Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Mini-Reviews: Biographies, Famous and Infamous
Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses, and Liberation of Joan Rivers by Leslie Bennetts is something I picked up after reading an interview (somewhere Day Job-related) by the author.  Bennetts basically said that she had previously resisted biography writing because she couldn't imagine spending "that much time with one person and not getting bored" (paraphrasing).  But she changed her mind with Joan Rivers - mostly because Rivers is so contradictory how could you possibly get bored?  On one hand here's a woman who was a feminist and comic trailblazer who skewered societal norms and expectations placed on women.  On the other hand?  Rivers was extremely traditional, lambasted women who didn't bend to those societal norms, and made a name for herself with biting "comedy" that often times tore down other women.  So....yeah.  Contradictory.

Bennetts did her research - reading Rivers' books, interviewing friends and colleagues, and I found this to be a very even handed biography.  Other reviews I've read feel that Bennetts "trashed" Joan (and daughter Melissa) - but honestly?  I didn't see that.  Does Bennetts gloss over Joan's warts?  No.  But she also heaps on praise when it's due, and Rivers - for all her faults - had a pretty extraordinary life.

I'm neither a big Rivers fan nor do I loathe her - and this book didn't tip me further into one camp or the other.  But I did walk away fascinated by her story and with a newfound admiration.  Love her, hate her, there's no denying she was a force of nature.

Final Grade = B+ (very good on audio)
Let's be honest: outside of diehard fans, the only reasons one wants to read Every Little Step: My Story by Bobby Brown (w/Nick Chiles) is for 1) the trainwreck and 2) Whitney.  Which is mostly why I read it - but also because I think a lot of scorn was heaped on Bobby and not always "fairly."  I think we all can see now, in hindsight, that Whitney was not the Princess Good Girl Next Door that her handlers wanted the public to think she was.  But was Bobby the bogeyman who "corrupted" America's Sweetheart?  Hardly.  They were terrible for each other - in only the way two drug addicts can be terrible for each other - but casting Bobby in a villainous role against Whitney's sweetheart image stopped working a long time ago (if it even worked to begin with...)

The book opens with Brown's childhood in the Boston projects and ends with the death of his daughter, Bobbi Kristina.  Brown is fairly candid and willingly admits his mistakes.  However, he also throws quite a bit of shade towards the Houston clan - some of it warranted, in my opinion.  Again, hindsight being what it is.  People who paint Bobby has the villain will likely be unmoved, but when it comes to Whitney's problems, and later Bobbi Kristina's issues - I think there's plenty of what-ifs and blame that can be tossed around and it shouldn't all be landing at Bobby's feet.

I do think Brown probably could have devoted more time to the New Edition years, and those relationships, especially given that NE hit it big when Brown was only 14.  I felt like there was stuff left unsaid during those chapters, which may disappoint hardcore NE fans who pick up this book for that reason.

A note about the audiobook: avoid it.  Brown reads it and he's pretty terrible. It's like listening to a kid read out loud. He's past the "sounding out words" phase, but he stumbles, halts, and skips over pesky punctuation like commas and periods.  Look - some people just aren't good at "reading out loud."  Plus, between Brown's documented health issues, years of drug abuse, and his spotty formal education - it's no wonder he doesn't sound like James Earl Jones.  When the narrative gets more "conversational," he does better - and it's obvious he's not stupid - he's just not a good reader.  Note to publishers: when it comes to biographies we don't always need the author/subject to read the audio version.  We really don't.

Final Grade = C+

Monday, November 28, 2016

Mini-Reviews: Those Wacky Victorians
I saw a review for Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners by Therese ONeill mentioned somewhere Day Job-related.  Anyway, this looked fun and funny and it is - although admittedly I lost steam with it in the final 100 pages.

Basically this book covers all the stuff that historical romance writers tend to leave out.  You know - the pesky, troublesome reality because whoa doggie it's not easy to being a woman in the 21st century let alone the 19th.  This book covers everything from dressing, bathroom habits, menstruation (you're doing it wrong), diet, beauty, landing a man, keeping a man, and public behavior (um, just don't go out in public).  Outside of a snarky comment about "trashy romance novels" (ugh) - it's quite funny in parts.  I also realized an important fact about all the historical romance heroines I've read about over the years.  According to the proper Victorian decorum detailed in this book?

They're all whores.  Seriously.  Whores.

As funny as I found this (in parts) - my interest waned around the halfway point.  It was a very easy book for me to set down and not pick up for days (admittedly I'm in the midst of the longest reading slump on record).  It's the sort of book that (I think) works best to be kept on your nightstand, where you can casually read one chapter at a time when the mood strikes you.  But take this with a grain of salt (remember: Wendy's Slump From Hell).  For historical romance authors this may be a decent addition to your research library but it's not going to take the place of your more scholarly tomes.  This is more for "The Average Jane" sort of reader.  Nothing wrong with that, but I wouldn't throw out those primary sources if I were you.

Final Grade = Lord, I don't know.  It seems better than a C+.  Probably a B-.
Victoria: A Life by A.N. Wilson is something I stumbled across while browsing the downloadable audio offerings available at work.  The best way to describe this book?  Dense.  Also, probably not the best to listen to on audio since it's super easy to lose track of Victoria's eleventy-billion relations.  Google got a workout while I was listening to this.  Anyhoodle....

I'd only recommend this to hardcore Anglophiles, and even then this biography was not the greatest.  The author devoted over 600 pages of his time to writing about Victoria only to come off as rather dismissive of her.  The opinion of this book seems to be that Victoria would have been doomed without Albert (quite likely early on in her monarchy) and that she'd never have had a half-coherent political thought in her empty head without some man's wise council (be that Albert or one of the Prime Ministers she actually liked).
Outside of early chapters that talk about her childhood, this book is almost all politics.  What was Victoria like as a person?  Other than she was a terrible mother?  No idea. But if you want to know which European monarchs she was annoyed with, what Prime Ministers she swooned over and the ones she loathed - this is your book. 

I was hoping for more social history.  A "pulling back the curtain" kind of biography.  To be fair to the author, while Victoria kept copious journals, her children censored them heavily after she died.  So really - it's not entirely his fault. 

I do think this is a good research book.  If you're a historical author who needs something covering the political landscape of this period - you could do a lot worse.  Also, in hindsight, this book is fascinating in the details of the various family squabbles (and obstinate behavior) that descended the world into the destruction and chaos of World War I (and by extension....World War II).  But otherwise?  It's dense and slow and I was happy to finally be finished with it.

Final Grade = C-

Monday, November 21, 2016

Sign-Up Now: #TBRChallenge 2017

Sign-up now for your chance to participate in the 2017 TBR Challenge! 

What is the TBR Challenge?  Once a month participants pull a long-neglected book out of their TBR (To-Be-Read) piles, read it, and provide "commentary" on that book on the 3rd Wednesday of the month.

Commentary on your chosen read can happen anywhere online: your blog, Facebook, Twitter, GoodReads etc.  Hashtag = #TBRChallenge

Frequently Asked Questions:

1) Dear Lord, you're going to make us do homework?  Yes.  Honestly, it's fun.  For participants of the challenge (and those who just follow along), the 3rd Wednesday of the month is a guarantee day of "book talk."  And, you know, older books - not the latest, greatest thing that's been promo'd half to death the past several weeks.

2) Dear Lord, you have themes?!  Yes.  I took over hosting this challenge in 2011 and the idea of themes came with it.  Some participants like the themes (which I try to keep broad) to help them focus when faced with the insurmountable crush of their TBRs.  However, the themes are optional!  The goal of this challenge is to read something (anything!) out of your TBR.  If you don't like the theme(s) - don't follow it.

3) So do I win anything if I complete the challenge?  Yes. Personal satisfaction.  I like to keep this challenge stress-free, so if you skip a month, post your commentary late (or early), go off theme etc. - the TBR Police will not be showing up at your door.

Great!  How do I sign up?

1) Leave a comment on this blog post, e-mail me or hit me up on Twitter.  I need whatever name you post under and a link to where you'll be posting your commentary.  So, for example: Wendy, The Misadventures of Super Librarian.  I will include your name and link on this dedicated page for the challenge so folks can follow along.

Commentary "due dates" and themes for next year are below:

January 18 - We Love Short Shorts! (category romance, short stories, novella etc.)
February 15 - New-To-You Author
March 15 - Comfort Read (Favorite Author? Favorite Trope? Favorite Sub Genre?)
April 19 - Contemporary
May 17 - Something Different (outside your comfort zone, unusual setting, non-romance etc.)
June 21 - Favorite Trope (a favorite theme - amnesia? secret baby? fairy tale? friends-to-lovers? etc.)
July 19 - Series Catch-Up (a book from a series you're behind on)
August 16 - Kicking It Old School (publication date 10 years or older)
September 20 - Historical
October 18 - Paranormal or Romantic Suspense
November 15 - Recommended Read (a book recommended to you by someone)
December 20 - Holiday Themes

It really is a lot of fun, plus a handy way to delude yourself into thinking that you're making progress on your TBR pile. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

#TBRChallenge 2016: A Scandalous Situation
The Book: A Scandalous Situation by Patricia Frances Rowell

The Particulars: Historical Regency romance, Harlequin Historical #716, 2004, Out of Print, Available in digital, #3 in Earth, Air, Fire, Water series.

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?:  One of my colleagues at The Romance Reader gave this a 5-Heart rating back in 2004 (A Grade) and it sounded suitably angsty. 

Trigger Warning: Heroine is a survivor of a sexual a group of masked men.

The Review: I'm not sure how a book can be boring and a hot mess at the same time - but somehow this book achieved it.  It's exactly the sort of book I should have DNF'ed but (once again) waiting until the last minute to read my Challenge book for this month meant little time for alternatives.  But hey, it's done with now and at least it's out of the TBR, right? 

On the cusp of her coming out, Iantha Kethley's carriage is held up on the road to London.  As one would expect, the assault has a lasting effect on her to the point where close quarters terrify her, a touch from anyone (male, female, her own mother) sends her skittering across rooms, and being out in polite society?  Ha ha ha!  It is to laugh.  She can tolerate the company of children - but once young boys grow into men, forget it.  It's in one of those moments of claustrophobia that she finds herself out painting, only to get caught in a snow storm.  Coming to her aid is Robert "Rob" Armstrong, a local baron just returned from India.  Iantha's response is to pull a pistol on him.

Rob convinces her that she can trust him, and there's nothing for it - the storm is bad.  They go back to his rundown estate/castle/whatever and must weather the storm for a couple of days.  When he finally is able to return her to her parents' home?  He naturally asks her father for her hand.  That's when Rob learns of Iantha's assault and the fact that six years later she receives threatening, gloating letters about the assault.  Of which Bow Street has been unable to get to the bottom of.

The problems with this story are immediate in that the author drops the reader right in the middle of the action with no character development to speak of.  One hopes in these instances that backtracking in the narrative and layering will give readers a more nuanced view of the characters and fully flesh them out.  Here?  Yeah, no.  Doesn't happen.  Iantha is the heroine with a tragic past, Rob is...a nice guy who lost his wife and child in India to a fever/illness.  And that's all I got.

The tone of the plot is also all over the place.  This story not only includes the fact that Iantha was gang raped, but there's a murder at a house party (that people sure seem to get over mighty quick - I don't know, a guest is murdered in my house I think I'd harp on about it for a while...), espionage, and the fact that Iantha's rapists (or maybe just one of them?) is still out to get her.  Oh, and did I mention that Iantha also writes an advice column (a Regency Dear Abby) for a ladies' publication?  Seriously, I'm still trying to figure out why the heck that was thrown into the stew pot.  Then you have the requisite sex scenes where Rob is trying to coax his damaged wife through the ways of the marriage bed and...none of this hung together well at all.  It's all over the place.

Because of the thin character development, I found the plot ran towards tedious.  There are also problematic elements like the inclusion of an Indian Prince in Rob's household, a man immediately suspect when the house party guest is murdered because....well, he's a brown guy.  Frankly the only reason his character is in this story is to tell Iantha about Indian deities and "warrior women" and naturally all that leads to Iantha working past her fears and blah, blah, blah (I know I shouldn't blah, blah, blah a horrific sexual assault - but given the lack of character development?  I standby my blah, blah, blah).  I found the use of Indian culture and Hinduism as a prop for Iantha to work past her fears a bit insulting.  This isn't helped by the fact that once the Indian Prince serves that purpose?  He's dispatched from the story.

I'll be honest, I've been a foul mood for the past week - so it's entirely possibly that my foul mood could be coloring my reaction to this book.  I think it's the matter of me expecting more and not getting it.  There's probably a good story here - somewhere.  If, you know, there were character development and the plot wasn't so much of a hot mess. 

Is this the worst thing I've read?  Shockingly, no.  But it's also not very good.  I was indifferent to the point of flat-out not caring.  A sure sign that I should have DNF'ed.  As it stands:

Final Grade = D+

Friday, November 11, 2016

Reminder: #TBRChallenge for November 2016

For those of you participating in the 2016 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, November 16.  This month's theme is Historical! 

But what if you don't like historical romance (perish the thought!)?  Hey, no problem!  The themes are optional.  The goal is to read something, anything, out of your TBR.

You can find more information about the challenge (and see the list of participants) on the Information Page

Note: And for those of you wondering, yes I plan to continue the TBR Challenge for 2017.  More information hopefully coming soon.  You know, just as soon as I get my act together...

Monday, November 7, 2016

Review: A Christmas Vow of Seduction
It's interesting how reading tastes can change over time.  Harlequin Presents were not my jam when I first discovered romance.  I liked my romances to feature more of a "quiet intensity" and Presents, while intense as all get-out, are not quiet.  But these days I find that what Presents delivers is what I want to buy.  That intensity with just the right amount of angst and the older I get the more comforting I find fairy tales.  Maisey Yates is one of my go-to authors in this line precisely because she writes fairy tales.  But this one?  Yeah, this fairy tale was a little frayed around the edges.

Warning: Spoilers Ahoy!

A Christmas Vow of Seduction is the first book in a duet featuring two princes (brothers, naturally) of the fictional country Petras (vaguely Mediterranean).   Prince Andres is the spare and a notorious playboy.  He's rarely at the palace, choosing instead to reside in various penthouses around the globe.  He gambles.  He beds beautiful women. He leaves the pesky business of ruling and being respectable to his uptight brother, Kairos.

Kairos is trying to restore relations with Tirimia, a neighboring country that overthrew their monarchy in a coup.  The royal family was murdered - all except for Princess Zara.  She was six when rebels murdered her family, and a maid spirited her into the forest to be raised by gypsies (hey, I did say this was a fairy tale!).  Anyway, the rebels, now trying to be all "respectable government" find her and present her to Kairos as a "gift."  He's already married, he needs to open talks with Tirimia, and he can't send Zara back to her country.  So he figures it's high time his brother gets married.  Kairos is having no luck impregnating his wife (marriage in trouble alert!) and it's high time for Andres to grow up.

Andres doesn't want to marry Zara, no matter how beautiful or feisty she is - but he can't say no to Kairos.  Not this time.  Why?  Oh, there's the small matter that Andres got rip-roaring drunk, slept with Kairos' fiancee, thereby necessitating Kairos finding a new bride, the woman he's now locked in an unhappy marriage with.  So....yeah.  It's like that.

I will say one thing for this book, when Yates set her mind to writing a playboy ne'er-do-well hero, she didn't hold back.  However while I appreciated that, it also made Andres the most problematic aspect of this romance.  Naturally there are reasons why Andres is a manwhore.  Mommy didn't love him.  His father thought he was a screw-up.  He could never do anything right and finally when his mother finally concedes to bring Andres to an important event - he louses it up and Mommy leaves.  The only relationship he hadn't screwed up was with Kairos, but sick of waiting for the other shoe to drop, Andres decides to self-sabotage and sleep with his brother's fiancee.  Andres is a walking Poor Little Rich Boy wrapped up in First World Problems, and naturally his self-sabotaging ways come into play with Zara.

Zara is the truly interesting party in this romance, although the parts of her characterization never fully add up to a satisfying whole.
"I was born into royalty, in a position more vulnerable than I could ever have imagined when surrounded by stone walls of the palace.  Then I lost everyone and was taken away to the middle of the forest.  Then I was taken captive.  And now I have been delivered to you, to be your wife, and I have no choice, yet again.  Who am I? What am I to be? The pawn of whoever holds me in their hand at any given time?  I must be more than that, Andres.  I should like a chance to find out."
This is a heroine who won't go quietly.  She's very adversarial with Andres in the beginning (I should think! She's basically presented to Kairos like she is a fruit basket!) until, of course, she isn't.  There's an episode at an official function that ends with a frenzied sexual encounter and after that?  The sex temporarily declaws Zara. She's also one of those Romancelandia virgins who warrants acceptance into the Sexual Chapter of Mensa.

This would be where I started to get bored - until Andres falls back on bad habits.  Which would have been highly annoying if not for the fact that it allows Zara to open fire and not hold anything back.  The whole Boo Hoo Mommy Didn't Love Me nonsense?  Oh yeah, she totally calls him out. She calls him out on it all.  Andres isn't spared from any of Zara's wrath and it was glorious to read.  Simply, wonderfully, glorious.  Zara finds a backbone, makes a decision, and walks away.  She actually, truly, walks away.  And that's where I kind of wanted this to end.  Because Andres?  He's an emotional infant.  He's a child.  Zara honey, you can do better.

But alas, this is a romance.  So of course Andres has to win her back and of course he doesn't have to do too much other than show up and say "I love you" because Zara loves him and she's miserable without him and yada yada yada.

Other than a few stand-out moments, this one just never came together for me.  Andres is too problematic and the power dynamic between the couple is really (really) skewered (and frankly pretty icky for most of the story).   On the bright side, the author sets up a barn burner of a marriage in trouble story for brother Kairos that I really need to read soon given it's a New Year's Eve story.

Final Grade = C-

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Review: Black Diamond
Black Diamond by Susannah Sandlin was brought to my attention by a publicist.  Having never heard of the author before (she also writes urban fantasy as Suzanne Johnson), I took a chance on this in the hopes that falling back on suspense (the genre that hooked me on reading oh so many years ago now....) would help alleviate the year-plus long reading slump I've been in.  While this wasn't a perfect read for me (issues, I had them), this was successful enough for me that now I'm curious about keeping up with this series.

Jena Sinclair is back on the job as a Louisiana wildlife agent after recovering from gunshot wounds and a suicide attempt.  Needless to say, her colleagues are treating her with kid gloves and her clueless parents have ordered her kid brother to move in with her (but is Jackson there to keep an eye on Jena or vice versa?  Seriously, her parents are the worst).  She's also got a new partner, a young go-getter named Mac who talks too much and is a bit of a playboy.  It's while she and Mac are out on routine patrol that they find the body of a dead fisherman who lost a battle with one ticked off alligator.  Even more troubling?  This is just the latest body in a string of attacks.

Besides angry alligators using humans as hors d'oeuvres, their tiny parish has been overrun with a highly addictive synthetic drug called "black diamond" (think meth times 1000).  Jena's been ordered to stay away from the drug investigation and to stick with working the aggressive alligator problem - and that investigation leads to Cole Ryan.  A handsome recluse (for "reasons"), the last thing Cole wants to do is get involved - even if the first sight of Jena causes his heart to skip a beat.  But when the alligator "thing" literally washes up at his back door?  Get involved he does. 

Black Diamond is the second book in a series (followed by Wild Man's Curse) and for the most part stands alone well.  It's obvious that the author has already laid some ground work for these characters in the previous book, but she catches newcomers up to speed quickly and I felt like I wasn't missing anything by reading out of order.  The strength of this book was definitely in the characters.  In some ways it's like the author has built herself a "small town contemporary" romance with a wide array of cast members but instead of cutesy cupcake shops we get angry alligators and a fictional drug epidemic - which as far as romantic suspense goes I found quite inventive.  I like romantic suspense but even I can only read so many women in peril serial killer stories before I become bored.  This plot definitely kept me intrigued and invested.

What didn't work so well?  The romance and the execution of the writing.  The romance here is straight up Insta-Love.  Jena and Cole meet, the attraction is instant, and viola!  Where the author saves this from being a total disaster is that she doesn't cram in a bunch of ill-timed, out of place sex scenes (as far as sex, this book is pretty G-rated, although the violence and suspense content override that) and she ditches a Happy-Ever-After in favor of the much more believable (especially given the character baggage!) Happy-For-Now

As much as I liked the plot and the characters, the writing wasn't always entirely smooth for me.  There are some abrupt transitions between chapters and action scenes.  The author makes some choices to have some events take place "off page" that didn't make any sense to me.  Just two examples include Cole having to dig a bullet out of another character (and given Cole's traumatic past the fact that this scene didn't play out on page is just jaw-dropping), and a big ol' gunfight/showdown scene towards the end.  And there are more examples, but I wasn't taking notes and I literally lost track.  To confuse the issue, I'm not sure why these cuts were made.  While this is category length (around 260 pages), it's published by Amazon Montlake - so presumably word count wouldn't be a huge issue.  We're not talking scenes where Cole is taking a shower or Jena is eating a sandwich at her desk.  These are big moments to the narrative, to the suspense thread in particular, and to have them take place "off page" deflates a lot of that suspense. 

Ultimately what saves the day for me are the characters, the world-building and the inventiveness of the plot.  Unfortunately the execution detracts from those strengths leaving me totally confused about what my final grade of this book is going to be.  I was feeling generous and thinking B- until I got to the end and that big ol' gun battle, final showdown was literally left off page (grrrr!).  So, I'm copping out.  Hey, my blog my rules.

Final Grade = C+/B-