Wednesday, October 16, 2019

#TBRChallenge 2019: Stone Cold Undercover Agent The Book: Stone Cold Undercover Agent by Nicole Helm

The Particulars: Romantic Suspense, Harlequin Intrigue, 2017, Book #2 in trilogy, out of print, available in digital

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: I picked this up at an RWA conference (2017 most likely) and at that time I think Helm was fairly new to Harlequin Intrigue.  I have enjoyed some of her SuperRomances, and neither here nor there she's a baseball fan.  So we chat on occasion.

The Review: Let me preface this by saying that I've enjoyed Helm's books in the past and she has the kind of style that I sink into.  And when you couple that style with the Intrigue line?  If the author is hitting her beats it's pretty much a guarantee that I won't come up for air until I finish the last page.  Which is what happened here.  Even though this book is a hot mess that defies logic.  Seriously.  Some of that can probably be chalked up to being book 2 in a trilogy, when I haven't read book 1, but there are elements in play with this book that don't make a whole lot of sense.

Gabriella Torres was kidnapped 8 years ago by a madman whose motives are never made clear.  For one thing, we never find out why he's kidnapping women (because there are others besides Gabby).  "The Stallion" seems to be looking for "the perfect woman" - even resorting to taking measurements.  He has a collection of creepy dolls he coos over.  Oh, and he doesn't rape his captives nor does he allow his henchmen too.  Look, on one hand it's refreshing to read a romantic suspense novel where the heroine isn't an abuse survivor - but rape is about power, not sex.  So Gabby being untouched in 8 long years of captivity, when "The Stallion" seems to want to "break" her - um, how does this make any sense?  I know this is an insane thing to quibble about but with so many high publicized cases, all the true crime TV shows and podcasts out there...This. Doesn't. Make. Sense.

Anyway, The Stallion is some kind of evil crime lord.  But we never get any details about his "business" other than "drugs."  He has the kidnapped girls doing some work (sewing drugs into pillows, stuffed animals and the like) and he's got hired goons running around doing hired goon stuff but other than that?  Yeah, we got nothing.  And he's not raping any of the women nor prostituting them (Gabby isn't special) - which begs the question of WHY IS HE KIDNAPPING THEM?!?!  I don't know much about the drug business but I'm thinking he could probably get plenty of willing workers without resorting to kidnapping.  But, who knows?  It's not a business model I've explored for myself so what do I really know?

Jaime Alessandro has been undercover in The Stallion's organization for two years, and is starting to crack up.  But he's finally worked his way up the ladder and has been "gifted" Gabby by his boss.  Why The Stallion finally thinks it's OK for Jaime to do the dirty with Gabby when he's protected her from Every. Single. Other. Henchman. and has never prostituted her out via human trafficking in the previous eight years?  Also not explained.  At all.  Apparently readers just need to roll with it.

Gabby has paid attention, noticed patterns to The Stallion's movements and Jaime needs her help to ferret out his various hideouts and uncover evidence.  The information she shares with him isn't exactly earth shattering, nor does it lead to some crazy stash of cash or a mass grave of dead bodies - but whatever.  Just roll with it.  Anyway...Gabby thinks Jaime is there to rape her, but eventually pieces together that he's an undercover cop.  But when they're around other henchmen or The Stallion - they need to act like she's scared and he's roughing her up.  So the power dynamic here is all sorts of squirky.

These two don't need a love story - they need years of therapy.  The human spirit is an amazing and resilient wonder, but Gabby has been in captivity for eight years.  It's great that she's feisty but dude - she's too feisty.  And Jaime has been deep undercover for two years.  Doing bad things.  Witnessing bad things.  I don't care who you are Mr. Macho Romance Hero - nobody walks away from that clean.  So to have these two hot for each, burning up the sheets (yes, there are sex scenes), and declaring they love for each other after less than one week of knowing each other AND factoring in their respective baggage?  I cannot suspend that much disbelief.

And yet?  I read this book straight through.  As in picked it up, didn't put it down, went to bed late on a school night.  Why?  Lord, I don't know!  And while I have no interest in reading the first book in the series (about Gabby's sister), I'm going to track down book #3 which is about another kidnapped woman who becomes slightly unhinged over the course of this story.  I mean, I need more Alyssa is my life apparently.

Helm can obviously write because I tore through this during a time when I've been reading books slower than usual (which, for me, is extra slow since I've never been a fast reader).  It's hard to explain if you're not a category reader, but an author can write a mess of a book and if the beats are hit at just the right moments?  It's darn near impossible for me to stop.  There's a reason Intrigues are my go-to reading when I'm traveling and stuck on airplanes. 

So for that reason, it feels wrong to slap this with the grade I'm going to, but seriously - this plot is a dang mess.  Helm's written better.

Final Grade = D

Monday, October 14, 2019

Review: The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics

Historical romance is my first love in the genre, but over the years the sub genre has evolved, my tastes have changed, and I just need something "more."  What that "more" is isn't so easily defined and when I try to explain it I end up sounding like a ninny.  So I haven't really tried.  Well, after (finally) reading The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite - I think I've finally figured it out.  I'm here for feminist historical romance, a social justice warrior sort of romance pushing back on the patriarchy - but I also still want something that reads fairly true-to-live.  It was a hard life for women who openly defied male-dominated society at large.  Oh sure, women did it - but it was never easy nor did it always end happily.  That's what made Waite's debut with Avon stand out for me.  These are two very unconventional women who are more than aware of the men standing in their way, and while there's uncertainty, and even doubt at times, they forge on.  They hit road blocks, they are dismissed and belittled, but they forge on.  And the whole thing reads like a bloody historical and never once feels anachronistic or silly.  Oh, and it's a romance so I get a happy ending.

I. Want. More.

Lucy Muchelney is sitting in her small country church watching the love of her life, Priscilla, get married to a man.  Worse yet, Lucy grew up with and likes the guy.  She's devastated, heartbroken, the worst of it being that Pris felt so little regard for her and their love that Lucy found out about the engagement when the banns were read in the bloody church!  Upon return home to the house she shares with her artist brother, Lucy discovers a letter from the Countess of Moth, who is looking for someone to translate a revolutionary French astronomy text.  Having aided her dead father's work for years, Lucy knows she's the gal for the job - and heads off to London posthaste.  She figures the Countess will have a harder time saying no if Lucy is literally standing on her doorstep.

Her not-dearly departed husband no longer holding her hostage with his mercurial moods, Catherine St. Day is looking forward to a life of quiet solitude - just as soon as she can aid the Polite Science Society in getting this French text translated.  When Lucy shows up on her doorstep Catherine braces herself, seeing the same determined tilt of her chin and the gleam in her eyes that reminds her of her dead husband - a comparison that is anything but good.  But Catherine admires the girl's moxie, takes one look at her outdated country wardrobe and thinks, "sure, why not."  Having corresponded with Lucy and her father for years, Catherine thinks she's surely as capable as anyone else.  But when Catherine presents her to the Society, and Lucy is callously dismissed out of hand in an appalling manner, Catherine decides to pull her money on their project and back Lucy all on her own. 

What I loved about this book, besides the fact that it's a historical that feels like a historical while still giving the reader "unconventional" heroines, is the romance is a slow burn.  Lucy very comfortably identifies as a lesbian, but she's also aware of the society she lives and has to operate in.  She simply cannot just walk up to Catherine and say, "I think you're hot - how would you feel about a torrid love affair?"  Catherine, for her part, is a widow and took a male lover after her husband's death (which did not end well), and it's only after spending time with Lucy, getting to know her, and the slow burn chemistry begins to smolder, then ignite, that the characters land in bed together.  Waite didn't put the cart before the horse, which I cannot tell you how refreshing that was to read.

I also loved how both women are smart, logical, have dreams - but also are realists.  They are well aware the obstacles that are in their path, acknowledge them even, and then like all resourceful women that have come before and since, look for ways to maneuver around them.  This is, quite possibly, the most startlingly feminist romance I've read in a long time that didn't feel like overblown wish fulfillment.  Like, seriously - I felt like this could have happened (heck, it probably did and I just don't realize it - that's how true it all felt).

There is a lot of science talk in this book, and coming from someone who took four years of college to get past three measly science requirements (obviously not a subject I'm keen on, nor terribly good at...), none of it flew over my head or made my eyes glaze over.  My only real quibble with this book is that the pacing of the conflict ebbed and flowed.  While I appreciated the slow burn of the romance, there are portions of the story that sag a bit.  I carried on through them because I was very invested in the characters, but the second half of the story is back-loaded with most of the conflict.

But, quibbles.  It's a lovely romance, featuring lovely characters, and a great sense of time, place and history.  It's also the kind of book where I wanted a romance for darn near every secondary character - that's how much I enjoyed this world Waite has, obviously, lovingly created and brought to life.

Final Grade = B+

Friday, October 11, 2019

Review: The Shape of Night

I was really excited when I first heard about The Shape of Night by Tess Gerritsen.  As much as I love the Rizzoli/Isles series (the books, the TV show...not so much), the last book, while a good suspense novel, felt regressive in terms of character development.  So a "break" to return to her romantic suspense roots felt like a smart move to me - and let's be honest, I am here for Gothic anything every day of the week and twice on Sundays.  So how was this?  Well, it's different - I'll give it that.  It was a very mixed read for me during the first half, but it's compelling and it will certainly irritate the heck out of Eww, No Romance Cooties In My Dead Body Books brigade - which I take perverse pleasure in because...well, I'm a spiteful old cow.

Ava Collette is running away from Boston after Something Bad Happens, and heads to a quiet small town in Maine to rent an old coastal manor named Brodie's Watch.  Built by a sea captain, Jeremiah Brodie, who went down with his ship, the isolated manor has a color history including rumored sightings of the ghost of Captain Brodie, the death of a teenage girl one Halloween night, and a previous tenant who hastily left town with two months left on her lease. 

Ava's not in residence for long before she's experiencing encounters with Captain Brodie, who seems to see directly into her soul, revealing her deepest, darkest and most shameful secrets.  As she falls in love with the house and under the spell of a ghostly apparition, Ava's grasp on what is real and what is not starts to unravel, leading her to confront her own past and solve the mystery of Brodie's Watch, a house that has a history of claiming the lives of its female occupants.

The big hurdle for me was Captain Brodie who is not only a ghost but a BDSM ghost.  Yes, you just read that sentence.  The whole thing felt hokey, silly.  But, as a general rule, my enjoyment of supernatural, let alone sexy supernatural, is pretty low.  A lesser writer, one I don't have a history with (I've read A LOT of Gerritsen over the years), would have been on a shorter leash.  So I stuck with this, and in the end, Gerritsen puts a spin on the whole BDSM angle that worked for me.  Your mileage may vary.

What worked better for me were the side subplots that also added to the mystery and tension of the story.  Namely, why is Ava running away from Boston, what really happened to the previous tenant who left behind personal belongings, and the story behind Brodie's Watch as a whole.  Ava follows the recent trend of suspense novel heroines who hits the bottle liberally, leading her to making terrible life choices (see: leaving Boston) and questioning her sanity. 

My two firm quibbles with this story is that Ava's drinking problem, while eventually addressed, never really gets more than a surface treatment and the mystery of why she fled Boston is revealed but I suspect some readers will be annoyed that it's never fully aired out.  Revealing more than that is a Huge Honkin' Spoiler - but suffice it to say that Ava is party to something Really Not Cool and I suspect it will be a bridge too far for some.  Hey, everybody makes mistakes.  Everybody has regrets.  But Ava's is a doozey.  Boy howdy.

Which makes it sound like I didn't like this book.  I did.  Is it perfect?  No.  But it's haunting and compelling and even with my quibbles it's a story that has lingered with me days after finishing.  Which, given the amount of books I've read over the course of my lifetime?  Is saying something.

Final Grade = B

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is October 16!

I know this blog has been a dead zone of late - which I'm going to blame on Real Life, not really reading all that much, and work sucking out my brains.  Which is a great lead in....

Hey, hey, hey!  For those participating in the 2019 #TBRChallenge, a reminder that your commentary is "due"on Wednesday, October 16.  This month's theme is Paranormal or Romantic Suspense.

Our traditional Wendy-Has-No-Imagination Halloween month theme.  A neat trick for me since I'm not a huge paranormal reader and I'm in a BIG slump with romantic suspense at the moment.  Will Wendy stay on theme? I'm thinking it may be a category length romantic suspense to the rescue, but we'll see.  If you're in the same boat I am and not feeling the theme this month - no problem!  Remember that the monthly themes are always optional.

If you're participating on social media, please remember to use the #TBRChallenge hashtag so people can follow along.

You can learn about the challenge and check out the full list of blogging participants on the information page.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Unusual Historical Top Picks September 2019

September is the time of year where I seriously begin to question my decision to leave the Midwest - which this time of year is cooling off, the leaves are turning, and every mile marker or so you can find apple cider and homemade donuts. Instead, I’m living in the land of triple-digit temperatures with the constant specter of wildfire danger. Seriously, I miss the cider and donuts. But I still have historical romances, which are equally as delicious and, quite frankly, much lower in sugar. Here are some of the Unusual Historicals catching my eye this month:

The Rat-Catcher’s Daughter by K.J. Charles
Music-hall singer Miss Christiana is in serious debt, and serious trouble. She owes more than she can pay to a notorious criminal, and now he plans to make an example of her. There's no way out.  
But Christiana has an admirer. Stan Kamarzyn has watched her sing for a year and he doesn't want to see her get hurt. Stan's nobody special--just a dodgy bloke from Bethnal Green--but he's got useful friends, the sort who can get a girl out of trouble, for a price. Christiana's not sure what it will cost her...  
The two slowly reach an understanding. But Christiana is no criminal, and she can't risk getting mixed up with the law. What will happen when Stan's life as the fence for the notorious Lilywhite Boys brings trouble to his doorstep?

A trans f/m asexual romance novelette (17,000 words). 

Novelette? I prefer my terminology: Lunch Break Read. Clocking in around 50 pages, this short story takes place two years prior to Any Old Diamonds. This should be just the thing to tide fans over waiting for the next book in The Lilywhite Boys series.

Stolen Kiss with the Hollywood Starlet by Lauri Robinson
An innocent country girl…  
With stars in her eyes! 
In this Brides of the Roaring Twenties story, hotshot lawyer Walter Russell knows an innocent country girl like Shirley Burnette is going to find it tough in cutthroat Hollywood. A stolen kiss with this bright, young singer may be worthy of the silver screen—but Walter hates show business and has sworn off starlets. He knows he should steer well clear…if only he wasn’t so compelled to help her! 

A hero who has sworn off starlets who falls for...yeah, a starlet. Seriously, will these guys never learn? If I wasn’t hooked by the 1920s era, or the tension dripping off the back cover blurb, that cover would have been enough to reel me in.

Longing for Her Forbidden Viking by Harper St. George
 “Become my concubine.”  
But never his wife? 
Part of To Wed a Viking: Saxon maiden Ellan would rather wed a Dane than be forced into marriage by her father. In fact, she has one Dane in mind. But strong warrior Aevir has been ordered to marry for duty—all he can offer Ellan is a place as his concubine! She may be bold, but Ellan can never accept that! Even if his burning kisses make it incredibly tempting… 

I really enjoyed the first book in this duet, Marrying Her Viking Enemy, and I’m intrigued by sister Ellan’s story - namely because she, seemingly, does not have the same burdensome familial obligations that her older sister did in the first book. Ellan was already circling Aevir in the previous book, so it will be fun to see the author get these two together as a romantic couple.

Her Viking Warrior by Gina Conkle
When an outcast goes home and meets a woman seeking justice, hearts will clash…  
Eighteen years ago, Bjorn was exiled from Vellefold. Honor-bound to return, he’ll fight for the settlement…then walk away. First, he must work with his childhood friend, now a beautiful, high-ranking Viking lady.  
Fierce of spirit, Ilsa will do anything to save her people, including convincing the banished son to take the jarl’s seat. But she has her doubts about the stone-hearted Viking, despite the lust between them. It’s only a matter of time before Bjorn discovers that Ilsa is hiding dangerous secrets, secrets that may jeopardize all they’ve worked for.  
When the darkest hour comes, the once-rejected warrior must choose: rescue his men, the Forgotten Sons—or Ilsa, the woman he craves, body and soul. 

Carina has published historicals two months in a row, which sort of feels like a Christmas miracle in late summer. This is the second book in Conkle’s Forgotten Sons series and features a returned from exile hero and a heroine, his former childhood friend, now a high-ranking lady hiding dangerous secrets. I love life and death conflict, and that’s like shooting fish in a barrel in medieval and Viking-set romances.

What Unusual Historicals are sitting on top your TBR?

Thursday, September 19, 2019

#TBRChallenge 2019: Day Late and a Couple of Dollars Short

The Book: Morgan's Woman by Judith E. French

The Particulars: Historical western romance, Ballantine, 1999, Out of print, available in self-published digital edition

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: Who knows at this point - seriously, this has been buried in the TBR for a ridiculously long period of time. My best guess?  It's a historical western and I enjoyed another novel by French when I reviewed it for TRR.  While in good shape, I can tell my print copy was bought used.

The Review: In my experience, historical romances hold up better over time than contemporaries because you're a lot less likely to run up against pop culture references that haven't aged well (there was a time when Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise were major heart throbs).  But that doesn't mean there aren't potential land mines lurking, which is exactly what happened with this book.  I was met with a cold bucket of ice water at the 30% mark and while I might have let such insult slide had I been reading a bodice ripper from 1978, in 1999 the genre really, really should have moved on.  Which is a shame, because the heroine is a legit widow in this book and 1999 we were still Buried In Virgin Heroines for the most part. Alas...

It's 1865, the War is finally over, and Tamsin MacGreggor's husband is blessedly dead. She isn't exactly mourning his loss.  However, when she finds out that her not-dearly departed hubby managed to squander everything her grandfather built, only leaving her with two prized thoroughbreds (one stallion, one mare) - she's even less sorry he's dead.  The lawyer thinks she's nuts, but she decides to take the two horses and head to California.  She can start a new life out west.

Original Cover
She lands in Sweetwater, Colorado for the night and when she goes to collect her horses from the livery in the morning she discovers they've been stolen.  She finds out who has them, but he's the brother of the town judge and...yeah.  She heads out to his place anyway only to interrupt an argument between the man and brother judge.  She sneaks back in the middle of the night to steal back her horses only to discover the man dead, shot in the back in his own barn.  It doesn't look good for her, so she takes her horses and hits the road.

Ash Morgan is a bounty hunter who has been tracking Tamsin because he thinks she's an outlaw's paramour.  Then he's hauled before the judge who tells him that she murdered his brother and asks Ash to track her down.  Which...he does.  She's innocent, he doesn't believe her, and we're off to the races.

Honestly, this was fine for a while.  The plot is kind of all over the place and there are instances where I felt like the author left out bread crumbs in the trail (the whole Tamsin being an outlaw's lady thing takes a while to circle around), but it was fine.  Then it slides south rather quickly starting in Chapter 9 and I never made it to Chapter 10.

Ash doesn't trust Tamsin to begin with, and when she beans him over the head with a log that doesn't endear her any further.  So needless to say, he's going to restrain her going forward.  She resists, they tussle, she throws a punch, he pins her to the ground and then we get these touching moments (imagine all the sarcasm in the world - like Wendy firing the sarcasm cannon):
Having her helpless beneath him shattered the barrier he prided himself on possessing.  He shuddered, caught in a sudden rush of primitive lust that any decent man should keep in check. In vain he tried to smother a devilish urge to lift Tamsin's skirts and drive himself between her warm, soft thighs. 
The woman scent of her filled his head. He knew he was stronger than she was. He could have her here and now. Maybe she even wanted him to do it. Ash groaned and swallowed the sour gorge that rose in his throat. 
Maybe he was no better than the scum he'd vowed to destroy - the outlaws who'd raped and murdered his wife.

A few paragraphs later our "hero" heads to the nearby stream to cool off:
The frigid water couldn't wash away his desire, but it did keep him from making a total bastard of himself. He glanced back at her to make certain she wasn't stalking him with a rock. "You pack a mean right," he said. 
Tamsin's freckles stood out starkly against milky white skin. "I'm sorry," she stammered. Fear was still evident in her expression. She looked at him as if she expected him to tear off her skirts. 
The hell of it was, he wanted to.

Nope. Nope, nope, nopity nope nope.  I hit that last line, closed the book and am moving on.  Life's too short, my TBR is too big, and short of Tamsin ramming a fork through his eye socket and lighting his pants on fire using a blow torch there is literally no redeeming this "hero" for me.

Final Grade = DNF 

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Late For My Own #TBRChallenge

Today is #TBRChallenge Day, featuring one of my favorite themes: Old School.  But alas, while I'm currently in the middle of my chosen book I have yet to finish it which means...Wendy cannot meet her own deadline.  For shame! I'm going to sit over here and not try to beat myself up too much - since I think this might be only the second time I've missed in a deadline in all my years of hosting.  Still, it's not a good look.  A review will come later this week, pinkie swear.