Review: Hacking Mr CEO by Anna Hackett

Review: Hacking Mr CEO by Anna HackettHacking Mr. CEO (Billionaire Heists #3) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, contemporary romance, romantic suspense
Series: Billionaire Heists #3
Pages: 292
Published by Anna Hackett on July 27th 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & Noble
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To save the only mother I’ve ever known, all I have to do is hack a tech billionaire.

My foster mother is sick. The woman who gave me a home, love, a life. I’ll do anything to find the money for her surgery, including using my skills as a hacker.

My name’s Remi, also known as Rogue Angel, and usually I work for a security company testing clients’ systems. But now a shadowy bad guy has tracked me down and given me an ultimatum.

I have to hack Rivera Tech—the biggest technology company in the world, owned by billionaire CEO, Maverick Rivera. If I do, I get paid and I can help my foster mother. If I don’t, my family is in danger.

Hacking Rivera is no walk in the park, and soon I find myself in a tantalizing game of cat and mouse with big, grumpy, and way-too-sexy Maverick. What I never, ever expected was for him to make me feel safe, or to threaten my closely-guarded heart, or to ignite every single part of me.

I can’t drag him into my mess.

But Maverick has other ideas, and he isn’t a man who takes no for an answer.

My Review:

In the very first of the Billionaire Heists series, Stealing from Mr. Rich, the first of the “Bachelor Billionaires”, as the New York City news media calls them, found himself falling for a woman who was in way over her head – and his – with some really evil dudes who were out to rob him blind, using her as their patsy.

In the second book, Blackmailing Mr. Bossman, the second bachelor falls for a woman who seems to be blackmailing him because her bestie is being blackmailed by people who are after his money. This one was just the right book at the right time for me, as everyone who seems to be lying turns out either not to be or doing it for the best of intentions.

In the first two stories, the romance happens because the women who find themselves in these messes begin with the very best of intentions, trying their damnedest to fix a situation that they may not have broken but that they feel responsible for patching up.

None of them are damsels in distress, wringing their hands and waiting for a man to sweep in and fix things for them. They’re out there trying to fix the mess for themselves when the man they have been forced to do wrong by decides that he’s not going to sit passively by while someone evil messes with both of them.

They are on the same side after all – even if they don’t start out that way.

In this final book in the series, white-hat hacker Remi Solano finds herself donning a black hat when she learns that her foster mom needs expensive experimental treatment to remove an otherwise inoperable brain tumor. Mama Alma has less than 6 months to live, and Remi and her siblings together couldn’t raise the kind of money if they had 6 years to do it in. So she markets her only skill on the dark web, hoping to make a score that will get Mama into that expensive treatment.

And she gets in way over her head. Because otherwise we wouldn’t have this marvelous story.

Someone wants her to hack into Rivera Tech and steal the files on something called the Calyx Project. She doesn’t know who they are, and she doesn’t know what the project is, but the job pays a cool million and that’s enough to take care of Mama.

Not that Remi actually wants to hack Rivera. She’s not exactly sure that she can, even as skilled as she is. Rivera Tech has the best security she’s ever seen, which only makes sense because Maverick Rivera is a genius programmer and computer designer in his own right. And it’s his company, the extremely handsome profits from which have made him the third of the “Billionaire Bachelors”.

Although, Remi has seen plenty of pictures of the man, and she’d be more than happy to hack one of his extremely well-tailored suits right off his sexy body. Not that she thinks she’ll ever have the chance – especially not if she manages to pull off this job.

And that’s where everything gets hairy. Or goes south. Or pear-shaped. Or all of the above.

Calyx is a super-secret government project. Whoever wants Remi to steal it is planning on committing treason – or planning on Remi committing treason on their behalf. Remi’s obviously a pawn in this game, a pawn that the contractor called “The Shadow” refuses to let go of when Remi and Mav join forces.

The chase is on. The Shadow wants them both dead. They’ve become loose ends in his failed attempt to hack Rivera by proxy, and he never leaves loose ends. They’re dodging bullets and hired badasses while they try to close in on the villain who is trying to close in on them.

Meanwhile, they’re closing in on each other, even if neither of them has any expectations that the other will stay once all the excitement is over – one way or another.

Escape Rating A-: I think this was my favorite game in the whole series, making it end on a marvelous high note. I loved the hacking scenario, and the way that Remi and Mav just had a great time geeking out together.

The way the story ended, with Mav and Remi being chased by The Shadow through the entire Rivera Tech campus, read like it would make a great video game, which felt totally appropriate for a romantic suspense story featuring two geeks.

I have to say that the villain of this piece, The Shadow, was just a bit too over the top. He’s the only thing keeping this from being an A grade. I loved Remi and Mav, I enjoyed the hell out of watching them get together, and all the geekery was very much my jam. The Shadow, while extremely dangerous and deadly, had a persona that wouldn’t have been out of place in a B grade superhero movie.

Which, come to think of it, is also pretty geeky. Just not as cool as the rest of the story.

While I’m happy to see the Billionaire Bachelors all find their HEAs, I’m kind of sorry to see this series end. On my third hand, this does plenty of crossover with Norcross Security, which is clearly not done yet. After all, Vander Norcross, the boogeyman’s boogeyman as Remi called him, still has to find a woman he can’t run over. That’s going to be epic!

Review: One Day All This Will Be Yours by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: One Day All This Will Be Yours by Adrian TchaikovskyOne Day All This Will Be Yours by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: post apocalyptic, science fiction, time travel
Pages: 144
Published by Solaris on March 2, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The bold new work from award-winning author Adrian Tchaikovsky  - a smart, funny tale of time-travel and paradox
Welcome to the end of time. It’s a perfect day.
Nobody remembers how the Causality War started. Really, there’s no-one to remember, and nothing for them to remember if there were; that’s sort of the point. We were time warriors, and we broke time.
I was the one who ended it. Ended the fighting, tidied up the damage as much as I could.
Then I came here, to the end of it all, and gave myself a mission: to never let it happen again.

My Review:

The problem with wanting to change things is that, well, things change. The problem with time travel – or at least scientifically-based time travel – is that the things that change are fundamental to the reason you time travelled in the first place.

In other words, it makes a mess. And going back to fix the first mess makes an even bigger mess. And so on and so on, ad infinitum, until history and facts and even ordinary causality are totally FUBAR’d beyond all recognition or possibility of repair.

In a way, that’s the premise behind One Day All This Will Be Yours, that the war to end all wars was a time war, and that all of the combatants – along with the governments and organizations that sent them – lost complete track of what they were fighting for, who sent them, why they were sent, and even, to some extent, who they were, because all of those antecedents had been lost in the continued fracturing and refracturing of time.

The past can’t be changed. Well, it can, but the result is just an increasing level of chaos. Which leads our unnamed and unreliable narrator in the Last Lonely House at the End of Time to his resolve to make sure that no one can ever restart the endless cycling chaos of time travel by sitting in that house with all of the best stuff that he has taken from all the best of all the fractured eras, watching and waiting for any errant time travelers to land their time machines in his backyard.

So he can kill them and prevent the time and place that they came from from ever developing time travel. It’s a lonely job, but this veteran of the Causality War has decided that someone has to do it and that someone is him.

It’s all going just fine until a time machine slips through his net from the one time and place he never expected to receive time travelers, because he believed he’d guaranteed that it would never exist.

They’re from the future. His future. The future he’s sworn to prevent at all costs – although admittedly those costs are mostly to other times, places, and people.

The worst part of this invasion from the future is that his descendants are perky. And determined. Downright compelled to make sure that he creates the future that gives rise to their perky, perfect utopia.

This means war.

Escape Rating A-: The surprising thing about this book, considering that it’s the ultimate post-apocalypse story, is just how much fun it turns out to be. Because in the end, this is a buddy story. It’s an enemies-into-besties story where the protagonists are absolutely determined that it not become an enemies to lovers story.

Because neither of them like the rest of humanity nearly enough to want to make more of it. Especially because that other side wants them to do it – literally – just so damn badly.

So the fun in the story is in the time bonding, as these two misanthropes who are supposed to repopulate the world exercise their determination to just say no, all while having a fantastic time time-tripping through all the best eras that fractured history ever had to offer.

Time travel can be handled any number of ways in fiction, all of them equally valid because we just don’t know – although it’s a fair guess that if humanity ever manages to make it happen we’ll probably screw it up somehow. This story treats history as one big ball that is endlessly mutable – then sits back at the end of the time stream to observe just how badly it’s been mutated.

Another book that did something similar, with more romance and less snark, is last year’s This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. I wasn’t as big a fan of Time War as most of my reading circle, however I thought One Day was a really fun read. Last year’s book was less straightforward and more lyrical, while this one tells a similar story with a lot of gallows humor and it just worked better for me.

Also this is a more straightforward story – in spite of the time travel. There’s that fixed point at the end of everything that the characters keep returning to that helps to anchor the story. Any time travel they do together or separately is treated as tourism. Time is so screwed up that while they don’t have to worry about whether or not they change anything, they also aren’t interested in changing anything in particular. If the butterfly flaps its wings differently in the wake of their passing, they’re not going to be affected by it in their little cul-de-sac at the end of time.

But as much fun as this was to read – after all it’s a story about two people at the end of the universe essentially pranking each other into eternity – after all the laughs it’s kind of sad at the end. Because even by not doing the thing – and each other – that they’ve both sworn not to do, the thing they were trying hardest to prevent has happened anyway.

There’s no way to stop it except by starting another one of the thing they vowed to prevent in the first place. Whatever began the original time war, theirs will be powered by, of all things, irony.

Review: The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie M. Liu

Review: The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie M. LiuThe Tangleroot Palace: Stories by Marjorie M. Liu
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: anthologies, fantasy, horror, short stories
Pages: 256
Published by Tachyon Publications on June 15, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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New York Times bestseller and Hugo, British Fantasy, Romantic Times, and Eisner award-winning author of the graphic novel, Monstress, Marjorie Liu leads you deep into the heart of the tangled woods. In her long-awaited debut story collection, dark, lush, and spellbinding short fiction you will find unexpected detours, dangerous magic, and even more dangerous women.
“The Tangleroot Palace is charming and ruthless. Tales that feel new yet grounded in the infinitely ancient, a mythology for the coming age.”—Angela Slatter, author of The Bitterwood Bible
“Marjorie Liu is magic! Her writing is passionate, lyric, gritty, and riveting. She belongs high on everyone’s must-read list.”—Elizabeth Lowell, author of Only Mine
Briar, bodyguard for a body-stealing sorceress, discovers her love for Rose, whose true soul emerges only once a week. An apprentice witch seeks her freedom through betrayal, the bones of the innocent, and a meticulously-plotted spell. In a world powered by crystal skulls, a warrior returns to save China from invasion by her jealous ex. A princess runs away from an arranged marriage, finding family in a strange troupe of traveling actors at the border of the kingdom’s deep, dark woods.
Concluding with a gorgeous full-length novella, Marjorie Liu’s first short fiction collection is an unflinching sojourn into her thorny tales of love, revenge, and new beginnings.

My Review:

I picked this up not for her multiple award-winning Monstress, which I haven’t read yet, but for Dirk & Steele and Hunter’s Kiss, her marvelous urban fantasy/paranormal series that I read when they came out back in the late 2000s. I loved both of those series, but I’m kind of astonished that they came out way more than a decade ago.

But it has been a while, so I was happy to see this collection as a way of renewing my acquaintance with an author I very much loved. And I’m glad I did. There’s even a prequel for Dirk & Steele in this collection, at least if you squint a bit.

My favorite stories in this collection were The Briar and the Rose, Call Her Savage and the title story, The Tangleroot Palace.

The Briar and the Rose takes the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty, adds in a bit of magical possession and body-swapping, and wraps it in a bodyguard romance. Except that this takes place in a world of myth and legend, where an evil sorceress is maintaining her youth and beauty by possessing pretty young women and discarding their corpses. That sorceress is defeated by the love that develops between her female bodyguard and the true personality of the body being possessed in stolen moments when the sorceress sleeps. And it’s a powerful story about just how strong people can be when they have something, or someone to fight beside and to fight for.

Call Her Savage was fascinating because it hints at so much world and such a rich history that we don’t get to see in this story. There’s alternate history and revolution and wars and flawed heroines and politics and lost causes and fighting the long defeat. It reminds me a bit of Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune, but with an alternate 19th or 20th century instead of alternate early history. This is the one I wish there were more of. A lot more.

The Tangleroot Palace was lush and lovely and kind of perfect. On its surface its about a princess who runs away from home to find magic in order to save herself and hopefully save her kingdom from subservience to a brutal warlord. And underneath that it’s a romance about hiding behind masks to protect one’s true self, about the power of illusion and the power of agency. And of course nothing about the warlord or the kingdom or the subservience turns out to be quite what the princess was expecting. But the magic at the heart of the forest is all too real, even if, or especially because, it too is based on an illusion.

Of the rest of the collection, Sympathy for the Bones, Where the Heart Lives and The Last Dignity of Man were interesting and I’m glad I read them but they weren’t quite up there with my faves. After the Blood played with a supernatural/paranormal take on a post-apocalyptic story but didn’t give enough details to really hang together. Not that some characters weren’t hung or otherwise eliminated, but this one felt like it had been done before, and better, elsewhere.

Still and all, I’d have read this for those three favorite stories, and I’m glad I stuck around for the whole thing. It was just the right amount of lovely and romantic and creepy to while awhile a rainy evening with a cat on my lap.

Escape Rating A-: This is a strong collection, filled with stories that grip the heart, ramp up the adrenaline and occasionally wring the tear ducts. They’re not new stories, but they were all new to me, and I got completely wrapped up in every single one. They have the feel of feminist fairy tales, in that all but one of the stories are led by women, and are from mostly female perspectives. So these are heroine’s journeys – and occasionally villainess’ journeys, rather than told from the point of view that such stories are usually told.

Although the one story that is told from a male perspective, The Last Dignity of Man, while it was not among my favorites was one of the most purely lonely stories I have ever read. It was so sad and so heartbreaking and had so much possibility but the monsters, and there certainly were monsters, were more disgusting than scary, not that they weren’t scary too. Still, the idea of someone emulating a supervillain in the hopes that a superhero would arise to thwart them, just like in the comic books, was a great idea that I’d love to see explored more fully with less puking. Seriously.

The Tangleroot Palace reminded me just why I loved this author so much, and has made me resolve to get stuck into Monstress at the earliest opportunity!

Review: The Knight’s Tale by M.J. Trow

Review: The Knight’s Tale by M.J. TrowThe Knight's Tale (A Geoffrey Chaucer Mystery #1) by M.J. Trow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Geoffrey Chaucer #1
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House on August 3, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Introducing 14th century poet Geoffrey Chaucer as a memorable new amateur sleuth in the first of an ingeniously-conceived medieval mystery series.

April, 1380. About to set off on his annual pilgrimage, Comptroller of the King’s Woollens and court poet Geoffrey Chaucer is forced to abandon his plans following an appeal for help from an old friend. The Duke of Clarence, Chaucer’s former guardian, has been found dead in his bed at his Suffolk castle, his bedroom door locked and bolted from the inside. The man who found him, Sir Richard Glanville, suspects foul play and has asked Chaucer to investigate.

On arrival at Clare Castle, Chaucer finds his childhood home rife with bitter rivalries, ill-advised love affairs and dangerous secrets. As he questions the castle’s inhabitants, it becomes clear that more than one member of the Duke’s household had reason to wish him ill. But who among them is a cold-hearted killer? It’s up to Chaucer, with his sharp wits and eye for detail, to root out the evil within.

My Review:

The Knight’s Tale is the first tale of Geoffrey’s Chaucer’s masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, so it’s fitting that in this historical mystery, Chaucer himself is dragged away from his annual pilgrimage to Canterbury – his inspiration for the Tales – in order to involve himself in a Knight’s Tale of his very own, the first in a projected series that features Chaucer as the amateur “detective” investigating a mysterious death that might be murder.

As the story opens, Chaucer, just hitting 40 and feeling it hit back in more ways than one, finds himself headed to Castle Clare, where he was fostered, instead of on his annual pilgrimage as he had planned. His mentor, rescuer and earliest benefactor, Lionel of Antwerp, the Duke of Clarence, has died under mysterious circumstances. Chaucer’s old friend Sir Richard Glanville has come to fetch Chaucer from London in the hopes that the man will either allay his suspicions of murder or put some meat on their bones.

There are plenty of reasons to suspect foul play, and the late Duke had made more than enough enemies for anyone to wonder if he was sent to his reward a bit earlier than heaven or hell intended. As the oldest surviving son of the late King Edward III, there are also possible political connections and motives in every direction.

But the man died alone, in bed, in a locked room on an upper floor of the castle. No one could have snuck either in or out and left the key on the inside of the lock. It’s a puzzle that Glanville hopes Chaucer can solve – as he has solved other puzzling conundrums before, whether or not murder was involved.

In a world where 21st century forensics – or even the late 19th century forensic science of Sherlock Holmes – will not be invented for centuries, it’s up to Chaucer to use his brains and his gifts for drawing people out and observing their behavior afterwards to figure out first, if there was a crime and second, if so, who committed it.

All while being distracted by his memories of the place he once called home and the love he left behind there.

Escape Rating A-: After yesterday’s book, I found myself searching for something with a straightforward plot. Not that there aren’t plenty of twists and turns and red herrings in mystery, but the genre has features that a reader can always depend on. There’s a body, a detective (however amateur), and a perpetrator with means and motive to uncover. Mystery is, after all, the romance of justice served.

This story also takes place in a period that I’ve always loved, the Plantagenet era in England, so it had the feel of the familiar. Something that still held true even though the author played seriously fast and loose with time and place. But even when I became aware of the historical inconsistencies (that Lionel of Clarence died in Italy in 1368 not England in 1380), is just the tip of that iceberg), the setting and the characters still felt more than correct enough for the whole thing to carry me along as much as I’d hoped it would.

At the same time, it also reminded me very much of two historical mystery series that are set in the same time period and that include Geoffrey Chaucer not as the protagonist but as a secondary character. The Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series (start with Veil of Lies) by Jeri Westerson and the Owen Archer series (start with The Apothecary Rose) by Candace Robb also touch on the politics and court intrigues of the Plantagenet kings and their far flung families, friends, retainers and enemies. Meaning that if you like one of the three series you’ll probably like the others.

Like the other two series I mentioned, this first book in the Geoffrey Chaucer series does an excellent job of putting the reader into the period while managing successfully not to put the reader off by making the historic characters into grand historical personages, even though they were.

Because that’s a view we have looking back. In their own time and place, they were just people, and the story does a great job of humanizing them and making them feel, well, real. It’s not just Chaucer’s brain that’s on display here, but also his nostalgia for his youth and his mourning for its loss, as well as his occasional vain attempts to be the young man he once was. He’s human and funny and sad and sarcastic and occasionally even snarktastic by turns. It makes him a fascinating amateur detective.

One I hope to see more of in future books in this series. After all, The Knight’s Tale was the first of Chaucer’s 24 published Canterbury Tales, so I have high hopes for 23 more books in this series!

Review: Questland by Carrie Vaughn

Review: Questland by Carrie VaughnQuestland by Carrie Vaughn
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, fantasy, science fiction
Pages: 304
Published by Mariner Books on June 22, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"Questland is a thrill ride…Richly imagined, action-packed, maximum fun." —Charles Yu, New York Times bestselling author of Interior Chinatown
YOU FIND YOURSELF IN A MAZE FULL OF TWISTY PASSAGES...   Literature professor Dr. Addie Cox is living a happy, if sheltered, life in her ivory tower when Harris Lang, the famously eccentric billionaire tech genius, offers her an unusual job. He wants her to guide a mercenary strike team sent to infiltrate his island retreat off the northwest coast of the United States. Addie is puzzled by her role on the mission until she understands what Lang has built:  Insula Mirabilis, an isolated resort where tourists will one day pay big bucks for a convincing, high-tech-powered fantasy-world experience, complete with dragons, unicorns, and, yes, magic.   Unfortunately, one of the island's employees has gone rogue and activated an invisible force shield that has cut off all outside communication. A Coast Guard cutter attempting to pass through the shield has been destroyed. Suspicion rests on Dominic Brand, the project’s head designer— and Addie Cox's ex-boyfriend. Lang has tasked Addie and the mercenary team with taking back control of the island at any cost.   But Addie is wrestling demons of her own—and not the fantastical kind. Now, she must navigate the deadly traps of Insula Mirabilis as well as her own past trauma. And no d20, however lucky, can help Addie make this saving throw.
“Gamers rejoice! Carrie Vaughn has conjured up a fun and fast-paced story filled with elves, d20s, and Monty Python riffs.”—Monte Cook, ENnie Award-winning creator of the Numenera roleplaying game

My Review:

If you’re a fan in the real world, it’s possible (again) to go to Hobbiton and visit a bit of the Shire. All you have to do is go to New Zealand, where they’ve turned the movie sets from the Lord of the Rings into a tourist attraction.

You may be able to see the sights, but you can’t actually insert yourself into the story except in your own head. You can eat a meal but you can’t spend the night. The immersion can only go so far.

But if that description makes your head spin with possibilities, you’re not alone. And that’s what the original project to build Insula Mirabilis was all about. Creating a place where well-heeled travelers could spend days or weeks not just observing a fantasy world but actually living it.

Complete with mythical creatures – like unicorns and wargs – running around and occasionally even running from each other. And there would be magic – at least in the Arthur C. Clarke sense of “any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from.”

All in the service of allowing people to live out their dreams of living in a fantasy world. At least for a little while.

But the problem with fantasy worlds is the same problem that exists with the real world. Humans do have a way of messing up even the best things – perhaps especially the best things – in ways that their designers never expected.

Or did they?

A rich tech wizard has created Insula Mirabilis to provide as many dreamers and geeks and nerds and LARPers and members of SCA as possible a place to live their dreams by paying him big bucks for the privilege. But the real purpose is for his crack engineering teams to rise to greater and greater inventive heights, providing him with lots of patents and trademarks and even more ways to make even more money.

But it’s all gone wrong. Or at least it looks that way. The island has cut itself off from the rest of the world with some kind of forcefield. Nothing going out – not even telecommunication – and nothing and no one going in, something that the Coast Guard has discovered to their loss.

Harris Lang, that rich tech wizard, has put together a team to sneak into his island and get it back for him. The team consists of four mercenaries and one very much out of her depth literature professor.

But Addie Cox has all the tools they need to figure out what went wrong and why. She’s an expert on the original sources that form the backbone of epic fantasy. She’s an avid player of D&D and a member of SCA.

Addie’s geek credentials aren’t the only thing she has going for her – and they’re not the only thing that Harris Lang is counting on, either. Because he’s planned much better than that. Addie is his ace in the hole, because Lang is pretty certain that the engineer who has gone rogue on HIS island is Addie’s ex-boyfriend.

And that the man will be unable to resist trying to impress Addie in the hopes of getting her back.

Escape Rating A-: This story feels like it exists on two levels. On the surface, there’s, well, the surface. Which is an adventure tale about exploring the island resort in order to figure out what’s gone wrong.

And on the other level, the story is one gigantic in-joke. If you love epic fantasy and role-playing games and everything that goes along with them, you’ll get the joke and enjoy the story. If you don’t, I’m not sure whether the story is strong enough to carry the reader over. I can’t tell because this is a joke that I very definitely got, as epic fantasy has formed a pretty big share of my reading since I first picked up The Hobbit. When I was 8. In OMG 1965. That’s a long time in which to read a lot of fantasy.

Which means that I had a great time in Questland. But I felt like I got all the in-jokes, and understood all the references. And kept thinking up more as I went along.

This turned out to be a story where I kept discovering more and more books and movies that it reminded me of the longer I got into it. Like one or two on every page. A lot of people are going to say Ready Player One because they share that nostalgia factor, but that didn’t feel like the primary influence to me. For that to work, James Halliday would have to have been the founder of Innovative Online Industries. In other words, the inventing genius would also have to be kind of evil.

It’s a lot more like Westworld in that the resort, which is also the gamespace, is mostly a work of mechanical engineering rather than the genetic engineering of Jurassic Park. Although the two books that Questland made me think of way more than anything else are both rather obscure, Sherri Tepper’s first novel King’s Blood Four, where the game is the world is the game, and Jean Johnson’s The Tower, where the protagonists are playing a live action role-playing game as entertainment for others – with very high stakes.

Your reading mileage may definitely vary, and there are hints of plenty of other books, games and movies if you squint a bit.

But at the center of it all is Addie Cox. While the mercenary team that takes her to the island does all of the physical heavy lifting on the trip, Addie is the one carrying all of the emotional baggage. Not just because the rogue wizard at the heart of the maze is her ex, but because Addie is the survivor of a school shooting. (She’d fit right in with The Final Girl Support Group). Traveling with a bunch of mercenaries with guns is way outside what comfort zone Addie has left.

That the team makes it clear that they think she’s useless does not help any of her issues, because she agrees with that assessment. The way that she refers to her uselessness is one of many, many references to Dungeons and Dragons and lots of other geekery.

That the story is her journey, her putting all of her knowledge to use to not just figure out the puzzle but also suss out who the monster is at the heart of this maze helps Addie change her perception of herself from being an unskilled and useless “Bard” character to become someone skillful and important and necessary for the quest, no matter what part she seems to play.

So come to Questland for the nostalgic geekery, but stay and enjoy for the very human story.

Review: While We Were Dating by Jasmine Guillory

Review: While We Were Dating by Jasmine GuilloryWhile We Were Dating (The Wedding Date, #6) by Jasmine Guillory
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Wedding Date #6
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on July 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Two people realize that it's no longer an act when they veer off-script in this sizzling romantic comedy by New York Times bestselling author Jasmine Guillory.
Ben Stephens has never bothered with serious relationships. He has plenty of casual dates to keep him busy, family drama he's trying to ignore and his advertising job to focus on. When Ben lands a huge ad campaign featuring movie star Anna Gardiner, however, it's hard to keep it purely professional. Anna is not just gorgeous and sexy, she's also down to earth and considerate, and he can't help flirting a little...
Anna Gardiner is on a mission: to make herself a household name, and this ad campaign will be a great distraction while she waits to hear if she's booked her next movie. However, she didn't expect Ben Stephens to be her biggest distraction. She knows mixing business with pleasure never works out, but why not indulge in a harmless flirtation?
But their lighthearted banter takes a turn for the serious when Ben helps Anna in a family emergency, and they reveal truths about themselves to each other, truths they've barely shared with those closest to them.
When the opportunity comes to turn their real-life fling into something more for the Hollywood spotlight, will Ben be content to play the background role in Anna's life and leave when the cameras stop rolling? Or could he be the leading man she needs to craft their own Hollywood ending?

My Review:

Once upon a time in 2018 there was a book titled The Wedding Date. I picked it up on a whim. Honestly. I was looking for something happy and I got an offer for an advanced copy at just the right time. That was one of the best whims I ever indulged in, because that book was just an awesomely lovely and damn near perfect romance.

Fast forward three occasionally rather strange years and that wedding date has turned into an entire series that wraps itself around the friends of that original couple, and their friends and family, and hopefully and so on, discovering their own HEAs.

Quite often through either a meet-terribly-cute or a fake date or fake romance or some combination of all of the above. And this entry in the series is no exception.

Junior Advertising Executive Ben Stephens meets Oscar-nominated actress Anna Gardiner in what could best be described as a meet-cute professional edition. He’s supposed to be part of the team – meaning sitting at the table to represent diversity without being permitted to say anything – for an extremely important presentation to a big tech firm that plans to advertise their new smartphone as a lifestyle accessory. She’s the “talent”, the actress who will star in the commercials. Her contract gives her veto power over the campaign that no one seriously expects her to exercise.

But all his bosses are stuck at the airport, so he and an even more junior assistant are supposed to make the presentation they honestly created, all by themselves, at least until their corporate bigwigs finally show up. Anna is both wowed and charmed by Ben, and pleased as punch to see him take that unexpected chance and shoot for the win.

That all of the companies that present after him pull the same stunt that his intended to pull, bringing along an employee of color to fake diversity without letting them actually do anything puts Ben and his company ahead of the pack – even if it happened by accident.

But Anna, who knows first hand what it’s like to be picked second or third for a part because the powers that be just can’t believe that a black actress will have the same universal appeal as a white one, also knows how things work. So she firmly puts her vetoing foot down and says that she’ll  do the commercials only with Ben’s company and only if Ben gets to be the lead on the project.

It’s a win-win-win from the very first day of production. But the sparks that Anna and Ben ignite behind the camera have the potential to cause them both no end of trouble – if they can’t resist indulging in them.

Both know that it’s bad policy to get involved with someone at work – or with someone they are working with – even on a temporary basis. Both have professional plans and goals that have the potential to be seriously derailed if they take their eyes off the prize they are seeking. Both of them have traumatic secrets in their pasts that they are afraid to share with anyone except their therapists. And they are both equally afraid of sharing that they even HAVE therapists because neither of them is in a position where they can appear weak. Ever.

When a family crisis pushes Anna into relying on Ben for a quick getaway and a long drive to reassure her that whatever put her beloved dad into the hospital this time isn’t serious, Ben and Anna let their walls come down much further than they ever intended.

And neither of them is able to put those walls back up. No matter how hard they try. Not even when Anna’s manager convinces her to pretend they’re faking it – to the point where they almost believe it themselves.

Escape Rating A-: My two absolute favorite books in this series are the first book, The Wedding Date, and the 4th book, Royal Holiday. But I’ve enjoyed every single book in the series because these are romcoms for readers who don’t necessarily love romcoms. The issues that arise between every couple in the series feel real, feel part and parcel of their personalities and their situation. There are no misunderstandammits here. What goes wrong is not something that could be resolved with a simple conversation because it goes much too deep for the solution to be nearly that easy.

Howsomever, unlike the first three books which take place almost simultaneously, the most recent books in the series stand very much alone. Not that there aren’t recurring characters – Ben’s brother was one of the members of The Wedding Party, after all. But it’s not necessary to know Theo from the earlier book to enjoy his cameo here. Especially the part where Ben and Theo are carrying a suitcase full of giggling actress.

As much as I enjoyed reading While We Were Dating – because I was really looking for a happy place and certainly found it here – it felt like I’d read bits of this story before – and relatively recently at that. I think if you put You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria, Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert and Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai into a plot blender the resulting story would have most of the elements of While We Were Dating.

Since I loved all three of those books, it’s not exactly a surprise that I’d enjoy something that blended the three of them. And if you liked any of those or any of the previous books in the Wedding Date series you’ll probably like the others too. Just in case you’re looking for something fun and happy to read like I was.

Back when I first read The Wedding Date I loved the hell out of it but never expected it to turn into a series. But every single follow-up to that first marvelous book has been a great big ball of fun, so I sincerely hope that there are more books on the horizon. For reasons that will be plenty clear if you read While We Were Dating, I would LOVE to see Anna’s manager get his romantic comeuppance. Even the Tin Man eventually got a heart..

Review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

Review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky ChambersA Psalm for the Wild-Built (Monk & Robot, #1) by Becky Chambers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: hopepunk, science fiction, solarpunk
Series: Monk & Robot #1
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on July 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Hugo Award-winner Becky Chambers's delightful new Monk & Robot series gives us hope for the future.
It's been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend.
One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of what do people need? is answered.
But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how.
They're going to need to ask it a lot.
Becky Chambers's new series asks: in a world where people have what they want, does having more matter?

My Review:

A Psalm for the Wild-Built turned out to be a surprisingly lovely read about both finding oneself and finding friendship, even if there were plenty of times when I wondered where on earth, or rather where on Panga, the entire thing was going.

But that turned out to be the appropriate reaction, as there were plenty of times when Sibling Dex and Mosscap wondered, separately and together, where their journey was going, and if they’d recognize their destination when they finally reached it.

Assuming they ever did.

At first, this reads as a story of self discovery of one particular self, the person of Sibling Dex. Dex (If the name reminds you of Stargate: Atlantis you are not the only one.) Dex’ world is not our world. It may or may not have ever been our world, but it certainly isn’t by the point of their “now”.

Because Sibling Dex’ now is in a post-industrial age. It also seems to be in a post-consumerism age and certainly a post-robotic age. Money still has value, and people still work for wages or exchanges – Dex seems to work for exchanges as much as they do for credits – but it seems very different from our now.

And that’s because there doesn’t seem to be any artificially inflated “wanting” of stuff. The Joneses don’t seem to exist to be kept up with. There’s nothing in the story about how they got past our never-ending hunger for “more”, but somehow they did.

Or at least they did in the material sense. The emotional sense, the fulfillment sense, is still alive and well and eating Sibling Dex up more and more each day. They had a good life as a monk, a servant to one of the gods, but it wasn’t enough. So they started over again as a tea monk, traveling the countryside and dispensing special blends of tea, places to rest and relax, and solace when people needed it.

After a rocky start, Dex is very good at it. And it’s a fulfilling life, but it seems to fulfill Dex less and less with each passing day. So Dex turns off the road well-traveled for a trek out into the wilderness in search of whatever undefined something is not present in their life as it is.

And that’s where the story really begins, as the monk with no idea about what they really want meets the robot who has volunteered to discover what humans really want. Neither of them has a clue, about their journey, about their destination, or about each other.

Escape Rating A-: I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I opened this book. Kind of like Sibling Dex doesn’t know what they’re letting themselves in for when they take that road much, much less traveled.

I was hoping that whatever I got would be as good as To Be Taught, If Fortunate. That hope was most definitely fulfilled. But there was a point – actually several points – where I was as much in the dark about the book’s journey as Sibling Dex was about their own.

The setup for this is fascinating – so I’m really happy that this appears to be a series and we’ll get to visit Panga again. Some of that fascination is in the way that human nature is either vastly different from the way humans behave here and now – or that they’ve evolved a long way from where we are now. Or both.

Because in Panga, in the not all that far past, in its factory/industrial era, the humans created robots to do the hard work for them. When the robots slipped over the line into self-awareness and asked to leave to pursue their own goals, the humans let them go. Without pursuit, without rancor, without warfare.

If you’ve ever played the Mass Effect Trilogy, then you may understand my astonishment. In that universe, one race created robots to do their hard work for them, but when the robots asked if they had souls, their creators attempted to wipe them off the face of the galaxy. And failed, miserably, for both sides and pretty much everyone else.

That’s the reaction we tend to expect, that humans or their equivalent will go to war to hang onto what they believe is theirs. But in Panga, we got enlightenment – and environmentalism! – instead. Or something damn close to it.

The robots have gone their own way, far into the wilderness, to find their own fulfillment. Or to spend decades watching stalactites grow. Whatever floats their individual and particular boat. They’ve learned to find purpose in just being, rather than endlessly doing.

But they do wonder what humans have done in their absence. Not out of fear, but out of curiosity. And that’s where Dex meets Mosscap, in that realm of curiosity. Dex wants to learn whether or not the life they have is all there is. Mosscap wants to explore what humans are.

At first they are more than a bit at cross purposes. Mosscap knows it needs a guide, while Dex refuses to admit that they do as well. What makes the story work is the way that they learn to come together in friendship. Their discovery that what they have both been looking for is each other – even if, like so much else of their journey towards each other – they had no clue.

The story asks a lot of questions that echo after it ends. It’s a story that asks, “is that all there is?” but slyly leads the reader to think about the meaning of that phrase. Because it’s never about anything we expect.

But at the end, what makes this story so very lovely is the friendship between two beings who have nothing in common, but who, in the end, have everything in common – along with a comforting mug of tea.

The second book in this series, which is being called solarpunk but feels more like hopepunk, is A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, and will hopefully come out sometime next year.

Review: An Irish Hostage by Charles Todd

Review: An Irish Hostage by Charles ToddAn Irish Hostage (Bess Crawford #12) by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, World War I
Series: Bess Crawford #12
Pages: 336
Published by William Morrow on July 6, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the uneasy peace following World War I, nurse Bess Crawford runs into trouble and treachery in Ireland—in this twelfth book in the New York Times bestselling mystery series.
The Great War has finally come to an end, but tensions remain high throughout Europe. In Ireland, no one has forgotten the bloody 1916 Easter Rising that fought to end British rule in the country. Bess’s old friend, nurse Eileen Flynn, returns to her isolated Irish village where two factions continue to battle against each other. Eileen’s time with the British army makes her a target for retaliation. Her missing cousin, who was active in the rising and is still being hunted by the British, is her only protection.
Despite concerns about her safety, Bess keeps her promise to her wartime friend and travels to Ireland to be part of Eileen’s wedding party. But on her arrival, Bess discovers that the groom has gone missing. Then a body is fished from the sea. The villagers are hungry to see justice carried out—for wrongdoings new and old—and Eileen’s protection is running out. But clearing her name may mean sacrificing another beloved friend’s neck to the noose instead. Bess must unravel a dark, deceptive plot before someone she loves dies. 

My Review:

“How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?) was a popular World War I song, particularly after the war ended. Just at the point where this 12th book in the Bess Crawford series takes place.

A Duty to the Dead by Charles ToddBecause in June of 1919, Bess Crawford was facing her own version of that question. When we met her in A Duty to the Dead, all the way back in 1916, her war was just beginning, and Bess, a trained nurse in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, was on her way to the forward aid stations to serve her country in her chosen profession, aboard the HMHS Britannic – which nearly sank along with her and her career.

Back on that doomed ship, Bess saved the life – and the injured legs – of one of her fellow nurses, Eileen Flynn. Now that the war is over, Eileen and the soldier she waited for for more than four years are going to be married. At Eileen’s family home in Killeighbeg, on the west coast of Ireland.

Eileen just wants to be married with her family and friends around her, in the place where she grew up and in the church where she was baptized. She wants to set out on her life’s journey by starting in her home.

But Eileen’s soldier took the “King’s Shilling” back in 1914, serving in the Irish Guards. That was before the Easter Rising of 1916 and the brutal British repression of the rebellion. Sentiment has changed quite a bit in Ireland in the following years.

Eileen and her fiancé Michael are both considered traitors by many of the locals for having served in the British Army. Eileen has asked Bess to be her attendant at the wedding and Michael has asked one of his commanding officers, so not only are Eileen and Michael considered traitors but they’ve invited English “spies” to come to Killeighbeg as well.

Although what there is in tiny Killeighbeg to spy on is anyone’s guess.

Emotions and tempers are high – on both sides. When Bess arrives just a few days before the wedding she finds herself in the middle of a powder keg that feels like it’s going to explode at any moment.

The groom is missing and entirely too many of the locals believe that it’s good riddance to bad rubbish – including Eileen’s tyrannical grandmother. Who appears to be the local despot in charge of all things Rebellion – in spite of her own son being a live – and wanted – hero of the Easter Rising.

Bess feels like a hostage in hostile territory, only because she is. But she can’t leave until Eileen’s betrothed is found – one way or another. And that can’t happen until someone figures out who took him and why.

But in the moments in between worrying about her friend’s future, Bess has little to do but consider her own. Because she’s seen her own Paree, she’s had a life where she was independent and responsible for herself, respected for her skills. She can’t quite see herself going back to being a dependent daughter again.

She envies Eileen her possibility of happiness, even as she fears that it may not come to pass. And in the darkness of entirely too many nights of tension and terror, she has to face her own truth no matter how much she wants to turn away.

Escape Rating A-: The story in An Irish Hostage feels close and tight, and that’s probably the way it should be. There are huge issues on the horizon, and in the story, and most of them are too big for Bess to solve. She’s stuck, inside tiny, hostile Killeighbeg, caught in the web of the Flynn household, and trapped entirely too often inside her own head.

I want to say that the house and town read like an attempt at a microcosm of Irish history in that tense period between the Rising and Independence. Some want to continue the bloodshed at all costs, some want to find a peaceful solution, some just want to stir up trouble for its own sake. Some people, like Eileen’s cousin Terrance, want justice for Ireland, meaning independence. Some, like Eileen’s grandmother, want vengeance at any cost. Many refuse to recognize that justice and vengeance are NOT the same thing.

And others, like Eileen and her Michael, just want peace – even if they have to leave their home in order to get any.

(I just had the very wild thought that pretty much all of the above could be applied to the Middle East as well, and that one of the big root causes in both places was the British Empire meddling in places that it arguably had no business meddling. I digress.)

And that leads directly to Bess, who is a symbol of, in some ways, the worst of all possibilities, that now that the Great War is over, the British Army in all of its might is going to come down on Ireland like many, many armed tons of explosive bricks.

While the future of Ireland looms over the entire story, it is much too big a thing for Bess to even think about solving. All she can do is get herself and those she has pledged to help out of the line of fire.

But Bess’ future is a problem that only she can solve. It, too, has been looming on the horizon for the past several books, possibly as far back as A Question of Honor, set in the Summer of 1918, but certainly by A Forgotten Place, set in November 1918 as the Armistice is signed.

Her dilemma feels real – although she has a bit too much time on her hands to mull it over. She knows what she’s expected to do. As a woman, she’s expected to “forget” having been an independent and responsible adult in a war zone for the past four years and go back to being a dependent female until she marries. She also knows that isn’t enough for her but that her choices are few.

At the same time, she is wondering about who she will spend the rest of her life with. Unlike many long-running mystery series, Bess’ love life has never been a feature of the books. She hasn’t fallen in love with anyone. By the end of An Irish Hostage, we know precisely why.

We just don’t know what Bess is going to do about it. And neither does she. Hopefully, that answer is to come in the next book in the series!

Review: The Return of the Sorceress by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Review: The Return of the Sorceress by Silvia Moreno-GarciaThe Return of the Sorceress by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy
Pages: 104
Published by Subterranean Press on June 30, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the bestselling author of Mexican Gothic comes a magical journey of revenge and redemption.
Yalxi, the deposed Supreme Mistress of the Guild of Sorcerers, is on a desperate mission. Her lover and confidant seized her throne and stole the precious diamond heart, the jewel that is the engine of her power. Yalxi sets out to regain her magic and find a weapon capable of destroying the usurper. But this will mean turning to unlikely allies and opening herself up to unpleasant memories that have been suppressed for many years. For Yalxi is no great hero, but a cunning sorceress who once forged her path in blood – and must reckon with the consequences.
Set in a fantastical land where jewels and blood provide symbiotic magical powers to their wearers, The Return of the Sorceress evokes the energy of classic sword and sorcery, while building a thoroughly fresh and exciting adventure ripe for our era.

My Review:

For a fairly short story, this was one that kept surprising me. At first, I thought I knew exactly what it was about. But it wasn’t nearly that simple.

Then I thought I had it figured out – and it changed again. And again. Until in the end, I was nowhere near the place I thought I’d be.

At first, this seems like a combination of two very old sayings, the Biblical phrase that proclaims “how the mighty have fallen” and the oft-repeated paraphrase from Lord Acton about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. (I’m always surprised to learn that the actual quote is “The corrupting influence of power is total when one’s power is total.” but it does make me understand why it got rephrased into something a bit pithier, or at least catchier.)

This story, at first, seems to be all about the Sorceress Yalxi, who was once the Supreme Mistress of the Guild of Sorcerers, and plans to be again. As soon as she overthrows the ex-colleague and former lover who betrayed her.

Without the great Diamond that served as both her badge of office and the source of much of her power, Yalxi needs to find herself a source of power that can not just equal, but actually best it. She’s not worried about beating her betrayer, she knows she’s stronger than he is on his own.

But he isn’t on his own, that’s the point. As long as she is, however, he has all the magical power he needs, as well as all the temporal power required to capture her so he can gloat over her defeat and drain her blood to power his own spells.

When Yalxi reaches back into their mutual past for a way to get her revenge, she hunts out two artifacts. One is a ring invested with a spirit that was her first teacher, her first source of power – and the first friend she betrayed.

The second, however, is the malevolent spirit of her mentor and predecessor as Supreme Sorcerer, someone she and her ex-lover first followed, and then betrayed. His spirit is hungry, it desires revenge of its own and has had plenty of time to chill that revenge to an icy temperature that will burn more than any hellfire.

The stage is set, but what is it set for? A tale of the mighty falling, power corrupting, ice-cold revenge and the pride that goes before a fall? Or something older, sadder, and perhaps just a bit wiser?

Escape Rating A-: At first, very much at first, this story reminded me a lot of The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo, to the point that if you liked that you’ll like this and vice versa – although this story is told in a bit more of a straightforward fashion than that lovely bit of historical fantasy myth-making.

But the likeness turned out to be more about style and setting, and less about the actual plot of the story than I expected.

The story in Empress is about a comeback. It’s also an explicitly feminist story in that the Empress and her unsung handmaiden stand in for all of the women who have been cast aside and forgotten throughout history.

I thought that the Sorceress’ return would be similar, and was surprised in the end that it wasn’t, and that it was a better story for it. But the circumstances are different, in that the Sorceress has already held power in her own right, and lost that power through her own actions. She’s not simply cast aside as inconvenient – she’s deposed from the seat of power that she took in the exact same fashion.

But still, that’s the story I initially expected. Then, as Yalxi furthered her plans, I was expecting her to be betrayed again. And again. Only differently.

The ending was better than that – also unexpected and more uplifting than the beginning led me to believe. Because in the end, this is a story about love and justice, friendship and redemption. And the way it got there – that’s the best part of this unexpected journey.

Review: Blackmailing Mr. Bossman by Anna Hackett

Review: Blackmailing Mr. Bossman by Anna HackettBlackmailing Mr. Bossman (Billionaire Heists #2) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic suspense
Series: Billionaire Heists #2
Pages: 292
Published by Anna Hackett on June 18, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

To save my best friend’s husband, all I have to do is blackmail a billionaire.
My friend’s husband was abducted by a gang of white-collar criminals. These guys are bad, and they want her to spy on her boss—a man who owns half of New York. She’s falling apart and she needs my help.
My name’s Aspen. I’m a private investigator, and I’m usually doing surveillance on cheating spouses or insurance scammers, but now I’m going undercover.
I’m trading my jeans for skirts, and playing assistant at Kensington Group so I can get up close and personal with Liam Kensington—the owner of a multibillion-dollar construction and property empire.
Not to mention a tall, lean, golden-haired god with a sexy British accent.
The white-collar thieves have Liam in their sights and in return for my friend’s husband, they want me to blackmail a billionaire. Aw, hell.
But I didn’t count on how Liam would make me feel, or my crazy need to keep him safe, or our incendiary attraction.
Now I have to save a man’s life, catch some bad guys, and stop myself from falling in love with a billionaire who’s way out of my league.

My Review:

I was looking for something a bit lighter than yesterday’s book. You know, something with not quite so many deaths and dismemberments. Or at least not so many gruesome descriptions of the dismemberments. Fictional deaths, if they’re of the right people, aren’t so bad.

There are certainly more than a few people who need to die – or at least be removed from their ability to make trouble one way or another (and possibly from the gene pool), in the Billionaire Heists series. Not to mention, the billionaires are gorgeous, the women who manage to win their hearts have plenty of moxie and especially agency, and there’s always a happy ever after waiting in the wings.

After evil gets its just desserts, of course.

In the first book in this series, Stealing from Mr. Rich, the first of the “Billionaire Bachelors” found himself falling for a woman who set out to rob him blind. Not that Monroe O’Connor actually wanted to steal anything from Zane Roth, except possibly his heart. But Monroe was in over her head with some really evil dudes who had kidnapped her way-more-immature-than-he-thinks-he-is younger brother, and, well, needs must because the devil is certainly driving.

The situation in Blackmailing Mr. Bossman does have some familiar vibes from that first story, and not just because Zane and Liam Kensington, the titular Mr. Bossman, are besties. Or would be if billionaires would be caught dead using that term.

Like Monroe in that first story, Aspen Chandler has no desire of her own to blackmail Liam Kensington – not that he doesn’t spark plenty of other desires in Aspen and every other straight woman with a pulse in New York City.

Aspen is a licensed private investigator. She’s working on behalf of a client – one of her own best friends – who happens to work at Liam’s megacorp headquarters. Her friend’s husband has been kidnapped, and his “ransom” is delivering the blackmail material to Liam. A task that Aspen has taken over on her behalf in the hopes of finding a way to take down the bad guys behind this mess.

But she has to go through with the blackmail in order to get all the goods on everyone involved. Or, at least she thinks she does. So she goes undercover at Kensington Group in order to get close to Liam and let the real blackmailers believe she’s on their side and under their thumb.

And that’s where everything starts to go very, very wrong – at least as far as Aspen’s ability to keep her work compartmentalized from her heart. It’s also where things start to go very, very right for the possibility that the P.I. and the billionaire might have a chance at an HEA.

They just have to survive a crazy mobster first. Make that two crazy mobsters, one in the here and now, and one reaching from beyond the grave with his hands full of diamonds.

Escape Rating A-: I have to admit that I’m not all that crazy about the cover of this book, and I kind of hate the title – but I really LOVED the story. So definitely don’t judge this book by anything you see on its cover except the author’s name. Because Anna Hackett delivers and this one is definitely no exception.

I’m really loving this Billionaire Heists series quite a lot after merely liking a couple of the Norcross Security series – although there was one book in that series (The Specialist) that I absolutely adored. For a good reading time call Anna.

The thing about this series in particular is that the women are all very, very good at taking care of themselves, thankyouverymuch. Neither Monroe nor Aspen ever needs to be rescued by their billionaires. It’s not just that they are in control of their own lives before their current problem landed in their laps, it’s that they are working the problem that has landed in their laps – and doing a damn good job at it.

Where Aspen doesn’t so much fall down on the job as change her plans for the job is that she can’t continue the undercover aspects of the mess once both hers and Liam’s emotions get involved. Once she stops pretending to be either a PR assistant or a blackmailer, their working relationship becomes fairly equal, and that’s something I always like to see in a romance, because relationships that are not equal don’t work in the long run.

The inequality in their relationship, and there certainly is quite a bit, can be set aside if they’re both willing to work at it, and that’s where the push-pull tension comes into play fairly realistically for a story that has a high quotient of real-world-type-fantasy mixed in. Liam is, after all, a multi-billionaire, as are his friends. Aspen works hard to support herself, her twin sisters and her mother. She’s doing okay most of the time, but Liam is in a whole other stratosphere.

Aspen’s certain that the gap can’t be bridged, while Liam is certain that it can. They’re the best thing that ever happened to each other, if they can just manage to hang on to what they’ve almost got.

The case that brings them together is a scream. Both in the sense that Liam, Aspen and the reader all want to scream at Liam’s douchebag father who is the real target of the blackmail. There aren’t words for how vile he is. The ransom is an even bigger scream, in the sense that it’s fascinating and historical and, in the end, plenty scary. It reaches all the way back to Prohibition and features a dilapidated warehouse, a notorious gangster and a too-well-hidden cache of priceless gems.

All in all, I had a terrifically good reading time with this one, and I can’t wait for the final book in this trilogy, when the last billionaire bachelor takes his fall in Hacking Mr. CEO, coming in late July to a kindle near you. Or rather definitely, to an iPad near me!