Sunday, January 29, 2023

Mini-Reviews: Suspense Round-Up

While my reading mojo has been pretty decent for the start of 2023, my blogging mojo is still on life support. I used to be the girl who would write up to three blog posts a week and these days getting one done feels a bit like climbing Mt. Everest. So in a bid to not let this blog stagnant, plus provide proof that I have been reading, it's time for another round of mini-reviews - the all suspense edition!

Monkey in the Middle
by Loren D. Estleman is the 30th book in the author's Amos Walker series, which began back in 1980. Amos was old school back then, which means in a modern digital age he's practically a dinosaur. I've got a thing for hardboiled PI types working "the mean streets" and Amos' beat is Detroit - which is a pitch perfect setting for crime novels given that the truth is usually more bizarre and corrupt than any fiction writer could cook up.  This time out Amos is hired (sort of) by a greener than grass would-be journalist who is in way over his head with an on-the-run government whistleblower. Complicating matters for Amos are a bestselling author with connections to the case, a media savvy (and hungry) defense attorney, and an assassin who Amos has a history with. Oh, and his ex-wife just passed away. 

I read Estleman for the writing (the man can turn a phrase) and the world-building. I stay to see how many jabs he can take at the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Lions.  This was a really solid read that kept me guessing and, per usual, I was sucked into Amos' world.  Then I got to the ending, which just didn't work for me. Out of the all the possible whodunits, Estleman went with the one that made the least amount of sense to me. I just didn't "get" the motive - and I'm a tidy reader who likes motive.  Also, by book #30 it's expected that stand-alone might be a bridge too far, but I've hop-scotched around this series so there was some series baggage here I didn't entirely "get." I still understood what was happening and who people were, but I think that aspect will work better for folks caught up on the series.

Final Grade = B-

Ghost 19 by Simone St. James is a novella that released on audio back in October 2022, and was published in eBook this month. I'm a major St. James fangirl and couldn't believe I lost track of the audio debut, and not wanting to wait for the eBook that's the format I went with.

Meh. I was disappointed in this.  St. James employs the slightly unhinged heroine trope which I've made no bones about admitting to the entire world I REALLY DO NOT LIKE IN SUSPENSE NOVELS I WANT ALL THE COMPETENT HEROINES GIVE THEM TO ME NOW!  

Ahem.  Anyway.  It's 1959 and middling actress Ginette Cox leaves New York City on the advice of her doctor who suggests she needs less "excitement" in her life. She rents a house upstate where she takes to watching her new neighbors a la Hitchcock's Rear Window. She's not in residence at 19 Howard Avenue for long when she starts hearing unearthly noises coming from the basement.  Oh, and she's trapped - she literally cannot leave the house. Is it a ghost or is it her own madness?

Look, I'm not a complete dunderhead. I get what St. James was doing with the whole misogyny late 1950s "hysterical" woman living an unconventional life society disapproves of thing - but I just couldn't with Ginette. She annoyed me. Oh and did I mention this mess of nerves somehow bags a man at the end of the book? The ghost story was suitably creepy and the crime compelling in a heinous way - but otherwise this left me cold. 

Final Grade = C-

Death by Smoothie
by Laura Levine is the 19th book in the increasingly problematic Jaine Austen cozy series. Much like Stephanie Plum, these books follow a distinct pattern: 1) wacky antics by Jaine's parents who live in a condo community in Florida 2) Jaine's "mean girl" next door neighbor and Neiman Marcus shoe salesman, Lance, will be snide to her 3) Jaine's cat, Prozac, will get up to hijinks that taxes her patience 4) a dating disaster of epic proportions and 5) Jaine's incredibly unhealthy relationship with food and various food related jokes.

This time out Jaine lands a job as a script doctor for a new play based on the cult classic TV show, I Married a Zombie. The producer is a geek obsessed with the TV show and he and his equally geeky girlfriend are calling the shots. It's a dismal script, but it's a well-paying job and as a freelancer Jaine can't be picky. She starts second-guessing her choices though when Misty arrives on the scene and is cast in the lead role despite the fact that she's a terrible actress and more so a terrible person. Everyone (justifiably) hates her guts, but it's still a shock when her like-clockwork 3PM smoothie is poisoned.  Now everyone in the production is a suspect and it's up to Jaine to find the real murderer.

Look, I start each new book in this series knowing exactly what I'm going to get - which is why I picked up this entry when I did (after a particularly gut-wrenching romance read).  I wanted mindless brain candy fluff and that's what this book delivered. Also, Levine has a knack for keeping the mystery humming along, providing plenty of suspects and motives to choose from.  Unfortunately she chose poorly in this entry.  Nearly every secondary character has a reason to want Misty dead and yet the culprit is the one with the least believable motive of all.  Like, any other choice would have been better.  A solid entry that didn't stick the landing.

Final Grade = C

Monday, January 23, 2023

New Year, New Unusual Historicals for January 2023

Welcome to 2023, where the first month of the new year has zipped by in a flash and I'm struggling to find some blogging mojo - which to be fair has been a problem for a while. I can't really blame that on 2023. And while I'm officially one book behind in my GoodReads Challenge, I'm feeling OK about my reading at the moment even if I've only read one book that's knocked my socks off so far this month. I have been engaged and entertained though, so really what more could a girl ask for?  Well, how about new Unusual Historicals? The final months of 2022 were pretty slim on this front but there's several new January 2023 releases catching my eye...
An Alliance With His Enemy Princess by Lissa Morgan 
A royal decree

That will change their lives…

Norman knight Rolant Guyarde has come to conquer a Welsh fort, but when he meets its mistress, he realizes she’s the sword-wielding “soldier” he fought en route! Despite their being enemies, he finds himself intrigued by the brave, beautiful Princess Gwennan. When they’re forced into an uneasy alliance, Rolant helps her petition the king for her parents’ release from prison. But in exchange for their freedom, the king demands a price neither Rolant nor Gwennan expects!

If you're a fan of enemies-to-lovers you truly need to be reading medievals, because they're ripe for that trope.  Like her debut, which I read and enjoyed last year, Morgan sets her sophomore effort in Wales - which is not a terribly common setting in historical romance.  It also gives readers a fresh historical perspective to chew on outside of the England/Scotland settings that seem to proliferate in the sub genre.

The Lady Takes It All by Terri Brisbin (Kindle Unlimited)
When lies of the past are exposed, can love find the truth?

The Explorer – Joshua Robertson, a minor diplomat with distant noble connections, traveled the world in service to the Crown until he made his name with the amazing discovery of a buried Roman town in Northern Africa. However, rumors and innuendo threatened both his reputation and his work until he unexpectedly inherits a title and some lands from a distant relative. Now, protected by the title, no honorable man would raise the questions that plagued him from his past—questions about a partner who was cheated and never shared in the glory of the discoveries. Rumors of thievery and scandal and worse. Certainly, no man would, but a woman might. And does.

The Adversary -- Arabella MacGibbon spent her childhood watching her father’s decline and death because he was shamed and shunned as an impostor. Embittered and certain that the now-Lord cheated her father and contributed to his death, Arabella is determined to find proof of his perfidy and to reclaim her family’s honor. To do that, she must get close to the man and get access to his papers and records. Disguising her identity and being hired as his housekeeper may be the perfect opportunity to do it.

But what happens if the truth is inconvenient at best and dangerous at worst? Can her plan succeed if Arabella discovers there’s so much more to the man and the myth than she dreamt possible?
I think I've mentioned a time or two on this blog that I find Brisbin a very solid writer and I one-clicked this after I finished reading the blub. Yes, it's a Regency - but the hero is an explorer shrouded in scandal who hopes his new title will quiet the rumors and the heroine is the one out to avenge her father (so often it's the hero on these missions in historical romances...). Oh, and she's going to pose as a new housekeeper so she can snoop?  Can't wait to dive into this one...

Enjoy a Regency-set reimagining of the classic tale of Snow White, featuring a strong, lovable heroine and a sexy, charming hero.

Lord Harry Lysander, an infamous rake known as The Huntsman, is desperately in need of money. He’ll do anything to save his earldom. Even accept a pile of gold in exchange for breaking the heart—and ruining the reputation—of the ton’s most terrifying dragon’s innocent stepdaughter. As long as the Huntsman doesn’t lose his own heart to her in the process…

The page count on Amazon lists this at category romance length (185 pages) and yes it's a Regency, but it's also a Snow White retelling - and quite frankly that's a fairy tale trope you don't see every day in the genre where Beauty & the Beast and Cinderella seem to reign supreme.

One Night With Her Viking Warrior by Sarah Rodi
Her forbidden love

Is back to claim her!

Once, Lady Rebekah shared a life-changing night with stable hand Rædan, but he disappeared the morning after. Now she’s consort to a cruel Saxon lord, and when Northmen lay siege to Ryestone Keep, Rebekah’s shocked to see Rædan leading the charge! This Viking warrior is not the man she remembers…and yet she finds herself drawn to him again. Taken as his hostage, Rebekah must decide—can she trust him with her life…and her dangerous secret? 

So here's a neat spin on a Viking romance - the heroine is hooked up with the dude of the Keep the hero is laying siege to...oh, and the hero and heroine share a past. Captive romances are always a tricky business for me, but that shared past is (more than likely) going to make the proceedings all the more palpable for me. Oh, and the fact that the Saxon Lord in question is "cruel" won't hurt matters either.

To Lady Wilhelmina Bettesford, the “game” of finding a husband is a competitive sport she wants no part of…until her much-younger step mama forces her to play it. So when her stepmother asks sexy barrister Bram Townsend to pretend to woo the amateur astronomer to boost Wilhelmina’s popularity, it’s up to Wilhelmina to navigate a fake courtship that will keep the family from forcing her into a marriage—any marriage—before she finally receives the inheritance that will allow her to live as she wants.

The trouble is every time Bram takes her in his arms she has a most difficult time remembering theirs is an act…the make-believe passion feels very real indeed.

Bram Townsend is a man on the way up: living for his books and his beliefs. Squiring Lady Wilhelmina through London’s dusk-to-dawn social whirl is hardly an ordeal—she’s beautiful, bright, and bold, everything he finds tempting in a woman. Their deal means he can meet the “best” people while she keeps her family at bay. The challenge is he quickly finds himself wanting her to say “yes” when she’s so determined to say “no.” She persuaded him to make this impetuous bargain, but how can he convince her to make it real?
Amateur astronomer heroine? A barrister hero? And it's a Victorian! But my favorite part of this blurb has got to be the step-mother being the puppet master behind the fake relationship, a nice spin on the usual (where the hero and heroine cook up the idea on their own).  Oh, and it's the start of a new series.

(Note: I've known Megan for years and have a prior working relationship with her through the (sadly) defunct web site Heroes & Heartbreakers)

Her Irish Warrior by Michelle Willingham (Reprint)
Genevieve de Renalt will do anything to escape her betrothed—even if it means trusting her enemy.

Irish warrior Bevan MacEgan cannot leave a lady in danger, but keeping her safe means endangering his own family. The king orders him to wed Genevieve to avoid bloodshed, but Bevan has sworn never to love again.

He keeps Genevieve at a distance but, as she begins to melt his heart, a shocking secret forces Bevan to make a terrible choice—one that could mean losing her forever.

Originally published by Harlequin Historical in 2007 (same title), Willingham continues her self-published reprint run of the MacEgan Brothers series with this, the third book. I seem to have completely hop-scotched around this series, having books 2-4 languishing in my TBR. Maybe I need to see if any of them meet this year's TBR Challenge themes?

Whew! A lot that caught my eye this month. In fact, at the time of this posting I've already started reading the Ridley.  What Unusual Historicals have caught your eye this month?

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

#TBRChallenge Review: Meant-To-Be Family

The Book: Meant-To-Be Family by Marion Lennox

The Particulars: Harlequin Medical Romance #734, Book 2 in Midwives On-Call continuity series, 2015, out of print, available in digital

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: After discovering Marion Lennox a few years back I started glomming her backlist. My records indicate this was a used bookstore find back in 2019.

🧨 Warning: All The Spoilers! 🧨

The Review: One might think that the hostess of this challenge would be ahead of the curve and not procrastinate. You would be wrong. It was Saturday afternoon before I went looking for a book that fit this month's Second Chance theme, and I figured my cupboard full of Harlequins was a good place to start. This was the second book I pulled off the shelf, it fit the theme perfectly, and I knew with Lennox writing I was going to get some angst - and boy howdy, did I get the angst.  The spoiler warning? Yeah, that's because this book has some heavy trigger warnings. This review is basically a public service.

Emily Evans is having a day. Her foster daughter isn't doing well and she's distraught. Gretta has Down's Syndrome and an inoperable heart condition. The little girl is dying.  Emily knew going into this that Gretta would die. There's nothing anybody can do. Her mother, who helps Emily with Gretta (age 4) and her foster son Toby (age 2) practically pushes Emily out the door to work, which she's running late for. She's a midwife at Melbourne's Victoria Hospital, a job she loves and while her ice queen boss is in a better mood these days thanks to her recent engagement, there's still gonna be hell to pay for being late.  Naturally it all goes from bad to worse when she swings her sturdy family sedan into her parking place only to side-swipe a flashy vintage Morgan. Could this day get any worse?  The answer is yes, yes it could.  Because the man sitting behind the wheel of the Morgan is none other than her estranged husband, Dr. Oliver Evans.

Of all the hospitals in all the world, he had to walk into hers. Oliver and Emily were married ten years ago, five of which were spent on heartbreaking, grueling IVF treatments.  Finally they get pregnant, only to have their son, Josh, be delivered as a premature stillborn. Emily puts her foot down after that. She's done with IVF. She cannot do it anymore. But she desperately wants children (as does Oliver) and she tells him, let's look into adoption.  Oliver snaps.  This man, yes THIS MAN, tells her "Em, I can't. I know adoption's the only way, but I can't do it. I can't guarantee to love a child who's not our own." Shortly thereafter they separate. That was five years ago.

Medicals are one of Harlequin's slimmer lines (about the length of a Presents or Desire) and there is A TON to unpack here. The reader learns about what split up Oliver and Emily in Chapter 2, so pretty early on you're going to hate this guy. Of course there's a backstory to why Oliver feels the way  he does about adoption - he was adopted. His parents ended up getting pregnant some years after he was adopted and once they had "their own son" they literally start comparing Oliver to a cuckoo. Oliver grows up, becomes a doctor, marries a wonderful woman - none of that matters. He's not their "real" son. So while I wanted to throat-punch Oliver, one would see how he would have hang-ups about adoption.

Emily is the exact opposite.  This is a woman brimming with love. The kind of woman who gives freely of herself, even though she knows it will open her up to heartache. Her and Oliver never divorced. They're still married at the start of this story, and she finds that telling. She moved on. She became a foster mother. Oliver did go to the States, continued his training, but there's been no one else. No new girlfriends, no children (even though he too wants children), nothing

This entire book is an emotional gut-punch. Oliver is emotionally broken, and what Emily realizes over the course of this story is that he was that way before they even met and got married. Oliver was damaged goods when they said "I do" - but it took the heartbreak of their journey towards starting a family to unravel their relationship.  I also really appreciated that it was the dude hung up on "we can't have 'our own' children" BS that runs amok in the genre.  So often it's the heroine flailing herself against those rocks.  This is also a romance where the ethical issues of the couples' jobs aren't hand-waved away for the sake of getting the couple a happy ending.  These two have to work for it, and it comes in the form of Oliver learning that found family can be the sweetest family of all.

That said, there's a lot of landmines in this story.  Remember Gretta?  This is a book with no miracle cure. The four-year-old girl dies over the course of the story folks, don't say you weren't warned.  Also, while I'm glad Oliver realizes what an ass he is, that he learns to open himself up to love and all the good and bad that goes along with that, this is a dude who needs therapy.  Like, no joke. Emily actually mentions it to him once, that the hospital has some very qualified folks he could talk to, but it doesn't happen over the course of the story.  Sure, sure, he and Emily reunite and live happily-ever-after but true love does not unravel the years of emotional abuse that Oliver experienced with his adoptive parents (thank the sweet Lord they stay off page). Couple this with Gretta's death, and that Toby also has health issues, when stress meets Oliver's baggage - I'd like to believe he'll have the tools in place to not backslide - and I'm not entirely convinced he does by the end of the story.

The secondary characters are welcome additions (Emily's mother, her neighbors who were FANASTIC!) and while this is part of a continuity series, it stands alone well.  It's not a book for everybody.  It's very emotional, dealing with the very heavy and painful topic of infertility and the death of a child. I didn't read this so much as inhale it but I recognize it's a lot. It's the sort of book I recommend but with a lot of caveats thrown in, because I can completely understand some folks reading this review and automatically nope'ing right out.  I think it's a triumph for Lennox, but oh man, is it ever complicated.

Final Grade = B+

Monday, January 16, 2023

Review: A Rancher Worth Remembering

Anyone who has been reading this blog for a minute knows I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with small town contemporaries.  OK, to be fair, I mostly have a love/hate relationship with small town single title contemporaries.  Category romance?  I'll gobble 'em up.  Why?  Well for one thing category romances have tighter word counts. There's less opportunity for an author to get the romance lost in the weeds of cutesy secondary characters doing cutesy things while somehow managing to keep the local cutesy cupcake shop a viable business in a town with a population of a few thousand.  

Where was I? Oh yes...

I wanted to talk about A Rancher Worth Remembering, Anna Grace's debut with the just-kisses Harlequin Heartwarming line.  It's a small town contemporary that does what Wendy likes them to do - it doesn't lose sight of the reason why I'm picking up the book in the first place (THE ROMANCE!) but it also delivers some well-done small town world-building.  

Jet Broughman is back in Outcrop, Oregon making a go of his grandfather's ranch. As a kid Jet bounced in and out of foster care until his grandfather took him in.  The old man was as good to Jet as he was capable of being. He was cared for, but let's just say the ability to display affection was not one of the man's stronger attributes.  Anyway, Jet became a local football hero, scored himself a college scholarship thanks to his smarts and ended up making a bunch of money doing tech work in Seattle. Now he's back home hoping to make the ranch profitable by selling local and catering to the farm-to-table crowd. It's all going according to plan until he's literally run over by a pretty young woman riding her bicycle.  And that pretty young woman?  Clara Wallace. The girl who stomped all over his heart back in high school.

Clara now runs a matchmaking service with her twin sister and she's very good at her job. She has a knack for helping folks ready to settle down find their perfect match.  She's scheduled to meet with a prospective new client at her brother's restaurant when she runs into (quite literally) Jet - the boy she totally screwed things up with in high school.  Worse yet?  Apparently her new client is Jet's BFF and Jet is just sure Clara is going to torpedo Michael's life like she did his all those years ago.  So they're prickly with each other from the jump, but damn if there still isn't some romantic tension sizzling below the surface.

Let's start with all the good stuff first, namely the world-building, which is dynamite.  I felt like I knew the town of Outcrop before I was even a quarter of the way through this book, complete with it's local hardware store where old men play checkers on the front porch, and Clara's brother's local restaurant that straddles the line between catering to the meat-and-potatoes and hipster crowds.  There's other local shops and a scene in the book that features a chamber-of-commerce-style street fair showing off those local businesses. It's all great and if you love small town romances you will gobble this up.

The romance is also good, assuming you're not pre-disposed to getting annoyed by a few things - namely grown adults still hung up on high school baggage.  I get it, it happens - it just didn't personally happen to me, so sometimes these storylines have me scratching my head a bit.  Grace does put a nice spin on it though, making the misunderstanding between Jet and Clara stem from his insecurities and her anxiety.  Clara is managing to live her life, she controls her anxiety fairly well, but it can flare up - and her blowing things with Jet all those years ago is a perfect example.

The other nice thing about the romance is that the characters are both fairly observant once they take their blinders off.  Once they start sharing their feelings, being a bit more open with each other, Jet lands on "Clara has anxiety" pretty much on his own.  Clara realizes that Jet has insecurities stemming from his childhood.  That said, that doesn't keep them from falling into bad habits to get to the third act separation (it's not a separation per se, they're not "together" - but it's a misunderstanding that spurs them towards the happy-ever-after) and that was a bit disappointing.  Again though, this stuff happens.

Finally, Harlequin Heartwarming is a just-kisses line.  It's a good fit for folks who want just-kisses but who aren't terribly keen on inspirationals because "God Stuff."  I like just-kisses as a rule, and I completely understand Clara has anxiety - but her relationship history (I'm talking never been kissed) and the fact that she runs a matchmaking service was a bit eye-rolling for me personally (it reminded me of the early Harlequin Blaze days when all the lingerie and sex toy designer heroines were virgins 🙄).  Your mileage may vary, of course.

That said, there was quite a bit I really liked here and I positively tore through the book.  The characters are nice and interesting, the world-building great, and Grace even mixes in light dollops of rom/com-humor with Jet's jail-breaking emus.  All this groundwork paid off because Clara's got three brothers and a twin sister, and I'm totally on board for the next two books, which are already scheduled for 2023.  It's the kind of cozy story that I lost myself in for a few hours, put a smile on my face, and pulled me out of any sour mood that was lurking around the edges.  I can't recommend it highly enough if you're a small town contemporary fan.

Final Grade = B

Friday, January 13, 2023

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is January 18

Hey, hey, hey it's time for the first #TBRChallenge of 2023! The magic day is Wednesday, January 18 and this month's (always) optional theme is Starting Over.

January is the start of a new year and what better theme to run with this month. New year, new you, second chances and starting over.  This one should be fairly easy to hit out of the park - what with romance heroes and heroines often working to overcome some past baggage, trauma or hurt.

However, the themes are completely optional. Maybe this month you're in the mood for a bubbly romantic comedy featuring characters up to hijinks or maybe the theme just seems like too much work for rooting around in my TBR.  That's fine! Remember the goal of the challenge has been, and always will be, to read something (anything!) that's been languishing in your mountain range of unread books. 

It's never too late to join the Challenge! To learn more about it and to see a list of folks participating head on over to the information page

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Reading Year In Review 2022

2022 was not easy. I mean, I doubt it was really easy for anybody - but I feel like it was the continuation of a marathon I started in 2020 but the rehydration stations got further and further apart. This was reflected in my reading this past year.  Yes, I managed to hit my reading goal of 100 books for the first time since 2019 and that was in large part to glomming through two suspense series, thank you Lawrence Block and Marcia Muller. Beyond that? My reading was seriously all over the place.  Here are how the grades broke down:

A Grades = 4
B Grades = 36
C Grades = 37
D Grades = 18
F Grades = 1
DNF = 4

The good news first, my F Grades and DNFs were way down. The bad news? I read 8 more D grades than in 2021, my B and C grades were once again in a dead heat, and my A grades were down (I never have a ton of these, but 4 is low even for yours truly). My resolution for 2023? I think I'm going to take a sabbatical from contest judging.  While there is one contest read reflected in my Best Of, remember those 8 more D grades I had?  Yeah, all 8 were contest reads. Hope springs eternal, but I'd like to spend the next year digging out quality reads in my own TBR. We'll see how long I stick with that! 

I'm perpetually behind on my reading, so my Best Of list reflects what I read during 2022, not just what was published in 2022.  Title links will take you to full reviews:

Best Reads of 2022: Romance and Romance Adjacent

The Summer of Lost Letters (2021) and Eight Nights of Flirting (2022) by Hannah Reynolds (Contemporary YA) - Teen romances with Jewish main characters, incredible world-building on Nantucket Island, and uncovered family secrets running through both. I hope Reynolds continues to write books in this world because these were a revelation for me this past year.

Seven Days in June (2021) by Tia Williams (Contemporary) - It's dark, it's angsty, it leans more to the women's fiction end of the spectrum, but I was sucked in by the characters, the writing, and all the messy problematic "stuff." I was engrossed and could not put this down.

Big Chicas Don't Cry (2022) by Annette Chavez Macias (Contemporary) - I was sucked into the world-building and fell HARD for the Garcia cousins to the point where they now live rent-free in my brain. It's definitely women's fiction, but there are strong romantic elements here and Macias wrung out every drop of emotion from my cold, black heart. I cried y'all.

Claiming Her Legacy (2022) by Linda Goodnight (Historical Western) - This wasn't a perfect book for me, but I fell in love with the heroine, there's still plenty of grit even with the small town setting, and the romantic tension was very well done (I yearned for the first kiss!).  The heroine has two sisters, please Dear Lord, let this series continue.

Beyond Innocence (2001) by Emma Holly (Historical, Victorian) - A lot of folks in Romancelandia like to talk genre history and canon and what that all means, and this book, while not perfect, is making my Best Of list for all those reasons.  What Holly did here with the relationship between the hero and his gay younger brother is fantastic. Trailblazing in 2001, and it was published by a major NY house (Penguin / Berkley). 

The Highlander's Inconvenient Bride (2021) by Terri Brisbin (Medieval) - My one contest read of the year that blew the doors off for me, and when it didn't final I decided I needed to take a break from judging contests for a while. The heroine's growth arc is fantastic and Brisbin really makes her couple work for their happy ending. 

Best Friend to Doctor Right (2020) by Ann McIntosh (Contemporary) - This is a perfect example of a book that didn't blow the doors off, but it was such a comforting, cozy read that McIntosh is now on my list of "comfort read" authors with a host of her Harlequin series brethren. Lovely characters, beautiful setting, and an evil mother character who stays off page and isn't "forgiven" in the end.

Best Reads of 2022: Everything Else

Eight Million Ways to Die (1982) by Lawrence Block (Suspense) - I rang in 2022 working my way through Block's Matthew Scudder series but didn't blog about any of them. Why? They're grim-dark AF and the series started in the late 1970s, so just insert every single trigger warning you can think of. I have a strong constitution for crime novels of a certain age, but some of the books in this series even left me questioning my sanity (Why am I reading this? Why am I enjoying this?!).  Anyway, this is book five in the series and the gold standard for me. The New York City setting is well drawn and Scudder is very early in his sobriety, which gives the mystery some added punch.

Like a Sister (2022) by Kellye Garrett (Suspense) - I am utter trash for suspense novels that explore the seedy side of celebrity and Garrett sets this one around the death of a social media influencer, who could have starred on Growing Up Hip Hop. I loved the heroine in this one, the victim's estranged sister, who has a complicated relationship with her family but knows immediately her sister wasn't "just another overdose." 

Listen to Me (2022) by Tess Gerritsen (Suspense) - After a five year hiatus, Gerritsen gave readers another Rizzoli/Isles story this year, and it was really well done. While Jane is trying to figure out why someone would brutally murder a nurse who had zero skeletons in her closet, her mother is snooping on her oddly behaving new neighbors and trying to convince everyone that the troubled girl from the next street over didn't just "run away."

The Nurse's Secret (2022) by Amanda Skenandore (Historical Suspense) - The world-building in this story is fantastic and I fell into it hard.  Pick-pocket heroine witnesses a murder and the cops think she did it.  She needs to lay low for a while and finagles her way into the new nursing program at Bellevue Hospital. However it's not all fun and games. Nursing is hard work and it seems the killer may have followed in her tracks...

Wham! George Michael & Me (2019) by Andrew Ridgeley (Nonfiction / Memoir) - It's not a tell-all and that's what makes this book so enjoyable. Ridgeley tells the story of his friendship with George, first meeting him in school, discovering their mutual love of music, the formation of Wham!, and becoming some of the biggest pop stars of the 1980s. Read it for the friendship, stay for the nostalgic revisiting of a memorable British pop era.

2022 was a reading year that started and ended with me struggling with fatigue and slumps, but somewhere in the middle I managed to get through some memorable reads. Not all of these were A reads for me, and certainly I had quibbles, but each of these books were ones that "stuck" with me in a positive way. And truly, as we look ahead to 2023, I'm counting that as a victory.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Library Loot Review: Reader, I Murdered Him

I can't remember now where I heard about Reader, I Murdered Him by Betsy Cornwell but with a title like that I knew I had to give it a spin. So I leveraged my handy library card to pick up this teen historical thriller.  

This is part-retelling of Jane Eyre and part Hey What Happened To? told from the point of view of Rochester's ward (and Jane's pupil) Adele Varens. Her mother is a Parisian dance hall girl, which means Adele has lived her young life in the shadows - either backstage or in an out of the way room with the other children while their mothers "entertain" admirers.  Into this world waltzes Edward Rochester, who might be her father.  Before she knows it, Adele is swept back to England to "enjoy" a life of privilege and mother conveniently dies off page. Supposedly.

The first section of this book basically gives the Reader's Digest Condensed Version of Jane Eyre.  Jane shows up, tutors Adele, falls for the mysterious Rochester, oops there's a crazy wife in the attic, Thornfield burns down yada yada yada. This story is mainly about what happens after.  Jane and Rochester marry.  Jane, naturally, LIVES for Rochester and Adele is, well, underfoot.  So they pack her off to boarding school where she begins to make friends.  But Adele has learned much in your young life, especially in the ways of unscrupulous men. The gentlemen callers trying to woo Adele's classmates, well they don't have noble intentions.  And it's up to Adele to protect them.

Let's get this out of the way first - if you are a reader who feels Rochester = Swoony for all that is holy, I am telling you this for your own good, do not read this book.  You will hate it.  Cornwell most definitely falls into the Rochester Is A Major Creep camp and that is very much the vibe he gives off for the entire book.  If you're a Rochester Hater?  You will probably love this because it just reinforces that vibe.  For Jane's part?  Well?  She eventually morphs into the character who turns in on herself, slowly disappearing until she's smaller and smaller all in the name of "love" and a man who "needs" her.  Jane and Rochester basically bookend this story (beginning and ending) and whoa doggie, they are a big part of the ending.

It's well documented that I love 1) revenge thrillers and 2) heroines as vigilantes.  And Adele, for the most part, is a competent vigilante.  Here's the thing, the vigilante stuff is a late entry in the book.  The story itself is around 300 pages, but it's not until Adele meets a young woman from the "wrong side of the tracks" to teach her in matters of self-defense that the vigilante stuff truly heats up. The marketing suggests otherwise, but it's not the main focus of the story for a very long time.  It's truly the life and times of Adele Varens and her awakening to her queerness.  Adele has complicated young feelings for both boys (a pen pal she begins corresponding with to improve her English) and girls (a friend at boarding school, her self-defense teacher).

Did I enjoy this? Well?  Here's the problem. Every male character in this book, and I mean EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. is a sack of human garbage.  And Cornwell writes it with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer sinking into zombie skulls. Look, I get it. Women, we've seen some sh*t. And if you live by the credo that Men Are The Problem, this book will be for you. Because it basically reinforces that. But Wendy?  Look y'all. I get a lot of doom and gloom in the Real World. I'm not that much of a Pollyanna, truly.  But I also have to live my life by the idea that most people have good within them and will make good choices and be good people more often than not. I can't live any other way. To do so, for me, is just depressing. Do people let me down? Good Lord, yes. I do pay attention to the news cycle! But I keep looking for the good and I hold it tight when I find it.

Look, I got this same problem with a lot of m/m romance. The guys are great but every woman in the book is Witch with a Capital B. Cornwell basically does that here but switched the genders.

So where does that leave me?  Well, it's interesting.  It's suitably Victorian. There's a knock-out twist at the end that I probably should have seen coming but didn't. But?  It left me depressed. Which is weird for a story where the heroine gets her happy ending.  This is very much a Your Mileage May Vary book. Proceed accordingly.

Final Grade = C