08 May, 2014

Review: Hush by Carey Baldwin

(NOTE: Between writing this review and posting it the author has corrected the Amazon page to reflect that it is a reissued work. However in the weeks between this review posting on LITM and being transferred here, no further changes have been made. What I originally pointed out at Amazon remains the case on her webpage, Kobo, B&N and iTunes. Make of that what you will.)

I DNF'd Carey Baldwin's Hush for reasons that didn't have much to do with the story. One of my absolute hottest buttons is a rewritten work issued without disclosure. When George Lucas takes his fiftieth pass at Star Wars you generally know going in that he's swapped some stuff up. There's an implicit consent involved. While Baldwin has extensively reworked her limited release anthology tale Solomon's Wisdom, there is enough of the prior story left that I went from "This seems weirdly familiar" to "I've read this before". At that point I didn't want to continue. My consent for that experience had not been solicited.
I get that Solomon's Wisdom had a very limited audience. Most readers are not going to hit the same wall. I also understand the choice to market Hush as new material given the additional work put into it. I simply disagree. So, if you've read Solomon's Wisdom and give your consent to checking out Hush, let me know how it goes. (I stopped at the point where her brother-in-law bursts through the door.)
Hush is a romantic suspense dealing lightly with domestic violence. Anna is the girl next door, the quiet librarian with a spine of steel. Charlie is the former soldier turned medic haunted by their shared childhood. A death from the past and a death from the present intertwine, potentially placing Anna and her elder sister in danger. There was a lot I liked about Solomon's Wisdom that I still liked in Hush. While I found both Anna and Charlie to have cases of arrested development, I appreciated their honest communication. Both want to understand how their past created their present. Anna is proactive in her sexuality and her boundaries. Baldwin has a straightforward style that will work for a reader or it won't. I felt the same way about Charlie and Anna halfway through Hush as I did at the end of Solomon's Wisdom. Neither of them became more than pieces on the game board. If they won or lost was less important than turning the page and seeing where they went next.
Hush was supposed to be my second swing at Baldwin's work but I think I'm out. I like her working class settings (even with the advanced degrees) and everyday problems, but she didn't fully capture me with either version of Anna and Charlie's reunion. Baldwin is worth checking out but not an author I'm planning to follow.

* This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

05 May, 2014

Review: A Girl From Flint by Treasure Hernandez

A Girl From Flint was fascinating in all the wrong ways but ultimately a completely satisfying read. I don't understand Urban Books. While they're shelved in the romance section most of the ones I've read have very few romantic elements. As Ridley said on Twitter "EVERY BOOK YOU LIKE WITH SEX IN IT THAT ENDS WITH THE CHARACTERS TOGETHER ISN'T A ROMANCE NOVEL." A Girl From Flint is absolutely not a romance, although it has a number of elements familiar from Romantic Suspense. Treasure Hernandez has taken that model and used it to construct a morality play. Although Tasha doesn't die, it's certainly a book intent on showing us the wages of sin are death.
It's hard to take Urban Books seriously. Between the slang and the stereotypical portrayal of black life, they read like the worst of white stereotypes. Almost everyone does drugs, even the police. Men pimp or deal dugs, women shake them down for cash unless they're a token hardworking mother left to die on their own. Bar fights are expected, if not required. With all of that said, Treasure Hernandez is compulsively readable. I completely rejected the world she was building but I found myself compelled to read on. Although the book is focused on a women who makes her living as an escort, many romance standards remain. Tasha is a hermetically sealed heroine. Men routinely hand her thousands of dollars merely to be seen with her. She saves herself for a one night stand with her one true love. Later in the book there is another (mostly) consensual sexual encounter but Tasha finds it (and the man) repulsive. This is such a fantasy world that I wanted to just stop and consider it. Tasha learns early that pretending not to be after a man's money is a fast track to having him hand her larger amounts. Men slip fat wads of hundreds into her jacket pockets and buy her designer gowns because she's willing to flatter them. She's a good girl in a world full of gold diggers so they respond generously. Tasha has a pimp she cuts into her take, but again, she doesn't trade sex for the cash. Right. Ok. Let that sit and let's move on.
Another common romantic suspense standard comes late in the book when Tasha is forced to work for the police. The heroine blackmailed into a sting operation is pretty yawn worthy at this point. We all know the hero will have her back and rush in to save the day. They might go on the run, they might not. Corruption will be exposed, names will be cleared and HEA's will fall from the sky like angel tears. Except not. The only person saving anyone is Tasha. She has to make hard choices based on incomplete evidence. Betrayal by those close to her results in... her being betrayed. There's no HEA for Tasha, no white knights and no vindication. The hard working student who had her eyes on an educational prize has been replaced by a street smart hustler with deep knowledge of the game. This is the exact opposite of the standard romance trajectory.
I'll be honest, enjoying A Girl From Flint made me feel really, really racist. Everything is wrong with this portrayal of black life. Somehow Hernandez works enough reality in there to keep the reader going. I grew up surrounded by the drug trade and street hustling. Elements of A Girl From Flint rang very true to my memory even as others made me cringe. (A character gets leg cancer. LEG CANCER. I kid you not. It's totally curable by surgery, no chemo or radiation required. LEG CANCER.) Tasha's relationships hinge primarily on how much cash her dude is putting down. She falls in love because he's the hero. He falls for her because she's "not like the other girls" who are apparently all bitches in addition to being hoes. Everything is wrong with A Girl From Flint and yet it's the only book I managed to finish this week.
* This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

02 May, 2014

Review: The Lost Girls of Johnson's Bayou by Jana DeLeon

Archeologists date The Lost Girls of Johnson's Bayou to 2012 in my TBR stack. I was going on about missing gothic romance and a friend sent me a couple Harlequin Intrigue titles to try. DeLeon was an interesting author. Her mechanics are off but the finished product reads smoothly. I'd suggest this one for the night you just can't settle down but still want to read. The Lost Girls of Johnson's Bayou is an undemanding read. There is an air of the older gothic with definitely modern touches.  It's soap-tastic in it's you've-got-to-be-kidding-me plot details.
Ginny walked out of the woods sixteen years ago with no memory of who she is or how the school in the center of the Bayou burned down, killing the students inside. Paul is a former cop who has switched to private investigation. He has a personal interest (of course) in the mystery that Ginny has largely put behind her. Paul is woefully undeveloped by DeLeon. I knew roughly who he was but he never became more than a sketched in concept of a lead. For the purposes of the story we don't really need more, yet filling in some of those empty areas would have made for a much richer experience. Of course Ginny and Paul team up to work the puzzle, endangering themselves and those important to them in the process.
The Lost Girls of Johnson's Bayou is a solidly working class story. Ginny has a job and a side hustle. She and her mother work hard and count costs. Paul has a partner but no special connections or heavily financed back up. The actions they take are believable. When Paul asks Ginny out to dinner in The Big City she reminds him she has an early shift so they stay close to home. Their response to danger is reasonable as well - no one goes on the run, gets whisked to a safe house, or calls in the FBI. While the emotional punch of one plot resolution is pulled by the speed (and sheer chance) of it's resolution, not every question is answered. I appreciated the author's willingness to let a few loose ends lie.
DeLeon brings in some elements I was concerned would overwhelm the mystery (or be a face palm of a resolution) before setting them aside in favor of a more original explanation for the events in Ginny and Paul's past. The red herrings are appropriately explained with enough foreshadowing for the reader to find the revelations at the end satisfying. While there is a baby in the epilogue it isn't Ginny or Paul's. Overall, a decent read and an author I'll try a second book by.
Spoiler Alert: The questionable element is a nod to the obsession with satanic cults and child abuse that ran rampant a few decades back. I thought DeLeon was going there, but fortunately she only side swiped it. 
*This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.