Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Retro Review: Only in Your Arms

This review of Only In Your Arms by Tracy Cozzens was originally published by The Romance Reader in 2000.  Back then I rated in 5-Hearts (A grade) with an "R" sensuality content rating (oh boy, times have changed - take that R rating with a grain of salt me thinks).


In 1601 London, Marcus Sinclair is just another actor working with William Shakespeare when a friend asks him for a very big favor. Lord Richard Langsforth is determined to marry Lady Judith Ashton, but despite his attempts at wooing her, Lady Judith is betrothed to the despicable Viscount Mowbray, a man who has been through four wives already. So Richard asks Marcus to rescue Lady Judith and return her to the Langsforth estate so they can marry.

However, there are a few flaws in the plan. For one thing, Marcus finds himself entranced with Judith and must fight his growing attraction. After all, he’s a lowly actor, she’s the only daughter of a baron, not to mention that his best friend wants to marry her!

On top of all this, Lady Judith is reluctant to disobey her father. While the thought of marrying the Viscount turns her stomach, she was raised to honor her father. She certainly can’t just run off and marry an Earl’s son that she vaguely remembers. But Marcus’ pleas for her safety, and his haunting gray eyes, help Judith realize that maybe true love isn’t just for fairy tales.

And that’s just the first seven chapters. What happens in the remaining sixteen? Will Marcus convince Judith to leave her father and her doomed betrothal? Will she marry Lord Richard? Will Marcus and Judith find happiness with each other in a society ruled by class, nobility and rank?

Only in Your Arms is emotionally draining and satisfying all at once. There’s something for every reader within its pages, whether it be plot, character development or atmosphere, this story has it in spades.

Tracy Cozzens should be commended for her wonderful character development and plot pacing. All of the main characters are wonderfully complex, with good and bad qualities. One minute I was disgusted by their behavior, the next I was cheering them on. Because of this, they felt distinctly real to me, and I became invested in their struggles.

And what struggles they have! The action in this story is never ending. Whether it be wrestling with their emotions, or running towards freedom, there is no down time. The main characters must face one challenge after another.

But what ultimately sealed this book in 5 Heart glory was Audrey, Judith’s outspoken and fearless maid. Her story alone could easily have found its way into another novel, but by weaving her tale in with Marcus and Judith, Cozzens gives readers two great romances for the price of one.
Only in Your Arms has everything a great Shakespearean romance should -- tragedy, comedy, star-crossed lovers, betrayal, conspiracies, and Elizabethan intrigue. Cozzens is definitely a rising star to watch.


Wendy Looks Back: Yet another book I have no recall on, but obviously back in 2000 (and this was early days in my stint with TRR...) I really loved this book.  What I do I recall?  This won the RWA Golden Heart in 1998 for Best Unpublished Long Historical manuscript and after reading this book I decided that being assigned by my editor to review Golden Heart winners was not a bad thing.  By and large?  Even if the book isn't my personal cup o' tea - a Golden Heart winner is sure to at least be a competently written book.

Cozzens wrote several more books for Kensington but seems to have vanished off the Internet map.  Where oh where are you Ms. Cozzens?  Also, this book is out of print and is not available for purchase as an ebook.  If you'd like to read other reviews before going used bookstore hunting (you know, like in the olden days...) - All About Romance gave this one a B+ and Mrs. Giggles gave it high marks, albeit with some quibbles.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Review: The Bourbon Kings

Over the years I've heard countless stories from romance readers on how they discovered the genre - and 9 times out of 10 it involves the ubquitous grocery sack of Harlequins they found in their 1) Mom's closet 2) Grandma's closet or 3) in the house of the woman they used to babysit for.  This, sadly, did not happen for me during my wee impressionable pre-Super Librarian days.  No.  Mom and Grandma didn't read romance novels.  They watched soap operas.

My God-fearing grandmother who used to scold me for using words like "hell" and "damn" would let me watch Dallas with her.  For those of you who watched that soap too?  Yeah, I know.  Grandma was warped.  Mom has been watching The Young and the Restless since it debuted on television.  My way of unwinding in college was watching four daytime soaps (Y&R, The Bold and the Beautiful, One Life to Live, General Hospital) not to mention this was the era of Melrose Place.  Seriously, it's amazing I managed to graduate.

So trust me when I say Wendy knows her soaps.  And while I've cut the cord on Daytime Drama, I'm still keenly susceptible to soapy goodness when it creeps into genre reading.  Despite not really "getting" the whole Black Dagger Brotherhood "thing" (I can't get past the craptastic dialogue that Ward writes in those books - but to each her own...), I read the description of The Bourbon Kings and was sunk.

Folks, I'm here to tell you - it's like Dynasty and Dallas had a baby and then decided to get that baby hooked on meth.  It's that over the top.  It's that soapy.  OMG, it's the trashiest trashtastic trash I've read in a dog's age.  And I mostly mean that as a compliment.

The trick to this book is to not expect any sort of compelling contemporary romance.  I think I was at first, and it was a hurdle I needed to get over.  The Bradford family is insanely wealthy, an American dynasty that made their fortune in Kentucky bourbon.  The family is a mess, a mother living in a drug-induced haze, an abusive father, a wounded/scarred/drunkard older brother, a spoiled princess of a daughter, another son who has literally vanished off the face of the Earth and our hero - prodigal son Lane who comes home to take care of old business - namely divorcing his trophy wife and picking up with his One True Love, head estate gardener, Lizzie King.

That's right, the hero is married.  He's also the sort of hero that everyone seems to keep making excuses for - including our heroine.  Nothing is ever really his fault.  Granted he gets railroaded into his marriage....but still.  Lizzie is our martyr, Lane is the golden boy - if you've watched one soap opera you know exactly where this is going.  As I said, as a romance this one isn't firing on all cylinders.  I mean, THE HERO IS MARRIED TO SOMEONE ELSE!

Where the book does excel is the family drama.  The reader spends just as much time with brooding wounded older brother Edward, and spoiled princess with a haunted past, Gin.  There's back-stabbing, double-dealing, and generally loathsome people doing loathsome things and yet I. Couldn't. Look. Away.

Is this subtle?  Hardly.  Everything here is broad-strokes.  It's about as subtle as the BDB books, which is to say sort of like a chainsaw.  Or like a jackhammer going off outside your bedroom window at 3AM.  On a school night.  Every single female character in this book, outside of the heroine, is vile to the point where I seriously began to wonder if Ward hates women.  They're all botoxed and blonde and evil and/or blackmailing a man because they're pregnant with his baby.  The old Romancelandia trick of making every other uterus look like the devil so that the heroine will look like Mother Mary standing next to them.  There's also some extremely problematic elements like an elderly woman of color who is basically portrayed like a cross between Mammy and Aunt Jemima (she's a cook who Lane views as a mother figure) and when one of the characters finds herself tossed in jail she's horrified that one of the prostitutes might "cough AIDS on her."

Um, yeah.

Eventually Lane and Lizzie get their happy ending - sort of.  I mean, it's hard to say because the Family Drama ramps up to 10,000th degree by the final chapter.  Gin finds herself tied up with a vile man (spoiler w/trigger warning: he rapes her after she agrees to marry him - seriously, this book!) and looking at the description of the next book, it seems Edward is heading into Love Triangle territory. Oh and did I mention there's a secret baby?  Yeah, there's one of those too.  I'm beginning to wonder if the long lost brother, Maxwell, will show up in the shower one morning and tell us all it was just a dream.

So where does this leave me?  Hungover with no idea how to grade this one.

Recovering Soap Opera Addict Wendy Grade = A++++++++ SQUEEEEEEEEE!!!!

Jaded Wendy With a Hangover Grade = Uh, a C?  Honestly, I have no idea. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

#TBRChallenge 2016: The One Where Wendy Is a Big Fat Failure

For the first time since taking over hosting duties for the TBR Challenge in 2011, I have failed to meet my own deadline.  There are reasons.  Most of them involving my work life right now (busy, busy, busy!) and the RWA conference. 

So no TBR Challenge review from Wendy this month.  Part of me feels like a total failure and the other part of me is like, "Geez, Wendy - it's the first time you missed your own deadline in 5 years.  Lighten up."

Monday, July 11, 2016

#RWA16: Hitting the Road

As evident by the hit or miss nature of my blog posts of late, things have been kind of busy around the Bat Cave.  I had big plans to get another book read and a review up before RWA 2016 and....well, here we are.  Instead y'all are getting a placeholder post to let you know I'll be MIA for the rest of this week as I'm hitting the road.  Once again my partner in crime will be the delightful KristieJ and I fully expect many a late night conversation about how Fated to Be Mated Is the Literal Worst (my opinion, not hers) and Kristie nagging me over the laundry list of books she thinks I should have read by now but....haven't.

When I'm not stalking the bar to try and find folks, I'll be on two panels.  First, I'll be moderating a panel for Librarians Day on Wednesday which will feature author Sarah MacLean, former Librarian of the Year, Lisa and Katie, @younglibrarian on Twitter:
Beyond Subgenre: Tips and Tricks for Effective Read-Alikes
We all love romance for a variety of reasons, but when it comes to finding read-alikes for our patrons, we fixate on subgenre. In this fun, interactive panel, three librarians and New York Times best-selling author Sarah MacLean will discuss the myriad of subgenres, character types, tropes, and authorial voices that attract readers to romance and how librarians can cut through to the heart of the matter to find the right book for the reader.
Then, even though I publicly stated I didn't quite "get" the timing, I'll be part of the Nielsen Romance Summit which is running parallel to the RWA conference.  I'll be part of this afternoon panel on Thursday, bringing the library/librarian perspective and the particular set of challenges we, and library users, face:
Diversity Means Business
A moderated panel discussion featuring key players from the romance publishing world delving into the impact of issues of diversity on publishers, industry stakeholders, authors, readers, and society at large. Moderator: Kat Meyer of The Book Industry Study Group
(There's an additional registration charge for this block of programming)

I won't be blogging at all during the conference as the only mobile device (sigh, still) I have right now is my phone - but I'll try to post some photos and pithy insights over on Twitter.

In the meantime, anyone want to place bets on whether I get a book read and blogged about before #TBRChallenge day on Wednesday, July 20?  ::whimper::

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Review: When Good Tropes Go Bad

Last month's TBR Challenge theme was Favorite Trope and like most challenge participants, I had a hard time choosing what to read.  Do I scour the TBR looking for a Virgin Hero or pick up a  Boss/Secretary romance?  Ultimately Virgin Hero won, but it did have me posing a question on Twitter - did the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup exist?  Had anyone written a virgin hero and a boss/secretary romance in the same book?  They had.  A Beauty Uncovered by Andrea Laurence.  I mean, how could I not download this?  But you know what they say about wishes, horses and best intentions.  Yeah, issues. I haz them.

Samantha Davis needs a job.  She got fired from her last place of employment when she had an affair with her boss (who she didn't know was married and whose wife worked for the same company - oopsie!).  Her godmother is getting ready to go on a month-long vacation and convinces her boss, the mysterious Brody Eden, to hire Sam for the month.  Basically it's one part secretary (the usual office stuff) and one part gopher (she'll have to pick up his dry cleaning).  Since Brody tends to hide himself away in his office like the Wizard of Oz and the salary for one month's work is obscene, this should be the easiest gig ever.  But, of course, Sam (also known as Little Miss Fixer) can't help herself from rattling the beast's cage.

Brody was put in foster care after his father went to prison for abusing him (and his mother stood by her man).  This abuse left Brody with scars down one side of his face and body.  That's right kiddies!  Not only do we have a Virgin Hero and Boss/Secretary we also have a Beauty and the Beast trope!  Let's take a moment, shall we?

He takes one look at Sam and is a goner.  But oh noes! He has scars!  He lives his life in seclusion even though he's the CEO of a Super Mega Software Company.  For once the Virgin Hero in the contemporary setting is the least absurd thing about this book.  The obstacles Brody goes through to keep his seclusion in check (when he's Bill Gates) caused quite a bit of eye-rolling on my part.

The story starts out fairly well.  Sam has been burned badly by an office romance before and Brody is brooding and mysterious.  Unfortunately it slides south almost immediately.  Given Sam's past the fact that she meddles almost immediately and jumps whole hog into wanting Brody's sexy, sexy bod smacks dead center into Too-Stupid-To-Live territory.  You get fired from your last job because you slept with your married (even if you didn't realize that fact) boss.  Maybe this is just me, but I would stay far, far away from men for a while - and my next boss?  H-E-to-the-double-L no.  There's a nanosecond of hesitation on Sam's part and then it's like she can't get her panties off fast enough.

I also realize this is a Desire, so we're looking at a really short word count, but there's literally no tap dance between Sam and Brody.  Once she gets him out of his office, they meet in person, it's like wham-o!  Now we're in bed burning up the sheets.  Tap dancing can be done in short word counts.  It's hard.  It's not easy.  But it can be done.  Category readers can give you a laundry list of books that pull it off.  This one does not.

But again, Beauty and the Beast, Virgin Hero and Boss/Secretary.  This was firmly in the C range before it happened.  The series baggage showed up and it's straight up I Know What You Did Last Summer.  This is book two in the Secrets of Eden series involving foster kids raised by the Eden couple.  One day an older boy shows up and he's "bad news."  Steals money from Mom.  Starts leering at the 13-year-old girl.  Then one day when Dad is sick in bed, the kids are doing farm chores, something happens, and Bad News Older Boy ends up dead (it's not disclosed, but my guess is one of the boys - not Brody - finds Bad News Older Boy attempting to assault the girl and accidentally kills him).  They're scared foster kids so they bury the body on the parent's land.  That portion of the land has just been sold (which happens in the first book) and now Bad News Older Boy's Sister comes sniffing around.

Really, there's so much wrong with this I don't know where to begin.  Justifying murder in your romantic couples is always a tricky business, but hey - Convict Heroes and Wrongly Accused are their own dang tropes.  But the whole "he was bad news" and "we're scared foster kids" thing?  Sorry, not buying.  Yes, I'm unfeeling, but these kids had options.  Especially since the Edens were apparently Magically Extraordinary Foster Parents.  Suspense can show up outside of Harlequin Intrigue, but sandwiched in with Beauty and the Beast, Virgin Hero and Boss/Secretary?  In the Desire word count (around 180 pages)?  It's too much.  Way too much.  And it felt completely off-tone from the rest of the story.  Also the impression I got that Bad News Older Boy "deserved" to be murdered?  Yeah. No. Just....no.

The lesson here is be careful what you wish for.  I did inhale this book in one sitting, but quite honestly?  It's kind of a hot mess.  I was mentally editing and rewriting it as I went along.  Mores the pity.

Final Grade = D

Monday, July 4, 2016

Mini-Reviews: Princesses and Bullies

After my disastrous foray into reading the latest "it" book of the moment, I decided that I needed a little fun.  Brain candy. A chocolate chip cookie read. So naturally I went with a book that was written for a middle grade, juvenile audience and an erotic romance.  As you do.

Royal Wedding Disaster is the second book in Meg Cabot's From the Notebooks of a Middle School Princess series.  It's a spin-off of her popular Princess Diaries series and Mia's half-sister, Olivia is the star of the show.  In this installment, the royal family is consumed with Mia's upcoming nuptials to Michael (and the fact that she's pregnant - with TWINS!), their father is consumed with renovating the summer palace, and Grandmere has her own plans for making Mia's wedding one for the ages - much to Mia's...uh, "delight."

It's only been one month since Olivia found out she's a princess but she's been busy!  She has her own pony (squee!) and like Mia once did is taking "princess lessons" from Grandmere.  She's also helping Grandmere with the wedding, in between starting a new school (ugh!), having her "first crush," and running afoul of her Mean Girl cousin.

This is a children's book so there's not a lot for me to say here except it's cute, the characters are delightful, and I loved returning to the world that Cabot has created.  I appreciate that while Cabot has returned to this world, Olivia isn't a cookie-cutter of Mia (for one thing, Olivia is more "sure of herself" than Mia was as a teen) and that the author has moved the series out of New York City to the fictional Genovia.  I also don't think it can be overstated that Olivia is biracial - the product of an affair her father had with her pilot mother (now deceased).  I know the "princess thing" is fairly loaded (thank you Disney...) but little brown girls deserve fairy tales as much as little white girls and Cabot has created a pretty sweet one.

Final Grade = B

There have been a ton of glowing, squee'ing reviews for Never Sweeter by Charlotte Stein.  Brace yourself, Wendy won't be squee'ing.  Oh, I liked it.  But given the obscene amount of hype I read about this book I expected to love it beyond all reason and....I didn't.

Letty Carmichael graduated high school two years ago and is just now starting college.  She had an accident thanks to a group of meat head jocks who were her high school tormentors (nothing involving sexual assault).  Imagine her horror when she looks up in her film class to see one of those tormentors, Tate Sullivan, sitting in the lecture hall.

Despite Letty's initial terror (and really, who could blame the girl!), what follows is this slow unfolding romance between her and Tate...her former bully.

I will give Stein credit - this concept is inspired and could have been a dumpster fire.  Given the severity of Letty's accident, and Tate's involvement, the fact she doesn't explore options to get the hell away from him (oh, a restraining order?) or that her parents have zero role in this story (your kid has a horrible accident thanks to a group of bullies and one of them shows up at your daughter's small college and they aren't on the page at all outside of a mentioned phone call early on - and not mentioned AT ALL once Letty and Tate hook up.  Maybe it's just me - but my parents would have had PLENTY to say about that....).  So even though Letty's mental struggle is evident on the page, it really, truly didn't feel like enough to me.  Also, as far as guy's go - Tate oftentimes read like Wish Fulfillment Guy.  He says the things women readers want to hear, but his personal growth (seemingly all on his own - it's like the light magically dawns one day) weren't always convincing for me.

But Wish Fulfillment is a powerful thing (I'm not immune), I liked Letty, I even liked Tate (who is totally smitten with her).  There's lots of dirty talk, a lot of Sexy Times outside of Insert Tab A Into Slot B, and Stein writes the tap dance just about as well as anyone.  But (and you knew there was a but...) - there's a shortcut written into the Black Moment that just smacked me with incredulity.  I kid you not...it involves the mob.  Yes, the mob.  It's borderline absurd and, in my opinion, totally unnecessary.  There's enough baggage between the couple (boy howdy!), enough emotional turmoil that honestly?  THE MOB?!?!?!  It's like someone putting a warm, gooey cinnamon roll in front of you, dripping with decadent cream cheese icing, and when you take a big bite?  Ick.  They put nasty, shriveled up raisins in it.

So while this is good - no, it's not great.  You want great?  Read Stein's Sweet Agony instead.

Final Grade = B

Monday, June 27, 2016

Mini-Reviews: Cranky Wendy Being Cranky

This latest round of mini-reviews is where Wendy is going to show her figurative underpants.  I'll be honest - there's a certain segment of "literary fiction" I just don't get.  The You're Nothing Without an MFA and Let Me Write In Circles To Show You How Smart I Am segment of "literary fiction."

Which brings us to The Girls by Emma Cline.  This is debut novel by a young author who got some crazy-stupid advance ($2 million dollars. For a debut novel.)  It's getting glowing reviews all over the place.  Seriously, just Google it - I'm not linking to them all.  Everybody and their Dead Grandmother thinks this is the bestest book in the whole world and OMG IT'S MAGIC! 

The plot, in a nutshell, would be like if Charles Manson and Jim Jones had an illegitimate love child.  It follows a 14-year-old girl in Northern California who falls in with a cult.  I'm not sure how you make that boring enough to make me want to drive bamboo shoots underneath my fingernails, but there you go.  I got through over 3 hours of a 9 hour audiobook and was so bored out of my mind that the thought of getting in my car and listening to it during my commute had me thinking affectionately about inane DJ chatter.

Endless musings about complete nothingness, and dialogue?  Who needs dialogue?  (By far my biggest gripe with the literary fiction world is that dialogue is seen as some odious four-letter word.  You know how fun it is to read a NOVEL with close to zero dialogue?  Yeah, it blows.)

Since I slogged through the audio, I'm cribbing some examples of the writing from a GoodReads reviewer.  I did get to this part of the "story" and the only thing keeping my eyes from crossing was that I was driving. I can't cross my eyes and drive at the same time:
I ate in the blunt way I had as a child—a glut of spaghetti, mossed with cheese. The nothing jump of soda in my throat.

I tended to the in-between spaces of other people’s existences, working as a live-in aide. Cultivating a genteel invisibility in sexless clothes, my face blurred with the pleasant, ambiguous expression of a lawn ornament.
Now imagine page after endless page of that with close to zero dialogue to break it up.  And THIS is the latest "it" book everyone is raving about. 

The older I get the more I realize that I want a storyteller.  Give me a good story.  Engage me with interesting characters and dialogue.  Have a bloody point to what you're writing.  I was essentially 1/3 of the way through the book and I wanted to bang my head repeatedly against my car's steering wheel to JUST. MAKE. IT. STOP. ALREADY.

Philistine, thy name is Wendy - but I'll be over here reading a romance novel thankyouverymuch.

Final Grade = DNF

Kinsey and Me: Stories by Sue Grafton is a short story (duh) collection.  The first half of the book is a collection of stories featuring Grafton's female private detective character, Kinsey Milhone.  Like all short story collections, some of the stories are better than others.  If you're already a fan of Grafton's character and series - these stories will be marginally interesting.  It's like visiting an old friend.  That said, there's nothing terribly earth-shattering here.  Even as a Kinsey fan, I feel like had I never gotten around to this collection?  That would have been OK.  So basically....meh.

The second half of the collection are stories featuring "Kit Blue" and they're semi-autobiographical stories Grafton wrote after her mother died.  I know this is going to come out sounding cruel, your mother dying is no joke, but I feel like Grafton should have left the therapy writing in her desk drawer.  Again, it's endless pages of zero dialogue, musings about whatever, and the stories fail to hang together in any cohesive way (they jump around in time and space).  Frankly the whole thing came off as self-indulgent to me - which I know makes me sound like a horrible person - but whatever.  I'm sure a writer is going to write to cope with emotions, times of grief - I get that.  Doesn't mean they all have to be published.

Final Grade = C-