Review: A Forgotten Place by Charles Todd

Review: A Forgotten Place by Charles ToddA Forgotten Place (Bess Crawford, #10) by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Bess Crawford #10
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow on September 18, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Though the Great War has ended, Bess Crawford finds herself caught in deadly circumstances on a remote Welsh headland in this tenth entry from the acclaimed New York Times bestselling author.

The fighting has ended, the Armistice signed, but the war has left wounds that are still agonizingly raw. Battlefield Nurse Bess Crawford has been assigned to a clinic for amputees, and the Welsh patients worry her. She does her best to help them, but it’s clear that they have nothing to go home to, in a valley where only the fit can work in the coal pits. When they are released, she fears that peace will do what war couldn’t—take their lives.

Their officer, Captain Williams, writes to describe their despair, and his own at trying to save his men. Bess feels compelled to look into their situation, but the Army and the clinic can do nothing. Requesting leave, she quietly travels to Wales, and that bleak coal mining village, but she is too late.

Captain Williams’ sister tells Bess he has left the valley. Bess is afraid he intends to kill himself. She follows him to an isolated, storm-battered peninsula—a harsh and forgotten place where secrets and death go hand in hand. Deserted by her frightened driver, Bess is stranded among strangers suspicious of outsiders. She quickly discovers these villagers are hiding something, and she’s learned too much to be allowed to leave. What’s more, no one in England knows where she is.

Why is there no Constable out here? And who is the mysterious Ellen? Captain Williams and his brother’s widow are her only allies, and Bess must take care not to put them at risk as she tries to find answers. But there is a murderer here who is driven to kill again and again. And the next person in his sights is Simon Brandon, searching for Bess and unaware of his danger. . . .

My Review:

This tenth story in the Bess Crawford series takes place in December 1918. The war is over, but the peace hasn’t really begun. The fighting officially ended at 11:11 am on November 11, 1918 with the signing of the Armistice. This is the day we now celebrate as Veterans Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in the U.K and the Commonwealth.

Bess Crawford served as a combat nurse during the war. Her service has not yet ended. While a significant part of a generation died on the battlefields, there were also many who came home missing significant pieces of themselves, and not all of those missing pieces were physical.

The war changed all who were a part of it, including Bess herself. Today we might say that she had post-traumatic stress disorder – along with many of the now ex-soldiers.

With the end of the war, the field hospitals are closing down, and the base hospitals are shrinking by the day. All the able-bodied are sent home – to a country that does not have nearly enough jobs for all of them.

Those who are still in hospital are the ones more severely wounded, still recovering as best as the medical science of the time permitted, from the loss of limbs or disfiguring wounds or both.

That’s where Bess comes in, as she becomes involved with a Welsh regiment that was wounded during the last of the fighting. A regiment formed in the coal counties of Wales, where every able-bodied man works in the mines. But the men under her care are no longer able-bodied, missing at least one limb if not more. They are alive, but have no lives to return to.

In the valleys, the only work is in the mines, and it is work they are no longer physically able to perform. They will be burdens to their families – if those families are willing to take them back. Bess does her best to help them prepare both mentally and physically for what is in front of them, but she is worried, and rightfully so, that any preparation is in vain.

So she takes it into her own hands (as she has so often during the course of the series) to follow up with this group of soldiers that has touched her heart and ignited her fears of what will happen to those irrevocably changed by the war after their war is over.

And finds herself stranded, alone and without allies, isolated in a remote Welsh village and caught between a horrifying secret and escalating evil.

All she can do is try to survive, until help comes. If that help can find her in time.

Escape Rating B: The second half of this story is a taut thriller, but the first half moves slowly, as time seems to do out in the remote Welsh villages on the Gower Peninsula.

Once Bess decides to check up on Captain Williams and his regiment, she finds herself traveling laboriously and ponderously from one tiny and remote place to the next. Once she catches up to him, she has discovered that he is the final survivor of his regiment.

That he and his men had sacrificed themselves for their country – but their country had nothing for them now that the war was over, is heartbreaking. But the trouble that finds Bess is not related to any war service – or at least not exactly.

There is a terrible secret hidden in this remote village. A secret that has caused the villagers to close ranks against any outsiders. There is no access to the place except by an uncertain arrangement for hire cars from not-so-nearby Swansea. There is no post office, no telephone exchange, no constable, no doctor. No one from the outside seems to be permitted. Captain Williams, helping his sister-in-law with her farm, is resented and reviled at every turn. Bess faces intense hostility from the second she arrives.

The atmosphere of this particular story will remind series readers of an earlier story, A Pattern of Lies. There is both that same sense of human nature twisted and corrupted, and the same atmosphere of almost Gothic horror.

Bess’ forced sojourn in this tiny place with its close-mouthed and close-minded inhabitants all hunkered around the protection of their dark secret drags on a bit for the reader, possibly in sympathy with Bess and her enforced vacation from her vocation. She does her best to be of use in the household that has been forced to guest her, but it isn’t easy for her and this part of the story isn’t easy for the reader.

Things speed up, as they often do in this series, when Simon Brandon arrives to spring Bess from the trap she has gotten herself stuck in. But also as often happens in the series, Bess refuses to leave until she has solved all of the riddles – even the ones that no one wants solved.

This series has followed the progress of the war, through Bess’ perspective as a combat nurse. Part of what we see in this particular story has a great deal to do with the way that the veterans of the trenches were treated after the war ended – which was mostly abominable. I also find myself wondering whether some of Bess’ concern about the fate of this regiment now that the war was over would have reflected her own unconscious concerns about what happens to her after her war is over – as it nearly is.

As much as I don’t want this series to end, I can’t help but wonder what Bess’ post-war life will be. I hope that we get to find out.

Review: Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds by Brandon Sanderson

Review: Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds by Brandon SandersonLegion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds (Legion, #1-3) by Brandon Sanderson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Legion #1-3
Pages: 400
Published by Tor Books on September 18, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Stephen Leeds is perfectly sane. It’s his hallucinations who are mad.

A genius of unrivaled aptitude, Stephen can learn any new skill, vocation, or art in a matter of hours. However, to contain all of this, his mind creates hallucinatory people—Stephen calls them aspects—to hold and manifest the information. Wherever he goes, he is joined by a team of imaginary experts to give advice, interpretation, and explanation. He uses them to solve problems… for a price.

Stephen’s brain is getting a little crowded and the aspects have a tendency of taking on lives of their own. When a company hires him to recover stolen property—a camera that can allegedly take pictures of the past—Stephen finds himself in an adventure crossing oceans and fighting terrorists. What he discovers may upend the foundation of three major world religions—and, perhaps, give him a vital clue into the true nature of his aspects.

This fall, Tor Books will publish Brandon Sanderson’s Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds. The collection will include the science fiction novellas Legion and Legion: Skin Deep, published together for the first time, as well as a brand new Stephen Leeds novella, Lies of the Beholder. This never-been-published novella will complete the series.

My Review:

I’ve already read (actually had read to me) the first two Legion books, Legion and Skin Deep. And I absolutely loved both of them. So…when this book popped up on Edelweiss, and it included the final Legion book, Lies of the Beholder, I just had to grab it.

Upon opening this one, I dove right into Lies of the Beholder. So if you are interested in my thoughts on the first two books, check out my reviews of Legion and Skin Deep here at Reading Reality.

I’m going to concentrate on Lies of the Beholder. But I can do that because I’ve already read the first two. The Legion series turns out to be one long story, just broken into three parts. You really need to read the whole thing to get the point at the end. Which, by the way, is marvelous and absolutely fitting.

Also just a bit of a mind screw, but then, so is the entire life of Stephen Leeds.

What makes Stephen Leeds so interesting is the way that his mind works. It’s a very busy, and well-populated, place.

He is definitely a genius. The question is whether or not he’s insane. It’s all because of his rather unique way of handling what would otherwise be an out-of-control genius. Leeds absorbs everything he hears, everything he sees.

I think there’s a metaphor for our current age of information glut in there someplace.

The problem for Leeds is processing and synthesis. There is just so much input, all the time, that he can’t control it all enough for it to make sense, or for him to function. Too often, it felt like he was experiencing hallucinations as every piece of data everywhere he went needed to get his attention.

A woman named Sandra taught him a way out the labyrinth. She taught him to take all the input and siphon it off into “aspects”. Those aspects function as independent identities within Leeds’ mind. He sees them as individual people, and to him they have personalities and life histories. They also contain all his knowledge in a particular area. The control the massive amounts of data flowing into his brain and he provides the synthesis.

But when he loses one, he loses all the knowledge that was packed into that aspect. A gaping hole opens in his mind, and he’s temporarily even more lost than normal.

As Lies of the Beholder opens, he’s losing his aspects. Some of them just leave, but some of them go insane and kill some of the others. It feels like he’s losing bits of himself – only because he is.

In the midst of his own chaos, Leeds receives a message from the long-missing Sandra. It’s a one word text message – HELP!

He can’t resist. Not only does he desperately want to help the only woman who has ever really understood him, the only one he’s ever loved, but he feels “beholden” to her – he owes her for providing him with the means to control his mind – even if that method is now breaking down.

In searching for Sandra, finding out what’s happened to her, Leeds is forced to rely on himself, and to find the beauty in his own breakdown. He’s offered what feels like a terrible choice, to either let go of everything that makes him who he is, or to try to forge a new way to live, and cope, alone.

This is one of those stories where both the journey and the destination are the point – and it’s a sharp one.

Escape Rating A-: This series is awesome. Also relatively short and entirely complete. As it is all told from Stephen Leeds first-person perspective, it also makes a great audiobook. I listened to the first two and read the final book because I just couldn’t wait to see how it all turned out.

As I said, this does turn out to be one story divided into three parts, so you do need to read it all. But it is so worth it. And I say that even though Leeds’ flails around a bit more than usual in this final entry.

A lot of what makes this series so fascinating is the character of Stephen Leeds. He thinks he’s sane, but that some of his aspects are the ones who are crazy. He claims that he is always aware that the aspects are just hallucinations, but that some of the aspects aren’t willing to admit that to themselves.

In other words, he’s a mass of contradictions.

As a reader, it is easy to get sucked into Leeds’ perspective. The aspects certainly all feel like separate individuals – and often quite interesting individuals in their own right. Many of them are very likeable (particularly Tobias, Ivy and J.C. – Leeds’ own favorites). It would be fun to read their individual backstories and see more from their perspectives. And yes, they do all have backstories and they certainly have individual perspectives on events – or so it seems.

But where the other two stories were both interesting cases that Leeds’ has to solve, they were also stories about him coping with the world in a way that was comfortable for him but didn’t make him grow. Looking back, in those stories he is so comfortable with the life that he has arranged for himself that he doesn’t need to grow or change. While he doesn’t completely love his life as it is, it has certainly become comfortable and easy for him.

This is a story about growth and change, because the structure breaks down and his support system gets kicked out from under him. He has to change, adapt and find a new way forward. Or stop altogether.

That he has the option of becoming, in effect, a lotus-eater and living completely in a dream world makes his choice all the more stark. Because he has been living somewhat in a dream world for years – just one of his own making. When the choice of absolutes is forced upon him, he has to kick out his own supports and live in the real world.

Or does he? His ultimate solution will blow the reader’s mind. It’s one of those endings that makes you rethink the whole story from the very beginning. And makes you want to start the series all over again.

Review: The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French

Review: The Grey Bastards by Jonathan FrenchThe Grey Bastards (The Lot Lands, #1) by Jonathan French
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Lot Lands #1
Pages: 432
Published by Crown on June 19, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A raucous, bawdy, blood-soaked adventure fantasy debut that's The Lord of the Rings reimagined by way of Sons of Anarchy.

Jackal is proud to be a Grey Bastard, member of a sworn brotherhood of half-orcs. Unloved and unwanted in civilized society, the Bastards eke out a hard life in the desolate no-man's-land called the Lots, protecting frail and noble human civilization from invading bands of vicious full-blooded orcs.

But as Jackal is soon to learn, his pride may be misplaced. Because a dark secret lies at the heart of the Bastards' existence--one that reveals a horrifying truth behind humanity's tenuous peace with the orcs, and exposes a grave danger on the horizon. On the heels of the ultimate betrayal, Jackal must scramble to stop a devastating invasion--even as he wonders where his true loyalties lie.

My Review:

A hero’s journey is still a hero’s journey, even if the hero has tusks, and so does his hog.

In spite of the many comparisons to Sons of Anarchy, the hogs ridden by the Grey Bastards and their half-orc kin are real hogs. The kind that sometimes get turned into bacon – although certainly not in this case. These hogs are bred for riding into battle – and for loyalty to their riders.

The story in The Grey Bastards starts out small, and at the same time in just a bit of in media res. On the one hand, the focus is fairly tight on young Jackal and his band of brothers – even though one of them is actually a sister. Except when she’s not.

The story begins with Jackal’s perspective and Jackal’s point-of-view, in the world that he knows and is completely familiar with – although we don’t. It’s not our world and doesn’t seem to be an analog for any of the traditional mythological or fantasy worlds, in spite of its inclusion of humans, orcs, half-orcs, elves, halflings and centaurs – all under different, descriptive and occasionally vulgar names.

Those familiar casts of beings also have different functions and attributes in this world than in more traditional fantasy. But I hesitate to call these versions twisted because they aren’t that. They feel organic to this created world, just different from what we are used to.

Jackal also doesn’t explain the way that things in his worldview are different from ours, because for him that’s the way it’s always been and always will be – at least at the beginning.

But as the story continues, Jackal’s world expands as the expected patterns of his life begin fragmenting and eventually falling apart. He tries to fix the wrongs that he observes – and they are wrongs – by attempting a takeover of the established order.

However, he’s young and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. He may be partly right, but he is also still partly wrong, and just a bit young and dumb. He gets outmaneuvered and is forced to learn about his world as it really is, and not just the way he’s always told that it has been.

It’s clear that the expansion of his worldview is going to be the making of him – if that world survives the chaos that is rapidly descending upon it.

Escape Rating A+: There are going to be people who want to label this one grimdark. Jackal’s world is certainly in a state of decay, and there are plenty of times when his situation seems pretty grim. But this world isn’t operating in the shades of grey that are the hallmark of grimdark, in spite of the title.

Jackal wants to make things better. That the situation is actually worse than he has any clue about when the story begins doesn’t change the fact that he is always trying to improve the situation for not just his own people but also anyone else that he comes across who seems to be innocent or downtrodden or just caught up in a bad mess that is not of their own making.

Not that he isn’t more than willing to kill anyone on the other side – particularly those who perpetrated some of the “wrong” situations he comes across. He’s not sweetness and light, he’s a warrior from a brutal and warlike people, but he is trying to leave his world better than he found it.

It’s just that he’s naive enough in the beginning not to see just how bad it is – and how much worse it’s going to get. But he does seem to have a very real chance of fixing at least some of the things – once he gets his head out of his own ass.

There are certainly things about The Grey Bastards that will perturb some readers. The book is incredibly profane. Nearly all of the characters in this book cuss as much as Kiva Lagos in The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. These two books otherwise have nothing to do with one another, except that both are first books in series that look to be awesome. But Kiva’s constant stream of cussing is epic in scope. None of the individual characters in The Grey Bastards cuss as much as Kiva does alone, but the sum totals feel similar. And equally appropriate for the characters and the story.

There is also a thread of what could be considered misogyny throughout The Grey Bastards, and not just because the story opens in a brothel. The leader of Jackal’s settlement claims that females are only good for two things, and I quote, “fucking and fetching.” His attitude, that females are only capable of being whores, bedwarmers (whores with only one partner) or errand runners is one that seems to be commonly held among the half-orcs – or at least the old guard.

At the same time, the pivotal character in this story is Fetching, the only female member of the warband. And her importance to the story is not as a love interest, but as a formidable fighter and one who ultimately makes the crucial decisions and takes up the mantle of leadership.

Many of the other strong and/or important characters are also female, the elf female Starling who helps to create a critical partnership and Beryl, the adopted mother of virtually the entire half-orc clan. They are, in every way, the equal of any of the males – and their roles in the story are much more important than most.

It feels like a “do as I say, not as I do” dichotomy. The world seems to be male dominated, while at the same time the female characters are crucial and mostly not in traditional female or in only traditional female roles. And it does seem to be one of the things that Jackal finds repugnant at least some of the time.

On my third hand, there’s definitely an attitude that all the whores are happy and enjoy their work and don’t wish for anything different. And while that’s theoretically possible, it feels beyond unlikely.

Obviously I have divided feelings on this particular score.

While I am completely out of hands on this, one of the things that I found fascinating was the way that foundational myths were used for so many purposes. Jackal and his cohort are taught a version of their story that was designed to inspire pride and loyalty AND cover up ugly truths. When it becomes necessary for Jackal to learn more and BE more, he is forced into learning the REAL truth about the formation of the Lot Lands and their true purpose in the scheme of things. While that truth doesn’t exactly set him free, it does give him better perspective and even more reasons to fight – and it also changes the battlefield.

I absolutely do not have divided feelings on the book as a whole. It was a compelling read from its intimate beginning to its eye-popping and world-breaking end. It feels like the opening of a huge, sprawling, brawling, epic fantasy series.I want more, and I want it now. But I’ll have to wait just a bit. The True Bastards ride next July.

Review: The Impossible Girl by Lydia Kang + Giveaway

Review: The Impossible Girl by Lydia Kang + GiveawayThe Impossible Girl by Lydia Kang
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Pages: 364
Published by Lake Union Publishing on September 18, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Two hearts. Twice as vulnerable.

Manhattan, 1850. Born out of wedlock to a wealthy socialite and a nameless immigrant, Cora Lee can mingle with the rich just as easily as she can slip unnoticed into the slums and graveyards of the city. As the only female resurrectionist in New York, she’s carved out a niche procuring bodies afflicted with the strangest of anomalies. Anatomists will pay exorbitant sums for such specimens—dissecting and displaying them for the eager public.

Cora’s specialty is not only profitable, it’s a means to keep a finger on the pulse of those searching for her. She’s the girl born with two hearts—a legend among grave robbers and anatomists—sought after as an endangered prize.

Now, as a series of murders unfolds closer and closer to Cora, she can no longer trust those she holds dear, including the young medical student she’s fallen for. Because someone has no intention of waiting for Cora to die a natural death.

My Review:

In the end, Cora Lee isn’t quite impossible – merely highly improbable. But those improbabilities lead her to a fascinating and dangerous life on the margins of mid-19th century New York City in a way that makes for marvelous fiction – especially because it’s the most improbable aspects of her life that are based in fact.

There really were resurrectionists, not merely in New York City, but certainly in other places where the supply of corpses for anatomical study was insufficient to the needs of doctors, surgeons and their trainees to learn as much as possible about the ins and outs (so to speak) of the human anatomy before going into practice on living bodies.

While the practice of haunting graveyards and digging up recent corpses seems unsavory at best and disgusting at worst, it was necessary – if a bit ghoulish. As distasteful as the concept of digging up bodies for medical study may seem, the idea that all those would-be doctors and surgeons learn anatomy from dead bodies before they start cutting up live ones seems prudent, at least in retrospect.

And for anyone who thinks the practice of opening up the gallery to the general public seems prurient at best and obscene at worst, we still have plenty of examples of more sanitary versions of the same practice, such as the Bodies exhibition currently touring the world. (it’s here in Atlanta at the moment and no, we have not attended and have no interest in doing so.)

Making arrangements for the bodies to become corpses in an untimely fashion, however, is still murder. And that’s where this story gets its mystery from. Resurrectionist Cora Lee just keeps a watch on people who will make interesting (and lucrative) corpses. Someday they will naturally come into her hands, so to speak. Well, at least they’ll die of natural causes. The process by which Cora obtains their fresh corpse is fairly unnatural, not to mention downright criminal.

But someone is anticipating nature and killing the people on Cora’s list. And she fears she’s next.

Cora’s body should prove just as unusual a specimen as any of the recent victims, because Cora has two hearts. Doctors have been interested in “ottomizing” her since the day of her birth. That someone might want to hasten her death in order to open her chest is a fear that she and her family have lived with since the day she was born.

It’s ironic that her business as a resurrectionist gives her a finger on the pulse (so to speak) of any trade in unusual specimens in New York City. It should give her some warning if someone starts looking for her.

But she never expects that her greatest danger lies so close to home – or that her biggest rival may be the instrument of her deliverance.

Escape Rating B+: The story of The Impossible Girl is fascinating and creepy in equal measure. The tone at times feels almost like one of the “penny dreadfuls” so popular at the time, or like that of one of the Gothic mysteries that became so popular.

The character of Cora is one of duality, and not merely as a result of her two hearts. Cora also lives two lives, by day the consummate “lady”, and by night the hard-bitten resurrectionist. In order to maintain that separate between her daily life and her business life she also has two faces. By day she is Cora, and by night she is Cora’s twin brother Jacob. While Cora is a lady, Jacob is no gentleman, being rough, a bit brutish, and ruling their gang with an iron fist while Cora holds the velvet glove.

Jacob is both Cora’s disguise and her protection – as well as her instrument of freedom. As a man, Jacob has the ability to go wherever he wants, do whatever he wants, see whatever he needs to see and punch out whoever needs to be punched.

Even without the need to conceal her anatomical aberrance, Cora, as a female in mid-19th century New York City, is never, ever free. She is constantly hedged around by the restrictions placed on women in her society, restrictions that Jacob allows her to escape whenever she needs to or she must.

While the central mystery of this story is creepy and chilling, it was unfortunately a little too easy for this reader to figure out. I’ll admit that I guessed what was going on, and who was perpetrating it, just a bit too early to give The Impossible Girl an A grade.

But the story is imminently readable. Cora’s character, intelligence and rather unique solution to her own multiple dilemmas is absolutely absorbing. And the portrait of mid-19th century New York City on the margins draws the reader into the center of its mass of contradictions from the very first page.

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

I’m giving away a copy of The Impossible Girl to one very lucky US commenter!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 9-16-18

Sunday Post

While yesterday’s Stacking the Shelves post is split fairly evenly between books I HAVE to read and books I WANT to read, this coming week’s schedule is filled with books I’ve been itching to read. I’m in the middle of The Grey Bastards right now and loving every minute of it!

I figured that if there’s a chance of spending today holed up with books due to hurricane rain – they needed to be books that were guaranteed to take me far, far away from whatever might be happening – or falling – outside the house!

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the September Of Books Giveaway Hop
$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Oh the Places You’ll Go Giveaway Hop (ends TUESDAY!)
Fantasy Romance Starter Kit from Ace Books
The Four Hundred Series by Joanna Shupe

Blog Recap:

A- Joint Review: All Systems Red / Artificial Condition / Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells
B Review: Leverage in Death by J.D. Robb
B+ Review: The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan Camp
Spotlight + Giveaway: Phoenix Unbound by Grace Draven
B+ Review: A Notorious Vow by Joanna Shupe + Giveaway
Stacking the Shelves (305)

Coming Next Week:

The Impossible Girl by Lydia Kang (blog tour review)
The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French (review)
Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds by Brandon Sanderson (review)
A Forgotten Place by Charles Todd (review)
Rebel Hard by Nalini Singh (review)

Stacking the Shelves (305)

Stacking the Shelves

Another relatively short stack this week – and a stack fairly evenly divided between stuff I HAVE to read and stuff I WANT to read. All stuff I’ll have plenty of time to read if we get the edge of Hurricane Florence here in Atlanta. It won’t be a hurricane by the time it reaches us – we’re blissfully too far inland for that. But we might get rained on – a lot. This is the first place we’ve lived in the Atlanta metro area with a basement – so we’ll see how THAT goes, too. We’re not expected to get much, but as a great writer once said, “Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you GET.”

For Review:
California Girls by Susan Mallery
The Chef’s Secret by Crystal King
Cherry by Nico Walker
A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland
Educated by Tara Westover
Facism: a Warning by Madeleine Albright
Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward
In Extremis by Lindsey Hilsum
The Mortal Word (Invisible Library #5) by Genevieve Cogman
Rebel Hard (Hard Play #2) by Nalini Singh
State Tectonics (Centenal Cycle #3) by Malka Older

Review: A Notorious Vow by Joanna Shupe + Giveaway

Review: A Notorious Vow by Joanna Shupe + GiveawayA Notorious Vow (The Four Hundred, #3) by Joanna Shupe
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Four Hundred #3
Pages: 384
Published by Avon on September 25, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Joanna Shupe returns to New York City’s Gilded Age, where fortunes and reputations are gained and lost with ease—and love can blossom from the most unlikely charade

With the fate of her disgraced family resting on her shoulders, Lady Christina Barclay has arrived in New York City from London to quickly secure a wealthy husband. But when her parents settle on an intolerable suitor, Christina turns to her reclusive neighbor, a darkly handsome and utterly compelling inventor, for help.

Oliver Hawkes reluctantly agrees to a platonic marriage . . . with his own condition: The marriage must end after one year. Not only does Oliver face challenges that are certain to make life as his wife difficult, but more importantly, he refuses to be distracted from his life’s work—the development of a revolutionary device that could transform thousands of lives, including his own.

Much to his surprise, his bride is more beguiling than he imagined. When temptation burns hot between them, they realize they must overcome their own secrets and doubts, and every effort to undermine their marriage, because one year can never be enough.

My Review:

While A Notorious Vow is the third book in the Four Hundred series, it is absolutely not necessary to have read the first two in order to get into this one – but for an unusual reason.

Although the stories all take place within the same place and time, and even though our protagonists do meet the Hatchers (the h/h of the first book, A Daring Arrangement) the previous couples and previous stories don’t really impinge on this one.

Because for very different reasons, both Oliver and Christina are pretty much recluses. Neither of them moves in society at all, because neither of them wants to. A decision that comes back to bite both of them during the course of this story.

And, in the best romantic tradition, neither of them initially believes it about the other.

Oliver Hawkes, a young, wealthy and brilliant inventor as well as reclusive investor, is deaf, and has been since a bout of scarlet fever in his early teens. He remembers being able to hear, but no longer can. Equally, he can no longer stand the terrible treatment he suffered at the hands of so-called “society” as everyone mocked not just the voice he could no longer hear, but also his ability to “speak” with his hands and his need to write down complex thoughts – and receive their replies, in a small notebook.

He is more than wealthy enough not to need a “day job” and quite capable of living mostly on his own. Within his own house, the staff have all learned enough sign language to communicate, and he lives quite well and is reasonably content. Until Christina quite literally falls into his lap.

Actually she falls in his garden, with the enthusiastic “help” of his dog Apollo, who knocks her down in his enthusiasm to greet a new person.

Christina’s desire to retreat from society is due to an extreme lack of confidence – a lack that has been instilled in her, and is constantly reinforced, by her greedy, grasping mother. Christina is always and forever a disappointment, and her lack of confidence allows the crueler elements of society to make fun of her at every turn.

The truth is that all of them are jealous of her in one way or another, including, most especially, her mother. But Christina has been programmed practically from birth not to be able to see it.

Christina and her parents are in New York out of the necessity of repairing the family fortunes. Christina’s father-the-earl is an inveterate gambler – and not a winner. Both of her parents have always lived well outside their means, even before he gambled away all the means.

They have fled England just barely ahead of their creditors – and those whom they outright swindled – in order to sponge off their New York relations and auction Christina off to the highest bidder.

That said highest bidder is the most disgusting and despicable person imaginable is also a standard of the romantic tradition – although this bastard manages to exceed expectations on all counts – as does the behavior of Christina’s parents. It is up to Oliver, who has no desire to be involved with society at all, to save Christina from not merely her parents but also a fate that is guaranteed to be worse than death – until it turns into actual death.

While at first it seems as if they will have their work cut out for them just trying to make a workable marriage out of what is still a rather nascent friendship, the situation becomes even more dire.

Just how corrupt is Tammany Hall, anyway?

Escape Rating B+: There were several elements that made A Notorious Vow interesting in unusual ways as well as a lot of fun to read. I got sucked right in and didn’t get out until I finished – more or less in one go.

We’ve seen plenty of wallflower heroines in historical romances, but very seldom a “wallflower” hero. Oliver’s exile from society seems mostly self-imposed. He has the money and the social standing to ignore the whispers that he can lip read quite well – but he chooses not to do so. His reasons for withdrawing are certainly valid, and not merely from his own perspective. But he could just as easily have gone the other way, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, and the doubters be damned. And as events later prove, it probably would have resulted in a better outcome after some initial discomfort.

Which is not to say that his discomfort isn’t very real. Like so many other handicaps, deafness was not much written about, talked about, or studied in the late 19th century. Oliver could not hear, but that did not mean that any of his other faculties were affected at all – which did not stop popular imagination from assuming that they had. A problem which is nearly his undoing.

But the crux of the romantic conflict between Oliver and Christina has little to do with his deafness, although that does make it more difficult – but far from impossible – for them to discuss the problem.

Oliver exhibits that unfortunate tendency of very intelligent people to assume that because they are so often the smartest person in any room that they inhabit, they are therefore always the most knowledgeable and always know best for everyone else. And the problem lies in that “always”. Few things are ever “always” true or “always” right. Because it seldom happens to him, Oliver is unable to recognize that it does occasionally happen even to him, and especially when it comes to his dealings with Christina. He doesn’t know what she wants or needs or thinks because he doesn’t ask her – he assumes he already knows. And of course he doesn’t.

This is a problem that would exist whether Oliver could hear a pin drop or can’t hear a thing – because it is an innate part of his personality. (And one that affects plenty of contemporary men as well!)

In addition to having an interesting and unusual hero and heroine, A Notorious Vow also has what can best be described as a surfeit of villains – especially when considering that the three villains are not working together. They are all separately and individually villainous, For the purposes of villainy, I’m counting Christina’s parents as a single villain. For all we see of the earl, they might as well be.

Her parents attempt to sell her to the highest bidder in order to get themselves out from under their debts and swindles. Her mother, in particular, is particularly vile. The highest bidder they attempt to sell her to is a disgusting old man who has probably murdered his three previous wives. When Oliver rescues Christina from their clutches, mommy dearest continues to clutch in the hopes of getting a better deal – even though her continued contact with Christina endangers the deal currently on the table. That there is a deal at all says everything that needs to be said about Christina’s parents.

When Oliver’s equally venal cousin bribes a judge and conspires to get him committed to an insane asylum, the disgusting old man bribes Tammany Hall to KEEP him imprisoned. Yet these individuals do not seem to be working together. I found the continued presence of Christina’s parents at this juncture to be one villain too many.

That does not take anything away from the horrific nature of Oliver’s imprisonment or the appalling stink of corruption that surrounds the entire case – and that unfortunately bears all too close a resemblance to real circumstances at the time.

Taken all together, A Notorious Vow turns out to be an engaging romance of surprised (and surprising) equals who have to overcome more difficulties than expected. And who discover at the end that their hard-won happy ever after is well worth the changes that they both have to make in their lives.

If this is the final book in the Four Hundred series, it is a fitting end. But I’ve enjoyed the whole series very much and would love to see it continue!

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


To celebrate the release of A NOTORIOUS VOW by Joanna Shupe, we’re giving away one paperback set of the entire Four Hundred series!

Link: http://bit.ly/2P4dd94

GIVEAWAY TERMS & CONDITIONS:  Giveaway open to US shipping addresses only. One winner will receive a paperback set of the Four Hundred series by Joanna Shupe. This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Avon Romance.  Giveaway ends 9/25/2018 @ 1159pm EST. Avon Romance will send the winning copy out to the winner directly. Limit one entry per reader and mailing address. Duplicates will be deleted.

Spotlight + Giveaway: Phoenix Unbound by Grace Draven

Spotlight + Giveaway: Phoenix Unbound by Grace DravenPhoenix Unbound (Fallen Empire, #1) by Grace Draven
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy romance
Series: Fallen Empire #1
Pages: 384
Published by Ace Books on September 25, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Every year, each village is required to send a young woman to the Empire's capital--her fate to be burned alive for the entertainment of the masses. For the last five years, one small village's tithe has been the same woman. Gilene's sacrifice protects all the other young women of her village, and her secret to staying alive lies with the magic only she possesses.

But this year is different.

Azarion, the Empire's most famous gladiator, has somehow seen through her illusion--and is set on blackmailing Gilene into using her abilities to help him escape his life of slavery. And unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.

To protect her family and village, she will risk everything to return to the Empire--and burn once more.

Grace Draven has been recommended to me over and over (and over) again, pretty much ever since my dear friends at the late, lamented Book Lovers Inc all read Master of Crows and squeed out their love for it. After reading Draven’s entry in Amid the Winter Snow last year – and absolutely loving it – she definitely moved up the towering TBR pile. Phoenix Unbound, as the first book in a new series, seems like the perfect time to read more of an author that everyone just loves.

My review of Phoenix Unbound will appear in a couple of weeks, closer to its release date.

But in the meantime, in honor of the forthcoming release, because it is the first book in a new epic fantasy romance series, her publisher, Ace Books, is sponsoring an epic giveaway of not just Phoenix Unbound but also the first novels in FIVE other epic fantasy romance series. I’ve read four of the five (the fifth also moved up the towering TBR pile), and they are all fantastic, marvelous, wonderful and epic in their own ways. If you’ve ever had a yen to read Patricia Brigg’s Alpha & Omega series, Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series, Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling series, Chloe Neill’s Heirs of Chicagoland series or Anne Bishop’s The Others, the first book in all of those series is included in this Romantic Fantasy Starter Kit along with Phoenix Unbound.

That’s plenty of books to warm up a few of the upcoming cold winter nights, especially when you factor in your inevitable addiction to all of these terrific series.

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

To enter the giveaway click HERE!

The winner will receive all of the following:

Magic Bites (Kate Daniels #1) by Ilona Andrews
Written in Red (The Others #1) by Anne Bishop
Cry Wolf (Alpha & Omega #1) by Patricia Briggs
Phoenix Unbound (Fallen Empire #1) by Grace Draven
Wild Hunger (Heirs of Chicagoland #1) by Chloe Neill
Slave to Sensation (Psy/Changeling #1) by Nalini Singh

20 runners up will receive an Advance Reading Copy of Phoenix Unbound!

The giveaway runs from 9/3-9/19: https://sweeps.penguinrandomhouse.com/enter/fantasy-romance-starter-kit-giveaway

Review: The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan Camp

Review: The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan CampThe City of Lost Fortunes (Crescent City #1) by Bryan Camp
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Crescent City #1
Pages: 367
Published by John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on April 17, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The fate of New Orleans rests in the hands of a wayward grifter in this novel of gods, games, and monsters.

The post–Katrina New Orleans of The City of Lost Fortunes is a place haunted by its history and by the hurricane’s destruction, a place that is hoping to survive the rebuilding of its present long enough to ensure that it has a future. Street magician Jude Dubuisson is likewise burdened by his past and by the consequences of the storm, because he has a secret: the magical ability to find lost things, a gift passed down to him by the father he has never known—a father who just happens to be more than human.

Jude has been lying low since the storm, which caused so many things to be lost that it played havoc with his magic, and he is hiding from his own power, his divine former employer, and a debt owed to the Fortune god of New Orleans. But his six-year retirement ends abruptly when the Fortune god is murdered and Jude is drawn back into the world he tried so desperately to leave behind. A world full of magic, monsters, and miracles. A world where he must find out who is responsible for the Fortune god’s death, uncover the plot that threatens the city’s soul, and discover what his talent for lost things has always been trying to show him: what it means to be his father’s son.

My Review:

This is one of those “throw a bunch of books in a blender” things. In this particular case I’d be throwing American Gods, The Map of Moments, possibly some Nightside or Iron Druid or Eric Carter and any halfway decent guide to the Tarot, and I think I’d end up with something like The City of Lost Fortunes. As long as I included a tip of the hat to The Empire Strikes Back.

Not that it’s a bad blend by any means. Except for the necessity of the Tarot guidebook, I love all those stories. But that doesn’t mean that this one isn’t a bit derivative. But still eminently readable..

And I have a long running “thing” for books set in New Orleans. So there you go. Or here I am. Or there we are. All of the above.

This is a story about post-Katrina New Orleans, like The Map of Moments or Royal Street. And even though in this particular story Katrina is several years in the past, the breaking of the levees and the diaspora of its people is still a very present force in the city. Something was lost in the storm – something that still hasn’t come back. In spite of, or perhaps because of, all of the rebuilding.

Jude Dubuisson is the protagonist of this story. A hero he isn’t. Anti-hero is probably a lot closer to the mark – or at least that’s the role he grows into over the course of the story. At the beginning, Jude is mostly just a loser, scared of his own magic and trying to keep as low a profile as possible.

And it’s ironic that Jude begins as such a loser, because his gift, his magic, is his ability to find lost things. He can find the earrings you lost last week, the child who was kidnapped last month, or the soul that you signed away decades ago.

There’s someone on the supernatural side of New Orleans who needs Jude to find what the city has lost – before someone with less benign intentions finds that something and twists it to their own purposes.

Jude is supposed to play the game, and lose. He doesn’t even know what the rules are. By the time he figures out that the stakes are his soul, he’s already all the way in – and halfway back to the person he was meant to be.

The question is whether or not he has enough tricks up his sleeve to solve all the puzzles before the puzzles solve him. And just how much of a son of a Trickster he truly is.

Escape Rating B+: In the end, this story really got to me. Once Jude finally figures out what he really is and what he is meant to be, the final chapters are a wild ride that leads to a marvelously satisfying conclusion.

But the book still reminded me a bit too much of the stories that make up its gumbo flavor to stand up to an A grade – but it was close.

Although the feel of this book is that of a gritty urban fantasy, complete with snarky noir-ish detective, the ambience felt so much like American Gods, just writ on a slightly smaller scale – New Orleans instead of the entire American continent  But The City of Lost Fortunes is still a story of gods and monsters and hidden agendas and powerful beings that hide in plain sight and manipulate events to suit themselves.

There’s even a hidden Trickster pulling the strings behind the scenes, but unlike Low-Key Liesmith in American Gods, I recognized just who S. Mourning was from his first appearance.

Because this is New Orleans, in addition to the more usual pantheon of gods and monsters, the loa of Louisiana Voodoo play a big part of the story, both as guides to the perpetually perplexed (our “hero”) and as movers and shakers of events – even if some of their moving and shaking serves merely to upset other beings’ apple carts.

Jude Dubuisson is an interesting choice for a hero, or even an anti-hero. On the one hand, he certainly has a LOT of growing to do. He hasn’t been able to accept who and what he is, and has been kind of in hiding from himself since Katrina. I want to say he’s lost his mojo, but that really doesn’t cover it. It’s more like he deliberately threw his mojo away, and isn’t sure he ever wants it back. Once his choices are finally reduced to take it back and maybe get out of this mess in one piece or die AND lose his soul (these are not necessarily the same thing) he finally looks for what he himself has deliberately lost.

He also spends a significant part of the story lost in other meanings of the word lost. It is certainly a metaphor for his gift, but it is also the kind of lost that gives readers headaches. It’s not merely that he doesn’t know what he’s doing or why he’s doing it, but the reasons why it needs to be done or even what “it” is are obscured from both the protagonist and the reader.

In other words, Jude is confused for the longest time, and so are we. Following him as he grasps and gropes at what the problem is and whether or not he can find or trick his way into a solution is the story.

And in the end, it works. It really, really works. Sometimes a bowl of gumbo is exactly what you have a taste for – reading-wise or otherwise.

Review: Leverage in Death by J D Robb

Review: Leverage in Death by J D RobbLeverage in Death (In Death, #47) by J.D. Robb
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: futuristic, mystery, romantic suspense
Series: In Death #47
Pages: 385
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 4, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Lieutenant Eve Dallas puzzles over a bizarre suicide bombing in a Wall St. office building in the latest in the #1 New York Times bestselling series…

For the airline executives finalizing a merger that would make news in the business world, the nine a.m. meeting would be a major milestone. But after marketing VP Paul Rogan walked into the plush conference room, strapped with explosives, the headlines told of death and destruction instead. The NYPSD’s Eve Dallas confirms that Rogan was cruelly coerced by two masked men holding his family hostage. His motive was saving his wife and daughter―but what was the motive of the masked men?

Despite the chaos and bad publicity, blowing up one meeting isn’t going to put the brakes on the merger. All it’s accomplished is shattering a lot of innocent lives. Now, with the help of her billionaire husband Roarke, Eve must untangle the reason for an inexplicable act of terror, look at suspects inside and outside both corporations, and determine whether the root of this crime lies in simple sabotage, or something far more complex and twisted.

My Review:

At first, this one seemed like it was all about the money. A lot of crimes are all about the money, which is how the mystery solving cliches “follow the money” and the Latin “Cui bono?” (translated as “Who benefits”) came into being. But the way that money motivates in this story felt more like the version from the movie Jerry Maguire, “Show me the money”. Because while it is definitely about the money, it also ends up feeling like the money is as much about keeping score as it is about dollars and cents.

Not that there aren’t plenty of dollars and cents involved.

It all begins with a murder, as so many books in this series do. But not just a simple little murder. This is a big, well, more middle-sized kind of murder. It’s a bomb. It’s a crazy guy in a suicide vest blowing up a big meeting (literally) and taking out a bunch of corporate bigwigs.

Sounds like terrorism, doesn’t it? But if it were that simple, Lieutenant Eve Dallas wouldn’t need to spend an entire book solving it. Terrorism isn’t her beat – homicide is. Once her cops discover that the poor bomber was as much of a victim as all the others who were killed or injured in the explosion, the case becomes a whole lot more local, and a whole lot more complicated.

It’s all about the money. Specifically, as the title says, it’s about leverage. The bomb goes off in the middle of a big meeting to sign a merger between rival airlines. The bomb goes off, and both of their stock prices go way, way down. But both companies are solid, both have succession plans in place, and the merger is back on in less than a day. The stocks go back up, way, way up. Past the point they were before that bomb went off.

Anyone who knew in advance what was going to happen had the opportunity to buy very, very low and sell very, very high. And make a killing – pun very definitely intended. Which makes for a hell of a cold-blooded motive for murder.

But for the killers, the whole thing is so much of a rush that they do it again, this time manipulating the art market instead of the stock market.

It’s up to Dallas, with the help of her expert civilian consultant as well as the rest of her team, to discover whodunit and why, before they move on to play their games yet again – or before they disappear for good.

That it’s also a great excuse for Dallas to avoid the Oscar red carpet, where her friend Nadine Furst is up for multiple awards for her movie based on one of Eve’s more famous cases, is just icing on the Dallas and Roarke cake.

Escape Rating B: This series is comfort read for me. That may sound strange, as the books always begin with a murder. But good triumphs, evil always gets its just desserts,  and all the mysteries are wrapped up at the end in a neat bow. But this series is also a case (no pun intended this time) where it’s the cast and crew that I always love to see. The stories always make me laugh, not because the series is intentionally humorous, but because it’s just the kind of humor that I like, where it arises out of the situations and the characters and isn’t an attempt to BE funny, it just IS funny.

I’m particularly fond of Eve and Roarke’s cat Galahad, who is large and in charge and pretty much all cat, all the time. Galahad, bless his furry heart, does not solve crimes. He is, however, very good at the things that cats are very good at, particularly in knowing when his people need some purry affection, and knowing when the best time to interrupt in the hope of getting treats or attention will be. And the entire bed is his, which is completely normal. Possession is 9/10ths of the cat – even the fictional cat. Perhaps especially the fictional cat.

This is also not one of their regular trips to the angst factory – which is good because that wasn’t what I was in the mood for. Eve and Roarke both had hellacious childhoods, and they both have plenty of trauma that they are still dealing with well into adulthood. But there are occasions when someone either tied into one of their pasts or bearing too strong a resemblance to one of their bastard fathers shows up and drags in a whole baggage train of past crap. One of those every once in a while is more than enough. And that isn’t one of those – the occasional nightmare notwithstanding. Anyone who survived either of their childhoods would have the occasional, or more likely the regular, nightmare.

There are two threads to this particular story. One is the case itself, and the other is more personal for Dallas’ team, but also hearkens back to one of her earlier cases, which has proven to be a gift that keeps on giving – as the ending of this story proves.

The case is chilling enough – although it does seem to be operating at multiple removes. The killers aren’t doing their own dirty work. They create the setup, then send a pawn out to do the actual deed while making sure that they can get away scot free if it falls apart. The psychology of this one is all about fathers and children and sacrifice and turns out to have plenty of disgusting, oozing layers to work through.

The personal stuff works its way around and through this multiple murder case. I say personal, but it all goes back to the Icove case from Origin in Death , way back in the 22nd novel in this series. Eve’s friend, reporter Nadine Furst, wrote up the case in a best-selling true crime thriller, which was turned into a movie, which is now up for multiple Oscars – and which has left behind a trail of bodies at pretty much every step of the way. Eve would rather be dead than walk the red carpet, but it’s a dream come true for her partner Detective Delia Peabody. A dream that Eve and Roarke, in spite of the murders, manage to make happen.

It makes for a lovely ending for an enjoyable book in this long running series. Dallas and Roarke will be back in February in Connections in Death – and I’m looking forward to it. After all, I have to see just what Galadhad is up to next!