TBR Challenge: RITA-Nominated Inspirationals

I read three again. Because I’m an over-achiever, not because I’m obsessive-compulsive. Shut up.

I chose inspie nominees from the past three years, from three different eras.

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Betrayal by Robin Lee Hatcher

  • Betrayal by Robin Lee HatcherTitle: Betrayal
  • Author: Robin Lee Hatcher
  • Series: Where the Heart Lives, Book 2
  • Published: Zondervan, November 2012
  • Source: Purchased ($1.99 promo on Amazon)
  • Length: 273
  • Tropes: Deep Dark Secrets, Widow, Drifter, Western
  • Quick blurb: A drifter helps a lonely widow in 1899 Wyoming.
  • Quick review: Quietly angsty, but a noticeable lack of tension.
  • Grade: B-

He turned his back to the wall of the barn, leaned against it, and closed his eyes. Then he waited. Waited for the last dregs of the nightmare to fade away. Waited to forget the man he used to be. Waited for the fragile peace he’d found in a Savior to sweep over him, even though he didn’t fully understand that Savior yet. Waited.

He was good at waiting. It was a trait he’d learned in prison. If he hadn’t learned it, the cramped space he’d lived in for so many years would have driven him mad.

I’ve read a few by Hatcher before, including the first book in this series, and I enjoy her understated style and the way she makes the faith messages part of the characters’ everyday lives.  This one was a little too understated — it was good, but not different enough from every other Western inspie to make it worth a re-read. There wasn’t much tension beyond the mostly unseen Evil Ex-Brother-In-Law, and the way that conflict fizzled out left me feeling cheated of a Total Drama Moment.

Betrayal was nominated for Best Inspie of 2012, but lost to one of my top favorite books of all-time DIK forever, Against the Tide by Elizabeth Camden.

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Promise to Return by Elizabeth Byler Younts

  • Promise to Return by Elizabeth Byler YountsTitle: Promise to Return
  • Author: Elizabeth Byler Younts
  • Series: The Promise of Sunrise, Book 1
  • Published: Howard Books, October 2013
  • Source: NetGalley
  • Length: 320
  • Tropes: World War II, Amish
  • Quick blurb: A young Amish couple’s faith in God and each other is severely tested during World War II.
  • Quick review: Spiritual conflict and romantic angst to the NTH DEGREE.
  • Grade: C

“The way I see it is that God usually has us on this narrow path where we can only see the step right in front of us. Then sometimes,” he paused and looked away again, “sometimes I feel like He opens a huge door or a field or, I don’t know, opens something that shows me how big His plans are, and suddenly I have all this room to move around. Sometimes it’s way off the path I expect. Do you know what I mean?”

I feel ridiculous whining about being depressed by a book about World War II, but jeepers, there was nothing uplifting about this inspie. The romance is achingly lovely, the spiritual conflict is heartbreaking, and the ending made me weepy. It’s really well-written, it’s completely different from every other inspie I’ve read, and it’s fully deserving of a RITA nomination. But I did not enjoy reading it it — the angsty dreariness was relentless.

Believe it or not, this was the first traditional Amish romance I’ve ever read (not counting the m/m series by Keira Andrews, which is utterly brilliant). Of all the weird shit I read (I work for Riptide, remember), I avoid Amish stories, mostly because I feel like (a) I’m violating some unknown person/character’s much-valued privacy and (b) someone is making money off their faith without their consent. I didn’t feel quite as squicky about this one because the author grew up in an Amish family and I felt she wouldn’t be exploitative.

For whatever reason, Promise was one of only two inspies nominated last year — the winner was the contemporary Five Days in Skye by Carla Laureano.

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Hope at Dawn by Stacy Henrie

  • Hope at Dawn by Stacy HenrieTitle: Hope at Dawn
  • Author: Stacy Henrie
  • Series: Of Love and War, Book 1
  • Published: Forever (Grand Central), June 2014
  • Source: NetGalley
  • Length: 384
  • Tropes: World War I, Iowa, Small Town
  • Quick blurb: A young schoolteacher finds herself facing unexpected drama when she falls in love with a German-American farmer in World War I.
  • Quick review: I just bought all the sequels. At full price.
  • Grade: B+

“Perhaps your real question is not how to stand for goodness, but when. Am I right?”

After reading Promise to Return, I was really iffy on another wartime homefront weepfest, but then I realized Hope was SET IN IOWA and I COULDN’T NOT READ IT. I only cried a little.

The basic premise is similar to Promise: the onset of war forces an insular community to interact with the outside world. In this case, the conflict is prejudice and discrimination against German-Americans during World War I — prohibitions on speaking German, “vigilance committees,” extortion to buy war bonds to prove patriotism. The pacing is much  better than Promise, with some high points to balance out the angst.

I’m giving it a B+ instead of an A because despite my love for it, I couldn’t stop thinking that whatever German-Americans were facing in 1918 Iowa, it was nothing compared to the horrors to come.

I read Henrie’s debut during the Summer of Harlequin, but didn’t realize it was the same author. Hope is the only current RITA inspie nominee I’ve read so far, but I just bought Huckleberry Summer despite the ridiculously dopey title and cover because it’s about a big slobbery dog and the hero is an environmental protester who chains himself to trees. I had to move the ARC of For Such a Time by Kate Breslin to the DNR-DNR and WTF-UGH-BLAH-ICK-STFU shelves because apparently I did not read the blurb closely before requesting.

TBR Challenge: More Than One – Carla Kelly Harlequins

These challenges make me feel like an overachiever because they totally enable my hoarding/binging tendencies. I’ve been sitting on SEVENTEEN (17) (no lie) Carla Kellys for years because I knew that once I started, I’d have to read them all. So I did. And it was gooooood.

I’m only going to do the Harlequins in this post — more on the Signets next time! (And yes, I’ve read all of Kelly’s other Harlequins. I’m a capital-F Fangirl.)

Her Hesitant Heart by Carla KellyHer Hesitant Heart

  • Title: Her Hesitant Heart
  • Published: Harlequin Historical, January 2013
  • Source: Purchased
  • Length: 282
  • Tropes: Deep Dark Secrets, Scandal & Gossip, Beta Hero, Military Man, Widower, Schoolmarm
  • Quick blurb: Newly divorced schoolmarm finds refuge teaching at remote army fort.
  • Quick review: Great setting and perfect pacing, but the angst needed a bit more balance.
  • Grade: B+

“I can’t tell you how nice it was to open my front door and take a whiff of someone cares.”

Nobody does historical military romance better than Carla Kelly. She has an exquisite knack for world-building that has me THERE every single time, and this book was no exception. The only thing that knocked it down to a B was the uneven angst balance — it was all on the heroine, with the stalwart hero basically standing around waiting to display his stalwartiness. Continue reading

RANTYPANTS: Looking for Trouble by Victoria Dahl

  • Looking for Trouble by Victoria DahlTitle: Looking for Trouble
  • Author: Victoria Dahl
  • Genre(s): Contemporary
  • Publisher: Harlequin HQN, July 2014
  • Source: NetGalley
  • Length: 352 pages
  • Trope(s): Secretly Sexy Librarian, Tattooed Biker Bad Boy, Small Town, Mental Illness
  • Grade: D

In case you missed it in the title, beware of the RANTYPANTS. This will be apparent in the abuse of italics, bold, ALLCAPS and other means of beating you over the head with my emotional emotions.

Also, spoilers.

I’ve been stewing about this book for weeks, trying to distill my thoughts — and emotional emotions — into coherent, logical analysis. Which is pretty ironic, considering….

I am really disappointed with the author, and with Harlequin. The basic story is quintessential Dahl — misunderstood tattooed bad boy biker and misunderstood secretly sexy librarian kept apart by second-generation small town rumors. Yeah, it’s got Dahl’s trademark wicked chemistry and smoking-hot sexytimes.

But it also has a seriously offensive portrayal of mental illness. Take a wild guess which character is mentally ill. That’s right — the villain. The hero’s mother. She’s obsessive. She’s paranoid. She’s a stalker.

And guess what? She’s a whack-job because she’s bitter about being dumped by her husband twenty years earlier. Everyone in town knows that. Duh.

Yes, the hero and his brother know she’s a whack-job. But do they do anything about it? Of course not. Because that would eliminate the lazy-ass villainy that passes for conflict. They know their mother is supposed to be on meds. They know she has a therapist. But instead of caring enough about their obviously distressed mother to you know, actually get involved, the hero and his brother shrug off her self-destructive and increasingly erratic behavior. Why should they bother? It’s so much easier story-wise to send the therapist on a Very Convenient Extended Vacation (with no on-call backup, of course) and give the misunderstood bad boys a tragic past and embarrassing parent to angst about.

But wait — there’s more!

The resolution. Ugh. Not just UGH. More like the ARE YOU SERIOUS??? OH FFS kind of WTFery. Please note the triple ugh use of italic, bold AND allcaps.

It’s just a vitamin deficiency. Yes, really. You know – like a real medical problem.

<INSERT CAPSLOCK OF RAGE AND RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION HERE>

A short hospital stay for some Vitamin B injections and the Evil Psychotic Villainess is cured. She writes an apologetic letter to the editor of the local newspaper — yes, really — and all is forgiven.

Because — duh — someone with mental illness needs to apologize. And be forgiven.

I need to go now. The Xanax is calling. And fuck you if you think I need to apologize for it.

One-Quote Review: A Notorious Countess Confesses by Julie Anne Long

A Notorious Countess Confesses by Julie Anne Long

  • Title: A Notorious Countess Confesses
  • Author:  Julie Anne Long
  • Series: Pennyroyal Green, Book 7
  • Genre(s): Historical
  • Publisher: Avon, October 2012
  • Source: Edelweiss ($5.99 ebook)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • Trope(s): Hot Vicar, Soiled Dove, Widow, Small Town, Beta Hero, Smartass Heroine
  • Quick blurb: A newly widowed former courtesan asks a handsome village vicar to help her make friends.
  • Quick review: A worthy addition to the series, but not one of Long’s best.
  • Grade: B

Yes…yes! He felt a twinge of something! It was coming now!

He scrawled:

I kissed her I kissed her I kissed her

Well.

As a sermon, it was a failure, but his parishioners would doubtless find it edifying.

Notorious Countess worked much better for me than the previous book in the series. (Where in the hell did those people come from and why should I care? And I didn’t care, because I don’t remember anything about it beyond the cheesy title). This one is a bit more fairy tale-ish than her other books, but Long still manages to pull off the tricky balance of broad humor and intimate yearning.

Another romance novel art that Long consistently does really, really well is showing, not telling, how her hero and heroine fall in love. It might be insta-lust or even insta-love, but by the time the first kiss happens, we know why her characters are drawn to each other.

I also appreciated that both the vicar and the courtesan did a lot of self-reflection and said some very hurtful but honest things to each other. HOWEVER…I was disappointed in how their interactions with the rest of the village were perfectly scripted to make them always come out on top of the uncomfortable situations.

And despite my recently admitted weakness for Grand Gestures, this ending was WAY too Love, Actually, with shamefaced parisioners standing up and spouting Magical Bible Verses like the LA wedding guests with hidden trumpets and trombones.

The Summoning of the Siblings bit was good, though — enough to make up for the goats and bring this up from a B- to a solid B.

[NOTE: I read an ARC, so I forced myself to ignore the dreadful editing fails. If that kind of WTFery had shown up in a published version I paid for, the grade would have been much, MUCH lower. Even so, my respect for Avon Books is diminished once again.]

Tripleheader: Fool’s Gold Summer (x3) by Susan Mallery

“This is Fool’s Gold. You can’t mess with one of the women and then act as if it didn’t happen.”

I’m going to present these in descending series order, because Book 7 is an epic Mess O’ Crazy. With goats. But not enough goats.

Goat Warning

WARNING: GOATS AHEAD

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All Summer Long

  • All Summer Long by Susan MalleryTitle: All Summer Long
  • Author(s): Susan Mallery
  • Series: Fool’s Gold, Book 9
  • Genre(s): Contemporary
  • Publisher: Harlequin HQN, July 2012
  • Source: Provided by the publisher via NetGalley ($5.99 ebook)
  • Length: 376 pages
  • Trope(s): Small Town, Misfits, Friends with Benefits, Angst, Kick-Ass Heroine
  • Quick blurb: Former underwear model helps small-town firefighter overcome her fear of men.
  • Quick review: Great balance of fun, angst and hotness, with perfectly matched hero and heroine.
  • Grade: A-

“Lesson one,” he told her.

“How many are there?”

“As many as it takes. This is going to be a full service seduction.”

Damn, that was fun – especially considering where I started with this series. And the grand gesture? OH. MY. GOD. Second only to Nev’s in About Last Night. *~*swoon*~*

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More Goat

Dude. Hang in there. You’ll get to the goats soon enough.

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Continue reading

Season for Love by Marie Force

  • Season for Love by Marie ForceTitle: Season for Love
  • Author: Marie Force
  • Series: The McCarthys of Gansett Island, Book 6
  • Genre(s): Contemporary
  • Publisher: HTJB, Inc., June 2012
  • Source: Amazon, $3.99 ebook
  • Length: 296 pages
  • Trope(s): Small Town, Rebound, Tragic Past, Pregnant Heroine
  • Quick blurb: Musician with Tragic Past and wanderlust falls for pregnant lady who’s not divorced yet.
  • Quick review: Disappointing, but I’m not ready to give up on this series yet.
  • Grade: C-

I feel so guilty giving this only C-, but it just didn’t work for me. I’m so guilt-ridden that this review is more than a little rambling and more than a little spoilery….

I loved the main characters of the previous books in the Gansett Island series, but their completely sappy anecdotes in this book just interrupted the flow of the story and completely threw me out of my reading trance several times.

Anyone who hasn’t read the other books in the series will have NO clue who these people are, and it’s a waste of exposition to give us their backstories. Readers like me who have devoured the previous books already know that McCarthys & Friends have the most romantic, sex-filled marriages ever, and one book for each couple is enough.

And then we get more Tiffany and Blaine. And now Carolina and Seamus. And now Dan and Kara. And soon Jenny and whoever (probably Adam). It’s just too many couples to care about, and I don’t want to have to choose which chapters to skip.

I’m also getting very frustrated with the continuing emphasis on the “Let’s Rebound Into A New Relationship With No Downtime Whatsoever!” theme. Janey. Sydney. Laura. Tiffany. I think the tourist brochures for Gansett Island must have a tagline like “Where Fabulous Single Men Appear Out Of Nowhere Whenever A Damsel In Distress Needs One.”

Laura and Owen actually do discuss “she can’t live without a man” (a thought planted by the Evil Ex-Husband), but it’s quickly glossed over and forgotten. As a divorced single parent, I get *really* tetchy reading romances that ignore the struggle for self-esteem and self-sufficiency or treat it as an afterthought.

I’m also confused about Jenny the Lighthouse Keeper. We get an entire chapter of her sob story at the beginning, and then she’s reduced to cameo appearances in two throwaway scenes. I know it’s setting her up for her own storyline, but why include the tragic backstory here? And a “Tell Us Your Life Story” essay question might be believable for a college application, but not for a job.

I’m not ready to give up on this series yet, but I hope the next installment features more relationship building and less soap opera.