Wednesday, June 16, 2021

#TBRChallenge 2021: Fragile

The Book: Fragile by Shiloh Walker

The Particulars: Romantic suspense, 2009, Book 1 in Rafferty Brothers duet, out of print, available in digital

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: The back cover blurb intrigued. The SoCal Bloggers used to have these epic book swaps when we'd get together (back when we all were still reading print on the regular) and I suspect that's how this book landed in my TBR.

Spoilers Ahoy! Content Warnings: murdered dog, childhood sexual abuse, rape, drug use (in the past).

The Review: Walker predominantly writes paranormal (which isn't really "my thing") and I suspect I picked this up because it's billed as straight-up romantic suspense.  While I was certainly pulled in from the first chapter, it ended up being an uneven read for me - mainly due to the plot structure and the fact that the heroine is put through the wringer.

Devon Manning had a rough childhood. Orphaned, sexually abused starting at 11 by her aunt's husband, a drug addict and living on the streets by 12.  A social worker and her adoptive parents pulled her back from the brink and now Devon is a social worker herself.  

Luke Rafferty is a former Army Ranger who worked in Special Ops alongside his long-lost twin brother (they were reunited when they were 11).  After he nearly loses a leg he decides it's time to get out and find some semblance of "a normal life."  He's now a doctor working in a hospital ER, which is how he meets Devon. He's attracted to her, but how to ask a woman out on a date when she's in the ER because she's bringing in abused children?  It's not exactly "meet cute" material.

Eventually though they do start dating and this is basically the first 40% of the book.  In fact, by that point they are clearly "a couple" and Luke has decided he's in love with her.  The suspense part of this story doesn't ramp up until then.  Prior there are a few minor incidents, but nothing that seems "sinister" to Devon at first.  A missing day planner. A flat tire. A dead skunk in her back yard.  It's not until a butchered dead dog is found on her kitchen counter that her and Luke realize someone is stalking her.

This sends Luke into full-blown protective mode, even at one point hacking into Devon's email (like, seriously?!), him moving in with her, and Devon pushing back at Luke, as well as the cops working her case.  I get that Devon has a messy past but dude if I had some crazy psycho stalker I'd be an open book to the point of over-sharing. 

Anyhoodle, our bad guy is caught around 75%.  This gem of a human being ends up breaking into a neighbor's house, raping and beating that poor woman near death, and that lays the trap for Devon.  Devon, naturally, escapes his clutches - which kicks off a bunch of guilt for Luke because he wasn't there to protect her.  But we're at 75%.  You know what this means, right? Yeah, we need to put the heroine in more danger!  So our gal doesn't just have one psycho stalker - she has two.  Bad guy #2 starts screwing with her head and he's dispatched with at the end of the story.  I was still stuck on this poor neighbor woman who gets the major short-shift - but your mileage may vary.

In between there's a bunch of sex scenes.  This read a bit like a hybrid between hot contemporary and romantic suspense and it didn't really mesh well for me.When I read a romantic suspense I kinda want that to be a big focus of the story - and it just wasn't here.  The pacing didn't really work for me, although I was engaged by the characters and the story itself.  It boiled down to execution.

Also, to be frank, this is pretty dark.  I mean, the heroine has a TON of baggage and on top of that a bunch of tragedy is heaped on her over the course of the story (her BFF neighbor being violently assaulted, two crazy stalkers....).  It's a lot.  

I wasn't in love with it, but I'm half-tempted to pick up the second book about Luke's brother, Quinn, who, boy howdy, is a hot mess. It would necessitate a library check-out since it's not in my TBR and we'll see if I eventually follow through or not....

Final Grade = C+

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is June 16

Hey, hey - it's that time again! Time for the monthly #TBRChallenge!  Whether you are participating or just following along, #TBRChallenge Day is Wednesday, June 16. This month's (always optional) theme is Book with One Word Title.

This is a new theme for the Challenge, suggested by someone when I ran a poll late last year.  I thought this one might be difficult for me personally, but who knew I had so many one-word title books in my TBR?!

But remember, the themes are always optional.  Unlike me, if you don't have any one-word title books 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.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Review: Lord of Scoundrels

At this moment you're probably asking yourself, "How is it possible that Wendy is JUST NOW reading Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase?!"  Well reader, let me tell you - the answer is hype. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the more a book is hyped the more years it will take me to read it - if I read it at all.  I'm well aware this is very contrary but I've never denied my contrary nature.  So what finally brought us to this moment? The sheer horror of the other SoCal Bloggers that Wendy had never read it.  It's our "book club read" for June which means my hand was forced.  So what did I think of this book? This book often consider THE very best of the genre?  Well, I loved it and then I didn't.  Let me try to explain....

Jessica Trent is firmly on the shelf at 27 but continues to receive marriage proposals because she's a rare beauty and damned intelligent.  Which means she's smart enough to not want to toss aside her independence. She's devoted to her delightfully scandalous grandmother, has practically raised a dozen of her numerous relatives' children and is now is Paris to bring her younger brother to heel.  Bertie is a bit of a nitwit and has fallen under the spell of Sebastian Ballister, Marquess of Dain.  To call Dain notorious is just a wee bit of an understatement.  Lucifer himself has a more sterling reputation.  The man is a demon, a degenerate, a debauched whoremonger.  He's also wickedly smart and has more money than Midas.  Bertie, dimwitted pup that he is, does not have the same resources and Jessica is tasked to bring him to heel before he squanders the last of the family finances.

This kicks off a war of wit and words.  Dain, naturally, has a tragic past which Chase expertly lays out in a rather lengthy prologue. The guy is damaged goods shortly after birth, to a coldly stern father and a young second wife thrown to the wolves (or wolf in this case).  Matters aren't helped at all by Dain's less than refined appearance upon birth (gawky and "ugly").  This is a man who discards others before they can discard him, who has very stern views on "ladies" and pays for whores to satisfy his manly needs. He has surrounded himself with a group of "friends" who are just as debauched as he is, but it's Dain with the fearsome reputation.  That is until he meets Jessica.  Our fearsome, jackass of a hero has finally met his match and Jessica, bless her heart, makes this poor misguided sap run his paces over the course of the story.  Dain has no idea what has hit him.  You'd almost feel sorry for the guy if, you know, he wasn't such a jackass.

The first 40% or so of this book is set in Paris and is sheer bliss to read.  The adversarial relationship between Dain and Jessica as they match wits is exquisite and expertly crafted. This book was originally published in 1995. I started reading romance nearly exclusively in 1999.  Believe me when I say picking up this book in 1995, reading a heroine like Jessica, would have been a goddamn revelation.  She is perfection from the moment she steps on the page to the last.  This is a heroine who goes toe-to-toe with a jackass rake of a hero and always wins. She always comes out ahead.  And that's even before she shoots him.

Yes, she shoots him and yes, the jackass deserves it.

Original cover
And that's kind of where the book started to slide for me.  No doubt this is an A read for the first 40%.  I loved every spectacular minute.  But then the couple leaves Paris and the pacing, quite honestly, starts to sag for me.  On top of that we find out that Dain has a bastard son (of course he does - Dain has boinked everything in a dress....) and, of course, the child's mother is an opportunistic whore looking to blackmail a better lifestyle for herself by having a wealthy aristocrat's by-blow.  This is Old School (to be sure) and certainly the book was published over 25 years ago, but my tolerance for the double standard between profligate heroes and the women they slake their lust with is at a low ebb in the Year of our Goddess 2021.

Yes, yes historically accurate, blah blah blah. Whatever.

Here's the thing, by the time the kid appears on stage I can't help wondering why the hell Jessica is even bothering anymore.  Dain's self-pity party carries on for the entire book and she is so epically glorious - like really girlfriend?  You can do SO much better.  

I'm torn, but not really.  When I say Jessica may very well be my favorite heroine of all time?  I mean it. She's that good. She's that amazing. She is a diamond of the first water and leads Dain around by his nose (and other parts of his anatomy...) for the entire story.  Even when you think our girl has her back against the wall and Dain has gotten the better of her?  He hasn't.  He's a mere mortal and she is a Goddess.  And that's my problem.  She's great - him, not so much.  Jessica, girlfriend, you deserve better.

Final Grade = B+

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Review: Forbidden

"I'm a woman of color, Mr. Fontaine. A hard shell is necessary."
Confession time: I have to be in the mood for a Beverly Jenkins book and it took me a while to pinpoint exactly why that is. Once I did though, a lot of puzzle pieces fell into place. I read Jenkins, primarily, because she writes great heroines - but she also writes what I call "community-based" books.  Think of them like small town contemporaries but - well - they're historicals. She tends to include a large cast of secondary characters, there's goings-on about town, there's past couples and familiar surnames for long-time fans (like happy little Easter Eggs) and the main romance, while a focus, ain't the sole thing going on in her books.  As a reader who gravitates towards short and snappy (I dig on Harlequins after all...) I'm just not always in the mood for this.  Long-time readers of this blog will recognize that I read and review very, very, very few small town single title contemporaries for the same reason.

So yeah, it took me a while to pick up Forbidden even though readers in my trust network have really enjoyed it.  And despite all that word vomiting I did in the first paragraph of this post?  Yeah, once I started this book I didn't come up for air until I finished it - staying up way past my bedtime.

Rhine Fontaine has built a successful life for himself in Virginia City, Nevada. He's a member of the city council, he owns a local saloon, he's engaged to the daughter of an influential man, and he's got his eye on future political office.  Rhine is, also, passing as white. His mother a slave, his father the plantation owner. Rhine fought in the Civil War (for the Union cause) and headed west for a fresh start.  Only his business partner knows his secret and Rhine is comfortable with his decision, until he rescues a Black woman left for dead out in the middle of the desert.

There is nothing left for Eddy Carmichael in Denver and her dream is to head to California to open her own restaurant. However shortly after she purchases her train ticket she is robbed. It took her forever to save the necessary funds. She's given up her rented room, she's quit her job, there's nothing for it - she's got to find another way west.  She's doing pretty well until she lands in Nevada and is robbed (again) by a con artist who leaves her for dead in the desert.  It's a miracle that Rhine finds her and takes her back to Virginia City.

There's an instant and immediate attraction between Rhine and Eddy.  Rhine, while white, has done a lot to further the cause of the Black residents of Virginia City. Providing loans for businesses, buying real estate, allowing Blacks patrons in his saloon - and he's engaged to a proper (read: spoiled and pampered) white daughter of an influential man in town and local politics.  An attraction to Eddy complicates his life immensely.

While Forbidden doesn't surpass Indigo as my favorite Jenkins (thus far), Eddy might be my new favorite heroine. Jenkins tends to write strong, often feisty, heroines - which I love! Don't get me wrong!  But Eddy is a bit quieter. She knows her own mind. She's very forthright. And she's not a waffling sort of heroine.  She's a straight-shooter with Rhine. She's attracted to him, but tells him in no uncertain terms that it cannot happen. He's white, she's Black, and she has no interest in being a man's mistress. A romantic entanglement between them will only end in tears - hers. He'd walk away clean, she'd be the one paying the price. And, quite frankly, Eddy has dreams of her own that she's not willing to compromise.

And that's the wrinkle for me. Eddy ain't telling Rhine anything he doesn't already know - and yet once he extricates himself from his fiancĂ©e, the flirting kicks into high gear. Like, really dude?! I get it. You're warm for her form. You think she's smart and interesting. But he's still passing as white and she's still a Black woman. I mean, how complicated this is for Eddy should be something at the very forefront of his mind - and it's just...not. It's there occasionally, but not consistently. 

What I did really like about Rhine's character is that passing is something he feels he has to do. He was born into slavery. The power, the privilege, that passing will give him is a no-brainer - until it isn't. Rhine is running towards what he sees as a better life, but he's giving up an awful lot in the process. It's this process of reconciling his choices, and his dreams, that makes the happy-ever-after especially fraught and hard won.

All in all, I enjoyed this story quite a bit. Jenkins creates a great cast of secondary characters and while, in other books, the focus away from the main romance would annoy me - it doesn't here. I really liked the wide array of characters, especially in the boardinghouse that Eddy calls home, and it added a richness to the story.  The writing flowed, the pages easily kept turning, and before I knew it it was past midnight and well past my bedtime.

This was a good, solid read and a fine example of a "small town" romance that worked very well for me.  I'm looking forward to the next two books in the series featuring Eddy's nieces.

Final Grade = B+ 

Thursday, May 20, 2021

#TBRChallenge 2021: Alison's Wonderland

The Book: Alison's Wonderland edited by Alison Tyler

The Particulars: Erotica anthology, Harlequin Spice, 2010, out of print, available digitally

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: I like erotic short stories, plus Tyler and a few of the featured authors are known to me.  That's pretty much it.

The Review: There was a wave several years ago of publishers starting erotic imprints (Harlequin Spice, Avon Red etc.) and with it came the blurring of the lines between erotica and erotic romance.  No, they aren't interchangeable. So for the sake of clarity let me state this anthology which utilizes a fairy tale / folk tale theme, is most definitely erotica. They're too short (the stories average around 8-10 pages) to make compelling "romances," but as happy-for-now, let's have a good time together?  They're fine.  For readers familiar with the various Cleis Press anthologies, this collection is in a similar vein.

The Red Shoes (Redux) by Nikki Magennis features a heroine obsessed with a pair of shoes in a shop window. The store's owner sees her, asks her out, and brings the shoes. Naturally the shoes and the man have strings attached.

Fool's Gold by Shanna Germain finds our heroine having a spirited discussion at a bar with a man in her peripheral circle of friends about BDSM and naturally it's a conversation that continues to take up residence in her brain. They reconnect and what happens, happens.

The Three Billys by Sommer Marsden is about three gruff brothers who ruffle the feathers of a very proper librarian just trying to get through her work day. 

David by Kristina Lloyd is a twist on a vampire story featuring a submissive female vampire (!) who finds her perfect match.

Managers and Mermen by Donna George Storey finds our bored heroine fantasizing about a mermaid and spanking (yes, really) only to have her husband come home unexpectedly early from work. Gee, wonder what will happen next?

The Clean-Shaven Type by N.T. Morely might have been my favorite story in this collection. Belle, who has spent her life in servitude (yes, that kind...) to men finds herself now living with "The Beast" where she flips the switch to Domme and avails herself of him, and the hired help.

The Midas F*ck by Erica DeQuaya finds our heroine suddenly, magically, irresistible to men. They ALL want her. The spell is broken when she hooks up with the hunky bartender at her favorite watering hole.

Sleeping with Beauty by Allison Wonderland is an F/F story about two women who work as princesses at a theme park.

Unveiling His Muse by Portia Da Costa finds our artist hero obsessed with one of his recent commissions - the art work, not the patron. 

Always Break the Spines by Lana Fox is about a heroine who likes fairy tales and old books drawing the attention (and ire) of a cranky bookstore owner.

An Uphill Battle by Benjamin Eliot is about a musician hero who takes a job as a building supervisor to pay the bills and finds himself answering calls at all hours of the day from a female resident with a faulty toilet - which necessitates climbing a lot of stairs since the elevator is on the fritz.

Moonset by A.D.R. Forte features a couple who enters a pact to get "kinky" every full moon.

Mastering Their Dungeons by Bryn Haniver was one of the more problematic stories for me since I didn't "like" the heroine. Bored popular college girl crashes a Dungeons & Dragons game and blows the mind of three nerds.

A Taste for Treasure by T.C. Calligari was a weird story about a heroine obsessed with magic who takes magical objects from three brothers.  She eventually settles down with the youngest.

The Broken Fiddle by Andrea Dare finds the heroine and her gay BFF traveling Ireland working on a photo book about pub signage. The heroine ends up having a grand time with local musician who tells her the story of one interesting sign.

The Cougar of Cobble Hill by Sophia Valenti finds our divorced heroine taking in two college-age male roommates. Naturally close proximity leads to shenanigans.

Wolff's Tavern by Bella Dean spins Little Red Riding Hood when the heroine's car breaks down outside a bar and the owner giving her a ride to Grandma's house.

Slutty Cinderella by Jacqueline Applebee is a gender-bending story with the heroine and her partner getting ready to attend a fetish ball. He's the one wearing the dress...

Kiss It by Saskia Walker finds the heroine on a tour of Ireland where a stop at the Blarney Stone finds her rolling around in the forest with a mystery man.

Let Down Your Libido by Rachel Kramer Bussel features an out of work heroine who signs up for a study that asks her to be celibate for two months. That's a tall order, especially when a mystery man starts slipping dirty notes underneath her door.

Dancing Shoes by Tsaurah Litzky features an older heroine who getting back her groove thanks to a local shoe repairman.

Gold, On Snow by Janine Ashbless was another high point for me, a twisted take on Snow White. Snow White isn't so pure or innocent and the "evil queen," her stepmother ends up spying on her with the seven dwarfs.

After the Happily Ever After by Heidi Champa answers the question of what happens when Cinderella marries Prince Charming, only to find out that the Prince is a neglectful husband. No matter, the Prince's wastrel brother is availing himself of the swimming pool...

Cupid Has Signed Off by Thomas S. Roche spins a Psyche / Cupid story if Psyche were a kinky college student who likes online fetish chat rooms.

The Walking Wheel by Georgia E. Jones is a 15th century story where the spinning maiden has to pay for her father's debts, hopefully will get to marry a nobleman as a result, but not before our friend Rumpelstiltskin shows up with a proposal.

Rings on my Fingers by Alison Tyler finds the heroine fielding concerns from well-meaning married friends, but it's the hunky tattoo artist next door who is getting her motor revving.

The Princess by Elspeth Potter is a story that is literally one paragraph long about a princess rescuing another princess.

Like most anthologies this one was definitely a mixed bag. There was only one story I outright disliked, but the "meh, OK" definitely outweighed the stories that really stuck with me.  Nothing inspiring but it's been in my TBR forever and now it's not.

Final Grade = C

Monday, May 17, 2021

Review: The Obsession

Sometimes I fall for a book for nostalgic reasons. Such was the case with The Obsession by Jesse Q. Sutanto, a YA suspense novel about a girl with a mountain of secrets under the thumb of a creepy teenage boy stalker. Simply put, Teenage Wendy would have loved this book.  She would have probably read a copy from the school or local public library, then desperately saved up money to buy her own copy so she could draw little hearts in the margins.  Have I mentioned that Teenage Wendy was kind of bloodthirsty?  I occasionally strayed but by and large if the book didn't have at least one dead body in it, I wasn't interested.  I also was drawn to competent women from a very early age. Oh sure, the women could be in danger (see every book Mary Higgins Clark ever wrote) but they always pulled themselves out of it in the end.  So yeah, I was primed to love The Obsession from the start, and I did.

Delilah is a Daddy's Girl left adrift after her father dies in an industrial accident (that also was an environmental disaster). Her mother, also adrift, eventually starts dating Brandon, a local cop. Turns out though that Brandon is an abusive asshole, with both Delilah and her Mom bearing the brunt of his rages. They're stuck. They can't go to the cops. Brandon IS the cops. Now her Mom is talking about quitting the job she loves to keep control freak abusive Brandon happy and Delilah has to tread lightly if she wants to keep going to Draycott Academy, a ritzy prep school that her Dad's insurance policy is paying the tuition for. On her first day of school she catches the eye of Logan and that's when things go from bad to worse.

Logan was obsessed with a girl name Sophie. A girl who got hooked on drugs and tragically died. In fact, someone is dealing drugs out of Draycott, a case Brandon has been working on. Every one tells Logan that Sophie is just toying with him, using him, but he's IN LOVE and naturally goes off the deep end when she dies.  His mother finds evidence of his stalking, he tries to kill himself, and he's seeing the school counselor.  The kid is, quite frankly, a scary AF nutbag.  And then he sees Delilah, who looks so much like Sophie that it shocks him out of his funk and suddenly Logan is back to his old stalkerish ways.

The problem being that Delilah doesn't know yet that Logan IS stalking her.  One day, when she's home alone with Brandon, she snaps and Brandon ends up dead (Delilah definitely kills him, but to say more is a spoiler because oh it's just so fantastically gory!).  Logan, of course, catches the whole thing on camera - because he's a stalker. When Delilah finds out the cutest boy in school who likes her is actually a creepy AF stalker?  Well, she's stuck.  Because of course Logan is now blackmailing her with the video.

This sounds suitably dark and twisted - which, it is. What makes it great is that Delilah is a bit of a mouse on the outside, but when pushed to the breaking point our girl is all vengeful Valkyrie. Brandon's ex-partner is now sniffing around, Logan is controlling her every breath, and she's still got yet another whopper of a secret that she has to keep under wrap.  Delilah may seem like a mouse but ultimately she is a survivor, and when you back a survivor into a corner?  Bad things happen.

Is this nice book?  Well, no.  There's no ambiguous to the moral choices that Delilah makes over the course of this story.  She "wins" but at the expense of doing some really terrible things.  Is she justified in those terrible choices?  Certainly yes, you could say that - for some of them.  But like I said, Delilah has got many, many secrets.

Is Delilah a "bad girl?" Is she a "good girl?" Yes. And that's why I loved this book.  It's the how she's going to wiggle her way out of the mess that makes for compelling reading and the fact that our girl is a study in contrasts is a reason why, I'm sure, Sourcebooks has already tapped Sutanto to write a sequel.  Oh sure, everyone in Romancelandia may be talking about Dial A for Aunties right now, but I'll be over here hanging out with cunning, bloodthirsty Delilah thank you.  I'll also be watching my back.

Final Grade = A

Friday, May 14, 2021

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is May 19!

Hey, hey - it's that time again! Time for the monthly #TBRChallenge!  Whether you are participating or just following along, #TBRChallenge Day is Wednesday, May 19.  This month's (always optional) theme is Fairy Tale / Folk Tale.

Fairy Tale and Folk Tale tropes / retellings are a favorite for a lot of romance readers, so hopefully this month's theme will make a lot of you happy.  

But remember, the themes are always optional.  If you've read every single Beauty and the Beast trope in your TBR, if you're just not in the mood for Cinderella - 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.