Wednesday, September 20, 2017

#TBRChallenge 2017: Jared's Runaway Woman

The Book: Jared's Runaway Woman by Judith Stacy

The Particulars: Historical western romance, Harlequin Historical #801, 2006, Out of Print, Available Digitally

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: I tend to like Judith Stacy more often than not - plus hello?  Harlequin Historical. A western.  Of course it's in my TBR.

The Review: I'm not going to lie - this book is problematic in a major way but what it gets right it REALLY gets right - and I literally inhaled this baby in one sitting.  As in I started it very late at night thinking "a chapter or two before bed" and there I was around 1:30AM finally finishing the last chapter and too wired from my gorging at the book trough to go to sleep until around 2:30AM.  Given the sad state of my reading mojo, heck yeah this one is getting a decent final grade from me.

Jared Mason is the oldest brother in a New Money family that made their fortune in construction.  All the brothers are in the business, including the one closest to Jared's age - Clark.  Clark met his wife, Beth, while he was in Virginia on a job.  They fell in love, got married - and then tragedy struck. Clark died in an accident.  Beth shipped his body and belongings home to his family in New York and then poof!  Vanished.  Nearly five years later, Jared's mother finally decides to go through Clark's things and finds a half-finished letter.  Beth had just found out she was pregnant!  She vanished after Clark's death, and Amelia wants her grandchild.  Pinkertons are hired and the trail leads to Crystal Springs, Colorado.  Jared puts a job in Maine on hold and heads to Colorado, determined to find his brother's widow and his niece and/or nephew.

Kinsey Templeton has been running for five years, working menial jobs and doing her best to care for her son, Sam, alone.  After years of looking over her shoulder she's landed in Crystal Springs - working two jobs to make ends meet.  She likes it in town and Sam is happy.  Still, she tries to check every stage and train that rolls into town - something that has gotten trickier of late since the town is booming.  That's when she spies Jared Mason and she knows that her luck as run out.

Jared never met his brother's wife, so while Jared and Kinsey don't have a shared history, I would still classify this as an Enemies to Lovers story.  They're at cross purposes.  Kinsey, like most mothers, will fight until her last dying breath to protect her son - and that includes protection from the Mason family.  Jared will do anything to bring his nephew home, into the family fold, so the child can claim his birthright.  At first blush, he wants Kinsey to come back to New York as well - the Masons will take care of her - and is shocked when she outright refuses to the point of belligerence.  She's determined they stay, and Jared is determined that Sam goes back to New York.  The first half of this book is basically the hero and heroine waging war against each other with 5-year-old Sam caught in the middle.

So yeah, it's not exactly pleasant even though the author does have a light touch and God bless her, Kinsey ain't no pushover.  She's a heroine who will fight dirty.

It gets better in the second half, which is where this story really sings.  For one thing, earlier in the proceedings, the author throws in a really well done twist.  Then we finally get to the moment where Kinsey and Jared come to an uneasy truce.  This involves him staying in town, getting roped in to building a new church (the old one burned down), the various small town dramas that fill out some nicely done secondary story lines, getting to know his nephew...and Kinsey.  There's an immediate attraction between Kinsey and Jared bordering on Insta-Lust, but instead of jumping into bed right away, the author unfolds it as a slow burn with an undercurrent of tension that sizzles between them throughout the story (aside from the tension involving Sam).  I believed in this romance.

But what makes this story, what truly makes it, is that this is a romance where the men (remember those secondary story lines I alluded to?) make sacrifices for the women.  Given the "small town" vibe of this setting and romance, the role reversals in this story read like a breath of fresh air (OK, so the book was published over 10 years ago - but you know what I mean).  Naturally Kinsey and Jared have kept some things private - Kinsey, her reasons for not wanting the Masons near Sam ; Jared, the reason behind his determination to bring Clark's son home to New York.  The resolution for Kinsey in this one aspect is dealt with, but it doesn't have a stinging air of finality - which I did want.  But that said?  Given Jared's declaration of his feelings for her, and those sacrifices I mentioned, I would have overlooked a tacked on serial killer subplot or a martian beaming down from outer space.  So it's hard to quibble over the lack of spoon-feeding in that one instance.

No, it's not perfect.  You've got two grown adults at war with each other and a child in the middle.  It's only Stacy's light touch that keeps this from being totally unpalatable.  But for readers who can persevere (and "the twist" certainly helped propel me forward!), the second half was a joy to read.

Final Grade = B

Friday, September 15, 2017

Reminder: #TBRChallenge for September


For those of you participating in the 2017 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, September 20.  This month's theme is Historical.

But what if you don't like to read historicals? "Wendy, you will pry contemporary settings out of my cold dead hands!"  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!)

Monday, September 11, 2017

Review: Y Is For Yesterday

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B01MUBJLNC/themisaofsupe-20
Sue Grafton was one of those authors I discovered in my teen years while browsing the stacks of my small town public library.   In my early twenties, freshly minted with my library degree and with what I foolishly thought back then was a "lengthy commute" (Future Wendy laughs in the face of Past Wendy....), I picked up the series again on audio book.  So, needless to say, it's one of the rare series I'm actual current on.

The last several entries have been...well, not that great.  I don't remember anything about V at allW was OK, I guess.  And X was a hot mess.  So I walked into Y is for Yesterday with some trepidation.  It's not without problems, but this is by far the strongest entry in the series since U is for Undertow (says me). 

Trigger Warning: sexual assault / rape.

The chain of events started in 1979, when 14-year-old Iris steals the answer key to a standardized test to help out her new BFF, Poppy, at Climping Academy - an exclusive private school near the central California coast.  It ends with a missing sex tape and another girl, Sloan Stevens, dead.  Fritz McCabe ends up going to juvenile detention for firing the fatal shots, and now, at 25, has been released.  His parents have welcomed him home, only to get a copy of the missing sex tape in the mail shortly after his release with demands for $25,000.  The "sex tape" shows Fritz, along with another boy, Troy, assaulting a drunk and stoned 14-year-old Iris.  There's a James Spader Preppy Baddie-type, Austin, orchestrating the whole thing while another boy, Bayard, acts as camera man.  The threat being that if the tape comes to light, Fritz goes back to prison - even though everyone involved in the making of the tape (including Iris) swears it was "a joke," not to be taken seriously.  The McCabes have no interest in paying blackmail, but also want to protect Fritz, so they hire local private investigator, Kinsey Millhone, to chase the whole sordid business down.

This is actually one of Grafton's stronger plots in ages, but that being said, it's a shocking read.  The Kinsey Millhone books could never be classified as "cozies," but neither have they ever been overly graphic.  There's not a lot of violence, blood and guts splashed on the pages.  So having gone through the previous 24 entries in this series, it was shocking to read the details of the sexual assault not once, but twice, over the course of this story.  I'm, generally speaking, a reader who can roll with most violence in fiction - but I'm not going to lie - this was upsetting.  Once was more than enough.  Twice borders on psychological torture p0rn, in my ever so humble opinion. And it's such a departure in tone from the previous books - I cannot believe I'm going to be the only reader who feels a little blindsided by it.

But, as troubling as the details of the sexual assault are, the plot itself is quite good - although honestly Kinsey is kind of dense in this one.  I felt like I caught on to things much quicker than she did - although Grafton once again employs dueling timelines, so to be fair, there were things the reader is clued in on well before Kinsey is.

Much like the last several books, Grafton cannot seem to help herself when it comes to secondary story lines.  Ned Lowe, a homicidal holdover from X, is still at large and gunning for Kinsey.  He takes up some serious word count in the second half of the book, along with Kinsey's annoying cousin Anna and homeless holdover Pearl (both introduced in W) who both need to get thrown in a fiery pit already.  It makes the book much too long and takes focus away from the primary story line, leaving us with an ending that ends more with a whimper than a bang.  This has been a criticism of mine for the last several books.  It's like Grafton can't settle on one idea and instead wants to cram three or four into the same book, short-changing all of them.

Which makes it sound like I really didn't like this.  I did, but it's definitely meh in parts.  Honestly, it's such an improvement over X that I was practically riveted to the audio during my daily commute and treadmill sessions.  However, it's still got the same issues that the last several books have had (too much meandering, too many outside distractions) and then there's the shocking "surprise" of the graphic depiction of a sexual assault filmed on tape.  That's just not the kind of thing I expect when I pick up a Sue Grafton Kinsey Millhone novel.

Final Grade = B- (for fans only)

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Review: Devil's Cut

I'm old enough to remember when J.R. Ward first launched her Black Dagger Brotherhood series and each new installment was Must Read TV uh, Reads.  It was all anybody talked about in Romancelandia for weeks months on end.  I never got hooked on the series for a myriad of reasons that I won't bore you with (OK, fine if you insist - the weak-as-tea-strained-through-a-sock heroines, the completely inane dialogue, the Scribe Virgin thing that made no sense....), but when I first heard about her new Bourbon Kings series - I couldn't help myself.  I am, without a doubt, completely and hopelessly addicted to soap operas.  I'm largely a recovering addict.  I've given up the hard liquor of daytime soaps, but I'm still drinking the wine of prime time (I don't care what anybody says - Game of Thrones is TOTALLY a soap opera).  But given my less than sterling opinion of Ward's BDB books, I approached this new contemporary series a bit wary.  And then, just like listening to a BDB fan justify her need for a fix, there I was hooked on Ward's brand of Southern-Fried Soapy Shenanigans.  "Yes, the books are problematic but...but...but...."  

Devil's Cut is the third and final book in the trilogy and God bless her, Ward manages to wrap up the entire train wreck (no small feat) and leave me with the satisfying, refreshed feeling of a particularly well mixed mint julep.

Warning: There will be spoilers for the first two books in this series.

Last we saw the Bradford-Baldwine clan Lane was trying to divorce his trophy wife who was carrying his father's baby so he could be with his One True Love, gardener Lizzie; Gin had just gotten married to the abusive Richard Pforde and was concealing the fact that her 16-year-old daughter Amelia was the product of her never-on-always-off affair with lawyer Samuel T. Lodge; Edward, broken by a South American kidnapping his Daddy arranged was cooling his heels in jail after confessing to killing the man; Sutton Smythe, CEO of her family's company was still pining for Edward; Lane's friend Jeff was trying to save the Bradford Bourbon Company from the shambles the not-dearly-departed William Baldwine left it in; and Miss Aurora, (there's no nice way to put this - the most blatant Mammy character I've ever read) was lying in a hospital bed dying from an aggressive form of cancer.

So yeah, train wreck.

And yet, somehow, Ward makes it all work.  It's not always pretty (like the resolution to the Lane's soon-to-be-ex knocked up by his Daddy story line) and the problematic elements somehow manage to get more problematic (seriously, Miss Aurora...), but darn it all if I even wasn't happy that things work out OK for Gin in the end (OMG, that woman - seriously).  The whole series is one giant Oh No He/She Didn't! after another.

And yet, it's shocking to me that this series hasn't done better.  With each new book I kept hearing that the sales weren't as robust as the publisher was hoping for - to which my theory is that they weren't marketing correctly.  When the first book appeared I think a lot of Ward fans (especially the lapsed ones...) were hoping she was returning to her contemporary romance roots.  And while there are romances here (everybody ends up paired off in the end), it's not the series' strong suit.  Also, Ward doesn't follow an individual sibling with each new installment (there isn't a Lane book, then an Edward book, then a Gin book etc.).  This is straight-up family drama for the Dallas and Dynasty set. It's 1980s-like glamour reading the likes we haven't seen since Judith Krantz.

Folks, this is whole series is beach reading.  I mean, truly - beach reading.  Not like when those sad sacks who, when you ask them to recommend you a beach read, suggest you pick up Jane Austen (seriously, who does that?!  I'm sorry, when I go to the beach I want Jackie Collins.  Darcy can go hang.)

And that's where publishing missed the boat.  Because I am not the only one.  I am not the only one who grew up at my mother's knee watching soaps and got through college on a wing, a prayer, and a healthy heaping helping of Melrose Place.  That's who this series is speaking too.  Yes, it's got issues. Frankly, it's got a whole host of them.  But if you're going to ask me if I care?  Yeah, I don't.  I'm going to sit over here and hope that Ward decides to write The Bourbon Kings: The Next Generation.

Final Grade = B

Friday, September 1, 2017

Retro Review: Diary of a Domestic Goddess

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B005WJ8H9K/themisaofsupe-20
This review for Diary of a Domestic Goddess by Elizabeth Haribson was originally posted at The Romance Reader in 2005.  Back then, I gave it 4 Hearts (B grade) with an MPAA content rating of PG-13

+++++

Elizabeth Harbison’s latest for Silhouette Special Edition succeeds where other romances have failed. She sells her story by writing about real people – or at least characters who could easily be real people. In fact, Kit Macy is likely one of the most “real” characters I’ve come across in recent memory. Diary Of A Domestic Goddess ultimately wins because the heroine is a winner.

For the last several years, Kit Macy has been managing editor and columnist at Home Life magazine, an outdated homemaker publication that Donna Reed would have read back in the 1950s. Still, it comes as a shock when the magazine is taken over by the powerful Monahan Group and the staff is given pink slips. Kit needs her job. Not only is she a single mom to four-year-old Johnny, she’s a millimeter away from closing on her dream house. She needs to be gainfully employed, and now she’s desperate. Therefore, she resorts to begging.

Breck Monahan puts Cal Panagos in charge of Home Life hoping he’ll fail miserably. In order to salvage a shred of his once sterling reputation, Cal has to make the reinvention of the magazine work – and the first order of business is unloading a staff full of antiquated ideas. However, Kit Macy won’t go away. In fact, she confronts him and tells him that he cannot turn the magazine around without her. And because he’s a sucker for a beautiful, determined woman, Cal agrees to keep her on for two months. Secretly he knows he can do without her on the job, but dang if her feistiness doesn’t intrigue the heck out of him. Banter, libidos and double entendres are soon flying, with Kit giving tit for tat.

Office romances tend to be a hard sell to the more cynical of readers, but Harbison makes this fantasy work because Kit is very much a real person. At the beginning of the novel she’s trying to juggle her career, getting approved for a mortgage, writing her latest column, and solving Johnny’s bully problems in preschool. All stuff that women deal with every day, and like real women, Kit keeps running up against obstacles that make it all the more hairy. When Cal shows up and fires everyone a little piece of her snaps. She figures this is one instance where she has to stand up to her own bully or she will lose everything.

Cal remains a bit of a mystery for a while, but he soon shapes up into hero material. He’s a handsome, ambitious man with lady-killing charm. He’s also determined to succeed at all costs, which makes him wonder exactly what he was thinking with when he agreed to keep Kit on. He figures it’s because she reminds him of a schoolboy crush, or that it’s because he’s been neglecting his libido, but he soon realizes that in order to succeed he truly needs her.

The focus of the story is always on the birth of the new magazine and the romance. Monahan serves marginally as a villain, although he remains firmly off stage. Johnny is precocious and sweet, but not so annoying cutesy that he’ll give readers a toothache. I also enjoyed the change of pace of The Ex Husband here, as for once he’s not The Bad Guy. Kit actually has a healthy relationship with Rick, and while their marriage failed, one gets the impression that they’re civil not just for Johnny but because they do still genuinely care about each other.

Diary Of A Domestic Goddess is a quick, charming read that succeeds thanks to well-drawn, realistic characters and witty dialogue. Frankly, the state of romance would certainly get a shot in the arm if there were more heroines out there like Kit Macy. She’s the woman you see in the grocery store, at PTA meetings, or at your son’s soccer games. She is Every Woman, and because she is, you really want her to have her happily ever after. Because if it can happen to Kit, it just might happen to that PTA mom you know.

+++++

Wendy Remembers: The cover.  Honestly.  The heroine's face is so tight and shiny it's like a combination of Botox and facelift that went horribly wrong.  And what's with hero dude leering at her?  Although nice touch having the kid's school picture on the desk.  Anyway, superficial nonsense aside, since I just read another Harbison romance for the last TBR Challenge, I thought it would be fun to pull this old review out from the depths.    

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Retro Review: Family Man by Carol Carson

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00A95O9C6/themisaofsupe-20
This review of Family Man by Carol Carson was first published by The Romance Reader in 2000.  Back then I gave it a rating of 3 Hearts (C Grade) with an MPAA content rating of PG.

+++++

Jane Warner moved to Drover, Kansas in 1888 to take care of her older brother’s farm and two young sons. David Warner, grieving for his dead wife, neglected his farm and sons and eventually took off, leaving Jane in charge. Jane’s existence on the farm has been less than idyllic, and now she’s taken sick. The town doctor is a quack and claims that she’s dying and her illness, which he can’t even diagnose, is most likely the result of a curse.

Jane doesn’t believe in curses, but since the doctor can’t seem to help her, she begins to question her mortality. What would happen to the farm? Her two young nephews? She certainly can’t rely on David to reappear since she has no idea where he even is. So, she takes out an ad for a man. The boys need a father, and to be cared for if she should actually die.

Rider Magrane returns to Drover after a five year stint in prison. His crime involved David Warner, so Rider decides to repay his debt to the man personally. Imagine his surprise to find Jane, and not David in residence. Jane doesn’t seem to know Rider or his connection to her brother, so of course he doesn’t tell her the truth. Rider decides the best way to repay his debt to David is to answer Jane’s ad and take care of her, the boys and the farm.

Family Man had some clever moments, but there were instances where I found the main characters actions unbelievable. Jane immediately accepts this stranger, who she knows nothing about, into her home with an 18-month-old and 6-year-old in residence. This isn’t believable in 2000, let alone 1888. Also, she doesn’t seem to think her ad through very well. Rider is the one who brings up marriage, since it isn’t proper by 1888 standards for a woman and man to live under the same roof with no chaperone and unmarried. This thought never even crossed Jane’s mind.

Rider is generally a likeable romance hero, but his motives concerning Jane are less than stellar in the beginning. His feelings for her are all over the map: he’s attracted to her, even likes her, but doesn’t love her. Then he figures marrying Jane and taking care of the farm is a good way to repay David. Gee, don’t do the girl any favors.

Original Cover
But I’m a sucker for a western romance and Family Man endeared itself to me in several ways. First, Jane and Rider are pretty much equals when it comes to experience with the opposite sex. For those of you who are tired of worldly men “educating” virginal women, this aspect of the story should appeal. Also, Carson writes some amusing secondary characters including a sister straight from The Taming of the Shrew and Evie Smith, a cantankerous old woman who pulls freight for a living.

Even though I was scratching my head in the beginning, by the end Jane and Rider really do come out as a likeable romance couple. They never lit a fire in me, but I wasn’t cheering on the bad guys either and even anticipated the consummation of their relationship.

Family Man is the sequel to the author’s first Leisure publication Bad Company. She does a nice job filling in details, while leaving enough mystery for those who want to seek out the earlier title. Family Man offers readers lighthearted moments and amusing characters. A book and an author worth a look for western romance fans.

+++++

Wendy Remembers:  One of those books that I read during my TRR tenure that I now have little recall for (look, 2000 was 17 years ago...).  Reading my review, I think this may have been one of the first few handful of books I read that featured a virgin hero (but remember, my memory is hazy - reading in between the lines of my old review, pretty sure the dude's a virgin).  Anyway, if my Old School review has gotten you curious, Carson has since self-published this and it's a very affordable $1.99 (at least via Amazon).

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Catching Up and Various Mini-Reviews

Oh hi there.  Yes, I have a blog.  A blog that I've ignored for over a week.  So what has Wendy been up to?  For one thing, work has been nutty.  I've been dealing with hiring new staff and contracts.  Both very important things, but it's made for long, mentally exhausting days at the office.

Then there's the fact that I finally bit the bullet and bought a FitBit.  Yes, I'm now officially one of The Borg.  So far it's been extremely helpful in holding me accountable.  It's made it easy for me to keep a food journal, track my exercise and smack me in the face with my inactivity during the work week (I sit a lot at my job, which I'm sure is slowly killing me....)

But I have managed to get some reading done - sort of.  I finally wrapped up a series I was neglecting and I got through two audiobooks.  Well, sort of.

You Belong to Me by Karen Rose was an audiobook I had to DNF at the 50% mark because I loathed the heroine.  She's a medical examiner and discovered a dead (and tortured) body on her regular morning run.  It's quickly determined that she was meant to find the body and that the killer is, for some reason, fixated on her.  Then more dead bodies start turning up.  There's a hunky homicide cop hero who is immediately captivated by her and the "romance" goes from zero to 60 in less than 12 hours.  The hero's boss is painted as this unreasonable jerk because he thinks the heroine is hiding something.  Gee, you don't say?

She's keeping secrets.  Some of them are just seriously stupid.  She's a musician.  Nobody can know that for some reason.  She plays the electric violin in a club she owns (while decked out in S&M-like gear because OF COURSE!) with her BFF (who does some weird act with whips - because OF COURSE!) and a defense attorney.  The hero follows her and finds out she's been keeping secrets and while they're having their first "love scene" against a back alley wall, the villain leaves another dead body in the heroine's car.

As if that weren't enough, the heroine justifies not being totally upfront with the cops because it's her private life and she wants to "keep something just for myself."

Yeah, I'm done.  Look cupcake - YOU'RE A MEDICAL EXAMINER!  You work with cops all the time.  Some mad man is out there torturing people to death, it's somehow linked to you, and YOU WANT TO KEEP SOMETHING JUST FOR YOURSELF?!?!?!?  This isn't your first rodeo. Buh bye.

Final Grade = DNF

Unlaced by the Outlaw by Michelle Willingham is the fourth and final book in the author's Secrets in Silk quartet for Amazon Montlake (Attention: Kindle Unlimited users...).  This series has mostly ranged from OK (the majority of the books) to Oh Man, That Was Really Good (the second book).  This book is Margaret's story, the sister who is wound so tight that you'll find diamonds if you follow her into the bathroom.  She's spent the entire series tap dancing around the hero, a totally unsuitable and way beneath her Scottish Highlander-type.

This is the sort of book that wraps up the series well, and is a pleasant distraction while reading, but doesn't have a lot of staying power.  The high points of this series has been Willingham's interesting premise, her not throwing out the history baby with the historical bathwater, and the world-building.  But I'll be honest - I think I prefer the author's medievals to when she ventures into Regency era.

Final Grade = C+

I first discovered Marcia Muller as a teenager, browsing the stacks at my local, small town library.  I'm feeling nostalgic, so decided to relisten to the first book in her Sharon McCone, private investigator series, Edwin of the Iron Shoes on audio.  This was first published in the late 1970s, and mostly holds up well - namely thanks to the McCone character, an independent young woman working and living in San Francisco.

What didn't hold up so well was the homicide cop character of Greg Marcus - who has particular ideas on a woman's role, and refers to Sharon by the incredibly offensive "nickname" Papoose (Sharon is of Native American heritage).  But, if I'm being totally honest - his character fits well within the landscape and era Muller was writing this book in - and guys like Greg Marcus still exist today so....yeah.

The mystery itself was engaging, and the book (on the short side) was a quick listen on audio.  Muller could have fleshed out the secondary characters a bit better, and it reads like a mystery from the late 1970s (stylistically speaking) - but I enjoyed the nostalgia trip.

Final Grade = B-