Thursday, October 14, 2021

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is October 20!

Hey, hey - it's that time again! Time for the monthly #TBRChallenge!  Whether you are participating or just following along, #TBRChallenge Day is Wednesday, October 20. This month's (always optional) theme is Gothic.

This was another suggestion from the poll I ran late last year and, if memory serves, it was suggested by more than just one person. There's been a number of Gothics published in the past few years, and some of you may even have vintage titles lurking in your TBR. Honestly though, anything a little creepy or a little spooky would fit the bill.

But remember, the themes are always optional.  Maybe your TBR is nothing but sunshine and roses. Maybe you don't like to ready spooky Gothic-y creepiness.  Whatever, it's no matter! 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.  

Also, the poll asking for theme suggestions for the 2022 TBR Challenge is still open.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

#TBRChallenge 2022: The Poll Is Open!

Sometime during the past two weeks (while I haven't been putting up new blog posts) the calendar suddenly turned to October.  OCTOBER! Something that happened in between my forever state of exhaustion and a reading slump that has been rather unfortunate.  October means we've only got two months left of 2021 (what?!) and it also means we only have two months left in the 2021 #TBRChallenge.

What (very) little creativity I may have once had fled the scene in 2020, and last year I decided to create a poll to help come up with some fresh theme ideas for the Challenge.  And you know what?  While the returns were small, they were mighty!  I got a lot of great suggestions!  In fact, 11 out of the 12 themes for the 2021 Challenge came from this poll.  So, naturally, I'm opening the poll again for theme suggestions for the 2022 Challenge.

Sign-ups for the 2022 #TBRChallenge will come soon-ish, but for now the poll is open!  

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Redemption Road: Unusual Historical Picks for September 2021

I'm currently mired in a slump, which always makes browsing for unusual historicals a bit fraught. A reminder that as I cull my way through the dumpster fire that is Amazon's algorithm (I also check individual publisher web sites) I'm looking for the unusual that catches my (personal) eye. Not all titles make the cut for that reason, and when I'm in a slump? I have to go through the "is it me or is it the blurb?" song and dance.  Still, September does offer plenty to intrigue, even a grumpy gus like myself.  
A Blues Singer to Redeem Him by Elle Jackson 
Nights at the speakeasy… 

Spark a dangerous romance 

Evelyn Laroque’s performances at Lorenzo De Luca’s Kansas City blues club draw even bigger crowds than his bootleg whiskey. And every time he hears her voice, Lorenzo falls a little harder for the achingly beautiful blues singer. When Evelyn becomes a target for the KKK, Lorenzo faces an impossible choice. Will this son of a gangster turn to the mob if it’s the only way to protect the woman he loves?

So I've been looking forward to this one since I first heard about it some months back, and I really need to read my ARC soon - which has gotten pushed due to other commitments.  Now I want to make sure I'm in the right mindset for it (see current slump).  It opens with the heroine living through the Tulsa Race Massacre and then moves to 1926 Kansas City.  I mean, if you're going for villains in a historical romance, it doesn't get much more villainous than the KKK and hopefully the mobster hero will work OK for yours truly (sometimes they do, sometimes they don't).  Sigh. Also, love this cover. Think that dress is appropriate librarian office attire? Asking for a friend.

A Yuletide Kiss by Madeline Hunter, Sabrina Jeffries and Mary Jo Putney
The reigning queens of Regency Romance return with another delightful Christmas collection of three sparkling holiday romances, as stranded travelers find merriment, mistletoe, and holiday romance awaiting at a quaint country inn . . . 

THE UNEXPECTED GIFT by Madeline Hunter 
Jenna Waverly has closed her inn, anticipating a blissfully quiet Christmas, until a snowstorm brings the first of several strangers to her property. Lucas Avonwood, as charming as he is secretive, is on a mission to track down a scoundrel, but the inn’s lovely owner is giving him a more compelling reason to stay . . . 

When Flora Younger first met Konrad Juncker, she thought she’d found her match, only to have her hopes dashed. Konrad is now a famous playwright whose plays Flora has secretly panned in reviews. But a chance meeting in a secluded inn may help them rewrite this star-crossed romance . . . 

Kate Mcleod is shocked to find that her fellow guest in the snowbound inn is the dashing soldier who may or may not be her husband. Daniel Faringdon barely remembers that long-ago night when he rescued her from disaster, but the desire they discover now will be impossible to forget, or to ignore . . .
I love to read short, so I'm a sucker for anthologies, even though they're traditionally uneven affairs.  But we've got three well-known historical romance pros here and the stories all center around a country inn at Christmastime.  If there is a boardinghouse, inn or country house party within 50 yards of a historical romance I am HERE for it. Plus there's a bunch of unusual here: an innkeeper heroine, a famous playwright and critic, and a "dashing soldier."

Her Honorable Mercenary by Nicole Locke
An innocent maiden 

And a legendary warrior 

When captured and held prisoner in an enemy castle, Margery of Lyon is guarded by brooding mercenary Evrart, who’s been commanded to watch her—day and night. Margery’s determination to escape brings her closer to Evrart and the kind heart hidden beneath his granite-hard body. Now Margery is torn… 

Fleeing under the portcullis will mean leaving behind the man she’s falling for…
A kidnapped heroine falls for the mercenary hired to guard her.  That distinction is significant for me, as I find it a bit more palatable than the ol' captive/captor combo.  But hey, it wouldn't be a medieval romance without some moral ambiguity and tested loyalties.

A mean girl reformed . . . 
Once the reigning beauty of her social set, Celia—whom the newspapers dubbed Lady Infamous—has fallen on hard times and is practically destitute, her reputation in shreds. When Celia is forced to attend a society wedding as a companion to an elderly guest, she must confront the clique she once commanded; the gentleman she'd once hoped to marry—who is now wed to a girl Celia relentlessly taunted; and the powerful man who ruined her life a decade before—and is threatening to do so again. . . . 

 A hero transformed . . . 
Then there is Richard, the studious boy Celia used to ridicule, who is now gorgeous, wealthy, and more-than-a-little famous. As a youth, Richard was infatuated with Celia. He still seems intrigued, but Celia has acquired a shocking secret along with her hard-won humility. Will it put an end to the love blossoming between them? Does she have the courage to find out?
This is book 3 in a series (when I haven't read the first two) and ask me if I care? I do not. I am HERE for bad girls in historical romance and a former mean girl who has fallen (yikes pretty far), is all sorts of Wendy Catnip.  Digging deeper into reviews, turns out our "studious boy" the heroine used to ridicule is now an entomologist and the twin of "the gentleman she'd once hoped to marry."  I need this in my eyeballs right now.

Restless Heart by Beth Williamson 
Angels don’t always have halos...

Angeline Hunter ran from a horrific marriage, to start her life again in a small town in Wyoming, away from the Mormon life she had escaped in Utah. She didn’t want to fall in love, or even fall in like, with a man like Samuel Carver. He was too nice, too normal, and far out of the reach for a woman who lived each day in a lie.

Sam Carver had hair the color of midnight and eyes darker than pitch—the eyes of a man who’d seen too much. But he couldn’t get enough of the mysterious, ethereal beauty who had turned up in his little Wyoming town, working at the Blue Plate, keeping to herself. He knew Angeline Hunter was running scared, pursued by a fanatic who threatened her life. But no matter what it took, Sam would convince his angel to put her trust in him, to put the painful past behind her and learn just how pleasurable the present could be.
Originally published by Kensington Brava in 2011 (so there will be sexy times!) under the Emma Lang name, this is a self-published reprint and book 2 in a series.  The heroine is the third wife of a Mormon Elder who runs away and straight into the arms of our half-Native hero and a welcoming small town. This has rescue fantasy and angst written all over it.

What Unusual Historicals are you looking forward to?

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

#TBRChallenge Review: Whiteout

The Book: Whiteout by Adriana Anders

The Particulars: Contemporary romantic suspense, Book 1 in series, Sourcebooks, 2020, In Print, Available digitally (free on Amazon Prime at time of this posting).

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: It's set in Antarctica and has a whole "us against the elements survivalist" vibe thing going on.  I LOVE that in romance. It's a big reason why the grittier historical westerns are my favorite. Will the characters survive winter AND fall in love?  Gimme, gimme, gimme.

Minor Spoilers Ahead!

The Review: So I actually had a languishing ARC of this in my TBR and normally I don't read ARCs (no matter how old) for this challenge.  But yeah, here's the thing.  I finished this book on Sunday and the book I picked for the challenge I'm still reading and I suspect I may end up DNF'ing it - so I'm "cheating" a wee bit.  Hopefully y'all will let that slide.

Anyway, literally everybody and their dead grandmother in my corner of Romancelandia loved this book when they read it last year and here waltzes in Wendy with a "Meh, it was fine" review.  But I'm a big enough person to acknowledge that most of what left me going a big rubbery one with this story is very much personal preference.  Let's dive in, shall we?

Angel Smith is a chef who took a job cooking for a crew of scientists on Antarctica after her boyfriend did her wrong (oh whoa doggie, did that guy do her dirty!).  Basically she ran away, not that you can really blame her once her back-story comes fully to light.  Anyway, her assignment is up tomorrow and she's flying out, which has her a bit at loose ends, but also relieved since it means she'll get away from the distracting Ford Cooper.  She's hot for him but he's so insufferable she's basically filed him away in her "What am I, nuts?!" never, ever box.

Ford is a gorgeous glaciologist whose nickname "Ice Man" is well earned.  He wants to be alone darling.  Honestly he reads a bit like he's somewhere on the spectrum but Anders kind of tap-dances around that.  Anyway, he's also warm for Angel's form, but being a socially distant grump she hasn't exactly picked up on that.

The wrinkle is that some months prior Ford makes a discovery when pulling some ice core samples.  And being the collaborative community that they are, Ford freely shares and discusses his discovery.  That gets the attention of the bad guys who show up just as the summer crew is leaving.  In the process of trying to steal the cores they kill two men, nearly capture Angel, and she misses the last flight out.  Ford is out on the ice during this time and comes back to camp to discover the whole mess.  Now it's just Angel, Ford and the ice cores those bad guys so desperately want.  They know the bad guys will be back and formulate a plan to trek 300 miles across the ice to get to the next nearest camp - an abandoned Russian site.

I really enjoyed the first 2/3 of this book.  The bad guys running amok, Angel out-smarting them, Ford and Angel (who are uncomfortable around each other) banding together and having to ski across 300 miles of Antarctica to get to help - gimme, gimme, gimme!  As I mentioned, I really dig all this survivalist, Couple vs The Elements stuff in romance.  The romance feels a bit Insta-Lust at times, but it largely worked for me given the extreme circumstances and fight for their lives the couple were in.  So where did it run south for me?  Well, the ending.  Or more specifically, the rescue and series set-up.

Ford has an older brother who is somehow fabulously wealthy and runs his own Super Seeeeekrit Paramilitary Group.  Because of course he does.  Because it's a romantic suspense novel and all these guys are in Super Seeeeeekrit Paramilitary Groups.  Confession time, not a fan. I'm aware that I'm a girl who will read about Amnesiac Cowboys with Secret Babies, but this trope has always felt too "out there" for me. I just can't go there.  Sorry, can't.  Anyway, so now of course there's all these series baiting characters showing up and of course Angel and Ford end up signing on, but not before they take on new names and identities and everyone keeps almost accidentally calling them by their old names!  I mean, how good are you at your job if you can't keep new names and identities straight?  The whole thing kind of smells like an old school Bond movie - with the group stationed off the California coast, working to track down a conspiracy, and then you have couples making gooey heart eyes at each other.

And long.  Have I mentioned how long and never-ending this aspect of this story is?  From the time of the rescue on it just never seems to end.

You know what would have worked way better for me?  Two normal people who somehow thwart a conspiracy and return to "normal lives."  Normal people in extraordinary situations stuff.  Not paramilitary who-ha.  Sigh.

But I'm a mature enough person to recognize that this is personal preference.  Lots of Romancelandia likes this paramilitary "stuff."  Yes, I recognize that paramilitary groups exist in Real Life.  There are authors who have built amazing, successful careers on this trope.  I'm just....not a fan.  

So first half of this book?  Probably a solid B.  The rest of the book?  How many ways can I say meh?  For that reason, while I have a minor itch to pick up Book 2, I'm just not sure I ever will.  Your mileage may vary.

Grade = C+

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is Wednesday September 15

Hey, hey - it's that time again! Time for the monthly #TBRChallenge!  Whether you are participating or just following along, #TBRChallenge Day is Wednesday, September 15. This month's (always optional) theme is Unusual.

This was another suggestion from the poll I ran late last year and while I think I've used some variation of this theme in the past, it's been a while. Whatever unusual means to you. Maybe a genre you don't read all that often? Unique historical settings, character professions etc.  Run with it y'all!

But remember, the themes are always optional.  Maybe your TBR is nothing but Dukes and small town contemporaries. Maybe you don't feel like wading that deeply into your TBR this month looking for "unusual."  Whatever, it's no matter! 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.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Review: In the Garden of Spite

In the Garden of Spite by Camilla Bruce was an impulse download because it's got one of the best book titles in recent memory.  Oh, and it's a historical suspense novel based (loosely) on the life of Belle Gunness, a serial killer who operated in Chicago and Indiana in the late 19th / early 20th century.  I'm not sure what I was expecting exactly besides gruesome, but what I ended up getting was basically the thriller equivalent of slowing down on the freeway to look at a grisly car accident.  Did I like this?  Not really. Was I, at times, riveted?  Most definitely.

Warning: Spoilers (complete with trigger warnings) ahead!

Our story opens in Selbu, Norway and finds our heroine Brynhild living in poverty with her mother, younger sister, and abusive, drunkard father. She's a maid / kitchen help at a nearby farm and of course she's pregnant thanks to the farmer's oldest son (hello, the heir).  The pregnancy is no secret and when people aren't suggesting she "take care of it" they're calling her a fool.  But Brynhild wants this baby and just knows the farmer's son will do right by her - even if she does have to threaten to go to the local priest. The farmer's son, not about to marry dirt poor Brynhild lures her to the river and proceeds to beat her to the point of miscarriage and near death.  But Brynhild vows to live, if only for spite - well, that and revenge.  Let's not forget revenge.

You gotta love the 19th century. After Brynhild recovers she's constantly reminded of her shame, told it's basically all her fault, but nobody bats an eye when she goes back to work on the farm and suddenly the Pyschopathic Baby Daddy becomes very ill and dies. While she's slowly poisoning this sack of human garbage, Brynhild is writing letters to her much older sister in Chicago spinning tales of woe and begging her dirt poor sister and her husband to send money so she can relocate to America.  Which they do.  Brynhild changes her name to Belle and moves in.

This book shifts between Belle's and sister Nellie's point of view.  Nellie, what a dumb bunny this woman is. Typical hardworking 19th century immigrant woman. A happy marriage, but living in a Chicago tenement taking in other peoples' laundry and with a wrecked back thanks to hard labor and numerous pregnancies (several miscarriages and infant deaths but by the end of the book she's had 3 children see adulthood).  Anyway, Belle isn't exactly the big help Nellie was expecting or, quite frankly, needs - but she just wants her sister to be happy.  Of course there's that unpleasant business when Belle stabs a suitor with a pair scisscors when he tries to rape her, that was unfortunate. NOW HOW WILL SHE EVER FIND A HUSBAND?!

Y'all seriously. Men are a problem.

Anyhoodle, at this point Belle has killed the Baby Daddy who beat her near to death causing a miscarriage and stabbed a drunken suitor who was intent on raping her. This second gem of a human being ends up murdered later on thanks to Belle's future lover / accomplice.  Now, here's the thing, I'm not saying she should have necessarily murdered these men but girl, I understand.  No, the problem here is that Belle goes entirely too far after the stabbing and men who aren't scum get sucked into her orbit. 

She soon marries a nice man she meets at church (as you do) and she milks Mads into the comfortable lifestyle she feels she deserves, but as the money dwindles and the babies don't come (thank you Mr. Asshole in Norway), it all starts to sour.  Belle meets James Lee (her future lover and accomplice) starts taking in foster kids, starts faking pregnancies, starts her own business which she later burns down for the insurance money, and starts slowly poisoning her husband to keep him meek and in line.  After many, many years of this she finally gets fed up with him and finishes job - conveniently on the last day of Insurance Policy #1 and the first day of Insurance Policy #2.  Basically poor dopey Mads pays off twice!

Belle then moves to Indiana, marries again, the inevitable happens, and oopsie doodle - Dead Husband #2.  By this time Belle has four children and a taste for blood.  She starts luring men to her farm with promises of land and love (just bring cash darling) and the bodies conveniently disappear thanks to her acres of land.

And all the while there's poor, long-suffering Nellie fretting about her sister.  Honestly I love Author Notes in historical fiction and Bruce gives us a good one. Belle did have an older sister named Nellie but the sisters fell out after Husband #1 died. So the Nellie in the book is nearly a complete fabrication which the author indicates she did in order to create an "empathetic character."  Yeah, nice try.  Belle, I understood. Nellie?  Nellie is a coward.  She suspects her sister is a monster, but she just stands by wringing her hands. No, Nellie basically sends in the children to do a woman's job - and naturally things end very badly for the snooping oldest daughter.  Nellie, dumb bunny that she is, gets her foster niece murdered.  I just - really?!  You're too much of a wuss to stand up to your sister so you SEND IN A CHILD TO FIND OUT WHAT BELLE IS HIDING IN THE FORBIDDEN CELLAR?!?!?!?  Yeah, it's more than root vegetables.  Anyway, Nellie is ineffectual, mealy-mouthed and I'm supposed to empathize with this woman?  No.  At least Belle is compelling in a train-wreck, murderous rampage sort of way.  Nellie is just the literal worst.

It's a blood-soaked extravaganza with dismembered body parts, pop psychology (Belle could have been born bad but her father, her first lover and the would-be rapist probably didn't help matters), arson, and several dead children.  Oh sure, Belle loved kids and by all accounts was "a good mother" - but children still end up dead all the same. I lost count - six dead kids? Mother of the Year!

So where does that leave us? Lord, I have no idea. This was certainly entertaining but I'm not sure I can (or want to) necessarily recommend it.  It's Dark AF and fairly gory. If you're curious don't say I didn't warn you.

Final Grade = C

Monday, August 30, 2021

Review: Who's the Boss Now?

It's a blue ribbon day here at The Bat Cave when Wendy discovers a new category romance author. I really enjoyed Susannah Erwin's first two books with Harlequin Desire so when the third book in her Titans of Tech world, Who's the Boss Now?, landed on my Kindle, I was ready to dive right in.  Unfortunately, as much as I enjoyed the first two books in this series, this one floundered for me.

Marguerite Delacroix's family used to be in the wine-making business and it's all she has ever wanted, well besides resuming control of St. Isadore's, the Napa Valley vineyard that had been in the family for generations. Even though she begged her parents to hang on to the land so she could one day take over management, her parents sold it, took early retirement and uprooted to Arizona. After Marguerite got hosed at her last vineyard job (a former boyfriend took credit for all her great ideas and then proceeded to drag her name through the mud), she reaches out to St. Isadore's current owner. They have a handshake agreement (because apparently she learned NOTHING) where she's grossly underpaid, but takes a cut of the back-end and slowly buys the vineyard from him. Of course the old man dies before it's all finalized and the ledger that has the record of this handshake agreement has gone missing. So our girl, again apparently having learned nothing, decides to break into the winery to steal the test bottles she has stashed in the cellar. Time is of the essence given that the dead owner's great-nephews just sold the winery to a tech bro and word on the street is he's going to tear down the winery and develop the land in other ways.

Of course the tech bro in question, Evan Fletcher, is already in residence and of course he catches Marguerite in the act. What follows is a comedy of errors with them talking circles around each other (she's not really stealing you see - but will admit she technically is trespassing) and then the sheriff shows up not to arrest Marguerite (who he knows by the by....) but to return Evan's 21-year-old brother who was up to shenanigans, and then the power goes out because sure, why not?  Evan bought the winery as an investment property with the idea that his 21-year-old brother would run it someday and recognizes he needs to hire staff to pull the winery back from the brink - so sure, why not hire the woman he just caught BREAKING INTO HIS NEW HOME.

I love category romance. I've been around the Amnesiac Cowboy Sheikh Who Has A Secret Baby block a time or two. My credulity will strain pretty dang far. Heck, the set-up for Erwin's first book was pretty convoluted (hero needs to get married to save a business deal).  But this one?  I just couldn't go there. I get that the heroine got stonewalled by the great-nephews, but honestly breaking and entering? That's extreme even for me. And then there's the fact that she doesn't demand an agreement with the former owner IN WRITING with all the legal i's dotted and t's crossed. If I'm to believe the winery is THAT important to her the fact she's so lackadaisical about purchasing it just makes her look really, really stupid.

And while I'm on the subject of buying a Napa Valley vineyard - y'all realize how much property in Napa costs? Especially a winery sitting on several acres of land? Even a small operation is going to cost millions - and that's before you factor in labor costs and actually growing grapes, producing wine etc. St. Isadore's is in trouble. It's not a thriving operation. Distribution is a mess and the property needs repairs and equipment upgrades. So exactly how realistic is it that the heroine's handshake deal is making her enough money on the back-end for her to BUY AN ENTIRE WINERY IN THE NAPA REAL ESTATE MARKET?!  Especially when there's no mention of a bank loan. No, she apparently paid off the entire thing with the dead owner and he croaked before the paperwork could be done.  I just - who buys a Napa Valley winery IN CASH unless you're the hero who has made millions being a tech bro? 

Honestly, had this been my first read by the author I would have DNF'ed it after the first chapter. That's how much the breaking and entering "meet cute" and real estate shenanigans annoyed me. But I pushed through because, like I mentioned, I really did enjoy Erwin's first two books. Quite a bit.  The stuff with Evan's brother is good and the romance is steamy - although Evan spent too much time in San Fransisco for my liking.  It would have been fine in a longer book, but Desires are really short (200 pages), so I feel like the story would have been better served had the author parked him in Napa sooner.

I just couldn't go there with this book. It annoyed me from the jump with the set-up. And when the set-up annoys the reader?  It's kind of a lost cause at that point. I will certainly be in line for the author's next book, that's how much I liked the first two. Here's hoping that this one is an outlying blip on my reading radar.

Final Grade = C-