Review: The It Girl by Ruth Ware

Review: The It Girl by Ruth WareThe It Girl by Ruth Ware
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 432
Published by Gallery/Scout Press on July 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The #1 New York Times bestselling author of One by One returns with an unputdownable mystery following a woman on the search for answers a decade after her friend’s murder.
April Clarke-Cliveden was the first person Hannah Jones met at Oxford.
Vivacious, bright, occasionally vicious, and the ultimate It girl, she quickly pulled Hannah into her dazzling orbit. Together, they developed a group of devoted and inseparable friends—Will, Hugh, Ryan, and Emily—during their first term. By the end of the second, April was dead.
Now, a decade later, Hannah and Will are expecting their first child, and the man convicted of killing April, former Oxford porter John Neville, has died in prison. Relieved to have finally put the past behind her, Hannah’s world is rocked when a young journalist comes knocking and presents new evidence that Neville may have been innocent. As Hannah reconnects with old friends and delves deeper into the mystery of April’s death, she realizes that the friends she thought she knew all have something to hide…including a murder.

My Review:

Elinor Glyn, inventor of the “It Girl”

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen. That marvelous book is a fictionalized biography of the English couturier Lucy Duff-Gordon. It shouldn’t link to this book at all, but it does. Lucy’s sister, the novelist Elinor Glyn, created the concept of the “It Girl” embodied, at least on the surface, by April Clarke-Cliveden, whose murder lies at the center of this book I’m honestly struggling with here today.

It was a hit with my reading group, which is what made me pick it up. But just like last week’s Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen, in spite of that recommendation, it just didn’t work for me. As this book – like that one – has already been reviewed and summarized by oodles of readers, I’m just going to get into why I think it did not work for this reader in particular and let you be the judge of whether those reasons will apply to your reading or not.

Because this is a thriller, it starts in a place where the tension is supposed to already be ratcheted up. But, and again because it’s a thriller, the way in which that tension is created cuts it as well.

In the past, which we see in flashbacks, Hannah Jones was a student at a prestigious college at Oxford. Her suite-mate and “best” friend was the “It Girl” of the title, April Clarke-Cliveden. April was murdered, Hannah discovered her body, and its Hannah’s testimony that put the nails in the killer’s coffin during the police investigation and at his trial.

But it’s ten years later when the reader enters the story, and April’s killer has just died in prison, still insisting that he’s innocent of the crime. Whether he was or not, his death certainly brings all the vultures of the press out again, trying to ambush Hannah for a sound bite.

Including one reporter who is absolutely convinced that the police – and by extension Hannah – pinned the blame on the wrong man.

And that’s where the tension started draining out of the story for me. If the police had the right man in jail, there wouldn’t be a story. Therefore, they must have had the wrong man, meaning Hannah made a terrible mistake that is about to unravel.

Leaving me certain that sooner or later it would all be revealed and just waiting for the story to get on with it.

It didn’t help that Hannah is not and was not a strong enough personality to carry this story that she is irrevocably pinned to like a moth displayed on a card. Because Hannah was the pale moth, while April was the butterfly.

And both are shallow but at least April is vivid where Hannah is anything but.

The story twists backwards and forwards in time, so we get to witness the barely post-adolescent posturing of April, her hangers on and Hannah, leading up to that fateful moment when April is killed and Hannah is left to pick up the pieces of her shattered world.

And to pick up the not-so-shattered pieces of April’s ex-boyfriend, who Hannah later marries. When this story opens, Hannah and her husband Will should be celebrating that they have a baby on the way, but Hannah gets herself involved in re-opening the case of the man she helped convict of April’s murder, leaving her angsting over the past and her terrible mistake.

I didn’t find myself captured by any of the characters. Hannah seems to still be stuck in passivity. April may have been the victim of the murder, but she had so many victims herself along her way that it ends up not being all that much of question why she was murdered, only a question of which of her victims finally got up the courage to do the deed if it wasn’t the man who was convicted for it.

Something I found extremely problematic along that way was just how that wrong person got convicted and the way that false conviction is treated by Hannah once she realizes the truth – or at least her first version of that truth.

John Neville, however wrongful his conviction for April’s murder, was not innocent. He was the one of the porters at Hannah’s and April’s college and did use his position and his access to the grounds to stalk and harass many of the female students, including both Hannah and April. He wasn’t just awkward and a poor communicator. He set out to harass young women and he did so with impunity, as he was adept at making them feel creeped on – because they were – while never quite doing anything that was unequivocally obvious. He used the way that girls are socialized to be polite and not cause trouble to his advantage. He was not harmless in the least – he just wasn’t a murderer.

The defense that “he’s just awkward” has often been used in geek spaces to defend men who may be awkward but are trading on that awkwardness to ignore boundaries and refuse to take “no” for an answer with the claim that the “no” wasn’t clear or emphatic enough. It seemed cheap to use that as a way to defend a sexual predator who may not have been a killer but was never innocent, diminishing something that is a very real problem.

Everything about the conviction does make the reader wonder what the police were doing as all this was going on. It was not April’s responsibility to conduct the entire investigation and it’s not her fault if the police weren’t thorough enough doing their jobs.

(Once upon a time, Oxford’s Thames Valley Police Department was the province of the brilliant Detective Chief Inspector Endeavor Morse in the series of mysteries by Colin Dexter. Morse would be ashamed of their handling of this case.)

Many readers found the twists and turns in this case compelling. I didn’t like Hannah enough to get caught up in her angst – and I didn’t care for April nearly enough to be that invested in discovering who killed her. The police don’t seem to have done their jobs in the beginning, and the reporter who re-opens the case doesn’t seem to have ever learned the difference between assumptions and red herrings. It’s not that he was wrong in the end, it’s that the reasons for his compulsions in that regard don’t hold up to any examination. Then again, even a stopped clock is right twice a day – I’m just not all that interested in watching it.

Especially as the way that the story opens begged the central question. If the right man was convicted, there would be no story. Since there’s a story, they got it wrong. (It is possible to get around this conundrum – The Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson does extremely well – but it was obvious early on that just wasn’t the case here.) That Hannah takes the blame for that wrong all onto herself – and then proceeds to keep getting it even more wrong – just did not a compelling mystery make.

At least not for me. Your reading mileage may vary, as it certainly has for others. Escape Rating D

Review: Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen by Annabel Abbs

Review: Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen by Annabel AbbsMiss Eliza's English Kitchen: A Novel of Victorian Cookery and Friendship by Annabel Abbs
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 26, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In a novel perfect for fans of Hazel Gaynor’s A Memory of Violets and upstairs-downstairs stories, Annabel Abbs, the award-winning author of The Joyce Girl, returns with the brilliant real-life story of Eliza Acton and her assistant as they revolutionized British cooking and cookbooks around the world.
Before Mrs. Beeton and well before Julia Child, there was Eliza Acton, who changed the course of cookery writing forever.
England 1837. Victorian London is awash with exciting new ingredients from spices to exotic fruits, but Eliza Acton has no desire to spend her days in the kitchen. Determined to be a poet and shamed by the suggestion she write a cookery book instead, she at first refuses to even consider the task. But then her father is forced to flee the country for bankruptcy, shaming the family while leaving them in genteel poverty. As a woman, Eliza has few options, so she methodically collects recipes while teaching herself the mysteries of the kitchen. And to her surprise, she discovers she is not only talented at cooking—she loves it.
To assist her, she hires seventeen-year-old Ann Kirby, the impoverished daughter of a war-injured father and a mother losing her grip on reality. Under Eliza’s tutelage, Ann learns about poetry, cookery, and love, while unravelling a mystery in her mistress’s past. Through the art of food, Eliza and Ann develop an unusual friendship and break the mold of traditional cookbooks by adding elegant descriptions and ingredient lists, that are still used today.
Told in alternate voices, this is an amazing novel of female friendship, the ensuring struggle for freedom, the quiet joy of cookery, and the place of food in creativity all while bringing Eliza Acton out of the archives and back into the public eye. 

My Review:

This was not the book I intended to read for today – and I’m kind of sorry that I changed my mind about that.

Yesterday’s book was excellent – compelling and riveting albeit a bit stomach-churning (OMG I just realized the irony of that – all things now considered!) but I just wasn’t up for another adrenaline-producing title in the book hangover. (Hair of the dog may work for drink hangovers but for book hangovers not so much.)

There are absolute bushel-baskets full of good reviews for Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen, including among my reading circle. Because publication was delayed last year it’s been on my TBR pile for a while but I never got a round tuit. This seemed like a good opportunity to rectify that situation.

I expected to enjoy this. I love English history, I very much like stories about women’s friendships that don’t have to end in marriage, and the idea that this was a fictionalized life of a real woman who really did achieve rather a lot was appealing.

Instead, it was a book that seemed tailor-made to screech like chalk on the blackboard that contained pretty much all of my buttons.

Let me explain…

First, Eliza Acton was a real person who really did write what became a landmark cookbook. If you’ve ever looked at a recipe – EVER – you’ve seen the results of her work as she was the first cookbook author to include a comprehensive list of the ingredients – including precise measurements! – for her recipes as well as an approximation of the time it would take to make the recipe including preparation time.

If you’ve ever attempted to recreate an old family recipe, where the measurements go something like “a pinch of this”, “a handful of that”, “a bit of this other thing”, etc., etc. – before Acton’s Modern Cookery in All Its Branches, (later editions published as Modern Cookery for Private Families), all recipes were written just like that, only in narrative form without the list of ingredients. One had to parse out what one needed to make the dish by reading through the recipe over and over until one was certain one had everything.

But important doesn’t necessarily mean interesting. Or maybe it’s just that this fictionalization of her life didn’t pick up the interesting bits.

It was an interesting idea to tell Acton’s story in alternating perspectives. Acton’s own rather obsessive and self-centered viewpoint alternates with that of her unknown and unsung assistant, Ann Kirby. (I do not believe Kirby existed as a singular character. She may be an amalgam of several unnamed assistants – because there must have been some – or she may be entirely imaginary, a cipher on whom can be pinned a whole lot of noblesse oblige and quite a few social issues that Acton may or may not have engaged with in her own life.)

Acton was rather firmly middle class, having been raised as a gentlewoman before her father went bankrupt. Kirby grew up in poverty, in a life of few or no choices, often not certain where her next meal was coming from, with her dad a wounded war veteran drowning in alcohol as her mother descends into dementia in a world where there’s no help for either.

It’s not that Acton and Kirby could not have developed a friendship, but in the book we have they are generally talking past each other. Acton can’t envision that Kirby has not had any of the advantages she has had, while Kirby sees Acton as being rich as Croesus if only because of the amount of food she is able to waste in her cooking experiments.

The book hints at a romance between the two but never resolves the issue in either direction. It just dangles like the “sausage and chestnuts” that one of the Acton’s boarding house’s more disgusting male guests regularly displays under the dining table to whichever serving girl can be bullied into picking things up from under said table.

Because one of the themes of this story is just how little agency women have in their own lives. Acton is under her mother’s overbearing, over-critical, over-complaining thumb because she never married, while Kirby is under every thumb she encounters because she’s poor. Acton’s obsession with her own ambitions leaves her blind to their commonality.

But OMG her mother is the kind of character who makes Lizzie Bennett’s ambitious mother look like a saint in comparison. (In case you’re wondering – no, I didn’t like her either.)

I’m flailing a bit. I wanted so very much to like this book. It just fell flat for me in every instance where it didn’t make me want to throw it across the room. (I read on an iPad. I resist the temptation to wallbang a book at all costs – because costs. And I was still sorely tempted.)

Acton isn’t nearly as compelling as her cookbook. We don’t even get enough details of all the food she’s experimenting with to salivate over it. One should come out of reading a book like this hungry – and I wasn’t at all. Acton is much too self-absorbed to be friends with anyone, let alone her assistant. Her mother is a horror and so is their relationship. Both women get, honestly, shat upon at every turn.

The language is stilted, the relationships that do seem to exist don’t come to any point unless it’s a terrible one. Too many things – like the possible flirtation between Acton and Kirby or the sudden introduction of Acton’s rumored but not proven daughter all seem to hang over the mantlepiece like an entire arsenal of Chekhov’s Guns.

There are a LOT of people who really seem to have enjoyed this book. I so wasn’t one of them that I can’t even.

Escape Rating D: I have to say that I didn’t escape at all. This story had so much possibility in it and for this reader at least it was entirely wasted. Obviously it wasn’t for me. But it clearly was for lots of readers. Look at the reviews and decide for yourself.

Guest Review: Sworn to Forget by Maria Imbalzano

Guest Review: Sworn to Forget by Maria ImbalzanoSworn to Forget by Maria Imbalzano
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Sworn Sisters #1
Pages: 340
Published by Wild Rose Press on July 18th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

By all appearances, Nicki Reading is a star. PR director at a major music label, Nicki is sharp, successful, independent, and confidently calls the shots. She dates whom she wants, when she wants, with no strings attached. But beneath that shine, loneliness flickers. Events from her past prove love leads only to pain. Commitment is not an option.

Until Dex Hanover, a classy, principled, and prosperous CPA, enters the picture. Undeterred by his unhappy childhood, he has an amazing capacity to be both caring and generous, giving his free time as a mentor for a child from the projects. Dex wears his paternal yearnings on his sleeve, and he is at a point in his life where commitment is the only option.

Despite their opposing views, Nicki and Dex ignite each other. But will events from their pasts ruin their challenging relationship and prevent them from experiencing everlasting love?

Guest review by Amy:

I’m in the habit of saying nice things about books, even books that other reviewers might find questionable; sometimes, however…well, this time, about the nicest things I can say about this one is that I didn’t spot many typos, and I feel accomplished from actually getting to the end. Reader beware: I’m gonna bring the snark out for this one.

Nicki Reading is on a cruise with her soon-to-be-ex, and meets Dex Hanover, also on the cruise with his soon-to-be-ex. Okay, that sounds like nice spicy fare from the get-go, although both of them are happy to explain at tedious length why they are on a cruise with this other person, and their reasons for dumping their exes are perfectly viable. Because they don’t have any real private space, they hold off on the steamy bits until they return home – convenient, isn’t it, that the two lovebirds live in the same city, not at all far from each other? This would have been a short story, otherwise. Come to think of it, that might have been a mercy, really.

They start seeing each other, the sex is magnificent, things are ticking along pretty well, until abruptly, they aren’t. Dex proposes, and she turns him down flat. You see, Dex wants kids, and Nicki just doesn’t.

Escape Rating: D+: We spend fully half of a way-too-long book exploring why there is this disconnect–Dex wants a big family, and to be the father of several kids, because his father abandoned him and his family when Dex was a youngling (huh?). Nicki was a teen parent, who gave her baby up for adoption, and cannot – CANNOT, I TELLS YA – tolerate being around kids, knowing what a crappy parent she was to her own child by giving him up (again, I say, “huh?”)  I mean, I get why those things in their past hurt them, I really do. But both of them are letting it drive their personalities in weird directions, and they’re not even bothering to tell each other. If they would just communicate with each other, so they could understand each other better, but no, both of these folks are way, way too self-centered, almost to the point of narcissism, and way too determined to make themselves miserable over something that happened ages ago. At many points in the front half of the book, I almost gave up. These characters are nothing at all that I can identify with.

52% in (according to my book reader app), we hit on something resembling some plot:  Turns out that the child Nicki gave up fourteen years ago is not all that far away after all. He was adopted by one of her best gal-pal Denise’s brother-in-law and his wife, who were raising him fine until they were killed in an auto accident. The gal-pal and her husband now have Bobby with them, and are looking to adopt him.  But (PLOT TWIST!) he turns up with leukemia. So another gal-pal, Sam, an attorney, works to get at the real birth records, so they can maybe find a bone marrow donor for the boy.

You can probably write the next chapter or two, can’t you? Sam shows up at Nicki’s office to break the news to her, there’s a fit pitched, drama drama drama. And we know who the father is – Michael, who was “just a friend” to Nicki way back when (grin grin wink wink nudge nudge), and disappeared right as they got out of high school, never to be seen again (my eyes are rolling up in my head here) until recently…when he’s involved with Sam.  ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

Through this whole hot mess, Nicki is still pining over Dex, but nope-not-havin’-kids-and-that’s-what-he-wants…until she starts to come around to the idea of maybe possibly…so she hits him up.  Yep, he’s still interested. (PLOT TWIST!) and she gets pregnant.  So they’re gonna get married, happily-ever-after, gosh I’ll try my best even though I’m not keen on kids, all for you, baby.

(PLOT TWIST!) Until she miscarries.  And dumps poor Dex, right before the wedding.  It takes us a couple more really contrived twists and turns to get to a happy ending. But for me, the happy ending was not the honeymoon in Bermuda, but simply finishing this one and seeing THE END.

Other people have given this book good reviews, in several venues, and I had truly hoped for better.  It’s the first in a series about these four friends, the Sworn Sisters, but right now, I just can’t wrap my head around reading the second one (Sworn to Remember), which was recently released.

Review: Duchess by Deception by Marie Force

Review: Duchess by Deception by Marie ForceDuchess by Deception (Gilded, #1) by Marie Force
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Gilded #1
Pages: 320
Published by Zebra on January 29, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In New York Times bestselling author Marie Force's dazzling historical romance debut, the clock is ticking for a wealthy Duke who must marry by his thirtieth birthday—or lose his title...

Derek Egan, the dashing Duke of Westwood, is well aware of his looming deadline. But weary of tiresome debutantes, he seeks a respite at his country home in Essex—and encounters a man digging on his property. Except he's not a man. He's a very lovely woman. Who suddenly faints at his feet.

Catherine McCabe's disdain for the aristocracy has already led her to flee an arranged marriage with a boorish Viscount. The last thing she wants is to be waylaid in a Duke's home. Yet, she is compelled to stay by the handsome, thoughtful man who introduces himself as the Duke's estate manager.

Derek realizes two things immediately: he is captivated by her delicate beauty, and to figure out what she was up to, Catherine must not know he is the Duke. But as they fall passionately in love, Derek's lie spins out of control. Will their bond survive his deception, not to mention the scorned Viscount's pursuit? Most important, can Catherine fall in love all over again—this time with the Duke?

My Review:

I finished Duchess by Deception feeling sadly disappointed. I wondered if it might be me, that this might be a genre that just didn’t work for me anymore. Because I expected a whole lot better from the author of the Fatal romantic suspense series.

Then I looked at some of the other reviews on Goodreads and discovered that I am far from alone in my feelings. Which leaves me feeling better about the other historical romances in my virtually towering TBR pile – but somewhat at a loss for words about this book.

Duchess by Deception is a historical romance that includes an extended ride on the “Troperville Trolley”. There are enough all-too-common tropes and cliches packed into this book for three stories – and it might have been better if it had been three separate stories.

Because there are three stories here. The first is the one about the Duke of Westwood and his nuptial deadline. If he doesn’t marry by the day of his 30th birthday he’ll be forced to relinquish the title in favor of his nasty, greedy, grasping uncle. And his birthday is at the end of the week as the story begins.

So of course he runs off to his country estate instead of staying in London to find a bride. He discovers a young man digging holes at his estate who is immediately revealed to be not merely female but actually a damsel in distress who is on the run from a fate worse than death.

Yes, my eyes are rolling.

That they fall instantly in love is, of course, a given.

Then the misunderstandammits start rolling in. Because he doesn’t tell her he’s a duke since she hates the aristocracy, even though she is part of it. And he doesn’t tell her he has to marry by the end of the week because, well, he’s already lying to her about being the duke’s estate manager instead of the duke himself.

So when the dastardly villain her father has literally sold her to starts investigating the area around the duke’s estate, he whisks her away to Gretna Green for a hasty marriage over the anvil.

Then the same thing nearly happens to her sister. And that’s not the half of it.

Escape Rating D+: I haven’t dragged the D+ out in a while. I didn’t so much finish this book as skim it to see how it ended. Because there is a third plot thread that is even crazier than the first two.

There’s a whole lot of insta-love going on here, well past the point where it’s believable or even plausible. Not only does the duke fall instantly for his future duchess when she faints in his arms, but then his cousin falls equally precipitously for her sister across a crowded ballroom.

Really? The family seems prone to falling sickness, or possibly insanity.

We don’t have a chance to see either relationship actually develop. What we do get is a lot of sex scenes substituting for the development of the romance. I like a good sex scene as much as the next romance reader, but porn-without-plot is not a substitute for an actual plot. YMMV.

The villains of the piece were both caricatures, and yes, there are two. One is a leering pig of a villain, and the other is a greedy, grasping, murderous villain. Who have no relationship to each other. Which stretches the long arm of coincidence a bit too long for a single book.

And both women forgive their father for selling them to the leering pig WAY too easily.

This story had promise. Actually, it had multiple promises. It just didn’t live up to any of them.

Review: Want Me Cowboy by Maisey Yates

Review: Want Me Cowboy by Maisey YatesWant Me, Cowboy (Copper Ridge: Desire, #5) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Copper Ridge: Desire #5
Pages: 217
Published by Harlequin Desire on November 6, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Her rancher boss is looking for the perfect wife...and she wants the job!

Poppy Sinclair kept her feelings for Isaiah Grayson secret for a decade. When her infuriatingly gorgeous Stetson-wearing boss enlists her help in finding him a convenient wife, she threatens to quit. Until Isaiah counters with an interesting proposal: Why doesn't she marry him? Can she say yes to sharing his life and his bed, but not his heart?

My Review:

As much as I usually love this author, this particular book reminded me why I generally leave the category romance reviews in the hands of my friend and (not nearly frequent enough) guest reviewer Amy Daltry. (She loved Hold Me, Cowboy, a previous book in this very series)

Because as much as I usually love this author, this particular book made me want to throw it against the wall. I don’t have this reaction often because my iPad is just too damn expensive to treat that way.

Let’s just say that Want Me Cowboy is not exactly a contemporary romance for the #MeToo era.

And that’s just for starters.

Except that, for starters, I really liked the setup of the story. I like a good friends to lovers romance. I also like a good lusting after the boss romance. And the opening of the story was hilarious – it reminded me of all those fake ads for a wife or a husband where the previous candidate had an impossible condition – or at least impossible for most respondents. You know the kind, the ones that usually end with the woman keeping her cats or the man keeping his cabin. Or in the case of this particular ad, Isaiah Grayson starts out by saying he’s keeping his beard.

And telling the assistant who has been in love with him for a decade that she’s the one who will be interviewing any prospective candidates. The possibilities for humor are endless. And I wish the story had gone there. Or pretty much anywhere else instead of where it actually went.

Not that I didn’t hope that they would get together, because I initially did. Until I didn’t.

Let me explain…

The first thing to understand about Isaiah Grayson is that he seems to be somewhere on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Not that it has ever been officially diagnosed, but both he and his family are more than aware that Isaiah has never had any skills in processing what other people are thinking or feeling. And he uses that lack of awareness as an excuse to be an asshole.

He’s usually not mean, or at least not mean per se. But he has decided that he is usually right, and when someone tells him something that he doesn’t want to hear or that he thinks is wrong, he overrides everything they say and everything they do, leaving them no choice but to either go along or walk away – and he makes it incredibly difficult to walk away.

As he finally realizes late (too late) in the story, he did give Poppy a choice. However, he has the financial power to restrict that choice to the point where the least bad option is the one that he wants. It’s not necessarily that she wants what he has decided is best, just that all of the other choices are so horrible that it might as well be no choice at all.

Things in this story begin going pear-shaped when Poppy Sinclair finally snaps back at Isaiah about giving her the job of interviewing his wife candidates. She’s fed up with his hunt for a convenient wife who will be the equivalent of her, just at home. And with sex. Otherwise, he IS looking for her clone.

He gets the bright idea that he can have his cake and eat it too by just marrying Poppy. This could have been a great story, but the problem is the way that Isaiah goes about it. Once he’s kissed her and discovered that they have AMAZING chemistry together, he decides that no one else by Poppy will do, takes over her life and NEVER listens to any of her objections or concerns.

Including the concern she never gets a chance to raise. Their sexual relationship has the definite aura of him pushing her boundaries until she “realizes” that she really didn’t want to say no in the first place. The way this feeds into the whole narrative of “no means yes” that men fall back on when consent is forced or withdrawn made me grit my teeth.

That he, in spite of his own internal dialog about his sexual experiences, can’t be bothered to use a condom is just plain wrong. She’s a virgin, so the idea that she wasn’t remotely prepared to have sex with anyone isn’t surprising. That he doesn’t seem to even think about protecting her from either pregnancy or any consequences of his past is selfish and thoughtless, to say the least..

That she becomes pregnant from her first sexual experience is part of the story. Because it becomes yet another way that he takes her choices away from her.

You’re thinking that she can raise the child alone, that in the 21st century pregnancy does not equal a choice between marriage and eternal shame and damnation. And you’re right.

But, and in this case it is a huge gigantic butt, he has decided that marriage between them is the right thing to do. Because for him, it provides him with the perfect, stable family that he has decided that he needs.

So when Poppy tries to back out of the engagement he has pretty much coerced her into, he informs her that if she doesn’t marry him he will fight her for full custody, and that with his money and his resources, he will win. And he’s right about that. So when she won’t do what he wants, he makes all her other choices so horrible that she has no real choice.

For me the whole story was like that. He has decided what he wants, so he takes over her life. She has doubts and tries to back away, or at least to slow things down. He rides roughshod over her. Over and over again.

Her answer to his behavior is to just love him more. And to give him more. His mother convinces her that a successful marriage is one where she gives everything and eventually he will see what’s right in front of him. This sounds like the kind of advice that abused spouses receive.

Ironically, it is not the kind of marriage his parents actually have, so there’s an element of “do as I say and not as I do” involved along with the guilt trip.

He does eventually figure out just how big an asshole he’s been, and he does seem to learn just a bit of his lesson. But I’m not nearly convinced that he’s learned enough of a lesson, or grovelled nearly enough, to get past the “if you don’t marry me I’ll take your child away” threat.

Escape Rating D+: It’s been a long time since I’ve dragged out the D+ rating, and this book wasn’t nearly as much fun as the last time I did. But I did finish the damn thing, and that’s what puts it into this category. There was the germ of a good story in here, but it just derailed for me into questionably consenting assholishness.

I could go on (and on and ON) but I’ve ranted long enough.

I still love this author, and will pick up her next book that is NOT a category romance. (In fact, I already have an ARC) But if there are any future books in the Copper Ridge: Desire category series, I’ll leave them to Amy.

Cass Rant on Demand: Wild Embrace by Nalini Singh

Cass Rant on Demand: Wild Embrace by Nalini SinghWild Embrace (Psy-Changeling, #15.5) by Nalini Singh
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Psy-Changeling #15.5
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley on August 23rd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The “alpha author of paranormal romance”* presents a stunningly sensual collection of four all-new Psy-Changeling novellas, in which taboos are broken, boundaries are crossed, and instincts prove irresistible...

Echo of Silence
In a deep-sea station, Tazia Nerif has found her life’s work as an engineer, keeping things running smoothly. But she wants nothing more than to break down the barrier of silence between her and her telekinetic Psy station commander...

Dorian
A changeling who can never shift lives a life of quiet frustration—until he learns how to let his leopard come out and play...

Partners in Persuasion
Still raw from being burned by a dominant female, wolf changeling Felix will never again risk being a plaything. But for dominant leopard Dezi, he’s the most fascinating man she’s ever met. She just has to convince this gun-shy wolf that he can trust the dangerous cat who wants to take a slow, sexy bite out of him…

Flirtation of Fate
Seven years ago, Kenji broke Garnet’s heart. Now the wolf packmates have to investigate the shocking murder of one of their own. And the more Kenji sees of the woman Garnet has become, the deeper he begins to fall once more. But even his primal instincts are no match for the dark secret he carries...
*Booklist, starred review

Hello again! Long time, no see. Who’s up for a Cass Rant On Demand™? Clearly the person who baited me with another dip into the Psy-Changeling world. An anthology this time. Be warned, there shall be spoilers and snark ahead.

Anyone want to place bets on how many stories involve a psychic woman being saved by the mighty powers of the changeling cock?

Echo of Silence: Now wait just a moment here. What atrocity is this? A poor woman being left alone in the world to fend off the attentions of this nightmarish man-creature that respects her culture. Be warned, the following exchange may shock you.

“I can’t discard who I am like it’s an old coat.”

“I understand,” Stefan said, having already guessed at Tazia’s value system after so carefully noting every single thing about her in the year they’d worked together. “Your cultural mores are no more or less irrational than the protocol under which my people are conditioned.”

To add insult to injury, he takes this a step further by valuing her talents as an engineer.

“Your skills are necessary.”

Typical Psy. Without exposure to Changeling packs, he hasn’t yet learned that it is his job to threaten his crush (Lucas), violate her bodily autonomy (Vaughn), belittle her life choices (Clay), and piss all over her loyalty to her family (Dorian). Though I guess the latter isn’t necessary since her brother seems to have missed out on the Riley Kincaid Lecture Series: Your Sister’s Vagina is Your Property. 

Of course he’s a former Arrow. Apparently the only school on this planet that teaches how to respect women is the one with a regular torture regimen.

“No grease streaks for once,” she said, nervous.

“I have a confession.” He rose from the bed. “I only used to say that to have an excuse to speak to you. Sometimes you didn’t have grease on your face. I lied.”

Stefan, Stefan, Stefan. Pick up the phone, and give DarkRiver a call. Nate will be happy to explain to you how to infantilize the woman you are romantically interested in. Then you won’t need to worry about conversational icebreakers. (+)

Dorian. This entry is an absolute joke. It’s basically deleted scenes from prior novels, loosely compiled and told from the POV of one racist misogynist fucktard.

Anyone interested in the first time Clay met the pack? Or want to see Dorian briefly interact with the sister that was fridged before the first book? Maybe you want to know how Lucas feels about Dorian being able to shift? Anyone? Bueller? (-)

Partners in Persuasion: Here we have a recently retired supermodel, who is really into fashion and flowers, but just can’t seem to relate to women. In fact, he is so shy around them that he refuses to even make eye contact. Thankfully he has no trouble whatsoever relating to or engaging with men, so when a butch woman puts the moves on him, he tentatively agrees to give it a shot. She’s mannish enough for it to work out.

She tried to shift closer, was stopped by the way they were seated, his upper body twisted to meet her kiss. Placing her hand on his throat,  she—

He wasn’t there any longer, having jerked away to the other side of the trunk. Reeling, she tried to think what she’d done,

I hate to break it to you Dezi, but you didn’t do anything wrong. He freaked out as soon as you got close enough for him to realize you didn’t have a cock.

We’re 15 books into this series, and there hasn’t been one single queer-identified character. All we get is a shy,flower-arranging fashion model who, contrary to pages of internal monologue about how it’ll never work, deciding to hook up with Idgie Threadgoode. Give me a fucking break. Is there an previous entry in the series I missed that covers how the Psy discovered the “gay gene” and managed to suppress it from appearing in the population? (-)

Flirtation of Fate: One self-centered man baby, who firmly believes his feelings outweigh those of any and all females in his life. They will get over their shit. He is the only one who can wallow.

“You knew how awful she was to me, how she made my life a living hell, and you not only took her to prom, you dated her for a year!”

A befuddled expression on his face. “I know you two didn’t like each other, but I thought it was, you know, girl stuff.”

Let that be a lesson to all you menfolk out there. It is completely acceptable to bang a hot bully, even as she is emotionally tormenting your best friend. Teenage girls aren’t at all prone to depression and suicide in situations like this. It’s just girl stuff. Feel free to ignore it.

wild-embrace-uk-editionThe – ahem – romance between these two only appears to deepen with time. After man baby gets his jollies plowing her nemesis, he leads her on, ditches her at her birthday party to bang another girl, spends years tormenting her professionally, and ultimately decides for her that her only purpose in life is to breed. Because yeah. That is how you demonstrate your love for your true mate. Fuck this noise. (-)

In sum, only bother with the first story.

Before I move on to the grading, I need to spend just one moment addressing the cover-shaped elephant in the room. What is with the US covers?! The US cover screams P-O-R-N. Which it really isn’t. There is sex in every story, but it’s only painful when the author is forcing two clearly queer characters into a hetero-normative relationship. If you decide to buy this anthology for the first story, order it from the UK. Even man-baby’s pink hair is preferable to Mr. Nipples.

Escape Rating: D for Down With the Douchebaggery!

 

Marlene’s Notes: Cass is absolutely right about the UK vs. US covers. I always hate the US covers. The UK covers are always lots better.

Howsomever, much as I agree about the covers, I disagree about the series in general and this book in particular. For a considerably more positive take on Wild Embrace, check out my joint review with E over at The Book Pushers.

Review: Hawke by Sawyer Bennett

Review: Hawke by Sawyer BennettHawke (Cold Fury Hockey, #5) by Sawyer Bennett
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Series: Cold Fury Hockey #5
Pages: 275
Published by Loveswept on March 15th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Carolina Cold Fury hockey team proves that love is a power play. As Sawyer Bennett’s New York Times bestselling series continues, the league’s most notorious party animal gets blindsided by the one that got away.
Off the ice, elite defenseman Hawke Therrien enjoys his fair share of booze and good times. And why shouldn’t he? He’s worked his way up from the minor leagues and made himself a star. The only thing Hawke misses from that life is the pierced, tattooed free spirit who broke his heart without so much as an explanation. She’s almost unrecognizable when she walks back into his life seven years later—except for the look in her eyes that feels like a punch to the gut.
Vale Campbell isn’t the same girl she was at twenty. As crazy as she was about Hawke, her reckless behavior and out-of-control drinking were starting to scare her. She had to clean up her act, and that would never happen with Hawke around. Cutting him loose was the hardest thing Vale ever had to do—until now. Because she’s still crazy about Hawke. And if he could ever learn to forgive her, they just might have a future together.

My Review:

alex by sawyer bennettI picked this up because I have generally enjoyed Bennett’s Cold Fury Hockey series. However, looking at the progression of my reviews from the first book, Alex to the most recent book, Ryker, I can see that my feelings about this series have been on a downhill slide. I had originally planned to review it as part of a tour, but after I finished, I discovered that I just couldn’t. In spite of having enjoyed most of the earlier entries in the series, I did not like this book. It hit two of my hot buttons, and not in a good way.

As my readers are aware, I am not fond of the “misunderstandammit” that often creates the fake tension in a romance. You know what I mean, where the only reason the two protagonists are apart is because they just won’t sit down and communicate with each other. They get so caught up in thinking they know what is going on in the other person’s head or heart that they never just talk about it. And all too often, whatever it is they are assuming, read for the classic definition of “assume makes an ass out of u and me” is ridiculously petty, and it is always dead wrong.

In this story there are two big misunderstandammits. One is actually pretty big and important, but it gets cleared up in the middle of the book. By the time the issue is dealt with, I suspect there will be very few readers who haven’t already figured it out, but it is understandable that the heroine didn’t reveal it to the hero at the time it happened. Probably not a good choice on her part, but understandable.

And this reader was incredibly grateful that it wasn’t a secret baby. That’s a trope I dislike pretty intensely.

But there is a second misunderstandammit, and it turns out to be both petty and stupid. It’s petty in the sense that what turns out to be behind it was petty. That it is something the heroine is still unhappy with is not. But there was no vicious motive, just coincidence and happenstance. Life happens. What felt stupid was that while he gets closure, while he discovers what happened in the past and learns the reasons behind it, she never reveals that he hurt her as well. She’s supposed to be more forgiving than that. Why? He gets the air cleared but she doesn’t? And then, when that second secret bites them in the ass, she still doesn’t reveal it. A friend has to “woman up” for her.

That’s kind of where things fell apart for me. Not because of this particular incident, but because it fell into the pattern of the book. He gets whatever he wants, and she gives in.

There is a scene about a third of the way through, where he follows her to a private place at a party, intending to talk. Instead it turns into punishment sex that doesn’t go all the way. But we see this scene from inside his head, and she says no. She may still be into him, but it’s the wrong place and the wrong time. It’s not just that there is a party in the next room, but her current boyfriend is at that party. Whatever she still feels or doesn’t, this is wrong and she says so. Hawke doesn’t care that she said no, he wants to prove to her that she still wants him, so he coerces her participation, then backs out because of shit in his own head.

It felt like there were way too many times in this story where she said, “no”, or “not now” and he decided that what he wanted was more important than her “no” or that he knew best. To me, that is not romantic. It is controlling and borderline abusive. It also feeds into the mindset that “no” really means “yes” or that the woman’s agency doesn’t matter nearly as much as the man’s does. This one drops me out of the story every single time.

There are a whole lot of times where Hawke is sweet and caring, but it doesn’t change this tone for me.

When she finally reveals what happened years ago, part of her reason for breaking up with him was that she felt that if they stayed together, it would always be about him. He would swallow her up and she would never be anything more than his appendage. At the end of the story, it is all too clear that she was right then, and she’s still right now.

Escape Rating D  for very, very disappointed.

Review: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Review: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane AndersAll the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 320
Published by Tor Books on January 26th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the editor-in-chief of io9.com, a stunning novel about the end of the world--and the beginning of our future
Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn't expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during high school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one's peers and families.
But now they're both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them. Laurence is an engineering genius who's working with a group that aims to avert catastrophic breakdown through technological intervention into the changing global climate. Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the world's magically gifted, and works with a small band of other magicians to secretly repair the world's ever-growing ailments. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, is determined to bring them together--to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.
A deeply magical, darkly funny examination of life, love, and the apocalypse.

My Review:

This doesn’t often happen, but this is a book that I finished because I was stubborn, and for no other reason. Also, it wasn’t THAT long and by the time I decided I should probably bail, I didn’t have enough time left to read something else for today, unless I picked something really short. So I finished this instead.

That’s all to tell you right there that this isn’t going to be a favorable review.

I went into All the Birds in the Sky with a lot of hope. The author is one of my favorite columnists over at io9, and I expected way more from her writing than I got in this book. I’m going back to the columns.

For starters, the book reads like either Young Adult or New Adult. The story starts with our protagonists in middle school, and ends with them in their mid-20s at most, still completely confused about “the meaning of it all”. But they have sex, so probably New Adult. (There is absolutely nothing wrong with either YA or NA, but I prefer to know what I’m getting into in this regard up front. And I’d probably have avoided the whole thing if I’d known.)

This should have been a coming-of-age story, but I’m not sure that the protagonists ever do get there. They feel like more experienced apprentices than finally knowledgeable adults, or even on the road to there, at the end.

There’s a certain amount of wish-fulfillment in this story. Two kids, just a bit too weird and always outcasts at their school, bond together over their outcast status. Then the girl discovers that her weirdness is because she is a witch, and the boy discovers that he is an elite technical genius, and their paths diverge until they meet again at the end of the world.

But it felt like every plot twist had to hit every single cliche EVAR before the story moved on. Patricia and Laurence aren’t just slightly weird – their school is experimental and strange and designed to torture its occupants beyond all reason. Not that the students aren’t more than happy to torment anyone even slightly outside the norm, but their school is insane.

Their parents are all equally strange, and punish both children to the point of abuse, when they are not being criminally neglectful.

From this reader’s perspective, much too much of this part of the story felt like bullying on top of bullying, well past making the point that these kids were different. Either this was intended to feel surreal, or society had already gone so far to hell in the handbasket that this crap was normal. In which case, we needed a bit more explanation for how things got this screwed up.

The part of the story that might have been really interesting – the actual growing up years when Patricia goes to witch school and Laurence escapes his parents and ends up at MIT, are almost completely glossed over. When we meet them again, they are both in their 20s and the world is in even more serious crisis than it was.

The story then becomes the fight between science as either a redemptive or destructive force, as embodied by Laurence and his friends and colleagues, and magic as a healing force, embodied by Patricia and her fellow witches. Neither of whom, frankly, seem particularly clueful about the messes they are creating.

The two groups are racing to see which of them will bring about the end of the world as they know it first, while justifying their efforts by demonizing the other. It’s fast and furious and the end of the book doesn’t make much sense.

Escape Rating D: I did finish, which gets a D. Although that finish was sheer stubbornness on my part.

I do not like bullying stories or humiliation humor, and the first third of this book is both of those. Patricia and Laurence are bullied at every single turn, by the school, by their teachers, by their fellow students, by their parents, and Patricia by her sociopathic sister. It was relentless and depressing and went on way too long for this reader.

I hate humiliation humor. That’s where someone deliberately sets someone up for an accident or a pratfall and then laughs with their buddies because the victim’s humiliation is just so funny to them. Not funny at all. And there are better ways to make the point, if there is one, and advance the plot than repeating this behavior over and over.

In YA books, parents are often clueless, but in this one, the behavior of all the adults, especially the parents, was downright criminal.

And I figured out the big reveal long, long before the protagonists even got to the point where they figured out there should be one. The suspense was so dead by that point in the story.

In the end, there were no heroes in this book. Only victims and survivors. Including the readers.

Review: Ryker by Sawyer Bennett

ryker by sawyer bennettFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genre: sports romance
Series: Cold Fury Hockey #4
Length: 269 pages
Publisher: Loveswept
Date Released: September 8, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

The stakes have never been higher for Carolina Cold Fury goalie Ryker Evans. With his contract running out, he’s got a year left to prove he’s still at the top of his game. And since his wife left him, Ryker has been balancing life as a pro-hockey star and a single parent to two daughters. Management is waiting for him to screw up. The fans are ready to pounce. Everybody’s taking dirty shots—except for the fiery redhead whose faith in Ryker gives him a fresh start.

As the league’s only female general manager, Gray Brannon has learned not to mix business with pleasure. And yet even this tough, talented career woman can’t help breaking her own rules as she gives Ryker everything she’s got. She hopes their hot streak will last forever, but with Ryker’s conniving ex plotting to reclaim her man, the pressure’s on Gray to step up and save a tender new love before it’s too late.

My Review:

I was planning to read something different for today, and then I decided I’d rather have a fun book, because tomorrow’s is so serious. But now that I’ve finished Ryker, I’m not sure I really DID pick a fun book.

garrett by sawyer bennettI read the previous three books in the Cold Fury Hockey series, Alex, Garrett and Zack. These are the key players on the fictional Cold Fury Hockey team, and they form a tight core group for the team. In those earlier books, even when the hero is being an arsehole or an idiot, or sometimes both, I really liked the books. The stories were compellingly readable, even if, or especially because, the guy really needed work to be a decent human being.

Ryker turns out to be the opposite. Ryker Evans starts the story as a really decent guy. He’s a loving and attentive single-father, he’s a great hockey player, and he’s decent to his friends. He absolutely adores his little girls and they are clearly the center of his world. Even though he’s clear in the story that the reason his first marriage broke up was that he and his soon-to-be-ex-wife drifted apart, he acknowledges that he left all the childcare to her and that it was a mistake on his part. His life is exhausting, but he realizes that he missed out by not being more involved with his girls. Now that his ex has left them all to chase after her new lover on the hockey circuit, he’s the girls only stable parent and he’s happy to be that for them.

The concept of the heroine, Gray Bannon, was a good one, but the results didn’t wow me. Gray is the daughter of the Cold Fury’s owner, Brian Bannon. She’s also a genius with numbers and a former Olympic women’s hockey player. At the beginning of her story, her dad has just named her General Manager of the Cold Fury, making her the first female GM in pro hockey.

So of course, now that she has just taken on a high-profile and highly contentious position in sports, what does she do next? Fall in love with one of her own players, entering into a relationship that when it gets out, will cause sports pundits everywhere to question her ability to do her job, a problem she already has way too much of.

Her credibility will completely tank when their affair is exposed. This is not fair, but it is still true. Unfortunately.

So this is a story about a hidden love affair that can only come to light if either Gray gives up her job, or Ryker, who is in his early 30s and whose playing days, while still terrific, are also definitely numbered, gives up his.

They are certain that they can only be together if one of them gives up the career that makes them whole? Who will make the sacrifice?

alex by sawyer bennettEscape Rating D+: As much as I enjoyed the other books in this series, even Alex where he was an absolute bastard but still made me smile (see review), this one was not just a slog, but it actually jumped the shark for me.

The story is written from alternating first person points of view. We see the world from inside Gray’s head, and then we switch to inside Ryker’s head. Ryker’s head is pretty level. He loves his daughters, he loves playing hockey and thinks he has a few more years left, he’s happy to be at the top of his game, he’s completely over his soon-to-be-ex-wife, and he’s fascinated by Gray both intellectually and sexually.

He’s a good guy leading a great life and is hoping he can share it with someone, who turns out to be Gray.

Gray, on the other hand, is a hot mess. She finally has the job of her dreams. It’s going to be a rough first year (and possibly second year) but she has things under control. Her plan is to build the Cold Fury the same way that the general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team, Billy Beane, built the A’s. She’s going to play “moneypuck” instead of “moneyball”. Her concept of management through statistics has been proven to work in one sport, and she has the brains and the mathematical chops to try it in another.

In the middle of the toughest year of her life, she spends all of her emotional energy angsting over a relationship with one of her players. I mean she completely descends into mush and loses her edge. It’s not that I don’t want to see her get her happy ending, but her actions feel juvenile, particularly for a woman in her early 30s.

While the solution to their dilemma was very, very fictional, it also felt false. Either she is going to be pilloried in the press and lose the confidence of the board of directors, or Ryker needs to retire at the end of the season. He even offers to retire so their relationship can come out of the closet. While this is romantic, it feels like reality should bite somewhere along the way. She resigns and gets her job back, which doesn’t feel quite right. Yes, her dad is the owner and supports her, and they win the Stanley Cup, but if they don’t win it again the press will crucify her.

But if either of them gives up their career for the other, while it may be good for a while, there is a strong chance of resentment further down the road. This totally tripped my willing suspension of disbelief meter. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Joint Rant: Til Dragons Do Us Part by Lorenda Christensen

til dragons do us part by lorenda christensenFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook
Genre: paranormal romance
Series: Never Deal With Dragons, #3
Length: 179 pages
Publisher: Carina Press
Date Released: October 27, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo

Savannah Cavenaugh became a top art thief thanks to a secret ability—a dragonmorph, she can literally fly away from the scene of the crime. Next up: stealing a priceless painting out from under the snout of Lord Relobu, North America’s fearsome dragon ruler. True, she’s never had to work in the midst of Earth’s most polarizing nuptials before. Keeping her identity hidden will demand she get creative, to say the least.

Cameron Shaw has one last chance to prove himself. As Lord Relobu’s interim security head, he’ll ensure the world’s first interspecies wedding happens without a hitch. That means keeping an extra close eye on the wedding planner’s pretty young assistant. She’s adorable, but something’s not quite right.

Fumbling her way through bouquets and linens turns out to be the least of Savannah’s problems. Crushing on Relobu’s hottest human henchman was not part of the plan, and neither was revealing her—ahem—ferocious side. But when her archrival shows up to nab the very same painting she’s after, all bets are off…

Our Review:

never deal with dragons by lorenda christensenCass: First things first, I (quite unexpectedly) adored Never Deal With Dragons. Myrna was a far cry from the usual UF/PNR heroine. She wasn’t The One, didn’t specialize in Snapping Necks and Breaking Balls, and wasn’t burdened by a Tragic Past.

Instead, Myrna was just a brilliant, accomplished, career woman who loved her work (if not her boss). She kicked ass negotiating with dragons – without actually kicking dragon asses.

Despite this love, the blurb did not fill me with confidence. Pro: More time with Myrna and Trian. Con: everything else.

Marlene: I read Never Deal with Dragons because Cass made me do it. I figured that any romance that she actually liked must be good. And she was right. It was good, fun, and often funny. I loved the idea of a heroine who kicked butt with her mind instead of her brawn. However, the second book Dancing with Dragons (ranted at, ahem, reviewed here) did not live up to the first one. I made Cass read Til Dragons Do Us Part in the hope that Dancing with Dragons represented a sophomore slump. Admittedly, once I read the blurb, I didn’t have much hope. I figured that we would at least get a good rant out of it. And here we are. RANTING!

dancing with dragons by lorenda christensenCass: Liar! You wanted to bask in my disgust and outrage. Also, I completely and utterly forgot how much I hated Carol in the second book. So utterly useless.

Let us start with Savannah and her Family Of Thieves. Namely her sister-in-law, a renowned chef, at the top of her game who decided to turn to a life of crime. Why? Because this one time a dragon was totally mean, and insulted how she cooked steak! (Side note: did it not occur to her that a dragon might prefer his meat seared rather than medium-well?)

Why use your expertise and fame to do what you love? Much more logical to become the operations manager behind a small-time theft ring. God knows all women base their career trajectories on one run-in with a douchebag client.

Of course we ultimately can’t have a Law Breaker for a heroine (only dude-bro romantic bad-boy leads are allowed to break laws), so Savannah & Co must See The Light and Renounce Their Criminal Pasts. Perhaps they realize that a michelin starred chef can bring in mountains of legitimate money. Or there could be a “Tragic” Medical Issue for Baby Thief which will awaken them to the inherent evil they are bringing into a child’s life. Dragging a kid willy-nilly all over the country is completely within the best interests of said child. Taking a child to a medical facility to receive basic care on a consistent basis, however, results in a huge existential crisis. WHAT HAVE WE BEEN DOING WITH OUR LIVES?!?!

Marlene: People have been known to base their career trajectories on experiencing a series of douchebag clients or bosses. But generally not on just one. I digress.

It seems like sister-in-law the chef gave up her fantastic career for “true love”, another trope that Cass hates with a vengeance. I can understand helping one particularly hot (and charming) thief do something nasty but ultimately harmless to get back at said douchebag client, but not giving up an entire career. Unless we’re missing an explanation here, which we generally are in this book.

That this version of the universes has no insurance to speak about, and that procedures need to be paid in cash, was a nice bit of worldbuilding, which there aren’t nearly enough of. However, the existential crisis that ensues is over-the-top. Their only options are presented as “go straight” and cash in the retirement fund, or steal the painting and use the proceeds to pay for the medical crisis. While the crisis proceeds semi-logically from its introduction as the baby needs constant medical supervision, which is awkward when mom and dad are perpetually on the lam and lying about their identities, said medical crisis was not the only way to deal with all the adults deciding to go straight.

Cass: Setting aside the paper-thin motivations for thieving in general, let’s focus on the caper at issue. Savannah, a dragon-morph, grew up utterly isolated and thinking she was a lone freak in a hostile world. Then, lo-and-behold, she learns of Trian, dragon morph extraordinaire from Never Deal with Dragons.

Expected response: Holy shit, I am not alone in the universe! I must meet this guy and see if there are any social, psychological, or emotional benefits to having a friend who is of my species. He might also be excited to learn about my existence. We could share our First Transformation stories, talk logistics of controlling the shift, and maybe make arrangements for proper medical care. This could change my life!

Savannah’s response: Guess I’ll just rob him, during his wedding, for which he and his fiance are receiving multiple terroristic death threats.

Marlene: The caper that was, wasn’t, was, wasn’t. Well it wasn’t much of a caper, it seemed like its purpose in the story was to give Savannah an additional reason for giving up her life of crime and introducing us to the Boss From Hell. Working in that bridal agency would be enough motivation to never work anywhere in the industry again, just to avoid any possibility of running into the self-centered bitch who owned the place. She came off as a caricature of driven career-women everywhere, and I hated every moment she was onscreen. Meeting her should have driven Savannah right back to a life of crime, but instead it helped her “bond” with the other women she worked with. Which actually might happen, but in Savannah’s shoes I’d be counting the days until I was out of Tulsa and away from the wedding planner bitch and any legitimate work for a long time.

Cass: Marlene, I know you want to talk “romance.” But seriously, who the fuck is this guy? Why do I care about him? Hell, why does she even care about him? He’s about as interesting as a glass of milk. On that note, why is Mr. Whole Milk interested in her? There was no spark. No chemistry. No nothing. In fact, I can’t even remember his name. Did they have sex? Hell if I know. If they did, it was damn boring and I fell asleep reading it.

Marlene: I do not want to talk romance in this book, because there isn’t much to talk about, except to wonder where the chemistry went. The married couple have more chemistry than Savannah and what’s his name. (which is actually Cameron Shaw, and yes, they do manage to have sex, and it was a complete yawn, as well as a fade to black.) His whole purpose in this story seems to be to motivate Savannah to go straight. He’s not just Mr. Whole Milk, but he’s Mr. Whole Milk who has a record of being on the wrong end of Savannah’s art thievery. Otherwise he has no distinguishing features.

Cass: I saved the worst offense for last. WHERE ARE MY DRAGONS?! For a book set in a world that has humans and dragons co-existing in a never-endingly complicated political and social quagmire (basically the highlight of the first two books), we spend almost no time focused on any actual dragon issue. Are there any people in the world at all curious as to how dragon morphs are created? Is it viral? Environmental exposure in utero? A recessive genetic trait? Anyone? Bueller?

Escape Rating: D for denying me sufficient dragons. Never Deal with Dragons was amazing. I am going to re-read it to get the taste of this out of my mouth. The DRACIM world has so many amazing stories in it, I just hope the author gets around to telling us some of them.

Marlene: Galen described Cass’ part of this review as a “Cass Rant ™” and I have to agree with his assessment. I also have to agree with Cass’ rant in general. Never Deal with Dragons was awesome. I read Til Dragons Do Us Part and couldn’t wait to be parted from it. I found it to be completely and utterly “meh”. This is not a good thing.

Escape Rating C-: which is totally in keeping with that ‘meh’. It’s not horrible, there just isn’t much there there. Or there here. Whatever. To give either a higher or lower rating, I’d need to have more reaction than this. Myrna was awesome in the first book. Carol was too stupid to live in the second book. Savannah is perfectly named; she’s a boring grassland with no distinguishing features.

Cass: Note to Galen: “Cass Rant ™” was spurred by Marlene’s insistence I read this. Which I had every intention of ignoring. So maybe we should call it Cass Rant On Demand ™”

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.