Review: Matagorda Breeze by Lyla Hopper

Review: Matagorda Breeze by Lyla HopperMatagorda Breeze by Lyla Hopper
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: alternate history, post apocalyptic
Pages: 196
Published by Joy House Publishing on December 20, 2020
Publisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The Age of Oil ends in a cataclysm that kills millions of people. Two centuries after The Day, mankind has adapted, and a second Age of Sail is thriving. Ruby Turner is the first woman to serve aboard ships of the Gulf Shipping Company. She’s an excellent Navigator, but the Commodore has promoted her to Captain of the Matagorda Breeze, a ne’er-do-well ship where sailors who can’t quite make the grade elsewhere end up. She’s got to prove to the Commodore, herself, and her new team that she’s got what it takes to turn the ship around. On the way, she must face the biggest challenges of her career. Adventure awaits!

My Review:

What happens after the world comes to an end? It’s a fascinating question, and one that has been dealt with many, many, many times. But the stories about what happens when the world as we know it comes to a cataclysmic end have a certain sameness to them.

The exact way in which the world ends may be different, but humans still do human, so the range of how people deal with it is often fairly similar.

But whatever happens after that, assuming that humanity survives at all, can take so many routes down the trousers of time that those trousers might as well belong to a centipede. The apocalypses may all have a sameness to them, but the way that the world has gone after a couple of centuries, well, that has some interesting possibilities that don’t all have to be gloom and doom.

And that’s the story that Lyla Hopper chose to tackle in Matagorda Breeze. What does the world look like 200 years after an apocalypse that takes fossil fuels out of the world-wide equation?

As Matagorda Breeze opens, that cataclysm, “The Day” as it’s often referred to in the story, is two centuries in the past. Fossil fuels and the world they both permitted and destroyed are long gone. Humanity has gone both back and forward from there. Wind, water and animal power have returned to prominence. Solar power is a possibility, but political shenanigans (humans still human) have put that out of reach for most places because the components are rare and not widely available – or distributed.

In the areas that surround the Gulf of Mexico, sailing ships handle most of the heavy-duty cargo and transportation business. When we meet Ruby Turner, she is just getting her first ship’s command. An assignment that she is expected to fail.

In those two centuries since the Day, gender roles have reverted back to the pre-Civil Rights era. Women are expected to marry and take care of the home. And all of the other expectations that go along with that assumption.

Ruby is the first woman to rise to her current rank of Navigator, and the powers-that-be want to see her fail at being a captain so that she will go back to the role that’s expected of her. This command looks like it will do the trick, as her predecessor committed suicide, her first-mate is a thief and a bully, and her crew is filled with men who have hit bottom.

Of course she turns it around. This is her story and she’s the heroine. But it’s the way that she does it, the way that she not only succeeds but makes it a success for her entire formerly rag-tag crew, that makes this story an absolute joy to read from beginning to end.

Escape Rating A-: First and foremost, Matagorda Breeze is a very fun read. For one thing, it is competence porn, and I really like competence porn. This is a story about a woman who is better than anyone else at her job, surrounds herself with the best people – or helps them become the best people – and succeeds very much against the odds.

Howsomever, as much as loved following Ruby, it also felt like things were much too easy for her. It was GREAT watching her go from triumph to triumph, but it seemed like the sea chains blocking her way were almost no impediment to her progress.

Even the pirates succumbed to Ruby’s overwhelming abilities. It’s not like that’s a bad thing, but I did expect a bit more dramatic tension along the way. It’s very clear in the way that Ruby and others speak about events in her past that there WERE plenty of impediments along her way – but we don’t really experience them at the point where her life is now. She has learned what to do and how to do it and seems to have very few self-doubts about any of it. I wish we’d either seen more of her specific memories of incidents or that she’d had at least a bit of a struggle in her present. Your nautical mileage may vary.

As I was reading Matagorda Breeze, it reminded me very much of three other books; Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, On Basilisk Station by David Weber, and Island in the Sea of Time by S.M. Stirling (also, come to think of it, 1632 by Eric Flint). On Basilisk Station and Master and Commander belong very much together as they were both inspired by the same real-life Napoleonic War naval commander, and the Honorverse is pretty much the Napoleonic Wars in space.

But the attention to ship’s details and operations is a big part of both Master and Commander and Matagorda Breeze, and the female captain receiving her first command against the odds is a big part of On Basilisk Station.

Island in the Sea of Time is a bit different in that it’s also a story about what happens after the apocalypse – but not the usual kind of apocalypse – as the people in that story are transplanted from the late 20th century to the Bronze Age circa 1250 B.C.E. So the 20th century humans have to adapt to the loss of their 20th century technology but civilization is still alive and well and growing. Just not the civilization that they left, and that situation read like the world of Matagorda Breeze more than I expected. 1632 explores a similar scenario a bit differently, but the people in Island have a ship so it’s a knot or two closer.

Back to the book in hand. Matagorda Breeze is a story that explores a fascinating alternate world – one that I’d be very interested in returning to if the author decides to go there. It’s also a great story about a woman for whom the course of not just true love but true-pretty-much-everything goes fairly smoothly, but has just enough adventure to make it interesting.

And definitely, absolutely, competence porn for the win!

Full disclosure: Lyla Hopper is a pen name for my dear friend Amy Daltry who contributes the occasional really snarky review here at Reading Reality. She’s a dear friend and I’m really sorry that she, her husband, their dog, and the RV they are living in are currently even further away than they were before they took up vagabonding. This is her first book and I loved it and hope that there are more where this came from!

Review: The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

Review: The Lost Apothecary by Sarah PennerThe Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Pages: 320
Published by Park Row on March 2, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A female apothecary secretly dispenses poisons to liberate women from the men who have wronged them—setting three lives across centuries on a dangerous collision course
Rule #1: The poison must never be used to harm another woman.
Rule #2: The names of the murderer and her victim must be recorded in the apothecary’s register.
One cold February evening in 1791, at the back of a dark London alley in a hidden apothecary shop, Nella awaits her newest customer. Once a respected healer, Nella now uses her knowledge for a darker purpose—selling well-disguised poisons to desperate women who would kill to be free of the men in their lives. But when her new patron turns out to be a precocious twelve-year-old named Eliza Fanning, an unexpected friendship sets in motion a string of events that jeopardizes Nella’s world and threatens to expose the many women whose names are written in her register.
In present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, reeling from the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. When she finds an old apothecary vial near the river Thames, she can’t resist investigating, only to realize she’s found a link to the unsolved “apothecary murders” that haunted London over two centuries ago. As she deepens her search, Caroline’s life collides with Nella’s and Eliza’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.

My Review:

The Lost Apothecary combines a bit of a time slip story with historical fiction, a soupcon of magical realism and just a touch of mystery, then wraps it all up, not in a nice tidy bow, but rather in a potpourri of savory herbs, pungent spices and well-hidden poisons.

It begins in the present, with 30-something Caroline Parcewell alone in London on a trip that was supposed to have been a celebration of her tenth wedding anniversary.

But Caroline discovered that her husband was an unfaithful arsehole just before they were supposed to leave Ohio for England, and Caroline decided to use the non-refundable airline tickets and hotel booking as an opportunity to get some space and take some time to figure out whether to resign herself to the safe, secure and boring life she has or to figure out what of her own independent hopes and dreams she still has a shot at fulfilling.

And at the tips of her loose ends she unearths the tip of a mystery that sets her back on the road to the person she used to be, before she let her husband talk her into being the person that he needs to further his career.

So Caroline undertakes a bit of a historical treasure hunt. The tiny glass vial she has found could be nothing. Or it might just possibly be the key to unlocking a historical mystery. Or two. Or three.

In her search for a late 18th century female apothecary and serial killer, she has a chance to uncover a hidden chapter of history. Along the way she might also find the person she was meant to be.

Or she might be prosecuted for murder.

Escape Rating A-: If you crossed The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane with In the Garden of Spite you might get something in the neighborhood of The Lost Apothecary. And I mean that in all its strangeness, all its depth, all its death, and definitely all its sense of women helping women and women making sure that other women are, if not celebrated, at least remembered.

Even in Caroline Parcewell’s 21st century framing story, it’s still about women’s skills, women’s magic, and women helping each other stand up in the face of men who want to keep them down at every turn and by any means available.

There are two stories in The Lost Apothecary. Caroline’s 21st century story and Nella and Eliza’s late 18th century story. Both are about women doing their best to help other women, although Nella and Eliza are the helpers in their tale, while Caroline is the helpee in hers, and both end with them learning to help themselves and to get by, as they say, with a little help from their friends.

There isn’t a lot of mystery in Caroline’s own story. Her husband is a selfish, self-centered, manipulative douchecanoe and many of the events in Caroline’s story relate to his douchiness in one way or another.

In other words, I loved her and I hated him and there weren’t a lot of surprises in that part of the story.

But this is also Caroline’s journey of self-discovery – and there were plenty of fascinating things happening along that particular way. One of the things that this story does well is the way that it portrays the joy and the compulsion of historical research. While it is seldom as easy as it turns out to be for Caroline, the way that she gets sucked into her deep dive into the past and her need to keep hunting no matter what was very well done. The reader absolutely gets sucked in right alongside her.

That the friend she makes on her journey of discovery is a librarian at the British Library was absolutely the best icing on the cake for this reader.

The story of the apothecary herself, or herselves as it turns out, Nella and Eliza, was a different kind of fascinating, but I didn’t find their story – at least not until the end – as compelling as Caroline’s. The idea that a female apothecary was helping women poison their husbands was sensational on many levels, but their internal dialog, the beliefs that drove them, while they felt true to the times in which they lived at the same time felt like a bit of a strain from my 21st century perspective. It’s not that it didn’t work, because it definitely did, but more that I wanted to reach through the book and shake both of them. Which, come to think of it, says a lot about how compelling I found their characters.

But the way that the two stories wrapped themselves together was utterly marvelous. I am absolutely astonished that this is the author’s debut novel – and I can’t wait to see where she takes me next!

Review: Level Up by Cathy Yardley

Review: Level Up by Cathy YardleyLevel Up (Fandom Hearts, #1) by Cathy Yardley
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Fandom Hearts #1
Pages: 154
Published by St. Martin's Press on April 11, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Geeky introvert Tessa Rodriguez will do whatever it takes to get promoted to video game engineer– including create a fandom-based video game in just three weeks. The only problem is, she can't do it alone. Now, she needs to strong-arm, cajole, and otherwise socialize with her video game coworkers, especially her roommate, Adam, who’s always been strictly business with her. The more they work together, though, the closer they get…
Adam London has always thought of his roomie Tessa as “one of the guys” until he agreed to help her with this crazy project. Now, he’s thinking of her all the time… and certainly as something more than just a roommate! But his last girlfriend broke up with him to follow her ambitions, and he knows that Tessa is obsessed with getting ahead in the video game world.
Going from friends to something more is one hell of a challenge. Can Tessa and Adam level up their relationship to love?

My Review:

I reviewed the second book in the Fandom Hearts series, One True Pairing, several years ago for Library Journal. I loved it so much that I gave it a Starred Review. While that review may be behind a paywall, a variation of it is here on Goodreads.

I also enjoyed it so much that I bought the first book in the series, Level Up, certain that I would get a round tuit eventually. When the notification for this tour popped up I decided that eventually was finally here.

And I have to say that Level Up was just as much geeky fun as One True Pairing.

The title of Level Up is a bit of a pun. Both Tessa and Adam work for the game design company MPG, whose name is also a pun but stands for Mysterious Pickles Games – not that anyone really calls the place that.

And they’re roommates. Adam owns the house, Tessa rents a room and shares the public spaces. They’re friend-ly rather than friends, as Tessa is very much of an introvert while Adam has a whole coterie of male friends that he works with and spends time gaming with outside of work.

The thing is that both Tessa and Adam need to do some leveling up in their lives and neither of them are quite ready to acknowledge it. Both are a year out of long-term relationships that went badly, and that’s a lot of it.

But Tessa in particular is in more than a bit of a “pickle” of her very own. She’s an excellent coder, she has serious skills in coding and design, but she’s a woman trying to break into a profession, a company and a gang that is an entirely male preserve.

She knows that she’s ready to level up her career and move from being merely the audio coder to a member of the engineering team. She’s been keeping her nose to the grindstone nearly 24/7 in the hopes that her talents will be recognized.

And it just doesn’t work that way. It should, but it doesn’t.

If Tessa wants to be recognized, she needs to put herself into a position where she can be known – at least a little bit. She needs to spend some time with her colleagues and co-workers and not holed up in her cubicle or her room.

Stepping outside of her comfort zone – and her walls – brings her the friendship of the geeky women who operate the geeky bookstore around the corner from the house. Tessa finds friendship and sisterhood with a group of women who are every bit as nerdy and geeky as she is herself. She belongs.

And she can help them as much as they can help her.

They need to win a fandom contest to say the bookstore. Tessa needs a gaming project that she can spearhead to bring herself the right kind of attention at MPG. And Adam needs to get over his high-maintenance ex by getting himself a girlfriend.

Those things shouldn’t quite go together. But they do. And it’s awesome, geeky romantic fun every level along the way.

Escape Rating A-: There is just so much to love in the Fandom Hearts series, especially for anyone who is a bit of a geek themselves. The portrait of life at a game developer in Level Up, and the way that One True Pairing speaks to the heart of “shipping” are just so much fun.

This story succeeds on multiple levels – and they’re all a lot of fun.

The romance here is a geeky version of friends to lovers. Tessa and Adam are platonic roommates. They’ve worked together for a while and shared a house for a year. They’ve had a chance to get to know each other and they’re friend-ly without being close friends. It also seems like their bad breakups have insulated them from each other, keeping them from seeing each other as possible romantic partners.

There are, after all, plenty of professional pitfalls for Tessa if she gets romantically involved with a co-worker or even dresses like anything other than “one of the guys”. She’s in an awkward spot. And it’s a very real kind of awkward. Software development companies of all types are known to be sausage-fests. All guys, all the time, to the point where measuring whose is biggest is practically a daily event.

That the team lead of this particular development group is a known asshole to everyone but especially to women makes this scenario feel especially true to life. Tessa still wants in, but knows that she’ll have to prove herself every single day and pay for it with her career if she ever falls a bit short – even if that shortfall is something that a man would be forgiven for instantly.

So Tessa’s spearheading of this project for her new friends is ballsy. Necessary for her career. And a tightrope walk every minute. And we feel for her.

The romance is glittery icing on top of Tessa’s hard-working and hard-won cake. Adam has to both get over his ex and see her for the user that she really is. And that he and Tessa are good for each other because they already like each other for who they really are and not anyone they need to pretend to be.

And it’s lovely that they figure that out while snowbound – even if that particular part of the scenario felt a bit too close to real life this month!

For those of us who are geeky girls, Fandom Hearts is a series that demonstrates that we can be just exactly who we are and still meet cute and find romance without compromising on our love of all things nerdy.

BTW if the plot of One True Pairing reminds readers a bit of last year’s marvelous Spoiler Alert, just remember that One True Pairing was originally published in 2017. So if you like one you’ll love the other and definitely vice-versa. After all, we’ve all shipped the story of a romance between one of the characters we love – or the actor who plays them – and a real-life person more than a few times in our fannish lives, haven’t we?

Review: Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers

Review: Behind the Throne by K.B. WagersBehind the Throne (The Indranan War #1) by K.B. Wagers
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Indranan War #1
Pages: 413
Published by Orbit on August 2, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Meet Hail: Captain. Gunrunner. Fugitive.
Quick, sarcastic, and lethal, Hailimi Bristol doesn't suffer fools gladly. She has made a name for herself in the galaxy for everything except what she was born to do: rule the Indranan Empire. That is, until two Trackers drag her back to her home planet to take her rightful place as the only remaining heir.
But trading her ship for a palace has more dangers than Hail could have anticipated. Caught in a web of plots and assassination attempts, Hail can't do the one thing she did twenty years ago: run away. She'll have to figure out who murdered her sisters if she wants to survive.
A gun smuggler inherits the throne in this Star Wars-style science fiction adventure from debut author K. B. Wagers. Full of action-packed space opera exploits and courtly conspiracy - not to mention an all-out galactic war - Behind the Throne will please fans of James S. A Corey, Becky Chambers and Lois McMaster Bujold, or anyone who wonders what would happen if a rogue like Han Solo were handed the keys to an empire . . .

My Review:

The blurb talks about Star Wars, implies that Hail Bristol is someone like Han Solo who has just found themselves at the head of an empire. But that isn’t strictly true and sets up a whole lot of assumptions about who Hail Bristol is and what she might do as empress. It also sets up some false expectation of just how much running and gunning there will be in this space opera.

But that reference to Lois McMaster Bujold hits the nail a LOT closer to the head, particularly as regards Bujold’s definition of science fiction as the “romance of political agency” because this first book in the Indranan War trilogy is ALL up in the politics of the Indranan Empire in a very big way.

Even if it’s the absolute last place that Hail Bristol EVER wanted to be again.

If this series, at least as far as this book goes, has a Star Wars analogy in it, the resemblance sits much more firmly on Princess Leia’s braided crown. If Leia ran away from her responsibilities as Princess, Senator and leader of the Rebel Alliance to take up with Han Solo and live the life he’s been leading as a mercenary and gunrunner for twenty years, the person she’d be at the end of those decades would be someone like Hail.

Because, as Hail discovers the deeper she gets stuck back into Imperial politics, you can take the girl out of the palace intrigue but you can’t take the talent for palace intrigue out of the girl, not even after twenty years of becoming the woman she has become, a gunrunner, a mercenary, and most definitely when the job calls for it, a killer.

And that’s just who and what the Indranan Empire needs when Hail is dragged back to the palace to take up her rightful but resented place as Princess Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol, the last remaining heir of the Empress of Indrana.

Hail’s sisters and her niece are all dead. “Gone to temple” as they say in Indrana. Her mother is dying, poisoned by a slow-acting drug that is about to reach its endpoint – and hers.. It’s going to be up to Hail to find out who eliminated her family – and who is now gunning (and knifing, and bombing) for her.

It’s going to take a killer to catch all the killers – before it’s too late. For Hail – and for Indrana.

Escape Rating A++: I picked up Behind the Throne because I absolutely adored the author’s A Pale Light in the Black, which is also space opera and also the first book in its series. I loved the writing, the world building, and the way that the characters are drawn, and I just wanted more and wanted a story that I would be sucked right into and wouldn’t want to leave. I started this in audio and fell in love with it, but audio was just not going fast enough so I switched to the ebook fairly early on. I did listen long enough that every time Hail says “Bugger me,” which she does often, with good reason and plenty of emphasis, I hear the voice of the audiobook narrator – who was excellent.

This story isn’t the action-oriented adventure that the blurb makes it out to be. It was published in 2016, so that is certainly known and I wasn’t expecting it to be. I was expecting it to be like A Pale Light in the Black, and it definitely is that.

The characters are well-drawn. They feel like real people – admittedly real people in a very unreal situation. Hail has made a life for herself, a life that she’s good at. She doesn’t want to go back for reasons that become obvious early on and are not the result of the current crisis. She didn’t want the life that she’d have been required to lead if she stayed – so she went. Coming back to pick up the pieces of that life is hard and painful and makes her do and think and feel realistic things. She feels inadequate, she feels guilty, she sees herself stepping back into old patterns, she’s lost, she’s confused – and she’s driven. All at the same time.

This is also a story about trust. Trust in yourself, and trust in others. Hail returns to the palace knowing that the only people she trusts are either missing or dead. And that the life she thought she’d built for herself was based on not just one lie, but on a whole damn pack of lies, so she’s lost trust in herself as well.

But she has to find people she can trust, if not absolutely then at least trust enough, to help her wade through the morass and save herself and her empire. And that exercise, of figuring out who is on which side and why and how and whether it’s enough, is a big part of this story.

Because, just like the protagonist of A Pale Light in the Black, Hail is building a team that will see her through. If she trusts them enough. If they trust her enough. And if they are all absolutely excellent at their very difficult jobs.

In the end, in spite of how different their origin stories are, the character that Hail reminds me of the most is Emperox Grayland II in The Collapsing Empire and the rest of Scalzi’s Interdependency series. Although the crises they face are very different, Grayland and Hail come at them from the same direction. They are both outsiders to their respective Imperial systems and Imperial politics, stuck in positions they didn’t want but must defend at every single turn.

Even though they are both extremely unconventional for the positions they hold, their very unconventionality makes them not just the only people by inheritance for those positions at the time they are forced to take them, but the only people by talent, skill and capacity to pull the nuts of their respective empires out of the fires that they have inherited along with their thrones.

So if space opera is your jam, or if you love stories with terrific SFnal worldbuilding and absolute craptons of political skullduggery, Behind the Throne is a winner on every level along with its gunrunner empress Hail Bristol.

I’m already buckled up for Hail’s next adventure/imperial catastrophe in After the Crown, because this ride isn’t over yet and that is the most excellent thing ever!

Review: Best Laid Plans by Roan Parrish

Review: Best Laid Plans by Roan ParrishBest Laid Plans (Garnet Run, #2) by Roan Parrish
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, M/M romance
Series: Garnet Run #2
Pages: 304
Published by Carina Adores on February 23, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A man who’s been moving his whole life finally finds a reason to stay put.
Charlie Matheson has spent his life taking care of things. When his parents died two days before his eighteenth birthday, he took care of his younger brother, even though that meant putting his own dreams on hold. He took care of his father’s hardware store, building it into something known several towns over. He took care of the cat he found in the woods…so now he has a cat.
When a stranger with epic tattoos and a glare to match starts coming into Matheson’s Hardware, buying things seemingly at random and lugging them off in a car so beat-up Charlie feels bad for it, his instinct is to help. When the man comes in for the fifth time in a week, Charlie can’t resist intervening.
Rye Janssen has spent his life breaking things. Promises. His parents’ hearts. Leases. He isn’t used to people wanting to put things back together—not the crumbling house he just inherited, not his future and certainly not him. But the longer he stays in Garnet Run, the more he can see himself belonging there. And the more time he spends with Charlie, the more he can see himself falling asleep in Charlie’s arms…and waking up in them.
Is this what it feels like to have a home—and someone to share it with?

My Review:

The original phrase (in the original Scots) by the immortal Robbie Burns goes, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” But in contemporary English it’s usually paraphrased as “the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray”. Or something along those lines.

The point is pretty clear, whatever the language.

There are two kinds of plans going astray in this second book in the Garnet Run series, after last year’s terrific series opener Better Than People. Even better, you don’t have to read the first to enjoy the second, although both books are lovely and well worth reading.

Rye Janssen comes to the tiny town of Garnet Run Wyoming with not much more than the ghost of a plan – a ghost that gets exorcised just about the minute he arrives in town.

Rye inherited a house in Garnet Run from the grandfather he never met. Rye has been couch-surfing in Seattle since his most recent eviction. He’s broke, unemployed and has no place left to turn when the news that he owns a whole house in what he thinks of as the middle of nowhere turns out to be true and not the scam he expected it to be.

With no ties left in Seattle except his cat Marmot (who will happily come with him), and no economic prospects whatsoever, he climbs into his barely functional car and sets out for the unknown. He’s thinking that a house has to be a better place to live than his current circumstances. His plan is to get to Garnet Run, move into the house and see what happens next.

As I said, a ghost of a plan that goes up in smoke when he sees the sagging, teetering house that is his legacy from his grandfather. But he has no place and nothing else, so Rye and Marmot haul in the sleeping bag they share and start making do – because that’s what they always do.

Charlie Matheson has done nothing but live his life according to a self-imposed plan since the day his parents were killed in a car accident, leaving the just barely 18-year-old Charlie with a decent house, a failing hardware store, and the custody of his then 13-year-old brother Jack. (Jack is the protagonist of Better Than People.)

20 years later, Charlie has completely refurbished the house, has turned the hardware store into a profitable business and managed to see Jack through to a successful adulthood, living his dream as a successful book illustrator and commercial artist.

But Charlie never got to live his own dreams. Actually, Charlie barely lets himself live. The only people who are part of his inner circle are his brother Jack and his Maine Coon cat Jane. Outside of them, he has acquaintances, he has colleagues, but no close friends and definitely no lovers.

Until Rye Janssen slinks into his hardware store looking for as few cheap parts as possible to keep that house from falling down around his ears. He’s already put his leg through the rotting floorboards.

Charlie loves projects and Rye desperately needs help that he’s both ashamed and afraid to accept. That shouldn’t be enough to start a relationship – even though their cats are all in on that front LONG before their humans are on board.

Can a man who has nothing but roots and one who is all wings have anything like a chance?

Escape Rating A-: A lot of this series, at least so far, is centered around not just the romance but about the romantic partners and their relationships with their marvelously well drawn companion animals. And I’ll confess that I loved this one just a bit more than the first book because most of the animals in that story were dogs, while the star animal attractions in this one are both cats – not that I didn’t like the dogs, too.

But cats. Definitely cats for the win.

There’s something else about this series that definitely needs a shout-out, and that’s the way that it shows and doesn’t just tell two important things. One of the protagonists in the first book is neuroatypical, and that’s not something we see nearly often enough in one of the main characters in a romance. Happy endings are for everyone – or at least they should be.

In this book, Charlie is possibly a bit on that scale, but mostly it feels like he’s a trauma survivor whose coping mechanisms are now getting in his way. What makes this story shine is its attitude of total sex positivity. This is a story that demonstrates, over and over and over again, until both Charlie and the reader get the message, that love and sex are whatever works for each person. There is no rule that says only certain acts are or are not sexual, and that only certain behaviors are or are not okay. As long as everyone involved freely consents, whatever does or does not float a particular person’s boat is just fine.

And if they choose not to put their boat out at all, that’s fine too.

There’s a saying “that love is all there is is all we know of love” and that’s at the heart of this book.

But it also tells a lovely story about someone who has never had a place to call his own discovering that he can put down roots and make a life in a place he can call home. And that someone who had to grow up much too scared and much too soon still can still find a person who can help him make new dreams and take new wings.

And that every town, no matter how small or remote, can use an absolutely kick-ass cat playground and shelter to help make a town into a  community.

Review: The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

Review: The Four Winds by Kristin HannahThe Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, literary fiction
Pages: 464
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 2, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Nightingale and The Great Alone comes an epic novel of love and heroism and hope, set against the backdrop of one of America’s most defining eras—the Great Depression.
Texas, 1934. Millions are out of work and a drought has broken the Great Plains. Farmers are fighting to keep their land and their livelihoods as the crops are failing, the water is drying up, and dust threatens to bury them all. One of the darkest periods of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl era, has arrived with a vengeance.
In this uncertain and dangerous time, Elsa Martinelli—like so many of her neighbors—must make an agonizing choice: fight for the land she loves or go west, to California, in search of a better life. The Four Winds is an indelible portrait of America and the American Dream, as seen through the eyes of one indomitable woman whose courage and sacrifice will come to define a generation.

My Review:

Today is the Presidents Day Holiday in the U.S., so I went looking through the virtually towering TBR pile for something with an Americana theme. Which led me straight to The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah. While the Great Depression happened everywhere, the Dust Bowl feels like a distinctly American bit of history. At least this particular telling of it certainly is. Just as the topsoil of Texas and the Great Plains States blew east as far as Washington D.C., many of the people living in the former – and future – breadbasket of America blew west to California.

Like many of the people who went west, in that or any other era of American history, these former farmers – and doctors, lawyers, bankers and businessmen – and their families went west to make a better life for their families. Or at least a life where the very land that once sustained them wasn’t killing them with every breath.

The story, this era of devastation and loss, is seen through two women, Elsa (Elsinore) Wolcott Martinelli and her daughter Loreda. The story begins with Elsa, over-protected and under-loved, a 25-year-old woman who sees the life her upper-class parents have mapped out for her and wants none of it.

Elsa is no beauty, and she was diagnosed with a heart condition in her early teens. Her parents expect her to live the life of an invalid, doomed to spinsterhood and expected to sit quietly and self-effacingly in a corner, waiting until her parents become elderly and need her to take care of them.

Elsa wants a life for herself. One evening she goes out in secret and meets a man who is just as lonely and feels just as trapped as she does. In stolen moments together, she discovers love while he honestly just finds a temporary escape.

At least until the child they make changes all of their plans. And the dry years and the dust take away everything they ever dreamed of. It’s left up to Elsa to take her children somewhere that they might have a chance.

Or at least somewhere that the land itself won’t kill them – although there will be plenty of other things and people that just might do the same.

Escape Rating A-: I’m having a bit of a mixed feelings reaction to this book and in an unusual way. Those mixed feelings are because I recognize that this book is really, really good, while at the same time feeling like it’s not for me.

And I’m thinking that’s because for historical fiction, which it very much is, The Four Winds definitely borders on Literary Fiction which is generally not my jam. So I’m torn.

The alternative explanation is that the historical parts really drew me in, but the character of Elsa didn’t. On the one hand, she’s an indomitable spirit, surviving in a situation that would bring anyone to their knees – as it certainly does Elsa.

The difference is that Elsa doesn’t so much rise up until the very end as she puts her head down and keeps on keeping on for the sake of her children Loreda and Anthony. But she doesn’t so much exhibit courage or selflessness as she does a lack of self. She’s been beaten down her whole life and now she beats herself down whenever her situation isn’t doing a hard enough job at it.

I think that is where the story verges on Literary Fiction as she’s downtrodden internally even before she’s trodden down externally.

But the history wrapped into this is intensely compelling. It’s as though the author reached into the Dust Bowl Migration photographs by Dorothea Lange and just pulled out all of the emotion and backstory and poured it onto the page. If you’re not seeing the iconic image of the woman with her children as you’re reading this you need to take a good, hard look at Lange’s work because the images are still absolutely soul-searing 80-plus years later.

And those scorching is on every page of The Four Winds. Not just the despair of the land and the life blowing away – and into everyone’s lungs – in Texas, but the hate and derision on the face of so many Californians when they arrive. The inhumane treatment that Elsa and her children – and all of the other migrant workers – receive in California echoes through the years right up to the present and the way that immigrants are spoken about, written about and treated to this very day.

Review: A Vineyard Valentine by Nina Bocci

Review: A Vineyard Valentine by Nina BocciA Vineyard Valenting by Nina Bocci
Format: audiobook
Source: publisher
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Published by Audible Studios on February 4th 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

An unforgettable night of romance awaits in this funny, charming novella by USA Today best-selling author Nina Bocci!

The annual Valentine’s Day singles soiree is always a big money-maker for Eloisa Giordono’s winery. What could be more romantic than looking for love at a quaint family vineyard on the most romantic night of year? Well, just about anything as far as Eloisa is concerned. She’s a Valentine’s Day Grinch who thinks it’s the lamest, most clichéd holiday ever invented.

Fortunately, she’ll get to hang out with like-minded folks this year by hosting an Anti-Valentine’s Day party on the same night. She’ll just need to alternate between events to keep them both running and she’ll be raking in the profits. But Eloisa is thrown for a loop when a sexy, self-described hopeless romantic shows up at the singles soiree and keeps her captivated. Will he change her mind about the holiday...and about love?

My Review:

If you’ve soured on love, or romance, or simply the commercialization of Valentine’s Day, you’d probably fit right in with winery owner Eloisa Giordono’s Anti-Valentine’s Day shindig – complete with black roses, dead cupids and a much more murdery and depressing vibe than she originally intended.

As a self-proclaimed Valentine’s Day Grinch, Elo was hoping to create an alternative celebration of the holiday of all-things-love for the happily single crowd. A place to celebrate friendship, acknowledge that loving yourself can be enough, and simply a place for those who aren’t ready to jump back into the dating pool to find some like-minded people for a fun evening.

Elo’s anti-love bash – or her bash against love, take your pick – is competing with her vineyard’s annual – and more traditional – Valentine’s Day event, Love at the Vineyard, which may sound hokey and cliché but works. Especially with the planning genius of the vineyard’s PR director – and Elo’s best friend – Mac.

Speaking of planning and genius, the genius plan is for Mac to handle the traditional event while Elo hosts the bashing Valentine’s bash. It’s all going SO WELL – until Mac makes the tired and hangry mistake of eating some leftover Seafood Alfredo that is way, way, way past its “safe to eat” date.

Food poisoning ensues, and the best laid plans of mice, women and vineyard owners go very much “gang aft agley” as Mac wakes up on the day of the dueling events with a desperate need to spend the day – and probably the night – worshipping at the porcelain altar to really bad decisions.

With Mac down for the count for at least a day if not more, Elo is on her own with both events. Now she’s responsible for two things that just aren’t her thing, a traditional love fest and public hosting and event management duties, along with worrying about Mac.

It should be the worst night of Elo’s life, at least recently. But just as the “festivities” are about to begin, Elo runs into Mr. Chardonnay. Literally. With a golf cart. But figuratively, as that’s not his real name.

In between shuttling from “murder Cupid” to “love is in the air” Elo and the mysterious man she has named “Mr. Chardonnay” flirt, banter and play a game of “strangers in the night”.

As the magic of the evening wraps around them both, the two mysterious strangers both start thinking that there might be something to this Valentine’s Day magic after all.

Escape Rating A-: This is kind of an amuse-bouche of a story. A chef’s kiss of a bit of romance. One that goes perfectly with the bite-sized wine and cheese pairings that are being served at the winery’s pro-Valentine’s Day event.

But seriously, this is a short story. A VERY short story. At most 100 pages if it’s length were being measured in pages.

That’s actually the right length. Because this is a story about the possibilities of love and the thrill of discovering that this person might just be the one. It’s the opening of the romance, with all of the internal angst and flirty banter that any romance reader could want.

It’s a meet-cute. And it’s ALL ABOUT the meet-cute. At the end, we’re left with the same possibility that the characters have, that this might lead to a happy ever after. It also might not. But that’s what first meetings are all about when you just click with someone and all you can see in front of you are possibilities.

One of the things that I, as the reader/listener loved about this story was Elo’s internal voice. She’s witty, snarky, and generally honest with herself no matter what actually comes out of her mouth. But she’s marvelously gifted with snarkitude and the reader’s voice was perfect for her.

The reader also does a good job voicing Mr. Chardonnay, but…I would have liked this one more if he’d been voiced by a male reader. Although I probably would have swooned while driving, which would be bad. His dialog is not just flirty but frequently downright sexy, and a second reader would have really put it over the top.

Speaking of over the top, there is one character who, in spite of her inability to leap tall buildings – or jump at all – was the perfect sidekick for the snarky but soft-hearted Elo, and that’s her adorable dog Olive in her equally adorable little cart. Olive steals hearts and scenes every time Elo brings her ANYWHERE and it’s just really, really cute.

So come for the yummy-sounding wine-and-cheese pairings. Stay for the flirty banter that turns Valentine’s Day Grinch Elo into a match with hopeless romantic Mr. Chardonnay. And don’t leave without giving Olive a scritch or three.

TLC
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Review: Faithless in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Faithless in Death by J.D. RobbFaithless in Death (In Death, #52) by J.D. Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: futuristic, mystery, romantic suspense, suspense, thriller
Series: In Death #52
Pages: 400
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the new Eve Dallas police thriller from #1 New York Times-bestselling author J. D. Robb, what looked like a lover's quarrel turned fatal has larger--and more terrifying--motives behind it...
The scene in the West Village studio appears to be classic crime-of-passion: two wine glasses by the bed, music playing, and a young sculptor named Ariel Byrd with the back of her head bashed in. But when Dallas tracks down the wealthy Upper East Side woman who called 911, the details don't add up. Gwen Huffman is wealthy, elegant, comforted by her handsome fiancé as she sheds tears over the trauma of finding the body--but why did it take an hour to report it? And why is she lying about little things?
As Eve and her team look into Gwen, her past, and the people around her, they find that the lies are about more than murder. As with sculpture, they need to chip away at the layers of deception to find the shape within--and soon they're getting the FBI involved in a case that involves a sinister, fanatical group and a stunning criminal conspiracy.

My Review:

I’ll try to keep the squeeing to a minimum over here, but with this OMG 52nd book in the In Death series it’s going to be damn difficult.

Because this entry in the series, after last fall’s admittedly excellent trip to the angst factory with Shadows in Death, is all about the case. And also JUST about the case. While there are plenty of personal – and generally wonderful – things going on in the background for several members of this found family, the crime and hoped for punishment that this story is centered on is a murder case and JUST a murder case.

There are plenty of people and events that surround the murder and its coverup that many readers – including this one – may see as a commentary on our contemporary events in spite of this series being set in a future that is 40 years beyond our time and probably not the one we’re going to get.

But this case, in spite of it coming directly on the heels of the events in Shadows in Death, doesn’t do any deep diving into the nightmares that haunt the pasts of both NYPSD Lieutenant Eve Dallas and her husband, thief-turned-multi-billionaire Roarke.

In fact, as this case opens, Eve is wrapping up the paperwork for that previous case. (NYPSD is a bureaucracy and a city department. Of course she has to deal with the demon that is paperwork.)

At first, the case seems relatively simple. Ariel Byrd, a promising artist. is dead, bludgeoned to death in her studio with one of her own tools. The cause of death in this particular case is screamingly obvious. Initially, the killer seems so too. The woman who discovered and reported the dead body is just as screamingly obviously lying as the victim is dead.

The question that Dallas and her detective partner are stuck on and stuck with is wrapped around exactly what the woman is lying about. The facts, the evidence and the woman’s story are jumbled into a big ball of wrong, but the exact nature of that wrong is considerably less obvious.

As the dive gets deeper into the background of the lying, manipulative and utterly faithless Gwen Huffman, Dallas discovers that there be monsters there, in the shape of Gwen’s parents and their friends, the founders of and true believers in the cult of the Natural Order. A cult that espouses total racial segregation, absolute female subjugation and the elimination with extreme prejudice of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans men and women and anyone who is non-genderconforming in any way.

There isn’t a law enforcement agency on the entire PLANET that doesn’t want to bring the Natural Order down. They’ve been trying for years, but just as with the past and present KKK and with contemporary white supremacy, there are plenty of people among the powers that be who are either true believes themselves or have been paid off to look the other way, which has put the righteous takedown this bunch really deserves out of reach.

Until this case, a case that at first doesn’t seem to connect at all, develops tentacles that reach all the way down into the heart of this darkness.

After all, like so many cases that begin small and end up being really, really big – it’s not the initial criminal act that causes all the trouble. It’s the cover up. This one just turned out to need way more cover up than the perpetrator or the cult could ever handle.

Especially with Dallas on the case.

Escape Rating A: The books in this series generally begin with a murder and in a certain sense the situation tends to go straight downhill from there, at least until justice triumphs and evil gets its just desserts. In this particular case, actually in MANY of Dallas’ cases, those desserts are very just indeed.

Very much on the other hand, this series is a comfort read for me, even if the case that Dallas and Roarke are involved in doesn’t turn out to be all that involving, although this one certainly did.

But, very much and very surprisingly like reading fanfiction for a beloved book or TV series, the world that Dallas and Roarke live in is a world that I can slip into as easily as an old sweater or a comfy pair of slippers. After 52 books (and counting!) I know these people, this found family that Dallas and Roarke have gathered around themselves, very much to their own continued astonishment.

With each entry in the series, I get to visit with all my old friends, see how they are doing, catch up on what has been happening in their lives. I don’t need to be introduced to them, I don’t need to figure out the worldbuilding. I’m immersed in the story from the very first page because everything is so familiar and beloved.

Except the murder, of course. That’s always new. But the way that Dallas investigates that murder, and the people who help her along her way – they are known and familiar. To the point where I laugh along with them, not because anyone has necessarily said anything particularly funny, but because the humor is built into the way they interact. Like old friends with fond and familiar stories.

This case, however, was absorbing in and of itself, which doesn’t always happen. But it certainly did this time. The cult that turns out to be front-and-center of the case, after being successfully hidden and behind and in back for so many years, is just plain evil. Not fantasy villainy, but purely the evil that humans do, to each other and to themselves, all too frequently in history.

There are seeds of that evil in the here and now. Today. As there have always been. That’s what makes the entire story so chilling, and makes the takedown so very righteous.

So come for the camaraderie. And for the romance between Dallas and Roarke that still manages to be both romantic and hot after 52 books. Stay for the horror show, because you’ll be riveted.

Stand up and cheer for the ending. The end of the cult. The end of the case. But not the end of the job. Dallas and Roarke, along with the rest of the family, will be back in the fall in Forgotten in Death. I already have it scheduled on my reading calendar!

Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ KluneThe House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 398
Published by Tor Books on March 17, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.
Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.
When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he's given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.
But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.
An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.

My Review:

I have to admit that I read this last year, but didn’t write it up. And this is such a comforting and hopeful read that I couldn’t resist picking it up again. So here we are.

We’re also here because of the reason that I read this book last year. I am a member of the American Library Association Reading List Council. Every year, the committee reads a whole lot – seriously a ton – of books for adults in eight genres: Adrenaline (suspense and thrillers), Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Horror, Mystery, Relationship Fiction (Women’s Fiction), Romance and Science Fiction. Every January, usually at the ALA Midwinter Conference but this year on Zoom (technically Webex) we get together to vote on a list. For each genre we pick a winner and four honorable mentions.

This year there were 11 of us and we met for 6+ hours per day four days in a row. We’re all passionate about books – even if not necessarily the same books – and it makes for a very lively as well as lengthy meeting. The Awards ceremony for our list and all of the other lists for adults was held yesterday afternoon, and the results of all of the committees that give awards for books for adults is posted here.

The House in the Cerulean Sea is our winner for Fantasy this year, giving me a perfect excuse to pick it up again and point more readers at this marvelous book, and at ALL the lists of winners, not just ours. If you’re looking for a great book to read, take a look at the lists. You’re guaranteed to find something you’ll love.

By this point you’re probably asking, “But what about the book?” Let me tell you about this book!

At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this book. The blurb, with its references to “Extremely Upper Management”, not tongue-in-cheek but as the actual name of the department, sounded a bit twee.

And the story gets off to a bit of a slow start. Because Linus Baker, a caseworker for DICOMY (Department in Charge of Magical Youth) is merely existing. He’s working for a government agency whose organization and methods give off some seriously Orwellian vibes and he seems to have absolutely no life of his own except for his cat Calliope and the sunflowers he has planted in his tiny, postage-stamp sized yard. Those sunflowers are the only spot of color in Baker’s gray and gloomy city, in his gray and colorless life.

But, like in the movie The Wizard of Oz, Baker’s life becomes full of color – and moves a whole lot faster – when he is sent out of the city to investigate the Marsyas Island Orphanage for exceptionally unusual or dangerous magical youth. Baker considers his mission to be making sure that the place is safe for the children, but he knows that Extremely Upper Management has sent him to dig up some dirt on the Master of the house, Arthur Parnassus.

It turns out not to matter what they sent him for, because none of what Baker finds at Marsyas is remotely what he expected. Not even, or perhaps most especially, himself.

Escape Rating A: While the beginning of the story feels Orwellian, as in 1984, Big Brother is watching you and all of the double-speak, the rest of the story combines bits of Good Omens and Silver in the Wood but in its whole is something very much its own.

And it’s charming and lovely and comforting and most of all, hopeful. Something that we all need right now.

Linus Baker comes to Marsyas, the literal end of the (train) line to discover the place that he’s been looking for all of his life. The place where he belongs. Even if he doesn’t recognize it yet.

One of the things that is clear from the very beginning, is that in spite of the bureaucracy that is determined to grind him down into just another cog in the machine, Linus Baker is a genuinely good person. He truly believes that his job is to do his best for the children in DICOMY’s dubious care, even as he cuts himself off from the actual children themselves and from taking any responsibility for what happens after he does his job.

So when he comes to Marsyas for an entire month, he’s scared by all of the new experiences that have been thrust upon him, he’s flailing as much as any fish out of water, but he’s determined to do his best for the children in Arthur Parnassus care – whatever might happen after he files his reports.

But a month is a long time to try to merely observe, to sit on the sidelines and not become part of what is being observed. In spite of himself, he falls for the children. ALL of the children, including the Antichrist Lucy. (Hence the Good Omens reference).

He also falls for Arthur Parnassus. Not that Baker hasn’t always known he was gay, and not that it seems to matter in any social sense. Society has filled its need for people to denigrate, segregate and fear in magicals, it doesn’t need anyone else to be prejudiced against. It’s rather that Baker has led such a lonely and colorless life that he never expected to rise to the emotional heights of loving someone – and equally he never expected someone to love him as he feels unworthy, unlovable and even unlikeable. He’s solitary and painfully lonely and he never expected that to change.

But Arthur, like Marsyas Island and pretty much everything about this assignment, is both more and different than he seems in ways that reminded me a tiny bit of Silver in the Wood. Although, now that I think about it, that reference works better with two of the other denizens of Marsyas. But it’s definitely there.

The slow, sweet love story is beautiful and absolutely perfect for these characters. It’s also the icing on this very tasty cake. It’s Linus Baker’s adoption by – and in many ways of – the children, not just Lucy but all of them, that opens his eyes and his world. It’s the making of him – and very much the heart of this wonderful – and award winning (HA!) – story.

Review: Ladies of the House by Lauren Edmondson

Review: Ladies of the House by Lauren EdmondsonLadies of the House: A Modern Retelling of Sense and Sensibility by Lauren Edmondson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Genres: relationship fiction, retellings, women's fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Graydon House on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

AN IRRESISTIBLE FAMILY DRAMA THAT PUTS A MODERN SPIN ON JANE AUSTEN’S CLASSIC SENSE AND SENSIBILITY
“I was absolutely charmed by Ladies of the House. A wonderful debut.” —Allison Winn Scotch, bestselling author of Cleo McDougal Regrets Nothing
No surprise is a good surprise. At least according to thirty-four-year-old Daisy Richardson. So when it’s revealed in dramatic fashion that her esteemed father had been involved in a public scandal before his untimely death, Daisy’s life becomes complicated—and fast.
For one, the Richardsons must now sell the family home in Georgetown they can no longer afford, and Daisy’s mother is holding on with an iron grip. Her younger sister, Wallis, is ready to move on to bigger and better things but falls fast and hard for the most inconvenient person possible. And then there’s Atlas, Daisy’s best friend. She’s always wished they could be more, but now he’s writing an exposé on the one subject she’s been desperate to avoid: her father.
Daisy’s plan is to maintain a low profile as she works to keep her family intact amid social exile, public shaming, and quickly dwindling savings. But the spotlight always seems to find the Richardsons, and when another twist in the scandal comes to light, Daisy must confront the consequences of her continued silence and summon the courage to stand up and accept the power of her own voice.
“A stellar novel that celebrates sisterhood and the way women can step out of flawed men’s shadows. I delighted in every page.”—Amy Meyerson, bestselling author of The Bookshop of Yesterdays and The Imperfects
“Warm, witty, and whip-smart. Edmondson’s talent shines in her expertly crafted story of two sisters breaking free of their father’s legacy. A sensational debut.”—Amy Mason Doan, author of The Summer List and Lady Sunshine

My Review:

The blurb for this book says that “no surprise is a good surprise.” While that’s true in the context of this story, I have to say that this book turned out to be a surprise, and for the most part it was a damn good one.

The subtitle of the book feels just a bit misleading, but also in a good way. With that proclamation of “A Modern Retelling of Sense and Sensibility” I was expecting something a bit more Jane Austen-like, and that isn’t exactly what I got. So if you’re looking for a version of Sense and Sensibility dropped whole and entire into the 21st century, that’s not exactly what you’re going to get.

Instead, think about what would happen if a family like the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility, or at least the female members of that family, existed in the present day. Or at least a present day before the pandemic restrictions.

Because the plot of the original story was driven by the circumstance of the widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters being forced into reduced circumstances by the death of their patriarch in an era when women’s only road to financial security was to be attached to a man – and they’d just lost theirs.

The story in Ladies of the House both has the same beginning as the original but differs widely and wildly in its execution because the world that the Richardson women inhabit is vastly different.

They may be reduced in circumstances, rather dramatically so, but they have choices that were completely unavailable to the Dashwoods.

The story of these Ladies of the House, rather than slavishly following its inspiration, follows the course of those choices. And in the process, creates a different, new and much more fascinating story than I, at least, originally expected.

Escape Rating A-: I’ll admit that I didn’t figure out what was going on until I read the Author’s Notes at the end of the book. At first, I saw very little of Sense and Sensibility and a whole lot of a contemporary piece of women’s fiction with a political twist for spice.

Although younger sister Wallis’ relationship with the fast-moving, fast-talking son of a political enemy certainly brought Marianne’s fast but equally  ill-fated romance with the equally smarmy Willoughby to mind.

But the heart and soul of this story is Daisy’s journey. If Wallis is “sensibility” as Marianne was, Daisy is playing the part of “sense” as Elinor did in the original. Daisy was her father’s favorite, and she’s the one who has followed in his footsteps into politics, as the chief-of-staff to a liberal Senator.

So when the late Senator Richardson was revealed to have had feet of clay up to the knees, it’s Daisy who suffers the most. Her job requires that she not become the story, her job is to make the Senator she works for be the story at every turn.

Her instinct is to deny, dismiss and minimize the scandal her father left behind him, even as she is forced to reckon with the part that she played in his downfall and her own. Her best friend is writing the investigative report of the whole sad affair, and the more he digs, the more Daisy buries herself.

It’s only when she finally and irrevocably steps away from her father’s shadow that she is able to find her own light.

But that’s part of what makes this modern retelling so different from its original. Daisy, Wallis and their mother Cricket all have choices that the Dashwood women did not. This is the story of what they do with those choices, now that they have them.

And how the making of those choices shapes them all – and very much for the better.