The 2016 Year-End Page O’ Lists

In my usual slacker style, here’s my belated 2016 wrap-up. Nothing kicked off an emotional and obsessive spate of full-snark bitchery last year, so that change in meds must be working. There was that one (see below) but that was only one post that I throw at everyone who put it on their Best of 2016 list so it really doesn’t count.

Also a quick note: as usual, no LGBTQ titles because of the side job with Riptide, but I read a few absolute gems. Mostly from Riptide or Riptide authors, of course, because I’m completely spoiled and snobbish like that. Shoot me an email or DM if you need recs!

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My absolute favorite reads of 2016:

I think the number one slot has to be a tie:

barry_earthbound  https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25814323-the-study-of-seduction

To quote myself on Earth Bound

I loved the others in the series, but this one KILLED ME DEAD <dead>. Good lord, this was utterly fan-freaking-tastic. Definitely one of my top reads this year, and it’s poking at my DIK shelf. I need a moment to recover just remembering that telephone call scene in the restaurant *swoon*.

To quote myself on The Study of Seduction:

a marriage of convenience between a grumpy hero who makes lists and a secretly-smart social butterfly, and adds in a truly creepy stalker who cooks up some creative blackmail over Deep Dark Secrets, and just put that crack in a bowl and give me a spoon, OK?

I can’t say more without spoilers, but Seduction was especially memorable because of the social butterfly heroine’s Deep Dark Secret, which made the consummation of the marriage…heart-wrenching.

Jeffries is a romance veteran who just keeps giving me everything I need in ways I never expected. Barry/Turner are relative rookies who keep giving me things I never knew I needed.

But WAIT.

It’s a three-way tie. Or would it be a five-way tie? Who the hell cares, because YOU NEED TO READ THESE TRUST ME:

Must Love Time Travel series by Angela Quarles, narrated by Mary Jane Wells

  

Breeches has Ada Lovelace as an important secondary character. Chainmail has a kick-ass heroine and a stunner of a climax (the story kind, not the other kind, you pervs). Kilts has a charmingly-dopey-but-secretly-complex-and-vulnerable hero. And the narration was perfection. READ THESE TRUST ME HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO SAY IT. Continue reading

The 2016 Holiday Romance Wrap-Up

It’s still the holidays.

The must-reads:

parker_duesouth anthology_wish anthology_sprinkling adams_edenmanor warfield_dangerousnativity

Due South by Tamsen Parker – I think this might be the best office romance I’ve ever read.

Wish Upon a Snowflake by Christine Merrill, Linda Skye and Elizabeth Rolls – loved all three stories, this is a fabulous anthology that will be a re-read every year.

A Sprinkling of Christmas Magic by Elizabeth Rolls, Bronwyn Scott and Margaret McPhee – another practically perfect anthology with three very different, very entertaining stories.

Christmas at Eden Manor by Noelle Adams – I kind of wish Adams wasn’t so prolific, because I want to read everything and I can’t keep up. This is a lovely, just-angsty-enough age gap romance.

A Dangerous Nativity by Caroline Warfield – a completely charming lord-in-the-cute-village novella that is FREE FREE FREE (hint hint hint). I immediately bought more by Warfield (see below).

anthology_holly allen_countess anthology_onceuponaregencychristmas anthology_countrychristmas anthology_silverbelles

An Open Heart by Caroline Warfield (in Holly and Hopeful Hearts: A Bluestocking Belles Collection)– a Jewish couple at a country house party. It starts out like Carola Dunn’s Miss Jacobson’s Journey, but it goes in a different direction and ends up with a soul-satisfying HEA. I haven’t read the rest in this anthology, but this one story is so worth the NINETY-NINE (99) CENTS (hint).

His Christmas Countess by Louise Allen – I found this on Scribd and was a little wary of the blurb, but holy cow, this was fantastic. Caz at AAR did a great review. READ THIS TRUST ME. I immediately bought the rest of the series, which led to the nearly-epic WTFery of the earl who assigns himself an undercover spy job as a hermit on the heroine’s father’s estate. But we’ll discuss that one later because it needs our full attention.

Once Upon a Regency Christmas by Louise Allen, Sophia James and Annie Burrows – another great anthology from Harlequin. I am a complete sucker for these and they give me the happysighs nearly every time.

A Country Christmas by Josi Kilpack, Carla Kelly and Jennifer Moore – OH LOOK A CARLA KELLY HOLIDAY NOVELLA HERE JUST TAKE ALL MY MONEY.  Do I care that it’s another half-pay retired naval officer and another penniless widow? NO I DO NOT.

Silver Belles: An Over-40 Holiday Anthology by Sarah M. Anderson, Ros Clarke, Laura K. Curtis, Yasmine Galenorn and Suleikha Synder – I love it when authors write stories JUST FOR ME *hearteyes*.

quinlan_singlegirl robinson_unwrappingrancher kirst_sheriffschristmastwins

The Last Single Girl by Bria Quinlan – this a New Year’s Eve story and it’s adorable and you should read it right now trust me.

Unwrapping the Rancher’s Secret by Lauri Robinson – reunited by a blizzard? OKAY. And, oh look, he’s shirtless (see above).

The Sheriff’s Christmas Twins by Karen Kirst – ignore the dopey cover and see Miss Bates’ “real comfort” review.

The good:

  • Vicar’s Daughter by Betty Neels – DO NOT ASK how many Neels I bought after I read this.
  • Holiday with a Twist by Shannon Stacey
  • My Scandalous Duke by Theresa Romain
  • His Housekeeper’s Christmas Wish  by Louise Allen
  • A Midwinter’s Scandal by Erin Knightley
  • A Match Made in Mistletoe by Anna Campbell
  • We Need a Little Christmas by Sierra Donovan
  • A Regency Christmas Carol by Christine Merrill
  • Greetings of the Season  by Barbara Metzger
  • Father Christmas by Barbara Metzger

The take-them-or-leave-them:

  • The Cowbear’s Christmas Shotgun Wedding by Liv Brywood – not nearly the WTF factor I was hoping for.
  • A Christmas Dance by Alissa Johnson
  • A Countess for Christmas by Christy McKellen
  • Christmas at the Castle by Melissa McClone
  • A Convenient Christmas Wedding by Regina Scott
  • The Billionaire’s Christmas Proposal by Victoria James
  • Miss Mistletoe by Erin Knightley

The duds:

I DNF’d all of these. What the hell what I thinking with all these “princess” titles???

  • Let it Snow by Jeannette Grey
  • His Jingle Bell Princess by Barbara Dunlop
  • A Royal Christmas Princess by Scarlet Wilson
  • Once Upon a Royal Christmas – Robin Bielman
  • Lord Lansbury’s Christmas Wedding by Helen Dickson – I’m giving up on Dickson. Her stuff is dry.as.dust.

The as-yet-unfinished:

  • Christmas in America: Historical Romance Anthology by Holly Bush, Piper Huguley, Joanna Shupe and Donna Thorland – I’m savoring this slowly.

The I’ll-try-again-next-year:

  • Miracle on 5th Avenue by Sarah Morgan – I know, I know. I just wasn’t in the mood for a perky heroine when I tried it.

TBR Challenge: The Vicar’s Daughter by Betty Neels

  • neels_vicarsdaughterTitle:  The Vicar’s Daughter
  • Author: Betty Neels
  • Published: June 1997
  • Source: Purchased
  • Format: Ebook
  • Length: 218 pages
  • Tropes: Plain Jane, Enigmatic Doctor, Marriage of Convenience, Big Misunderstanding
  • Quick blurb: Plain-Jane vicar’s daughter and jet-set Dutch surgeon and that’s pretty much all you need to know.
  • Quick review: It was nice. Victoria Holt without the gothic weirdness. Like Xanax in a book.
  • Grade: B

“…I told George I didn’t want to marry him. He hadn’t exactly asked me, but I thought I’d tell him first and save him the trouble.”

He turned a laugh into a cough. “How very sensible of you. I must admit that I find it hard to imagine you as a farmer’s wife.”

“Well, I dare say you do. I expect you think of me as a vicar’s daughter.”

Margo is a plain-Jane small-town vicar’s daughter.  Gijs is a Dutch pediatric surgeon/professor. They meet-cute over a roadside childbirth (not hers, obvs) and then she saves a toddler from drowning and then her parents die and he offers a marriage of convenience and she goes shopping and tries to do a Big Makeover and there’s a Big Misunderstanding and she cries and he cries and then everyone is happy.

This was my first Betty Neels, part of last year’s Black Friday Harlequin Binge. I read it in one sitting, and then I said, “Well. That was…nice.”

That sounds snarky, but it’s really not. I swear.

While I was reading, I kept waiting for something to happen. And then I realized that stuff was happening. But it was so understated that I didn’t see that all those seemingly throw-away plot bits were actually really good character- and relationship-building.

So that “that was…nice” reaction was completely sincere. As someone said on Twitter, Neels Nice is like oatmeal. Warm and comforting with just a tiny dash of cinnamon or something, but goes down easy in the best way.

ALSO: One other thing that struck me was the timelessness of the setting – it obviously wasn’t modern, but it could have been anywhere from 1920s to 1980s. Add a bit of suspense — the hero might be already married! he might be doing experimental surgeries on babies without permission! he might have syphilis! — and you’d have a Victoria Holt gothic.

ALSO ALSO: There was a big ol’ bloodhound name Punch (see cheesy cover) and he saved the heroine from falling into a canal during a blizzard. I like dogs.

I will probably read more Betty Neels. They will probably be nearly the same as this one. I probably won’t care.

Audiobook Adventure: The Eight by Katherine Neville

  • The Eight by Katherine NevilleTitle: The Eight
  • Author: Katherine Neville
  • Genre(s): Historical, Thriller
  • Publisher: Open Road, July 2015 (first published 1988)
  • Source: Audible
  • Length: 25 hrs, 50 min (549 pages)
  • Trope(s): Kickass Women, Alternate Timelines, Actual Historical Name-Dropping (x1000), Every Possible Thriller Kink You Could Possibly Imagine, Nuns on the Run, Very Convenient Coincidences, Mysterious Men of Mystery, Deep Dark Secrets
  • Quick blurb: A 1970s computer programmer gets mixed up in a chess game of epic scope.
  • Quick review: Holy cow.
  • Grade: B

It was she, and only she, who bored the burden of placing this powerful force into the right hands, hands that would protect it from the greedy or ambitious.

It’s been close to four years since Darlynne (@DarlynneReads) recommended this one during my Medieval Mania binge. It showed up on NetGalley last year as a re-release so I grabbed it – and of course it taunted me from my NG Wall of Shame. Then it showed up on Audible and it was the universe telling me to just read the damn book already.

And holy cow.

This book was chock full of…everything.

This book was…Dan Brown on steroids. And crack. And estrogen.

Things you should know about the Lady Computer Programmer (not in chronological order):

  • She was a music major which makes her an expert on everything because music is math. And religion. And physics. And chess.
  • She crashes an OPEC planning meeting to discuss the 1974 oil embargo, at which Muammar Gaddafi shows up and knocks wine glasses off the tables with a walking stick. (I did not make that up.)
  • She and her fat sidekick almost die in the desert when they make a wrong turn while crashing through a highway checkpoint. BUT WAIT! They’re rescued by a transport plane full of Japanese students that just happens to have cargo space for their sun-scorched Rolls Royce Corniche convertible. (I did not make that up either.)
  • Shipwreck sex with a Russian chess master while he’s bleeding and concussed.
  • Beach sex on a deserted island with the Russian chess master.

Things you should know about the Red-Headed Nun on the Run (not in chronological order):

  • Gets pregnant by Talleyrand. Doesn’t get upset when he calls her by her recently-dead cousin’s name while in the throes of passion.
  • Doesn’t realize she’s pregnant until Napoleon’s mother tells her.
  • Gives birth in the Algerian desert at the foot of a magical rock statue.
  • Disguises herself as a fellow nun to stab Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub. Her guardian Jacques-Louis David paints the dead guy’s portrait.
  • Drinks [NO SPOILERS] and becomes the ancestor of [NO SPOILERS].

Thrilling Thriller Kinks (not in chronological order):

  • Dead chess master at chess tournament
  • Fibonacci numbers
  • Man of mystery reachable only by secret hotline phone in his kitchen cupboard
  • Secret codes in cave paintings
  • Secret codes in bible verses
  • Secret codes in baroque minuets
  • Barricade crashings (note plural)
  • Gunfights (note plural)
  • Car chases (note plural)
  • Shipwreck
  • Dead body in Mediation Room of the United Nations
  • 200-year-old journal that eerily mirrors present day
  • Know-it-all phone operator
  • Secret police interrogations
  • Sand storms (note plural)
  • Jewish diamond merchant
  • Jewish fur merchant
  • Muslim rug merchant
  • Orphans
  • Fortune teller
  • Harmonics theory
  • Beheadings (note plural)
  • Riots (note plural)
  • Bat attack in desert cave (alas, only the one)
  • Subliminal painting
  • Rented donkeys
  • Foot chase through Algiers Casbah
  • Midnight escape from KGB over Black Sea cliffs
  • Long-lost relatives reunited
  • Jewish mysticism
  • Muslim mysticism
  • Phoenician mysticism

Actual Historical Name-Dropping (in addition to those mentioned above; not in chronological order):

Rousseau, Voltaire, Richelieu, Robespierre, Corday, Pythagoras, Fourier, Philidor, Euler, C.P.E. Bach, Newton, Charlemagne, Wordsworth, Blake, Boswell, Catherine the Great, Potemkin

TBR Challenge AND Big Fat Book: The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons

  • The Bronze Horseman by Paullina SimonsTitle:  The Bronze Horseman
  • Series: The Bronze Horseman, #1
  • Author: Paullina Simons
  • Published:  2001
  • Source: Purchased
  • Format: Ebook and audio (narrated by James Langton)
  • Length: ELEVENTY HUNDRED THOUSAND PAGES (or, possibly, 811, or 912, or 696, depending on edition); FOUR HUNDRED HOURS AND SEVENTEEN MINUTES in audio (or, possibly, 30:43)
  • Tropes: Angst. Angst. More angst. Angst-o-rama. Did I mention the angst?
  • Quick blurb: Russian WWII misery porn, in the picturesque setting of the Siege of Leningrad
  • Quick review: If you like great historical world-building overshadowed by angsty navel-gazing, interspersed with lengthy periods of passive-aggressive arguments and intermittent moments of wanting to punch people, you will love this book.
  • Grade: C-

Considering that I used the word “angst” at least 15 times up there (I like hyperbole), I looked up synonyms to keep you from mentally throwing things at me. I found a really good one. Are you ready for this? It’s German, which for the purposes of this review, is close enough to Russian.

weltschmerz [velt-shmerts]

noun, German

1.  sorrow that one feels and accepts as one’s necessary portion in life; sentimental pessimism.

Origin: literally, world-pain

bugs_dead

Yes, I know What’s Opera, Doc? is based on Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Wagner was German and not Russian, but it’s still funny.

After finally finishing this book, I felt ALL THE WELTSCHMERZ EVER on my shoulders. And it wasn’t even from holding a 1,358-page hardcover.

The ebook is on sale for $1.99, which is a total bargain at 0.218¢ per page. I bought it at that price in 2012. It glowered at me from the bottom of my TBR, where I kept it to prevent it squashing all the joie de vivre (I’m getting fancy here, eh?) from Minerva (my Kindle).

A few months ago, I started reading it. I made it through Book One, Part Two, Chapter Five. If you haven’t read this, you’ll think I’m exaggerating, but I am totally not (this time). The table of contents is three pages long. Two “books.” Four “parts.” Chapter titles include “Impaled in Space” and “Beset and Besieged” and “Desolate Waves” and “Worn Out with Terror and Misgiving” and “In the Moonlight’s Pallid Glamour.”

But it wasn’t the Wagnerian Gloom and Doom that did me in. I had to put it on hiatus due to the overwhelming urge to punch the so-called “hero” in the nads and push the so-called “heroine” down a well.

A brief recap of the first third of the book:

  • They meet-cute over an ice cream cone. Total insta-lust.
  • She invites him home and finds out he’s boinking her sister.
  • She weeps a lot.
  • He stalks her all over town while continuing to boink her sister.
  • She runs away to find her missing brother and and he gets several men under his command killed trying to find her.
  • He’s still boinking her sister.

Alexander is boinking Tatiana’s sister for a Noble Cause. By “noble” I mean “selfish and cowardly.” It’s the entire premise of the book.

(Now would be a good time to note the subtitle of this novel is “A Love Story.” This is not a romance.)

After a few months letting it fester in my brain, I saw it on Audible, so I sacrificed a credit. And thereby, sacrificed my sappy HEA-loving soul.

*moment of silence*

Sorry, just getting into the spirit of melodrama here.

I started the audiobook from the beginning. Narrator James Langton is brilliant. I was able to push past the New Adult Whinginess (totally a word) and focus on the author’s historical world-building and backstory-building and scene-setting. The opening scenes in Tatiana’s family’s cramped, dreary flat in the middle of Leningrad are amazing. It’s damp and claustrophobic and mundane. In just a few short pages, we’re introduced to all the characters and family history that turned Tatiana in a Mary Sue.

Alexander, on the other hand, is mysterious and enigmatic. We only gradually learn his backstory in bits and pieces that keep adding to the “he can’t really be that much of an asshole, can he?” wishful thinking. His off-screen history is completely intriguing and believable, and it leads him to making a gut-wrenching choice that sets up the major conflict in the book.

The main characters as individuals are compelling. Alexander is physically brave, earning numerous medals and promotions, but he’s morally (ethically? ) a coward. He has his reasons, but it takes a looooong time for all those little reveals to accumulate into sympathy for him.

I don’t want to feel sympathy for a hero. I want him to be heroic.

Tatiana is a Mary Sue, but she’s been conditioned for it from birth. She’s a Martyr with a Capital M. The word “no” never ever crosses her lips. And yet she’s physically courageous in a very TSTL kind of way that endangers everyone around her – which makes her both selfless and self-centered.

I love strong and vulnerable heroines. Tatiana’s strengths and vulnerabilities were the exact opposite of what I wanted to root for.

Separately, they’re fascinating. Together, they’re painful. As in stomach-cramping, fist-clenching “OH FOR FUCK SAKE” unpleasant.

As the book progressed, my frustration grew exponentially. The world-building was completely lost in the grim and plodding pacing. Fragments of drama and action were buried amongst endless repetitive pages of mental lusting and self-doubt and over-thinking and obliviousness.

The middle third of the book is awful. Tatiana has survived and escaped to a rural village. Alexander has tracked her down and married her. This should be the good bits, right? The life-affirming stuff? Nope. When they’re not fucking on every available surface, they’re having lengthy, extended, interminable, overlong, tiresome, needlessly drawn-out passive-aggressive arguments. Did I mention that the arguments are laborious and tedious? And that they’re both still wildly immature and annoying?

I should probably bump up the grade. I obviously have Very Feely Feelings about this book.

I stuck it out and finished the damn thing. And holy hell, when Simons decides to pick up the pace, she doesn’t fool around. The real drama and action I was craving erupted in the last quarter. At one point I literally said “HOLY FUCK!” out loud and scared my dog. (If you’ve read it, it’s the scene with Alexander and Dmitri in the hospital and you know exactly which one I mean.)

bugs_dead_elmer

This is Tatiana [NO SPOILERS] Alexander from the [NO SPOILERS] and begging that one really interesting character who should have his own book to [NO SPOILERS].

This is so weird to say, but when the war engulfs their lives, Tatiana and Alexander are much better characters and much better people. When they’re fighting external forces separately instead of their own ridiculous obsessive love, the story — and the romance — comes alive.

So. In conclusion, I’m not sorry I read it. I keep thinking about it, and my memories are vivid and visceral. I’m wondering if my frustrations would have been minimized if I had stuck with the ebook and skimmed through the drama-llama dreck. I have the second book on hold at the library (because of that utterly crushing cliffhanger) — in paper, so I can fast-forward.

Summer Reading Wrap-Up

IT’S STILL TECHNICALLY SUMMER, DAMMIT.

Minimal snark this time, but maybe a little squee here and there. Maybe more than a little. It’s a long list, so get comfy.

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A bunch of stuff by Joan Wolf

wolf_americanearl wolf_londonseason wolf_lordrichard wolf_pretenders

*ahem* NEW AUTHOR CRUSH

The American Earl made my heart happy and I loved every word of it so just buy the damn thing and read it already so you can be happy like me.

I also loved The Pretenders (friends-to-lovers fake engagement) and A London Season (friends-to-lovers angst-o-rama) and Lord Richard’s Daughter (missionary’s daughter falls in love with  enigmatic rescuer).

The Arrangement and The Guardian, both “reluctant guardian” tropes, were good, but leaned a bit too heavily on the average-par suspense.

Royal Bride (re-released as The English Bride, age gap, friends-to-lovers marriage of convenience) started out good, kind of fell apart in the middle, and finished up with some political drama.

I have White Horses in the TBR — and that’s going to make me want to read that one Mary Stewart book with the horses and then I’ll have to read ALL THE MARY STEWART and then I will whinge about why we can’t get Mary Stewart in ebook or audio.

Anyway. Last summer I read Joan Wolf’s Esther story during my FSAT take-down, and it was BY FAR the best Biblical novelization I’ve read. I might reade her others, but only after I finish her Regencies and Dark Ages books.

ALSO: I want those old Signet covers to make a comeback.

Continue reading

TBR Challenge: Kicking It Old School with Patricia Rice

Last year for Old School Month, I read two Jude Devereaux classics — a hit and a miss. This time, I’m kinda sorta maybe mostly undecided.

Moon Dreams by Patricia Rice

  • Title: Moon Dreams
  • Author: Patricia Rice
  • Series: American Dreams, #1
  • Published:  January 1991; re-released February 2015
  • Source: Purchased
  • Length: 384 pages
  • Tropes: Dimwit Runaway Innocent Ingenue, Illegitimacy-But-Not-Really (see “Back From the Dead” below), Evil Heirs, Kilted Kourage, Exotic Otherness, Cultural Appropriation, Fake Scottish Brogues, Cinderella Makeovers, Back From the Dead, Very Convenient Coincidences, Smuggler With a Heart of Gold, Actual Historical Name-Dropping, Metaphorical Metaphors
  • Quick blurb: Illegitimate heiress runs away from her lecherous cousin and gets rescued by a Scottish smuggler obsessed with avenging his own family dishonor.
  • Quick review: Stuffed with all the Old Schoolish WTFery you could ever possibly want.
  • Grade: C- (it was a loooong slog up the Highlands in the last third to avoid a D+)

Firstly, let’s wallow in the original cover for a moment, shall we?

Moon Dreams by Patricia Rice

THE FLAMING PASSION OF TROPIC NIGHTS LIT LOVE’S GOLDEN DAWN

Are you done wallowing yet? Need a moment? Need an ointment of some sort?

*~*waits patiently*~*

So. I bought this one and the follow-up a few months ago when I was looking for some American-set historicals. Despite the series name, very little of this one was set in Colonial America. The happy couple bounced around the northern hemisphere and it was pretty exhausting trying to figure out how they manuevered all that Near-Sex and Actual Penetrative Sex and Hate-Sex into their year-long itinerary.

I’m going do a full recap to help you properly appreciate the Full Glory Old-Schooliness of this Epic Adventure. I haven’t gone full-snark in over a year, so buckle up and gird your loins and grab a snack. Continue reading