Monday, December 6, 2021

Review: The Billionaire's Christmas Baby

I'm a sucker for a Christmas romance and this December I've decided to take a deep (deeeeep) dive into my Kindle and read the oldest books I could find languishing there with "Christmas" in the title.  So far this plan has been a success, given that the first book I unearthed was the 2017 gem, The Billionaire's Christmas Baby by Marion Lennox.  If the mountain of Christmas romances in my TBR are half this good - well, I'll be a fortunate reader indeed.

Max Grayland is a nice guy hiding under a loner exterior. He's also very rich. The kind of hotel guest that causes staff to say "how high" when he says jump. He's a savvy businessman determined to right the ship at his father's company and undo all the shady environmental deals Dear Old Dad wrought over the years. He's smart and capable. What he can't do? Deal with a tiny infant unceremoniously dumped in his lap by his father's much younger, social climbing mistress.  Daddy Dearest promised her a big pay day if she could get pregnant with another heir so he could disinherit Max - of course a male heir (I mean, do you even have to ask?).  Well Phoebe came out a girl and Daddy Dearest up and died before changing his will.  Max inherits it all, the scheming mistress gets diddly squat, which means she has no use or time for a baby.  Here she is Max, Phoebe is your problem now.

In this Sydney hotel room witnessing Max's dilemma is hotel maid, Sunny Raye (yes, that's her real name), who is naturally horrified by the entire spectacle. Max, who seems cold, indifferent and completely out of his depth. The child's vile mother. And there's Phoebe, a tiny defenseless child who asked for none of this bullshit. It's Christmas Eve, Sunny has worked a double-shift (she needs the money) and she just realized she forgot to buy her Gran's favorite cherry cordials. She doesn't have time for this. But Max takes one look at how she handles his screaming half-sister and before you can say cherry cordials, she's spending the night in the suite to help with Phoebe. 

Max is out of his depth. He's only in Sydney for his father's memorial service and when Phoebe storms into his life he's struggling to write a eulogy for a man he had an extremely complicated relationship with (I mean, if you can call it "a relationship").  Anyway, one thing leads to another, because of course. Max begs Sunny to stay and help him while he's in Sydney.  She agrees, on one condition. She's not missing Christmas with her grandparents and four siblings. Max is coming home for the holidays, Phoebe in tow. And what Max learns, very quickly, is that Sunny is aptly named. Sunny is the glue. She kept her younger siblings together while her mother battled drug addiction. When Mom died, they were saved from being split up in foster care by the appearance of their grandparents (who they never knew existed). Still, Sunny was a young teenager.  Yeah, Gran and Pa were there - but she raised her siblings up to that point, so she didn't stop.  They got an education, Sunny didn't finish school.  She works hard and dreams big.  And here comes this billionaire into her life like some sort of Prince Charming.  Prince Charming who thinks he can throw money at any problem. Prince Charming who doesn't understand or really know what love and family mean.

And that's the crux of our story. Sunny with her love of family and Max who grew up with the silver spoon but nothing else outside of material possessions.  On the surface this book easily could have fallen down the Cinderella rabbit hole, and certainly it would have been a fine read. What makes this story work though is Sunny. She sacrifices for her family but doesn't truly see it that way. Certainly there were times when I wanted her to run away, be selfish, live her best life, but that would break her heart. She loves her family, they love her, and never once as the reader do you feel like Sunny is being taken advantage of.  There's a dignity about her character that is very appealing and welcoming. Sunny is all about dignity, even as she's scrubbing a carpet stain in Max's hotel room suite as the story opens.

What I liked about Max is that while he's clueless is many ways, he's not a bad guy. He's, in fact, a pretty nice guy.  He just doesn't "get it."  He's completely ill-prepared for the arrival of an infant and for his attraction to Sunny that's more than just sexual chemistry. But even as he recognizes his feelings, even has he professes those feelings to Sunny, this poor sap still doesn't get it. The last couple of chapters of their going their separate ways, then coming back together are really well done.

This did lose a little steam for me in the second half, but it's pretty much everything I want in a holiday romance. It's warm, it's cozy, I really, really liked Max and Sunny - as individuals and as a couple - and the baby serves as a nice dose of relatable conflict (not everybody would be comfortable dealing with an infant that just suddenly fell into their lap!). This story is tailor-made for a Hallmark movie adaptation, right down to the trip to New York City that happens midway through.  If you're looking for something cozy and heartwarming to read by the fire this holiday season? Look no further.

Final Grade = B+

Saturday, December 4, 2021

It's Heeeeere! Sign-Up for the 2022 #TBRChallenge!


Thank you everyone who recently took the time to fill out my Google Form soliciting theme suggestions for the 2022 TBR Challenge.  There were some really interesting suggestions this year and while some of these might seem "limiting" on the surface - well, they really aren't.  Tales of Old for example could cover anything from historicals, to retellings (so many Austen options!), to time travel.  After the War could be, quite literally, after a war or it could mean a heroine recovering from a terrible divorce and/or break-up.  I'm all about bending and shaping the themes to your whims.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.  What is the #TBRChallenge?

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: once a month pull a dormant book out of your TBR pile and read it.  On the 3rd Wednesday of the month, talk about that book.

Participation is as easy as being on social media!
  • If you're on social media all you need to do is use the #TBRChallenge hashtag - there's no need to sign-up and your participation can vary throughout the year.
  • You can use this hashtag on any day, at any time - but we're still going to concentrate on the 3rd Wednesday of every month to kick our commentary into high gear.  
  • The idea is to have at least one day a month where we can always count on there being book chatter.
Want to let your blogging freak flag fly?  If you have a blog and want to post TBR commentary there, drop me a comment on this post with a link to your blog or hit me up on Twitter.  I like to post links to the various blogs on my TBR Challenge page so those who follow along can start following you.

Sound good?  Of course it does!  So what are the themes for 2022?  So glad you asked!

January 19 - Quickie
February 16 - Fairy Tale
March 16 - Grumpy
April 20 - Location, Location, Location
May 18 - Tales of Old
June 15 - After the War
July 20 - Vintage
August 17 - Blue Collar
September 21 - Animals
October 19 - Flirting with Danger
November 16 - Lies
December 21 - Festive

All of the themes were suggestions culled from the survey, with a couple minor tweaks on my part.  I know some of these are going to require a bit of planning on my part, but remember - if it all seems like too much bother - the themes are always optional. The goal of this challenge isn't so much what you read, so long as you're reading something (anything!) out of your TBR.

My hope is always for this Challenge to be low-key, stress-free and fun!  So I hope you'll consider joining this year. Be like me - use this Challenge to delude yourself into thinking you're actually making some progress on your book hording 😉.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Review: A Blues Singer to Redeem Him

I've been looking forward to reading A Blues Singer to Redeem Him by Elle Jackson ever since I saw it announced on Twitter many months back. It just took me a couple months to get my mind right with the Lord before reading it. Why? Because I knew the violent backdrop, despite being guaranteed romance's happy ending, was going to be a lot.  Also, a challenge for the author to navigate to make a happy ending "believable" for the reader.  For the most part I think Jackson succeeds.  Unfortunately I feel like the editing let her, and her story, down.

Evelyn Laroque lives in Greenwood, Oklahoma with her educated, affluent parents (Mom is a doctor!) when the Tulsa Race Massacre shows up on the family's doorstep.  While fleeing the city her parents are murdered by a mob, while she and her brother narrowly escape. They end up outside of Kansas City with their grandmother. Her brother buys a farm and Evelyn lives with "Grand," whose health is in decline. Money is tight so Evelyn takes her desperation and dreams to Lorenzo De Luca's speakeasy to get a job as a blues singer.  Naturally he takes one look at her, falls head over feet, and hires her once her audition proves her voice is just as lovely as she is.

Lorenzo is the son of a notorious mob boss, with the baggage you would expect. He severed ties with the family but he's not truly "cut off."  His family's reach, their protection, continue to follow him.  They also start to pull him back in when his cousin and his Black fiancee' are murdered. Their son mercifully is spared, and bundled off with his Black grandparents - where the kid stays off-page.  Anyway, the running theory is that the Ku Klux Klan is behind the deaths, along with the disappearance of young Black women in the city.  Lorenzo, being extremely close to his cousin, vows justice - albeit not in the traditional mob way.  He really wants to put that life behind him.

There's a lot of conflict floating around in this story.  Both Lorenzo's and Evelyn's pasts have been touched (significantly) by violence, and that helps this story avoid a pitfall I was concerned about - that of the hero morphing into a White Savior character. Interracial romance, the historical time period - it easily could have gone this way. He's definitely a protector and this story relies heavily on Rescue Fantasy, but it never goes too far in.  Kudos to the author for walking that tricky tight-rope.

Unfortunately the book could have used a firmer hand in editing. This will make perfect sense to category romance readers, but this story just doesn't hit its "beats."  Some examples include an oily would-be suitor of Evelyn's who is much older and buys her parents car. He's around long enough to leer but then conveniently never shows up again.  I mean, WHY IS THIS SCENE EVEN IN THE BOOK? It serves no purpose. Then you get scenes where things start to escalate with the KKK, as the reader you settle in expecting non-stop action for the next several chapters, then poof! Instead you get romance-y scenes between Lorenzo and Evelyn. The author sets up the jump shot and instead of following through we get an air-ball.

There's also a lot of "I'm not good enough for the likes of her" from the hero. He pushes her away no less than 3 times, and the final instance felt manufactured to necessitate a third act separation. During which time the heroine loses her brain and puts herself in danger that she, logically, should not have been in.  I mean, this is a young woman who survived Greenwood. I get that women can be stupid about men, but Evelyn's choices felt thrust upon her by the story instead of feeling authentic to her character.

There's also a bunch of stuff touched on but not deeply explored when it probably should have been.  For a guy who owns an illegal distillery, we don't get that much background to that side of Lorenzo's business.  There's allusions to crooked cops but there's also mention of the KKK (possibly) disrupting shipments and that's just conveniently dropped entirely. For a while I thought maybe the author was setting up an inside job with one of the secondary characters double-crossing Lorenzo but nope - it just doesn't go anywhere

Which makes it sound like I didn't like this book. I wouldn't say that, but I just found this aggressively OK. Also frustrating, because I think it could have been a really good book with some tighter attention to detail. I know I harp on this a lot but category length is all about not faffing about. Tight, tighter, tightest is the name of the game. And this one felt like it needed to be tighter in several places.  I'm curious to see if we'll get other books set in this world, and certainly the author gives us enough in the way of secondary characters to make a series work.  There's enough on the page here that I'll read the next one should it arrive, but oh what might have been with this one...

Final Grade = C

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

#TBRChallenge 2021: Signed Over To Santino

The Book: Signed Over to Santino by Maya Blake

The Particulars: Contemporary romance, Harlequin Presents #3439, book 2 in duet, 2016, out of print, available digitally.

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: I have a signed copy, which means I scored this at an RWA Conference. If you're new here, Harlequins are nearly the only books I snag at conferences. It's my last bastion of impulse reading.

The Review: There are two types of readers in Romancelandia. Those who love Presents and those who think that those who love Presents have lost their damn minds. My affinity for the line, problematic elements and all, feeds the Feral Id part of my brain that gobbled up soap operas when I was younger.  This book by Blake is a prime example. The heroine gets figuratively run over (a lot) and the hero is a Grade A possessive jealous jackass.  Can I recommend it? No. Did I inhale every glorious minute of it in less than 24 hours?  You bet your sweet bippy I did!
Carla Nardozzi is the #1 ranked figure skater in the world and she's slowly having her soul crushed by her manager father.  Abandoned by her mother, training her entire life, she grasps for one small moment of freedom when she turns 21-years-old and has a sizzling one night stand with self-made bazillionaire Javier Santino.  Naturally she was a virgin (hello, Presents) and naturally Javier blows her doors off.  Of course in the cold light of the morning after she has a mini-freak-out and bungles things....badly.  How badly?  Using true Presents Hero Logic, our hero is a big man baby who gets his fee-fees hurt.  He's a notorious playboy who changes women like he changes socks, but when a woman turns around and practically runs away from his bed the morning after?  Yeah, the shoe being on the other foot enrages him.  Also, some other Spoiler Territory stuff happens and naturally our guy is now hell-bent on revenge.
The moment arrives 3 years later.  Carla's Evil Daddy has frittered away her entire fortune and to keep the family villa in Tuscany she has to sell her soul to an endorsement deal with Javier's company.  Surely this will be OK. Maybe?  I mean, he can't still be upset about three years ago, can he?  Oh you poor, dumb bunny.  This is a Presents.  Of course our guy is out for your blood, assumes the absolute worst about you, and for added fun is jealousy possessive at every turn, even as he tells you how much he loathes you.  Ah, Twu Wuv.
I think had I read this book back in 2016 (when a normal person would have) I probably would have loathed it. But in post-COVID, constant state of mental and emotional exhaustion world?  I really felt for Carla early on.  She's just over it.  She's over Javier looking at her like she murders infants in her spare time.  She's over her father controlling the air she breathes.  She sends out some verbal volleys early on, but mostly she's past done and just doesn't want to deal.  Our girl has a serious case of ennui.

Javier is just a jackass. He's Stereotypical Presents Hero right out of central casting. He's possessive. He's jealous. He's a flaming asshole.  And of course this is all explained away because his mother was his father's mistress, he's the unloved bastard, yada yada yada.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

But I fell into this book and didn't want to come up for air.  It's a hot mess, but it's an entertaining hot mess.  Then, big sigh, it all falls apart at the end.  Javier's confrontation with his asshole father, and Carla's confrontation with her asshole father, both take place OFF PAGE, sucking out 85% of the angst from the plot with no payoff.  The third act separation (typical with Presents) is basically Carla running away because she won't talk to Javier.  Granted he's such a flaming asshole you can't entirely blame her.  But these aren't the biggest issues.  It's the fact that this is a romance and Javier and Carla are the couple.

The author does soften Javier in the final chapter, when they reunite after Carla runs away for three weeks.  But it doesn't help.  Why? Because the previous 180 pages is jackass jealous and possessive Javier.  Carla has had her entire life controlled by figure skating and her father.  She trades Daddy's dominance for Javier's dominance.  OK sure, Javier's got the gilded cage and gives her incredible orgasms, but a cage is a cage.  What should our happy ending be?  Carla getting a damn life.  Carla breaking free.  Carla kicking Javier and her Evil Daddy in the giblets so hard they settle in their sinus cavities, then running away to a tropical beach somewhere to get serviced by hunky cabana boys.  The "romance" is super problematic, super uncomfortable and doesn't hold up (at all!) to even the slightest sliver of scrutiny.

So there you have it.  Problematic Presents with a heroine who needs therapy, a jackass hero with revenge in his heart (and loins), two Evil Daddys and two Absent Ineffectual Mothers.  I don't recommend it and yet I still read the hell out of it with gleeful abandon. So maybe that is a recommendation?  Albeit in a very backhanded sort of way...

Final Grade = D+

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Feast Your Eyes: Unusual Historical Picks for November 2021

 As I started working on this month's unusual historicals column I had to remind myself that November and December tend to be the dog days for publishing - and historical romance is no different.  I was beginning to wonder if I'd have more than two titles to feature, and then - just like manna from heaven - Amazon's algorithm (and authors who had rights revert back to them) gifted me, and you fair reader, with a robust list.  Here's what caught my eye landing in November 2021:

A Nun for the Viking Warrior by Lucy Morris

Forced to wed the warrior

Falling for the man… 

Noblewoman Amée Évreux had pledged her life to God, until her father promised her in marriage to thundering Norseman Jorund Jötunnson. After escaping her overbearing father, Amée vows never to fall under another man’s thumb, but her resistance to being Jorund’s wife turns to desire as she gets to know her intriguing new husband. For beneath his fierce exterior she’s glimpsed an unexpectedly pure heart. If only she can penetrate the fortress that surrounds it…


Am I a hypocrite? Yes I am. But hey, at least I own it.  There's a certain segment of Romancelandia that gets gross over Taboo Priest Heroes and while I will gamely admit I have enjoyed the VERY occasional Priest Hero Romance, they are the exception over the rule in my case. They're too problematic for me in a post-Catholic sex abuse cover-up world.  But a nun heroine? When was the last time we saw that? Also, nun heroines set in this time period (Vikings Ahoy!) is going to read differently in a historical context than, say, a 21st century nun.  So yes, I'm a hypocrite and I plan on reading the hell out of this.


His Lord's Soldier by Renee Dahlia (Novella)

Two best friends torn apart by war. Could the re-enactment of four Christmas dinners create a love worth fighting for? 

Lord Rafe Stanmore didn’t just lose his leg in the war; he lost his charming outlook and all his athletic prowess. His best friend, James St. George, brought him through the worst times with his cheerful letters. Rafe can’t bear to face James now he’s so altered, but to placate his sister he agrees to a quick visit. His secret longing for James and the nightly re-lived trauma of the war should be able to stay hidden for a few days. 

During the war, James tried to declare his love for Rafe with careful words and extravagant gifts, and never had any indication of his affection being reciprocated. How could gorgeous, athletic, and aristocratic Rafe be interested in polio scarred James? But when Rafe arrives at the farm unexpectedly, James can’t resist giving him all the Christmases he missed. It’s his last chance to show Rafe exactly how he feels. 

Four Christmases to reveal a passion that can’t be denied. One last chance to admit the love they’ve been hiding all along.
Dahlia continues her Great War series with this holiday themed novella. An unrequited war time love blossoms through a series of reenacted four Christmases that the heroes missed because of that terrible war.  One hero carrying the scars of Polio and the other carrying physical and emotional scars from the War.  This sounds fantastic and angst-y.

A Rogue in Winter by Grace Burrowes (Novella)

Vicar Pietr Sorenson is preparing to endure--enjoy, rather--another solitary, frigid holiday season at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, when Miss Joy Danforth's coach lurches to a halt across the village green. Joy and her brother have nowhere to wait out the impending bout of nasty weather, while the vicarage is even emptier than usual. 

The lady is on her way to charm a titled nitwit into offering her marriage, lest her family face financial ruin. Pietr has accepted a prestigious post closer to civilization, though he hasn't quite found a way to tell his congregation he's leaving early in the New Year. Will Pietr and Joy steal some holiday comfort beneath the mistletoe, or find the love of a lifetime on a bleak mid-winter night? 

This self-published holiday romance is tied to Burrowes' Grand Central published Rogues to Riches series and while the heroine's plight is fairly common in historical romance (marrying to save the family from financial ruin), vicar heroes are a favorite in Romancelandia and not terribly thick on the ground.  Added bonus of the bad weather / cabin romance trope and I'm all in.


Nothing in common 

Except an intoxicating attraction! 

Sharing a steamy kiss with Anne Peverett at a Christmas ball is utterly out of character for Dr. Lord Ferris Tresham. He’s far too busy treating London’s poor to court anyone. Until Anne is revealed as the herbalist who’s been treating his patients with her homemade remedies! If they unite forces, will Anne be a bigger threat to his practice…or his closed-off heart?


Oh sure, the hero is a Lord but he's also a doctor and our heroine (note the no Lady title...) is an herbalist.  What we have here ladies and gents is a medical romance set in Victorian London.  It's also the first book in Scott's Peveretts of Haberstock Hall series.

The Maiden Bride by Linda Needham (Reprint)


With the world in chaos in the aftermath of the Black Death, the widowed Lady Eleanor arrives at her husband's tattered and deserted castle, determined to make a home for the trio of orphans she has adopted on her journey, as well as for any other straggler who needs to start their lives afresh. As she explores the battered keep, a huge shadow overtakes her in the darkness--a gargoyle made flesh, commanding her to leave or pay the consequences. Unaware that the beast is the ruthless, black-hearted war lord whom she married by proxy before the Great Pestilence, but had never met, Eleanor steels her courage, claims her legal dower rights to the castle as the widow of William Bayard, the late lord of Faulkhurst, and demands that he either stay and help her restore that castle, or leave immediately. 


Nicholas Bayard is stunned to discover the virginal bride he thought had perished in the plague is very much alive, and more beautiful than he could ever have imagined. Not that he could allow such a thought to matter. Believing himself cursed by God and damned for his life of war and infamy, he conceals his true identity from his wife and reluctantly agrees to help restore the castle–one final penance for his sins, and then he will leave the world for a solitary, monastic life. 

Yet Eleanor is a constant temptation, her hope and determination nearly impossible to resist. Her generous heart and joy in life is as intoxicating to Nicholas as her belief in miracles, and he soon finds himself burning for the woman he cannot have, for the love he doesn't deserve.

But when Eleanor follows the clues that lead to Nicholas's true identity, she falls in love with the remarkable and selfless man her husband has become, and proves to him that love is the greatest miracle of all.
I'm cranky, old and yell at clouds a lot - but by far the biggest boon in the self-publishing era has been romance authors republishing older works once rights revert back to them.  Such is the case with this book which was first published by Avon in 2000.  Yes, Avon used to publish a wider variety of historical settings (picture Wendy yelling at clouds here).  Rampant inflation, labor shortages, a plague - all set in 1351.  Nothing changes folks - it's the same playlist merely on shuffle. (Added note that Recorded Books did the audio edition of this back in the day and you might be able to score it in that format at your local library!)

Roselyn Harrington ran from her arranged wedding to Spencer Thornton and into the arms of a man she thought loved her. Years later, when a wounded Thornton washes ashore on her island, his presence threatens her in more ways than one. 

Spencer lies helpless, knowing that a Spanish spy plans to accuse him of treason—or kill him. He must return to London, but how can he leave, when his anger over Roselyn's betrayal is rapidly becoming passion?


Originally published as His Betrothed by Avon in 2001 what we have here is an honest-to-goodness Elizabethan set historical romance.  How Elizabethan? Well for starters our hero is a spy for Queen Elizabeth who washes ashore, injured, from the Spanish Armada.  The only thing that could make this more Elizabethan is if he was carousing with Will Shakespeare.  Anyway, this is the first of Callen's Brides trilogy and all three books were republished this month - so if you like this one? You can quickly score the next two.

What Unusual Historicals are you looking forward to reading?

Friday, November 12, 2021

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is November 17!

Hey, hey - it's that time again! Time for the monthly #TBRChallenge!  Whether you are participating or just following along, #TBRChallenge Day is Wednesday, November 17. This month's (always optional) theme is Competition.

This was another suggestion from the poll I ran late last year. Competition is a fairly broad theme but there's definitely some tropes that are natural fits - Enemies to Lovers, Evil Other Woman, Sports Romances, or even any sort of adversarial friction between the characters.  Run with it!

But remember, the themes are always optional.  With the holidays fast approaching if digging through your TBR to find something that fits sounds like too much work -  it's fine! 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.  

Also, the poll asking for theme suggestions for the 2022 TBR Challenge is still open until the end of November.  Details on the 2022 Challenge will (likely) be announced in early December.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Mini-Reviews: Bad Men and Resourceful Women

Why yes, I do have a bazillion neglected ARCs but why should that stop me from checking out books from the library or dipping into my TBR?  I've been on a bit of a suspense jag for the last month and with these two latest, mostly ho-hum reads, I think I might be ready to pull myself back into romance.  Time will tell.

One of the great tragedies of my romance reading life is when Harlequin killed the SuperRomance line. Janice Kay Johnson was one of my favorites and always worth reading for her skill in crafting dynamite conflict.  So the move to suspense intrigued (ha!) me - given that I always thought Harlequin would have been smart to repackage some of her Supers as "book club fiction" (but since when do publishers listen to Wendy?).  Anyway, true to JKJ form, the conflict in Dead in the Water is dynamite.  The rest of it?  Meh.

Claire Holland is on a kayaking trip in the Pacific Northwest when her BFF, Mike, is gunned down by drug runners. Claire's lagging behind, so the bad guys didn't see her and they shot Mike with zero provocation. Claire's terror increases when she spies the bad guys shooting another man on their boat, and dumping him overboard.  She can't just leave a man to die, even if he was with the men who murdered Mike, so when their boat takes off, she pulls Adam Taylor from the water - saving him from hypothermia.

Adam, naturally, is an undercover DEA agent.  He had the nerve to question the man who shot Mike and that's how he almost ended up dead. Now to figure out how to get back to civilization when all he has is a female civilian and a dead man's kayak at his disposal. Never mind his injuries and the small matter that he doesn't know how to kayak.  Oh, and that the bad guys are coming back around to ensure he's well and truly dead.

I love survival stories and that's pretty much what carried me through this book.  It sounds exciting, but the execution lacks urgency, which in the short, snappy Intrigue line is a problem.  There's a lot of kayak talk, Claire and Adam making camp and staying hidden - heck, even reading books to pass the time.  The romance also lacks punch.  I liked both Adam and Claire as people, but other than surviving the wilderness and escaping the clutches of the bad guys, there's not a ton of chemistry here.  I've certainly read worse, but JKJ has also certainly written better.

Final Grade = C

Save Me from Dangerous Men is S.A. Lelchuk's debut novel and features Nikki Griffin, bookseller, private eye, and avenging badass.  Nikki loves books, and collected so many over the years that opening a bookstore seemed natural.  So did the private eye thing - given a traumatic past that lands her in court-ordered therapy.  Which is where we find her in this book. Seeing a therapist, selling books, taking adultery cases (so many naughty married men out there....) and occasionally rescuing battered women by giving their abusers exactly what is coming to them.  The publisher's marketing team describes Nikki as a mix of Lisbeth Salander, Jack Reacher and Jessica Jones, and that's fairly apt. So let's go with that.

Anyway, Nikki is based in Oakland, California and makes the boneheaded move accepting a job from a start-up tech company's CEO.  He has an employee, Karen Li, who needs following.  He knows she's stealing company secrets and wants Nikki to find out who her buyers are.  But almost immediately Nikki smells something rotten in Denmark.  Karen Li doesn't act like a woman selling corporate secrets.  No, Karen Li looks like a woman who is terrified for her life.

There's a good story here, but it lacks something in the execution department.  Lelchuk flits the narrative between Nikki's bookstore gig, the corporate espionage job, a philandering husband job, beating the tar out of domestic abusers, enabling her junkie brother, a new guy she's dating, and her traumatic past.  It takes forever for the author to get around to character development and backstory and once he does it comes out info-dumpy.  Also, I'm a pretty basic suspense fan - I'm generally here for the, you know, suspense. The author faffs about too much when, for my money, more time should have been spent on the questionable surveillance job of Karen Li.

Now, that said - the Bay Area setting is well done and the corporate espionage story set against the backdrop of Silicon Valley grossness is extremely timely.  Nikki is part "too smart for her own good" mixed with "catch on quicker sweetheart," but I'm a sucker for a good avenging angel storyline and that's certainly Nikki.  I wasn't madly in love with this, but there was definitely enough on the page to get me to read book 2.

Final Grade = C+