Friday, January 13, 2017

Reminder: #TBRChallenge for January 2017

For those of you participating in the 2017 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, January 18.  This month's theme is We Love Short Shorts! (category romance, short stories, novella etc.)

The traditional theme for January, it's my way of easing us into the Challenge and to allow newcomers (welcome!) a chance to get their feet wet.  A long neglected Harlequin, that novella you downloaded for free to your Kindle, an anthology of short stories - think short!  But what if you abhor short reads?  Hey, no problem!  Remember: the themes are optional!  If you don't want to read something short, you don't have to.  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!)

Monday, January 9, 2017

Reading Year in Review 2016: #TBRChallenge

2016 marked the 5th anniversary of me taking over hosting duties for the #TBRChallenge and it was....well, it wasn't a very strong year for me Challenge-wise.  While the year started out pretty great (two A grades!), the second half the year was a quagmire of Meh It's OK, I Suppose C Grades.  It also marked the first time in my five years of hosting that I missed a month.

What does this mean going forward with the 2017 #TBRChallenge?  This year, I mean it!  I really need to DNF more books out of my TBR.  Why am I slogging my way through Meh, C Reads when there are undoubtedly hidden gems awaiting me?  Also, I really need to stop procrastinating.  I could DNF more if I didn't wait until the last minute to pick a book, read said book, and write the dang review.

Anyway, that's the plan. Let's see how long my good intentions last.  In the meantime, let's relive what I read for the 2016 #TBRChallenge:

January - Theme: We Love Short Shorts!

  • I started off the New Year right, DNF'ing my original pick (a Harlequin Romance that wasn't working for me) in favor of Curveball by Charlotte Stein - an erotic romance novella that totally blew up my skirt. Grade = A-

February - Theme: Series Catch-Up

  • I read the first book in the trilogy as part of the 2014 TBR Challenge, so it seemed fitting to read book two, A Man Worth Keeping by Molly O'Keefe for 2016's Challenge.  Unfortunately, while I loved the continuing on-going family Drama Llama, the romance wasn't nearly as convincing.  Grade = C+

March - Theme: Recommended Read

  • A KristieJ favorite, I finally dug out The Way Home by Megan Chance.  This historical western was amazing.  I inhaled this almost 500-page book in a mere two days and only came up for air because of The Day Job.  Darn working for a living!  Grade = A

April - Theme: Contemporary

  • A completely forgettable erotic romance, My Prerogative by Sasha White.  So forgettable that it's probably a good thing I reviewed it should I ever need to dredge up details in the future. Grade = C-

May - Theme: Something Different

  • I dug one of the few YA romances I had in my TBR for this month, Dirty Little Secret by Jennifer Echols.  I loved (LOVED!!!) the Nashville, country music scene world building and the heroine.  Was less enthralled by the romance and the hero. Grade = C+

June - Theme: Favorite Trope

  • So deep is my devotion to the Virgin Hero trope that I'll even read a Fake Country/Royalty book.  A Royal World Apart by Maisey Yates is a very solid book in her Harlequin Presents output.  Grade = B

July - Theme: Award Nominee or Winner

  • The month I skipped.  Because I suck.  Part of the blame was the RWA Conference, the other part was that work was nutso insane for me in July.

August - Theme: Kicking It Old School

  • I love, love, love Jessica Hart's Harlequin Romances, which is how I had No Mistaking Love (1993) in my TBR.  While the writing was pure Hart (loved it!), and I really liked the heroine - the hero was pure Throwback Alphahole.  Grade = D+

September - Theme: Random Pick

  • Ever get thrown by the "tone" of a book?  That was me with The Cowboy Way by Anna Alexander.  It was like this weird hybrid of a Harlequin Western (formerly American line) and an erotic romance.  It was just....odd.  Grade = C-

October - Theme: Paranormal or Romantic Suspense

  • It's a sad tale of woe when a book starts out great and fizzles at the finish line.  Agent Bride by Beverly Long had a compelling suspense thread that died at the end and a romance that never really got off the ground. But it made for great airplane reading.  Grade = C

November - Theme: Historical

December - Theme: Holiday

  • We wish you a very meh Christmas.  Come Home for Christmas by Pat Pritchard was a serviceable read, but with no deep dive into the characters' internal baggage and the tortoise-like pace of the romance this one never registered above OK for me.  Grade = C
Kids, that leaves Auntie Wendy with 2 A's, 1 B, 6 (!) C's and 2 D's.  Excuse me while I go put my head in the oven.  No seriously, this is totally why I need to stop procrastinating and DNF more!  All those C's are totally unacceptable - and only ONE B?!  Ugh.

Anyway, there is always 2017.  I vow I will try and do better.  And hey, why not join in on the fun? It's not too late to sign-up for the 2017 TBR Challenge!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Reading Year in Review 2016: The Numbers, The Best, The Honorable Mentions

My perception of my reading year that was 2016 is that it was fairly dismal.  Very few books seemed to engage me to the point of Stay Up All Night To Read, Go To Work a Zombie the Next Day.  It took me weeks to finish some titles, and very little seemed to excite me.  But perception, it's a funny thing.  When I took a look at my GoodReads account (which is how I track all my reading these days) - outside of my A grades taking a nose dive from the previous year (I read 10 A graded books in 2015!), the numbers were really consistent from years past.

My goal every year is to read 100 books, and for the second year in a row - I fell short, stumbling over the finish line at 81 books.

A Grades = 4
B Grades (includes high B-) = 29
C Grades (includes low B-) = 30
D Grades = 7
DNF/Unrated = 10 DNFs, 1 Unrated
Audio Books = 33 

Thanks to a long commute and my desire to stay away from inane DJ/radio chatter as much as humanly possible - audio books made up nearly 41% of my total reading in 2016. 

Yeah, yeah - numbers blah, blah, blah.  What about the good stuff, Wendy?  What books did you love in 2016?  So glad you asked!  Here are the highlights:

Author Of The Year: Simone St. James

I have never, in all my years of blogging, named an "Author of the Year."  So why am I doing it for 2016?  Because I literally tore through St. James entire backlist (only 5 books, but still!) thanks to the wonders of audio (all quite good - produced by Blackstone Audio) and they all fell within my B Grade range.  Keeping that in mind (they were all B's! they were all good!), here they are in my order of favorite to not-as-favorite:

Silence for the Dead (2014) - Desperate heroine falsifies a nursing background to take a job at a remote hospital that treats World War I veterans with "shell shock."  A former private estate, the hospital has a dark history that is haunting the dreams of the patients.

The Other Side of Midnight (2015) - Medium heroine is called to investigate the murder of a famous psychic, and former friend, and is reunited with the man who discredited her own abilities.

The Haunting of Maddy Clare (2012) - Heroine working as a temp hires on with a ghost hunter to investigate the ghost of a young woman terrorizing a small English village.

An Inquiry Into Love and Death (2013) - Modern heroine (she's a college student!) finds herself traveling to a remote English village after her uncle dies to settle his affairs.  Turns out he was a ghost hunter and there are strange doings afoot.

Lost Among the Living (2016) - After her husband is killed in World War I, the heroine goes to work for his aunt as a paid companion and soon learns there was much about her husband that she never knew.

The Best of the Best (The A Grades)

Sawbones by Melissa Lenhardt (2016) was marketed as historical fiction, but features a very strong romance.  Doctor heroine is accused of murdering the husband of one of her society lady patients, and circumstances determine the best course of action is to flee - which she does, heading west and ultimately landing in a remote Army outpost in Colorado.  It's there she falls in love with a handsome Army captain and her past catches up to her.  Caveats being: it doesn't stand alone (book two is due out in May 2017), there's some ugly history, and quite a bit of violence (secondary characters die, there's a brutal Indian raid scene, and there's a rape - so....yeah.)  But this book riveted me in a way no other book did in 2016 and the romance totally blew up my skirt.

I dug out Curveball by Charlotte Stein (2013) for the TBR Challenge and this erotic romance novella (roughly 85 pages) was just what the doctor ordered.  Plump "nobody" heroine finds herself in the cross-hairs of her brother's loud, boisterous BFF - a more mismatched pair you'll never meet.  The anticipation in this story, the passion - it was light years ahead of any other erotic romance I read last year.  

2016 will likely go down as The Year of the Gothic for me (see: Simone St. James) as I also took time to reacquaint myself with some Barbara Michaels.  I started with Be Buried in the Rain (1985) only remembering that "I really liked it" when I first read it some 25+ years ago.  This one is still a gem.  Heroine returns to the crumbling family plantation to care for her sour, ailing grandmother and is reunited with a former lover, conducting an archaeological dig on her family's land.  Great atmosphere, compelling mystery, an independent heroine and a strong romance.

The Way Home by Megan Chance (1997) was another book I dug out thanks to the TBR Challenge and this historical western knocked my socks off.  After the travelling gambler who got her pregnant refuses to marry her, the heroine instead marries his quiet, shy brother - and that's when the romance begins.  Heartbreaking, emotional, satisfying on so many levels.

Honorable Mentions, or The Best of the Rest

The Bourbon Kings by J.R. Ward (2015) is the first book in a series about a family that made their fortune in Kentucky bourbon.  To be honest, this one didn't work one whit for me as a romance but boy howdy - it's everything I have ever wanted in a unrepentant, trashy soap opera.   Double-dealing, back-stabbing, and more skeletons in closets than you can shake a femur at.  This is Grade A Beach Read material all the way.

Playing with Fire by Tess Gerritsen (2015) is a stand-alone time slip thriller, with part of the story taking place in World War II era Italy, and the other in present day Boston.  When the violinist heroine fears her toddler daughter has become possessed by a piece of music she brought home from a work trip to Italy, she sets out to uncover the story behind the manuscript.  Quiet, haunting, and heartbreaking.

The Blacksmith's Wife
by Elisabeth Hobbes (2016) features a heroine with designs to marry a handsome traveling knight but settles for his blacksmith half-brother instead.  I'm not going to lie, the lack of communication between the couple did wear me down a bit by the end, but there was a great feel for the medieval time period, a wonderfully yummy hero and a heroine forced to face the reality of her limited options. 

All I Am by Nicole Helm (2016) features a socially awkward wounded warrior hero and a party girl heroine aimlessly drifting through her life.  I'm a sucker for virgin hero and "bad girl" heroine pairings in romances, and Helm has written a charming one.  

And those were my highlights in reading for 2016.  It wasn't the best reading year on record for me, and I struggled to find my mojo all year long, but there were still plenty of highlights to be found. Now it's onward and upward into 2017.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Review: Cowboy Creek Christmas
2016 was not the greatest reading year for me - look no further than the last couple of reviews posted on this blog.  So I decided to finish up the year I was going to call in The Big GunsCheryl St. John is my go-to "comfort read author" and I've enjoyed stories by Sherri Shackelford in the past - so Cowboy Creek Christmas had a leg up on most of my TBR pile right out the gate.  Final verdict?  While not without charm, I didn't love this.  I might have to officially declare myself broken.

Mistletoe Reunion by Cheryl St. John kicks things off with a reunited romance.  Marlys Boyd has moved to Cowboy Creek, Kansas to set up her own medical practice - but it's been a challenge.  Not only is she a woman doctor in an era when all female doctors were suspect - she practices, for that time period, alternative medicine.  Herbal remedies instead of bleeding an already sick patient, for example.  She decides that advertising in the local newspaper would be a smart way to drum up some business, but gets a shock when she meets the editor.  It's Sam Mason, the former fiancĂ© she threw over in order to attend medical school.

After the busted engagement, Sam married another and had a son, August.  When his wife died in childbirth, Sam left the boy with his mother to raise while he was off fighting in the Civil War.  He later wrote about his experiences in a well-received book, which has led him to Cowboy Creek to start his own newspaper.  He feels no ill-will towards Marlys, but is still flabbergasted all the same when he finds out she's the new lady doctor everyone's been talking about.

I'll be blunt: St. John writes Competence Porn.  And in a genre that can sometimes fall down the Oh Come On Now Too Stupid To Live Rabbit Hole, her gentle romances featuring exceedingly practical characters can read like a breath of fresh air.  Marlys is calm, efficient, and very good at her job.  Sam's masculine pride took a hit when Marlys broke off their engagement, but over the course of the story, he understands why she did it.  Asking her to not be a doctor would be like asking her to stop breathing.  He didn't entirely understand it then, but he "gets" it now that they've been reunited.  These are characters who think things through, don't make rash decisions, but given their past history (Marlys dumping him once before, the fact that "most men" would demand a woman stop working upon marriage etc.) makes things complicated.

Where this story failed to engage me was in the execution - which honestly could be chalked up to a It's Me, Not You thing.  This is a "return" to Cowboy Creek.  There were three books before this one, so St. John's story is filled with many past couples and characters.  I wanted much more focus on the Marlys and Sam reunion and didn't really give a flying hoot about the past couples.  But for readers who have read the other books in the series?  They probably won't mind and will love the homey, holiday sweetness of the setting.  In many, many ways this read a lot like a small town contemporary to me.  Just, you know, set in post-Civil War Kansas.

Grade = B-

I fell right into Mistletoe Bride by Sherri Shackelford and barely came up for air while reading it.  Beatrix Haas had the misfortune of getting pregnant by a man who claimed to love her, but threw her over for another woman.  Now disowned by her domineering father, and her older sisters unwilling to go against their own husbands to take her in - her minister in Austria arranges for her to marry his distant cousin in Cowboy Creek.  She's in labor when she arrives in Kansas and there are immediate complications.  The midwife calls for town blacksmith Colton Werner, the only person close by who understands German.  Beatrix speaks some English, but in her delirium she has slipped into her native tongue.  When she finds out her intended, the former town sheriff, is dead and that her baby will be born a bastard, she's frantic.  Driven by her plight, and his own guilt, Colton tells the dying woman he'll marry her on the spot.  Which he does.  The pastor shows up and they exchange vows before the baby boy makes his appearance.

So we all know what happens next.  Beatrix miraculously survives and now Colton has a wife and child.  He's got a haunted past and she's carrying the baggage of her family estrangement.  It's a gentle, sweet romance between two people who don't think they're "good enough."  I also liked that Shackelford doesn't gloss over anti-immigrant sentiment, and in fact the Austrian Beatrix has some trouble with a prominent German family thanks to lingering hostilities stemming from the Austro-Prussian War (seriously, when was the last time you read that in a romance?)

Unfortunately it all gets a bit rushed at the end.  There's a turn of events with Beatrix's father that felt tacked on to me - and the bit with the German family comes to a rushed conclusion that I'm not sure I totally buy.  But the romance itself was very nice and I enjoyed these characters.  Also, yippee - blacksmith hero!

Grade = B-

These stories are cozy holiday reads featuring inspirational themes somewhere in the mid-range level of my own personal God Stuff scale (not overly preachy, but expect a fair amount of Christian talk/faith observance/themes).  I feel like both of these authors have written more compelling stories, but these aren't "bad" by any stretch of the imagination and if you've enjoyed the Cowboy Creek series up to this point, this book will likely be a surefire winner.

Final Grade = B-

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

#TBRChallenge 2016: Come Home for Christmas
The Book: Come Home for Christmas by Pat Pritchard

The Particulars: Historical western romance, Kensington Zebra, 2005, Out of Print, Not Available in Digital.  Pritchard also writes under the name Alexis Morgan, which is her more active pseudonym these days.  Some of her other Zebra westerns have been published in digital (after rights reverted back), but this one isn't one of them (yet).

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?:  It's a Christmas book and it's a historical western.  Of course it was in my TBR.

The Review: And yet another book for this year's TBR Challenge that I should have DNF'ed.  Not that this was bad.  It's not bad.  I've read worse.  Believe me.  No, I was just indifferent.  And I'm not sure if this is the fault of the book, the changes we've seen in the genre over the past 5 years (ALL THE FEELS!!!), or just the general reading funk I've been in for most of 2016.  It's probably a combination.  Just toss it all in the blender.

Jed Stark is a US Marshal tracking down a teenage horse thief.  However once he catches up with the boy (who has been slippery), he starts to suspect something rotten.  The boy claims the horse (a prize stallion) belonged to his grandfather, that the man accusing him of stealing the horse didn't "buy" the horse from his grandfather - but stole him then shot the old guy for his trouble.  Oh, and the town sheriff is in on it.  Doesn't help matters that the boy, Hawk, is part-Native.  Jed doesn't have the stomach to drag the boy to the hangman's noose, especially since his story sounds all too credible.  So while he gets it sorted out, he takes Hawk to the Johanson farm.  Over the years, the Johansons took in a lot of orphans, including Jed, who they thought of like a son.  But Jed left as soon as he was able, mostly because he knew he'd never be good enough for the likes of their daughter, Sadie.

When Jed left six years ago it broke Sadie's heart.  Her mother now gone, that leaves only her father - who according to the doctor is quite sick and isn't long for this world.  Now Jed is suddenly back, after all this time, to leave them Hawk, while he hits the trail again to sort out the mess.  But not before Sadie makes him promise to come back and visit regularly.  Her father is dying - slowly, but still dying.  Having Jed visit gives the old man something to look forward to.  However can Sadie's heart stand more of Jed's coming and going?

Hawk's troubles are dispatched of in short order, which leaves most of this book dealing with Jed leaving, coming back, helping with the harvest, leaving again, and then finally settling down to give Sadie her happy ending.  The conflict, such as it is, is the standard I Had a Horrible Childhood and I'm Not Good Enough for the Likes of Her.  Nothing wrong with this (even if we've all read it a billion times) - but Jed's past is never dealt with in a manner that's more than cursory.  It's hard to understand why he feels like he's not good enough for her if the author only turns over a couple tiny rocks and ignores the huge honkin' boulders where the bogeymen are lurking.  It all comes off as nothing more than Jed's stupid manly pride standing in the way.  Especially when it takes Ole, Hawk and Jed's marshal buddy, Bart, to basically tell him what a jackass he's being.  Heroes generally need one secondary character to tell them they're being idiots, but Jed needs three?!  It makes him come off as whiny and tiresome (Oh boo hoo! I'm not good enough for her!)

Without a deep dive into Jed's internal struggle, this book felt too long at 350 pages (it would have worked loads better as a Harlequin Historical).  I'm not sure if it's because the genre has gone so instant gratification in recent years (More Drama! More Feels! And All in 150 Pages!!!!), or I'm just an old cranky fusspot.  Probably a little of both.

That all being said, the world-building here is quite good.  I could see Johanson farm.  This isn't an inspirational, but the author gives her characters a sense of faith - which many pioneer families had in the 19th century even though it's an aspect that gets glossed over a lot in secular historical romance - and, wait for it, they're immigrants.  Sadie's parents are Ole and Olga Johanson.  They're farmers.  The history behind this historical romance is quite good and Pritchard weaves it all in without beating the reader over the head with The Research Stick.

This is a tortoise romance.  While a lot of today's romance is all racing ahead like a hare hopped up on meth, this is the slow and steady style of romance that will occasionally win the race.  Ultimately this didn't win for me because I wanted to go deeper into the internal conflict, but it's a quiet read that sometimes, as a reader, you need.  Damning with faint praise, but we could all do worse.

Final Grade = C

Monday, December 19, 2016

Review: Wendy's War On Christmas
I made a promise to myself at the start of 2016 that I would give myself permission to DNF more - and that includes ARCs. A Christmas Seduction by Daire St. Denis is only the 10th book I’ve DNF’ed this year, which goes to show that I’m terrible with resolutions. And I almost didn’t give up on this. It is, after all, a category romance, and I’ve never been all that good with DNF’ing category (hey, it’s only 200 pages - why not just finish it and see if it gets better?). But at the 18% mark I came to the realization that I wanted to throat punch the couple - so yeah, DNF I did.

Jolie Duval is a journalist who, instead of spending the holidays with her family, has decided to celebrate Christmas at a remote Montana ranch. There she meets hunky handyman Thaddeus Knight and she gets a hankering to unwrap him for holidays.

A pretty standard set-up, so where does it go wrong? Thad gets off on the wrong foot right away when, after driving for an hour in terrible conditions, Jolie arrives at the ranch to be greeted by his three dogs. Dogs that go running up to strangers and proceed to jump all over them (one of the dogs is named “Humper” so that should give you an idea). Jolie is terrified of dogs (we find out later she was bit by one as a child) and that’s enough for Thad to jump to all sorts of conclusions.
Four things tipped him off to her city-girl status. Her designer clothes, her designer bag, her ridiculous footwear and her fear of animals.

OK. Look. First off - lots of folks don’t care for dogs. Especially dogs that jackass heroes fail to train properly. Also living in the city does not equate to “fear of animals.” Lots of folks who live in urban areas have pets. Heck, I’ve lived in urban areas where people are allowed to keep their own dang chickens. And what, people who live in rural areas can’t wear designer clothes? Hello?! Online shopping, anyone?!?! 

Then there’s Jolie - who is the sort of brain-dead ninny who spies a hot tub at the ranch, a hot tub that is not private and in a public area and even though she didn’t pack a swimsuit hey, why not just strip down nekkid and hop right in. I mean, seriously Wendy - how else do you expect the hero to spy her hot nekkid-ness and go all warm for her form? /end sarcasm.

Then there’s the small matter of why Jolie is spending the holidays by herself, which was enough for me to roll my eyes so far back in my head I think they got stuck like that for about 5 minutes:
As theirs was an atheist household, Jolie’s parents did not approve of using the word Christmas. Instead they called it “the holiday,” “the twenty-fifth” - anything but “Christmas.”
So we’re just going to ignore the fact that early church leaders melded the story of Jesus’ nativity with existing pagan winter holidays and traditions (look it up). Brain-bleed inducing “War on Christmas” aside - winter holidays are not the exclusive domain of Christianity. Many other religions celebrate this time of year. Atheists celebrate this time of year. For many people it’s an opportunity to be with family and friends, reflect on the year soon to be past, and count our blessings. And what are Jolie’s Satanist parents doing when she calls to deliver the news she won’t be home for the holiday? They’re planning a family dinner. SHOCK! HORROR!

Since the heroine doesn't want to spend time with them, and their atheism is specifically called out as the reason "why" - what does this imply, exactly?  That somehow not believing in some way makes you an "undesirable" person whose own daughter doesn't want to be around you.  Seriously.  This is romance.  This is the best reason the author could come up with?  What happened to the old stand-by of Mom is judgemental and keeps pressuring the heroine to get married and pop out grandbabies?

Which brings us to the moment when Jolie begins her “real Christmas” adventures. Does she crack open a Bible? Does she find out where the nearest church is? No. Her, Thad, and the other guests go out to cut down a Christmas tree. Because, you know, Christmas trees featuring so prominently in the story of Jesus’s birth. Right after Mary laid that baby in the manger her and Joseph started stringing up tinsel in the animal stalls. (Grab your hip boots folks, the sarcasm is getting deep around here!).

And that was enough for me. I disliked Thad, his stupid assumptions and his dumb-as-bricks untrained dogs. I hated the assumption that unless you’re Christian that somehow the holiday season can have zero meaning to a person. My Kindle overfloweth so...

Final Grade = DNF

Friday, December 16, 2016

#TBRChallenge 2016: December Reminder

For those of you participating in the 2016 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, December 21.  This month's theme is Holiday! 

Any holiday.  Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving, New Year's - but let's be honest.  This month's theme is because Wendy likes Christmas books and I'm the hostess and choose to make everyone else suffer.  But all hope is not lost Christmas romance Scrooges!  Remember: the themes are optional!  If you don't want to read a holiday book, you don't have to.  The ultimate 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 2016 Information Page

This month concludes the 2016 TBR Challenge!  I want to thank everyone for participating and following along.  And it's not too late to sign-up for the 2017 Challenge!  You can do so, and learn more about it, here.