Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Gunslinger

A new Lorraine Heath western!  Well, sort of.  The Gunslinger was previously published in a shorter format in the To Tame A Texan anthology back in 1999.  The author expanded it a bit (to just over 100 pages) and Avon has reissued it under their Impulse banner.  It has some of the hallmarks that I come to expect from a Heath western but ultimately fell short for me thanks to a too big plot in too small a word count.

Chance Wilder is no hero.  He's a world-weary, soulless gunslinger.  He's not the fastest draw in the west, but he is deadly accurate.  He's sitting with his back to the wall in yet another series of endless saloons when a young boy comes running in sporting a bloody, broken nose.  His older sister is getting harassed by some local thugs, and having heard that a famed gunslinger was in town, Toby offers the man everything he owns to save his sister.  Chance agrees and ends up saving Lillian Madison from nearly being raped by shooting her assailant between the eyes.  However she's not terribly pleased that he just killed a man, and she's really not pleased when it turns out Chance was also wounded and she needs to nurse him back to health.  Close proximity and the added complications of why Chance was in town in the first place round out the conflict.

The whole time I was reading this I couldn't help thinking, why not expand it to a full length novel?  Because ultimately that is the sticking point here.  There's a lot of potential for angst here that is defused and a lot of complicated emotions that are left unexplored.  This is especially a determent to the heroine, who suffers because of the shorter word count.  Her reaction post-almost-rape is no reaction.  It's like nothing happened to her.  In fact her only reaction is to be Miss Prissy Pants that Chance killed a man.  Never mind that that the man had a legacy of harassing her and was two seconds away from raping her.  She eventually does have a breakdown moment where it finally seems to hit her, what almost happened to her, and what did happen to her, but it's a brief moment that quickly goes away after Chance holds her.

Likewise Chance has a very intriguing back-story, and while I wanted more of it, there is enough here to make hero-centric readers quite happy.  There's also a villain lurking in the background (other than the dead rapist) who wants to push Lil off her land.  This is pretty compelling conflict despite the fact that it wouldn't exist if Lil wasn't so blindly prideful.  Telling the villain the truth, instead of perpetuating rumors and lies, would have solved all her problems.  But noooooo, why ever would she want to do that?!

Everything is, naturally, right as rain in the end - which leads to another issue.  It's a very Sunshine Merry Sue Rainbow ending.  One I probably would have loved in a longer, full-length novel, but in the shorter novella length?  It strains.  The villain naturally sees the error of his ways, after Chance spills the beans (not Lil - because of course!), and the epilogue is suitably sappy with Chance's family estrangement getting blissfully swept under the rug.

It was nice, and it was OK - but man, it could have been better.  As it stands as a novella, Lil suffered and I never warmed up to her.  Chance fares better, but his past is so dark and black I have a hard time buying into a happy ending for him (mostly because every two-bit, would-be gunslinger would come gunning for him looking to make a name for themselves - but whatever).  Toby was a real charmer however and the strongest take-away from this story for me.  Of course it's hard to not be charmed by a boy who hires a gunslinger to protect his sister and offers him "everything" he owns.  Which includes his lucky penny, a good length of string, and a rusty harmonica.  Seriously, how could you not fall in love with that kid?

Final Grade = C+

Friday, July 18, 2014

H&H, RWA and Book Orgy

My latest round-up of Unusual Historicals has posted over at Heroes & Heartbreakers.  These are all July releases, and the inaugural list featuring a new format (Megan wanted to me to add some footnotes after the blurbs - and I think it turned out nice!).

A couple of notes: I mistakenly omitted Trapped at the Altar by Jane Feather because the nondescript cover and back cover blurb gave me NO indication that it was set during the Restoration.  Also, The Mistress of Normandy by Susan Wiggs is a reprint with a new title folks.  I know, I was devastated too.  I really was hoping she had churned out a new historical.  But The Lily and the Leopard has been out of print for eons, so if you don't have it this is a good chance to score it now (plus digital edition! yippee!).


So RWA is next week and I feel like I've done nothing to get ready for it.  Somehow my dance card filled up rather alarmingly this year.  This might turn out to be the busiest RWA for me since 2011, which was Librarian of the Year year (which was borderline insanity).  If you'd like to find me next week, here are a few places I'll be:

  • Librarians Day on Wednesday, July 23.  I'm actually not speaking this year, so I'll be in the audience chillin'.  
  • The hotel bar probably every free moment, but especially after the Literacy Signing.  No formal Blogger Bash this year since I'm thinking there isn't a need for one.  I mean, hello?  We're always in the bar anyway, right?

Saturday, July 26th 2:00PM-3:00PM
Picture Them in Their Underwear: Expanding Your Audience with Speaking Engagements
Speakers: Sarah M. Anderson, Me!, and Melissa Jolly
Expand your career and build your audience by adding “speaker” to your resume. Join an award-winning author, the 2011 RWA Librarian of the Year, and an assistant to several best-selling authors to learn how to find your audience, craft a pitch, book and schedule an engagement, promote your event and, most importantly, become a more confident speaker.
Take pity on us folks and come to our panel.  Yes, I know it's the afternoon before the RITA ceremony, but you do not want to miss our giveaways, awesome Powerpoint (visual aids!) and I'm pretty confident that the information we'll impart to the audience will change their lives.  Change. Your. Lives.  Seriously.  How could it not?

I'm also making the party circuit Friday evening (glad they're all kind of in the same general area), so I'll be floating around hopefully not wearing shoes that will leave me hobbled before my workshop on Saturday.


In reading update news: I've been on a frenzy lately but I'm still behind because I overextended myself on review books considerably.  They're all books I'm happy to read and review since they sounded interesting to me, it's just this pesky problem of having to work for a living.  Darn it!  Authors who sent me stuff: I promise, I'm working on them.  Truly.

I probably should stop blogging and start reading huh?  Yeah.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

TBR Challenge 2014: Always To Remember

Original Jove Cover - Blah
The Book: Always to Remember by Lorraine Heath

The Particulars: Historical romance, Jove, 1996, Out of Print, Available Digitally (reissued by Harpercollins)

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?:  This used to be the Holy Grail for western historical romance fans and like all HG's, you had to cough up a kidney and/or sell an ovary to get your hands on a used copy.  I eventually did - I think scoring it via an online romance bud.  In 1997 this won the RITA for Best Short Historical.  My print copy clocks in at 323 pages while the Harpercollins digital edition claims to be only 100 pages (which makes no sense - but there you have it.)

The Review:  Hype is a dangerous thing.  The vast majority of the time when a book is hyped it's pretty much doomed to be a meh read for me.  But this book?  This book.  I just can't even people.  This is an instance where the hype sells the book short.  It's that good.  Drop everything, call in sick to work, tell the kids someone better be on fire before they bother you - this is squee'worthy awesome-sauce every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Cedar Grove, Texas gave it's young men to the Confederacy.  The only men left in town are old and bitter or young and bitter (having been too young to join the war and fight for the Glorious Cause).  Meg Warner gave up more than most.  Three brothers and her husband.  Gone.  Killed at Gettysburg.  Buried in a mass grave.  As a constant reminder to all that she and the town has lost?  The coward Clayton Holland.  He grew up with their sons and husbands but instead of standing by them, of going off to war with them, he refused to pick up a rifle.  He refused to serve.  While their loved ones marched off to die Clayton Holland the coward was hauled off by Confederate soldiers, condemned to die, but somehow weaseled out of even doing that.  Now he's back in town, working his parents' farm with his three younger brothers.  Meg cannot abide this man.  Her hatred bleeds off the page and she wants Clay to suffer - to suffer more than she has and does.  His father used to cut stone, having done most of the tombstones in town.  Clay learned at his knee.  What better way to make him suffer than to have him carve a monument to all of the town's fallen heroes.  As he works on that monument, as he toils on it, the weight of his cowardliness will crush his very soul.  Revenge complete.

Except, of course, it doesn't work that way.  Meg may have grown up with Clay but that doesn't mean she knows him.  He readily agrees to create the monument, and to exact her revenge, to take joy in every ounce of his suffering, she spends most of her free time supervising his progress.  But as naturally happens in romance novels?  The more time she spends with him, the more she sees how amazingly wrong she and the rest of the town are about Clay.  Turns out they don't know the first thing about courage and what it means to be truly brave.

Awesome book, two awful covers.
A large reason why I love historical westerns is that the sub genre plays nicely into universal themes that I find particularly compelling.  Heath explores the ideas of courage and bravery throughout this story.  Clay doesn't fight, but that makes him far from a coward.  Of course the town, swallowed by their grief, cannot see or understand that.  Clay is the quintessential western hero.  The man who stands up for what he believes in.  The man who does what is right, always.  It may not be popular.  It damn well could get him killed.  But he's not a man who will turn tail and run even when running would be the easiest thing in the world to do.

Meg is spiteful and hateful and you totally understand why.  She's young.  She's pretty.  And the war took everything from her.  She loved her husband.  She sent him off to war with tears in her eyes and fervent prayers for his return.  He never did, and neither did her three brothers.  The war nearly killed her spirit.  Her desire, her hatred, for Clay feeds her.  Slowly but surely that veil is lifted from her eyes, and then that's when the test of real courage comes into play.  Because she has fallen in love with a man whose reputation will surely drag her down like a sinking ship.  Does she have the courage, faith in both Clay and their love for each other to make a stand?

Heath has written some very good books.  Of her westerns in particular I've read books ranging from "It was OK" to "Keeper! Keeper! Keeper!"  But this book?  I know she's still writing.  I know she's probably got a lot of stories left in her.  But this book?  This book is a masterpiece.  It's a triumph.  I know authors who would start sacrificing virgins if the outcome was creating a story like this one.  It's that good.  I'm ordering all of you to read it right now.  Right.  Now.

Final Grade = A

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Digital Review: Men Of Smithfield: Sam And Aaron

Disclaimer: I know LB Gregg.  I'm friends with LB Gregg.  In fact I fully expect to spend an exorbitant amount of time in the hotel bar with her at RWA San Antonio throwing back a few glasses of vino.  Also, this book is dedicated to me.  I'm not sure how I feel about having a book being dedicated to me when the secondary character of the town librarian is 1) old and 2) a battle ax but hey - at least she's awesome.  I want to be an awesome old battle ax librarian if I ever grow up.

You know what I'm a total sucker for?  Romances featuring nice people.  People who may have agendas, may have their own personal baggage, but at the end of the day are nice people.  That's what LB Gregg has given readers with her fictional New England town of Smithfield.  Everybody in this town is nice.  Really, really nice.  The heroes are nice, their families are nice - Gregg's world is like an m/m version of a Karen Templeton "straight" category romance.

Sam Meyers and his sister Wynne run Smithfield's Bed & Breakfast.  They inherited the place when their grandfather died.  Sam spend his childhood learning at Granddad's knee which means 1) he can fix darn near anything and 2) has never left town.  Ever.  The guy hasn't even been on an airplane.  Life is passing him by.  The few gay men that live in town are all blissfully paired up and since Sam doesn't leave town?  Yeah, he's single.  Shockers.  That is until he heads to the library late one evening to return some overdue books (Oh Sam, how could you?).  Trying to free his cell phone from the book drop (oops), he spies someone lurking around inside the building.  After hours.  A someone who in no way looks like Mrs. Strauss.  Turns out it's Aaron Saunders, visiting from California (as if breaking and entering didn't already make him a suspect - he's from CALIFORNIA!).  Sam doesn't care how sexy the guy is, he's a sneak and up to no good.  Of course only Sam thinks he's up to no good while Wynne is more than happy to cut him a deal to stay at the B&B at extremely generous off-season rates.

And that would be the crux of the conflict for this category-length story.  Aaron is in town for mysterious reasons, has secrets, and Sam cannot help but be curious (and attracted).  These two rub each other in all the right, and wrong, ways.  The secondary players round things out and give our couple more chances to get thrown together.  Sister Wynne fancies herself a Food Network wannabe and has devised weekly "date night" cooking classes hoping to drum up more business for the struggling B&B.  There's BFF Claire who thinks Sam needs to get laid (she wouldn't be wrong), plus the variety of town denizens that have popped up in previous Smithfield stories.  I've read exactly one other Smithfield book (the first one, Mark and Tony) and had no problem keeping up when the series-itis creeps in.  Again, everybody is so darn nice that I'm going back to add the stories I missed to my digital TBR.

Written in first person (for the record, I love me first person - sneer all you want naysayers), the story isn't without a few bumps along the way, but charming all the same.  There were a few instances where I would have liked a few added pages by way of fleshing out story and conflict.  I also felt that when Sam finally gets wind of why Aaron is really in town?  He's way too slow to shake the truth out of him.  It borders on slightly icky.  As the reader I knew there was going to be a reasonable explanation (and there is), but Sam not putting his foot down immediately and demanding answers before partaking in more Naughty Sexy Times with Aaron is just.....well, kinda icky.

But it's supposed to be fun, charming, and kind of like the m/m off-shoot of chick lit.  Which, you know, it is.  I'm not supposed to take it deadly serious, so I don't.  And now I want to move to Smithfield.  Hey, Mrs. Strauss is old.  Certainly she'll die soon, right?

Final Grade = B-

Friday, July 11, 2014

Time Of Possession

World-building is something that is discussed frequently among romance readers.  Yeah, we're in it for the romance, the characters, the happy ending - but a good book, a solid book, is going to transport us to another reality.  When the world-building is solid, more often than not it adds to the strength of the characterizations.

Where Jami Davenport has succeeded with her Seattle Lumberjacks (American football) series is with the world-building.  I've liked some of the romances better than others, but man - I get sucked into the world every single time.  The author does a good job with the "football stuff" without info-dumping a bunch of "inside baseball" jargon in the text.  My issues with sports romances and athlete main characters is typically when the sport, a very important aspect of that character's life, is either dismissed entirely (Why yes I am Super Hunky Quarterback but it's not like I need to watch film, practice, be at the training facility at all hours of the day - I have plenty of time to screw your brains out!) or is addressed and just flat-out wrong (research is thy friend).

Davenport has avoided these pitfalls.  Her heroes have jobs, so we see them working at it while trying to juggle the romance.  They talk like guys, act like guys, and the football stuff has a nice, authentic feel.  What I love about her football heroes is that they remind me of guys who could be playing in the league.  Brett Gunnels, hero in Time Of Possession is a career back-up quarterback, drafted dead last (Mr. Irrelevant), and is constantly downgraded because he's "too short."  He's like Frank Reich, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and every back-up who sat behind Brett Favre in Green Bay rolled into one.  And naturally he lands in the soup when the starting quarterback gets knocked out for the rest of the season and he finds himself getting distracted by the guy's very attractive, and already engaged, sister (our heroine).

I read this story for a First Look over at Hero & Heartbreakers - a post to make all you football geeks swoon.  On the Wendy Scale, I rated it a B-.  I loved Brett, I loved Estie, I loved their romance - heck I even loved all the pets they had running around in this story.  My only quibble was that the author may have bit off more conflict than the story could contain - namely Brett's past military service, which sometimes got lost in the shuffle.  Still, it was a very enjoyable read that once again sucked me back into Davenport's world.  If you like sports romances you really, really need to be reading this series.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Reminder: TBR Challenge for July

For those of you participating in the 2014 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, July 16.  This month's theme is Lovely Rita (past RITA winners or nominees).  I have links to past winners and nominees (for several years) on the TBR Challenge page (listed next to July under the monthly schedule).  However, remember - the themes are totally optional and are not required.  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.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Digital Review: It Had To Be You

There are certain key words that can crop up on back cover blurbs that cause my brain to freeze up.  It Had To Be You by Delynn Royer threw up a big road block for me when the heroine is described as an "heiress" who dreams of being a "crime reporter."  Seriously, this book could have been a hot mess.  Thankfully the 1920s New York City backdrop was enough to hook me and I'm glad I gave this story a whirl.  It's not without issues, but it was an agreeable way to spend some time.

Trixie Frank's father owns a chain of super successful five and dime stores.  She could rest on her laurels, she could play the part of party-girl heiress, but Trixie has ambitions.  She wants to be a crime reporter.  Through luck and pluck she did land herself one big story at her former paper and parlayed that into a job with the New York Morning Examiner, an up-and-coming tabloid.  Unfortunately her new job has landed her on the rewrite desk and when she does get a story of her own to cover?  Yeah, it's the holiday parade interviewing Santa Claus.  However as luck would have it, she has an altercation with a young street kid who tries to steal her purse.  Trixie smells a story, so gives the kid her makeshift business card.  When that same card turns up next to the body of a dead mobster, well Trixie is in the soup now.

Sean Costigan is a cop on the wrong side of the current political tide within the department.  Sean comes from a family a cops, and his uncle had a reputation for being incorruptible.  But times change, the men in power change, dear old uncle was forced out and has since passed on.  Which means Sean with his last name is trying to claw his way back into favor.  He knew Johnny from the old neighborhood, which is why he's working the dead mobster case despite his current falling out of favor.  He also has a history with the man's missing wife, a gal from the neighborhood that Sean used to be engaged to before she threw him over.  The business card on the scene leads him to Trixie, who in turn leads him to the missing street kid who just may have witnessed the crime.  But in order to crack the case he needs to find the kid, figure out who he can trust, and scratch Trixie's back if he expects her to scratch his.

This was a fun read that featured a pretty solid mystery.  It's 1924 New York City, so we're knee deep in Prohibition, gangsters and corrupt cops.  The author twists and turns the plot and did a solid job of keeping me guessing until the end.  I liked that Trixie was smart and thought quick on her feet without running off half-cocked playing "girl reporter."  Sean puzzles things out, does get his head turned a bit by his past, but yet is smart enough to not trust everything everyone tries to sell him on.

The writing style does get a little lumpy in spots, mostly when the author relies on telling over showing.  There are instances where events take place "off page" and the author relays them to the reader through the characters' internal monologues.  A good example of this is when Trixie's apartment is broken into.  Sean decides to do a stakeout and uncovers who is behind the break-in.  Instead of being with Sean as he is "doing" this?  He relays it to the reader after the fact and the actual uncovering of the culprit takes place "off page."  It defuses the tension and stalls the momentum of the suspense thread.

Writing quibbles aside, this was an enjoyable light mystery with strong romantic elements.  A good bet for cozy mystery fans, historical mystery fans, or historical romance fans looking for something not set in Regency England.  Royer could easily morph this into a series featuring further adventures of Sean and Trixie.  Here's hoping she does.

Final Grade = B-