Thursday, February 23, 2017

Mini-Reviews: Dukes and Black Ops
If you're predisposed to hate on all "light historical romance" you'll just want to waltz right past Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare.  Everything about this book will likely have you pulling your hair out and screaming into the abyss.  But if, like me, you believe there is such a thing as "good light historicals" and "soul-sucking kill me already light historicals" - well, this is one of the good ones.

Isolde Goodnight's father made a name for himself writing insipid romantic tales where "little Izzy" played a central role. Think of her like Christopher Robin.  Daddy has died unexpectedly leaving Izzy with nothing other than the goodwill of his many fans (who treat her like a little girl and not a grown spinster of 26) and she's down to her last pennies when she finds out her godfather has bequeathed her Gostley Castle.  One small problem - the castle has a resident, Ransome, the Duke of Rothbury.  Ransome was grievously injured in a duel gone wrong and has been hiding out (all Beast-like) in HIS castle.  So needless to say when Izzy shows up proclaiming the castle is rightly hers he's a might put out.

This is light, charming and achingly romantic in parts - but it helps to go into it with your Fairy Tale Glasses firmly in place.  This is one of those light historicals that take place in Regencyville, Romancelandia with no discernible sense of place (Regency? Early Victorian? I got whiffs of both).  There are some silly inclusions, like Izzy's pet ermine and her father's cosplaying fans.  There are even what I felt were references to The Princess Bride (the movie) and Star Wars (I'm not sure if these were intentional on the part of the author, but it's how I read them.  I could be wrong.)

Some of you are already probably reaching for the vodka, and if you are?  Just save yourself the time and inevitable annoyance by staying far, far away.

That said, there is some depth here - but it tends to reside within the characters' emotions, and their reactions to various situations.  These were the moments that stuck with me and had me happy sighing my way through the book.  Yes, it's silly - but it's a fairy tale wrapped up with a big ol' giant escapist bow.  A pink one.  With maybe some glitter on it.  If that sounds like the sort of thing that appeals you'll love this and beg for seconds.

Final Grade = B
Let me share with you some of the reasons I've enjoyed HelenKay Dimon's books in the past.  1) She writes good action/adventure plots 2) She writes really good, bantering dialogue and 3) She has a knack for writing secondary characters you desperately want follow-up books about.  So it pains me to say that Playing Dirty didn't work for me at all.  In fact I DNF'ed it at the 25% mark because I was bored and didn't care.

Ford works Black Ops for Alliance, a secretive undercover unit for MI6 and the CIA.  There's anywhere from 3 to 25 hot hunky guys running around in the first 7 chapters, all of them interchangeably hunky and hot, swearing when a operation goes south (which it does - twice in the first 7 chapters) and really, I don't care.  Some wunderkind scientist has invented some evil chemical thingie that some bad guy has stolen and Ford is leasing an apartment in the heroine's building, getting close to her, because she's wunderkind scientist's cousin.  He's naturally boning her every chance he gets and explains his constant travel and workaholic tendencies on a fictional IT job.

Shay is the heroine and basically her job in the first 7 chapters is to talk in innuendo with Ford, stay off page when he's out playing Black Ops stud with all those interchangeable hunky future heroes, and have sex with him when he is around.  Seriously.  Seven chapters, three sex scenes.  Oh wait, she does have a conversation with her uncle!  So she can do something else besides stand around and wait for the hero to bone her.

Here's the problem: I am a very heroine-centric romance reader.  If you're all about hot studly manly heroes because OMG THEY ARE SO HOT AND HUNKY!!!!! -  maybe you'll love this.  There is nothing in the first 25% to give me an inkling of why I should care about Shay and all Ford seems to do is feel guilty that he's deceiving her and get cranky about work.  Blah, blah, blah - whatever.

Here's the thing: I've enjoyed similar set-ups like this in the past.  Dimon's Harlequin Intrigues feature Black Ops-style military-like units with a bevy of hunky guys standing around and I really enjoyed those.  I think I know why - short word count = tighter pacing and plotting.  Here?  None of this was holding my attention and I was getting more unreasonably annoyed by the minute.  Having liked this author's work in the past (quite a bit!), I'm chalking this up to This Series Is Not My Jam.

Final Grade = DNF

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Review: Swear On This Life
This is going to be one of the stranger reviews I've written in a while.  Swear On This Life by Renee Carlino is a New Adult novel.  Now, I don't have the best history with New Adult.  I'll be blunt: the NA I've tried thus far has made me want to scoop my eyeballs out with a spoon.  But...Carlino is speaking at a local event in April, and I'm moderating her panel, so I "sucked it up" and realized that I had to try it because "homework reading."

I was riveted.

Emiline is an adjunct writing instructor at UC San Diego and has been dating her ex-jock boyfriend, Trevor, for 7 years.  Their relationship has grown distant, although they're both going through the motions.  Emi's been struggling with her own writing, trying to find her voice, and dismissing suggestions from her roommate and her supervising professor to delve into her past.  Emi would just as soon forget her traumatic childhood, growing up poor white trash in rural Ohio.  It's a past Emiline has failed to "deal with," so when her roommate gives her an amazing new novel by J. Colby, the literary wunderkind of the moment, Emi is in for a rude shock.  The subject of his novel, All the Roads Between, is so obviously her.  Which means "J. Colby" is none other than her childhood best friend and first love, Jase; a boy she hasn't seen or heard from in over a decade.  And now the a-hole has co-opted her life to write a book and he's a big blooming bloody success.  Emi is...not happy.

What we have here is a book within a book.  The story goes back and forth between Emi's present day and her past, as told through the fictionalized account of All the Roads Between.  As she gets deeper into the book, her current relationships come to a head, Jase comes barreling back into her life, and the past will no longer stayed buried.  Which means Emi is going to have to have her "come to Jesus" moment and finally deal with it all.

This is a perfect example of a book where I can see all the faults, acknowledge all the faults, and still not care.  I've seen negative reviews for this, and believe me - I get it.  It's not a perfect book and as a romance I'm not sure it entirely works.  It falls into the common New Adult Angst-o-Rama-Jama Trap (I'm beginning to feel like the White Trash "thing" is to NA as Dukes are to light historicals....) and none of these characters are terribly "likeable."  When Emi and Trevor aren't fighting they're essentially practicing emotional avoidance.  When Jase finally arrives on the scene (we're talking halfway through the book) he comes off like a smooth-talking bro.  I seriously half expected him to pat Emi on the head and condescendingly tell her he knows what's best (which he kind of does since it comes out he "wrote the book for her."  Ugh - seriously, dude?). 

The ending also has moments that feel a little out of left field - namely how the author resolves the Trevor relationship.  I wouldn't call this a love triangle.  It's fairly obvious to any reader with a clue that the Trevor relationship is doomed from the outset.  And while, in theory, how the author resolves this relationship could work, I felt like there wasn't enough page time devoted to it to flesh it out.

And yet?  Detailing all these quibbles, these things that shouldn't work, it somehow all did for me.  It worked for me in the way that women's fiction can often work for me, and I can see it working for readers who think they don't like romance, but actually they do (they just don't know it yet).  Frankly it's the sort of book that publishers love to market as "Not Your Mother's Romance" - which normally cheeses me off no end, but Lord help me....

I. Got. Sucked. In.

I loved the angst.  I loved the storytelling. And while it frustrated that Jase basically forces Emi's hand to start her journey towards "healing" - hey, it's still the heroine's journey.  Which has always been the biggest draw for me in the genre.  Is Emi always a nice person?  No.  Does Emi sometimes sulk and fall into her "woe is me" routine?  Sure.  But we buy that crap from heroes, so it was refreshing to see it from a young heroine's perspective. 

My final thoughts on this book are a jumbled mess.  There are faults here, but I was so engrossed in the story that I didn't really care.  It's been so long since I fell so hard into a book to the point where I didn't want to put it down until I finished the final sentence, and that's what this story did for me.  I'll read Carlino again in a heartbeat.

Final Grade = B+

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

#TBRChallenge 2017: Tempted By Her Italian Surgeon

The Book: Tempted By Her Italian Surgeon by Louisa George

The Particulars: Contemporary romance, Harlequin Medical #742, 2015, out of print, available digitally

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: Pretty sure I got this at RWA 2016.  It's a category romance, I was at a conference, so naturally I picked it up.  I'm at the point where I can turn down "free books" at conferences, but not when it comes to category.  They're my kryptonite.

The Review: My habit of impulse grabbing category romances means it's an ideal format for the New-To-Me Author TBR Challenge prompt.  This was floating near the top of my Harlequin Rubbermaid Tote of Doom, and it was a safe grab since George has written in two lines I'm not well-read in (Harlequin Medical and Harlequin Kiss).  In other words, I was vaguely familiar with her name, but knew I had never read her before.

Lawyer Ivy Leigh hasn't even had a chance to settle into her new office at St. Carmen's Children's Hospital when she has her first fire to put out.  Seems one of the doctors has posted a picture of his bare backside (a delicious bare backside - but still) on the internet and it's gone viral.  To make matters worse?  In the background are a pair of green scrubs with the St. Carmen's logo as clear as day.  St. Carmen's is a children's teaching hospital and rather old school, so this kind of publicity will not do.  Ivy sets out to find the culprit and soon does.  Sexy as sin Italian surgeon, Dr. Matteo Finelli.

Matteo was not responsible for his butt becoming the latest internet sensation - rather it was a friend's prank.  But instead of getting upset about it, Matteo is all set to laugh it off.  I mean, really?  What's the big deal?  Well apparently it's a rather "big deal" to this new lawyer the hospital has hired which means Matteo now has to spend four whole days in social media "workshops" with the rest of the hospital staff.  Frankly he's got better things to do - like performing life-saving kidney transplants on sick children.  But "Poison Ivy" isn't budging, which means battle lines are being drawn.  He'll spend time in her pointless seminars and she'll spend time shadowing him in the operating theater watching the real work being done.

Basically what we have here is a Battle of Wills romance.  It doesn't quite qualify as Enemies-To-Lovers (no shared history between the couple), but things start off on an antagonistic foot.  George plays things safe here with neither Matteo or Ivy being deliberating cruel or mean.  They're both good at their jobs, passionate about their work, and that passion naturally spills over into their early interactions with each other.  As often happens in romances of this ilk, the passionate nature of both characters is hiding past emotional baggage - Matteo smarting from a relationship gone wrong and Daddy Issues, Ivy from a traumatic injury and Mommy Issues.

This was an easy read but not one that ever elevated itself, nor did it sink to the depths of dreck.  The very definition of an OK read.  Not bad enough for me to DNF, but not good enough to make me hug my print copy to my chest and fall into a swoon; and I'm still trying to put my finger on why.  Ivy is just the sort of wound-tight heroine I tend to like but Matteo is rather one-note.  Yes, the past baggage is there, but I kept waiting for him to experience his Black Moment. To get knocked down a few pegs.  And that never really happens.  Ivy goes off, running scared, but the reader doesn't see a ton of fallout from Matteo's perspective.  Which means he comes off a bit like Teflon Man. Nothing sticks. I guess I wanted him to wallow more.  The Italian playboy coming to grips with the fact that he's finally found The One and she can't seem to run away fast enough.  Don't get me wrong, he gets angry.  He gets ticked off.  But there's no good emotional wallow.

It's the sort of book that won't have me running out to buy up all of the author's backlist, but I'm also not going to turn my nose up if another falls in my lap.  And as luck would have it - thanks to my impulse Harlequin grabbing tendencies at conferences?  I've got another one of hers in the TBR.  Which means my damning with faint praise recommendation is this - if it's already in your TBR, there are worse ways to kill a Sunday afternoon.  But it also means I'm not going to tell you to drop your life and buy this book right now.

Final Grade = B-

Monday, February 13, 2017

All Aboard the DNF Boat
I strive to not write reviews that are too spoiler heavy, but in the case of DNF reviews I find that an impossible task.  I tend to DNF when the book takes what I see as the "wrong fork in the road," which generally means Spoiler Territory Ahoy.  So if you'd like to remain ignorant of spoilers for Deception Island, a debut romantic suspense novel by Brynn Kelly - this is your warning.

Spoilers Ahead Me Mateys!

I'm always on the lookout for compelling romantic suspense, so decided to take a chance on this debut novel.  It starts out promising enough but slides into Oh, Hella No territory for me the minute the heroine's Big Secret is exposed.

Holly Ryan is being paid to impersonate a pampered US Senator's daughter.  Seems Laura took it in her head to sail around the world and when Daddy said no, she went to the press anyway.  So the compromise is to have Holly sail the "rough bits" and in exchange she'll get money.  Holly just got out of prison, having been sent there by her con man boyfriend who threw her to the wolves to save his own skin.  She's needs the money to start over.

Instead Holly gets kidnapped by three goons, which is live streamed over the internet thanks to the yacht being outfitted with web cams.  Holly manages to take out two of the goons, but she cannot thwart Rafe Angelito, a French legionnaire / Black Ops-type hero who has to kidnap the heiress because A Bad Man has kidnapped his 9-year-old son.  The Bad Man is linked to Rafe's traumatic past as a child soldier in some third world country that's never named (at least during the 40% I read), so to have his son in the clutches of this guy is causing him to understandably freak out.

Rafe takes Holly to some remote tropical island that is apparently a secluded honeymoon destination to await instructions.  Once the Senator pays the ransom, presumably Rafe gets his kid back.  Of course what he doesn't know is that Holly isn't who he thinks she is - which she's not about to enlighten him about since hello?  She wants to stay alive.

OK, honestly?  The plot here is pretty far fetched - but this is romantic suspense, and a certain amount of over-the-top-ness should be expected.  I probably would have rolled with it all better if the plot wasn't so obvious.  Since Holly's kidnapping was live-streamed, what's to stop the Senator from "staging" a rescue, showing the world his daughter is OK and hanging Holly out to dry?  I'm not a bad guy and heck, it's what I would do - and it's the question I immediately started asking the minute Holly is kidnapped.  This thought never crosses Holly mind, until, of course, that's EXACTLY what happens.  And when Rafe finds out that Holly is an ex-con and not the Senator's daughter he snaps - and I snap right along with him.

In a rage, he grabs Holly and chokes her.  YES, CHOKES HER.  To the point where her survival instincts kick in and she "plays dead."  That's when our "hero" snaps out of it, cradles her in his arms and is all "Oh what have I done!"  Holly revives, they start baring their souls, Rafe comes up with a plan and Holly is all like, "I'm coming with you to rescue your kid."

Go back and reread that last paragraph.  If your jaw isn't hitting the floor yet - this should do it.  Rafe is all like, "Why do you want to help me, I just tried to choke you to death" (which is explained as sort of an "out of body" moment stemming from his horrific child soldier days).  And do you know what genius Holly says?  "But you didn't.  I don't believe you're capable of it."


Done.  I was so done. I don't care how crappy a hero's childhood is - and yes, being a child soldier is beyond way crappy.  But I'm sorry.  There's no excuse for CHOKING THE HEROINE WHEN YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO BE THE HERO!  Which means now I'm immediately questioning his emotional and mental stability and quite frankly, her intelligence.  I don't want to read a romance about these people.  I want him under stringent psychiatric care and I want her hit by a bus.  For a heroine who has supposedly been a con woman and IN PRISON, her lack of self-preservation is flabbergasting.

No.  Deal me out.

Final Grade = DNF

Friday, February 10, 2017

Reminder: #TBRChallenge for February

For those of you participating in the 2017 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, February 15.  This month's theme is New-to-You Author (an author you haven't read before).

If you're like me between recommendations from friends, debut authors, and impulse grabs at conferences and thrift stores - there are plenty of options to choose from here.  But what if you're risk adverse and your TBR is only filled with tried-and-true authors you've read before?  Hey, no problem!  Remember: the themes are optional!  The whole point of the TBR Challenge is to read something, anything, that has been languishing for far too long.

You can find more information about the challenge, and see the list of participants, on the 2017 Information Page.  (And it's not too late to sign-up!)

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Review: I'll Be Damned
Before falling headlong into a romance novel addiction in my early 20s, I was a soap opera addict.  Having learned at the knee of my mother (a devotee of The Young and the Restless since 1978) and my grandmother (Friday nights = Dallas), soaps were my poison of choice for relaxation during college.  I kept up with four of them (Y&R, The Bold and the Beautiful, One Life to Live, General Hospital) and Monday nights were reserved for Melrose Place.  But once out of college, and with a "normal" workday schedule to adhere to, I abandoned soaps in favor of romance novels.  That said, I still have an enormous soft spot for them and I'm highly susceptible to soap conventions, tropes and plots.  So when I heard about I'll Be Damned a memoir by Eric Braeden AKA Victor Newman AKA "The Mustache," I had to read it and I was going to move mountains to get my hands on an ARC (thank you Harpercollins!).

Eric Braeden was born Hans Gudegast in Bredenbek, Germany in 1941.  He has hazy memories of World War II, most involving Allied bombing raids and his father getting carted off my Russian soldiers after the war to get "de-Nazi-fied."  His father was an important man in their small town, a former mayor, and Braeden idolized him.  His premature death effected his youngest son deeply, and the family eventually fell on financial hardships after his death.  By all accounts though, Braeden had a fairly typical childhood - obsessed with sports (soccer in particular, but he was a track and field star) with three older brothers to keep him occupied.  But he was also restless and thanks to family connections overseas, he made his way to the United States in 1959.  While attending the University of Montana on a track and field scholarship, a documentary he got roped into led to California - where he fell into acting playing bad guys and Nazis.

This would also be the time when Braeden actually learned more about World War II and the Holocaust.  It seems incredible, but as he says, he was a little boy and immediately after the war nobody in Germany wanted to talk about it.  It wasn't until the early 1960s that Germany began waking up from the nightmare, and by then Braeden was in the States.  This spurred a sense of activism in him - and probably the one aspect of his story that may be a stumbling block for some.  Namely that Germany shouldn't be punished indefinitely for "the sins of the father."  To a certain extent I think these days are behind Germany, but in the 1960s?  Not so much. Braden is mostly liberal in politics, with a smattering of conservatism, sympathetic to the Holocaust and Israel, a great admirer of Gorbachev and Reagan for the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall.

After appearing on the TV series, The Rat Patrol (playing a Nazi, what else?), a few films, and then making the guest star rounds in the 1970s (Kojak, Mary Tyler Moore, Gunsmoke etc.) he got a call from his agent about a spot on a soap opera called The Young and the Restless, which he joined in 1980, playing a baddie who locked his wife's lover up in a cellar and fed him roasted rat.  The whole thing was absurd, but Braeden had a wife and young son to support and he was keen on the steady paycheck.  Inexplicably, to him, the fans loved Victor Newman and after telling the shows creators he wanted more "back story" - he re-upped his contract and has been there ever since.

Braeden has had a very interesting life, but my favorite parts of this book were the Y&R stuff (I wanted more actually!) and mentions of famous costars (like Burt Reynolds and Jim Brown in 100 Rifles).  The Titanic chapter was also quite interesting.  Of course the movie went on to be a monster hit, but Braeden tried everything to not do that film (his son and wife convinced him) and after the shooting ran long (and way over budget), Braeden told a gossip columnist it was going to be a BIG hit.  The columnist scoffed since everyone in Hollywood was predicting doomsday, and after the fact said to him, "How did you know?  You were the only person I talked to who thought it was going to make a ton of money."  Braeden's answer?  Simple.  "It's a soap opera with a bigger budget."  Amen.

If you're not a fan of Y&R I think you can still enjoy this book, but honestly?  Fans of the show will get much more out of it.  I'd always heard that Braeden was an egomaniac, and he does come off as having strong opinions in this memoir, but there are moments of humility and humor - and those were honestly my favorite moments.  As far as the writing goes, you won't confuse this memoir with, say, Joan Didion, but it's a fast read with a straight-forward writing style that was easy to engage with.  Fans will be delighted, although they'll probably wish there was more dirt.

Final Grade = B+

Monday, February 6, 2017

Review: Whispers in the Reading Room

How I came to read Whispers in the Reading Room by Shelley Gray is so very typical of me.  Set in Gilded Age Chicago (just after the World's Fair closes), there's some mystery, a hero with a dubious reputation, and a librarian heroine.  Never mind the cover art. Published by Zondervan (an inspirational imprint of Harpercollins), my curiosity was piqued. Wendy catnip. While I wouldn't say that curiosity killed the cat in this instance, this turned out to be a slog of a read.

Lydia Bancroft is a librarian, a gently born lady who has fallen on hard times after the death of her father.  The only hope of securing her future, and returning her mother to their former lifestyle, she must marry well.  She's on the verge of doing that (so she thinks), when she finds herself intrigued by a mysterious patron who frequents her reading room.

Sebastian Marks was born on the wrong side of the tracks, his mother a prostitute, his father unknown.  Through sheer grit and determination, Sebastian has become one of the most feared men in Chicago, owner a notorious gambling hall / bar.  A big deal is made over the fact that he doesn't deal in women however, so like he's totally OK.  Anyway, he's smitten with Lydia from afar, knowing she's way too good for him.  However, when he spies her odious fiance' man-handling her in a hotel dining room, he swoops in to save the day.  Her engagement now kaput, her mother positively apoplectic, Lydia and Sebastian become friends.  That is until a shocking murder and Sebastian's over stimulated sense of self pity rear their ugly heads.

From a marketing standpoint this book is endlessly intriguing.  Technically it's an inspirational.  I guess.  Sort of.  But honestly?  Outside of a few mentions of scripture and prayer this easily could be marketed as simply a "gentle romance" and it would have been fine.  Also, while the sensuality of this story is very G-rated, I'll admit that I'm surprised I haven't seen more fire and brimstone reviews for this one.  Sebastian is a club owner.  He makes his living off of gambling and liquor.  Yes, he doesn't deal in prostitutes (minor detail), but gambling is illegal.  There's mention of bribing cops.  And, let me repeat, THIS IS AN INSPIRATIONAL.  Now obviously, I don't have a problem with this per se. I wouldn't consider faith to be a big driving theme in this story.  It's there, but it's a light touch.  The whole thing is such a dichotomy that even as I grew frustrated with the story I kept circling back around to this point.  For an inspirational the plot points of the hero's background sure are risky.

So where does it go wrong?  One word: Lydia.  Good Lord is this girl clueless.  Naive doesn't begin to cover it.  To make matters worse the author keeps trying to sell the fact that she's "so smart" because she's a librarian and reads a lot.  Well for someone who supposedly reads a lot (including Chicago newspapers) she sure is as dumb as a post when it comes to "the real world."  Normally I would say this fits the time period and her character.  She is a gently born lady after all and gently born ladies weren't expected to know much of anything that didn't involve needlepoint and playing the piano.  But Lydia has fallen from grace.  She's having to pawn family possessions to keep a roof (a ramshackle townhouse) over her head.  Her mother puts the B in bitter.  She's working for a living.  To have her still be so naive is just annoying.  To put it bluntly, if you dumped Lydia in the middle of the woods, all alone, she'd curl up into a little ball and be dead within 30 minutes.

In contrast, Sebastian is all wounded hero with a dark past which means, brace yourself, the romance here is Grade A, 100% Pure Rescue Fantasy.  Lydia is the precious snowflake who cannot get her hands dirty and Sebastian is the hero determined to keep her in a gilded cage all while pulling a Pullman car's worth of self-pity behind him.  And while Lydia has a nice moment of railing against Sebastian when he behaves like a jackass in the end, he does very little work to win her back and repent for his idiocy.  I pretty much wanted these two shot dead by a gang of ruffians by the time it was all said and done.

This is marketed as the third book in the Chicago World's Fair Mysteries series.  It stands alone extremely well, although this is much more a romance than a mystery - with the shocking murder not occurring until the final third of the book.  Even then the identity of the whodunit wasn't exactly much of a mental stretch.

I liked Gray's writing style and thought she handled the historical settings and details well, but nothing else about this story moved me.  If anything I was surprisingly close to DNF'ing it because I was so sick of Lydia's naivete and Sebastian's overbearing attitude, but persevered because I was that close to the finish.  Were there intriguing risky elements?  Certainly.  But at the end of the day this Rescue Fantasy romance with a helpless heroine and an overbearing hero protecting her (constantly) meant it read very old-fashioned.  Oh, what might have been.

Final Grade = C-