….). This back cover blurb is magic and caught my eye immediately thanks to a super mysterious hero and a heroine in search of justice. This sounds perverse, but I’m a sucker for romances that utilize the French Revolution in some way.

Ride the High Lonesome by Rosanne Bittner
A man bent on revenge
A woman determined to survive
A land that knows no mercy
Meet the Men of the Outlaw Trail  
When Kate Winters is left stranded and defenseless in outlaw country, she knows there's little chance she'll make it out alive...until she stumbles across a ruthless gang hanging a cowboy for his cattle. She waits until the outlaws are gone, desperate enough to claim the dead man's horse to make her escape—only to realize he's not dead after all.  
Those outlaws should have made damn sure Luke Bowden was good and gone. Now he vows he'll have his revenge no matter the cost. But they're miles away from the nearest town, and the woman who saved his hide won't survive the ride back. He owes her his life—he owes her everything—and it doesn't take long before he's faced with a terrible choice: stand by Kate...or claim his revenge? 
I’m the type who will generally look a gift horse in the mouth, so while I’ve been happy more westerns are getting published they’ve been riding on the coat-tails of the small town contemporary trend that’s showing no signs of slowing down. Which means lots of cutesy small towns west of the Mississippi and while I do read those, they’re not my favorite. Bittner tends to write the style of western that I love - the sort where you really think either hero or heroine are going to end up dead, but never do because, hello, she’s writing romance. Action, adventure, road romance, and the start of a new series? Sign me up.

What Unusual Historicals are you looking forward to reading?