Sunday, July 5, 2020

Review: Redemption of the Maverick Millionaire

She was such an idiot. He saw her as an obligation, nothing more - a problem he'd needed to fix. While she was as big a fool as ever where he was concerned. He hadn't shunned other women because nobody else could live up to her memory. He'd been punishing himself.
 I love reunion stories. Especially reunion stories where the hero has done the heroine dirty and has to crawl over broken glass to win her back. If your tastes run towards the blood-thirsty as mine do, then Redemption of the Maverick Millionaire by Michelle Douglas has you covered. Whoa doggie, did this hero have his work cut out for him!

Four years ago Damon Macy betrayed Eve Clark and she walked out of his life leaving scorched Earth behind.  Damon was in love with her, even though he firmly believed she was way too good for him. Now he's gotten wind that a developer has his claws in Mirror Glass Bay, the small Australian coastal village where Eve has built a new life revitalizing the local motel.  The developer plans to build a big splashy resort, one Damon fears will drive Eve's motel into the ground, so he pulls some strings and buys the developer out.  It's the least he could do for her after his betrayal.

There's a small fly in the ointment however - Eve wanted the development project to happen!  The truth is that Mirror Glass Bay's economy needs a shot in the arm, young people are leaving the town, and if something doesn't happen soon the school will close, the medical clinic - and then where will that leave Mirror Glass Bay?  As a ghost town.  Now here comes Damon, swooping back into her life like a bull in a china shop ruining any hope for the town's future.  Or has he?  Suitably humbled by his grandstanding, Damon vows to her that he'll make it right and now he's staying in her motel for at least a fortnight and dammit all the hell, she's still painfully attracted to him even as she fights the urge to throat punch him.

This is a reunion story where the heroine has every right to want to throat punch the hero and he's racked with guilt from the first chapter.  His guilt, knowing full well what he threw away, this is a Harlequin hero who has been celibate for the four years since the heroine walked out of his life.  A rarity to be sure, and it gives reader an imperfect hero in pursuit.  I questioned for a good chunk of this story if he truly still loved her or if he was just assuaging his guilt - and while that sounds dreadful, it actually makes for a tension-filled read.

Eve was devastated by Damon's betrayal and sure, she ran away from Sydney - but she ran to what turned out to be a better life for her.  Fixing up the motel, making a new home for her and her grandmother, being a successful local businesswoman with the pulse on her community.  She didn't fail in Sydney - she got the rug pulled out from under her.

A couple of things I really liked about this story was that it's a small town romance with some realism.  Oh sure, there's still a healthy polish on the veneer, but the lack of economic opportunity in such towns is rarely (hell, if ever!) addressed in small town romances - so polish or not it was nice to see a little realism for a change.  The fear of the residents is that if "something" doesn't happen soon, the closure of the public school and small medical clinic won't be far behind.  Also, consent is actually discussed - although not in so many words. Damon wants to win back Eve but there's more than one instance here were boundaries are discussed.  She tells him to back-off on more than one occasion, and he does. So much of the push-pull in the romance tango here comes into play because Eve, against her more rational instincts, makes the first move and gets spooked.

What didn't work so well?  Some pacing issues. It's a little slow to start and sags in a couple of places.  Also, Eve's grandmother is made out to be kind of a Big Deal (Eve moved to Mirror Glass Bay so her grandmother could still live an independent life) but there's only two really small scenes in the book where she makes an appearance and it's not until halfway through the book when she shows up. She's only one of 2 people outside of Eve who knows what he did to break her heart, you'd think A Spry Romancelandia Granny would have made her presence felt a heck of a lot more given the circumstances.

Pacing issues aside, it's still an engaging small town romance featuring a hero who has to spend a good chunk of the story groveling.  And I'm just blood-thirsty enough that I'm always going to want more of that.  Yeah, he did her wrong, but I finished the last page fully believing that he'd spend the rest of his life making it up to her.

Final Grade = B

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Library Loot Reviews: Representation and Collectors

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all of one's library holds will come in at once.  At least this time around it was only two books and both were very quick reads.

For long time readers of this blog, my youngest niece, Lemon Drop, turned 10 this past spring. I'm the Aunt that always gifts her books and she's not as precocious as my oldest niece who told me at 8 years old that she "likes to pick out my own books Aunt Wendy." I happily bought her gift cards, but it ain't the same.  When I asked my sister what Lemon Drop was currently reading, thinking I'd get her "the next book in whatever series about a girl and her dog, horse, unicorn, cat, whatever" I discovered Lemon Drop wanted westerns.  Yes, my heart skipped a beat (this being me after all) but y'all - it's hard to find westerns for grown-ups who love them (um, me) let alone 10-year-old kids.  Luckily one of my librarians swooped in to rescue me with a recommendation of Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park. My sister and niece read it together, loved it, so of course I then wanted to read it.

Park grew up in the Midwest loving the Little House series, to the point of fan-fiction devotion. However she wasn't immune to the problematic elements of the series and she fulfills a lifelong dream of telling the story of a half-Chinese 14-year-old girl who, after the death of her mother in Los Angeles, is uprooted by her white father to resettle in the Dakota territory.  Hanna has dreams of graduating from school and becoming a seamstress in her father's new shop. Along the way she's confronted by ugly realities, the struggle to make friends, and the unpacking of her grief surrounding her beloved mother's death.

While the protagonist is a 14-year-old girl, this is very much written at a middle-grade level. Suitable for my niece who just finished the fourth grade.  However, as much as I hate the term "adult themes" since kids are more observant and smarter than most of us give them credit for - it's the kind of book that I think warrants some unpacking.  Hanna confronts racism, injustice, and there's a moment at the end where she's assaulted (not raped - but hands are laid on her by a drunken ass). My one tangible issue with this story is actually that assault. Park writes about the aftermath of it realistically, and I do think children need to be aware of unfair realities - but it's a difficult lesson with a message that the genre reader in me recoils against.  In other words - talk to your kids y'all.

A quick read for an adult reader, a lovely sense of place, and a beautiful example that representation matters.  And while the themes are mature, the story is neither dark nor grim.  Even if you're not interested - pick it up the next time you're in a library or bookstore to read the author's note at the end.

Final Grade = B+

My Mom told me about Bibliostyle: How We Live at Home with Books by Nina Freudenberger having read about it in the newspaper.  One of the local libraries I have access to had it in eBook, which is not normally how I like to look at what is basically a coffee table book - but what the heck?  I have a tablet.

It's important to know that Fruedenberger is an interior designer, so this book approaches books as functional art, part of the interviewee homes that are used and not mere display pieces.  These aren't mere collectors per se, they're people who use and love their book collections.  While the books are displayed (sometimes haphazardly) they're used, they're thumbed through, in some cases cherished or purged depending on the person who owns them.

Freudenberger definitely chose her subjects among artists and literati - the only "every man" writer to make an appearance being Larry McMurtry (and calling him genre is a stretch IMHO).  But the photographs are lovely, as are some of the sentiments, and it helps solidifies my own relationship with books.  Which is to say the older I get, the more I don't view books as art.  I'm more of a collector of stories. It's just that my preferred method for consuming stories is through the written word. Are there beautiful books? Are there books that are art either by written word or in presentation?  Of course. And while I appreciate those, in the end it's not what draws me.  The story is the thing. That's the art that speaks to me.  Delivered via a beautifully bound first edition or as an eBook file. In the end it's never no mind to me.  Although I will admit to wanting what I call "tangible" copies of my keepers - books that I can pull out, look at, casually flip through.  Yes, I'm a librarian, but that's about as high-falutin' as I get.  The Midwestern lack of pretension runs that freely through my veins.

Take the grade for what's it worth.  It was a nice book to look through but it's a coffee table book and those "are what they are."  Final Grade = C

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Unusual Historicals Top Picks for June 2020

After a strange, upended spring, we now find ourselves in a strange, upended summer with most of us wondering what the heck autumn will bring. How much is my budget going to tank at the library? Will the kids be back in a traditional classroom setting come September? When might life feel normal enough to take a couple of vacation days again? Uncertain times call for snatching moments of joy when you can - and I think I speak for most of Romancelandia when I say books are a great way to find some joy. Here are some unusual historicals releasing in June that caught my eye:

A Duke, the Lady and a Baby by Vanessa Riley
Created by a shrewd countess, The Widow’s Grace is a secret society with a mission: to help ill-treated widows regain their status, their families, and even find true love again—or perhaps for the very first time . . .  
When headstrong West Indian heiress Patience Jordan questioned her English husband's mysterious suicide, she lost everything: her newborn son, Lionel, her fortune—and her freedom. Falsely imprisoned, she risks her life to be near her child—until The Widow's Grace gets her hired as her own son’s nanny. But working for his unsuspecting new guardian, Busick Strathmore, Duke of Repington, has perils of its own. Especially when Patience discovers his military strictness belies an ex-rake of unswerving honor—and unexpected passion . . .  
A wounded military hero, Busick is determined to resolve his dead cousin’s dangerous financial dealings for Lionel’s sake. But his investigation is a minor skirmish compared to dealing with the forthright, courageous, and alluring Patience. Somehow, she's breaking his rules, and sweeping past his defenses. Soon, between formidable enemies and obstacles, they form a fragile trust—but will it be enough to save the future they long to dare together? 
 Riley’s latest kicks off a series about a secret society that comes to the aid of mistreated widows and features a done-wrong heroine who loses everything when she dares to question the circumstances of her husband’s death. A mystery, a headstrong heroine, and a wounded hero. Sign me up!

Her Lady’s Honor by Renee Dahlia
The war might be over, but the battle for love has just begun.  
When Lady Eleanor “Nell” St. George arrives in Wales after serving as a veterinarian in the Great War, she doesn’t come alone. With her is her former captain’s beloved warhorse, which she promised to return to him—and a series of recurring nightmares that torment both her heart and her soul. She wants only to complete her task, then find refuge with her family, but when Nell meets the captain’s eldest daughter, all that changes.  
Beatrice Hughes is resigned to life as the dutiful daughter. Her mother grieves for the sons she lost to war; the care of the household and remaining siblings falls to Beatrice, and she manages it with a practical efficiency. But when a beautiful stranger shows up with her father’s horse, practicality is the last thing on her mind. Despite the differences in their social standing, Beatrice and Nell give in to their unlikely attraction, finding love where they least expect it. But not everything in the captain’s house is as it seems.  
When Beatrice’s mother disappears under mysterious circumstances, Nell must overcome her preconceptions to help Beatrice, however she’s able. Together they must find out what really happened that stormy night in the village, before everything Beatrice loves is lost—including Nell. 
It’s addressed a bit with a throwaway line in the blurb, but having finished this book very recently what struck me most about it was how much the author addresses class issues as part of the romantic conflict. Nell is a Lady and Beatrice is a woman with no life of her own, trapped by the circumstances of her birth. If the thought of reading another Duke fall in love with a chambermaid without a wisp of consequences has given you a case of the permanent eye-rolls, consider this book your antidote.

Captured By Her Enemy Knight by Nicole Locke
Captured by her enemy…  
Falling for the man  
Cressida Howe, the Archer, is a well-tuned weapon. But she’s also a woman captivated by a man—Eldric of Hawskmoor, the warrior knight her father ordered her to kill. Instead, for years, Cressida has simply watched him… 
Now she’s been captured by her formidable enemy, and her well-ordered world comes crashing down, for Eldric is even more compelling up close. Cressida curses her traitorous heart—this assassin has fallen for her target! 
This book has rolled around in Wendy Catnip. Questions of loyalty, a warrior heroine, and a mysterious knight that her father wants dead for some reason. Get in my eyeballs now.

Two Rogues Make a Right by Cat Sebastian
Will Sedgwick can’t believe that after months of searching for his oldest friend, Martin Easterbrook is found hiding in an attic like a gothic nightmare. Intent on nursing Martin back to health, Will kindly kidnaps him and takes him to the countryside to recover, well away from the world.  
Martin doesn’t much care where he is or even how he got there. He’s much more concerned that the man he’s loved his entire life is currently waiting on him hand and foot, feeding him soup and making him tea. Martin knows he’s a lost cause, one he doesn’t want Will to waste his life on.  
As a lifetime of love transforms into a tender passion both men always desired but neither expected, can they envision a life free from the restrictions of the past, a life with each other? 
The next book in Sebastian’s Sedgwick’s series gives readers a fairy tale spin - although it’s a prince locked away in a tower (or attic, whatever) opposed to a princess. Library Journal gave it a starred review and called it a “life-affirming final act to the trilogy”

An Outlaw’s Honor by Terri Brisbin
When the only man she can trust is known for his dishonorable past, what could go wrong?

A Dishonorable Man
Thomas Brisbois of Kelso has only one goal when he arrives at the tournament--to defeat the only knight who ever bested him in battle. If he succeeds, the Scottish king will return to him his lands, his honor and his life. He has little interest in other prizes, and even less when he learns that the lord for whom his rival fights has included a daughter among the spoils at stake in their contest-- a lovely daughter with no desire to play the pawn, or to see her father's champion win. She is a distraction, all the more after she explains her own ideas about which knight shall have her, and how and when.  
A Desperate Woman
Annora may be a pawn in her father’s plans but she has no intention of letting that happen without a fight of her own. When she sees the frank desire in Thomas’ gaze for her, she makes her own offer—she’ll help him win if he’ll let her go. . . after he beds her. Her plans go awry when she discovers the truth of the man beneath the armor. The man who had lost everything and struggles to regain his life.  
Brisbin is a seasoned pro in medieval historical romance, so I always know I’ll be in good hands when I pick up one of her stories. Part of a multi-author series centered around a tournament, I love historical heroines who find themselves as pawns of men’s machinations but scheme to throw a wrench in the works. Naturally, in romance, schemes never seem to go according to plan.

What Unusual Historicals are you looking forward to reading?

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Review: Her Lady's Honor

Her desires could be trampled by anyone else, simply because Beatrice was the spinster sibling with no rights of her own. She'd often wondered if being married would give her slightly more power, or if she'd end up as a shell of herself like Mother had.
Her Lady's Honor by Renee Dahlia has a back cover blurb that has been haunting my dreams since I first read it months ago.  So I was all set to love this story to the moon and back when I finally settled in to read it.  How did it turn out?  Well, it was kind of a mixed bag.

Lady Eleanor "Nell" St. George, daughter of a second son, niece to a Duke, used her wits and her family connections to join the war effort as a veterinary assistant.  Dreadfully close to the front, it was the job of Nell's unit to tend to the horses, keep them alive, patch them up and send them back into battle.  Now the war is over and Nell is delivering on a promise.  Her captain, gassed and hospitalized, asked Nell to ensure his horse is returned to him in Wales.

Beatrice Hughes is the captain's oldest, and spinster, daughter, seen as nothing more than a servant in her own home.  Her mother is a shell of her former self after her three oldest boys were killed in the war.  The captain is an abusive man who beats his wife and sees little to no value in his girl children.  Her sister Grace is selfish, still bemoaning the death of her fiance overseas, so it's up to Beatrice to keep the farm running, the smaller children cared for while her mother acts the ghost and her father drinks himself into oblivion.  Beatrice's life is not her own - and then in walks Nell, a beautiful, brave adventuress that her father treats respectfully because she's "a Lady."

Dahlia does some interesting things with this book in terms of conflict and the internal character struggles.  Class is a very big deal in this story.  Nell is a Lady.  Nell has privilege.  But her years in the war have made her less polished, a bit more crass, to the point where she's almost dreading going home to her family.  She misses them terribly, she longs for the comfort of home to process her war experiences, but she also recognizes that she's not "Lady Eleanor" anymore.  She's "Nell."  The war has changed her and there's no going back.  But at the end of the day, even with her baggage, Nell has choices.

In contrast, Beatrice has no choices.  She's a heroine trapped in a life that promises nothing but drudgery and uncertainty.  Stuck in place by family obligations, nothing to look forward to - not even dreams.  Because what good are dreams when your reality is so soul-sucking.  She could marry, but who's to say that she wouldn't end up saddled to a man just like her father, and Beatrice is well aware she's a lesbian. There's no questioning of her sexuality. So marriage, even as a possible escape, is out.

Nell has respect for the captain prior to showing up on his doorstep and once she meets his wife and children she has to reconcile the good solider she served under with the abusive man terrorizing his family.  Then Beatrice's mother goes missing and the captain's temperament takes an even more unsavory turn.

It's a weighty book with weighty themes and Dahlia does introduce moments of levity, but they don't always work.  The tone feels off when she does so. Also, while I sympathized with Beatrice a great deal it's still hard to not find her insufferable at times.  Girl, Nell is trying. Nell has issues, and says some callous things that hurt Beatrice.  But then Beatrice pouts and throws Nell's apologies back in her face even when, as the reader, you can tell Nell's apologies are heartfelt. That she's sorry, that she'll do better.  As for the romance, it's OK but not great.  It's very heavy insta-lust and while the chemistry is there, I never quite figured out how they fell in love.  Lust, sure. I got that.  Love?  Not so much.

However the setting is well drawn (the incessant rain, the farm, the small Welsh village...) and the cast of characters vast and interesting.  In a genre that tends to ignore class because it's inconvenient (and readers do seem to love Dukes living happily ever after with governesses...) the fact that Dahlia doesn't ignore it, addresses it even, adds compelling and realistic drama to the romance.  It wasn't everything I wanted it to be, but there was still plenty here for me to admire.

Final Grade = B-

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

#TBRChallenge 2020: Blissful Summer

The Book: Blissful Summer by Cheris Hodges and Lisa Marie Perry

The Particulars: Contemporary romance, Kimani Romance, 2015, Out of Print, Not Available in Digital

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: My print copy looks brand new, but it's not autographed and I went almost exclusively digital with Harlequin well before 2015. Best guess is that I snagged it in a conference goody room.  I'm at conference + Harlequin not tied down = of course I grabbed it.

The Review: This month's optional theme is Getaway, and I decided to interpret that as "vacation destination."  Make You Mine Again by Cheris Hodges kicks off this anthology with a reunion romance set in Atlanta, New York, Paris and Jamaica.

Jansen Douglas is an in-demand supermodel who is preparing for the next phase of her career.  She's not getting any younger, and realizing the shelf-life for models, has visions of opening up her own agency.  But first she needs to attend her BFF's wedding in Paris.  The fly in the ointment?  Her BFF's brother, Bradley Stephens, is the one that got away.  Well, more like she showed him the door.  She supported Bradley's dreams and ambitions, but when she told him she wanted to kick-start a career in modelling - well, it didn't go well.  She left him, and neither one has gotten over it.

This story only clocks in at 100 pages, and the couple doesn't actually land on page together until the halfway point.  Which, I know this is a reunion romance, but it's still a problem.  So what's happening in the first 50 pages?  A lot of info-dumping, setting up a Big Misunderstanding and secondary character introductions that felt like series filler to me.  But then I can't find any mention online that this is actually a series?  So that means it felt like a series idea that the author cut back to fit a 100 page novella and it just didn't work for me.  There's too much here for a novella. Also, to be perfectly blunt, I completely understood why Jansen walked away from Bradley all those years ago and I'm wholly unconvinced he's "changed" and seen the light.  Jansen is a fierce heroine and gurl, you could do so much better.  

Grade = C

There's a bit of plot absurdity in Unraveled by Lisa Marie Perry but there are some nice moments in this novella.  Ona Tracy was a scholarship kid at her prestigious Philadelphia performing arts school with Most Likely to Succeed written all over her - but life has not spun out as planned.  She gave up Broadway dreams for a worthless man, then her career in advertising took a hit when she fell for a double-crossing colleague.  She's at a low ebb, but has managed to convince her former high school that she's the event planner who can tackle the Glee Club's 10-year reunion.  She's got big plans to seduce her high school crush who has turned out to be Mr. Successful Stability. She just needs it all to go off without a hitch and survive her Mean Girl Nemesis.  But trouble starts brewing right away when the ship she booked turns out to be an "erotic cruise" to the Bahamas.  But our gal is determined to make lemonade out of lemons, and no sooner does she start exploring the ship than she makes the steamy acquaintance of ex-Marine, Riker Ewan.  Sparks fly immediately with this working class bartender from Boston, but wouldn't you know?  There's more to Riker than meets the eye.

I'm a bit of a sucker for high school reunion stories, and Perry does some interesting things with her cast of secondary characters.  The high school crush who didn't notice Ona back in the day, the propositioning jerk that Ona has to smack down repeatedly, but it's the Mean Girl Nemesis that's really interesting.  She's uppity and prickly to Ona's pure sassy goodness.  The scenes between these two are great, especially at the end when insecurities come pouring out.  The chemistry with Riker is also good, and I'm a sucker for a blue-collar hero paired with a polished heroine like Ona.  Ona's life might not be great at the moment, but she's a never let 'em see you sweat sort - again, extremely attractive in a romance heroine.

The issue is conflict. Ona's conflict, the high school reunion cast, the botched cruise booking - more than enough to power a 100 page novella.  Riker really could have just been a guy going on a cruise after getting stood up by a woman.  But no.  Riker has a Big Secret and he's on the cruise for other half-baked reasons entirely - which of course means family baggage. It's too much. The Riker baggage feels completely unnecessary - Ona's is more than enough to carry the show.  Still, a fun read and frankly a bloody shame that Perry doesn't seem to be writing anymore.  If anyone can tell me otherwise, I'd love to hear it.

Grade = B-

While I wasn't madly in love with this short anthology, it did the trick of kick-starting my flagging reading mojo.  Presumably it's not available anymore because rights have reverted back to the authors.  I'd like to see what Hodges could do with her characters if she spun them out into an entire family series and the Perry story has some fun moments.  Hopefully digital reprints are on the horizon.

Overall Final Grade = C+

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Mini-Review: The Au Pair

 The Au PairOn the very day Seraphine Mayes and her twin brother Danny were born at home on their family's Norfolk estate their mother committed suicide by throwing herself off the cliffs, their older brother's au pair fled and the small village's love of superstitious nonsense kicked into overdrive with talk of witches and changelings and sprites.  Twenty-some-odd years later, Seraphine still lives on the family estate mourning the recent accidental death of her father.  It's while she's going through some things that she discovers an old photograph, presumably taken on the day of her and Danny's birth.  Their father, their mother, their older brother Edwin newborn baby in their mother's arms.  Is that baby Seraphine or Danny and where's the other one?  Seraphine, who has spent her life being called a sprite, remarked upon that she looks nothing like her siblings or father, and saddled with grief, is determined to find answers.  And for that, she needs to track down Edwin's former au pair, Laura.

So begins Emma Rous's debut suspense novel, The Au Pair: family secrets, with a sprinkling of Gothic, told in time slip fashion - Seraphine in present day and Laura the au pair in the early 1990s.  The first half was a bit rocky for me mostly because Seraphine comes off as borderline hysterical (save me from hysterical female protagonists in suspense novels) but it smooths out a bit as the story lines converge and threats surface to warn Seraphine about snooping around in the family's dirty laundry.  There's even a very light romance thread to spice up the proceedings, making this one of the more nostalgic Gothic throwbacks I've read this year.

The ending is, well OK.  I'll be honest, it's really light in the pants on motive.  All the family secrets come tumbling out but why The Bad Guy did what they did doesn't hold up to much scrutiny.  But it's an ending, I guess?  And it helps distract from the other large issue in this story, which is that all the adults are really gross.  I mean, I think I'm supposed to not like Laura in the end and be a Judgey McJudge Pants about the choices she makes back in 1992 - but Laura was an 18-year-old girl with a mountain of baggage thanks to her Mum, Stepfather, and a relationship gone bad.  Did she make good choices?  Well, no.  But frankly she was 18 and the frickin' adults in this book were ADULTS and yes I'm going to hold them to a higher standard.  But then we wouldn't have had much of a story.

In the end this was better than OK for me but I wasn't in love with it.  That said, there's enough on the page of this debut novel that I would definitely be interested in reading Rous's next book.

Final Grade = B-

Friday, June 12, 2020

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is June 17!

A reminder that #TBRChallenge day is Wednesday, June 17.  This month's (always optional) theme is Getaway.

Yes, another one of the new, vague themes that Wendy is torturing y'all with. What does getaway mean to you? Tropical islands? Vacation? Runaway brides? Escaping the bad guys?  Any way you think to apply the optional theme - anything goes!

However, if you're not in the mood, can't be bothered, whatever your reasons may problem!  Remember, the themes are always optional.

You can learn more about the Challenge and see the list of participating folks on the Information Page