Guest Review: Kith and Kin by Kris Ripper

Guest Review: Kith and Kin by Kris RipperKith and Kin by Kris Ripper
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: family saga, M/M romance
Pages: 438
Published by Brain Mill Press on June 20th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

What does it mean to have a family?
Singer and Lisa Thurman did everything right for their entire childhood. Their mother wanted a perfect life, and they knew how to fit that vision. Then they grew up. Singer came out of the closet and Lisa joined a cult. Singer and his partner are adopting a son. Unfortunately, all that practice being the perfect child didn't prepare Singer to be a merely adequate father. Lisa's just trying to get through the day. After three years in a cult, it’s almost impossible to leave her bedroom, so redemption is going to have to wait.
What does it mean to be a family?
When their mother shows up and attempts to reclaim the illusion of her perfect family,  old lives clash with new ones. Recovering from perfection is messy, complicated, and fraught, but the riotous clan that rises from the ashes is full of joy—and the best kind of trouble. A groundbreaking, honest, and provocative novel, Kith and Kin is contemporary family drama that grafts an entirely new species of family tree.
Family is what you make of it.

Guest review by Amy:

Singer Thurman and his long-time partner, Jake Derrie, have been looking to adopt a child for a while. This isn’t as easy for a gay couple, even in California, where they live, as it is for straight couples, but they’re making progress. Singer, who grew up in a very ordinary, mom-and-dad-and-two-kids family, is still adjusting to life with the Derrie clan, a boisterous and diverse bunch. Our tale opens with a knock on the door: Singer’s sister, Lisa. Having recently left a cult, Lisa is not in any kind of normal head space, and Singer immediately offers her the guest bedroom, for as long as she needs it.

Then Social Services calls; they have a foster placement that could easily become permanent.

Then Singer’s too-helpful, too-obtrusive mother shows up.

Escape Rating: A+. I want to be able to wax poetic about how this couple overcomes great hardship in some fashion to be able to adopt a child and forge a family out of the crucible of great tribulations. I’d love to be able to say how cool it is that we’ve got this book with so much diversity baked into it–an asexual heteroromantic, a gay white couple who adopt an African-American child and start going to a church with the baby’s grandmother, an older empty-nest couple rediscovering themselves and starting over. I’d be thrilled to tell you about the inspiring, uplifting moments in this book, the moments that show love winning over all adversity in the end. And Kith and Kin has all that, or I wouldn’t mention it. That kind of writing makes for exciting reviews, and makes everyone feel good.

The thing is, when I read this story, all of the people that author Kris Ripper shows us are…normal. Ordinary humans, with fears and wants and loves and desires just like the rest of us. Yeah, there’s a boisterous asexual woman who splutters around when she comes out to her friends, and our story focuses on a gay couple, but this doesn’t feel like “LGBTQ+ fiction” to me, at all. This is a story of a diverse group of family and friends, (some of whom are in the LGBTQ+ space) who are dealing with the struggles in their lives, and trying to make things better.

Jake and Singer struggle with their relationship dynamic when a new baby comes into the family, they fret about how to help Lisa, they’re exasperated by Mrs. Thurman’s self-centered antics, everything you’d expect. From cover to cover, once you figure out the big framework, this is a “slice-of-life” story, utterly predictable to the very end. Is that a bad thing? Quite the opposite.

In its ordinary-ness lies the great strength of Kith and Kin; it’s a tale we can “belong” in, a story that could just as easily be mine, or yours, or Marlene’s, or anyone else’s. This is a story about the struggles of real people. Watching Singer, who has always been so confident in so many ways, falling apart with all the stressors he suddenly faces, is such a familiar thing for me that I cried with him. When I watched him struggle to try to make sense of things, I struggled with him. When I saw Frankie trying to sort out her own asexuality, I blustered with her as she tried to explain it to friends and family. When Emery was trying to explain his kinkiness to Lisa, and trying not to scare her away from a relationship with him, I could feel his tension about it. The ending, of course, sees them all making progress, and solving things, just like you and I do, and the tale ends on a strong up-note. What makes this story great is that, almost certainly, you’ll find something in these pages that you identify with, even in the smallest way, and suddenly you become a fly-on-the-wall of a life that could just as easily be your own.

Here’s an example. Singer’s friend Kara (who has adopted multiple children with her husband, Vic) gives him a snippet of advice not too unlike the speech that my own mother gave me when my oldest daughter was small, and I felt overwhelmed and under-qualified:

But then I realized we’re all the same. All of us. The parents who have no problems conceiving, the parents who have their kids taken away, the parents who voluntarily surrender, the parents who are grandparents and aunts and uncles, and the parents who adopt. We’re all equally unqualified, and our kids need us anyway. Do the job. There’s no glory in it, most of the time, but I wouldn’t give up this family for any family I could have had in a different way, Singer, no matter how hard it was, how many tears I cried, how many times I hated myself, or hated Vic, or god help me, hated my kids…That’s the speech I wish someone had given me, in the black moments, when I felt like we were at a dead end.

See what I mean? Kith and Kin is overflowing with such moments; people talking to each other–or themselves–and working through the normal chaos of being an adult human, with the help of their loved ones. There are no amazing heroes here, no evil villains, no grand adventure, no impressive magic, no geeky science, no great mystery to solve. Just…people. People who could be any of us. For that reason, I give this book the strongest possible recommendation.

Review: Cocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams

Review: Cocoa Beach by Beatriz WilliamsCocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow on June 27th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The author of A Certain Age transports readers to sunny Florida in this lush and enthralling historical novel—an enchanting blend of love, suspense, betrayal, and redemption set among the rum runners and scoundrels of Prohibition-era Cocoa Beach
Burdened by a dark family secret, Virginia Fortescue flees her oppressive home in New York City for the battlefields of World War I France. Driving an ambulance for the Red Cross, she meets a charismatic British army surgeon whose persistent charm opens her heart to the possibility of love. As the war rages, Virginia falls into a passionate affair with the dashing Captain Simon Fitzwilliam, only to discover that his past has its own dark secrets—secrets that will damage their eventual marriage and propel her back across the Atlantic to the sister and father she’d left behind.
Five years later, in the early days of Prohibition, the newly widowed Virginia Fitzwilliam arrives in the tropical boomtown of Cocoa Beach, Florida, to settle her husband’s estate. Despite the evidence, Virginia does not believe Simon perished in the fire that destroyed the seaside home he built for her and their young daughter. Separated from her husband since the early days of their marriage, the headstrong Virginia plans to uncover the truth, for the sake of the daughter Simon has never met.
Simon’s brother and sister welcome her with open arms and introduce her to a dazzling new world of citrus groves, white beaches, bootleggers, and Prohibition agents. But Virginia senses a predatory presence lurking beneath the irresistible, hedonistic surface of this coastal oasis. The more she learns about Simon and his mysterious business interests, the more she fears that the dangers surrounding Simon now threaten her and their daughter’s life as well.

My Review:

This didn’t turn out to be quite what I expected, but I don’t know why. The book does match the blurb. More or less.

It also reminds me more than a bit of Daphne du Maurier’s classic Rebecca, if Rebecca wound itself up on the Florida coast during Prohibition.

The story of this Cocoa Beach is set loosely within the sequence of Williams’ other novels. They are all set in Prohibition-era America and feature at least some of the same set of wealthy and ill-fated people. In the case of Cocoa Beach, the heroine of this story is Virginia Fitzwilliam nee Fortesque, the sister of Sophie Fortesque, one of the heroines of A Certain Age.

You don’t have to read all the books to feel part of each individual one. It’s more that the characters know each other and mention each other than that the main characters continue from one to the next.

Back to Cocoa Beach. This is a story that is told in two time frames, but by the same person. In the book’s present, Virginia is in Florida, dealing with her late husband’s estate after his death in a rather suspicious house fire. This is 1922, so forensics as we know them are pretty minimal. The body was burned beyond recognition, and identification was made through use of artifacts found with the body. It’s an ID that feels shaky from the beginning.

The second story is also Virginia’s story. It is her version of events during World War I, when she first met her late husband Simon Fitzwilliam. At the time, she was a volunteer ambulance driver and he was a surgeon with the British Expeditionary Forces. Through Virginia’s eyes, looking back at a past that was not so long ago but that happened before so much personal trauma, we see Simon charm the rather innocent Virginia into his life, his bed and eventually into marriage, in spite of her reservations every step of the way.

Because we see these events only through Virginia’s eyes, and because Virginia in the end has a great many doubts about Simon’s feelings and Simon’s motives, we as readers also end up doubting whether any of what Virginia thought she saw in him was true.

Simon really has been keeping secrets from Virginia. His life situation is never quite what he says it is. And his unwillingness to let her know just how big a mess his life really is provides just the wedge for someone, Simon’s brother Samuel, to get Virginia to doubt everything about Simon and her relationship with him.

And those doubts and fears ruin her marriage, and very nearly take her life.

Escape Rating B-: There’s a lot of Gothic creepiness in the swamps of Florida, and there’s a lot of Gothic creepiness in this story as well. Throughout the story, there’s a strong sense of looming menace hovering over Virginia, and it’s very definitely real. Someone really is watching her and someone is definitely out to get her.

This is also a story where all the narrators are completely unreliable. Simon tells a whole lot of lies of omission, and while in the end his reasons make sense, he definitely sows the seeds of his own destruction with those lies. Virginia is an unreliable narrator not because she deliberately lies, but because she is simply unable to see when others lying to her, so she bases her thoughts and decisions on the lies she has been told. And everyone else in the story, with the exception of Virginia’s two-year-old daughter, is living one kind of lie or another right before her eyes. And she never seems to suspect a thing that she really ought to.

So much of what goes wrong in Virginia’s life, which is what makes this story, is that instead of asking Simon for an explanation of a whole lot of things, she simply believes what Samuel tells her and runs away. Over and over and over. She never confronts Simon with what he’s supposedly done, or what he has supposedly not said. Or both.

I think that this is the place where readers will either understand why she did what she did or wonder what she was thinking. If she was thinking, which she probably wasn’t. She continually takes one side of the story and runs with it, and away, and never looks for the other. That she does love Simon and did marry him and yet always believes whatever Samuel tells her without checking into it at all struck this reader as a lie too far. But the whole story hinges on Virginia falling for the same pack of lies over and over and over again, even when the voice inside her own head is telling her that something isn’t right. Which, of course, it isn’t.

I loved A Certain Age, and was really hoping for more of the same with Cocoa Beach. Instead, I ended up with Rebecca. And while I enjoyed reading the story while it was going on, the ending left me flat.

Review: Take Out by Margaret Maron + Giveaway

Review: Take Out by Margaret Maron + GiveawayTake Out by Margaret Maron
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery
Series: Sigrid Harald #9
Pages: 304
Published by Grand Central Publishing on June 27th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Sigrid is still reeling from the untimely death of her lover, acclaimed painter Oscar Nauman, when she is called to investigate the deaths of two homeless men in the West Village. The police at first assume an overdose, until they realize that one of the men shows no signs of drug use. Then when containers of poisoned takeout food are found nearby, Sigrid's case is suddenly much more complicated. As Sigrid investigates, she uncovers an intriguing neighborhood history: a haughty mafia widow and her disgraced godson, a retired opera star with dark secrets, an unsolved hit-and-run, and the possible discovery of a long-missing painting that will rock the art world. Soon the case is fraught with myriad suspects and motives. Who killed the two homeless men, and why? And which one was the intended victim? Or was the poisoned food meant for someone else entirely?
Throwing herself into the murder investigation to distract herself from her personal grief, Sigrid still can't stop wondering what led Nauman across the country to the winding mountain road that took his life. Until she meets a man who may hold the answers she seeks.
In her newest gripping mystery, Margaret Maron's beautifully drawn characters and unpredictable plot twists prove once again why she's one of today's most beloved writers.

My Review:

I think that NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald would recognize Eve Dallas’ 21st century New York as still being her city, and vice versa. And that if the two women ever met, they would see each other as kin. There’s a similarity to the two no-nonsense New York homicide detectives that transcends time.

Also a distinct difference. I read all of the Sigrid Harald series, starting with One Coffee With, sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. But I never read the last one. Although there is a murder mystery in Fugitive Colors, that story also deals with the unexpected death of Sigrid’s lover, the artist Oscar Nauman. It was just too sad to contemplate, so I never picked it up. I have a copy, I just couldn’t bear to read it.

Take Out takes place in the aftermath of Nauman’s death. It’s been over a year since the tragedy, and Sigrid has learned to deal with her grief, even though it still sometimes strikes her down without warning. She has also resigned herself to being Oscar’s heir, and dealing with all the myriad details involved with protecting the legacy (and the fortune) of a famous artist.

But the mystery in Take Out turns out to be wrapped in the other loose ends of Sigrid’s life, as well as tying up the leftover bits of the mystery from Fugitive Colors. It all starts with a New York tradition – take out.

Two men are dead on a bench in an upscale NYC neighborhood. The remains of their last meal all around them – take out food from a neighborhood restaurant. Neither man is a resident. One is clearly a homeless drug addict, while the other is exceedingly down-at-the-heel. One death might have been accidental, but two is one too many for the long arm of coincidence, even in New York. When rat poison is found in both of the take out boxes they were noshing on, it’s clear that at least one of them was murdered, even if the other is merely collateral damage.

But which? And most importantly, why?

This is a case where the past threatens to overwhelm the present, from the recent death of an old mobster’s daughter to the long-ago murder of Sigrid’s own father – by a minion of that same mobster. And if the long-simmering rivalry between the two old women at opposite ends of the block has finally erupted into open warfare, why now?

Which of the many secrets has suddenly become too toxic to remain buried? And can Sigrid figure it out before the past dies with it?

Escape Rating B+: Take Out is closure. Not just for all the old secrets buried on that street, but for Sigrid as well. I loved this book, and I was very, very glad to see this old favorite get wrapped up.

At the same time, it’s been a LONG time since Fugitive Colors was published in 1995, the same year that Naked in Death (the first Eve Dallas book) was published. And as fascinating as the mystery in Take Out is, it also felt as if there was a definite strain in the story as the author needed to catch up new readers (and remind old ones) of just who all these characters were and why they mattered to Sigrid. Those explanations were both utterly necessary and took away from the rising tension of the mystery.

It’s that mystery that keeps the reader guessing until the end. There are two old women at the heart of this mystery. One is a mobster’s widow, and the other a famous opera singer. Both are in their 80s. It doesn’t seem possible that either is the murderer, and yet, they both had ties to the dead men. And potentially they both had reasons to want one of the men dead, but not both. And not the means to do the deed. And yet it was done.

This is a story that is all about the past. Not just the past of those two old women, but also Sigrid’s past, and Oscar Nauman’s past. And even the past wrapped up in an old museum, which desperately needs a new lease on life. It all ties neatly together at the end, and the case, and the series, close with satisfaction.

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

After my review of Lockdown by Laurie R. King, I received an offer from the publisher to host a giveaway for 2 copies of Lockdown to lucky U.S. winners. As Laurie King is the author of one of my favorite mystery series, and Margaret Maron the author of two others, this seemed like a fitting post to which to attach the giveaway.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 6-25-16

Sunday Post

Welcome to the ALA Edition of the Sunday Post. As you read this, I’m in Chicago at the American Library Association Annual Convention, looking at oodles of forthcoming books and walking my feet off. ALA is pretty much like BEA for librarians. There are also a lot of meetings. And a lot of running around. The Exhibits Hall, where all the books are, is usually miles and miles of carpet over concrete. At the end, there is no thrill of victory, there is only the agony of the feet. Along with the chance to see 15,000 or 20,000 of my nearest and dearest friends.

And we have Hamilton tickets for the night before the conference begins! It’s not coming to Atlanta until NEXT May. But since we were planning to be where it already was, it was impossible to resist!

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Splash into Summer Giveaway Hop
1 ecopy of Escape Velocity and 1 ecopy of Damage Control by Jess Anastasi
3 hardcover copies of The Right Side by Spencer Quinn

Blog Recap:

B+ Review: Cover Fire by Jess Anastasi + Giveaway
B+ Review: The Admiral’s Bride by Suzanne Brockmann
B Review: The Right Side by Spencer Quinn + Giveaway
C Review: The Light in Summer by Mary McNear
A Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston
Stacking the Shelves (241)

Coming Next Week:

Take Out by Margaret Maron (review)
Cocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams (review)
Sovereign by April Daniels (guest review by Amy)
Barbarian by Anna Hackett (review)
A Most Unlikely Duke by Sophie Barnes (blog tour review)

Stacking the Shelves (241)

Stacking the Shelves

As you read this, I’m at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago. ALA is kind of like BEA for librarians, so I’m probably wandering through the exhibits desperately trying NOT to pick up too many books.

I know that sounds contradictory, but books are HEAVY. The exhibits floor is HUGE and everything I pick up has to ride on my back until I get back to my room. Overindulgence is painful. Which doesn’t mean I won’t arrange for entirely too many eARCs from Netgalley and Edelweiss. Because I most certainly will.

For Review:
Barbarian (Galactic Gladiators #6) by Anna Hackett
Booke of the Hidden by Jeri Westerson
A Love to Remember (Disgraced Lords #7) by Bronwyn Evans
The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein
The Sea King (Weathermages of Mystral #2) by C.L. Wilson
Someone to Wed (Westcott #3) by Mary Balogh
Victoria & Abdul by Shrabani Basu

So what did you add to your stack this week? Adding your Stacking the Shelves to the linky here will add it at both Reading Reality and Tynga’s Book Reviews.

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas PrestonThe Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston, Bill Mumy
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: adventure, archaeology, history, nonfiction
Pages: 304
Published by Grand Central Publishing on January 3rd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A five-hundred-year-old legend. An ancient curse. A stunning medical mystery. And a pioneering journey into the unknown heart of the world's densest jungle.
Since the days of conquistador Hernán Cortés, rumors have circulated about a lost city of immense wealth hidden somewhere in the Honduran interior, called the White City or the Lost City of the Monkey God. Indigenous tribes speak of ancestors who fled there to escape the Spanish invaders, and they warn that anyone who enters this sacred city will fall ill and die. In 1940, swashbuckling journalist Theodore Morde returned from the rainforest with hundreds of artifacts and an electrifying story of having found the Lost City of the Monkey God-but then committed suicide without revealing its location.
Three quarters of a century later, bestselling author Doug Preston joined a team of scientists on a groundbreaking new quest. In 2012 he climbed aboard a rickety, single-engine plane carrying the machine that would change everything: lidar, a highly advanced, classified technology that could map the terrain under the densest rainforest canopy. In an unexplored valley ringed by steep mountains, that flight revealed the unmistakable image of a sprawling metropolis, tantalizing evidence of not just an undiscovered city but an enigmatic, lost civilization.
Venturing into this raw, treacherous, but breathtakingly beautiful wilderness to confirm the discovery, Preston and the team battled torrential rains, quickmud, disease-carrying insects, jaguars, and deadly snakes. But it wasn't until they returned that tragedy struck: Preston and others found they had contracted in the ruins a horrifying, sometimes lethal-and incurable-disease.
Suspenseful and shocking, filled with colorful history, hair-raising adventure, and dramatic twists of fortune, The Lost City of the Monkey God is the absolutely true, eyewitness account of one of the great discoveries of the twenty-first century.

My Review:

The road to The Lost City of the Monkey God begins with a high-tech Indiana Jones and ends with Guns, Germs and Steel, with a couple of detours for pestilential diseases and “academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” Except that in this case the stakes are not small at all, and the story is fascinating from beginning to end.

This is a true story. It’s a story of obsessions both great and small. And a story about con men, soldiers and scientists. And ultimately, it’s a story about the price that we pay for the knowledge that we gain.

There have been legends about this city, whether under the name Ciudad Blanco or as the title describes it, the Lost City of the Monkey God, since the time of Hernan Cortes and the conquistadores. The Spanish conquerors of Central and South America came across many, many stories of fabulous lost cities of gold and jewels. One of the most well-known of those legends is that of El Dorado, the city of gold.

But a film producer named Steve Elkins was particularly fascinated with the legends of Ciudad Blanco, the white city that was supposed to be hidden somewhere in the Mosquitia province of Honduras. Honduras as a country in modern times has been through some very hard and violent times, and the Mosquitia province is infamous for its dangers, not just from the hazards of its jungle terrain, but from the guns of the narco-traffickers who make Mosquitia their home.

While the narco-traffickers have not always been the problem that they are today, the jungle has always been there. During the great age of European exploration in the 1800s, and even afterwards, there were multiple attempts to locate the famous “White City” but to no avail. Very few of the documented expeditions seem to have even gotten close to this mythical place, and one of the best documented was recently discovered to be completely fraudulent.

It seemed like an obsession that was doomed to never be fulfilled, but technology caught up to dreams. On the ground, the jungle swallows everything, but from the air it’s a different story. Or at least it is to LiDAR imaging, a combination of lasers and radar that can see through the dense ground cover to the remains of any structures underneath.

Initially, the story was first to discover, well, if there was anything to discover. It took years and money and grants and cooperation from multiple organizations and at least two iterations of the Honduran government to finally get permission to survey possible sites, and then even more money and permissions to get the still top-secret LiDAR on site to survey the possibilities.

Which turned out to be enormous, both literally and figuratively. The story in The Lost City of the Monkey God is about the author’s participation in these expeditions, both the original LiDAR mapping and the “ground-truthing” with archaeologists a few years later, to make the jungle yield up her long buried secrets.

And exact her toll.

Reality Rating A: The Lost City of the Monkey God is one of the most absorbing pieces of nonfiction it has ever been my pleasure to listen to. June is Audiobook Month, and I’m thrilled to have such a marvelous story to recommend. For a science fiction geek, that Bill Mumy, Lennier from Babylon 5 (also Will Robinson from the classic Lost in Space) read me a story just added to my enjoyment. His voice conveyed just the right tone of understated enthusiasm that seemed perfect for this story.

And the story itself is fantastic. There’s something for adventure readers, history buffs and even science geeks. That’s a lot of groups to appeal to.

It’s not just that the author distills a lot of historical research into great reading, but that the research he has to distill is just so interesting. They say that all myths and legends have a grain of truth in them, and it’s that grain of truth that Elkins and his team are hunting for. But there’s a lot to wade through. Finding out that the best documented case was a complete load of bunk just added to the wild and crazy aspects of the story.

There’s a “you are there” aspect to the author’s story of the expeditions themselves, and it rings true because he actually was there, waiting out the rain and dodging snakes with the rest of the team. There’s a lot of emphasis on the dangers of the environment, the romance of its pristine nature and the changes and destruction that are made in the pursuit of this great archaeological treasure.

And it is a great treasure, not in the jewels and gold sense, but in what it adds to the knowledge of a lost people and their society.

This is also a story that reminds the reader that “nature bats last” on multiple vectors. Unlike so many discoveries of supposedly lost civilizations, the cities in Mosquitia really were lost. This is not a story where the locals know all about the place but it isn’t considered “discovered” until white men find it. In Mosquitia, the cities were abandoned in the early 16th century, the jungle closed in, and the remote nature of the valley along with the dangers of the few methods of getting to them meant that no humans went there. This was a place where you actually couldn’t get there from here, even when “here” was defined as the next province. Traveling through the dense jungle, as opposed to flying over it and dropping in on a helicopter, was too hazardous for anyone from any culture to attempt when there was no one to see and nothing that anyone knew of to gain.

But nature also bats last in the Guns, Germs and Steel sense. The devastating pandemics that obliterated the Central and South American civilizations in that same 15th and 16th century time periods were not the type of diseases that die without a human host. Oh no, these pathogens were quite happy to cook themselves into new and more virulent strains in animal and insect hosts, while patiently waiting for a new batch of humans to enter their lair. As the expedition members did, with life-changing and sometimes life-threatening results.

For the reader, this is a journey that will stick with you long after the final page. For the participants, its aftermath will shadow the rest of their lives.

Review: The Light in Summer by Mary McNear

Review: The Light in Summer by Mary McNearThe Light In Summer by Mary McNear
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: women's fiction
Series: Butternut Lake #5
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on June 20th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Mary McNear brings you home to Butternut Lake and a novel filled with irresistible characters who you will want to call your friends.
It’s summertime on Butternut Lake, where the heat of noon is soothed by the cool breezes of the evening, where the pace grows slower, and sometimes, just sometimes, the summer light makes everything clearer...
For the lovely Billy Harper, Butternut Lake is the place she feels most at home, even though lately she feels the only one listening to her is Murphy...her faithful Labrador Retriever. Her teenage son, Luke, has gone from precious to precocious practically overnight. Her friends are wrapped up in their own lives, and Luke’s father, Wesley, disappeared before his son was even born. No wonder she prefers to spend time with a good book, especially ones where everything ends in perfection.
But Billy is about to learn that anything is possible during the heady days of summer. Coming to terms with her past—the death of her father, the arrival of Cal Cooper, a complicated man with a definite interest in Billy, even the return of Wesley, will force her to have a little bit of faith in herself and others...and realize that happiness doesn’t always mean perfection.
“Butternut Lake is so beautifully rendered, you’ll wish it was real.”—Susan Wiggs, #1 New York Times bestselling author  
“This triumphant story had me reading until the wee hours of the morning.”—#1 New York Times bestselling author Debbie Macomber on The Space Between Sisters
 
 
 
 

My Review:

I love the Butternut Lake series. I really, really do. But, and it’s a very big but, in spite of the heroine being a librarian, I did not love this particular entry in the series.

The Butternut Lake series so far have all been contemporary small-town romances with more than a smidgen of what is dreadfully labelled Women’s Fiction. I hate that term but it has become a handy catch-all descriptor for stories that include a slice of women’s lives and often their strong friendships and other relationships.

I’ve also referred to Butternut Lake as “Second Chance Lake” because so many of the romances feature second chances at love, sometimes even with the original love-interest.

The series is stand-alone-ish. Each entry is complete, and the reader usually doesn’t have to know much about what came before to become familiar with the town and its residents. The Light in Summer may be the exception to that rule. The hero in this book is the brother of the heroine in the first book, Up at Butternut Lake.

But as much as I have enjoyed this series, this one did not work for me. While in most of the books there has been a lot going on in the life of the protagonists, the stories have usually given equal weight to whatever those other crises might be and the romance.

For this reader, the romance between Cal and Billy (very short for Wilhelmina) takes a far back seat to all of Billy’s quite justifiable angst over the behavior of her son Luke, who seems to be entering adolescence with a vengeance. Billy is right to worry. Luke is hanging out with the wrong crowd, getting into serious trouble, lying to her and letting his grades slip. His attitude has also dived into the toilet, but the problem isn’t the attitude so much as all the bad things and people that the attitude is leading him towards.

The recent death of Billy’s father, the only father-figure that Luke has ever had, has thrown them all into a tailspin. And Billy is caught in the age-old dilemma of how much she needs to be a parent vs. how much she wants to be a friend and confidant.

But all of Luke’s issues, and Billy’s issues with Luke, completely overwhelm the story. The romance gets such short shrift that we really don’t see it develop. We don’t have enough interactions between Cal and Billy to buy into their chemistry.

Escape Rating C: I’ll admit that I’m probably in a minority on this, but the focus on Billy’s problems as a parent, as real as they are, just don’t hold my attention. There’s a lot of teenage angst in this story, and if that was what I was looking for, I’d have found it. But it is not something that I look for, and certainly didn’t expect to find it in this book or this series.

I’m still looking forward to more in this series, but for this reader, The Light in Summer didn’t have nearly enough romantic heat. Your reading mileage may vary. But if you are looking for an entry in this series that does a much better blend of family drama with romance and small-town feels, go back to The Space Between Sisters, which was terrific. More like that, please!

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Review: The Right Side by Spencer Quinn + Giveaway

Review: The Right Side by Spencer Quinn + GiveawayThe Right Side by Spencer Quinn
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Fiction, suspense
Pages: 336
Published by Atria Books on June 27th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

LeAnne Hogan went to Afghanistan as a rising star in the military, and came back a much lesser person, mentally and physically. Now missing an eye and with half her face badly scarred, she can barely remember the disastrous desert operation that almost killed her. She is confused, angry, and suspects the fault is hers, even though nobody will come out and say it.
Shattered by one last blow—the sudden death of her hospital roommate, Marci—LeAnne finds herself on a fateful drive across the country, reflecting on her past and seeing no future. Her native land is now unfamiliar, recast in shadow by her one good eye, her damaged psyche, and her weakened body. Arriving in the rain-soaked small town in Washington state that Marci had called home, she makes a troubling discovery: Marci’s eight-year-old daughter has vanished. When a stray dog—a powerful, dark, unreadable creature, no one’s idea of a pet—seems to adopt LeAnne, a surprising connection is formed and something shifts inside her. As she becomes obsessed with finding Marci’s daughter, LeAnne and her inscrutable canine companion are drawn into danger as dark and menacing as her last Afghan mission. This time she has a strange but loyal fellow traveler protecting her blind side.

My Review:

This wasn’t quite what I expected. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t good, because it was, but it doesn’t quite match the description.

This is way, way more about LeAnne than it is about the dog, or anything related to the dog. Which is kind of a pity, because it’s only when Goody adopts LeAnne that the story really kicks into gear.

But LeAnne’s life before Goody is even more important to the story than her life with dog. And a whole lot sadder.

LeAnne was an elite soldier in Afghanistan, until one catastrophic incident left her a broken shell of herself. She’s lost an eye, and that’s terrible and will change everything she ever thought she was or would be. But more importantly, LeAnne left that battlefield with a piece of shrapnel in her head, and as a consequence LeAnne’s memories, of herself, her past and even very recent events, are more than a bit shaky.

LeAnne is the ultimate unreliable narrator – she’s fooling herself and most of the time she doesn’t know it. Even when she does know it, she doesn’t care.

The story is really LeAnne’s search for herself. Not the self she was, possibly not even the self she will be, but simply a self that she can live with. And as much as she can’t admit it, even to herself, she needs someone to protect her blind side – not just the physical one, but also all the blind sides within herself.

I want to say that this is a road story, but it kind of is and kind of isn’t. When LeAnne’s rehab roommate at Walter Reed Army Hospital dies suddenly and very unexpectedly, LeAnne breaks out of the hospital. Marci’s death is the last straw for LeAnne’s shaky sense of self, and she just lights out of there. And goes cold turkey on ALL her meds.

But the Army isn’t done with her. She has one last service to perform. But first they have to find her and convince her that she needs to open her box of bad memories. And that bit of her past is the one place she doesn’t want to go.

Ever.

Escape Rating B: The story felt like it was divided into two separate and not quite equal parts, before dog and after dog. The parts of LeAnne’s journey before Goody adopts her (and the dog is definitely the prime mover of events) are pretty damn grim. LeAnne is physically and emotionally devastated, to the point where she is not always aware of just how bad things really are.

She loses days at a time. Sometimes in disjointed memory, sometimes in sleep, sometimes just in a fog. She’s lost who she was, and can’t always manage to acknowledge it. She’s also drifting and rudderless. It’s a hard journey, and it makes for hard reading. Considering how much driving she does while not quite all there, it’s amazing that she doesn’t die in a car accident. On that other hand, the very used Honda that she’s driving probably can’t get up enough speed to cause more than a fender-bender.

Just as an aside, LeAnne’s mother is a piece of work.

But it is only when LeAnne drifts into Marci’s old hometown that LeAnne begins to pick up the pieces of what her life can be now. She starts finding her new self. Partly with her self-assigned mission to find Marci’s missing daughter, but mostly because Goody adopts her.

In the best “dog saves human” tradition, Goody worms her way into LeAnne’s life, and eventually her battered heart (and psyche). Goody’s interventions keep her from letting all of her more destructive impulses out (the sheriff deserves the verbal abuse LeAnne doles out, just not quite the broken neck she wants to give him).

And even though she can’t take Goody with her, it does seem like it is Goody who gives her enough strength to deal with the most important unfinished business of her past. And whose assistance allows her to finally let go of some of her demons.

The rest she is willing to take on the road with them.

This is a hard book to love, because LeAnne is a difficult character to like. It’s not that the reader doesn’t feel sorry for her, because one certainly does, but the kind of pity she initially engenders does not necessarily make one want to read about her struggles in detail, especially when there are so few triumphs to balance them out. It reads as real, but also depressing as hell. It’s only when Goody appears on the scene that the story turns outward, from endless anger and angst to coping with her world as it is that the story begins to lift.

The story ends on a high note, but it’s a long, dark journey to reach that brighter place.

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

The author is giving away 3 copies of The Right Side to lucky entrants on this tour.

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Review: The Admiral’s Bride by Suzanne Brockmann

Review: The Admiral’s Bride by Suzanne BrockmannThe Admiral's Bride (Tall, Dark & Dangerous, #7) by Suzanne Brockmann
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military romance, romantic suspense
Series: Tall, Dark & Dangerous #7
Pages: 256
Published by Mira Books on April 1st 2006
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

His mission was to pretend that Zoe Lange, beautiful young scientist—nearly half his age!—was his new bride. Former Navy SEAL Jake Robinson was sure that his romantic years were behind him, but for God and for country, he would look into Zoe’s beautiful dark eyes, kiss her senseless, hold her as if he would never let her go... and then, when the job was done, do just that.

The only problem was, with each hour in Zoe’s company, the stakes were becoming higher. The game more real. And the dangers within their "honeymoon" chamber more and more apparent...

My Review:

I borrowed this one from the library because I was jonesing for a good older man/younger woman romance. I read a lot of fanfic, and one of the pairings that I’m following from a video game I’m playing deals with this trope, so I had a taste for it. And I’ll admit that I was looking for one where the story was finished. As much as I love fanfic, one of the problems with reading a lot of it is that even the best stories don’t always get finished, and I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

But it gave me a yen for a story with this trope, and browsing the Goodreads list brought this one to the top. That it also reminds me a another fanfic pairing was an added bonus.

The Admiral’s Bride was originally written in 1999. Technology has changed, and has certainly become more ubiquitous. On that other hand, the terrorist militia group that the Admiral and his Bride have to infiltrate could be ripped from today’s headlines. Technology may change, but human nature doesn’t seem to.

The Admiral in this story is Jake Robinson. And he really is an Admiral, or at least he is now. But he’s a former Navy SEAL, and Admiral is the nickname that his unit gave him back in Vietnam, where he seems to have made it his own personal mission to rescue units that Command said couldn’t be saved from the enemy.

The hospital started keeping track, calling the men he saved “Jake’s Boys”. There were nearly 500 of them by the end, and one of the last ones was intelligence agent Zoe Lange’s father. As Zoe wasn’t conceived until after her dad came home from Vietnam, Zoe quite literally owes Jake Robinson her life.

She’s hero-worshipped him from afar for almost her entire life. Which does add a certain amount of complication when they finally meet face-to-face. Because the man hasn’t lost a scintilla of his looks or his charisma in the 30 years since ‘Nam. He’s already the fuel for entirely too many of Zoe’s fantasies, but meeting him in real life turns out to be much more electrifying than she ever imagined.

And it’s completely mutual, as much as Jake keeps telling himself it shouldn’t be. He’s only been a widower for three years, and he still thinks of himself as married. Zoe is a member of his team, and should be off-limits. And if that wasn’t enough of a reason to back off, she’s 24 years younger than he is, she couldn’t possibly be interested in him.

But of course she is. And in the circumstances in which they find themselves, pretending a relationship is the only way to get the mission done. And when the pretense turns real, it gives them both a reason to survive.

If the entire mission doesn’t go totally FUBAR first.

Escape Rating B+: This was exactly what I was looking for. So I dove right in and came up for air about four hours later, ready to read the book I was supposed to read (actually yesterday’s review of Cover Fire).

In spite of Cover Fire being science fiction romance and The Admiral’s Bride being an almost 20-year-old contemporary, they have a surprising amount in common. In both cases, the black hats are a repressive, conservative cult conducting terrorist attacks. And in both stories, the man is career military while the woman is an intelligence operative. Both romances feature people who believe that the person they have fallen for could not possibly be interested in them, and that they have no possible future together. The reasons may be different, but the emotions they engender are surprisingly similar.

And both cults contain entirely too many people who are absolutely nucking futz. The crazy, hate-fueled BS gets a bit hard to read. In neither case are the heads of these arseholes places we want to stay for any length of time.

But one does get caught up in both the action and the romance of The Admiral’s Bride. Jake and Zoe are in tremendous danger, and they have to work together (and get their heads out of their emotional asses) in order to survive and succeed.

At the same time, one of the things that this book does well is to air the doubts that are all going through Jake’s head. 24 years is a big age gap. He and Zoe are not at the same places in their lives. It is hard to think about forever with someone, when your version of forever is 20 or 30 years shorter than theirs. The other person is potentially signing up for a lot of pain at the end. There are ways to deal with all of those issues, and this story doesn’t gloss them over. That Zoe’s job is so dangerous actually helps the situation. The mess they are in together brings home the possibility that she could be cut down in the line of duty at any moment.

That this story reminded me of a lot of early NCIS fanfic (which I love) was just a bonus. It was all too easy to see Gibbs as Jake Robinson, even though he’s not nearly tall enough. But it still added to my enjoyment of a story that just plain hit the spot.

Review: Cover Fire by Jess Anastasi + Giveaway

Review: Cover Fire by Jess Anastasi + GiveawayCover Fire (Valiant Knox #3) by Jess Anastasi
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Valiant Knox #3
Pages: 333
Published by Entangled Publishing on June 19th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

He'll protect her with his life...but who will protect his heart?
If the assignment is crazy, dangerous, or a little of both, Sub-Lieutenant Sebastian Rayne can’t help but take on the challenge. So when Command Intelligence tags him to fly one of their agents behind enemy lines, it seems like just another routine death-defying mission. Crash landing on the planet was a piece of cake, but the gorgeous agent he delivered safely to her meeting is now believed dead and he must return to retrieve her body.
After Agent Jenna Maxwell realizes her own people attempted to have her killed, she enlists the hot stick jockey’s help. His new mission? Sneak her back onto his ship to ferret out who wanted to get rid of her and why. But she fears her growing feelings for Seb have blinded her to his reckless insistence on helping her stay alive, and his rash behavior will cause them both to lose their lives.

My Review:

Cover Fire is the third book in the Valiant Knox series, and it both lives up to its predecessors and takes the action in several new directions. If you like science fiction romance, start with Escape Velocity and jet right on over to Damage Control before jumping into Cover Fire. You’ll be glad you did.

And if you have a friend who likes military romance but is hesitant about the whole SF thing, this series is a terrific gateway drug for those who are thinking about trying SFR. It definitely has the flavor of military romance, but in setting that easily evokes contemporary military romance.

Because that Valiant Knox that the series is named for? She’s a battleship. She just happens to be a space battleship.

She’s also a floating city in space, much like a considerably less battered Battlestar Galactica, or a Babylon 5 that does more than just orbit a planet.

While the previous two stories in this series have focused more on the military side of the military police action to embargo the planet Ilari and its fanatic CSS soldiers, Cover Fire is all about the truly dirty side of war. Not black ops, but much, much dirtier. Jenna Maxwell is a member of Command Intelligence. She’s a spy, an infiltrator, and on occasion, assassin.

And somebody on her own side wants her dead. The question in her mind is whether she did something wrong that CI thinks needs to be “cleaned up”, or whether someone in CI is a mole for the CSS. All too many CSS moles have been uncovered among the crew of the Valiant Knox, so there’s plenty of reasons to believe that CI might have some too, in spite of the extreme vetting its agents go through on their way in.

That’s where our story begins. Hot-shot pilot Sebastian Rayne is still reeling after the revelation that his best friend was a CSS mole all along. They were best buds for years, and Seb never noticed a thing. He’s still kicking himself, and questioning his own judgment at every turn.

And taking suicide missions, like the one he’s offered to drop Jenna behind enemy lines on Ilari, the enemy stronghold, in a top-secret mission using a POS stolen CSS space shuttle. Of course the whole thing goes FUBAR. There was a damn good reason that shuttle didn’t look spaceworthy. It wasn’t.

But in their enforced togetherness while running from the wreck and escaping the CSS soldiers sent to investigate, Jenna and Seb have a little too much time to spend together. Just enough for Seb to notice that the tough-as-nails exterior doesn’t always match the woman who begins to question, just a little, whether her lonely, dark place in the underbelly of this war is worth the price she has to pay for it.

And just when both their missions seem to be back on track, Jenna is betrayed by her own side, and Seb is sent to pick up the pieces – pieces that are supposed to include Jenna’s body. Instead, he finds a live, scared and pissed off Jenna who has been forced to expose her real appearance, because that’s the only face that CI doesn’t have on file.

Jenna needs Seb’s help to track the reasons for her would-be assassination. And she needs Seb to remind her that the lonely life of a field agent is no life at all. And Seb needs Jenna to help him find closure for the biggest betrayal of his life.

But there is someone gunning for them both. Whether that’s CI, a CSS mole, or a player to be named later is anyone’s guess. But running for their lives together is the best thing that’s ever happened to both of them.

And it might just turn the tide of the war.

Escape Rating B+: I always have a great time aboard the Valiant Knox – or flying around it. But as much as I like the stories and the setting, I’m still not totally clear on the motivations of the CSS. They come off as “standard evil repressive fundamentalist cult” which is a common trope but doesn’t give me enough.

It also, as this story discovers, isn’t enough for some of its adherents. The CSS claims they want independence to go about their evil, repressive ways, but they may not be the only dog in this fight. We’ll see. That possibility gives me very high hopes for subsequent books in this series.

But about Cover Fire. All the stories in this series, so far, have dealt with forbidden romances in one way or another, and this one is no exception. Unlike the standard trope of the fighter pilot jock, Seb is not out to notch his bedpost. He is much more interested in a real relationship, or at least trying for one. And as much as he comes to want Jenna, as long as she believes that she has to run, he’s not after just a one-night-stand, no matter how he wants her.

He’s also going through a lot of self-doubt after the exposure of his friend as a CSS mole. He’s not sure what he feels, or with Jenna, who he feels it for. She turns her CI mask on and off like flipping a switch. Meanwhile, Jenna isn’t sure not just what she feels, but who she really is and whether she has a life expectancy longer than a few hours. She thinks her own organization is out to get her, and they are very, very effective at tying up loose ends.

Any relationship between them is the ultimate distraction from the effort to find out who ordered the hits and to keep them both alive long enough to expose the rot. There are plenty of times when that effort seems doomed, and often by their own mistakes.

I’ll admit that I did figure out whodunnit quite a bit before the end. I had the motives wrong, but the perpetrator seemed obvious, and was. Which didn’t decrease my enjoyment of the story and the series one iota.

I can’t wait to see what happens next. In the somewhat ominously titled War Games, coming out later this year.

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