Wednesday, January 20, 2016

2016 TBR Challenge: The Bridge by Rebecca Rogers Maher

Henry and Christa have the opposite of a "meet cute." They meet on a tower of the Brooklyn Bridge where they have each gone to commit suicide. Each of them feels sure they're making the right decision for themselves, but that they other should live. They strike a bargain---they'll spend 24 hours together trying to change each others' minds. They agree that each one will choose 3 things to show the other, and so they embark on a strange sort of date. As the day goes by they learn about what brought each of them to the bridge. Henry has suffered from severe depression for more than half his life. Medication and therapy have made it possible for him function but the struggle has left him exhausted and the resulting "half life" no longer feels worth the work. Christa survived breast cancer two years ago, but it cost her dearly. When the cancer returns she doesn't have the resources for another fight. This is a tricky story for me to review. On one hand, I liked and cared about Henry and Christa and enjoyed the bond they formed. It was certainly easy to root for them. I liked Maher's writing and admire her willingness to tackle a difficult subject and stretch beyond the usual boundaries of romance. Taken purely as a kind of fairy tale The Bridge is a compelling story and I enjoyed it very much. On the other hand, the psychology is problematic. I could write an essay on it that would be longer than the novella itself, but I'll limit myself to one thing----for a seriously depressed person the decision to commit suicide or not doesn't hinge on whether they love someone else enough. Falling in love doesn't fix mental illness and I wish this story didn't create the impression that it could.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Death By Darjeeling by Laura Childs

Theodosia Browning used to be an advertising exec, but she gave up the rat race & bought the Indigo Tea Shop in Charleston, SC. She runs it with the help of two employees, Drayton, an older man who is the shop’s resident tea expert, and Haley, a college student who does the baking for the shop. Haley’s friend Bethany occasionally helps out when they’re especially busy.

The shop hosts the refreshments for the neighborhood's annual charity event, the Lamplighter Tour. As the evening is winding down, much-hated local developer Hughes Barron is found dead with a tea cup in front of him and the evidence suggests that he was poisoned. Theo takes a dislike to the Detective in charge of the case and when Bethany seems to be on the suspect list Theo decides to investigate on her own. She soon has a list of suspects, but very little hard evidence. Then strange things begin to happen and it seems that Theo may be next on the killer’s hit list.

I have read and enjoyed my share of cozy mysteries involving sleuths whose day jobs have nothing whatsoever to do with solving crimes and I realize that they require a fair amount of suspension of disbelief. Even so, I think that in order to work there needs to be a plausible reason why the main character ends up investigating a murder. In this case I didn’t see any good reason for Theo to get involved.

Theo does feel protective of Bethany, but she wasn’t singled out for investigation. It certainly didn’t seem that the Detective was going to railroad her into to prison or anything. In fact, aside from Theo’s dislike of his manners there was nothing obviously incompetent about Detective Tidwell, so I saw no reason for her to believe he wouldn’t solve the case without her interference. There's talk about people staying away from the tea shop because of the poisoning, but that made no sense to me and felt as if was thrown in simply to manufacturing a reason for Theo to take matters into her won hands.

I also had issues with the resolution of the case. The identity of the killer felt like it was pulled out of thin air. Person X did it only because, based on the information presented, you had no reason to suspect Person X . I did like that Theo didn’t actually figure it out. Instead her cluelessness causes the killer to make a mistake and get caught. Given Theo’s lack of any investigative experience and generally random approach to the process it made sense that she never got things quite right.

Of course, Detective Tidwell didn’t look at it that way. After the killer has been arrested he assures Theo that it was her good work cracked the case. Because the cops always appreciate amateur sleuths and give them words of encouragement so that they’ll continue to investigate with no authorization in case a future mystery pops up. I rolled my eyes, but basically waved it off as a set up for their interaction in future books. Tidwell’s praise fits in with Theo’s generally level of popularity though. All the men seem to love her. She meets several men in the course of the investigation and ends up stalked by one and dating another.

Not that Theo is perfect. Childs describes her by saying that she’s not fat, but neither is she thin. She’s a size 10, after the holidays she's sometimes even a 12. Can you imagine? [/sarcasm] I’m in favor of authors writing characters who don’t look like super models, but I think it’s generally best to avoid mentioning a specific size or weight. All that does is make some percentage of the audience want to smack some sense into the writer and that’s not good.

In addition to the character and plot issues I had three general complaints about the writing. The first was the tendency to refer to many of the characters, including the victim, by both their first and last name every single time they were mentioned in either dialogue or description. I know that using both names for people you don’t know well is a bit of a Southernism, but it felt overdone and was annoying. The 2nd problem was that, even for the somewhat formal South, some of the dialogue felt very stilted. The 3rd problem was the odd head hopping. The overwhelming majority of the book is told in the 3rd person, limited to Theo’s POV. However, every now & then there was a paragraph or two from another character’s POV. It was both odd and annoying.

On the plus side, the book does a nice job evoking Charleston and the surrounding Low Country. It’s been many years since I was there last and this book served as a nice substitute for a visit. I also liked the facts about tea sprinkled throughout the book. It wasn't too heavy handed and since I love tea, I found the information interesting. Unfortunately neither of those positives countered the negatives.

Grade: C-

Will I read the next book in the series?: Probably not. In order to enjoy a cozy mystery series I have to really like the main character and I just didn’t warm to Theo. I didn’t hate it though and the library does have all the books, so if I get desperate for reading material at some point in the future I might give Gunpowder Green a try.

Where Are You Reading Challenge: South Carolina

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

2011 TBR Challenge: Defending the Rancher’s Daughter by Carla Cassidy

This is book 2 in the Wild West Bodyguards series about the West family and their business, Wild West Protective Services. A friend gave these to me a couple years ago and they just never floated to the top of the TBR until now. Unfortunately at some point book 1 in the series, Protecting the Princess, disappeared. I decided to break my usual rule and start with book 2, which turned out not to be a problem.

Kate Sampson’s father, Gray, was killed in a fall from a horse and since then Kate has had the sense that things aren’t right on their ranch. She can’t accept that Gray’s death was truly an accident and when it seems that someone is trying to kill her she realizes that she needs help. The only person that she can think to call is Zack West. She’s known him since she was a child and he was a confused teenager befriended by Gray. Kate and Zach never got along. She resented the time her father spent with Zach and he thought she was a spoiled drama queen. Their last meeting was particularly acrimonious and Kate isn’t anxious to renew acquaintances, but she knows that Zach loved her father and she’s counting on him wanting justice for Gray’s murder.

Zach’s last protection assignment went terribly wrong and he’s quit Wild West Protective Services and returned to the family ranch to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. Kate’s call for help comes as an unwelcome surprise, but he can’t bring himself to tell her no. Gray’s death hit Zach hard and he feels that he owes it to his friend to help his daughter. Zach figures that he’ll go through the motions and sooth Kate’s fears and that will be the end of it. Then he finds evidence that Gray really was murdered and finds himself back on protective duty. Spending so much time in close contact with Kate leaves him wondering if she’s still the same resentful child he once knew or if she’s really grown into a woman worth knowing. As the danger on the ranch increases and Zach is unable to find any leads he starts to worry that he may never get the chance to find out.

I’m not a fan of romances where the h/h have a significant difference in age and first met when the heroine was a child. That always feels a little skeevy to me, even when there’s no objective reason to feel that way. Once I got past that factor I found myself liking Kate and Zach. They’re each carry a lot of baggage. As much as she tries Kate just can’t stop resenting the time Zach spent with her father. In Kate’s eyes Zach had his own large, loving family and still insisted on taking the attention of her only parent. Zach has no idea that she feels that way. He simply remembers her acting like a brat and would just as soon forget it. They get to know and like each other in the present, but the past is still looming in the background. The big air-clearing fight and its resolution worked for me.

The mystery of Gray’s death and the attempts on Kate’s life worked less well. My usual complaint with category length suspense is that the mystery is solved too quickly. In this case the problem was just the opposite. The mystery carries over to later books in the series and the only way to extend it was to have Kate and Zach totally fail to ask the obvious questions about the crime. That was especially a problem for the character of Zach. He has years of experience and is considering a career in law enforcement, so having him make such an obvious error does him no favors. It was especially jarring because in other ways he comes across as smart, which is what you would expect for someone who did the sort of protective work that he did. The problem didn’t ruin the book for me, but I would have given it a higher grade if Ms Cassidy had found a way to allow Zach to be smarter.

Grade C+

Will I read the next book in the series?: Yes. It's already in my TBR and I liked this one well enough to read about the next West brother.

Where Are You Reading Challenge: Oklahoma

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Danger In A Red Dress by Christina Dodd

After the disaster with Tongue in Chic I considered cutting my losses, but I had a generally positive impression of Gabe so I decided to give this one a try.

Note: This book was the final installment in both the Fortune Hunters series, and another Dodd series, The Lost Texas Hearts. There were a few things that made it obvious that this book tied to a second series, but that didn’t affect my ability to follow the story.

Hannah Grey is a home care nurse in desperate need of a job when Carrick Manly hires her to take care of his mother at Balfour House, the family home in Maine. Hannah is initially thrilled to have the job, but it doesn’t take her long to suspect that something is very wrong. Melinda Manly is a very difficult patient and she and her son do not get along at all. Hannah is also disturbed by the change in Carrick’s attitude. He soon makes it clear that Melinda has something he wants and he expects Hannah to help him get it. When she refuses Carrick frames Hannah for crimes that he committed. When she isn’t able to get anyone to believe that she’s innocent she goes on the run.

When the police aren’t able to locate Hannah Carrick turns to his half-brother, investigator Gabe Prescott, for help tracking her down. While Gabe is following Hannah he starts to suspect that the case is not what it seems, which leaves him torn. His background has left him so desperate to think well of his biological relations that he can’t bring himself to doubt Carrick’s story, but he’s strongly attracted to Hannah and finds it difficult to believe that she’s a dangerous criminal. He tries to get close to enough to Hannah to find the truth, but only succeeds in falling in love with her without telling her who he really is or why he’s with her.

When Hannah discovers the truth she decides that there’s no one she can trust and the only hope she has of ever getting her life back is to return to Balfour House on her own and find proof to clear her name. Gabe is then forced to chose between believing the brother he only recently found and the woman he’s fallen for. In the process he finds out the truth about his long-lost biological father.

I liked both Hannah and Gabe more than I liked the preceding pairings in the series. I found their issues, both individually and jointly, fairly believable and reasonable. Hannah made one bad decision and her whole life fell apart. It’s understandable that she has trust issues and that she hates thinking that she has made another error in judgment. Gabe is forced to deal with the fact that he’s dragging around more issues from his childhood than he had realized. All of that worked for me. I also liked the fact that in the end Gabe’s whole family comes through for him and helps him fix the mess he made with Hannah. It was a bit cheesy, but I liked Gabe enough that I didn’t care.

The other good thing about this final installment in the series is that it actually got me interested in Nathan Manly’s disappearance and I wasn’t bored by the resolution.

Grade: C.

So, the 4 books in this series are tied together by the mystery of the disappearance of Nathan Manly and the fact that all 4 heroes lied about their identities. The mystery was OK, but the parade of lying wasn’t a good thing. Neither was the lack of credibility in most of the plots and the annoying behavior of most of the characters.

Series Grade: D

Tongue in Chic by Christina Dodd

The weather was still terrible and I was still desperate, so I convinced myself that the slight improvement was the start of a positive trend and moved on the book #3.

Meadow Szarvos' grandmother was a famous painter who took her baby daughter & escaped a stifling marriage to a wealthy man. Before she died she told Meadow that she had left her masterpiece behind when she ran. That painting never went on the market so Meadow assumes that it is still be in the house. Her mother is desperately ill, and Meadow needs money for her treatment so she decides to break and steal the painting. She has no experience as a thief, but nevertheless has no trouble getting into the house. A state of the art security system doesn’t even slow her down, but she’s completely stymied by the fact that the painting is no longer hanging over the mantle. Apparently it had never occurred to her that it might have been moved in 60+ years.

While she’s trying to decide what to do she’s caught by Devlin Fitzwilliam, the new owner of the house. She trips trying to get away and bangs her head, then in an attempt to escape responsibility for the break in she claims that the head injury has given her amnesia. Because Meadow is just that hot Devlin calls her bluff by pretending that she's his long lost wife. Meadow wants to stay in the house so she can search for the painting, so she decides to play along. Devlin keeps the lie going because he wants to get into Meadow's pants. They're both lying and they each know that the other is lying, but neither can do anything about it without admitting to their own lie, so they both just go right on lying. Meadow keeps pretending to have amnesia and Devlin keeps pretending that they're married. He even starts telling other people that Meadow is his wife. Naturally they end up in bed and the sex is phenomenal. Afterward they’re lying in bed and Devlin does something to annoy Meadow and she responds by giving him a “purple nurple”. Seriously. She not only pinches him hard enough to bruise, she refers to it as a “purple nurple”. What adult does that? At that point I realized that even if I was snowed in for a week I’d never be desperate enough to continue reading this story and “WTH?” became DNF.

Grade: DNF

Monday, January 17, 2011

Thigh High by Christina Dodd

This is the second book in the Fortune Hunters series. I disliked the first one so much that I normally wouldn’t have bothered with the second, but I was snowed in and desperate, so I waded in.

Every year during Mardi Gras season two people in elaborate disguises rob a bank in New Orleans. The press has dubbed the pair the Beaded Bandits, but aside from speculation about their costumes the robberies aren’t getting much attention. The amounts taken by the Bandits have been small and they’ve never hurt anyone, so the case is a low priority for the FBI. The NOPD is so overwhelmed during Mardi Gras that they aren’t able to give the robberies much attention either.

Jeremiah MacNaught is the owner of the bank whose branches are being robbed. He hates thieves, not being in control and being made to look like a fool and he’s determined to stop the robberies even if it means solving the crimes himself. He has one suspect, an employee in one of his banks named Ionessa Dahl. He’s convinced that Ms Dahl is the “inside man”, feeding information to the Bandits to help them plan the robberies. With Mardi Gras season once again in full swing it’s only a matter of time before the Beaded Bandits strike again and Jeremiah decides to go undercover in his own bank to get the proof he needs to have Ms Dahl arrested. His problem is that in person Ionessa Dahl is even more attractive than she seemed in the security videos of the robberies and Mac quickly finds himself loosing his objectivity.

Nessa Dahl has no idea that she’s a robbery suspect. Years ago she made an error on the job that allowed a teller to steal $500, but as far as Nessa knows the only consequence of that mistake is her inability to get promoted. She can’t get work at any other bank in New Orleans and she can’t leave the city, so she simply continues to work hard and hope to someday move up to a better position. She needs the promotion not simply for professional pride, but because she supports her two elderly aunts who raised her after she was orphaned as a child. Money is so tight that they’re had to take in borders and Nessa desperately wants to be able to send them all packing. She believes that the longed-for promotion has finally come through, only to be informed that she’s actually been assigned to act as a go-fer for the insurance investigator who’s in town to work on the case of the Beaded Bandits. She resents the menial work, but that doesn’t stop her from wanting to get to know Mac much better.

Like its predecessor, this book had some serious problems with both of the main characters and with the plot. If your name is Jeremiah MacNaught and you want to go undercover in a business that you own it seems to me that you should think of a better fake name than Jeremiah Mac. The fact that no one commented on the similarity between the two names made it seem like the entire bank was staffed by the dimwitted. Still, I could have overlooked Jeremiah’s lack of an original pseudonym. I was also willing to play along with the idea that he was half in love with Nessa after watching her on the security videos of the robberies and fell the rest of the way in love with her after spending only one day with her. I was not willing to believe that he proposed marriage before telling Nessa who he really was and was then surprised that she was furious and broke the engagement when she found out.

I thought breaking the engagement was perfectly reasonable, but I had other issues with Nessa and found her a little hard to take at times. Her constant remarks about how rude Yankees are certainly got old long before the book was finished and in some ways she was perilously close to being a Mary Sue. The main problem being that she seems to know everyone in New Orleans and the only people who don’t love her are evil. Her boss in particular is so broadly drawn that she’s almost a cartoon.

It didn’t help that Nessa never took any effective steps to deal with the evil boss. The book attempts to explain her lack of action by saying that she didn’t have any choice, but I didn’t really buy that. I also found it annoying that everything about Nessa’s home life is either clichéd or overly cute. Her aunts are classic Eccentric Southern Ladies and they have a faithful family retainer in the form of an African American housekeeper who apparently never had any life separate from her employers. The boarders are all “colorful”, and everyone in New Orleans knows the Dahl House and is dying for an invitation to their famous annual Mardi Gras party. (Get it--- Doll House. Dollhouse. How precious.)

The most problematic aspect of the book was the resolution to the case of the Beaded Bandits. To avoid spoilers I’ll just say that I was not charmed by the fact that everyone except Mac was willing to frame a dead man for crimes he did not commit in order to let the real Bandits off the hook. The dead man wasn’t a good guy, but a frame is a frame and that’s really Not OK. Considering the NOPD’s well-publicized problems with corruption it seemed especially poor form to portray the Chief of Police as being in on the frame up.

The subplot about the relationship between the books’ heroes was no more interesting to me in this book than it was in Trouble in High Heels.

In the end I liked this book more than Trouble, but only because I found Mac & Nessa less annoying than Brandi and Roberto and I didn’t feel like Nessa’s mistakes were an insult to professional women everywhere.

Grade: C-

Trouble in High Heels by Christina Dodd

This is the first book in the Fortune Hunters series.

Brandi Michaels has just graduated from law school and moved to Chicago to be with her fiancée and start a job with one of the city’s most prestigious law firms. She hasn’t even started unpacking her boxes when her fiancée calls from Vegas to inform her that he just married his girlfriend because she’s pregnant, and by the way he needs Brandi’s engagement ring back so he can give it to the new Mrs. Brandi hangs up on him and decides to wash that scumbag out of her hair by buying a killer dress and shoes and picking up a hot guy at the charity party she’s scheduled to attend. There she meets the perfect one night stand, an incredibly sexy Italian count named Roberto. She goes back to his hotel and has such a wonderful time that she ends up spending the weekend. She goes home Sunday night thinking that Roberto was an enjoyable interlude and she’ll never see him again. Unfortunately for her, when she arrives at her new job she discovers that Roberto is a client. He’s accused of committing a number of high profile thefts and she’s been assigned to the group working on his defense.

Brandi knows that she should tell her boss that she can’t work on Roberto’s case, but she doesn’t want to admit that she slept with him without really knowing who he was. She’s very aware that people at the firm believe she only got her job because the senior partner is an old family friend and she doesn’t want to give them more reason to doubt her intelligence and skill as a lawyer. Roberto wants to be near her so he encourages her not to say anything and Brandi decides to throw ethics to the wind and to keep quiet about their association, even though she knows it will cost her her career if anyone finds out. She ends up not only working on the case, but assigned to babysit him 24/7, which results in Brandi being drawn into Roberto’s rather mysterious behavior. Is he guilty? Once Brandi starts falling in love, does she really even care?

I really wanted to like this book, but just couldn’t. There were simply far too many problems problems both of the main characters and the plot.

Thanks to her emotionally abusive father, Brandi is rather insecure about her intelligence and she’s anxious to be taken seriously for her legal skills, but she constantly behaves in an incredibly unprofessional manner. She knows that her colleagues have serious questions about how she got her job and that they’ll be attending the charity party, but she still decides that it makes perfect sense to use the party as a place to pick up a hot guy. That’s like hooking up at the company Christmas party---not a good idea. If that was the worst thing she did I probably wouldn’t have minded, but it wasn’t.

Someone breaks into her apartment the night before her first day at her job. As a result of dealing with the police and trying to clean up, she has trouble getting it together in the morning. She's not dead, so she really should still have been on time for her first day. Instead she arrives late and full of excuses. She then gets snippy with her new coworkers at her very first meeting and commits the aforementioned major ethical breech within a half hour of her tardy arrival. She totally blows her first assignment and then instead of letting her boss know what happened she goes to lunch with Roberto without bothering to call the office. In other words, she simply disappears for hours on her first day of work.

At lunch she orders garlic kielbasa with onions & sauerkraut so that her breath will be so bad that Roberto won’t hit on her and tempt her back into bed with him. Again, this is the middle of her first day at a new job. Presumably she is planning to return to the office for the afternoon where she will once again be in contact with the coworkers who already dislike her. Under those circumstances stinking up the joint is not a smart move and she needed to find another way to control her hormones.

When her boss calls her and expresses his displeasure with Brandi’s performance and disappearance she responds by going off on him. Instead of apologizing for being 4 hours late getting back to the office she acts like she’s doing the firm a favor by working at all because her apartment was broken into the night before and she really needs to be home cleaning. She also throws in the fact that she’s upset because her fiancée dumped her. Way to set the cause of workplace equality back about 30 years. After all, who could possibly expect a woman to be professional and responsible on her first day at a new job when she could be cleaning and crying over a man? When her boss reacts poorly to Brandi’s insubordination she threatens him with a gender based discrimination suit. Because that doesn’t trivialize the real discrimination faced by women, at all.

At that point I would normally have simply tossed the book aside and given it a hearty DNF. Unfortunately, the promised snow had arrived and I was stuck in the house and desperate for reading material, so I forged ahead. Things did not improve.

Roberto’s dialogue was so riddled with clichés that I spent most of the book thinking that he was putting people on by acting like a stereotypical snotty, titled European. Sadly, that was not the case and he really did talk and act that way. That’s definitely not my idea of hero material. Things got worse when he took it upon himself to chide Brandi about her relationship with her mother. Roberto barely knew Brandi, he didn’t know her mother at all and he knew nothing about their history and yet he felt perfectly entitled to chastise Brandi like child. Brandi did have things to work out with her mom, but it was not Roberto’s place to stick his nose in, especially in such a condescending way There is no amount of sexy that can make up for that.

The plot wasn’t any better than the characters. Nothing about Roberto’s case made any sense. People kept talking about the fact that the CIA was after him. He was accused of stealing jewels, not spying or industrial espionage. Unless the items stolen are state secrets, theft is not the CIA’s bailiwick, so the repeated mentions of Agency involvement made me highly doubtful about the quality of Ms Dodd’s research. Of course that was nothing compared to the ridiculous circumstances that lead to Brandi being placed in charge of Roberto. That plot point was nothing more than a cheap way to force them to spend more time together so that Brandi could get involved with Robert’s Mysterious Secret and meet his grandfather.

To say one positive thing about the book, the 20 or so pages involving the grandfather were sort of charming. Not exactly original, but charming. If the whole book had had the same tone as that chapter this review would be going much better. Oh well.

The book left no cliché unused, including the tango scene and the sex in an elevator scene (which doubled as the “sex because they think they’re about to die” scene). The truth about Roberto’s Mysterious Secret was exactly what you would expect it to be. Naturally Brandi had no clue right up until the big reveal and then got very angry at Roberto for not telling her before. The method that Roberto used to beg for Brandi’s forgiveness was incredibly dumb. It involved him showing up at her office in the middle of a work day in a ridiculous costume and getting her coworkers in help him propose to her. The happy couple then celebrated their engagement by locking themselves in the conference room and having sex, proving that getting her HEA in no way improved Brandi’s standards of professional conduct.

A plot point about Roberto’s biological father was introduced during the big reveal and ties this book to the rest of the series. By then I was far too annoyed to be intrigued.

Grade: D