Review: House of Rone: Guard by Anna Hackett

Review: House of Rone: Guard by Anna HackettGuard (Galactic Gladiators: House of Rone, #5) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Galactic Gladiators: House of Rone #5
Pages: 200
Published by Anna Hackett on April 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

From the dangerous desert sands to the deadly glitz of the city, the lawless desert planet of Carthago is filled with lethal cyborg gladiators risking it all for the women who capture their hearts. GUARD contains two novellas and one short story all set in the Galactic Gladiators: House of Rone series.

Dark Guard: lethal cyborg Zaden will do whatever it takes to guard and protect beautiful, sweet Calla from mysterious attackers.

NOTE: previously released as part of the 2019 Pets in Space Anthology

Abducted from her homeworld, Calla Ryss has spent months in a cell, surviving her captors—the metal-scavenging Edull. Deep in the deserts of the lawless planet of Carthago, she knows that there is no chance of escape. The only thing that gets her through is her friendship with a fellow abductee, a woman stolen from Earth. But everything changes when they are rescued by the bone-chillingly dangerous cyborgs of the House of Rone, and Calla finds herself staring into eyes of metallic silver.

Zaden lives for the House of Rone. His cyborg enhancements help him keep a ruthless hold on his emotions, and loyalty is the only thing he allows himself to feel. And the rare spurt of annoyance at the cyborg hunting cat that refuses to leave him alone. But when sweet, lovely Calla falls into his arms, Zaden starts to experience emotions he’s never felt before…which is dangerous for a cyborg whose enhancements are in place not to increase his lethal abilities, but leash them.

When mysterious attackers attempt to snatch Calla, Zaden vows to be her guard and keep her safe—with some unsolicited help from a certain cyborg cat. But there is more at stake than just Calla’s safety, and as she and Zaden are drawn into an intoxicating storm of emotion, they will risk their hearts, their lives, and their freedom to rescue another innocent captive.

Cyborg Guard: on a dangerous mission into the desert, female cyborg loner Seren must act as bodyguard for champion gladiator Xias—a man who pushes every one of her buttons.

NOTE: this is a BRAND-NEW, never-before-published story

Seren dan Stal was once the pride of the Dan Nonian Warrior Academy, but when her people were wiped out by a virulent virus, she is the lone survivor. Now, her home is the desert world of Carthago, and she works hard to honor her father and her planet by being the best cyborg fighter at the House of Rone. She has no time for fun or frivolity, and that especially includes the always-smiling showman gladiator Xias.

Xias grew up on the streets of Kor Magna and lost the most important fight of all—protecting his sister. He vowed to become a champion for her and to never lose again. He commands the sands of the desert arena, is loved by the spectators, and would die for his imperator, Magnus Rone. But then he finds himself becoming far too fascinated by a prickly, dangerous, and gorgeous female cyborg.

In the desert city of Kaffit, Xias and Seren must work together on a mission for Magnus. Xias pushes Seren to feel, and she inspires his need to protect and pleasure. Together, they uncover a scorching-hot hunger that won’t be denied. Now, they just need to survive long enough to see if that hunger can grow into love.

Includes the short story – House of Rone: Beginnings

Soldier 47 is the most lethal cyborg in the Orionix Military Program. But when a young cyborg, Jaxer, is slated for deactivation, Soldier 47--also known as Magnus Rone--will risk everything he knows to save his friend.

My Review:

This fifth book in the House of Rone spinoff of the Galactic Gladiators series is a collection of short works, much as Rogue and Hunter were for the original series. In fact, VERY much as Hunter was, as both books contain works that were previously published in the utterly marvelous Pets in Space anthologies.

Which means that I’ve read and reviewed one of the three stories in this collection before. Specifically Dark Guard. I loved it, not just for the familiar setting, but particularly for its feline hero – even if the feline, like many of the members of the House of Rone, is a cyborg.

The second entry in Guard is a VERY short story, House of Rone: Beginnings. When I read Beginnings it felt very, make that extremely, familiar. But I’m not certain if that’s because I’ve read it before, or if it’s because the origin story of the House of Rone has been told, although not in this much detail, before. Both Magnus and Jaxer refer to the events that brought them to Kor Magna fairly often, particularly in their respective books, Cyborg and Sentinel.

So Beginnings FEELS familiar, even if I haven’t read it before. And I’m saying that in a good way. Everyone loves a good origin story – unless it gets rebooted too many times too close together. (I’m looking at you, Spiderman). But we all tell ourselves origin stories, stories that we repeat over and over, like the story about how we met a spouse/partner, how we met a best friend, memorable events in family history.

And that’s what Beginnings feels like. It’s the story that creates the House of Rone, even though none of that was envisioned at the start. It’s Magnus discovering that his cyborg implants have not destroyed his heart after all, and that even if he never planned to save himself, he can’t let a friend be killed. And in saving Jaxer, he saves himself and every single soul that the House of Rone rescued after that. It all comes back to this one event, this one story, and it’s lovely to get it in detail.

The other new story, Cyborg Guard, was definitely new. I really liked it because it presents different perspectives on the House of Rone, explores seldom seen variations of the romance patterns in this series, AND pushes the action forward in the quest to rescue the last Earth-human survivor still in captivity with the evil Edull.

The Edull remind me of the Jawa in Star Wars, only taller and more disgusting. Still sandsucking scrap merchants and experimenters. Although I don’t think we’ve ever seen the Jawa incorporate organic parts into their creations – while the Edull certainly do. The Edull are conducting experiments like the Nazis, just without the racial component. The Edull will use anyone in their experiments.

What I enjoyed about the romance in Cyborg Guard is that it was just a bit different from the patterns that have generally been followed in both the Galactic Gladiators and the House of Rone series.

The Cyborg Guard of the title is Seren, one of the female cyborgs who are part of the House of Rone. Unlike many of the cyborgs we’ve met previously, Seren’s suppression of her emotions is training rather than programming. She FEELS emotion, but she’s been taught to rigorously suppress it – kind of like a Vulcan.

(It’s rare to be able to mix Star Wars references and Star Trek references in the same review. Achievement Unlocked!)

Another thing that makes this romance a bit different is that the person Seren is guarding is Xias, one of the non-cyborg members of the House of Rone. Cyborgs are not allowed to compete in the Kor Magna Arena – as they certainly do have an unfair advantage. So the House of Rone has a number of unenhanced members who compete under their banner. Xias is their champion.

While both Seren and Xias are warriors, Seren sees Xias as more than a bit of a showboat, someone who competes because they love the attention – and revel in it. When their mission to retrieve a map of the Edull compound goes completely pear-shaped, Seren is finally able to see that none of her assumptions about Xias were true – except the one about whether or not he’s good in bed. That one was right on the money. And once Seren discovers the man hiding behind the showboat, she’s all in – not just for the sex but eventually for the love that she never believed she was capable – or worthy – of.

Escape Rating A-: All in all, this was a VERY fun entry in this long-running series. It had a whole bunch of elements that I just loved. I’m always a sucker for a good cat story, I love a well-done origin story and I really enjoyed seeing a romance break the established pattern for a series. AND we got to see the other side of the House of Rone, so a real treat all the way around!

Review: Matzah Ball Surprise by Laura Brown

Review: Matzah Ball Surprise by Laura BrownMatzah Ball Surprise by Laura Brown
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, holiday romance
Pages: 249
Published by Entangled Lovestruck on March 16, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

This Passover is starting to feel like the ten plagues might be coming back to haunt them before the weekend is over...one hilarious misstep after the next.

Gaby Fineberg just wants to get through Passover Seder without her “well meaning” family playing matchmaker. She needs a date, just for one simple meal - that includes singing, the history of her forefathers, and not one bit of yeast. The hot guy at her gym would be perfect. He probably hates bread, anyway, with a body like that. But when she finally works up the nerve to ask him...he doesn’t hear a word she said.

Levi Miller is deaf and happily single. Initially, he doesn’t know why this beautiful woman is talking to him, but it’s clear she needs help - and suddenly so does he. In a very complicated situation, Levi finds a simple solution. Gaby will pretend to be his new girlfriend to bail him out, and he’ll return the favor. But he didn’t bargain for a family dinner quite like this one...

My Review:

Passover starts this evening, which is why this review is scheduled for today. I’d say to just call me Captain Obvious, but a romance wrapped around one of the Jewish holidays isn’t all that obvious at all – or all that common – so I wanted to celebrate that this story exists at the time when it seemed the most germane. Especially since it’s a light and fun romance that is just perfect for this holiday season.

The story in Matzah Ball Surprise is a lovely little romance that combines the ever popular “fake boyfriend” trope with a little bit of insight into living with a disability (the hero is deaf), the celebration of one of the major Jewish holidays and the trials and tribulations that revolve around a large family gathering, particularly a family gathering that occurs in the wake of a family tragedy.

It’s also a story that feels a bit nostalgic right now, as most of us are remembering other holidays with family and friends and wondering how this holiday season (Easter is this coming Sunday) will be when we are all sheltering in place and away from the people we would normally travel to see.

But Gaby Fine is definitely of two minds – if not more – about her imminent trip back home to spend Passover with her family. Because reasons. Lots and lots and LOTS of reasons.

In her early 30s, Gaby is newly unattached after her recent breakup with her latest boyfriend. Tom was basically a judgmental asshole who did his best to ridicule everything Gaby said and did. His whole purpose in the relationship was to sap her self-esteem, and he did an unfortunately good job of it.

But that means that her mother, and the rest of her family, will spend the holidays making extremely unsubtle digs at her unattached state – especially as mom seems to have liked the asshole and blames Gaby for the breakup. Anyone who has ever shown up to a wedding or family function under these circumstances will know all too well just how constant the digs are and how terrible they make a person feel.

So Gaby, with the encouragement of her friend Riley, cooks up the idea of taking a fake date to Passover. When she gets up the nerve to ask the hottie at the gym she’s been eyeing up for months, she’s flummoxed when he tells her that he is deaf, astonished that he agrees, and bowled over by the fact that her need for a fake date meshes with his need to get his pushy ex out of his life and space.

Gaby and Levi Miller come to a mutual accord over an intense round of in-person texting. He’ll come to Passover with her, for two days in Connecticut, giving him the perfect excuse for avoiding his own family gathering that weekend in Maine.

She gets her mother off her back, and he gets the space for his ex-fiance to finally admit to both their parents that their relationship is over.

Of course, nothing is remotely that simple, and neither situation was exactly all that simple to begin with. Because neither Levi nor Gaby expected to fall in love with their “fake date”. And Levi didn’t expect the house of cards he was holding up to collapse in the middle – and all around the edges. And break both of their hearts.

Escape Rating B: For the most part, I really, really liked Matzah Ball Surprise. Especially because I was certainly surprised to see a mainstream romance that was wrapped this much around Jewish holidays and Jewish culture. I really liked Gaby and Levi as characters, and loved watching their relationship blossom.

As much as Gaby’s mother reminded me of my own, and as much as that drove me crazy, I could understand EXACTLY where Gaby was coming from about that whole side of the equation. I don’t have quite the need that Gaby does for things to stay in place, but the unrelenting familial pressure – been there, done that, still have some of the emotional scars.

The struggle that Levi and Gaby went through just to communicate felt like it was right on target. It’s not something I would know but the author certainly would as she herself is hard of hearing and many of her previous books feature characters who face similar challenges to Levi, so she knows whereof she speaks – or writes.

But there was one part of this story that didn’t work for me, and it was enough of an issue that it keeps the story from being an A or even A-. A reason that is wrapped up in all the secrets that Levi is keeping, and the reasons for those secrets.

Levi’s stuck in the middle of a small problem that he makes into a huge dilemma, at least as far as Gaby is concerned. He broke up with his fiance, Monica, but she is sorta/kinda blackmailing him into not revealing that they broke up to their parents because she is trying to get a business loan from her dad and he doesn’t trust her. Multiple problems on that front, because she’s not trustworthy in the truth-telling sense, and hasn’t gone into detail about her business plans, which might actually be trustworthy.

And Monica comes off as a manipulative bitch – only because she is.

Levi promised her he wouldn’t tell ANYONE, which means he appears to be an engaged man cheating on his fiance with Gaby. Or, at least it sure looks that way, especially when their fake date starts to turn real, and he STILL doesn’t reveal what’s going on.

That whole piece of the puzzle felt like one giant, contrived drama-llama. It didn’t seem like a big enough secret to keep under the circumstances – and probably one he shouldn’t have promised in the first place. So the revelation of his lie was appropriately devastating, but the lie itself seemed like small potatoes that should never have been baked in the first place. I’m mixing metaphors but the lie didn’t make enough sense to become that big of a deal.

So come to the seder. Drink the wine and stick around for the family drama. The couple are a terrific match, the romance is lovely, and there aren’t too many bitter herbs mixed into the charoset.

Review: Anthropocene Rag by Alex Irvine

Review: Anthropocene Rag by Alex IrvineAnthropocene Rag by Alexander C. Irvine
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Pages: 256
Published by Tor.com on March 31, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the future United States, our own history has faded into myth and traveling across the country means navigating wastelands and ever-changing landscapes.

The country teems with monsters and artificial intelligences try to unpack their own becoming by recreating myths and legends of their human creators. Prospector Ed, an emergent AI who wants to understand the people who made him, assembles a ragtag team to reach the mythical Monument City.

In this nanotech Western, Alex Irvine infuses American mythmaking with terrifying questions about the future and who we will become.

My Review:

I’m still trying to figure out what I just read. But then, I was trying to figure that out while I was reading it, and not coming up with terribly coherent answers.

The closest that I can come is that this is a “road” story, much in the same way that American Gods is a road story. But instead of the world’s mythology holding it all together, in Anthropocene Rag what’s holding the world together – for extremely loose definitions of together – is an amalgamation of American history, story and Boom particles.

It’s a bit as if the road trip in American Gods took place in a post-apocalyptic world, where the apocalypse was the slamming together of our original timeline and one in which magic and monsters work. Kind of like the worlds of Kai Gracen and Heartstrikers.

All wrapped up in a bow made out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate in the colors of the Yellow Brick Road. But the “man behind the curtain” in this scenario is P.T. Barnum and not the Wizard of Oz – or anywhere else.

Or is it all something else? Is it Data, wanting to be human? Or a thought experiment by a sentient AI, desperate to learn what life is all about?

Perhaps it’s all of the above. At least in one of its infinite iterations.

Escape Rating B: At first, Anthropocene Rag feels more like a road story than anything else. While the instigating event is clearly a callback to Willy Wonka, the journey that is undertaken by the six recipients – and one thief – of the Golden Tickets goes through times and places that are not on any map, either now or then. They begin their quests for the semi-mythical Monument City from the literal four corners of this post-apocalyptic US, this land created by the Boom, a Boomerica where all the myths and legends and histories and tales that make up the identity of these theoretically United States are all true, and all occurring simultaneously, no matter how disorienting that might be to the travelers in order to finally converge in a place that no one believes is real – even when they are standing right in front of it.

Along the way they traverse places that have become entirely creations of the Boom, like Reno, and places where life isn’t all that much different than it is now. Or at least than it was before the current pandemic.

But the characters in the story aren’t so much characters as they are a combination of tour guide and archetype, leading the reader on a journey of discovery. Not their discoveries, although they do make them, but the purpose of these individuals is to teach the emerging sentient A.I. about what it means to be, not so much to be human as Data desired, but to be self-aware.

It’s fascinating, but more as an experiment than as a story in and of itself. I think that a lot of readers will probably bounce off of it, but it is worth sticking with to see exactly what spider is at the heart of this nanotech web.

And there’s a lesson in the end that is even more apropos now than it was when the author penned it. “In a disaster, life goes on.”

Review: Sunrise on Half Moon Bay by Robyn Carr + Giveaway

Review: Sunrise on Half Moon Bay by Robyn Carr + GiveawaySunrise on Half Moon Bay by Robyn Carr
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 304
Published by Mira on April 14, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Sometimes the happiness we’re looking for has been there all along…

Adele and Justine have never been close. Born twenty years apart, Justine was already an adult when Addie was born. The sisters love each other, but they don’t really know each other.

When Addie dropped out of university to care for their ailing parents, Justine, a successful lawyer, covered the expenses. It was the best arrangement at the time, but now that their parents are gone, the future has changed dramatically for both women.

Addie had great plans for her life but has been worn down by the pressures of being a caregiver and doesn’t know how to live for herself. And Justine’s success has come at a price. Her marriage is falling apart despite her best efforts.

Neither woman knows how to start life over, but both realize they can and must support each other the way only sisters can. Together they find the strength to accept their failures and overcome their challenges. Happiness is within reach, if only they have the courage to fight for it.

Set in the stunning coastal town of Half Moon Bay, California, Robyn Carr’s new novel examines the joys of sisterhood and the importance of embracing change.

My Review:

Sunrise on Half Moon Bay is an absolute heartbreaker of a story that leads its heroines through some very dark places. But when they emerge on the other side, they are all made stronger by the journey. And they beautifully earn their peace, their joy, and their happy ever afters.

Even if – or perhaps especially because those HEAs are not dependent on the men in their lives. But rather on their love for each other as sisters, daughters, aunt and nieces. The women of the Descaro family have learned to help each other stand tall and strong. And it’s marvelous.

The story is focused on the Descaro sisters, successful Justine in her early 50s, and rudderless Adele, their parents’ surprise baby, in her early 30s. But as the story begins, both of them are at crossroads in their lives.

Adele’s situation is the more obvious. She’s depressed, unfocused and not sure how to pick up her life and her dreams after 8 years of being her invalid parents’ caregiver. Now that her mother has died, her life is her own again. She just doesn’t know what to do with it now that she has it back.

Justine, a successful corporate attorney, is facing a decision. The company she has worked long nights and weekends for for over 20 years has just gone through a merger. Positions are being eliminated right, left and center, and she knows that hers is on the chopping block. She’s burned out and wants to do something different, but her family, her stay-at-home husband, her two high school age daughters, AND her sister are all dependent on her income. An income that is now in jeopardy.

But so is her marriage. When Addie witnesses her brother-in-law passionately kissing a woman other than his wife at the local pizza parlor, she feels compelled to tell her sister what she saw.

And that’s where everyone’s life goes more than a little pear-shaped, as the perfect life that Justine thought she had goes up in flames. Leaving her with a choice. She can continue putting her time and energy into a relationship based on lies, and into a job that has long since lost its appeal. Or she can choose another path. She can divorce the cheating husband and find work that fills her soul.

While Addie, shocked into motion at the shattering of her sister’s life, begins to take charge of her own.

Together they find a way forwards into the future. And finally into becoming the friends, the sisters, the family that they never really were.

Escape Rating A: I didn’t expect to love this as much as I did. But I really, really did. I found it to be a completely compelling read, and I basically lost a day between its pages, pulled along in this story of growth and change and sisterhood.

I loved Justine’s side of the story. I found her easy to identify with and enjoyed the time spent in her head, even when there was so much in her headspace that was hard and painful. She thought her life was perfect. She believed her marriage was good. She counted on her husband as her partner in life and in raising their girls. The arrangement where she worked and he took care of their daughters was one that they had agreed to, and that appeared to be working for both of them. Until she learned that it wasn’t.

I adored her decisiveness in the face of her discovery. She didn’t waffle or dilly-dally. She was fortunate to have a successful career, and she picked up the pieces and started moving on. There were painful days when the pieces seemed to scatter all over again, but she kept moving forward and eventually got through.

Of the sisters, Addie was the dilly-dallier, but her journey was a portrait of a different kind of learning and growing. She started by just putting one foot in front of the other, but learned to find a new purpose as well as let go of old baggage. It was only in her search for love that she kept holding herself back.

I liked the way that the two sisters grew up, grew together and grew towards each other. And that they did their level best to provide examples of strong women who learned to stand their ground to Justine’s two daughters.

I also liked the fact that while romantic relationships do eventually become part of their lives, those romances are not the reward. Finding a new man is never the be-all and end-all of either woman’s journey, and that’s a great example for the teenagers.

Instead, they both get their own stuff together first and then reach out for someone who not merely loves but genuinely respects them and their strength.

A great story with the best kind of happy ending!

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

I’m giving away a copy of Sunrise on Half Moon Bay to one lucky US commenter on this tour!

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The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 4-5-20 + Giveaway

Sunday Post

Today is my birthday. And it’s weird to be celebrating a birthday without even the possibility of going out for dinner. It’s not that I generally make a big deal out of it, but it just feels strange not to be able to mark it much at all. And to know that by the time we can go out again, it will be too far in the past to make any sense. This makes all those childhood birthdays when I couldn’t have a party and cake because my birthday often fell during Passover seem like wild extravaganzas in comparison. (Passover this year starts on Wednesday, so I did miss it this year!)

Today is also First Contact Day in the Star Trek Universe. In that version of what would be history, Earth’s known “First Contact” with an alien race will occur on April 5, 2063 when the Vulcans observe Earth’s first warp flight. If this sounds familiar at all, that’s because it’s the event that the Borg are trying to prevent in the movie Star Trek: First Contact. Probably my second favorite of all the Star Trek movies, after Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. And this might be a GREAT day for a rewatch.

But to completely mix my favorite SFF metaphors, while today may be First Contact Day, it is my birthday and, just as every day this past week. it will be a Hobbit birthday. Meaning that I am giving presents instead of getting them. Today’s giveaway is another Barnes & Noble $25 Gift Card, but all of this week’s giveaways are still open, and will be until the end of this coming week.

Live Long, and Prosper!

Current Giveaways:

$25 Amazon Gift Card in the Blogo-Birthday Celebration
$25 in Books in the Blogo-Birthday Celebration
$10 Amazon Gift Card OR $10 Book in the Worth Melting For Giveaway Hop
$25 Barnes & Noble Gift Card in the Blogoversary Day Giveaway
Any book by Duncan M. Hamilton
Any book in the Sebastian St. Cyr series by C.S. Harris
Any book by M.L. Buchman

Winner Announcements:

The winner of the Snow Much Fun Giveaway Hop is Viki S.

Blog Recap:

Early Blogo-Birthday Celebration + Giveaway
A++ Review: Servant of the Crown by Duncan M. Hamilton + Giveaway
Worth Melting For Giveaway Hop
A+ Review: Who Speaks for the Damned by C.S. Harris + Giveaway
A Review: Condor by M.L. Buchman + Giveaway
Stacking the Shelves (386) + Giveaway

Coming This Week:

Sunrise on Half Moon Bay by Robyn Carr (blog tour review)
Matzah Ball Surprise by Laura Brown (review)
Anthropocene Rag by Alex Irvine (review)
Murder at the Mena House by Erica Ruth Neubauer (review)

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Stacking the Shelves (386) + Giveaway

Stacking the Shelves

Today is the actual OMG 9th anniversary of the first post on Reading Reality. Writing this blog is turning out to be the longest “job” I have ever held. And what a wild, strange trip it’s been, but never more so than this year. While I think we’ll all be glad when life turns into whatever the new normal is going to be, I’d like to think that the reviews and features here at Reading Reality are giving readers at least a few suggestions on what to read to take your minds off the current crisis. A book is always a great way to get away from it all when you have to physically stay put.

I have a couple of final giveaways. Today I’m giving away a $25 Barnes & Noble Gift Card. And I will tomorrow, too. These are gift cards that I happen to have and have never used, and this feels like a good time to share the wealth of books with a couple more lucky readers of this blog. To thank you all for your comments, support and readership over the past 9 years.

Here’s to 9 more!

For Review:
Alpha Night (Psy-Changeling #19) by Nalini Singh
Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh
The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon
Chaos Reigning (Consortium Rebellion #3) by Jessie Mihalik
Creatures of Charm and Hunger (Diabolist’s Library #1) by Molly Tanzer
Dance Away with Me by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Dear Emmie Blue by Lia Louis
Destination Wedding by Diksha Basu
The Devil of Downtown (Uptown Girls #3) by Joanna Shupe
Dragon Unleashed (Fallen Empire #2) by Grace Draven
Drowned Country (Greenhollow #2) by Emily Tesh
Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan
The Ghosts of Sherwood (Robin Hood Stories #2) by Carrie Vaughn
The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda
The Hollow Ones by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
I Was Told It Would Get Easier by Abbi Waxman
Last Tang Standing by Lauren Ho
The Light of Days by Judy Batalion
The Living Dead by George A. Romero and Daniel Kraus
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
The Mirror Man by Jane Gilmartin
Miss Cecily’s Recipes for Exceptional Ladies by Vicky Zimmerman
The Obsidian Tower (Rooks and Ruin #1) by Melissa Caruso
The Paris Hours by Alex George
Party of Two (Wedding Date #5) by Jasmine Guillory
Remain Silent (Manon Bradshaw #3) by Susie Steiner
Riviera Gold (Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes #16) by Laurie R. King
Stranger in the Lake by Kimberly Belle
Sunshield by Emily B. Martin
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
What Would Wimsey Do? (Not-Quite Golden Age #1) by Guy Fraser-Samspon

Purchased from Amazon/Audible:
Ghostrider (Miranda Chase #4) by M.L. Buchman (pre-order)
Tangled Truths (Death Before Dragons #3) by Lindsay Buroker

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Review: Condor by M.L. Buchman + Giveaway

Review: Condor by M.L. Buchman + GiveawayCondor: an NTSB / military technothriller (Miranda Chase) Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #3
Pages: 428
Published by Buchman Bookworks on March 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Antonov AN-124 Ruslan “Condor”—the heavyweight champ among production cargo jets. Russian tanks, American firefighting helicopters, rescue submersibles, satellites, city-sized power transformers...the Condor hauls them all over the world.

But when one lifts a top-secret payload rated as too dangerous, the US government decides it must take action. Untraceable action. Call Delta Force? SEAL Team Six?

No. They call Miranda Chase, lead crash investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board to fake a crash. Miranda refuses, but the stakes grow higher and higher. Soon she may be too late to stop the new Cold War from becoming the final war.

My Review:

In this third book in the Miranda Chase NTSB series, the team has finally found the fifth man for its five-man band. And team leader Miranda Chase may have finally found somebody of her own who gets her for all the parts of who she is – laser-focused, single-minded, socially clueless, neuro-atypical and pure savant at figuring out what made a plane crash – no matter how much anyone – or everyone – attempts to hide the truth.

Whether they do that hiding before or after the crash she’s investigating hits the ground.

All of the books in this series have been named for the planes that have crashed – the planes that Miranda’s team has come to investigate. A Drone, a Thunderbolt and now a Condor – so far. And this one is no different in that start. But it is certainly different in the way that events play out.

And the story feels like it owes as much to Tom Clancy’s kind of spy games as it does to M.L. Buchman’s brand of military romance. In fact, it feels like the blend may be reaching an optimal mix for all kinds of combustion.

But first there’s a downed plane, a dead crew, a top secret and completely torched cargo, a Russian counter espionage agent and a CIA Director with designs on becoming the Second Lady of the U.S. – and eventually the First.

In the middle of it all, there’s Miranda Chase and her team, figuring out how and why the plane crashed in the U.S. – and how to make another one just like it crash in the middle of Russia – without ever giving the game away to anyone watching on either side of the deadly equation.

And without any members of her team getting bogged down – or taken out – by the weight of the baggage that they brought along for the ride.

Escape Rating A: In this third book in Miranda Chase’s series, it really feels like the team is hitting its stride. They have really begun to gel as a unit, and as a consequence, the individuals that make up the team have begun to trust each other enough to reveal some of the trauma that’s hidden in their pasts.

Miranda’s past, and its effects on her, have been part of the dynamic from the very beginning. She joined the NTSB and learned to analyze plane crashes because her parents died in one when she was a child. What she wasn’t aware of at the time, but certainly is now, is that her parents were CIA agents, and that their plane was sabotaged in a deliberate – and successful – attempt to take them out.

But we’re still learning about the rest of the team, just as they are learning about each other. As a consequence, the operation that provides the edge-of-the-suspense in this outing is wrapped around the team’s strongman – or in this case strongwoman – former Australian Special Forces operative Holly Harper.

Holly feels responsible for the deaths of her Australian team, as she was the only survivor of an operation that went so completely pear-shaped that even the pear would be outraged. Holly’s secondment to US NTSB was her way of putting her ghosts as far behind her as possible – literally half a world away.

She’s scared of being part of a “team” again, fearful that her bad luck has followed her across a very large ocean. But the operation that the team has been sucked into, faking the crash of a Russian military cargo transport in Russian airspace, is a job that requires all of the old skills that Holly hoped to never need again. But if she’s to save her new team, she’ll have to become the badass covert operative she left behind.

Because there’s an equally badass covert operative who is guaranteed to take out all the members of her new team with extreme prejudice. Unless Holly gets her first. Or unless that slimy new Director of the CIA plays them all.

The operation, in all of its many hair-raising and nail-biting parts is a big callback to some of the wilder adventures of the Night Stalkers in Buchman’s first military romance series. That both Holly and surprisingly Miranda come out of this adventure with the possibility of romance in their own respective futures made this entry in the series feel closer to what I was expecting back when I first picked up Drone – a heart stopping action adventure story with a little bit (so far) of heart pounding romance on top.

I can’t wait to see where Miranda and her team go – and which planes fall down in front of them – in the next book in this series, Ghostrider. I already have it on preorder!

I’ve enjoyed this author’s writing since I read his first military romance, The Night is Mine, back in 2012. He has written plenty of terrific books since then, ranging from military romance to action adventure romance to mysteries to  SF to thrillers and some that straddle all the lines. I haven’t read them all – he’s been VERY prolific! – but I’ve read quite a few and enjoyed every one.

So, as part of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration, I’m giving one lucky reader the opportunity to climb aboard one of M.L. Buchman’s thrill-a-minute adventures. The winner of today’s giveaway will get their choice of any one of his books. Whoever wins is in for a real treat of a story!

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Review: Who Speaks for the Damned by C.S. Harris + Giveaway

Review: Who Speaks for the Damned by C.S. Harris + GiveawayWho Speaks for the Damned (Sebastian St. Cyr, #15) by C.S. Harris
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Sebastian St. Cyr #15
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley on April 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Sebastian St. Cyr investigates the mysterious life and death of a nobleman accused of murder in this enthralling new historical mystery from the USA Today bestselling author of Why Kill the Innocent....

It's June 1814, and the royal families of Austria, Russia, and the German states have gathered in London at the Prince Regent's invitation to celebrate the defeat of Napoléon and the restoration of monarchical control throughout Europe. But the festive atmosphere is marred one warm summer evening by the brutal murder of a disgraced British nobleman long thought dead.

Eighteen years before, Nicholas Hayes, the third son of the late Earl of Seaford, was accused of killing a beautiful young French émigré and transported to Botany Bay for life. Even before his conviction, Hayes had been disowned by his father. Few in London were surprised when they heard the ne'er-do-well had died in New South Wales in 1799. But those reports were obviously wrong. Recently Hayes returned to London with a mysterious young boy in tow--a child who vanishes shortly after Nicholas's body is discovered.

Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is drawn into the investigation by his valet, Jules Calhoun. With Calhoun's help, Sebastian begins to piece together the shattered life of the late Earl's ill-fated youngest son. Why did Nicholas risk his life and freedom by returning to England? And why did he bring the now-missing young boy with him? Several nervous Londoners had reason to fear that Nicholas Hayes had returned to kill them. One of them might have decided to kill him first.

My Review:

Once upon a time, the author of the Sebastian St. Cyr series described how she came to write St. Cyr and his series. She said that she wanted to create a character who seemed, on the surface, to be the epitome of the Regency hero; tall, dark, handsome and brooding. (I think with emphasis on the brooding.) But then to explicitly NOT make him the hero of a Regency romance. Thus was Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, born.

A much later description of Devlin referred to him as Darcy with more than a touch of James Bond, but that doesn’t really feel right. St. Cyr seems to have always been carrying too much emotional baggage to have ever been Darcy, while his adventures and investigations take him into much darker places than Bond usually goes and afford him considerably fewer technological toys – even ones that would have existed in the Regency.

St. Cyr relies on his instincts, his brains and his considerable ability to fight as dirty as necessary, whether that fight involves fisticuffs, social exposure or politics – as much as he hates the latter options when needed.

When his story began in 2005 – or in 1811 in St. Cyr’s world, England was on the brink of the Regency and St. Cyr was a battle-scarred veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, unable to settle or sleep, wracked with PTSD after his life-altering experiences in a war that had not yet ended. (Even by the time period of this 15th book in the series, 1814, the war is still not over. It is merely in abeyance during Napoleon’s exile on the island of Elba.)

St. Cyr, as the heir to an earldom, should be one of the Regency dandies that appear in the pages of so many romances set in the period. Instead, he has become an unofficial and unpaid murder investigator with the help of the head of the newly formed police agency at Bow Street. His membership at the highest levels of the aristocracy allows him to poke his nose into many, many places where a simple copper would be thrown out the back door.

Even his father-in-law, the Prince Regent’s cousin and spymaster Jarvis, is forced to deal with St. Cyr whether he likes it or not. And he definitely does not.

This latest entry in the series is an enthralling mystery that does an especially good job of exposing the glitter of the Regency Era as the bio-luminescence of something rotting in the dark, as St. Cyr finds himself investigating the death of a man who is all too much like the one that he sees in his own mirror. There but for the grace of god, and just a few scraps of luck that turned good instead of bad, would have gone St. Cyr.

It’s a case he can’t let go of, no matter how many times he’s warned off. And no matter how high the halls of power that he needs to bring low.

Escape Rating A+: It should be fairly clear that this is one of my favorite series. In fact, if it isn’t clear already, as part of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration I ONLY review stuff I really, really love. After all, this is my birthday and the blog’s birthday and why shouldn’t I treat myself to some books and authors that I know I’ll love?

Especially since this whole week is a hobbit’s birthday, meaning that I give presents instead of getting them. It just wouldn’t do to give away books I don’t utterly adore.

What I love about this series in general, and it’s certainly exemplified by this entry, boils down to two things. One is certainly the development of the characters. St. Cyr and his wife Hero have created a partnership of equals in a way that doesn’t often happen in historical romance. They have both come through dark places and dark things, and found each other in spite of people and circumstances that stood in their way.

They both carry a lot of baggage, and it is not a weight that either can carry FOR the other. Rather, carrying it together lightens the load. I also have to say that more than either Darcy or Bond, the character that St. Cyr most often reminds me of is Roarke from the In Death series. They share the same kind of darkness in their pasts, and they both work on expiating their demons in the same ways. They have also both formed strong partnerships with women who were initially on opposing sides from themselves.

The other thing that makes this series so strong is its setting. It is so much the opposite of what we think of the Regency as being. There was so much glitter at the top, and so much rot underneath. The murder in this story is a case in point. The powers-that-be have already decided who MUST be guilty, regardless of who is actually guilty. The attitudes reflected by our protagonists resonate with 21st century readers and yet feel part and parcel of their time and place.

Wrong is always wrong. Murder is always murder. No matter who the victim was, or what they, themselves might have done. That St. Cyr sees so much of himself in this particular victim adds to the poignancy of the whole story.

In the end, good triumphed, at least temporarily. Evil got its just desserts. And the powers that be blame St. Cyr for righting a wrong that many would have preferred to bury. A combination of things as they should be with the acknowledgement that many in power do not desire that outcome.

While I am eagerly awaiting St. Cyr’s next case, probably this time next year, I’m offering one lucky reader the chance to either begin this marvelous series or pick up wherever they might have left off. This is a series where you do need to at least start at the beginning. I read the first few, lost track of the series in the middle and have returned for the last several and have enjoyed every single one since I returned.

I hope that the winner of this giveaway will too.

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Worth Melting For Giveaway Hop

Welcome to the Worth Melting For Giveaway Hop, hosted by Mama the Fox!

It’s April Fools’ Day, we’re all quarantined in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, and I don’t know about you, but the thing that really feels like its melting is our brains. Also it’s raining. Again. It’s WAY too late for snow in this neck of the woods.

Or, to put it another way, our 90-day trial of 2020 is now officially over, and no one knows where to send it back to get a do-over.

But it’s finally April. We can hope that things will look up. That the sun will come out tomorrow. That the dawn will come. We WILL get through this.

And in the meantime there are books. And giveaways for more books. And giveaways for gift cards for – you guessed it – more books.

Today I’m giving away the winner’s choice of a $10 Amazon Gift Card or a book, up to $10 in value from the Book Depository. This giveaway is available wherever the Book Depository ships in this big wide and somewhat shut down and shut in world.

This is also day 3 of my annual Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week. There’s a giveaway here at Reading Reality every day this week. Monday’s giveaway is a $25 Amazon Gift AND $25 in Books. Tuesday’s giveaway is the winner’s choice of books by one of my favorite new authors. Thursday’s and Friday’s giveaways will be books from a couple of my long-standing favorite authors. So check out the giveaways! No fooling!

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MamatheFox and all participating blogs are not held responsible for sponsors who fail to fulfill their prize obligations.

Review: Servant of the Crown by Duncan M. Hamilton + Giveaway

Review: Servant of the Crown by Duncan M. Hamilton + GiveawayServant of the Crown by Duncan M. Hamilton
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, sword and sorcery
Series: Dragonslayer #3
Pages: 336
Published by Tor Books on March 10, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Exciting Conclusion to the Dragonslayer Trilogy Long laid plans finally bear fruit, but will it prove as sweet as hoped for? With the king on his deathbed, the power Amaury has sought for so long is finally in his grasp.

As opposition gathers from unexpected places, dragonkind fights for survival and a long-awaited reckoning grows close.

Soléne masters her magic, but questions the demands the world will make of her. Unable to say no when the call of duty comes, Gill realizes that the life he had given up on has not given up on him.

Once a servant of the crown, ever a servant of the crown...

    The Dragonslayer Trilogy:

1. Dragonslayer
2. Knight of the Silver Circle
3. Servant of the Crown

My Review:

First things first. I just want to say what a treat it was to start a series, fall in love with it, and be able to just read – or be read to – all the way through to the end without having to wait months if not years for the later books in a series. I don’t always have that opportunity, either because I fall in love with the first book long before the others are out, or because I run into the “so many books, so little time” conundrum and have to space things out because of other reading commitments. Because I waited to start the first book (Dragonslayer) until the entire series was out – a happy accident! – I was able to do the whole thing in one swell foop. And wow! What a ride!

Second, this is epic fantasy of the sword and sorcery school, and there just hasn’t been as much of that around recently. I’d forgotten how much I love this end of the epic fantasy pool, so I’m grateful for the reminder and will be looking for more of it.

Third, this story manages to be both epic and not epically long at the same time in a way that just really, really works. In an era when so many epic fantasies are made up of several individual door-stop sized books, it was a joy to get such a rich and complete story in a length (or maybe I should reckon this as height) of just under one doorstop at 1,000 pages in total.

Fourth, but still not last, what makes this series so fascinating to read are its characters, and the way that their individual arcs both fulfill fantasy tropes and subvert them at the same time. Because this is a story where the characters feel like real, flawed human beings – and yet they still manage to be Big Damn Heroes, whether they want to be or not. And it’s definitely not.

I’m specifically referring to Gill and Soléne, because their respective journeys, separately and together-but-not-TOGETHER, form the backbone of the series.

Gill is the failed hero of the previous generation. His character, who is very much a classic archetype, usually becomes the mentor figure in most epic stories, whether fantasy or not, and that character usually dies somewhere in the middle so the “real” hero can take center stage. (One of my personal favorite characters of this type is actually dead to begin with, but that’s another story.)

Obi-Wan Kenobi is a great example. He was a hero in the previous war. He failed, he fell and then he hid himself away in the deserts of Tatooine. He becomes Luke’s first trainer and mentor in the Force, and then he’s killed by Vader. The mentor figure always dies. Like Merlin. And Dumbledore. And every other teacher/trainer of the young hero.

But the young hero in the Dragonslayer series is on an entirely different course than Gill’s. Because Gill doesn’t die. Instead, he becomes the hero, one more time, in spite of his own wishes to die in obscurity at the bottom of a bottle. He is, in the end, the “Servant of the Crown” as named in the title of this final volume. He serves no matter what he, himself might want. And he becomes the hero because no matter how many times he’s struck down, he gets up and tries again. And again. And again. Until the job is done.

If it ever will be.

Soléne is that young hero. Gill’s the one out in front to collect all the glory and fight all the battles, or so it seems. But she’s every bit the hero that he is, just from behind the scenes. Her power is huge, but it is also quiet. She’s the mage who operates in the shadows, not because she’s the woman inspiring the hero, but because the power she wields works best from the dark – and the quiet. He knows that she brought him the victory, and he knows that the best thing he can do for her is to acknowledge that privately and not publicly. Not that the Crown won’t give her its own semi-public acknowledgements. Maybe. If they succeed.

It is fascinating that both of their personal journeys are the journey to learn to trust themselves. He has to step up, and she has to step forward, but in so many ways it’s the same step.

I also absolutely adored that there is no romance here – nor should there be. It is wonderful to see trust, friendship and true comradeship in a relationship between a man and a woman that has absolutely no basis in will they/won’t they. Because this particular pair really, really shouldn’t – at least not with each other – and the reader is NEVER led to believe that they should. Solene is never Gill’s reward or his prize, nor is she ever fridged. She’s as big a damn hero as he is, just in a different way.

Even Amaury the villain is very, very human. While he is certainly a meditation on the cliche that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, he’s never able to grasp the absolute power he thinks he deserves. And the minute he gets close to it, it does him in. But throughout he’s human and understandable, even if he’s never a sympathetic character at all. And it’s another subversion of trope that Amaury the human is the big villain, while the really big creatures we think will be the villains, those dragons of the series title, actually aren’t. Well, at least all of them aren’t.

Escape Rating A++: I need to stop squeeing at this point. It’s pretty obvious that I adored this series from beginning to end. I began it in audio – every time – but switched to text at the point where I just couldn’t find out what happened next nearly fast enough.

I will say that the reader for all three books, Simon Vance, was absolutely marvelous. I wanted to continue to listen to him, but patience has never been my long suit. If you love fantasy and have an excuse to listen to the full story, it’s a wonderful listen.

I loved this series so much that I decided to include it as one of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week reviews and giveaways. The winner of today’s giveaway will receive their choice of one book by Duncan M. Hamilton (up to $20 US), whether in this series or one of his previous series (and if anyone knows whether they are all set in this same world, please let me know!)

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