Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Unusual Historicals Top Picks for June 2020

After a strange, upended spring, we now find ourselves in a strange, upended summer with most of us wondering what the heck autumn will bring. How much is my budget going to tank at the library? Will the kids be back in a traditional classroom setting come September? When might life feel normal enough to take a couple of vacation days again? Uncertain times call for snatching moments of joy when you can - and I think I speak for most of Romancelandia when I say books are a great way to find some joy. Here are some unusual historicals releasing in June that caught my eye:

A Duke, the Lady and a Baby by Vanessa Riley
Created by a shrewd countess, The Widow’s Grace is a secret society with a mission: to help ill-treated widows regain their status, their families, and even find true love again—or perhaps for the very first time . . .  
When headstrong West Indian heiress Patience Jordan questioned her English husband's mysterious suicide, she lost everything: her newborn son, Lionel, her fortune—and her freedom. Falsely imprisoned, she risks her life to be near her child—until The Widow's Grace gets her hired as her own son’s nanny. But working for his unsuspecting new guardian, Busick Strathmore, Duke of Repington, has perils of its own. Especially when Patience discovers his military strictness belies an ex-rake of unswerving honor—and unexpected passion . . .  
A wounded military hero, Busick is determined to resolve his dead cousin’s dangerous financial dealings for Lionel’s sake. But his investigation is a minor skirmish compared to dealing with the forthright, courageous, and alluring Patience. Somehow, she's breaking his rules, and sweeping past his defenses. Soon, between formidable enemies and obstacles, they form a fragile trust—but will it be enough to save the future they long to dare together? 
 Riley’s latest kicks off a series about a secret society that comes to the aid of mistreated widows and features a done-wrong heroine who loses everything when she dares to question the circumstances of her husband’s death. A mystery, a headstrong heroine, and a wounded hero. Sign me up!

Her Lady’s Honor by Renee Dahlia
The war might be over, but the battle for love has just begun.  
When Lady Eleanor “Nell” St. George arrives in Wales after serving as a veterinarian in the Great War, she doesn’t come alone. With her is her former captain’s beloved warhorse, which she promised to return to him—and a series of recurring nightmares that torment both her heart and her soul. She wants only to complete her task, then find refuge with her family, but when Nell meets the captain’s eldest daughter, all that changes.  
Beatrice Hughes is resigned to life as the dutiful daughter. Her mother grieves for the sons she lost to war; the care of the household and remaining siblings falls to Beatrice, and she manages it with a practical efficiency. But when a beautiful stranger shows up with her father’s horse, practicality is the last thing on her mind. Despite the differences in their social standing, Beatrice and Nell give in to their unlikely attraction, finding love where they least expect it. But not everything in the captain’s house is as it seems.  
When Beatrice’s mother disappears under mysterious circumstances, Nell must overcome her preconceptions to help Beatrice, however she’s able. Together they must find out what really happened that stormy night in the village, before everything Beatrice loves is lost—including Nell. 
It’s addressed a bit with a throwaway line in the blurb, but having finished this book very recently what struck me most about it was how much the author addresses class issues as part of the romantic conflict. Nell is a Lady and Beatrice is a woman with no life of her own, trapped by the circumstances of her birth. If the thought of reading another Duke fall in love with a chambermaid without a wisp of consequences has given you a case of the permanent eye-rolls, consider this book your antidote.

Captured By Her Enemy Knight by Nicole Locke
Captured by her enemy…  
Falling for the man  
Cressida Howe, the Archer, is a well-tuned weapon. But she’s also a woman captivated by a man—Eldric of Hawskmoor, the warrior knight her father ordered her to kill. Instead, for years, Cressida has simply watched him… 
Now she’s been captured by her formidable enemy, and her well-ordered world comes crashing down, for Eldric is even more compelling up close. Cressida curses her traitorous heart—this assassin has fallen for her target! 
This book has rolled around in Wendy Catnip. Questions of loyalty, a warrior heroine, and a mysterious knight that her father wants dead for some reason. Get in my eyeballs now.

Two Rogues Make a Right by Cat Sebastian
Will Sedgwick can’t believe that after months of searching for his oldest friend, Martin Easterbrook is found hiding in an attic like a gothic nightmare. Intent on nursing Martin back to health, Will kindly kidnaps him and takes him to the countryside to recover, well away from the world.  
Martin doesn’t much care where he is or even how he got there. He’s much more concerned that the man he’s loved his entire life is currently waiting on him hand and foot, feeding him soup and making him tea. Martin knows he’s a lost cause, one he doesn’t want Will to waste his life on.  
As a lifetime of love transforms into a tender passion both men always desired but neither expected, can they envision a life free from the restrictions of the past, a life with each other? 
The next book in Sebastian’s Sedgwick’s series gives readers a fairy tale spin - although it’s a prince locked away in a tower (or attic, whatever) opposed to a princess. Library Journal gave it a starred review and called it a “life-affirming final act to the trilogy”

An Outlaw’s Honor by Terri Brisbin
When the only man she can trust is known for his dishonorable past, what could go wrong?

A Dishonorable Man
Thomas Brisbois of Kelso has only one goal when he arrives at the tournament--to defeat the only knight who ever bested him in battle. If he succeeds, the Scottish king will return to him his lands, his honor and his life. He has little interest in other prizes, and even less when he learns that the lord for whom his rival fights has included a daughter among the spoils at stake in their contest-- a lovely daughter with no desire to play the pawn, or to see her father's champion win. She is a distraction, all the more after she explains her own ideas about which knight shall have her, and how and when.  
A Desperate Woman
Annora may be a pawn in her father’s plans but she has no intention of letting that happen without a fight of her own. When she sees the frank desire in Thomas’ gaze for her, she makes her own offer—she’ll help him win if he’ll let her go. . . after he beds her. Her plans go awry when she discovers the truth of the man beneath the armor. The man who had lost everything and struggles to regain his life.  
Brisbin is a seasoned pro in medieval historical romance, so I always know I’ll be in good hands when I pick up one of her stories. Part of a multi-author series centered around a tournament, I love historical heroines who find themselves as pawns of men’s machinations but scheme to throw a wrench in the works. Naturally, in romance, schemes never seem to go according to plan.

What Unusual Historicals are you looking forward to reading?

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Review: Her Lady's Honor

Her desires could be trampled by anyone else, simply because Beatrice was the spinster sibling with no rights of her own. She'd often wondered if being married would give her slightly more power, or if she'd end up as a shell of herself like Mother had.
Her Lady's Honor by Renee Dahlia has a back cover blurb that has been haunting my dreams since I first read it months ago.  So I was all set to love this story to the moon and back when I finally settled in to read it.  How did it turn out?  Well, it was kind of a mixed bag.

Lady Eleanor "Nell" St. George, daughter of a second son, niece to a Duke, used her wits and her family connections to join the war effort as a veterinary assistant.  Dreadfully close to the front, it was the job of Nell's unit to tend to the horses, keep them alive, patch them up and send them back into battle.  Now the war is over and Nell is delivering on a promise.  Her captain, gassed and hospitalized, asked Nell to ensure his horse is returned to him in Wales.

Beatrice Hughes is the captain's oldest, and spinster, daughter, seen as nothing more than a servant in her own home.  Her mother is a shell of her former self after her three oldest boys were killed in the war.  The captain is an abusive man who beats his wife and sees little to no value in his girl children.  Her sister Grace is selfish, still bemoaning the death of her fiance overseas, so it's up to Beatrice to keep the farm running, the smaller children cared for while her mother acts the ghost and her father drinks himself into oblivion.  Beatrice's life is not her own - and then in walks Nell, a beautiful, brave adventuress that her father treats respectfully because she's "a Lady."

Dahlia does some interesting things with this book in terms of conflict and the internal character struggles.  Class is a very big deal in this story.  Nell is a Lady.  Nell has privilege.  But her years in the war have made her less polished, a bit more crass, to the point where she's almost dreading going home to her family.  She misses them terribly, she longs for the comfort of home to process her war experiences, but she also recognizes that she's not "Lady Eleanor" anymore.  She's "Nell."  The war has changed her and there's no going back.  But at the end of the day, even with her baggage, Nell has choices.

In contrast, Beatrice has no choices.  She's a heroine trapped in a life that promises nothing but drudgery and uncertainty.  Stuck in place by family obligations, nothing to look forward to - not even dreams.  Because what good are dreams when your reality is so soul-sucking.  She could marry, but who's to say that she wouldn't end up saddled to a man just like her father, and Beatrice is well aware she's a lesbian. There's no questioning of her sexuality. So marriage, even as a possible escape, is out.

Nell has respect for the captain prior to showing up on his doorstep and once she meets his wife and children she has to reconcile the good solider she served under with the abusive man terrorizing his family.  Then Beatrice's mother goes missing and the captain's temperament takes an even more unsavory turn.

It's a weighty book with weighty themes and Dahlia does introduce moments of levity, but they don't always work.  The tone feels off when she does so. Also, while I sympathized with Beatrice a great deal it's still hard to not find her insufferable at times.  Girl, Nell is trying. Nell has issues, and says some callous things that hurt Beatrice.  But then Beatrice pouts and throws Nell's apologies back in her face even when, as the reader, you can tell Nell's apologies are heartfelt. That she's sorry, that she'll do better.  As for the romance, it's OK but not great.  It's very heavy insta-lust and while the chemistry is there, I never quite figured out how they fell in love.  Lust, sure. I got that.  Love?  Not so much.

However the setting is well drawn (the incessant rain, the farm, the small Welsh village...) and the cast of characters vast and interesting.  In a genre that tends to ignore class because it's inconvenient (and readers do seem to love Dukes living happily ever after with governesses...) the fact that Dahlia doesn't ignore it, addresses it even, adds compelling and realistic drama to the romance.  It wasn't everything I wanted it to be, but there was still plenty here for me to admire.

Final Grade = B-

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

#TBRChallenge 2020: Blissful Summer

The Book: Blissful Summer by Cheris Hodges and Lisa Marie Perry

The Particulars: Contemporary romance, Kimani Romance, 2015, Out of Print, Not Available in Digital

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: My print copy looks brand new, but it's not autographed and I went almost exclusively digital with Harlequin well before 2015. Best guess is that I snagged it in a conference goody room.  I'm at conference + Harlequin not tied down = of course I grabbed it.

The Review: This month's optional theme is Getaway, and I decided to interpret that as "vacation destination."  Make You Mine Again by Cheris Hodges kicks off this anthology with a reunion romance set in Atlanta, New York, Paris and Jamaica.

Jansen Douglas is an in-demand supermodel who is preparing for the next phase of her career.  She's not getting any younger, and realizing the shelf-life for models, has visions of opening up her own agency.  But first she needs to attend her BFF's wedding in Paris.  The fly in the ointment?  Her BFF's brother, Bradley Stephens, is the one that got away.  Well, more like she showed him the door.  She supported Bradley's dreams and ambitions, but when she told him she wanted to kick-start a career in modelling - well, it didn't go well.  She left him, and neither one has gotten over it.

This story only clocks in at 100 pages, and the couple doesn't actually land on page together until the halfway point.  Which, I know this is a reunion romance, but it's still a problem.  So what's happening in the first 50 pages?  A lot of info-dumping, setting up a Big Misunderstanding and secondary character introductions that felt like series filler to me.  But then I can't find any mention online that this is actually a series?  So that means it felt like a series idea that the author cut back to fit a 100 page novella and it just didn't work for me.  There's too much here for a novella. Also, to be perfectly blunt, I completely understood why Jansen walked away from Bradley all those years ago and I'm wholly unconvinced he's "changed" and seen the light.  Jansen is a fierce heroine and gurl, you could do so much better.  

Grade = C

There's a bit of plot absurdity in Unraveled by Lisa Marie Perry but there are some nice moments in this novella.  Ona Tracy was a scholarship kid at her prestigious Philadelphia performing arts school with Most Likely to Succeed written all over her - but life has not spun out as planned.  She gave up Broadway dreams for a worthless man, then her career in advertising took a hit when she fell for a double-crossing colleague.  She's at a low ebb, but has managed to convince her former high school that she's the event planner who can tackle the Glee Club's 10-year reunion.  She's got big plans to seduce her high school crush who has turned out to be Mr. Successful Stability. She just needs it all to go off without a hitch and survive her Mean Girl Nemesis.  But trouble starts brewing right away when the ship she booked turns out to be an "erotic cruise" to the Bahamas.  But our gal is determined to make lemonade out of lemons, and no sooner does she start exploring the ship than she makes the steamy acquaintance of ex-Marine, Riker Ewan.  Sparks fly immediately with this working class bartender from Boston, but wouldn't you know?  There's more to Riker than meets the eye.

I'm a bit of a sucker for high school reunion stories, and Perry does some interesting things with her cast of secondary characters.  The high school crush who didn't notice Ona back in the day, the propositioning jerk that Ona has to smack down repeatedly, but it's the Mean Girl Nemesis that's really interesting.  She's uppity and prickly to Ona's pure sassy goodness.  The scenes between these two are great, especially at the end when insecurities come pouring out.  The chemistry with Riker is also good, and I'm a sucker for a blue-collar hero paired with a polished heroine like Ona.  Ona's life might not be great at the moment, but she's a never let 'em see you sweat sort - again, extremely attractive in a romance heroine.

The issue is conflict. Ona's conflict, the high school reunion cast, the botched cruise booking - more than enough to power a 100 page novella.  Riker really could have just been a guy going on a cruise after getting stood up by a woman.  But no.  Riker has a Big Secret and he's on the cruise for other half-baked reasons entirely - which of course means family baggage. It's too much. The Riker baggage feels completely unnecessary - Ona's is more than enough to carry the show.  Still, a fun read and frankly a bloody shame that Perry doesn't seem to be writing anymore.  If anyone can tell me otherwise, I'd love to hear it.

Grade = B-

While I wasn't madly in love with this short anthology, it did the trick of kick-starting my flagging reading mojo.  Presumably it's not available anymore because rights have reverted back to the authors.  I'd like to see what Hodges could do with her characters if she spun them out into an entire family series and the Perry story has some fun moments.  Hopefully digital reprints are on the horizon.

Overall Final Grade = C+

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Mini-Review: The Au Pair

 The Au PairOn the very day Seraphine Mayes and her twin brother Danny were born at home on their family's Norfolk estate their mother committed suicide by throwing herself off the cliffs, their older brother's au pair fled and the small village's love of superstitious nonsense kicked into overdrive with talk of witches and changelings and sprites.  Twenty-some-odd years later, Seraphine still lives on the family estate mourning the recent accidental death of her father.  It's while she's going through some things that she discovers an old photograph, presumably taken on the day of her and Danny's birth.  Their father, their mother, their older brother Edwin and....one newborn baby in their mother's arms.  Is that baby Seraphine or Danny and where's the other one?  Seraphine, who has spent her life being called a sprite, remarked upon that she looks nothing like her siblings or father, and saddled with grief, is determined to find answers.  And for that, she needs to track down Edwin's former au pair, Laura.

So begins Emma Rous's debut suspense novel, The Au Pair: family secrets, with a sprinkling of Gothic, told in time slip fashion - Seraphine in present day and Laura the au pair in the early 1990s.  The first half was a bit rocky for me mostly because Seraphine comes off as borderline hysterical (save me from hysterical female protagonists in suspense novels) but it smooths out a bit as the story lines converge and threats surface to warn Seraphine about snooping around in the family's dirty laundry.  There's even a very light romance thread to spice up the proceedings, making this one of the more nostalgic Gothic throwbacks I've read this year.

The ending is, well OK.  I'll be honest, it's really light in the pants on motive.  All the family secrets come tumbling out but why The Bad Guy did what they did doesn't hold up to much scrutiny.  But it's an ending, I guess?  And it helps distract from the other large issue in this story, which is that all the adults are really gross.  I mean, I think I'm supposed to not like Laura in the end and be a Judgey McJudge Pants about the choices she makes back in 1992 - but Laura was an 18-year-old girl with a mountain of baggage thanks to her Mum, Stepfather, and a relationship gone bad.  Did she make good choices?  Well, no.  But frankly she was 18 and the frickin' adults in this book were ADULTS and yes I'm going to hold them to a higher standard.  But then we wouldn't have had much of a story.

In the end this was better than OK for me but I wasn't in love with it.  That said, there's enough on the page of this debut novel that I would definitely be interested in reading Rous's next book.

Final Grade = B-

Friday, June 12, 2020

Reminder: #TBRChallenge Day is June 17!

A reminder that #TBRChallenge day is Wednesday, June 17.  This month's (always optional) theme is Getaway.

Yes, another one of the new, vague themes that Wendy is torturing y'all with. What does getaway mean to you? Tropical islands? Vacation? Runaway brides? Escaping the bad guys?  Any way you think to apply the optional theme - anything goes!

However, if you're not in the mood, can't be bothered, whatever your reasons may be....no problem!  Remember, the themes are always optional.

You can learn more about the Challenge and see the list of participating folks on the Information Page

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Mini-Reviews: A DNF, A What-Might-Have-Been, and Comfort Reading

I was bound and determined to continue my Maisey Yates glom but terrible timing and realizing too late I was full-up on sexually inexperienced heroines led me to DNF'ing Seduce Me, Cowboy at the 30% mark.  The heroine is a good-girl preacher's daughter who has finally realized that being good has gotten her nowhere in life - so she moves out of her parents' house, quits her secretarial job at Daddy's church, and goes to work for our hero, who is a gruff wrong-side-of-the-tracks sort who has built a construction empire.  She's Never-Been-Kissed Rose-Colored-Glasses, and he's Mr. Grumpy Jaded Cynic.  I just couldn't with this child.  In the wake of everything currently going on in the US (posterity for my blog archives: COVID-19, George Floyd's murder, civil unrest) I just...couldn't with this child.  Plus this was the third sexually inexperienced Yates heroine in a row I'd read and y'all...I just couldn't with this child. Certainly I've read and enjoyed plenty of books featuring Sunshine-y Heroines and Grumpy Heroes, but now is not the time. Her Sunshine-y privilege just made me want to smack her into next Tuesday.

Final Grade = DNF

The Ghosts of Eden Park: the Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz-Age America by Karen Abbott was an audiobook listen I picked up at The Day Job because I like Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction nonfiction books and this is another one of those "Trials of the Century" that have largely faded from American consciousness.  George Remus was a morally bankrupt pharmacist-turned-lawyer in Cincinnati, Ohio who turned Prohibition bootlegger.  He dumped his first wife, married Imogene (who worked in his office - because of course) and ultimately caught the attention of Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who was appointed Assistant US Attorney General under the less than squeaky clean Harding administration. Willebrandt, charged with enforcing Prohibition, had a real problem finding field agents who weren't corrupt, and she thought she'd found her man in Franklin Dodge.  Turns out? Not so much.  Dodge and Imogene entered into an affair while Remus was in prison.  When Remus got out of prison? That's when all hell broke loose.

Abbott had access to extensive court documents - which, fine.  The problem is she focuses on the least interesting guy in the room.  Remus is just like every other megalomaniac sociopath criminal gangster that came before him, and since.  Imogene and Dodge are the story here.  How exactly did these two really hook up? Did Imogene set her sights on Remus from the word go in order to take everything out from under him - or was she pushed into it, either by Dodge or with her just being completely fed up with Remus's abuse?  We'll never know.  I get that Abbott is working with the historical record available to her, which means my final impression is that what I really wanted was a historical fiction account of these characters - not so much nonfiction.

Final Grade = C

Back in late summer 2017 I decided to revisit Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone series. I made great progress in 2018, kept going in 2019, but stalled out when it was time to read While Other People Sleep, the 18th book in the series. Frankly, I got distracted by other books, and I recalled being meh about this one when I first read it.  Turns out my memory isn't completely shot.

Sharon, now with her own agency, finds out through her grapevine that a woman was impersonating her at a cocktail party.  What Sharon hopes was a harmless prank turns out to be much more sinister - this woman is handing out her business cards, having one-night-stands, stealing from said one-night-stands, committing credit card fraud, calling her friends and family, and even is audacious enough to break into Sharon's house.  

This book feels like Muller just didn't have enough to oomph-up the main mystery.  There's other threads here - namely efficient office manager Ted is acting completely out of character, and some added bits about various other cases the firm is working (one is a guy hiding financial assets ahead of a divorce, the other a guy who thinks his girlfriend is cheating on him).  Then there's Sharon's relationship drama - Hy is off to South America, not in contact just as Sharon's life is unraveling, and he's likely in danger.  It gives the book a very scattershot feel for the first half.  It's not until the second half, when Sharon loops in all her colleagues about the woman who is ruining her life and the focus lands firmly there that things smooth out.  Then it turns out to be a decent cat-and-mouse style read.

Not a favorite in this series but I desperately needed Competent Female Porn - and smart, female private detectives are my jam. They're 100% comfort reads for me.  Smart woman solves the mystery, saves the day and justice is served - I mean, what's not to love about that?

Final Grade = C+

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Review: Hold Me, Cowboy

Because he was the kind of man a woman could make a mistake with. And she had thought she was done making mistakes.
Hold Me, Cowboy by Maisey Yates gives readers the romance of Sam McCormack, the hermit-like, grumpy older brother of Chase, who got his romance in Take Me, Cowboy.  Chase is the business guy.  Sam is the artist. His iron sculptures of typical western motifs (horses, longhorns, you get the idea....) dot the town of Copper Ridge and are bringing in a nice income for the family business thanks to tourists happy to throw around some cash.  But Sam is in the midst of an artistic crisis - inspiration has fled the building.  I mean how many horses and cows can one guy sculpt?  So he heads to a mountain retreat only to find himself face to face with a woman who drives him to distraction.

Madison West, daughter of the town's most prominent family has an ice queen reputation. Sam still swings by her family's estate to make sure her horses stay in shoes and she's always staring down at him with a haughty attitude - like she's supervising "the help."  Truth is Madison has baggage - the kind of baggage that has kept her celibate for 10 years.  Ten. Years. Well, she's over it. She's rented a cabin up in the mountains for a weekend get-away with a guy named Christopher.  Except snow arrives, Christopher can't get up the mountain, and the electricity goes out in her cabin. So she heads next door for help and runs smack dab into Sam.  These two are like oil and water but they're snowed in, they're both horny - what happens up on the mountain stays up on the mountain AMIRITE?!?

But eventually they head back home and naturally they both still have an itch that needs scratching.  It's 12 days until Christmas - so they agree on a 12 day fling.  Have some fun, scratch the itch, they're totally wrong for each other so it's not like they're going to fall in love or anything.  Ha ha ha ha!  Silly romance couples.  Will they never learn?

I've been reading category romance a long time, and Desire is one of the shorter lines - typically clocking in a smidge over 200 pages.  I've been reading this line for close to 20 years, I know the rhythms.  What Yates does here is kind of fiddle with that rhythm - which didn't entirely work for me at first and it took a little time for me to find my footing.  Basically this book opens with chapter one then boom! Smoking hot sex scene.  Character development, what makes them tick, their baggage, the internal conflicts - Yates eventually gets the reader there but it all comes after the characters decide to hit the sheets.  And of course what happens is that these two people who think they're oil and water, actually have a lot in common - and that's when the story gets interesting.

Yates has a way of sucker-punching the reader with emotional heft in what you think is going to be a quick, sexy beach read.  The reason why Madison has been celibate for 10 years? She was a naive "in love" 17-year-old taken advantage of by a much older man, in a position of power. And when she went looking for a safe haven?  She didn't find one.  On the other foot, Sam has been celibate for 5 years after a tragedy nobody, not even his brother, is aware of.  When all this comes bubbling to the surface in the final half the book, Madison bravely stands in front of Sam and just lets it all out. The anger, the guilt, the blame, and ultimately the realization that she's fallen in love with him.  The question is - will our self-pitying hero pull his head out of his butt in time to realize it.

As great as the emotional stuff was, the pacing on this book didn't work quite as well.  I "get" why the early sex scene but it threw me off my stride for half a minute.  Also, I was confused where this book fit in the Copper Ridge series timeline for a while.  It seems like it's much later after Take Me, Cowboy but then it turns out it's only a few months?  And there's a lot of West family stuff here that I wasn't lost or confused about - but it's kind of dropped into the story, and I think it will work better for those readers who have read the single titles about Madison's various siblings first.  I'm admittedly reading out of chronological order.

But, typical Yates, this was a quick, steamy read that kept me engaged in flipping the pages.  Sexy with a heavy dollop of emotional angst.  The glom continues....

Final Grade = B-