Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Notable Unusual Historicals for January 2019

New Year, new you? Well, if you’ve already broken your resolutions, maybe not. But at least we can all look forward to a new year of historical romance. January brings us a long-awaited follow-up to a beloved late-1990s trilogy, a Wendy recommended reprint, an angsty new K.J. Charles (woot!), Vikings and an enemy-to-lovers story set against the backdrop of the Jacobite rebellion.

Any Old Diamonds by K.J. Charles 
Lord Alexander Pyne-ffoulkes, the younger son of the Duke of Ilvar, holds a bitter grudge against his wealthy father. The Duke intends to give his Duchess a priceless diamond parure on their wedding anniversary—so Alec hires a pair of jewel thieves to steal it.  
The Duke's remote castle is a difficult target, and Alec needs a way to get the thieves in. Soldier-turned-criminal Jerry Crozier has the answer: he'll pose as a Society gentleman and become Alec's new best friend.  
But Jerry is a dangerous man: controlling, remote, and devastating. He effortlessly teases out the lonely young nobleman's most secret desires, and soon he's got Alec in his bed—and the palm of his hand.  
Or maybe not. Because as the plot thickens, betrayals, secrets, new loves, and old evils come to light. Now the jewel thief and the aristocrat must keep up the pretence, find their way through a maze of privilege and deceit, and confront the truth of what's between them...all without getting caught. 
To be honest, reading this blurb doesn’t exactly scream “Romance!” for me, so it’s a good thing Love in Panels has already published Eva’s review. I’m a sucker for angst and this book sounds like it’s positively swimming in it. Also, I love the way Charles evokes setting, so I’m all in.

Texas Legacy by Lorraine Heath 
For as long as he can remember, Rawley Cooper has loved Faith Leigh. But the cruelty of his childhood haunts him and he knows he’s undeserving of Faith. When she comes to him on the night of her nineteenth birthday, they both give into temptation. But the searing kiss reaffirms what he’s always known: he can’t have a lifetime of her in his arms. To protect his heart, he packs his things and heads west.  
Faith has always adored the boy her parents took in and raised. But she’s not certain she can ever forgive him for riding out of her life just when she needed him the most.
When an urgent telegram forces him to return six years later, Rawley discovers Faith is now a woman to be reckoned with.  
As old feelings are stirred back to life and new passions take hold, they both must confront secrets from their past or risk losing a legacy of love. 
Rawley was first introduced in Heath’s Texas trilogy, which means fans of that series have literally been begging for this story since 1999. I vividly remember reading the trilogy back-to-back-to-back in 2001 (I was traveling) but at this point, and many books later, Rawley has faded a bit (OK, a lot) from my memory. Crushing TBR Guilt keeps me from rereading, so I’m going to go into this one like a stand-alone and hope that Heath recaptures the magic.

Sent as the Viking’s Bride by Michelle Styles 
She’s the wife he doesn’t want…  
 …and the woman he needs!  
Desperate to escape her murderous brother-in-law and protect her young sister, Ragnhild agrees to marry an unknown warrior, and arrives penniless on his remote island. Only, Gunnar Olafson’s belief in love died with his family—he does not want a bride! But as yuletide approaches, Ragnhild transforms his isolated existence. Can she melt her Viking warrior’s frozen heart? 
A villainous brother-in-law, a wounded hero, a heroine in need of a safe haven and all out of options. Styles, who has written everything from ancient Rome to Regency, returns to Vikings, which is where she’s been the past several books.

The Highland Renegade by Amy Jarecki 
She is the daughter of his sworn enemy.
Famed for his fierceness, Laird Robert Grant is above all a loyal Highland clan chief. But when redcoats capture his rival's daughter, he sets aside their feud and races to her rescue. Aye, Janet Cameron is beautiful, cunning, and so very tempting, but a Cameron lass is the last woman he should ever desire.
He is her one hope of happiness. 
Janet refuses to meekly surrender, not even when surrounded by foes. She takes every chance to escape, first from the English soldiers and then from the wickedly handsome Robert. Yet with each day they spend together, his unexpected gallantry chips away at her reserve little by little. As danger and treachery loom, can she trust him enough to choose love over vengeance? 
An enemy-to-lovers story, this fifth book in Jarecki’s Lords of the Highlands series has piqued my interest thanks to review coverage I ran across at The Day Job. Library Journal calls it “beautifully done,” and that the “adventurous romance” is “greatly enhanced by an exquisite depiction of life in the early 18th-century Scottish Highlands.” A hopeful bit of teasing for readers who prefer their historicals to, well, read like historicals.

Winter Woman by Jenna Kernan 
She survived the winter alone…
After Cordelia Channing endures the lethal winter season alone in the Rocky Mountains, she is discovered by Thomas Nash, a solitary mountain man who wants only to hunt, trap and be left alone to grieve the woman he could not save. 
Cordelia aches to go east before winter but over the days and miles, Delia finds her battered spirit yearning for this self-reliant trapper, who stirs her longing and wakes her heart.  
With only few, vital months to hunt before the snows fly, Nash has no time to look after a woman. He is surprised as Delia transforms his life and gives him the second chance he never expected. But with fall approaching, she must face her resolve to escape another deadly winter, and he must confront his oath not to open his heart to love once more. 
A digital reprint that was first published by Harlequin Historical in 2003, I really enjoyed this story a lot when I read it back in 2005. Her preacher husband goes out hunting and ends up dead, leaving the heroine to survive winter alone in an isolated cabin. She’s found by peaceful Natives whose solution to finding a half-starved white woman is to take her to the only white guy they know - the trapper hero who isn’t much of a “people person.” A well-done romance and survival story, the setting is pre-Civil War (1835) isolated frontier and I ate it up.

What Unusual Historicals are you looking forward to this month?

Monday, January 21, 2019

Redefining Taking Your Reading Medicine

I think most readers of this blog are likely aware that I live in the United States and this past weekend was a holiday weekend (today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day).  Certainly not all, but there are a number of schools and libraries closed for the day, my employer being one, and I decided to take advantage of the long holiday weekend.  After glomming through four Spice Briefs for this month's TBR Challenge, I hadn't picked up anything to read in about a week and I didn't want to lose my momentum.  So of course this would the moment where I end up DNF'ing my next two potential reads - one after 10%, one after 25%.  Both were books that I was hoping to enjoy, that had very intriguing, thought-provoking plots, and yet both failed to engage me or muster up enough enthusiasm in me to keep reading.

So I decided that desperate times called for desperate measures.  In January 2018, incredibly depressed that I hadn't read a single 5-Star romance in all of 2017, I vowed to start 2018 reading through backlist titles by an author who consistently works for me - Molly O'Keefe.  So, I did that again, and I ended up inhaling Bad Neighbor and Baby Come Back (a duology) in less than 24 hours.  Were these 5-Star reads?  No.  They're good reads, problematic in a lot of ways, but compelling to the point where I could not put down my Kindle.  I had to keep reading until I got to the final sentence.  Something about O'Keefe's style, voice, whatever you want to call it, clicks with me.  I haven't loved all the books I've read by her, and yet I fall right into her worlds and come out the other side half-dazed and a little drunk.

But I'm not here to sing the praises of Molly O'Keefe.  No, I'm here to talk about reading, how our society treats it, how we teach it to our children, and how despite the fact that reading is magic we, in the United States at least, are determined to suck every last bit of joy out of it.

We teach our children, from cradle to grave, that reading is the equivalent of taking your medicine.  You feel like crud, it tastes really gross, and you just wish someone would smother you with a pillow to put you out of your misery.  Instead we force you to read a book that, chances are, you find boring and dull.  We tell kids, either flat-out or subliminally, that they should only read certain books.  Books that society has ingrained in us are "smart" books.  Comic books aren't smart.  Graphic novels aren't smart.  Romance is definitely not smart.  High drama of the soap opera variety isn't smart.  Mystery and Science Fiction can be smart but only this short list of prescribed authors.

We teach our children to pass tests because that's how it was decided schools should get their funding, which is how we end up with the same list of assigned authors and books we're teaching our kids today that I was forced to read 25 years ago.

Am I saying that kids shouldn't have required reading?  No. There's still value in teaching Shakespeare.  What I'm saying is that we should allow our kids freedom of choice.  That freedom to walk into a library, pick up any book they fancy, whether we as adults think it's "too easy" or "too hard" or "too low-brow" or "too whatever."  Here's the thing, kids know their own minds.  If a book is "too easy?"  They'll probably set it aside.  If a book is "too hard?"  They'll probably set it aside and look for something else.  Kids are smart enough to tell anybody willing to listen who their favorite superhero is and why, and yet adults seem to think they can't do that with books?  Why, exactly?  Well, I'll tell you why:

Because generation after generation has been taught that reading is smart, but only certain books and authors are smart, the rest is trash, and smart cannot equal fun.  Ergo if you're having fun while reading you're doing it wrong and/or reading the wrong books/authors.  And if you're not white, not male, and not rich - then it's automatically suspect.  Serialized novels during the Victorian era? Trash. Paperback format? Trash. Romance novels?  Oh man, the trashiest trash that ever trashed.

If 2016-2018 has taught us anything it's that life is short and people should take joy where they can find it.  You know where I find it?  In genre fiction.  A mystery novel will give me a sense of justice in a world where justice doesn't always prevail and a romance novel is going to be filled with love, light and a joyful happy ending in a world where endings aren't always happy.  Life is short and frankly, it can suck.  Why do I want to spend my short, sometimes sucky life, on reading something that isn't bringing me joy?  The answer is...I don't.

Find your joy.  There's a big wide world of publishing out there with a whole lot of people writing all sorts of stories.  Stories to get lost in.  Stories to reaffirm your soul.  Sample it like a Las Vegas buffet, find your joy, give yourself permission to stop reading books that aren't bringing you joy.  Stop apologizing, stop feeling guilty, stop feeling like you shouldn't like something as pure as a book, as a good story, grab hold of the brass ring and don't let go.

Medicine is supposed to make you feel better.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

#TBRChallenge 2019: Wendy Goes On A Spice Briefs Bender

Work has been busy to start the new year which has resulted in lagging reading mojo.  How lagging?  Let's just say that sustaining my attention span for a category length romance for this month's challenge was too much for me.  No, I needed to go really short - and thanks to Harlequin for mucking up their ebook delivery system, I discovered a small pile of Spice Briefs languishing in my TBR.  This line no longer exists, in part because Harlequin's pricing on the shorts was terrible at the time (over $2 for stories that clocked in on the high end of 50 pages) and also because the line never was clearly defined.  In other words: sometimes you got erotica and sometimes you got erotic romance.  That's fine by me since I read both, but Harlequin largely caters to romance readers so...yeah.  No surprise Spice Briefs folded even though I did my best to single-handedly keep it going.  So it was on a lazy Saturday afternoon that I found myself inhaling four of them back-to-back-to-back-to-back and feeling more than slightly drunk from the fallout.

The Revolutionary Mistress by Leia Rice is all sorts of problematic, is definitely erotica, and I enjoyed every minute of it (don't judge).  With the French Revolution bubbling to full boil, Mariette is a tavern barmaid who has had to resort to prostituting herself to earn any sort of living. Then she meets Rene, and our girl falls hard and fast.  But danger lurks in the form a Sebastian, a regular customer who has her ensnared in his revolutionary activities.

For such a short story (around 50 pages), the author does an excellent job with developing her setting with all the tension you would expect for a story set during the French Revolution.  It ends happily in the respect that the heroine is safe and she's going to be on the receiving end of what will surely be months, if not years, of incredible sex - so while a stretch to consider this a romance, it's definitely what I would consider female-centered erotica.  My only real quibble is that Mariette is what I call a reactionary heroine.  Stuff happens, she reacts.  She never really takes matters into her own hands and for most of this story she's at the whims of men.  Could I understand that given the world she was living in?  Yes. But I can't help thinking what this story could have been had Mariette been a more wily sort of character.

Final Grade = B-

The Lady's Bargain by Leslie Dicken was less successful for me, largely because the heroine does something unbelievably stupid and because the hero is a cad.  Lady Christine Claybourne needs to stay unmarried until her next birthday, only one month away, in order to inherit the only home she's ever known. So when her uncle arranges her betrothal, she runs away and poses as a shy governess.  She's discovered by William Preston, Lord Kingston, her betrothed's younger brother.  Turns out she inadvertently accepted a governess post in her future father-in-law's home. She ran away from a guy she doesn't want to marry only to end up at his parents' house. Seriously.

Here's the thing, I get the girl doesn't want to marry - but she basically prostitutes herself to the "hero" to keep her secret and the brother she is engaged to?  Yes, he wants her dowry (because of course he does), but it's not like the guy is a horrible monster.  So you've got William cuckolding his brother, the heroine determined to go through with the marriage after one night of passion with William because she's in lurve and realizes either way she's destined to be alone forever so what does it all matter anyway, and the author tries to spin it all out as a great love match romance.  Nah, not buying.  On the bright side? The sex scenes are very well written.

Final Grade = D+

Tuscan Seduction by Amber Carlsbad was very well written but ultimately not very satisfying because of it's brevity.  Gina has come to the realization that she is wasting her youth, so she breaks up with her steady, older (read: boring) beau, quits her job that she won't miss, and takes off to Italy.  She meets Carlo on the train, sparks fly, and we get a hot sex with a hot stranger story.

This is very, very brief.  It's basically an interlude between two characters that morphs into them deciding to spend more time together once the train ride concludes.  It works as erotica, but not really as a separate stand-alone story.  Honestly?  This would have been right at home in a Cleis Press anthology, and was even written like it.  Not bad, not great, just sort of there.

Final Grade = C

I had originally planned to just read three shorts for this month's Challenge, but I was well and truly drunk at this point and just didn't know when to quit.  So that's how I came to read The Devilish Duke by Alice Gaines, which led me to sobering up quickly.

Miss Rosalind Weaver's father is a degenerate gambler who wants to sell his daughter into marriage to a man she cannot abide. So her answer is to arrive on the Duke of Fallon's doorstep (he had also asked for her hand, but was outbid by the odious guy) and propose they marry. She'll give him the heir he desperately wants (Fallon's got two dead wives under his belt...) and she doesn't have to marry the odious lecher.  He agrees, but wants to sample the goods first.

The author is shooting for romance here, but instead readers are regaled with Sex and Crazy.  The "Crazy" comes in the form Dead Wife #2's Evil Sister who the hero had a menage a trois with - and yes, of course the sisters were incestuous.  There's also the backhanded comment the hero makes about Dead Wife #1 being frigid, dying in childbirth, and the baby (a girl) dying a few days later.  He makes a snide comment about being happy "at the time" that the baby died so he could start over.  What. A. Prince.


And after that I'm supposed to believe he's a great guy and he's got this great love match, finally, with Rosalind and OF COURSE we get a childbirth epilogue where OF COURSE Rosalind squirts out a baby boy and WENDY MAD! WENDY SMASH!

Look, were girls devalued during historical times?  Heck, we're devalued now!  Doesn't mean I want to read about it and it doesn't mean I want the author to give the hero a free pass over it.

Final Grade = F

Not a good way to end my gorging at the Spice Briefs trough, but it did succeed in getting me to sober up.  Plus reading so many shorts in a row helped kick start the mojo.  Not a rousing success, but I'll take it.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day Is January 16!

Hey, hey, hey!  For those participating in the 2019 #TBRChallenge, a reminder that your commentary is "due"on Wednesday, January 16.  This month's theme is We Love Short Shorts! (examples: novellas, short stories, category-length romance).

A reminder that, as always, the themes are completely optional.  If you don't feel like reading short, that's OK!  The goal is to read something, anything, that has been languishing in your TBR.

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

And it's not too late to sign up!  Simply leave a comment on this reminder post.

You can learn about the challenge and check out the full list of blogging participants on the information page.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Reading Year in Review 2018

I think we all can agree that 2018 was a dumpster fire of a year and yet, somehow, I managed to get through 95 books.  My reading goal is always 100, so while I did fall short, 95 is the most I've managed to get through since 2014 (when I read an incredible 119).  Here's how it all broke down (and yes, I count DNFs):

5 Stars (A Grade) = 7
4 Stars (B Grade) = 27
3 Stars (C Grades, includes some "low B-") = 38
2 Stars (D Grades) = 10
1 Star (F Grades) = 3
DNF (Did Not Finish) = 10
Audiobooks = 28

My A grades were up this year (although pretty consistent from previous years - I rarely assign 5-Stars in the double digits), my DNFs were up a smidge, my audiobook numbers were down (shorter work commute after I moved last year!), and my C grades outpaced my B grades (which is not great).  But, I'll take it.  This was the most productive reading year I've had in a dog's age.

Now, for what everybody cares about: the books!  A reminder that this is a recap of what I loved and read during 2018, but not necessarily books published in 2018.  I'm perpetually behind, so most of my Best Of list will be books that will, hopefully, be lurking in TBRs already or easy to score at your local library.

Note: Title links will take you to full reviews

The Romance:

Burn Down the Night (2016) and Wait For It (2017) by Molly O'Keefe - After not a single romance garnered an A grade from me in 2017, I vowed to start off 2018 on the right foot - with an author who consistently works for me.  The final two books in a quartet series, Burn Down the Night gives me the closest thing I've read to a true Bad Girl Heroine in the genre and Wait For It is an example of an Asshole Hero done right.  I didn't read these books so much as inhale them.

Breathe (2016) by L. Setterby - My contest judging this year was largely meh, but holy hell where has this book been all my life?!  A perfect example of starting a book, reading the first sentence, and just falling head over feet right into the world.  I'm so hooked that I downloaded the Wattpad app to read the next book in the series (still being released in weekly installments as I write up this post).

An Extraordinary Union (2017) by Alyssa Cole - A historical romance with legit high stakes conflict.  I loved this heroine so much I'm thinking of taking the Gone Fishin' sign off of my ovaries.

The Tycoon's Socialite Bride (2014) by Tracey Livesay - Here it is, the best category romance I read this year.  Livesay hit all her emotional beats, right on time.  I loved the heroine's family baggage and the hero bent on revenge but not needlessly cruel (although this one does rip your guts out in parts).  Don't think you like category romance?  Try this one.  It's damn near magical.

Indigo (1996) by Beverly Jenkins - Arguably the book that Jenkins is best known for, and it's easy to see why.  She puts so much into this story, addressing racism, colorism, and sexism, without preaching from the pulpit or losing sight of the romance.  Also, I've always felt that Jenkins' strength (well, besides her dynamite heroines) is her world-building.  The community she creates in this story, using the Underground Railroad as a backdrop, was so well done.

The Soldier Prince (2018) by Aarti V. Raman - This is my cracktastic read of the year, basically a category romance about a former Black Ops-style soldier, who is really a prince, who falls in love with a struggling college student waiting tables in a New York City deli.  This one is full of ALL THE TROPES and I couldn't get enough of it.  Raman needs to publish the next book in this series, like, yesterday.

Delicious Temptation (2015) by Sabrina Sol - Believable baggage (seriously, families can be the worst), and I loved the East LA family bakery backdrop.  Is it because I live in southern California and know the area?  Maybe.  Because Sol writes it so very well.  My runner up for best category read of the year.

Not Romance, Still Awesome:

The Broken Girls (2018) by Simone St. James - It's to the point now where I'm a squee'ing unreasonable fangirl for Simone St. James, but seriously, I loved this one.  A time slip novel with converging 1950 and 2014 plot treads and a nice "romantic elements" secondary thread involving the 2014 heroine and her cop boyfriend.  

Grant (2017) by Ron Chernow - A long book (47 hours on audio!), this one is worth the time investment.  Grant's life exemplifies the old "truth is stranger than fiction" adage.  That this man, basically a failure is every other aspect of his life, defeated the Confederacy, saved the Union, and became President is simply remarkable.  This is my new Read A Book Already book.  Plus, I learned stuff.  Which is always nice when reading non-fiction.

Jane Doe (2018) by Victoria Helen Stone - The revenge thriller I didn't know I needed.  A cool, methodical heroine who exacts her revenge against the worst sort of hypocritical DudeBro.  I loved every blessed minute of it.

Charlesgate Confidential (2018) by Scott Von Doviak - A crime novel set in Boston with three converging timelines. It did take a while for me to sink into this story and I did have to read about the damn Red Sox way too much for my liking, but this one is excellent.  Excellent world building.  Excellent mystery.  Interesting characters.  It kept me guessing all the way to the end.

Comfort Read/Author of 2018:

Marcia Muller - Every reader I know has what they call "comfort reading."  Either a favorite book or author, maybe a favorite genre.  For me, that's mystery.  I fell in love with reading via mysteries.  I devoured them as a teen, so there's a really high nostalgia factor at play here.  Given what a mess 2018 was, it's probably not surprising that I read 14 books in the Sharon McCone series this year.  I got through books 3 - 15 and one short story collection this year, in a mix of audio and print.  Technically these were all rereads for me, revisiting books I first read or listened to on audio as a teenager and in my early 20s.  Yes, some held up better than others, but the world building! The character arcs! I wanted to read more in the series this year, but other obligations have kept me from them.  I plan to pick up again with book 16 in 2019.

And that's my Year In Review for 2018.  I'm quite pleased with myself, but continue to hope for bigger and better in 2019.  The goal, once again, is 100 books.  Let's see if I make it.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Review: The Gunslinger's Vow

I can't help but feel like me ending 2018 with a "meh" read is some kind of metaphor.  Ask any reader what their definition of a "C" (or a meh) read is and the answers you get will vary.  For me, it's usually "I liked some stuff, thought other stuff wasn't so good, and it all came out in the wash."  That's how I felt about The Gunslinger's Vow by Amy Sandas, her first historical western with Sourcebooks and the first book in a new series.  What's good here is very good, but the rest of it? Meh.

Born and raised in Montana by a widower father, Alexandra Brighton has spent the last five years in Boston getting schooled on how to be a proper young lady by her Aunt Judith.  The hard work has just culminated in a marriage proposal from an eligible bachelor with political ambitions.  In a moment of panic, Alexandra agrees - quickly realizes what she's done and can only think to run.  She doesn't know who she is anymore.  Is she the girl she left behind in Montana?  Is she the girl her aunt has molded into a society princess?  One thing is for sure, she can't marry anyone until she finds out.  So she packs a bag, sneaks away, and heads home to Montana to reunite with her father - who, naturally, has no clue she's coming.

So we all know what happens next.  Alexandra survives the train ride west intact, but a broken down stagecoach and vagaries of travel means she's now stranded.  But never fear - she's gotten wind of a bounty hunter in town who just so happens to be heading towards Helena, Montana on business.  Surely he can be hired to take her the rest of the way. 

Malcolm Kincaid is hunting the man who murdered his brother, and his latest intel suggests The Belt-Buckle Kid (seriously?!) is holed up north of Helena.  This is vengeance a long time coming, so needless to say taking a pampered looking Bostonian princess along for the ride is not high on his list.  He turns Alexandra down flat.  However looks are deceiving and the Eastern lady is made of sterner stuff than Malcolm gives her credit for.  After a series of misadventures, they do end up traveling together.

I have to be honest - the pampered Eastern lady who finds herself out west is not a plot device I'm wild about, but the fact that Alexandra was born and raised in Montana, plus I'm always looking for new western writers, sold me on giving this one a whirl.  Unfortunately it never solidified for me, in large part because of Alexandra's uneven characterization and pacing issues.

Here's the thing: I'm supposed to believe that Alexandra is smart, resourceful, and prepared for the trials that an uncivilized western landscape can throw at her.  And, at times, she is.  But then she does boneheaded stupid stuff where I'm like, "Seriously, girl?!"  Oh, like not packing any practical clothing for the trip out west (this is explained away by her wanting to show her father what a "lady" she had become).  When Malcolm turns her down flat, and even though she has reservations, she hitches a ride with another party heading north who quickly rob her and leave her stranded in the wilderness (although to the girl's credit, she stays alive and doesn't panic).  And while her fiance' is no prize (typical guy with political ambitions who sees the heroine as a means to an end) - the fact is she accepted his proposal and immediately runs off - never mind she doesn't give her Aunt Judith a second thought.  We never meet Aunt Judith on page, and while she sounds like a positive snore, she also doesn't sound like a cruel witch.  In other words, the woman deserved some consideration.

To be frank, a lot of this nagging stuff smacked of convenient plot devices not terribly well executed. It didn't feel authentic or natural to the characters.

Alexandra's character isn't done much favors by the pacing of the story.  I was 30% through the book before the story started to go anywhere.  Then, after "stuff" happens and our couple has to spend a couple of weeks holed up in a cabin, the author sets about having the characters fall in love and succumb to their passions - which, great...but it drags on so long that by the time we get to the finish, the Big Moments of Alexandra reuniting with her father and the final showdown between Malcolm and The Big Bads isn't given nearly enough page count to spin out.  It feels terribly rushed.

Which makes it sound like there was nothing I liked about this book.  Au contraire!  As uneven as I found Alexandra's character at times, the author does a good job with her "self-discovery" arc and there were moments of insight that stopped me cold.
It was long past time that she stopped trying to please everyone else and finally accepted all of who she was. There would always be someone to find fault, but at least she would be real. She would be free.
He wanted to keep his distance today? Pretend he wasn't passionately involved in what had occurred between them?  Then fine. That was his choice.  She didn't want to doubt herself anymore.
When we talk about romance being a genre where women "win?"  I basically want to wallow in those above two passages for a couple of days.  So even if I found her an uneven character, by the time I rolled on to these moments in the story I was all about Queen Alexandra living her best damn life.

I'm not sure I'll read the next two books in this series (two more Eastern ladies heading west? Jury's still out), there's enough on the page here that I would read a Sandas western in the future.  Not a blazing success, but there were moments that carried me through.

Final Grade = C+

Friday, December 28, 2018

Review: Far From Home

Far From Home by Lorelie Brown is a book I meant to read ages ago.  When it was first published (a lifetime ago in 2016...), it garnered a number of positive reviews (including a couple of "starred reviews" in the professional journals) and finaled for Best Contemporary Romance: Short in the 2017 RITAs.  But, as I perpetually do with most of the books I want to read, I pushed it off until, finally, my hand was forced (Day Job related project...).  I had quibbles but Brown does so much right that it's easy to see that the praise was well earned.

Rachel is a Southern California girl, a recovering anorexic, and drowning in student loan debt.  She thinks she's straight, but given the state of her life (did I mention her relationship with her mother is eff'ed up bordering on neglect?) romantic entanglements aren't exactly high on her list to fret over.  So it's pretty outrageous when an flippant remark at a party leads to her accepting a marriage of convenience.

Pari is Indian and came to the States on a work visa sponsored by her employer.  However her ambition is to start her own consulting business which means bye-bye work visa, hello get a green card.  Cool, calm, put-together Pari is going to marry Rachel - at least for a couple of years until the green card goes through.  Pari gets to stay in the US, Rachel gets to live in Pari's very nice condo rent free and get some help paying off her oppressive student loans.  It's win-win really - well, except they both have emotional baggage.  Pari with her large, Indian family and past hurt over a relationship gone sour ; Rachel with her dissatisfaction in her career, her mountain of debts, her messed up relationship with her Mom and her anorexia recovery.

There was a lot I really liked about this story.  This is first person from Rachel's point-of view and Brown knocks her characterization out of the park.  She felt so real to me that I'm pretty sure I may have gone to college with this girl.  The romance is also of the slow burn variety, with Pari and Rachel working their way towards friendship that eventually combusts into full-blown passion.  The author sets her stage and it takes time for the characters to "get there" - which frankly in today's genre that seems to constantly be harping on "faster, sooner, yesterday..." was a welcome breath of fresh air.

The California setting is picture perfect (Rachel "thinks" like someone who lives in SoCal - for lack of a better description) and the added addition of Pari's Mom as a secondary character was inspired.  Mileage will vary here, but I also loved the way the author handled the interracial aspects of this romance and Rachel's complicated relationship with exercise and food.  I'm not sure how to describe it - it felt authentic and well-written without the author trying too hard to convince the reader that she's "woke."  There was a maturity and matter-of-factness to the story and relationships among the various characters that simply clicked into place, like puzzle pieces finally put in the correct order.

So, what didn't work as well?  Well, this is a short read - around category length - and some of the issues here are hard.  But I'm also a reader who likes characters to flail themselves on the rocks for a bit before settling into the happy ending.  Also, as richly drawn as Rachel is, it takes a bit longer to wrap your arms around Pari.  Part of this is her personality and part of it is because of the first person point-of-view.  For example, there's a past relationship that burned Pari badly but it's pretty well dashed off in a few short sentences and not given the same depth as Rachel's baggage.

There's also the small matter of Rachel being straight...well, she thinks.  There's references to past male sexual partners, but and here's the thing, prior to Pari there hasn't even been a whiff of a lesbian fling for Rachel.  Not even a "I kissed a girl and I liked it" moment. Not even a "Oh look at that woman across the room, she's hot and I'm physically attracted." Brown gets around to explaining this but....it smacks dangerously close to Gay For You territory for me.  It's not Gay For You precisely...but...yeah.  No questioning.  No attraction to women before Pari.  The slow burn to the romance helps out considerably (and it was a smart move on the author's part) but...yeah.

Mileage of course will vary on this.  Again, it's not Gay For You precisely - but I'm a reader who has a HUGE issue with that particular "trope" so anything that flirts around the edges and my red flag comes up to at least half-mast.

But, happy sigh, the ending is so lovely that any quibbles I have are washed away in a pitch perfect epilogue.  It simply works and I read the last sentence with a song in my heart and waving a fond bon voyage to the characters, picturing in my mind's eye their incredibly happy future together.  Which, at the end of the day, is how I want a romance novel to make me feel.  Brown has created a lovely world, interesting characters, and a happy sigh on my lips.

Final Grade = B