Wednesday, November 15, 2017

#TBRChallenge 2017: The Marshal and Mrs. O'Malley
The Book: The Marshal and Mrs. O'Malley by Julianne MacLean

The Particulars: Historical western romance, Harlequin Historical #564, 2001, Out of Print (sort of), Rights reverted back to author and book republished under the title Tempting the Marshal in 2016.

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: Author Susanna Kearsley gave me this book.  She brought it special to an RWA Conference (and I'm sorry, I can't remember what year!), told me it was one of her favorite westerns, and she gifted it to me.  Yes, when it comes to historical westerns and Harlequins, my reputation precedes me.

The Review: I didn't love this as much as Susanna did, but it's easy to understand why she was drawn to it.  As far as plots go, MacLean was obviously hit with some divine inspiration when she cooked up this one.  There's a sophistication to the Big Secret that you just don't see every day.

Josephine "Jo" O'Malley wants vengeance.  The most powerful man in town, Zeb Stone, owner of the dry goods store and running for mayor, murdered her husband Edwyn.  And nobody is going to do anything about it given Zeb's influence and the fact that the local law is as useless as decaffeinated tea (seriously, just wrong).  So she does what any self-respecting romance heroine is wont to do - she dresses up in men's clothing, takes her herself and her gun down to Zeb's store and plans to shoot the man right between the eyes.  To protect her son, Leo, she's willing to commit murder.

What she didn't bargain on was Fletcher Collins, the new marshal that, literally, just rode into town.  He's walking the business district when he sees Zeb being robbed at gunpoint in his store.  The culprit is of slight build, making him think he's no more than a boy, and the look in the kid's eyes?  Yeah, that's no killer.  Naturally though, stuff happens.  Fletcher ends up getting shot (and knocked out cold) and the bandit gets away.

Great.  So not only did Jo chicken out and not shoot Zeb but she ended up shot for her trouble.  She's gotten dressed in the women's clothing she left out by the privy to aid her escape when she nearly passes out cold and the town deputy finds her.  That's how both she and Fletcher both end up at the doctor's office getting treated for gunshot wounds and she quickly realizes...he doesn't know that it was her trying to shoot Zeb.  Everybody thinks she was an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire.  But that begs the question - what was she doing in town, alone, at that time of night?  Because dang, Fletcher Collins is just the sort of persistent lawman who will not let something like this go - especially since he's now been humiliated during his first night on the job.  

Making everything even more complicated?  Turns out Zeb is Fletcher's brother-in-law.  Leaving Jo not only in a panic that she'll be found out, but that she and her boy are still in danger, there's no hard evidence that Zeb murdered her husband and who is going to help her?  Certainly not the man's brother-in-law and new town marshal! 

Yes, it's all very involved but MacLean totally makes it work.  Jo is the bandit and Fletcher doesn't know that.  Fletcher is willing to listen to Jo about her suspicions but isn't about to just take her word for it that Zeb is A Bad Man without some actual proof he can sink his teeth into.  Plus, you know, the guy is married to his sister.  But he is willing to listen to her and doesn't dismiss her accusations outright, a refreshing quality in a good romance hero.  Then, of course, there's the small matter of the pair being attracted to each other, and how is that possibly going to work?  Jo did try to kill a man, Fletcher is a very black or white, law and order, sort of guy, plus there's baggage for both of them.  Fletcher's feelings for his late father.  Jo's marriage and her feelings for her dead husband.
The best moments in this story for me were once Fletcher realizes that Jo and his bandit are one and the same and the pair join forces to investigate Zeb.  I did feel they were a little slow on the uptake regarding Zeb's shenanigans (frankly, it's obvious) but these are two characters who treat each other like adults, listen to each other, and work as a team - which plays well within this story.

The ending does feel a bit rushed, especially since the first half or so of the book feels more methodical, but it ends the way you want it to end although dagnabit, I don't think MacLean ever has written about a book about Zeb's wife/Fletcher's sister, and that's simply a crying shame.

I'm currently mired in a wicked slump, in large part thanks to recently relocating the Bat Cave (moving has a way of sucking any joy out of my life) and while this book didn't light a fire in me, I zipped through it over the course of two lunch breaks at The Day Job.  If I wasn't in such a persnickety reading mood I think I would rate this one higher - which means if you dig historical westerns, this is one I think you should pick up.

Final Grade = B-

Monday, November 13, 2017

Top 5 Unusual Historicals for November 2017

I was actually setting out to work on this post when I got word that Heroes & Heartbreakers would be phasing out the blog.  The editorial staff is choosing to focus on posts with firm deadlines in their final couple of weeks and since this post wasn't actually done - well,  I'm opting to post it over here.  These posts originated on this blog before H&H asked if I would be interested in taking them over there - so it's a bit like coming home for Unusual Historicals.  Here's what is catching my eye for November:

A Texas Christmas Past by Julia Justiss (Tule Publishing)
Death denied Felicity a future with the man she loved, but her spirit lingers in the the Harwood House Hotel hoping to heal broken hearts and help them to find love again... 
Widowed World War I nurse Audra Donaldson returns from France planning to devote her life to helping those suffering the lingering effects of war—effects she knows all too well, as she suffers from them herself. When, staying at the Harwood House Inn on a Christmas visit to her brother, she hears a man in the throes of a violent nightmare, she goes to him without question—and is stunned by a physical attraction as strong as her desire to help. 
About to embrace the beautiful angel come to save him from the horrors of the battlefield, former soldier Drew Harwood recoils when he realizes Audra is real—and has seen his “weakness.” Brusquely rejecting her offer of help, he intends to avoid her. But more than just her beauty continues to draw him back. Though this compassionate, kind, and giving soul has seen more of war than he has, somehow, talking with her brings him peace--and seems to comfort her, too. If he can just resist acting on the desire she's ignited in him since his first glimpse of her... 
But someone else was watching, too. After tragedy denied Felicity a future with Drew, her dying wish was that he live his life and be happy for them both. To her sorrow, a year later, her former fiancé is still struggling. Deciding Audra is the perfect lady to heal the wounds of her beloved, this determined ghost resolves to bring Drew and Audra together. Who can resist a love that lasts beyond time?
OK, to be honest the whole "ghost thing" is giving me pause.  But, this is Julia Justiss, it's post World War I, and I liked her debut western for Tule.  So of course I one-clicked the hell out of this.

 A Hope Divided by Alyssa Cole (Kensington)
The Civil War has turned neighbor against neighbor—but for one scientist spy and her philosopher soldier, war could bind them together . . .  
For all of the War Between the States, Marlie Lynch has helped the cause in peace: with coded letters about anti-Rebel uprisings in her Carolina woods, tisanes and poultices for Union prisoners, and silent aid to fleeing slave and Freeman alike. Her formerly enslaved mother’s traditions and the name of a white father she never knew have protected her—until the vicious Confederate Home Guard claims Marlie’s home for their new base of operations in the guerilla war against Southern resistors of the Rebel cause.  
Unbeknowst to those under her roof, escaped prisoner Ewan McCall is sheltering in her laboratory. Seemingly a quiet philosopher, Ewan has his own history with the cruel captain of the Home Guard, and a thoughtful but unbending strength Marlie finds irresistible.  
When the revelation of a stunning family secret places Marlie’s freedom on the line,  she and Ewan have to run for their lives into the hostile Carolina night. Following the path of the Underground Railroad, they find themselves caught up in a vicious battle that could dash their hopes of love—and freedom—before they ever cross state lines.
Good Lord, I'm on the edge of my seat just reading the plot description!  Also, one of the best historical covers I've seen in ages.

The Hired Man by Lynna Banning (Harlequin Historical)

A home for the drifter 

Cordell Winterman is haunted by his mistakes—and the years spent paying for them. Broke and hungry, he takes a job as a hired man on Eleanor Malloy's farm. 
Eleanor needs help. Desperately. Her kids are running wild and the place is held up by spit and rust. But as Cord helps her set her home to rights, Eleanor realizes she doesn't just need this enigmatic drifter with hunger in his eyes…she wants him, too!
I know, we're heavy on American-set historicals this month but I couldn't not post this one.  The whole hired man showing up to help out a heroine neck deep is about the only way I can take the Rescue Fantasy trope these days.  Sign me up!

 Her Christmas Knight by Nicole Locke (Harlequin Historical)

A knight to protect her—this Yuletide 

By order of the English king, Alice of Swaffham searches London nobility for the traitor dealing information to the Scots. Little does she know that the mysterious spy she seeks is the man she once loved and thought she'd lost forever… 
If Hugh of Shoebury felt unworthy of Alice before, as the Half-Thistle spy he can never claim her heart. Now he must fight to keep not only his dark secrets—and Alice—safe from a vengeful king…but also his burning longing for her at bay!
Oh look - something that isn't an American-set historical!  See, I haven't forgotten the medieval fans out there.  Locke rolls on with her Lovers and Legends series for Harlequin.  Danger and intrigue all wrapped up in a Christmas romance?  Oh Harlequin, you totally "get" me!

The Drifter by Susan Wiggs (Harlequin / MIRA)
Leah Mundy has spent her life dashing from town to town, one step ahead of her father’s dreadful reputation. Now, she wants to create a home for herself and build a medical practice in Coupeville, a cozy village nestled amid the majestic isles and mountains of Washington Territory. But her neighbors are loath to trust a newcomer, especially a woman doing a man’s work. 
On the run for a crime he didn’t commit but can’t deny, Jackson Underhill is desperate when he holds Leah at gunpoint. He needs her doctoring to mend his wounds, but he soon realizes that she is also capable of healing his soul. But Jackson has been hardened by life as an outlaw, and Leah knows that a future together is impossible…unless they confront his past and learn to trust the redeeming power of love.
Yes, I'm aware that this is a reprint but LOOK AT THAT COVER!  I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw it.  It's worth a look, as I said when I reviewed it as part of the 2013 TBR Challenge.   

What Historicals are you looking forward to this month?

Friday, November 10, 2017

Reminder: #TBRChallenge for November

For those of you participating in the 2017 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, November 15.  This month's theme is Recommended Read.

A book buried in your TBR because someone recommended it to you - a blogger, a reader friend, a family member, a review you read somewhere, it all counts!  But what if you don't listen to book recommendations?  "I read what I want when I want and nobody tells me otherwise Ms. Wendy!"   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!)

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The One Where Wendy Kills Another Blog

First, yes - I know this blog has been a dead zone of late.  I've been neck deep in relocating the Bat Cave for the past month and moving day was last weekend.  I love the new place but everything is still in too much disarray for my liking (in a nutshell, less storage space means finding "creative" solutions) and it's making me squirrely.  I'm hoping that it will all be settled by this weekend though because I have big plans to lie in a prone position and drink adult beverages to celebrate.

I'm out of sorts anyway.  Not reading.  Buried neck deep in moving.  Busy, busy, busy at the The Day Job.   So I wasn't really prepared for the e-mail that landed in my in-box like a wee mini bomb going off.  There's still no official statement, but staff has shared the news on Twitter so at this point I think it's fair game to blog about.

Heroes & Heartbreakers is closing.  Well...pivoting (and let me tell you how much I LOATHE that term).  None of this is gospel, but my impression is that Macmillan will be kicking things over to St. Martin's marketing team and the focus will move towards the newsletter and social media accounts.  What this means for those of us who've provided content for H&H over the years, I'm not sure.  Most likely that 1) I'm out of a "job" 2) Will need to back-up my published posts and 3) That I've managed to kill yet another group blog (by my count, this is #4).

And yes of course I'm making this All. About. Me. 

I'm sad.  One, because I feel a bit blindsided (totally didn't see this coming) and two, because I have been with H&H from the beginning.  It was such early days that the blog didn't even have a name or a host.  Megan Frampton (former H&H editorial director) asked me to write some posts on spec for something she was calling "Project X."  Eventually the idea found a home at Macmillan and H&H was born.  That was 2011.

Now it's 2017, the world is on fire, blogs continue to go the way of the Dodo, and Wendy is sad.  I loved writing for H&H and I loved them as a group blog - mostly because you could literally find everything there.  Books, movies, TV, self-published, traditionally published, romance sub genres and related commentary of all stripes.  There have been other well-done group blogs in Romancelandia, but H&H was the one that got it the most right (in my opinion) with the variety of voices and depth of content.  And now it's closing.

What does this mean for Wendy?  Well, besides trying to finish settling the Bat Cave this weekend and eating my feelings?  I'm not sure yet.  Most of my H&H work were one-off posts that can find a home here, leaving the only lingering question of my Unusual Historicals column.  I will likely continue it, probably on this blog (which is actually where it originated to begin with) - although losing the wider H&H audience getting their eyeballs on those books pains me more than you know.  "Unique" historicals is a hill I will die on folks!

My best wishes to the excellent staff at H&H who I have adored working with over the years, and my fellow bloggers who churned out such amazing content these past six years.  Change happens, and yes I'll roll with it, but that doesn't mean I can't whine about it for a little while first.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Retro Review: Night Fires

This review of Night Fires by Karen Harbaugh was first posted at The Romance Reader in 2003.  Back then I rated it 4-Hearts (B Grade) with an MPAA sensuality rating of R.


Count this reviewer among readers who just don’t understand the current fascination with vampires in romances. Intellectually I can understand that the vampire is the ultimate wounded hero – the loner who needs the love of a good woman to make him whole. However, I can never seem to get past the fact that vampires drink blood. Aren’t those romance heroines concerned about that?

So I was slightly wary when Night Fires turned up in my latest batch of review books. However, I tried to remain optimistic. After all, there’s a suitably creepy Gothic building on the cover, and I adore Gothics. Also, Harbaugh has offered up something a little different – it is our fair heroine who is the vampire in this tale.

Simone de la Fer was ostracized from her aristocratic family, but that does not mean she was not affected when they were murdered during the madness of the French Revolution. Simone took her revenge the only why she knew how, by killing the men who were ordered to dispose of her loved ones. However she is horrified by what she has done, and seeks penance in the church. She is also hoping that by immersing herself in all things holy she can find a cure for her “curse.” The local priest tells her she must repent for her killing, and suggests she use her gifts to help innocents escape the Terror.

Michael Corday is an English spy who has been sent to France to ferret out a man who murdered two of his comrades. His superiors also think that this same villain is spreading the madness of the revolution to other countries. Michael is wearying of his life as a spy, but agrees to this mission.
Simone has been a busy girl, and agents for the Committee of Public Safety have been busy trying to capture La Flamme. It is while she is ferrying some prisoners to a ship that she runs across Michael. He immediately comes to her aid, and the two enter into an uneasy partnership. While Michael is curious about this outlaw, he also realizes he needs connections if he is to complete his mission.

Night Fires is not a perfect book, but it has so much right about it that it’s easy to forgive a few foibles. For one thing, when was the last time you saw a romance that takes place during the French Revolution on the bookstore shelves? Not a terribly romantic period in history, but Harbaugh makes it work by writing her tale in the vein of the classic Gothics of old. In fact, for a good portion of the book the romance is merely a secondary plot, with the hunt for the villains and the Gothic atmosphere taking center stage.

The vampire element to this story also reads like a subplot for a good portion of the book. It’s almost incidental early on that Simone is cursed. The author writes this element with a light touch, so readers who think they “don’t do vampires” will find themselves pleasantly surprised. However, readers who want wall-to-wall vampirism may find themselves a little disappointed. That isn’t really what this story is about.

What this story is about are two lonely, damaged people, placed in an almost impossible situation, during a horrific time in French history. They warily decide that working together is for the best, and their uneasy partnership soon grows into sometime more.

Things get a little convenient during the climatic finish, but again it’s easy to forgive because Harbaugh writes with such flair. The resolution of the vampire angle was imaginative, and the action towards the end elicited a few gasps from this reviewer.

Readers who cut their teeth on Gothics will definitely want to give Harbaugh’s latest a look. Night Fires has an old school charm to it that made it a nice trip down memory lane. Or if you’re a reader who is just fed up with Regency England, this book is definitely worth a look. I selfishly hope that Night Fires meets with success if it will urge publishers to gamble on “less popular” or “unromantic” settings.

On the front cover Mary Jo Putney proclaims that Night Fires is “the best historical romance I’ve read in a long, long, time.” I’m not sure I agree wholeheartedly with that statement, but it certainly is the most imaginative one I’ve read in ages. For that alone it deserves reader attention and my strong stamp of approval.

Side note: My R sensuality rating does indicate that the love scenes are plentiful and hot – but this story also earns that rating on a violence level. The story of how Simone becomes a vampire is a little shocking, so if you’re faint at heart, consider yourself warned.


Wendy Looks Back: Man, I really enjoyed this one back in the day. It flipped all my Gothic nostalgia switches and the French Revolution angle means I was sunk.  In hindsight it was probably a B+ for me back in 2003, but TRR never did half grades.

I cannot find any evidence that Harbaugh is still writing, which is a pity.  Although it looks like she has self-published a number of her Traditional Regencies, so quite possibly she's still scribbling away - just quietly.  Come back to Romancelandia Karen and bring me more Gothics!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Retro Review: Skin

This review for Skin by Karin Tabke was first posted at The Romance Reader in 2007.  Back in the day I gave it a 2-Heart rating (D grade) with an MPAA sensuality rating of NC-17.


Karin Tabke’s second novel has a plot like cotton candy. It’s totally bad for you, but it tastes really good and gives you a sugar high. Unfortunately, as more pages pass by, the reader will find it hard to overlook an unconvincing romance.

Francesca “Frankie” Donatello is a mafia princess. While her father had his fingers in a lot of dirty pies, Frankie has her heart set on running Skin – a legit women’s magazine owned by her father. While profits for Skin have been marginally respectable, it’s in a creative slump. Frankie has dreams of making it over into Cosmo meets Playgirl – a move that her father didn’t approve of. He hates the idea so much that he tells her she is “dead to him” and angry words are exchanged. The next day, daddy is assassinated and Frankie is more determined than ever to make over Skin in her vision. For that she needs one hot male model.

Enter Reese Bronson, an undercover cop assigned to getting the dirt on the Donatello clan. With daddy dead, the cops are concerned about a turf war, so what better way to stop it by finding out who hired the hit? Infiltrating Skin seems like a good plan, plus Frankie being her father’s daughter, she might have had something to do with his death.

If the plot sounds over the top, that’s because it is. Skin screams beach book. It’s undemanding, entertaining, and there’s plenty of hot sex. Unfortunately the characters do everything in their power to sabotage what could have been a campy, fun read.

Frankie doesn’t trust men. She made the mistake of having an affair with a man who pillow-talked all of her business secrets out of her then took them to the competition. Reese sets off all of her hormones, and because of this she almost doesn’t hire him. She doesn’t trust herself around him. But he plays up the attraction, and soon she finds herself hiring him because really, he is the best man to rise to the occasion. What will happen when she finds out that he’s a cop who only wants to get her in the sack so she’ll spill all of her family’s secrets? Take a wild guess.

Reese carries around the requisite baggage that every other stereotypical Alpha male in Romance Novel Land has. His mother abandoned him. He blames himself for his sister’s death. He’s estranged from his father. Lather, rinse repeat. He’s hot for Frankie but given that she’s a mafia princess he’s not sure he can trust her. And there’s the rub. The romance doesn’t work because the characters don’t trust each other.

Reese believes the worst, thinking Frankie played a role in her father’s death. Frankie suspects Reese is a cop, but jumps into bed with him anyway. When the truth comes out, she’s hurt, stunned and totally surprised – even though she suspected as much starting at the halfway point of the novel. To say Frankie runs hot and cold is an understatement. One minute she’s determined to not have sex with Reese because 1) she doesn’t want to mix business with pleasure and 2) he’s hiding something. But what does she do? She practically seduces him out of his pants. Then she’s back to saying they can’t have sex with each other. Make up your mind.

The suspense thread isn’t half bad, except the author doesn’t give the reader nearly enough suspects to work with. Having read enough suspense novels in my day, it was pretty easy to see the climax of the story coming a mile off, which leaves the romance to keep the reader entertained. With Frankie running hot and cold, and the total lack of trust, it’s more than a little hard to buy into. Plus, Reese is determined to believe the worst; even with his gut telling him that Frankie is innocent of any wrongdoing.

On the surface, Skin is a campy, entertaining read that could be perfect for killing time on the beach. Unfortunately, the lack of trust really puts a damper on the fireworks. It’s hard to recommend, but as a guilty pleasure Tabke certainly shows promise.


Wendy Looks Back:  As time marches on what I did and/or didn't read during my TRR days is becoming a distant memory.  Hence this book, which I had kind of forgotten about.  Now thought?  Wow, so Tabke wrote a mafia romance 10 years ago.  I guess what they say is true - there really aren't any new ideas.

Also this now amuses me greatly: " was pretty easy to see the climax of the story coming a mile off..."   Ha!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Retro Review: Double Dare

This review of Double Dare by Saskia Walker was first published at The Romance Reader in 2006.  Back then I gave it a rating of 4 Hearts (B Grade) with an MPAA sensuality rating of NC-17.


Perhaps the most refreshing aspect about the recent erotica boom is that many good authors, previously published by small presses, are cracking into the more mainstream, American marketplace. Such is the case with Saskia Walker, whose first full-length novel debuts under the Berkley Heat umbrella. While a little thin on conflict, it’s easy to see that this is an author who has earned her stripes writing for respected erotica publishers like Virgin Books’ Black Lace line.

Abby Douglas is a beautiful, sexually aware investment advisor working for a prominent firm in London. While standing at the reception desk one day, a drop dead gorgeous courier comes in to drop off some documents. He thinks Abby is the receptionist, and she doesn’t correct him. This is one guy she would love to spend time with, and a lot men turn tail and run when they find out she’s a high-powered career gal. No harm, no foul, why not have some fun?

Except that sexy courier is club owner, Zac Bordino who just happens to be the son of Abby’s new client. His mother is in failing health, and has urged Zac to oversee the family portfolio. It’s when Zac gets a look at that portfolio that he realizes that Abby Douglas is no secretary. But why would she lie to him? Is it innocent enough or is she hiding something more nefarious? To find out, he begins to spend more time with her, and while he wants to find out what she’s truly about, he finds it might not be soon enough to guard his heart.

While the conflict sounds like it’s ripe for miscommunication and a big misunderstanding, Walker doesn’t write it that way. Abby’s little white lie is innocent enough, but Zac doesn’t know that – and given his playboy past and family money, he’s a little slow to trust. That doesn’t mean though that the characters sit around brooding in their internal angst. Anything but! Abby and Zac are immediately attracted to each other, with a sexual combustion that leaps off the pages. These two cannot get enough of each other, and the love scenes are sexy, erotic and imaginative without being silly and weird.

Original Cover
Also refreshing is that when the truth finally comes out in the open, both characters openly admit to what they’ve done. There’s no wailing, stomping of feet, or theatrical screaming matches. These two actually behave like adults, and admit that they both could have handled the situation better. It also gives the author time to explore the extremely pleasing fantasy of hot sex with a hot stranger.

While Abby is a sexually confident woman, once she and Zac hook up readers will find a monogamous relationship. Also, there is a smaller secondary romance between the real receptionist and Zac’s best friend that plays out quite nicely.

While the plot isn’t what one would call complex, and the conflict runs on the thin side, this is a pleasing erotic romance that works quite well. Walker’s previously published erotica consists of several novellas, and her ability in the craft of writing spicy sex shows. Having waded through some less than desirable offerings from the recent erotica boom, this is one of the better novels to land in my lap. It was a pleasant diversion indeed and a good start to Walker’s full-length novel career.


Wendy Looks Back: Walker had several shorter stories/novellas under her belt when the first big wave of what would become known as "erotic romance" hit.  By the mid-2000s, most romance publishers had some sort of a "erotic romance" imprint and veterans like Walker were getting snapped up.  This was her first full-length book for Berkley Heat and while I did find the conflict a bit on the thin side, Walker writes passion very well and tends to avoid the trap of writing kink for kink's sake.  She's still writing today and still an author I enjoy reading when I want something on the spicy side.