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.

Saturday, July 20, 2024

Boom! Unusual Historicals for July 2024

July is always a lost month for me because while it does feature my happy birthday, it's also the one time of year where I have hard, stressful deadlines at work thanks to a July 1 - June 30 fiscal cycle. I'm closing out the books on the previous year and then figuring out how to bleed a stone allocating the incoming year's budget. Seriously, the next person I see online whining about how wait lists are too long and their library's eBook collection sucks better run and hide because I am full up y'all. 

But you know what calms stress? Books. Then throw some more books on top of those books. And this month's Unusual Historicals crop is a good place to start. I'm highlighting ten books this month!

A Deal with the Rebellious Marquess by Bronwyn Scott

A search for the truth

Leads to a discovery of passion!

After tragically losing her husband, Fleur is determined to expose the man responsible in a tell-all news article. Yet she’s thwarted by Jasper, the infuriating, rebellious—and undeniably handsome!—Marquess of Meltham, when she implicates his brother. His deal? They work to uncover the truth together! As sparks of hostility turn into sparks of desire, Fleur must decide whether her vendetta is worth the cost of losing her heart…

The final book in the author's Enterprising Widows trilogy that follows three heroines trying to rebuild their lives after losing their husbands in the 1852 Holmfirth Flood. This is a apropos book to wrap the series up with, the heroine determined to expose the man she feels is responsible but having to navigate around, and ultimately partner with, that man's brother.

A Cinderella to Redeem the Earl by Ann Lethbridge

There are two sides to every story

And to every earl…

Damian, the new Earl of Dart, has returned to England for one purpose: to exact revenge on those who betrayed his family. Having discovered his enemy’s daughter Pamela is now a cook, he hires her. But his plans for vengeance go awry when the beguiling Cinderella sparks an attraction that complicates everything. For if Damian continues with his plan, he will betray the only woman who could redeem him…

He's a hero hungry for a revenge. She's now a cook whose father is the target of the hero's vengeance. The sample I read provides a bit more detail, the hero actually answers his own door in ramshackle rundown manor (shocking the heroine) and our heroine is really his enemy's stepdaughter, her own (now dead) father was a vicar who indulged his daughter by letting her spend time in the kitchen growing up.  

Stranded with her Forbidden Knight by Melissa Oliver

Caught between duty…

And forbidden desire!

Lady Elowen is traveling to her loveless arranged betrothal when she’s rescued from a storm by Lord Simon Trebarr—the enigmatic knight whose family has long been enemies of her own. She should hate him, yet an unwanted attraction has always simmered whenever he’s near… Within the walls of Simon’s Cornish castle, can Elowen resist experiencing passion before condemning herself to a life without it…even if it’s with the man who should be her enemy?

Star-crossed lovers alert! Set in 14th century Cornwall, a heroine trudging her way into a loveless marriage is rescued from a storm by our knight hero, whose family happens to be her family's sworn enemy. 

A Vengeful King Rises by Sophie Barnes

The only thing more lethal than his need for revenge, is the woman who's tasked with bringing him down.

Adrian Croft dreams of quitting the shady business he stands to inherit, of settling down, and of raising a family free from a life of crime. But when tragedy strikes, this fanciful dream is destroyed. All he wants now is revenge. His anger, however, threatens to cloud his judgment, making it harder for him to recognize danger when it approaches in the form of a beautiful woman.

Trained for covert operations as part of a secret government program, Samantha Carmichael's mission is to give British law enforcement a reason to prosecute the most powerful man in the country. But when common sense and duty begin to blur, can she remain steadfast in her goal, or will her loyalties shift as she gradually loses her heart to the one man she cannot afford to love?

First in a new series that follows one couple and "the brutal challenges they must face" intrigues me for a hero who has inherited a criminal enterprise (and isn't overjoyed by that fact) and a heroine charged with bringing him down. 

The Play's the Thing by Margaux Thorne

Everyone’s a player in this love match.

Miss Anna Smythe is planning a romantic wedding to remember—only it’s not her own. After a youthful indiscretion left her with a broken heart and a tarnished reputation, Anna is more than content to sit on the sidelines and watch those around her find their perfect match. When her father, Sir John, informs the family that he’s ready for a second chance at romance with his childhood sweetheart, Anna is overjoyed to spend the summer with her future in-laws dreaming up a swoony future for the fortunate couple. Unfortunately, her happiness is not shared by everyone.

Lord Jacob Wright’s family may have come from nothing, but now that he’s stumbled upon a title, he’s not willing to mix with just anyone. The former journalist and new viscount can spot a fortune hunter from a mile away and Sir John is definitely one who has the audacity to set his sights on Jacob’s mother! A marriage between Sir John and Rose Wright will never happen—not on Jacob’s watch. Even when the Smythe family moves into Jacob’s home for a month, he is determined to kill the fledgling romance on the vine.

However, Jacob never anticipated Smythe’s daughter being a more than worthy adversary for his romance-poisoning plans. Anna believes in the older couple’s love even more than Jacob distrusts it and routinely thwarts all of his attempts to douse its growing flames.

To make matters worse, the more Jacob spends time with the starry-eyed Anna, the more he realizes she isn’t just another fanciful chit hell-bent on match-making. The delightfully enticing woman has a history, and Jacob soon discovers that Sir John isn’t the one person grappling with second chances. When an old flame reemerges in Anna’s life, resolute in starting where they left off, Jacob is determined to keep Anna by his side. Changing tact, Jacob becomes the romantic, fixed on showing Anna that even with his surly behavior and obstinate ways he’s the only man for her.

Can a few charming picnics, a hermit’s cottage, and chance encounters with circus strongwomen keep Anna from wondering about what might have been with her old flame?

Lord deliver me from back cover blurbs that want to tell the reader the entire story. Anyway, this second book in the author's Cricket Club series piques my interest for a "romantic" heroine who's fine with being on the shelf (for reasons) and the adversarial relationship that enters her life in the form of the hero, when their widowed parents, childhood sweethearts, reunite. I love a good adversarial romance, but they're really tricky to pull off.  Here's hoping!

Cast Vows by Ariella Talix

Danger strikes from all directions. Nothing is as it seems.

Nicolo Stark-James loves with his whole heart, but he finds there are despicable people who are willing to ruin everything.

Matty Remington needs to be safe, but he’s trapped. He has strong faith and a heart made for loving, but he needs to reconcile his love for God with his personal desires.

Eden Godwin might be the one to hold them all together, but her future isn’t her own to decide. She is pitted between love and saving her family from ruin.

Obligations are questioned, and promises are made that may not be kept. 

This is the third book in the author's Hearts of Gold series, all of which feature ménages and take place in 19th century California, this one being set in 1884 Los Angeles. I'm intrigued by that and also by the fact that one of the male characters is struggling with his personal desires and his faith in God. It's a theme we don't see a ton of in erotic romance. 

An Impossible Match by Sandra Sookoo

What the heart wants is sometimes at cross purposes from what is practical.

Miss Genevieve Hasting refuses to become a companion like her two older sisters. She aspires to loftier heights, and though she despises weak-willed men, society’s rules, proper deportment, and stays, she’s willing to suffer them all if it means winning a life of luxury without toil as well as a titled gentleman, except she’s been banished to her father’s country estate as punishment for too many scandals. It’s dull and there aren’t that many men to match with there.

Mr. Thomas Alderman is a country vicar who has enjoyed his living over the years. Though his good looks make him extremely popular with the ladies of his congregation, he hasn’t given marriage much thought, for in his youth, he had been quite the rogue, but he left that behind him when he received his calling to minister. When Miss Hasting slips into his church one glorious sunny morning, he’s thrown into confusion. He’s not that man any longer.

An unexpected courtship springs between the unlikely couple before either of them realizes it’s happening. Though Genna amuses herself while in the country by seducing the handsome vicar, he’s not what she wants for her future. And as much as Thomas adores revisiting the man he used to be, the man who bedded beautiful women like Miss Hasting, she isn’t the type of woman he needs by his side now.

Unless they stop hiding from their true desires, their summertime fling won’t develop into a lasting bond.

We get a lot of rakes in romance who meet the heroine, see the error of their wicked ways, then reform. It's the spin on that well-worn trope that piqued my interest in Sookoo's third book in her Hasting Sisters series. He's already reformed, and now a vicar, who finds himself tempted by an ambitious heroine determined to marry well and bag herself a comfortable life, which is proving difficult thanks her habit of courting scandal. 

London's Leading Lady by Jennifer Seasons

A passionate playwright, a headstrong lady . . . a love story for the ages.

Pragmatic Lady Carlotta Castlebury secretly adores the theatre. Enamored with the written and performed word, she writes play scripts in her journal, her most precious possession. One fateful afternoon in Hyde Park she loses it, only to discover soon after that the latest theatrical performance on Drury Lane sounds remarkably like her play. Yet the audacious liar taking credit for it is decidedly not her. Rather, the insufferable man is London’s most popular playwright, Thatcher Goodrich. Lottie is going to march down to Rhodes Theatre and give the infuriatingly sexy writer a piece of her mind . . . and most assuredly none of her heart.

The third son of an impoverished baron, Thatcher has made his way in the world with his wit and a deft pen. When his muse abandons him and leaves him wordless exactly when King William personally requests a new play, Thatcher does what any desperate playwright would do: he finds one and claims it as his own! He doesn’t expect the true author to barge into the theatre like a beautiful warrior queen and demand her work back.

Yet when His Majesty wishes another play, Thatcher must pen another with her, and the more time he spends with the insightful, clever lady, the harder in love he falls. Until something in Lottie’s original play rankles a dangerous foe, endangering them.

Now they must outwit a madman . . . or risk the final curtain falling on their lives and newfound love forever.

A lady who loses the journal where she scripts all her unpublished plays attends the theater to discover London's most popular playwright has found her journal and is now passing off her writing as his own. A hero with a case of writer's block does the unthinkable when the King requests a new play, and when he wants another? He has no choice but team up with the woman he's wronged. This is the fourth book in the author's Castleburys series. 

The Poet's Stern Critic by Mary Lancaster

An elusive poet clashes with an opinionated young lady…

Cornelius Vale, hard-working steward of his brother’s land, has another secret identity as acclaimed poet Simon Sacheverill. No one has ever met the mysterious poet – except the woman who once accosted him in a London bookshop and tore his works to shreds.

When he encounters That Girl again at a Blackhaven ball, he is appalled.

If only he knew, the girl in question, Lady Alice Conway, adores his poetry and is completely bowled over by the man. She too has secrets. She longs to play her own musical compositions in the great concert halls of Europe. And, disgusted by male physical contact, she refuses to marry. Unfortunately, she rejects a dangerous nobleman who hates to lose.

Despite frequent quarrels, Cornelius and Alice keep each other’s secrets and grow ever closer, incurring the ire of his old love and of the suitors determined to marry Alice.

As threats fall from all sides, will they risk everything to save each other? And if they do, is there even a way for them to be together?

A steward with a secret life as a popular poet and an ambitious composer heroine who has her own secrets. This is the fifth (and final?) book in the author's One Night in Blackhaven series. 

Tempted by the Highland Warrior by Michelle Willingham (reprint)

After suffering years as a prisoner of war, Callum MacKinloch finally breaks free . . . but his voice is still held captive.

Lady Marguerite de Montpierre tries to heal his brutal wounds and is captivated by the handsome Highlander. She faces her own impending prison of a loveless betrothal, though she is drawn to the fierce warrior who does not speak. Although a future together seems impossible, she is losing her heart to a man she cannot have.

But Callum refuses to give up on the angel who fought back against the demons of his past and gave him another reason to live...for her.

Originally published by Harlequin Historical in 2012, this third book in Wilingham's MacKinloch Clan series features a former POW hero now mute from the trauma he endured and the heroine nursing him back to health staring down the barrel of a loveless betrothal. Willingham has written some dynamite damaged characters in her day, I really need to dig this series out of my TBR.

Whew! Another month, another marathon list of Unusual Historicals. What are you looking forward to reading?

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

#TBRChallenge 2024: Captured

The Book: Captured by Beverly Jenkins

The Particulars: Colonial Historical Romance, 2009, Avon, Book 3 in Le Veq Family series.

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: I enjoy Jenkins' historicals more often than not and hello? This is a pirate romance. My print copy isn't autographed so I suspect I either bought this new or was sent a copy by the publisher.

The Review: I struggled a bit with what to read for this month's What A Wonderful World theme and while randomly digging through my print shelves I found this book by Jenkins. Hey, pirates! Pirates sailing the high seas! Traveling the world! So on that score this one fits. What doesn't fit is the heroine being a slave and how prominently slavery fits into the story, which is set at the dawn of the Revolutionary War, right around the time the French threw their support behind the rebel Americans. I'm more than well aware there's nothing wonderful about slavery, but this book has been in my TBR forever and a day and hello? A big chunk of the story either takes place on a ship or a Caribbean island near Cuba.

Dominic LeVeq is a notorious privateer, the product of a white French father, and African mother, one of the man's former slaves on the island of Martinique. Former because, even though he was married, he fell desperately in love with Dominic's mother, freed all the slaves and was set to live happily ever after until his wife, not all that happy with the arrangement, poisoned Dominic's mother. In response his father took Dominic and sailed the high seas until his death, and we've got two villains right out of the gate in this story: his father's wife and his odious half-brother, Eduard. 

Dominic is making his way back to his island home when he spots a gem of a prize, a British frigate. Among the spoils is the stunning Clare Sullivan, slave to a spoiled Savannah miss who is traveling back from England with her twin brother. Dominic cannot abide slavery and is gobsmacked by Clare, so naturally, he takes her.

This isn't exactly welcome news for Clare. She's drawn to Dominic almost immediately once she realizes he and his crew mean her no harm, but she has two children (a boy and a girl) back in Savannah. Her odious mistress and brother sold the children to a neighboring plantation, but Clare is able to see them on Sundays. She's been away for months in England and like any mother she is desperate to see her children. Once Dominic realizes this he promises Clare to take her back to Savannah as soon as he is able, but first he and the crew must return to their island home.

Naturally what happens, happens. Clare and Dominic fall in love, fall into bed, and come up with a plan to rescue her children.

This is a historical romance with high stakes conflict (boy howdy!) basically told in three parts. The first third on the ship has adventure and steamy chemistry. The second third on the island does bring a lag in the action but the world building (Jenkins excels at writing "communities") is lush and interesting, and the final third is action-packed, with our couple returning to Savannah to rescue the children but things not going exactly as planned. 

The romance here is heavy on Insta-Love, which honestly, not my favorite. Dominic is smitten right away and the romance just sort of happens. Certainly there's relationship building, but there's not a ton of heavy lifting here. It just...happens.

Also, some of my personal pet peeves crop up in this story - namely the Evil Other Woman (one of Dominic's former mistresses) and Not Like Other Girls Nonsense. Have I read more egregious examples in other romances? Yes, but they're still there. Dominic is basically a man-whore but one look at Clare is enough for him to change is profligate ways. There's the Evil Other Woman, cheating on her elderly husband she married for his money and other mentions of Dominic's many, previous lovers.  Clare is different. Clare isn't like all those other women Dominic slaked his lust with. Jenkins doesn't beat you over the head with it, but read between the lines and it's definitely there. Look, is this stuff rampant in romance? Yes. Am I in my Old Cranky Sea Hag Era and allowed to be annoyed by it? Also yes.  

Still, I enjoyed this and gulped it down in two sittings. I can always tell when I'm in the hands of a pro, and Jenkins is a pro. The middle does sag a little bit, but the island world-building is very good and the action adventure "stuff" bookending the story is great. Also, while part of Jenkins' Le Veq Family world, it stands alone very well, essentially being a prequel. Not my favorite of Jenkins' work to date but still an enjoyable read.

Final Grade = B-

Friday, July 12, 2024

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is July 17!

TBR Challenge 2024

Happy Summer! Our next #TBRChallenge Day is Wednesday, July 17.  This month's optional theme is What a Wonderful World.

This is another suggestion that came out of my Annual Theme Poll and, I don't know, good luck I guess? 🤣 When I picked this suggestion out the metaphorical hat my mind immediately went to a historical romance not set in England or maybe a book where travel is a component of the plot.  Hey, even a romance set in space or a fantasy world could work here. Put on those thinking caps and let your imagination wander.

However, remember that the themes are totally optional. Maybe you're in the mood for a nice Regency historical set in London or a contemporary romance set in a midwestern small town. 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

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Review: Murders Buys a One-Way Ticket

I've been a horrible slump. It's a slump that was born out of equal parts work stress, a year so far where my average reads are in a dead heat with good and great reads (combined) and just not having the spoons to do much eyeball reading. Frankly though, this funk I've been in has started to annoy me, so I decided it was time to try pure, unadulterated brain candy. A book where I knew exactly what I was going to get, and as luck would have it, Murder Buys A One-Way Ticket by Laura Levine dropped in late June.

Spoilers Ahoy!

This is the 20th book in a series that started in the early 2000s and I would compare it to the Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanovich on one very salient point - you're basically getting the same plot structure over and over again. There are just certain things I know are going to happen to our heroine, freelance writer, Jaine Austen, in each new book: 

  1. A dating disaster of epic proportions. 
  2. Jaine's various food obsessions (seriously, at this point I'm convinced she has an undiagnosed eating disorder and should work with a shrink about her comfort eating....) 
  3. Wacky hijinks her parents (OK, her father) get into in their Florida retirement community, relayed via email. 
  4. At least one mention of Jaine's favorite T-Shirt (Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!) and clothing with elastic waist bands.
  5. Her fabulous gay neighbor, Lance, lamenting her wardrobe and roping her into some scheme that he's sure will help bag him Mr. Right. 
  6. Jaine's cat Prozac being the "owner" in their relationship.
But whereas I quit Stephanie Plum after Book 17 because of the main character being a flaming hypocrite and the super thin mysteries, Levine, for all the problematic faults in some of her books (broad humor is tricky, you either stick the landing or plummet to Earth like an anvil) never skimps on the mystery. There's always multiple suspects, with compelling motives (the victims are usually widely loathed), condensed in a short word count (usually around 230 pages).  A lot of this can be explained by Levine's history as a sitcom writer.  The mysteries keep me guessing and the books are snappy as hell.

This time out Jaine takes a ghostwriting job for Chip Miller, owner of a string of successful gyms looking to publish a Fitness For Dummies style book. Jaine is to join Chip and his entourage in a trip from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara by private railway. A veritable lap of luxury way to travel, except, of course, Chip turns out to be a tyrant. On board are family members, his fiancée', his right hand man / best pal in the gym enterprise, and the staff (specifically a waiter and a cook) who all hate his guts. So truly, it's not a huge surprise when Chip turns up dead, smothered to death in bed by one of his many "World's Greatest Dad" pillows. Naturally, the cops zero in on Jaine as possible suspect. To clear her good name she's going to once again turn amateur sleuth.

This is by far the strongest entry in the last several. The mystery is solid, there's a ton of suspects, all with compelling motives, and some of the broad humor that has annoyed me is tempered a wee bit. It's still there, but this time out Jaine's father's antics while still wacky as hell didn't hit me quite as wacky as some of the last few books. Lance, who I feel had turned snide and borderline vicious in the later entries, is positively mellow here.  Heck, even Prozac isn't nearly as mean spirited. Is it still broad humor? Is it still following the well-trod path of each book that proceeded this one? Yes and yes. But it worked better here with this story than in the last handful of entries.

Finally, the ending. One word: wowzers! This would be why I put the Spoiler label at the start of this review. Folks, it's happened. Jaine finally gets a happy ending. I'm not sure what this means, but I see three possibilities: 
  1. This is the end of the line for the series. Jaine rides off into the sunset to live happily-ever-after.
  2. The series will continue, but the author will take Jaine in a slightly new direction now that she has a romantic partner.
  3. It all goes to hell between the end of this book and the start of the next book. Jaine's back to being single.
I truly hope #3 doesn't happen, because the happy ending is amusing and apropos for a character named Jaine Austen. Time, as they say, will tell.  In the meantime, I'm not ready to declare the slump dead, but this book helped to at least give it a flesh wound.

Final Grade = B

Edited to add 7/15/24: The author posted on her Facebook page (7/12/24) that this will be the last full length book in the series. So now I'm doubly happy that Jaine found her Mr. Right.

Thursday, July 4, 2024

Frustrations, Silver Linings, and Small Joys

This blog is a dead zone because I haven't been reading. I'm in a slump and it's a slump born out of work stress and a general feeling of malaise that seems to hover over me like a marine layer that just won't burn off. 

This past Tuesday was really not a good day for me, born entirely out of work-related frustrations. I didn't hit a wall so much as hit a series of them one after another like Wile E. Coyote. I was emotionally bankrupt once I returned to the Bat Cave and something, who knows what, made me get online instead of just crawling into bed. That's where I found it, the silver lining. After a 14 hiatus, I'm finally getting Book 3 in Christa Faust's Angel Dare series for Hard Case Crime.  14 years people! I've been waiting for as long as my niece Lemon Drop has been alive!

The Get Off by Christa Faust 

Coming (heh heh) March 2025 and added emphasis in blurb is all mine.


Tagged as a cop killer when a mission of vengeance goes wrong, Angel Dare finds herself on the run, with an unexpected burden: she’s pregnant. Her desperate flight takes Angel across the American west, where cattle barons lock horns with rodeo bullfighters and life can end suddenly and brutally. A renegade couple living off the grid near the border might offer a chance of escape – but can Angel reach them in time…?

Now, let's refresh our memories on Wendy's reaction to the second book in this series (published all the way back in the more halcyon days of 2011), Choke Hold.  

However the author makes some choices in this novel that drove my inner romance reader batty.  First, there's an unprotected sex scene.  This sex scene happens after a break in the action where our fair heroine literally escapes with her life.  Adrenaline is surging towards the OMG, We're Still Alive!  Let's Celebrate With Hot Sweaty Sexy Times! spectrum.  I get that.  But the romance reader in me?  She sees "unprotected sex" and immediately thinks, "That bitch is going to end up pregnant, I just know it."

Granted the chances of Angel ending up with a bun in the oven strain considerably - but stranger things have happened.  All I'm saying is if there's another book in this series down the road, and she's either 1) knocked up or 2) has a baby in tow.....

Wendy Mad, Wendy Smash!

Gentle Reader, after the day I had on Tuesday, and reading this old review that evening, I laughed near borderline cackled.  

Look, am I still annoyed Angel does end up pregnant? Yeah, mainly because it's not what I want in my noir vigilante heroines. But 14 years is a lot of water under the bridge and I'm just so happy Faust finally decided to come back to this series. Plus news of this what-is-surely-going-to-be-a-Dark-AF book lightened my epically dreadful mood on a day when I just wasn't feeling very good about much of anything. I'll take it - bun in the oven and all.

Sometimes it's the little things....

Friday, June 21, 2024

Mini-Reviews: Nostalgia Ahoy!

Man, nostalgia. It's a helluva a drug. And when it comes to reading sometimes nostalgia will carry a ho-hum read over the finish line, even if I have a hard time qualifying it as a "recommended read."

First up is In Her Shadow by Kristin Miller, a book I uncovered from the depths of my Kindle. Like a previous book I read by Miller, this is another Privileged People Being Generally Terrible book but where the previous book faltered, this one was mostly a success. It helps that I spent my impressionable teen years cutting my teeth on soap operas and Gothics and this story scratched both of those itches.

Colleen Roper took a secretarial job, working for financial guru Michael Harris. In record time they're sleeping together and bingo-bango she's pregnant. There have been some complications to her pregnancy so the doctor is prescribing plenty of rest and relaxation, which means quitting her job and Michael sweeping her off to palatial family home, Ravenwood. The wrinkle? Michael's pregnant wife, Joanna - who abruptly left Michael very shortly before he fell into Colleen's bed. Oh and minor detail nobody has heard from her since. Colleen, of course, being the typical Gothic heroine has stars in her eyes, newly thrust into a world of luxury, spinning fairy tale happy family fantasies.  In reality?  Michael seems distant from the idea of starting a family, there are locked rooms at Ravenwood that are off limits, and a small staff that are openly hostile to her. Then, of course, a dead body shows up.

This story is told from multiple points of view (Colleen, Michael, a married couple next door with plenty to hide, and the lead detective on the case when the body turns up) and it really works here. Miller plays these shifts to maximum effect to keep the reader guessing, keeping the equilibrium off balance just enough.

The only halfway decent "likeable" person in this book is the lead detective on the case, while everyone else is generally terrible or hopelessly naïve (Colleen grates in short order) but man, nothing will hook me faster than a soapy Gothic.  I had it half-figured out by the end, but it was entertaining all the same.

Final Grade = B-

Kill Zone by Loren D. Estleman is the first in his Peter Macklin series and was first published in 1984, which yes makes it problematic at times, but as someone who grew up in Michigan, man this book was a giant needle of nostalgia injected straight into my eyeballs.

A rag-tag group of eight would-be terrorists who call themselves Siegfried hijack a Boblo boat (!!) soon after it leaves the dock in Detroit. On board is a government bureaucrat's daughter, which leads the FBI to go local Detroit mobster, Michael Boniface, now cooling his heels in prison. In exchange for leniency, Boniface puts his best guy on the job, mob enforcer and hitman, Peter Macklin. What Macklin doesn't know is that the guy running the show while Boniface is behind bars doesn't want to give up his seat and the killer now has his own hitman tracking his every move.

Detroit in the 1980s, crooked cops, the FBI sniffing around, the mob and BOBLO BOATS!  It scratched a very strong regional flavor itch for me even though it doesn't hit nearly the same as Estleman's Amos Walker series.

Here's the thing, there's eleventy billion characters in this book. Eight terrorists, the Boblo boat workers, the passengers, mobsters, Macklin's dysfunctional family, his mistress, his Old School Italian mentor, FBI agents, cops - I just gave up after a while keeping track of who was who and started looking at this story with a cinematic eye. Back in the day Charles Bronson would have starred in this.  These days, they'd rewrite it for a world-weary Ben Affleck. 

It's all a bit absurd and features all the trigger warnings a book published in 1984 would (stereotypes, some racial slurs, the female characters in Macklin's immediate orbit are....well, not great) but books like this scratch a very particular itch of mine, and on that score it kept me amused.  Not sure if I'll continue on with the series because honestly? Amos Walker is where it's at for me.

Final Grade = C+

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-