Review: The Enemies of Versailles by Sally Christie + Giveaway

Review: The Enemies of Versailles by Sally Christie + GiveawayThe Enemies of Versailles (The Mistresses of Versailles Trilogy #3) by Sally Christie
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Series: Mistresses of Versailles #3
Pages: 416
Published by Atria Books on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the final installment of Sally Christie’s “tantalizing” (New York Daily News) Mistresses of Versailles trilogy, Jeanne Becu, a woman of astounding beauty but humble birth, works her way from the grimy back streets of Paris to the palace of Versailles, where the aging King Louis XV has become a jaded and bitter old philanderer. Jeanne bursts into his life and, as the Comtesse du Barry, quickly becomes his official mistress.
“That beastly bourgeois Pompadour was one thing; a common prostitute quite another kettle of fish.”
After decades suffering the King's endless stream of Royal Favorites, the princesses of the Court have reached a breaking point. Horrified that he would bring the lowborn Comtesse du Barry into the hallowed halls of Versailles, Louis XV’s daughters, led by the indomitable Madame Adelaide, vow eternal enmity and enlist the young dauphiness Marie Antoinette in their fight against the new mistress. But as tensions rise and the French Revolution draws closer, a prostitute in the palace soon becomes the least of the nobility’s concerns.
Told in Christie’s witty and engaging style, the final book in The Mistresses of Versailles trilogy will delight and entrance fans as it once again brings to life the sumptuous and cruel world of eighteenth century Versailles, and France as it approaches inevitable revolution.

My Review:

The Enemies of Versailles, and the entire series of the Mistresses of Versailles, beginning with The Sisters of Versailles and continuing with The Rivals of Versailles, is a fascinating blend of historical fiction and herstorical fiction, telling the story of the reign of Louis XV of France through the eyes of the women who shared his bed and/or his heart.

So instead of viewing this history through the lives of its movers and shakers, usually male, we see the king from the perspective of his mistresses and, in the case of this final book in the series, from the point of view of his oldest daughter, the unmarried and extremely upright (also uptight in modern terms) Adelaide.

It’s not a pretty picture, and it isn’t intended to be, particularly at this point late in the king’s life. It is to Louis XV that the famous phrase is attributed, “apres moi, le deluge”. And while he may not have known precisely what horrors the deluge of the French Revolution was destined to unleash, it is clear from this account that he was well aware that whatever followed him was going to be less rich, less glorious, less regal, and pretty much just less of everything.

It turned out he was right. From the perspective of the monarchy and the aristocracy, the Revolution indeed brought much less of everything, except blood. There was plenty of that. An outcome that Louis himself does not live to see, although the principal narrators of this story, his daughter Adelaide and his last mistress, the Duchesse du Barry, witness the revolution in all its horror.

In this book, and the trilogy as a whole, Louis appears as a self-indulgent and even indolent ruler, willing to let his advisors run the country while he dallies with his mistresses and escapes from the pomp and ceremony of court life as much as possible. And, of course, his advisors are more than happy to take the burdens of monarchy off of his hands, the better to further their own ambitions.

At the center of this book, and of the final years of Louis’ life, we see a man caught between two opposing forces. On the one side, his daughter Adelaide, ruthlessly virtuous, desiring above all else to save her father’s eternal soul by persuading him to give up his licentious ways. On his other side, the courtesan Jeanne Becu, Duchesse du Barry, encouraging the king to while away his hours in her company, giving her as many beautiful presents as possible and ignoring the world outside her boudoir.

Adelaide never stands a chance. Louis always prefers his mistress’ charms, whoever that mistress might be. But as we watch the court squabble over who should have precedence, and how best to capture the attention of the aging king, we know that we are watching the equivalent of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or fiddling while Paris, substituting for Rome in the famous saying, burns.

Escape Rating B: This is a series about which I have had mixed feelings from the very beginning, and I leave the series with lots of them. But most of those mixed feelings are about the history portrayed, rather than the portrayal itself. In other words, this series made me think. Among other thoughts, making me glad that I am reading about this period rather than living in it.

The world portrayed in the series is fascinating, enthralling, rich, decadent and strange. There are two sayings that seem to apply equally: “The past is another country, they do things differently there” and, to paraphrase just a bit, “the rich are very, very different from you and me”.

One of the things that strikes me is the appalling waste. Not just the wretched excesses of the court, but also the waste of the brains and talent of the women in this series, and this era. As much as I would not want to have spent five minutes in her company, I found Adelaide and to a lesser extent her sisters, to be utterly pitiable. They all had brains, and probably talents of one sort or another. And absolutely no outlets for any of that except through moral rectitude to the point of priggishness, extreme protection of their privileges and status, and endless backbiting and jostling for position in a court and an era that simply saw them as less than nothing.

Then of course, there’s the wretched excess of the court itself. That so much time and effort was expended, and so much wealth wasted, on ceremony that was extended and elaborated somewhere past the nth degree fascinates and disgusts at the same time.

The Revolution was a bloodbath of epic proportions, and yet it is all too easy to see it looming on the horizon, at least from our viewpoint, and wonder why no one at the time seriously saw it coming. But the same is true, to a much less bloody extent, in the run up to the American Revolution. Hindsight, as always, is 20/20.

About the books and the series. Looking back, there is one thing about each of the books that made the first parts a bit difficult to get over. In each book, the story of the mistress or mistresses begins with their childhood. And while the child certainly makes the woman, that period of each of their lives just wasn’t as compelling, or even as interesting, as what happens to each of them as they find themselves, or are thrust in the case of duBarry, into the king’s orbit. One reason I found Adelaide sympathetic in this particular book was that by the time this story begins, she is an adult, even if her understanding is somewhat lacking in particulars because of her very peculiar sheltered life.

In some ways, both Adelaide and du Barry remain infantilized by their circumstances until the Revolution robs everyone of any possible pretensions. They had to either grow up or die. That one did and one did not provides a last and final contrast in the remarkable circumstances of their lives.

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

I’m giving away a copy of The Enemies of Versailles to one lucky US or Canadian commenter.

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Review: Every Trick in the Rook by Marty Wingate

Review: Every Trick in the Rook by Marty WingateEvery Trick in the Rook (Birds of a Feather #3) by Marty Wingate
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Birds of a Feather #3
Pages: 251
Published by Alibi on March 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Julia Lanchester’s perch is knocked askew when murder hits a little too close to home in this delightful cozy mystery.
Julia Lanchester is flying high. She’s nesting with her boyfriend, Michael Sedgwick, and she’s found her niche as manager of the tourist center in her picturesque British village. Thanks to all her hard work, visitors are up—way up. Her reward is an even more hectic schedule. Michael’s busy, too, traveling all over as the personal assistant to Julia’s father, celebrity ornithologist Rupert Lanchester. With precious little time together, Julia’s romantic weekend with Michael can’t come soon enough.
But the getaway is spoiled when Julia’s ex-husband is found murdered on her boss’s estate. And after a witness reports seeing Michael near the scene of the crime, the press descends, printing lies and wreaking havoc. To protect Julia, Michael vanishes into thin air, leaving her to pick up the slack on Rupert’s show and track down the real killer—even if it means putting herself in the flight path of a vicious predator.

My Review:

Welcome to the latest chapter in the trials and tribulations of Julia Lanchester, otherwise known as the Birds of a Feather series.

I put it that way because Julia’s very amateur mystery solving keeps getting itself tied up in Julia’s romantic life as well as Julia’s relationship with her famous father, Rupert Lanchester. Rupert just happens to be a well-known ornithologist (read bird watcher) on the BBC, and producing his weekly TV program used to be Julia’s job.

Now it’s the job of her boyfriend, the much put-upon Michael Sedgwick. Or at least it’s Michael’s job when Julia’s past, Rupert’s present, and dead bodies don’t turn up and get themselves in everybody’s way.

Especially Julia’s. Especially because the dead body in this mystery is the body of her ex-husband. Not that there seems to have been much life in Nick Hawkins, or in their marriage, when they were together. A time that is now five years in Julia’s past, and not missed at all. And neither was Nick.

Julia just wishes he’d stayed out of her life, and on his extremely remote island birding sanctuary where he belonged, instead of turning up dead on the grounds of the local estate where she runs the Tourist Information Center. Even in death, Nick Hawkins manages to snuff all the joy out of Julia’s life. One last time.

Escape Rating B: My teaser/summary of the plot above feels just a bit sarcastic, and reflects some of my mixed feelings about the book.

I like Julia Lanchester as the heroine quite a bit. She seems both real and relatable, except for the way that dead bodies and mysteries keep inserting themselves into her life. But we wouldn’t be reading about her if they didn’t.

And her ex sounds like a complete piece of work. We are never sorry that he’s dead. And neither is Julia, which provides a great deal of angst in her story. His death brings up all of her negative feelings about him from their unhappy marriage, and she feels guilty for not feeling more grief. Mostly she’s angry, and mostly at herself. I’ll admit to being able to relate. Many of us probably have a couple of exes that we firmly believe the world won’t miss.

The behavior of the paparazzi is utterly hateful. Again, something that we all currently believe is all too possible. The gutter-press seems willing to insinuate anything and everything dirty, salacious and malicious in the hopes of getting a reaction. Their story will then be the reaction – none of them seem remotely interested in the truth. And doesn’t that feel all too familiar?

But what made this outing in the series less entertaining than particularly the first book, The Rhyme of the Magpie, has to do with Julia’s, as well as her boyfriend Michael’s, reaction to the ensuing mess.

Many long-running mystery series have either a romantic subplot, or a will they/won’t they romantic dilemma in them somewhere. Julia and Michael resolve their romantic quandary in the first book. But unlike the author’s other series, the Potting Shed mysteries, Julia and Michael have not (or at least not yet) become true partners in solving the murders that Julia trips over. Instead, the murder investigations in Empty Nest and now Every Trick in the Rook drive a wedge between them. Once seems plausible, twice starts to stretch coincidence.

I sincerely hope this doesn’t happen again in the fourth book, which is another way of saying that I also sincerely hope that there IS a fourth book. I still like the series.

And one of the reasons that I like the series is that the author usually does manage to fool me into not solving the mystery too soon. I got my inklings of the solution about the same time that Julia did, and the resolution kept me turning pages briskly, especially at the very end. And if that wasn’t enough, Tennyson, the rook of the title, absolutely steals the show – along with the shortbread!

Joint Review: Etched in Bone by Anne Bishop

Joint Review: Etched in Bone by Anne BishopEtched in Bone (The Others, #5) by Anne Bishop
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: The Others #5
Pages: 416
Published by Roc on March 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Anne Bishop returns to her world of the Others, as humans struggle to survive in the shadow of shapeshifters and vampires far more powerful than themselves…
After a human uprising was brutally put down by the Elders—a primitive and lethal form of the Others—the few cities left under human control are far-flung. And the people within them now know to fear the no-man’s-land beyond their borders—and the darkness…
As some communities struggle to rebuild, Lakeside Courtyard has emerged relatively unscathed, though Simon Wolfgard, its wolf shifter leader, and blood prophet Meg Corbyn must work with the human pack to maintain the fragile peace. But all their efforts are threatened when Lieutenant Montgomery’s shady brother arrives, looking for a free ride and easy pickings.
With the humans on guard against one of their own, tensions rise, drawing the attention of the Elders, who are curious about the effect such an insignificant predator can have on a pack. But Meg knows the dangers, for she has seen in the cards how it will all end—with her standing beside a grave

Our Review:

Marlene: As I write this, it’s early October. I got the eARC from Netgalley five months pre-publication, and simply couldn’t wait until I read it. Whatever else is in this series, it’s definitely reading crack. I can’t resist them, and once I start, I can’t put them down until I’ve finished. Something about this world and these people drags me in every single time.

Cass: I’m stunned an ARC was available so early. Is that normal? Either way, I agree there must be some kind of digitally transferable narcotic in the font, because I cannot stop reading these books….and yet I can never come up with a reason to like them. Other than Hope Wolfsong. LONG LIVE HOPE WOLFSONG!

Marlene: FYI five months is a bit early. Three is more common, and sometimes it’s less than one. Occasionally the eARC comes out just slightly post-publication, which just seems back-asswards. I digress.

This series always strikes me as dark and fluffy, which really ought to be an oxymoron, and somehow isn’t. The Black Jewels series was dark and erotic (although Cass disagrees strenuously about the erotic quotient). Certainly the sexuality in that series was often front and center, even if wrapped in a choke collar. The “Eros” quotient of The Others is almost non-existent. And it’s also where some of the fluff comes in. Eventually, if this series continues, there will be a romantic relationship between Simon Wolfgard and Meg Corbyn. But right now that part is all confused emotion and virtually no action at all. And that’s actually a good thing, because even 5 books in, Meg is nowhere near ready for the level of intimacy and confusion that comes with being in a romantic relationship. That she’s getting there at all is part of what makes this series her journey.

Cass: The sex stuff confused the shit out of me this time around. My understanding from previous books was that the Others will totally plow humans while in their human forms – mostly as an experiment or kink. However, this time around, Simon tells Meg that the Wolves only mate “once a year.” No recreational sex? If they only want to have sex one time a year, would they really waste it on a human – someone they would be totally open to consuming for a post-coital snack?

I really struggled with continuity in this book. Not just with sex but with masturbation – I mean cutting. Wasn’t Meg addicted to cutting last time? Weren’t there pages and pages of debate about how she just can’t stop touching herself and how all those self-inflicted orgasms were going to kill her? And yet….suddenly no cutting. Instead of playing with herself she has a deck of cards. Wow that was easy. So easy that you wonder why the hell ALL the rescued prophets haven’t been given a sketch book and a deck of cards.

Marlene: I read the sex issues about mating vs. recreational sex as coming from the animal side of their natures. Also as part of the physiological differences between males and females on the animal side. Comparing to cats, with which I’m all too familiar, an intact female will go into heat every six months or less. The rest of the time she has no interest in mating. However, whenever a local female does go into heat, all the intact male cats for miles around are ready and eager to sire her kittens. Human females may not be fertile all the time (thank goodness) but are receptive a lot more often than once a year.

What I found interesting about this aspect was the way that the Others referred to Meg as Simon’s future mate – implying that they would, or at least could, form that long-term bond. Nothing like that has ever happened before. The Others may have recreational sex with humans, but they don’t form mating bonds with them. Except Simon and Meg, if they both survive the trouble they constantly find themselves in.

As far as cutting vs. the deck of cards, I did see Meg struggle with her desire to cut. To me, she seemed like an addict in a 12 step program, trying to resist the urge to cut “today”, and attempting to put together a string of “todays”. I also didn’t see that it was/would be the orgasms resulting from the cut that would eventually kill her. The orgasms are the built-in reward, the high, for the cutting. What would kill her would either be going mad, as the results of the uncontrolled cuts that sounded like a Dali painting mixed with some of Picasso’s cubism on steroids, or simply bleeding out, if she cut herself and no one was around for after care. Or if she just plain screwed up and hit an artery.

In other words, to me it made sense within this world’s context.

Cass : One thing I have enjoyed so far in the series has been the world-building……but that all went to shit with this installment. We spent so much time really looking into how the infrastructure of a society changes when the land cities are built on is leased, when every road and train track is an easement, when you have absolutely no water rights and pollution is prohibited. Etched in Bone stepped back from the larger society-based stories to really focus on Lakeside and the human pack, and introduction of “bad humans.”

The Others had their own reasons for reacting the way they did to the “bad humans,” which was addressed. Everyone else? Suddenly developed a case of shit-for-brains. Oh, you have proof that children are not being fed because an abuser is stealing their food? That they are living in absolute filth? That a child is being groomed for sex work? Do humans not have child protective services here?! The main characters all discuss how the bad human (trying to avoid spoilers) is going to fuck everything up, and possibly get them all killed…..but does anyone take any action? You don’t need Simon to handle an abusive drug-dealing thief. Instead, everyone sits back and frets about how bad it could be, and what a huge danger this person will be if they learn about Meg, and how scared we are for the poor defenseless kids…..but nothing happens. At all. Until it all gets so bad that The Others are forced to intervene. If this is how the so-called “good humans” behave, maybe it’s a good thing The Others so tightly control everything in Thaisia. I wouldn’t trust these morons with any kind of governing responsibility.

Did we know that humans are all super-sexist before this book? That there is rampant totally legal gender discrimination in employment? The only solution to which is, you guessed it, Others making the hiring decisions.

Marlene: The way that the bad shit went down drove me batty too. Howsomever, I think I let the way things unfolded go because it felt like it matched the current popular perception of how child protective services does and doesn’t work. (As a popular perception, it may not match reality). But it seemed like we as the audience knew for certain exactly how bad things were, because the story is told in third-person omniscient perspective. The characters in the story, while they had very, very solid guesses that were right, didn’t “know” in a legal sense, except for Sierra who was just as abused as the children. To bring child services in, someone would have to be willing to stand up and say what they witnessed and experienced. And the ones who actually knew, the children and Sierra, were up the river Denial for most of the story.

(I’m seeing a comment that popular perception is wrong, which doesn’t surprise me. But also doesn’t change what popular perception is. There are too many stories in the media where the local equivalent of CPS is overworked and understaffed and misses obvious signs or doesn’t investigate at all.)

Also, based on the rampant sexism we see from the human side of this story, we don’t actually know whether the kind of child services that we think of today even exists. That women were still restricted from some jobs even at what seems like an analog to our present is something that I don’t remember having seen before in the story, but also didn’t completely surprise me. The way that civilization keeps getting knocked back by The Others would mean that some reforms might not get reached. The ability of women to serve in all jobs everywhere is a hard-won right that has only occurred within my lifetime, and only in certain places on this planet. And is frequently a right that exists on paper but is next to impossible to enforce in practice.

Cass: That is not how CPS works! GAH! Lawyer brain is exploding. You don’t have to know for sure what is going on in the home. If you see signs that something may be going on, you report it. Specially trained investigators separate the children from their abuser and ask all kinds of general questions. They send the kids to counselors. They do medical tests. They survey the home. They can drop in unexpectedly. They pull school records. They interview neighbors and family…..you don’t need to see a kid being starved and beaten to report that you suspect a child is being starved and beaten. It’s not perfect, and they don’t catch everything, but they would have here. Pretty clear the kids were very chatty and open to admitting anything – when asked.

If CPS in Thaisia does not exist or is not like this….pretty easy to address. People commenting about the abuse could throw off a line: “And with food shortages, child protective services is refusing to take in anyone who is not an orphan…” something that addresses existing world building and tells you that some of the human services agencies we take for granted don’t exist in this form. Instead there is the implication that there is a CPS, but the bloody COPS AND ATTORNEYS of all people can’t be bothered to involve them. [end rant]

Marlene: It does seem to be a piece of worldbuilding that is missing. I think there was also an element of the human authorities deferring to The Courtyard on what was their turf, even when The Elders were wrong, wrong, wrong. Pissing off The Elders results in annihilation, and sometimes the needs of the many end up outweighing the needs of the few, whether anyone involved likes it or not.

And your rants never end, but they are generally fascinating.

Cass: I’m only ending that particular rant. I have a whole separate rant. WHERE IS MY HOPE WOLFSONG?! I could have skipped all the Meg/Simon stuff in favor of more Hope. Hope! Hope! Hope! Who cares what Meg or Simon are wearing at any particular time? You know what I care about? HOPE WOLFSONG TEACHING A WOLF TO DRAW. That is wonderful story I want to hear about. The new renaissance in Earth Native Art. While the Elders are deciding what to keep, they could develop an appreciation for artistry. They already like books and music….

Marlene: And COOKIES! (Cass insert: Yesssss, save the bakers)

But seriously, after several stories where we’ve seen more and more of the world of Thaisia, both its successes and very definitely its failures, the story in Etched in Bone is so insular it almost seems claustrophobic. And also a bit anti-climactic.

So many of the earlier books started with Meg and Lakeside and expanded outwards into the world, seeing the ways that the ripple effects of Meg’s adoption into the Lakeside Courtyard kept having effects in the wider universe. It felt like nearly every interaction, not just between Others and humans, but also between different species of Others, caught some of the ripples of Meg’s integration into Lakeside.

This story takes place on a very small scale, with the introduction of one sociopath into the Lakeside Courtyard, and then the way that the poison spreads throughout the community, and everyone’s reaction to it. It reminded me a bit of more than one TV episode where the hero or heroine has to find a righteous way to eliminate an abuser. This story felt small.

Cass: Yeah, I really could have seen it as short story or novella told from Twyla/Monty/ Sissy’s perspectives. (I loved Twyla’s irritation that all her kids refuse to use the names she gave them in favor of nicknames). The main series follows the main plot, and we can see how these things are impacting individual lives in other outings. This book felt so ancillary that – if there is another book coming – I would say you could skip this one and miss absolutely nothing.

Marlene: As far as the main plot goes, yes, this book feels skippable. Except for one thing that I wonder whether it will have later consequences. The Elders – the really, really, really powerful Others, the ones that even the “lesser” Others are pee in their pants (when they wear pants) scared of, totally, utterly and completely fucked up. And they fucked up in a way that none of The Others will forget. They also fucked up so badly that the ones they consider lesser banded together to tell them to fix the mess they made and made that stick. That’s a potential shift in the balance of power, as Father Erebus if no one else will certainly realize that The Elders are no longer all powerful if enough of them can get together and stick together.

And while the story as a whole felt anti-climactic, I still enjoyed being immersed in this world for a few hours. I like most of these people, even the ones for whom the definition of people is a bit loose. I like watching them interact, and it is always fun to see the way that these very different groups are building a community that respects their differences and searches for the best way they can all work together.

And unlike my friend Cass, I am interested in watching the progress of Meg and Simon’s relationship.

Cass: I’m already prepared for this series to end when Meg gives birth to the first blood prophet wolf.

My review can be summarized in one line: Not enough Hope Wolfsong. -500 points.

Escape rating F for completely fails to believably address abusive families.

Marlene: I’m also prepared to see this series end, either with the birth of Meg and Simon’s first child, or more likely with their wedding/mating ceremony. I had a terrible thought about just the normal amount of bleeding that occurs in childbirth and wondered if the author would or even should go there. It might be fascinating if Meg sees visions of the child’s future as she is giving birth to it, or the scene could be more gruesome and gory than many readers will want to see in what should be a happy ending. But we’re not nearly there yet. So I really hope that this series isn’t done.

On my other hand, I enjoyed this while I read it, but found it infinitely forgettable after I finished. And it’s only been a couple of days. So I have very mixed feelings.

Escape Rating B for being absorbed in it while I was in it, but being forgettable immediately after.

Review: Protector by Anna Hackett

Review: Protector by Anna HackettProtector (Galactic Gladiators #4) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Galactic Gladiators #4
Pages: 218
Published by Anna Hackett on February 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Fighting for love, honor, and freedom on the galaxy’s lawless outer rim…

Cool and driven Madeline Cochran made a successful career for herself as civilian commander of a space station orbiting Jupiter…until the day it was attacked and she was abducted by alien slavers.

Her organized existence shattered, Madeline suffered during her captivity, but since her rescue by the tough gladiators of the House of Galen, she’s struggling to assimilate to her new life. As she navigates the desert world of Carthago and the gladiator city of Kor Magna, she desperately misses her teenage son back on Earth and throws herself into finding another human, space marine Blaine, still kept captive by the slavers. She also finds herself working harder than ever to avoid a certain charming showman gladiator who is far too attractive and far too tempting.

Gladiator Lore Uma-Xilene is a protector at heart and a sucker for a damsel in distress…although he’s well aware that the hard-shelled and sad-eyed Madeline wouldn’t appreciate the title. He knows what it feels like to be ripped from the family you love and have your life destroyed, and he wants to help Madeline heal. As the two of them go undercover into the dangerous world of underground gambling, Lore knows he’ll need all his patience, passion, and a whole lot of stubbornness to not only keep Madeline safe but to melt the icy shell around her heart.

My Review:

Protector is the fourth book in the author’s sun, sandals and stars series, Galactic Gladiators. The series begins with Gladiator, and the story there sets the stage. A temporary wormhole opens in the vicinity of the Jupiter Research Station in a near-future version of our solar system. A shipload of intergalactic slave traders takes advantage of the wormhole and the relatively low-tech Terrans to capture as many humans as possible, whipping back through the wormhole before it closes. It’s a one-way trip.

The slave-traders have unfortunately found out that human slaves are profitable, if only because they are rare. But once the surprisingly noble gladiatorial House of Galen buys the contract of the first human available to them, one after another the stranded humans have been rescued – even if they can’t return home.

Protector is Madeline Cochran’s story. On the Jupiter Station, she was the commander. Now on Kor Magna, her life has been reduced to one purpose – rescue the other human that she saw in the slave pits, Blaine. Not because there’s any relationship there, but because she can’t bear to leave anyone in the clutches of the slave trade.

And she’s so focused on that mission because her other reason for living was left behind back on Earth. Unlike the other heroines so far, Madeline left someone dear to her back home. Her teenaged son. That she knows she can never see him again eats at her like acid. She’s closed herself off to feeling anything else.

That’s where Lore comes in. One of the premier gladiators of the House of Galen, Lore can’t stop what Madeline makes him feel. And he doesn’t want to. What he wants is to give her a reason to keep living, and a reason to open her heart.

If she’s not too scared, and too guilt-ridden, to reach for it.

Escape Rating B: I enjoyed this story a lot, but there wasn’t anything that made it rise to the level of Hero. Maybe every story needs a robotic pet? (Just kidding)

But Protector felt a bit formulaic. There’s a pattern to this series, and that pattern was on full display here, along with a whole lot of muscled flesh. At the very end of the previous book, Madeline is rescued, and Lore is the one that she briefly clings to during that rescue. Neither of them can forget those moments, and thus this book becomes their story.

In case you’re wondering, the pattern repeats at the end of Protector. Blaine and three more human women are rescued, and they are all set to fall in love with their rescuers.

As part of Madeline’s story, we see even more of the dark underbelly of Kor Magna. And it is very dark indeed. The remaining unrescued humans (that we know about) have been swallowed up by the illegal pit fighting underworld. That the illegal pits are entered by way of the sewers is a perfect metaphor for what is going on there.

The humans are expected to die in that underworld. That Blaine has managed to survive and even become a sort of champion is a surprise to everyone. It’s a surprise that brings the organizers even more money than they expected, and they don’t want to lose their source of revenue.

And some of them are just plain evil.

We also learn more about the above-board (ish) side of Kor Magna, particularly the information broker Zhim. He’s an interesting character I’d like to see more of. And he’s the creator of an event that changes the tenor of the series. It’s an event that reminds me of the Pathfinder Project in Star Trek Voyager, and I’m still not sure if it is a good plot device in this case or not. Time (and more books) will undoubtedly tell.

This series is great fun if you like science fiction romance, action-adventure romance, human/non-human romance, or just a good story with Big Damn Heroes. I can’t wait to see if my guesses turn out to be true in the next book, Champion.

Review: In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen + Giveaway

Review: In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen + GiveawayIn Farleigh Field: A Novel of World War II by Rhys Bowen
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 396
Published by Lake Union Publishing on March 1st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

World War II comes to Farleigh Place, the ancestral home of Lord Westerham and his five daughters, when a soldier with a failed parachute falls to his death on the estate. After his uniform and possessions raise suspicions, MI5 operative and family friend Ben Cresswell is covertly tasked with determining if the man is a German spy. The assignment also offers Ben the chance to be near Lord Westerham’s middle daughter, Pamela, whom he furtively loves. But Pamela has her own secret: she has taken a job at Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking facility.
As Ben follows a trail of spies and traitors, which may include another member of Pamela’s family, he discovers that some within the realm have an appalling, history-altering agenda. Can he, with Pamela’s help, stop them before England falls?
Inspired by the events and people of World War II, writer Rhys Bowen crafts a sweeping and riveting saga of class, family, love, and betrayal.

My Review:

I picked this up because people always rave about Rhys Bowen, but she’s in the middle of a whole bunch of series and I like to start at beginnings if I can. In Farleigh Field is a standalone, which made it a good time to try this author.

However, for those who are expecting something a bit light and frothy, like the Her Royal Spyness series, this one is neither light nor frothy. Nor should it be. This is a World War II story that deals with serious issues on the home front. It begins with the crash landing of a German spy in the middle of an aristocrat’s estate, and ends with the realization that none of us really know the people we think we do.

This one is all about the less glorious parts of modern warfare; code breaking, spying, official secrets, official lies and ultimately betrayal, both on a personal and on a political level. And it revolves around questions about the ends and what means they justify. And by whom.

The story begins as a simple mystery, but there were no simple mysteries during WWII. A uniformed parachutist crashes at Farleigh, wearing the uniform of the West Kents who are stationed in the mansion. But nothing is as it seems, starting with that dead parachutist. He may be in uniform, but the details of that uniform aren’t quite right. And no one is missing from the regiment. He has nothing on him except a parachute that refused to open, fake ID tags and a landscape photo with numbers on the back.

MI5 doesn’t really care who the man was, their interest is in who the man was supposed to contact within walking distance of Farleigh, and they have just the man for the job. Ben Cresswell, ineligible for the draft due to a tin knee, is the son of the local vicar at Farleigh. He knows everyone, and everyone knows him. In spite of his junior status and relative inexperience, he’s the perfect agent to investigate his old neighborhood.

And of course, no one knows he’s MI5. That includes the daughter of Farleigh, Pamela Westerham. Pamma has no idea that Ben is MI5, just as she has no idea that he’s been in love with her for all of their lives. But while Ben is very aware that Pamma has been in love with Jeremy Prescott, son of the local squire, all of her life, he is very much unaware that Pamma is one of the junior code breakers at Bletchley Park.

Her superiors are every bit as interested in the mystery of the dead parachutist as Ben’s are. And it will take both of them, and a lot of luck, to finally discover the truth. A truth that is much, much worse than they imagined. And every bit as deadly.

Escape Rating B+: I’ll admit that based on the author’s reputation, I was expecting something a bit lighter. There are points in this story that are very dark. This is appropriate for the period and the circumstances, but still a bit of a downer.

Albeit a fascinating one.

The story takes place during the very early years of the war, particularly around the time of the Battle of Britain. At that point in 1940, Britain stood alone against the seemingly unstoppable might of Nazi Germany. The United States was pursuing a policy of non-involvement and Lend-Lease was still on the drawing board. There was a feeling in Britain, and it was probably justified, that unless the U.S. came to their aid that it was just a matter of time until Britain fell to the Nazis. That some, particularly among the upper classes, wanted to capitulate in order to save what they could (admittedly including their own skins) was historic fact. That one of those upper-class potential collaborators was the former king, the Duke of Windsor, was well-known at the time, which is why he was packed off to the Bahamas and both out of harm’s way and out where he couldn’t cause any harm.

Churchill planned to fight to the last man, (woman and child) but there were plenty of people who believed it would come to that, sooner rather than later, if the U.S. didn’t provide support, and quickly.

One of the things that makes this story so interesting is just how insidious the fifth-column activities really were. Although we laugh now at some of the antics of the home guard and the air raid wardens, the difficulties were real at the time. And one of those difficulties was the one that Ben and Pamma face – that they simply can’t imagine that someone they know well could possibly betray their country. They assume that it must be an outsider, when it so seldom is.

Insiders always know where the weak points are and just how to exploit them. But Ben’s prejudices of both class and familiarity lead him on many a wild goose chase until the perpetrator is finally exposed.

There’s also a small element of melodrama in this story, and I’m not sure whether it helped or hurt. The resolution of the love triangle between Ben, Jeremy and Pamma plays into the ultimate solution to the puzzle. However, that triangle is Ben loves Pamma, Pamma loves Jeremy and Jeremy really only loves himself. Some of Pamma’s angst about Jeremy’s behavior made me want to shake some sense into her. I rather badly wanted Jeremy to be guilty of something – he was an absolute bounder.

All in all, In Farleigh Field is a story about people rising to the occasion, keeping the side up, and solving the mystery, no matter how much it hurts. Anyone who enjoys spy stories or stories of World War II on the homefront (or who loved Foyle’s War) will enjoy In Farleigh Field.

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

I am giving away a copy of In Farleigh Field to one lucky US commenter!

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Review: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

Review: Home by Nnedi OkoraforHome (Binti, #2) by Nnedi Okorafor
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Binti #2
Pages: 176
Published by Tor.com on January 31st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The thrilling sequel to the Nebula and Hugo winning Binti.
It’s been a year since Binti and Okwu enrolled at Oomza University. A year since Binti was declared a hero for uniting two warring planets. A year since she left her family to pursue her dream.
And now she must return home to her people, with her friend Okwu by her side, to face her family and face her elders.
But Okwu will be the first of his race to set foot on Earth in over a hundred years, and the first ever to come in peace.
After generations of conflict can human and Meduse ever learn to truly live in harmony?
Praise for Nnedi Okorafor:
"Binti is a supreme read about a sexy, edgy Afropolitan in space! It's a wondrous combination of extra-terrestrial adventure and age-old African diplomacy. Unforgettable!" - Wanuri Kahiu, award winning Kenyan film director of Pumzi and From a Whisper
"A perfect dove-tailing of tribal and futuristic, of sentient space ships and ancient cultural traditions, Binti was a beautiful story to read.” – Little Red Reviewer
Binti is a wonderful and memorable coming of age story which, to paraphrase Lord of the Rings, shows that one girl can change the course of the galaxy.” – Geek Syndicate
Binti packs a punch because it is such a rich, complex tale of identity, both personal and cultural… and like all of Nnedi Okorafor’s works, this one is also highly, highly recommended.” – Kirkus Reviews
"There's more vivid imagination in a page of Nnedi Okorafor's work than in whole volumes of ordinary fantasy epics." -Ursula Le Guin
"Okorafor's impressive inventiveness never flags." - Gary K. Wolfe on Lagoon
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

My Review:

There are two literary traditions that revolve around the thought and place we call “home”. One is the Thomas Wolfe version. That’s the “you can’t go home again” version of home. The other is the Robert Frost version, the one that says that “home is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

After the events of last year’s award-winning Binti, and a year at the intergalactic Oomza Uni, Binti desperately needs home to be the Frost version. She feels that there is something wrong with her, and that she needs the healing that only her home place can provide.

But when she gets there, she discovers that it is the Wolfe version of home. She ran away, not because anything terrible happened or would happen, but because the safe, secure and traditional plans that her family and her village all had for her future were too confining for her intellect and her spirit.

She stood on the shoulders of her village and saw further than anyone had in a long time. And, the people she thought were her own wanted to chop her off at the knees for it.

No one is right and no one is wrong. Binti is just a bit different from everyone she thought she knew, and everyone who believed that she was theirs. And much too much has happened for her to go back and become the smaller person that they all wanted her to be.

But just as Binti’s own Himba village people are looked down upon by the cosmopolitan, city-dwelling Khoosh, Binti herself has absorbed the prejudices of her own Himba people towards the elusive Desert People. Binti’s self-perception, even her very identity, are threatened when she learns that the Desert People are much, much more than the savage wanderers they appear to be.

And that she is one of them.

Escape Rating B-: I found the first story in this series, Binti, to be utterly absorbing from the opening paragraphs. But Home was much less so. Just as Binti seems suddenly unsettled at Oomza Uni as this story opens, as a reader I also felt unsettled. Binti found her involvement with her environment problematic, and I found my involvement with her equally so.

Binti couldn’t focus and neither could I. This was a story where I finally finished on the third attempt. I’m glad that I did, but this just didn’t grab me the way that the original did.

Home is also a middle book. While the overarching story moves forward in Home, it does not end. Or it ends on a cliffhanger. But the ending felt unsatisfying. I was hoping for some kind of conclusion, even if an interim one. Binti, in spite of its relatively short length, told a complete story, beginning, middle AND end. Home feels like all middle. And muddle.

I hope that the next book in this series, The Night Masquerade, brings Binti’s story to an exciting and satisfying conclusion.

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: Twelve Angry Librarians by Miranda James

Review: Twelve Angry Librarians by Miranda JamesTwelve Angry Librarians (Cat in the Stacks, #8) by Miranda James
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Cat in the Stacks #8
Pages: 288
Published by Berkley Books on February 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The "New York Times" bestselling author of "No Cats Allowed "and "Arsenic and Old Books" is back with more Southern charm and beguiling mystery as Charlie and Diesel must find a killer in a room full of librarians... Light-hearted librarian Charlie Harris is known around his hometown of Athena, Mississippi, for walking his cat, a rescued Maine Coon named Diesel. But he may soon be taken for a walk himself in handcuffs... Charlie is stressed out. The Southern Academic Libraries Association is holding this year s annual meeting at Athena College. Since Charlie is the interim library director, he must deliver the welcome speech to all the visiting librarians. And as if that weren t bad enough, the keynote address will be delivered by Charlie s old nemesis from library school. It s been thirty years since Charlie has seen Gavin Fong, and he s still an insufferable know-it-all capable of getting under everyone s skin. In his keynote, Gavin puts forth a most unpopular opinion: that degreed librarians will be obsolete in the academic libraries of the future. So, when Gavin is found dead, no one seems too upset... But Charlie, who was seen having a heated argument with Gavin after the speech, has jumped to the top of the suspect list. Now Charlie and Diesel must check out every clue to refine their search for the real killer among them before the next book Charlie reads comes from a prison library..."

My Review:

This series has been on my TBR pile for quite a while, but a couple of relatively recent events got me to finally pick it up. Last year I updated an “Author Read Alike” article for Novelist about the late Lilian Jackson Braun and her Cat Who mysteries. Miranda James’ Cat in the Stacks series came up as a strong read alike. A couple of months ago this particular title came up as I was interviewed for NetGalley’s Reader Spotlight feature. I was asked about book covers I was particularly looking forward to, and this was the book I chose. Why? Not that the handsome cat on the cover isn’t a draw all by himself, but it’s the title that really got me. Twelve Angry Librarians begs a question from most of us. What, ONLY twelve?

But about the book and the series. The series focuses on librarian Charlie Harris and his large and intelligent cat Diesel. Charlie lies in the small town of Athena Mississippi, where he is currently the interim director of the college library at the college he attended way back. Even though he left tiny Athena for library school in Houston and a long career there, he went back to Athena when his aunt left him her rambling house, and he’s made it his home.

Charlie has a penchant for getting involved in murder investigations, strictly on an amateur basis. He seems to have acquired that temporary director job after his predecessor was murdered, and of course Charlie figured out who the culprit was. (I haven’t read the whole series, YET, and it did not in any way spoil my enjoyment of this book. But I did enjoy it a lot, and plan to pick up the rest!)

Whether the job is reward or punishment depends on just how many fires he has to put out that day.

But part of the job is playing genial host to the regional library association when they hold their annual conference in Athena. While Charlie has plenty of friends, the social whirl of the conference isn’t all that appealing. And that’s before he discovers that his library school nemesis is not only the keynote speaker, but has also applied for the permanent job that Charlie is temporarily holding.

Gavin Fong is slime. And saying that is an insult to slime. He has accumulated so many enemies that it’s amazing that he’s lived as long as he has. It is not a surprise that someone murders him at the conference, although spiking his water bottle with cyanide might seem a bit extreme. But no one misses the bastard.

Charlie’s lucky he has an alibi for the crime, after half the conference witnessed him punching the jerk’s lights out the day before, followed by applause from the approving crowd. But with the conference and the murder, Charlie is in the thick of the investigation, whether he wants to be, or not.

When a second dead body turns up, it seems like everyone is a possible suspect. And a possible next victim. But which is which?

Escape Rating A-: This was an excellent cozy mystery, but I have some personal mixed feelings. The description of the crowd of the librarians and the details of the job of librarian were very true to life. To the point where I’m surprised this series is as popular as it is with general readers. The situations described, unfortunately including the nastiness of the victim, were so true-to-life that they almost gave me flashbacks. That the author is a practicing librarian was no surprise to this reader.

Originally I picked this as a read alike for the Cat Who mysteries. But in spite of a few surface details, the series aren’t really alike, although I think that readers of one will like the other. The similarity is that both Charlie Harris and Jim Qwilleran inherited rambling houses in small towns from late aunts and retired from the big city to the small town to live in those lovely homes. And, of course, they have cats. And poke their noses into local crimes.

But Q believes that his Siamese cat Koko helps him solve those mysteries. Diesel, on the other hand, is just a cat. He’s huge, but then, Maine Coon cats are really that big. He walks on a lead, but it is possible to train a cat to do that. Diesel is also very cuddly, and very responsive to the moods of the people around him. Cats that have their own staff, in the dogs have owners, cats have staff sense, can be quite affectionate and responsive. Diesel is a smart cat, but on a scale compared to other cats. He’s not human intelligent or psychic or whatever Q thinks Koko is.

Not that I wouldn’t love to have a Maine Coon. They are absolutely gorgeous cats, and very even tempered. They can afford to be – at 25 pounds (average cats weigh around ten pounds!) they are bigger than most things that might unnerve or threaten them, including small dogs.

More than anything else, the book that Twelve Angry Librarians reminds me of is Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb. The situations are surprisingly similar. Bimbos also takes place at a small convention, in this case a science fiction convention. So it has the same relatively enclosed setting of a bunch of people who know each other casually but see each other regularly and who have something in common. Everyone is away from home, and what happens at the convention, either kind, generally stays at the convention. Both Jay Omega and Charlie Harris are very amateur detectives. And both victims were such disgusting examples of human beings that the reader is almost grateful when they get killed, as are most of the conference attendees. So both are cases where the list of people who did not have a motive is much, much shorter than the list of people who did.

For a cozy series, it is necessary that the protagonist and his family of ‘irregulars’ be both interesting and likable. Charlie and Diesel certainly fit that bill. Charlie is someone I would love to have coffee with and share stories, especially if I could pet Diesel while doing it. The people who populate Charlie’s life and his world all seem to have their own interesting tales to tell. I also like that a part of the story is Charlie’s warm relationship both with his now adult children and with the woman in his life. Long-running mystery series often include a will they/won’t they romance, but having that romance feature 50-somethings is rare and wonderful. (It this factor appeals to you, dig into Marty Wingate’s Potting Shed Mysteries for a similar romantic sub-sub-plot)

I’m glad I finally clawed my way into the Cat in the Stacks series, and I’m looking forward to going back to pick up the beginning in Murder Past Due as soon as I get a copy. From the library, of course.

Review: Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

Review: Thieftaker by D.B. JacksonThieftaker (Thieftaker Chronicles, #1) by D.B. Jackson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical mystery, urban fantasy
Series: Thieftaker #1
Pages: 327
Published by Tor Books on July 3rd 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, August 26, 1765
A warm evening in colonial North America's leading city. Smoke drifts across the city, and with it the sound of voices raised in anger, of shattering glass and splintering wood. A mob is rioting in the streets, enraged by the newest outrage from Parliament: a Stamp Tax . Houses are destroyed, royal officials are burned in effigy. And on a deserted lane, a young girl is murdered.
Ethan Kaille, a thieftaker of some notoriety, and a conjurer of some skill, is hired by the girl's father to find her killer. Soon he is swept up in a storm of intrigue and magic, politics and treachery. The murder has drawn the notice of the lovely and deadly Sephira Pryce, a rival thieftaker in Boston; of powerful men in the royal government; of leaders of the American rebels, including Samuel Adams; and of a mysterious sorcerer who wields magic the likes of which Ethan has never encountered before.
To learn the truth of what happened that fateful night, Ethan must recover a stolen gem and sound the depths of conjurings he barely understands, all while evading Sephira and her henchmen, holding the royals and rebels at bay, and defending himself and those he loves from the shadowy conjurer.
No problem. Provided he doesn't get himself killed in the process.

My Review:

Today is Presidents Day in the U.S. It seemed an appropriate occasion to go diving into the depths of the TBR pile and search for either something relevant, or at least something set in the Revolutionary period. Several friends have recommended the Thieftaker series to me, and this seemed like the perfect time to finally start it.

And all my friends were right. This thing is fantastic.

The series begins in 1767, during the period when Samuel Adams and his friends were just beginning to whisper of the colonies separating from England. But those whispers were still very, very quiet. However, the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767 changed those whispers into a slightly louder muttering. Adams and his cronies fostered boycotts and fomented riots. No one saw it at the time, except possibly Sam Adams himself, but it was the beginning of the end for the British in the still disunited thirteen colonies.

Our hero, and occasional anti-hero, is Ethan Kaille, a man with a very checkered past, and a frequently none-too-pristine present. He may have begun his life in England among the wealthier if not titled class, but time and circumstance have pressed him into scraping his living as a ‘thieftaker’ in the colonies.

Thieftaking is not even the least respectable of Ethan’s activities. He is also a conjurer, what some in that time and place call a witch, although he perceives a difference between those two words. And certainly the Salem Witch Trials, and similar “events’ that took place all over New England less than a century before, punished mostly women who were not actually conjurers. But the laws that convicted them are still very much on the books, and Ethan rightfully worries about just how many people in Boston are aware of his “gift”.

So when a wealthy merchant hires Ethan to find the thief who took his daughter’s necklace just before he killed her, Ethan knows all too well that he is not being hired for his skill at finding thieves. Whoever took that necklace, the girl died by conjuring. And it is up to Ethan to track down the villain before he kills again.

If he can. And if he can survive the powerful and deadly forces raised against him, both magical and mundane.

Escape Rating A-: Now I understand completely why my friends raved so much about this book. It is awesome. It both immerses the reader in its time and place and tells a powerful story.

The blend here is fascinating. The author bills this series as historical fantasy, rather than historical fiction. The fantastic element is, of course, Ethan’s conjuring. He does cast spells and they do work. Nor is he alone in his talent. In this world, while conjurers are rare, they do exist. And like all humans, some are more-or-less good and some are definitely less than good. People are people.

The story also blends historical personages and events with entirely fictional ones. The situation in Colonial America at this point in time was as the book portrays it. This was the beginning of the cry of “No Taxation Without Representation”. The course for Revolution had already begun, even if no one but the visionary Samuel Adams saw the path.

Readers who like this mixture of historical persons and events with “private detection” by brain rather than forensics will probably also enjoy Jeri Westerson’s Crispin Guest series. Crispin’s series is set earlier, and in England, and without the conjuring. But Crispin and Ethan would recognize each other as “brothers” and have much to share.

Ethan’s story, while not in the first-person, is very much his singular perspective. We see, hear and know only what he does. There’s no omniscient narrator describing events elsewhere. But Ethan’s journey of discovery is an interesting one. The only equivalent of all of our forensic tests that he has are his spells, and they are limited by his power and his knowledge. He has to know both how to ask and what to ask, and his inspiration sometimes fails him. He’s fallible and very human.

As much as I enjoyed this book, I did have one frustration with it. There’s something about the character of Ethan’s chief rival, the beautiful thieftaker Sephira Pryce, that felt a bit “off” to me. Not that a woman couldn’t be the rival or the villain. Nor that she would be perfectly capable of running what appears to be the Colonial equivalent of an organized crime ring. But in her personal actions she comes off as petulant and childish. And the person with those characteristics so pronounced doesn’t seem like the same person who could be running her gang with such ruthless aplomb.

However my discomfort with Sephira’s character was not enough to keep me from wanting to dive eagerly into book two of this series, Thieves’ Quarry, as soon as I can possibly manage!

Review: Someone to Hold by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone to Hold by Mary BaloghSomeone to Hold (Westcott, #2) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Westcott #2
Pages: 400
Published by Jove Books on February 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Humphrey Wescott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune and a scandalous secret that will forever alter the lives of his family—sending one daughter on a journey of self-discovery...
With her parents’ marriage declared bigamous, Camille Westcott is now illegitimate and without a title. Looking to eschew the trappings of her old life, she leaves London to teach at the Bath orphanage where her newly discovered half-sister lived. But even as she settles in, she must sit for a portrait commissioned by her grandmother and endure an artist who riles her every nerve.
An art teacher at the orphanage that was once his home, Joel Cunningham has been hired to paint the portrait of the haughty new teacher. But as Camille poses for Joel, their mutual contempt soon turns to desire. And it is only the bond between them that will allow them to weather the rough storm that lies ahead...

My Review:

Someone to Hold is the “flip side” of the marvelous Someone to Love. The story in the first Westcott book was the story of Anna Snow, a teacher at the orphanage where she herself grew up. In Love, Anna discovers that she is the only legitimate child of the late and less-lamented-every-day Earl of Riverdale. She is suddenly and unexpectedly the sole heir to his fortune, while the title goes to a cousin.

But Anna’s unexpected rise encompasses the equally unexpected fall of the family that for 20-plus years has believed that they were the legitimate ones. The woman who has always believed herself to be the Countess of Riverdale discovers that she was never married at all. Her husband was a bigamist. And that makes her son and her two daughters all bastards, in the legal sense if not the behavioral sense.

That particular bit of opprobrium is saved for others.

So Anna is up, and Viola, Camille, Abigail and Henry are down. And out. Out of society and out of money and seemingly out of friends.

Someone to Hold is Camille’s story. Her response to her sudden change in fortune does not at first make her a likable protagonist. She was a high-stickler when she thought she was a lady, settling for nothing less than perfection in all things. Now she herself is considered imperfect, and the perfect life she expect is now far beyond her reach.

During the first book she was particularly waspish and ill-tempered. Her family does love her, but no one seems to like her much, and it is easy for the reader to see why.

By the time that this book opens, she has gotten past some of the early stages of grief. Her life has irrevocably changed, and she comes to the realization that she can’t remain hidden in her grandmother’s house and under her grandmother’s protection, cozy and comfortable as it is.

She has to strike out on her own, and make something of the life she must now live. But what she does is what makes this story so good. Instead of wallowing, or instead of marrying the first man who promises to protect her, Camille determines to find out who she is now, and what she can make of herself.

She does it by marching up to the orphanage where Anna taught and asking for a position as a teacher, just as Anna was. It’s the surprise of Camille’s life when she gets the job. And even though she feels herself gasping and floundering every single day, it turns out to be a job that she is good at, even if in completely unconventional ways.

Along with the job, Joel Cunningham comes into her life. Joel is also a graduate of the orphanage, and is also a teacher. Specifically, he’s the art teacher. He was also Anna’s best friend and fancied himself in love with her.

He is not best pleased with Camille taking over Anna’s classroom. Or Anna’s students. Or even Anna’s room. But as they get to know each other, they come to realize that the way that they upset each other’s apple-carts is the best thing that ever happened to either of them.

If they can just manage to get out of their own way.

Escape Rating A-: Those who have read Someone to Love will be unable to resist Someone to Hold. And anyone who loves historical romance and has not read Someone to Love needs to get thee hence to a library or bookstore and read it!

But there’s a reason why Anna’s story was someone to love and not Camille’s. Camille was not at all lovable in Someone to Love, and she begins her own story still not being all that lovable. Or even, at the beginning, all that likable. It makes her difficult to warm up to as a protagonist.

(I started this book three times before I got past that point. Once I did, it was terrific. But definitely a hard start.)

Camille’s world has crumbled. The society that she had been trained to be perfectly suited for has rejected her, and for an issue where she is completely blameless. Nevertheless, she understands why this is so. But her plans have turned to dust and her prospects are non-existent. She is too proud to claw her way onto the lowest rung of society’s ladder and be content with that, and she doesn’t know what to do instead.

One of Camille’s issues is that Anna Snow is so very likable. Camille wants to hate her and maintain a distance from her, and Anna makes that very, very difficult. It also feels to Camille as if her close family are attempting to pretend that nothing material has changed, when everything has.

She is not who she thought she was, and the world is no longer her oyster.

Taking Anna’s old position and Anna’s old rooms makes an interesting twist, both for Camille’s story and her life. Camille makes it seem logical in her own head, but it is far from logical to anyone else. However, her determination to make a new life for herself is admirable. And fascinating to watch.

Although the relationship that develops between Joel and Camille has a bit more heat to it than the one between Anna and Avery, it is still a relationship that develops first into friendship before becoming love. Falling in love with your best friend IS still a good foundation for a marriage.

Even if in this case it does seem a bit like Camille begins by trying to take over or erase Anna’s life, what happens in the end is that Camille stands in Anna’s shoes and finds her own life. And it’s a lovely story.