Review: Insurrection by Nina Croft

Review: Insurrection by Nina CroftInsurrection by Nina Croft
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera, vampires
Series: Dark Desires Origins #3
Pages: 384
Published by Entangled: Amara on October 18, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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Malpheas is one of the most powerful demons from Earth, but when he wakes up from cryo on the other side of the galaxy, he notices something is wrong—he’s human. Oh, hell no. In order to get his powers back, he must remove the sigil on his arm by carrying out three good deeds. But acts of kindness aren’t exactly his strong suit. Working undercover as a security officer investigating a suspicious death, he’s assigned to work with Hope, the most softhearted woman he’s ever met. If she can’t teach him how to be good, no one can.
Hope is in a pot of trouble, and if anyone finds out what she did, that pot would quickly boil over. She just needs to lay low until she can figure out a way to fix this mess. But when she’s ordered to show Mal the ropes and introduce him to everyone, sorting out her problems becomes impossible. Mal is sexy as sin, broody as hell, and believes she can help him change his bad-boy ways. Fine. If that keeps him from discovering her ties to the rebellion, she’ll teach him how to be a perfect angel.
As they work together, though, it becomes clear that Hope isn’t the only one with a hidden agenda, and their irresistible attraction to each other just adds fuel to the fire. When secrets are exposed, they must make the impossible choice between doing what’s right and doing what’s necessary.
Light meets dark, good meets evil…and love can hurt like Hell.

My Review:

At the end of Insurrection, it feels a bit like the circle just got squared. Or it feels like the series has either come to a conclusion or is headed for one. It kind of depends on whether you boarded the ship on the way to the Trakis system at the beginning of the Dark Desires Origins series in Malfunction, or whether you’ve been aboard for the whole wild ride starting at the very beginning in Break Out.

Because at the end of Insurrection, while we aren’t exactly where we were at the opening of Break Out, we can certainly see that beginning from here. The pieces that we picked up then are just about in place now, which makes a certain kind of sense as the Dark Desires Origins series, which began with Malfunction and was followed by Deception, seems to be heading towards its conclusion here in Insurrection.

Break Out, the first book of the Dark Desires series, takes place several centuries after the events in Insurrection. Events that are so far back in the rearview mirror that they’ve taken on the patina of myths and legends – even though Rico Sanchez lived through it all, as we’ve seen in this prequel series.

But then Rico has lived through a LOT of human history – even though he is no longer exactly human himself, and hasn’t been since the Spanish Inquisition. While no one expects the Spanish Inquisition in the first place, even less do they expect to meet a vampire who began hunting the night at that same time.

The premise behind the entire Dark Desires and Dark Desires Origins series is that Earth was well on its way to becoming uninhabitable, so a fleet of sleeper ships left the dying planet for what would hopefully be greener pastures.

Or at least pastures less fucked up by humans. At least not yet.

In the series that seems to conclude with Insurrection (I could be wrong about this being the conclusion but it feels close) we watched the maneuvering and the finagling, the bribery and the theft, as the places that should have been assigned by lottery were instead filled with the rich and the powerful. While Rico Sanchez bought, bribed or murdered his way into filling half of one ship with his own people. Not just vampires, but also shapeshifters and other things that go bump in the night, including one warlock (his story is in Deception) and one of the seven lords of the Abyss, more colloquially called Hell.

The demon Malpheas just so happens to be the warlock’s father. True to his demonic nature, Malpheas is used to getting his own way, reigning from the top of the heap, and killing anyone who gets in his way. In other words, he’s an entitled alphahole with the power to back it up.

Power he has been cut off from by the time Rico wakes him from cryosleep at the beginning of Insurrection. Malpheas has to commit three “good deeds”, definition rather nebulous, before he’ll have access to all his powers again. The curse he has to labor under is one last “present” from his old frenemy Lucifer.

All Mal has to do is figure out what “good” means, keep the humans on the other ships from discovering just what Rico has been hiding aboard his own ship, and plot and scheme to take over everything once he’s managed to beat the curse.

Unless Mal learns the lesson that his curse is trying to teach him, first.

Escape Rating A-: Now that I’ve finished Insurrection I have the strongest urge to go back and reread the expanded version of Break Out again. It feels so much like this story puts all the pieces in place for that one, and I want to check just how well it did.

This also feels like a great place to end the Dark Desires Origins prequel series, as we’ve seen in detail just how much the humans of the Trakis expedition brought humanity with them, very much warts and all. Readers who began this journey with Malfunction will leave Insurrection primed and ready to see where things have ended up by the time of Break Out, while readers who boarded this flight there will be sorely tempted to see how well the ends meet.

I’m not sure that readers who start here will be completely satisfied. On the other hand, their appetites may be whetted well enough to tempt them to read the entire series from start to finish!

In addition to all of the historical and human – or human-ish – pieces being put in place for the story to continue in that already explored future, one of the reasons that this story read like so much a part of the original book was that both deal explicitly with the problems not of mortality but of immortality.

The process that is discovered on Trakis Seven makes people practically immortal, just as Rico’s vampirism does. People who have gone through the process CAN be killed – decapitation is always an option – but don’t die from disease or accidents or even extreme old age.

The problem with immortality is that the human lifespan is meant to be finite. Psychologically, we need purpose and surprise and a whole bunch of other things that stop being important if one knows one literally has all the time in the universe. Time enough to have been there and done that for every possible thing one could be or do. It gets boring.

In Break Out, Rico may be a bit bored, but the people who have gone through the Trakis immortality treatment are getting really, really bored. And jaded. Just as the immortal demon, Malpheas has gotten bored and jaded with his already extremely long life.

So the romance in this story is wrapped around Malpheas experiencing the old curse of “may you live in interesting times.” As an immortal demon with all his powers, he can make whatever and whoever he wants happen. Nothing is interesting. With his powers locked away, he’s just human. A big, strong, and very sexy human, but human nonetheless. Everything is frustrating. Everything is weird. Everything is fascinating. His times are suddenly very interesting indeed in a way that he hasn’t experienced for a very long time. For Malpheas, the curse has become a blessing.

And the biggest part of the blessing is Hope Featherstone. Not just because she’s nice and she’s pretty, but because she’s real and so are all her emotions. She may want the big, sexy beast, but she doesn’t actually like him all that much. She also finds him surprisingly resistible, and that’s something Mal has never experienced in his life. He has to become a better person to have a chance with her.

That he discovers that she’s not nearly as good as she appears makes them perfect for each other. Now they just have to survive the mess that both their secrets have gotten them into. And get themselves as far away as possible from the brave new world being established – because it’s already every bit as FUBAR’d as the old world they left behind.

Because of the situation on Trakis Four at the end of this book, this feels like the end of the Dark Desires Origins series. But it may not actually be the end. It was great fun to go back to the beginning, to see how the situation we saw in Break Out came to be, with paranormal beings from Earth flying spaceships in a far-flung corner of the galaxy. I never expected to read about vampires in space but I’m certainly glad I did.

This was a fitting sendoff for the whole thing, as not only do we see how things got to be the way they were, but the ending puts a fair amount of focus back on the character most of us fell for at the beginning, vampire and captain Rico Sanchez. It’s been an exciting ride from beginning to end, and I’m glad I took the trip.

If the author ever chooses to return to this universe I’ll be right there.

Review: The Route of Ice and Salt by Jose Luis Zarate

Review: The Route of Ice and Salt by Jose Luis ZarateThe Route of Ice and Salt by José Luis Zárate, David Bowles
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: Gothic, horror, vampires
Pages: 196
Published by Innsmouth Free Press on January 19, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A reimagining of Dracula’s voyage to England, filled with Gothic imagery and queer desire.
It’s an ordinary assignment, nothing more. The cargo? Fifty boxes filled with Transylvanian soil. The route? From Varna to Whitby. The Demeter has made many trips like this. The captain has handled dozens of crews.
He dreams familiar dreams: to taste the salt on the skin of his men, to run his hands across their chests. He longs for the warmth of a lover he cannot have, fantasizes about flesh and frenzied embraces. All this he’s done before, it’s routine, a constant, like the tides.
Yet there’s something different, something wrong. There are odd nightmares, unsettling omens and fear. For there is something in the air, something in the night, someone stalking the ship.
The cult vampire novella by Mexican author José Luis Zárate is available for the first time in English. Translated by David Bowles and with an accompanying essay by noted horror author Poppy Z. Brite, it reveals an unknown corner of Latin American literature.

My Review:

Everyone thinks they know the story of Dracula – and we all do. Sorta/kinda. Not necessarily because we’ve read the original but because we’ve seen one or more variations of it. The Count’s story is part of the cultural zeitgeist. We ALL know who he is.

(If you haven’t read the original, it’s available in ebook free from your local public library AND from a host of online retailers including Amazon. If you want to get the flavor of the story there’s also an excellent full-cast recording by L.A. Theatreworks that I highly recommend – especially for Halloween.)

But one of the things that gets lost in adaptations of the original work is that Dracula is an epistolary novel. It’s a story told in documents – not just letters but also newspaper accounts, diary entries and, as expanded upon in The Route of Ice and Salt, the terse entries in the captain’s log of the ship that brought Dracula’s crates of Transylvanian soil to Britain. And, unbeknownst to the captain and crew of the Demeter, Count Dracula himself.

Not that the captain doesn’t eventually find out about the vampire – just before he dies.

However, The Route of Ice and Salt is not a retelling of the original Dracula story. Rather, it’s an illumination and expansion of a dark and hidden place in that more famous tale. In the original, we read the terse prose of the captain’s official log. We learn that when the ship reached its destination, the crew was missing, presumed dead. And the unnamed captain was discovered lashed to the wheel of his doomed ship with a rosary clutched in his cold, dead hands.

This is his story.

Escape Rating A-: Dracula may be the entry point for this story for many readers, but the Count isn’t exactly THE point of the story. The Route of Ice and Salt is cult classic of Mexican fantasy, first published in 1998 by a small comic book publisher that didn’t survive its attempt to jump from comic books to prose. This is the first translation of the work into English, and it’s a creeping fever dream of a story that picks up on themes that were subtext in Dracula – and other early vampire stories – and moves them from subtext to explicit text.

The still-unnamed captain of the Demeter is gay, horny and has very explicit thoughts and feelings about his crew that he keeps to himself in the dark of the night but never indulges. For reasons that have explicitly to do with keeping discipline aboard the ship, maintaining the chain of command and the acknowledgement that his crew can’t really give consent because he’s their master while they’re aboard.

And that, if they report him to the ship’s owners when the Demeter is back home, he’ll not just be fired – he’ll be prosecuted, imprisoned and quite possibly killed. Just as his first lover was – something that he is still blaming himself for years if not decades later.

That blame brings up a second theme, the question of what, and who is truly the monster in this or any other monster tale. The captain sees himself as a monster, both for his own part in his lover’s death and for the desires that his society and his church consider monstrous.

It’s only at the end that he comes to the liberating realization, in the face of a literal bloodsucking fiend who has murdered his crew, that he is not a monster at all – no matter what anyone else might say.

But those aren’t reasons to read The Route of Ice and Salt. As much as it has to say in its own subtext, it’s the way that it says it that are the reasons to read the story.

This thing is creepy as hell. If you like horror of the creeping, crawling, looming variety, if you enjoy that sensation of drowning horror as you read deeper into something that you know is going to keep you up half the night, this is an excellent story of that type. I finished at 2 am and I honestly should have waited until morning because it left me seriously creeped out.

The language of the story is beautiful. At times it’s lush and poetic, and then it turns sharp as a knife – or a tooth. I suspect it’s even more lyrical in the original Spanish but the translation is quite lovely. In that aspect it reminds me of Nothing but Blackened Teeth although their language and vernaculars are literally at least a century apart. But still, that same sense of sinking into a pool of beautiful words – only to have the story almost literally jerk you down into its depths of nightmarish horror.

If you’re looking for a truly creepy Halloween read, take The Route of Ice and Salt.

Review: Gutter Mage by J.S. Kelley

Review: Gutter Mage by J.S. KelleyGutter Mage by J.S. Kelley
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 336
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on September 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Fantasy and hardboiled noir in this fast-paced, twisting tale of magic, mystery, and a whole lot of unruly behavior.
In a kingdom where magic fuels everything from street lamps to horseless carriages, the mage guilds of Penador wield power equal to the king himself. So when Lord Edmund’s infant son is kidnapped by the ruthless Alath Guild, he turns to the one person who’s feared by even the most magically adept: Rosalind Featherstone, a.k.a. the Gutter Mage.
But as Roz delves into the circumstances behind the child’s disappearance, she uncovers an old enemy from her traumatic past and a long-brewing plot that could lead to the death of countless innocents, as well as the complete collapse of Penadorian society itself!

My Review:

Is it still urban fantasy if it isn’t set in our world? That’s a question I’m still very much puzzling over after finishing Gutter Mage, because this story has all the gritty, noir feels of urban fantasy, even if the cities of Drusiel and Monaxa are in a place called Penador and nowhere in the world we know.

Not that Drusiel, in particular, doesn’t remind me of other gritty fantasy cities, like Kirkwall and Ankh-Morpork, places where trouble brews in back alleys, disreputable taverns, and in the halls of power and powerful guilds alike.

The story of the Gutter Mage begins in the only disreputable tavern that has not yet barred Arcanist Rosalind Featherstone from its dingy but not disgusting premises. Roz is the Gutter Mage herself – but she’ll deck you if you call her that. Or set you on fire. Or both. Probably both.

Roz is a mercenary, an investigator into magic gone wrong, and a woman who seems to be doing her best to destroy herself one brain cell at a time. She is most emphatically NOT a mage – because the powerful mage guilds threw her out on her ear when her mentor abused her in the worst way possible.

He turned her into a weapon of fire. And she burned him to death for it, along with every other mage who participated in the ritual that put fire literally in her hands.

But someone has kidnapped a nobleman’s newborn baby for a magical ritual that isn’t supposed to exist. Then again, when Roz investigates, it starts to look like the baby doesn’t exist either. And on Roz’ other burning hand, it looks a lot like her former mentor is alive, and well, and planning to enact a ritual that is supposed to be a myth and an allegory, and not a real ritual at all.

Just like the one that put the fire in Roz’ hands. This time, her old nemesis has much bigger plans. He’s not just going to screw up one person’s life – he’s going to bring down the magic that keeps the entire kingdom going.

If Roz doesn’t stop him first.

Escape Rating A-: Gutter Mage is just a surprise and a dark delight of a book. I got captured by Roz’ bar brawl at the very beginning, and just could not read fast enough from there. The story is a blend of dark and gritty urban fantasy, mixed with just a bit of dark and gritty sword and sorcery – although way more sorcery than swords – and a scope that keeps getting bigger and broader even as the story tightens its focus on Roz, her self-destructive tendencies, her property destroying talent – or curse – and her need to put a stop to the man who used her and broke her.

This is a story that starts out small, as many urban fantasies do. Roz and her business partner and best friend Lysander are hired to solve a kidnapping and retrieve the victim – an infant who is so new that his mother hasn’t healed from his birth yet. The case looks easy. They even have a suspect for the crime – a mage guild who claims that the baby is integral to a ritual they plan to perform.

Except that every person they interview contradicts everyone else. There’s too much that just doesn’t make sense. It’s all so obvious that it’s obvious that it’s a setup. A setup that Roz figures out part of relatively easily. It’s just that Roz should have remembered that old saying about when something is too good to be true, and you’re not sure who the chump is, it’s you.

But the reveals are what make this thing so much fun. And where the story expands in scope. Because Roz learns that she might not be who she thinks she is. Also that the guilds and the powers that be are even more evil than she believed they were, even though she starts the story certain that they are all pretty much the WORST. The first thing is life altering. The second might be world destroying – and the world might even deserve it. On top of those revelations, there’s one more, the knowledge that, from a certain twisted point of view – that of Roz’ former mentor – it’s all Roz’ fault, for reasons that I wish had been a bit less clichéd. But the stakes ended up being so damn high that it doesn’t really matter. Except to Roz.

Gutter Mage reminded me a lot of The Blacktongue Thief and The Moonsteel Crown. Both have that same dark feel to them, both of them also feature protagonists who are more antihero than hero, and both revolve around self-deceptive characters who need to save the world anyway – even if they’re not remotely certain they want to save themselves. And both are series openers, and I really hope that Gutter Mage is as well.

Because, like both of those books, Gutter Mage reads like the start of something new and big and exciting. And I can’t wait to read where it goes.

Review: Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

Review: Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuireBeneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children, #3) by Seanan McGuire
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #3
Pages: 174
Published by Tordotcom on January 9, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Beneath the Sugar Sky, the third book in McGuire's Wayward Children series, returns to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children in a standalone contemporary fantasy for fans of all ages. At this magical boarding school, children who have experienced fantasy adventures are reintroduced to the "real" world.
When Rini lands with a literal splash in the pond behind Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, the last thing she expects to find is that her mother, Sumi, died years before Rini was even conceived. But Rini can’t let Reality get in the way of her quest – not when she has an entire world to save! (Much more common than one would suppose.) If she can't find a way to restore her mother, Rini will have more than a world to save: she will never have been born in the first place. And in a world without magic, she doesn’t have long before Reality notices her existence and washes her away. Good thing the student body is well-acquainted with quests...
A tale of friendship, baking, and derring-do. Warning: May contain nuts.

My Review:

I have read the Wayward Children series completely out of order, so instead of the usual 1,2,3 progression it’s been 1,6,7,2 and now three. And it still makes sense – or at least as much sense as it’s supposed to consider that many of the doors that the children who come to Miss West’s School have come through have been from worlds with more than a bit of Nonsense in them.

As does the world of Confection, the place the late and much lamented Sumi came from, and to which she expected to return. Not just hoped, but actually expected, because Sumi was from Confection, and she had been told she had a destiny there that she had to go back and meet when the time was right.

But Sumi’s destiny was interrupted by Jack and Jill’s bloodthirsty quest to re-open their door back to the Moors in Every Heart a Doorway – and I just realized that the title is a bit of a macabre pun because by a certain interpretation Sumi’s bloody heart was literally Jack and Jill’s doorway. So when Sumi’s daughter Rini, a daughter Sumi was much, much too young to have already had before she was killed, literally drops out of the sky into a fountain at the school, there’s more than a bit of problem and a quest has certainly come knocking on Miss West’s door – in spite of the sign that prohibits quests on school grounds.

Rini is in the middle of a Back to the Future situation. Specifically, the situation in the first movie where Marty starts disappearing because he’s changed the timeline too much and won’t be born. Rini is in the same predicament, even though it’s not her fault that her mother won’t be coming back to Confection to marry her father and give birth to her.

But it’s not just Rini herself that’s being erased. The entire timeline where Sumi saved Confection from the evil and entirely too Orderly and Logical Queen of Cakes is also being erased – with disastrous consequences for the people of Confection.

In order to save Rini and save her world, several of the children are going to have to whistle Sumi’s bones out of her grave and take them on a journey to the Lord of the Dead to see if there’s a way to bring Sumi back from death and save both her world and her daughter.

It’s an adventure. It’s something to do while they each wait for their own doors to open again. And it will save Sumi, Rini, and their entire world. Unless the children lose themselves along the way.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up now because I read Where the Drowned Girls Go for a Library Journal review last month and, while I didn’t have any problems getting into the story, it was pretty clear that the characters in that 7th book in the series had been on previous adventures together. Beneath the Sugar Sky looked like one of those previous adventures, so I was determined to get to it as soon as possible.

Not that one can’t read this series entirely out of order as I seem to be doing. It’s just that there’s clearly important stuff that I missed and now I want to know what it was. So here we are. Or there they are.

The story in Beneath the Sugar Sky is a story wrapped around found family and friendship. It’s not that Kade, Cora, Christopher and Nadya don’t want to save Rini and her world, because they absolutely do. But their real motivation for taking on this quest is to save their friend Sumi. They don’t know Rini yet but Sumi is loved and missed and their quest is to bring her back to life.

Along the way the quest becomes as much about saving each other as resurrecting their friend, with a huge heaping helping about body shaming, accepting yourself for who you are and living your best life as that person, and learning how to make your strengths really, really count when the chips are down – even if most people see those strengths as faults or weaknesses.

All of that is at the heart of Cora’s story, a story which continues for certain in Where the Drowned Girls Go, but also possibly in Come Tumbling Down, which I have not read yet and obviously need to. Because it was Cora’s story in Drowned Girls that made me go flying backwards through the rest of the series. I picked this up because I wanted to know more about Cora’s story and now that I know more I want to know even more. And I will.

But first I have In an Absent Dream to look forward to. And I so definitely am!

Review: Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather

Review: Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina RatherSisters of the Vast Black (Our Lady of Endless Worlds #1) by Lina Rather
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Our Lady of Endless Worlds #1
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on October 29, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The sisters of the Order of Saint Rita captain their living ship into the reaches of space in Lina Rather's debut novella, Sisters of the Vast Black.
Years ago, Old Earth sent forth sisters and brothers into the vast dark of the prodigal colonies armed only with crucifixes and iron faith. Now, the sisters of the Order of Saint Rita are on an interstellar mission of mercy aboard Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, a living, breathing ship which seems determined to develop a will of its own.
When the order receives a distress call from a newly-formed colony, the sisters discover that the bodies and souls in their care—and that of the galactic diaspora—are in danger. And not from void beyond, but from the nascent Central Governance and the Church itself.

My Review:

The quick and dirty summary of this story as “nuns in space” does not nearly do it justice.

For one thing, the situation isn’t nearly that simple. At first, it seems like a cross between Farscape, the first episode of Star Trek Next Generation, “Encounter at Farpoint”, and the recent We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep. At least right up until the hints of A Memory Called Empire sneak in to bite pretty much everyone in the ass.

Yes, there are nuns aboard the spaceship Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, which still feels like the best name for a spaceship EVAR. But the ship is operating as an interstellar convent – and its pregnant. Hence the references to Farscape and “Farpoint”, because the ship is very much alive.

But the resemblance to We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep is equally apropos, although as seen in a mirror considerably more lightly than in that story. Well, at least the nuns are considerably lighter in purpose and intent than the brothers on the Leviathan.

Even if they are operating just as far outside any clerical authority. And that’s where the reference to A Memory Called Empire comes in, because the memory of imperial glory that the Sisters of St. Rita are concerned about is the dangerous alliance between a resurrected central government on Earth and an equally militant Church of Rome that are both more invested in bringing their long-independent and errant flocks to heel than they are to serving anyone other than their own pride and ambition.

No matter how dark the deeds they must do to bring their former followers back to what only a central authority could possibly see as the light.

Escape Rating A-: The story begins with the nuns on the horns of multiple dilemmas. They’re answering a call to minister to a fledgling colony that needs blessings, baptisms and a bit of medical treatment. Their living ship has somehow found a mate out in the black, is already pregnant and needs to return to that mate for her eggs to be fertilized. Or the sisters need to essentially abort the unfertilized eggs before they rot.

We can all guess just how well that discussion is going.

But four of the sisters have secrets. One has fallen in love with an engineer on another ship and has to decide whether or not to relinquish her vows and her place in the order. The communications officer has received a message from the Vatican regarding the impending arrival of a newly assigned priest to direct their mission towards proselytization and away from service – a direction that none of the sisters have any desire to go. One of the sisters has become aware that their Mother Superior is exhibiting the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. And the Mother Superior herself is not only aware of her condition but is frightened that her diminishing grip on herself will expose secrets that she’s spent a lifetime concealing.

As a gentle story about religious devotion and service to far-flung colonies out in the black, this would have been a lovely thing without going any deeper. But the ambitions of both the governmental central authority and the religious hierarchy push the story to another level, as the nuns have to decide whether to stand up or knuckle under – with hellish consequences either way.

Those consequences will be visited upon them from all sides in the upcoming second book in this series, Sisters of the Forsaken Stars, coming in February. Someone, or something, is going to burn in the fires they’ve lit. And I can’t wait to find out who. Because even though I figured out where this was going, I was still absolutely fascinated watching it get there.

Review Digging Up the Dirt by Miranda James

Review Digging Up the Dirt by Miranda JamesDigging Up the Dirt (Southern Ladies Mystery, #3) by Miranda James
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery
Series: Southern Ladies Mystery #3
Pages: 296
Published by Berkley on September 6, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The New York Times bestselling author of Dead with the Wind and Bless Her Dead Little Heart is back with more of those sleuthing Southern belles, the Ducote sisters...
An’gel and Dickce Ducote, busy with plans for the Athena Garden Club’s spring tour of grand old homes, are having trouble getting the other club members to help. The rest of the group is all a-flutter now that dashing and still-eligible Hadley Partridge is back to restore his family mansion. But the idle chatter soon turns deadly serious when a body turns up on the Partridge estate after a storm...   The remains might belong to Hadley’s long-lost sister-in-law, Callie, who everyone thought ran off with Hadley years ago. And if it’s not Callie, who could it be? As the Ducotes begin uncovering secrets, they discover that more than one person in Athena would kill to be Mrs. Partridge. Now An’gel and Dickce will need to get their hands dirty if they hope to reveal a killer’s deep-buried motives before someone else’s name is mud...

My Review:

Honestly, I picked this one up because I just felt like it. I was looking for something that would be both familiar and new at the same time, and this seemed like it would be it. And it was.

Also, I really enjoyed the first book in this series, Bless Her Dead Little Heart, so even though I was a bit disappointed in Dead with the Wind I like this author more than enough to want to see if the third time would be the charm. And I had high hopes for a cameo from the main characters in the author’s other series, Cat in the Stacks, so I was very happy to see a bit – but not too much – of librarian Charlie Harris and his gentlemanly Maine Coon cat Diesel.

The story in Digging Up the Dirt reads like it’s at the intersection of two “old” sayings. The first is from the late, much-lamented Terry Pratchett, who said in the book Moving Pictures that “inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.” More likely wondering what the HELL happened, but the thought is definitely there.

The quote it intersects with is something that a friend used to say fairly often when her spouse had just done something she wished he hadn’t. Her comment was that “the problem (with spouses) is that you can’t live with ‘em and you can’t bury ‘em in the backyard because the dogs will dig them up”

The Ducote sisters, An’gel and Dickce, along with the rest of the Athena Garden Club, have been rather abruptly confronted with the truth of the Pratchett quote when Hadley Partridge returns to Athena after a four-decade absence.

When Hadley left Athena all those years ago, he left the entire Garden Club in a veritable tizzy, as he was charming, handsome, rich and flirting with every single member of the club. When he left town, rumor had it that his brother threw him out of the family mansion in a fit of jealousy. Everyone in Athena, including, unfortunately for Hadley, his older brother, was just absolutely certain that Hadley was having an affair with his brother’s wife.

So when that same woman, Hadley’s sister-in-law Callie Partridge, disappeared without a trace a few days after Hadley’s abrupt departure, everyone just assumed that she ran off after Hadley.

At least that’s what everyone assumed until Hamish Partridge died and left the family manse to his brother Hadley. When Hadley returned to Athena, and got the entire Garden Club into pretty much the same tizzy he left them in, he claimed that he had not seen Callie in the intervening 40 years.

Then the Ducote sisters’ labradoodle, Peanut, digs up a body in the backyard of the Partridge estate. A body that goes a long way towards explaining where Callie Partridge has been “hiding” for all these years.

But doesn’t get either amateur sleuths An’gel and Dickce Ducote or Sherriff’s Detective Kanesha Berry much further in their hunt for the person who is killing the members of the Garden Club in the here and now.

Escape Rating A-: Except for the Ducote sisters, whose ages seem to be fixed at 80 and 84 for the entirety of this series, we don’t actually know the ages of the rest of the Athena Garden Club. Just that all of them were adults and Garden Club members 40 years previously, making all of them somewhere north of 60, if not quite as far north as An’gel and Dickce Ducote.

What I loved about all of them, even the ones that are crazy as betsy bugs, is that they are all, to a woman, vital and independent and healthy and active. (Physically healthy at least although there are one or two whose mental health may be – and have always been – a bit iffy.) And that it seems like everything they felt 40 years ago is just as alive in their heads and in their hearts – and possibly other places – now as it was then.

Their spirits are all still as willing as they ever were, even if the flesh occasionally creaks a bit. A feeling I can empathize with all too well – even if, or especially because, some of them were being really silly with it. Every bit as silly as they were 40 years ago. As another old saying goes, “we are too soon old and too late smart.”

The red herrings in this particular story are also steamed to a delectable turn. That there are murders to be solved in both the past and the present just adds to the number of different ways that the detectives and the reader can be led delightfully astray.

And we are all the way to the end. I was convinced until the very end that the present-day murderer was an entirely different party than the person who turned out to be guilty after all, although I did figure out Hadley’s secret slightly earlier than the Ducote sisters. Of course I wasn’t having any nostalgic or romantic ideas to cloud my judgment the way that they were.

There were two things that put this one head and shoulders over the previous book in the series. Except for the Ducote sisters and their traveling household of ward, dog and cat, there were very few likeable characters in Dead with the Wind. Which combined a bit too neatly with the second thing, that the story took An’gel and Dickce away from their home in Athena, robbing them of their usual support network and eliminating several people that the reader could have – and has – happily followed along with.

Which leaves me a tad worried about the final – at least so far – book in the series, Fixing to Die, which also takes the sisters and their household out of Athena. I’ll still be back for it, the next time I need the Ducote’s particular brand of reading comfort.

Review: Deadly Summer Nights by Vicki Delany + Giveaway

Review: Deadly Summer Nights by Vicki Delany + GiveawayDeadly Summer Nights (Catskill Summer Resort Mystery #1) by Vicki Delany
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, historical mystery
Series: Catskill Summer Resort Mystery #1
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley Books on September 14, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An immersive setting with details of running a Catskillsresort in the 1950s (think Kellerman's in Dirty Dancing) beautifully frame a story with plot twists and a cast of well-delineated characters.--Booklist
A summer of fun at a Catskills resort comes to an abrupt end when a guest is found murdered, in this new 1950s set mystery series.
It's the summer of 1953, and Elizabeth Grady is settling into Haggerman's Catskills Resort. As a vacation getaway, Haggerman's is ideal, and although Elizabeth's ostentatious but well-meaning mother is new to running the resort, Elizabeth is eager to help her organize the guests and the entertainment acts. But Elizabeth will have to resort to untested abilities if she wants to save her mother's business.
When a reclusive guest is found dead in a lake on the grounds, and a copy of The Communist Manifesto is found in his cabin, the local police chief is convinced that the man was a Russian spy. But Elizabeth isn't so sure, and with the fate of the resort hanging in the balance, she'll need to dodge red herrings, withstand the Red Scare, and catch a killer red-handed.

My Review:

Remember the movie Dirty Dancing? That romantic drama was set in the same location as this cozy mystery series, just ten years later. Things don’t seem to have changed much in the Catskills summer resorts during that intervening decade, but that was kind of the point.

One of the real Catskill resorts during its glory days

Back in the 1950s, the time period of this series, the Catskills resorts were in their storied heyday, not just a place but an entire experience, a setting where middle and upper class New Yorkers could retreat from the city’s heat to a beautiful mountain location upstate, close enough that the husbands could come up on the weekends to visit their families but still work in the city on weekdays.

And the resorts were self-contained enough to keep the wives and children entertained and cosseted for as long as the family could afford. An entire summer if they could manage it. Kind of like a cruise ship, just without the shore excursions.

Elizabeth Grady, manager of Haggerman’s Catskills Resort, and her mother, retired Broadway star Olivia Grady, are new to the Catskills. The summer of 1953 is only their second season, and Elizabeth is determined to make a go of the only asset she and her mother have. No matter who, or what, gets in her way.

They seem to be on track to profitability this year – or at least they are until the dead body of one of their guests is pulled from the lake one night.

That a guest might die while at the resort is not unheard of. Many of their guests are neither young nor in perfect health. Families have come to the Catskills resorts for at least two generations at this point, and sometimes those generations pass while at the resort.

But a murder is entirely other matter. Guests come to the Catskills to GET away from it all, not to be done away with as this one certainly was. This pot of scandal is further stirred when the local police chief searches the guest’s cabin, discovers a couple of maps and a copy of the Communist Manifesto, and calls the FBI in on suspicion that the “Reds” that Senator Eugene McCarthy is screaming about in Washington have made their way to the Catskills.

Elizabeth needs to find the murderer before the scandal takes her fledgling business right under the water along with the corpse. While her competition from the other resorts cheer on her business’ demise.

Some of them, at least, are absolutely salivating at the very though. After all, it will just prove what they’ve been saying all along, that running a business like Haggerman’s is simply not a suitable job for a woman.

Escape Rating A-: There is a lot to like in Deadly Summer Nights, and one thing that niggled at me a lot. I’ll get to that in a bit.

What I really liked about this story was the way that it dug a bit deeper into what the real world was like during the 1950s, as opposed to keeping reality at bay as the Catskills resorts were famous for doing in their heyday. Which were, after all, the 1950s.

Elizabeth is a woman running a business at a time when women were expected to stay home with the children and not “worry their pretty little heads” about such things as payrolls and suppliers and invoices and contracts. She’s every bit as competent and capable as any man around her and knows they’re being stupid and ridiculous but she plays as much of the game as she must in order to get by.

And she’s very good at asserting her authority when she has to – as she all too frequently does. That she can’t assert any authority over her mother is an entirely different matter. Most of us can’t manage that particular trick no matter how necessary we feel it might be.

I loved the way this story dealt with McCarthyism and the “Red Scare” of the 1950s. The police chief’s witch hunt is bogus and everyone knows it’s bogus. At the same time everyone has to take it seriously out of fear of very real consequences.

I also enjoyed the way that this series opener creates Elizabeth’s world, the resort and it’s annual three months of frenzy, the relationships between Elizabeth and her mother and her aunt, the way she treats her employees, how she deals with the guests, including the demanding divas, and the symbiotic relationship between the resorts and the towns that they are not quite a part of.

I have to say that the focus of the story is on the worldbuilding rather than the mystery, and that works for a series opener. The red herrings are certainly tasty, but Elizabeth has so many fish to fry on an average day that her investigation gets a bit lost in the chaos. I liked her more than enough to enjoy watching her work, whether on the murder or just keeping the resort afloat.

About that thing that niggled at me.

Although this review is being posted around the publication date of the book, I actually read it back in July. On the weekend I read this one of the last of the “Borscht Belt” comedians, Jackie Mason, passed away at the age of 93. I know this seems like a non sequitur, but it’s not. Because the “Borscht Belt” where Mason and so many others honed their stand up routines was just another name for the Catskills summer resorts where this story takes place. The Catskills resorts catered to a Jewish clientele, served Kosher food and gave a lot of Jewish comedians their start or bolstered their careers.

As is mentioned in the story, Milton Berle really did perform in the Catskills. The comedian who gets caught up in the murder investigation was probably based on Lenny Bruce, who also performed there during his all-too-brief but controversial career.

At first, I couldn’t figure out what was missing at Haggerman’s, until I realized that the context of who the clients were and who many of the owners were was entirely missing. If it was subtext it was so sub that I missed it. And I feel like a lot of the flavor of the area was lost.

Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.

But I really liked Elizabeth, her family and her resort, more than enough that I’ll be back for her next Catskills season in Deadly Director’s Cut, coming next March. Just at the point where winter’s doldrums will make reading about the summer sun seem like a real getaway!

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

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Review: Unnatural Habits by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Unnatural Habits by Kerry GreenwoodUnnatural Habits (Phryne Fisher, #19) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #19
Pages: 348
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on October 1, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The decidedly raven-haired Miss Phryne Fisher returns to delve deep into the dark side of Melbourne, Australia.

It's 1929, and girls are going missing. Little, pretty golden-haired girls. And they're not just pretty. Three of them are pregnant, poor girls from the harsh confines of the Magdalene Laundry. People are getting nervous.

Polly Kettle, a pushy, self-important girl reporter with ambition and no sense of self preservation, decides to investigate and promptly goes missing herself.

It's time for Phryne and Dot to put a stop to this and find Polly Kettle before something quite irreparable happens to all of the missing girls. It's all piracy and dark cellars, convents and plots, murder and mystery...and Phryne finally finds out if it's true that blondes have more fun.

My Review:

I was looking for a book where I would sorta/kinda know what I was in for, and one in which I could sink without a trace for a few hours. I realized that I hadn’t looked in on Phryne for a while (my goodness it’s been over a year!) so I took myself off and into the next book in the series and I most definitely got exactly what I was hoping for.

The mystery, actually the multiple mysteries, in Unnatural Habits take Phryne to dark corners of Melbourne where a lesser woman would fear to tread – if she could bring herself to even acknowledge that she knew about most of them.

But Phryne doesn’t care what other people think about much of anything, including, most especially herself. So when she sees a young woman about to be beaten up by a brace of thugs in one of the less salubrious parts of town, Phryne does not hesitate even a moment to weigh up the possible consequences.

After all, she knows that her lover, Lin Chung, has assigned several of his men to keep watch over her when she travels into parts of town where angels and demons alike would fear to tread. So Phryne rescues the young woman, Lin Chung’s men “explain” to the bullyboys the error of their ways and Phryne finds herself in the middle of a case that begins with missing pregnant women not even the police are investing much effort in searching for.

When the tally of the missing grows to include actresses looking for a break, very young – and blonde – daughters of the middle class, and even the young woman Phryne rescued – who turns out to be a newspaper reporter hunting for her first big scoop – Phryne calls on her friends in some very low places indeed. Where she manages to air the dirty laundry of the princes of the church, laundry that seems to be wrapped around the mangles of the church-sponsored workhouse known as the Magdalene Laundry.

In the end, Phryne commits piracy – with more than a bit of help from Bert and Ces – in order to bring justice in a case that no one is willing to admit needed to be solved.

Escape Rating A-: Phryne Fisher is a fascinating character because her conscience is explicitly NOT the voice of society, her parents, other people or any kind of powers-that-be telling her what she SHOULD or should not be doing because she’s a woman. Or for any other reason whatsoever. Phryne does what she pleases, however she pleases, because she can. She’s been rich and she’s been poor and she’s very much aware that being rich is not only better but that it gives her license to do the necessary without worrying about anyone’s approval.

And that’s important to this case because the missing women she is looking for are so-called “fallen” women. The Magdalene Laundry was a real place, and like so many of the charitable institutions operated by the Catholic Church in many places, it was horrifically abusive. The women sent there were unwed mothers who were expected to work under slave labor conditions until they got close to their due dates, when they were shipped off to rural “lying in” homes that could be just as abusive until they gave birth. Their babies were taken away without the women’s consent and put up for adoption.  Or they were if they survived the cruel treatment inflicted upon their mothers.

That three of these women managed to escape before their babies were born isn’t a surprise. That no one seriously wants to look for them is unfortunately even less of one. The theories for their disappearance – as ludicrous as most of those theories are – cause Phryne to search among the demimonde of Melbourne to make sure that they’re not in a brothel – and equally that none of the brothels or other private houses of pleasure will be blamed for their disappearance – because both are all too possible. Likewise, no one is looking for the missing actresses, because actresses are assumed to be prostitutes whether they are or not.

That Phryne is not just acquainted with Melbourne’s fleshpots but likes the people who work in these establishments considerably more than most people of so-called “polite” parts of society is not a surprise for Phryne but certainly would be for anyone in the upper or middle classes. Part of what makes Phryne so refreshing is that her internal voice – and frequently her external one – is not just clever and witty but is unequivocally pragmatic and remarkably free of prejudice in regards to race, religion or sexual orientation. For the most part she takes people as she finds them. Her most scathing commentaries are saved for hypocrites, pretenders and fakers and I love her all the more for it.

I’m probably belaboring this point by now, but if you come to the Phryne Fisher books in the hopes of seeing more of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, you’re probably going to be disappointed. But if you’re looking at the books for a sparkling, witty historical mystery with a take-charge female protagonist who strides through her world doing her best to make it better by ignoring social norms, taking no prisoners and puncturing as many of the pomposities of the powers-that-be as she possibly can, then Phryne is still very much your cuppa.

She certainly is mine. So I’ll be back the next time I’m searching for Phryne’s particular brand of derring-do with Murder and Mendelssohn. There’s only one more book in the series (so far) after that, so I’ll be stretching this little pleasure out as far as I can stand!

Review: Write My Name Across the Sky by Barbara O’Neal + Giveaway

Review: Write My Name Across the Sky by Barbara O’Neal + GiveawayWrite My Name Across the Sky by Barbara O'Neal
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 366
Published by Lake Union Publishing on August 10, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

The USA Today bestselling author of When We Believed in Mermaids returns with a tale of two generations of women reconciling family secrets and past regrets.
Life’s beautiful for seventysomething influencer Gloria Rose, in her Upper West Side loft with rooftop garden and scores of Instagram followers—until she gets word that her old flame has been arrested for art theft and forgery. Knowing her own involvement in his misdeeds decades earlier, Gloria realizes she could be the next arrest and must flee. But first, she needs to make sure her nieces are protected from any fallout.
The sisters, though in their thirties, are still constantly at odds with each other. Willow, struggling to live up to their mother’s fame as a singer-songwriter, is recovering from a failed album and yet another heartbreak, while Sam is desperate to revive her floundering video game company.
When circumstances out of their control bring the three women back together, they will each have to reckon with and reconcile their interwoven traumas, past loves, and the looming consequences that could either destroy their futures or bring them closer than ever.

My Review:

This is the story of two pairs of sisters all of whom were, in their own ways, trailblazers. Sam and Willow are in their late 30s when this story opens. Sam was one of the first women to head her own gaming company, and one of the first to design action/adventure games specifically intended to appeal to girls. While her company was an “overnight” success 20 years ago, in internet time, 20 years is a century, and her company is floundering.

Her sister Willow is a musician, a violinist who’s most recent solo album tanked. Sank without a trace, taking her boyfriend, her current home and pretty much everything she owned down with it. Willow is a folk/electronica violinist with a unique sound who just hasn’t found the right audience. But at 35, her time couch-surfing and hoping for a big break is running out.

Gloria and her sister Billie came of age in the so-called “Swinging 60s”. Gloria was a stewardess for TWA, back in the days of Coffee, Tea or Me, when stewardesses were expected to tolerate getting groped on every flight in return for the opportunity to visit exotic places for multi-day layovers back when international travel was an expensive novelty and not an every-hour-on-the-hour occurrence.

Bille was a rock musician in the 1960s and 70s, said to be a combination of Joan Jett and Janis Joplin. Unfortunately Billie followed Janis’ trajectory all the way down to an early death, leaving her sister Gloria to raise the daughters she left behind – not that she was all that present when she was alive.

And Billie’s ghost still haunts them all when this story begins. And not just because Gloria is still living in the luxury New York apartment that Billie bought with the royalties from her first album, the place where Gloria raised her girls to adulthood and left them with a yearning to blaze their own trails.

But they’re both failing when this story begins, while Gloria is faced with the sudden failure of the facade she has been maintaining for over 50 years. The man she has loved for all of those years has finally been caught. By Interpol. Suddenly, the biggest of her youthful sins looks like it’s either going to send her on the run or land her in jail for the rest of her life.

Escape Rating A-: Let me get this out of the way first, because it drove me crazy. If the title of the book is giving you an earworm you can’t quite place, it’s because it IS a line in a song, just not the title and not exactly word for word. In the 1971 song by the Stylistics, it went “Write YOUR name across the sky…” but Billie Thorne turned it around because she’d learned from both her mother and her sister not to let anyone else define or restrict her life. Which didn’t stop the world from doing it anyway.

Like the two previous books by this author that I have read, The Art of Inheriting Secrets and When We Believed in Mermaids, this is a story about the past crashing headlong into the present, pushing all of the characters to remember people and events that they have forced into the background of their minds and hearts, until their memories crash into the same heartbreaking epiphany and they’re all finally able to move forward.

I liked this one just a tiny bit better than the previous books, although I certainly liked both of them quite a lot. But the difference in this one was the character of Gloria, who represents a different generation and an entirely different perspective on the people and events that shaped all of their lives. Because through Gloria’s memories we’re allowed to see the late Billie Thorne as she was, through the eyes of someone who was an adult at the time, and not just through the memories of the childhoods that she scarred.

This is also explicitly not a romance, although there are romances in it, and that includes 74-year-old Gloria. For both Gloria and Sam, it’s a second chance at romance, while Willow puts herself and her music first, and finds love as the reward.

As much as the story’s focus is on Sam and Willow, it was Gloria’s story that held my attention. As much as all three women are at crisis points in their lives, it was Gloria’s that brought me the most “feels”, probably because I’m closer to her age than to either of her nieces. I loved that Gloria is happy with the career she had, and has found a second act through her plants and her friends and her instagram feed and followers, because I know how that goes. At the same time, while she doesn’t handle the crisis she is faced with terribly well for most of the story, it was all too easy to slip inside her feelings of desperation, her desire to protect the ones she loves, and her acknowledgement that the long ago events that brought her to this pass were of her own making.

I certainly liked the way that all three of these women’s stories resolved themselves. Gloria faced the demons of her past. Sam found a way to silence the demons inside her head, or at least learned to stop letting them spill out of her mouth. And Willow, in learning from the stories of her mother AND her sister, played her way to the top of the world. A feel good ending all around that I hope will bring as big a smile to other readers’ faces as it did mine.

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

I’m very happy to say that I’m giving away a copy of Write My Name Across the Sky to one lucky US commenter on this tour. But some of you will hate me because the question in the rafflecopter is about songs that give you earworms and how you get rid of them, which will probably implant the song you least want stuck in your head in your brain. “It’s a Small World After All” anyone?

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Review: The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang

Review: The Heart Principle by Helen HoangThe Heart Principle (The Kiss Quotient, #3) by Helen Hoang
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance
Series: Kiss Quotient #3
Pages: 352
Published by Berkley Books on August 31, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A woman struggling with burnout learns to embrace the unexpected—and the man she enlists to help her—in this heartfelt new romance by USA Today bestselling author Helen Hoang.
When violinist Anna Sun accidentally achieves career success with a viral YouTube video, she finds herself incapacitated and burned out from her attempts to replicate that moment. And when her longtime boyfriend announces he wants an open relationship before making a final commitment, a hurt and angry Anna decides that if he wants an open relationship, then she does, too. Translation: She's going to embark on a string of one-night stands. The more unacceptable the men, the better.
That’s where tattooed, motorcycle-riding Quan Diep comes in. Their first attempt at a one-night stand fails, as does their second, and their third, because being with Quan is more than sex—he accepts Anna on an unconditional level that she has just started to understand herself. However, when tragedy strikes Anna’s family she takes on a role that she is ill-suited for, until the burden of expectations threatens to destroy her. Anna and Quan have to fight for their chance at love, but to do that, they also have to fight for themselves.

My Review:

This is an author who has been recommended to me multiple times, so I’ve tried her first book, The Kiss Quotient, and it didn’t grab me. If it’s even a bit like this book, and it probably is, after all, it was probably the intrusive family thing that wasn’t working for me. But this time, I started in the audiobook, and whether it was the format or the way that the female protagonist’s perspective worked its way into my head, this time it stuck.

Also, I was looking for a fluffy read after the earlier books this week, and at the beginning of The Heart Principle, in the section titled “Before”, I was kind of getting that vibe, and really getting into the story.

So I switched to the ebook because I was into it and wanted to experience more of the fluff I thought I was getting a whole lot faster. By the time I hit the “During” section, where the story switches from being a bit sharp but still a bit fluffy, to the hard, painful, heartbreaking part in the middle, I was completely hooked.

This is Anna Sun’s story. And it’s Quan Diep’s story. It begins as a bit of a 21st century meet cute, but with some very hard edges to it, edges that at first make it interesting, then make it tragic, and end up making it real.

Anna and Quan meet because they used a dating app to arrange a one-night stand. Which doesn’t sound terribly romantic – or even cute. Anna’s looking for a way to break herself out of her rut and get back at her douchecanoe boyfriend who has just declared that he needs to “explore his options” before they settle down and get married.

Anna doesn’t do what many readers will want her to do, which is tell the asshat to go take a long walk on a short pier – they’re in San Francisco so there should be one readily available – or otherwise go straight to hell and don’t look back. But Anna is the ultimate people pleaser, and she can’t make herself say no to his face. Nor can she face disappointing either her parents or his by breaking up with him. She’s so used to masking what she thinks and feels in order to make the people around her happy that she freezes and acquiesces, just as she always does. To everyone.

Even her therapist, who honestly can’t help Anna unless Anna can manage to be honest instead of saying what she thinks her therapist wants to hear.

Anna is trapped in a prison of her own making, she can’t get out and she’s drowning in the words that she never lets herself say. The dating app and the one-night stand are Anna’s attempt to be her real self in a situation where the stakes are relatively low, because she won’t feel the crushing obligation to please a person she plans to never see again.

Meanwhile, Quan needs to get back into his usual routine, which seems to have included a lot of casual sex, after being out of circulation for two years being successfully treated for testicular cancer. He’s well, he’s recovered, and he’s minus one ball. Which makes him more than a bit hesitant about baring himself to someone. For him, a one-night-stand is supposed to be a low stakes way of getting back in the game.

Instead of one and done, Anna and Quan text, talk, meet but never quite make it all the way. Not all the way to sex anyway. Instead, they make it all the way into each other’s hearts and lives.

Just in time for Anna’s world to come crashing down.

Escape Rating A-: This may be what some of my reading friends call “sad fluff”. Anna and Quan’s slowly developing relationship, as it wraps its tentacles around the two of them, is pretty fluffy. But so much of what happens outside that cocoon is hard, sad, heartbreaking or all of the above.

I also have to say that this hit me hard on multiple levels. The ultra-intrusive family is a trigger for me, as is dealing with the death of one’s dad, and this story has both of those elements. I think I was able to read far enough to get into this because the oppressive intrusiveness of Anna’s family is kept at one remove for the first section of the story. Anna knows that spending too much time with her parents or her sister, where they expect her to be quiet and subservient every second, is so wearing that she avoids them as much as possible so she doesn’t have to confront either their behavior toward her or her regression practically into childhood while with them.

Quan’s issues are upfront, not just with other people but within his own head. He doesn’t need to lie to himself or pretend to be someone or something he’s not. He has reasonable fears and worries, about his health, about whether a new lover will accept him or reject him, and about how the long-term results of his illness and treatment will affect his life and options.

Anna has spent her whole life hiding her real self from other people, because she learned early on that her real self wasn’t a safe person for her to be. But she’s been doing it so long and so well that she’s also hiding herself from herself. To the point that now she’s losing control of her masks and losing her joy in the things that once made her heart sing.

Her father’s sudden illness, her family’s assumptions that her father would want to be kept alive under conditions where he has no hope of recovery and no control of his life or bodily autonomy, and that Anna, her sister and her mother must handle 100% of his 24 hours per day medical care all by themselves pretty much breaks her, both because she knows it’s not what her father wants and because he’s dying and they’re not letting go and because her sister simply refuses to see the toll it’s taking on all of them.

The “After” section of the story, was, on the one hand, marvelously cathartic. Anna needed to take control of her own life, and she finally begins that process, but the story does an excellent job of showing exactly why it’s so difficult for her and just how many steps back she HAS to take before she can move forward. Quan read as just a bit too good to be true at this point, not that Anna didn’t deserve a real prince of a partner after dealing with her asshat ex for entirely too long. And the bitterness of the “During” middle part of the book needed some sugar to sweeten up the ending.

Obviously I liked this book more than well enough to try this author again, possibly in audio to get me past the “intrusive family is intrusive” hump. I didn’t realize until after I finished that The Heart Principle is the third book in a series that begins with The Kiss Quotient and middles with The Bride Test. The stories are linked, not through the female protagonist, but through the male protagonists. Quan’s cousin, best friend and business partner Michael is the hero of the first book, and his older brother Khai is the center of the second. So the connection is fairly loose and clearly you don’t have to have read the first two to get into this one. But now that I know that I’m pretty sure I’ll be back!