Thursday, November 15, 2018

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is November 21!


Hey, hey, hey!  For those of you participating in the 2018 #TBRChallenge, a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, November 21.  The theme this month is Cover Girl (a book with a pretty cover...or a horrible one).

An inaugural theme this month!  I'm a visual person and love cover art.  But what if you're one of those types that, quite frankly, doesn't care or pay attention to covers? Hey, no problem!  Remember that the themes are optional and really, you can read whatever you want.  The whole point of the TBR Challenge is to read something that has been languishing in your TBR.

Reminders:

1) If you're participating via social media, remember to use the #TBRChallenge hashtag

and 

2) You can get further details and links to all the blogs participating on the 2018 TBR Challenge Information Page.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Retro Review: Hearts by Stef Ann Holm

This review of Hearts by Stef Ann Holm was first published at The Romance Reader in 2001.  At that time I rated it 5-Hearts (A Grade) with a sensuality rating of PG-13.

+++++

I was very busy last week - so busy, in fact, that I only managed to get the first 50 pages of Hearts read. I found myself too exhausted to hold the book up, let alone give it the attention it deserved, so I put it on hold until President’s Day, when I had the whole blessed day to myself. Literally finishing it in one sitting, I have decided that I may have grounds to sue my boss for unfair labor practices - you be the judge.

Since 1852, the Valentines had always married on Valentine’s Day, but the tradition will most likely stop at Truvy Valentine. Tall, athletic and a schoolteacher to boot, she might as well have spinster stamped on her forehead. Truvy has resigned herself to her fate, although she can’t deny that she wishes she would marry and have children. The fact is, men like women who are delicate, petite and feminine - qualities that Truvy doesn’t possess.

However, all her musings on her spinsterhood pale in comparison to the pickle she’s landed herself in. The main benefactress for St. Francis Academy for Girls passed out dead away when she overheard Truvy reading to her students from The Science of Life - a sexual education book. Truvy’s supervisor really has no choice but to put her on a leave of absence until after the Christmas holiday.

Truvy had been planning on visiting her old college friend, Edwina Wolcott, in Harmony, Montana anyway, so she decides to extend her visit. Edwina is very pregnant, and Truvy is anxious to make herself useful, and to keep her mind off her current state of unemployment. Instead, she comes face to face with a man who is more than happy to help her out.

Jake “Bruiser” Brewster is a former bodybuilder and boxer, who now runs his own gym in Harmony. A large hunk of a man, he’s used to women fawning all over his muscles, but then he meets Miss Valentine - an intelligent woman who seems to not find him remotely attractive and takes him for blockhead. However, from the moment they both set eyes on each other, it’s too late. They try really hard to convince themselves that it possibly couldn’t work, but can’t help being intrigued all the same.

There is so much to like about Hearts, it’s really hard to know where to begin. First, I should say that for me, a good romance is one that takes some of the old tried and true formulas and tweaks them a bit. Holm does just that, and it makes Hearts not only an original story, but a heartwarming one as well. Sure Truvy is a schoolteacher, but she’s also an athlete, something she doesn’t like to openly discuss. She wants to be feminine, desirable, and women athletes are often seen as mannish freaks of nature.

Likewise Jake is, on the surface, his own cliché - having come from an extremely humble background, leaving home at 14 to escape an abusive father. Having been abandoned by his mother at a young age, he feels that a happy marriage and family couldn’t possibly be in the cards for him - what does he know about raising a family when his is such a mess? Also, there’s the small matter of Jake having a past failed relationship, making him reluctant. What is refreshing here is that Jake does not think that all women must be spawn of Satan because of this failed relationship. I know, it was a shock to me as well.

The main source of conflict is Truvy’s insecurity (what man could possibly be attracted to an over the hill athletic school teacher) and Jake’s belief that he wasn’t meant for love and family. That’s it. No wastrel brother who squandered the family fortune. No will stating that Truvy must marry to claim an inheritance. No witchy other woman trying to keep the couple apart. No nefarious Snidely Whiplash waiting to tie Truvy to the train tracks. It is quite simple, straightforward, and utterly wonderful.

After I finished the last page (well past my bed time), I found myself unable to sleep - my thoughts drifting back to the story and wishing I could start all over again. I can think of no higher compliment than that. Charming, delightful, and sweet, Hearts has won mine. Now I think it’s time my lawyer and I had a little chat with my boss…

+++++

Wendy Looks Back: I came to romance just as the last gasps were going out of the "Americana" sub genre.  Holm went on to write contemporary romance and has self-published a few titles, but unfortunately her entire Americana backlist looks unavailable in digital and is out of print.  This is the fourth book in a series but trust me when I say it stands alone extremely well (when assigned to review this I had never read Holm before...).  I remember loving the world-building, the small town Montana setting, and the romantic couple, who both had their insecurities but were perfect for each other.  It's been a dog's age since I've read this but my memories are extremely fond.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Review: Charlesgate Confidential

My timing couldn't have been worse for reading Charlesgate Confidential, Scott Von Doviak's debut novel from Hard Case Crime.  The news has been filled with nothing but hate and reports of man's vile inhumanity against man, so an intricately plotted crime novel when I probably was in a mood better suited for a Calgon-Take-Me-Away Fairy Tale Romance made for slow going.  Also, the story is set in Boston and I had to read about the effing Red Sox more than was tolerable.  What would be tolerable?  Not reading about them at all.  But at least Von Doviak had the good sense to set part of this story in 1986.  God bless you Bill Buckner.

This is an ambitious novel that features not one, not two, but three dueling timelines.  I've seen this go horribly awry with authors just tackling two timelines, but three?!  And while it did take some time for me to sink into the story, the intricacy of the plotting and how the author weaves all three timelines together is pretty remarkable.

The story opens in 1946 when two brothers and their cousin rob a mob-connected poker game at the Charlesgate Hotel.  Naturally, they can't keep their mouths shut about it - so the guy who runs the poker game, Dave T, catches up with them.  But instead of burying them in concrete on some construction site, he essentially blackmails them into pulling off a heist for him.  They lift some priceless paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and, of course, it all goes horribly wrong.

In 1986 the Charlesgate Hotel is now a dormitory for Emerson College.  Tommy Donnelly is a student who can actually write, so the school paper assigns him a series profiling the Charlesgate.  There's a slew of rumors, ghost stories and urban legends, and hey - Tommy lives there.  He starts digging into Charlesgate's past, stumbles across the story of the Gardner heist, and the fact that the paintings were never recovered.

In 2014 the Charlesgate has been turned into luxury condos and a real estate agent showing a prospective client a vacant unit is strangled for her trouble, her keys to the entire building stolen.  Detective Martin Coleman catches the case, stumbles across the Gardner link, and hits pay dirt when a Charlesgate resident returns from a business trip to find her condo has been broken into.  Jackie St. John was a former student at Emerson, lived at the Charlesgate in 1986, and Tommy Donnelly was one of her friends.

It takes a while to get there, but eventually the author begins to mesh all three timelines to bring the entire story behind the art heist into focus.  What went wrong, why, and more importantly - what happened to those paintings?  What I liked best about this story is that it kept me guessing.  Everything about this crime story was a mystery.  How the author was going to bring the three timelines together, the twists along the way, and finally what happened to the stolen paintings.  I had no idea where the author was taking me until I actually got there, and after a lifetime of reading suspense novels (oh, just 30 years is all...), it's always a small miracle when an author can surprise me about...well, everything.

I really wasn't in the right head space to read this when I did, but it's a really well done novel, the kind that should get award recognition.  Despite my intense loathing of the Red Sox, there's no denying Von Doviak's world building and the plotting of this story is top notch.  He's set the bar high with his first novel.  I eagerly await the second.

Final Grade = B+

Monday, October 22, 2018

Top 3 Unusual Historicals for October 2018

I can hardly believe it, but this month I surpassed my reading totals from 2017. Don’t ask me how, because I feel like I’m currently mired in a hopeless slump. If it weren’t for audiobooks keeping me engaged during my daily commute I’d be in an even sadder state. And that’s just, well, sad. But even with the slump that still hasn’t kept me from browsing for new off-the-beaten path historicals. Something other than Regency and Almack’s horrible lemonade.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B07GXJB51M/themisaofsupe-20
Master of None by Kate Pearce
When mill heiress Miss Emily Marsham agrees to a marriage born out of tragedy and hardheaded necessity, her hopes for future marital bliss aren’t high. Adam Blackthorn, the ambitious manager of one of her father’s mills is not what she expected in a husband. Can she make the best of her situation and be a dutiful wife, or will Adam challenge her to become something else entirely?
I caught some Twitter promo (I think?) for Master of None, which happens to be the second book in the author’s self-published series centered around the fictional northern English town of Millcastle. I LOVE stories set around the Industrial Revolution and Pearce has described this as Pride and Prejudice and North and South having a baby. Grabby hands!

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B07BRT2DXS/themisaofsupe-20
His Rags-to-Riches Contessa by Marguerite Kaye
From the streets of London…to Venetian high society!

A Matches Made in Scandal story

To catch his father’s murderer, broodingly arrogant Conte Luca del Pietro requires help from a most unlikely source—Becky Wickes, London’s finest cardsharp.

Against the decadence of Carnival, Becky’s innocence and warmth captivate Luca, but as their chemistry burns hotter, the stakes of their perilous game are getting higher. For Luca is no longer playing for justice—but also to win Becky’s heart…
I’m currently behind on this series but I love the set-up, a mysterious woman only known as The Procurer provides introductions to people in need of services the other can provide. This is the third book and the author drew inspiration from three sources: her editor who suggested Carnival, toughening up Eliza Doolittle by adding a dash of Helena Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, and the 1973 film, Don’t Look Now, which is set in Venice.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B07BRTLMBV/themisaofsupe-20
A Western Christmas Homecoming by Lynna Banning, Lauri Robinson and Kathryn Albright
Three festive romances: Christmas in the Wild West!

In Christmas Day Wedding Bells by Lynna Banning, buttoned-up librarian Alice is swept away by US marshal Rand Logan on a new adventure.

Then, Welles is Snowbound in Big Springs in this novella by Lauri Robinson, where he must confront Sophie and their undeclared feelings…

Finally, rugged outlaw Russ rescues Abigail from spending the festive season alone in Christmas with the Outlaw by Kathryn Albright!
It’s the time of year when Harlequin decides to separate me from my money by publishing a bevy of Christmas romances (I’m a sucker for Christmas romances - yes, I’m part of the problem). There’s always a couple of Harlequin Historical holiday anthologies and besides being a western (grabby hands!) the Lynna Banning story features a librarian heroine! It’s an unwritten rule that I have to one-click this otherwise I might lose my secret librarian decoder ring.

What Unusual Historicals are you looking forward to this month?

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

#TBRChallenge Review: The Guardian

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00R0GBK4C/themisaofsupe-20
The Book: The Guardian by Cindi Myers

The Particulars: Romantic suspense, Harlequin Intrigue #1572, 2015, Out of print, Available digitally, First book in mini-series

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: I had an autographed copy which means I more than likely picked this up at a RWA conference.  I tend to pick up category romance at conferences rather indiscriminately, especially for authors I've never read before - and as amazing as this sounds, I don't think I've read Myers before.  Despite her large backlist and the fact that she's written across several Harlequin lines.

Review: Meh. Oh, you expect more than that?  OK.  Well, once again my lagging mojo meant I waited too long to settle on a TBR Challenge read for this month, so I went diving in the ocean that is my Harlequin print TBR and unearthed this Intrigue.  I like Intrigues because they're fast-paced and short - which means the author has to hit all the emotional beats and build a fast moving suspense thread to hook the reader.  Myers does that here.  I think Intrigues are notoriously tricky to pull off for a writer, so when I find someone who handles the line and format well, I take notice.  Myers inserted a few elements in this story that annoyed me, but I can't fault her on her skills.

Abby Stewart is a former beauty queen, turned soldier, who was injured while deployed in Afghanistan.  In fact, she almost died.  She was rescued by Michael Dance, a PJ (para jumper) with the United States Air Force Pararescue.  It's been five years but he's never forgotten Abby - mainly because she was the first person he managed to save who didn't end up dying on him.  He now works for Customs and Border Protection and is part of a inter-agency task force patrolling public land in Colorado.  Imagine his surprise when Abby bursts into the staff meeting he's trying to stay awake in.

Abby is back in school, working on her PhD-or-something-or-other in environmental science of some sort (I kind of tuned this out).  She's studying the native plants in the region, collecting samples, hoping her research will lead her to a cure for cancer, Parkinson's, pick your poison.  Anyway, she's out gathering her plants when she meets a Hispanic woman collecting edible plants and carrying a baby.  The woman speaks no English and Abby only remembers the rudimentary basics of her high school Spanish.  But then the woman is frightened by an approaching group of men, Abby hides, and when the men disappear she emerges only to be confronted by a dead body.  Hence her going to the ranger station and interrupting the meeting that Michael is in.

This isn't a terrible read by any stretch of the imagination, but there were authorial choices made here that I wasn't entirely captivated with.  While I liked that Abby was ex-military, and therefore extremely level-headed and capable, she does make a couple of bone-headed moves and gets butt-hurt when Michael goes all Macho Man wanting to protect her from danger.  Yeah, that's annoying, but she is, after all, technically a civilian in this situation.  On the bright side, there was one really nice moment in the story where she apologizes afterward knowing full well she flew off the handle a bit.

In Abby's defense, Michael wanting to cocoon her from harm is pretty annoying since he's fully aware that she's ex-military and has experience working in a war zone.  Seriously dude, I know you're getting all these gooey feelings for her, but let's not start treating her like some hothouse flower that's going to wilt.  But I liked that Michael and Abby have the shared experience of both being former military, that they talk about the trials of acclimating back into civilian life post-military, and all the challenges that that entails.

I walked into this story knowing full well it was book one in a series.  What I didn't realize was that it's book one in a mini-series.  For Harlequin fans, think of this like it's the start of a continuity series written by one author.  The suspense thread here is just the start of an overarching plot that carries over into the next three books.  Illegal immigrants are on the public land working at something...illegal.  What?  Who knows. The characters suspect it's a drug operation and there's naturally One Very Bad Man who is keeping these illegals prisoner and working them as slave labor.  I liked that Myers addresses other aspects of human trafficking to the plot - that yes, many victims are forced into sex work, but some are forced into illegal drug labor pools, domestic work etc.  I also liked that the author focused on illegal activities on public lands and in National Parks - where people have set up large marijuana grow operations and meth labs.  While Hispanic characters are victims in this story, the author has made the inter-agency task force diverse and some of those characters become protagonists in the later books.

So while this has potential, and I'll certainly read Myers again, it's not something that lit a fire in me to continue on with the next books in the mini-series.  There's a lot left unanswered in this book one that I know will be addressed later (a gazillionaire who has a compound near the public land, a missing TV news anchorwoman, what exactly are the bad guys up to etc.) but I just can't be bothered.  I was annoyed with myself for not realizing this was a mini-series and not just a plain ol' series.  The characters were nice enough, Myers is certainly a capable writer in the tricky Intrigue format, but I just wasn't feeling this.  It's OK but...meh.

Your mileage may vary.

Final Grade = C

Friday, October 12, 2018

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is October 17!


Hey, hey, hey!  For those of you participating in the 2018 #TBRChallenge, a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, October 17.  The theme this month is Paranormal or Romantic Suspense.

It's Wendy Lacks Imagination month!  October = Halloween hence it's the traditional theme of either paranormal or romantic suspense.  But what if you don't read either sub genre or you're simply not in the mood? Hey, no problem!  Remember that the themes are optional and really, you can read whatever you want.  The whole point of the TBR Challenge is to read something that has been languishing in your TBR.

Reminders:

1) If you're participating via social media, remember to use the #TBRChallenge hashtag

and 

2) You can get further details and links to all the blogs participating on the 2018 TBR Challenge Information Page.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Review: Billionaire Without a Past

Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse

Readers never just read a book. All of us tug along our own personal baggage whenever we "consume" entertainment. I'm no different. I can read a 30-year-old bodice ripper and still enjoy it, but I usually do so while viewing the "problematic elements" through the lens of when the book was first published.  I read Presents in similar fashion. I don't see Presents as operating in "reality."  They live in a highly fictional fantasy fairy tale world and they're (usually) not the sorts of stories that I confuse with "real life."  Can Presents be problematic?  Lord, yes.  Do I really care?  Not really.  I like them for purely escapist fantasy purposes.  Presents are my cotton candy unicorn rainbow sprinkles reads.

Which what makes Billionaire Without a Past by Carol Marinelli a really interesting read.  In a lot of ways, it's Typical Presents.  In other ways?  It's kinda revolutionary.  Let me explain...

Nikolai Eristov is one of the Irresistible Russian Billionaires (he's the 3rd book in a series) who grew up in an orphanage.  He became fast friends with the other three IRBs (who all have their own books) but he ran away when he was around 14.  When a body turned up in the river his friends all assumed he was dead.  He wasn't dead.  He ran away because he was being sexually abused by someone who worked at the orphanage.  He eventually stowed away on a ship, was found by the guy who owned the boat, and he soon had a mentor.  Nikolai eventually becomes the head of a shipping empire and lives on a fabulous yacht.  Because, of course he does.  But now one of the other IRBs is getting married, Nikolai gets wind of it, and hopes to slip into the wedding just to see for himself his friend is doing well. The last thing he wants is to be spotted - which, of course, he is.  Given that everybody thought he was dead, it's kind of a surprise to see him.

Rachel Cary is a soon-to-be former ballerina with her own baggage.  The guy she was having sex with (theirs was one of those on-again-off-again-we-have-sex-but-not-really-a-"relationship" relationships) has dropped the bomb that he's in love with her cousin and they're getting married.  And of course this guy is a dancer in the same ballet company she's soon-to-be a former member of.  Because, you know, that won't make family gatherings awkward at all.  She's also running from her past.  She's got a completely screwed up relationship with her mother, thanks to Mom's many husbands and boyfriends - and yep, you guessed it - Rachel and Nikolai have a very painful past in common.

The difference here is that Nikolai's not dealing with his past comes in the form of having to tell his friends why he ran away and disappeared from their lives.  It's the embarrassment and shame of sharing what happened to him that's the hurdle.  But once he realizes his friends already know, this aspect of the conflict largely slinks off page.  Instead the focus turns to Rachel, and this is where the story gets interesting, at least in the realm of Presents Land.  Nikolai first admits what happened to him to Rachel and her reaction is less than ideal. She blunders it every possible way you can image.  Nikolai is pretty disgusted but soon thereafter is when he tells his friends - which is when he realizes (paraphrasing), "Wait a minute, Rachel is BFF's with the wife of one of the IRBs - the wife knew about my past already, ergo Rachel already knew which makes her reaction all the more weird.  Wait a minute....I wonder....did someone hurt Rachel?"

If this had been a Typical Presents, the hero would have assumed the automatic worst and this would have morphed into an Enemies to Lovers "thing."  Instead, our Presents hero is smart enough, self-aware enough, OBSERVANT enough to realize that there is more to Rachel's reaction than he first thought.  OMG! A PRESENTS HERO WHO HAS CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS!!!!!  Naturally the rest of the story involves Nikolai and Rachel spending time together and Nikolai helping Rachel share her trauma, to get her to open up, so she can begin to heal.

Is the book perfect?  No.  It's a Presents, so there are problematic elements, like when the heroine muses, "She was like a high-class whore and loving it..." as her relationship with Nikolai gets hot and heavy.  But in turn there are gems like when Nikolai and Rachel share their common pain and he asks her "Like you had no voice and that even if you spoke there was no one to hear it?"

There's also a lot of secondary characters given that we're Book #3 in a series, which would normally be fine, but Presents clock in at less than 200 pages so....not really that fine.  So yeah, is this perfect?  Hardly.  But it's really one of the more interesting Presents I've read in a long time.  I understand that the Russian Billionaire "thing" is an automatic non-starter for probably most readers these days (thanks for nothing current political climate) but there's interesting things afoot here.  I'd previously only read one Harlequin Medical Romance by Marinelli and also liked it - which means I obviously need to read more of her.  And, of course, she has a crazy stupid long backlist.  Somebody hold me.

Final Grade = B-