Review: A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline Winspear

Review: A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline WinspearA Sunlit Weapon (Maisie Dobbs #17) by Jacqueline Winspear
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II
Series: Maisie Dobbs #17
Pages: 358
Published by Harper on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the latest installment of the New York Times bestselling series, a series of possible attacks on British pilots leads Jacqueline Winspear's beloved heroine Maisie Dobbs into a mystery involving First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
October 1942. Jo Hardy, a 22-year-old ferry pilot, is delivering a Supermarine Spitfire--the fastest fighter aircraft in the world--to Biggin Hill Aerodrome, when she realizes someone is shooting at her aircraft from the ground. Returning to the location on foot, she finds an American serviceman in a barn, bound and gagged. She rescues the man, who is handed over to the American military police; it quickly emerges that he is considered a suspect in the disappearance of a fellow soldier who is missing.
Tragedy strikes two days later, when another ferry pilot crashes in the same area where Jo's plane was attacked. At the suggestion of one of her colleagues, Jo seeks the help of psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs. Meanwhile, Maisie's husband, a high-ranking political attach� based at the American embassy, is in the thick of ensuring security is tight for the first lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, during her visit to the Britain. There's already evidence that German agents have been circling: the wife of a president represents a high value target. Mrs. Roosevelt is clearly in danger, and there may well be a direct connection to the death of the woman ferry pilot and the recent activities of two American servicemen.
To guarantee the safety of the First Lady--and of the soldier being held in police custody--Maisie must uncover that connection. At the same time, she faces difficulties of an entirely different nature with her young daughter, Anna, who is experiencing wartime struggles of her own.

My Review:

I love the Maisie Dobbs series, so I had been saving this book for a time when I needed a reading treat. As yesterday was Memorial Day, I was looking for a book about war and what comes after. Considering the origins of Memorial Day, I probably should have been looking for a book set during the U.S. Civil War, but I remembered I’d been saving this one and today seemed like a perfect time. So here we are.

Part of what makes this series so compelling is the way that Maisie Dobbs as an investigator turns some of the mystery conventions on their pointy little heads. A lot of fictional detectives don’t believe in coincidence, so when there are multiple crimes it usually turns out that there’s a single cause or perpetrator at their roots.

Maisie, as trained by the late and often lamented Maurice Blanche, sees coincidences as guideposts – not necessarily to the crime she’s investigating, but to something in her own life that needs looking into. Which means that in addition to the usual questioning of witnesses and suspects, Maisie is quite often questioning herself. Not that she doubts herself, but that she’s always looking for the lesson that the universe is trying to teach her.

The cases and incidents that she undertakes to resolve in A Sunlit Weapon have huge, potentially world-shattering consequences. They will also change the life of one little girl. And all the aspects of that tangled investigation are wrapped around war. Not just this war, but also the one before. And not just the fighting, but the grief that inevitably follows in its wake.

Maisie begins with one case. A young aviatrix, a member of the Air Transport Auxiliary tasked with repositioning planes from one airbase to another, is nearly shot down over Kent by someone on the ground. When Jo Hardy goes back to check out the scene on the ground, she finds, not the shooter, but Mattias Crittenden, a young black American soldier bound and gagged in a deserted barn. She is determined to make sure that the black GI gets justice and not a lynching, so she turns to Maisie for help.

Maisie also has a much more personal case of her own. Her adopted daughter Anna is being bullied at school because Anna is slightly darker skinned than the typical “English Rose” complexion. The children at her school have suddenly started harassing her and referring to her as an enemy Italian, when in fact she’s English. (Her father was a Maltese sailor. Malta became part of the British Empire in 1814.)

What has Maisie perplexed is that Anna was happy in school and eager to learn – up until the past few weeks. Something at the school has changed – and not for the better.

These two “cases” shouldn’t have anything to do with each other. Or to the third case that falls into Maisie’s lap. Her new husband, Mark Scott, is an American attached to the U.S. Embassy. His current task is to handle security for Eleanor Roosevelt’s imminent visit to Britain. Scott has learned that there are plans to assassinate the First Lady while she’s in Britain.

Maisie’s search of the barn where Private Crittenden was discovered turned up two items. The dog tags of Crittenden’s friend Private Stone, who is missing – and coded plans that reference the First Lady’s codename while she’s traveling.

Somehow, Jo Hardy’s mysterious ground shooter and the plot to assassinate Mrs. Roosevelt are linked – even if Maisie doesn’t yet know how. And all of it, along with the mystery at little Anna’s school, may not all be part of the same series of crimes, but are all part of the same thing – the terrible consequences of war.

Escape Rating A-: We’ve followed Maisie from her childhood apprenticeship with Maurice Blanche through her nursing service in WW1, through her grief at the loss of her fiancé, her eventual wedding and subsequent tragic widowhood, her recovery and now her second marriage to the American Mark Scott who she met in a previous book in this series, The American Agent. What we haven’t seen until now is Maisie as a married woman, as the period in her life when she was married happened between Leaving Everything Most Loved and A Dangerous Place. So for those of us who have followed Maisie through her career, this is the first time we’ve seen her in the position where she’s going to have to negotiate how to balance her work life and personal life in a way that she hasn’t had to before.

Because being an investigator is very much core to who Maisie is as a person. It wasn’t easy giving it up to marry the first time around, but she was younger and less well established. At this point in her life she knows she can’t give up being who she is to become a traditional wife and mother – something that the Headmistress of her daughter’s school throws in her face in their first confrontation.

At the same time, a part of the undercurrent of this story is that Maisie’s job is dangerous, and that no matter what she promises she’s not going to stop doing it. And that her new husband hates the danger she throws herself into – even though that kind of danger is the reason they met in the first place.

But the case, or rather cases, that Maisie looks into exemplify the way that Maisie works. She pulls on one thread because it’s part of her initial remit from her client. The more she pulls, the more she investigates, the more complicated and interwoven the threads seem to be – until they send out branches and tentacles into people and places she never thought they’d go.

It’s not a quick process, so Maisie’s stories aren’t page-turners in a thriller sense. And yet they’re compelling because Maisie makes them so. She’s intelligent and complicated, and the way she works through her cases is the same – no matter where they lead her.

In this case they lead her from a black GI accused of killing his white friend even though no corpse has been found. It’s all too clear that this is a rush to judgment or that he’s a convenient scapegoat because of the color of his skin. There is no part of the way that the US military treats its black soldiers, particularly in the persons of its MPs, that does not grate – not just on 21st century readers but on the British public at large at the time. Because racial segregation doesn’t make sense and that’s all too easy to see through the eyes of people who don’t employ it. (That’s not to say that Britain didn’t and doesn’t have plenty of its own problems in regards to class separation, elitism, etc., just that it didn’t run that way at the time.)

But in doing her best to ensure that Pvt. Crittenden isn’t rushed to a hangman’s noose or the electric chair for the murder of a man who might not even be dead Maisie opens up more cans of worms. As she does.

And in the middle of investigating how Crittenden got to be in that barn – no matter how many roadblocks, literal and figurative, get thrown in her way – Maisie links the barn to the shooting, the shooting to a damaged young man, and the young man all the way back to the Headmistress of her daughter’s school. Not because they have the same beliefs or commit any of the same actions, but because they were all, every single one, damaged by the war that was supposed to have ended all wars.

Not because it didn’t, but because war is hell – both for the ones who fight it and the ones who wait behind.

I am already looking forward to Maisie’s next adventure, and not just because I’m wondering how hard (or if) she’s going to have to hit her husband with a clue-by-four to get it through his head that she’s never going to turn away from doing the right thing no matter how dangerous it might be. As this book took place in the autumn of 1943, I expect the next book to cover some of 1944. If Maisie ends up being involved in the planning of or the misdirection wrapped around D-Day I will not be at all surprised. Riveted, but not surprised. And I can’t wait to read it!

Memorial Day 2022

Vietnam Memorial

I

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.

A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

From “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa.

II

Grandfather died in 1919 and it would be a number of years before the graves of World War I veterans appeared. Meanwhile the white cemetery from our back door to Chapel Hill Road and beyond was filled with the Confederate dead. Every Memorial Day or Decoration Day, the cemetery was dotted with crossbarred Confederate flags. As a Union veteran, Grandfather was entitled to a Union flag for his grave, so every May I walked proudly through a field of Confederate flags hugging my gold-pointed replica of Old Glory. I crossed Chapel Hill Road to the Fitzgerald family burial ground and planted it at the head of Grandfather’s grave.”

From Proud Shoes, a memoir by Pauli Murray, civil rights activist and first African American woman to be ordained to the Episcopal priesthood.

III

The ghosts of American soldiers
wander the streets of Balad by night,
unsure of their way home, exhausted,
the desert wind blowing trash
down the narrow alleys as a voice
sounds from the minaret, a soulfull call
reminding them how alone they are,
how lost. And the Iraqi dead,
they watch in silence from rooftops
as date palms line the shore in silhouette,
leaning toward Mecca when the dawn wind blows.

“Ashbah” from Here, Bullet by Brian Turner, veteran of Bosnia and Iraq.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 5-29-22

Between Freddie’s weekend vet visit and managing to tweak my entire left leg in Pilates on Friday, this week has certainly been a week. One I’d rather not repeat any time soon. Neither Freddie nor I are back to our usual selves, which goes a long way towards explaining why this past week’s proposed schedule and this past week’s actual schedule turned out to be rather different. I’m on the mend, but I’m still worried about Freddie. He’s strong enough to fight the meds, but he’s still not acting like his old self. From the looks of this picture, Lucifer is also still a bit concerned even if he’s trying to pretend he’s above it all – as he usually does.

Current Giveaways:

Moms Rock Giveaway Hop (ENDS TUESDAY!!!)

Winner Announcements:

The winner of the Life’s a Beach Giveaway Hop is Darlene
The winner of the May Flowers Giveaway Hop is Leonie

Blog Recap:

A Review: Flirting with Fifty by Jane Porter
B Review: Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders by Aliette de Bodard
A- Review: The Honeymoon Cottage by Lori Foster
A- Review: Never Coming Home by Hannah Mary McKinnon
A Review: Start the Chase by M.L. Buchman
Stacking the Shelves (498)

Coming This Week:

Memorial Day (Guest post by Galen!)
A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline Winspear (review)
Berry Good Giveaway Hop
The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery (blog tour review)
The Appeal by Janice Hallett (review)

Stacking the Shelves (498)

I just downloaded my Hugo Voters Packet Friday afternoon. I’m not adding THAT pile to this one even though it will be part of my reading this summer. Because OMG this is already a lot. Howsomever, I will be reading a lot this weekend. I tweaked something awful in Pilates this afternoon and it hurts like blazes. And we’ll be watching Freddie like hawks to make sure he doesn’t relapse. He’s more than feisty enough to fight the meds at this point, so he seems fine. But better safe than sorry!

For Review:
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by André Lewis Carter
Beyond the Lavender Fields by Arlem Hawks
The Binding Room (Inspector Anjelica Henley #2) by Nadine Matheson
Cold Fear (Finn Thrillers #2) by Brandon Webb and John David Mann
Counterfeit by Kirstin Chen
Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott
Death Under the Perseids (Havana Mystery #3) by Teresa Dovalpage
The Enigma of Room 622 by Joël Dicker
The House Across the Lake by Riley Sager
A Hundred Other Girls by Iman Hariri-Kia
The Investigator (Letty Davenport #1) by John Sandford
Kaikeyi by Vashnavi Patel (audio)
Lark Ascending by Silas House
The Last of the Seven by Steven Hartov
The Lies I Tell by Julie Clark
The Lost Book of Eleanor Dare by Kimberly Brock
The Magic of Lemon Drop Pie by Rachel Linden
Mary: An Awakening of Terror by Nat Cassidy
Mika in Real Life by Emiko Jean
Murder on the Red River (Cash Blackbear #1) by Marcie R. Rendon
Not Good for Maidens by Tori Bovalino
Poster Girl by Veronica Roth
Something in the Heir by Suzanne Enoch
The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez
Vanessa Jared’s Got a Man by LaQuette
Would You Rather by Allison Ashley

Borrowed from the Library:
The Magnolia Palace by Fiona Davis


If you want to find out more about Stacking The Shelves, please visit the official launch page

Please link your STS post in the linky below:


Review: Start the Chase by M.L. Buchman

Review: Start the Chase by M.L. BuchmanStart the Chase: a Miranda Chase Origin Story Collection by M L Buchman
Format: ebook
Source: Kickstarter
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure, political thriller, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #9
Pages: 318
Published by Buchman Bookworks on October 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Miranda Chase’s Team—before they were one!
Before they were the hottest, and most at-risk air-crash investigation team for the NTSB and the US military, the six members of Miranda Chase’s team had each started along very unique paths.
Courtesy of backers of The Great Chase tabletop game Kickstarter, their pasts are revealed. Discover why each team member’s future turned out so differently than they planned.
Six exciting stories filled with challenges, disasters, and triumphs. Five stories with fans as guest characters. A fun and wild flight.

My Review:

I usually have a hard time getting myself stuck into short story or novella collections, but Start the Chase was definitely an exception. Just as Miranda Chase herself is an exception in so many fascinating ways.

In the middle of a week that has gone completely off the rails, I was looking for something that I could get sucked into instantly that wouldn’t let me go until the end, and the Miranda Chase series has been good for that from the very first book, Drone.

But there haven’t been any new books in the series for a few months, as the author has been busy taking care of all the good business that was generated when he got his rights back to his earliest work. Which I loved from all the way back in The Night is Mine, lo those many years ago at the beginning of Reading Reality. So if you love military romance, now is a great time to start or restart his Night Stalkers series and all the deliciously good books that followed.

Howsomever, let’s get back to Miranda Chase and her team, which is where I started. I got a notification about the tenth book in the series, Lightning, coming out in June, which reminded me that I hadn’t read the ninth book in the series, Start the Chase, even though I participated in the Kickstarter.

I needed to get lost in a book and a world that I was already familiar with, and I wanted to read Start the Chase before Lightning struck, so here we are.

The stories in Start the Chase are all origin stories. Which makes this a great place to start the series if you aren’t already part of the action.

What makes the stories special is that they show us the characters we have come to know and love at pivot points in their lives. Specifically the pivot that changed their courses into the one that eventually intersected with Miranda Chase and the rest of her team. To kick things off there’s the pivotal moment when Miranda investigated her very first plane crash on her very own.

She had to do the investigation on her own, because the crash she was investigating was also her own. On her way to her first class at the NTSB her private plane crashed in the desolate forest between Washington State and Idaho. Miranda was the pilot and the only person aboard. Her meticulous investigation of a crash that she honestly didn’t expect to be rescued from kept her sane until her rescuers surprised her and themselves by finding her alive. She learned a valuable lesson in this story, and we learned a lot about her. Not that a lot of her past hasn’t come up over the course of the series, but this particular bit of detail was something special.

For each member of the team, the story in Start the Chase is just as pivotal as Miranda’s High Passage, Holly Harper’s story, Holly Games a New Path, begins during one of Holly’s darkest moments. She has just left the Australian Special Forces after the loss of her entire team. A new friend drags her to, of all places, a gaming convention, where Holly, costumed as Captain Marvel, discovers that she still has friends both in and out of the service, and that there’s a surprising, but surprisingly interesting opportunity for her if she is willing to seize the day.

Mike’s Last Big Con is the story that comes the closest to the opening of the Miranda Chase series, as we see the secretive Mike in his last undercover job for the FBI as it all goes completely pear-shaped. Working with Miranda is going to require that the long-time conman live on the straight and narrow – a place with which he is not even remotely familiar.

All six of the stories provide insights into characters we think we know. There have been hints before, but this collection fleshes out the details of how they ended up on the path that leads to the team. For fans of the series, it gives us an up close and personal look at people we thought we knew. For those coming in, it’s a great way of seeing who they were as individuals before they jostled their way into becoming part of such a marvelous whole.

Escape Rating A: I loved this collection. I got sucked in right away and didn’t get shaken out until the end – wishing there were more. Or wishing that Lightning was here now and not next month. I’ve missed Miranda and the gang and it was fantastic to spend time with them again.

Because this collection was produced as part of a Kickstarter campaign for The Great Chase Tabletop Game that Miranda and her team play during the later books in the series, there’s an additional fascinating piece to this collection of great stories.

One of the backer levels for the Kickstarter was the opportunity for five people to get themselves written into the individual stories as secondary characters. (This is called Tuckerization after the SF author Wilson “Bob” Tucker. I only mention this because once upon a time, when I went to a LOT of SF cons, I knew Tucker a bit. I digress.)

In Miranda’s story she’s alone, that’s a huge part of the point of the story after all. But in all of the other stories the secondary character who helps push or guide Miranda’s future team member into the path that leads them there is one of these backers. All of the stories include more than a bit of real detail about those backers, along with a way for readers to support the charities of their choice. So there’s a prompt to do a bit of good in the world – which seems to need it now more than ever – along with a terrific story.

If you like political thrillers, technothrillers and/or competence porn, you absolutely cannot go wrong following Miranda Chase and her team. Lightning can’t strike my TBR pile soon enough!

Review: Never Coming Home by Hannah Mary McKinnon

Review: Never Coming Home by Hannah Mary McKinnonNever Coming Home by Hannah Mary McKinnon
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, psychological thriller, suspense, thriller
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on May 24, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

First comes love. Then comes murder. Lucas Forester didn't hate his wife. Michelle was brilliant, sophisticated and beautiful. Sure, she had extravagant spending habits and that petty attitude, a total disregard for anyone below her status. But she also had a lot to offer. Most notably, wealth that only the one percent could comprehend.
For years, Lucas had been honing a flawless plan to inherit Michelle’s fortune. Unfortunately, it involved taking a hit out on her.
Every track was covered, no trace left behind, and now Lucas plays the grieving husband so well he deserves an award. But when a shocking photo and cryptic note show up on his doorstep, Lucas goes from hunter to prey.
Someone is onto him. And they’re closing in.
Told with dark wit and a sharply feminist sensibility, Never Coming Home is a terrifying tale of duplicity that will have you side-eyeing your spouse as you dash to the breathtaking end.

My Review:

Lucas Forester probably wasn’t the only person to have more than a few idle thoughts about killing their spouse during the long months of COVID induced lockdowns. He probably wasn’t even the only one to come up with more than a few not-so-hypothetical scenarios to accomplish it. Hopefully there weren’t too many that actually contracted to get the job done once things went back to normal.

Then again, part of Lucas’ normal was that he didn’t like his wife all that much. He married her for her money, and has been playing a long game since the day they met, successfully pretending to be a loving, doting spouse. He’d planned to divorce her and take her to the cleaners in the settlement. It’s not his fault she made him sign an iron-clad prenup, leaving her demise as his only option to collect all the money she was just throwing away anyway.

Lucas thought that he had tied up all the loose ends. He used the darkweb not just to find a contract killer but even to vet the qualifications of the contractor he found. He paid in cryptocurrency. He only used burner phones for the rare contacts. He made sure to have an ironclad alibi for when the hit took place. It was his brilliant idea to make the whole thing look like kidnapping for ransom, because his wife’s family had plenty of money for ransom.

It was supposed to be a flawless performance. A perfect murder. All he had to do was wait until someone else – the police, her mother, the insurance company – declared her dead. He was prepared to play the long game of being the grieving almost-widower for as long as it would take.

Then it all started falling apart – and so did he.

Escape Rating A-: What makes this story surprisingly compelling is that we see it from inside Lucas’ head – which is an honestly funny place to be. Because Lucas is right, there is a little bit of evil in all of us. So as we follow along with him as his plans come apart around his ears, we’re a bit him and we do kind of feel for him as well as with him.

Because he did have a pretty hard-knock life that he’s done his best to leave behind. Unfortunately the way that he’s left it behind is by hiding his true origins and conning pretty much the entire world.

(The idea of being inside the head of the murderer can be squicky, but Lucas isn’t insane and isn’t a serial killer. He’s not interested in blood and gore for their own sake and doesn’t dwell on them at all even in the privacy of his own head. Lucas is all about getting the job done. If it weren’t for the fact that the job that needs doing – at least from his perspective – is murder he’d be an interesting guy to be around. And he’s got such a snarky and wry perspective on life that his observations often ring true.)

It helps a lot that he’s intelligent and brutally honest inside his own skull. His running commentary about everything he does and everyone he interacts with along the way generates a TON of rueful chuckles. His wife was a bit of a Karen. She was an over privileged trust-fund baby who never grew up and never even saw the people she stepped on and over along her self-indulgent way.

And he really, really loves his dog.

This is not the story of Lucas’ original plan to have his wife murdered. When we first meet Lucas that event is already in the past. Instead, this is a story about Lucas’ chickens all coming home to roost. Not just about the bad karma from his recent actions, but going all the way back to all the bad eggs that Lucas has hatched over his entire, never above board life.

At the beginning, it really, really looks like Lucas is going to get away with it all. And he’s pretty proud of himself about it. As the story gets going, we start to get an inkling that maybe it isn’t going to go his way after all, but we’re not sure why or how it’s going to fall apart. Or even how we feel about it because we do feel for him a bit more than might be comfortable.

And his story gets even more compelling as we watch him crash and burn. We’re even with him as he figures out just how he got done in.

As the old saying goes, those best laid plans of mice and men often going astray – and Lucas’ plans certainly have. That saying makes absolutely no mention of the best laid plans of women – and maybe that’s something Lucas should have thought of before he ever got the idea to murder his wife.

 

Review: The Honeymoon Cottage by Lori Foster

Review: The Honeymoon Cottage by Lori FosterThe Honeymoon Cottage by Lori Foster
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Series: Cemetery Indiana #1
Pages: 384
Published by Hqn on May 24, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

She was fine arranging other people’s weddings… But life had other plans.

When it comes to creating the perfect happily-ever-after, Yardley Belanger is a bona fide miracle worker. From bridal bouquets to matching cowboy boots, the quirky wedding planner’s country-chic affairs have caused quite a stir in the small town of Cemetery. But when it comes to her own love life? She’s clueless.

Completely clueless.

Perhaps it’s for the best. The thirty-one-year-old has poured her heart and soul into her business and doesn’t have time for anything—or anyone—else. And that’s something not even the gorgeous older brother of her newest client can change…right?

All Travis Long wanted was to give his little sister, Sheena, the wedding of her dreams. Ever since the tragic death of their parents, he’s done everything he can to make her feel loved and give her everything she needs. Still…a country wedding? In a place called Cemetery? But Yardley seems to know exactly what to do and how to do it—and Travis finds himself falling for her a little more each day.

Soon Yardley and Travis find themselves being nudged together by well-meaning locals who want to see the town’s favorite wedding planner get her own happy ending.

My Review:

If you love quirky romances set in equally eccentric small towns you’ll love The Honeymoon Cottage, set in the weirdly named Cemetery, Indiana, where every business in town is required to include the town’s name in their own.

Which is a bit of a problem for wedding planner Yardley Belanger. She is terrific at planning weddings – and she’s a bit of a genius at marketing her business. But it’s hard for Yardley – as well as people who are shopping for a wedding planner – to get past “Cemetery Weddings” as a concept. Those two words just don’t go together.

(I’ve seen this in real life. We drove through a town named Newborn several months ago. There’s a taxidermy shop in Newborn called “Newborn Taxidermy” and I have the pictures to prove it. Those are two words that should NEVER appear in the same sentence. I digress.)

So Yardley’s story begins with her regular agitation of the town council to remove the naming requirement. Cemetery weddings, Cemetery candy, Cemetery florist and Cemetery Pit Stop BBQ are all on Yardley’s side.

But the president of the town council, 84 year old Betty Cemetery, great-granddaughter of the town founder Henry Harrison Cemetery, fights Yardley – and every other business owner in town – at every turn.

Howsomever, The Honeymoon Cottage is a small town romance, so the battle between Yardley and Betty isn’t the main event. That’s reserved for Yardley and her latest client, Sheena Long. Well, not exactly them either.

Because when Sheena comes to visit Yardley and plan her wedding, Sheena is accompanied not by her soon-to-be-groom (also the father of her soon-to-be-child) but by her older brother Travis. Travis raised Sheena after their parents died in an accident when Travis was 20 and Sheena was only 5. He’s been big brother, father, mother, uncle and best friend to his little sister for nearly all of her life and he’s the one paying for the wedding – no matter how many doubts he has about the groom.

Sheena and Yardley hit it off instantly. Travis and Yardley draw sparks from each other just as instantly. The kind of sparks that 31-year-old Yardley had pretty much given up on ever feeling ever.

But Travis is wary of getting involved with someone who is rapidly becoming important to his sister. It’s happened before and the results were NOT GOOD. Yardley has spent her whole life being denigrated by the two women who raised her – her mother and her aunt. Aurora and Lilith Belanger have spent Yardley’s whole life telling her how awkward and unlovable she is and that she didn’t inherit any of the family beauty or charm and that she can never do anything quite right.

The only person who believes in Yardley is her lifelong bestie Mimi. Yardley doesn’t even believe in herself.

So at first she doesn’t believe that Travis is really interested in her. Or that all of her fellow business owners in town really, truly want her to run for president of the town council in opposition to the recalcitrant Betty.

But all is not as it seems, because we never know what’s in someone else’s heart.

Travis really is interested, and they really are falling for each other. And in spite of their actions and attitudes, her mother and her aunt really do love her – even if they have a terrible way of showing it. While Betty is fighting Yardley not because there’s any real animosity, but because she’s lonely and arguing with Yardley has put more spring in her step than anything in a very long time.

And all it takes is the love of one adorable scamp of a dog to help put the pieces of Yardley’s life and her heart together.

Escape Rating A-: Like so many of my recent reads, The Honeymoon Cottage sits right on that line between romance and relationship. It sits very comfortably on that line, because it has oodles of elements of both of those genres.

For this reader, the most interesting parts of the story wrapped around Yardley’s terrific relationship with her bestie Mimi, her supporting and supportive relationships with the other business owners in Cemetery, and her surprising frenemy-ship with Betty Cemetery. Along with her growing love for Travis Long and especially for the dog Dodger who scampers his way into pretty much everyone’s hearts.

And on the other hand there’s her bizarre, toxic relationship with her mother and her aunt. Like Mimi, I wanted Yardley to blast those two for the way they treated her. The degree to which they’ve been negging her all of her life, to the point where her mother continually reminds her that getting pregnant with Yardley ruined her life, deserved a good blast or ten. In those circumstances, that Yardley turned out to be such a terrific person is beyond surprising all the way into practically unbelievable. It’s pretty clear that Mimi’s friendship and support saved Yardley’s sanity, and kept her self-esteem from being any lower and sinking straight into clinical depression.

That Yardley’s willingness to listen and empathize results in bringing Betty Cemetery out of her self-imposed shell and turns the two from potential enemies to very good friends worked beautifully. Something about the way the situation with her mother and aunt resolved didn’t quite feel real – but then it didn’t feel real to Mimi either.

The romance between Yardley and Travis is wonderful, it just didn’t feel like the center of the story, hence my wavering over whether this is romance or relationship. And again, falling on the relationship side, that both Yardley and Mimi develop strong friendships with Sheena, that Mimi’s husband and Sheena’s fiance become friends, and that Travis even comes to understand and approve of Sheena’s fiance and their relationship just adds to that feeling.

Whichever side you fall on, romance or relationships, The Honeymoon Cottage is a lovely story. The romance is heart melting, the relationships are, for the most part, heartwarming, and the dog naturally steals more than a few of the scenes. And the scenes that Dodger doesn’t steal are hilariously capped by the town’s mannequin mascot Kathleen – who somehow manages to be present for ALL of the town’s big events.

I confess I am a bit surprised that this is the first book in a series set in Cemetery because the story seemed complete. However, I look forward to seeing how Dodger and his humans are doing, and I can’t wait to see who will find their HEA next!

 

Review: Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders by Aliette de Bodard

Review: Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders by Aliette de BodardOf Dragons, Feasts and Murders (Dragons and Blades, #1) by Aliette de Bodard
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, mystery
Series: Dragons and Blades #1, Dominion of the Fallen #3.5
Pages: 80
on July 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Lunar New Year should be a time for familial reunions, ancestor worship, and consumption of an unhealthy amount of candied fruit.
But when dragon prince Thuan brings home his brooding and ruthless husband Asmodeus for the New Year, they find not interminable family gatherings, but a corpse outside their quarters. Asmodeus is thrilled by the murder investigation; Thuan, who gets dragged into the political plotting he’d sworn off when he left, is less enthusiastic.
It’ll take all of Asmodeus’s skill with knives, and all of Thuan’s diplomacy, to navigate this one—as well as the troubled waters of their own relationship….
A sparkling standalone book set in a world of dark intrigue.
A Note on ChronologySpinning off from the Dominion of the Fallen series, which features political intrigue in Gothic devastated Paris, this book stands alone, but chronologically follows The House of Sundering Flames. It’s High Gothic meets C-drama in a Vietnamese inspired world—perfect for fans of The Untamed, KJ Charles, and Roshani Chokshi’s The Gilded Wolves

My Review:

Is it my imagination or are there a lot more fantasy/mystery and SF/mystery blends then there used to be? And isn’t it a wonderful thing?!

Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders is a marvelous little fantasy mystery wrapped inside a bloodthirsty bit of political upheaval and tied up with a bow of romance sprinkled with the ashes of a fallen angel’s wings.

I picked this up because I had grabbed the second book in the Dragons and Blades series from Netgalley because I fell in love with the author’s work after reading The Tea Master and the Detective. Upon discovering that Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances is the second book, I had to get the first book so I could read it first.

Little did I know that Dragons and Blades is a subseries of the author’s Dominion of the Fallen series and that I probably should have started there. Not that I couldn’t get into and didn’t enjoy Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders – because there are plenty of all three  so I most certainly did – but because the relationship between the married protagonists Asmodeus and Thuan hinted at depths that I couldn’t fully appreciate.

Which did not make this little gem sparkle any less, only that I wish I’d gotten ALL the nuance. Something I’ll have to remedy one of these days (I bought the rest of the series immediately!)

The mystery in this book is steeped in court intrigue. I wanted to say “degenerate” court intrigue to capture some of the flavor, but that’s not quite right – although it is close.

The undersea dragon court that Thuan came from is quite literally rotting from within and without. Whether the spells that keep the sea out of the palaces are fraying around the edges, or the empire is no longer able to attract and/or capable of supporting enough “people” to keep the rot and mildew out of the walls is an open question.

(I put “people” in quotation marks in the above because the “people” in this story are, for the most part, anthropomorphized sea creatures. Thuan is a dragon, as is the rest of the royal family of which he is a very minor part. The assistant who helps with their investigation is a crab. One of the court functionaries that Thuan deals with is a shark literally as well as figuratively.)

Thuan and Asmodeus are visiting Thuan’s former home to celebrate the Lunar New Year, Tet. While the reader is not quite certain whether Thuan’s marriage to Asmodeus – whose throne is in a Gothic, devastated Paris – constituted an actual ‘escape’ from the intrigues of his Second Aunt’s court or not, Thuan is very clear that while he does miss some members of his family he doesn’t miss being part of that court at all.

Considering that the beginning of their visit is punctuated by the murder of a member of the staff, Thuan’s departure may very well have saved his life.

But he still cares. They are still his family. Even the ones he doesn’t like all that much. Which makes it easy for his cousin to guilt him into solving one of her problems for her.

His cousin is the head of the secret police, and the murder was part of a plot to undermine the regime. His cousin wants Thuan and his husband to solve the murder and foil the plot to overthrow the empress. Thuan can unofficially question people and explore places that she cannot. And Thuan’s husband Asmodeus is a fallen angel, or something similarly demonic and bloodthirsty. (Exactly what Asmodeus is isn’t quite clear, but his name is a fairly big hint. This is one of those things that’s probably a bit clearer if one has read the Dominion of the Fallen series.) But whatever Asmodeus is exactly, he is clearly one scary dude.

From this point, the story becomes one of political intrigue, political skullduggery, and poking one nose or the other, whether Thuan’s or Asmodeus’, into places and people that shouldn’t concern them, while trying to figure out exactly what the nature of this nebulous plot against the empire is and how its perpetrators expect whatever they are doing to result in whatever they hope to achieve.

There are false arrests and true kidnappings and too many people who think that revolution will solve their problems without understanding what their problems really are, while Asmodeus just wants to get Thuan out of harm’s way before his sense of duty gets them both into water hotter than they can stand – or survive without creating an even bigger diplomatic incident then they are already in.

It’s a very frothy comedy of manners and mayhem couched in a murder mystery and wrapped in a rebellion. And it’s way more fun than I was expecting it to be.

Escape Rating B: This is not what I was planning to review this week. But we spent most of the weekend either taking the cat (Freddie) to the vet, sitting at the vet or worrying about the cat that was staying at the vet. (He’s still there but on the mend.) As a result I went hunting for something quick and absorbing and this looked like enough of a puzzler to get me hooked.

And so it proved. I know I didn’t get anywhere near all the references or the backstory, but it was still a very enjoyable fantasy mystery. Admittedly now I feel almost compelled to start The House of Shattered Wings, the first book in the Dominion of the Fallen series of which this is a part. (My virtually towering TBR pile towers ever higher…)

But even though I didn’t know nearly as much as I would have liked about Thuan and Asmodeus’ backstory, the way that the story worked hooked me the same way that Katharine Addison’s The Witness for the Dead did, in that it’s a mystery set in a fantasy world where the investigator is a minor court functionary who is poking their nose into things that no one in power really wants any noses poked into. And who will not let go no matter what the provocation – or the threats.

So it has the appeal of a mystery in that there’s a dead body and an investigator, while it also has the things that make epic fantasy work so well, just on a smaller scale. There are political shenanigans and court intrigues, everyone is trying to get one over on everyone else – whether they’re part of the murder plot or not – and the throne is under threat by forces unknown who either committed the murder or plan to take advantage of it.

All of which makes for a fascinatingly good time for readers who love those elements, of which I am most certainly one.

Now that I have both the previous books in the series and the next one I know I’ll be back to see what I missed AND to see what happens next!

Review: Flirting with Fifty by Jane Porter

Review: Flirting with Fifty by Jane PorterFlirting with Fifty by Jane Porter
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Modern Love #1
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on May 24, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A sexy and sparkling later-in-life contemporary romance about a woman who leaps out of her comfort zone and takes a chance on love by New York Times bestselling author Jane Porter.
Paige Newsom is finally at a place in her life where she's comfortable. She loves her job as a college professor in Southern California, lives close enough to her mother to visit her regularly, and has three daughters who are flourishing in their own careers. Paige has no plans to upend her life again after her divorce eight years ago, but she's about to embark on a new adventure: co-teaching a course that includes a three-week international field study.
Paige can think of a dozen reasons why she shouldn't go, one being a dazzling Australian biologist who will be teaching alongside her. Professor Jack King is charismatic, a world traveler, and more like Indiana Jones than Indiana Jones, all of which unsettles Paige, who prides herself on being immune to any man's charms. As the two co-professors lead the rigorous program together, first on campus, then in beautiful Tanzania, Paige's biggest challenge will be working closely with Jack while resisting the undeniable chemistry she feels when she's with him.

My Review:

“We are too soon old, and too late smart” – at least according to an old Dutch proverb. Flirting with Fifty is the story of a woman who seems to be caught at the balance point between those two states.

Paige Newsom is just about to turn 50. The big 5-0. But it doesn’t seem all that big a deal to Paige, who finally has her life arranged the way she thinks she wants it. She has a marvelous job, in a place that’s close enough to home to feel “just right”. Also close enough to visit her mother back home on a regular but not too frequent basis.

Her career may have not hit stellar heights, but she’s done well enough for herself and she’s stable enough to be able to afford a home in coastal Southern California, have enough to help out her grown daughters when they need it, and save for her retirement.

Now that’s a bit closer than she likes to think about. Not that she won’t have enough saved. And not that being retired and alone isn’t amazingly better than being retired with her narcissistic, alcoholic, emotionally abusive, bullying ex-husband. It wasn’t all bad, after all, she got her girls out of it and they are her heart, but she stayed more than long enough to make her swear off all men.

So she’s not interested in meeting someone new. At all. Ever. Which means that shaking Paige out of her comfortable but slightly lonely romantic rut is going to require the re-introduction of someone from her past.

Jack King wasn’t the one that got away because Paige never let it get that far. Their one-night stand almost 30 years ago rocked her world. But she saw at the time that she could fall and fall hard for him, someone who clearly wasn’t ready to settle down or settle with someone. Or so she thought at the time.

Of course, at the time, she was only 20 and Jack was 25, pretty much a long time ago in the equivalent of a galaxy far, far away. Actually it was Paris, France, which was pretty damn far away from Paige’s home in SoCal.

Jack’s become a superstar in his field of studying climate change and human effects on the planet. He has his own show on the Discovery Channel and teaches around the world. He’s rather like a 21st century Indiana Jones – without the whip and the aversion to snakes.

And Jack is coming to her university in Southern California to team teach his specialty class and needs a co-teacher for the class who teaches advanced math and statistics. Her Dean has just voluntold her that she’ll be Jack’s co-teacher for the semester.

She’s mortified. Jack is intrigued. Because for him, Paige IS the one that got away. And this time he’s not planning to let her run off in the middle of the night before he has the chance to tell her how he really felt all those years ago.

And how he feels now.

Escape Rating A: I picked this up because of how rare it is to see a romance that centers people past their 30s. The only other one I can think of is Jasmine Guillory’s Royal Holiday. (Which was terrific and well worth a read!) Not that there isn’t plenty of women’s fiction where the story centers around a woman and her daughters where a romance occurs for the mother – not that I don’t love LOTS of those books – but those don’t center the romance the way that Flirting with Fifty does.

What made this work so well is that Paige is more-or-less content in the life she has created for herself. She has what she needs and most of what she wants and she’s not looking for more. It’s a good life. It also works well that we see enough of her thoughts and memories about her ex-husband to understand why she’s in the emotional place she’s in without dwelling on his abuse. She’s still affected by the past – as we all are – but her regrets don’t consume her.

She’s also mature enough to acknowledge that her actions with Jack in Paris happened the way they did because she wasn’t mature at all. She was young and insecure – not too surprising at 20 – and couldn’t cope with her own feelings. She was embarrassed and overwhelmed and she ran instead of dealing with him in what might have been a very awkward morning after.

The romance is lovely because they don’t pick up where they left off. There’s a lot of water under that bridge, and the only way to see if they have something now is to let it happen slowly if it’s going to happen at all. They move from colleagues to friends to more than friends to lovers in a hesitant but natural progression.

It makes sense that way. They’re not who they were 30 years ago. Who is? But they’re also not NOT who they were. Their younger selves are still inside them, and those selves have, if not exactly regrets, at least a certain wistfulness about that road not taken. So this time they decide to take a few steps down that road and see how it feels.

The other thing that made this story work is the way that the author captures the combination of the giddiness of falling in love again with the issues of already having lives and plans that will need to be adjusted and cooperated over to make anything work. And that both of them have pasts that are guaranteed to bite the relationship in the ass at times. As Jack’s certainly does.

He does an excellent patient grovel when required. It’s not glossed over and it’s not leapt past. Which meant that their HEA felt earned and included the acknowledgement that the “ever after” past of that equation was never going to be as many years as it might have been – but that those years will be filled with love.

As they should be.

I am utterly thrilled to learn that this is the first book in a series of romances centered on later-in-life couples. The next book, Flirting with the Beast, is coming in November. YAY!

Reviewer’s Note: As much as I loved Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, the picture of Jack King in my head is Sam Neill – probably because of the accent. Your imaginary casting mileage may definitely vary.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 5-22-22

As I’m typing this on Saturday, we’re all still in the process of calming down. Freddie scared us more than a bit this morning, so we took him to the vet to see why he was listless and he’d lost his appetite. He didn’t even fuss about being put in the carrier, when normally he makes us chase him around for half an hour. He had his first “senior cat” blood work up along with a bunch of tests and even x-rays. He’s lost a pound that he could afford to lose, but he was dehydrated and his tummy was empty so he got sub-q fluids. By the time we got him home he wasn’t exactly bouncy but he did nibble several times and gave us a blep for the scare he put us through.

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Life’s a Beach Giveaway Hop (ENDS TUESDAY!!!)
$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the May Flowers Giveaway Hop (Ends Friday!)
$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Moms Rock Giveaway Hop

Blog Recap:

Moms Rock Giveaway Hop
A- Review: Last Exit by Max Gladstone
A- Review: Captain of the Guard by Anna Hackett
B Review: The Roguish Baron by Sophie Barnes
A Review: Beach House Summer by Sarah Morgan
Stacking the Shelves (497)

Coming This Week:

Flirting with Fifty by Jane Porter (review)
The Honeymoon Cottage by Lori Foster (blog tour review)
Never Coming Home by Hannah Mary McKinnon (blog tour review)
The Mad Girls of New York by Maya Rodale (review)
Black Tide by K.C. Jones (review)