Wednesday, October 18, 2017

#TBRChallenge 2017: Toxic

The Book: Toxic by Carol Ericson

The Particulars: Romantic suspense, 2014, Harlequin Intrigue Noir, Digital only, Not available in print

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?:  I saw the word "noir" and that was enough for me.  Harlequin published seven novellas as part of this mini-series for Harlequin Intrigue in late 2014 / early 2015.  I restrained myself (for once) and only one-clicked this one.  I'm not sure why I chose this one to start with.  My guess?  The back cover blurb intrigued me and Ericson is a local author.

The Review: I love noir.  I love the tone of it, the feel of it, the dubious characters with questionable motives.  Heck, I even love the stereotypical femme fatales.  Gimme, gimme, gimme.  To sink me even further?  Ericson sets this story in a backwater burg in Florida.  Folks, when it comes to noir there are two quintessential settings when we're talking the US: Los Angeles, and anywhere in southern Florida.  This isn't just my opinion, this is fact.

J.P. McCoy was a Chicago cop until his love of booze killed his career.  Now sober, and a private investigator, he takes a job that sends him to Crystal Water, Florida.  A powerful man is looking for his mistress, who has taken off.  He tells J.P. to check out the Seychelles, a bar run by a former Vegas showgirl, Ronnie Tate.  That's where Maya was working before she disappeared.

J.P. takes one look at Ronnie and wants to get to know her in all the right (and wrong) ways.  He goes in posing as a guy looking for a job, and lucky for him, Ronnie's regular bartender has been unreliable.  Now to snoop around for the missing Maya without drawing Ronnie's suspicion.

Ronnie is a classic tough girl with a mysterious past.  She's running the bar, not because she enjoys it, but because it's the only thing of semi-value that her much-older husband left her.  Everything else went to his kids, who think their much younger stepmother is a gold digging floozy who probably had something to do with their father's death.  Lucky for Ronnie the good old boy police chief wants to get in her panties and the medical examiner ruled the death as an accidental overdose.  However, these are minor annoyances for Ronnie.  Nothing to get excited about.  Her sexy new bartender?  Now there's something to get excited about it.  And it's all banter and flirting and sexy times on the bar (seriously) until a dead body shows up and ruins everything.

This is the sort of story that's all about the style. I'm such an easy mark, the feel of this story, the tone of it, the over-the-top noir-style elements - I was sunk before I even finished the first chapter.  Is it a "realistic" read?  Look, is any noir realistic?  It's over-the-top seedy glamour and I was here for it all day long.

That being said, this is a novella and there are shortcuts.  Ericson gets the readers from Point A to Point C while skipping B. There are leaps taken to move the story forward, and in a crime story?  That's not necessarily a good thing.  I found myself saying, "But wait, how did they find that out?" or "But wait, when did that element come to light?"  There's a credible suspense plot here, but it would have benefited from being closer to length of a regular Intrigue word count to pull it off a bit better.

The romance is...well, fast.  This felt very much like an erotic romance and the sex is definitely steamier than what one typically finds in the regular Intrigue line.  The first sex scene between Ronnie and J.P is a doozy and there's several more encounters that occur over the course of this short novella (Amazon says 124 pages).  So if steam is your thing, this one certainly can fog up some glasses.

True to form for a romance, there's a happy ever after.  True to form for a noir story, the ending is morally ambiguous.  If you're looking for the white picket fence and Ronnie round with child while baking cookies in the kitchen?  Yeah, not so much.  But it's also not on the level of say, J.P. being a mafia boss or sex trafficker.  It's not THAT morally ambiguous.

This is a hard story for me to ultimately assign a grade to because I do see that it's not perfect.  There are issues here, mostly in the short word count and shortcuts the author took.  But man, I loved reading this.  It spoke to that nostalgic reader part of my brain - the girl who sat on the floor of her local small town library and browsed through stacks of mystery and crime novels.  Of course I'll be picking up the rest of the books in the Noir series.  How could I not?

Final Grade = B-

Friday, October 13, 2017

Reminder: #TBRChallenge for October


For those of you participating in the 2017 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, October 18.  This month's theme is Paranormal or Romantic Suspense.

Our traditional theme for October in honor of Halloween or as I like to call it - Wendy lacks imagination.  But what if you don't care for suspense and like your romance free of vampires, werewolves and shifters? 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!)

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Retro Review: In the Groove by Pamela Britton

The review for In The Groove by Pamela Britton was originally posted at The Romance Reader in 2006.  Back then, I gave it 2 Hearts (D Grade) with an MPAA sensuality rating of G.  So yeah, if you're expecting dirty NASCAR racing shenanigans, keep on walking...

+++++

After spending over 370 pages reading about Sarah Tingle I needed to make an appointment with my dentist. Readers will be hard pressed to find a sweeter heroine – and no, that is not a compliment.

Sarah’s life has gone from bad to worse. A jealous ex doctored up some nude photographs and got them published, causing Sarah to get fired from her kindergarten teaching job. Unable to repair her damaged reputation, she takes the only job she can find – driving the motor coach for some NASCAR driver. However on her way to meet her new boss, her car breaks down and she finds herself hiking along a deserted road in the middle of nowhere.

That’s how she meets her new boss, Lance Cooper – except she doesn’t recognize him. She has no clue who he is, other than one devastatingly handsome man. Lance is immediately smitten with Sarah, a woman so sweet, so innocent, and so unaffected by his fame. Once she realizes he’s Lance Cooper she’s horrified, but he convinces her to take the job anyway. He wants to keep this woman around.

Why he wants to keep her around is a mystery unto itself. Sarah is the very definition of a Mary Sue heroine, and after 50 pages of her I was ready drink myself into oblivion. She’s sweet, she’s vulnerable, and she’s The Victim. Life has handed her a bad hand, but instead of doing something (like calling the police on the ex who is obviously obsessed with her!), she runs off to work for Lance. Lance then proceeds to shelter her, baby her, and look at her longingly. Good romance heroines fight back when life deals them a bad hand – Sarah just rolls over and dies.

Worse still, her cloying sweetness soon overflows onto the rest of the story. She doesn’t swear and says things like “holy guacamole” and “jeez oh peets.” She bakes animal-shaped sugar cookies for Lance after he has a bad day on the track. She never says a bad word to anybody – including those who think she’s “not much to look at” or her own mother who insults her at every turn. Lance should have thrown her in his race car, driven her to the hospital and demanded a spine transplant.

Lance isn’t a bad guy, and quite charming – but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what he saw in Little Miss Goody-Goody. Frankly he merely reinforces the ideal that woman should be good, innocent and sweet if they ever have hopes of landing a man. Heaven forbid she have a brain in her head and can stand up for herself.

Eventually the author tries to allow her heroine to grow, but after 300 pages of syrup, her finding a backbone is too little, too late. In fact, the resolution of the creepy ex angle is poorly handled, but at least Sarah doesn’t need Lance to come and rescue her – which I suppose says something.

The NASCAR angle is well done, and Britton continues to write well. It’s just unfortunate that she saddled this story with a heroine so cloyingly cutesy that I had a mouth full of cavities by the end of it. Sarah is probably a heroine I would have liked to have read about in high school, but being several years past that stage in my life all I could think about was Lance running over her with his car. The yellow flag is definitely out – proceed with caution.

+++++

Wendy Looks Back: I love Harlequin, Lord knows I do - but they own their share of "bad ideas."  This partnership with NASCAR was one of them.  To be fair to Britton, word on the street at the time was that the deal between NASCAR and Harlequin was basically to churn out "wholesome" stories to fit with the whole American Heartland "thing" they like to hawk.  But even in the more innocent times of 2006, this portrayal of NASCAR, its drivers, its fans, and the general trappings of the sport strained considerably.  I can't imagine it's aged all that well in the 10+ years since this book was published.

Britton is still writing, mostly in category romance and I'm capable of enjoying her work.  But this one was a whole bunch of nope for me back in 2006.  And interestingly enough?  It doesn't exist in ebook format, never mind that Harlequin began digitizing it's entire front list in fall of 2007. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Little Miss Crabby Pants Doubles Down on the New York Times

I think by now everybody in romance circles has seen the New York Times’ attempt to write about romance novels. I’d actually seen mention of the impending piece a few days before it went live and, in what I can only blame on a temporary moment of insanity, I was excited. Then the caffeine kicked in and I came to my senses.

I have largely stayed silent on the Robert Gottlieb piece (Seriously?! Robert Gottlieb?!) because I’m tired ya’ll. I mean how many ways can Little Miss Crabby Pants provide commentary on the latest “hot take” du jour written by writers who have done, like, zero research on the genre or its history. All these hot takes say the exact same thing in the exact same tired cliched manner. Oh there’s sex! *titter titter hee hee* Oh women really like to read this trash! *titter titter hee hee* Although you have to hand it to Gottlieb. He reached into the void and was not only condescending and snide but managed to throw in some racism with a side of fries.
“Oh, yes — Zoe and Carver are African-Americans, though except for some scattered references to racial matters, you’d never know it. (Well, you would from the cover.)”
Translation: Don’t worry white people! It’s OK for you to read Deadly Rumors by Cheris Hodges because you’ll never know it’s about black people!

I just…seriously? Racism is deeply embedded in this country’s fabric. It’s an open festering wound that can’t scab over. But the New York Times actually let that sentence fly out into the world. Think on that for a minute the next time your friends and family thump their chest over taking a knee and the NFL’s brand of faux patriotism.

Anyway, others stepped in to throw some shade on the Gottlieb piece, I resorted to my best side eye, and called it a day. I'm so old and frankly expect this sort of thing with the regularity of the sun rising that I couldn't muster up any fresh outrage. 

That is until the the New York Times decided to double down and managed to make the whole mess that much worse.

Radhika Jones, editorial director of the New York Times Books section, decided to write a response that basically encompasses a “Oh well we tried!” excuse and proceeds to school upset romance fans on what “criticism” is because we’ve obviously addled our brains by reading too much tripe to understand the concept.

No, Ms. Jones, as shocking as this may be to understand, romance fans do know and understand what criticism is. More importantly we also know what condescension and respect are. Gottlieb’s piece had a heaping helping of the first and none of the latter. Romance readers, bless our hearts, can smell snide like a fart in a car. I don’t think anybody has a problem with Gottlieb writing a piece for the New York Times on romance. What we do have a problem with is his utter lack of respect for the genre and the staggering racism that flew right past your editorial desk.

You know what romance readers want? What we really want? Fair treatment. I think many of us can agree that the late Roger Ebert was a talented and notable film critic. He loved some movies and he hated others. But never, during his entire career, in all my years of reading his work or watching him on TV, did I feel that Robert Ebert didn’t respect film. He greatly respected film. What I felt when I read that Gottlieb piece? He doesn’t respect romance. The genre, the books, the authors, the readers. That’s what we got our panties in a twist over. Not that Gottlieb isn’t a “fan.” It’s the disdain in that article. Like he lost a bet or dropped his pants during office happy hour one Friday evening and you assigned him this piece as punishment.

Romance readers are smarter than anybody ever gives them credit for. We know what criticism is. We don’t need you to school us on it. We understand that there are good books and bad books. We can talk about them intelligently, the authorial choices made, the “why” something works or doesn’t. Some of us are even nerds about genre history. We can speak to you eloquently about the bodice ripper era, the history of Harlequin, and the rise of erotic romance as a sub genre. We understand that you don’t have to like, hate, agree or disagree to write intelligently on a subject. We. Get. That. We don’t need you to educate those you perceive as the poor unwashed masses.

Look, romance readers are tired. Romance writers are tired. Librarians who are champions of the genre have been exhausted for at least the last 40 years. We get bombarded with pieces like Gottlieb’s on a regular basis (Lord save us from editors looking to fill column space in February!) but then you went, double downed, and made it worse. Look, this isn’t that hard. You cannot like romance, just as I cannot like science fiction or high fantasy. But some respect would nice, and frankly – that’s not too much to ask.

The truth of the matter is that romance doesn’t need the New York Times to write about us. We never have. We have flourished as a genre for decades while you’ve turned up your nose and looked the other way. And you know what? You do you. But honestly I think I speak for romance readers everywhere when I say that you simply ignoring us is preferable to the original piece and your response. Do it right or don’t do it at all.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Bat Cave Update and Mini-Reviews

The lack of blog activity of late has been a case of the spirit being willing but the flesh being weak. Work has been nutty.  Yeah, yeah - lather, rinse, repeat.  I'm serious - it's been nutty.  Library grand openings, my staff helping out to fill in for short staffing situations elsewhere, a long-time employee retiring, trying to bring new vendors on board - it's been nutty.  

On top of that, now seemed like a peachy time to look for a new place to live.  Good news, we found a place!  Even better news - it's going to cut my work commute IN HALF!  The bad news?  We've been in the current Bat Cave for 10 years and good Lord WHY did we keep all this crap?!?!  So weekends have been spent cleaning out clutter, figuring out what will be downsized (the new Bat Cave is a teensy bit smaller), and starting the packing process.  We'll do the actual, physical moving the first weekend on November.  I cannot wait!

I also continue to not be reading much.  I did burn through September's TBR Challenge read in one late night sitting, but beyond that?  It's been kind of a slog.  But here's a few things I've gotten through that are worth, at least, a quick mention.

Royal Crush is the third book in Meg Cabot's middle-grade series set in her Princess Diaries world.  This go around Olivia is awaiting for her big sister, Mia (now ruler of Genovia) to give birth to her twins.  As if that weren't exciting enough?  Her school is gearing up for a field trip to the Royal School Winter Games and then there's the realization that she has her *gasp* first ever crush.

Yes, I read a book meant for junior high schoolers.  I have no shame!  I love this world that Cabot has created.  It's like pink bows, glitter, cotton candy and unicorns all rolled into one.  It's my happy place and as long as she keeps writing books set in this universe, I'll be hard pressed to give them up.

Grade = B

Ask the Cards a Question is the second book in Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone mystery series.  Muller is credited with creating the first female PI character and this entry was originally published in 1982.  This time out there's a murder in Sharon's San Francisco apartment building.  Molly Antonio was the nicest person in the entire building, who would want her dead?  There's Molly's unique relationship with her somewhat estranged husband, the creepy fortune teller, Madame Anya, who foretold evil was in store for Molly, and Sharon's BFF and current house guest, Linnea, who has fallen into a bottle ever since her husband left her for a younger woman.

I first read this when I was a teen and it was surprising how much of the story came back to me.  It's interesting that back in 1982 Muller wrote a diverse San Francisco setting (completely reasonable) when so many current authors struggle with showing diversity in their stories.  That said?  Some of these characterizations haven't necessarily aged well - although the worst of them was definitely Sharon's Irish superintendent who always has a beer in his hand.  That said, solid mystery and what I always preferred about Sharon over, say, Grafton's Kinsey Millhone character is that Sharon actually has some people skills and, you know, friends.

Grade = B-

Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase was a recommendation I picked up from author Laura K. Curtis.  As Laura indicates, it's a book that defies easy classification.  It's not a tragedy, and yet it kind of is.  It's not a romance, but it is romantic.  It's not a Gothic, per se, but it definitely has Gothic elements.  It follows the lives of the Alton children in the late 1960s when they arrive at their country estate, Black Rabbit Hall, for the Easter holiday.  Naturally, something bad happens and it sends the family careening down a path of tragedy, drama, and secrets.

I can see why Laura liked this and recommended it.  It's well written, there's a good story, and the atmosphere is compelling.  That said I found it really, really slow.  I don't think I could have read this and even listening to it on audio was a bit of a slog.  Also, while not a tragedy, per se, there's a sense of doom that hovers over the narrative for nearly the entire book.  I found it suffocating.  This is actually a compliment to the author, but it was something that I don't think I was in the right frame of mind for at the time I was listening.  That said, I'm glad I persevered because I did like the ending and the author ties up all the drama leaving us on an "up note."  But I'm also not in any hurry to pick up another one of her books.  Maybe one day.  

Side note, one of the best villains I've read in a long while. 

Grade = C+

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!)