Review: In Shining Armor by Elliott James

Review: In Shining Armor by Elliott JamesIn Shining Armor (Pax Arcana, #4) by Elliott James
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Pax Arcana #4
Pages: 464
Published by Orbit on April 26th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

This fairy godmother's got claws.
When someone kidnaps the last surviving descendant of the Grandmaster of the Knights Templar, it's bad news. When the baby is the key to the tenuous alliance between a large werewolf pack and the knights, it's even worse news. They're at each other's throats before they've even begun to look for baby Constance.
But whoever kidnapped Constance didn't count on one thing: she's also the goddaughter of John Charming. Modern-day descendant of a long line of famous dragon slayers, witch finders, and wrong righters. John may not have any experience being a parent, but someone is about to find out that he can be one mean mother...
IN SHINING ARMOR is the fourth novel in a series which gives a new twist to the Prince Charming tale. The first three novels are Charming, Daring, & Fearless.

My Review:

Actually, John Charming is a knight in rather tarnished and bloodstained armor. It also seems to be covered in slime and shit all-too-frequently. But he’s still a knight, even if he is also a werewolf. And based on his adventures in his first three books, Charming, Daring and Fearless, that contradiction he embodies seems to be getting both more and less contradictory at the same time.

But the moral of this particular fairy tale (because the fae are always in the background in this series, somewhere, even if it’s fairly deep background) revolves around that tried and true old saw, “ Assume makes an ASS out of U and ME. Because everything that goes wrong in this story begins with John (and everyone else) making a very big assumption that turns out to be far from true.

Even professional paranoids, like the Knights Templar in general and John Charming in particular, occasionally can’t manage to be paranoid enough. And in this case it very nearly bites all of them, along with the werewolves, in their collective (and extremely well-muscled) asses.

At the end of Fearless, a very, very tenuous peace has finally broken out between the Knights Templar and the werewolves. It’s so tenuous because until very, very recently, the Knights’ first response to a werewolf was to kill it on sight as an automatic violation of the Pax Arcana that prevents us normals from finding out that there really is a whole lot of magic out there.

But most werewolves (and vampires, and even naga and gorgons) are just like everyone else, they want to live in peace, hold down a job, raise their kids and participate in the American dream. Or whatever the dream is wherever they happen to live. They have even less desire to reveal the magic in the world than the Knights do, because they know they’ll probably be first on the firing line when the mundanes bring out the contemporary equivalent of torches and pitchforks.

And the Knights have just realized (a very few of them, all at the top) that they are really only geas-bound to enforce the Pax, and that as long as any magical creatures don’t violate the Pax, there is no obligation whatsoever to hunt them down and kill them. And, of course, a lot of them don’t want to give up the status quo.

Human beings are still human, extra power, extra knowledge, extra whatever, or not. And some humans are still arseholes.

The literal embodiment of this tenuous peace is little baby Constance. She’s the last descendant of the Grandmaster of the Knights Templar. And she’s going to be a werewolf when she grows up. Just like John Charming, little Constance has a tiny foot in both worlds. And both the Knights and the werewolves have been pledged to protect her. She’s the hidden little darling of both camps.

Until someone nefarious and unknown decides to disrupt that detente for reasons that, while obviously nefarious, remain nebulous and hidden for most of the story. The (very bad) idea was to kidnap little Constance and make the werewolves look guilty and responsible. Detente instantly explodes, werewolves hide far away from the Knights and whatever the evildoer wants hidden.

But evil never seems to reckon on John Charming. And he intends to wreck a reckoning on them. Just as soon as he figures out who they are, what they want, and what’s the best way to kill them very, very dead.

If they don’t kill him first.

Escape Rating B+: I liked this, but saying I enjoyed it doesn’t feel quite right. There are a lot of points in the story where things are very, very dark, to that point where it feels like things are getting darker just before they turn completely black. Which doesn’t quite happen, but gets really, really close. And occasionally feels like it’s dragging its feet just a bit.

For anyone wondering about the baby being in danger through the book, it doesn’t work that way. Constance is the catalyst but not the point, and John rescues her fairly early on. It’s never really about the baby. It’s always about breaking up the tentative peace between the Knights and the werewolves, even if John can’t put his finger on why for nearly the entire book.

And the reader can’t either. The hidden motives remain hidden until the very end. The plot in this plot turns out to be incredibly convoluted, and unlike a mystery, in spite of the first person singular perspective the reader is not privy to everything that John Charming knows or does. In fact, he makes a habit of reaching his resolution and only then revealing all of the secret things he did to make it all work out in his favor. After they work. Sort of.

If he wasn’t one of the good guys, he’d be downright annoying. A fact which his partner reminds him of on frequent occasions. One of the great things about this book, and the series, is John’s relationship with his partner and lover, Sig. Who is a valkyrie, and therefore even more badass than John is, with powers (and problems) of her own. They balance each other out, support each other, protect each other, and sometimes drive each other crazy. It’s terrific to see an urban fantasy where the protagonist both manages to have a fairly successful and monogamous relationship, and where the woman is every bit the equal of the man. That mix still feels rare, and is always welcome.

But as straightforward as John’s and Sig’s relationship is, the plot (and counterplot, and counter-counterplot) in this one seems almost overly twisted. In the end, the reader is just along for the wild ride, without much ability to see the twists and turns or even process all the changes. There’s a LOT going on in this story. But once John and Sig and the Knights get to the final battle, it’s a race to see if the reader can turn the pages fast enough.

As someone who has read the entire series, I have to say that I really missed the gang that John and Sig created (or that grew around them) in the first three books. And I missed those people, and the feeling of family and friends that they developed. But even though In Shining Armor pulls them completely out of their trusted sphere, it is still very grounded in the world that has been created, to the point where I don’t think In Shining Armor is the best place for someone to start this series. The operation of the Knights Templar is very complicated, and seems to get more so all the time. So start with Charming.

But speaking of that group of familiar faces, I’m really looking forward to the next book, Legend Has It, so John and Sig can get back to their extremely motley band of monster hunters and do what they do best all together – try to out-snark each other while racing to eliminate the most (and worst) monsters they can find.

Review: Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister + Giveaway

Review: Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister + GiveawayGirl in Disguise by Greer Macallister
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 308
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

For the first female Pinkerton detective, respect is hard to come by. Danger, however, is not.
In the tumultuous years of the Civil War, the streets of Chicago offer a woman mostly danger and ruin-unless that woman is Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton detective and a desperate widow with a knack for manipulation.
Descending into undercover operations, Kate is able to infiltrate the seedy side of the city in ways her fellow detectives can't. She's a seductress, an exotic foreign medium, or a rich train passenger, all depending on the day and the robber, thief, or murderer she's been assigned to nab.
Inspired by the real story of Kate Warne, this spirited novel follows the detective's rise during one of the nation's greatest times of crisis, bringing to life a fiercely independent woman whose forgotten triumphs helped sway the fate of the country.

My Review:

The subject of this fictionalized biography would be downright offended at its title. By the time this book begins in the mid-1850s, Kate is a woman whose illusions seem to have been stripped away long ago. She’s also a widow.

“Girl” doesn’t fit her at all, and she wouldn’t want it to. What she wants, at least as she is portrayed in this book, is to be treated as an equal. The equal of any man in the Pinkerton Agency. And it’s a hard-knock fight every single step of the way.

Kate Warne was a real person. Admittedly, a real person about whom not very much at all is known. Which makes her a great character on which to hang a work of historical fiction. Particularly since what is known about Kate Warne is the stuff of fiction to begin with.

Kate was the first female Pinkerton agent. Hired in 1856, she was one of the first, if not the first, female detectives in the world. No one expected her to succeed. No one even expected her to apply. There was no such thing as female detectives or female police officers when Kate Warne answered Allan Pinkerton’s “Help Wanted” advertisement for new agents.

But as she says, “Someone has to be first.”

Her life, what little we know of it, is the stuff of legends. Most of the information about her real career was kept in the Pinkerton office in Chicago. And most of it was wiped out in the Great Chicago Fire. (Mrs. O’Leary’s cow has a LOT to answer for)

One of the things that is known, and that made her fame, was her part in spiriting then-President-Elect Abraham Lincoln through a risky Baltimore night ride on his way to his inauguration – and his subsequent date with history. Without Warne, the history of the U.S. as we know it might have been far different.

But this book is a fictionalized version of her life, stitching together what little is known about her, with considerably more that it known about the Pinkerton’s in general and their work during the Civil War in particular, and making a fascinating story out of it, without descending into rank sensationalism or outright melodrama, at least until the very end.

Kate Warne lived a brief but fascinating life. I wish history had left us more details of her adventures. But if they were even half as hair-raising as this story, her candle must have burned very bright indeed.

Escape Rating B: I left myself plenty of time to read this one, because while I was very interested in the subject, I was a bit unsure about the author. As much as so many people loved The Magician’s Lie, when I gave it a try I couldn’t get into it at all. But Girl in Disguise grabbed me from the first page.

I think that had to do with Kate’s voice. The book is written in first-person singular, so throughout the story we are always in Kate’s head. It’s a fascinating place to be. While the circumstances of Kate’s life are particular to her time and place, so many of her thoughts seem universal to working women.

She wants to be considered as a professional, on an equal basis to the men in the agency. She never trades on her feminine wiles, and has nothing but professional relationships with all of the male Pinkerton’s, particularly including Allan Pinkerton himself. As portrayed in the book, the relationship between them was strictly professional from beginning to end. He mentored her and trusted her in a way that would have raised no eyebrows if she had been a man, but because she was a woman she constantly battled rumors that they were having an affair – rumors that persist to the present day in spite of a complete lack of evidence either then or now. It was simply assumed that a woman could not possibly be hired or trusted on her own merits.

Until the end, Kate is in love with her job, and as so many of us do, sacrifices most of her life to the pursuit of her work. But Kate isn’t the only one. As one of the male agents comments, none of them have personal lives, with the exception of Pinkerton himself. They are on the road too much, and they must keep way too many secrets. No spouse, male or female, is willing to tolerate that kind of treatment for very long.

What made Kate so relatable, at least for this reader, is just how dispassionate she is about her own life. She’s not given to flights of either hyperbole or fancy, at least in the privacy of her own head. This is who she is, this is what she does, this is what it costs her. She’s a heroine, but she never sees herself that way. She’s a woman doing a job that challenges her in ways that she can’t find anyplace else, and that she absolutely loves. She’s doing what she was born to.

There is historic evidence that Kate was part of the team that kept Lincoln alive on his way to his inauguration. Many of the other cases in the book where she is involved are based on real Pinkerton cases, even if Kate’s specific involvement is not known, and a few have been combined for dramatic license.

I really enjoyed the perspective of Kate the professional woman, both her triumphs and her many and frequent qualms about whether the ends justified the means. She has a lot to live with, and sometimes, quite reasonably so, she has second, third and fourth thoughts.

As a reader, I wish that her dispassion had not failed her in the last quarter of the book. I very much enjoyed reading about Kate in love with her work, and the details of that work as the Civil War heated up. I was less enthralled when Kate fell in love with a fellow agent. At that point the melodrama swept in.

But all in all, Girl in Disguise is a fascinating portrait of an unsung heroine – Kate Warne, the first female “private eye”.

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

Greer and Sourcebooks are giving away 3 copies of both The Magician’s Lie AND Girl in Disguise to lucky participants in this tour.
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Review: Hounded by Kevin Hearne

Review: Hounded by Kevin HearneHounded (The Iron Druid Chronicles, #1) by Kevin Hearne, Luke Daniels
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Iron Druid #1
Pages: 292
Published by Brilliance Audio on October 28th 2014
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Atticus O’Sullivan, last of the Druids, lives peacefully in Arizona, running an occult bookshop and shape-shifting in his spare time to hunt with his Irish wolfhound. His neighbors and customers think that this handsome, tattooed Irish dude is about twenty-one years old—when in actuality, he’s twenty-one centuries old. Not to mention: He draws his power from the earth, possesses a sharp wit, and wields an even sharper magical sword known as Fragarach, the Answerer.
Unfortunately, a very angry Celtic god wants that sword, and he’s hounded Atticus for centuries. Now the determined deity has tracked him down, and Atticus will need all his power—plus the help of a seductive goddess of death, his vampire and werewolf team of attorneys, a bartender possessed by a Hindu witch, and some good old-fashioned luck of the Irish—to kick some Celtic arse and deliver himself from evil.

My Review:

Because I love urban fantasy, friends have been recommending the Iron Druid series to me for years, and because I get perverse when people push too hard, I haven’t gotten around to it. Until now. And one of these days maybe I’ll learn to ignore that particular quirk of mine, because just like other books that friends have frequently and heartily recommended (I’m thinking of Legion and Thieftaker here), the Iron Druid series, at least on first introduction, is absolutely awesome.

Hounded is just full of the kind of irreverent snark that I expect from the best urban fantasy, while telling a great story that is anchored in the real world. And as the first book in the series, it introduced me to a fantastic character (in multiple senses of fantastic) in Atticus O’Sullivan, the last remaining druid.

Atticus claims to be 21, and looks the part, as the cover pictures indicate fairly well. But Atticus isn’t 21 years old, as he lets people assume. He’s 21 centuries old, and was born in Celtic Ireland a millennium before the Common Era began.

And all the gods are real. Not just the Celtic pantheon to which Atticus still owes some allegiance, and to some of whom he still bears some grudges. But ALL the gods of all the pantheons either existed or have existed. (If this reminds you a bit of American Gods, it does me, too).

But speaking of those grudges, one of those Celtic gods is still harassing Atticus, centuries after losing a famous sword to the Druid in an epic battle. It turns out that the Celtic god of love is actually a selfish, self-centered and manipulative arsehole. And I just insulted arseholes, but in a way that Atticus would probably have approved.

So the short version of this story is that it is all about Angus Og manipulating people and events in order to finally get the great sword Fragarach back from Atticus. The long version of the story is much, much more interesting, as it introduces us to Atticus and all the people in his world, from his werewolf and vampire lawyers (all Vikings) to his slightly dotty old neighbor, to his absolutely marvelous Irish wolfhound, Oberon, who always has his eye on his next sausage breakfast and dreams of harems of French poodles.

Along the way, we meet witches and demons, and get introduced to the gods of the Fae who still deign to mess with the lives of mortals, or at least with the life of Atticus O’Sullivan. Whether that’s for his good or his ill, or even a bit of both, is just part of the wonder of this story.

Escape Rating A: I loved this. And I can’t wait to go back. But this was such a marvelous treat, that I know I need to space them out a bit. Like Halloween candy. But even better, because no calories.

The story is told from the Atticus’ first-person perspective, something that worked particularly well in the audiobook. We hear what he hears, and we also hear what he thinks inside his own head, which is usually much snarkier than what comes out of his mouth – but not always. Listening to the book is like listening to Atticus’ own voice inside his head. It works.

One of the things that works really well is that Atticus is able to communicate with his dog Oberon. And Oberon, while slightly more intelligent than the average, is still very “doggy”. Oberon mostly lives in the now, and that’s a perspective that the 2100 year old Atticus needs to be reminded of every so often, and he recognizes it.

Also, Oberon’s comments on the events are frequently laugh out loud funny, and it’s impossible to resist smirking along with him. This can be a bit problematic if one is listening in public. Or at work.

As much as I enjoyed Atticus’ interesting blend of snark and sweet (his relationship with his elderly neighbor is precious – at least when they aren’t hiding dead bodies together) it is the action and adventure of the story that kept me on the edge of my seat, or sitting in my car waiting for Atticus to find his way out of whatever mess he’d just been dropped into. He’s been hiding in Tempe Arizona for years, and is none too happy when the Morrigan comes to tell him that Angus Og is after him yet again. But this time he decides to stand and defend the life he’s made, and it’s a marvelous tale from beginning to end.

Hexed is up next. Atticus doesn’t trust witches. And there’s a good reason. Again. Fantastic!

Review: Finding Our Forever by Brenda Novak + Giveaway

Review: Finding Our Forever by Brenda Novak + GiveawayFinding Our Forever (Silver Springs, #1) by Brenda Novak
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Silver Springs #1
Pages: 224
Published by Harlequin Special Edition on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Brenda Novak welcomes readers to the town of Silver Springs, where surprises wait around every corner!
The search for her birth mother brought Cora Kelly to the New Horizons Boys Ranch. Getting a job there was easy enough, but confiding in Aiyana, the ranch's owner, that she's really her daughter? Cora's not sure she can do that, not unless she's confident the news will be welcomed. And once she gets to know Elijah Turner, Aiyana's adopted son and ranch manager, that decision becomes even more difficult.
Although Elijah can't deny his deep attraction to Cora, he's always struggled with trust. Anyone with his past would, and there's something about the ranch's newest employee that isn't exactly as it seems. But if the feelings she awakes in his guarded heart are any indication, she might be just what he's long been waiting for.

My Review:

Welcome to tiny Silver Springs California, only two hours from the bright lights and big city of Los Angeles in miles, but light years away in everything that counts.

Everyone believes that Cora Kelly has come to Silver Springs to teach art at New Horizons Boys Ranch. And she certainly has. But that’s not the real reason she desperately wanted the job there, two hours from her family and friends back in LA. And two hours away from the job she could have had, teaching full-time at the school where she’d been subbing for the past six years. A job she had originally been looking forward to. Very much.

But New Horizons has one thing that LA can’t begin to match. Cora’s birth mother is the woman who has poured her own life into New Horizons. And Cora, after years of searching, wants to see who her birth mother really is, and especially find out why she gave her up all those years ago. Because it seems like the woman who has poured her heart and soul into helping, saving and sometimes even adopting boys from extremely difficult and/or troubled backgrounds and circumstances does not seem remotely like the kind of woman who would give up her own child.

Cora’s had a terrific life. Her adoptive parents love her dearly, and never loved her less than their biological son. She hasn’t lacked for anything – except the answers that most of us take for granted. And that lack of answers has driven her to Silver Springs, to take a year out of her life to teach at New Horizons, in the hopes of finally getting at least some of those answers.

But she isn’t sure, when, if, or whether she will reveal who she really is. She’s unsure whether or not she’d be welcome. But concealing that truth, living that very big lie, becomes an even dicier proposition than Kelly had planned on when she can’t resist the attractions of Elijah Turner, her boss, the ranch manager, and her mother’s eldest adopted son.

And in spite of Eli’s scarred past and taciturn present, he can’t seem to resist Cora, either. But the more deeply they become involved, not just romantically but also in each other’s lives, the more difficult it becomes for Cora to risk her heart and her happiness to reveal a truth that could shatter everything.

Or bring her everything her heart desires.

Escape Rating B+:The romance in Finding Our Forever is a relationship that often gets relegated to “taboo” erotica, but there’s no feeling of that kind of dirty secret here. If Cora and Eli had been raised together, it might feel different, but they weren’t so it doesn’t. They meet as adults, and are attracted to each other as adults. While Cora is aware that Eli is technically her adopted brother, they share no blood or genes to make any relationship actually be taboo.

But it does make things considerably more complicated, and they are plenty complicated to begin with. The angst in this story does not feel either manufactured or false. Cora has a secret, and she has very valid reasons both for keeping that secret and wanting to reveal it. She’s extremely conflicted about it, and so she should be. At the same time, Eli in particular has equally valid concerns about trust. The deeper they get into a relationship that neither of them expected, the more worried Cora becomes that Eli will feel betrayed by Cora’s hidden identity.

On top of that, when her secret comes out, she could be out of a job, as well as brokenhearted AND forced to go back to her adoptive parents to face a cloud of “I told you so’s” They were not in favor of Cora’s quest for her birth mother, feeling as if Cora’s search was an indictment of their love and their parenting, which it isn’t. But again, their conflicted feelings on this matter are also understandable.

The only person whose feelings don’t ring true in this entire mess is Cora’s ex-boyfriend, who shows up early in her school year in an attempt to either manipulate her back to him or otherwise horn in on her life. He’s a jerk rather than a threat, but his appearance and Cora’s reaction to it were the one emotional point in the story that just didn’t quite hit the mark.

But Cora’s story certainly does. She gets her answers, and they are nothing like she expected. And she doesn’t get everything that she wanted. But she gets enough for readers to feel more than satisfied that she got her happy ending. And it happens in a way that feels right for the story and the characters.

I really enjoyed my visit to Silver Springs, and I’m looking forward to more. It looks like the series is going to follow the romantic adventures of Eli’s brothers, and I can’t wait to see what happens next, in No One But You.

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

Brenda and Harlequin are giving away a $25 gift card to one lucky entrant on this tour.

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Review: Forever a Hero by Linda Lael Miller + Giveaway

Review: Forever a Hero by Linda Lael Miller + GiveawayForever a Hero: A Western Romance Novel by Linda Lael Miller
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Carsons of Mustang Creek #3
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

For the youngest Carson brother, findingand fixingtrouble seems to be all in a day's work
Mace Carson doesn't consider himself a hero. Back in college, he came upon a woman in trouble and intervenedbut he was just one irate Wyoming cowboy with his boots planted firmly on the side of right. Now a successful vintner, Mace is shocked to be reunited with the woman he saved. But it turns out she's in Wyoming on businessa corporate executive representing the company that wants to buy his winery. Only, he's not selling.
Kelly Wright has never forgotten that horrible night ten years ago when Mace came to her rescue, has never forgotten him. The surprising success of a winery in the middle of ranch country has brought her to Mustang Creek, and she's secretly thrilled to discover Mace at the helm. Reluctant to mix business with pleasure, Kelly vows to keep things professional, until her attacker is released from prison and comes for vengeanceagainst both of them.
"

My Review:

Forever a Hero is the third, but it looks like not quite final, book in the Carsons of Mustang Creek series. The series has followed the lives and romantic adventures of the Carson brothers, beginning with Slater, who was Once a Rancher but is now a documentary filmmaker. Second up was Drake, who is Always a Cowboy, and had a difficult time finding a wife until his mother secretly fixed him up.

This is youngest brother Mace’s story. So far, the love of Mace’s life has been the Mountain View Winery. It’s his brainchild and his contribution both to the ranch and to the community. It’s his personal vision, and he has a genius for blending new wines.

But there’s a conglomerate out there who wants to change all that, and they’ve sent their best agent, Kelly Wright, to negotiate a distribution and management deal for GGI with Mountain View Winery. Her promotion to vice-president, with all the stock options and other fabulous perks, is riding on her successful completion of the deal.

On her way to Mustang Creek, her car goes hydroplaning and nearly off the road into a canyon. She’s rescued from certain death by Mace Carson. But Mace has always been Kelly’s hero. Once upon a time, ten years ago when they were both in college at UCLA, Mace rescued Kelly from an attacker. Mace testified at Lance Vreeman’s trial, and he was sent to jail for a long and much deserved sentence.

Ms. Wright may have come to Mustang Creek to negotiate with his winery, but Kelly is there to see Mace again, even if she hasn’t completely admitted that to herself. Back then was not the time for them to even think about a relationship, but now is much, much different.

The chemistry they had all those years ago is still very much there. And suddenly, so is Lance Vreeman.

Escape Rating B+: This series, and The Brides of Bliss County series that it spun off from (and the Parable, Montana series that IT spun off of), has been lovely all the way.

Each book features a hero who is a good man, but who is alone for reasons that seem right – not because he needs to be reformed or grow up. And they all come from a marvelously functional family – albeit one that gets bigger with each book!

The heroines in their turn are smart, independent and also alone for reasons that make sense. In Kelly’s case, it’s because she has spent her 20s having a career instead of a life. Whether a woman can do both is an open question, but Kelly hasn’t even tried. Her trip to Mustang Creek provides her with the time, and changes at her work give her the motivation and the opportunity, to take a step back and decide what she really wants out of life.

There’s also no misunderstandammit in this story, or the series. While both Mace and Kelly are initially reluctant to pursue a relationship, it’s for reasons that, again, make sense. Their shared history is a bit traumatic, and Kelly is there to attempt to negotiate a deal that Mace has no intention of taking. It is difficult not to get the personal and the professional mixed together, or worry that they are too mixed together.

And they have the same problem that Drake and Luce (in Always a Cowboy) also had. Mace’s life is tied to his Winery, the ranch, and his family. He can’t leave Mustang Creek, and he doesn’t want to. Kelly’s life is in LA, and a long-term relationship with Mace means a lot more change for her than it does for him.

The way they negotiate this issue is one of the strengths of the book. It’s about compromise, and two adults working out a way to be together, that makes allowances for what both of them want and need and doesn’t make one feel like they are giving up something truly important to them. I liked the way they figured things out. A lot.

Remember what I said yesterday about stalkers? This is another book that looks like it might go into stalker territory, but again, marvelously doesn’t. Lance Vreeman does get out of jail, and does come back, with, as the saying goes, a vengeance. And while he terrifies pretty much everyone, he’s not after Kelly so much as he is after Mace. And everyone acts like a sensible adult, as they did in Once a Rancher. Kelly does not act stupidly, and she doesn’t need to be rescued. She and Mace work together, along with Mace’s brothers and friends, to keep everyone safe.

In the end, Lance gets the best serving of just desserts that I have ever seen. And possibly the funniest, courtesy of a stubborn, ornery and very protective bull. It’s a perfect ending to the book.

But not to the series, we have one last trip to Mustang Creek to look forward to. There’s still A Snow Country Christmas coming just in time for the holidays.

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

I’m giving away a copy of Forever a Hero to one lucky commenter on this tour:

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Review: Hard Justice by Lori Foster + Giveaway

Review: Hard Justice by Lori Foster + GiveawayHard Justice (Body Armor, #2) by Lori Foster
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: romantic suspense
Series: Body Armor #2
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Playing it safe has never felt so dangerous
Justice Wallington knows how to harness his strength and intimidating sizeskills he put to good use first in the MMA cage and now as a bodyguard at the Body Armor agency. But no opponent has ever left him feeling as off balance as his new client, heiress Fallon Wade. Far from a spoiled princess, she's sweet and intriguingly innocent. It's a risk-free assignment, until he's required to fake a relationship with her in order to blend in.
Sheltered from the world after a family tragedy, Fallon longs to experience lifegoing to bars, dancing, talking to strangers. Not easy with a huge, lethal-looking bodyguard shadowing her every move. Justice seems like her polar opposite, but pretending to be a couple stirs undeniable heat. And when danger strikes again, it's not just her safety in jeopardy, but a passion that's real, raw and absolutely against the rules"

My Review:

This one was just plain fun. I read it in a single day. I stayed up until 2 am to finish. Admittedly, not on a “school night”. But still. One day. Because I couldn’t put it down.

And it proved that all of my fears about the series, after my read of Under Pressure, were totally and completely unfounded.

Like Under Pressure, Hard Justice is also a variation on the classic theme of The Bodyguard, where the guard and his protectee fall head over heels for each other. But this is one where we really do see them both fall, not just succumb to the intensity of being on the run together, because they aren’t. On the run, that is. They definitely fall for each other.

There is a bit of a mystery in this story, but it isn’t any of the expected ones. At first, Justice Wallingham can’t figure out who or what Fallon Wade needs to be protected from. Her uptight parents, particularly her father, seem to be adamant that Fallon needs to be protected from pretty much everything and everyone in the universe.

Fallon, on the other hand, is a surprisingly down-to-earth 24-year-old who just wants a chance to finally experience the things that people her age normally do, or have done. The reason for all that overprotectiveness isn’t obvious, except for the continuing reappearances of Fallon’s douchebag ex, Marcus, a guy who can’t seem to take “no” for an answer.

And can’t seem to overlook the scars that Fallon hides under her all-covering clothes. Marcus is just sure that their shared backgrounds make them perfect for each other, and that any man would be put off by her scars. He’s sure that he’ll get used to them in time, if he makes an effort. Of course he’s wrong on all counts.

Justice, on the other hand, wants to flatten the guy from the word go. Because Fallon’s scars, and her survival of the trauma that caused them, make her even more precious, and more beautiful, in his eyes. Which he’s having an increasingly difficult time keeping on the lookout for possible threats, because he’s too busy just watching Fallon.

Until it starts looking like someone is really out to get her. Or him. Or possibly both.

Escape Rating A-: It may be a case of the right book at the right time, but I just plain loved this one. Sometimes books are like that.

Part of the charm of this series, and the Ultimate series that it spun off from, is the rowdy bunch of fighters, and their wives, who make up the close-knit group who live, work, and train in or near Cannon’s gym in small-town Ohio. It’s always great to see the gang again, and find out how everyone is doing. They are great people and always wonderfully accepting of anyone new.

But the success of this particular book rests on the characters of Justice and Fallon, and their developing relationship. And they are absolutely adorable together.

One of the things I liked best about Hard Justice is the way that it set the woman in danger trope on its head. There’s an unfortunate tendency in romantic suspense, and it applied to both Under Pressure and several of the titles in the Ultimate series, that the way to put a woman in jeopardy and in need of protection is to give her a creepy sexual predator stalker, whether the asshat is her ex or just someone who is fixated on her. I am really, really tired of that trope, because it always ends up robbing the woman of her agency.

Hard Justice was fun because it doesn’t go there. Even better, it makes you think it’s going there, and then it actually doesn’t. Marcus does turn out to be a bit of a douche, but not that big of a douche. Instead, the real villains were revealed as a bit of a surprise, and the motives for threatening Fallon were not sexual. For this reader, the story worked much better this way.

I can’t wait for the next book in this series, which looks like it’s going to be Close Contact, coming in November.

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Review: There’s This Guy by Rhys Ford

Review: There’s This Guy by Rhys FordThere's This Guy by Rhys Ford
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, M/M romance
Pages: 220
Published by Dreamspinner Presss on March 17th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

How do you save a drowning man when that drowning man is you?
Jake Moore’s world fits too tightly around him. Every penny he makes as a welder goes to care for his dying father, an abusive, controlling man who’s the only family Jake has left. Because of a promise to his dead mother, Jake resists his desire for other men, but it leaves him consumed by darkness.
It takes all of Dallas Yates’s imagination to see the possibilities in the fatigued Art Deco building on the WeHo’s outskirts, but what seals the deal is a shy smile from the handsome metal worker across the street. Their friendship deepens while Dallas peels back the hardened layers strangling Jake’s soul. It’s easy to love the artistic, sweet man hidden behind Jake’s shattered exterior, but Dallas knows Jake needs to first learn to love himself.
When Jake’s world crumbles, he reaches for Dallas, the man he’s learned to lean on. It’s only a matter of time before he’s left to drift in a life he never wanted to lead and while he wants more, Jake’s past haunts him, making him doubt he’s worth the love Dallas is so desperate to give him.

My Review:

No one gets shot at. Or the equivalent. Which makes this a first among this author’s books, at least for this reader.

Unlike any of her other series, particularly the awesome Cole McGinnis series and the equally marvelous Sinners series, There’s This Guy is not romantic suspense. Nor does it have the paranormal element of Hellsinger or the urban fantasy element of Kai Gracen. Even Half Moon Bay has the potential for a higher body count than this story.

And it felt like I was missing something, or the book was. I kind of liked There’s This Guy, but the lack of danger and/or suspense meant that for this reader, at least, it lacked the spice that makes all of the author’s other series so compelling.

I liked these guys, and all of the characters except the obvious one you’re not supposed to like (and for excellent reasons), but I didn’t get that strapped-to-my-seat-need-to turn-the-next-page-to-see-if-or-how-they-managed-to-escape-whatever-desperate-danger-their-author-had-just-dropped-them-into-this-time feeling that I expect from the author’s work.

Because that element just isn’t there. And I missed it. A lot.

Escape Rating C: This story is a very slow-burn romance with a whole lot of hurt/comfort/angst stirred into it. The characters, particularly Jake, start the book in a very, very dark place, and it takes a long time and a lot of patience, friendship and love for him to begin to see much daylight in his world.

That the relationship is therefore a slow-build romance makes sense. But Jake is coming from such a dark place that his initial, early and middle angst is very, very hard to read. I wanted to reach through the book and give him a hug. Frequently. Since I couldn’t, I let Dallas, and occasionally Celeste, do it for me.

But there is just so much dark, and so much peering into that dark. The story felt like mostly exploration of that darkness for a long time, without much actually happening. It might have worked better for this reader, as a story, if we’d seen a bit more of the rehab of the club. Or at least more external events to tie all the difficult introspection together.

Along with a bit less of what felt like overly purple prose, although your reading mileage may vary on that.

In the end, this one felt a bit too long, as though the author padded a novella out to novel length with all that purple prose. While there is a happy ending, it’s a long, hard slog to get there, not dissimilar to Jake’s long, dark night of the soul to finally find daylight. I’m happy for the happy ending. While I’m sure that slogging through the angst was worth it for the characters, I’m much less sure about it being worth it for their readers.

This was a book I really, really wanted to love. But I just didn’t.

Review: For Whom the Bread Rolls by Sarah Fox

Review: For Whom the Bread Rolls by Sarah FoxFor Whom the Bread Rolls (A Pancake House Mystery #2) by Sarah Fox
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Pancake House #2
Pages: 248
Published by Alibi on March 14th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

From the author of The Crêpes of Wrath comes another decadent cozy mystery. This time, pancake house owner Marley McKinney is tangling with a salty troublemaker . . . and a ravenous killer.
Bonus content: includes original recipes inspired by the Flip Side Pancake House menu!
Tourist season’s in full swing in the small seaside town of Wildwood Cove, and Marley McKinney couldn’t be happier. Since taking over the Flip Side restaurant, she’s made a few close friends, adopted a cat named Flapjack, and started dating her childhood crush. The only cloud on the horizon is local nuisance Ida Winkler, who blames Marley for landing her nephew in prison. Trying to get a rise out of Marley, Ida’s been making crank calls and even vandalizing the pancake house.
The police can’t do much about the pranks, so Marley sets out to bury the hatchet once and for all. But someone’s beat her to it—in the most shocking way possible. After stumbling across Ida’s dead body, Marley’s suddenly the number-one suspect in her murder. Clearing her good name is going to be a tall order, but Marley’s not about to let Ida keep ruining her life—especially from beyond the grave.

My Review:

Just like the first book in this cozy series, The Crepes of Wrath, the title of this second book is just a bit over-the-top cute. And so is the book.

The series is definitely very cozy. In Crepes, Marley inherited her cousin Jimmy’s small-town pancake house, The Flip Side. And solved his murder. In this second book, Marley is settling into her new life in tiny, touristy Wildwood Cove – and neck deep in yet another murder.

I sense a trend.

At the end of Crepes, Marley’s meddling into the investigation of Cousin Jimmy’s death results in, among other things, nasty Ida Winkler’s son landing, quite justifiably, in prison. But Ida is both nasty and crazy, and is doing everything she can to run Marley out of business and out of town. However, Ida isn’t terribly effective, and Marley is just (and quite justifiably) annoyed.

Not that anyone in town has a single nice thing to say about Ida. She’s a piece of work. But while no one would miss her if she moved away, no one seems to hate her enough to want her dead. Which doesn’t stop Marley from just about tripping over Ida’s corpse.

And Marley has just enough of a motive, and just enough of a window of opportunity, to put herself at the top of the suspect list. So of course she decides that the best thing she can do to clear her name and protect her business is to “help” the police investigate the murder, annoying half the town (but not as badly as Ida) and putting herself squarely in the killer’s sights.

Again.

Escape Rating C+: The series is still cute. I particularly love Marley’s cat Flapjack, who is just a cat and doesn’t solve murders. But he’s a sweet boy and I wouldn’t mind having one just like him. He’s also very good, as cats often are, at knowing when his person needs an extra cuddle.

Sticking oneself into the middle of a murder investigation is enough to make any sane person need a little extra feline TLC.

But Marley’s motives for nosing around town don’t seem quite as clear-cut or as compelling as in the previous book. She loved Cousin Jimmy, and felt terribly guilty that she hadn’t been around more. And as his unexpected heir, she really was the logical murderer, if not the correct one. Following the money led straight to Marley.

However, no one seriously believes that Marley is Ida’s murderer, and that includes the cops. Not just because they know her now, but because they actually are capable of doing their jobs. Marley’s insecurity about how this latest investigation will affect her business is a bit all in her head.

And while she “investigates” one crime, she trips over two more. Someone seems to have been blackmailing local residents over mostly petty incidents, and everyone assumes that it was the late, unlamented Ida. She certainly was nasty and judgmental enough to have been the blackmailer. As if that wasn’t enough of a crime spree, someone is illegally dumping large garbage piles on the shore, and one of those dumps contains remnants of a meth lab.

While this probably isn’t a lot of crime for a small town with loads of tourists, it is a lot of coincidence for one completely amateur and occasionally inept investigator to trip over and more or less solve. The connections between the crimes feels tangential at best, and Marley just can’t resist poking her nose into all of them. It felt like more than a bit much.

Over-the-top, just like the titles. But I like Marley a lot, and I’m still enough interested in her adventures to give the series one more try. The next book, Of Spice and Men, is scheduled for the end of the summer. The perfect time for a beach read, set in a beach town, possibly with a beach murder. We’ll see.

Review: In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear

Review: In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline WinspearIn This Grave Hour (Maisie Dobbs, #13) by Jacqueline Winspear
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Maisie Dobbs #13
Pages: 352
Published by Harper on March 14th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

As Britain becomes engulfed in a second World War, the indomitable Maisie Dobbs is plunged into a treacherous battle of her own when she stumbles on the deaths of refugees who may have been more than ordinary people seeking sanctuary on English soil, in this enthralling chapter in Jacqueline Winspear’s enormously popular New York Times bestselling series
Critics have long sung the praises of Jacqueline Winspear and her bestselling Maisie Dobbs series. In the thirteenth installment, Maisie—“one of the great fictional heroines, equal parts haunted and haunting.” (Parade)—is back with more mystery, adventure, and psychological insight.
When readers last saw Maisie Dobbs, it was 1938 and the world was on the brink of war. Maisie herself was on a dangerous mission inside Nazi Germany, where she encountered an old enemy and the Führer himself. In This Grave Hour, a year has passed and Maisie is back home in England—yet neither she nor her nation is safe. Britain has just declared war on Germany and is mobilizing for the devastating battle ahead. But when she stumbles on the deaths of a group of refugees, Maisie suspects the enemy may be closer than anyone knows.
Old fans will be delighted at Maisie’s return and new readers will be hooked by this thrilling installment in Jacqueline Winspear’s “thoughtful, probing series” (Oprah.com).

My Review:

Welcome to the Sitzkrieg, or as it was better known in Britain, the Phoney War.

As this 13th book in the Maisie Dobbs series opens in the fall of 1939, Britain declares war on Nazi Germany after its invasion of Poland. Then nothing happens. And nothing continues to happen for eight months, until Germany invades France and the Low Countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands) in May of 1940.

But during the period of this book, nothing much happens on the war front. Everyone knows it will come, and many people, including Maisie herself, have known that war was coming for quite some time, but for the moment, there is a pause. Not a peace by any stretch of the imagination. More like a vast inhaling of breath before the six year sigh of loss after loss.

And a murder. A whole series of murders. Deaths that owe their origin, not to the stresses of the upcoming war, but to the unresolved issues of what people are suddenly forced to call “the previous war” – the Great War, the War that unfortunately did not End All Wars, what history came to call World War I.

Murder, unfortunately for the world but fortunately for Maisie, never takes a vacation.

As the story opens, Maisie is dragged away from the war announcement to meet an old colleague. Dr. Francesca Thomas, in her guise as a member of the Secret Service, prepared Maisie for her undercover task in Journey to Munich. Now Dr. Thomas wants to hire Maisie to investigate the murder of a Belgian refugee from the previous war who has been murdered on the eve of this one.

Dr. Thomas is herself a Belgian national, and is now attached to that embassy. The murder of her fellow countryman is a crime that she wants to redress, before it happens again. She is aware of just how good Maisie is at her job, but she still keeps secrets. It is her nature. And almost her undoing.

While Maisie tracks down the patterns of life and causes of death of the late Frederick Addens, more former Belgian refugees turn up dead. By the same method, and most likely by the same hand. But whose? And more important to Maisie, why?

As Maisie begins to close the net around a suspect she also finds herself deep into a problem much closer to home.

Many children were evacuated from London to the countryside at the opening of the war. One such young girl is now boarded with Maisie’s family. But this little girl is a bit different. Not just because her coloring is noticeably darker than English peaches and cream, but because the little girl refuses to speak, and seems to have no documentation whatsoever.

And Maisie can no more resist solving that little puzzle than she can let a murderer go free. No matter the cost to herself.

Escape Rating B+: As World War II begins, this series reminds me more and more of Foyle’s War. (That there are no books for Foyle’s War continues to be a great source of disappointment!) Like Christopher Foyle, Maisie solves her cases with her brains rather than her fists. Also like Foyle, she is solving murders on the homefront, a task that many people think of as less important than the war. But as it so often turns out, those murders are often not divorced from the war, and in some cases are hidden by it until the investigator steps in.

As much as I love this series, this particular entry didn’t grab me by the throat and hang on quite the way that some of the other books have. I still enjoyed it, but it has the feeling of a pause before the storm, much as Britain itself was in during the Phoney War. Pauses, by their nature, just aren’t as dramatic as crises. And so it proves with this book.

There are, as there often are, two mysteries in front of Maisie. They don’t dovetail as well as they sometimes do. The murder of Frederick Addens, and the ones that follow, are one case, and while important, it feels like merely a case. The little girl’s missing identity is the part of the story that strikes Maisie’s heart, and it is the one that felt most important, even if the string of murders was obviously deadlier and had larger implications, or should have.

And that’s part of what fell just a bit flat for me. The serial murders of Belgian refugees and the people who assisted them felt like it was building up to something bigger. The resolution actually turned out to be small and rather close to home. Also frustrating as regards that particular case, both for Maisie and the reader, is just how much and how obvious it was that Dr. Thomas was, if not telling actual lies, certainly lying by omission every time she spoke. And yet she never seriously emerges as a possible candidate to be the murderer.

On that other hand, the case of the little girl was heartbreaking, particularly for Maisie. She sees herself in the child, as well as the child she lost when her husband was killed. Her heart is engaged with someone who will eventually have to go home. Perhaps. That piece of the story has yet to be resolved.

And I’m very much looking forward to Maisie’s further adventures, to discover just how she resolves it. Or doesn’t. I expect to find out next year during the 2018 Month of Maisie Readalong!

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Review: The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

Review: The Orphan’s Tale by Pam JenoffThe Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on February 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A powerful novel of friendship set in a traveling circus during World War II, The Orphan's Tale introduces two extraordinary women and their harrowing stories of sacrifice and survival .
Sixteen-year-old Noa has been cast out in disgrace after becoming pregnant by a Nazi soldier and being forced to give up her baby. She lives above a small rail station, which she cleans in order to earn her keep… When Noa discovers a boxcar containing dozens of Jewish infants bound for a concentration camp, she is reminded of the child that was taken from her. And in a moment that will change the course of her life, she snatches one of the babies and flees into the snowy night.
Noa finds refuge with a German circus, but she must learn the flying trapeze act so she can blend in undetected, spurning the resentment of the lead aerialist, Astrid. At first rivals, Noa and Astrid soon forge a powerful bond. But as the facade that protects them proves increasingly tenuous, Noa and Astrid must decide whether their friendship is enough to save one another—or if the secrets that burn between them will destroy everything.

My Review:

In The Orphan’s Tale, as the season (and the book) winds down to its conclusion, one of the characters prophetically says with a sneer, “Next year? The circus is dying.” In this story of two women who find shelter and redemption in one of the few circuses allowed to limp across Europe under the Nazis, the irony is that they all think of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey as their well-funded and well-attended competition across the Atlantic. Now in 2017, their circus is dying too.

But the story in The Orphan’s Tale brings together the unsung history of the circuses across Europe under the Nazi regime with a moving tale of sacrifice, friendship and survival about two women who find themselves thrown together in death-defying circumstances. Not just their beautiful but deadly act on the “flying trapeze”, but also their hiding in plain sight from the Nazis.

Astrid is a Jew. Her family used to be the owners of one of the most successful traveling circuses in Europe. But that was before the Nazis took everything, including their lives. Astrid is the last survivor, hiding amongst the performers of a rival circus, doing the only thing that makes her feel alive – flying.

Noa is also rescued by the circus. As a young Dutchwoman who looks like the Aryan ideal, she should have been safe. But her parents threw her out when her brief fling with a Nazi soldier resulted in pregnancy. The “home” for unwed mothers took her baby. She is alone, bereft, and eking out a bare living cleaning the train station, when the Nazis leave a boxcar of infants unattended at the station. Most of the babies have died of exposure, but a despairing Noa finds one little one still alive. A boy, and all too obviously Jewish, telling her everything she needs to know about the dead babies in the boxcar. She rescues him, and runs, seeing in this child his resemblance to her own missing baby.

But to hide in the circus, Noa must have a part of the performance. And the circus needs another aerialist. Against Astrid’s wishes and recommendation, she is stuck with training the tyro to perform, and has barely six weeks to cram a lifetime of training into the very reluctant flyer.

They are not friends. At first they are reluctant teacher and equally reluctant student. At times they are rivals. But the nature of their act means that above all, they must learn to trust each other. Or they will die. Or their secrets will be revealed, and they will die. And the circus will die with them, their fellow performers imprisoned or executed as collaborators.

But as Noa becomes part of the circus, she comes to love the world in which she has found herself. And, against all odds, she has come to see Astrid as the big sister she never had. And just as Astrid has cared for both Noa and the little boy she named Theo, sometimes in spite of herself, so Noa comes to take care of Astrid as her world, and the circus it encompasses, fall apart.

In the end, all they have is each other. And it’s just barely enough.

Escape Rating A-: The Orphan’s Tale is a story within a story. At the very beginning, it is the modern day, as an old woman takes great pains to visit a museum which has put her old circus wagon on display. The story itself is her recounting of her life in that wagon, Astrid and Noa and Theo, and the world of the circus under the Nazis.

We return at the end to that same elderly lady, and discover how it all turned out. In this case, it’s a marvelous way to tell the important bits, while leaving out the more mundane aspects of her post-war survival. When we find out what happened, we understand everything about the lady, the circus, and the world she left behind.

In the author’s postscript, we learn just how much of the story is based on pieces of fact, and it is well-worth reading. As the book proceeds, so much of the background feels true that it is almost a relief to learn that a great deal of it was true. Astrid and Noa did not exist, but the circus at this time was as portrayed. And unfortunately, the boxcar of dead babies is also based on historical fact.

But the story here is the story of women’s friendships, in spite of opposition or enmity, and how those friendships can flourish under the harshest of circumstances. Astrid and Noa do not always like each other, and they begin with very little in common. At the same time, they are both hiding such similar secrets that they must begin to trust each other. The story here is the flowering of that trust.

It is also the story of the circus, both the mundane and back-breaking work of putting it all together, and the uplifting effect of bringing a small taste of not just normality, but of a bit of escape, to people who have otherwise been beaten down into the deepest rut of bare survival. Although the circumstances of time and place are very different, this part of the story has the same feel as Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The circus goes on, even in this depth of adversity, because survival is insufficient.

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