Review: Under Pressure by Lori Foster

Review: Under Pressure by Lori FosterUnder Pressure (Body Armor, #1) by Lori Foster
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: romantic suspense
Series: Body Armor #1
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on January 24th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

He can protect anything except his heart

Leese Phelps’s road hasn’t been an easy one, but it’s brought him to the perfect job — working for the elite Body Armor security agency. And what his newest assignment lacks in size, she makes up for in fire and backbone. But being drawn to Catalina Nicholson is a dangerous complication, especially since it could be the very man who hired Leese who’s threatening her.
What Catalina knows could get her killed. But who’d believe the sordid truth about her powerful stepfather? Beyond Leese’s ripped body and brooding gaze is a man of impeccable honour. He’s the last person she expects to trust — and the first who’s ever made her feel safe. And he’s the only one who can help her expose a deadly secret, if they can just stay alive long enough...

My Review:

As Lori Foster so often does, her new Body Armor series is a spinoff from her previous series, Ultimate. The character who ties the two series together is Leese Phelps, who began Ultimate as somewhat of a jerk of a side character, but ended the series as a solidly good guy who realized that while he might be a good MMA fighter, he was never going to be a champion.

We get enough of his background in Under Pressure that it isn’t necessary to read Ultimate to see where he’s coming from – but the series is a lot of fun if you like sports romance at all.

As Under Pressure begins, Leese is now the number one bodyguard at Sahara Silver’s Body Armor agency. Sahara, as the new owner of Body Armor, recruited Leese from the MMA because she has a plan. She plans to transform the image of bodyguards from suited thugs carrying ill-concealed guns to something charming, appealing, deadly and ripped. With the addition of Leese and his friend Justice, she’s off to an excellent start.

The body that Leese has been assigned to guard is that of Catalina Nicholson. The contract is a bit mysterious, as her wealthy stepfather has paid Body Armor upfront to protect Cat from anyone and everyone, including himself, who might come after her. Whatever is going on here, it is obviously way more than meets the eye.

And so is Cat. Leese finds her attempting to sneak into the bus terminal, dragging a busted suitcase in the snow, facing down the thug who clearly plans to grab her and rape her, just for starters. When Leese sends the bastard scurrying back to his lair, Cat decides to give Leese limited trust. She has to trust somebody – she’s been on the run for six weeks, and is worn down to her last frazzle.

But as much as Cat wants to trust Leese, she has some serious trust issues, and with good reason. The very first person on the list of people she is running from is that same stepfather who paid for her bodyguards. Unfortunately for Cat, Leese, and the entire crew at Body Armor, he is far from the most dangerous on that list.

And Cat is too scared, and a bit too selfless to give up that list of names. Because she is just sure that in a contest of reputations, she will always come out the loser. And that her best chance of saving everyone else is always going to be to give herself up to what she sees as her inevitable fate. She just doesn’t want to take anyone else with her.

Especially not after she makes the classic mistake of falling for her bodyguard. And Leese makes the equally irresponsible mistake of falling for not just the body he’s guarding, but also for the woman inside it.

Escape Rating B-: This is very much a mixed feelings review. There were a lot of things about Under Pressure that I liked, and one that turned me completely off. Unfortunately, the part that turned me off looks like a repeating pattern from Ultimate, and not one of the good ones.

As the first book in the series, there is a lot of set up in this story. While the gang from Ultimate does appear near the end, this is all about the new gang at Body Armor, and we, as well as Cat, get introduced to Sahara and the team she is building. Sahara has some big plans for her new agency, and readers will also end up hoping that Sahara gets resolution on her own issues, particularly the issues surrounding her missing and presumed dead brother. But hopefully that’s another book.

The story in Under Pressure is one of the classic tropes – the bodyguard and his protectee falling for each other in the intense atmosphere of danger and ongoing death threats. In the case of Leese and Cat, it does seem like insta-lust that morphs into love rather quickly. From the descriptions, the insta-lust is very easy to understand, but the story doesn’t quite sell the development of the emotional relationship, at least not to this reader.

But it’s Cat’s need for protection, and the reasons behind it, that drive the suspense part of this plot. Cat overheard her wealthy stepfather, an even wealthier and more influential U.S. Senator, and their two bodyguards plan to cover up a murder. In particular, the murder of a young woman who said “no” to the Senator’s more depraved tastes. Cat can’t sort out just how deeply her stepfather is involved in this shitshow, so she runs. And keeps running. They really are after her.

Cat’s understandable fear is that no one will believe her. The Senator is rich, influential and beloved. He has perfected a sterling reputation as a kindly, twinkly grandfather, albeit one who hides a sack of slime underneath his expensive suits. On that other hand, her stepfather has given their inner circle the impression that Cat is flighty and unstable, just because she’d rather be a teacher than live the life of a pampered society princess.

And of course the Senator has bought off more than a few police departments and probably government agencies. The murder cover up that she heard is far from the first. And she knows that hers is next.

So Cat’s unwillingness to trust is at least somewhat understandable. She knows that the rich can buy off anyone they want, she’s seen it happen. And she knows that the Senator’s reputation is above reproach. No one will WANT to believe what she heard.

But of course her lack of trust in Leese and Sahara puts more people in danger than her trust ever would. This becomes another story where the heroine looks foolish for not letting other people help her, even if she needs to give up some of her agency to get that done. However, this wasn’t the part that really made me grit my teeth.

Cat is in plenty of trouble. They really are out to get her, and they really will kill her if they catch her. Even more, they really will kill anyone and everyone around her to get to her, and she is the kind of person who will see those deaths as being all her fault. But there’s an added element here. One of the killers is the Senator’s bodyguard, who in addition to being a cold-blooded murderer, also has an extremely unhealthy interest in imprisoning Cat and breaking her to his will. The addition of the crazed sexual-stalker murdering arsehole felt over-the-top. It is not necessary for their to be a sick sexual component for a woman to be in extreme danger. And it’s an added element that I’m just plain tired of as well as completely creeped out by.

I hope that the creepy-stalker-sexual-predator thing is not a big part of the story in the next book in this series, Hard Justice. I really liked Justice’s character in Under Pressure, and I’m looking forward to him being the hero of the next story.

Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Review: Norse Mythology by Neil GaimanNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, mythology
Pages: 293
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on February 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Introducing an instant classic—master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a dazzling version of the great Norse myths.
Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales.
In Norse Mythology, Gaiman stays true to the myths in envisioning the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki, son of a giant, blood brother to Odin and a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator.
Gaiman fashions these primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, Thor must disguise himself as a woman, difficult with his beard and huge appetite, to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir, the most sagacious of gods, is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people.
Through Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerge these gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to duping others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.

My Review:

Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse myths should be required reading for anyone whose primary visions of Odin, Thor and Loki, derived primarily from Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, just as the author’s once were.

Thor wasn’t half that bright, and Loki wasn’t nearly so handsome, although he was every bit as tricksy, and as compelling.

On the one hand, these stories of ancient gods from a world long gone seem like they might have little relevance for the 21st century. At the same time, there’s Marvel Comics, which mined these myths for pure gold. As has every fantasy writer of the 20th and 21st centuries, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Neil Gaiman himself.

These are the stories on which so much of modern literature (and TV and movies) are based, along with opera and many other forms of storytelling. These are the stories behind the stories.

Or at least what’s left of them. What we have, what the author has here to work with, are the written records of what was an oral tradition – stories told around the fire during the very long nights of almost endless winter, passed from skald to skald and mouth to ear, until they were finally compiled into the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda in the 13th century, long after the Viking Age whose tales they tell.

At least in this rendition, what we have is a loose connection of short stories, that the author has strung together, like pearls on a string, into an episodic narrative from the beginnings of Yggdrasil to the end at Ragnarok.

And while they no longer invoke the awe that they once did, the Norse gods are still fantastic.

Escape Rating B+: This collection, or retelling, or reintroduction to the Norse myths should become a classic, right alongside Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. It makes what often seemed like a conflicting collection of tales into a somewhat coherent whole, admittedly a whole like a slice of Swiss cheese, where some parts are missing, deliberately or otherwise.

But readers looking for Neil Gaiman’s particular voice in this collection will only find hints and snippets of it. These aren’t his stories, and that shows. But they are, undoubtedly, the inspiration for many of his best.

If you read American Gods and instantly recognized Mr. Wednesday, then you have already been exposed to these foundational tales, but this version is still definitely worth a read. If you didn’t see through Mr. Wednesday’s rather thin disguise, then you need to read this book before you dive into the upcoming series.

Ian McShane Starring As Mr. Wednesday In 'American Gods' TV Series
Ian McShane Starring As Mr. Wednesday In ‘American Gods’ TV Series

Review: Echoes in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Echoes in Death by J.D. RobbEchoes in Death (In Death, #44) by J.D. Robb
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: futuristic, mystery, romantic suspense
Series: In Death #44
Pages: 384
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

This chilling new suspense novel from #1
New York Times
bestselling author J.D. Robb is the perfect entry point into the compelling In Death police procedural series featuring Lieutenant Eve Dallas.
As NY Lt. Eve Dallas and her billionaire husband Roarke are driving home, a young woman—dazed, naked, and bloody—suddenly stumbles out in front of their car. Roarke slams on the brakes and Eve springs into action.
Daphne Strazza is rushed to the ER, but it’s too late for her husband Dr. Anthony Strazza. A brilliant orthopedic surgeon, he now lies dead amid the wreckage of his obsessively organized town house, his three safes opened and emptied. Daphne would be a valuable witness, but in her terror and shock the only description of the perp she can offer is repeatedly calling him “the devil”...
While it emerges that Dr. Strazza was cold, controlling, and widely disliked, this is one case where the evidence doesn’t point to the spouse. So Eve and her team must get started on the legwork, interviewing everyone from dinner-party guests to professional colleagues to caterers, in a desperate race to answer some crucial questions:
What does the devil look like? And where will he show up next?

My Review:

Although the In Death series is as far from a cozy mystery series as it is possible for mystery to get, I still read them for the same reason that I keep up with some of the cozies. I love the cast and crew, and want to check in and see how everyone is doing. Especially Galahad, the big grey cat.

Sometimes the mystery is enthralling or chilling or captivating or all of the above. And sometimes I just get the chance to hang out with the gang for a while. This particular installment of the series turned out to be one of the “hang out with the gang” types.

And that’s not a bad thing.

The case in this story starts out fairly spectacularly. Dallas and Roarke, on their way home from a late dinner party, almost run over a young naked woman in the middle of a blizzard. She’s bloody, bruised, incoherent and hypothermic, but that’s not all. She’s also the victim of a home invasion, where she was raped and her husband was murdered. Which makes her case Eve’s case, and brings a whole bunch of skeletons out of a whole bunch of closets. Not just for poor Daphne Strazza, but also for Eve.

This is one of those cases that tests the motto of Eve’s homicide department. They stand for everyone who is murdered, even the assholes. And Dr. Anthony Strazza was definitely an asshole. He may have been a brilliant surgeon, but he seems to have had the worst “life-side manner” on record. No one had a nice word to say about him. Not his colleagues, not his patients.

And his widow is obviously still scared to death of the bastard, and was so obviously abused by him. If she weren’t such a wreck, she’s be the obvious suspect. And if this wasn’t at least the third in a string of similar, equally heinous, crimes.

This is just the first time that the perpetrator has escalated to murder. But it won’t be the last, and everyone knows it.

But Eve’s objectivity has a few cracks in this one. She sees too much of her abused child self in Daphne, and too much of her cruel and abusive father in Anthony Strazza. And she’s right on all counts. Which never stands in her way. Nothing ever does.

Escape Rating B: I enjoyed spending time with the gang again. And I always like watching Dallas and company do their cop thing, running through the evidence and making the case against the killer.

secrets in death by jd robbBut this was one of their outings where I figured out who done it much, much too early. And once I knew who it had to be, a lot of the work of catching the sick bastard became anticlimactic. I did enjoy watching Eve bait him into a cage and kick the door shut behind him. Watching her wrap a suspect up in his own knots is always fun.

And Galahad’s antics always make me laugh. Eve and Roarke’s byplay about and with the cat will be familiar to anyone owned by a feline.

I already have an ARC of the next book in the series, Secrets in Death. I’m looking forward to another trip to Eve’s New York in few short months.

Review: Tough Justice Countdown by Carla Cassidy + Giveaway

Countdown: Part 1 of 8 (Tough Justice #2.1) by Carla Cassidy
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook
Genres: romantic suspense
Series: Tough Justice Countdown #1
Pages: 85
Published by Harlequin Special Releases on February 1st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Tick. Tock. BOOM. FBI Special Agent Lara Grant had thought that she'd put her past behind her--finally--with her last case. But now a serial bomber is targeting Manhattan's elite power players, offering them a choice between saving hundreds of lives or seeing their darkest secrets exposed. Lara is working with the Crisis Management Unit to stop the bomber, but how will she react when she's the one who has to choose between truth...or death? Part 1 of 8: an explosive new installment in the thrilling FBI serial from New York Times bestselling author Carla Cassidy and Tyler Anne Snell, Emmy Curtis and Janie Crouch. Praise for Tough Justice: Exposed (Part 1 of Series 1) by Carla Cassidy: “This story charges from the gate right away, dropping the reader into a tense, boiling hot crime drama that will suck readers into its vortex from page one." -Night Owl Reviews “A wonderful start to this chilling, pulse-pounding series with a storyline that not only entertained through strong dialogue and engaging characters, but left me wanting more." --Harlequin Junkie

My Review:

tough justice countdown by carla cassidy et alThis is kind of a teaser of a book. An interesting teaser, but definitely a teaser.

What’s being teased? The entire Tough Justice series by Carla Cassidy, Tyler Anne Snell, Emmy Curtis and Janie Crouch.

Countdown is actually the second Tough Justice series. The first came out last year, also with 8 episodes by mostly the same cast of authors.

The story here is about a very tough FBI Agent, Lara Grant. In this new case, Lara and her Crisis Management Unit are on the hunt for a serial bomber. Whoever he is, he’s targeting Manhattan, and as the case begins in the first episode of Countdown, neither the FBI, the NYPD or Homeland Security have a clue as to either his motives or his identity.

As the first episode draws to a close, there’s a possibility that they’ve located the first link in the chain, but it is clear that there is more to be revealed as the case continues. It’s obviously going to be a long and bumpy ride for Lara and her team.

This is a story that opens with a literal bang, and keeps the reader gripped and absorbed until you’re wrung out at the end of the installment, eager to dive into the rest of the series, which makes this a great opening episode.

Because this is Lara’s second outing, a lot of stuff happened in the past (that first series) that looks like it is going to have a major impact on events in the second. But in spite of the brevity of this episode, readers new to the series, like me, still get all the background they need on Lara and her team to get immersed in the action without feeling left behind.

Lara might not reveal much of what she is feeling to her teammates, but she doesn’t hide from herself (or the reader) in her inner thoughts. We know who she is and what she wants and why she does what she does. She remembers what went down before, and how it led her to where she is now.

It’s enough to get the new reader into the action here, while still leaving enough details out to tempt that same reader into picking up the first series.

Escape Rating B: This installment does have an ending, but it’s obvious that the story isn’t complete. Nor should it be. As a reader, I have mixed feelings about episodic books, but this is a case where all the episodes came out together, so there’s no waiting to find out who done it or why. Or to find out what fresh hell Lara finds herself in.

Lara reminds me more than a bit of Eve Dallas from the In Death series. Like Eve, Lara lives for her job and doesn’t plan on letting emotion get in her way. She also comes from a scarred background and is still haunted by the traumas in her own past. Although the details of those scars and that trauma are different, the way that they have reacted has similarities. Enough similarities that I hope Lara eventually finds her balance. But not too soon, because the obsessions that drive her is what makes her such a kick-ass heroine.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I am giving away an ebook copy of part 1 of Tough Justice Countdown to one lucky entrant on this tour.

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Review: The Forests of Dru by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: The Forests of Dru by Jeffe KennedyThe Forests Of Dru (Sorcerous Moons, #4) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy romance
Series: Sorcerous Moons #4
Pages: 180
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on January 24th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

An Enemy LandOnce Princess Oria spun wicked daydreams from the legends of sorceresses kidnapped by the barbarian Destrye. Now, though she’s come willingly, she finds herself in a mirror of the old tales: the king’s foreign trophy of war, starved of magic, surrounded by snowy forest and hostile strangers. But this place has secrets, too—and Oria must learn them quickly if she is to survive.
A Treacherous CourtInstead of the refuge he sought, King Lonen finds his homeland desperate and angry, simmering with distrust of his wife. With open challenge to his rule, he knows he and Oria—the warrior wounded and weak, the sorceress wrung dry of power—must somehow make a display of might. And despite the desire that threatens to undo them both, he still cannot so much as brush her skin.
A Fight for the Future With war looming and nowhere left to run, Lonen and Oria must use every intrigue and instinct they can devise: to plumb Dru’s mysteries, to protect their people—and to hold fast to each other. Because they know better than any what terrifying trial awaits…

My Review:

tides of bara by jeffe kennedyI love this series, but I’m not completely sold on this particular entry in it.

Let me explain…

This book picks up where The Tides of Bara leaves off, but it doesn’t really go anywhere until the very end. As the story begins, Lonen and Oria have finally reached Lonen’s kingdom, and all is not nearly as well as Lonen had hoped.

His people believe that Oria is an evil Baran sorceress who is controlling him with her magic. And while she certainly has bewitched Lonen, it isn’t with any nefarious power or sorcery. Against all odds, they have fallen in love with each other. And while love is certainly a kind of magic, if in this particular case it’s a snare, it’s a snare that has trapped them both.

lonens war by jeffe kennedyBut his people don’t see that. Particularly his older brother Nolan. Nolan should have been king, but when he and his troop fell into a mighty crevasse during the battle for Bara, all the way back in Lonen’s War, everyone quite reasonably assumed he was dead. Considering that it took him two years to find his way back from under the earth, it wasn’t a totally ridiculous idea.

Especially since the Destrye needed a king right that very minute, and Lonen was the only prince available. Now they all have to live with the consequences of that moment. One of those consequences is that Lonen has brought Oria back from Bara to be his queen, whether his people like it or not.

And they mostly don’t.

Oria doesn’t believe that this is a long term problem. She is not the first of her people to be brought to Destrye, even if she is more willing than has usually been the case. She has nothing to go back to in Bara, not after the events of Oria’s Gambit. She is a fugitive and an exile.

But Baran sorceresses simply do not live long away from the magic that wells up under Bara. She believes that she will die of starvation, and relatively soon, unless she can find a way to reach the magic that exists within the forests of Dru, no matter how different that magic is from her own.

There might be a way, but not with all the forces of Destrye and Bara stacked against them. Unless they manage to outrun their fate yet again.

orias gambit by jeffe kennedyEscape Rating B-: The problem that I have with this entry in the series is that it feels like a chapter in a waiting game. Until the very end, it doesn’t move the action forward very much. For most of the book, Lonen and Oria are effectively held captive by their own need to recover, by the Destrye court, and by Lonen’s duties to his family and his doubts about his kingship. It takes most of the novella for them to get out from under all the burdens and back on the road again.

The individual entries in the Sorcerous Moons series are relatively short – less than 200 pages each. When there is a lot of action, as there was in the first two books, those pages really fly by. But now that the story has hit what feels like the equivalent of the “middle book”, those short pages continue the trough and don’t have enough time to get back to the action.

I still like Lonen and Oria quite a lot. They are still negotiating a difficult marriage, and it appropriately goes in fits and starts. They love each other, they need each other, but they began with no understanding of each other whatsoever, so reaching a place where they work together smoothly is a trial for them. As it should be.

Oria spends much of this book, and the last one, losing strength and heading towards her demise. Seeing her finally rally towards the end of this book made for an excellent scene, even if the result did cause even more problems.

The most interesting character in this whole story is Oria’s familiar, the derkesthai Chuffta. Chuffta is a small dragon with all the snark a reader could ever ask for in a long-term companion. He has been with Oria all her life, and not only knows all her weak spots, but also knows just when to tweak them. And he LOVES to start fires.

But it feels as if his fate as well as the humans, is peering over the edge of a dark precipice. Nothing will be the same after the battle to come. I just wish it would get here already!

Review: The Wicked City by Beatriz Williams

Review: The Wicked City by Beatriz WilliamsThe Wicked City by Beatriz Williams
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow on January 17th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Beatriz Williams recreates the New York City of A Certain Age in this deliciously spicy adventure that mixes past and present and centers on a Jazz Age love triangle involving a rugged Prohibition agent, a saucy redheaded flapper, and a debonair Princetonian from a wealthy family.
When she discovers her husband cheating, Ella Hawthorne impulsively moves out of their SoHo loft and into a small apartment in an old Greenwich Village building. Her surprisingly attractive new neighbor, Hector, warns her to stay out of the basement at night. Tenants have reported strange noises after midnight—laughter, clinking glasses, jazz piano—even though the space has been empty for decades. Back in the Roaring Twenties, the place hid a speakeasy.
In 1924, Geneva "Gin" Kelly, a smart-mouthed flapper from the hills of western Maryland, is a regular at this Village hideaway known as the Christopher Club. Caught up in a raid, Gin becomes entangled with Prohibition enforcement agent Oliver Anson, who persuades her to help him catch her stepfather Duke Kelly, one of Appalachia’s most notorious bootleggers.
Headstrong and independent, Gin is no weak-kneed fool. So how can she be falling in love with the taciturn, straight-arrow Revenue agent when she’s got Princeton boy Billy Marshall, the dashing son of society doyenne Theresa Marshall, begging to make an honest woman of her? While anything goes in the Roaring Twenties, Gin’s adventures will shake proper Manhattan society to its foundations, exposing secrets that shock even this free-spirited redhead—secrets that will echo from Park Avenue to the hollers of her Southern hometown.
As Ella discovers more about the basement speakeasy, she becomes inspired by the spirit of her exuberant predecessor, and decides to live with abandon in the wicked city too. . . .

My Review:

I picked up The Wicked City because I absolutely adored A Certain Age and wanted to read more by this author.

The Wicked City is a very different book from A Certain Age, even though the lion’s share of the story is set in the same period, the early 1920s, and among some of the same people. Possibly even the same people.

But The Wicked City is a story split between two very different eras and two very different women, with each story blending just a bit into the other.

In the late 1990s, Ella Hawthorne has just moved into a slightly crumbling apartment with a whole lot of character (and characters) in Greenwich Village. She’s also just left her philandering husband, after catching him screwing a prostitute in the hallway of their condo building while he was pretending to fetch a pizza. If the whole scene hadn’t been so tragic, at least in its consequences, it would have slipped into farce.

But Ella’s drama isn’t in her impending divorce, it’s in the building of her new sanctuary. There’s a stream of hot jazz emanating from the basement of the building next door, and that beautiful music is coming not from a live club, but from the ghost of the speakeasy that once thrived there.

While Ella’s late 20th century story is interesting, the real heart of The Wicked City lies in the events of the 1920s, events that centered around both the speakeasy and the apartment building next door, where Geneva Kelly lived in the 1920s and Ella Hawthorne finds herself in the 1990s.

Ella’s story is a tale of wandering husbands, forensic accountants and handsome jazz musicians of the past and present.

Geneva Kelly’s story, on the other hand, is a tale of cold-hearted bootleggers, hot federal agents, and deadly family secrets.

Geneva’s stepfather was an abusive two-bit criminal back home in Western Maryland, but only Gin seems to have seen his true face. Everyone else saw the charm, while she experienced the rot underneath. But after she fled her Appalachian home town for the bright lights of the big city, Duke Kelly moved from small-time crook to big-time racketeer, controlling a major piece of the illegal booze market in thirsty New York, as well as every single soul in his little town.

It was Prohibition, and the feds were looking for a way to take Duke Kelly down. Gin was too, so when a handsome federal agent offered her the chance to get the goods on the snake, she was all in.

Until she was very nearly all the way out.

Escape Rating B+: At first, the story moved a bit slowly, as did A Certain Age when I look back. Both stories take a while to get themselves set up, but once they do, the action careens quickly from boat chase to shoot out to romance, and back again, with lightning speed.

Particularly Gin’s story. Ella’s story feels less fleshed out, and I’m not convinced it was really necessary. Gin’s story is the one that sparkles like a flapper’s sequined dress.

While we don’t feel much of Ella’s dilemma, we do become all too well acquainted with Gin’s. She fled her hometown in the wake of her stepfather’s abusive, and she tries very hard not to look back. She’s also a young woman with not enough education and no family ties trying to make a living in the big city. Some of her choices arise from desperation, and some from pure pragmatism. It’s a hard-knock life.

She wants to bring her stepfather down, which makes her a plum ripe for the plucking by Prohibition agent Oliver Anson. She’s attracted to his stalwart honor even more than she is his good looks. But like everyone else in her life, Anson is keeping secrets that threaten both Gin’s life and her heart. Everything that happens between them feels screened by a haze of smoke and mist, and neither ever knows quite where the other stands until the very end.

cocoa beach by beatriz williamsIn addition to the connection between Gin and Ella, there’s also a connection between Gin and the characters in A Certain Age, and indeed the characters of many of the author’s previous books. It’s not such a tight connection that the reader needs to worry about having read the other books, and it’s also not completely revealed or resolved. But these people all inhabit the same social circles, and everyone seems to know, or at least know of, everyone else.

I’m looking forward to exploring this more, both in the author’s upcoming novel, Cocoa Beach, and by diving back into some of her earlier works. All in all, I’m glad I took this little trip to The Wicked City.

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: Staying for Good by Catherine Bybee + Giveaway

Review: Staying for Good by Catherine Bybee + GiveawayStaying For Good by Catherine Bybee
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Series: Most Likely To #2
Pages: 320
Published by Montlake Romance on January 24th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Zoe Brown may have been voted Most Likely to Never Leave River Bend, but the paper-thin walls and suffocating air of her family’s double-wide trailer were not what she wanted for her life. Other than BFFs Melanie and Jo, the only thing that kept Zoe sane during high school was her boyfriend, Luke.
She didn’t just leave, she escaped—turning her back on the shame of her black-sheep siblings and imprisoned dad. Now a celebrity chef in Dallas, she can afford all the things she never could have growing up. But when she returns to rustic, ruggedly beautiful River Bend, Zoe has to face all that she abandoned—including Luke.
While Luke was a refuge for Zoe in the past, he knows they inhabit totally different worlds now. Anchored by his parents and his job as a mechanic in his father’s shop, Luke never felt the urge to leave River Bend—until Zoe’s return.
But when the two rekindle their old flame, Zoe is forced to make the hardest decision of her life: remain in River Bend and confront her past before it destroys her, or say good-bye to everyone she’s ever loved…again, this time for good.

My Review:

doing it over by catherine bybeeIn a lot of ways, Staying for Good has more in common with yesterday’s book, The Cottage at Firefly Lake, than it does with the first book in its own series, Doing It Over.

These are all small-town romances that have at their heart a sisterly relationship. And it doesn’t matter a bit that the women in Cottage are sisters-by-blood while the women in the Most Likely To series are sisters-of-the-heart. The relationships are equally deep and equally lasting.

Also equally life-changing.

Unlike Doing it Over, the love stories in both The Cottage at Firefly Lake and Staying for Good are second chance romances. And they are second chances of the same type. Just as in Cottage, heroine Zoe Brown in Staying for Good gave up the love of her life when she left her small town after high school, and became a big star in a demanding field.

The causes were similar in both cases. Zoe absolutely had to leave River Bend, while Luke had always planned to stay. They didn’t fall out of love, they just went in completely separate directions. But they broke up before they had a chance to discover whether they could work long-distance, and never got past the loss.

Zoe has become a famous chef, both on TV and in restaurant gigs around the country. She’s come far from her origins in River Bend as the daughter of a violent abusive convict and his co-dependent victim. She came back to River Bend in Doing It Over, and discovered that not nearly enough had changed.

She still felt much too much for Luke, and her birth family was still much too much of a messy drama. She had tried to help as best she could, but her mother seems to be beyond help, and her brother and sister seem set to follow all the bad family patterns.

There’s nothing left in River Bend for Zoe except her sisters-of-the-heart, Jo and Mel, her surrogate mother Gina, and, of course, Luke. Who she shouldn’t want but still does.

Zoe is back again to help plan Mel’s wedding (see Doing it Over for deets) and steps right back into the family mess when her not-so-dear-old-dad gets parole, and immediately returns to his destructive ways.

But Zoe isn’t a child anymore. This time, she fights back. With Luke at her side, every step of the way.

Escape Rating B+: In spite of how many times I mentioned it above, you don’t actually have to read Doing it Over to enjoy Staying for Good. But it’s a terrific story, and if you enjoy small-town romances mixed with stories of deep women’s friendships, it’s a lovely book.

Back to Staying for Good. This is a story with three separate branches. One is, of course, the second chance at love between Zoe and Luke. They’ve spent years avoiding each other, and have both tried to move on. But it has been over 10 years, and neither of them has found anyone to replace the other in their lives. Not only has neither of them even flirted with the idea of a serious relationship with anyone else, but neither of them has found anyone who simply “gets” them the way the other does. They were best friends as well as lovers, and neither of them has found anyone who can fill both pairs of those shoes.

They’ve also both reached crossroads in their lives. Luke has been content in River Bend, running the local car repair garage with his father. But the small town is starting to feel a bit stifling. Or perhaps boring. He’s nearly 30 and hasn’t been anywhere or done much of anything with his life. Whether it’s his feet that are itchy or just his heart is a question he needs to answer.

Zoe, on the other hand, has been at the top of the chef’s world for several years. She can work where she wants, when she wants, and is a frequent guest chef at top restaurants and on big-name TV cooking shows. But she doesn’t really have a life. And while she doesn’t miss her parents much, she is worried about her younger brother and sister and misses her circle of friends a great deal.

She’s ready to put down roots, but not sure where to sink them. And she’s starting to realize that her heart is back in River Bend, even if her work is elsewhere.

Into the middle of Zoe and Luke’s romantic dilemma, Zoe is also in the middle of her own family drama. Her father fits the classic portrait of an abuser. He beat his wife, he beat his kids, he was worse when he drank, and he was just a mean bastard all the way around. He was also an expert manipulator. And when he returns from prisoner, he goes right back to manipulating the family. Since Zoe is not only out, but willing to throw a lifeline to any of her family members who are willing to grab it, he does his level best (and worst) to alienate the family from her. And he nearly succeeds.

making it right by catherine bybee(I will say that the way that this part of the story is resolved reminds me a bit too much of Doing it Over. Without spoiling the story, let me say that this particular method of resolution veers into deus ex machina territory when repeated, so I hope that the budding suspense angle in the third book in the series doesn’t resolve quite the same way.)

The final thread to the story, of course, is the sisterly bond between Zoe, Mel and Jo. This isn’t just Zoe’s story, it’s also all of theirs. The portrayal of the friendship between these women is always marvelous. Because all three of these women are fantastic characters, I’m really looking forward to Jo’s story in Making it Right.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

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Review: The Cottage at Firefly Lake by Jen Gilroy + Giveaway

Review: The Cottage at Firefly Lake by Jen Gilroy + GiveawayThe Cottage at Firefly Lake (Firefly Lake, #1) by Jen Gilroy
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Series: Firefly Lake #1
Pages: 368
Published by Forever on January 31st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Some mistakes can never be fixed and some secrets never forgiven . . . but some loves can never be forgotten.
Charlotte Gibbs wants nothing more than to put the past behind her, once and for all. But now that she's back at Firefly Lake to sell her mother's cottage, the overwhelming flood of memories reminds her of what she's been missing. Sun-drenched days. Late-night kisses that still shake her to the core. The gentle breeze off the lake, the scent of pine in the air, and the promise of Sean's touch on her skin . . . True, she got her dream job traveling the world. But at what cost?
Sean Carmichael still doesn't know why Charlie disappeared that summer, but after eighteen years, a divorce, and a teenage son he loves more than anything in the world, he's still not over her. All this time and her body still fits against his like a glove. She walked away once when he needed her the most. How can he convince her to stay now?

My Review:

The Cottage at Firefly Lake is a book about second chances. Not just the second chance at love that forms the backbone of the story, but also a second chance at family, and a second chance at life. Or perhaps that last would be better referred to as a “do over” at life. You be the judge.

Charlotte and Mia Gibbs have returned to Firefly Lake to sell their late mother’s cottage. It’s the place where they spent their summers, and it’s all they have left of their mother. It’s also a place they both love and resent, and now it represents a chance for both of them to get some financial security at the cost of losing their last connection to their mother.

And possibly their last real connection to each other.

Charlotte and Mia were “summer people” in the community, but for Charlie it was much, much more. Charlie didn’t feel like she fit in with her family, with her perfect homemaker mother and her seemingly equally perfect sister Mia. Instead, Charlie wanted adventure, and she spent those childhood summers with her best friend, local boy Sean Carmichael.

Their intense childhood friendship matured into an equally intense teenage love. But Sean was tied to Firefly Lake and the boat crafting and marina business that had been in his family for generations. Charlie was off to college and a career as a foreign correspondent. And even though she didn’t know exactly where she would end up, she knew at 18 that what she wanted was to travel and explore, not tie herself to the tiny Vermont lake town, no matter how much she loved it, or Sean.

But instead of a natural breakup over time and diverging interests, Charlie left Sean suddenly and inexplicably, and neither of them ever got over it. They’ve never gotten past the intensity of that teenage love, even though Charlie has had a terrific and exciting career, and Sean has been married (now divorced) and has a son turning 16.

There’s too much unfinished business between them.

Charlie and Mia need to sell the cottage. Badly. Mia fears that her husband is about to leave her with their two daughters and no career to fall back on. And she’s right. Charlie recently survived an IED attack while on assignment, and her insurance didn’t cover all the resulting medical bills. Her savings are tapped, and she is all too aware that she has no one to rely on in a crisis except her current shaky self.

But the only offer on the table is one that will change Firefly Lake forever, and not in a way that anyone wants. It’s up to Charlie to find a way to make things work – for the town, for her sister, for herself, and most of all, for any possible future she might have with Sean.

If he can get his head out of his ass long enough to finally figure out that he has to meet her halfway – wherever that might be.

Escape Rating B+: It was terrific to read something a bit light and fluffy after yesterday’s much more serious book. The Cottage at Firefly Lake was a great little pick-me-up.

It also felt more than a bit familiar.

Separated by several states, Mary McNear’s Butternut Lake series (start with Up at Butternut Lake) has the same feel as Firefly Lake. It is also a small town with a lake at its center and heart. And it is also a place where people get a second chance at love, and where sisters get a second chance to find each other, particularly in the most recent book in the series, The Space Between Sisters. Anyone who loves Butternut Lake will also enjoy Firefly Lake, and very much vice versa.

Meanwhile, back in Vermont at Firefly Lake, this story is a lovely introduction to the place and to the series. It’s a story with several threads, and they blend together pretty well.

The big story isn’t the romance, it’s the relationship between sisters Charlie and Mia. They’re sisters, and they love each other, but they are also distant and don’t know each other. There’s also a whole lot of sisterly envy going on, as each of them believes that the other has the “perfect life” and each of them believes that the other had a happier, or at least easier, childhood and adolescence with their late parents.

And there’s a whole lot of family history bound up very interestingly in this story. Not just the Gibbs’ family, but also Sean’s family. And let’s just say that the late Dr. Gibbs was a real piece of work, with all of the negative connotations of that phrase. He’s still messing up everyone’s lives, even from the grave.

One of the great things about this story is the way that the romance develops. Even though Sean and Charlie never really got over each other, they also both recognize that they are not the same people they were half a lifetime ago. They don’t exactly take it slow, but they also don’t gloss over the fact that if they want to have a relationship, it has to be in this present and not the past. Nothing about this is easy.

There’s a lot to love at Firefly Lake. I’m looking forward to a return visit in Summer on Firefly Lake, appropriately scheduled for this summer.

CottageAtFireflyLake_LaunchDayBlitz

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Jen and Forever are giving away 10 paperback copies of The Cottage at Firefly Lake to lucky participants in this tour!

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Review: Leonard by William Shatner with David Fisher

Review: Leonard by William Shatner with David FisherLeonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man by William Shatner, David Fisher
Format: audiobook, ebook, hardcover
Source: publisher, purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: autobiography, biography
Pages: 278
Published by Thomas Dunne Books on February 16th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner first crossed paths as actors on the set of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Little did they know that their next roles, in a new science-fiction television series, would shape their lives in ways no one could have anticipated. In seventy-nine television episodes and six feature films, they grew to know each other more than most friends could ever imagine.
Over the course of half a century, Shatner and Nimoy saw each other through personal and professional highs and lows. In this powerfully emotional book, Shatner tells the story of a man who was his friend for five decades, recounting anecdotes and untold stories of their lives on and off set, as well as gathering stories from others who knew Nimoy well, to present a full picture of a rich life.
As much a biography of Nimoy as a story of their friendship, Leonard is a uniquely heartfelt book written by one legendary actor in celebration of another.

My Review:

Yesterday was NASA’s Day of Remembrance, in honor of all those who lost their lives in the quest for space, particularly the tragic losses of Apollo I and the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia.

Because so many people have entered the space program and the aerospace industry because they fell in love with the idea of space travel while watching Star Trek, William Shatner’s semi-biographical, semi-autobiographical book about his friendship with the late and very much lamented Leonard Nimoy seemed like an appropriate book for this week.

shatner nimoy youngTo this reader, it felt as if the book, while purporting to tell the story of Leonard Nimoy’s life, ends up combining autobiography with biography. These two men knew each other very well for a very long time, came from somewhat similar backgrounds, and found themselves yoked together, whether they liked it or not (and sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t) by their performances in what everyone expected would be a short-lived TV program.

Instead, Star Trek became a phenomenon and none of the lives that it touched were ever the same. Particularly theirs.

Because Star Trek altered the trajectory of both their lives in ways that were both bizarre and profound, this book also serves as a personal recollection of the production of the original series. While many of these stories have been told before, it is still interesting to hear them again from someone who lived through those events.

A group which gets smaller and smaller every year. Dammit.

The other story that is told here is that of the life and occasionally hard times of a working actor in what is now considered the “Golden Age” of television. There is never a good time to be an actor. It’s a lot of tiny parts, short run work, and cab driving (in Nimoy’s case) or waiting tables or some other job that can be dropped and picked up on the whim of a casting director.

And even though these stories are now more than 50 years in the past, that struggle still resonates. The reader can see how those years formed the characters of the men who performed those iconic characters, and how much those characters both represented pieces of their core selves, and how much those characters influenced who they became.

For a fan, this is a fascinating story, all the more so because it rings so true in the author’s voice.

Escape Rating B+: Sometimes I talk about what I think about a book, sometimes I talk about what I feel. Fair warning, this is one of those “feelie” reviews.

I’ve been a Star Trek fan since the end of the original series. I watched some of those early episodes with my dad, so there are a lot of memories tied up in this for me. Also, the stories that Shatner tells at the very beginning of the book, about his and Nimoy’s shared background as first-generation Americans (or Canadians) in Jewish immigrant families is also the story of my parents’ generation. With very little alteration, my mother could tell similar stories.

As a fan, I read a lot of the “making of Star Trek” books that came out in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the stories that Shatner relates were also a part of those books, but they are told slightly differently from one participant’s perspective than they were in those more “reporting style” books. Different both in the sense that we all remember things differently, and that it seems as if Shatner glosses over some of his behavior that drove his colleagues crazy at the time, and for years later. Some of the more contentious incidents seem to have faded from memory a bit.

We are all the stars of our own stories, possibly in this case more literally than for the rest of us.

This was a book where I both read the book in ebook, looked at the pictures in the hardcover, and listened to the audio. I would have the audio on in the car, and then pick up with the book at lunch and after I got home. One of the things that comes through on the audio is that the author often sounds tired. He frequently ran out of breath on the longer sentences. I kept wanting to tell him to take a breath in the middle, or grab a glass of water. I wanted to be there as he told his story.

shatner nimoy laughing lateIn the end, this is a book for the fans.It is way more about the history of Star Trek than any other single topic. As a fan, I found the story interesting and often charming. Perhaps I should say “fascinating” as Spock often did.

For readers who are not fans, or for later readers who are looking to find out what all the fuss was about, this is not a book that analyzes the influence of Star Trek or its characters on pop culture and the explosion of science fiction into movies, TV and mainstream literature. That’s a book for someone else at some other time.

But for those of us who loved those men and the show that they created, and which created them, this book is a marvelous way to remember them both.

As his most famous saying goes, Leonard Nimoy lived long and prospered. And he is missed.

Review: On Second Thought by Kristan Higgins + Giveaway

Review: On Second Thought by Kristan Higgins + GiveawayOn Second Thought by Kristan Higgins
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 480
Published by HQN Books on January 31st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Following in the footsteps of her critically acclaimed novel
If You Only Knew
, multi-bestselling author Kristan Higgins returns with a pitch-perfect look at the affection—and the acrimony—that binds sisters together 
Ainsley O'Leary is so ready to get married—she's even found the engagement ring her boyfriend has stashed away. What she doesn't anticipate is for Eric to blindside her with a tactless breakup he chronicles in a blog…which (of course) goes viral. Devastated and humiliated, Ainsley turns to her half sister, Kate, who's already struggling after the sudden loss of her new husband. 
Kate has always been so poised, so self-assured, but Nathan's death shatters everything she thought she knew—including her husband—and sometimes the people who step up aren't the ones you expect. With seven years and a murky blended-family dynamic between them, Ainsley and Kate have never been overly close, but their shared sorrow dovetails their faltering worlds into one. 
Despite the lifetime of history between them, the sisters must learn to put their differences aside and open their hearts to the inevitable imperfection of family—and the possibility of one day finding love again.

My Review:

This is a lovely story about second chances. Not just second chances at love, but also second chances at family, friendship and career fulfillment. And especially a second chance at being sisters.

The story is told from the alternating points of view of Kate and Ainsley, half-sisters who have a lifetime of almost-but-not-quite closeness between them. And a really weird family dynamic. Their father, a Major League Baseball umpire, left Kate’s mother to marry Ainsley’s mother. Three years later, with the love of his life dead and a very young daughter to raise, their father begged his first wife to take him back. And she did, but she never completely lost her resentment of the whole situation. It’s hard to blame her.

But that left Kate and Ainsley in a bit of a bind, sister-wise. Kate was ten years older than Ainsley, and Ainsley was so obviously Daddy’s favorite, that they weren’t close growing up. Mutual tragedy brings them together, and they discover in each other the sister and best friend they never had, but always wanted.

Kate’s husband dies after four months of pretty blissful marriage. Unfortunately for Ainsley, Nathan’s death sends her long-term boyfriend Eric into a complete spin into assholishness, not that he was a prince to begin with. Eric doesn’t just break up with Ainsley, he does it publicly, on the blog he posts at her magazine, and in the worst terms imaginable. While Eric was never as good as Ainsley thought he was, his behavior dives to a whole new level of low.

Ainsley arrives on Kate’s doorstep with her adorable dog and her worldly goods, which aren’t all that much. Kate, still in the seemingly endless depths of her grief, is grateful to have the upbeat and perky Ainsley move into her echoing house. Ainsley is equally happy to have a place to stay while she regroups and recovers. Ollie is always happy. Period.

They help each other. And they find each other. And eventually, when the time is mostly right, they find a way to move past their respective grief. But even though they both finally move on, what they don’t do is move past each other.

Escape Rating B+: I read this in a single evening. I fell into the story and didn’t fall out until I turned the last page. Kate and Ainsley are women that I would love to know in real life, and I was happy to spend an evening with them.

I will say that the first chapter is very, very rough going. It is obvious from the first paragraph that Kate’s husband Nathan is about to die, because Kate is narrating their last evening together from the perspective of someone who knows what is about to happen. It was impossible not to feel for her. Kate’s profound grief made me keep looking over at my own snoring husband to make sure he was all right. But a big part of me wished that the story could have started after his death. Reading the “but I didn’t know” bits over and over was both sad and wearying. Also wearing.

if you only knew by kristan higginsAlthough there is a romantic element to this story, the romances don’t feel like point of the story, except as they symbolize both women finally able to move on. Which appropriately takes a while. The point of the story is the way that they reach towards each other in a way that will remind readers of the author’s previous book, If You Only Knew.

Kate feels both profound grief and a certain amount of anger. When Nathan died, they had known each other for less than a year, and had only been married for four months. As much as she misses him, she also misses the person she used to be before they met. She had been happy on her own, and if she hadn’t met Nathan she would have continued to be so. The difference that one year has made in her life is beyond heartbreaking.

Ainsley’s situation is a bit different. She met Eric in college, and they’ve been together for 11 years. Literally one-third of her life. She not only loves Eric, she loves his family, and she’s been dreaming of marrying him for almost a decade. He’s always been a bit of a selfish arsehole, but when he breaks up with her via his blog, he pulls out all the stops. Readers will want to shoot him. In the kneecaps, so he suffers longer.

In many ways, Ainsley has a lot more self-examination and reinventing to do, because she’s never been just her. She’s always been part of an “us”, and now that is blasted to smithereens. When she gets her own back, it is epic and awesome.

Both women do eventually find romance, and in the most unlikely places. And the way that they do, particularly the way they both approach that second chance, makes a marvelous conclusion to this story.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I am giving away a copy of On Second Thought to one lucky U.S. commenter.

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