Sunday, February 28, 2021

Series Review: Cass Raines, Private Eye

If there's one common thread I've seen among recent reader chatter is that between 2020 and the Pandemic many of us have turned to comfort reads. Comfort reads, for me, often carry a heavy dose of nostalgia with them - which helps explain why I am trash for female private detectives. I got hooked on reading through mysteries and spent many trips to the public library as a kid reading Nancy Drew and graduating to Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller.  So when I needed some female private eyes in my reading, @JayneChanger stepped in to recommend Broken Places by Tracy Clark - the first book in an #ownvoices series about a Black female Chicago PD detective who goes private.  I have since read all three books in the series (to date), with the fourth due out in late June 2021.  It's a low gore mystery series, with a light romance that comes into play, so I think romance readers may dig it - assuming of course you can get past the series set-up. 

Broken Places opens with Cass still on the Chicago PD. Cassandra "Cass" Raines and her partner are in pursuit of a suspect, a gang member, that leads to a Chicago rooftop.  The young Black man has a gun.  Cass is this close to diffusing the situation, talking the kid down, when "back-up" shows up. An incompetent bungler who is juiced in thanks to departmental and family connections. Next thing you know, Cass takes a bullet and the kid is dead.  This deeply affects Cass and the ensuing internal investigation goes just about the way you'd expect.  Cass turns in her badge and goes private.

Fast forward, and Cass gets a visit from Father Ray "Pop" Heaton. After her mother died of cancer when Cass was young, her father took off - leaving her in the care of her loving grandparents.  Pop stepped in to fill the void left by her father.  There's a been a recent spat of vandalism at the church and while Pop keeps brushing it off as no big deal - he still asks Cass to snoop around.  Before she can though Father Ray is found dead in the chapel - and who should be the lead detective on the case?  Yeah, the juiced-in incompetent bungler.  Pop's church is in a rough neighborhood so he's already half closed the case as a junkie robbery attempt gone wrong.  Yeah, this doesn't fly for Cass - Pop was family.  She's on the case, pissing off half the Chicago PD along the way.

This was a good, solid start to the series.  Cass was a little slow on the uptake during the final chapters, but a minor quibble.  I loved the Chicago setting and the cast of secondary characters surrounding Cass - including tenants in the apartment building she inherited from her grandparents, her BFF (a nun from a raucous Irish Catholic family), her former partner, and a childhood BFF now out of prison and determined to stay out.  Final Grade = B+

Borrowed Time has so far been the weak link in the series, but it's still an entertaining read. Business has been slow, and Cass has been paying the bills by delivering summonses to all manner of low-life. She's ready for a challenge.  She just didn't expect it from Jung Byson, her local diner's delivery guy who is a slacker / hippie type who likes to party.  His friend, Tim Ayers, a wealthy son of a prominent Chicago family, was found dead floating in Lake Michigan.  Police are calling it a suicide. Jung thinks Tim was murdered.  Jung is flaky as hell, but he's got money for her retainer, so Cass starts digging.  She immediately finds out her new client has not been forthcoming.  Namely, Tim was terminally ill.  Suicide seems more than plausible.  But one thing bothers Cass - namely there were no finger prints found on the yacht where Tim was living and from whence he jumped.  That smells hinky AF. Naturally the more Cass starts poking the more she runs afoul of the Ayers family and the Chicago PD. 

The story hinges on a pretty flimsy premise - namely that a private investigator would take on a case, and continue working on it, when the client "conveniently" keeps omitting information and lying by omission.  I had a hard time reconciling this, even though the mystery behind Tim's death is a good one.  But I enjoyed the time spent with Cass, revisiting Chicago and the menagerie of secondary characters.  Final Grade = B- 

What You Don't See might be my favorite, mostly because the case Cass is working on is once again personal.  Cass's former partner, Ben Mickerson, has been moonlighting as security for Vonda Allen - a magazine editor and local celebrity who is about to get her own syndicated talk show.  Someone has been sending her anonymous poison pen letters. Ben convinces Vonda's team to hire on Cass for an upcoming book tour since nobody (including Vonda) wants the cops involved.  Cass really doesn't want the job. Vonda has a reputation for being a mega-bitch diva (boy howdy!) but this is Ben asking.  It soon becomes apparent just how real the threat is though when Ben is stabbed while on duty.  Vonda's throwing up road-blocks and once again Cass gets on the wrong side of the Chicago PD - but Ben is family.  Cass tenaciously starts digging and unearths a whole mess of ugly skeletons in Vonda's closet.

Like Borrowed Time, Cass should have stayed far away from this case - but it's Ben asking, so it's an explanation that works for me.  Also, Vonda Allen is a piece of work yo!  Parts of the mystery are fairly obvious (right around the time Ben gets stabbed), but Clark writes it high-octane and it makes for a great finish.  Vonda's orbit is poisonous, with victims dropping left and right.  I finished this one and immediately went looking to see how long I was going to have to wait for Book 4.  Final Grade = B+

There's a number of dead bodies that have dropped so far in this series, but none of it graphically depicted (OK, so there's one dismembered body, but there aren't multiple gleeful pages written about a serial killer's work, for example).  But the event that leads to Cass quitting Chicago PD, is tough to read - especially in light of recent events. It's how Clark has blended the Chicago PD and the characters still in uniform that I've found compelling.  Also, the larger cast surrounding Cass is dynamite.  It's very Found Family.  Cass even gets a romance, a police detective who first appears in Book 1, manages to open the door a crack in Book 2, and by Book 3 they're "an item."  A new, burgeoning item, but an item nonetheless.

If you're a mystery fan, this is a series worth a look.  While Clark has won some awards for this series, it's a series still in it's infancy (only 3 books so far!).  Here's hoping her audience continues to grow because I'm hooked now and need more.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Review: The Beast of Beswick

I have a lot of favorite tropes and "Beauty and the Beast" is right near the top. I'm a sucker for most fairy tale tropes in general and to be perfectly blunt there's a reason that writers throughout millennia keep going back to them over and over againThe Beast of Beswick by Amalie Howard happened to land in my TBR pile and after I told the SoCal Bloggers about it - we decided it would be our next buddy read.  My reaction to it was decidedly mixed.

Lady Astrid Everleigh is 25, a bluestocking, and ruined. During her one and only Season she spurned Edmund Cain, Lord Beaumont. He then proceeded to spread lies about her being a wanton harlot and the rest is history.  Well now Lord Beaumont has come sniffing back around like the worst sort of alley cat - not for Astrid mind you - but for her younger sister, Isobel.  Their parents dead, they're now at the mercy of their uncle who wants to see the match with Beaumont made because "reasons."  Well Astrid isn't about to let that happen.  The odious man ruined one sister, he's not getting his claws into poor, sweet Isobel.  There's only one viable solution - Astrid needs to marry and quickly. Then Isobel's fate would be for her husband to decide - and Astrid has the perfect candidate.  Someone powerful and with a fearsome reputation.  Someone who will frighten the bejesus out of her uncle and Beaumont to the point where they'd have to back off.  And that someone is Lord Nathaniel "Thane" Harte, Duke of Beswick - AKA The Beast of Beswick.

Nearly killed in the war, Thane returned home severely wounded and scarred.  "The spare" - his father took one look at his hideously disfigured son and expired of a heart attack.  Then his older brother, the heir, dies in a riding accident - leaving Thane with a dukedom he never wanted but now has.  He's hidden himself away leaving the gossiping ton to tell all manner of stories.  He spends his days destroying his father's priceless porcelain collection with a cricket bat and being belligerent towards his servants.  And now in waltzes Lady Astrid, bold as brass, proposing a marriage of convenience.  It's the last thing he expects, the last thing he wants, but the very thing he needs.

This is a perfectly pleasant Regency historical that follows the typical "lighthearted" formula.  There's the servants who act familiar, the snarling hero whose bark is worse than his bite, the blue-stocking heroine with a quick wit, a delightfully bawdy Aunt, and enough verbal jousting to melt even the most cynical of reader hearts.  I liked most of the secondary characters and I loved Thane and Astrid together.  They're truly a delight when they're on page together.

So where did it all go wrong?  Well it went on and on and on and on forever.  Seriously.  Like I never thought I was going to finish reading it.  Amazon says the print version clocks in at 384 pages and it reads like it.  Oh man does it read like it.  This book easily could have lost 84 pages and been the better for it.  Heck, it could have probably lost a solid 100 and been dynamite.  But as it is it drags on to the point that the witty banter and light historical vibe soon starts to resemble an anvil hanging around my neck, my eyes glaze over, and Dear Lord when is this book going to end?!

Honestly this was probably around a B/B- for me for the first half, but the longer it drags on, the more the pacing pulls out like salt water taffy at the county fair, any good will I had started to die a slow, agonizing death.  To make matters worse, I pretty much spent the whole book wanted to smack Isobel - which means while I might be inclined to read another book by this author, it surely is not going to be the next book in this series.  I barely tolerated her as a secondary character, I can't imagine slogging through a whole book where she's the heroine.

In the end this is promising but needed a much more ruthless editor.  Someone to slash and burn meaningless scenes and tighten up the entire proceedings.  In other words, this needed to be a Harlequin Historical.  It did not need to be 384 pages of indulgence that turned into slogging funeral dirge.  Promising but ultimately a trial.

Final Grade = C

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

#TBRChallenge 2021: The Drifter's Proposal

The Book: The Drifter's Proposal by Kristin Holt

The Particulars: Historical western romance novella, #4 in Holiday in Mountain Home series, Self-published, 2015, Kindle Unlimited (at time of this posting)

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: I picked this up at the only Romantic Times Convention I ever attended (2016). I went to a western-themed gathering and recognized exactly two authors in the room - so being the western fan that I am, I went around and snapped up some freebies to try from the unknowns.  Holt was one of those.

The Review: I'm in the midst of "obligation reading" at the moment, so for new-to-you-author month I decided to scrounge up a novella. Novellas are tricky to write and I like trying new authors in this format because it's sink or swim as far as how well their "voice" is going to work for me.  Also, if the story ends up being a dud I'm not slogging through 300+ pages.  

Adaline Whipple's father succumbed to a massive heart attack three months ago, leaving Adaline in charge of the family bakery in small town Mountain Home, Colorado.  Her 10-year-old twin sisters are a help, but her mother has basically been catatonically depressed since her husband passed - so it's up to Adaline. She's become distracted by frequent customer, Malloy (just Malloy), who is a cowboy who drifts in and out of town. He's handsome to distraction but plain, plump Adaline - firmly "on the shelf" at 25 - knows that a man like that would never give her a first glance, let alone a second.  

Then one day a slick big city banker from Denver shows up presenting a signed copy of a mortgage her father signed before he died. Neither Adaline nor her mother knew a blessed thing about any mortgage and now it's past due, the bank demanding payment in full - an astronomical amount of $700.  The bakery is doing OK, but they don't have $700 just lying around!

Malloy overhears this exchange and something smells rotten in Denmark. Malloy is no mere drifter cowboy.  Our guy has accounting skills and has traveled around the country helping law enforcement nail down fraud convictions.  Give this guy another 30 years on the planet and he would have caught Al Capone.  Anyway, he's obviously smitten with Adaline (like, duh) and has a white knight complex - so we're off the races.

This story firmly falls into Rescue Fantasy category, but Holt makes it work for me by keeping this short and giving Adaline (and her mother!) some gumption as things develop.  The mystery of the mortgage the family is clueless about keeps the plot humming along, and held my interest to the end.  It does get a bit melodramatic towards the end and our villain is fairly one-dimension, but honestly after living through 2020 it's amazing how much I'm no longer finding a certain brand of mustache-twirling villain as "over the top."

The romance here is firmly in "just kisses" territory and the courtship follows a very fast timeline, but largely worked for me given that the main couple has been circling each other for months.  Some series baggage naturally creeps in, but it's nothing that confuses the reader and doesn't interfere with this particular romance. 

For readers looking for "just kisses" and who enjoy small town romances, this particular novella is very solid and a good introduction to the author.  I liked it and would definitely try another book by Holt in the future.

Final Grade = B

Monday, February 15, 2021

Candy Hearts: Unusual Historicals That Intrigue February 2021

Ah, February. That annoying time of year when residents of Romancelandia brace themselves for steaming piles of hot takes on the genre we love. But hey, at least there's candy. Lots and lots of candy.  There's also more of the books we love and this month's crop of unusual historicals are particularly tempting.  Here's what debuted this month that caught my eye:
A reporter has come to Wyoming to do a story on doctors for his Black newspaper back east. He thinks Colton Lee will be an interesting subject…until he meets Colton’s sister Spring. She runs her own ranch, wears denim pants instead of dresses, and is the most fascinating woman he’s ever met. 
But Spring, who has overcome a raucous and scandalous past, isn’t looking for, nor does she want, love. As their attraction grows, will their differences come between them or unite them for an everlasting love?


A new Beverly Jenkins western and the second book in her Women Who Dare series - which might be the most perfect name for a Jenkins series ever since I'm always drawn to her heroines.  Spring, with her "raucous and scandalous past" sounds like my kinda gal!

Robin Loxleigh and his sister Marianne are the hit of the Season, so attractive and delightful that nobody looks behind their pretty faces. 
Until Robin sets his sights on Sir John Hartlebury’s heiress niece. The notoriously graceless baronet isn’t impressed by good looks, or fooled by false charm. He’s sure Robin is a liar—a fortune hunter, a card sharp, and a heartless, greedy fraud—and he’ll protect his niece, whatever it takes. 
Then, just when Hart thinks he has Robin at his mercy, things take a sharp left turn. And as the grumpy baronet and the glib fortune hunter start to understand each other, they also find themselves starting to care—more than either of them thought possible. 
But Robin's cheated and lied and let people down for money. Can a professional rogue earn an honest happy ever after?
A scoundrel hero who sets his sights on an heiress only to become entangled with her suspicious uncle.  I'll be honest, I groaned at the character names of "Robin Loxleigh" and his sister "Marianne" - but I'm going to trust Charles' writing chops to not beat me over the head with Robin Hood references now that we've gotten the names out of the way....

Rose Gardner's Florist by Bonnie Dee (Kindle Unlimited)
Romance blooms between a common flower girl and a cultivated gentleman. 
Rose Gardener is a common flower girl from Covent Garden, whose grandest wish has come true in the opening of her own florist shop. Despite years of belittling by an unsupportive family, she is proud of her achievement, yet self-doubt lingers under the surface when she is faced with a chance at romance. Surely the quiet, bookish gentleman who buys posies from her could not possibly be interested in a working class girl. 
Struck by the lovely proprietress of a local florist, Will Carmody finds one pretext after another to purchase flowers so he might exchange pleasantries with her. A shy, awkward fellow dedicated to scholarly pursuits has no business fostering lovelorn dreams about a vivacious young lady with a bright future. Will thinks he has little of interest to offer her. 
When a young woman threatened by her guardian unburdens herself to Rose, the florist becomes her ally in solving the predicament. But it will take Will’s steady presence and support to face down a dastardly scoundrel.

A flower girl and a bookish hero - I've never read this. Hell, I'm pretty sure I've never seen it done before.  It's also the second book in Dee's Providence Street Shops series.  Heroine shopkeepers getting their own series?  Yes please! 

A lady’s need for protection 
A knight’s chance for redemption 
Exiled Knight William Geraint answers only to himself. Yet, a mission to reunite lost heiress Lady Isabel de Clancey with her family is Will’s chance to finally atone for the torment of his past. With every rushed mile, their intense attraction becomes dangerously thrilling. He swore to protect Isabel not seduce her, but their desire for each other could threaten the redemption he’s worked so hard to achieve…
The second book in Oliver's Notorious Knights series is also her second published book for Harlequin Historical. I enjoyed the first book in the series and am looking forward to this one.

Nicknamed Humdrum Tun by society, Bennett Innsworth, Duke of Tunbury is stuffy, awkward, and alas, still a virgin. The festive season is looking bleak—until he loses a wager and must spend an evening at London’s most hedonistic pleasure club. 
Delilah Forbes has long reigned as the city’s Mistress of Sin, and when the infamous duke visits her club, she’s soon eager to introduce him to sizzling passion. But even as lust becomes more for two lonely souls, they know a duke and a madam can’t have forever after. Or can they? 
This story was previously published in the historical Christmas anthology Have Yourself a Merry Little Scandal. Please note it contains explicit language and sexual content.
I started reading romance back when virgin heroines were the norm (even in contemporaries, and yes I'm Gen-X) and I think that's part of the reason why I can't say no to Romancelandia virgin heroes.  It's the inversion of the trope that appeals.  And then when an author pairs our guy with a heroine of "dubious reputation?"  OMG, Get. In. My. Eyeballs.  This novella was previous released in anthology format (it seems it's no longer available...), so check your digital TBRs before one-clicking.

What Unusual Historicals are you looking forward to reading?

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Mini-Review: Dirty Work

The book I finished before I picked up Dirty Work by Regina Kyle was the Romancelandia equivalent of watching paint dry. No conflict. Boring AF. So to get my mojo back I figured a short category read by an author somewhat known to me was the way to go (the one book I've read by her previously was enjoyable). Kyle does well writing in the category format (folks, it's a skill...) so while my previous adventures in Dare Land haven't lit my world on fire, I settled in for a read that I zipped through in a couple of hours.  It wasn't true love, but it did the trick in helping me get over the 1-star snooze-fest that preceded it.

After her fiancĂ© dumped her before her wedding, citing her workaholic lifestyle as "a problem" - Ainsley Scott chucks aside her law degree and starts her own executive concierge business.  She has a strict "no pets" policy but ends up bending the rules for her friend Brie Lawson.  Brie has just landed an acting gig in San Diego which means she'll be leaving New York City and sticking her workaholic nightclub-owning brother, Jake, with the dog-sitting duties of their parents' Irish Wolfhound, Roscoe.  Jake is perfectly capable of taking care of Roscoe, but given the hours he keeps, not by himself.  Ainsley agrees to help out her friend for a generous hike in her usual fees.  Jake has a loft in Tribeca. He can afford it. 

Jake is super supportive of his sister's acting career but he still can't believe she's leaving him alone to deal with Roscoe. Oh well, at least she's hired someone to help with dog-walking duties - which is good.  However it immediately goes to a whole lot better when Jake enters his loft and finds Ainsley there.  Ainsley with curves in all the right places and a saucy grin.  It's lust at first sight and pretty soon these two can't keep their hands off of each other.  But can a reformed workaholic and a current workaholic find happiness beyond the bedroom together?

What I liked about this story is that it's a low-angst, playful erotic romance. There's no broody emo baggage and there's lighter moments that felt very "rom-com" to me.  My, admittedly limited, previous experience with the Dare line definitely fell on the more angsty end of the spectrum.  This one read like light, fun brain-candy.  I also liked the New York City setting. Look, it's a category romance so it's not like the author can spend oodles of time on "world-building" but this book at least felt like it took place in the City.  There's enough on the page to convince me.

Naturally the Black Moment revolves around work/life balance and this is a romance where I felt both characters were "in the wrong."  Ainsley for flying off the handle. Jake for letting his anger run away with his mouth.  There were too many pop culture references for my liking, which seems to be "a thing" with the Dare line.  YMMV, but generally these tend to annoy me.  Outside of a Ariana Grande reference, Kyle at least tends to name drop things a few years older that take on a more "classic" feel. It'll still feel dated a few years down the road, but hey - maybe not as much?  Also, this is a dueling first-person story, chapters alternating between Ainsley's and Jake's point-of-views and even me, a long-time first person lover, feels like Romancelandia has beaten this dead horse to a pulp.  Kyle at least writes in this style well, so that's something.

It didn't change my life, but it was fun and low-angst, which is kind of a rarity in erotic romance circles these days (IMHO).  Not a bad way to spend my Saturday morning.

Final Grade = B-

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is February 17!

Hey, hey - it's that time again! Time for the monthly #TBRChallenge!  Whether you are participating or just following along, #TBRChallenge Day is Wednesday, February 17.  This month's (always optional) theme is New-To-You Author.

A self-explanatory optional theme this month - an author you've never read before. I'm sure we all have a few of these lurking in our TBR piles!

But remember, the themes are always optional.  If the thought of the "unknown" is too much at the moment, and the comfort of a "known-to-you" author is what you crave - hey, no problem!  The goal of this challenge is always to pull something, any book!, out of your neglected TBR pile.

To learn more about the challenge and links to the participants blogs, check out the 2021 TBR Challenge Information Page.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Review: Confessions of an Italian Marriage

Confessions of an Italian Marriage by Dani Collins has the kind of bananapants plot that keep readers coming back to Presents. Oh sure, the Alpha heroes, the glitz, the glamor - whatever. It's the hyperintensity of the romance with a side of bananapants. That's the appeal. At least for me, and I basically lost an evening inhaling this story.  Was it successful?  Well, yes and no. 

Spoilers ahead!
CW: Miscarriage

When Giovanni was a teenager he was in a horrific car accident that killed his parents, his older brother, and left him a paraplegic. He inherited money, but not one to rest on his laurels, our Italian hero made billions in app development. Living a double-life, he meets a complication at a gala event - Freja, who is a waitress with the company catering the event.

Freja's mother died when she was young and she was raised by a nomad father who took her all around the world writing travelogues. Naturally Freja was a regular topic of discussion in his writings, so she's sorta/kinda famous in the circles of people who read travelogues. It was while on their last adventure together that her father had the opportunity to join a group touring North Korea (wait for it...) - and he naturally took Freja with him and naturally he had a stroke and naturally the tour group left them behind and naturally Daddy died and Freja was now stuck in North Korea courtesy of the government.  She eventually gets out with the help of her father's agent back in New York.

So Giovanni and Freja meet at this gala and Freja knows of him because during her father's travels she took fencing lessons (of course) from Giovanni's older brother.  The older brother, and their parents, having died in that car accident that turns out wasn't an accident.  Giovanni knows someone who works at Interpol (because of course he does) and he's now working undercover as a spy.  He's not James Bond, he's more of an "information gatherer."  And now here's Freja who "knew" his brother and just happened to spend time in North Korea.  He has to check her out.

Naturally what happens next is that these two burn up the sheets and Giovanni falls into lust.  Then, of course, they're so hot for each other that one time they don't use a condom.  Which Giovanni doesn't think will be an issue since he can't ejaculate and Freja was naturally a virgin before he came along (no pun intended).  But, wait for it, he ejaculates.  By some miracle since it's apparently rare for him.  This is handwaved away thanks to medical mysteries blah, blah, blah - but more likely it's because this is a Presents and the heroine has a magic who-ha.  Anyway, so now they wait to see if she's pregnant - and given the title of this book I think we know the answer to that....

Stuff happens and then, because Giovanni is a super-secret spy, he has to fake his own death.  The book opens with Freja suspecting her husband isn't dead and she's pissed. She inherited all his wealth, the vultures are circling and she wants to draw her husband out in the open. So she asks her very smart gay friend to assist in running the business and "marry" her. Freja has a book coming out soon, plus a blog and social media reach - so she's been splashing her impending "nuptials" all over the Interwebs.  And naturally, Giovanni returns bringing all his secrets out into the open.

Like I said, bananapants.

The story itself is well executed.  It opens at present-day with Giovanni "dead", then we get several chapters of flashback time about the start of their relationship, and then the final third covers the reunion. Also Giovanni's disability is handled well.  It's not used as a prop for angst or used for emo baggage to generate a "wounded hero."  Other than the accident leading to Giovanni doing "spy work" and the whole "oopsie-doodle I ejaculated, I didn't think I could do that!" his disability is not used to prop up the conflict either.  He's a guy, who needs to use a wheelchair, living his life. I liked that aspect, as well as Freja's feistiness once Giovanni comes roaring back into her life.  But it is bananapants.  I'm not sure I can say I liked this per se, but it was compelling, well-executed and heck, I lost an evening reading it.  That's the magic of Presents.

Final Grade = C