Wednesday, September 17, 2014

TBR Challenge 2014: Baby Makes Three

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000ZBJA9Q/themisaofsupe-20
The Book: Baby Makes Three by Molly O’Keefe 

The Particulars: Contemporary romance, Harlequin SuperRomance #1460, 2007, Book 1 in The Mitchells of Riverview Inn trilogy, Out of Print, Available digitally

Why Was It In Wendy’s TBR?: After discovering the awesomeness of O’Keefe’s Supers I glommed her entire category backlist. I picked this one for the Recommended Read TBR Challenge theme because it’s a favorite of Miss Bates.

The Review:
Suddenly, the reality of her life hammered home like a nail in her coffin. She worked shifts at a chain restaurant and was hungover at three on a Friday afternoon. 
If O’Keefe has a “formula,” I would say it’s in her highly damaged, a half-step away from rock-bottom characters. This story is no different. That cliché “you always hurt the ones you love?” Yeah, this book. I wouldn’t be surprised if the author had that written on a post-it note and stuck to her computer monitor during the writing process.

Gabe Mitchell has built his dream on the Hudson River. An inn with breathtaking views, private cabins and a state-of-the-art kitchen. The problem is he cannot seem to find a chef and the few who have applied (and crashed and burned the interview process) have told him nobody would want to work in “the middle of nowhere” anyway. Gabe is desperate. He’s a few weeks from opening, has a society wedding booked at the last minute, and….no chef. Only a man this desperate would show up, hat in hand, on his ex-wife’s doorstep.

Alice is a great chef. A great chef working at a crappy chain restaurant after her marriage dies a slow, painful death and her own restaurant goes down in flames (figuratively, not literally). She’s living life at the bottom of the nearest bottle and is barely hanging on by her fingernails. Gabe showing up opens a lot of old wounds that haven’t even scabbed over yet. But he’s desperate and turns out so is she. So she agrees to bail him out, work at his inn for a couple of months, and then she’s gone. Or so she thinks.

What makes this story so incredibly gut-wrenching is that you’re reading about two people who still love each other but are in a serious pain. Gabe and Alice were passionately in love. Until reality hit. Reality that they both wanted family, wanted to build a life together, and two miscarriages (late ones) rocked their foundation. They’re both devastated, but instead of grieving together, they end up tearing each other apart. Now they’re back in close quarters out of desperation. Alice essentially a drunk. Gabe unable and unwilling to “deal” with anything. His idea of “dealing” is to sweep everything under the rug and pretend like it never happened.

It’s a hard, hard story. The kind of book that emotionally exhausts you while you’re reading it and the kind of book I tend to back-hand category naysayers with when they say “::sniff:: I don’t read escapist fantasy trash about sheikhs and princesses ::sniff::” 

Gah. Seriously. Shut-up.

If I have any quibbles about this story it’s that it’s so heavy that I’m not sure even a SuperRomance is enough to really flog out all the “issues.” Plus it reads very much as a trilogy. As a stand-alone it doesn’t entirely work. Yes, our couple ends up together, but there’s a development later in the story that leaves me with a worried pit at the bottom of my stomach (will it work out OK?). Also we have series baggage (Mommy Issues Ahoy!) that is blatantly left dangling at the end to feed the next two books in the trilogy.

Still, it’s a really good book. The sort of book that romance readers know exist in the genre, but naysayers don’t have a clue about since they’re too busy sneering at us about sheikhs, secret babies, Greek tycoons and/or Fifty Shades. There’s nothing in this story that I couldn’t see happening in “real life” – which made it all the more poignant.

Final Grade = B+

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Retro Review: Touching Evil by Kay Hooper

This review of Touching Evil by Kay Hooper was first publishing at The Romance Reader in 2001.  I rated in 5-Hearts (A rating) with a content warning of "graphic violence" and a sensuality content rating of "PG."

+++++

“The same way I know who he is. Not a face, not a name. Just evil. Just evil alive and walking around pretending to be human. I have to stop him. I have to.”

Maggie Barnes isn’t a cop, but rather a talented artist working for the Seattle police department. Maggie has a knack. She speaks with victims of violent crimes, and uses their recollections to draw very accurate sketches of the perpetrators. The cops she works with just think that she’s incredibly talented, but it’s much more than that; so, when a terrifying madman starts preying on the city’s woman, Maggie finds her “talents” pushed to the limits.

The madman is actually a brutal, serial rapist that abducts women, literally blinds them, and dumps their bodies in isolated places, leaving them for dead. One such woman was Christina Walsh, who eventually committed suicide. Christina’s death brings John Garrett into town, a powerful businessman who manages to muscle his way into the investigation. He’s determined to get answers, and the minute he meets Maggie, he knows she’s the one who can provide them.

However, as the rapist begins escalating his activities, and the city comes under the grip of panic, John knows he’s going to have to call in a few favors. That means bringing an old friend into town - an old friend who happens to be a psychic and an FBI agent.

Touching Evil is a full-force, page turning, suspense-driven read. As I write this review, I tell myself that the above plot description must be (in fact has to be) vague in order for potential readers to really fall under this story’s spell. Hooper provided enough twists and turns to her story, that it had this reader anxiously gripping the pages and not leaving my couch for hours on end.
Maggie is the sort of strong-willed heroine that I enjoy reading about in suspense stories. She’s smart, observant, with a steely almost untouchable reserve. John is also smart and driven, with a head for business, and a reality firmly grounded in the practical. Initially, he is skeptical about Maggie’s gift and that of his FBI agent friend, but time and again when he’s confronted with the extraordinary, he opens his mind to reach outside of the box.

Hooper made a splash last year with her Shadows trilogy, but Touching Evil has crossover smash written all over it. Not only is the suspense gripping stuff, but also she skillfully weaves in a believable, budding romance, and the paranormal. In fact, the author has me swallowing the psychic angle with nary a skeptical thought entering my mind.

While I enthusiastically endorse Touching Evil, it is not a book for everybody. For one thing, this story earned my graphic violence rating. The very nature of the rapist’s crimes is a real stomach churner, and one of the victims in particular is a real gut-wrencher. There’s also a little unfinished business regarding Maggie’s half-brother, another talented artist with a “knack.” Since this is the first book in a new trilogy, I’m hoping the author isn’t quite finished with him yet.

Hooper fans will be happy to note that this new series is loosely connected to her earlier Shadows trilogy (hence John’s FBI agent friend), with Noah Bishop’s FBI task force playing a big part in the investigation (although Bishop himself only makes a brief appearance).

Hooper has been moving away from straight-up romance for the last several years, and if she keeps churning about books like this, I seriously doubt her fans will have any problems with it. If the New York Times Bestsellers List is any indication, this author is moving up in the world, with plenty of readers ready to follow along for the ride.

+++++

Wendy Looks Back: Readers often talk about "losing themselves" in a good book and that was exactly the case here - my first read immediately following the events of September 11, 2001 in the US.  I was not that far removed from my college days in western New York and had many friends living in the City.  It was a very tense time, full of worry, and this book got me through it.  It would be hard to label this one a "comfort read" given the content, but having grown up as a mystery reader prior to getting hooked on romance - that's kind of what this story did for me.  It took me back to my teenage years of cruising my small town public library looking for new mystery authors to try.

Hooper, of course, has since gone on to enjoy mainstream success - routinely showing up on bestseller lists and publishing in hard cover.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Reminder: TBR Challenge for September

For those of you participating in the 2014 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, September 17.  This month's theme is Recommended Read.  This one should be easy!  A book recommended by someone - a close, personal friend, an online bud, a blogger, a review you stumbled across on GoodReads late one night etc.  However, remember - the themes are totally optional and are not required.  Maybe you've got your heart set on reading that book that you impulse bought because the description sounded good. It's not important what you read, just that you pull something (anything!) out of the TBR pile.

To learn more about the challenge and see a list of participants, please see the information page.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Call For Swag Plus H&H

Because my summer wasn't busy enough, I've decided to pack my calender this fall as well.  I've got several library programs coming up, including one on October 11 at a small branch for my former employer.

The topic du jour will be new and upcoming romance releases, plus what is hot and trendy at the moment.  I thought it might be fun to offer up some swag for attendees.  So romance authors - if you have swag you'd like to unload (and if you have a recent or fall release, even better!) please e-mail me if you're interested in sending me some goodies.  Again, the program is October 11, and the last time I did a program at this location about a dozen folks showed up.  So really, I wouldn't need a ton of stuff.  Well, except for maybe bookmarks.  I'm sure the library would love any leftover bookmarks.

+++++

In other news, I've had two posts go live over at Heroes & Heartbreakers.  First, my monthly round-up of unusual historicals - which Holy Hannah, Samhain decided to publish several westerns this past month.  Huzzah!

And speaking of westerns - I've got a First Look of the latest Rosanne Bittner offering, Desperate Hearts.  This isn't a traditional review, per se - more like an extended glimpse of what the story is about.  For me, personally, it wasn't one of Bittner's finer offerings.  It was one of those City Gal Heads To Middle Of Nowhere And Has No Clue What She's Gotten Herself Into stories - and honestly, I'm just not a fan of those.  I read westerns to get away from heroines like that, so this read like an extended Rescue Fantasy to me and.....meh.  But if you like that sort of plot - then certainly worth a look.  In the meantime, I'm looking forward to next summer when Sourcebooks will be reprinting one of Bittner's Old School meaty sagas, Outlaw Hearts.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Little Miss Crabby Pants Gets Her Pious Panties In A Bunch

When it comes to sensuality in romance novels I am a reader who will read the gamut.  Everything from just kisses to the filthiest, naughtiest sexy times you can imagine.  Books that my pious dead grandmother would find appropriate, and books that would cause said pious grandmother to stroke out if she weren't already dead.

When it comes to "the naughty bits" - I don't discriminate.  I like logical behavior and consenting adults.  Really, that's about it.  Give me those things, whether it's a "gentle" story or massive orgies involving hanging upside down from chandeliers - I'll judge the books pretty much the same way.  Did I like these people?  Do I feel like they belong together?  Did I get lost in the story?  

As much as I've "judged" books over the years, I've tried never to judge The Reader.  Readers read romance for a variety of reasons.  The reason I read the genre isn't necessarily "the right reason" or even "the only reason."  Plus you need to factor in personal baggage.  As much as readers talk about getting "lost" in a story - we never go into any story totally alone.  No, we're dragging a couple steamer trunks of personal junk along with us.  There is nothing wrong with this.  We're human.  No matter how hard we try, we will never forget ourselves entirely.  Which is why I always say that "relating" to a character is hogwash.  Make me understand the character(s), and you've got me.  I'll follow an author straight off a cliff if they make me "understand" the character(s).

Which brings me to inspirational romance.  When describing myself I would have to say I'm not a religious person.  Which begs the question of why I read the occasional inspirational romance.  It's pretty much the same reason I read category romance.  Sometimes I just want the romance.  I want a strong focus on "the relationship."  Sometimes I just want a nice story about nice people.  And inspirationals can give that to me.  Nice story, nice people, and common themes that play well into religious overtones without preaching from the pulpit.  For example, I've read many an inspirational where forgiveness and redemption are common themes.  I find these compelling as a reader, and while they play well into a religious world view, they are understandable and relatable to readers who don't necessarily believe in a higher power.  In other words, when done right, inspirationals can be life affirming without truckloads of endless preaching and spoon-feeding doctrine to readers.

I thought I'd never say this, but now I'm wondering if my reasons for reading inspirationals is "wrong." OK, maybe not "wrong" per se, but just a completely different reason other than why 99.9% of hardcore inspirational readers read them.

A perfect example of what I'm running up against happened to me this past weekend.  I'm in the midst of contest judging so cannot name the book outright, but in broad strokes - it's a historical mail-order bride story.  Literally, in the first chapter, the couple is married.  M-A-R-R-I-E-D.  As in, holy matrimony.  So the conflict is, essentially, that they are strangers and married.  Got it?  So being married, the couple does have sex.  Now, this being an inspriational, the sex is behind closed doors - but the couple is attracted to each other.  They have "feelings."  They feel desire for each other.

I'm thinking this is a good thing, right?  I mean, characters in romance novels who aren't eunuchs and/or dead below the waist are always a good thing.  Sex is part of the human condition.  I mean, God wants us to be fruitful and multiple, right?  And if you believe in God, and God gave us sex, how can sex (especially sex between a consenting married couple who have the hots for each other) be a bad thing?

But apparently I'm barking up the wrong tree.  Here are samples of some reviews I came across for this particular book.
"Throughout there is too much information behind their private doors."
Really?  I must have missed the part where Vin Scully strode in the bedroom and started giving readers the play-by-play.
"However, the endless descriptions of the couple’s passionate moments were way, way too much in this novel. It got in the way of the overall story a lot."
The irony being that I was bored with a lot of the other "stuff" in this story and was really struck by the fact that the author chose to portray an intimate married couple without being graphic.  Go figure.
"There was a little too much intimacy in the book to suit my personal reading preferences so I was a little disappointed in this book. Maybe there should have been a little pre-wedding story before the wedding."
So newlyweds being attracted to each other and doing what newlyweds do all while the author is giving us the G-rated rundown is "too much."  Got it.  
"Not that it was as bad as mainstream smut, but, it was way too much in my opinion. It didn't feel like a clean read at all..."
Words.  Fail.  ::headdesk::

So, let me see if I understand the issue here.  We have a married couple (M-A-R-R-I-E-D) who have the hots for each other and have G-rated sex behind closed doors.  The "passionate moments" are essentially heated looks, teasing banter, and the characters embracing.

And yet this is apparently "bad."

In which case I hope none of these women ever set foot in the Bat Cave and accidentally stumble across my collection of Black Lace novels.  I'd probably find myself the subject of an exorcism.  Or as the lead in a reenactment of the Salem Witch Trials.  Either one = Not. Good.

Romance readers are often labelled as wanting to escape into a Fantasy Land because they can't handle "real life."  Yes, some readers do read romance for escapism (I don't - but I also don't feel like there's anything wrong with "escapism" - hey, whatever floats your boat).  Some readers like that emotional connection that romance gives to them.  Emotions are universal human conditions.  We all can understand hate, anger, joy, happiness etc.  Romance offers that immediate buy-in.  Then there is this business of "falling in love."  A lot of us have done it, but it's never uniform.  How one couple "falls in love" can be (and often is) totally different from most other couples on the planet.  Love may be universal, but it's also a tad mysterious.  It's not one size fits all.  You can't bottle it.  That's why it's so freakin' fantastic to read about.  Yes, in romance, the characters fall in love.  But they don't necessarily fall in love the exact same way as the couples that came before them.

 Like all romance sub genres, I think inspirationals offer these things too.  But these comments I keep running up against in some inspirational reviews begs the question:

What do inspirational readers want?  

And for that matter - do I really want an answer to that question?  (Probably not)

Because honestly, I'm starting to wonder.  If it's not OK for a married couple to feel desire for each other - well I'm sorry, I don't know who to feel more sorry for: the women leaving these kinds of review comments or.....their husbands.

And yes, I just went there.

I refuse to believe that I shouldn't be reading inspirational romances and I refuse to believe that I'm wrong for reading them for the reasons that I do.  I've always said that I read romances because I believe in the heroine.  I believe she can be the hero of her own story.  I believe she deserves happiness.  And by extension, women in real life deserve happiness.  They should be allowed to control their own destinies.  They should be allowed to feel desire, to be open in their sexuality, to revel in being A Woman.  And then I read comments like the above in reviews for inspirational romances and I think, "If married women aren't allowed to be sexual and feel desire for their husbands, what are we left with?"

Yeah, a big steaming pile of No Thank You Ma'am.

So who is the problem here?  I refuse to believe I am the problem - because this is my blog and I'm always right on my blog.  I refuse to believe that an inspirational author writing about the feelings and desires of a married couple is wrong.  And while I try very hard to never tell another reader what they should feel, what they should think, and that yes, they are allowed to their own opinion - this is one instance where I want to stand on top of a desk, give my patented Librarian Death Stare and say....

Madam, you are wrong.

But instead I'll settle for blogging it.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Status Update: Lemon Drop And The Case Of Too Many Books

So I haven't blogged in over a week and I'm several months behind now in my "monthly recap" posts.

Oh look!  Here's a recent photo of Lemon Drop!

Suitably distracted by the cuteness?  OK, good.  Mission accomplished.

This photo was taken post-RWA when I made a quick weekend jaunt to Casa de Lemon Drop (oh, and Lil' Sis) to help them out with some projects.  Lemon Drop decided she wanted to see how the world looked through Auntie Wendy's glasses.

The answer is: blurry.  Very, very blurry.  Auntie Wendy is darn near blind without prescription help.

So what's been going on to keep me away from blogging?  Mostly Real Life stuff.  Nothing "bad" - just been really busy.  And on top of the Real Life busy-ness, I'm in the throes of Contest Reading.

Yep, I'm doing contest judging again.  Which means getting nine books read before the end of September.  The good news is that I'm making progress.  I started book #6 today.  The bad news?  Well, anyone who has judged writing contests will surely know.  So far the books have ranged from Unreadable (In My Opinion) to This Is OK to OMGWTFBBQ Plot Is This?! But Hey, The Author Can Write So This Is Readable Even If It Is OMGWTFBBQ Plot.

It's reminding me a lot of how I judged this same contest last year.  There were several books that made me Wendy Mad Wendy Smash angry - but down the stretch I found some Very Good Reads.  And the books I still have to go through do look very promising.  So there is hope.

I'm also painfully, dreadfully behind on review books.  And I'm checking out books via work that I've stumbled across that sound really good.  Because, you know, I need more to read.  Blessedly it's a holiday weekend here in the States and my Tigers are slowly falling off the cliff.  So maybe I won't spend the whole weekend watching baseball after all and actually get some reading done.

There's hope anyway.

So, what's everybody up to this weekend?  And are you reading anything good?  Because, you know, I need more to read.....

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

TBR Challenge 2014: Digital Review: Soloplay

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B004X2ADGC/themisaofsupe-20
The Book: Soloplay by Miranda Baker

The Particulars: Erotic romance, digital-only, book two in series, 2011, Samhain

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?:  When some authors "recommend" books I treat it like "white noise."  But then there are some authors who genuinely recommend books and I actually believe them.  Which is how this book landed in my digital TBR - it was recommended by Jill Sorenson.

The Review: Remember when erotic romance was fun?  Yeah, me too.  The last couple of steamy offerings I've read have featured protective, dominant possessive Alpha-hole "heroes."  Reading one story featuring such a character device is more than enough for me - try reading two in a row.  Yeah, I missed "fun" sex.  Seriously authors, sex is supposed to be fun.  And if it's not fun?  Your characters are doing it wrong.

Ahem.

Which brings me to this book.  Stay with me here folks, I'm well aware this plot description sounds like a hot mess rolled into a migraine from Hell, but trust me.

Alisa Mane is a frustrated librarian who has never had an orgasm.  Her latest disastrous attempt has the guy accusing her of being frigid and leaving in a huff.  Alisa is hurt, embarrassed and then gets really angry.  Why can't she "get there?"  So she decides to do what any good librarian would do - research.  There's an upscale, and discreet, sex toy shop not far from where she works.  She'll just go there, peruse the offerings, and see if she can solve her dilemma the old fashioned way - with something battery operated.

A gal who works at the shop, Crystal, helps Alisa start to find her groove thang.  Mores the pity that Crystal is a lesbian and Alisa likes men.  But never fear!  Crystal has an idea.  SoloPlay is looking to expand their line of quality toys and needs beta testers.  Alisa signs on and boy howdy!  She hasn't had this much fun in....well, ever.

Mark Winters owns SoloPlay and this new line of original products is his baby.  And SoloGirl (code name for Alisa) is the best product tester ever.  She picks nothing but winners.  Her critiques of the products are spot on.  Which means now that Mark wants to test his DoublePlay products?  He wants her to sign on.  But for that - he needs to find her and her partner.  The fly in the ointment being she's not all that happy to be found and she has no partner.  Well, until she propositions him....

What I enjoyed so much about this story is that Alisa doesn't behave like countless erotic romance heroines who have come (ha!) before her.  When her ex accuses her of being frigid, she doesn't take his word as gospel.  Oh sure, she knows something isn't right - but she doesn't automatically jump to the conclusion that she's "broken."  She goes about fixing herself and she has wonderful orgasms prior to meeting Mark in the flesh.

Can I get an amen!

The crux of the conflict is part ethics, part product testing.  Mark finding his best beta tester and then agreeing to test products with her should be all sorts of squirky, but somehow manages not to be.  Then there's the issue that as Mark and Alisa are falling for each other, they both think the other one is only there for SoloPlay, the money, the free sex toys, etc.  Once the testing is done they both have to take the risk, take a leap of faith, and really talk to each other.  To share parts of themselves that go beyond getting naked and kinky with all sorts of party favors.

This is a perfect example of when a story finds you at just the right time.  Yes, the plot sounds silly.  Yes, the sexually frustrated librarian heroine who has never had The Big O should get on my last hot nerve.  Yes, the ethical and business issues should have pushed me right over the edge.  And yet?  No, no, and no they didn't.  This was a quick, fun read that reminded me that not all erotic romance is over the top angst featuring idiot a-hole heroes who fancy themselves as Doms while looking to pull the wool over some silly 20-something-girl's eyes by selling her a You're-A-Sub bill of goods.

Download SoloPlay now and tag it "break glass in case of emergency."

Final Grade = B