Monday, January 20, 2020

Unusual Historical Picks for January 2020

Dear Romancelandia, was it just last month that I was wishing for blue skies ahead? Here we are, not four weeks into 2020 and already this year has felt like it’s been six months long. Between what’s been going on with RWA, coupled with world events, the start of my reading year hasn’t been all that great. But it’s too soon to throw in the towel on 2020 yet and what better way to head off a potential reading slump than book browsing? Here are some new Unusual Historicals catching my eye:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B08358LMCJ/themisaofsupe-20Honor and Desire by Rebel Carter (Kindle Unlimited Title)
For as long as anyone can remember Seylah Wickes-Barnes has been at the side of August Leclaire, her best friend and the boy her fathers took under their wing.

Now a grown woman and looking for love, Seylah's deepest regret, and secret, is quickly coming to surface: She has been in love with August for as long as she can remember.

For years she has been content in her role as secretary to the Sheriff's department in Gold Sky, Montana. Mostly for the opportunity to be around the men of her family, and the one who still owns her heart. But there is no denying that the woman behind the desk is far more suited to wielding a gun and keeping the peace. If only she could convince her fathers to see her in a new light, as a person worthy of a deputy's badge.

Determined to put her past behind her, Seylah gives her attentions to a handsome new arrival. One who sweeps Seylah off her feet-quite literally. Things are almost perfect until August suddenly declares his intent to court her. Can she trust that August's affections are true and not inspired by jealousy?

Amongst gun fights and forbidden kisses, childhood friendships mature into a love built on forever and intimate desire in this tale of friends-to-prickly-allies-to-lovers romance.
Carter continues her generational historical western series with this third book featuring a heroine starting to stifle under parental expectations and resolving to move on from an unrequited crush only to have said crush wake up and smell the coffee just as she’s getting swept off her feet by another man. Seriously, why are men so dense? (#evergreen).

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B07YBKL6VC/themisaofsupe-20
The Lord I Left by Scarlett Peckham
He’s a minister to whores… She’s a fallen woman…

Lord Lieutenant Henry Evesham is an evangelical reformer charged with investigating the flesh trade in London. His visits to bawdy houses leave him with a burning desire to help sinners who’ve lost their innocence to vice—even if the temptations of their world test his vow not to lose his moral compass…again.

As apprentice to London’s most notorious whipping governess, Alice Hull is on the cusp of abandoning her quiet, rural roots for the city’s swirl of provocative ideas and pleasures—until a family tragedy upends her dreams and leaves her desperate to get home. When the handsome, pious Lord Lieutenant offers her a ride despite the coming blizzard, she knows he is her best chance to reach her ailing mother—even if she doesn’t trust him.

He has the power to destroy her… She has the power to undo him…

As they struggle to travel the snow-swept countryside, they find their suspicion of each other thawing into a longing that leaves them both shaken. Alice stirs Henry’s deepest fantasies, and he awakens parts of her she thought she’d foresworn years ago. But Henry is considering new regulations that threaten the people Alice holds dear, and association with a woman like Alice would threaten Henry’s reputation if he allowed himself to get too close.

Is falling for the wrong person a test of faith …or a chance at unimagined grace?
I have a complicated relationship with BDSM in romance fiction which is why I haven’t yet read Peckham, but reviews seem to indicate she’s a polarizing writer. For every reader who loves her books, there are readers who are less than enthralled - and the plot synopsis for this third book in her Secrets of Charlotte Street will likely follow that pattern. Reading this blurb my reaction fluctuates from “Gimme now!” to “OMG, this could be a hot mess.” So of course I’m going to have to read it.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B07T7GV4KN/themisaofsupe-20
Her Dark Knight’s Redemption by Nicole Locke
“This man was shadow and night. He was Darkness.”

Homeless Aliette is saved from punishment for stealing by a mysterious knight. To stay alive, she’s informed by this stranger that she must claim his child as her own. She should fear the dark knight’s power, yet it’s clear there’s more good to this man than he’s prepared to show. Can she break down the barriers of the tortured knight she calls Darkness?
Medievals lend themselves well to dark and angst - two things I cannot seem to get enough of in romance. Locke’s latest sounds right up my alley. A broody, haunted knight confronted with a child he didn’t know existed and saving the heroine in order to pull off a charade - for reasons. Sign. Me. Up.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B07N89TKQM/themisaofsupe-20
Her Scandalous Pursuit by Candace Camp
Thisbe Moreland is used to men not taking her seriously. As a scientist, she’s accustomed to being the only woman at lectures and meetings, her presence met with scorn and derision. So it comes as a pleasant surprise when she sits next to a handsome young man who is actually interested in having a conversation about science.

Desmond Harrison cannot believe his good fortune when he sits next to Thisbe—she’s intelligent and incredibly beautiful. He longs to see her again—but he’s ashamed of his low birth. Not to mention his employment with the infamous Professor Gordon, a formerly respected scientist who turned to spiritualism and is now deeply scorned.

When Professor Gordon demands that Desmond recover an artifact for him—an ancient object reputed to have terrible power, known as the Eye of Annie Blue—Desmond realizes that only Thisbe holds the key. Desmond must choose between his love for Thisbe and his loyalty to his mentor…but humanity’s very future will depend on his choice.
Camp has been writing romances longer than some folks reading this blog post have been alive. This is the seventh book in her Mad Morelands series, but technically serves as a prequel. There’s a lot of Unusual Historical catnip in this blurb, a scientist heroine, a hero caught between mentor and the heroine, and the hunt for a mythical and supposedly powerful ancient artifact. I’m not familiar with the previous books in the series, so this one is going on my library wishlist to sample.

What Unusual Historicals are you looking forward to this month?

Friday, January 17, 2020

Guest Review: Good Girls Lie

Today the Bat Cave is hosting guest reviewer Janet Webb who many of you know from her writing at Heroes & Heartbreakers (RIP), Criminal Element, and as a longtime resident of Romancelandia. Welcome Janet! 

The title Good Girls Lie is a play on words since the girls who attend The Goode School in Marchburg, Virginia are bound by a strict honor code: the stricture against lying is listed first. The school and the town are both fictional although J.T. Ellison is an alumna of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia (class of ’91). Ellison said she has “woven pieces of the school’s legends and tragedies into this story, all put through my own creative lens.”

The first chapter is entitled The Hanging. Ellison paints a horrifying picture—the opposite of how you might imagine a pastoral, purposeful prep school.
The girl’s body dangles from the tall, iron gates guarding the school’s entrance. A closer examination shows the ends of a red silk tie peeking out like a cardinal on a winter branch, forcing her neck into a brutal angle. She wears her graduation robe and multicolored stole as if knowing she’ll never see the achievement. 
The scene quickly shifts back in time to the arrival of Ash Carlisle, a new student from Oxford, England. Dean Westhaven welcomes Ash into her inner sanctum and asks her over a perfectly prepared cup of Oolong tea if she remembers the words of the Honor Pledge. Ash dutifully recites it.
“I will hold myself and my fellow students to the highest standards. I pledge absolute honesty in my work and my personal relationships. I will never take a shortcut to further my own goals. I will not lie, I will not cheat, I will not steal. I will turn myself in if I fail to live up to this obligation, and I will encourage those who break the code in any way to report themselves as well. I believe in trust and kindness, and the integrity of this oath. On my honor.” 
A classic mystery trope is the stranger entering an environment that is rich with long-standing traditions and customs. What is more hide-bound than an elite girls boarding-school? Think of The Official Preppy Handbook: fitting in at a boarding school is all about knowing and following the unspoken rules, be it clothing, manners, or the all-important who you know and where you’re from. Ash is worried “about fitting in with the daughters of the DC elite—daughters of senators and congressmen and ambassadors and reporters and the just plain filthy rich,” but she is “more than” pretty and as for her intelligence, she’s off the charts: “she’s both book smart and street-smart, the rarest of combinations.” Whilst Ash muses about her acceptability in a new environment, Ellison lays down a troubling marker.
Despite her concerns, if she sticks to the story, she will fit in with no issues. The only strike against her, of course, is me, but no one knows about me. No one can ever know about me.
What could this mean? Why does Dean Westhaven have to remind herself to call Ash by the last name Carlisle, instead of Carr? Troubling information like this is meted out in trickles but what really informs Good Girls Lie is the dichotomy between everything the school publicly represents and the actions of the girls behind the gates. The Goode School is known colloquially as a “Silent Ivy,” a sobriquet that plays on the school’s phenomenal acceptance rate at the Ivy Leagues. Of each class of graduates, “a full 90 percent go traditional Ivy.”
It is a laudable record. Goode accepts only the best, guarantees a serious return on investment. And in turn, expects blood, sweat, and tears. And future endowments. Elitism costs. 
“Blood, sweat, and tears.” That’s a rather harsh description of high school, albeit a demanding girls-only prep school but Ash discovers the truth of it early on. Exhausted after dragging a huge suitcase up two flights of stairs, she looks at her information packet to find out the number of her room. It’s 214. A group of girls “point to the left as one, a flock of helpful, smiling little birds.” At the end of the hall, she finds the number written on a piece of paper, taped to a door. It’s a thoroughly gothic introduction to boarding school life.
Steeling myself, I open the door into…darkness. A heady, musty smell, overlaid with bleach. Across the room are two cobwebbed windows covered in smeary, dotted dirt. The floor is draped in tarps; neatly stacked ladders line the far wall, a row of paint cans in front of them. A fluorescent light swings from the ceiling. When I flip the switch, it comes to life with an ominous crackle. 
That’s not all Ash hears—outside the door are “peals of laughter.” Really? “Oh, ha, bloody ha,” she thinks. But isn’t hazing of new students traditional? Or is this an indication of how things are going to be? Ash’s insularity, combined with her British background, make it impossible for her to escape notice. She is quickly targeted by her fellow students, particularly Becca, a member of the senior class. Becca is a natural leader, luminous, intelligent, and brilliant at blowing hot and cold at Ash. Becca and her followers quickly uncover the mystery of Ash’s mysterious background although Ellison deftly inserts clues that indicate that there’s much more to Ash than meets the eye.

The “hanging” marks a shift in the plot, from uncomfortable scenes of bullying and competition to dark secrets and downright terror. A paragraph describing Good Girls Lie takes on a frightening resonance: “In a world where appearances are everything, as long as students pretend to follow the rules, no one questions the cruelties of the secret societies or the dubious behavior of the privileged young women who expect to get away with murder.” Getting away with murder in this venue means more than scamming someone or something and getting off scot free—at The Goode School, murder is brutal and inexplicable. Good Girls Lie is a complicated, absorbing tale that is painted in morally ambiguous shades of grey, not black and white.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

#TBRChallenge 2020: The Greek's Nine-Month Redemption

Book Cover
The Book: The Greek's Nine-Month Redemption by Maisey Yates

The Particulars: Contemporary romance, Harlequin Presents, 2016, out of print, available digitally

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?:  Yates is an autobuy.  My print copy is autographed which means I picked this up at an RWA conference, although my cataloging notes are incomplete (my guess, probably the 2016 conference - which would have been San Diego).

The Review: Yates is such a pro at writing short contemporary that even when her books don't hit all the right buttons for me they're still highly readable.  I hadn't even picked out a TBR Challenge book until Sunday afternoon, grabbed this one because it was near the top of the Harlequin print pile, and proceeded to inhale it in one sitting.

Elle St. James is a poor little rich girl whose father has installed her as CEO of the family business.  Not because he believes in her. Perish the thought! Because her step-brother, Apollo Savas, is dismantling her father's empire brick by brick.  When the old man's empire faltered, Apollo swooped in like a savior, only to reveal his true identity - that of avenging angel.  Daddy St. James done him wrong, done his mother wrong, and now the man must pay.  Their parents married when Elle and Apollo were teenagers, and the sexual tension between them has always been thick.  Instead of acting on it, it has taken the form of sarcasm and back-biting - which honestly is half the fun of this story.  Apollo is a proto-typical Presents ass, but gods bless Elle - this girl can certainly dish it out.

What tends to happen in Presents stories happens here.  Apollo wants his revenge, Elle is conveniently standing right in front of him, there's all this delicious Enemies to Lovers tension clinging to the pages - well of course his pants are going to fall off and oopsie doodle...over and over again.  But will Apollo be able to set aside his blind quest for revenge, especially when Elle ends up pregnant?

This is pretty standard Presents fair.  Apollo is an ass and frankly needed to crawl over broken glass and grovel - which makes it highly annoying that there's no grovel to speak of in this book.  What kept this book from flying across the room, and what tends to make Yates' Presents highly addictive, is that the heroines tend to have just as much fire as the heroes.  Elle has underlying vulnerabilities, but this kitten has claws and draws blood even when Apollo is painting her into a corner.  She's got gumption and I love gumption.

So if there's no grovel, and Apollo is an ass - what saves this book?  Yates can write.  And she writes stuff about forgiveness and love and sacrifice over the course of the final chapters that are...well, there's depth here.  The kind of depth that naysayers of "those trashy Harlequins" think the format lacks because it merely exists and people like to read them (readers like Harlequins ergo they must have absolutely no merit at all).

Is it perfect? Well, no. Apollo, his need for revenge, and him using Elle to get said revenge are nothing if not problematic  But the epilogue is perfection - showing the couple 10 years later, with Elle living her best damn life and they're still blissfully in love - even despite the complicated baggage.  Yes, Apollo is an ass.  And yes, Elle plays the role of the good woman who thaws his frosty heart, but it sings from page one to the last sentence and I don't feel the least bit guilty inhaling this in one sitting.

Final Grade = B-

Monday, January 13, 2020

Review: Ride the High Lonesome

I love historical westerns, and yes, I'm self-aware enough to recognize that the sub genre is problematic. While westerns, be they contemporary or historical, have celebrated somewhat of a rebirth, riding on the coattails of the small town contemporary boom - I've always preferred the darker and grittier westerns.  Westerns where the main couple tends to be in peril (a lot).  Possibly because even if the author doesn't implicitly spell it out, the reader is confronted with the problematic nature of the sub genre - even if it is only found in between the lines of the text.

Ride the High Lonesome by Rosanne Bittner is the start of a new series set post-Civil War in "outlaw country" where men make their own law and live by a code (be it good or bad - the lines blur an awful lot).  Kate Winters lost her husband in the war and left Indiana to travel to Oregon to live with her brother-in-law's family.  However, the wagon train she is traveling with is attacked in route, and Kate is the only survivor, hiding under the rubble of a destroyed wagon.  She emerges to find her fellow travelers dead, with no supplies, no horse, and no idea where the heck she is.  So she starts walking and happens upon a band of men stringing up another man to hang him.  They're going to steal the guy's cattle, and would have taken his horse - accept the horse fights back, they decide to not dally, and take off with the herd.  Kate still has no idea where she is, where the nearest town is, but she needs that horse and the meager supplies still strapped to it.  That's when she notices the hanging man isn't dead.  Yes, she's desperate - but she's not a monster.  Plus, she has no idea where she is. She weighs the odds and cuts him down.

Luke Bowden is a might cranky. Naturally our boy wants his cattle back, his money back, oh and to put a bullet in every one of the men who tried to murder him by doing a piss-poor job of hanging him.  He doesn't need a woman along for the ride, but he's also indebted to her.  Plus the outlaws are more than likely heading to the nearest town to sell off the herd - so he can deliver her to civilization and get his revenge.

What follows is a road romance with all the trigger warnings you can possibly think of.  Nobody is writing westerns like Bittner anymore (if they are, please leave me suggestions in the comments section!).  Over the course of this story you have Luke almost dying by hanging, Kate nearly getting raped twice (well, multiple times really since the second instance would have been a gang rape...), and more dead bodies than I can keep track of: 5, 6, 7, 8?  I lost count.  It's a western set in a violent time, with the shadow of the Civil War shadowing everything.

I can roll with all of this, even as I recognize that the violence in the plot will be a sticking point for some readers.  No, my issues with this book are entirely based on writing and characterization.  The dialogue is stilted at times and the writing falls into repetition.  Kate is a heroine that's hard to get a bead on.  I started out loving her.  She's vulnerable, but recognizes that shit has to get done - or else she's going to die.  She's a "good woman" but she saves a man from hanging, fights off her would-be rapists, and is pretty brave in the face of getting stranded in outlaw country with her only help being a man she needs to trust, but doesn't know if she quite can.  But then she's also a former Civil War nurse who doesn't do much to doctor up a bullet wound she receives until Luke rides in at the 11th hour to save her.  She also turns clingy and needy which I "get" but found annoying compared to those times when she sucks it up and barrels through a situation because she doesn't have much choice.

Luke is your prototypical Alpha western hero who lives by a code even though he skirts around the edges of the law when it suits him.  He takes no issue with killing a man, but only when he feels said man does something to warrant it.  And he's bound by honor to protect Kate because she saves his life.  But, and wouldn't you know it, he was also done wrong by a woman so he's got trust issues, and at the end he does something for no other reason that to "test" Kate's faithfulness that had me wanting to find the nearest cast iron skillet and beat him over the head until he was bloody and unconscious.  Frankly Kate sticking by his side, saving him from hanging, and practically mooning over him in the final chapters should have given him a clue. No, this thundering jackass has to "test" her some more.

Sigh.

So where does this leave me?  I was sitting at a B- for most of this book.  It was slow in spots, the repetition got repetitious and the dialogue was a bit stilted for my liking - but it was fine and frankly nobody writes westerns like this anymore.  But for as brave as Kate is over the course of events in this story, there's an underlying thread of Rescue Fantasy and adherence to traditional gender roles which were hard to ignore because there's zero subtlety.  Kate Is Woman, Ergo Luke Protects Kate Because He Is Big Bad Man.  Kate Stares Lovingly As He Rides Away and Sits Her Ass On Shelf To Pine.

Luke's "test" and Kate simply resigning herself to a life of lonely waiting while he rides off with vague promises to return put a bullet between the eyes of that B-.  Yes, there's a happy ending and yes, I'll read the next book in the series, because of course I will.  Why?  Because nobody else is writing westerns like this anymore.

Final Grade = C-

Friday, January 10, 2020

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day Is January 15!

A reminder that the first #TBRChallenge of 2020 is Wednesday, January 15.  This month's (always optional) theme is We Love Short Shorts!

This is our traditional January theme.  I like to ease y'all in with reading something shorter to kick off the year ahead.  Category romance, novellas, short stories - whatever tickles your fancy.

"But Wendy, I don't like short works. If it's not at least 300 pages it ain't worth my time."  Hey, no 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.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Reading Year in Review 2019

It's time to look back on my reading year that was 2019.  All in all, I had a pretty good year!  My goal is to always hit 100 books and I finished up with 106!  OK, so I do count DNFs and novellas but whatever...106!  Also, I never do a Best Of for just the past year list because I'm always so perpetually behind in my reading and, quite frankly, if the best book I read in 2019 was published in 2015....I WANT TO TELL YOU ALL ABOUT IT!  So yeah, it all goes into the blender for me and comes out hopefully as a delicious and nutritious smoothie.  Here's how the numbers broke down for 2019:

5 Stars (A grade): 6
4 Stars (B grade): 41
3 Stars (C grade ; low B-): 31
2 Stars (D grade): 14
1 Star (F grade): 5
DNF (Did Not Finish): 9
Audiobooks: 19

My A, F and DNF grades are pretty consistent from previous years. 2019 saw me righting the ship with more B grades than C grades (yippee) but my D grades were up and that's no bueno.  My audiobook numbers are also way down. A byproduct of a shorter daily commute and me not listening while I exercise. I need to spend more time on my elliptical in 2020.

Now, let's talk books.  Here are the ones I really enjoyed this past year. This list includes all my A grades plus the memorable B grades that had staying power.

(Title links will take you to reviews unless otherwise noted)

The Romance (in no particular order):

The Captain's Vegas Vows by Caro Carson (2018) ; Harlequin Special Edition, Contemporary Romance - What happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas when the military heroine realizes that the man she hastily married (and has no memory of...) is also stationed at Fort Hood. A category romance that fires on all cylinders, it's got an amnesia plot and a romance that features a couple who hastily weds and then has to try to figure out if they can live together.

The Bachelor's Baby Surprise by Teri Wilson (2018) ; Harlequin Special Edition, Contemporary Romance - Ignore the baby on the cover and the oopsie-doodle we did it once and now I'm pregnant trope - this is a charming, fun, romantic comedy featuring a Most Eligible Bachelor Hero who is smitten from the moment he lays eyes on the heroine. This is screaming for a movie adaptation.

Her Knight in the Outback by Nikki Logan (2015) ; Harlequin Romance, Contemporary Romance - An emotionally hefty romance featuring a heroine desperate to find her missing brother and a traveling-for-work hero who hitches his wagon to her.  Compelling conflict and a black moment that damn near ripped my guts out.

The Million Pound Marriage by Michelle Douglas (2018) ; Harlequin Romance, Contemporary Romance - She's a poor little rich girl who needs money to send her dead brother's fiance to rehab, he's her dead brother's BFF who is being forced to marry by his overbearing grandfather. Naturally, a deal is struck and they both get more than they bargained for. It's the heroine that made this a stand-out read for me. At some point in this book she challenges ever single man in the story. Every. Single. One. She's glorious.

Passion's Song by Farrah Rochon (2016) ; Kimani Romance, Contemporary Romance - It has friends-to-lovers and a pretend relationship, which is reason enough to love it.  But what's really memorable? The world-building. The romance is set in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, and there's a fantastic neighborhood backdrop that Rochon drops her characters in the middle of. Delightful.

Seduced by the Badge by Deborah Fletcher Mello (2018) ; Harlequin Romantic Suspense - It was a rough year for me and romantic suspense (So. Many. Idiot. Heroines.) and this book gave me some hope that maybe the sub genre isn't totally doomed.  Cop heroine from out of town hooks up with the hero to bring down a sex trafficking ring.  Great world-building, great neighborhood feel (Chicago!) and a lovely family dynamic (the hero's family) that the author is mining for more books in the series.

Wanted: Billionaire's Wife by Susannah Erwin (2019) ; Harlequin Desire, Contemporary Romance - A tight, well-plotted, well-written debut Desire featuring a heroine with her back against the wall (and not in a good way...) and a hero who hires her to find him a wife so he can close a business deal. Sure the plot is borderline absurd, but Erwin writes the heck out of it and it sings from the first page to very last.

A Debutante in Disguise by Eleanor Webster (2019) ; Harlequin Historical, Historical Romance - OMG, this book! The heroine leads a double-life in order to go to university and practice medicine and the hero is suffering from PTSD thanks to Napoleon.  Emotionally stunning with a heroine desperate for a life but hemmed in by what society deems "acceptable" for her gender. 

Their Amish Reunion by Lenora Worth (2018) ; Love Inspired, Contemporary Inspirational Romance - Amish hero leaves community to become a Navy SEAL and returns home for good when his father takes ill and a mission goes sideways. Coming home also means seeing the girl he left behind, now a young widow (she married his BFF) with two children.  Yes it's an Amish romance and yes there's a lot of "God stuff" but this one is rip-your-guts out emotional and amazingly written.

Broken Rules by Michaela Grey (2018) ; Erotic Romance, BDSM, M/M - Originally published by Dreamspinner, this is now available in a self-published edition. This has BDSM and a sex club (I'm honestly sick of both) and yet I still LOVED this book because the world-building and romance are OMG AMAZING!  Dom hero takes on new sub client, a poor little closeted rich boy who is an epic jerkface. An erotic romance that is more than just "hot sex" - it's seriously kinky (like, erotica kinky) but never, not once, loses sight of erotic romance's most important asset - passion. So. Much. Passion!  The black moments are epic with emotional moments that ripped my guts out - and jerkface gets put through the wringer. These are two heroes who have to work for their happy-ever-after. I finished the last page and immediately wanted to start the book all over again to wallow around more in this world. Don't miss it.

A Distant Heart by Sonali Dev (2018) ; Contemporary Romance - Dev spins an emotionally complex fairy tale about a Bollywood princess held captive by her long-term health issues and the hero from the wrong side of the tracks held captive by his sense of obligation to her father.  Never have I wanted a happy ending more for a romantic couple.

Bad Neighbor by M. O'Keefe (2016) ; Contemporary Romance - I love it when O'Keefe writes with a bit of dirt under her fingernails. Heroine moves into a seedy apartment complex near the airport after bailing out her younger sister (yet again) and falls for a grumpy new neighbor who fights in underground (and illegal) MMA matches. The world-building is on fire and on point.

Off Limits (affiliate link) by Vanessa North (2018) ; Contemporary Romance, F/F - I never wrote a review for this because it was part of my judging packet for the 2019 RITAs (no sense in keeping that quiet now given that RWA is burning to the ground). Heroine who is a concierge at a club that caters an LGBTQ+ clientele, moonlights as a singer in a punk band and ends up falling for a woman who is the daughter of Hollywood royalty. I loved the premise, the concierge angle, and the world-building was dynamite.

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite (2019) ; Historical Romance, F/F - The passion, the longing, oh the romance! Heroine nursing a broken heart falls for a widowed countess while trying to convince men they actually have brains. Smart women weaving their way through societal BS to get their happy ending and working the system to their advantage?  More please!

Lady Be Reckless by Megan Frampton (2018) ; Historical Romance - I have a checkered past with light historicals, having been burned one too many times by the improbably cutesy. This one worked very well for me. A heroine in the mold of Austen's Emma who is playing matchmaker for the illegitimately born hero, in the hopes of convincing her sister's former beau that she is The One for him. Oh, silly heroine. It's a Victorian, but the light, frothy tone reminded me of lighter Traditional Regencies (that's a compliment!), I adored that the hero was smitten right out of the gate, and there's a nice growth arc for the heroine.  Also, dynamite sisterly dynamic between the heroine and her sisters. I plan on reading more in this series. (Disclaimer: Frampton is my former editor at Heroes & Heartbreakers)

Not Romance, Still Awesome:

The Sun Down Motel (affiliate link) by Simone St. James (2020) ; Gothic Suspense - My review will go live on February 18, but do yourself a favor and preorder this now.  Heroine whose aunt disappeared in 1982 retraces her steps to upstate New York, to a town that time has forgotten and a motel that was seedy when it was newly built. Light romantic elements, creepy Gothic atmosphere, with tinges of horror around the edges. What makes this book a must read though is how St. James centers the ENTIRE novel through the female gaze. The heroine, her aunt, a local cop (the only woman on the force) and a freelance photographer.  The subtitle of this book should be Bitches Getting Shit Done.

Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts (2019) ; Historical Fiction - The story of Maud Baum, daughter of a famous suffragette and wife to L. Frank Baum, the author of the Oz books. The story moves back and forth in time, from the MGM studio lot and trying to look out for a young Judy Garland, Maud's growing up years, her courtship and marriage to Frank.  You don't need to be an Oz fan to enjoy this book - which casts a 77-year-old woman as heroine.

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee (2019) ; Teen Historical Fiction - Chinese-American teenager uncovers family secrets as she anonymously pens a Dear Abby-style column for a local newspaper, and navigates the upstairs/downstairs world of a wealthy Atlanta household at the dawn of the suffrage movement.  Another great read with light romantic elements featuring a clever girl who learns to move through and around societal roadblocks on her quest for the truth.

Reading Goals for 2020:

The same as usual - I want to get through 100 books. I also want to get back on track with my reread of Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone mystery series.  I got through 14 books last year, but only read one this year - getting sidetracked by romance and contest judging obligations. I want to get back to Sharon and the gang this year.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Retro Review: Defiant

 Book Cover
This review of Defiant by Bobbi Smith was first posted at The Romance Reader in 2006. Back then I rated it 2-Hearts (equivalent of a D grade) with a sensuality rating of PG.

+++++

One of my favorite booksellers recently told me that westerns were making a comeback. If books like Defiant are what fans of the sub genre have to look forward to we’re in for a bumpy ride.

Clint Williams should be dead. A Texas Ranger, he was home for a visit when the deadly Tucker Gang came calling. Clint’s father, also a Ranger, was very close to capturing the gang, but they struck first. Everyone is dead. Clint miraculously survives his wounds, and vows vengeance. To do so, he takes on the assumed identity of gunfighter Kane McCullough and tracks the Tucker Gang to Dry Springs, Texas.

Rachel Hammond is the innocent, beautiful daughter of the Dry Springs preacher. Daddy has a thing about crusading, and one night takes his family and members of his congregation into the Last Chance Saloon to save all the sinners. As one can imagine, their message is not well received, and Rachel soon finds herself being pawed by a drunken lout. Clint rides to the rescue, and she’s in the throes of puppy love.

That’s basically it. Clint wants revenge and is hanging around Dry Springs waiting for the outlaws to show up. Rachel moons over Clint. Clint feels that women like Rachel are “meant to be protected and cherished,” and even though he knows he cannot afford to be distracted, he continues to hover around her anyway.

It’s amazing I managed to keep my food down.

If Defiant had been better written, I might have been able to overlook the cardboard characters. If the characters were more compelling, I might have been able to overlook the poor writing. Unfortunately, with both strikes against it, Defiant doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

Smith’s writing style is all tell and no show. In many cases, it felt like I was reading an outline to the story instead of the actual finished product. Compounding this is the fact that the author likes to head-hop a lot. One moment we’re being told what Rachel thinks, then what Clint thinks, then what one of the outlaws thinks, then what Rachel’s mother thinks, then what the town sheriff thinks and so on. Because of this, the reader feels disconnected from the main couple, thus further handicapping the romance, which isn’t much to brag about as is. One suspects that it is intended to be love at first sight, but it’s even more slipshod than that. Clint saves Rachel; they share some idle chitchat, then poof! They’re in love! They cannot stop thinking about each other!

Adding insult to injury, Rachel reinforces the stereotype for preachers’ daughters. She’s innocent and beautiful on the outside, but once she finds herself alone with Clint she practically throws herself at him. One moment she’s giggling like a schoolgirl and is so sickeningly sweet she gives the reader a toothache, the next she’s an experienced flirt dropping innuendos. It’s enough to give the reader whiplash. The purple prose certainly doesn’t help matters either with gems such as “They clung to each other as their lips met in a cherishing exchange that showed without words the depth of what they were feeling for one another.”

It’s hard to imagine it getting worse than that, but it does with the ending. The identity of the mastermind behind the Tucker Gang (known simply as The Boss) comes as no shock to anyone with two brain cells to rub together and Rachel blithely puts herself in danger for no credible reason.

I fervently hope that my favorite bookseller is correct and that westerns are on the upswing. Hopefully the rebirth of the sub genre won’t feature more books like this one.

+++++

Wendy Looks Back: Reading over this review and vaguely recalling this book, I'm not sure how this escaped 1-Heart (F Grade) territory.  Either I was feeling overly generous that day or else Dede (my former editor at TRR) coded the HTML incorrectly.  Anyway, if you subscribe to the school of thought that Wendy is a cranky fusspot or if you want to see for yourself if it's really as terrible as I said back in 2006 - Kindle Unlimited folks can give this one a whirl for free.