Amazon discontinued the ability to create images using their SiteStripe feature and in their infinite wisdom broke all previously created images on 12/31/23. Many blogs used this feature, including this one. Expect my archives to be a hot mess of broken book cover images until I can slowly comb through 20 years of archives to make corrections.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

#TBRChallenge 2024: Sweet Mercy

The Book: Sweet Mercy by Jean Brashear

The Particulars: Harlequin SuperRomance #1339, part of series, 2006, out of print. The author later self-published this book as Dream House and given that she changed the hero's name, it stands to reason that maybe other changes happened?  I read the SuperRomance edition of this story and this review is about that edition.

Why Was It in Wendy's TBR?: I got my copy at a used bookstore and liked the sound of the back cover blurb. 

Spoilers Ahoy!

The Review: This cannot be overstated: I am utter trash for romance heroines who have "reputations." Add in a gooey vulnerable core and some stand-up-for-yourself feistiness and I'll be a goner before you even get me out of the first chapter. All the enjoyment I got out of this book is entirely because of our heroine, Jezebel Hart. Too bad she falls for a hero who isn't even remotely good enough for her.

Gamble Smith was a jackass in a previous book, breaking that particular heroine's heart. He's working as an artist in New York City, his career is starting to take off, and then he gets word he has to go home to East Texas.  It's his mother's birthday and his siblings are throwing a party.  However, once he arrives in Texas he learns the party had to be cancelled because Mom has been in a fairly serious car accident.  This just compounds his guilt.  He left Texas years ago after his one twu wuv, his first wife, died.  They were childhood sweethearts, he built them a dream home (a lovely cottage) and they were happy.  Then, against doctor's advice, she got pregnant. Think Shelby in Steel Magnolias.  She's overjoyed, Gamble is not because 1) she's so frail and the doctor said it was a bad idea and 2) because she got pregnant without consulting him (she stopped taking her birth control behind his back). Naturally what everyone fears will happen, happens. Wife #1 and the baby die and Gamble is swallowed up by his grief, leaving a lovely cottage to rot as penance, a shrine to everything he's lost.

It should be noted here that Gamble's grief seemed entirely wrapped up in Dead Wife #1. The unborn baby's death gets short-shrift.

Enter Jezebel Hart. A former stripper and cocktail waitress, she came to Three Pines, Texas looking for a fresh start and found a family.  The bar's owner gave her a job and she's now running the place while he recuperates from an injury.  She would love nothing more than to get him out of the nursing home he's currently in and into a real home - and of course Jezebel has fallen in love with Gamble's abandoned cottage. She meets Gamble when he lands back in town and sparks immediately fly.  She doesn't know who he is right away and he has no idea that she's the one who approached his brother about buying his cottage.  Naturally they end up in bed and naturally once he finds out who she is things get complicated.

Words cannot express how much I loved Jezebel. If she had a theme song it would be Brick House by The Commodores. She doesn't have the red hair, but I pictured her looking like the actress Christina Hendricks.  She's the kind of woman with curves for days and who has spent her entire life dodging leers (and other things) from asshole men. She's also a woman who can take care of herself, getting a lifetime of practice growing up in foster care and doing the type of work she's done. But underneath the siren's body is a woman who wants the white picket fence. If there's a stray within a country mile she'll take it in.  And Gamble with his haunted eyes, his grief and pain - she doesn't stand a chance.

The problem here is that Gamble is nowhere near good enough for her. Look, I get it. He's grieving. However, grief does not give anyone a free pass to be a hateful jackass - and the slut-shaming in this story enraged me.  Gamble has sex with her and then says awful things when he finds out she's the one interested in buying his cottage.  His sister accuses her of using her body to manipulate her poor grieving brother.  To add insult to injury, while Jezebel doesn't back down from Gamble, and gets more than one scene where she rips him to shreds, his vile sister never does show up on page again with Jezebel to apologize for what an evil witch she was to her.  

Seriously, I would take a bullet for Jezebel.

Two other issues with this story: the first time Gamble and Jezebel bone the condom breaks.  She knows this and immediately thinks she's pregnant (because she's clairvoyant apparently?) but has to wait a few days for the pregnancy test. And since this is a Harlequin of course she doesn't even have a single thought about emergency contraception.  Of course Gamble is all butt-hurt when he discovers the pregnancy test in her apartment and that leads to Drama Llama in our final act - but dude, she knew the condom broke and you didn't? When you were the one WEARING IT?!  Then there's the final separation to spur our couple to the happy ending. The author has to get Jezebel out of town for Gamble to have his Come to Jesus moment, and that's done by having Jezebel go back to Reno to be a trial witness for a mob hit she witnessed before hightailing it to Texas to lie low. 


The witness to the mob hit thing is very tacked on and screams CONVENIENT PLOT DEVICE. It's so tacked on that to keep Jezebel safe from eventual mob retribution it's disclosed she ended up not having to testify and the bad guy was convicted without her testimony. Ergo the mob has no reason to want her dead and she can go on with her life. Which begs the question - why fly a witness all the way to Reno and then not use her testimony?  This nugget in the story is mentioned early on to explain why Jezebel is in Three Pines and then leveraged at the end to be the third act separation. Other than that it does nothing and goes nowhere.

What am I left with?  With no idea how to grade this story. I loved the heroine. Her immediately thinking she's pregnant and no thought of emergency contraception did annoy me - but she's in a Harlequin, so yeah.  But the rest of her? Insert all the heart-eye emojis.

It's just unfortunate I hated Gamble. The pining for his saintly first wife. His behaving like a jackass while he and everyone around him uses his grief as an excuse. I've seen people grieve. I've known grieving people. They don't behave like this asshole does. And while I'm at it, his vile sister who slut-shames Jezebel should have been drop-kicked into the sun, not fall in love with the ex-con who works at her mother's garden nursery. Seriously, she's terrible.

I read it in two gulps, but it gave me emotional whiplash. Love ya Jezebel, but the rest of it is kind of a mess.

Final Grade = C+

Friday, April 12, 2024

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is April 17

TBR Challenge 2024

This reminder post is set to go up on the day I'm heading north to watch my niece, Lemon Drop, compete in an equestrian competition and take custody of my Parental Units from my sister. It's also hopefully going to mean that I've already read and scheduled the post about my #TBRChallenge book this month since it hits at the tail-end of their visit - Wednesday, April 17. This month's optional theme is No Place Like Home.

This is another suggestion that came out of my Annual Theme Poll and I feel like this one should be like shooting fish in a barrel - there's several popular options that come to mind! One of the characters returning to their hometown for some reason. A second chance or reunion themed romance. Or maybe one of the characters searching for a figurative "home." These are all really popular themes in romance and I'm sure we all have plenty to choose from in our TBRs.

However if you feel like this month's theme is too much like work 😂, remember that the themes are completely optional. 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 is certainly not too late to join the Challenge (to be honest it's never too late).  You can get more details and get links to the current list of participants on the #TBRChallenge 2024 Information Page

Monday, April 8, 2024

Review: Killers of a Certain Age

I promise that one of these days I'll get back to reading and blogging about romance, but the Clean Out Old Suspense ARCs via Library Audiobook Check-Outs Project continues here at the Bat Cave. Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn is a book that got a fair amount of play when it was published in 2022 - making the New York Times Bestseller List and being nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award (meaning a TON of people read and rated this book on GR).  Well, buckle up kiddies because you're in for another patented Auntie Wendy Damning with Faint Praise Review.

Billie, Mary Alice, Natalie and Helen have spent the last forty years working for "The Museum," an elite group of assassins who got their start during and after World War II hunting down Nazis. As they ran out of Nazis, The Museum sets their sights on other desirable targets.  Drug cartels, human traffickers, dictators, despots etc.  Our group of four women were hand-picked by The Museum for "special skills" they see in them, to be trained as the first all-female squad of assassins since World War II. 

Forty years later, all in their 60s, the women are retiring with a posh, all-expenses paid cruise funded by their soon to be former employer.  The cruise starts out unremarkable enough until Billie spies one of The Museum's assassins on the boat disguised as a crew member. That could mean that the four have stumbled their way into a mission, but that seems unlikely since The Museum funded this cruise for them. Nope, it can only mean one thing - their soon-to-be-former employer wants to make all four of them soon-to-be-formerly breathing. 

What follows is a race to outfox The Museum and get to the bottom of why the agency wants all four of them dead. Only the Board can order the termination of a field agent, and The Museum has always been methodical in their research department - potential hits being investigated sometimes for years, down to the type of underwear they like to wear and how they take their coffee.  None of it makes any sense.

While there are four characters, this story is told from Billie's point of view, sort of the defacto leader of their group.  The story also features timeline shifts, with the bulk of the story taking place in present day and chapters interspersed throughout about past missions, set in the early 1980s.

For a book about hired assassins the tone of this story is surprisingly light and frothy. It's also a lot of fun. I had a good time listening to it, I chuckled in a few spots, I enjoyed the story.  

If you're thinking there's a but coming - well, you would be right.

Look, I love me some fiction with morally gray characters. Anti-heroes, tough guys, characters with a lot of tricky edges that don't always make them "nice." This is not a problem for me. For heaven's sake, I spent an entire year glomming through Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder series

The problem here is the author doesn't sit with the morally gray or the ethically dubious. Yes, yes our retiring assassins only kill "bad guys" but THEY'RE STILL KILLING PEOPLE FOR A LIVING! There's a brief conversation between Billie and one of the others about "guilt" which basically ends with Billie saying (paraphrasing) "What are you talking about, I sleep just fine at night," but beyond that - nothing. 

There's no unpacking being done, and that's a problem because our Girl Gang tends to come off as naïve. Much hay is made over how The Museum runs it's operations and yet not one of them stops and thinks for a moment that this system could be corrupted. Give human beings enough time (and it usually doesn't take as long as you'd think) and everything is corruptible. It just is. It's the special sauce that makes humans human (and generally speaking why we're terrible - Lord, it might be time for me to read a nice romance novel I'm extra jaded at the moment...)

To put it more succinctly the author never takes the reader beyond You Go Girl! 

There's nothing wrong with this per se. It's an authorial choice. But what that authorial choice ends up being is Fun Beach Read. And that's what this was for me. I had a good time reading it so long as I didn't stop and think about it for too long. Because once I started doing that? I realized it's the kind of book I'd tell people, "It's a fun read, but it could have been great."

Final Grade = B

Friday, March 29, 2024

Review: The New Girl

I realize that Jesse Q. Sutanto is a bigger household name with her Aunties and Vera Wong series of adult mysteries, but I discovered her through her bang-up YA suspense thriller, The Obsession.  That book ended up being one of my favorite reads of 2021, and I was excited to hear that the author was going to continue on with a series, of which The New Girl is book 2 and yes, I'm just getting around to it.

Here's the thing, it's not really a sequel.  It's set in the same universe and is more of a prequel. A few characters from The Obsession are here (Sophie, Logan, the cops...) but not much else. This can be read purely as a stand-alone.

Lia Setiawan is a mid-distance running track star and thinks her ship has come in when she wins a full-ride scholarship to the prestigious private school, Draycott Academy.  However it doesn't take long for Lia to realize she's in way over her head.  She's quite literally getting a tour of campus when she witnesses a girl getting hauled out of a building by security, kicking and screaming.  And the rest of the students? Don't even bat an eye.  Speaking of, the student body is full of rich kids with their designer clothes (and designer drugs) and she quickly runs afoul of mean girl, Mandy, who Lia outperforms on the track, getting Mandy kicked off the varsity squad. Lia quickly becomes a hot topic on the school's anonymous social media app, Draycott Dirt - and naturally everything being said about her is unflattering. 

That's not the worst of it though - that's reserved for Mr. Werner, Lia's English teacher. Lia quickly runs into problems with him as he starts failing her right out the gate.  Then Lia stumbles across a major scandal - it seems Mr. Werner is selling good grades to the highest bidder.  And Lia, she of the single Mom, one-bedroom apartment, on a scholarship, does not stand a chance.  Failing Mr. Werner's class puts her track scholarship in jeopardy and, in turn, puts Lia's hopes for a college education in jeopardy.  The only thing going her way?  Danny, the cutest boy in school seems to have taken a shine to her. But even that gets complicated thanks to his racist parents and the fact that Mr. Werner is his uncle by marriage.

It's a lot. And eventually this toxic stew gets to bubbling and the bodies start dropping - with Lia right in the crosshairs.

A plus of this story is that the heroine acts and reacts like one would think a teenager would when dropped into extraordinary circumstances.  The downside? The heroine acts and reacts like one would think a teenager would when dropped into extraordinary circumstances.  Folks, this is a non-stop cavalcade of bad decisions from our heroine, start to finish.  Even worse? The reader is stuck in her reactionary, frantic brain for the entire story as she continues to make one bad decision after another. 

It is, and this cannot be overstated, exhausting. How this dumb bunny manages to skate out of serious trouble in the end beggars belief. Look, different strokes and all that, but frantic characters running off half-cocked making terrible decisions does not make for compelling reading. It just doesn't. Go ahead, fight me.

The other major problem with this book? Whoever at the publisher approved the back cover blurb has hopefully been fired since this book came out in 2022. There's a huge, honkin' spoiler in the back cover copy.  Look, I may not know much, but I do know that if the author doesn't reveal something until the final chapters? That's a spoiler. Yes, yes - I saw it coming at a certain point - but I would have seen it coming a lot sooner had I decided to read the back cover blurb before I started the book (which, hello, a lot of readers do). 

In the end this just didn't work all that well for me. I tore through it mainly to be done with it and see how the heck the author was going to get her Idiot Heroine Of Bad Decisions out of trouble, but that was the only reason. Too frantic, too frenetic, just too too.  As much as I loved the first book, this one might have killed my interest in the dysfunctionally corrupt Draycott Academy.

Final Grade = D

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Review: Never Look Back

Y'all, this ARC has been in my TBR pile since 2019 and I could just kick myself in the teeth for not reading it sooner.  Never Look Back is a riveting read that didn't have me coming up for air. I basically lost an entire Saturday reading it and hashtag no regrets. I'm ready to follow Alison Gaylin off a cliff.

For nearly two weeks in 1976, two teenagers, Gabriel LeRoy and April Cooper went on a killing spree, killing a dozen people before dying in a fire at a cult's compound in the middle of the southern California desert. Forty years later, journalist Quentin Garrison is working on a podcast about the murders tentatively titled "Closure." His husband, and even his producer Summer, think it's a great idea. Quentin has a connection to the murders. His aunt, just a young girl at the time, was gunned down by LeRoy and Cooper at a local gas station. Her death set off a chain of events that included his mother's spiraling drug addiction and an estrangement from his grandfather. Now Quentin has uncovered a lead. A man who saw an interview about movies online and he swears on his life that one of the women in that interview is none other than April Cooper.

Robin Diamond is a film columnist living in New York City and her life is starting to unravel. Her husband is hiding something from her, and she's convinced he's having an affair.  On top of that her latest column has generated a predictable amount of hate from Internet trolls.  The one solid in her life, the one thing she can count on, are her parents. Her mother, the perfect homemaker. Her father, a retired criminal psychologist who now has a small, private practice. Her parents are solid. Her parents have the perfect marriage. Her parents love her.  And then she gets a call from Quentin Garrison who tells her he thinks her Mom is the notorious, not dead after all, serial killer April Cooper. 

The story is told from multiple points of view (primarily Quentin and Robin) and different timelines (1976 and present day).  The 1976 timeline is told from April's perspective, in the form of a school assignment she received from her favorite teacher right before Gabriel LeRoy murdered her stepfather and kidnapped her.  That assignment is to write a letter to her future child, which April does. Those letters become her diary, as she details her life on the run with Gabriel and the bodies left in their wake.

This book is a ride, and Gaylin keeps the reader guessing by taking forks in the road.  I didn't see the forks coming and once on that stretch of road, I had no idea where the driver was taking me. Not all of them are shocking twists, but they're twists all the same, the story winding and curving, keeping me on my toes and unable to look away.

The compelling theme behind the story is that everybody has secrets - even your parents. What do any of us truly know about our parents? They had lives before they had kids. They had tragedies, triumphs, made good and bad choices.  That's what drives this narrative. What does Robin truly know about her mother? For that matter, what does her father know and how much? At first Quentin seems completely off the rails, but then there's the little things - the cracks that start appearing. The coincidences that are just too amazing to be actual coincidences. As Robin starts her journey towards the truth, the 1976 storyline careens to it's fiery epic conclusion at the cult's desert compound.

I'll also say that I loved the settings of this story, which takes place between southern California and the suburban enclaves outside of New York City.  Los Angeles tends to get a fair amount of attention as a setting for suspense stories, but this story tickled me for featuring such Los Angeles County cities as Duarte, Claremont, and even a brief mention of Pico Rivera.

Truly, it's an excellent read that I could not get enough of. As soon as I get through some more long neglected suspense ARCs on my Kindle, I need to drop my life and go on an Alison Gaylin reading tear.

Final Grade = A

Monday, March 25, 2024

Review: Beguiling Her Enemy Warrior

I may drag my feet completing a series, but I always feel a sense of accomplishment when I do finish that final book. Bonus points when it works out to where I enjoy all the entries in the series, which has been the case with Lucy Morris' Shieldmaiden Sisters trilogy for Harlequin Historical. This has been a trilogy where each book builds on the next, with the final book, Beguiling Her Enemy Warrior, wrapping up events set in motion in the first book, The Viking She Would Have Married. The hero in that book was supposed to marry a Welsh princess to secure an alliance his odious father wanted. Instead, the princess ran off (with his help) and he married his one true love, the heroine. The fly in the ointment? The princess' brother, the hero in this final book - and y'all he is not a happy man.

Helga's mother and two older sisters are fierce shieldmaidens. Helga is not. Her talents have always been elsewhere, as a healer, a skilled archer, looking after the women and children while battles rage. Helga is also the family rune caster and fortune teller, firmly believing she foretold her oldest sister's marriage and her next oldest sister's reunion with her true love. She's walking through the market after her older sister's, Valda's, weeding - looking on as Brynhild bickers with Erik, when she is taken captive. The dragon, the rune that she cast on that long ago day with her sisters, has finally come calling. 

Lord Rhys is in the cursed Viking outpost of Jorvik looking for his missing sister. She was sent to this hellscape to marry the despicable Jarl Ulf's son Halfdan, who threw her over for some shieldmaiden. Another nail in the Viking coffin. Not only have they raided his lands, terrified his people, the men are so cowardly they let women fight. Now his sister is missing. Rhys will have his revenge and when he sees Helga he shoots his shot. Her uncle is Jarl Ulf, he takes her and Ulf will have no choice but to broker a hostage exchange. Assuming, of course, his sister is still alive. And if she isn't? Oh boy...

As readers of the first two books know, Rhys is so very, very wrong. Ulf is despicable and thinks so little of Helga's family they live in near destitution. The only thing Ulf is upset about is that no marriage to Rhys' sister means he's going to have to take Rhys' Welsh lands the hard way. Which he's more than happy to do.

Once they're away from Jorvik and he doesn't fear she'll escape, Rhys removes Helga's gag and she tells him how wrong he is. Still, it's not a disaster for Rhys.  Yes, Ulf is still going to raid his holdings, but Helga's sisters and mother will track down his sister and exchange her for Helga's safe return. That's really all he wants. He'll figure out how to defeat Ulf with limited supplies and men after that. Of course he didn't expect to fall under the spell of Helga, who quickly worms her way under his defenses.

The bulk of this book runs along a parallel timeline to the second book, Tempted By Her Outcast Viking.  That book finds Brynhild and Erik in a road romance, tracking down the missing princess, and making their way to Wales to rescue Helga.  Like that book, Helga and Rhys start falling in love on the road, making their way back to his land in Wales. However the love truly blossoms once they are there, as Helga comes to understand the enormous pressure Rhys is under to protect his land and his people, the incredible obstacles in his way and the emotional baggage he carries.  A big reason he sent his sister off to marry Halfdan? His beloved aunt was taken captive by Ulf's men. The marriage was to lead to her release, which is why he knows his sister didn't just "run off." She knew what her duty was and that their aunt's life depended on it.

The romance is a bit of slow burn early on but catches fire in the final third, with our couple consummating their relationship prior to the final battle scene with Ulf.  There's also a rather thrilling scene where Helga helps rescue Erik's aunt, along with several other hostages. 

Besides having a healthy dose of external conflict, there's plenty of internal conflict to prop up the romance. Rhys has serious trust issues and Helga has just enough vulnerability to soften his defenses.  I'll be honest, I always found Valda and Brynhild the more interesting heroines, but Helga definitely holds her own. She's no shieldmaiden, but there's a quiet strength to her character that makes it hard to take your eyes off of her - which Rhys quickly discovers.  Also, there's a couple of scenes where she truly dresses him down in such a quietly fierce way, it's really something to behold. 

This is definitely a trilogy where each book builds off the ones that preceded, so no I don't think they necessarily stand alone all that well - but the overall arch of the storytelling is well done and it's a trilogy that has everything from internal angst to thrilling battle scenes. Also the couples? Not a single dud in the bunch.  It may have taken me a little while to finish the entire trilogy, but it was time well spent.

Final Grade = B

Friday, March 22, 2024

Review: Never Saw Me Coming

My project of getting through neglected mystery / suspense ARCs by checking out audiobook copies via work continues, this time with Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian. I think this is another one I may have downloaded thanks to a NetGalley promo email and just like A Likeable Woman, y'all I've been burned.  This is a book that's long on clever premise and not much else. 

Chloe Sevre looks like the picture perfect college freshman. Young, pretty, and an honors student to boot. She also happens to be a diagnosed psychopath. Chloe knew one thing when she started to apply to colleges, she had to be in the Washington D.C. area. She ended up at her first choice, John Adams University, receiving a full ride to take part in a unusual clinical study on psychopathy - Chloe is one of seven students taking part and none of them know who is who.  But the study, the free ride, those are incidental.  No, Chloe is at John Adams because that's where Will Bachman goes to school, and Chloe plans to kill Will Bachman in 60 days.

Chloe gets to work right away, but her plan runs off the rails almost immediately when a student is found dead in the psychology department. A student who was taking part in the psychopathy study. Then a second student ends up dead, another one taking part in the study, and it becomes apparent that someone is hunting down the psychopaths.

Into Chloe's orbit enters Charles, another psychopath running for student body president and Andre, also taking part in the study but turns out - he's a faker. Andre's no more a psychopath than I am the Queen of England, but he saw his opportunity for free college and took a shot.  In between her plans to kill Will, Chloe now is "working" with Charles and Andre to find out who is killing the psychopaths because obviously, well she's in danger. But "working" together for this girl is one part manipulation and two parts staying ahead of the curve.

See, clever premise. So what's the problem? Well for a book about someone murdering psychopaths there's an appalling lack of tension in this book. Like none. No edge of my seat. No OMG I have to find out what happens next! Nothing. In fact I really only kept reading because I kept thinking I was going to get some sort of "twist."  More on that in a minute actually....

The story is also told from multiple points of view and honestly? It's a big reason for the lack of tension. Chloe, Andre and Charles. That's all we need. Do we need chapters told from the lead shrink's perspective? From one of his grad assistants? From one of the detectives? No. No, we do not. In fact they don't really add anything other than page count.

But the real issue I disliked this book? Chloe. Thanks, I hate her. And hating her has nothing to do with the fact that she's a psychopath. No, she's one of those characters who thinks she's smarter than she actually is. Lord is this girl a dumb bunny. She bungles her plan with Will early on, she manages to fall prey to another psychopath in the study (who hacks her webcam) and, most importantly, she can't tell Andre is faking it.  For that matter, neither can the shrink or the grad assistants running the study - which who the hell gave this guy a ton of grant money?  God bless America.  

The whole thing lumbers along, Wendy keeps waiting for the twist, and then we get the frenetic ending that ugh - makes me regret not DNF'ing this stupid book.  Our twist here is no twist at all (I saw it coming the minute the plot element was introduced) and is straight up schlocky B horror movie - or like a romantic suspense novel from the 1990s.  And because I'm so annoyed, I'm spoiling it: 

Spoiler: One word. Twins. And of course the eviiiiilllll twin is the one who seems normal.

I've been reading suspense novels since I hit puberty, so it's possible I'm being entirely too cranky about this one. This debut was nominated for an Edgar Award (Best First Novel) and was named a New York Times Best Thriller of 2021. But honestly, who ya gonna believe? Them or your Auntie Wendy, who's always looking out for you.

Oh what might have been with this clever premise if Andre had been the one driving the bus. Missed opportunities y'all. Missed opportunities. 

Final Grade = D