Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is April 21!

Hey, hey - it's that time again! Time for the monthly #TBRChallenge!  Whether you are participating or just following along, #TBRChallenge Day is Wednesday, April 21.  This month's (always optional) theme is Old School.

This theme is always one of my favorites and when I polled for theme ideas late last year this one was included from those who responded - so it's not just me!  Old School can mean anything from bodice rippers to books that have been in your TBR for a long time to - well, however you can find ways to apply the theme.  And just to provide a sobering fun fact - here in the US if you were born during the first four months of 2000 you can now legally buy alcohol.  

Y'all, I'm so old.

But remember, the themes are always optional.  If bodice rippers make your skin crawl, if that book published 2 years ago is calling your name - 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.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Library Loot Mini-Reviews: Two Recent (Good) Reads

 My reading time isn't my own at the moment "for reasons" and while it's been great for my reading output (deadlines!), I can't really say I've loved much of it.  It's mostly been tedium with a side dreadful. When I was a younger, baby blogger I used to blog about Every. Single. Book. I read.  No foolin'.  But now I'm too old and tired for such shenanigans.  That said, I do clock everything and write pithy reviews on GoodReads - so if you want to read all The Good, The Bad and The Ugly - be sure to follow me over there.

It's been weeks since I've blogged though, so I've decided I need to put something up here - which means y'all are getting two pithy, mini-reviews for books I actually have enjoyed in recent memory.  Neither of them romance.  OK, one of them is. Sorta, kinda.  Let's lead off with that one shall we?

The Switch
by Beth O'Leary was the March pick for my monthly book club / book girlies Zoom chat.  Not everybody was enthralled with it, and I'm pretty sure it was a DNF for one person - but I liked it!  And this being my blog, we all know I'm right 😜

Leena Cotton is an overachiever who has not dealt with her younger sister's untimely death from cancer some months earlier. This ends up manifesting itself into the mother of all panic attacks during a work prestation with a client (which she inevitably blows).  There's nothing for it. Her boss is ordering her on a two-month, paid sabbatical. Where do I find these bosses who offer up paid sabbaticals?  Oh yeah, I work in the public sector. Stupid Wendy - make better choices in your next life.

Anyway, Leena's grandmother Eileen is nearly 80 and her husband has left her for a dance instructor.  It wasn't a happy union, but it's still a blow - coupled with the loss of her granddaughter and her daughter (Leena's Mom) unraveling - it's a lot.  What follows is Leena and Eileen deciding to swap lives - Eileen will live in Leena's trendy London flat with her roommates, Leena will move into her grandmother's country cottage.  And when I say swap lives?  I mean everything. They both end up undertaking each others' various projects.

This is, quite firmly, in women's fiction.  Oh sure, you get two romances, and two happy endings (yes, Grandma gets a romance and HEA!!!!) but it's not the focus of the story. It's about grief, strained family dynamics, and in Leena's case, a romantic relationship that isn't as great as it appears.  That's actually my one solid quibble about this story - the pacing of the Leena's boyfriend plot drags out too long.  It's obvious she's not going to end up with this guy, but he hangs around for entirely too long.  That said, it was warm, cozy with just the right amount of angst to keep me interested. I liked it quite a bit.

Final Grade = B

I heard about Just As I Am by Cicely Tyson several months before it was published, and thinking "Hey, that's probably going to be interesting..." I recommended the audiobook edition to my library and when they ordered it I found myself on the holds list.  It came in for me right away, but the timing was off so I suspended the hold so others could enjoy. Well I finally checked it out and wrapped it up this weekend and OMG, this book is a triumph - I'm so glad Tyson finally decided to put her life on paper.

Tyson pretty much covers it all, from her childhood in New York City, her complicated relationship with both her parents, the birth of her daughter (her only child), her faith, her relationship with Miles Davis, her modelling and acting careers, and her multitude of friendships (oh man, the people she counted as friends!).

My only real quibble in this story was Bill Cosby. Tyson was friends with both Bill and Camille (his wife). I mean, she HAD to put them in the book - her and Miles got married at the Cosby home!  But she completely skips over Bill's fall from grace, arrest and conviction.  Her only reference to it is a mention of "he never laid a hand on me."  That's it.  Look, I get it - it's hard to talk about friends who turn out to be repugnant human beings, but the lack of talking about Cosby's crimes, juxtaposed against Tyson's opinions on feminism and civil rights is....something. It's not one elephant in the book, it's a whole herd. 

Also, while it didn't bother me, Tyson believed very firmly that she had a sixth sense and she had a very strong sense of faith. Many of the moments and milestones in her life she attributed to one, the other or both. Depending on what type of person you are Dear Reader, you'll either be like me (fine with it) or think it's pure hokum.  

Other than the Cosby thing, I loved this and was riveted by the audiobook.  Viola Davis' forward was poorly recorded (did they record it in an empty, cavernous warehouse?) and while it's a shame Tyson only reads the first chapter, primary narrator Robin Miles knocks this one out of the park.  If she's not nominated for an Audie next year we need to light everything on fire.

Final Grade = A

Sunday, March 21, 2021

March Madness: Unusual Historical Highlights for March 2021

Don't mind me. Just sittin' over here waiting for my turn in the vaccine queue - which I'm convinced won't be until July 2061 at this rate. I'm so ready. Like, beyond ready. So to distract myself from my growing impatience I've been plowing my way through "obligation reading" and looking for new, unusual historical romances.  Here's what caught my eye being published in March:
 
Although Celeste Montgomery was forced into a marriage a year ago, her husband is more often gone than home and she is living a quiet life. Until investigator Owen Gregory shows up at her home to tell her some outrageous news: Her husband has been murdered…and he was also a bigamist, making her the third of three wives. 

Owen Gregory was hired to investigate Celeste’s husband, but he never thought it would lead him here, to this beautiful woman whose life he just shattered. Once he determines she couldn’t be the murderer, he asks her to join him in London, in the hopes she can help him solve the crime. 

Now they must navigate two other wives, a broken-hearted brother and a duke who keeps poking his nose in as they work to determine who killed Erasmus Montgomery. Not to mention the intense feelings and passionate desires growing between them. But will secrets long held endanger them in ways they never imagined? And will they find a way to save each other before it’s too late?
Once upon a time there was a Maggie Osborne western with a similar plot (1 husband, 3 wives) albeit minus the murder and the private investigator hero.  I'm intrigued by the mystery angle here, and also the private investigator hero who starts to take a very personal interest in the heroine.  This is the first book in the trilogy - so now's the time to get in on the ground floor y'all!

A wounded Viking warrior 

Must keep his enemies close… 

 Left for dead by a mysterious attacker, Viking warlord Kal Randrson comes around with a deep head wound and a hazy memory, yet he instantly recognizes his rescuer—captivating Lady Cynehild, whose life he turned upside down years before. Although she’s his enemy, they agree to a fake betrothal to expose his attacker. But is the capable, intriguing Cynehild’s mission to help him, or has she another intention entirely?

A heroine with secrets who rescues the hero PLUS a fake engagement?! Could my life get any better?  Styles writes consistently good books and this is the 2nd in her latest Vows and Vikings series for Harlequin.


Bath, 1852. 
As a girl, Nancy Bloom would go to Bath's Theatre Royal, sit on the hard wooden benches and stare in awe at the actresses playing men as much as the women dressed in finery. She longed to be a part of it all and when a man promised her parents he could find a role for Nancy in the theatre, they believed him. 

His lie and betrayal led to her ruin. 

 Francis Carlyle is a theatre manager, an ambitious man always looking for the next big thing to take the country by storm. A self-made man, Francis has finally shed the skin of his painful past and is now rich, successful and in need of a new female star. Never in a million years did he think he'd find her standing on a table in one of Bath's bawdiest pubs. 

 Nancy vowed never to trust a man again. Francis will do anything to make her his star. As they engage in a battle of wits and wills, can either survive with their hearts intact? 

Brimble is a name I recognize from the now (sadly) defunct Harlequin SuperRomance line and this second book in her Ladies of Carson Street sounds right up my alley. A disgraced heroine with a shot at redemption, all she has to do is a trust a man - which doesn't come easy.  This one is available via Kindle Unlimited, and also Hoopla (check to see if your local library offers this service!)

The Shipwrecked Earl's Bride by Renee Dahlia (novella)
LORD RUPERT STANMORE was banished to the continent for a grand tour after being caught kissing his best friend, Lord Benburgh. Two years later and life back in England has caught up to him. His father died recently and now he’s the latest Earl of Stanmore. On the way home, his ship is wrecked in a storm, and he washes up on a beach in Spain, only to be rescued by a beautiful woman. As the Earl, he has an obligation to marry. He’d rather be hung for sodomy than allow his mother to choose his bride, and who better to annoy his proper and distant mother than a poor foreigner as a bride? He plots for Sofia to fall in love with him, not expecting to fall for her.

SOFIA LUCIANA RIAL is the only daughter of a fisherman in Spain. She taught herself to read English from books washed up on their beach, a skill her widowed Father sees as pointless. In his opinions, she should spend all, not most, of her time doing domestic work. When a man washes up on the beach near their cottage, she realises he might be her ticket out of poverty. She sets about to make him fall in love with her so he can take her to England where she will never again have to worry about where her next meal will come from. Only her plan fails when she falls in love with him. But how can she convince him that her love is real?

Now see, some of you probably read this blurb and think the heroine mercenary. I'm thinking the gal is a realist - bless her heart.  Bisexual hero on his way home to claim an inheritance he's likely conflicted about and a heroine desperate to climb her way out of the poverty cycle.  I'm here for this.  Check your digital TBRs before one-clicking - this was originally published in the Twelve Rogues of Christmas anthology.

What Unusual Historicals are you looking forward to reading?

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

#TBRChallenge 2021: The Petrov Proposal

The Book: The Petrov Proposal by Maisey Yates

The Particulars: Contemporary romance, Harlequin Presents #3046, 2012, Out of print, available in digital, Book 2 in Forrester Siblings duet

Why Was It in Wendy's TBR?: As is wont to happen, Wendy falls for category romance author and then goes scurrying off to snap up an entire backlist. Inevitably it always seems to be an author with eleventy billion books, like Yates. However at this point I've read enough of a sample size to discover that Presents Yates is my favorite Yates.  So for Favorite Author month this was a natural pick from the depths of the print TBR.

The Review: When Yates is firing on all cylinders nobody spins the Presents brand of glitzy, glamorous fairy tale better.  Also, this is a rare boss/secretary romance where the characters actually stop to think about how messy, unwise and inconvenient their mutual attraction/lust is because of power dynamics and their working relationship.

Maddy Forrester is more event planner than secretary, taking orders from her boss, famous and obscenely talented jewelry designer Aleksei Petrov. Happily they conduct most of their business over the phone and through emails, because she recognizes she's very attracted to him - and throwing herself at her boss is so not an option.  See, Maddy spent her formative years as an afterthought, dismissed and neglected by her socialite parents until she finally ends up living with her much other brother.  She craves love and affection - which means she's ripe pickins' when she takes an internship out of college and falls for her boss.  A boss that turns out is married.  To a semi-famous model/actress so Maddy is splashed all over the tabloids once the model/actress files for divorce.  Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt - not sleeping with Aleksei.

For his part Aleksei is your standard Presents hero who will NEVER LOVE AGAIN, having loved and lost once.  No, our guy instead takes a series of mistresses, never promising them more than mutual sexual gratification and occasional business-related nights out.  It's all so very Presents, and frankly annoying.  As is typical, every other woman not Maddy gets dismissed out of hand.  Seriously, I kind of feel sorry for Mistress Olivia who we never meet, but who is name dropped early on for effect.

Anyway, what happens happens.  These two can't stay away from each other, they have a fair amount of steamy sex, messy feelings get involved, and Maddy finds her voice:

“You’re right, Aleksei. I…I am selling myself short. I deserve to be loved, not to just give it. I’ve given it all of my life, and the only person who ever really gave it back was my brother. Everyone else just took what I would offer and used it against me. And I always thought that meant there was something wrong with me. I never thought I deserved more. I do now.”
Honestly, this is the pay-off.  For the first half of the story I feel like the author was spinning her wheels, covering the same ground over and over again. Once she gets Aleksei and Maddy out of the office, out of the bedroom and doing "couple things" (I mean, other than the sex....), things pick up. Because as the reader you're seeing it happen - the falling in the love.  These two dumb bunnies, they have no idea what's about to hit them upside their foolish, silly heads.

Yates has been magic in Presents format, and while this is pretty good, it's not magic (IMHO).  Honestly, it was kind of ho-hum for me early on with the second half showing up in time to save the day.  Good, not great - but now I'm curious about Maddy's brother's book which is, of course, in my TBR.  Because, of course.

Final Grade = B-

Friday, March 12, 2021

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is March 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, March 17.  This month's (always optional) theme is Book by a Favorite Author.

A self-explanatory theme this month - dig a book out of your pile by a favorite author. 

But remember, the themes are always optional.  If you don't let books by favorite authors linger in your TBR - 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.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Retro Review: Hot Night

The review for Hot Night by Shannon McKenna was first published at The Romance Reader in 2006. Back then I rated it 2-Hearts (D grade) with a sensuality rating equivalent of NC-17.  This currently appears to be out of print, with no available digital edition.

+++++

Readers can always count on Shannon McKenna to deliver a hot Alpha hero who lacks a little something in the manners department. Unfortunately, she tends to pair up these hot hunks of beefcake with heroines who have as much spine and personality as your garden-variety jellyfish. 

Abby Maitland slaves away at a museum job for a Devil Wears Prada-like boss. She has just landed a major coup for the museum, a gala event to show off their latest exhibit, a cache of sunken treasure recently recovered that they’re calling The Pirate’s Horde. She’s also decided now is the time to get serious about her love life. No more dating bad boy losers who deplete her checking account and wreck her cars. Nope, Abby now has a “list” and any guy who wants to get serious with her has to meet the criteria. So her fabulous gay friend, Dovey (that’s right, Dovey), has been setting her up on disastrous blind dates with men who fit Abby’s list. You think the girl would get a clue here, but amazingly enough she never does. 

It’s on her latest disaster that she meets Zan Duncan (that’s right, Zan). A locksmith and part-time computer guru of some sort (honestly, the author spends zero time on this other than it makes the hero conveniently rich), he answers Abby’s late night phone call after she locks herself out of her apartment. He arrives, rescues her from her latest blind date from hell, unlocks her door and the conversation laden with double entendres begins. 

But Zan doesn’t fit her “list” criteria, so Abby isn’t interested. Plus, things get really complicated when the evil bad guy shows up on the scene. He wants to steal The Pirate’s Horde and he isn’t going to let anybody or anything stand in his way. 

The plot is over-the-top (seriously, pirate’s treasure?!), but it could have been campy fun if the characters weren’t so annoying. Zan actually starts out very intriguing. He’s sexy, charming and I was thinking about running away with him at first. Unfortunately he’s attracted to Abby, which immediately knocks him down several pegs. She runs so hot and cold over the course of the story, I swear I got whiplash. One minute she’s pushing Zan away because he doesn’t fit her “list,” the next she’s throwing herself at him and putting her mouth on body parts that would send mixed signals to any man. 

Zan really has no chance at all. He cajoles her, tries to persuade her to give him a chance – but she flatly refuses. However, just as he’s about to throw in the towel, here comes Abby playing all hot to trot. Naturally, by about the halfway point the guy is truly confused and the bickering ensues. These two seem to have the same fight over the course of the entire story, and I never could get a handle on it since they talk in circles. But never fear gentle reader, they wait to do their arguing after they have the hot, acrobatic sex. 

Misunderstandings naturally ensue, with Zan leaping to conclusions and behaving like a Neanderthal. Not that I could truly blame him since Abby sends out so many mixed signals I would have gleefully strangled her myself if I were in his shoes. Not only is this all highly annoying to read about, it also sabotages the romance. These two cannot agree on anything, and several important conversations have to be halted because they cannot get along. Seriously, they’re going to have to spend their entire married life naked with duct tape over their mouths for this relationship to have any prayer at all. 

The suspense plot isn’t too bad, but it is overblown given the villain is one-dimensionally evil. Also, Abby somehow manages to become shriller after a dead body turns up. While it’s nice to see an author keeping the legacy of the unapologetic Alpha hero alive and well, coupling these guys with grating heroines is not the way to go. My advice is to keep the aspirin handy, and a bottle of tequila wouldn’t hurt either.

+++++

Wendy Looks Back: McKenna was a fan favorite at the height of the Kensington Brava line known for barely housebroken heroes and steamy sex. While a good many of my reading friends loved her work, I never could quite get there. Her heroes too Neanderthal-y, her heroine's too annoying.  And then her work started to blend in more and more paranormal elements and I was completely out.

Here's the thing though, McKenna's work was always compelling even when I wanted to strangle her characters.  She's self-published some stuff since her Brava days (eh, again with the paranormal elements) but she's got a new series launching this month with Harlequin Desire.  Besides always being here for category romance, McKenna's brand of Alpha hero should be right at home in the Desire line.  I'm intrigued....

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.