Wednesday, August 16, 2017

#TBRChallenge 2017: Drive Me Wild by Elizabeth Harbison

The Book: Drive Me Wild by Elizabeth Harbison

The Particulars: Contemporary romance, Silhouette Special Edition #1476, 2002, Out of Print, Available Digitally

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: The blurb intrigued me and the amusement park / carnival backdrop on the cover reeled me in.  It's stayed in my TBR all this time (and dodged weeding) because I read another Harbison (Diary of a Domestic Goddess) during my TRR days and really enjoyed it.

The Review: What we have here ladies and gents is the very definition of a Chocolate Chip Cookie Read.  It's tasty, you can't stop yourself from gorging, but it's not a "meal" you rave about to all your friends a week after the fact.  In a nutshell?  It's the sort of romantic comedy that Lifetime would option for a TV movie.

Grace Bowes couldn't wait to leave the small town of Blue Moon Bay in the dust.   She married the high school football star, a union that produced a son (Jimmy), and she settled into life as a stay-at-home Mom.  Then one day her husband announces he wants a divorce, which she saw coming.  She probably would have gotten around to asking for one eventually, it's just Michael pulled the trigger first.  But not before she learned that their well-heeled, upper-middle-class lifestyle was all smoke and mirrors.  Their garage sales became legendary.  She and Jimmy are now back in Blue Moon Bay, living with her mother, and Grace is discovering former housewives don't have a ton of marketable skills, even in a small town economy.  She's got one option.  Her former school needs a bus driver.

Yes, a bus driver.

Luke Stewart used to have a it bad for Grace, but she was his best friend's girl.  Then there was a fateful night when he gave her a ride home from the boardwalk and they partook in some "reindeer games."  But ultimately Grace opted to stay with Michael and Luke stayed in his hometown nursing a broken heart.  Well, now Grace is back and guess who would be her new boss, assuming she can convince him she's cut out to be a bus driver?  Yeah.

There's a lot to like here, most notably that Harbison doesn't make a muck of things that could have easily been mucked up.  For one thing, the details about being a school bus driver.  Grace doesn't just waltz in and get the job.  No.  You need a commercial driver's license, which she doesn't have, which requires a test, and that test?  Besides the road test, Grace has to be able to identify all the various bits and bobs on a bus.

Luke, of course, has preconceived notions about Grace - not only because of his unrequited feelings for her, but also because Michael planted erroneous information in his head.  I wouldn't go so far as to call this Enemy to Lovers, but there's some definite friction between Luke and Grace, which creates some nicely well done verbal sparring matches early on.  It infuses a nice amount of humor into the narrative.

What doesn't work so well?  The author kind of loses her way a bit towards the end involving funding issues the school is having.  It's how those funding issues are resolved that were a bit fantastical, but it's the kind of thing that small town contemporary readers will be used to and likely gobble up.  I also felt like the romance ran a little fast to the finish line.  These are two characters with a history, and the author has an extended time line (several months) - but a marriage proposal seemed like a little much to me.

But what makes up for it all is that The Ex stays off page.  I seriously read this whole category waiting for Michael to show up on page, spread a bunch of BS around, and drive a wedge between the couple to spur the reader towards the HEA.  Harbison avoids that all too common cliche.  Which is ultimately what I'll remember about this book.  The avoidance of well worn plot devices and the fact that the heroine drives a school bus.  No, this won't change your life - but it's quick, breezy and just the sort of lighthearted palate cleansing book you keep around when you're tired of Angst-O-Rama-Jama.  Break glass in case of emergency.

Final Grade = B

Monday, August 14, 2017

Review: I Know A Secret

Hello, Future Wendy.  This is Past Wendy.  Several months ago you practically broke a finger requesting I Know A Secret by Tess Gerritsen from NetGalley.  You love the Rizzoli and Isles series (the books; the TV show never did much for you) and to have the latest book so far ahead of the publication date was like Christmas morning and your birthday all rolled into one.  Still, you somehow managed to resist and not read it until late May - inhaling the last half of the book over Memorial Day weekend.  You've probably read a few books since then, so what did you think of this one?  Let Past Wendy refresh your memory.

Jane Rizzoli and her partner Barry Frost catch the case of a horror movie producer found dead in her Boston apartment.  Jane figures it's going to be a weird one the moment she sets foot inside the crime scene.  I mean, who chooses the movie poster for Carrie as home decor?  But it's when she gets into the victim's bedroom that things really get weird.  Cassandra Coyle is dead alright.  And the killer decided to scoop out her eyeballs and leave them lying in her open hand.

Meanwhile, medical examiner Maura Isles is dealing with her own creepy - her biological birth month and convicted murderer, Amalthea Lank.  Amalthea has cancer and is dying, but that doesn't mean she's not determined to try and manipulate Maura for old time's sake.  Then Jane discovers that her dead horror movie producer may be linked to other homicides and somehow, someway, Amalthea knows something about it all.

This is one of Gerritsen's more straight forward plots.  By the halfway point I was thinking, "Ok, where's the twist - you've got to have a twist in here somewhere."  Up until that point this story is interesting, a return visit with characters that are like putting on your favorite pair of shoes, and the writing kept me engaged.  But I wasn't white-knuckling my way through the reading experience like I did with Die Again (the last book in the series) or Ice Cold (my absolute favorite of the more recent entries).  Still, it's s a good solid plot and kept me engaged.

What makes Gerritsen such a good suspense writer (I think) is that she got her start in romance.  It's the way she crafts her characters and has them orbiting each other that is her strength.  We've all read suspense series where it felt like the author got bored with their creations - but I don't feel like that with Rizzoli or Isles.  Gerritsen has allowed her characters to change and grow while keeping them true to themselves.  Also, it's those teasing glimpses into their personal lives that keep many of us coming back to this series for more.

That being said, this felt like a regressive entry in the series when it comes to The Personal Stuff.  Jane, bless her heart, has always been a black and white, good or bad, sort of character.  She's not the sort who sees a lot of gray in the world.  She spends this book largely frustrated by the people around her.  Barry, who is on the verge of taking back the wife who cheated on him.  Maura, who can't seem to let Daniel go (ugh!), and her own mother, who has fallen back into a routine now that Jane's father Frank has broken up with The Bimbo.  Gerritsen brings the stuff with Jane's parents to a head, although it's far from over.  I suspect it'll take a couple more books to fully spin that out.  But Maura?  Dead Lord.  I was SO HAPPY with Ice Cold mostly because the Maura and Daniel "thing" seemed to finally have it's conclusion and here we are....back again.  Ugh, ugh, ugh.

Some of this probably reads damning with faint praise, Future Wendy.  But you did like this one.  And Gerritsen sets herself up well for future books in the series, leaving a believably villainous secondary character twisting out in the breeze.  It hasn't been since the first two books in the series that the author gave Jane a carryover villain to struggle over, so it's rather clever really.  Warren Hoyt was your textbook serial killer, the bogeyman hiding in your closet.  But this new villain?  More cerebral.  More cunning.  The kind of villain that will play mind games with you.  Not the sort to physically gut victims, but the kind that will gaslight them until they question whether up really is down.  And that's just as terrifying.

Final Grade = B

Friday, August 11, 2017

Reminder: #TBRChallenge for August 2017

For those of you participating in the 2017 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, August 16.  This month's theme is Kicking It Old School.

This means any book in your TBR that was published, at least, 10 years ago.  And get ready to weep that means 2007.  

But what if you don't have anything that fits the time frame in your TBR?  First, let me just say I'm overcome with jealousy.  Second, I'm not sure you're human.  But 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 never too late to sign-up!)

Friday, August 4, 2017

Mini-Reviews: Light, Dark, and Snark

In between work and RWA shenanigans I'm a bit behind on blogging about recent reads, and the further away I get from these books?  The more my memory is fading.  So on to some mini-reviews!

Say Yes to the Marquess by Tessa Dare is the second book in her Castles Ever After series and one I should have probably liked more than I did.  Clio Whitmore has become a laughing-stock to the ton, having been kept waiting by her fiance for eight long years while he's on the Continent in service to the Crown.  Well, "Miss Wait-more" has had enough.  She goes to our hero, Rafe Brandon, her fiance's younger brother with dissolution papers.  Rafe is a boxer and a disappointment to his family, but with Piers on the Continent and their father dead, Rafe has been appointed Interim Marquess.  He's not about to sign the dissolution papers because he's loved Clio for years, thinks he's not good enough for her, and to prove to everyone that he's not a screw-up he's going to make sure that everything is ready and waiting for Piers' return...and that includes Clio.

Dare has this uncanny ability to write Cotton Candy Topped With A Glittery Pink Bow while still giving readers some depth.  Here it's in the form of Clio, who struggles with feelings of inadequacy and a desire to have a life that means something outside of "having a man."  Unfortunately, Rafe's way of thinking defies logic most of the time and Clio being a coward, hoping that Rafe will do "the dirty work," rather annoyed me.  Why Clio just doesn't write Piers a letter explaining that she's tired of waiting and perhaps they aren't well-suited is beyond me.  Of course it takes Dare so long to disclose that correspondence ACTUALLY HAPPENED that I spent the first half of this novel thinking "What?! I'm supposed to believe they never write each other?!"  Especially when it's disclosed VERY early on that Clio takes the time to WRITE TO RAFE!!!!!  

Authors: This is the kind of thing I nit-pick to death.  In case you care. Which you probably don't.

Plus, to be frank, I don't "get" weddings.  Oh sure, I've attended them.  I mean, say the words "open bar" to me and I'll show up just about anywhere.  But all the wedding nonsense in this book got real old, real fast.  Some women see weddings as this grand fairy tale and I see them as....a waste of money.  Say yes to the dress?  Fans of light historicals will probably love this, but it just seemed to drag on and on and on for me.  I think I'm tapping out on this series.

Final Grade = C

Badlands by Melissa Lenhardt is the final book in the trilogy about the former Dr. Catherine Bennett, now Laura Elliston, on the run after she's accused of killing one of her wealthy patients' husband.  This picks up where Blood Oath left off, and while it ties up the series well (and Laura lives happily-ever-after), I wasn't madly in love with some aspects.

For one thing, Laura starts this series as a strong, independent woman and as events unfold she becomes weaker and more dependent by the day - to the point where she's going through opium withdrawal and wringing her hands over what to do.  Yes, she's currently separated from her love, William Kindle, but get it together cupcake!

The best parts of this entry, for me, revolved around the whore, Rosamunde, who you're not quite sure is friend or foe.  Literally, it could go either way.  Finally, stuff happens, and Laura realizes she has to go back to New York City to clear her name.  This felt somewhat rushed me, after spending the whole trilogy leading up to it, but it resolves itself satisfactorily, and there's even a nice little twist thrown in from keeping the resolution from being totally obvious.

While I would easily classify this trilogy as Historical Fiction with Romantic Elements, the violence has made this a difficult series for me recommend universally.  In the previous two books I cringed at the violence, but I understood (OK, mostly) why it was there.  In this book?  Not so much.

Final Grade = B

What to say about David Spade Is Almost Interesting?  Well, it's a quick listen on audio.  Also, you have to have a tolerance for David Spade.  If you don't like him going into this book, there's nothing here to change your mind.  The parts I liked best?  The details about his career prior to Saturday Night Live, and his time with the show.  Spade knows what he's good at, and what he's not - and his struggles with writing and performing on the show (and the fact that he owns them) were refreshingly frank.

Naturally, he does talk about Chris Farley, although probably not in detail fans will want.  I'm left with the impression that they were genuine friends and cared about each other - but Spade hardly bares his soul.  Farley's excesses, and how Spade felt about all that?  Details on the aftermath?  Yeah, keep moving along. Nothing to see here.

You also have to have a high tolerance for how women are talked about in this book.  How to put this delicately?  Basically imagine eavesdropping on a conversation between stereotypical frat-bros.  A lot of it (OK, most of it) is incredibly cringe-worthy.  At least Spade owns up to when he's a dip-sh*t - but that's not always enough.

Final Grade = C

Monday, July 31, 2017

How Smart Is Wendy? 2017 RITA Edition

Long-time blog readers will recall the years when I would do daily blog posts from the annual Romance Writers of America conference. the corner of my mind.  I haven't done this for a long time.  Mostly because writing those posts meant staying up until 2AM and becoming Zombie Wendy by Day #3 of the conference.  I've been blogging for 14 years and frankly?  I'm an Old Lady now.  I need all the sleep I can get.  This year, for RWA in Orlando, I was extra lazy.  I barely even tweeted.  But I did manage to get one thing written before the conference and I thought I'd share it all with you in hindsight.

My friend Kris, who lives in Germany, and who organizes the annual LoveLetter convention, has started a new newsletter called Ever After Mail (Facebook link).  She asked me to send her my RITA winner predictions to share with her readers, and I thought it sounded like fun.  As I sat watching the RITA ceremony during the conference, I was amazed at how smart I was and, in other instances, how totally wrong I was.  Here, for your enjoyment, are my predictions in hindsight.

See the full list of RITA finalists
Best First Book
Lord, who knows? This category is always a crap shoot because it literally includes everything.  My best guess?  Once and For All by Cheryl Etchison.  It’s a marriage of convenience story with a military hero. I like its chances.
Actual Winner: Once and For All by Cheryl Etchison. I AM A GENIUS!
Contemporary Romance: Long
Seven finalists and I think five of them could easily be considered favorites.  I think Alexis Hall is coming in with the momentum after last year’s win in Erotic Romance for For Real.  That said, I’m thinking it’s going to be Sarah Morgan.
Actual Winner?: Miracle on 5th Avenue by Sarah Morgan. I AM A GENIUS!
Contemporary Romance: Mid-Length
There are some heavy hitters in this category, writers who have had long and amazing careers like Karen Templeton, Roxanne St. Clair, Virginia Kantra and Jodi Thomas.  That being said, I think Fast Connection pulls off the upset.
Actual Winner?: Carolina Dreaming by Virginia Kantra. I called out Kantra as a possibility but ultimately didn't pick her.  I AM NOT SO MUCH OF A GENIUS!
Contemporary Romance: Short
I love category romance, so this is a hard category for me to choose.  I want to see Far From Home win, because a lesbian romance winning would be awesome!  That said, I think this will likely end up going to Jennifer Probst.
Actual Winner?: Christmas on Crimson Mountain by Michelle Major.  I KNOW NOTHING!
Erotic Romance
I feel like Tara Sue Me has the name recognition, but I’m going to go with Roni Loren, who won in the novella category last year. I’ve seen her name so much in the past year, I feel like she’s carrying the momentum.
Actual Winner?: Off the Clock by Roni Loren. I AM A GENIUS!
Historical Romance: Long
Loretta Chase because….Loretta Chase.  That said, I love Laura Lee Guhrke’s work and would like to see her win.
Actual Winner?: No Mistress of Mine by Laura Lee Guhrke.  I AM SORT OF A GENIUS!
Historical Romance: Short
I feel like this is Russian Roulette between Tessa Dare, Elizabeth Hoyt and Sabrina Jeffries.  I’m going to say Jeffries though, because of the longevity of her career and the fact that I know readers who LOVED that book.  As in wet-sloppy kisses, is it weird if I want to marry a book, LOVED that book.
Actual Winner?:  A Duke to Remember by Kelly Bowen.  I KNOW NOTHING! Fiction with a Central Romance
I think this could literally end up going to any of the finalists, but I’m picking The Moon in the Palace mostly because, as a librarian, I literally have seen that book cover everywhere.  I mean, all over the place.
Actual Winner?: The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel.  I AM A GENIUS!
Paranormal Romance
I’d like to see Susan Grant win because I have warm squishy feelings about reviewing her debut novel WAY back in the day.  Plus it’s a scifi romance and it would be awesome to see a win in that sub genre.
Actual Winner?: The Pages of the Mind by Jeffe Kennedy. I KNOW NOTHING!
Romance Novella
Going by chatter in my reading circles, just give it to Alyssa Cole already.  That said, based on library and industry chatter?  Look for Joanna Shupe to pull off the upset.
Actual Winner?: Her Every Wish by Courtney Milan. I KNOW NOTHING!
Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements
I’m going with the heavy hitter in this category: Robin Lee Hatcher.
Actual Winner?My Hope Next Door by Tammy L. Gray.  I KNOW NOTHING!
Romantic Suspense
There are three local authors on this list for me: Beth Yarnall, HelenKay Dimon and Nico Rosso.  I’d love it if any of them won – but I’m thinking it’s going to go to J.T. Ellison.
Actual Winner?: Repressed by Elisabeth Naughton. I KNOW NOTHING!
Young Adult
A sub genre I don’t read a lot of, so I’m going with the heavy hitter here: Jennifer L. Armentrout. 
I'm glad Kris asked me to do this and I had a lot of fun playing along while I was attending the ceremony at the conference.  Maybe I'll make this an annual thing...

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!)