Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review: What Remains Of Me
I get my audio listens exclusively from work.  My habit is to go diving through our Overdrive collection and "wish-list" any audiobooks that happen to catch my eye.  Then when I need something new to listen to, I see what's available on my wishlist and run with the one that tickles my fancy at the moment.  I was in the mood for something suspenseful and What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin is set in Hollywood - with all the glitz, glamor and seediness one expects when reading a suspense novel set in Hollywood.  Should the author's agent or any entertainment types be reading my humble little blog - this book is tailor-made for one of those limited-run television series.  Get on that, will you?

On June 28, 1980, Kelly Michelle Lund pumped three bullets into Oscar-nominated director, John McFadden during a wrap party for his latest film.  What follows is the trial of the century that continues to fascinate 30-years after Kelly manages to get released from prison.  Why would a 17-year-old girl, albeit stoned on marijuana and high on cocaine, basically "a nobody," kill John McFadden?  What's the motive?  Kelly is tight-lipped and now out of prison for five years, isn't talking.  She's mostly living a quiet life in Joshua Tree when one morning she gets the news that her father-in-law, Sterling Marshall, has been found dead, shot in his home in the same manner as his BFF, John McFadden.  And naturally, Kelly is the prime suspect.

The story floats back and forth between 1980 and 2010 and shifts points-of-view between a handful of characters.  In 1980 Kelly is living with her single-mother, a former make-up artist who sells cosmetics at a high end department store.  Kelly's twin-sister, Katherine, a wild child wannabe starlet has been dead for two years - her body found at the bottom of a cliff and ruled a suicide.  Kelly is a loner, and outsider, at Hollywood High until she is befriended by Bellamy Marshall, the daughter of a Hollywood legend and a girl her mother wants her to stay away from.  But Bellamy is intoxicating to Kelly, her first real friend.  Ditching school, drugs, and Hollywood parties inevitably follow, until it all blows up on June 28, 1980.

2010 finds Kelly living in Joshua Tree, writing copy for a seedy cheater's web site (think Ashley Madison) and married to Shane Marshall (yes, Bellamy's little brother and Sterling Marshall's son - stay with me folks!).  They married while she was still in prison.  Their relationship is more that of roommates.  They sleep in separate rooms.  They had a sexual relationship early on, but that has since stopped.  Kelly has zero contact with his family.  They spend their lives in Joshua Tree until Sterling Marshall's death pulls both of them back in.

This book is all about secrets and I'm not exaggerating when I say everyone in this story is keeping a secret.  Every single secret in this story builds and builds until it manages to hurt every single player in this tale.  Everyone pays a price, all because of those secrets.  I'll admit, I coasted along with this story with a "yeah, yeah I know where this is going, get on with it!" attitude because for the first half or so I thought I had it all figured out.  Oh silly Wendy.  I had about 1/3 of it figured out.  Some things I spotted right off, but Gaylin peppers in so many twists and WTF-just-happened turns that this one kept me on the edge of my seat right to the end.

Since this blog is predominantly read by romance readers, let me state that this is a suspense novel although the relationships between all the characters is what drives the story.  I would not call this story overly graphic, but there are two murders and spoiler: mentions of statutory rape which are not graphically depicted in the story (end spoiler).  

The descriptions got a little flowery at times for me (this could be a product of consuming this book on audio though), but it's a story I ended up enjoying tremendously.  I liked how the author twisted her story around shattering my holier-than-thou attitude that I had it "all figured out."  She ties it all up in the end, reveals all the secrets, and blows the door open on the whodunit.  A solid suspense read with well-formed characters and a touch of soap opera seediness to sleaze it up.

Final Grade = B+

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Little Miss Crabby Pants Gets Squeaky Clean

She's back!  That's right kids, Little Miss Crabby Pants has once again broken her bonds of forced imprisonment to talk to you all about something that is starting to get on her last good nerve.  The current state of political affairs?  Her yearly hand-wringing over what next fiscal year's library budget is going to look like?  No.  It's much more troublesome than that.  Far worse.

I'm talking about authors who release "clean versions" and "sexy versions" of their books.  This little slice of insanity has been around for a while now but seems to be picking up steam - and yes, self-published writers, this will be a blog post where Little Miss Crabby Pants is going to "pick on you."  I see these sorts of shenanigans almost exclusively in self-published quarters.  Merry Farmer (who writes westerns) has turned it into a cottage industry.  Lauren Royal has taken books previous published by New York and done it.  And one of my personal favorite examples, an author named Elle Snow has released "clean versions" of stories with titles like Go Long and Pull Out.

Words. Fail.

Look, I get it.  All authors want to make a livable wage at their writing - which has gotten so increasingly difficult it'd probably be easier to wish upon a star and hope their fictional billionaire heroes come to life and fall hopelessly in love with them.  So yeah, I get it.  I really do.  The name of the game is output.  Backlist.  And trying to cast the widest net as humanly possibly to snag as many reader eyeballs as humanly possible.  Little Miss Crabby Pants is not unsympathetic. 

But, you're doing it wrong.

Sex, like all things in fiction needs to be organic to the story or really, what's the point?  There has to be a reason for it to be there.  It has to move the story forward.  It has to have meaning.  Otherwise you're inserting (ha!) filler that's taking up word count and frankly boring your reader.  This is probably the category romance reader in me - but it all has to mean something.  Which means if the author is doing their job, if every element of the story "means something" - then taking out the sex scenes should alter your core story.  It may not make it a hot mess on the level of a Category 5 hurricane, but it should at least make a mess say, like when your toddler gets a hold of your favorite tube of lipstick. 

Now lest you think that Big Meanie Little Miss Crabby Pants is just here to pick on poor defenseless self-published authors, remember - she's equal opportunity crabby.  Readers, this is probably 95% our fault.  For all those readers who whine on GoodReads, "Ewww, there's no sex in this story!  All romance novels MUST have sex in them!!!" or the readers who whine, "Ewwww, there's dirty naughty bits in this story!  Jeeves, where are my smelling salts?!?!'  Yeah, I'm looking at you.

The cold, hard (ha!) truth of the matter is this:  Not all romance novels need sex in them and not all romance novels should be rewritten to tailor to every reader's personal preference.  There will be some books you like and some books you won't and dear Lord above with all the romance that is pushed out into the marketplace Every. Single. Year. you're more than likely to find something that fits your personal tastes.  Nothing is perfect and yes, you'll need to spend time reading samples and reading books that turn out to be not your jam.  But nobody, anywhere, is entitled to spoon-feeding. Samples are free.  Read them.  And trust Little Miss Crabby Pants on this: a good story, is a good story.  Stories without sex in them CAN be good.  Stories with dirty, sexy, naughty times in them CAN be good.  I've read plenty of examples of both.

So authors, stop writing meaningless sex scenes that are only in the story because someone told you, "Oh dear, you HAVE to have a sex scene in here - it's a romance novel!"  No, no you don't.  If the book isn't calling for it, if it doesn't serve to advance the story - no, you don't need a sex scene.  And while I'm at it, stop listening to readers who whine on GoodReads or Amazon or have the gall to e-mail you berating you for the "smut" you're writing.  If the sex scenes are important to the story - they stay.  And readers who don't like it have a choice.  They can, you know, not read your book.  Or make the decision to not read your books if you write stories that call for hot, sexy times.  Yes, you've lost a reader.  But readers being readers, more than likely they'll forget the last paragraph I just wrote and buy your dirty, sexy books by the truckload.  We can't be all things to all people and the minute we all realize that the better off the genre will be.

Because, guess what?  If you're just writing sex for the sake of sex and it means so little to the story that you can simply take it out to release a "clean version?"  Yeah, you are just writing "lady porn."  Own it.

Monday, April 24, 2017

On the Road + #EverAfterBox Review

April has been a bit of a lost month, what with my parents arriving at The Bat Cave for a visit, me taking six days away from the office, killing two car tires (one on My Man's car, one on mine), and then, inevitably, having to go back to work after six days off to scramble around playing catch-up. But I have popped up in other places even if this blog has been a bit quiet.  

First, I'm over at Heroes & Heartbreakers with my most recent Unusual Historicals column.  I do this column monthly folks - which means if I see anymore whining on Twitter about "Boohoo I'm so tired of Regency and why don't they publish books that aren't Regencies?" in my feed I will pop up to slap you into next Tuesday.

Second, I'm over at Vassiliki's Shallowreader blog being featured in her latest Sharing the Shallows. Find out what I really think about reading in the bathroom, what romance trope I will loathe with my last dying breath and if I think guys who drive hatchbacks are worthy of being romance heroes.


Arriving just in time for me to celebrate surviving my first full week back in the office, the latest Ever After subscription box showed up. I don't regularly subscribe but when I saw the theme for April, Librarians In Love, I mean how can I be expected to resist that?! 

For those who are unfamiliar with the Ever After box, it's roughly the size of a child's size shoe box and typically contains several books (a mix of print and digital downloads), book related swag, and sometimes swag related to the theme at large.  This month you can nominate your favorite local library and Ever After will donate 10% of the proceeds from the sale of this box.

So what was in this month's box?  Well, I have to be honest - nothing here that really surprised me. However, that being said, I try to keep up with librarian-related romances - so yeah.  It would have been more shocking if I had been completely caught unawares.

For the most part I liked this box and I really liked how they tied together the theme.  Besides the featured librarian romances I received, Dade, Maher, Title and Mann have all worked, or still work, as librarians.  

The only inclusion to the box that has me scratching my head somewhat is Labyrinth of Love which, as far as I can tell, is about an architect/builder-type hero and a "local historian" heroine who, according to a GoodReads reviewer, works at a tourism center.  So....library?  Librarian?  Anywhere? I guess I'll have to read the book to find out!  

Final Verdict = If you're a sucker for librarians in romance novels this is a solid purchase. I'm unlikely to be a regular subscriber, but I have a hard time saying no to Ever After when there's a theme I'm a sucker for - and you have a one-month plan option.

Lord help me if they ever do a Boss/Secretary or Virgin Hero box. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

#TBRChallenge 2017: The Story Guy

The Book: The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers

The Particulars: Contemporary romance novella, LoveSwept, 2013, part of the Lakefield novella series, digital only

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: When this novella came out everyone and their dog was reading it and squee'ing about it.  I wasn't purchasing a lot of ebooks during that period outside of Harlequin - but at the 2013 RWA Conference, Loveswept was giving away special print editions and I snagged one.

The Review: I haven't been reading. I haven't finished a book since late March and then it was an audiobook.  I'm in a cranky reading mood at the moment, so keep that in mind while reading this review.  I feel like I probably should have liked this more but there were things here that rubbed me the wrong way.  And since everyone and their dog seems to have loved this story - well, this could be another case of Wendy being cranky about hyped books.  Cranky Wendy gonna crank.

Carrie West is the type of heroine who keeps trying to convince the reader she's "happy" with her life but she's not really.  She's lonely.  And she strikes me as the sort of person who stays on the surface of everyone's life but never lets anyone get truly close.  For amusement, this thirty-something single librarian who lives in a studio apartment likes to read personal ads of the Craigslist variety.  When she reads Brian's ad, she responds.  Brian wants to meet someone on Wednesdays for kissing. Just kissing.  The first time Carrie and Brian meet in the park near the library where she works - their kisses are enough to set the park bench on fire.  But Brian has baggage.  Baggage that he is unwilling to share with Carrie, no matter how drawn he is to her.

On the surface this is just the sort of unique plot spin that I should find appealing, but the writing never really resonated with me.  There's a confessional style here, but the dialogue smacks too flowery, too convoluted.  For example, during an IM chat Brian says:
I can't...I'm not a one-night-stand guy.  I'm not wired to enjoy that.  I seems weird, I know, because what we did isn't that far away on the map from one-night-stand.  There is always this moment, when you take a woman home just to take a woman home, some moment right before it could get awesome but you don't know yet if it will, that you, or maybe not you, but me, gets all still inside.  Quiet.  And for me, that moment always seems like it lasts forever.  And it's enough time for me to live some kind of life from that moment to the end of time and back again.  With this woman I've taken home or gone home with, with my one-night stand, someone who isn't mine, but for that one crazy long heartbeat, I want to be mine.
My first thought was "What the hell did I just read?," my second thought was "Who the hell talks like this in Real Life?," and my third was "What GUY talks like this in Real Life?"  It's entirely possible I've only known Neanderthal Men who communicate through a series of semi-intricate grunts, but seriously.  No guy talks like this.  Says Wendy.  And it's my blog, so it must be true.

But everyone and their dog loves this novella so I persist until I get to the stereotypical Gay Best Friend who doles out pearls of wisdom like:
The part of yourself that opens herself up to a man based on nothing but a little intuition that there is goodness in him and that he kisses like the world's ending.  Do you want to know that part?  Because you don't have to.  You're right.  Your life is a nice one - there are no guarantees, but it's on the right path to stay a nice one.  Brian is not on this path.
Great.  So basically we've got a Gay Best Friend crossbred with Yoda.  Gay I am.  Offer sage advice I will.  Hmmmmm!  (Read that in a Yoda voice - it totally works!)

I'll admit, I'm cranky.  But I also don't feel like this is some deep love connection.  Basically these two kiss, feel some Insta-Lust, and I'm supposed to buy that it's a great love match.  And I'm not really convinced since it kind of smacks as a love at first sight thing (which I, admittedly, am not a big believer in).  I also had issues with Brian's Big Secret.  Delving too deeply into it veers all the way into Spoiler Territory, but in a nutshell?  I'm not buying it as Big Secret material.  Yes, his life is complicated but dude - man up.  Yes, your life is complicated and you have obligations but treating it all like some Deep Dark Secret just....well, it dehumanizes the other players in the Big Secret which just bothered the heck out of me.

I probably should grade this lower - but I can't.  I very well could be excessively cranky (well...more so than usual).  I feel like this is a story I should have enjoyed more than I did.  The plot should have worked for me and the style is in the same zip code as other authors I have enjoyed in the past (there are shades of Megan Hart, Molly O'Keefe and Charlotte Stein here).  But it just never gelled. I could just be cranky or...not.  I leave it up to you, dear blog reader, to decide.

Final Grade = C

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Reminder: #TBRChallenge for April 2017

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

This is a fairly broad theme, assuming you read contemporary.  Basically any story that was set in the present day of it's publication date (so if you want to dig out that Harlequin Presents from 1987 that would TOTALLY count!).  But what if you're not a fan of contemporary set stories?  What if "they'll" have to pry historicals out of your 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 not too late to sign-up!)

Saturday, April 1, 2017

#ShallowReader Bingo for March 2017

It took some creative mental gymnastics on my part, but I made BINGO again this month as part of Shallowreader's Romancelandia Bingo Challenge.  Also, because I made BINGO last month, Vassiliki was kind enough to let me name my own square!  Because I know you're all curious (ha ha!) - Father Figure was my contribution to the March sheet.

The BINGO row:

The Black Moment = Temptations of a Wallflower by Eva Leigh.  The conflict in this story involves a Big Secret and by the time it comes tumbling out, the hero and heroine are in love and enjoying a blissful married existence.  Needless to say, it makes for a very emotional "black moment."

Love thy Neighbor = Dare She Date the Dreamy Doc? by Sarah Morgan.  The setting is a tiny Scottish island, where basically everybody is your darn neighbor!

Buff = Dare She Date the Dreamy Doc? again. And this is buff as in "polish."  The hero lives in a lighthouse that he restored to be his home.  That's a lot of polishing!

Hero/ine = Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women by Marianne Monson.  The 12 biographies featured women who were the heroes (and heroines!) of their own stories.  But for an added twist, one of the biographies was Charley Parkhurst, a woman who lived as a man and became a legendary stagecoach driver.

Patience = Scandal Takes the Stage and Temptations of a Wallflower by Eva Leigh.  Scandal because it was an exercise in patience for me to finish it.  Temptation because I had to patiently wait for the author to reveal how a blue-blooded virginal heroine could possibly have enough worldly knowledge to secretly be a famed erotica writer.

Miscellaneous Squares:

Father Figure and An Ill Wind = Temptations of a Wallflower by Eva Leigh.  "Father" applies to the vicar hero and the fact that his father is a sanctimonious windbag.  An Ill Wind applies to the Sword of Damocles Big Secret conflict that provides a sense of foreboding throughout the story.

Redundant and Dancing = Scandal Takes the Stage by Eva Leigh.  The story felt redundant because of a lack of what I felt was compelling conflict (or really, any conflict).  Dancing because there's a scene where the hero and heroine dance.

Independence = Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women by Marianne Monson.  Pretty self-explanatory. 

Comfort = Dare She Date the Dreamy Doc? by Sarah Morgan was a TBR Challenge read for March and the theme was "comfort read."

Terribly Sad! = The Gunslinger's Bride by Cheryl St. John.  I have loved many of St. John's books so it seemed a sure thing to pick up this book for the TBR Challenge comfort read theme.  Um, not so much.  I DNF'ed this one at chapter six and it made me terribly sad!

Friday, March 31, 2017

Tigers Meet Harlequin: Love and Baseball

Our Hero: Nick Castellanos

What You Need To Know:  The Tigers drafted Nick out of high school in 2010.  His mother is a native Detroiter, although she and her husband (Jorge - Castellanos is a Cuban surname) raised their family in Florida.  So Nick signing with his mother's hometown team was pretty dang exciting.

He was a shortstop in college, but the Tigers shifted him to third base.  However in 2013, with Migell Cabrera still playing third and Prince Fielder holding court at first base - Nick was a top prospect with no position.  So the Tigers sent him to AAA Toledo to get work in left field.  His name kept getting dangled as possible trade bait, but the Tigers considered him untouchable, so he stayed.  In 2014, the Tigers sent Prince to Texas for Ian Kinsler, shifted Migell to first base and just like that?  Nick was back playing third and made the big league team out of spring training.  Nick had a breakout year in 2016, hitting .285 with 18 homeruns, but limited to 110 games thanks to breaking his hand when he got hit by a pitch.

His Baggage:  Man, it seems longer, but 2017 is only Nick's third full year in the big leagues.  I would say he's been a steady player.  He got ragged on quite a bit in 2014 (his first full season) for his defense and his hitting took some time, but really?  I thought he was fine.  But cranky fans are gonna crank.  Last year was really the start of something special for Nick.  He looked really good, and then he got hit by a pitch and my slim hopes that we might make the playoffs went up in smoke.  Losing him and JD Martinez to injury late in the season really took some wind out of our sails.

Well apparently Nick must feel the same way because this sping?  Holy cow!  My boy has obviously been spending some time in the gym.  He's completely transformed his body.  His chest.  His arms. Sorry, give me a minute.  Here, just look at the picture.  It tells you all you need to know. Somebody bring me a cold glass of water, will ya?

The Proposed Category Romance Plot: He's wanted to be a big league ballplayer for as long as he can remember.  His mother jokes that his first word was "ball."  But he knows that this year is put-up or shut-up time.  He's just signed a one-year deal with the team to avoid arbitration and he was having a great year last year before an injury sidelined him.  There are expectations, his own and the team's.  Which means he needs to focus like he's never focused before and come into spring training with some edge.  He's heard about a dynamite trainer who has worked with several professional athletes - pro ballplayers who were thought to be past their prime, and this trainer worked serious magic.  That's enough for Nick. He just didn't plan on her being so breathtakingly beautiful.  Stunningly attractive AND an athlete?  Nick only has so much willpower.

The Heroine:  She was once a world class athlete, a college track and field star who was working her way towards her Olympic dream when a knee injury ruined everything.  The doctors were able to put her knee back together but a gold medal in the 100 and 400 meter hurdles was never going to happen now.  Crushed by despair she could barely get out of bed until she got some tough love from her older brother, a semi-pro baseball coach.  It ain't the big leagues, but his guys need some help in the strength and conditioning department and his little sister needs a purpose.  It's win-win.

Set on the path by her brother, she sets up her own personal training facility.  She still has some contacts in the collegiate athletics world and her reputation soon starts to grow.  She soon works wonders on a few veteran pros who come to her looking to end their careers on high notes and you know what?  They do. But Nick - well he's something new.  A professional athlete in the prime of his career.  One who is looking to take that next step and become a superstar.  Is she ready to sign up for this?  Especially when she finds herself increasingly distracted by her attraction to him.  No, no - this will not do.  She is a professional and the first rule of being a professional?  Do not fall into bed with your client.

What Harlequin Line?:  A former track star meets her match in a hunky professional baseball player.  Two passionate competitors, a wee dose of glamour and a heroine who has a close relationship with her protective older brother.  That's a Kimani Romance y'all.