Sunday, February 22, 2015

Undressed By The Earl

Michelle Willingham's Regency-set Secrets in Silk series for Amazon Montlake has been a bit of a mixed bag for me.  The second book in the four-book series has, so far, been the strongest entry for me, with book three, Undressed by the Earl leaving me with the same reaction that the first book left me with.  It's OK.  It's pleasant, but it didn't always pass the put-down, pick-up test.

Amelia Andrews is the youngest of four sisters, their father a baron recently returned from fighting on the Continent.  While Daddy was away the girls and their mother fell on hard times.  Oldest sister, Victoria, took to designing and making ladies undergarments, which have proven to be a sensation at an exclusive London dress shop.  The fly in the ointment is that nobody can ever know.  If word got out that these gently born ladies even knew what corsets were, let alone designed them?  The family would be ruined.  While the family really no longer needs the money, the sewing has largely been given over to the wives of tenants that live on their Scottish property and those families really, really need the extra money.  So the business carries on, amidst all the general Regency shenanigans romance readers have come to expect.

Amelia fancies herself in love with a rake.  The same rake that happened to break off an engagement and thereby "ruin" Amelia's older sister Margaret.  But never no mind, Amelia knows that she can change him!  She loves him!  He and Margaret were all wrong for each other.  So despite everybody telling her how completely wrong the guy is for her, she's got her sights set.  Into the mix enters David Hartford, the Earl of Castledon, who Amelia thinks would be perfect for Margaret.  Never mind that Amelia once compared Castledon's personality to that of a handkerchief.

David is a widow with a young daughter.  He loved his first wife, and being a bit of a wallflower really has no desire to marry again.  But he also recognizes that his daughter needs a mother and decides that maybe he can find a woman who wouldn't be adverse to a marriage of convenience.  Instead he finds himself spending too much time with Amelia, who he believes is "too young" for him and not suitable at all for what he thinks he needs in a wife.  But he can't stay away.  Especially when she seems determined to throw herself at the completely wrong sort of man.

My issues with this story have everything to do with pacing.  The first half is spent detailing Amelia trying to find a suitable wife for David and David trying to convince Amelia that her affection for the rake is totally misplaced.  There's tap-dancing and banter and plenty of ballroom scenes.  It wasn't until the second half of the story when Amelia realizes that everybody really was right about the rake all along (like, duh) and circumstances spur her and David into coupledom.

From the above description it sounds like Amelia is young, naive and a bit brain-dead.  What I really appreciated and thought Willingham was genius to do is that she gives Amelia dimension.  On the surface, yes Amelia may appear to be those things.  But she's smarter than anyone gives her credit for.  She does not spend the whole book thinking the rake is the man of her dreams (thank God!) and she'll call a spade a spade.  Like when she calls David's first wife "St. Katherine" - to his face.  On that score?  David does hang on to the "perfect first wife" thing for a long, long time.  Until the bitter end in fact, when he finally wakes up to realize that he loves Amelia and that's OK.  He's allowed to find happiness twice in his life.

As expected for a third book the series baggage is pretty heavy here.  I loved seeing more glimpses of Amelia's parents, who are slowly trying to repair their marriage after so many years apart.  Also stuff happens to set-up Margaret's book, the final one in the series, and the villain from the first two books is back to do dastardly villain stuff.

While the first half never quite fully engaged me, the second half of the book is pretty good and injects enough emotional angst into the series to have me intrigued for Margaret's story.  While I haven't loved these books as much as some of Willingham's medievals, they have been charming and I've enjoyed the world the author has created.

Final Grade = C+

Saturday, February 21, 2015

TBR Challenge 2015: Better Late Than Never

The Book: Precious and Fragile Things by Megan Hart

The Particulars: General Fiction, MIRA, 2011, Out of Print, Available Digitally

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?:  Megan Hart = Duh, of course Wendy is going to read it eventually.  I love Hart's books.

The Review:  This was Hart's first foray into "general fiction" and since she's an autobuy that's why it's been languishing in my TBR for ages.  However Rosie read this shortly after it released (I think?) and keeps asking me if I've ever read it every time we snatch the opportunity to meet for lunch.  So even though she has abandoned blogging because she doesn't love me (wah!), this month's challenge seemed like a good opportunity to dust it off.

Ever read a book, appreciate it, and yet know you are absolutely not the target audience for it?  Yeah, that.  I can appreciate many things about this book and would recommend it in a hot minute to those of you who have book clubs that don't suck.  But on a "personal level?"  Meh.

How many times did you wish for someone or something to take you away?  How many times did you imagine how nice it would be to get sick, really sick, so you could be hospitalized and have someone else take care of you for change?

Gilly Solomon is having one of those days.  She's running errands with her two small children who refuse to listen, behave, or you know - just shut up for 3 seconds - and she's made the mistake of trying to squeeze in "one last thing" - a trip to the ATM.  She's one step away from having a mental breakdown and getting sent off to Rancho Relaxo (you're welcome Simpsons fans).  As she gets back into her car, a man hops in the passenger seat, pulls a knife on her, and orders her to drive.  The fly in the ointment?  He didn't see that she had kids.  Gilly manages to get the kids to safety, but doesn't rescue herself (and she has opportunity).  Instead she keeps driving with her kidnapper, Todd.

They eventually make their way to his dead uncle's hunting cabin when a winter of epic proportions socks them in, out in the middle of nowhere, for a couple of months.  In close quarters.  Together.  As far as kidnappers go Todd is a decent sort (you know, except for the whole carjacking kidnapping "thing") so readers don't need to worry about Gilly getting raped, beaten etc.  The dilemma is, of course, that Todd's plan has gone all cockeyed and Gilly creates a bunch of complications for him.

Publisher's Weekly called this, "....a dark hostage story that, due to its unrelenting grimness, risks turning readers off."  Is this grim?  In my opinion, no more so than some of Hart's erotica.  She's always specialized in complicated characters who think and say the things we all do - it's just the rest of us have a hard time admitting them to ourselves.  Is that dark?  Maybe.  I'm not always convinced that it is - let's call it "challenging" or "thought-provoking" instead.

Where I think this book stumbled for me is that I didn't get the same "depth" out of the characters here that I have in other Hart stories.  I also cannot quite put my finger on why that is.  Is it because I can't "relate" to Gilly?  I don't think so - because even though I'm not a mother, I "get" where she is coming from.  I understand her, empathize with her a bit even.  Which is why I think this would be a great book club read.  Imagine all the great conversations you could have about societal expectations on women, the whole Earth Mother BS women get crammed down our throats, how having children is your #1 Mission In Life OMG You Must Make Babies!!!!  I just....wasn't that enthralled with her.

I also was fairly lukewarm on Todd, although he's a touch more interesting.  Yes, he's pretty much a world class screw up, but some of his back-story is interesting.  Although there's a twist at the end that didn't come out of left field so much as come from the stadium parking lot.  Honestly, why Hart felt the need to pile on I don't know.  The tragic back-story was plenty tragic enough already.

I think what would have helped this book for me was more of Gilly's back-story.  We get glimpses, but just that - glimpses.  The stuff about her mother was great, but more of her father and husband would have been welcome.  As it was I felt like I was skating above the surface and never really broke through the ice like I've done with other Hart books.  It just didn't quite get me all the way there.

So where does that leave us?  I hate rating any Hart book as "average," because her average is better than most writers' "good" - but yeah, average.  I didn't love this, but I could totally see it working for other readers and this is just the sort of book I'll book talk the hell out of, even if I don't want to gush all over it and have babies with it.  Not my monkey, not my circus, but I can still appreciate it on a certain level.

Final Grade = C+

Thursday, February 12, 2015

TBR Reminder For February + Personal Stuff

For those of you participating in the 2015 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, February 18.  This month's theme is Recommended Read.  I'm sure we all have a ::cough, cough:: few of these in our TBRs.  That book you bought because so-and-so recommended it.  However, remember - the themes are totally optional and are not required.  Maybe none of those highly recommended books are calling your name and you instead want to read that comfort author you already know and love.  Hey, that's great!  Remember, it's not about the themes but reading something (anything!) out of your TBR.

This is only the second month of the challenge and it's not too late to sign up!  For more information, or just to follow along with all the participants - check out the 2015 TBR Challenge Information Page.


You may have noticed what an utter wasteland of content this blog has been the past couple of weeks.  Folks, I'm in a slump.  It's not that I'm reading "bad books" - I just don't feel like reading.  My only excuse is Real Life.  I've just got, you know, "stuff" going on.  Which brings us to the February TBR Challenge.....

I normally hit Twitter and share #tbrchallenge links, but I'm actually going to be unplugged for most of next week.  Which means, at this point?  Beside the whole not reading thing?  I really hope I don't miss my first TBR Challenge since I took over hosting duties in 2011.  Who the heck knows if 1) Wendy will get a book read and 2) If Wendy will have a moment to post some semblance of a review.  Keep your fingers crossed, heck light a candle in church - I'm about worn down to the nub.  I'm hoping my batteries get recharged next week.  Please, Dear Lord.....

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Rise, Fall And Redemption Of A Rock Star
As a general rule I don't go all ga-ga over rock star romances.  I love music, and yes many a rock star is pretty to look at - but in reality?  No thank you ma'am.  In reality I like to avoid a heaping dose of misogyny tossed on my corn flakes and when it comes to rock star romances?  The Bad Boy Paired With Innocent Wide-Eyed Ingenue invokes my gag reflex.  Hence, Wendy tends to not "do" rock star romances.

So why, pray tell, am I making an exception for Rise by Karina Bliss?  Because Zander Freedman has been knocking around the fictional universe since 2010, the reprobate (OK, jerkface) brother of the hero from What the Librarian Did.  Zander is an ass in that story, but there's something much so that he made future appearances in later Bliss SuperRomances.  And now, Zander gets his day - his own romance.  With a woman he is totally ill-prepared for, even though he thinks he's the one calling the shots.  How typical.

Zander has been paid a sizable advance to publish his memoirs, but in true Zander fashion, he's fired the first two biographers the publisher has rubber-stamped.  Never no mind, he's got a brilliant idea.  Dr. Elizabeth Winston, who has written biographies about Dead White Guys and has a Pulitzer to prove it.  He read her last book, loved it, and wants her.  Now all he has to do is convince her.

Elizabeth says no, for a lot of solid reasons that nobody could possibly blame her for.  But Zander being Zander, she ends up saying yes - mostly because he intrigues her.  He has resurrected the band that made him famous, with an all new line-up of musicians, and is taking the act out on the road.  What nobody knows?  Zander's having voice problems.  He's also leveraged and mortgaged everything to the hilt to finance the tour.  He does want Elizabeth to write the memoir, just, you know, on his terms.  Which means she can't know too much and he can't tell her everything.  Which gets complicated as they spend time together and he ends up finding himself seriously attracted to her.

Readers familiar with Bliss' past work tend to fall into two camps when it comes to Zander: either you like him despite yourself or the idea of him being a romance hero horrifies you.  I've actually always been intrigued by him.  He's a complicated guy.  The sort of guy where you can't quite decide if he's a villain or a nice guy.  He straddles that line, sometimes tipping over fully to one side or the other.  It was actually genius of Bliss to insert him into later books after What The Librarian Did (where he pretty much comes off as villain), that allowed her to write him with a bit more nuance.  Readers unfamiliar with Bliss' previous works can easily jump in right here, not having past "Zander baggage" and this is a good antidote for a lot of the rock star books I've seen cluttering up Amazon in recent memory.

Elizabeth holds her own quite well.  She's a preacher's daughter, but no innocent or wild child.  She's responsible, level-headed, and calculating (and I mean that in a good way).  This isn't a heroine prone to silly flights of fancy, theatrics or drama.  You get the impression that if Zander Freedman never entered her orbit she would be just fine.  She's got a good life, family, friends, work, and is respected.  And she's no pushover.  Zander thinks he can call the shots with her, but in reality the moment she enters into his world, she begins taking it over - for the better.

Bliss' background is in category romance so the biggest hurdle for me with this book was to realize it wasn't category.  Bliss has over 300 pages here and fleshes out the story accordingly by populating it with a variety of secondary characters.  I sometimes felt that these characters, while all interesting and yes, I did like them, could detract from the Zander/Elizabeth romance.  But then I realized: Hey, 300+ pages.  Also, the author is setting groundwork for a series of future books that will focus on some of these secondary players.

I wasn't entirely sold on the ending, although it does fit into the Grand Gesture mold.  I suspect some readers will think that Elizabeth is "too hard" on Zander at times (especially during the emotionally charged final chapters) - but honestly I was so happy she wasn't some wide-eyed pushover virginal ingenue that I was half in love with her for everything she said and did - even when she was "in the wrong."  Which actually brings up a good point - that both Zander and Elizabeth make mistakes, make miscues, and hurt each other in equal measure on their way to the happy ending.  I liked that neither one of them has to solely carry the load of being The Heavy.

I liked this quite a bit.  Yes, it's a rock star book, but it's a different sort of rock star book.  I happily plan to follow along as Bliss continues on with her planned series.

Final Grade = B

Friday, January 30, 2015

::Tap, Tap, Tap:: Is This Thing On?

Oh!  Hi there wee lil' blog!  Long time no see.  What have I been doing with myself other than not blogging?  Oh, and not reading?  Because I have not been reading.  Much.  Small snatches here and there.  Sigh.

I get like this every once in a while where it's not the book's fault.  I've got oodles of what I know will be great books waiting for me.  I just can't be bothered to, you know, read.  Usually what ends up happening is I force myself to sit down, read something, and it knocks my socks off thereby reminding me that "Oh, hey! Reading is cool!"  In the meantime what is going on around here besides the normal work + home merry-go-round?

Justified is back on TV for it's final season.  Let's bask in the glow of that for just a moment.

While everybody else in my small corner of Romancelandia seems either obsessed with Outlander or Downton Abbey I'm obsessed with.....a cowboy.  A US Marshal who tends to shoot first and ask questions later.  How typical Wendy.  How typical.

Besides Justified, work, and not reading there is  I joined a yoga studio back in October and except for a recent two-week stretch where I had the Head Cold From Hell, I've been going three times a week.  So how is yoga going?

You would think after four months I would be, you know, getting better at it.  Instead?  I'm the chick in class you gets the "participation ribbon."  Yes, I'm that bad.  I have a yoga instructor on Thursday nights who, despite probably being the Marquis De Sade in a former life, will occasionally offer me encouragement when I don't fall flat on  my face.  When he says, "Good job Wendy!" or "You've got it Wendy!"  I imagine him thinking, "Oh Wendy has come to my class again.  She sure does try hard, poor thing."

I mean, really - shouldn't exercise, after a while, get easier?  Yoga is a cruel mistress.  She literally kicks my butt back to last Tuesday.  But I do sleep great afterward.  Which would be why My Man twisted my arm to take it up (he's actually the one who found the studio for me).  I was sleeping....not so good.  After last night's torture session with the Marquis De Sade of yoga instructors?

Like a baby.  You know, if you spiked the baby's bottle with bourbon and Xanax.  In the meantime I'm going to try to not think about the woman in class who was bigger than I am and was able to do head stands.  I am literally, good at nothing.

So what's going on with everybody?  Any torturous exercise stories to make me feel better about my complete and total lack of grace?  Read any good books lately?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

TBR Challenge 2015: Dishing It Out

The Book: Dishing It Out by Molly O'Keefe

The Particulars: Contemporary romance, Harlequin Flipside #37, 2005, Book two in duet/series, Out of print, Available digitally

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: I glommed O'Keefe's entire backlist after discovering her through her SuperRomances, which means yes - I picked up the two Harlequin Duets and two Flipsides she wrote even though I was never a huge fan of either lines.

The Review: O'Keefe definitely has a "style" and for those of us who love her books we know it's 1) Characters half a step away from rock bottom and 2) Angst-O-Rama-Jama.  And yet this is the same author who started her publishing career with Duets and Flipside.  A couple of speed bumps in a long line of doomed "romantic comedy" lines for Harlequin.  God bless Harlequin, I love them to death - but lighter rom/com lines have historically not gone well for them.

Marie Simmons is working her butt off trying to create some stability for herself.  After a nomadic early adulthood, she has settled in San Francisco and opened up a small cafe/bakery.  She's broke.  She's burning the candle at both ends.  But she's got style, a good "look," and she's been doing cooking segments for a local TV morning show.  Now they want to take the show weekly, but on one condition.  Giovanni "Van" MacAllister is to be her new cohost.  Her nemesis.  The guy who outbid her for the restaurant space she wanted across the street.  The guy who called her cafe a "cute little coffee shop" during one of his recent interviews.  And now the asshat thinks he can horn in on her gig and ride her coat-tails.  No thank you Mr. Man.

What follows is, of course, these two becoming cohosts.  Van isn't exactly Mr. Smooth and he "gets" why Marie isn't exactly his biggest fan.  But perception is everything, and Van needs this gig.  He's hoping the TV spot will help get his restaurant off the ground.  Marie may think he's Mr. Big Shot, but whoa baby - he's anything but.  So the two start working together only to realize that their sexual chemistry may just muck it all up.  Neither one is anxious to mix business with pleasure.

While this was a super quick read, I could tell that it was early on in author's career.  It's the sort of book that picked up steam as it went along.  It opens a little slow, and we don't even get Van's point of view until around page 60 or so.  Up until then it's all Marie, prickly as a wet cat, putting him through his paces.  For a while I was dreading a set-up of these two constantly trying to "one up" each other, and braced myself for various mean-spirited shenanigans - but blessedly the author does not travel that route.  Marie has stipulations, which Van accepts, and the rest of the book is spent with them figuring out how to coexist together - in business, and in pleasure.

This is a "romantic comedy" in the sense that it feels like a rom/com visually speaking.  It's easy to see this translating to the big, or small, screen.  But thankfully it's not "comedy," as in the Funny Ha Ha variety.  Readers are spared slapstick, forced attempts at humor, and other brain-bleed inducing endeavors that very rarely translate well on the page.  It's a rom/com in tone, light and breezy, carrying you along.  It's a textbook example of what I call a Chocolate Chip Cookie Read.  It's tasty and fun while you're consuming it, but three minutes later it's like you never ate anything at all and you're back scrounging in the cupboard even though you told yourself, "Only one cookie....."

Where things get intriguing is towards the end, when the O'Keefe we know "today" starts to creep in.  Things are really, really light until the author needs to get to the "black moment" to spur her characters towards our happy ending.  This is when Marie's past baggage creeps in (major trust issues), which will likely annoy some readers, but worked for me considering how badly she had been spurned in the past.

This was interesting.  It's not a perfect read.  I felt the character development was a little light in the pants mostly because the author never quite dives deeply enough below the surface of her characters. It also took a few chapters for the story to really pick up any sort of steam (as a general rule, category romances really need to hit the ground running).  But it's a pleasant read, and reading it as an intellectual exercise on Author Development + History, it's really intriguing.  Had I read this back when it was published, prior to O'Keefe making the jump to SuperRomance - I'm not sure I would have "seen" her taking that path.  But in hindsight?  It makes a lot of sense.  Especially when looking at the character baggage she concocts for this story.  Certainly she doesn't delve into it too deeply (hey, Flipside!), but you can see she very easily could have.  And that's the stuff that SuperRomances are made of.

This was a perfect example of an "OK" read for me until the second half, when the angst really began to go from simmer to boil.  I'm not sure I would recommend readers drop their lives and read this right now, but if you're already an O'Keefe fan?  I think this is well worth a look.

Final Grade = B-

Friday, January 16, 2015

Reminder: TBR Challenge for January

For those of you participating in the 2015 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, January 21.  This month's theme is We Love Short Shorts! (category romance, novellas, short stories).  This is the traditional January theme, as I think easing into the yearly challenge with a "short read" is a good way to find your groove.  Plus, uh - I might personally be addicted to category romance and novellas.  However, remember - the themes are totally optional and are not required.  Maybe you think reading something less than 350 pages is an utter waste of time.  It's not important what you read, just that you pull something (anything!) out of the TBR pile.

This is the first month of the challenge and it's not too late to sign up!  For more information, or just to follow along with all the participants - check out the 2015 TBR Challenge Information Page.