Review: The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa Cole

Review: The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa ColeThe A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa Cole
Format: audiobook
Source: publisher
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: science fiction romance
Published by Audible Audio on December 3rd 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

A captivating romantic comedy with a thrilling sci-fi twist by award-winning author Alyssa Cole!

Trinity Jordan leads a quiet, normal life: working from home for the Hive, a multifunctional government research center, and recovering from the incident that sent her into a tailspin. But the life she’s trying to rebuild is plagued by mishaps when Li Wei, her neighbor’s super sexy and super strange nephew, moves in and turns things upside down. Li Wei’s behavior is downright odd—and the attraction building between them is even more so. When an emergency pulls his aunt away from the apartment complex, Trinity decides to keep an eye on him…and slowly discovers that nothing is what it seems. For one thing, Li Wei isn’t just the hot guy next door—he’s the hot A.I. next door. In fact, he’s so advanced that he blurs the line between man and machine. It’s up to Trinity to help him achieve his objective of learning to be human, but danger is mounting as they figure out whether he’s capable of the most illogical human behavior of all…falling in love.

My Review:

I thought I knew where this was going. Since I was enjoying where it was going, I was happy to be along for the ride. But then, it went in a direction I wasn’t expecting – and it got even better.

What I expected after the first chapter or so was something like the classic A.I. romance The Silver Metal Lover – or perhaps Data proclaiming that he was “fully functional” in the Star Trek Next Gen episode The Naked Now, but set in a world that felt like a slice of Unauthorized Bread by Cory Doctorow from his Radicalized collection.

Instead, I got a terrific science fiction romance set in a near-future dystopian U.S. crossed with a spy thriller. And I loved every minute of it – especially after I got surprised by the turn.

So, at first we have Trinity Jordan, working from home while recovering from an accident. But this is the future. Her home is a tiny apartment and all of her appliances are way too smart for Trinity’s own good – especially Penny, her home monitoring app – and secret therapist.

But it’s obvious from the beginning that things aren’t quite what they appear.  A suspicion that only gets deeper when Trinity meets her neighbor’s visiting nephew, Li Wei. (Actually, it turns out that nothing and no one are quite what they appear to be.)

Something isn’t right about Li Wei. Her neighbor passes off his strangeness as memory issues due to recovering from an accident – not a dissimilar case to Trinity’s. While Li Wei’s social skills may be so lacking as to be non-existent, he’s so damn good-looking that Trinity’s libido wakes up from an extremely long nap to sit up and take notice. And notice. And notice.

The more time they spend together, the better Li Wei gets at communicating – and the more obvious it becomes that something is wrong with both Li Wei and Trinity. And that it’s the same kind of wrong – and the same kind of right.

Escape Rating A: First of all, I absolutely loved this. It was short and sweet and went in directions I wasn’t expecting and it was all just marvelous.

Second of all, this is the first romance audiobook I’ve ever reviewed. I read plenty of romance, but those are ebooks. Listening to romance is a bit different. It felt weird listening to the sex scenes. They were well done – they definitely were – but there’s a psychological difference between having those scenes go through my eyes vs through my ears.

Third, this is a full-cast recording. Most audiobook narrators are good at differentiating the voices of the different characters, but full-cast recordings are always extra special.

The one downside of this being an audiobook and only an audiobook is that I have no idea how to spell the name of any character who isn’t mentioned in the Goodreads blurb. For most of the time I was listening to this story, I thought that “Li Wei” was “Leeway”. This does not change my enjoyment of the whole thing one little bit, but it makes me wary of mentioning any character whose name I have no idea how to spell. Like Trinity’s neighbor who claims that Li Wei is her nephew. Or Trinity’s two girlfriends. I’m pretty sure that Tim the cat is just “Tim”. And he’s an adorable cat even though he does turn out to be 50 pounds of bio-synthetic feline.

What I loved about this story was the ever-deepening layers of subversion. At first it feels like a robot romance – and those have been around at least since 1981. So there’s nothing new about the romance between Trinity and Li Wei. But then things get deeper – and darker. The more that Li Wei falls in love with Trinity, the more he realizes that there is something wrong – even more wrong than what is obvious on the surface.

The deeper he digs, the more he uncovers, and the deeper they fall. Until the story finally breaks open – and it changes everything.

So grab The A.I. Who Loved Me for the romance – and stay for the surprisingly deep science fiction surprise tucked into its gooey center. You’ll be glad you did. Meanwhile, the audiobook promises that there will be more in this series, following Trinity’s friends. And I’m really looking forward to hearing what happens next!

Review: Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh

Review: Silver in the Wood by Emily TeshSilver in the Wood by Emily Tesh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, M/M romance, mythology
Pages: 112
Published by Tor.com on June 18, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

There is a Wild Man who lives in the deep quiet of Greenhollow, and he listens to the wood. Tobias, tethered to the forest, does not dwell on his past life, but he lives a perfectly unremarkable existence with his cottage, his cat, and his dryads.

When Greenhollow Hall acquires a handsome, intensely curious new owner in Henry Silver, everything changes. Old secrets better left buried are dug up, and Tobias is forced to reckon with his troubled past—both the green magic of the woods, and the dark things that rest in its heart.

My Review:

The title is a pun. I didn’t figure that out until near the end – but it should have been obvious. I was just too caught up in the story to notice.

It is also a charming, and queer, exploration of the “Green Man” myth/legend and takes place at a period when the image – and the mythology behind it – had a bit of a revival.

Like life in the forest of Green Hollow – or Greenhallow – where Henry Silver and Tobias Finch meet each other in the woods, this is a story that moves both quick and slow, following the rhythms of nature and the life of trees – invaded and surrounded by the world of man.

The story takes place in a slightly alternate 19th century – or at least that’s what it feels like. But it has its roots set deep in the past of its place – and deep in the past of Tobias Finch, the keeper and manager of Greenhallow – as he has been for the past four centuries – since his life was tied to the wood.

I say alternate because the world that Tobias explores when he leaves the wood is in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, while at the same time there are plenty of places and pockets of England where the Green Man and other legends even darker are still alive and well and making mischief – and where people still believe in them.

But Tobias doesn’t know that in the beginning. All he knows is that Henry Silver, the new owner of the nearby manor, has invaded his woods looking for myths and legends – and possibly a warm and willing bedmate for the night.

Tobias doesn’t figure out that last bit until much, much later. It’s been a long time since anyone has asked – or offered – or flirted.

They become friends – always with a hint of more. But Tobias is afraid to get too close, not just because he’s one of those myths that Henry has been so disingenuously looking for. Tobias guards Greenhallow against something far older and far more malevolent than even Henry with his love of old legends could possibly imagine.

Tobias knows it’s going to come for Henry – because Tobias’ old frenemy Fabian Rafela always takes away what Tobias wants to protect.

And just when you think the story is over – then it gets really, really fascinating. And it’s marvelous.

Escape Rating A-: This is a story that is beautiful, and it’s short, and if you want to fall into an atmosphere of myth and legend it’s just perfect. I wish there’d been a bit more but what there is is complete and it’s captivating.

The Green Man is a nature myth – and Tobias surrounds himself with avatars of nature. His best friends – before Henry – are a protective dryad and a self-centered cat. Tobias seems stuck in a role of service as he serves the wood and he certainly serves the cat. (I liked Pearl a lot – she humanizes Tobias and connects him to time in a way that nothing else does – and she’s very cat.)

For a rather slight book it echoed a lot of other books for me. Henry’s pursuit of old legends before they die was a bit like the hero of My Fake Rake – and that’s quite a leap. At the same time, Tobias reminds me of both Tam Lin and Tom Bombadil, who are both nature spirits. There’s a Green Man character in The God of the Hive, one of the books in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. The Green Man gets around – in spite of being tied to the woods – and that series also takes place during his revival.

The link back to Tobias’ past adds a bit of shivering chill to the story, while at the same time Henry’s fate reminded me of the fate of Will Turner in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, tied to a legend – and immortal. I realize that is a bit far out there, but it worked for me.

The early parts of this story move deliberately slowly as they follow the Tobias’ perception of time as he is tied to the wood. In the second part of the story time speeds up as Tobias has left the wood and is now part of the workaday world outside it. A world that, during the Industrial Revolution, began to speed up in every way, and the story reflects that well.

At the end, things come full circle. The darkness at the heart of the forest has been vanquished and both Tobias and Henry are free to be who and what they are meant to be – and with each other.

Review: Hanukkah at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery by Sharon Ibbotson

Review: Hanukkah at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery by Sharon IbbotsonHanukkah at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery by Sharon Ibbotson
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, Hanukkah romance, holiday romance
Pages: 210
Published by Choc Lit on December 4, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

A heart-warming Christmas romance with a lovely twist!

Hanukkah days, Christmas nights and strawberry ice cream …

Cohen Ford is a man who could do with a little bit of sweetening up. It’s no surprise that when he walks into The Great Greenwich Ice Creamery on a typically gloomy London day before Christmas, he insists on a black coffee rather than his childhood favourite – strawberry ice cream.

But then he meets River de Luca, the woman behind the flavours. After their first encounter, Cohen begins visiting the ice creamery every Tuesday, gradually learning more about the intriguing River. Could her influence encourage cynical Cohen to become the man who embraces Christmas, Hanukkah and even strawberry ice cream?

My Review:

I picked this book because it was a Hanukkah romance – and there are entirely too few of them. There a oodles of Xmas romances – and they are often quite lovely – but it’s always nice to see oneself and one’s own culture represented in stories.

There wasn’t quite as much Hanukkah as I was hoping for, but there were plenty of the mixed feelings associated with being Jewish in the midst of what feels like the entire universe celebrating an entirely different holiday.

And the romance that begins at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery is definitely a sweet and delicious scoop of love at first sight – with strawberry ice cream on top..

Cohen Ford comes to the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery not long before the holidays because, frankly, he’s been guilted into it by his mother. But he keeps coming back because he’s fallen in love with the daughter of the proprietor – and can’t keep away no matter how much her mother disapproves, both of him and of any possibility of a relationship between the disappointing son of one of her oldest and dearest friends and her daughter, who is deaf.

Men have taken advantage of River de Luca before, and her mother is determined to prevent it this time. Because she’s heard all about Cohen Ford from his mother and is just certain that her friend’s cold-hearted, self-centered, disappointment of a son is definitely the wrong man for her daughter. Not that she believes that any man is good enough for her daughter.

But Cohen and River fall in love the moment they meet – when she’s bandaging him up because he banged his head on their door. And even through their communication barrier – they manage to convey to each other that they are both on the exact same page – even if they’re both in the middle of scribbling on that page as fast as they can so they can learn everything they need to know about each other. Which is everything.

That Cohen is supposed to leave London in a few short weeks to return to his high-pressure job and empty life in New York is just one more obstacle that they have to overcome.

In the end, Cohen’s choice is easy – and River’s has already been made. Home is where the heart is – and his is with River.

Escape Rating A-: Hanukkah at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery turned out to be a holiday story with just the right mix of flavors. It’s sweet with just a bit of bitter and salt, like the best dark chocolate with sea salt sprinkles.

The sweet comes from the romance itself. The bitter comes from Cohen, and his memories of his childhood with his feuding and often absent parents. There are deep wounds there that he has to get over before he can move forward with River. The salt is from tears, tears of grief that Cohen never healed his relationship with his father, and tears of joy that he does finally set himself on the road to healing his strained relationship with his mother.

I do feel the need to say OMG – or perhaps oy vey – about the stereotype that is Cohen’s mother. And as much as I want to make negative comments about the stereotyping, she’s a bit too much like my own mother for me to make that claim. I want to and I just can’t. It made a bit of hard reading, but in the end it felt right – and made me wish for things that are no longer possible.

Returning to Cohen and River and their holiday romance. I’m not totally sure this needed to be a holiday romance. Usually the holiday trope is used to compress the time available for the story to move quickly from meeting to loving to HEA. But Cohen’s impending return to New York created that same tension. On the other hand, the Hanukkah season added poignancy to Cohen’s reconciliation with his mother.

In the end, this story has two wonderful threads running through it. One is the holiday romance, which was lovely every step of the way. The way that they reach towards each other and find ways to communicate and to get on the same page in spite of their very real communication issues was very well done.

But the other thread was all Cohen. He comes into the story as Scrooge, cutting himself off from all emotion and living for his well-paid but soul-destroying job. This story is his journey. He needs to grow up and learn what he really wants to be when he grows up. He needs to learn to live his own dream instead of somebody else’s. The spirits don’t do it all in one night. But they do manage it all the same.

Review: My Fake Rake by Eva Leigh + Giveaway

Review: My Fake Rake by Eva Leigh + GiveawayMy Fake Rake (Union of the Rakes, #1) by Eva Leigh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Union of the Rakes #1
Pages: 384
Published by Avon on November 26, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the first book in Eva Leigh's new Union of the Rakes series, a bluestocking hires a faux suitor to help her land an ideal husband only to be blindsided by real desire…

Lady Grace Wyatt is content as a wallflower, focusing on scientific pursuits rather than the complications of society matches. But when a handsome, celebrated naturalist returns from abroad, Grace wishes, for once, to be noticed. Her solution: to "build" the perfect man, who will court her publicly and help her catch his eye. Grace's colleague, anthropologist Sebastian Holloway, is just the blank slate she requires.

In exchange for funding his passage on an expedition leaving London in a few months, Sebastian allows Grace to transform him from a bespectacled, bookish academic into a dashing—albeit fake—rake. Between secret lessons on how to be a rogue and exaggerated public flirtations, Grace's feelings for Sebastian grow from friendship into undeniable, inconvenient, real attraction. If only she hadn't hired him to help her marry someone else...

Sebastian is in love with brilliant, beautiful Grace, but their bargain is complete, and she desires another. Yet when he's faced with losing her forever, Sebastian will do whatever it takes to tell her the truth, even if it means risking his own future—and his heart.

My Review:

In nature, it is often the male of the species who displays the bright plumage, while the female sports shades of beige and grey and is capable of hiding in the shadows. Just look at the difference between a peacock and a peahen for an obvious example.

Examples from the natural world feel like “natural” parallels for this story as both the hero and the heroine of this tale are natural scientists, as the term was in their time. Sebastian Holloway studies the behaviors of people – at least when he can get the funds, and Lady Grace Wyatt studies reptiles and amphibians – at least as long as her parents will let her.

The story in My Fake Rake tiptoes through several romantic tropes on its way to reaching its happy ending. But it begins in the past – or at least in Sebastian Holloway’s past. A time when, at Eton, the son of a rich manufacturer and not a son of the aristocracy like his schoolmates, the scientifically bent Sebastian found himself in all day detection for, of all things, defacing library books. Which I admit, should be a crime.

But he served that detention with some of those scions of the aristocracy who usually shunned him – and found himself in a lifelong friendship with his fellow sufferers. The Union of the Rakes that provides the title for this series reads a bit like a Regency version of The Breakfast Club!

Now Sebastian is an adult, as are his friends. And his penchant for arguing with the contents of his library books has turned into a lifelong love of science that his practical father refuses to support. He has to scrape pennies to fund his bookish habits and his anthropological expeditions.

It’s at his favorite scientific subscription library that Sebastian became friends with Lady Grace Wyatt, daughter of the Earl of Pembroke. Lady Grace, like Sebastian, is a scientist, but her specialty is herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles. So far, her family has supported her bluestocking tendencies, but her father’s sudden illness has made her parents rethink – not their support – but the need for someone to secure their daughter’s future.

They want her to marry. She wants to marry Mason Fredericks, a fellow scientist, a member of the aristocracy, and a man who seems to have no end of funds with which to pursue his many expeditions. Marrying Fredericks will allow her to continue her own scientific endeavors as his partner – where most men would tolerate her proclivities at best and forbid them at worst.

All she needs to do is to get Fredericks to notice her as a woman and not just as a fellow scientist. And for that, she needs the help of her good friend Sebastian. If Sebastian can pretend to be both interested in Grace and a man to be envied by other men – in other words – a confident rake – Fredericks will find her more “valuable” because another man values her.

It’s an idea that makes Grace a bit sick, but she knows it will work. If Sebastian is willing. And able to set aside his crippling shyness. And if both of them can manage to ignore anything they might feel for each other beyond friendship.

The shyness should be the most difficult thing for Sebastian to overcome. It isn’t. The heart wants what the heart wants, no matter what the head is telling it – or how loudly.

Escape Rating B: After that “Breakfast Club” opening, the pursuit of My Fake Rake, and the fake rake’s pursuit of his lady, runs through four different romantic tropes on its way to its happy ending – and does so with a certain amount of aplomb.

Some of that aplomb is supplied by Sebastian’s friend the Duke of Rotherby, who provides the money for Sebastian’s rakish wardrobe as well as the lessons needed for Sebastian to acquire a veneer of the confidence that a true rake wields without a moment’s thought.

But at its heart My Fake Rake is a friends into lovers story. Grace and Sebastian have known each other for four years when the story takes place. They share a love of scientific exploration and discovery and a shared bent for intelligent conversation and quiet reading. They like each other, they spend time together, and they enjoy each other’s company.

And they know each other well enough that Sebastian knows that Grace has a tendre for Fredericks and she doesn’t hesitate to ask him for what is really a rather huge favor.

That favor tips the story into the second and third tropes, the fake relationship combined with the extreme makeover/Pygmalion/My Fair Lady trope. One of the refreshing things about this story is that it’s really “My Fair Gentleman” as it’s Sebastian who needs to be made over in this scheme. Grace is just fine as she is. She’s hidden her beauty behind her mind, not a pair of spectacles – although Sebastian certainly hides his handsome face behind his.

When their scheme works, and a bit too well, they also separately discover that the parts they have played have become real – as so often happens in stories based on a fake relationship. The issue for Grace and Sebastian is that they then trip headlong into an epic misunderstandammit that takes him to Northumberland and nearly takes her to Greenland.

While it feels as if it’s more like societal expectations have pushed them into their costly and painful silence, I always find the angst involved in a misunderstandammit a bit hard to take. In this case it takes an epic rescue worthy of any rake reformed to get this romance back on track.

So even though they nearly lost each other when a simple honest conversation would have gotten them past their stumbling block, I did understand why they both felt like they weren’t in a position where they could have that conversation.

It takes the Duke of Rotherby, a romantically inclined yacht and a desperate climb up a wet, swaying rope to get our hero and heroine back where they belong.

A terrific time is finally had by all – except the Duke of Rotherby. Lucky for him, the next book in the series, Would I Lie to the Duke, will give him his own happy ever after. He’s certainly earned it by his efforts in this story!

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

To celebrate the release of My Fake Rake by Eva Leigh, we’re giving away three paperback copies of the book!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

GIVEAWAY TERMS & CONDITIONS: Open to US shipping addresses only. Three winners will each receive a paperback copy of My Fake Rake by Eva Leigh. This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Avon Romance. Giveaway ends 12/15/2019 @ 11:59pm EST. Avon Romance will send the winning copy out to the winner directly.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 12-8-19

Sunday Post

It’s OMG December. The year is winding down. It’s sorta/kinda winter-ish around here.

But I’m starting to think about end of year things – or rather beginning of year things. I’m thinking about the Read Harder Challenge from Book Riot, and wondering if anyone has any experience about participating in it that they could share? I’m also looking back at some things that used to be around and wondered if there would be any interest if I restarted the “Saturday Situation”. It used to be a great place for promoting giveaways – especially blog tour giveaways for books. I miss that resource being available, so if anyone knows of something similar, I’m very interested.

It seems that I’m just pondering all sorts of things today – including all the wonderful books I have on tap to read this week!

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Winter is Coming Giveaway Hop
Meet Me on Love Lane by Nina Bocci

Winner Announcements:

The winner of the Black Friday Giveaway Hop is Danielle
The winner of The Cost of Honor by Diana Munoz Stewart is Sharon

Blog Recap:

B+ Review: The Case of the Spellbound Child by Mercedes Lackey
Winter is Coming Giveaway Hop
B+ Review: Meet Me on Love Lane by Nina Bocci + Giveaway
B Review: An Alaskan Christmas by Jennifer Snow + Excerpt
A Review: Upon the Flight of the Queen by Howard Andrew Jones
Stacking the Shelves (369)

Coming This Week:

My Fake Rake by Eva Leigh (blog tour review)
Hanukkah at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery by Sharon Ibbotson (blog tour review)
Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh (review)
The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa Cole (review)
The Wicked Redhead by Beatriz Williams (blog tour review)

Stacking the Shelves (369)

Stacking the Shelves

I got my first audio review copy this week. I’ve already started it and so far, so good, but the real test will be Monday on the treadmill. Anything that can make that process less boring is a winner!

Also, after last week’s tiny stack, this one feels like a deluge. Books came flying at me from everywhere! Also Audible had a bit of a sale. And the author of The Starless Sea said that she was inspired by Dragon Age. And we were in Savannah for Thanksgiving – but I’ve never read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. So that became irresistible too.

So many books, so little time!

For Review:
The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa Cole (audio)
The Boy from the Woods by Harlan Coben
Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth
The City We Became (City #1) by N.K. Jemisin
A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians by H.G. Parry
The Honey-Don’t List by Christina Lauren
It’s Not All Downhill From Here by Terry McMillan
Mazes of Power (Broken Trust #1) by Juliette Wade
No Winter Lasts Forever by Jonathan Epps
The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow
Queen of Storms (Firemane #2) by Raymond E. Feist
The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles
Sixteenth Watch by Myke Cole
Stormsong (Kingston Cycle #2) by C.L. Polk
Sword of Fire (Deverry #1) by Katharine Kerr
Sword of Shadows (Crispin Guest #13) by Jeri Westerson

Purchased from Amazon/Audible:
Elantris by Brandon Sanderson (audio)
The Hanged Man (Tarot Sequence #2) by K.D. Edwards
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (audio)

Borrowed from the Library:
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Review: Upon the Flight of the Queen by Howard Andrew Jones

Review: Upon the Flight of the Queen by Howard Andrew JonesUpon the Flight of the Queen (The Ring-Sworn Trilogy, #2) by Howard Andrew Jones
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Ring-Sworn Trilogy #2
Pages: 432
Published by St. Martin's Press on November 19, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"A fast-paced adventure combined with an engrossing mystery, all set in a unique and original fantasy world. I can't wait to find out what happens next!" --Martha Wells, Hugo Award-winning author on For the Killing of Kings

In this sequel to For the Killing of Kings, Howard Andrew Jones returns to the ring-sworn champions of the Altenerai in Upon the Flight of the Queen to continue this thrilling, imaginative and immersive epic fantasy trilogy.

While the savage Naor clans prepare to march on the heart of the Allied Realms, Rylin infiltrates the highest of the enemy ranks to learn their secrets and free hundreds of doomed prisoners. His ailing mentor Varama leads the ever-dwindling Altenerai corps in a series of desperate strikes to cripple the Naor occupiers, hoping for a relief force that may not come in time to save what's left of the city and her charges.

Elenai, Kyrkenall, and the kobalin Ortok ride through the storm-wracked Shifting Lands to rekindle an alliance with the ko'aye, the only possible counter to the terrible Naor dragons. Even if they survive the hazardous trek deep through kobalin territory to find the winged lizards, though, the three are unlikely to get a warm reception, for the queen of the five realms refused to aid the ko'aye when their homelands were attacked, and the creatures have long memories.

While the Altenerai fight impossible odds to save the realms, their queen delves further and deeper into the magic of the mysterious hearthstones in a frantic attempt to unlock secrets that might just destroy them all.

Praised for his skills in drafting modern epic fantasy that engrosses and entertains, Howard Andrew Jones delivers a sequel that expands the amazing world, relationships, and adventure introduced in the first book of this series.

My Review:

It’s ironically fascinating that Upon the Flight of the Queen ends in exactly the same way that the first book in this series, For the Killing of Kings, did. Both stories end with our heroes saving another city from the hands, and hordes, of the marauding Naor. And in both cases that recovery comes within a knife edge of disaster, but neither represent the end of anything larger than the immediate battle. As each entry in the series closes, it is obvious to the reader that the endpoint is merely a pause between battles, and that more bloodshed and heartbreak are yet to come.

For the Killing of Kings felt like it began in medias res – translated as “into the middle of things” -, that the story had already begun at some point in the past and the reader was just dropped into the middle of it. As Elenai and Kyrkenall delve deeper into the secrets and lies that have set them on the run from their former compatriots, that situation becomes the real truth. They are already in the middle of the story – they just didn’t know it at first.

This second book begins in medias of the res that happened in the first book. Which means that you cannot start here. The story in Upon the Flight of the Queen only makes sense if you’ve read For the Killing of Kings. But if you love epic fantasy this is a story well worth diving into.

As this second story opens, Rylin and Varama, the ring-sworn warriors of the Altenerai Corps (and of the series title) have just saved one city of the Allied Realms from an army of savage Naor set on conquest, enslavement and destruction of their enemies – who just so happen to be the heroes of our story.

As this entry in the series progresses, the focus shifts among the Altenerai as this small band of warriors and mages tries to be everywhere at once, to defend as much as they can in as many places as they can from their would-be conquerors, while at the same time attempting to figure out why their order and their country has been betrayed from within – and just how much the Queen has to do with the rot at the heart of the kingdom.

At the end of this volume, the “band” has mostly gotten back together from their separate epic journeys, just in time to defeat the onrushing horde – while losing any hope of stopping the mad queen who has set these terrible events into motion.

The battle is won, but the war is not yet over. Our heroes pause as readers gasp in shock as they wait to see what will happen next.

Escape Rating A: While I had a whole dragonload of mixed feelings about the first book in this series, I have absolutely none about this second entry. I loved Upon the Flight of the Queen, in spite of some issues with the audio narration that I’ll get to in a minute.

I don’t know whether it was because this was just the right time for me to get into a meaty epic fantasy, whether I liked this one more because I had a better grasp of the characters and the world, or whether this second book was just better than the first – this was an awesome story and I loved every minute of it.

Unlike my listen to the first book, this time I felt compelled to see what happened next – what new fire our heroes jumped into after escaping their most recent frying pan. I found myself listening to the story when I had time in the car or on the treadmill and then switching to the ebook when I didn’t – because I couldn’t put this one down.

That being said, there were issues with the narration – and they were the same issues I noted in my review of the previous book. The reader conflated cavalry with Calvary – a common issue in everyday life but jarring in a professional reader. Early in the story the word “loll” was read as “lull” repeatedly, to the point where I was temporarily confused about what was happening. My personal “favorite” malaprop was the reading of “brazier” – a container for fire, as “brassiere” – the older word for a woman’s undergarment now known as a “bra”. Just the thought of mistaking the one for the other is, quite literally, painful to contemplate. Seriously, OUCH!

But the story is definitely not an ouch, although the characters in it certainly experience plenty of painful circumstances that generate a lot more than a mere “ouch”. This is a story with a very large cast of characters and a lot of conflicting motivations – something that got a bit bogged down in the first book as we had to learn who all these people were and what was pushing them forward – or pulling them back. That the characters we were following were in the midst of discovering that they had been betrayed and were themselves uncertain of anyone’s motives made that a bit more difficult.

By this point, however, we’ve got a handle on who is who – and our heroes know who is with them and who is against them. The tension however, is ramped up by the Naor incursions. The Queen’s inattention to the good of her realm has provided these long-time enemies with an opportunity to strike at their heart believing that no one can oppose them. And they are very nearly right.

At the same time, one of the tighter focuses in the story is on the guerrilla warfare being waged in one city that is ostensibly under Naor occupation. The plight of the tiny band of warriors led by Alten Varama, a group that watches as their numbers whittled down while their commander lays the groundwork for a rescue that may not come is heartbreakingly terrible and terribly heartbreaking.

Meanwhile, in other parts of this wide-ranging narrative, we watch a legendary commander literally rise from the dead – as he in turn watches a young man and woman from the Corps he led rise to meet the challenges of this new and terrible day.

The ending of Upon the Flight of the Queen is rife with those epic “Riders of Rohan” moments that are the hallmark of the best of epic fantasy – as this certainly is.

There was only one thing that marred my enjoyment of this epic tale. It ends, just as For the Killing of Kings ended, in the pause after an epic battle, a point where the characters and the reader have a chance to take a breath but know that there is more yet to come. When the first book ended, the publication date for this second book was already announced, and was actually imminent.

The title and publication date of the final book in the Ring-Sworn Trilogy have yet to be announced. I’m anxiously waiting for that horn call – and I’m certain that I’m far from alone in my impatience to discover which of our heroes will survive to win the day.

Review: An Alaskan Christmas by Jennifer Snow + Excerpt

Review: An Alaskan Christmas by Jennifer Snow + ExcerptAn Alaskan Christmas by Jennifer Snow
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, holiday romance
Series: Wild River #1
Pages: 379
Published by Hqn on September 24, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Alaska, it’s always a white Christmas—but the sparks flying between two reunited friends could turn it red-hot…

If there’s one gift Erika Sheraton does not want for Christmas, it’s a vacation. Ordered to take time off, the workaholic surgeon reluctantly trades in her scrubs for a ski suit and heads to Wild River, Alaska. Her friend Cassie owns a tour company that offers adventures to fit every visitor. But nothing compares to the adrenaline rush Erika feels on being reunited with Cassie’s brother, Reed Reynolds.

Gone is the buttoned-up girl Reed remembers. His sister’s best friend has blossomed into a strong, skilled, confident woman. She’s exactly what his search-and-rescue team needs—and everything he didn’t know he craved. The gulf between his life in Wild River and her big-city career is wide. But it’s no match for a desire powerful enough to melt two stubborn hearts…

My Review:

This holiday romance combines a frenemies into lovers romance with a bit of a second chance at love romance, and wraps it all up in a sparkly bow.

A bow that occasionally seems to be pulled in two directions (and tied in a strangled knot) by two strong-willed workaholics, neither of whom are good at stopping to smell the candy canes and hot cocoa. But then, both Ericka and Reed have spent years working all the hours available in order to keep them too busy to let any of their griefs and fears catch up to them even for a second.

Until Ericka is forced to take a two week vacation – and decides to spend it in Wild River where she grew up with her childhood best friend Cassie – and Cassie’s very hot but exceedingly annoying brother Reed. Ericka and Reed have always seen the worst – and brought out the worst – in each other at every turn. But the sudden sexual chemistry between them adds a new and frustrating aspect to their rocky relationship – in more ways than one.

What at first seems to Ericka as an interminable stretch of time to be away from her high-pressure life as a surgeon at one of Anchorage’s big hospitals turns out to be much, much too short as she and Reed manage to get past their stubborn animosity to explore their intense chemistry.

Only to have her two week vacation abruptly cut in half, just as they figure out that under all that heat – was a whole lot more heat along with an emotional connection that neither of them has found with anyone else – not that either of them left much time in their lives for looking.

But once Ericka is back at work – and under the constantly disapproving eye of her emotionally distant father – who also happens to be her boss – Ericka falls back into her old patterns and lets Reed go – no matter how much she misses him, the connection they share and the much more balanced life she discovered in Wild River.

It takes a crisis of epic proportions – and very nearly a re-enactment of that famous Christmas story The Gift of the Magi – to bring Ericka and Reed to their holiday happy ever after – with just a bit of an assist from her dad the Grinch.

Escape Rating B: I picked this book because I lived in Anchorage for three years, leaving me with a fount of Alaska stories that I’m still telling 15 years later and a love for books set in “The Last Frontier” that persists to this day. That love is at least partially fueled by an equally endless need to figure out what matches the Alaska I remember – and what feels as far off the unbeaten path as Cicely was in the TV series Northern Exposure. (There is no Cicely AK, but local collective wisdom decided that Cicely was meant to stand in for Tok.)

So, I have a few quibbles. There is no Alaska General Hospital in Anchorage or anywhere else. The three “general” hospitals in Anchorage are Providence Alaska Medical Center, Alaska Native Medical Center and Alaska Regional Hospital.

Only two rail lines run all winter and one only runs once a month – the other and more likely runs once a week, the Aurora Winter Train, beginning in Anchorage and stopping in Wasilla, Talkeetna, Hurricane Flagstop Area (Chase, Curry, Sherman, Gold Creek, Canyon, Twin Bridges, Chulitna, Hurricane, Denali), Healy, Nenana and Fairbanks. Based on the description of Wild River, it’s likely between Wasilla and Talkeetna – or would be if it existed..

Also, contrary to the blurb, Anchorage is no one’s definition of a big-city, except in Alaskan terms. The current population of Anchorage is 380,000. It’s actually one of the smallest cities I’ve ever lived in. It only seems large compared to places like Wild River because it is the largest relatively “big” place that’s closer than Seattle WA or Vancouver BC which are about 700 miles away – basically a 3.5 hour flight.

Setting all that aside – no matter how much it drove me crazy during the story – An Alaskan Christmas is a lovely holiday romance that has a bit more to it than just the romance.

The romance happens fairly quickly, as is often the case in holiday romances. But it doesn’t feel rushed this time around, as Ericka and Reed had known each other for years – although admittedly they didn’t seem to like each other very much. But they were tied together not just by growing up together, but by an important moment that they shared, and a special bond over their lost parents.

Ericka’s mother died at about the same time when Reed and Cassie’s father disappeared. Ericka’s dad retreated into his work and left 15-year-old Ericka to grieve alone with the help of her friends.

Something else they share is missing fathers. Reed and Cassie’s dad is still missing, and Reed is still searching for him. Ericka’s dad, even though he is her boss – or perhaps especially because he is her boss – is a distant and disapproving figure in her life. She runs herself ragged trying to both please and emulate him – and she fails at every turn. Not because she’s not capable – because she’s actually excellent and any parent would be proud to have her as a daughter – but because the man has become so emotionally disconnected that he’s incapable of approving of anything or anyone but especially his own daughter. It IS his way of coping with the loss of his wife but it’s left Ericka quite literally out in the emotional cold. Ericka’s journey in this holiday tale is to finally figure out what SHE wants out of her own life – before she finds herself trapped in her work just like her father. That part of her story was heartbreaking. Ericka deserved better for herself and a big part of her happy ending is that she finally reached out and grabbed that better with both hands.

And like the Grinch, her dad’s heart did seem to grow three sizes at the end – but he still has a long way to go. Ericka, with Reed’s help, has made it.

Excerpt from AN ALASKAN CHRISTMAS by Jennifer Snow

He tossed the blanket over her quickly and stood. “Okay, so you’re all good?”

She nodded, but her gaze was on his midsection. And her unblinking stare was full of unconcealed attraction. The same way she’d checked out his biceps in the bar.

He glanced down to see that his T-shirt had risen slightly on the right side, exposing his stomach.

Obviously his abs were to her liking.

“Erika.”

“Huh?” Still staring.

“It’s been a while, huh?”

She frowned, finally pulling her gaze back to his. “For what?

“Since you’ve had sex.”

Her mouth gaped.

“I mean, that’s why you’re staring at my stomach like I’m a piece of chocolate.”

“I was not,” she said, but her cheeks flushed. “And I’ll have you know, I have plenty of sex…all the time. Men beating down my door for it…” she mumbled.

That he wouldn’t doubt, except he knew from Cassie that she was a reclusive workaholic and he was willing to bet the only penises she saw were her naked patients.

“And anyway, even if that was the case, you’d be the last guy I’d want to break my dry spell.”

Okay, now he was intrigued. Especially since he’d made no motion to fix his shirt and her eyes were glued on his abs again, betraying her words. He crossed his arms, making sure to flex his biceps for her viewing pleasure, as well. She wasn’t going to get him, but all of a sudden, he wanted her to want him. “Oh yeah, why’s that?”

“Because I don’t think you’d be any good.”

What?

“Hot guys are rarely good in bed. They don’t think they need to be. They are selfish and rarely leave a woman satisfied.”

She’d obviously been with the wrong dudes. “In your expert opinion?”

She nodded. “As a doctor and woman. Yes.”

Damn, he’d like to kiss that smug expression right off her face, but the voice in his head told him to leave her drunk ass alone. “Okay, then. Good night.”

“What? Not even going to try to prove me wrong?”

In two strides, he’d reached her. Pulling back the blanket, he lifted her and, seating himself on the couch, he set her down on his lap. A leg on either side, she straddled him. “You sure you want to eat your words?”

Instead of answering, she gripped his face and kissed him. Hard. His surprise faded fast as his mouth suddenly craved hers. The taste of tequila mingled with her cherry lip gloss and he forgot he was the one teaching her a lesson. Her legs gripped his and she pressed her chest against him, the feel of her breasts beneath the soft cashmere making his heart pound against them.

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Review: Meet Me on Love Lane by Nina Bocci + Giveaway

Review: Meet Me on Love Lane by Nina Bocci + GiveawayMeet Me on Love Lane (Hopeless Romantics, #2) by Nina Bocci
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy, women's fiction
Series: Hopeless Romantics #2
Pages: 304
Published by Gallery Books on December 10, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the USA TODAY bestselling author of On the Corner of Love and Hate comes a romantic comedy about a woman who grudgingly returns home to small-town Pennsylvania, only to find herself falling in love—not only with the town, but with two of its citizens.

Charlotte Bishop is out of options in New York City. Fired, broke, and blacklisted by her former boss, she’s forced to return to her hometown of Hope Lake, PA to lick her wounds. Although she’s expecting to find a miserable place with nothing to do, she is pleasantly surprised to discover it is bustling and thriving.

She’s only supposed to be in Hope Lake temporarily until she can earn enough money to move back to New York. She’s not supposed to reconnect with her childhood friends or her beloved grandmother. She’s not supposed to find her dream job running the local florist shop. And she’s definitely not supposed to fall for not one but two of Hope Lake’s golden boys: one the beloved high school English teacher, the other the charming town doctor.

With a heart torn between two men and two cities, what’s a girl to do?

A perfect blend of humor and heart, Meet Me on Love Lane is the second in a new series from USA TODAY bestselling author Nina Bocci that is sure to charm fans of Josie Silver and Sally Thorne.

My Review:

There are two literary versions of home. One 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.” There’s also the Thomas Wolfe version that says that , “You can’t go home again.”

There’s also the romantic version, the one that says that “home is where the heart is.”.

In a way, Meet Me on Love Lane is a story about crossroads. The story is firmly parked at the corner of contemporary romance and women’s fiction, as it’s partly about Charlotte Bishop’s choice between a romance with the new “Dr. Hotness” in town, and something sweeter but more elusive with someone from her past.

It’s also at the intersection of two of those versions of home. Charlotte has returned to Hope Lake because she needs a place to regroup and recharge, and that takes her back to her childhood home in Hope Lake with her father and grandmother. A home that her mother wrenched her away from when she was 10.

She’s returned to Hope Lake because she has no place else to go, and because she hopes that her family will take her back in – no matter that it has been 20 years since she was last there.

It turns out that the story is about Charlotte discovering that her home is where her heart is, and that, in spite of all the years gone by and all the memories that she’s deliberately suppressed, her heart and her home are in Hope Lake – along with all the love – of all kinds – that she left behind.

All she has to do is squelch the bitter voice of her mother that still rings in her head even years after the woman’s death – and let herself remember all the good things her mother wanted her to forget.

Because her heart has found its home – no matter what her head – and the voices from her past – have to say about the matter.

Escape Rating B+: In spite of the title, Meet Me on Love Lane feels like it’s more about Charlotte and all of her relationships – with her dad, her grandmother, her best girlfriend, her other childhood friends and everyone in her former/future hometown than it is about her romantic escapades.

Particularly poignant is Charlotte’s relationship with her grandmother Gigi – who is an absolute hoot. We all wish we had a grandmother like Gigi – while at the same time feeling for Charlotte and everything she’s missed.

She’s also not really in the “torn between two lovers” situation that the blurb implies. Every woman in town – of every age – seems to drool at least a bit over “Dr. Hotness”, but there’s never any spark there. Charlotte may want there to be, but there’s never even a hint of a need to make a decision on that front.

However, Charlotte is much more torn over the choice between returning to New York City and staying in Hope Lake. Some of that is because of her mother’s disparaging voice in her head, and some of that is just because these are very different kinds of places and they represent very different lives. There’s not a right or a wrong answer to that question, but the adjustments to her life will be profound no matter what she chooses – and it is a choice worth serious consideration.

The sweetness in the story comes from Charlotte’s rediscovery of Henry, the man who once upon a time was a 10 year old boy and her absolute best friend in the whole world. The boy who it hurt so much to leave behind that she made herself forget him. Completely.

The way that Charlotte works her way back to Henry, and reconnects with her own past, is her journey in this story. It lets her relearn just how much she loved this place and these people, and just how much of herself she cut off and left behind in order to survive life with her mother.

Exactly what was wrong with her mother is never completely resolved. No one actually knows. That there is no closure for Charlotte to explain so much that needs explaining leaves Charlotte bewildered but coping (and recommending therapy all around) and leaves the reader with a lack of resolution in that part of the story. While admittedly that’s real life – we don’t always get the explanations we need or want or are due – but in fiction most readers, myself included, expect a bit more satisfaction in our happy ever afters.

But Charlotte – and Henry – certainly earn theirs. With everyone in town cheering them on.

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

I’m giving away a copy of Meet Me on Love Lane to one very lucky US commenter on this tour!

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Winter is Coming Giveaway Hop

Welcome to the Winter is Coming Giveaway Hop,  hosted by The Kids Did It and The Mommy Island.

First of all, the above may be the cutest hop graphic ever. But then, I love cats. I can’t imagine ours in the snow – although it certainly would make our Lucifer easy to find – if we had snow.

Winter mostly deals the Atlanta area a glancing blow – but it is coming. Even if local temperatures during this blog hop will reach up into the 60s a few times. But we do get enough winter that the trees lose their leaves – which fascinates the cats no end. Falling leaves make GREAT kitty television.

I do not miss the winters in two of our previous homes – Chicago and Anchorage. Both are equally miserable this time of year. They are also both terrific cities to live in, but their winters – recently arrived in Chicago and long arrived in Anchorage – are nothing to sneeze at unless you have the inevitable cold or flu. Then you’re sneezing a lot.

But it’s chilly enough here that we’ve brought out the cushy blanket for our bed – which has motivated all three cats to not only sleep with us, but to sleep ON the bed instead of UNDER the bed during the day. And we’re happy to make them happy!

Still, ’tis the season for wintry weather, holiday shopping and curling up with a good book and a cuddly fur-person or two. To help with your winter snuggles, I’m giving away your choice of either a $10 Amazon Gift Card or a $10 Book from the Book Depository. And all of the participants in this hop will be happy to help you further with your holiday presents and post-holiday recovery!

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For more fantastic prizes, be sure to visit the other stops on this hop!