Monday, March 25, 2019

Top 5 Unusual Historicals for March 2019

If the month of March had a definition it would be “tease.” Growing up in the Midwest, March meant warmer temperatures, the snow finally starting to melt, digging out my summer clothes when the temperature hit 60°F - only to have that cruel witch Mother Nature dump a March 31 blizzard to remind us who was boss. Oh, many an Easter it was where my pretty new dress was hidden under outerwear that made me look like I was going on an Antarctic expedition. You know what I’m talking about, amirite?! So why not plan for an impending final last-gasp snow day now by pursuing some new unusual historical offerings? Here’s what caught my eye for March.

 To Tempt A Rebel CoverTo Tempt a Rebel by Shana Galen 
He’s a rebel…
It all began so well. When Tristan Chevalier joined the French revolutionaries to fight for brotherhood, equality, and liberty, he was full of hopes and dreams of what the revolution could accomplish. But after several years of serving as the bloodthirsty Robespierre’s second, Tristan is having doubts. When Tristan tries to halt Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, he inadvertently steps into a trap laid by the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel and orchestrated by the lovely Alexandra Martin. Tristan is no one’s pawn, but he thinks by playing along, he might be able to give his superiors information leading to the capture of the League. He could end the Pimpernel’s antics once and for all. There’s just one problem—no matter how much Tristan despises Alexandra, he can’t quite stop wanting her.  
She has a cause.
Alexandra Martin is an Englishwoman who’s has been playing the part of a French actress for years. It’s a clever cover for her real role as a member of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Alex usually works in the background, but when she manages to snare one of the most important men in Robespierre’s government, she’s risking it all. So begins a harrowing adventure where Alex’s most vile enemy must become her most trusted ally. The fate of a young prince hangs in the balance as two clashing rebels discover enemies sometimes make the best lovers. 
Look, light and fluffy historical romance has its place, but for my money I’m always going to go with the historical with high stakes conflict. Like, life and death stuff. And it doesn’t get much life-er and death-er than the French Revolution. This is the fourth book in a series where I somehow missed the preceding three. Never mind. I’m rectifying that now.

 Shipwrecked with the Captain cover
Shipwrecked with the Captain by Diane Gaston
All she remembers…  
…is feeling safe in his arms!  
Part of The Governess Swap: Shipwrecked governess Claire Tilson wakes in Captain Lucien Roper’s arms—with amnesia! Her handsome rescuer believes she’s a member of the aristocracy he detests, yet he risks all to see her “home,” where she learns she’s betrothed to a wealthy stranger. Claire is convinced she doesn’t belong here…and Lucien is the only man she trusts to uncover her past and claim her future! 
The second book in a duology, our amnesiac heroine finds herself mistaken for the heroine in A Lady Becomes a Governess. There are two types of readers: those who avoid amnesia plots like the plague and those who are drawn to them like a moth to flame. I tend to fall in the latter category, namely because I always have to see for myself if the author can pull it off. Gaston is a seasoned Regency pro, so I’m hopeful.

 Desire Lines cover
Desire Lines by Elizabeth Kingston
All he ever wanted was to go home.  
Leaving his life as a noble hostage behind him, Gryff has fled from one danger to another, never safe, always longing for a forbidden return to his conquered Welsh homeland. Held captive by villainous men, his unlikely savior is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen – and the most deadly. Her silence is unnerving, her generosity unexpected, and her pointed warning that she will not be an object of lust is perfectly clear.  
Nan has no doubt the ragged Welshman she has saved from certain death was born to better things, far different from the servant’s life she’s led. Though the last thing she wants is a companion on her journey to find her cherished sister, she is compelled to help the man with haunted eyes and a mysterious past. But she feels the pull of his fascination every instant, and her own unexpected desire soon takes them places neither could have foreseen. 
OK, so how did this series fly under my radar?! 13th century and the conquest of Wales?! How did I miss this?! I like medievals. Again, high stakes conflict and one of those moments in history where loyalty was everything. And Lord help you if you were loyal to the losing side. Anyway, we routinely see English and Scottish medievals. We even see a small mattering of Irish medievals. But Welsh? And it’s a road romance. I’m a mere mortal after all. I cannot possibly resist.

 Mrs. Martin's cover
Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan
Mrs. Bertrice Martin—a widow, some seventy-three years young—has kept her youthful-ish appearance with the most powerful of home remedies: daily doses of spite, regular baths in man-tears, and refusing to give so much as a single damn about her Terrible Nephew.  
Then proper, correct Miss Violetta Beauchamps, a sprightly young thing of five and sixty, crashes into her life. The Terrible Nephew is living in her rooming house, and Violetta wants him gone.  
Mrs. Martin isn’t about to start giving damns, not even for someone as intriguing as Miss Violetta. But she hatches another plan—to make her nephew sorry, to make Miss Violetta smile, and to have the finest adventure of all time.  
If she makes Terrible Men angry and wins the hand of a lovely lady in the process? Those are just added bonuses. 
This new novella from Milan is part of the Worth Saga and sounds positively delightful! When was the last time we got not one, but TWO, heroines over the age of 60? Seriously, this just may be the first one ever. And both of them sound like they’re well past giving a damn. I’m halfway to swoon already.

 Marrying Her Viking Enemy cover
Marrying Her Viking Enemy by Harper St. George 
A Saxon maiden  
Bound to a Viking warrior  
Part of To Wed a Viking: The conquering Danes have taken everything from Elswyth—even her mother. So, despite the uneasy truce between their people, she knows where her loyalties lie. Until she meets towering Rolfe, leader of the opposing forces. Her mind knows this muscled Viking is her enemy. So why is her traitorous body so tempted by his suggestion that she become his wife? 
OK, so I have a thing for medievals and it’s probably because the time period plays so well to the Enemies to Lovers trope. When done right it’s utterly sublime. St. George has written Vikings before, but this is the first in a new series.

What Unusual Historicals are you looking forward to this month?

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Ranty Mini-Reviews: Take Me and Make Me

I've been "in-between" books for a couple of days now and feeling out of sorts since I'm not entirely sure what I'm in the mood for, so I went with two recent, short Dirty Bits by Tracy Wolff.  I've read Wolff before, and liked those books to varying degrees, and I figured reading short was a decent stop-gap in light of my wishy-washy-ness.  As they say, I chose poorly.

Take Me is the first book in a steamy shorts series centered around artists.  In this one the jackhole "hero" hires the heroine to pose for him.  He's some hot-shot iron sculptor, and she just lost her art school scholarship and needs the money.

I had to DNF this one at 28% (yes, I'm aware it's a 100 page novella...) because the hero made me feel murderous. In the first frickin' chapter, after the heroine walks into his studio, our "hero" muses to himself:
I don't have to have anything in common with the women I stick my dick in...but it doesn't hurt.
The fact that I didn't hurl my Kindle across the room just goes to show you my incredible act of restraint.  Not only that, I somehow kept reading. Why?  I don't know. I'm blaming it on the cold medicine I'm currently dosing myself with because I have a gnarly head cold.

Then we get the heroine's point of view in a following chapter and that's when a power differential comes into play that I really cannot get past:
In the end, I don't say anything - partly because I need this job and partly because there's nothing to say. Not really.  Not yet, when all I know about him is what I've read.
Yeah, no.  This sets off all sorts of warning bells for me.  But it's not the final nail in the coffin.  No, that comes when we're back to the hero's cesspool point-of-view:
It makes me want to punch that wall and keep punching it until the pain knocks out everything else - including the fact that I'm sitting here mooning after her like a little bitch right now.  Or a gigantic fucking wuss.
Conclusion: I don't think she's safe with him and he's a douchecanoe.  Excuse me while I go burn everything down.

Final Grade = DNF

Make Me is the second short in the series and I did manage to finish this one.  Oh, it's still terrible, but hey, I did finish it.

The heroine is the assistant curator at a gallery and the hero is her most favoritest photographer ever. He wants to tie her up (shibari: Japanese rope bondage) and photograph her.  She has to work in the business, so no.

The hero does fall hard and fast for the heroine, I'll give him that. But he doesn't take no for an answer which is so not cool that I want reach through my Kindle and throat punch him into next Tuesday.
"I don't want you to do anything you don't want to do. If you don't want to pose for me, then I won't ask you to. If you don't want me to tie you up -"
"You won't tie me up?"
"I won't. But on that, I won't stop asking either."
Run gurl, you're in danger.

But, of course, she relents. BECAUSE OF COURSE SHE DOES.
"Okay. I won't take any photos of you," I tell her, though it kills me to say it. So much so that I have to quantify it. "Unless you want me to."
"I won't," she assures me.
We'll see about that. But I don't say that.
So yeah.  You know when all us "precious snowflakes" talk about consent in romance and how FRICKIN' IMPORTANT IT IS!  Yeah, this is NOT consent.  This is the hero thinking that he's eventually going to get the heroine to cave and do what he wants - which, OF COURSE, she eventually does do in the final chapter of the story.  But hey, it's OK because she has a rock hard orgasm so I'm what? Just supposed to ignore the fact that HE DOESN'T LISTEN TO HER?!?!?!  I can just picture this jackhole in between chapters wheedling her incessantly until she finally just throws up her hands and caves in, just so she can get a moment's peace.

You know what's sexy?  When men actually listen to women.

I just can't with domineering heroes right now. Unless they have the page count to repent or the heroine cuts him off at the knees - and that's not going to happen in a line as short as Carina's Dirty Bits.  I still don't know what I'm in the mood to read but sure as shootin' it isn't this.

Final Grade = D

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

#TBRChallenge 2019: Wayward Widow

The Book: Wayward Widow by Nicola Cornick

The Particulars: Historical romance, Harlequin Historical #700, 2004, third book in trilogy, out of print, available in digital.

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: Several years back I discovered Cornick and proceeded to hunt down her entire backlist.

The Review: I'm a sucker for romance heroines with dubious reputations (whether they be earned or not).  Lady Juliana Myfleet has the intriguing distinction of falling into both categories.  Good Ton think she is the wickedest sort, with her dubious friends, gambling habit, and outrageous behavior.  Having met before as teenagers, the hero makes her reacquaintance at a house-party-slash-bachelor-party where Juliana, quite literally, is presented on a silver platter, naked as the day she was born, with strategically placed fruits and icing sugar.  Juliana loves to shock, but is she truly the "bad girl" that she seems?

Martin Davencourt had been living abroad when he's summoned home after his father and stepmother die in an accident.  He's now the guardian to his 7 younger half-siblings, which is turning into a bit of a trial since the two oldest girls are fighting their chaperone every step of the way and the oldest boy has up and quit Cambridge with no explanation whatsoever.  Honestly, he's got enough on his plate without being distracted by Juliana Myfleet, but distracted (of course) he is.

This is a fairly low-key Regency in that not a lot happens in terms of plot.  The crux of it is that Juliana has spent her whole life making herself wholly unsuitable and Martin borders on sanctimonious prig.  I mean, honestly?  The entire fun of this story is these two bantering back and forth, and Juliana completely calling Martin out on his bullshit.  To add to his undoing?  Once his younger siblings meet Juliana they're completely entranced with her, even though she's about as far away from Mary Poppins as you can get.  There's a forthrightness to Juliana, her willingness to call a spade a spade, that makes her an exceedingly delightful heroine.  This is a bad girl who makes dreadful choices but she also doesn't take flack from anybody.  I'll be frank: she's not terribly "likeable" and that's what makes her pretty great.

Ah, but you hear the "but" in that don't you?  So where did it slide sideways for me?  Juliana's past is dealt with in a very perfunctory manner.  Husband #1 was a love match and she was devastated by his death.  And yet we hear very little about him beyond, "She loved him so."  Husband #2 was the exact opposite, a liar and wastrel who abandoned her in Italy and died in debtor's prison.  Given that she ran off with Totally Unsuitable Hubby #2 - this is where the bulk of her reputation was earned.  Then she returned to London and was unwilling to cow-tow and act repentant sinner. That sealed her fate.  This is all dealt with in a very bare bones manner. Basically what I just described in this paragraph?  That's basically what you get in the book.  There's no expounding...at all.

There's also the matter of her relationship with her father.  Yes, as refreshing as Juliana is as a heroine, she's one of those who wasn't loved enough by Daddy hence her dubious life choices.  Also, I'll admit that while Juliana does do "some bad things" - a lot of what people think about her is simply untrue.  An illusion she cultivates because she abhors hypocrisy, she's lonely, and Daddy didn't love her enough.  Oh well...can't win 'em all.

But this makes a book a B-.  What makes a book a C?  When it's all carrying on just fine and then it's like someone told the author, "Love, you ain't made your word count yet," and the last two chapters take a bizarre turn and we get hastily added external conflict.  For the last 20% of the book.  It feels weird, rushed, and frankly relies on an amazing coincidence.  It does tie everything up and the author does bring things full circle, but it strains the seams considerably.

So it ends up being a mixed bag for me.  Cornick can write her face off and the dialogue in this story is A+ top-notch.  Also, even though it's the last book in a trilogy, I never felt like I was trying to keep my head above the waters of Series-itis Ocean.  There's memorable elements at work here, but oof those last couple of chapters are a doozy.

Final Grade = C

Friday, March 15, 2019

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is March 20!

Hey, hey, hey!  For those participating in the 2019 #TBRChallenge, a reminder that your commentary is "due"on Wednesday, March 20.  This month's theme is Favorite Trope!

Secret baby? Friends-to-Lovers? Brother's Best Friend? Amnesia? Marriage of Convenience? Mail Order Bride? Pick a trope, any trope! They're all good this month.

A reminder that, as always, the themes are completely optional.    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.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Mini-Review: The Girl They Left Behind

Because I'm incapable of saying no, I've been neck-deep in what I call "obligation reading" since the dawn of the new year.  Sometimes this is a drag, and sometimes it's a way for me to flex my long dormant hardcore reviewing muscles, a reminder of those days when random books showed up on my doorstep and I read them.  Happily, most of what I've been obligated to read has turned out to be pretty good, which brings me to The Girl They Left Behind, a debut historical fiction novel, by Roxanne Veletzos.  It started out a bit slow for me, but caught fire once the Soviets got their claws into eastern Europe.

Inspired by family history, the story opens with an abandoned girl, no more than a toddler, being found outside an apartment building.  Her parents, fleeing into the night from the Bucharest pogrom, are faced with an impossible decision, ultimately leaving their daughter behind.  She is found by a building resident and taken to a nearby orphanage where she is adopted by a wealthy couple, Anton and Despina Goza.

Despite World War II raging across Europe, life is good for the Goza family.  Little Natalia is doted on, attends Catholic school, and is becoming an accomplished piano player.  Despina is a consummate hostess and Anton the successful owner of a stationary store, after a childhood of poverty and desperation.  There are atrocities all around them, and they carry on - until the war draws to a close, the bombings begin without ceasing, and Romania is "liberated" by the Soviets.  The Iron Curtain falls and life as the Goza's knew it is over.

The story is told in three parts - going from Anton and Despina, to Natalia, to Victor, a young man that Anton befriends during the war who becomes a high ranking official in the Communist government.  And behind the curtain is the story of Natalia's birth parents.  The young couple forced to make an impossible decision in the hopes they will all survive and be reunited one day.

It took me a while to sink into this story.  The first part, covering the adoption is necessary as set-up, but not as riveting as the latter portion of the book, when the tale shifts to an older Natalia's viewpoint and we get the tightening of the Soviet noose around the Romanian people.  To be perfectly frank, World War II as a historical fiction backdrop has taken on a been-there-done-that feel.  What's been less common is post-War stories.  Stories of people "liberated" by the Soviets.  In other words, yeah war is over - but at what cost?  And this story, in part, addresses that.

Since this blog is largely frequented by romance readers, the question probably foremost on your minds is: "Sure Wendy, but does it have a happy ending?"  Well?  Sort of?  Bittersweet is probably the best way to put it.  Natalia finds answers to what became of her biological parents, but it's not a book where everyone is reunited at the end, holding hands, singing Kumbaya and sharing bottles of Coca-Cola in a meadow.  It ends the way, I suspect, it did for many Eastern European immigrants post-World War II.  Trying to carve out better lives for themselves and reunite with the loved ones still back in the old country, stuck behind an Iron Curtain slowly suffocating them.

After a slow beginning I really fell into this story.  It was very engrossing in parts, and I learned stuff - which is always an added bonus when reading historical fiction.  This debut novel has garnered a fair amount of praise and it's easy to see why.

Final Grade = B

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Unusual Historical for February 2019

February: the shortest month of the year that always feels like the longest because hot takes on the romance genre - AMIRITE Y’ALL?! I’ve been neck deep in contest judging which has meant less time online (and aggravated), but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been scouring around for unusual historicals. Wild horses couldn’t keep me away from that. Here’s what looks enticing for February: 

Appetites & Vices by Felicia Grossman
He’s her ticket into high society…  
Banking heiress Ursula Nunes has lived her life on the fringes of Philadelphia’s upper class. Her Jewish heritage means she’s never quite been welcomed by society’s elite…and her quick temper has never helped, either.  
A faux engagement to the scion of the mid-Atlantic’s most storied family might work to repair her rumpled reputation and gain her entrée to the life she thinks she wants…if she can ignore the way her “betrothed” makes her feel warm all over and stay focused on her goal. 
She’s his ticket out…  
Former libertine John Thaddeus “Jay” Truitt is hardly the man to teach innocent women about propriety. Luckily, high society has little to do with being proper and everything to do with identifying your foe’s temptation—an art form Jay mastered long ago. A broken engagement will give him the perfect excuse to run off to Europe and a life of indulgence.  
But when the game turns too personal, all bets are off… 
Carina publishes a historical romance once every six months (yes, this is me being snotty about it…) and frankly that’s enough for me to beg everyone to one-click the heck out of Grossman’s debut. But it’s also a fake engagement trope (squee!) between two messy characters set in 1840s Philadelphia. If I can’t convince you, go read Margrethe’s recent review at Love in Panels

An Unconditional Freedom by Alyssa Cole
An assassination plot that could end the Civil War, and a hidden enemy that could destroy a secret league of unsung heroes …  
Daniel Cumberland, born free in Massachusetts, studied law with dreams of helping his people—dreams that died the night he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Daniel is rescued, but he’s a changed man. When he’s offered entry into the Loyal League, the covert organization of Black spies who helped free him, he seizes the opportunity for vengeance against the Confederacy and those who support it.  
When the Union Army occupies the Florida home of Cuban Janeta Sanchez, daughter of an enslaved woman and the plantation owner who married her, her family’s wealth does not protect her father from being imprisoned. Under duress and blaming herself for the arrest, Janeta agrees to infiltrate a group called the Loyal League as a double agent—and finds a cause truly worth the sacrifice.  
Daniel is aggravated by the headstrong and much too observant new detective he’s paired with, and Janeta is intrigued by the broken but honorable man she is tasked with betraying. As they embark on a mission to intercept Jefferson Davis and thwart European meddling, their dual hidden agendas are threatened by the ghosts of their pasts and a growing affection that could strengthen both the Union and their souls—or lead to their downfall. 
Cole continues her Loyal League series with a romance between a haunted man and a heroine working as a double agent to protect her family. I loved the high stakes conflict in An Extraordinary Union and really need to read A Hope Divided so I can catch up on this series!

The Songbird and the Spy by J’nell Ciesielski
As shells explode over Nazi-occupied France, American music student Claire Baudin is trapped behind enemy lines, struggling to protect her identity. Singing as a barmaid while she plans her escape, a handsome Third Reich captain threatens everything she knows to be true about the enemy.

Nazi Captain Michael Reiner isn't who he claims to be. A British language expert turned spy, he discovers the truth about Claire, but he knows the importance of a secret. Struggling to resist his attraction to the songbird, he's determined to complete his assignment, no matter the cost. His cover is threatened when a ruthless female Gestapo officer arrives, hunting Resistance fighters. The raid forces Michael's hand: complete the mission or save Claire.  
As the war threatens to tear them apart, they must rely on each other for survival. Is there hope—and a future—for an American songbird and a British spy? 
A British spy hero posing as a Nazi officer and an American heroine stuck behind enemy lines. I stumbled across a glowing Publisher’s Weekly review at work and that was enough to entice me to preorder this baby. Note: the Amazon blurb indicates this is light on s-e-x and “may also contain content of an inspirational nature.”

What the Parrot Saw by Darlene Marshall
Hijacking an Englishman from a brothel is all in a day’s work for Captain Mattie St. Armand. She needs protective coloration, and a naïve (and expendable) white man will keep the eyes of the authorities off her as she smuggles slaves from the Florida Territory to freedom in the Bahamas.

Oliver Woodruff wanted a spot of travel in the Caribbean before he settled down, but he never expected “Marauding Mattie.” He’ll help her, but he knows there’s no place in his world for the bastard daughter of a pirate and a freedwoman.   
As Mattie trains him for their ruse, she comes to realize he’s a man she can turn to for support and companionship, and Oliver grows to love the commanding and daring woman who refuses to fit society’s mold… but both are sure their relationship is doomed by society’s taboos.  
It will take danger and adventure (and Roscoe the parrot) to convince them that the passion between them is more than an island fantasy. 
Two words: Lady. Pirate. Also, I feel like I have to give any book a shot that has “a naïve (and expendable) white man” written right in the back cover blurb.

What Unusual Historicals are you looking forward to?

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Review: Finding Dorothy

I've always been fairly upfront about my dislike for the fantasy genre.  Nothing against the genre as a whole, it's just really not my thing. At all. Honestly, it's fairly shocking I enjoyed the Harry Potter series as much as I did - although it should be noted I haven't gone back to revisit it with the same regularly as I would say, oh favorite mystery series.  Still, it's kind of shameful to admit that I never have read, nor have the desire to, the Oz books by L.Frank Baum. Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts would therefore be a book that I, normally, would not pick up on my own.  However, Wendy Can't Seem To Say No. I'm helping out a former employer with an author event soon and this would be "homework reading."  It's an excellent example of being forced into reading something that turned out to be pretty great.

L. Frank Baum has been gone for 20 years by 1938 when his widow, Maud Baum (now 77 years old) shows up on the MGM studio lot to ensure Hollywood doesn't completely trample over her husband's legacy.  She essentially needs to strong arm her way through the gates and into the offices of Louis B. Mayer - but is indulged long enough to be invited back to witness some of the filming...even if she's been unable to get her hands on a final script that seems to change on daily basis.

This is a time slip novel, alternating between the filming of the movie and Maud's past.  In 1938/1939, she's meeting Judy Garland, concerned for the girl being squeezed into submission by a domineering mother and a studio system looking to grind her to dust to make a buck.  The Maud's "past" portion of the story covers her childhood, raised by famous suffragist, Matilda Joslyn Gage, her acceptance into Cornell University, meeting and falling in love with theater actor, L. Frank Baum, and their life together prior to him writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  It's the past portions of the story I enjoyed the most, almost as if Maud was the wizard behind the curtain all along.  Frank was the dreamer, Maud was the glue that kept the whole thing together.

While the Frank and Maud courtship and marriage would definitely be the stuff of a romance novel, readers of this blog (who are predominantly romance readers), should be aware it's not all sunshine and roses.  There are hardships, and events, that are difficult to read about.  Maud nearly dying after the birth of her second child, her sister Julia's weak constitution and disastrous marriage, the beginnings of Judy Garland's descent into drug addiction and the slime orbiting her as a child actor in the studio system.

What I enjoyed so much about this book is that it took completely unknown to me history and made it come alive - which, frankly, is what all good historical fiction should do.  It did get a little tell-y in parts, but I was so engrossed by Maud's life, her marriage, her struggles, juxtaposed with the making of one of the most famous movies of all time, I was sucked up by the magic of the all - even though we all know the magic to be an illusion often hiding ugly realities.

I'm still unlikely to ever read the Oz books, but I've walked away with an appreciation for a woman who I had no inkling about prior.  Maud Baum gets her turn in the spotlight and I can't think of anyone more deserving.

Final Grade = B+