Amazon discontinued the ability to create images using their SiteStripe feature and in their infinite wisdom broke all previously created images on 12/31/23. Many blogs used this feature, including this one. Expect my archives to be a hot mess of broken book cover images until I can slowly comb through 20 years of archives to make corrections.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

#TBRChallenge 2024: Expecting a Royal Scandal

The Book: Expecting a Royal Scandal by Caitlin Crews

The Particulars: Harlequin Presents #3438, 2016, Out of print, Available digitally

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: I have an autographed copy, which means I picked this one up at an RWA conference.  Over the years I've gotten a bit more selective with grabbing freebies at conferences, except when it comes to category romance. I'll grab any that aren't tied down. 

The Review: It was pretty much a forgone conclusion that I was going to read a Presents for this month's Bananapants theme. As the old adage goes, Bananapants in Presents is like shooting fish in a barrel. Even when an author is somewhat "restrained" in the Presents universe, a certain amount of eyebrow raising shenanigans will creep their way in, and let me tell you, this book by Crews did not disappoint on that score.

His Serene Grace the Archduke Felipe Skander Cairo of Santa Domini is the last of his family line, the exiled King of a tiny alpine country lost thanks to a military coup. He is also a man in want of a wife. Not just any wife, but a wholly unsuitable, scandalous wife. Having spent years proving to the world how ill-suited he is to take back the throne with his playboy antics, Cairo has decided that marrying a laughably inappropriate woman will drive home the final nail in the coffin, thereby keeping him and his loyalist subjects safe. Or something. Frankly our boy is operating solely on what I call Presents Hero Logic, so just roll with it.

Brittany Hollis is damn near perfect for the job. Poor white trash from Mississippi she's made herself over by becoming a reality TV villainess and then marrying a much older, fabulously wealthy man near death just so he could tweak the noses of his grasping children. Oh, and he was Husband #3. To add to Brittany's unsuitable qualities, she's a stripper, now performing a show at a rundown Paris nightclub after Hubby #3's children ensure she got absolutely nothing after his death. Now all Cairo has to do is convince her to accept his proposition, which proves difficult to do as Brittany is surprisingly resistant the idea.

“Maybe I dislike spoiled rich men who waste my time and think far too highly of their overexposed charms.” The edge to her smile and that glittering thing in her gaze grew harder. Hotter. “I’ve seen it all in the pages of every tabloid magazine every week for the last twenty years. It’s about as thrilling as oatmeal.” 

“I must have misheard you. I thought you compared me to a revoltingly warm and cloying breakfast cereal.” 

“The similarities are striking.”

Brittany resists the proposal, at first, mainly because Cairo scares the hell out of her. The instant attraction, the intense need she feels around him - she's never felt like this around any man ever before. The proof?  Our girl, despite growing up poor white trash, whose mother had a series of unsavory "boyfriends" and who has been married THREE times, is still a virgin.

Because of course she is. She's a Harlequin Presents heroine. 

Have I read wackier? Yes. Is this still pretty damn bananapants? Also yes.

But you know what? The banter is rip roaring fun, especially in the first half as Cairo and Brittany are circling around each other like a pair of feral alley cats.

“I’d say I’m flattered,” Brittany was saying coolly, “but I’m not. I’m not interested in being any man’s mistress. And not to put too fine a point on it, but your charms are a bit...” She raised her brows. “Overused.” 

He blinked, and took his time with it. “I beg your pardon. Did you just call me a whore?” 

“I’d never use that word,” Brittany demurred, and though her voice was smooth he was sure there was something edgy and sharp lurking just beneath it. “But the phrase rode hard and put away wet comes to mind.” She waved a hand at him. “It’s all a bit boring, if I’m honest.” 

“Do not kid yourself, Ms. Hollis,” Cairo advised her quietly. “I’ve had a lot of sex with a great many partners, it’s true.” 

“That’s a bit like the ocean confessing it’s slightly damp.”

Eventually, of course, Brittany accepts his proposal because he can give her the one thing she's truly been working towards - money and security. Her plan has been to gain enough notoriety, make enough money, to eventually retire to a tropical island and never be bothered again. Agreeing to Cairo's transactional marriage gets her to the finish line that much quicker.

“You don’t actually want to get married, then. You want to inflict your wife on someone—the world, perhaps? As any girl would be, I’m of course delighted to be considered an infliction. It’s all my dearest fairy-tale fantasies made real, thank you.” 

As fun as the banter is and even though I fell a little bit in love with Brittany, the story isn't perfect. Too much repetition on some of the internal dialogue and not enough deep dive scenes showing Brittany and Cairo truly getting to know the real people behind the masks they wear for the public. We're "told" this is happening, but it's hastily sketched out on the page. A couple of emotionally angsty heart-to-heart scenes were all that was needed to really put this romance over the top, but as is it barely scratches the surface.

In the end I'm going to remember this one for the fun banter in the beginning that had me chuckling more than once, and while I zipped through it in one sitting, it felt a bit too much like empty calories in the end. Cotton candy over a decadently creamy slice of cheesecake. As a reader I always seem to prefer the latter.

Final Grade = B- 

Monday, June 17, 2024

Summer Reading: Unusual Historicals for June 2024

A lot of people look forward to June. Here in the States we're kind of programmed at an early age to look forward to summer. I used to be one of those people, until I took a job overseeing a major library system's book budget. June 30 is the end of the fiscal year. July 1 is the start of a new fiscal year. Which means for two months out of the year I am more frazzled and stressed than usual because Dear Lord what made me take a job with so much math?! The only books I want to balance is the tall stack I want next to me under the beach umbrella. Oh well, doesn't mean a girl still can't look and it's another bumper crop of Unusual Historicals this month!  Happy browsing!

A Daughter of Fair Verona by Christina Dodd

Once upon a time a young couple met and fell in love. You probably know that story, and how it ended (hint: badly). Only here’s the thing: That’s not how it ended at all.

Romeo and Juliet are alive and well and the parents of seven kids. I’m the oldest, with the emphasis on ‘old’—a certified spinster at twenty, and happy to stay that way. It’s not easy to keep your taste for romance with parents like mine. Picture it—constant monologues, passionate declarations, fighting, making up, making out . . . it’s exhausting.

Each time they’ve presented me with a betrothal, I’ve set out to find the groom-to-be a more suitable bride. After all, someone sensible needs to stay home and manage this household. But their latest match, Duke Stephano, isn’t so easy to palm off on anyone else. The debaucher has had three previous wives—all of whom met unfortunate ends. Conscience forbids me from consigning another woman to that fate. As it turns out, I don’t have to . . .

At our betrothal ball—where, quite by accident, I meet a beautiful young man who makes me wonder if perhaps there is something to love at first sight—I stumble upon Duke Stephano with a dagger in his chest. But who killed him? His late wives’ families, his relatives, his mistress, his servants—half of Verona had motive. And when everyone around the Duke begins dying, disappearing, or descending into madness, I know I must uncover the killer . . . before death lies on me like an untimely frost.

Dodd's been writing for a lot of years, having gotten her start in historical romance in the 1990s before moving on to paranormals and these days, mainly suspense. So it's a nice surprise to see her to return to her roots with a high concept historical. Romeo and Juliet's oldest daughter (no, they did not die as teenagers) finds her luck has run out when she's betrothed to a man who has buried three wives already.  When the Duke ends up with a dagger in his chest, she must find the villain with the help of our hero. All signs point to this being the first in a new series.

Zhi Hao has one goal: to pass the imperial exam, and eventually become a magistrate. That will get him the salary to support his parents and sisters. Eventually, he wants a wife and children, but not now. So, he is completely unprepared when a mystical fox spirit, in the shape of a beautiful woman, comes to seduce him. One night’s weakness might end his bright future, and yet he is unable to resist.

Ling Xin is no vixen. She’s a woman competing to become Empress of China. She knows everything a young woman is supposed to learn, but then, so do all the other women in the running. What she doesn’t know is how to seduce a man. And she’s heard that the emperor isn’t impressed with purity. What she needs is a crash course in temptation, and the only possible tutor is the sexy scholar next door.

It’s a dangerous game they’re playing, one they can’t win. If they’re caught, they’ll both die. If they’re not…she’ll still be in the Forbidden City, lost to him.

But passion has its own demands…and love, its wondrous possibilities…
A hero who wants to become a magistrate and a heroine competing to become the next Empress of China. One small problem, the Emperor isn't hung up on "purity" and her seduction skills are the pits. She needs a tutor and naturally thinks our hero next door is the perfect man for the job. I've seen this one called a novella but Amazon has it listed at Harlequin Presents length (180-ish pages).

Former painter and unreformed rake Kit Griffith is forging a new life in Cornwall, choosing freedom over an identity that didn't fit. He knew that leaving his Sisterhood of women artists might mean forfeiting artistic community forever. He didn’t realize he would lose his ability to paint altogether. Luckily, he has other talents. Why not devote himself to selling bicycles and trysting with the holidaymakers?

Enter Muriel Pendrake, the feisty New-York-bound botanist who has come to St. Ives to commission Kit for illustrations of British seaweeds. Kit shouldn’t accept Muriel’s offer, but he must enlist her help to prove to an all-male cycling club that women can ride as well as men. And she won't agree unless he gives her what she wants. Maybe that's exactly the challenge he needs.

As Kit and Muriel spend their days cycling together, their desire begins to burn with the heat of the summer sun. But are they pedaling toward something impossible? The past is bound to catch up to them, and at the season’s end, their paths will diverge. With only their hearts as guides, Kit and Muriel must decide if they’re willing to race into the unknown for the adventure of a lifetime.
Late 19th century Cornwall, an artist trans hero, a botanist heroine, the beach and bicycles.  This sounds freaking delightful, the perfect sunny summertime read.  

Delia Stratham is an unconventional woman. While other ladies learned proper decorum at finishing school, she composed naughty limericks and admired the gardener’s muscular legs. So naturally when she’s widowed for the third time, she does the unthinkable: she gets a job. Planning events for the Savoy Hotel is perfect for someone with her skills. But her dream career turns into a nightmare when she’s forced to work with the most annoying—and gorgeous—man she’s ever met.

Hotel magnate Simon Hayden knows something fishy is going on at the Savoy: the hotel is constantly busy, yet the books say it’s in the red. He’s determined to root out the fraud and its perpetrators, and that means spending time with one of the most likely suspects: the delectable, infuriating Lady Stratham. She’s definitely getting in his way and under his skin and he can’t decide whether to fire her or kiss her until she stops arguing. But when the sparks between them flare into flame, Simon must choose between his love for Delia and his duty to the hotel. Will his choice bring them together or tear them apart?
After a widow buries Husband #3 she decides to do something truly scandalous - she gets a job. Planning events at the Savoy Hotel in London is a dream, until she has to work with our hero, who is at the Savoy to root out suspected fraud. Naturally the heroine is on a short list of suspects. I'll be honest here, I DNF'ed the first book in this series because while it wasn't "bad" it just felt so flat. I'm hoping for a bounce back with this book because Guhrke has been a very reliable author for me in the past.  

She’s the most infamous harlot in London…and she’s up for auction.

Thaïs Magadalene is a legend. The nation’s most notorious courtesan, she sells herself once a week, for one night only, and never to the same patron twice. Until now. To raise money for the cause of women’s rights, she has auctioned herself off for one month as mistress to the highest bidder.

But the winner is not who he seems.

Lord Alastair Eden is an earl, a radical politician, and a perfectionist in all things—except one. His confidence belies an unexpected secret: he doesn’t know how to please a woman in bed. He’s determined to change that before he marries. And who could be better than the most skilled lover in the country to teach him?

And love is never for sale.

Thaïs dreams of finding a man who will love her unconditionally, never mind her past and reputation. Eden dreams of finding a perfectly bred young lady to be his wife and helpmeet. But when a steamy month in the countryside breeds a connection both in and out of the bedchamber, the two of them must decide how much can be sacrificed for love—one’s dreams, or one’s reputation.
Peckham has made a name for herself with steamy historicals but this is the first one that really made my eyeballs perk up. A heroine with quite the reputation breaks her normal protocol to auction her services for an entire month and a hero desperate to marry but recognizing he needs serious help in the lovemaking department. Naturally they're going to catch feelings and complications are going to ensue.

The warrior’s fiercest battle?

His duty versus his desire…

Seven years ago, Llywelyn was ready to renounce everything to become a monk. But on the eve of his departure, he shared a forbidden night with his childhood sweetheart, Cristin. Then his world was turned upside down by the death of his brother…which left Llywelyn as his family’s sole heir, duty bound to fight on the battlefield. Now a hardened warrior, he’s reunited with Cristin. But will he return to his vocation…or remain with his love?

Another Wales-set medieval from Morgan, this one featuring a hero who changes his mind on becoming a monk after a night with his childhood sweetheart, our heroine. They're reunited years later after he returns from the battlefield. 

London, 1885

A lesbian in a lavender marriage, Jo Smith cuts a dashing figure in pin-striped trousers, working in her bookshop and keeping impolite company. But her hard-earned stability is about to be upended thanks to her husband’s pregnant paramour, who needs medical attention that no reputable doctor will provide.

Enter Dr. Emily Clarke, a tantalizing bluestocking working at a quaint village hospital outside the city. Emily has reservations about getting mixed up in Jo’s scandalous arrangement, but her flustered, heart-racing response to Jo has her agreeing to help despite herself.

There’s a world of difference between Jo’s community of underground clubs and sapphic societies and Emily’s respectable suburbs. Perhaps it’s a gap that even fervent desire can’t bridge.

But for those bold enough to take the risk, who knows what delicious adventures might be in store…
Another Victorian this month, and the third in the author's Lucky Lovers of London series. A bookshop owner heroine in a lavender marriage falls for our country doctor heroine. They come from different worlds, but naturally that doesn't stop them from catching feelings.

Isabel Luna Valdés has long since resigned herself to being the “forgotten” Luna sister. But thanks to familial connections to the Mexican ambassador in London, wallflower Isabel is poised to unearth any British intelligence hidden by the ton that might aid Mexico during the French Occupation. Though she slips easily from crowded ballrooms into libraries and private studies, Isabel’s search is hampered by trysting couples and prowling rogues—including the rakish Captain Sirius Dawson.

As a covert agent for the British Home Office, Sirius makes a game of earning the aristocracy’s confidence. He spends his days befriending foolish politicians and seducing well-born ladies in order to learn their secrets. But after he spies a certain sharp-tongued Luna sister lurking in the shadows where no proper debutante should venture, it’s clear Sirius is outmatched, outwitted, and soon to be outmaneuvered by the one woman he can’t resist.

Their mutual attraction is undeniable, but when Isabel discovers private correspondence that could turn the tide of political turmoil in Mexico, she’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect her country—even if this means ignoring her heart and courting danger...
The second in the author's Luna Sisters series features a heroine turned spy whose mission is complicated by a dashing British Captain hero. I'm expecting some sexy spy vs. spy shenanigans here and mid-Victorian era to boot. A historical romance featuring spies and Napoleon is nowhere to be found? I didn't realize these existed 😂

A love story onstage

And one waiting in the wings?

Ruth Connell’s beloved theater is under threat! In desperation, she approaches reclusive playwright Artemis Goode. If Artemis can write a hit, Ruth can save her troupe from financial ruin. Yet it’s not just Ruth’s livelihood in need of saving, but Artemis’s shattered heart, too. As quickly as their personalities clash, their passion ignites! But while that leads their play toward success, it also leads Ruth closer to the end of her partnership with Artemis…

Desperate to keep her theater operational and in the black, our heroine turns to a reclusive playwright to pen a hit and save her from financial ruin. Naturally sparks fly.

England, 1882
Keith, a servant in a rich house, feels nothing but gratitude for the Sharpe family. They rescue him from a miserable life and welcome him into their home, and Miss Violante Sharpe teaches him how to read. She’s so kind and pretty that he can’t help but fall for her.

But when Keith learns that Mr. Sharpe is part of an anarchist organization planning to blow up a politician’s house and kill people, he doesn’t hesitate to warn the police, ready to pay the consequences.

Violante’s life goes from riches to rags after the police kill her father and storm Sharpe Manor. Discovering her beloved papa was an anarchist breaks her heart. If only Keith had talked to her instead of going to the police. Good thing she doesn’t want to see him again.

She has lived on the streets for years, stealing wallets and watches. Keith instead made a fortune and was even granted a title. Not recognizing him, she steals his pocket watch in the street. He catches her, but instead of calling the police, he offers her a marriage proposal. He needs a wife to secure a deal with a strict Italian count who won’t do business with bachelors.

She has nothing to lose, but does she want to pretend to be the wife of the man who ruined her family?
A hero who is grateful and beholden to the family who saved him still follows his conscience when he realizes the patriarch is an anarchist plotting a terrorist attack. A heroine whose life goes from riches straight to rags when her father is convicted of an unspeakable crime and naturally vows to never speak to the hero again. So that makes things a tinch awkward when they reunite years later when she, not recognizing him, picks his pocket and instead of turning her into the police, he proposes a marriage of convenience. Y'all this sounds bananapants and just crazy enough to work.

When this duke wins a wife, all bets are off.

When nouveau-rich Clara Woodvine attends her first high society ball, she’s expecting it to be the most wonderful night of her life. Unfortunately, it turns out to be the worst. When Clara overhears her would-be fiancé has bet her and her dowry away in a card game to the Duke of Combe, aka the Divorced Duke, all hopes for a happily ever after seem lost.

Silas Winters, the Duke of Combe, has spent over a year brooding in misery after the end of his toxic marriage. Saddled with crippling anxiety and the reasonability of recovering Clara’s reputation, Silas proposes a marriage based on friendship and nothing more. Clara accepts, but only on the condition that she understands this is a marriage of convenience because Silas is determined never to love again

But when the past comes back to haunt them, will Silas realize that love is something he can choose? And will Clara be able to stand up for those she loves, even if she must do it alone?
New money heroine expecting the fairy tale gets a rude surprise with her erstwhile fiancé bets her AND her dowry in a card game. The nerve! Even with crippling anxiety, our hero, A DIVORCED DUKE!, rides to her rescue and proposes a marriage of convenience. AztecLady has a pretty thorough review of this one over at her blog, which includes the information that our hero is also kinky. 

A widowed duchess yearning to find love. An orphan who became a sea captain. A powerful, forbidden love which ignites between the pair . . .

Dinah Strong, the Dowager Duchess of Seaton, was forced to wed a man much older than herself. Much to his dismay, she gifts him with four daughters, who, along with the two nieces she raises, became the lights in an otherwise dismal life.
Now widowed, Dinah decides to participate in the Season, hoping she might be fortunate enough to finally find love. None of the gentlemen appeal to her--because of one man she cannot forgot.

Drake Andrews is a man who is everything her late husband was not. The sea captain is bold, daring, and unafraid of taking risks, not to mention his sinfully delicious good looks. Dinah met him briefly before he sailed off on a lengthy voyage, and she finds her thoughts turning to him more and more.

Captain Andrews was an orphan raised at sea, and it is the only life he has ever known. He has finally achieved his goal of captaining his own vessel for Neptune Shipping Lines, but he can't seem to get the Dowager Duchess of Seaton out of his mind. His closest friend and former fellow seaman introduced Drake to her just before Drake set sail on his maiden voyage as a captain, and the woman has haunted his dreams every night.

Now back in London and between sailing assignments, Drake calls upon the dowager duchess, finding despite their origins, they have much in common. Their growing attraction flames into a torrid affair, with Dinah declaring her wish for them to wed.

Will Drake allow obstacles to keep them apart--or will love triumph over Polite Society's expectations for the widowed duchess?
This fourth book in The Strongs of Shadowcrest series features a widowed (presumably "older") heroine looking for love in all the wrong places when she's reunited with the one man she could never forget, our orphaned sea captain hero. 

He took her innocence…She took his honor. But when danger unhinges their world, someone will have to fall on their sword.

The lust. The betrayal. The love. Sometimes the hardest battle…is seducing your enemy.

Alexandra wants one thing: to train with her sword, never mind the outraged public. But when the achingly handsome Monsieur Philippe kisses her, she finds herself willing to give up her heart and even her blade to be with him. That is, until she learns Philippe took another woman to bed after giving Alexandra her first kiss. Shattered and humiliated, Alexandra is done with etiquette. She’s done with skirts and ruffles. And men. Now, five years later, she’s a mercenary, known for her quick wits, expert blade, and dedication to protecting the people she guides through the uncharted forests of Provence. And if, by chance, she ever sees Philippe again, she’ll have no problem knocking that seductive smile right off his goddamned face.

Philippe never forgot the tender kiss he and Alexandra shared, and he never forgave himself for acting so badly. Years later, when he finds himself tracking a mysterious band of foes, the mercenary hired to lead him is none other than the enticing girl he unwittingly destroyed. But Alexandra is a woman now, a breathtaking and dangerous woman. Though he must balance his mounting desire for her with his duty to tame the venomous nest of criminals, Philippe soon realizes that winning Alexandra’s affection will mean he must strip his pride, lay his title on the line, and fight harder than ever before. And if dodging a few of her punches means he can maybe get another taste of her, then this adventure might be more explosive than he ever expected.

Heh, heh, she said "taken by his sword." 

Welcome to the Bat Cave. Come for the Unusual Historicals, stay for the juvenile teenage boy humor.

Look, I couldn't let that one go. I wouldn't have respected myself in the morning.

Anyway, this appears to be a debut, the first in a series, and it's set in 17th century France. Toss in a mercenary heroine and a seemingly repentant rake hero, it's worth giving this one a whirl. 


Whew! We made it. Thirteen new unusual historicals to explore this month. What are you looking forward to reading?

Friday, June 14, 2024

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is June 19!

TBR Challenge 2024


Wednesday, June 19 marks the official halfway point (yikes!) of the 2024 TBR Challenge! This month's optional theme is Bananapants!

This is another suggestion that came out of my Annual Theme Poll and boy howdy, it's a doozy.  Be it wacky, zany, WTFBBQ, or Oh-No-She-Didn't, Bananapants is all about the plots that you have to see and read with your own eyes to believe they actually exist. For all you Bodice Ripper, Harlequin Presents and Monster Erotica fans out there - THIS IS THE MONTH YOU'VE BEEN WAITING FOR! 🤣

However, remember that the themes are totally optional. Maybe you just want a nice, small town contemporary.  A nice lovely romance about two people falling in love where the hero isn't concocting some bizarre revenge plot because the heroine's Daddy killed his pet gold fish.  Hey, you do you! The goal of the challenge has been, and always will be, to read something (anything!) that's been languishing in your mountain range of unread books. 

It is certainly not too late to join the Challenge (to be honest it's never too late).  You can get more details and get links to the current list of participants on the #TBRChallenge 2024 Information Page

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Review: When No One Is Watching

For easily the last 5+ years My Man and I have had the same conversation when a new critical darling TV series or movie drops that everyone is raving about. Wendy:"People really seem to be raving about that new drama XYZ."  My Man: "Yeah, not interested. Another show/movie about terrible people being terrible."

This conversation, on an endless loop, is what ran through my mind while listening to When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole. This book did not work for me on many, many levels. 

All The Spoilers! Seriously, ALL OF THEM!

Sydney Green was born and raised in Brooklyn and is back home after her marriage in Seattle imploded. Besides the stress of being crushed under the weight of her mother's medical debt, her neighborhood is changing and not for the better.  Gentrification has come calling in the form of For Sale signs, greedy real estate agents, and neighbors Sydney has known her entire life packing up and just leaving. Without saying good-bye. It's like the Brooklyn equivalent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. One minute they're there, the next minute they're gone and nobody really knows where to.

In her former neighbors' place is a pack of clownish racist white people, all except for Theo who has moved in across the street from Sydney with his girlfriend Uber-Karen.  Theo's currently unemployed and what Sydney doesn't know is that he and Uber-Karen have split up. They're no longer a couple but they bought the house together - and he's now relegated to the attic with no air conditioning or working bathroom. 

Eventually Sydney decides to create her own "walking tour" of her neighborhood that she'll debut during their annual block party and the person who was supposed to help her with research has "gone on vacation down south." That's when Theo volunteers for the job and Sydney, not wanting to look petty AF in front of her remaining neighbors, begrudgingly accepts his help.

Gentrification as a thriller boogeyman is certainly inspired, but the execution of this story is not good. The first 50% has about as much thrills as plain oatmeal. Sydney's problems, Theo's problems, Racist White People Being Racist - it's all about as thrilling as a lit fic novel.  Everybody is frankly annoying and terrible in this book - except for Theo (at first), which is also a problem.

You know what raises my hackles the fasted in romance novels? Not Like Other Girls nonsense.  Theo is Not Like Other White People nonsense.  Quite literally every other white person in this book is a vile sack of human garbage. Every. Single. One. Now, I could see some readers thinking this is just helping to balance the scales. How many thousands of books have been published over the years where all the brown and black people are portrayed as stereotypes or relegated to villainous roles?  A lot. You know what? I got problems with those too. You know what's great? Nuance. Layers. And the villains in this story have all the nuance and subtlety of a jackhammer pounding into your skull. 

The thriller subtitle finally shows up in the second half. By this time we know Theo is actually just like other white people - turns out he's a small time grifter / drug dealer (and not a very good one since his grifting and falsifying his job application are why he's currently unemployed). Sydney's Mom turns out to be dead (which I saw coming) but surprise - Sydney buried her in the community garden so nobody would find out she's dead thereby causing Sydney to lose the brownstone to the predatory lender. Sydney's BFF turns out to be a sack of crap who sold Sydney's Mom out and why she fell in with a predatory lender in the first place - and yet, we're supposed to mourn her loss when her dead body turns up in a hidden stairwell? Sure Jan.

And all the missing neighbors? Snatched off the street and put in the "abandoned" hospital so a pharmaceutical company can steal their houses and run experiments on them. Theo and Sydney go in guns blazing, bodies start dropping and SURPISE! Global Conspiracy!  The worst part about all of this?  There's no actual ending.  The people they rescue? What happens to them?  No idea. Does Mr. Perkins get his house and dog back? No idea! But hey, Global Conspiracy! A Cover Up!  Sydney and Theo are safe!  

Ugh.

Seriously, none of this worked for me. Terrible people being terrible. Pacing that's a slog.  Clownish, one-dimensional villains. And two "heroes" who, quite frankly, I didn't like all that much. I can't tell you how close I came to DNF'ing this and honestly, I should have. 

Final Grade = D+

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Review: Lady Lost

I have to hand it to Jane Goodger, after finishing How to Please a Lady, and despite not being completely in love with it, I dove back into my Kindle to see if I had other books in the series. Turns out I did, the third and final book of the Lost Heiresses trilogy, Lady Lost.

Hey, so remember the terrible, vile, no-good Duke the heroine in How to Please a Lady was supposed to marry?  Well he's now back out on the prowl and has set his sights on Lady Lilian Martin. Her father passed when she was quite young and a religious fanatic distant cousin inherited the title. Her mother is knocking on death's door and is desperate to secure a good marriage for one of her daughters before she pushes up daisies. The Duke seems like the answer to Mama's prayers and he's paying attention to Lilian, despite her reservations - until he sees youngest sister, barely 16-year-old, Theresa, at a house party.  Mama is desperate and even though Theresa is barely 16, well one daughter wed to a Duke is better than none.  Shortly after the wedding, Mama dies.

Lilian is living with her sister and brother-in-law, blessedly in a large house with servants who sneakily protect her from the Duke's lecherous, rapist ways when she hears a noise in the night. She discovers a pistol lying on the floor (that she, naturally, foolishly picks up) and the Duke lying in a pool of his own blood.  Her sister then happens upon the scene and starts screeching that Lilian is a murderer and Lilian, realizing how terrible it all looks, makes it look more terrible by running away.

Marcus Granton will one day be an Earl and has gone into exile at his family's rambling, rundown Yorkshire estate after his wife dies in another man's bed - and this other man was hardly the first. Marcus knew he was being cuckolded but this last humiliation is too much, as are the whispers that he drove his wife to her wicked ways because he's such a cold fish. He's in his carriage heading back to his country home when he happens upon Lilian, very sick and cold, passed out in road after walking for untold miles. Being the grumpiest of grumpy heroes, he's loathe to bring in a house guest, but he can't very well leave her there to die.  Imagine his surprise when no sooner does he deposit Lilian in the only ready, aired out bedroom in the manor (uh, his) that he hears a knock on his door.  A sour, vile matron with a small 5-year-old child - claiming that the young girl, Mabel, is his.  Except, she isn't.  She is his dead wife's illegitimate daughter, whom she got pregnant with while Marcus was off in America dealing with his wayward sister in the previous book.  He knows he's not the Daddy, but that begs the question - who is?  

There's a lot going on here, and it does take a while to cook.  Of course the Duke's murder is the talk of every town, but word hasn't quite reached Marcus just yet.  Still, Lilian knows her days are numbered and in a bit of a panic.  This Big Secret is actually dispatched rather quickly and what happens next is a bunch of back-and-forth with a constable handling the case. They solve it rather quickly through sheer luck (and a confession) but it still doesn't quite fit, so it's a lot of case closed, case not closed, oh wait case is closed again.  

The first half of the book is Marcus being a grumpy grump and slowly opening himself up to Lilian and Mabel who proceed to charm him despite his efforts to resist. It's really a lovely slow build and when the first kiss and love scene happen, as a reader I actually anticipated them.  

Of course it all goes to hell in a handbasket in the final third. Goodger is writing a Victorian-set story after all, which means Drama Llama is pretty much a requirement!  There's the small matter of the Duke's murder, the fact that Lilian, an unchaperoned Lady has been living with Marcus for many, many days, and the twist to Mabel's paternity - which honestly I should have seen coming and am ashamed of myself for missing it.  In my defense I did inhale the book in a day, I didn't take much time to stop and think about it before the big reveal.

There's lots of action and drama at the end, and we of course get the requisite happy epilogue with the heroine giving birth to her first child - but 5 years later! Honestly I think that's worth a mention. A heroine who isn't pushing out the heir 9 months after the wedding? Practically unheard of in romance - especially since once this couple starts hitting the sheets they barely get out of the bedroom.

The Drama Llama being backloaded to the final third of the story was a lot, but it did make me race through to the finish line. It's a really nice example of a grumpy romance hero, who is quite legitimately grumpy!, opening himself up to love without completely morphing into a pod person. I adored the declarations of love, so fitting for the hero's character and the heroine's personality is the perfect compliment. I genuinely liked these two as a couple, Mabel was perfectly sweet without being too plot moppet-y, and I was a sucker for all the Victorian angst at the end.  A nice historical read.

Final Grade = B

Monday, May 27, 2024

Review: How to Please a Lady

I'm in a bit of a disagreeable reading mood at the moment - which is to say I have no idea what I'm in the mood to read. What this translates to is me throwing spaghetti at the wall.  I took a deep, deep dive into my Kindle for a historical romance and unearthed How to Please a Lady by Jane Goodger. This is the second book in a series that splits it's time between late Victorian England and New York, features that most bananapants of romance tropes (a virgin widow!), a cross-class romance, and stands alone reasonably well.

The book opens with the former Lady Rose Dunford, now Mrs. Cartright, widowed nearly two years and annoyed with her new neighbor. The man is a rake of the first order, entertaining all manner of "ladies" during the night and quite frankly, the sound carrying all too well. So imagine her shock when she discovers her new neighbor, a wealthy, handsome, self-made man is none other than Charlie Avery, her family's former stable groom.

Great set-up, right? Well brace yourselves because we then flashback to some years earlier to England where we spend the next 60% of this story. Rose, daughter of an Earl, is engaged to a Duke, and Charlie takes care of her beloved horse in her father's stable. They played together as children and while Charles carries a torch, he's smart enough to know that stable hands don't marry Earl's daughters and that there is zero opportunity for him in England.  In a fortnight he's leaving to join an uncle in America where he hopes to make something of himself. 

Rose isn't in love with the Duke but her mother is over the moon and frankly she knows what her role is. What she didn't bargain for is the Duke being an odious, vile villain and sexually assaulting her (spoiler: forced fellatio). Charlie deduces what has happened and tells Rose to inform her mother, but Rose knows how futile that is. No, instead, she hits upon the idea to go to America with Charlie and show up at Mr. Cartright's front door. He's an acquaintance of her oldest brother and she liked him when they met at a ball recently.  She also heard a rumor that Mr. Cartright likes boys more than girls and that these rumors are holding back his career in the US State Department. Frankly after her experience with the Duke being a beard for a gay man sounds more than ideal to Rose.

Just from the back cover blurb we know eventually Rose does marry Mr. Cartright and settles into a comfortable life. The real meat and potatoes of this romance is in the final 40% when Rose and Charlie, now a self-made man, reunite. Here's the thing about flashbacks, when they work they're great but they're very tricky to pull off, and this authorial choice in this story just didn't work for me. I get teased with a great opening chapter and then I spend the next 60% stuck in Flashback Land a little bored and anxious to get back to the New York storyline. Why the tease? Just start at the beginning and tell this thing in a linear timeline. It reeks of too many cooks in the kitchen trying to be clever.

What I did appreciate is that the author does not sweep the class differences, which are a lot, under the rug. Rose is a woman of privilege and naturally a little snobby. She's what I call thoughtlessly cruel. She's not evil, but has a tendency to say cruel things without realizing they're cruel until Charlie gets hurt or angry. These are people from two very different worlds.  Once reunited, Charlie may now be successful and wealthy, but he's ill-equipped to navigate high society waters, which is where Rose comes into play.  Also, I liked that not everything is magically right as rain in the end. Rose and Charlies, of course, get married but that doesn't mean her parents are ready to welcome him into the family fold.

I wasn't in love with this and the use of a very long seemingly never-ending flashback annoyed me, but I was engaged and read this in a day. I was also swept up enough in the world-building to pick up the next book in the trilogy (yes, of course it was in my TBR) about Rose's older brother who harries himself off to a life of isolation after his Good Time Girl Wife dies in another man's bed. Let's hope the flashbacks stay locked up in a closet somewhere.

Final Grade = B-

Friday, May 24, 2024

Mini-Reviews: Yet More Suspense

My project to clean out suspense ARCs from my Kindle continues, with a fairly new release in a long-running series and the first book of what has turned into a series that was published in 2019 😬.

Circle in the Water by Marcia Muller is the 35th book in her series about San Francisco PI Sharon McCone. Some people read fluffy Regency romances for comfort, I read female PI suspense novels, in large part because I discovered both Muller and Sue Grafton as a teenager. One thing that I thought Sharon always had over Grafton's Kinsey Millhone is that while Grafton kept Kinsey stuck in the late 1980s, Muller has moved Sharon through time, allowing her to change and grow. We've read about her as she's had a series of boyfriends, gotten married, left her job, started her own business etc.

This latest book feels like it might be the end with a rather telling "where are they now" style epilogue.  The premise here is rather interesting, San Francisco is apparently home to over 200 privately owned streets (who knew?) and Sharon is hired by a group of concerned homeowners as several of those streets have experienced a series of pranks and vandalism. However when a meth lab blows up and a dead body is discovered things take a sinister turn.

Being the 35th book in a long-running series, this reads like the latest episode of a TV series. There's zero character development here so if you're not clued into the characters already, do not start here.  Also while the premise is interesting the story felt very light in the pants. It feels a bit much ado about nothing and for such a slim book (221 pages!) there's various character asides that felt distracting and pointless (Did I need a scene with Sharon and Rae lamenting about current events in the city? Not really).  

But as a visit with old friends? To scratch a nostalgic itch? This worked. But while I will occasionally revisit random books in the series, this isn't likely to be one of them.  Strictly for fans.

Final Grade = C

Good Girl, Bad Girl by Michael Robotham is the first book in a now four book series featuring police psychologist Cyrus Haven. A young girl is discovered hiding in a secret room at the scene of a horrible crime, living with the rotting body of her dead captor, who was tortured to death. She's not listed in any missing persons files, can't or won't tell anyone her name, and her DNA can't be matched to an identity.  She could be 12, she could be 15 - nobody knows.  Now, some 6 years later, still unidentified, the courts have given her the name Evie Cormac and she's living in a secure children's home.  She's fighting in court to be released, claiming she's 18, which is where Cyrus Haven comes in.  He's brought in to talk to Evie, to determine if she should be released or, if like the staff at the children's home insist, she's too much a danger to herself and others.

Running parallel to this thread is a case Cyrus is working on with the police.  Jodie Sheehan, a pretty, popular local girl, a Olympic figure skating hopeful, is found murdered on a foot path near her home. 

The author has certainly laid interesting groundwork with this book and it's easy to see how these characters have sustained momentum into a 4 book (to date) series.  Besides her mysterious and tragic past, Evie is a bit of a human lie detector - knowing instinctively when someone is lying or telling the truth. Cyrus has his own tragic past, his older brother murdered their parents and younger sister while Cyrus was at football (soccer) practice and is now locked up in a psychiatric facility. If anyone is equipped to help Evie, it's Cyrus - but she's a girl with a lot of secrets.

I realize this makes me a terrible person, but Evie did have a tendency to get on my nerves at times. However things smooth out by the end and the author does a good job of throwing in some twists and turns. It's a book that's a bit lurid in parts (description of torture, drug use, sexual assault....) but the author doesn't wallow in the gory details (he doesn't have to - just mentioning brief descriptions is more than enough). Yet this ended up being a curious read for me. I should have liked it more than I did and as I sit here typing this up I'm trying to decide if I'm intrigued enough to continue on with the series.  Because while the Jodie Sheehan matter is put to bed, Evie's past most certainly is not and is fodder for later installments.  Perhaps once I'm through some of my backlog...

Final Grade = B-