Wednesday, July 19, 2017

#TBRChallenge Review: A Reason To Sin
The Book: A Reason to Sin by Maureen McKade

The Particulars: Historical western romance, 2008, originally published by Berkley, out of print, self-published digital edition available, third book in trilogy

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: Besides the fact that it's a historical western (which is usually enough of a reason), the first book in this series, A Reason to Live, is one of my all-time favorites.  Seriously, drop your life and read it now.  I also liked the second book in the series, A Reason to Believe - which in hindsight I probably should have graded a B+.  So why has it taken me almost 10 years to read A Reason to Sin?  Well, after this one came out I saw some not-so-great reviews, and my friend Rosie (who doesn't blog anymore because she doesn't love me) was really underwhelmed by it.  So yeah.  It languished.

The Review: This is an instance where waiting nearly 10 years to read the final book in a trilogy was probably a good thing.  I think I'm going to be kinder to this book now than I would have had I read it so soon on the heels of the first two books in the series.  That said, even with all the time that has elapsed, this one still has major issues.  Had I read this one 9 years ago I likely would have set the book down disgusted.  Now though?  It's more of a "Meh, this should have been a lot better" reaction.

Rebecca Colfax is a gently born lady who has fallen far from grace.  After her parents died, this St. Louis Miss wed her husband, who gambled away all her money before he left town.  Adding insult to injury?  He left her before she realized she was pregnant.  With no other option, she leaves their son Daniel in an orphanage and hits the road to find Benjamin.  She's hoping that once he learns he's a father he'll do right by his family (ha ha ha ha ha!).  She somehow ends up in Oaktree, Kansas (this isn't really explained - did she just go there to find work or did she think Benjamin was there?) and quickly discovers that respectable employment is hard to come by.  She ends up at the Scarlet Garter saloon where she becomes a hurdy-gurdy girl, dancing with the clientele and singing a couple nights a week.  And, you know, if she wants to make extra money upstairs, the owner will look the other way.  But no.  Rebecca isn't that far gone just yet.

Slater Forrester is a faro and poker dealer at the Scarlet Garter, rescued as a boy when he tried to pick the owner's pocket.  Andrew instead taught Slater to gamble, and he parlayed that skill working for the Pinkertons as a Union spy during the War.  Naturally bad stuff happened (Andersonville) and now Slater no longer works for the Pinkertons and has a heaping helping of PTSD.  Rebecca is a complication he doesn't need or want, but they're both (naturally) attracted to each other and they're both keeping secrets.

The hallmark of this trilogy is definitely the complicated heroines.  Rebecca isn't always easy to like, but McKade makes you understand her character.  This is a young woman who months earlier would have crossed to the other side of the street had she seen a "fallen woman," and now she has to resort to working in a saloon - a saloon that also boasts a freed slave piano player and a dwarf bartender.  She has certain ideas (yes, prejudice and racist ones) given her upbringing - although quickly realizes the error of her ways once she, you know, gets to know the other employees at the saloon.  The owner is a fair, honest bloke and to be perfectly frank this "community" aspect to the story was the highlight for me.  Think of it like a small town romance except set in a saloon.

Original cover
The problem here is that the conflict doesn't hang together well, and that makes the romance less than ideal.  For someone who has had to leave her infant at an orphanage, Rebecca doesn't spend a whole lot of time fretting over it.  The kid is mostly an afterthought until the final few chapters of the story.  Likewise, she's not working all that hard to find her ne'er-do-well husband.  She asked the Scarlet Garter owner about him, but when she learns that Slater has spent extensive time in St. Louis - does she ask him?  Of course not.  Never mind that Slater is a gambler and Benjamin is a gambler.  I'm sure St. Louis had a ton of gambling establishments in the day, but odds would have been more than decent that they might have possibly oh....I don't know....RUN INTO EACH OTHER!


Slater's PTSD, the fact that he has no clue what happened to his two brothers (this is the series baggage), Rebecca being married to a swindler and with a kid stashed in an orphanage - this seems like enough conflict, right?  Well, apparently not.  Because the author chose to shoehorn in some external conflict involving villains shaking down the area saloons as part of a protection racket.  Slater then uses his Pinkerton "skills" to ask questions - but needless to say he's not terribly sneaky about it. Frankly I quickly realized how he got nabbed during the War and thrown into Andersonville.

I was in the mood for a western, so even with my various and sundry issues, I was happily tearing through this - until the protection racket conflict heats up.  Then the whole thing starts to sag in the middle, Rebecca and Slater start sleeping together, and I started to skim.  Also, because I know some readers feel strongly about this - be advised that Rebecca is married (even though her husband is no-good) when her and Slater finally succumb - and yes, Slater is aware of her marital status.  I was OK with this, given that her husband's actions don't exactly warrant any consideration as far as I'm concerned - but for some readers adultery (no matter the circumstances) is a hard and fast no.

Capping off my final disappointment is the epilogue, when the three brothers are finally reunited.  This is the overarching conflict that the trilogy hangs on, and it's kind of a "big deal" in the first two books (less so in this one).  So to have the whole reunion wrapped up in, like, 4 pages?  It's unsatisfying to the point where I'm really, really glad I didn't read this trilogy back-to-back-to-back.  I think I'd feel a lot more enraged about it if I had.

So, yeah.  Seriously.  The first book is amazing and the second book is really groundbreaking, challenging and interesting in a lot of ways.  This one?  Not so much.  But hey, now I can say I've read the whole series and this book is no longer starring back at me from my TBR shelves.  That's something, right?

Final Grade = C-

Monday, July 17, 2017

Reminder: #TBRChallenge for July 2017

For those of you participating in the 2017 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, July 19.  This month's theme is Series Catch-Up.

I don't know about you, but I have this nasty habit of getting behind in the various series I read.  I lovingly call my TBR the place where All Third Books In Trilogies Go To Die.  So this month is your chance to move one step closer to completing that series that has been gathering dust.

But what if you're an over-achiever and are all caught up on your series?  Or what if you just don't feel like reading a series book this month?  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 never too late to sign-up!)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: Whistleblower
My trip through Tess Gerritsen's Harlequin Intrigue backlist continues with Whistleblower, which, like Never Say Die, was originally published in 1992.  Talk about a study in contrasts.  I was riveted by and immensely enjoyed Never Say Die (HI #181).  In comparison, Whistleblower (HI #195) is the clunkiest of clunkers.  It's hard to believe that the two stories were written by the same author and published in the same year.  All I can say is I'm glad I read Never Say Die first, otherwise I'd currently being weeding out the remainder of Gerritsen's early Harlequin work from my TBR.

It's a dark and stormy night in northern California and Cathy Weaver is on her way to visit her 5-months pregnant BFF.  Visibility is nearly non-existent and she's just trying to keep the car on the road when BAM!  Out runs a man from the woods, into the path of her oncoming car.  She hits him.  What follows is a struggle to get the injured man into her car and to the nearest hospital.

Victor Holland is a scientist who works for a biotech firm.  Before a colleague/friend was killed, the man passed classified company documents off to Victor.  Turns out the company is making a biological weapon at the behest of shadowy figures in the US government.  The Bad Men have found out Victor has this information and they run him off the road on his way to meet with an FBI agent.  Now Victor is on the run and has no idea who he can trust.  Cathy, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and acting good Samaritan, has now put her directly in danger.

Oh, where to start.  I'm a fairly hardcore reader when it comes to suspense storylines, but even I was shocked by Gerritsen's authorial choice to have Cathy's pregnant BFF murdered by one of the Bad Men extremely early on.  I  I can't believe an editor let that one fly back in 1992, even if it was the Intrigue line.  Then there's the problem that because this is an Intrigue (short word count yo), there's not nearly enough time spent on Cathy's disbelief.  I mean, this was 1992.  A hero runs into the path of your car and starts talking conspiracy and government cover up and biological weapons and there's minimal thought on her part that "Ohhhhkay, this guy is a crazy person."  Of course Cathy being in immediate danger makes this lack of disbelief slightly more plausible, but not by much.

And that's ultimately my issue with this story.  I don't expect extreme plausibility in my romantic suspense, but this one is all over the place.  One moment the characters are acting like "regular people" caught up in "extraordinary circumstances" and the next?  They're coming up with a plan of action like they're some elite group of Special Ops soldiers or extras on an episode of Mission: Impossible.  It's that final plan of action to lead readers to the climactic finish that strain the seams considerably - complete with tranquilizer darts, movie make-up artistry (Cathy is a make-up artist), and the heroine driving a getaway vehicle through an electrified fence to rescue the hero who is being chased by police dogs.

Not helping matters was the romance which was rushed and equally implausible.  The characters start developing the hots for each other right away, never mind that Bad Men are chasing after them.  I don't know, if someone was trying to kill me I don't think I'd be wrestling with my new found feelings of love and getting jealous over the hero's Perfect Dead First Wife.  But that's just me.  Gerritsen does wisely hold off the sex scene until later in the story, but the kisses and the heroine's fretting over the fact that the hero is "still in love" with his Perfect Dead First Wife?  While there's government goons chasing after them trying to kill them?  Yeah, it didn't work.  At all. 

Friends of Victor's eventually come on to the page to help the couple, and there's a bunch of cutesy crap like their nickname for Victor (Gersh - after George Gershwin) and the fact that they were a bunch of college nerds who played in a band called "The Out of Tuners."  This just adds more fuel to the fire for Cathy, whose fretting over Victor still being in love with Perfect Dead First Wife kicks into overdrive.  But never fear!  Just to reassure readers that Victor couldn't possibly love anyone more than the heroine, Perfect Dead First Wife gets thrown under a bus and Victor declares that making love to Cathy was like his "first time."

Gag me with a spoon.

So, yeah.  If you're interested in reading Gerritsen's backlist, the books she wrote before she became a Big Deal - do yourself a favor and skip this one.  It's no bueno.

Final Grade = D

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Blog Housekeeping Updates

I'm such a small fish that I rarely do housekeeping-style posts, but I made some changes recently that I felt were worth detailing in an "official" blog post.

First, the minor update.  For a brief moment in time I had a "store" over at Amazon, which was linked in the menu bar underneath my fabulous blog header.  Amazon is doing away with the personalized storefronts, so I'm experimenting with a more traditional ad space in the sidebar.  It's minimal enough that I don't think it will be too annoying - and if you have an ad blocker or read this blog in some sort of feed reader, you'll likely never be bothered by it at all.  At this point I have no immediate plans to embed ads into my posts (mostly because I find those annoying).

Now, the more major update.  After several years I have decided that I need to let go of my Upcoming Historical Romance wiki.  I'm sorry to disappoint the three of you (ha!) who liked to visit that page, but keeping it updated has been a struggle for, at least, the past two years - and looking at the page now?  Well, I've totally fallen off a cliff.  I don't really talk much about the intricacies of my Real Life Day Job - but suffice it to say in the 14 years I've been blogging I have steadily moved up the ladder of responsibility in my career.  And as I've moved up that ladder, I've had to learn to prioritize my "down time."  So...bye-bye wiki.

For historical fans, a reminder that I am still writing my Unusual Historicals column for Heroes & Heartbreakers every month.  So I'm not completely abandoning you or the sub genre.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Review: Never Say Die
Tess Gerritsen is a Big Deal Suspense Author these days, but her roots are in romantic suspense.  Her early books were published by Harlequin Intrigue, and as Harlequin is wont to do - when an author from their past becomes a Big Deal, reprints happen.  And, as also inevitably happens, romance readers then have to wade through reviews from Other Genre Fans who stumble across the reprints and have a fit of apoplexy over the author's sordid past of writing "love cooties."  Sigh.

Never Say Die was originally published in 1992 - Harlequin Intrigue #181.  As happens when reading a contemporary novel written 25 years ago, the reader has to go into the experience like opening a time capsule.  Inevitably some things won't have aged well.  That said, given that this story takes place entirely in Southeast Asia, not quite 20 years post-Vietnam War, this one holds up better than most.  Not to mention it's compelling as all get out.  I was riveted by this book.

Willy Maitland is in Bangkok looking for answers.  Her mother is dying and Willy has taken it upon herself to learn the truth about her father.  20 years ago, while flying for Air America, Bill Maitland's plane went down near the Laos border.  His body was never recovered and there are rumors he may be alive.  Desperate for closure, Willy makes the trip to Southeast Asia, only to encounter one road block after another.

Guy Barnard is ex-Army, now a civilian contractor helping the US and Vietnamese governments identify recently uncovered bodies.  That's why he's in Bangkok and that's how he conveniently runs into Willy.  Her father was the stuff of legend and naturally, since he's a romance hero, Guy has a Super Sekrit Hidden Agenda.  She doesn't trust him as far as she can throw him, which means he's just going to have to convince her that she needs his contacts and expertise.  What she really ends up needing through, besides his help, is his protection.  Especially when it becomes clear that Willy is in danger.

For a former Intrigue this story has a surprising number of layers to it and plenty of characters floating around to keep you guessing on the identity of The Bad Guy.  I wasn't reading romance back in 1992 (although I was a suspense reader and would have LOVED this book back then) so I'm not familiar with how the word counts for the Intrigue line may or may not have shifted over the last 25 years.  This one does have the feel of a single-title, so readers who scoff at reading "short" shouldn't have too much to quibble about here.

Vietnam was a messed up war, and that's what I enjoyed best about this story (as sick as that sounds). When Gerritsen was writing this book we weren't even 20 years to the anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and Senators John Kerry, Bob Smith and John McCain were serving on a committee for MIA/POW affairs - looking into rumors that live prisoners were still alive "in country."  This was seen as a humanitarian issue, but it was also the main sticking point keeping the US from "normalizing" relations with the Vietnamese government.  Which the US began to do more earnestly during the Clinton administration.  So for Gerritsen to use this idea as a backdrop for a romantic suspense novel would have felt timely in 1992 and, when reading this book as a time capsule, allows it to hold up fairly well to modern day readers.

By today's standards, there were times when I found Willy lacking as a heroine, but for 1992 she would have been viewed as extremely capable.  She does have the gumption to arrange the trip to Bangkok and get herself into Vietnam on a tourist visa.  That said, there are times when there is obviously something rotten in Denmark and she's a little too slow on the uptake for my liking.  I "get" her conflicted trust issues regarding Guy, but the minute he saves her life I would have been all like, "well, the devil you know!"  It takes Willy a bit longer after that to come around and realize that she needs his help.

Guy is a hero from the Han Solo mold.  Charming, rumbled, a little irreverent, but with a hidden agenda that the heroine doesn't find out about until later.  He's Romance Reader Catnip and Gerritsen wisely drops little hints, building anticipation, until the final reveal of who Guy is and what he's after.  These are two characters who bounce off each other well.

Speaking of bouncing. the romance itself is of the PG variety.  There is a love scene, but it comes later in the book and it's not overly graphic.  Like most romantic suspense novels, the characters do the deed in an interesting locale, but at least their timing isn't totally absurd (they aren't in imminent danger!).  But it really wasn't the romance that provided the emotional heft to this story.  It was the ghost of the war itself and the heroine's justifiably lingering Daddy Issues.  It's when the heroine has to confront the choices her father made, and how that affected her life, and her mother's - that's where the meat and potatoes of the story reside.  I've read suitably emotional category romances in my day, ones that lingered with me well after finishing the story, but nothing quite like this one.  I'm trying to imagine what it would have been like as a reader in 1992, being exposed to this story, at that time, and I bet it was pretty epic.  Especially for readers directly impacted by the war.

I'm sure Gerritsen gets tired of answering questions from cranky suspense fans who feel "tricked" into picking up one of her older romances - but really?  Those fans are wrong.  Look, this is a good book.  Says Wendy.  The suspense is engaging, the hero suitably heroic, and even the heroine (who I wasn't totally in love with) pulls some serious weight by the end.  I'm unlikely to reread this, but given how much I enjoyed it, it feels "better" than a B so....

Final Grade = A-

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Mini-Reviews: Non-Fiction Round-Up

Thank the Lord for audio books or else my reading slump would be even more dire than it already is.  I've been on a bit of a non-fiction kick of late.  Here's a round-up of the most recent listens:
Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker by Stephen Galloway

Dang if I can remember where I heard about this book now, but it was mostly likely through work-related reading.  I vaguely recognized Sherry Lansing's name, but knew nothing about her and a Hollywood biography sounded appealing.  I ended up liking this book a lot, although some will likely find it problematic.  Lansing started out as an actress and moved through the ranks to become the first ever female studio head (at 20th Century Fox).  Ultimately she retired as CEO of Paramount.  She produced such movies as Fatal Attraction, The Accused and Indecent Proposal - and was instrumental in green-lighting  Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and keeping Titanic afloat.  She ultimately left Hollywood to pursue her philanthropic endeavors (which are varied and vast - she considers former President Carter a mentor).

That being said, readers looking for a feminist read may be disappointed.  Lansing was a ground breaker, but in typical fashion it's not like her and the other female studio execs in Hollywood were all that chummy early on.  There's no backstabbing here - but it doesn't occur to them that there's room for all of them at the table (this is honestly very typical regardless of the field.  Women getting pitted against each other or trying to survive on their own means they don't think to band together).  Also, Lansing has worked with Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson and....has stood by them both. That's an automatic nope for a lot of readers I know.

Final Grade = B
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

I don't watch The Daily Show.  I have never watched The Daily Show (outside of the occasional viral clip).  I can't watch political shows.  Even ones that skewer politics.  It just makes me too angry.  So I keep abreast of political shenanigans by reading about them and avoid TV.  Why did I pick up this book?  Well, KristieJ loved it and my Mom bought it and I kept hearing about it - and OK, I was curious.

I really, really enjoyed this.  It's funny and touching and sad and makes you think.  Childhood stories have this amazing universal appeal.  Noah may have been born and raised in South Africa, in the shadow of Apartheid, but the tales of his childhood were amusing and interesting and approachable to this white girl from the American Midwest. 

My only quibble?  The way Noah chooses to end this story.  You end up feeling pure, unadulterated rage for what happened to his mother and what she (and her family) have had to endure.  Yes, it was real life and yes, Noah definitely should have put it in the book, but to end the book with it?  It overshadows the joyful moments and leaves the reader on a "down note."  I would have restructured the book and put that story earlier on.  I'm sure the decision by author and editor was to put it at the end for the greatest emotional impact.  But, quibble.  Go read it. 

Final Grade = B+
Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens by Eddie Izzard

It's seems impossibly stupid of me now, but I went into this expecting a straight-forward memoir.  Instead it was the audio book equivalent of herding cats.  Have you seen Izzard's stand-up?  Basically it was that.  If I heard "footnote," "end of footnote," or "long windy footnote" one time, I must have heard them 6549 times.  He'd start by, presumably, reading his book and then it would be like, "Squirrel!" and off Izzard would go on a tangent.  Some of these tangents apparently are in the print book, and some aren't.  So the audio book does have "exclusive content" - rambling though it may be.

If you're a fan of Izzard's stand-up, this likely won't be a stumbling block for you.  I have liked some of his stand-up, but I'm a bigger fan of his dramatic work (go watch The Cat's Meow and OMG, he's playing Edward VII in the upcoming Victoria and Abdul!).  I wanted more of that.  But in between the ramblings you do learn about Izzard's childhood, the death of his mother, his years spent in boarding schools, the early days of his comedy career and his sheer tenaciousness.  It wasn't what I wanted, but it was still OK.

Final Grade = C

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

#TBRChallenge 2017: The Millionaire Meets His Match
The Book: The Millionaire Meets His Match by Kate Carlisle

The Particulars: Contemporary romance, Silhouette Desire #2023, Out of Print, Available Digitally, First book in series.

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?:  Carlisle is a local author and I've corralled her for a couple of library events over the years.  My copy of this book is autographed, so my guess is I probably picked it up at an RWA Conference.  Plus, this is a boss/secretary romance and they're my catnip.  Yes, yes, I know.  I'm part of the problem.

The Review: Carlisle is better known for her cozy mysteries but from 2010 to 2013 she wrote half a dozen books for Desire.  This is the first in a trilogy about three adopted brothers who are doing their darnedest to avoid their mother's matchmaking schemes.

Adam Duke is the CEO of Duke Development, an outfit that specializes in luxury resorts.  He's in the midst of a huge project when his very capable, very indispensable assistant quits.  Just walks out and quits.  Apparently being three months pregnant, planning her wedding, and working around the clock for Adam wore her down to the nub.  The head of HR, who also happens to be his mother's BFF, says don't worry.  She'll get someone from the "floater pool."  Adam thinks this is a terrible idea, even if their floaters are a cut above.  She sends him Trish James, sexy, curvaceous, and a dynamite PA.  He's quite pleased with this new development until he realizes - wait a minute.  His head of HR is his Mom's BFF.  His Mom who keeps harping on marriage and grandbabies and....OMG, is Trish a plant?!

Trish is not a plant.  She's a spy.  She was raised by her grandmother who owned an antique shop in a quaint shopping center.  The other people who owned businesses in that center became like family.  Then the owner died, his kids sold the building to the highest bidder, and that was Duke Development.  They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.  Trish's grandmother had a heart attack and died, and the other business owners are having a rough time.  Trish just KNOWS Duke did something underhanded.  So she uses some connections to get a job, and is using this opportunity as his temporary assistant to dig up some dirt on his "shady" business dealings.

This story is filled with Magical Thinking.  I liked this spin on the boss/secretary trope and I tend to love it when the revenge trope is initiated by the heroine.  Romancelandia is littered with heroes who want to get revenge against the heroine's father - so to have a heroine motivated by revenge puts a different spin on things.  But Trish is just - well, blind.  Look, it sucks that your grandmother's rented shop space gets sold out from under her and torn down - but that doesn't make it illegal.  And there is literally NO whiff, at all, that something sneaky happened here.  The business owners wanted to apply for historic landmark distinction, but they didn't own the building.  And when the owner died, his kids, quite frankly, didn't give two snits.  Take the money and run.  And Duke offered the money.  This sucks - it's not illegal.  But the fact that Trish is SO convinced that something OBVIOUSLY not kosher went down is, well, absurd.

Adam seems like an OK guy until his brothers' paranoia about their Mom (seriously, they seem to think she's the Professor Moriarty of Matchmaking) gets to him.  Then he jumps to all sorts of conclusions about Trish even though he has absolutely no proof.  For his mother to be behind Trish being his new PA would literally mean she pulled off the Tet Offensive of Potential Matchmaking.  It defies logic.  But Adam, supposedly this super smart business dude, totally buys into it and runs with it.  Well he'll show that gold digger Trish!  He's sleep with her, have a grand old time, and then dump her like a hot potato.  THAT WILL TEACH MOM!!!!


None of this works.  It also really strains against the tone of the writing.  Carlisle has a lighter tone and style - a nice change of pace for the Desire line.  There's small touches of humor in this story, even if a lot of that humor fell flat for me because it revolves around Matchmaking Mama.  That said, as unsavory as I found the train of thoughts by both hero and heroine - it could have been more so if this story had been written in a heavier tone.  Like, say, in a traditional Presents style.  The character motivations didn't work for me, but the author's style did make this story readable even as I was frustrated by the authorial story choices.  There were also what I would call traditional elements here that didn't work for me.  The baggage of the adopted brothers to set up the angst for the trilogy.  The virgin heroine.  The fact that Adam ends this story smelling like a rose because even though it was HIS company that tore down Trish's grandmother's business, well - Adam didn't know anything about it and see - he's a really good guy!  Dude.  It would have been way more interesting if Adam had said, "Yeah, I tore that mother down.  I needed the parking space."

None of this worked for me but - it was readable.  Faint praise, entering stage right.

Final Grade = C-