Review: Fool Me Once by Catherine Bybee

Review: Fool Me Once by Catherine BybeeFool Me Once by Catherine Bybee
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic suspense, women's fiction
Series: First Wives #1
Pages: 348
Published by Montlake Romance on September 19th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

From Weekday Brides to First Wives, a dazzling series about four women and their alliance of newfound friendship, unexpected love, and second chances.

Cynical divorce attorney Lori Cumberland lives by one motto: Love is grand, but divorce is a hundred grand. With one failed marriage under her own personal belt, Lori had fallen hard and early—and it isn’t something she plans on repeating. She’s content focusing on the temporary marriages of her rich and famous clients. When she joins some of her recent divorcées on a celebratory cruise, her only vow is fun, sun, and new friends. But Lori finds herself tempted by a jury of one.

For Reed Barlow, falling into the world of private investigation was easy. He knows the law and knows how to avoid breaking it—all while doing his job. His rule to live by? No emotion, no involvement…until Lori. His charming smile and cocky attitude distracts Lori and lowers her guard, which is exactly what Reed desires.

But what appears as a one-time-only flirtation may be a plot orchestrated by Reed. As he’s taking his investigation to a dangerous level, it’s Lori who could end up in jeopardy. Reed has only one shot for Lori to grant him a second chance. But if he comes clean with her, he blows his cover. And that just might cost him the opportunity for an alliance of family…and of love.

My Review:

As the old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on ME.” I still hear those words in Jimmy Doohan’s inimitable Scottish brogue, as the first time I ever heard this adage was in Star Trek: The Original Series in the episode “Friday’s Child”.

Although Fool Me Once is the first book in a spinoff series from Weekday Brides, you don’t have to read any of the first series to jump into the second. There are enough explanations about Alliance to get new readers right into the thick of things. But the Weekday Brides are awesome, so if you like Fool Me Once, you’ll love them, too.

The women featured in Fool Me Once and the First Wives Club are all Alliance veterans. Shannon, Avery and Trina were all contract brides, married to rich and/or powerful men in name only, for a year or so, in return for huge payouts at the end, when the inevitable divorce occurred. As intended. As contracted for by both parties.

Except it only works some of the time. Lori, the heroine of this story, is the legal brains behind Alliance. She writes those iron-clad pre-nups and sees all her clients from initial interviews to after-care when the divorce is final and the gossip inevitably hits the fan.

It doesn’t always work. About a quarter of the Alliance-arranged contracts have turned into real marriages. Considering that the divorce rate for non-arranged marriages is 50%, these are not bad odds. But Shannon, Avery and Trina are special cases.

Shannon made the mistake of falling in love with her ex. Two years later she still hasn’t gotten over it. Avery just got her divorce, and is ready to party. Trina’s situation is the one that ends in tragedy, and that sets this story in motion. Trina’s husband-in-name-only committed suicide while they were still married. As if that wasn’t enough, his mother died a few days later, leaving her entire fortune, not to her family, but to Trina. Who is overwhelmed with guilt and constantly in the cross-hairs of the paparazzi – and her father-in-law.

Lori may not believe in love and marriage after years as a divorce lawyer, but she does believe in taking care of her friends. And all of these women are her friends as well as her clients. Trina needs a getaway. And she needs company to help her get out of her funk, as well as to shield her from the press. It seems like a brilliant idea to get away for a week on a high-class cruise in the Mediterranean – but that just puts them in the midst of a whole new set of problems.

And that’s where Reed Barlow comes in. He seems like one of the solutions – not for any of the former Alliance brides, but for Lori herself. He looks like the perfect end to her very long dry spell, and the chemistry they ignite feels more than just physical. That he lives close enough to Lori’s home base in LA to make a continuation of their shipboard romance possible seems perfect. And so does Reed. Maybe just a little too perfect.

Because Reed isn’t part of the solution, he’s part of the problem. At least until he re-discovers his inner hero and changes sides. Too late to save their relationship, and possibly even too late to save Alliance and its secrets.

Or is it?

Escape Rating A-: Fool Me Once is a marvelous cross between romantic suspense and women’s fiction, and I loved every minute of it. As I have all of Catherine Bybee’s books that I have read so far. The number of kindle locations in Fool Me Once made me think that the book was a bit longer than the 350 pages it claims to be, and I didn’t care.

The women’s fiction angle comes in because so much of the backbone of the story is the relationship between the four women. They call themselves the First Wives Club because they’ve all been divorced, including Lori. But instead of the usual version, where the first wives got thrown over for the newer, younger model, these women ended up mostly where they thought they would, with a few kinks in the road. Instead, went into the arrangement intending to trade their contracted sugar-daddy husbands for newer, probably younger models who are their own choices.

Of course, the best laid plans of mice, men, and women often go astray. But the relationship that forms between these sisters-of-choice is forever. Readers who like Shannon, Avery, Trina and Lori will fall right in with them. They are all strong women with their own distinct personalities, but they are all different. It’s easy to identify with one or all of them, and that’s what makes the book.

The romantic suspense angle has its moments of extreme danger, but also plenty of intrigue and mystery. It’s clear at the beginning that Reed enters into the story with an agenda that is funded by someone else, someone who does not have the best interests of any of the women in mind. Although Reed changes sides (he has to or this wouldn’t be a romance) the person who set him in motion is not happy or satisfied, and will probably come back to haunt Shannon in particular and Alliance in general.

But the real mystery and danger in this story comes not from Lori and Reed, but from Trina’s case. Trina’s entanglement with her late husband’s family has caused a lot of resentment, and someone is willing to go through Lori to get to Trina, putting both of them in danger. The threat is very real and nearly catastrophic. At the same time, Trina’s unexpected inheritance provides her with a way forward that no one expected at the beginning. The ongoing story of her new adventures looks like a lot of fun.

When a hero screws up as much as Reed does (and sister does he ever) I usually need for the hero to do a really, really good grovel for the heroine to justify taking him back. While I’m not sure Reed groveled quite enough, he did save her brother’s life. That makes up for a lot of grovel. This HEA is earned!

At some point in this series, there might be a real “fool me twice” possibility. Shannon is, after all, in love with her ex. I can’t help but wonder whether her eventual HEA will be with him, or whether she’ll manage to finally wash that man right out of her hair. And I can’t wait to find out.

Review: Tramps and Thieves by Rhys Ford

Review: Tramps and Thieves by Rhys FordTramps and Thieves by Rhys Ford
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: M/M romance, mystery, romantic suspense
Series: Murder and Mayhem #2
Pages: 210
Published by Dreamspinner Press on September 18th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Whoever said blood was thicker than water never stood in a pool of it.

Retiring from stealing priceless treasures seemed like a surefire way for Rook Stevens to stay on the right side of the law. The only cop in his life should have been his probably-boyfriend, Los Angeles Detective Dante Montoya, but that’s not how life—his life—is turning out. Instead, Rook ends up not only standing in a puddle of his cousin Harold’s blood but also being accused of Harold’s murder…and sleeping with Harold’s wife.

For Dante, loving the former thief means his once-normal life is now a sea of chaos, especially since Rook seems incapable of staying out of trouble—or keeping trouble from following him home. When Rook is tagged as a murder suspect by a narrow-focused West L.A. detective, Dante steps in to pull his lover out of the quagmire Rook’s landed in.

When the complicated investigation twists around on them, the dead begin to stack up, forcing the lovers to work together. Time isn’t on their side, and if they don’t find the killer before another murder, Dante will be visiting Rook in his prison cell—or at his grave.

My Review:

Tramps and Thieves is a terrific follow up to its series opener, Murder and Mayhem. And it gets off to an equally explosive start. Last time it was a shoot out over a misidentified Wookie, this time it’s a prank heist that turns up a real murder, and nearly turns into one as well.

Rook Stevens has been fighting with most of his newly re-discovered family ever since his rich and eccentric grandfather discovered his existence back in the first book. His grandfather’s insistence on Sunday family dinners at his over decorated mansion have kept all the relationships on the boil – and none of them are brewing anything tasty.

So when his slimy cousin Harold winkles a collectible Maltese Falcon out from under Rook’s nose, Rook has to get it back. Being able to exercise his disused skills as a thief is just a bonus. Until Rook finds Harold in a pool of his own blood, with the contested Falcon resting on his corpse.

His killer tries to take Rook out on his way out, but when Rook calls the cops, he gets yet another variation of asshole who is just sure he must have committed the crime, and seems willing to bend the rules to make it stick.

LAPD Detective Dante Montoya rides to his lover’s rescue, and they find themselves in the midst of yet another pissing contest with a bad cop, and another trail of dead bodies that leads right to Rook’s door.

This time the question is whether it’s his own past that has caught up to him, again, or if it’s someone else’s. As Rook gets caught by one close call after another, he retreats to lick his wounds while Dante chases down the villains. Only to discover that it was Rook they were after all along.

And that he might be too late.

Escape Rating A-: If you like your romantic suspense with a heaping helping of chaos and destruction, this series is a winner from that first downed Wookie. In Tramps and Thieves, Rook and Dante are driven from crisis to crisis from the very first page, and the action doesn’t let up until the story winds to its breathtaking conclusion.

Where the first book, Murder and Mayhem, was all about Rook’s past reaching out to grab him, and his final decision to let it go, this second book is all about family. And both birth family and family-of-choice.

We see the influence of family-of-choice in Dante’s police partner’s reactions when Dante decides to investigate Rook’s sudden rash of problems on his own. They are partners, and the man rightfully will not let Dante go it alone, even if it is safer for his career.

Speaking of Dante’s partner, he is the link between this series and the fantastic Cole McGinnis series. And in a roundabout way, Cole almost gets dragged into this case. It’s always nice to hear that old friends are doing well.

But the heart of this case turns out to revolve around the birth family that Rook never knew he had until he stepped out of the shadows of his old life.

There are all sorts of variations on this saying, but the one that applies here is “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your relatives.” Rook may be the spitting image of his grandfather as a young man, but the family that has gathered around Archie Stevens hoping for a piece of his massive estate hates Rook with nearly every fiber of their collective being – some of them with more reasons than others.

He has stepped into a stew of boiling resentment, one that splatters onto him because no one wants to challenge the old man. And it’s in that stew that the bodies are bubbling. It’s messy from beginning to end, and an absolute page-turner.

I can’t wait to see what kind of chaos finds Rook and Dante next. If you want to get in on their action, there’s a blog tour for Tramps and Thieves going on now, giving away $20 gift certificates at every stop. There’s also a bit of a prequel story being spun out over the course of the tour. Check it out!

Finally, I gift you with an earworm. I have had this damn song running in my head ever since Rhys sent me the eARC for this book. As the song very much fits Rook’s shady background, I had to share, even though I know that no one will thank me later.

Review: Fatal Charm by Blair McDowell

Review: Fatal Charm by Blair McDowellFatal Charm by Blair McDowell
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: romantic suspense
Pages: 252
Published by The Wild Rose Press on September 8th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & Noble
Goodreads

A perilous scheme to thwart ruthless adversaries hurtles successful young jewelry designer Caitlin Abernathy from her comfortable California studio to the streets of Paris and the beaches of Brittany as she attempts to return a priceless stolen heirloom to the Louvre.

Colin Stryker, the devastatingly handsome history professor from Ireland who has appointed himself her protector, fights to rescue her before her captors add murder to their crimes, while at the same time unraveling the torturous train of events that led to the original theft.

With every moment fraught with danger, can the chemistry already sizzling between the two ignite into passion?

My Review:

Like all of Blair McDowell’s marvelous books, Fatal Charm is a non-stop romantic suspense thrill ride from beginning to end. And in addition to the edge-of-your-seat danger that the heroine is dropped into, we have an enchanting love story as well as a great story about the depths of friendship and just how terrific the love of a family-of-choice can be.

Jewelry designer Caitlin Abernathy is thrown into a boiling hot mess at the beginning of this story, and doesn’t manage to climb out until the very, very end. And the reader is right in the pot with her the whole time.

Her ex turns up dead. Except he’s not really her ex – not because they never broke it off, as seems usual in this kind of story, but because they never seem to have gotten it on in the first place. Allen Thompson was a friend who seemed to want to be more than that, but Caitlyn just never felt any spark.

Not getting any more deeply involved with Allen was possibly the wisest thing she’s ever done. Which doesn’t stop the man from landing her in the soup as he dies. At which point, Caitlin discovers not just that he’s left her with an epic mess, but also that nothing the man ever told her seems to have had much bearing on the truth.

Caitlin thought Allen was an accountant. From Canada. When in fact, he was a high-end thief, a very wanted man on the run, and from France. And those lies are only the beginning.

Allen left Cait with a very hot piece of jewelry, hidden among her samples and uncut stone. It’s a dragon. And everyone who has ever possessed the thing seems to have found themselves in a whole mess of fiery trouble – ending with Allen and Caitlin and beginning with Marie Antoinette. Allen, really Alain, stole the pretty little firebreather from the Louvre, and it’s been nothing but trouble before and since.

When two mysterious and nasty men steal first Caitlin’s sample case, then break into both her shop and her house, her defenders rally round and the mystery begins to unravel. It’s certainly unraveling Cait, while ravelling both her assistant Aristotle Jones and his professor Colin Stryker into the web.

Aristotle and Cait have been friends for five years. In spite of completely different origins, coming from entirely different places, Aristotle and Cait have become a family of choice. There is never any hint of romance, and there never was and never will be. They are brother-and-sister. But Aristotle is currently a doctoral candidate at Berkeley, and when he brings his mentor Colin Stryker to Cait to see if they can figure out what is going on with the little dragon, well, Colin’s feelings for Cait are anything but brotherly.

Still, both Aristotle and Colin close ranks firmly around Cait as they figure out where the dragon came from, what it is, how it ended up being Cait’s problem, and what they should collectively do about the deadly and disastrous little creature.

All the while dodging two increasingly desperate villains who are determined to get the dragon back and get revenge on anyone who keeps it from them, at any cost.

Escape Rating A-: Just as with all of this author’s work, Fatal Charm kept me going back to its mystery and adventure all day long, until I finally gave in and just finished it. I started at lunch and in spite of work and other annoying interventions, couldn’t stop myself from turning the last page after midnight. I just had to see how it all turned out.

The romantic part of this romantic suspense is both simple and complicated. On the simple side, it’s pretty clear that Colin and Cait fall for each other the minute they meet. On the complicated side, they both resist the pull, and for good and sensible reasons. Colin’s last attempt at real romance went down in flames. Cait, while she managed not to “settle” for Allen, is still left not trusting her own instincts. She never even suspected that he lied about EVERYTHING.

And there are plenty of more mundane factors keeping them apart as well. Colin is nearly 40, and worried that he’s a bit too old for the 20something Cait. But more than that, there’s a geography problem. Colin is only a visiting professor at Berkeley – his home is in Ireland. Cait’s life, reputation and means of making a living, work that she loves, are all in California. Neither of them really believes a long-distance relationship can work, even if they survive the current mess they’ve landed in.

That mess provides the suspense angle for this story, and it’s a pot that keeps boiling from the very beginning until the almost bitter end. The brooch unravels secrets on multiple continents, revealing truths and lies about people that Colin has loved and trusted for decades. In order to solve the mystery, he’ll have to believe that some of his dearest friends have been lying to him, just as Cait discovered that Allen was lying to her.

The danger never lets up, and overtakes them all more than once. But in the end, those tasty just desserts are passed around to those who deserve them, and our heroes finally figure out what might be their best chance at a happy ending. If only they can manage to grab it.

If you love well-crafted romantic suspense where the mystery is every bit as mysterious as the romance is romantic, check out Blair McDowell’s work. I found her through a book tour five years ago, and she is one of my happiest discoveries. From the very first book, Delighting in Your Company, she’s kept me enthralled every single time. My only disappointment is that she takes time writing and researching her books (which is a good thing!) so that I only get one of her gems per year. A treat every single time.

Review: The Prisoner in His Palace by Will Bardenwerper

Review: The Prisoner in His Palace by Will BardenwerperThe Prisoner in His Palace: Saddam Hussein, His American Guards, and What History Leaves Unsaid by Will Bardenwerper
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, nonfiction
Pages: 272
Published by Scribner on June 6th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the haunting tradition of In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song, this remarkably insightful and surprisingly intimate portrait of Saddam Hussein lifts away the top layer of a dictator’s evil and finds complexity beneath as it invites us to take a journey with twelve young American soldiers in the summer of 2006. Trained to aggressively confront the enemy in combat, the men learn, shortly after being deployed to Iraq, that fate has assigned them a different role. It becomes their job to guard the country’s notorious leader in the months leading to his execution.

Living alongside, and caring for, their “high value detainee” in a former palace dubbed The Rock and regularly transporting him to his raucous trial, many of the men begin questioning some of their most basic assumptions—about the judicial process, Saddam’s character, and the morality of modern war. Although the young soldiers’ increasingly intimate conversations with the once-feared dictator never lead them to doubt his responsibility for unspeakable crimes, the men do discover surprising new layers to his psyche that run counter to the media’s portrayal of him.

Woven from first-hand accounts provided by many of the American guards, government officials, interrogators, scholars, spies, lawyers, family members, and victims, The Prisoner in His Palace shows two Saddams coexisting in one person: the defiant tyrant who uses torture and murder as tools, and a shrewd but contemplative prisoner who exhibits surprising affection, dignity, and courage in the face of looming death.

In this artfully constructed narrative, Saddam, the “man without a conscience,” gets many of those around him to examine theirs. Wonderfully thought-provoking, The Prisoner in His Palace reveals what it is like to discover in one’s ruthless enemy a man, and then deliver him to the gallows.

My Review:

Today is September 11, 2017, the 16th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, otherwise known as 9/11. As though nothing else ever happened, or ever will, that will ring through history the way that September 11, 2001 did. And that’s possibly true. Even the historic hurricane currently sweeping through Florida, while momentous, isn’t quite as earth-shattering. 9/11 was a day where the universe changed, where before and after are sharply and irrevocably separated.

While Saddam Hussein was not one of the architects of the 9/11 attacks, it is certainly possible to trace a direct line from the events of 9/11 to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled his dictatorship.

This is not a book about the war. Not the U.S. invasion of 2003, nor about the the Gulf War of 1990. Although in some ways it’s about both. A part of me wants to say that the book is about the “banality of evil”, but if there is one thing that Saddam Hussein never was, it is banal.

Instead, this feels like a book about the faces that humans wear, and about one particular human being who wore the face of evil, but only among many, many others. That evil face, the one that the world righteously condemned him for, is not the face that his guards saw. They saw a charismatic and kindly old man. While they were all aware of the evil that he had done, and none ever believed that he was innocent or should be freed, they still guarded someone who was much different. They all went in expecting a monster, only to discover that he was just a man.

The story here is about the twelve young American soldiers, the group that self-deprecatingly named themselves the “Super Twelve”, who had the duty of guarding Saddam Hussein in one of his own palaces during the lengthy course of his trial, right up to his inevitable execution.

The process took well over a year. That’s plenty of time for a group of people to gradually shift from guarded adversaries to respectful acquaintances, if not friends. And that is what happened. Unlike the common perception of “the rich and powerful”, which Saddam certainly was, in his incarceration and forced proximity to these soldiers he acted as a respectful and respected guest, and was treated for the most part accordingly. What small freedoms and little comforts could be provided to the old man, they did. And he appreciated them.

This book is about the relationship that formed among this isolated group. The Super Twelve, the medic who monitored Saddam’s health, the interrogators, and Saddam Hussein. Their camaderie with the prisoner seems odd to the reader, but yet it makes sense. Not only were they all stuck with each other, but they were prohibited from telling anyone what their duty assignment was. The only people they could talk to were each other.

And their prisoner.

Reality Rating A-: This is a hard book to describe, but a surprisingly easy one to get lost in. There are a lot of things packed into this slim volume, and all of them are thought-provoking in one way or another.

It is not really a surprise that the guards became friendly with the prisoner. Or not as the story turned out. If Saddam had been a demanding dictator within the limits of his confinement, the guards would probably have maintained their distance even over the extended time period. But that’s not what happened. Instead, he treated his guards with respect and even affection, and both the respect and affection were returned. They all knew what he’d done, but it didn’t have an effect on his treatment of them or theirs of him.

Instead, many of the guards felt as if this was the first time in Saddam’s life when he was safe. Ironically so, but still, safe. Whether or not he deceived himself about the inevitability of his execution, he was absolutely certain that none of his guards were going to kill him in his sleep – something that had not been true for his entire life. That lack of paranoia led to a lot better rest and attitude – possibly for everyone.

The author does detail enough of Saddam’s atrocities, and there were many, to make the reader certain that the man was the author of countless heinous acts. Even though he may not have seen them as anything more than necessary to cement and maintain his power, there is never any doubt that he was a brutal dictator who used fear and cruelty as potent and effective weapons.

Which does not affect the doubts of any of the soldiers, or of the reader. Not that he deserved death, but, to quote another influential character, “Deserves [death], I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Even as the trial is being conducted, the sectarian violence in Iraq not only continues, but escalates. Even from the soldiers’ limited perspective, there does not seem to have been a plan for what was to happen after Saddam’s capture. And the manner of his execution only feeds the violence. One of the questions that lingers is whether or not the invasion made anything better. War is easy. Hell, but easy. Regime change, on the other hand, while it is also hell, is damn hard. Especially on the people whose regime is being changed.

What we’re left with is the aftermath, not just for the country of Iraq, but on a personal level for those men who guarded and lived with Saddam Hussein in his final months. Watching a man that they had all developed relationships with go to his death punched an unexpected hole in all their lives. Being forced to stand by while his corpse was desecrated made them all sick and heartsore.

Saddam may have died, but none of them recovered. And their reaction haunts me.

Review: Unmapped by Anna Hackett

Review: Unmapped by Anna HackettUnmapped (Treasure Hunter Security #6) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, romantic suspense
Series: Treasure Hunter Security #6
Pages: 147
Published by Anna Hackett on September 5th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Finding undiscovered treasures is always daring, dangerous, and deadly. Perfect for the men and women of Treasure Hunter Security.

Former Navy SEAL and CIA agent Ronin Cooper is used to living his life in the darkness. A loner by nature, he enjoys his work at Treasure Hunter Security, stays busy on the road, and never lets anyone too close. That is until he notices a mystery redheaded woman spying on him and his colleagues. Then he finds himself sucked into a dangerous rescue mission to Antarctica with a fiery, outspoken woman who pushes every one of his buttons.

Peri Butler will do anything to save her sister. The experienced polar guide knows the deadly black-market antiquities ring, Silk Road, has her twin, but Peri isn’t sure who she can trust. She wants to believe Treasure Hunter Security can help, and soon finds herself facing off with the dark, intense, enigmatic Ronin.

As their mission takes them into the frigid ice and snow of Antarctica, Peri and Ronin’s intense attraction generates a lot of heat. Drawn irresistibly closer, they work to track down Silk Road and Peri’s sister, but what they find buried in the ice could threaten everything. Ronin will sacrifice it all to protect Peri, while she will take every risk, not only to save her sister, but to break through the protective shell around Ronin’s heart.

Note to readers: This action-adventure romance contains a lot of action (think wild chases and ancient treasures), cool offsiders (sexy former Navy SEALs) and a steamy romance (lots of sexy times between an outspoken polar guide agent a tough, sexy SEAL). This is treasure hunting Navy SEAL style. So if you like it fast, and fun, and sexy, this is for you!

My Review:

Antarctica hasn’t seen this much action since they found the second Stargate. In 1998, during the first season of the absolutely marvelous series Stargate SG-1. But Stargates notwithstanding, Antarctica is a place that most of us think of in terms of ice, snow, freezing cold and inevitable death. It’s not exactly a vacation spot.

But just as climate change recently caused a big chunk of the Antarctic ice sheet to break off, the not-so-slow warming of the planet could cause other, formerly solid blocks of ice to break away, or melt away, revealing long-hidden lands. And possibly, as turns out to be the case in Unmapped, long-hidden ancient archaeological sites containing priceless artifacts and even weapons of great and deadly power.

This isn’t the first long-lost archaeological treasure trove where the agents of Treasure Hunter Security have crossed paths (and swords) with the power-hungry mercenaries of Silk Road, and it probably won’t be the last. But it’s certainly the coldest and most remote.

Which is why Silk Road made polar guides (and twin sisters) Amber and Peri Butler offers that they really should have refused to lead an expedition to Antarctica, in the WINTER. Unfortunately, only Peri turned them down, and now Amber is out of contact and Peri fears the absolute worst – with good reason.

Peri stalks the THS offices, in the hopes of either finding an ally to help her rescue her sister, or a Silk Road affiliate that will lead her to her sister’s location. It’s a good thing she finds the former, because either she’s not nearly as good at hiding as she thinks she is, or the THS agents are much better at stalking spies than she gave them credit for. Or at least ex-SEAL and current THS agent Ronin Cooper is.

Unlike many of the adventures in the THS series, while the good people of THS may not know everything they need to know about what Silk Road is after this time, they do at least know as much as the heroine who hires them knows. Once Peri is in, she is all in, sharing her intel with THS along with the danger of the rescue.

Of which she is an integral part. While all of the heroines and heroes who have become involved with the THS agents have all been capable in their fields, Peri has an expertise in extreme cold-weather expeditions that is crucial to the success of the mission.

She’s going to need all the help she can get to melt the ice around Ronin Cooper’s heart.

Escape Rating A-: One of the things I love about Unmapped is that the hero and heroine are equals every step of the way. They both have skills that are necessary to accomplish the mission, which is not saving either one of them, but saving a third person, Peri’s sister Amber. Who is herself a strong heroine.

This is a hallmark of not just the whole Treasure Hunter Security series but ALL of Anna Hackett’s fiction. It never comes down to the strong hero rescuing the weaker heroine. Ever. Instead, it’s always two strong people discovering that they are stronger together than they are separately, and that they help glue each other’s broken places together. Nothing is ever one-sided.

Which does not stop Ronin, the hero of Unmapped, from being an idiot when it comes to his own heart. He falls into the trap of believing that he is not worthy of being loved, due to horrific circumstances in his past. He does attempt to do the stupid and try to send Peri away. Fortunately she’s too smart for that.

In addition to her usual fantastic blend of action, adventure and romance, one of the parts of Unmapped that I liked best was the portrayal of conditions in Antarctica and the portraits of the scientific team at the base camp. It takes a special kind of person to want to spend season after season in the loneliest place on earth, and the author captures that beautifully.

Last but not least, the ending of Unmapped seems to be setting up the story that I have been waiting for since the very beginning of this series back in Undiscovered. It looks like we’re finally going to get the romance between Darcy Ward, THS’ co-owner and technical wizard, and the FBI Agent she can’t get out of either her head or her system (in both senses of that word), Alistair Burke.

This will be grand!

Review: The Summer that Made Us by Robyn Carr + Giveaway

Review: The Summer that Made Us by Robyn Carr + GiveawayThe Summer That Made Us by Robyn Carr
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print ebook, audiobook
Genres: women's fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Mira Books on September 5th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Mothers and daughters, sisters and cousins, they lived for summers at the lake house until a tragic accident changed everything. The Summer That Made Us is an unforgettable story about a family learning to accept the past, to forgive and to love each other again.

That was then…

For the Hempsteads, summers were idyllic. Two sisters who married two brothers and had three daughters each, the women would escape the city the moment school was out to gather at the family house on Lake Waseka. The lake was a magical place, a haven where they were happy and carefree. All of their problems drifted away as the days passed in sun-dappled contentment. Until the summer that changed everything.

This is now…

After an accidental drowning turned the lake house into a site of tragedy and grief, it was closed up. For good. Torn apart, none of the Hempstead women speak of what happened that summer, and relationships between them are uneasy at best, hurtful at worst. But in the face of new challenges, one woman is determined to draw her family together again, and the only way that can happen is to return to the lake and face the truth.

Robyn Carr has crafted a beautifully woven story about the complexities of family dynamics and the value of strong female relationships.

My Review:

This is a story that will get you right in the feels. It certainly did me. And it will probably make you feel all the feels as well, as the story runs from tragedy to hope, if not to triumph, and hits every emotional stop along the journey.

Most of all, it’s a story about one particular extremely dysfunctional family, and their attempt to get to the heart of at least some of their dysfunctions and heal, before it’s too late.

And it’s about one final gift that one member of that family gives to herself, and to everyone that she has to leave behind.

The story begins with Charley and Megan, who seem more like sisters than cousins – possibly because they sorta/kinda are. Once upon a time, a young mother began bringing her two daughters to Lake Waseka, one of the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota, every summer. The two Hempstead girls, Louisa and Jo Anne, had the time of their lives. When those girls grew up, they continued the family tradition, bringing their daughters to the lake, until the summer when it all went smash.

Lou and Jo married Chet and Ray, two sisters marrying two brothers. Continuing to outwardly mirror each other’s lives, they each had three daughters, alternating years, so that the six girls looked more like stair-step sisters than cousins. Even double-cousins.

But their lives weren’t as similar as they seemed. And neither were they. Lou’s husband was boring but responsible and respectable, while Jo’s was every woman’s bad-boy dream, in more ways than one. Ray was an alcoholic and a conman, and every woman’s bicycle – not that he would have thought of it quite that way. Lou was strong and decisive, while Jo was soft and often needed direction. Apart, they drifted into the extremes of their natures, with Lou turning sharp and angry, and Jo being the world’s doormat.

Those summers kept them grounded, and they helped each other stay strong in their broken places. Until they shattered, one summer night, when Lou’s youngest daughter, 12 year old Bunny, drowned on the lake in a tragic accident.

Twenty-seven years later, the cottage is still closed up, Lou and Jo are still estranged, and every single one of the remaining girls, their now grown up daughters with children of their own, are, in one way or another lost or dysfunctional.

Megan decides to spend her very last summer trying to patch the broken places in her family. With her waning energy, she gets everyone back to the lake for one last summer, in the hopes that if they can go back to where it all went wrong, they’ll have one last chance to patch things back together.

To be each other’s strength in all their broken places once more.

Escape Rating A-: As much as I deride the term, The Summer That Made Us is a stellar work of women’s fiction. The story is all about this group of women, their feisty grandmother, their battling mothers, the troupe of sister-cousins, and even their own daughters, and all the myriad ways that those relationships have played out over time, both good and bad.

The men in this story are merely supporting characters, and spend most of the story off-stage, whether in another city or a cemetery. There’s plenty of trauma that relates all the way back to the Judge, Grandma Berkey’s husband who was Lou and Jo’s father. He’s certainly dead, and thank goodness for that!

While there is a romance in this story, the romance itself is a sub-sub-sub-plot. But it is important both as part of one sister’s healing, and as part of clearing up one of the mysteries of Charley’s last time at the lake.

At the beginning of the story, ironically, the one thing that seems marginally hopeful is Megan’s final, experimental cancer treatment, and the one thing that seems beyond all possibility of healing is Charley’s contentious relationship with her mother Lou. In that regard, nothing is as it seems.

But at that beginning, all the relationships seem to be going to hell in a handcart, and it’s a bit of a hard read to get through. Nothing seems to be looking up, and some of the interactions are downright painful.

As things begin, every single member of the family is damaged in one way or another. And all in ways that seem to trace their origins back to Bunny’s death and the abandonment of those idyllic summers at the lake. But the girls were all girls at the time, ranging up from Bunny to somewhere in their teens. They all saw those lake summers as perfect, and were not necessarily aware of all the tensions running underneath, especially the roiling tensions between Lou and Jo.

Bunny’s death was not the only thing that went wrong that summer. But after it, nothing went right. And unfortunately for everyone, one of the underlying dysfunctions of the entire family was that no one ever talked about what was really wrong.

One of the things that is so terrific about this story is that even though it all went wrong and the same time and in the same place, for each one of the women that wrongness burst out into entirely different directions. All of the women, even in the end Lou, appear as ultimately sympathetic and surprisingly unique characters. They never seem alike, they are not cookie-cutters of each other. Each one is distinct, both in their voice and in their manifestation of the family dysfunction.

And that’s the biggest problem they have to work with. Or against. Until they can finally share all the separate pieces of that broken story, none of them will be able to heal.

At the beginning of The Summer That Made Us, it feels like this one, last summer on the lake is Charley’s gift to Megan. But in the end, this summer turns out to be one final gift that Megan gives to Charley, and everyone in her family.

And it’s beautiful.

(Bring tissues)

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

I’m very pleased to be able to give away a copy of The Summer That Made Us to one lucky US or Canadian commenter. I hope that the winner enjoys the story as much as I did.

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Review: You Say it First by Susan Mallery + Giveaway

Review: You Say it First by Susan Mallery + GiveawayYou Say It First (Happily Inc, #1) by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, small town romance
Series: Happily Inc #1
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on August 22nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Fool's Gold romances invites you to visit Happily Inc., a wedding destination founded on a fairy tale
Sculptor Nick Mitchell grew up in a family of artists and learned from his volatile father that passion only leads to pain. As he waits on a new commission, he takes a day job as a humble carpenter at a theme wedding venue. The job has its perks—mainly the venue's captivating owner, Pallas Saunders. Although he won't let love consume him, for ecstasy with an expiration date, he's all in.
Pallas adores Weddings in a Box. But if she can't turn the floundering business around, she'll have no choice but cave to her domineering mother and trade taffeta for trust funds working at the family's bank. Then when a desperate bride begs Pallas for something completely out of the box, her irresistible new hire inspires her. Nick knows she doesn't belong behind a desk, and she knows in her heart that he's right—where she really belongs is in his arms.

My Review:

If I were being mean, I’d say this story is set in a little town that was supported by a very big lie. But I had an absolutely marvelous time in Happily Inc., so instead I’ll say that the town was boosted by an absolutely fantastic public relations ploy.

Pallas Saunders is the proud and still surprised owner of Weddings in a Box, a little company that does theme weddings in the wedding destination town of Happily. As in “Happily Ever After”. Except that Pallas doesn’t have either the time or the inclination to look for her own happy ever after. So it has to come looking for her, in the handsome and downright hunky person of Nick Mitchell.

Pallas needs someone who can restore the huge, gorgeous wooden panels that she inherited as part of the business. Nick, an artist in wood sculpture, needs something to keep himself busy while he waits to see if he gets the overseas job that he assumes is already all his. Assumes in the sense that “assume” makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”.

The panels are beautiful beyond belief, Nick can’t resist the idea of restoring them to their full glory. He doesn’t care that the job pays minimum wage, because he doesn’t need the money. He just needs the work. And working for pretty, quirky Pallas is just the thing he needs to keep him busy while he waits.

Even though, or perhaps especially because, Pallas drafts him to be a palanquin bearer for a Roman-themed wedding the minute she sees him. She’s short one chair-carrier, and Nick looks like he’s up for the job.

That he looks absolutely delicious in a toga is just a fringe benefit. For Pallas, at least. Nick is left praying that his brothers never see a picture of him in this get-up. Or any of the many embarrassing outfits that Pallas talks him into when she needs an extra courtier, or cowboy, for a wedding.

Both Pallas and Nick are wary of relationships. Nick has seen the damage they can do when they go wrong, and just how far the emotional shrapnel can travel. Pallas doesn’t believe that love just happens, her entire life has been a lesson that love only comes when it’s earned. And Pallas’ mother has made sure that she always falls short of the goal – whatever it might be.

Pallas finds herself on the horns of multiple dilemmas. Her overbearing mother wants her to sell the business and come work at the family-owned bank with her. Pallas needs the business to make enough money to support her, it and her employees, and she’s failing. Nick needs a place to wait for his next big thing, and Weddings in a Box looks like it.

But the more they become involved, with the business, with the weddings, and with each other, the more deeply emotionally involved they become – and the harder it is to let go.

Just as soon as they both figure out what they really need to let go of.

Escape Rating A-: I fell in love with Happily and with nearly all the people in it – Pallas’ mother Libby definitely excepted.

Happily is a really cute place. Although this series is a bit of a spinoff from the author’s Fool’s Gold series (which I have not read), the place it really reminds me of is Icicle Falls by Sheila Roberts. Both are small towns which have used some really interesting PR tricks to make themselves into tourist destinations. Also both have residents that are oodles of fun to get to know.

Although Nick has some work to do, You Say it First is mostly Pallas’ story, and that feels right. She’s the person with the most on the line and with the biggest decisions to make about her future.

Pallas inherited Weddings in a Box from her friend and mentor, the previous owner. She loves the business, but, and it’s a very big but for Pallas, she doesn’t have the confidence needed to let it out of the box and grow. And that lack of confidence can be laid squarely at her mother’s door, as Libby belittles Pallas to the point of abuse at every possible turn. And even manufactures additional turns so she can heap more abuse on Pallas. It’s uncomfortable to read, as it should be. It takes Pallas a long time and more than a little bit of help from her friends to realize that the crap Libby’s dishing out isn’t really about Pallas – it’s really all about Libby. That revelation begins to unwind those ties that strangle.

A big part of the fun of this story belongs to Pallas’ circle of friends. Pallas may own Weddings in a Box, but it’s all of her friends in town who supply the business and its owner with moral support and very real business assistance. Everyone is ready to stretch their wings, so when an emergency wedding with very unusual requirements needs to be put together at short notice, everyone pulls together and pulls Weddings in a Box out of its safe little box and launches it into the stratosphere.

Along the way, Pallas learns to stand on her own two feet, to stand up to her abusive mother, and most importantly, to learn that love isn’t earned, it’s given. Whether Nick will figure out that same lesson in time is an open question until the very wonderful end.

I loved my trip to Happily, and am looking forward to going back, in Second Chance Girl. I can’t wait to see what happens next – and who it happens to!

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

Susan and Harlequin are giving away a $100 Amazon or Barnes and Noble Gift Card to one extremely lucky participant on this tour!

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Review: Halls of Law by V.M. Escalada

Review: Halls of Law by V.M. EscaladaHalls of Law by V.M. Escalada
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Faraman Prophecy #1
Pages: 496
Published by DAW Books on August 1st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Faraman Polity was created by the first Luqs, and has been ruled for generations by those of the Luqs bloodline. It is a burgeoning empire maintained by the combined efforts of the standing military force and the Talents of the Halls of Law. While the military preserves and protects, it is the Halls' Talents—those gifted from birth with magical abilities—who serve as the agents and judges of the Law. For no one can successfully lie to a Talent. Not only can they read people by the briefest of physical contacts, but they can also read objects, able to find information about anyone who has ever come into direct contact with that object. Thanks to the Talents and the career military, the Polity has long remained a stable and successful society. But all that is about to change.
Seventeen-year-old Kerida Nast has always wanted a career in the military, just like the rest of her family. So when her Talent is discovered, and she knows she'll have to spend the rest of her life as a psychic for the Halls of Law, Ker isn't happy about it. Anyone entering the Halls must give up all personal connection with the outside world, losing their family and friends permanently. Just as Kerida is beginning to reconcile herself to her new role, the Polity is invaded by strangers from Halia, who begin a systematic campaign of destruction against the Halls, killing every last Talent they can find.
Kerida manages to escape, falling in with Tel Cursar, a young soldier fleeing the battle, which saw the deaths of the royal family. Having no obvious heir to the throne, no new ruler to rally behind, the military leaders will be divided, unable to act quickly enough to save the empire. And with the Halls being burned to the ground, and the Talents slaughtered, the Rule of Law will be shattered.
To avoid the invaders, Kerida and Tel are forced to enter old mining tunnels in a desperate attempt to carry word of the invaders to Halls and military posts that have not yet been attacked. But the tunnels hide a dangerous secret, a long-hidden colony of Feelers—paranormal outcasts shut away from the world for so long they are considered mythical. These traditional enemies of the Halls of Law welcome Kerida, believing she fulfills a Prophecy they were given centuries before by the lost race of griffins. With the help of these new allies, Kerida and Tel stand a chance of outdistancing the invaders and reaching their own troops. However, that is only the start of what will become a frantic mission to learn whether any heir to the throne remains, no matter how distant in the bloodline. Should they discover such a person, they will have to find the heir before the Halian invaders do. For if the Halians capture the future Luqs, it will spell the end of the Faraman Polity and the Rule of Law.

My Review:

If you are looking for a new epic fantasy series to sink your reading teeth into, and where you can get in at the very beginning without having to read through a huge pile of doorstop-sized books, Halls of Law is definitely a winner.

It’s also an epic fantasy for the 21st century, where we have an absolutely marvelous heroine’s journey from the outset, as well as a hero’s journey that looks like it will take us to some fascinating places.

Our point of view character is Kerida Nast. All her life she’s wanted to be a soldier, just like everyone else in her family since pretty much the dawn of time. But unfortunately for Kerida, and it looks like fortunately for the rest of Faraman Polity, Ker is a Talent, definitely with that capital T, and Talents are special.

Ker turns out to be a lot more special than most.

Talents in the Faraman Polity are psychics, born with a gift that seems to be a lot like psychometry. When a Talent touches an object, they can read the entire history of that object, AND, most importantly AND, they can read the current status and even whereabouts of all the people who have been involved with that object. And they can read people the same way.

No one can hide the truth from a Talent. Which has made the Talents, over time, the instruments and enforcers of the rule of law. They are the law.

But in order to be impartial enforcers of the law, Talents are separated from the rest of the Polity. Once their gift is discovered they are taken from their families, not just for training, but for life, and forced to cut all ties to the rest of the world and renounce all titles and inheritances.

Ker finds it a cage, sometimes gilded, sometimes lined with shit. Or at least with encrusted oatmeal. But just as she realizes that she can make a new and good life for herself within the ranks of the Talented, disaster strikes, and she is forced to combine her new abilities with her old skills as a soldier.

And that’s where this utterly marvelous story truly takes wing. On the back of a griffin.

Escape Rating A-: This is a terrific story, but I have to say that it isn’t really anything truly new in the realms of epic fantasy. For those who have read a fair bit in the genre, there are plenty of recognizable tropes. However, those tropes are put together in some unusual ways.

Throwing more than a bit of The Handmaid’s Tale into a completely epic fantasy setting gives the story many of its chills, and makes the evil that our good Kerida fights particularly malevolent. Her enemies, the Halia, seem to embody the worst of everything that makes Men’s Rights Activists so foul, while embodying their deep misogyny into an epic fantasy setting and adding a few additional twists to make things that much scarier, and the stakes that much higher for our heroes.

But in the best heroine’s journey tradition, the story follows Kerida as she discovers who she is and what she is capable of. She finds herself at the center of events that will not just hopefully drive out the enemy, but also re-shape her world for the better. If she survives – and succeeds.

An outcome that is never certain. When Halls of Law ends, Ker has merely completed the opening stages of the prophecy that she and her companions must fulfill. And the odds are firmly stacked against them.

I can’t wait to find out happens next!

Reviewer’s Note: V.M. Escalada was billed as a debut author in the material I received for my Library Journal Science Fiction and Fantasy article, Galaxy Quests. I chose to read Halls of Law because the information provided about the book sounded so good, and the book certainly was good. I’m glad I read it. But, and for me this feels like a very big but, V.M. Escalada is not, after all, a debut author. Rather, this is a new pen name for author Violette Malan. I loved her Dhulyn and Parno series, which begins with The Sleeping God. I’m thrilled to have something new by her, I wondered where she went. But a new pen name does not a debut author make, and I feel like I was misled in the materials for that article, and that I, in turn, misled the readers of the article. Next time I’ll do more research.

Review: The Daughters of Ireland by Santa Montefiore

Review: The Daughters of Ireland by Santa MontefioreThe Daughters of Ireland by Santa Montefiore
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: family saga, historical fiction
Series: Deverill Chronicles #2
Pages: 576
Published by William Morrow on August 15th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Ireland. 1925.
The war is over. But life will never be the same...
In the green hills of West Cork, Ireland, Castle Deverill has burned to the ground. But young Celia Deverill is determined to see her ruined ancestral home restored to its former glory — to the years when Celia ran through its vast halls with her cousin Kitty and their childhood friend Bridie Doyle.
Kitty herself is raising a young family, but she longs for Jack O’Leary — the long-ago sweetheart she cannot have. And soon Kitty must make a heartbreaking decision, one that could destroy everything she holds dear.
Bridie, once a cook's daughter in Castle Deverill, is now a well-heeled New York City socialite. Yet her celebrity can't erase a past act that haunts her still. Nor can it keep her from seeking revenge upon the woman who wronged her all those years ago.
As these three daughters of Ireland seek to make their way in a world once again beset by dark forces, Santa Montefiore shows us once more why she is one of the best-loved storytellers at work today.

My Review:

In this second book in the Deverill Chronicles, following last year’s marvelous The Girl in the Castle, the focus shifts from Kitty Deverill to her cousin Celia, as the ownership of Deverill Castle falls out of the hands of the original line and into Celia’s collateral branch – with its better luck and greater fortune.

At least until the fall of 1929, when everybody’s fortunes take a plunge into the depths of the Great Depression.

The story here is still seen through the eyes of the three young women, those daughters of Ireland that we first met in The Girl in the Castle. In that first book, it was Kitty’s story and Kitty’s castle. But times have changed, and now it’s her cousin Celia in extremely proud possession of the family seat.

But the Deverills are cursed, or at least their castle in Ballynakelly in County Cork certainly is. And that’s where the infamous luck of Celia’s father’s, as well as Celia herself, finally crash to the rocks.

As the story begins, Celia has just bought the burned out castle, with her husband’s fortune and a bit of her father’s as well. She throws herself into the restoration with abandon – as well as oodles of Pounds Sterling. She intends to recreate Castle Deverill as she thinks she remembers it from her idyllic memories of her childhood – but it’s much more of a re-imagining than a re-creation. It’s Celia’s vision of what it was, not what it actually was. The heart and soul are no longer quite there.

Just as she is on the brink of believing that she has brought everything back to the way it was, only better of course, her entire world goes smash. While she has been swanning around Europe, buying every expensive trinket that caught her fancy, her husband has been in a state of quiet desperation, watching his fortune disappear into the Stock Market Crash. And rather than face the music, he kills himself. Completing the ruin of all Celia’s hopes and dreams, her father dies scant months later.

And she discovers that her father was not quite the man she thought he was. That underneath his devil’s charm and his devil’s luck, there was a man who danced with the devil to get what he wanted. Celia, in a welter of disillusionment and grief, sets out to discover the truth of the man she revered all her life.

What she found, and how she found it, allows Celia to discover the woman she was meant to be – that underneath her very feathery little head lies a brain every bit as intelligent and ambitious as her father’s. But with a lot more heart.

Escape Rating A-: Either they don’t make them like this anymore, or it’s been a long time since I’ve sunk my teeth into such a juicy family saga. The trials, tribulations and machinations of Downton Abbey have nothing on the Deverills – and this saga isn’t over yet.

The Deverills would be an interesting family (read that as fascinatingly dysfunctional) even without the compelling historical backdrop – but with the major historical events swirling around them – their reactions make for great storytelling.

In The Girl in the Castle those events were the Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence, as the Anglo-Irish Deverills found themselves on both sides of the Rising, while trusted, in the end, by neither. In this second book, The Daughters of Ireland, the action has moved from the tragedies of the immediate post-WWI period to the next great upheaval – the Depression. And the clouds of WW2 are already gathering on the horizon.

The story in the end is about family, the trials and tribulations, the triumphs and failures, the fissures and the ties that bind – even if sometimes that binding feels like a straitjacket.

As the story began with the childhoods of the three women, now we see them in their 20s and 30s, living with the choices they made long ago, and all of them facing the regrets of the roads not taken. Just at the point where it seems that one of them has found an easy road, instead of facing the envy of the others, they find tragedy instead. Triumphs are always brief, while the tragedies seem endless.

Although parts of the story follow Kitty’s and Bridie’s perspectives, this is Celia’s story. At the beginning, she is not a particularly sympathetic character. She’s not nasty, she’s just selfish, self-centered, and self-indulgent. The universe revolves around her, and her husband and father have both conspired to keep her in a very well-upholstered little bubble.

The person she becomes after it all crashes down around her is much more interesting, and much more capable, than anyone imagined – including Celia herself. Her transformation carries the reader along from London to Ballynakelly to Johannesburg, and it’s the making of her.

Whether it also turns out to be the saving of her family from ruin is the story that we shall discover in The Last Secret of the Deverillswhich may have an entirely different title by the time it reaches these shores. But whatever the book is called, I bet that last secret is a doozy.

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Review: Penric’s Fox by Lois McMaster Bujold

Review: Penric’s Fox by Lois McMaster BujoldPenric's Fox by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Penric and Desdemona #3
Pages: 113
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency on August 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & Noble
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"Penric's Fox": a Penric & Desdemona novella in the World of the Five Gods. Book 3.

Some eight months after the events of “Penric and the Shaman”, Learned Penric, sorcerer and scholar, travels to Easthome, the capital of the Weald. There he again meets his friends Shaman Inglis and Locator Oswyl. When the body of a sorceress is found in the woods, Oswyl draws him into another investigation; they must all work together to uncover a mystery mixing magic, murder and the strange realities of Temple demons.

My Review:

When I saw the announcement earlier this week that there was a new Penric and Desdemona novella, I immediately ran (figuratively, of course) to Amazon to buy a copy, and dropped everything to read it immediately. This series of novellas, set in Lois McMaster Bujold’s World of the Five Gods, are absolutely marvelous treats, every single one. And Penric’s Fox is no exception.

Penric’s Fox, while being the fifth book in the series in publication order, is actually the third book in the series’ internal chronology, taking place, as the blurb says, about eight months after the events in Penric and the Shaman. And it feels like it takes place a few years before the events of Penric’s Mission.

If the above paragraph is a bit confusing, there’s a surefire way to resolve your confusion. Read the series from its marvelous beginning in Penric’s Demon, our first introduction to Penric, his demon Desdemona, and a terrific introduction or re-introduction as the case might be, to the World of the Five Gods.

Penric, with Desdemona’s cooperation and assistance (and occasional snark from the sidelines) becomes a Learned Divine of the White God, Lord Bastard, the “Master of all disasters out of season”. As the series progresses we see Penric, who is a very young man at the beginning of his tale in Penric’s Demon, grow into the change in his fortunes and the unexpected role that has been thrust upon him.

While each of his adventures is a bit different, in this particular story Penric finds himself in the midst of a murder investigation. And for once, in spite of his somewhat infamous bad luck, he is the investigator and not the suspected perpetrator. Although, again because of his infamous bad luck, he very nearly becomes one of the victims.

Penric and his friend, the shaman Inglis, are called to the scene of a murder, as is their friend Oswyl, one of the local investigators. This case needs all of them. The woman who was definitely murdered by the two arrows in her back, was, like Penric, a Learned Divine of the Lord Bastard. So not only is she dead, but her demon is either dispersed, meaning equally dead, or missing, having jumped into the nearest available host, quite possibly but hopefully not the killer.

The demons in this universe carry the accumulated wisdom of all their previous hosts, somewhat like the Trill symbionts in Star Trek. The demons death would be a great loss, equal in many ways to the murder of the human host, and just as tragic.

Inglis the shaman turns out to be necessary to the puzzle because the evidence eventually begins to suggest that the demon jumped into the body of a vixen fox, which may have driven both the demon and the fox more than a bit mad. And of course the local investigator is there to figure out who shot the arrows, murdered the woman, and why.

It’s a tangle, that only gets more tangled as the three investigate. What was the motive for the murder? Learned Divines have no property, and the woman’s jewelry and purse were still on her person. She might have been murdered in the hopes that her demon would jump to her killer, but not when death is delivered from that great a distance. Or the killer may have been after the demon’s death, and the woman was just collateral damage.

Finding out just who, just why, and just how, will take the combined skills and talents of everyone involved – whatever their powers and whoever their protectors.

Escape Rating A-: This is a quick and absolutely marvelous read. The only thing keeping this one from being an A instead of an A- is that it does require previous knowledge of the series. Also, while it is complete within itself, I just plain want more. So there.

There’s a part of me that wants to simply squee at this point, but that’s not terribly useful to anyone else.

One of the things I love about this series, and this is a bit meta, is that the author has created a religious system that is both well thought out and actually seems to work. Religion is usually glossed over in SF and Fantasy, and mostly seems to either incorporate or bash real-world religions and their adherents. The Five Gods in the World of the Five Gods are not myths, they really do real things in this world. It’s a theology that actually functions. And it’s different in some really neat ways, starting from the personification of the Lord Bastard himself.

But the things that make this series work so very well are the characters of Penric and Desdemona themselves. Penric’s perspective is always interesting, frequently humorous, and occasionally more than a bit ass-backward. He’s often the fool who rushes in where those angels fear to tread, but at the same time, he cares so much and tries so hard. Desdemona, in spite of not having a body of her own, truly is a separate character. She acts as a combination of big sister, mother hen, conscience and confessor, in equal portions. Instead of treating the idea of a female demon in a man’s body as a joke, which could have happened and would have spoiled everything, they are truly partners, and it’s wonderful.

It is not necessary to have read the Chalion books, from which the World of the Five Gods derives, to enjoy Penric. If you’ve ever wanted to dip your toes into epic fantasy, or see if the wonderful worlds of Lois McMaster Bujold are your cup of tea, Penric is a great place to start.