TBR Challenge November 2022 – Lies

With a TBR prompt like “Lies,” one might think that we’d be heading straight for the unreliable narrator-packed thrillers. Maybe it’s current events, maybe it’s because we’re coasting into the end of the year – who knows? But, for whatever reason, neither one of us was feeling it for thrill-a-minute reading. Caz and I both reached for category romance comfort reads. Our books delivered on the theme material, but sadly, no great keepers to be had this month. Hopefully next month’s prompt will have us ending the year with a bang!

Once a Ranger by Carrie Weaver

When I saw this month’s theme, my first thought was to pick up a romantic suspense thriller. After all, shades of grey and unreliable narrators abound these days. However, I was really more in the mood for a sweet, gentle romance. The (sadly) defunct Superromance line tends to deliver great stories about normal, non-billionaire people, so when I saw a book promising a plotline dealing deceit and a con man, I was all over it. Once a Ranger’s plotline had promise, but it delivered a fairly humdrum read.

Kat Monroe has come to the Phoenix Rising Resort to regroup and relax a bit after, among other things, winning some money in the lottery. Phoenix Rising prides itself on getting its guests to mix and mingle, so Kat finds herself thrown into group outings and meals that are supposed to be congenial. Some of the guests, such as a pair of beer heiress sisters, end up being fairly pleasant but others, such as Tony Perez, rub her the wrong way from day one.

Kat thinks Tony is just another arrogant consultant type. However, Tony is actually at Phoenix Rising investigating a fellow guest believed to be a con artist who took advantage of a wealthy widow, who died after his betrayal. As you can tell, plenty of elements in this book fit the theme.  After all, we have an accused con artist among the guests, and Tony is lying to Kat (and everyone else) about who he is.

As the book opened, I could figure out pretty quickly who the con artist and his mark were going to be. In addition, Tony doesn’t make a great first impression on Kat when they meet because he reminds her too much of an overbearing ex of hers. I settled in for what I hoped would be a great game of cat and mouse with the wrongdoer, as well as perhaps some increasing chemistry between Tony and Kat.

It did not go as planned. The mystery plotting is heavyhanded, and feels way too obvious throughout the story. I almost expected to see the villain pause to sneer at the reading audience. While this is not romantic suspense and the mystery is not the primary focus of the story, that plotline still did not need to be this clunky.

The romance didn’t quite work for me either. Kat goes back and forth between being attracted to Tony and feeling like she needs to be with someone she’s just met out of some odd feeling of obligation. That aspect of her inner conflict makes no sense. In addition, while Kat and Tony mention being physically attracted to each other, the chemistry between them on page is sorely lacking. In the end, I felt mildly glad that they got together, but I didn’t feel terribly invested in the story.

Once a Ranger isn’t a terrible read, but it does feel a bit “blah.” I generally liked the Superromance line, but this is not one of its stronger entries.

Grade:     C      Sensuality: Kisses

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon

When Love is Blind by Mary Burchell

I’ve read a couple of the books in Mary Burchell’s Warrender Saga for the TBR Challenge, and picked up another one – the third – for this month’s prompt – “Lies”. The thing that keeps me coming back to this series is the way the author writes about music, musicians and the world of the professional performer, but the romances are tame by today’s standards, and, as I’ve remarked before, the heroes can feel like secondary characters because the stories are all about the heroine’s journey and are written from her PoV. And even though some of the language and attitudes are outdated now, reading them is oddly comforting; they play out in my head like old black-and-white films from the 1940s or 1950s, with their stiff-upper-lips and portrayals of glamourous lifestyles (okay, so this book dates from 1967, but it could easily have been set a decade or two earlier; there’s no real sign it’s the “swinging sixties”!)

The heroine of When Love is Blind is twenty-year-old aspiring concert pianist Antoinette Burnley. Having shown a prodgious talent at a young age, she’s spent pretty much all her young life making music, but all her dreams come crashing down around her ears when her idol (and long-time crush), Lewis Fremont, fails her in an exam, saying her performance is akin to that of “a clever automaton without glimmer of the divine spark.”

Deep down, Antoinette knows he’s right – somewhere along the line, she lost her connection to the heart and soul of the music and focused entirely on developing an outstanding technique – but even so, she’s deeply hurt and can’t now conceive of making a musical career. She decides to make a drastic change, and enrolls on a secretarial course.

Several months later on a day out, Antoinette finds herself in Lewis Fremont’s neck of the woods; she’s crossing the road opposite his hose when a car comes racing around the bend towards her, swerves to avoid her and spins out of control. She’d already recognised the car as that belonging to Fremont – rushing over to see if she can help, finds him alive, but unable to see and then goes to get help. Feeling scared, guilty and completely overwhelmed, she watches from afar as Fremont is carried from the wreckage, but doesn’t return to the wreckage

A few days later, Antoinette’s is offered a job as Lewis Fremont’s secretary. Her immediate response is to refuse – but then she thinks that perhaps working for Fremont and helping him in whatever way she can will atone, in some small way, for the accident, which she regards as her fault.

On her first day, Antoinette is shaken to find Fremont so subdued, so miserable and helpless, although perhaps it’s not surprising considering his life has been completely turned upside-down. He’s adamant that he doesn’t want to play for an audience ever again, his pride stinging at the idea of having to be led to the piano, “fumbling” to find his place at the keyboard. Antoinette shocks herself by immediately tells him not to be so arrogant and self-pitying – and to her surprise, Fremont actually takes her rebuke in (mostly) good part. Later, Fremont’s manager Gordon Everleigh suggests to Antoinette that she should do whatever she can to encourage him to remain positive, to excite his interest and participation – they’re united in their aim to get him back on to the concert platform

The turning point comes when Antoinette finally agrees to play for Fremont. She’d turned him down the first time he asked, but this time, she sees a way that might provide exactly the encouragement Everleigh was talking about; she agrees to play the slow movement of a Beethoven sonata but then says he’ll have to play the third, because she isn’t up to it. And sure enough, playing for her brings everything back and sets Fremont on the path back to re-entering the musical world.

The book fits the prompt because, of course, Fremont has no idea that his “Toni” as she asks him to call her, is the same girl who inadvertently caused his accident. He recalls her vaguely – he’d seen her standing in the road – and recognised her then as the student he’d failed and who had subsequently appeared at the front of the audience at several of his concerts. He believes her to have been stalking him and planning some kind of revenge, and is absolulely determined to find her, so of course, and as all liars do, Antoinette finds herself having to propogate more falsehoods in order to keep her identity a secret.

I enjoyed the story and, as I’ve said, the focus on music and the way the author writes about it work really well for me, so the main reason for the middling grade on this one is that the romance is very rushed. The growing friendship between Antoinette and Fremont has a solid foundation in their mutual love of music, and of his appreciation for her good sense and willingness to challenge him and stand her ground, but the declaration (his) comes out of the blue around half way through and was one of those ‘wait – what?’ moments where I had to backtrack and check I hadn’t missed a couple of chapters.

Speaking of the things that didn’t work for me, the ending is also rushed, and the writing during the ‘accident’ scene at the beginning is really clunky; I get that it’s exposition, but it was hard to take it seriously. The same is true of the scene near the end in which

Show spoiler
he regains his sight

and from then on it’s a mad rush to the end.

I did like the two leads, though. Antoinette is a believable twenty, with all the uncertainty, self-consciousness and self-absorption that come with being young, and I was really rooting for her as she re-discovers the inner musicality she’d lost sight of, the ability to play from the heart rather from the head, and how her finding her way back to it mirrors her growth as a character. Fremont is your musical genius in the Warrender mould, a true artist at the top of his profession with the arrogance and artistic temperment to go with it – and yet he’s a fair man (he could have phrased his comment in Antoinette’s exam better, but what he said was the truth) he’s fairly down-to-earth and while he can be a but snappish at times, he’s not intentionally cruel – and I liked that Antoinette doesn’t take any crap from him. She may have started out as Fremont’s secretary, but she slowly becomes his support and his beacon of hope as he works to get back to performing.

I can’t say When Love is Blind was a resounding success, but it was worth reading.

Grade:  B-         Sensuality: Kisses

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon

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