Review: Councilor by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Review: Councilor by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.Councilor (The Grand Illusion #2) by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, gaslamp
Series: Grand Illusion #2
Pages: 528
Published by Tor Books on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

L. E. Modesitt, Jr., bestselling author of Saga of Recluce and the Imager Portfolio, continues his brand new, gaslamp, political fantasy series with Councilor the thrilling sequel to Isolate. Welcome to the Grand Illusion.
Continued poor harvests and steam-powered industrialization displace and impoverish thousands. Protests grow and gather followers.
Against this rising tide of social unrest, Steffan Dekkard, newly appointed to the Council of Sixty-Six, is the first Councilor who is an Isolate, a man invulnerable to the emotional manipulations and emotional surveillance of empaths.
This makes him dangerous.
As unknown entities seek to assassinate him, Dekkard struggles to master political intrigue and infighting, while introducing radical reforms that threaten entrenched political and corporate interests.

The Grand Illusion
Isolate

My Review:

The Grand Illusion of the series title seems to revolve around the illusion that political action can “fix” things, whether what needs fixing is a country or a system or a person’s circumstances. Even, in a peculiar way, the weather. Or at least the effects of that weather.

This second book in the series, after last year’s marvelous Isolate, continues to follow Stefan Dekkard on his journey from being a political outsider, merely a security aide to one of the 66 councilors of Guldor, to his new position as a councilor in his own right. In other words, Stefan has gone from being an observer of the process – albeit an active and sometimes intimate one – to someone who is part of how the sausage gets made.

There’s a reason why politics is such a dirty business that no one REALLY wants to learn the truth of the process. Which doesn’t mean that some people don’t have to – and that some people don’t enjoy manipulating that process as much as they are able.

The setup of Guldor as a country, and its government, is a fascinating one. The setting is gaslamp fantasy, so they have steam power and electric power, they can make some unfortunately high-powered military ordinance. They are also in the middle, maybe a bit later than that, into the throes of their Industrial Revolution. Meaning that there is a lot of change and a lot of damage as a result of that change. Land and farming don’t convey the power that they used to. Large commercial interests have large amounts of money and therefor large amounts of influence. Small businesses and artisan business are on the rise but have not yet caught up in the power games being played.

If one thinks of the Guldorian political parties; Landor, Commerce and Craft, as being (very) roughly analogous to the British Tories, Liberals and Labour parties respectively, that’s probably not TOO far off.

Stories that take place in times of great upheaval are always interesting, because there are so many opportunities to go both right and wrong and so many people lining up to push in one direction or another. Guldor is at such a crossroads. The Landor (traditional) party has lost some of its sway but still thinks they could get back to their “good old days”.

The Commerce party has been the ruling party for 30 years, and have gotten so used to being on the top of the heap that they seem to have stopped bothering to cover up their abuses of power. To the point where the monarch of this constitution monarchy was forced to call for new elections – and to the point where voters were so fed up that they were willing to make a radical choice and vote in a Craft Party administration.

A circumstance that the Commerce Party doesn’t merely want but absolutely NEEDS to discredit and outright reverse by ANY means necessary. Not merely the quiet assassinations of Craft Party councilors that has been going on for YEARS at this point, but outright terrorism and revolution.

After all, they have an existing scapegoat for all their actions in the subversive Meritorist movement. Or, perhaps, and much more likely, they created one for just such a potentiality. So far, it’s been working out well for them, even if badly for everyone else.

And the entire situation is about to get a whole lot worse.

Escape Rating A: Just as with the first book in the series, Isolate, the story in Councilor is a story about politics that is told through people. Stefan Dekkard is, on the one hand, a bit of an everyman, and on the other a very singular individual with a specific set of skills, strengths and weaknesses. He is very good at observing the world around him, reaching synthesis of disparate and often contrary bits of information and then swiftly acting on his conclusions. He’s also damn good at keeping himself alive in a situation where, maybe not everyone, but certainly entirely too many people really are out to get him.

At the same time, he’s been an actual Crafter, he attended the military academy and has been a security guard to an active councilor. He’s also an isolate, think psi-null, in a society where nearly everyone can be read by elite psi-users who can both read and influence everyone except Stefan and the relatively rare others like him.

We’re following him and his career because Stefan is always an outsider in his own society and can observe without being psychically influenced or read by anyone who might want to probe his secrets or control his actions. Which does not mean that he doesn’t feel emotions or that he can’t be swayed by them, just no more or less than any of us, and in the same ways that we’re used to. It makes him an excellent surrogate for the reader.

As a new councilor, Stefan faces all of the newbie insecurities, and also starts out not knowing nearly enough to do the job. As he learns, we learn how things are – and are not – working right along with him.

He’s also newly married – to his former security partner – as this book begins. Theirs has always been a relationship of equals, and that does not change now that they are married (The author generally does an excellent job of creating these kinds of relationships and making sure that females are equally represented and equally powerful throughout his stories.)

At the same time, their relationship is changing in ways that they have to adjust to – and we see them do it. All in all, the way this story is told is that we see both the exciting things and the prosaic things and we keep following along because we get involved with the people to whom these events are happening. The story literally pulls the reader along because we want to see how they cope with the next load of feces that hits the oscillating device, whether large or small.

So this is a story about watching people do the best they can in circumstances that are less than ideal but that they know they need to get through anyway. And it does its best, which is very well indeed, to pierce through the veil that obfuscates the grand illusion that politics or political action can make absolutely everyone happy and solve everyone’s problems every time.

While still presenting the idea that a government – and the people who are part of it – doing their very best to act to promote the common weal and not for the interests of themselves and their partisans, will, by its very nature, satisfy more of the population more of the time more fairly than anyone in the game for the pursuit of their own private interests.

This is the second book in the series, and it looks like we’re going to be following Dekkard’s political career wherever it might lead him, most likely, or perhaps hopefully, from his beginning as a security aide in Isolate through his first term as a Councilor and on up the ladder of achievements and setbacks until he reaches some pinnacle that we can’t see from here. But I hope we do in the future books in this series.

Howsomever, based on the title, it’s quite possible that the next book in the series will represent one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back. The title will be Contrarian according to the author’s blog, and I already can’t wait to read it.

Review: Wolf (Sentinel Security #1) by Anna Hackett

Review: Wolf (Sentinel Security #1) by Anna HackettWolf (Sentinel Security #1) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, romantic suspense
Series: Sentinel Security #1
Pages: 306
Published by Anna Hackett on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

He’s her best friend’s older brother.

The hot, tough former Navy SEAL.

The man she’s had a crush on her entire life and now the man pretending to be her lover to keep her safe.

CEO Lainie Madden has her hands full. In charge of a growing tech company, her work and her employees are her life. She’s sworn off love, because the sad reality is that she stinks at choosing men who aren’t self-absorbed cheaters. But when she starts receiving disturbing death threats and her company’s website gets hit with relentless cyber-attacks, she’s in over her head.

What she never expected was her best friend’s bossy, rugged brother to steamroll in to play her fake boyfriend and very real protector.

Former SEAL and CIA agent Nick “Wolf” Garrick is second in command at Sentinel Security. He’s spent most of his life fighting and protecting others, proving he’s nothing like the ex-con who fathered him. He’s also spent years ignoring his scorching attraction to his little sister’s best friend. Lainie is sweet, fresh, smart…and off limits.

But when he finds out she’s in danger, it flips a switch inside him. Whatever the risk, whatever it takes, even pretending that they’re lovers, he’ll protect Lainie and take down the person hunting her.

The more time Lainie and Nick spend together, the more the lines blur. As danger swirls around them, their pretend relationship starts to feel very real. But Nick doesn’t do relationships and Lainie doesn’t want to get hurt again…

My Review:

Sentinel Security picks up where Norcross Security leaves off. At least in time. As this first book in the Sentinel Security series opens, the action moves from the Norcross’ West Coast to Killian Hawke’s East Coast. But the story does not pick up with whatever Killian Hawke does or doesn’t have going on with the frenemy/nemesis Federal Agent who has him gritting his teeth and cursing her name whenever she inserts herself into one of his cases.

I believe that the author is torturing all of her fans, including this one, by teasing the leader’s romance – the one I always like best – while drawing out the anticipation. Because this first book in the Sentinel Security series is all about Killian’s second-in-command and the woman who has had him wrapped around the axle for a whole lot longer than he’s ever been willing to admit.

Lainie Madden is the CEO of a growing tech company. A company which is suffering from an escalating series of cyber attacks just as Lainie is receiving an equally escalating series of threatening messages. Thinking those two escalations are connected does not take the services of an elite security company like Sentinel Security.

But Lainie Madden is, and has been since childhood, Nola Garrick’s best friend. And Nola Garrick is Nick Garrick’s little sister. Lainie has had a crush on Nick since she was 12 – when Nick was 18 and before he started his career with the SEALs and the CIA doing things that he’d have to kill someone if they learned about them.

That 6-year age gap loomed large when Lainie was growing up, but she’s all grown up now and has been for quite some time. She’s never forgotten her feelings for Nick, and has never found a man even remotely his equal. Nick’s never gotten Lainie out of his head or his heart.

The problem there, of course, is that if they start anything and it doesn’t work out – something that honestly neither Lainie or Nick expects because neither of them have all that great a track record with relationships – the person who will be hurt the most is Nola.

And neither of them wants that – even more than they want each other.

But those threats scare Nola a whole lot more than they do Lainie. So Nola calls her big brother and assigns him the task of protecting her bestie, whether that bestie believes she needs protection or not, whether she can bear to be that close to Nick or not, whether she and Nick can resist jumping each other’s bones long enough to get the villain caught or not.

Because they can’t. And they don’t really want to resist, either. The question is whether they can calm their own demons long enough to see if what has been simmering between them for so long has even half a chance of lasting longer than it takes to bring Lainie’s stalker to justice.

Escape Rating B+: As much as I referenced the author’s earlier series at the top, it’s not required to read the earlier series to get into this one. But it is fun! Especially when, as occurs in the climactic takedown in this book, characters from previous series show up to help save the day. It’s always lovely to see how everyone is doing after becoming so involved in all their lives.

But the first book in any of her series is always a great place to start – and to get hooked so that you can’t resist picking up the rest. Any one of Anna Hackett’s books should be considered as a gateway drug for ALL the others! This particular dark side has both cookies and yummy books!

I digress just a bit.

This is an action adventure romance series, so it’s not a surprise that someone – usually, admittedly, the heroine but not always – ends up in danger and the hero – or a team of heroes – has to rescue her. And that in the end, there is a happy ever after where that heroine falls for one member of that team and very much vice versa – after a bit of resistance, of course.

What makes this entry in the author’s lineup so much fun, at least for this reader, are two things. One is the delicious taboo-yet-not-really nature of the romance. Now that they are unattached adults, there’s absolutely no reason why Lainie and Nick can’t get together and scratch their mutual itch. But once upon a time there very much was. And the slightly forbidden yet not nature of their relationship adds just that little bit of delicious extra tension to the mix.

The second thing is the character of Lainie herself. I loved that she was a workaholic to the max who was dedicated to her company and her career. I loved her ambition and her drive and her putting her work first in her life. Not because it’s healthy, as Lainie has definitely taken her workaholism way too far for that. But because it’s so very real and it made Lainie real as well.

And it also ran a bit counter to stereotype, as we see PLENTY of workaholic heroes, and see them being celebrated for it, in fiction and in real life. But women – not so much. So I really loved that part.

Speaking of Lainie, I also liked that she was never damselfied. She’s in danger, and she hadn’t planned to ask Nick for help. Not because she had her head in the sand, as so many damsels do, but because she was working on it with very good people, and trusted her own people to have her back. That her stalker was seriously next-level put the situation out of her control – but not because she was being stupid about it.

Lainie also doesn’t do anything to sabotage her protection once it’s established. Again, things happen out of her control, because that’s the point of the whole story, but she doesn’t go wandering around on her own after ditching her bodyguard – or anything else equally stupid.

In other words, I enjoyed this because I really liked Lainie as a character and absolutely wanted her to get her HEA – which she earns, deserves and very much does. Nick seems like very yummy icing for a cake she’s already baked herself, and that’s my favorite flavor of romance.

But speaking of yummy, I was just a teensy bit disappointed that I didn’t get Killian’s romance to kick off the series. And I’m probably not going to get it in the next book either, as Killian sends one of Sentinel Security’s other agents, Matteo, off to DC to pick up something from the CIA at the end of Wolf. But it could be a case of Killian avoiding contact with his Federal nemesis. We’ll see next month!

Review: Signal Moon by Kate Quinn + Giveaway

Review: Signal Moon by Kate Quinn + GiveawaySignal Moon: A Short Story by Kate Quinn
Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld, Andrew Gibson
Format: audiobook
Source: publisher
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction, World War II
Pages: 57
Length: 1 hour and 22 minutes
Published by Amazon Original Stories, Audible Audio on August 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Diamond Eye comes a riveting short story about an impossible connection across two centuries that could make the difference between peace or war.

Yorkshire, 1943. Lily Baines, a bright young debutante increasingly ground down by an endless war, has traded in her white gloves for a set of headphones. It’s her job to intercept enemy naval communications and send them to Bletchley Park for decryption.

One night, she picks up a transmission that isn’t code at all—it’s a cry for help.

An American ship is taking heavy fire in the North Atlantic—but no one else has reported an attack, and the information relayed by the young US officer, Matt Jackson, seems all wrong. The contact that Lily has made on the other end of the radio channel says it’s…2023.

Across an eighty-year gap, Lily and Matt must find a way to help each other: Matt to convince her that the war she’s fighting can still be won, and Lily to help him stave off the war to come. As their connection grows stronger, they both know there’s no telling when time will run out on their inexplicable link.

My Review:

This story was so beautiful it just about broke me. It was gorgeous and glorious and heartbreaking all at the same time, and I was in tears at the end.

I want to say this is a timeslip story but that isn’t quite right. It’s more of a time-merging story, or a bit of technological SF sleight of hand story. It’s best to just say that it works. It all works marvelously, and let the how and why of it remain a bit nebulous.

After all, our two principals don’t completely understand the why of it themselves. They just know that it happened. And that it saved them both.

Lily Baines is a signal tech in Yorkshire in 1943, spending her days and nights with a Bakelite headset wrapped around her “bat-like” ears, listening for German signals. She’s a Petty Officer in the WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service), doing her bit for in a war that she’s entirely too afraid is being lost.

Late one shift, she picks up a signal from an American ship, broadcast in English, in the “clear”, detailing an attack on the ship by “Vampires”. An attack that results in the ship sinking with all hands after 42 minutes of harrowing transmission by the U.S. Naval signal tech, ST Matt Jackson, who gives the date as 2023.

While her superiors are certain that Lily has just been working too many days in a row without a break, Lily feels like she owes it to her fellow signal tech, the man she just heard narrate his own death, to try to help him. So she sends him a letter, a 1943-era radio, extra batteries, and a list of frequencies that she promises to listen on at a specific time every day.

There’s no science fiction involved in her package to the future. Her uncle is a solicitor and she contracts with his office to deliver the package to a certain room in a certain hotel in York on the day Matt said he checked in. Law offices do this all the time, just not necessarily for quite 80 years.

When Matt gets the radio, he’s sure it’s a prank, but he dials the frequency anyway. Even when Lily starts talking, he STILL thinks it’s a prank – at least until that night, when an event that she predicted comes true.

They have less than 24 hours to analyze the transmission that Matt hasn’t sent yet, in the hopes of figuring out what is about to go wrong so that he can prevent it. Or save his ship. Whatever it takes to prevent yet another war.

What they get is more than either of them ever bargained for. It’s enough – and it’s not nearly enough at all.

Escape Rating A++: Signal Moon is short and absolutely perfect in its length. It represents a very brief moment in time and needed to reflect that brevity. Also, it’s just so damn bittersweet – and appropriate in that bitter sweetness, that more would be just too much to take.

It’s that good.

But because of that short length, I was able to sit down with the audiobook and finish in one utterly absorbing and in the end completely heartbreaking listen. (If you have Amazon Prime you can get both the ebook and the audio as part of your Prime membership, and it’s so worth it to listen to the audio if you have a mere 82 minutes to occupy your hands while your mind wanders back to 1943 – and forward to OMG next year.)

The strength of this story is in the characters. The author sketches us a complete picture of Lily and her wartime service with just a bit of description and a whole lot of Lily’s internal monologue as she goes through her day pretending that everything is going to be alright even though she’s scared right down to her not-nearly-warm-enough fingertips that all is already lost.

While Matt’s more frank and frequently profane dialog, along with the desperation of his own internal monologue, gives the reader or listener a clear portrait of who he is and what drove him to become the person – and the officer – that he is on the brink of what could be – briefly – his very own war.

In the audiobook, the two characters are brilliantly voiced by their own narrators, Saskia Maarleveld for Lily and Andrew Gibson for Matt and they embody their characters beautifully. The audio would not have worked half so well with a single narrator. (Saskia Maarleveld is also the narrator for several of the author’s novels, including this year’s The Diamond Eye, which just moved up the towering TBR pile as a result.)

The ending of this story is inevitable. There’s just no other way this one works. But it’s easy to get so involved in their story that you just want it to have a different ending anyway. And that’s what broke me in the end. I knew what the end would be, but this was just one of those times where I really wanted a deus ex machina to step in and make that difference happen – even knowing how much I usually hate those kinds of endings. But it wasn’t, and it shouldn’t have been, meant to be.

Dammit.

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

Kate Quinn and Amazon Publishing are giving away a $50 Amazon Gift Card to one very lucky entrant on this tour!
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The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 8-7-22

And the picture below says everything anyone ever needed to know about why Luna and Tuna needed to be adopted TOGETHER.

She’s not actually THAT small, although he is THAT big. She was just further down the well between Galen’s legs when he took the picture.

While the clowder has not yet achieved “peace in our time” the rapprochement is proceeding. Although we got a second cat perch for the breakfast nook windows and Hecate is acting like a hen trying to hatch an egg on two separate nests. She lays in one and keeps an eagle eye on the other in case of interlopers. But the hissing and growling have calmed down a fair bit, with the red dot acting as the common enemy for all felines to unite against.

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Apple a Day Giveaway Hop
$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Back to School Giveaway Hop
$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Summer 2022 Seasons of Books Giveaway Hop

Blog Recap:

Apple a Day Giveaway Hop
A Review: The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara Ackerman
B Review: The Courier by Ernest Dempsey
B- Review: The Bodyguard by Katherine Center
Back to School Giveaway Hop
Stacking the Shelves (508)

Coming This Week:

Signal Moon by Kate Quinn (blog tour review)
Wolf by Anna Hackett (review)
Face by Joma West (review)
The Last of the Seven by Steven Hartov (review)
Councilor by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (review)

Stacking the Shelves (508)

First, Amazon had a sale. Second, I got tempted by someone’s recommendation into getting the Relic Runner series. You can see how that worked out in my review of the first book, The Courier, earlier this week. And I got tempted by a few things. More than a few. It’s not as if this week is different from any other week, after all!

For Review:
Bronze Drum by Phong Nguyen (audio)
Cruz by Nicolás Ferraro
The Daughters of Izdihar (Alamaxa Duology #1) by Hadeer Elsbai
Fenian Street by Anne Emery
Haven by Emma Donoghue (audio)
Hidden Pieces (Misty Pines #1) by Mary Keliikoa
The Hookup Plan (Boyfriend Project #3) by Farrah Rochon
In the Shadow of a Queen by Heather B. Moore
Signal Moon by Kate Quinn
TITAN by Mado Nozaki
The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett
The Winter Garden by Nicola Cornick
Wolf (Sentinel Security #1) by Anna Hackett

Purchased from Amazon/Audible:
Any Witch Way (A Witch in Wolf Wood #3) by Lindsay Buroker
Charmed and Dangerous (A Witch in Wolf Wood #5) by Lindsay Buroker
Country Roads (The Relic Runner #3) by Ernest Dempsey
The Courier (The Relic Runner #1) by Ernest Dempsey (REVIEW!)
Heavy Lies the Crown (The Relic Runner #4) by Ernest Dempsey
Mind Over Magic (A Witch in Wolf Wood #1) by Lindsay Buroker
Moment of Tooth (A Witch in Wolf Wood #4) by Lindsay Buroker
Spell Hound (A Witch in Wolf Wood #2) by Lindsay Buroker
Two Nights In Mumbai (The Relic Runner #2) by Ernest Dempsey


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:


Back to School Giveaway Hop

Welcome to the Back to School Giveaway Hop, hosted by Review Wire Media and Chatty Patty’s Place!

It is that time again – even if it feels WAY TOO EARLY for it. The local schools here had their first days of in person classes yesterday and today – although there are “Digital Learning Days” scheduled throughout the year. The more things change, the more things remain the same – no matter which direction you are counting as “change” or “same”.

But the start of the school year also highlights that there is a teacher shortage. The combined Atlanta are school districts (Atlanta, Fulton Co., Gwinnett Co., and DeKalb Co.) had over 1,000 teacher openings just a couple of weeks ago. That might have gotten a bit better since then, but not that much. A lot of school districts have come up with various “band-aid” type strategies to make sure that there are at least enough adults to supervise all the classrooms. We’ll all see what solutions districts come up with – and whether or not they work! – in the months ahead.

Nevertheless, for a lot of parents, this is the week where they mark that their kids are another year bigger and older and possibly more mature. The pictures my friends and colleagues are posting on FB to compare last year’s first day of school to this year’s certainly point out how quickly time flies!

So what do  you think of when you hear the words, “Back to School”?

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

You are invited to the Inlinkz link party!

Click here to enter


Review: The Bodyguard by Katherine Center

Review: The Bodyguard by Katherine CenterThe Bodyguard by Katherine Center
Narrator: Patti Murin
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance
Pages: 320
Length: 9 hours and 44 minutes
Published by St. Martin's Press on July 19, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


She’s got his back.
Hannah Brooks looks more like a kindergarten teacher than somebody who could kill you with a wine bottle opener. Or a ballpoint pen. Or a dinner napkin. But the truth is, she’s an Executive Protection Agent (aka "bodyguard"), and she just got hired to protect superstar actor Jack Stapleton from his middle-aged, corgi-breeding stalker.

He’s got her heart.
Jack Stapleton’s a household name—captured by paparazzi on beaches the world over, famous for, among other things, rising out of the waves in all manner of clingy board shorts and glistening like a Roman deity. But a few years back, in the wake of a family tragedy, he dropped from the public eye and went off the grid.

They’ve got a secret.
When Jack’s mom gets sick, he comes home to the family’s Texas ranch to help out. Only one catch: He doesn’t want his family to know about his stalker. Or the bodyguard thing. And so Hannah—against her will and her better judgment—finds herself pretending to be Jack’s girlfriend as a cover. Even though her ex, like a jerk, says no one will believe it.

What could possibly go wrong???
Hannah hardly believes it, herself. But the more time she spends with Jack, the more real it all starts to seem. And there lies the heartbreak. Because it’s easy for Hannah to protect Jack. But protecting her own, long-neglected heart? That’s the hardest thing she’s ever done.

My Review:

It’s not exactly a surprise that this a bodyguard romance. After all, the title does pretty much give it away. But before your head starts playing “I Will Always Love You” on endless repeats, this book’s version of that popular trope would have Whitney Houston guarding Kevin Costner. Which is more than a bit of a twist, at least if that’s the picture you have in your head.

In this version, it’s Executive Protection Agent Hannah Brooks guarding the uber-famous actor Jack Stapleton. (In my head, I was picturing Jack as an amalgam of the superhero movie Chris brigade, so combine the features – and the careers – of Chris Evans, Hemsworth, Pine and Pratt to get sorta/kinda the picture in my head. And now, quite possibly, yours.)

The explanation of exactly why Hannah Brooks does not look like the beefy, burly, able to bench press a Hummer, stereotype is pretty much on point. Having that kind of bodyguard advertises that something is up and someone or something needs protection. It’s not exactly discreet, The company that Hannah works for is all about protection and discretion – even if some of the agents, including Hannah, seem to have a problem with the latter in their personal lives. Hannah and her team plan and prepare for every detail and contingency so that threats are eliminated before they happen.

Even if the biggest threat that Jack Stapleton seems to face is a middle-aged stalker who keeps Corgis and knits sweaters with Jack’s face in the center. Or at least the Corgi stalker is the reason that Jack’s team at the movie studio hires the protection agency.

Once Hannah is embedded in Jack’s life and his world, it starts to seem like Jack’s older brother Hank is a much bigger threat – but not as big or as difficult to fight as his mother’s cancer.

And that’s where things go really, really pear-shaped – especially for Hannah. Jack doesn’t want to worry his mom while she’s undergoing treatment, so he wants to hide the fact that he needs protection at all. Which puts Hannah in a really tough spot, as Jack’s plan requires that Hannah pretend she’s his girlfriend and not his bodyguard.

The longer it goes on, the realer the ruse seems to be – and not just to Hannah. Unless Jack is a much, much better actor than even Hannah thinks he is.

Unless the stalker is even better than that.

Escape Rating B-: This is a story where I had both the audiobook and the ebook, which means I started by listening to the audiobook. I switched to the ebook at less than a third of the way through – not because I was impatient to see what happened next but because the audio was driving me utterly bonkers.

So many people have loved this book, and it sounded like it would be so much fun, but the audio just about had me screaming in the car. I switched to the ebook because I was determined to finish the damn thing.

The story is told in the first person singular, so we’re in Hannah’s head listening to her voice and all of her many, many, many anxious thoughts and feelings, nearly all of which are negative and are flying by at what seems like a million miles per hour. The narrator’s delivery of the rapid-fire cacophony inside Hannah’s head was spot-on, but the overwhelming mass of negativity the character was projecting – well, I just wasn’t there for it. At all.

Hannah is a person who is afraid to sit still or even to slow down. Even if she’s not moving in the physical sense, her brain is whirling at a million miles per minute. And it seems like most of those miles and minutes are negative. She’s not happy with herself, she’s not happy with her life – particularly when the story opens – and she’s doing her level best to keep in motion so she doesn’t have to deal with ANY of her issues.

That her mother just died and her boyfriend dumped her the morning after her mother’s funeral is just the tip of the rock-filled iceberg that is Hannah’s emotional state. (Her boyfriend is a douche and she’s WAY better off without him, but it takes her awhile to figure that out – as it does.)

And her boss is a complete asshole. Even when he’s right, he goes about it the worst way possible – because he admits he enjoys torturing his employees. He’d call it “tough love” if he was willing to use the word “love” at all. But it comes off as just being an abusive asshole who enjoys his assholishness.

In short, Hannah has a metric buttload of issues that she is burying under her workaholism. All of her issues feel justified, but she’s not dealing with pretty much ANYTHING that needs to be dealt with. And her mother’s death provides the straw that is breaking the camel’s back of Hannah’s coping mechanisms.

Not that Jack Stapleton is in much better shape emotionally – he just hides it better. After all, he is an actor. The irony of their situation is that as fake as their relationship is supposed to be, Hannah is a much more real person than anyone Jack has ever associated with in Hollywood – including his supposed “real” girlfriend.

The relationship that develops between Hannah and Jack, as bizarre as its starting point, is the most real thing in his life – except for his older brother’s animosity and his mother’s cancer. He’s not coping well either – and he has just as much to cope with as Hannah does.

And that’s one of the places where the story is shortchanged by its cute sweetness. Because it certainly is both of those things. The issue that I had with the story in the end is that there is too much going on with both of these people for a romance that ends up being this light and fluffy.

Not that both Hannah and Jack don’t deserve a happy ending – because they both certainly do. But the way they achieve it, and the way that their happy ever after is presented, completely glosses over everything that is really, truly not cute or sweet at all. In the end, the story shores up the fallacy that love conquers all, including learning disabilities, impostor syndrome, feelings of total inadequacy, childhood trauma, and unprocessed grief.

It ends on the note that love doesn’t just conquer all, but that it cures everything that ails a person. Which just isn’t true. And this would have been a much better story, if not nearly as fluffy, if their very important issues had been dealt – or at least showed that they would BE dealt with – instead of swept under the carpet.

In the end, this wasn’t bad – and it’s a surprisingly clean romance if you’re looking for one. But it wasn’t nearly as good as it could have been.

Review: The Courier by Ernest Dempsey

Review: The Courier by Ernest DempseyThe Courier: A Dak Harper Thriller: 1 (The Relic Runner) by Ernest Dempsey
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, thriller
Series: Relic Runner #1
Pages: 286
Published by 138 Publishing on March 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Former Special Forces operator Dak Harper needs a job.
Out of work and on the run after a shocking betrayal by his brothers-in-arms, the ex-Special Forces commando hasn’t stopped moving for months.
He can’t. Some of the same soldiers who left him for dead in the Middle East still want his head. And they’re getting closer.
So far, he’s been lucky. But Dak is low on money and nearly out of time.All he needs is an easy gig. A place to lie low, bank some cash, and quietly figure out his next move.
That’s not exactly what he finds.
Some rich kid with more money than he knows what to do with wants to open his own museum. But first, he’s got to fill it, and that’s where Dak comes in.
Not sure if his gift for hunting bad guys will translate to finding priceless artifacts, Dak’s willing to give it a shot. He needs this job. The kid will pay him a lot of money and ask no questions.
Before he knows it, Dak’s on the first flight to South America, chasing his big payday. But Dak’s about to trade one set of problems for something even worse: the deadliest mission of his life.

My Review:

The Courier is the first book in an action adventure thriller series featuring former Delta operator Dak Harper. A man on the run, but not from a crime he committed. Dak is running from a crime he didn’t commit – or rather from the man who actually did commit that crime and is pissed as hell to have it pinned on him. Particularly after all the trouble he went to in his failed attempt to put Dak in that frame.

(That origin story is told in a 6-part novella series, descriptively titled The Relic Runner Origin Story. The reader does get enough hints of those events to slip into this book fairly easily, but I’ll probably read those when I get a round tuit because I always like more background.)

So Dak is open to a job that will take him out of the country, and temporarily out of the reach of the man who wants him dead. Even if it’s a job that might add more than a few names to that list of people who are out to kill him.

But the job he picks up at the beginning of this story is nothing like he ever expected. It’s also where that passing reference to Indiana Jones comes in. Twelve-year-old Boston McClaren has parlayed his knack for video gaming into an extremely lucrative career. And he plans to use some of his legally gotten gains to do something of dubious legality – or, at least, to pay someone, hopefully Dak, to do something of dubious legality on his behalf.

The young entrepreneur hires the disgraced Delta operator to go to Lima, Peru and re-appropriate, by whatever means necessary, a priceless relic purchased on the dark web by the cartel kingpin who runs everything shady in the city of Lima.

Considering that everyone in Lima from the Mayor on down is at least partially on that kingpin’s payroll, Dak is going to have to go through a lot of people – one way or another – to “find” the relic that he’s looking for.

The kingpin needs to go down, the city needs to get out from under his thumb, and that relic needs to get into the hands of a museum where many, many more people will be able to appreciate it and its history.

Dak Harper is looking forward to taking out the trash. Unless he ends up in it.

Escape Rating B: I picked this up on a whim because a writer whose work I really like recommended this author and the series. The comparisons in that recommendation were to Indiana Jones, Dirt Pitt And Doc Savage. While I’m more familiar with Indy than the other two, I’ve certainly heard of all of them. I have to say that I was a combination of intrigued and confused, but decided it was worth a try, if only because I enjoy the work of the author providing the recommendation so damn much.

Having finished The Courier, I think all of those comparisons are dead wrong, although the book made for a terrific, edge-of-the-seat read. But the cinematic character that Dak Harper resembles more than any other isn’t Indiana Jones – it’s Nathan Drake. And not so much from the movie as from the game series, also titled Uncharted.

And that includes the level of violence. You mow down a LOT of bad guys while you’re pretending to be Nathan Drake, including a whole slew of drug dealers, gun runners and kingpins of cartels dealing one, or the other – or both. Dak’s origins are actually a bit less shady than Nathan’s, but neither of their hands are exactly clean.

Howsomever, at least in this first outing, the Relic Runner as a series does bear a sharp resemblance to that video game. There is a story, but the story is in service of watching Dak Harper outsmart all of his opponents and essentially mow them down in one way or another. The conditions he observes in Lima are heartbreaking and even horrific, and the reader does reach the point of wanting to see all those bastards go down and go down as hard as possible while Harper does his best to avoid as much collateral damage as he can.

If you see it resembling a certain type of action-adventure video game – like the Uncharted series or even Tomb Raider – it’s easy to get caught up in the rhythm of the dropping of the bodies and just go with the action. But if you’re looking for a story with any kind of depth, you’ll probably be disappointed.

I wasn’t. I was looking for a bit of mindless adventure being led by a character who was superlative at his job and I got exactly what I wanted. We’ll see if that’s true in the next book in the series, Two Nights in Mumbai, the next time I’m in this kind of mood.

Which, admittedly, is the kind of mood where I either want to vicariously kill things by playing a video game – or read about someone else doing it in a story that – you guessed it – resembles a video game.

Review: The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara Ackerman

Review: The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara AckermanThe Codebreaker's Secret by Sara Ackerman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by Mira Books on August 2, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A brilliant female codebreaker. An “unbreakable” Japanese naval code. A pilot on a top-secret mission that could change the course of WWII. The Codebreaker's Secret is a dazzling story of love and intrigue set during America’s darkest hour.
1943. As war in the Pacific rages on, Isabel Cooper and her codebreaker colleagues huddle in “the dungeon” at Station HYPO in Pearl Harbor, deciphering secrets plucked from the airwaves in a race to bring down the enemy. Isabel has only one wish: to avenge her brother’s death. But she soon finds life has other plans when she meets his best friend, a hotshot pilot with secrets of his own.
1965. Fledgling journalist Lu Freitas comes home to Hawai'i to cover the grand opening of the glamorous Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Rockefeller's newest and grandest project. When a high-profile guest goes missing, Lu forms an unlikely alliance with an intimidating veteran photographer to unravel the mystery. The two make a shocking discovery that stirs up memories and uncovers an explosive secret from the war days. A secret that only a codebreaker can crack.

My Review:

Like the author’s previous work, The Codebreaker’s Secret is primarily set in the author’s home state, Hawai’i, during World War II. And like her other books, this one mixes a touch of romance with a story about both brave and nefarious wartime deeds on a homefront that experienced the war just a bit differently – and considerably closer to home – than did the mainland.

This one is also a bit different because it has a bit of a timeslip element to it. Not exactly, and not all that far apart in time, but just far enough for that wartime experience to seem both far away in the rearview mirror but still very much relevant – and impactful – on the characters’ present.

We begin in 1942, in Washington DC, with codebreaker Isabel Cooper desperate to get to Hawai’i. Her brother was an Army pilot, who was stationed at Pearl on that “Date which will live in infamy” when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Walt Cooper went down with his plane. He was his sisters’ big brother, protector and best friend, and her world seems empty without him to share it with.

She’s determined to go to Hawai’i, to meet Walt’s friends, to see what he saw and walk where he walked, so that she can feel closer to him – even though he’s gone. When she manages to break the code of Japan’s complex naval cipher machine, she’s on her way to Pearl, where her adventure truly begins.

In 1965, Luana (call her Lu, please!) Freitas is on her way back to her home in Hawai’i, but not for a visit to her family. She’s a features writer for Sunset Magazine and she’s come to cover the opening of Laurance Rockefeller’s brand new hotel, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, on the Kohala Coast of the island of Hawai’i. Sunset was, and is, a lifestyle magazine. Lu was supposed to write about the luxurious splendor of the hotel and the parties attended by the rich and famous.

But the first person Lu meets on the way to the hotel is the famous singer Joni Diaz. The second person is the legendary Life Magazine photographer Matteo Russi. When Joni goes missing, the writer and the photographer team up to learn what, and especially who, happened to the singer for her body to wash up on the hotel’s otherwise pristine beach.

What they discover is that the secrets and the enemies that have been hidden since the war still have the power to destroy. But that the wounds left behind by that war can still be healed, and that what was once lost can be found again. Even in the last place that anyone ever expected to look.

Escape Rating A: This is my third book by Sara Ackerman (after Red Sky Over Hawaii and Radar Girls) and so far it’s my favorite. (I’m saying “so far” because there are two earlier books of hers that I have not yet read – and because of course I expect more!)

A huge part of what made this work so well for me was the way that the “timeslip” worked. First we follow Isabel in 1943, then we are with Lu in 1965. There’s no need for any supernatural woo-woo or lost diaries to make the two stories link up, because Matteo Russi becomes a central figure in both time periods.

Which is entirely plausible and even realistic. Think about that whole meme on the interwebs about the foreshortening of time, that in our heads we think of 1980 as being twenty years ago when it’s really 40 years ago and what a mindbend that is.

But in 1965 the men and women who served in World War II (and survived) were mostly in their 40s, and often their early 40s at that. Very much in their primes, with most of their lives still ahead of them. A lot of TV heroes in the mid-1960s had served in either WW2 or Korea, which led to them being cops or private investigators or something else dangerous and sexy. Not that I was thinking that last bit when I watched those shows, I was only eight in 1965.

That Matteo is a young aviator in 1942 and an experienced photographer in 1965 at the top of his game grounds the story. As does Lu’s position of being a young female journalist who feels compelled to beat the men who are certain that she can’t cut it because she’s a woman.

There have been a lot of recent books about women serving as code breakers and other top secret positions during the war – a trend that this author has herself contributed to. This is also something that would have once been believed to be too sensational to be true, but with the war years now mostly declassified, those truths have come out and aren’t they glorious?

One of the things that made this work so much better for me than Red Sky Over Hawaii is that the villain of The Codebreaker’s Secret is entirely realistic and not over-the-top at all. There were plenty of Nazis who were brought to the U.S. after the war, with their records sanitized by the U.S. government, in order to advance the U.S. missile program and give us a leg up against the Soviets in the Cold War arms and space race.

That there were spies and agents working for the Nazi cause during the war is hardly a surprise. It’s been a topic for conspiracy theories and espionage thrillers for decades. And it allows for a disgustingly slimy, smarmy villain who is all-too-realistic and not over-the-top at all.

I’m always fascinated with the history in historical fiction, but what really makes this story sing – and even occasionally dance – are the personalities of its three protagonists, Isabel Cooper, Luana Freitas, and especially Matteo Russi who links the two – although not in the way that you’re probably thinking. And the story is infinitely better for that link not following the usual patterns.

Although their stories take place two decades apart, both Lu and Isabel are in the same place in each of theirs. Not just geographically, but also personally and professionally. They are both in their early 20s, both experiencing their first taste of freedom and responsibility, both driven to excel in professions that are dominated by men. And both willing to put themselves on the line for the truth.

At the same time, Matteo, who is the same human being in both time periods, is radically different. Time, experience and war have changed him from the brash young man who was Isabel’s friend but never her lover, to the womanizing bastard who is at the top of his profession but heading towards the bottom of his life.

He has no idea that mentoring Lu will heal so much of what has ailed him since the war. If only he can open himself up enough to try.

As I said earlier, I loved The Codebreaker’s Secret. I can’t wait for the author’s next book, because I’m highly anticipating more historical fictional goodness set in a captivating place and manages to provide a bit of a fresh perspective on a time period that has been endlessly explored – but not from this marvelous angle. Hopefully this time next year!

Apple A Day Giveaway Hop

Welcome to the Apple a Giveaway Hop, hosted by Mama the Fox!

The last time I participated in this hop, back in 2020, I wondered whether the “apple a day” in the hop’s name referred to the old saying about “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” or if it was all about giving an apple to the teacher. Although teachers should be much better paid than just in apples, this year I’m pretty sure that it’s about that apple for the teacher, because the local schools are starting up this week.

Which still feels WAY too early. But then, I went to school in the Dark Ages. The buildings were old – my mother attended the same high school I did in mostly the same buildings – and they were, for the most part, NOT air conditioned. Summers in Cincinnati are fairly beastly, so students would have been dropping like flies if we’d been stuck inside those buildings in August. Now I’m sure they are all properly A/C’d, but I’m really happy that I don’t have to see the power bills for my old high school in the summer. It must be an expensive monster to cool – and yes, that old building is still in use.

No matter whether you are giving them to someone or keeping them all to yourself, apples are a marvelously tasty treat, whether you’re putting them in a pie or a cobbler, or just crunching down. (They’re great slathered with peanut butter!). But what’s your favorite kind of apple? When they’re available, I love Honeycrisps and Jonagolds. What about you?

Answer in the comments for your chance at one of Reading Reality’s usual prizes, the winner’s choice of a $10 Amazon Gift Card or $10 in books.

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

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