Review: Dead Man Stalking by TA Moore + Excerpt + Giveaway

Review: Dead Man Stalking by TA Moore + Excerpt + GiveawayDead Man Stalking (Blood and Bone #1) by T.A. Moore
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: M/M romance, paranormal, urban fantasy, vampires
Series: Blood and Bone #1
Pages: 266
Published by Dreamspinner Press LLC on September 10, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A Blood and Bone Novel
Agent Luke Bennett proved that humans could rise just as high in the ranks as their vampire colleagues—until a kidnapper held him captive for a year and turned him without his consent.

Now he’s Took: a reluctant monster afraid to bite anyone, broke, and about to be discharged from his elite BITERs unit.

When an old colleague suggests he consult on a BITERs case, Took has little to lose. The case is open and shut… but nothing is ever that easy. As he digs deeper, he discovers a lot more than one cold case is at stake, and if he wants to solve this one, he’ll need the help of the BITERs team. Even if that brings his old commander, Madoc, back into his life.

My Review:

Dead Man Stalking was a terrific reminder of what makes urban fantasy one of my go-to genres, especially when I’m in a reading slump and need to be knocked out of it! Because this one really knocked me out of my slump – and knocked one out of the park into the bargain.

As with the best of the genre, this is a story that turns some of the usually accepted paradigms around, as it makes heroes out of groups that are normally villains – and vice versa. It’s also, as so much of urban fantasy is, a detective story, where our “cops” have to investigate a series of crimes and figure out who, or what “dunnit.”

Of course, things are not as they seem, and not just because the cops in this case are vampires – not that they call themselves that.

Instead, we have a case that the investigators are positive is all sewn up, and a profiler who no longer trusts his own judgment poking his nose into that case and discovering that either the investigators missed something or that he’s further off the rails than he thought.

Took, formerly Luke, Bennett used to be the best profiler in the agency, until he was betrayed by someone he trusted, held captive for over a year, and changed from one of the few successful humans in the agency into shaky vampire who believes he’s lost his nerve.

Which doesn’t stop him from investigating that supposedly open-and-shut case, and doesn’t stop his former boss – and would-be lover – from racing across the country to get his ass out of the fire yet again.

And again.

Leading both of them deep into a case that gets darker and nastier the deeper they get into it. And exposes more of the fault lines in the trust between them as they dig under the surface of what they feel for each other.

Escape Rating A-: This was an absolute blast – a terrific way to spend a lazy afternoon, lost in a fascinating world, following a deadly investigation and a romance that shifts from cold to hot in the blink of an eye. And the whole world catches fire.

I didn’t even mind the cat on my chest holding me in place. He was doing me a favor, after all, providing an excuse for my reading binge.

One of the things I loved about this one was the way that history had worked in this alternative to our own. The way that the vampires (and werewolves) had always existed, and how that changed history, felt reminiscent of some of my favorites in the genre, like Sookie, and Pentonville, the Black Dagger Brotherhood and surprisingly, The Others.

Several of those series wrap around the idea that vamps have always not just walked among us, but run things either covertly or overtly. Also that vampire politics and vampire grudges are both epic and eternal.

And from The Others, that concept that “original recipe” humans are really hard-headed about their own superiority, in spite of repeated evidence to the contrary.

There’s a sense in Dead Man Stalking that we’ve been dropped into the middle of a case – only because we have – and into the midst of a fully realized world. I kept wanting a bit more background on who the players in the shadows are, and how things got to be the way they are. Although the introduction of the historical figure Elizabeth Bathory certainly added weight and depth and horror to that shadowy history. It’s something I’d love to see more of in future entries in the series.

I keep referring to Dead Man Stalking as urban fantasy, even though sometimes it gets referred to as paranormal romance. Yes, there is a romance, but it doesn’t feel like the center of the story. The case felt like the backbone of this one, at least to me. Your mileage may vary.

Whatever you think is the heart of this one, whether it’s an actual romantic heart or the kind that gets cut out by one’s enemies, Dead Man Stalking is compelling and absorbing and I can’t wait for the next book in the Blood and Bone series. This is a world I want to explore more deeply, and in the company of these characters.

A Few Words from our author, T.A. Moore!

First of all, thank you so much for having me! I’m thrilled to be here with my new urban fantasy Dead Man Stalking. This is the first book in the Blood and Bone series and I am thrilled to put it out there into the world. I was meant to be writing an entirely different book, but then Took and Madoc took up residence in my head and I had to give in and let them have their say.

I had a blast creating this world and these characters, and I hope you enjoy them too. I’ve included a chapter of a prequel short story that you can follow through the blog tour. 

Chapter Eight

“Henry stayed out of the field,” Kit said harshly to Madoc. “And he, at least, had magic to fall back on.”

The door to Nina’s house opened and the coroner’s assistants carried her out, wrapped in black plastic and padlocked down with silver to the stretcher. Just in case. Silver would kill a vampire, but something would occasionally move into what was left. It might mimic who they’d been before–whatever it could piece together from the brain tissue left–but it was generally agreed the revenants were other.

Luke rinsed his mouth and spat green and pink froth into a bowl. The wintergreen didn’t mask the taste of blood so much as mix with it, sharp and potent like salt on minted lamb. He rubbed his jaw and pressed on the tender points around his jaw. It was jarred, but not dislocated.

“If he had a year to prepare, he could bring a dragon to tinkle on them,” Luke said. “Maybe.”

 It was unfair. Slightly. By repute Henry had been a dangerous man, but sorcery was high investment for small returns. It was why the scholomance existed despite sorcerers being as community minded as a spoiled house cat. Five sorcerers could bundle their spells and flood a city to execute a man they’d arranged to be stranded there with a woman he couldn’t resist. It would still take a year.

“You could have been killed,” Kit said. He grabbed the back of Luke’s head and shoved him around to look at his reflection in the mirror. The shadows of fresh bruises bloomed grey and red over Luke’s jaw and cheek. “Are you really so arrogant you can’t see that.”

Enough,” Madoc said icily. “Go and make sure Nina’s consort doesn’t do anything foolish.”

“I need to speak to him,” Luke said as he scrambled up off the tailgate of the ambulance. “Before he goes to the hospital.”

Madoc put a hand on his shoulder and pinned him in place. “He doesn’t want to see you right now.”

Probably not, Luke supposed, but… “It’s important.”

“Give him time to grieve,” Madoc said. “Kit? Go.”

He waited until Kit grumbled and stalked off. Then he put his thumb under Madoc’s jaw and turned his head around to study the bruise. “You’ll ache tomorrow.”

“I ache now,” Luke said. He swallowed and moved away from the too-careful touch. “I know how the killer is.”

“Dead, surely,” Madoc said as he glanced after Nina. “She choose her own punishment.”

“It wasn’t her,” Luke said. Habit made him check his holster and he hissed in annoyance as his fingers found empty leather and nylon. The local cops had taken his gun when they got there. It wasn’t how they did it, but it generally wasn’t a good idea to argue with anxious, trigger happy police officers alarmed that you’d blown off someone’s entire head. Madoc reached around and pulled a gun out of the back of his jeans. He offered it up on the palm of his hand. “She was just…”

Scared. Angry. Threatened.

Luke took the gun. He checked it over briskly, made sure it was loaded and the safety was on, before it holstered it. 

“I made a mistake,” he said stiffly. The words felt like gravel in his throat. “I pushed when I should have pulled, and she caught me off guard. It shouldn’t have been necessary to kill her.”

“But you did,” Madoc said.

Luke gave him a puzzled look. “At that point it was necessary.”

“Why not here?” Madoc asked. “Jamie got over-possessive, thought a midnight snack meant a commitment and pressured her. She’d lived here for a long time. Anakim that entrenched can react extremely to any threat to their nest.”

“I got that,” Luke said. He rubbed his jaw. “But what about the others?”

“Senescence,” Madoc said. Vampire senility. “Maybe she didn’t have a reason.”

Luke shook his head. “No one kills without a reason,” he said. “We might not think it is a good reason, but it’s still a reason to them.”

Madoc looked exasperated. “So you came out, executed the daughter of the Tsar’s favourite, and it was all for nothing?”

“No,” Luke said. “Nina was involved, she just didn’t know how. When can I talk to Darren?”

“Tomorrow.”

Luke made a sound of protest in his throat.

“Fine, when he’s ready,” Madoc conceded. “Let him grieve first.”

Luke shrugged an apology. “That might be too late,” he said. “I need to talk to him now.”

Not that he’d be able to if Madoc decided to stop him. He waited and, after a second, Madoc shook his head and stepped aside. Luke jogged over to where Darren, coffee all over his trousers, sat under Kit’s awkward sympathy. When Darren saw Luke he snarled and tried to lurch to his feet. Kit pushed him back down and gave Luke an exasperated look.

“Jamie,” Luke said. “Tomas, Bray, Loretta”

“What about them?” Darren asked bitterly. “Are you going to shoot them too?”

Luke bit the ‘someone beat us to it’ off the tip of his tongue. “They were all mules, right?”

Colour pinched Darren’s cheeks. “UnKissable,” he said bitterly. “Resistant. Mules are animals.”

“You all met at a support group right?” Luke said. He barely waited for Darren’s resentful noise before he pressed on. “And someone there introduced you to Nina right,, you and Jamie both?”

It took a moment for Darren to answer. When he did, he sounded wary. “We don’t talk about who we meet there.”

Of course not. Being a mule was somewhere between being a saint and being a leper. The Pentecostals saw them as souls too pure to be condemned in life, the rogues saw them as nothing but cattle, and the Anakim pitied them. Any of the above was an awkward place to live. So first names only, and if you had the means you’d attend a support group away from where you lived.

“So yes.”

Darren glared at him but, after a quick wary glance at Kit, reluctantly nodded.

“Who introduced you?” 

“Why do you care?”

Luke changed direction. “You were her favourite, the consort. She gave you somewhere to live, she let you drink her blood, she let you love her.” 

Most mules found out what they were when they tried to court the Kiss, and it didn’t take. It usually ended badly. The Anakim didn’t care to love anything that would die centuries before they did. Darren took a shaky breath as the grief pinched him again.

“But she liked variety, so then Jamie came along. Nina gave him money to keep himself nice, to come and see her. More money. More visits. Until you and Jamie fought over her. He wanted to take your place?”

“I didn’t kill him,” Darren protested. He stiffened under Kit’s hand as his voice pitched up an octave from nerves. “Jamie was…After he left Nina told me she loved me, that she’d not replace me!”

Except she would have. Eventually. She’d been willing to kill for Darren today, but one day he’d have been too old to be beautiful, then too old to be fun. She might keep him, a fond friend and ex-loved, but someone new would be in her bed. Even if she’d stayed with him when he was old, he’d die and she’d need to find a new mule to love.

“What if she had?” Luke pressed. “What if Nina had gotten tired of you, replaced you with someone younger and prettier. Would you still have loved her?”

“Of course!”

“Would you be willing to do anything to get her back?”

They both knew the answer. Darren stared at Luke for a second as the idea dawned on him. Then he shut down as he clenched his jaw and looked away.

“Fuck you.”

“Who introduced you?” Luke pushed.

“You killed her!” Darren spat furiously. He lurched up out and tried to grab Luke’s shirt, but Kit dragged him back. “I hope you’re next to get strung up.”

“More likely to be you,” Luke said. “The old wether. Like Jamie was the rutting stag and Loretta was the fish.”

Grief crumpled Darren’s face like a tissue. “I don’t care,” he said. “I can’t do this again.”

Shit. Luke grimaced as he tried to think how to drag the truth out of Darren. Before he could change tactics, Madoc put a hand on his shoulder.

“Wait,” he said. He moved Luke out of the way and crouched down in front of Darren. He smiled at him, a disarmingly pleasant expression. “Darren, right. Darren Voight-Kares.”

Darren fired a bleak look of triumph at Luke, as if that changed anything.

“Yes.”

Madoc put a hand on Darren’s voice and dropped his voice slightly, a hint of his old accent furred over the words. 

“You’ll be the executor of her estate, there’ll be a lot of things to sort out. We’ll help you with that, if you want,” Madoc said. He nodded and Darren nodded with him. Then Madoc grimaced. “If we can. Until we find this killer, there’s not a lot of time we can give up.”

Luke shifted his weight uncomfortably. He wasn’t sure he didn’t agree with Madoc’s plan, or was just uncomfortable at seeing that charm turned elsewhere. Kit gestured him to silence.

“I..need help,” Darren admitted. “Her family. The Russians.”

His hands knotted anxiously in his lap, twisted painfully together.

“What was his name?” Madoc asked, his voice suddenly hard and thick with something that caught in the back of Luke’s throat. “The man that introduced you. Tell us.”

“Mark,” Darren said obediently. Then he stalled. “I don’t know anymore than that. Just Mark.”

Luke shifted again and glanced askance at Madoc. After a glance at Darren’s face, Madoc gave Luke a nod of approval to rejoin the conversation.

“He’d been a soldier, right?” Luke said. That fit his profile. Someone who was willing to kill, but who balked at the hot gore of butchery. “That’s where he found out what he was?”

There was a pause and then Darren nodded. “He was wounded, lost half his stomach. One of the medic Anakim tried to turn him, save his life, but it didn’t work. They thought he’d die, but he survived. Discharged. Came home. Nina helped him put his life back together, set him up in a job.”

“What job?”

Darren shrugged. “I don’t know. A security company or something? It doesn’t matter because he messed it up anyhow, lost everything. Nina had to step in again, get him a job as a security guard somewhere.”

The pieces slotted together. “Mark,” Luke said. He remembered the ginger security guard, wiry muscle under a fresh layer of indulgent flab. But still there. “Mark Clade?”

Darren made a helpless gesture. “I don’t know. I guess,” he said. “Nina called him last night about Jamie, told him that she didn’t need the support group anymore. She had me.”

And that meant Mark only had one thing left. So he wasn’t going to give that up.

__________

Last chapter of the story on my blog tomorrow! Www.tamoorewrites.com. All the blog tour posts will also be linked here: http://tamoorewrites.com/deadmanstalking/

Author Bio:TA Moore – 

TA Moore is a Northern Irish writer of romantic suspense, urban fantasy, and contemporary romance novels. A childhood in a rural, seaside town fostered in her a suspicious nature, a love of mystery, and a streak of black humour a mile wide. As her grandmother always said, ‘she’d laugh at a bad thing that one’, mind you, that was the pot calling the kettle black. TA Moore studied History, Irish mythology, English at University, mostly because she has always loved a good story. She has worked as a journalist, a finance manager, and in the arts sectors before she finally gave in to a lifelong desire to write.

Coffee, Doc Marten boots, and good friends are the essential things in life. Spiders, mayo, and heels are to be avoided.

 

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Review: The Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White

Review: The Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen WhiteThe Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, Karen White
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 408
Published by William Morrow on September 4, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the New York Times bestselling authors of The Forgotten Room comes a captivating historical mystery, infused with romance, that links the lives of three women across a century—two deep in the past, one in the present—to the doomed passenger liner, RMS Lusitania.

May 2013Her finances are in dire straits and bestselling author Sarah Blake is struggling to find a big idea for her next book. Desperate, she breaks the one promise she made to her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother and opens an old chest that belonged to her great-grandfather, who died when the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat in 1915. What she discovers there could change history. Sarah embarks on an ambitious journey to England to enlist the help of John Langford, a recently disgraced Member of Parliament whose family archives might contain the only key to the long-ago catastrophe. . . .

April 1915Southern belle Caroline Telfair Hochstetter’s marriage is in crisis. Her formerly attentive industrialist husband, Gilbert, has become remote, pre-occupied with business . . . and something else that she can’t quite put a finger on. She’s hoping a trip to London in Lusitania’s lavish first-class accommodations will help them reconnect—but she can’t ignore the spark she feels for her old friend, Robert Langford, who turns out to be on the same voyage. Feeling restless and longing for a different existence, Caroline is determined to stop being a bystander, and take charge of her own life. . . .

Tessa Fairweather is traveling second-class on the Lusitania, returning home to Devon. Or at least, that’s her story. Tessa has never left the United States and her English accent is a hasty fake. She’s really Tennessee Schaff, the daughter of a roving con man, and she can steal and forge just about anything. But she’s had enough. Her partner has promised that if they can pull off this one last heist aboard the Lusitania, they’ll finally leave the game behind. Tess desperately wants to believe that, but Tess has the uneasy feeling there’s something about this job that isn’t as it seems. . . .

As the Lusitania steams toward its fate, three women work against time to unravel a plot that will change the course of their own lives . . . and history itself.

My Review:

The Glass Ocean is the braided story of three women, separated by time, place, class or all of the above, whose lives are roiled by the wake of the RMS Lusitania, struck by a torpedo from a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915.

As with the previous book by the Team W, The Forgotten Room, the story of The Glass Ocean slips from character to character – from woman to woman – as the reader experiences each perspective and follows the treasure hunt as all three of the stories finally come together.

And the truth sets them all free. Freedom from obscurity in the past, and freedom from heartbreak and loss in the present.

In exploring the truth about her great-grandfather, a steward on the RMS Lusitania, Sarah thinks that she’s going to be writing a spy thriller – if not the biography of a man who wrote spy thrillers. But as we follow her on her treasure hunt through the life and archives of Robert Langford, a passenger on the Lusitania and the author of spy thrillers that Sarah thinks were even better than Ian Fleming’s, we also see those pivotal events on board the Lusitania through the eyes of two women who both loved him.

The story that Sarah thinks she’s looking for is not the one she finds. But that’s the one that she writes. And in the writing of it, she brings the lives and accomplishments of two fascinating women back into the light of day.

And rescues herself along the way.

Escape Rating A-: Today, as this review is posted, is the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. This book is an oddly appropriate read for today, as the sinking of the Lusitania and 9/11 were both human-created disasters that were intended to start a war. And both did, after their different fashions.

If you are interested in reading more about the Lusitania, I highly recommend – as does Team W in the afterword of The Glass Ocean, Dead Wake by Erik Larson. Dead Wake is the best kind of narrative nonfiction, in other words, a true story that reads as compellingly as if it were a novel.

But The Glass Ocean, like Dead Wake, confines itself to events that take place aboard the ocean liner, or that occurred to its survivors in the aftermath. The reader can and does speculate about the surrounding politics, but the story is the story of the doomed ship and what happened after.

While Caroline’s and Tess’ stories are part of that fateful voyage, Sarah’s is the story of the aftermath – nearly 100 years in the aftermath. I found Sarah’s story to be the most compelling – but then she’s the one doing the historical research. I always love the treasure hunt aspect of this kind of story, where the clues are revealed, sometimes slowly and carefully, and sometimes by “Eureka!” – and there are plenty of moments of both kinds in Sarah’s search.

Sarah’s story feels “present”, while Caroline’s and Tess’ stories feel almost as though they are leading the reader to the story behind those clues. And I was guessing right along with Sarah, sometimes, but not always correctly.

Part of what makes this so much fun is the way that in both time periods both end up as just the kind of spy thriller that Robert Langford used to write. Someone betrayed the Lusitania to the Germans. Someone smuggled a critical munitions formula on board the ship. Someone wanted to sell it to the Germans. Someone wanted to secure it for the British.

And over 1,000 people died for it.

But when Sarah unearths those secrets, she finds much more than she ever bargained for. Whether or not she’ll be able to keep what she’s found is a journey that is well-worth taking with her.

TLC
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Review: Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews

Review: Sapphire Flames by Ilona AndrewsSapphire Flames (Hidden Legacy, #4) by Ilona Andrews
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Hidden Legacy #4
Pages: 393
Published by Avon on August 27, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From #1 New York Times bestselling author Ilona Andrew comes an enthralling new trilogy set in the Hidden Legacy world, where magic means power, and family bloodlines are the new currency of society…

In a world where magic is the key to power and wealth, Catalina Baylor is a Prime, the highest rank of magic user, and the Head of her House. Catalina has always been afraid to use her unique powers, but when her friend’s mother and sister are murdered, Catalina risks her reputation and safety to unravel the mystery.

But behind the scenes powerful forces are at work, and one of them is Alessandro Sagredo, the Italian Prime who was once Catalina’s teenage crush. Dangerous and unpredictable, Alessandro’s true motives are unclear, but he’s drawn to Catalina like a moth to a flame.

To help her friend, Catalina must test the limits of her extraordinary powers, but doing so may cost her both her House–and her heart.

My Review:

Sapphire Flames represents a pivot in direction for this series, after the events in Diamond Fire. The focus has shifted from Nevada Baylor, the heroine of the first three marvelous books (Burn for Me, White Hot and Wildfire) to her sister Catalina Baylor, now the Prime of House Baylor.

The shift was necessary on multiple levels. First, the whole point of Diamond Fire was wrapped around Nevada finally marrying Connor Rogan, Prime of House Rogan. And possibly the only person who could really outstubborn Nevada – and vice versa.

But that means that Nevada has found her happy ever after – for occasionally explosive definitions of all the words in that phrase. She can only be loyal to one House. Not only is it natural for her to switch her primary focus to Rogan, but she and Rogan are still cleaning up the high-stakes political mess that brought them together in the first place.

So sister Catalina is now the Prime for House Baylor, a fledgling House that consists of her youngest sister – the next Prime – and the rest of their family including their mother and grandmother. This is a world where the Head of Household status rests with the person with the most supernatural power – and that’s neither of the women in the previous generations.

That family tug of war between Catalina needing to step up and be Prime and her mother and grandmother still having family power over her as the women who raised her is just one of the many interesting tensions that arises in this story, the first of what looks like a trilogy (at least) of books focusing on Catalina.

Catalina is in a similar position to the one that Nevada occupied in Burn for Me. She’s suddenly in charge of the family, forced to make decisions that affect everyone who depends on her, and isn’t sure that she’s the right person for the job that she doesn’t actually want anyway. And, to cap it off, she’s stuck working with a man who pushes all her buttons – of every possible kind – and who wants to take care of everything for her so that she doesn’t have to worry her pretty little head about it.

Not quite. More in the sense the the very Prime (in multiple senses of THAT work) Alessandro Sagredo, when he can’t manage to warn Catalina away from a case that will involve her House in warfare above their paygrade and way over their capabilities, offers to take care of things for her in order to keep her and hers out of the inevitable crossfire.

But that has never been the way that the Baylors roll. The pay their bills, they honor their contracts and they always get their man. Eventually.

Escape Rating A-: I have loved all of the previous books in this series, so I was thrilled to see that it was being continued with another of the Baylor sisters.

Part of what makes it so much fun is that it sits right on the border between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, but with a science fictional twist. In this near future, there has not always been magic in the world. But there sure has been science. And that’s how magic came into this world, via science.

Somebody invented a superhero/supersoldier/supervillain formula, and just like any other arms race, every country on the planet decided that their needed their own super-army. But, and there’s always a but in cases like this, those super-people had powers that could not be contained by any government – and those powers bred true.

Decades later, the formula is supposed to be under wraps, and those with powers, the Houses, exist not so much above the law as outside it. And that’s where this story comes in.

House Baylor has just begun as a House. The process from forming a House to surviving as a House is long, arduous and deadly. Few survive intact and independent. A narrow path that Catalina is determined to walk.

But when a friend comes to her for help, she can’t refuse. No matter how dangerous or how high the cost. At first it seems, while not cut and dried, fairly standard for House politics. Nasty, dirty, deadly, but for all that business as usual among the Houses.

Until Catalina kicks over the anthills, and discovers not just entire companies filled with assassins for hire, but an actual threat not just to the houses, but to the world itself. Someone has opened the Pandora’s Box of the super-formula, and it’s up to Catalina to stop it. And to stop herself from falling for the one man who seems to be able to resist her quite literal siren’s allure.

As always in this series, political machinations are simply war by other means, and as dirty as they come. Catalina, just like Nevada before her, shines as a character who is willing to play the game, but still manages to compromise herself but so far and no further. She’s a survivor, but there are lines that she just will not cross. Watching her figure out what those lines are adds depth to a character that began the series as a shy, retiring little wallflower, but who now commands the stage, even as she’s not sure she’s ready for the role she’s been thrust into.

At the same time that Catalina stands more clearly in the light, Alessandro steps even deeper into the shadows. Who he really is, what truly motivates him, is obviously just a part of what will be revealed in future entries in the series.

And I can’t wait to read them.

Review: Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone

Review: Empress of Forever by Max GladstoneEmpress of Forever by Max Gladstone, Natalie Naudus
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 480
Published by Audible Audio, Tor Books on June 18, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A wildly successful innovator to rival Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, Vivian Liao is prone to radical thinking, quick decision-making, and reckless action. On the eve of her greatest achievement, she tries to outrun people who are trying to steal her success. In the chilly darkness of a Boston server farm, she sets her ultimate plan into motion. A terrifying instant later, she is catapulted through space and time to a far future where she confronts a destiny stranger and more deadly than she could ever imagine. The end of time is ruled by an ancient, powerful Empress who blesses or blasts entire planets with a single thought. Rebellion is literally impossible to consider--until Vivian Liao arrives. Trapped between the Pride—a ravening horde of sentient machines—and a fanatical sect of warrior monks who call themselves the Mirrorfaith, Viv must rally a strange group of allies to confront the Empress and find a way back to the world and life she left behind.

My Review:

Empress of Forever is an intergalactic space romp with a lot of interesting things to say – and a whole lot of fun to read.

Part of that fun is in the person of its heroine, Vivian Liao. In the story’s near-future opening, Vivian reads like a combination of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all rolled into one hard-driving steamroller of a ball. Vivian is a rich and successful tech genius who may be distant from her friends but puts her money where her mouth is when it comes to her political viewpoints.

She’s made a lot of enemies, showing up the forces of the status quo for the greedy scumbags that they are. As the story begins, Vivian is on the verge of her greatest triumph. But she knows that it’s all just part of the show, to set her up for her greatest fall.

Vivian has a plan. Vivian always has a plan. She plans to wipe herself out of all the all-seeing eyes and all-knowing databases that her companies have created – and start again. In a new place, under a new name, building a new fortune.

Until her desperate raid of a Boston super-server farm brings her to the attention of the Empress of a galaxy-spanning empire that Vivian had no idea was even out there. A crystal jade goddess who literally plucks Vivian’s heart out of her chest and extracts her from the world she knows.

Vivian wakes up inside a viscous bubble, trapped in a world that might be the future. Or might be parallel. But is certainly deadly – and she has no way out except through the Empress who grabbed her in the first place.

So Vivian Liao does what she always does – she goes forward. Even when she has no idea where that forward will lead. She’ll figure it out. She always does. No matter what it costs. Or already has.

Escape Rating A-: I had an absolute ball with this. This was one of those books that I picked up in audio and was extremely glad I did. The story is told from Vivian’s first-person perspective, so we’re inside her head the whole way. And what a wild way it is.

The reviews are comparing Empress of Forever to Guardians of the Galaxy – albeit with a feminist bent. I’m not sure that comparison does either work justice.

Vivian certainly does collect a “Scooby Gang” of her very own, and some of the gang are a bit – or in one case much, much more than a bit – outside the law. And there’s a lot of manic humor in both stories. But Guardians has way more light-heartedness at its core (at least in the first movie) than Empress ever does. The humor in Empress has much more of a gallows tinge to it.

After all, the fate of the universe is at stake – even if Vivian doesn’t know it at first.

Then again, there’s a whole lot that Vivian doesn’t know at first, at second, or sometimes even at all. She is very much a fish out of water in this story – and we’re right there with her. For most of the story, she’s not sure whether the universe she has been thrust into is the future of the world she knew – or exists parallel to it. Either is possible, and both are completely alien to her.

She finds herself at the head of her little gang of outlaws, rather like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, trying to find her way home. But this is not a dream – and home isn’t quite what she thought it was.

Vivian thinks she’s trying to find a way back, but what she really does is find her way to friendship, one misfit at a time – with herself the biggest misfit of them all. Along the way, she tours this strange new galaxy that she has been thrust into, discovering both wonders and terrors, and learning so many ways that things have gone wrong.The story of Vivian’s exploration is a tour de force of as many SF tropes as the author could squeeze into one madcap adventure. It worked for this reader, but you have to be of the persuasion that too much of a good thing is wonderful, and not every reader is.

Instead of Guardians of the Galaxy, the story that Empress of Forever reminds me of the most is the Doctor Who episode Turn Left. This is a story where we get to see what would happen if one character made one seemingly insignificant choice differently – and the universe goes to hell in a handbasket.

The Empress is searching for an alternative to her own future, because her present has creatures like the Reapers in the Mass Effect Universe eradicating every galactic civilization that reaches a certain level of technological achievement being absorbed by the rapacious aliens – and they’re coming for the Empress.

Vivian has met the enemy, and to paraphrase the immortal words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “we have met the enemy and she is us.” I figured this out relatively early on, but was happy to settle in for the wild ride. What made this story special is that the big reveal was not the ending – only a spur to Vivian to go onward to a conclusion that I did not expect.

Vivian has the possibility of success because she turned left. It’s not the technological solution that the Empress expected to find. Instead it’s the human solution that she rejected long, long ago.

Like the Joe Cocker song made famous by the Beatles, Vivian gets by with a little help from her friends, because she finally figures out that she needs somebody to love. That home is where the heart is, and that she has one after all.

Review: Spaceside by Michael Mammay

Review: Spaceside by Michael MammaySpaceside (Planetside #2) by Michael Mammay
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction, space opera
Series: Planetside #2
Pages: 368
Published by Harper Voyager on August 27, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A military legend is caught in the web between alien intrigue and human subterfuge…

Following his mission on Cappa, Colonel Carl Butler returns to a mixed reception. To some he is a do-or-die war hero. To the other half of the galaxy he’s a pariah. Forced into retirement, he has resettled on Talca Four where he’s now Deputy VP of Corporate Security, protecting a high-tech military company on the corporate battlefield—at least, that’s what the job description says. Really, he’s just there to impress clients and investors. It’s all relatively low risk—until he’s entrusted with new orders. A breach of a competitor’s computer network has Butler’s superiors feeling every bit as vulnerable. They need Butler to find who did it, how, and why no one’s taken credit for the ingenious attack.

As accustomed as Butler is to the reality of wargames—virtual and otherwise—this one screams something louder than a simple hack. Because no sooner does he start digging when his first contact is murdered, the death somehow kept secret from the media. As a prime suspect, he can’t shake the sensation he’s being watched…or finally succumbing to the stress of his past. Paranoid delusion or dangerous reality, Butler might be onto something much deeper than anyone imagined. But that’s where Butler thrives.

If he hasn’t signed his own death warrant.

My Review:

Old soldiers never die, they just fade away. Unless they’ve become well-known but officially exonerated mass murderers. Then they become pointed-at pariahs.

Spaceside is set two years after the events in the totally awesome Planetside. Events that left Colonel Carl Butler forcibly retired, reluctantly divorced, and completely alone on Talca 4, with a cushy job at a mega-corporation that conducts corporate bonding retreats using one of their marquee products, Battlesim!

Also utterly bored, majorly depressed, and drinking way, way too much. He searching for oblivion, but after everything he’s done, it’s not merely elusive, it’s downright non-existent.

Then his boss gives him a mission. He’s supposed to investigate a security breach. Someone hacked their biggest rival, and stole data about a project so secret that no one is willing to admit the hack even happened, let alone what got hacked.

Butler’s no computer whiz, but one of his former soldiers certainly is. And she’s working in the bowels of the same place that he is. Calling in some favors from a former subordinate is easy. Finding a friend of a friend working at that rival company isn’t even that difficult.

Until his source ends up dead. The cops want to pin it on Butler, not because he did it, but because they know he’s hiding something – and they want to know what that something is.

Butler’s hiding a lot, including the fact that he’s started seeing ghosts of the people he killed on Cappa following him around Talca. Where there aren’t supposed to be any Cappans. There aren’t supposed to be any Cappans anywhere off Cappa. After all, his mission in Planetside ended with him bombing Cappa back to the stone age – or so he thought. The events that resulted in his current status as retired, mass-murdering pariah.

It turns out that nothing is as he thought. Not that the old soldier expected anything different. Or better.

After all, he’s gone into every mission he’s ever done knowing that it might be his last. And more than a few where he thought he might get stabbed in the back.

He just never figured on a shot at redemption before the end. Maybe even his end.

Escape Rating A-: The dry, wry, universe-weary voice of Carl Butler carries this story from its mundane beginning to its mic drop end. Told from Butler’s first-person perspective, we are inside his head every step of the way. His internal dialog around and about just how he ended up in this mess, his doubts and fears, makes the reader feel for him as well as with him.

Which makes it easy to get wrapped up in his stubborn refusal to drop an investigation that takes him into dark and deep places – and circles back around to everything that went wrong on Cappa. His ghosts come back to life, but this time they want his help rather than his death. At least some of them do.

It’s his corporate bosses who are in up to their greedy necks in shenanigans that they are willing to kill to keep from seeing the light of day. And they have no problems setting Butler up for the fall – after all, he’s done it before.

It’s Butler’s dogged perseverance that keeps the investigation – and the story – rattling along. Saber-rattling, that is, both figurative and literal.

What makes Butler such a marvelous protagonist is that the old soldier has no intention of being a hero – because he knows that’s mostly bunk even though it’s what people want to believe. What he’s doing is what he did on Cappa, trying to make the best of a terrible job and limit the collateral damage. If he can. Whether he becomes part of it or not.

Spaceside is a book that I’ve been looking forward to for a year. I was over the moon for Planetside last year. It was the right book at the right time and resonated with one of my all-time favorites, Old Man’s War. I’d still like to be a fly on the wall if Carl Butler and John Perry ever get together for drinks.

I enjoyed Spaceside a lot, but it took a bit longer to get into gear, or perhaps into the proper military cadence, than Planetside. We don’t get into the thick of things nearly as fast, but once we do, the race is certainly on.

This could be the end of Carl Butler’s story. Or it might not be. Even if I don’t get to take another trip into Butler’s head, I hope to see much more from the mind of his author.

Guest Review: Sentinel of Darkness by Katie Reus

Guest Review: Sentinel of Darkness by Katie ReusSentinel of Darkness (Darkness Series) (Volume 8) by Katie Reus
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal romance
Series: Darkness #8
Pages: 152
Published by KR Press on October 16, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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She thought she’d put her past behind her…

Local artist Keva might be human, but she knows about the things that go bump in the night. Years ago, a dragon shifter saved her from certain death. Ever since, she’s lived in his clan’s territory and put her life back together. But the feeling of security is only an illusion, because her past has come back to haunt her. A past with claws and fangs, demanding blood.

He’ll do whatever it takes to defend his mate…

Dagen has finally met his mate—except he insults her the first time they meet. He’s not too proud to grovel to get back into her good graces. But when a threat from her past emerges, he realizes that he’ll do anything to keep her safe. Even if it means dying—or losing her forever.

Length: 30,000 words

Author note: This is a stand-alone story in the Darkness series complete with an HEA and no cliffhanger.

Darkness series: 1. Darkness Awakened 2. Taste of Darkness 3. Beyond the Darkness 4. Hunted by Darkness 5. Into the Darkness 6. Saved by Darkness 7. Guardian of Darkness 8. Sentinel of Darkness

Guest review by Amy:

Here’s a note from the Fair Warnings Department: Right up front, in the prologue’s third paragraph, we’re told that our heroine had been raped by her ex-boyfriend, a wolf shifter who was at that very moment chasing her down for further violence. I almost put the book down on the spot, and I’m fairly certain that there will be some readers who may find that triggering, and should therefore give this one a miss. Those events are not depicted, but they are mentioned by Keva later in the book, as a past-tense event in her life. Caveat emptor.

The messiness four years ago has turned out pretty okay for Keva. Randall’s dead, and she’s found a place to be, and do her art, where she feels pretty safe. The local dragon clan has her (literally) under their wing, and while she’s not closely integrated with them, she knows them, and knows that their Alpha is looking out for her well-being. New clan member Dagen (a distant relative of the Alpha, Conall) has moved into town, and discovers Keva – and knows almost at once that she’s the mate for him.

Escape Rating: A-: I’ve said in the past that I’m not a huge paranormal-romance fan; it’s got to be well-done, and the paranormal aspects sanely presented, or I’m just not having it. When you throw in the terroristic aspects of the first few paragraphs, this one started on a slightly-off note for me. But that moment is brief, and passes quickly as Randall gets his comeuppance. Keva was rescued by the local dragon clan, and Connall and his family keep an eye on things. Dagen comes to town, a businessman in his human form, and tries to buy her shop away from her at an insultingly low price. Connall, when made aware of this, made it clear she wasn’t to be messed with in that way, so Dagen goes to apologize – and falls for her.

This book is novella-length, so things move fast. Randall’s brother shows up with blood in his eye, and, well, wolf-shifters appear to be mostly insane. Dagen really, really wants to protect her, as she’s the mate he wants. So he sets himself as guard over her home, and when she wakes in the morning and sees him in his dragon form, she’s even more enamored with him. Things proceed as they should, with both of them revealing past traumas which help to equalize their relationship more than Keva thought possible at first.

I’ve said in the past that our paranormals must be “normal” people to me, and as much as that’s possible for dragon shifters, author Katie Reus gives us that. Besides the dragons, we have wolves and mention is made of bears as well, though we do not meet one directly. But our paranormal beings here don’t deny their nature, they embrace it, while working around the strictures of a life in the early 21st century.

This book is a quick, tidy read, with a straightforward story that ends right where a fairy-tale story must. Once it was clear that these two people were our protagonists, I had to wonder if a dragon shifter can or would allow themselves to be ridden (yes, I’m an Anne McCaffrey fan, from way, way back, and the dragons may have saved this book for me). Can Dagen take her flying? Is it as wondrous a thing as it absolutely must be for this tale to work? You’ll have to read Sentinel of Darkness to find out – and if shifter romance is one of your preferences, I recommend that you do so.

Review: American Magic by Zach Fehst

Review: American Magic by Zach FehstAmerican Magic: A Thriller by Zach Fehst
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: thriller
Pages: 320
Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books/Alloy Entertainment on August 20, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In this fast-paced, international thriller, chaos erupts after a shadowy figure with ties to an elite and ancient society posts incantations on the dark web that allow people to perform real magic.

When an enigmatic message uploaded to the dark web turns out to contain an ancient secret giving regular people the power to do impossible things, like levitate cars or make themselves invisible, American government officials panic. They know the demo videos on YouTube and instructions for incantations could turn from fantastical amusement to dangerous weapon at the drop of the hat, and they scramble to keep the information out of the wrong hands.

They tap Ben Zolstra, an ex-CIA field operative whose history with the Agency is conflicted at best, to lead the team that’s racing to contain the dangerous knowledge—and track down the mysterious figure behind the leak who threatens that even more dangerous spells will be released one by one until the world as we know it no longer exists.

This sweeping, globe-spanning thriller explores the dark consequences of a question mankind has been asking for centuries: What if magic were real?

My Review:

American Magic is a spy-thriller for everyone who ever wondered what would happen if someone deliberately broke the Statute of Secrecy in Harry Potter – in other words, how would the world react if magic suddenly turned out to be real – and the entire world wanted to weaponize it.

Of course they would.

It’s like a crossover story where Jack Reacher or Jack Ryan don’t so much meet Harry himself as run into some disaffected muggleborn who ran away from magic with their memory intact and decided to stick it to everyone who ever looked down upon them for not being pureblood. Or powerful. Or, really, sane.

In this version of our world, someone uses the dark side of the internet to release a video that provides complete instructions on how to perform one big piece of magic – telekinesis. That’s basically the ability to move sh*t with your mind. (A book came out earlier this year with that in the title, and I want to read it for the title alone!)

Not everyone can do magic. Just like any other talent. Not everyone can paint a masterpiece – or even draw a straight line. Not everyone can be an Olympic swimmer or gymnast. Not everyone can be Einstein or Da Vinci. Not everyone can even carry a tune in a bucket, let alone sing opera.

The CIA has found a video, also on the internet (isn’t everything, sooner or later?) of a woman who can move a car with her mind. They haven’t found anyone within their own ranks who can move more than pencil – and they want her.

It doesn’t matter what she wants. It never does. And it doesn’t matter what the agent they bring in from the cold of Vermont wants, either. Nor does it matter to them what they did to said agent to force him into that cold and out of the bureau.

It does, of course, matter to him. And to her. So Ben Zolstra, who is supposed to bring Eila Mack over to the CIA’s side – takes her side instead. And takes her out of the “safe house” where the CIA has her imprisoned.

From that point it’s off to the races on this thrill-a-minute ride, as the supposed “good” guys, the actual “bad” guys, and some even more terrible guys, for loose definitions of good, bad and guys, all chase after Ben and Mack.

In either the hope or the fear of putting the “magic” genie back in its magic bottle before it’s too late.

Escape Rating A-: For readers looking for a spy thriller with an interesting twist, American Magic is a hell of a lot of fun. Anyone expecting the emphasis to be on the “magic” in the title is probably going to be disappointed – because this is not a fantasy.

American Magic is very much in the spy thriller tradition. Magic in this story is treated as if it were a weapon of mass destruction. It the reader substitutes a bioterrorism weapon for “magic” the story works just as well.

And that’s part of its charm. What would happen if the secret of magic were suddenly revealed, and some people discovered that they suddenly had the power to move things with their minds. Or teleport. Or throw fireballs.

First the secret wouldn’t remain secret. Second, chaos. With the internet, no information can be kept completely secret for very long. And once something is known, it can’t (usually) become unknown – at least not overnight.

Would it be weaponized? Of course. Would some people and organizations want to use it for nefarious purposes? It’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t. Would governments try to restrict the use of this new power to only their own side? History has the answer for that and it’s yes. If you don’t think so, look at the history of the ability to build an atomic bomb.

It’s from that spy thriller genre, however, that we get most of the actual plot of this story. Ben Zolstra is the epitome of the “rogue agent” who wants to serve his country but refuses to kowtow to the idiots in charge of it. He’s a quintessential lone wolf who is willing to do what needs to be done – but only if his bosses are willing to get out of his way.

And they don’t, because those same idiots can never let go of the illusion of control. And thereby hangs one thread of the story, as what should be the side of good chases down their own agent because he isn’t playing by their rules.

The most interesting characters in the story are Eila Mack, the young woman trying to claw her way back to a decent life who suddenly discovers she has magic, and Desdemona Heaton, an elderly and disgraced scholar who discovers that the myths and legends she has always believed in, the research in those legends that has destroyed her academic career – was right all along.

There is magic in the world, and there are people determined to keep that secret at all costs. Including the lives of anyone who gets in their way.

The fun in this one is watching this unconventional trio, the agent, the scholar and the mage, find a way to get that genie back in its bottle – and get everyone, both good and bad, off their backs. All the want is to put the world back together – even if none of them are quite together themselves.

Review: The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs by Katherine Howe + Giveaway

Review: The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs by Katherine Howe + GiveawayThe Daughters of Temperance Hobbs by Katherine Howe
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, women's fiction
Series: Physick Book #2
Pages: 338
Published by Henry Holt and Co. on June 25, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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New York Times bestselling author Katherine Howe returns to the world of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane with a bewitching story of a New England history professor who must race against time to free her family from a curseConnie Goodwin is an expert on America’s fractured past with witchcraft. A young, tenure-track professor in Boston, she’s earned career success by studying the history of magic in colonial America—especially women’s home recipes and medicines—and by exposing society's threats against women fluent in those skills. But beyond her studies, Connie harbors a secret: She is the direct descendant of a woman tried as a witch in Salem, an ancestor whose abilities were far more magical than the historical record shows.

When a hint from her mother and clues from her research lead Connie to the shocking realization that her partner’s life is in danger, she must race to solve the mystery behind a hundreds’-years-long deadly curse.

Flashing back through American history to the lives of certain supernaturally gifted women, The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs affectingly reveals not only the special bond that unites one particular matriarchal line, but also explores the many challenges to women’s survival across the decades—and the risks some women are forced to take to protect what they love most.

My Review:

“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” If that sounds familiar, that’s because those are the words written on James and Lily Potter’s tombstone. Or, if your reading trends in an entirely different direction, it’s a line in the 15th chapter of the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians.

Considering the story in The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs, the Harry Potter reference is more appropriate. Because Temperance Hobbs and all of her mothers and daughters in every generation up to and including Connie Goodwin in the here and now, were all “cunning women”. In other words, they were witches. Sorta/kinda. More or less.

Howsomever, Connie doesn’t actually want to defeat death, she just wants to postpone the bout with him until a much later date. Because Connie is caught on the horns of a familial dilemma that she wasn’t prepared for in any way, shape, or form.

In all the generations of her family, all the way back to Deliverance Dane in the 1690s, there has been one constant in their lives. They can have a husband – or they can have a child – but they can’t have both at the same time. Or at least not for very long.

Whether it’s really terrible luck or a truly horrific curse, in each generation, as soon as they have a child, their husbands die. Of accidents. Natural causes. War. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One after another after another.

But Connie Goodwin is more than just an occasional practitioner. She is also an academic specializing in American History of the Colonial Period, with a particular emphasis on the belief in, practice of, and suppression of witchcraft.

She did her Ph.D. thesis on The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, and her adventures in producing that thesis and exploring the world and practices of her ancestress are detailed in the novel of the same name.

She’s already pregnant. She just doesn’t want to lose her lover, the father of her child, to any force other than the hands of time – a long, long time from now.

Connie is sure that somewhere or somewhen in her family tree, at least one woman found a way around the curse. Connie just has to discover that secret for herself, before it’s too late.

Escape Rating A-: I did read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, back when it came out ten years ago. I remember it being a terrific time slip book, but I do not remember the details. I didn’t need to in order to enjoy The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs – but enjoy it I certainly did.

The events of that first book are 10 years in Connie’s past as well as ours. I want to say that her life has moved on, but technically I’m not sure that’s true. She is every bit as driven and tunnel-visioned as an Assistant Professor seeking tenure as she was as a grad student seeking a Ph.D.

She’s still a hamster on her wheel, unable to see anything except what’s right in front of her. And what’s right in front of her is always more work. The description of the paper chase of academic life rings true – and makes the reader wonder how Sam has managed to be so tolerant and so supportive for so long.

We’re not surprised that he’s reaching the end of his rope.

But Connie’s discovery that she is pregnant changes her focus in ways well beyond the obvious. She’s worried about the effect it will have on her still-fledgling career – but she fears that their child means Sam’s imminent death – and history bears her out. And she finally figures out that she doesn’t want to lose Sam, and that she needs to find some balance between her work and her life – because they are not, and should not be, the same thing all the time.

Connie begins researching at a furious and desperate pace, hoping to discover that at least one of her ancestresses beat the curse – and how she did it. The portrayal of how the research is conducted, the long hours of fruitless searching, the despair of reaching dead ends and the joy of discovery, sucks the reader right in – as do the interlude chapters told from the perspective of the women that Connie finds in her search.

Connie’s race against time, her race to save her soon-to-be-husband Sam, provides all the tension this story needs. There was an attempt to add a more human villain to the mix, but it didn’t quite work for me. This person wasn’t present enough or woven into the narrative enough to make that concept gel for me – and the story didn’t need it.

Connie’s race against time and death – just like Temperance Hobbs’ before her – provided all the drama needed – along with plenty of compulsion to keep the reader in a race to get to the very last page.

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Review: The Wedding Party by Jasmine Guillory

Review: The Wedding Party by Jasmine GuilloryThe Wedding Party (The Wedding Date, #3) by Jasmine Guillory
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Wedding Date #3
Pages: 320
Published by Berkley on July 16, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Maddie and Theo have two things in common:

1. Alexa is their best friend

2. They hate each other

After an “Oops, we made a mistake” kiss, neither one can stop thinking about the other. With Alexa’s wedding rapidly approaching, Maddie and Theo both share bridal party responsibilities that require more interaction with each other than they’re comfortable with. Underneath the sharp barbs they toss at each other is a simmering attraction that won’t fade. It builds until they find themselves sneaking off together to release some tension when Alexa isn’t looking.

But as with any engagement with a nemesis, there are unspoken rules that must be abided by. First and foremost, don’t fall in love.

My Review:

The Wedding Party is the third book in the Wedding Date series, after last year’s marvelous debut, that actual Wedding Date itself, and the followup, The Proposal.

The books in this series have interesting commonalities, as well as surprisingly different opening, but they are all a whole lot of fun.

So far, at least, all of our couples have begun their romances not thinking that they were romances at all. Rather, every single couple starts out as a fling with a time limit, only to discover at a much later date that they have drifted into a real relationship without intending to. Generally without being willing to reveal to their secret significant other that that’s what they have become. And misunderstandings, heartbreak and hilarity ensue in equal measure.

But this series also serves as a kind of lovely introduction to the various romantic tropes, not in a way that is ever cliche, but more as an exploration of the many different ways that people can meet, fall in love, and eventually find their happy.

The first book, The Wedding Date, worked with the “fake date” trope, along with a “trapped in a stuck elevator” start. The stories in the series since that introduction, at least so far, are wrapped around the preparations for the actually wedding of the couple who began as each other’s fake Wedding Date.

The Proposal featured his best friend as well as the woman he rescues from extreme public embarrassment by pretending to be her bestie. The opening of that one is a lesson in “how not to do it” – a lesson that the hero eventually manages to take to heart. The romance in this one is the “rebound turned real”.

And now we’re up to The Wedding Party, and the romance is between two of the people in that party, the bride’s two best friends – who hate each other. So this one is an enemies into lovers story, and a terrific example of the trope.

All three of these stories take place somewhat simultaneously. The Wedding Date kicks things off, but The Proposal and The Wedding Party take place during some of the “offscreen” moments in that first book. In other words, this probably isn’t the place to start. I think you could, but I’m not really sure why you’d want to – you’d miss a lot about the circle of friends that is wrapped up in this wedding.

Those two members of the wedding party are Maddie and Theo, who have both agreed to be the bride’s attendants at the wedding; Maddie as a bridesmaid and Theo as a bridesman. The bride, Alexa, had to make up a title for him, but she doesn’t care as long as he’s part of her party – and he’s happy to be there for her.

Except that he’ll have to spend an awful lot of time with Maddie – and vice versa.

Alexa may be their best friend, but they can’t stand each other. He’s all buttoned down and standoffish, and she’s all fashion and flair. They get along like oil and water. They don’t mix, they don’t want to mix, but they both mostly hold their peace for Alexa’s sake.

It’s going to be awful for both of them, until the wedding. When they can stop pretending to make nice and go back to sniping at each other every chance they get.

Unless all that animosity is a great big cover up for something a whole lot more explosive.

Escape Rating A-: The thing about the enemies to lovers trope that underpins The Wedding Party is that, of course, somewhere along the way the enemies have to turn into lovers. That does not mean they have to love each other, especially at first. But it does mean that at some point they have to fall into bed – or against the wall – or get drunk and horny – or all of the above.

Which leads Maddie and Theo to fall into another classic romance trope. They both figure that the chemistry between them will cool if they just explore it to death. Which never works. They both expect to get the other out of their systems in time for Alexa’s wedding – if not well before then.

Instead, the lack of expectations in their non-relationship relationship allows them to be their truest selves with each other – selves that are not much like the self-protective worst that they both fell into when they first met.

The tension in this story comes not from the “will they/won’t they” because they do. Frequently and often. Instead, it comes from Maddie’s desire to keep their whatever-it-is secret. She doesn’t want Alexa to know – not because their mutual best friend will hate it, but because she’ll love it a bit too much and then be unhappy when it fizzles out.

But it doesn’t fizzle. It keeps on sizzling. By the time they’re both all in, neither is willing to admit it to the other, and the secrecy becomes a monster of it’s very own. And it’s really then that the tension ratchets up to the boiling point – and explodes.

One of the terrific things about this author is that she makes her characters, and their romance, feel real and not contrived – whatever the situation turns out to be. We see Theo and Maddie get real with each other, and we understand why it happens. And then, they do what humans do. They get scared. They react. They overreact.

And it feels like stuff that would happen to real people who have fallen in love and are admittedly being real stupid about the whole thing. They’ve gotten to know the real person hiding behind the others mask, and they like that person and want to be with them.

And so do we.

Next up in the Wedding Date series is Royal Holiday, later this year. Maddie’s mother Vivian gets her chance to find her happy ever after – and I can’t wait.

Review: A Beach Wish by Shelly Noble

Review: A Beach Wish by Shelly NobleA Beach Wish by Shelley Noble
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, women's fiction
Pages: 371
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on June 25, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Shelley Noble returns to the beach in her latest summer read about the family we create and the wishes we make that can shape us.

Zoe Bascombe has never said no to her family. When she blew her Juilliard audition, she caved to their wishes and went to business school. But when her mother dies and leaves instructions for Zoe to spread her ashes at a place called Wind Chime Beach, she defies her brothers and starts out for a New England town none of them has ever heard of and discovers a side of her garden club mother that her wildest dreams hadn’t imagined.

Zoe has another family.

Her first instinct is to run home. Instead she is caught in the middle of her feuding new relatives. With one family fighting among themselves and the other not speaking to her, Zoe must somehow find a way to bridge her new life with her old.

For the first time in her life, Zoe must make a stand for her family—both of them. If only she can only figure out how.

Her answer lies at Wind Chime Beach where for generations people have come to add their chimes to the ones already left among the trees. And when the wind blows and the air fills with music, their secrets, dreams, and hopes are sent into the world. There’s a message for Zoe here—if she has the courage to open her heart.

My Review:

A Beach Wish is purely delightful women’s fiction. Or chick lit. Some of the women who move forward with their lives in the course of this story are young enough to be figuring their lives out for the first time. And some are on their way to second, third or even fourth inventions of self. And one who might be on fifth or sixth – except that she fails, again.

That’s only part of the story.

As so many stories begin, to paraphrase Charles Dickens in his immortal Christmas Carol, Jenny Bascombe was dead, to begin with. But the mess she left behind is very much alive, and plenty of people are getting kicked in the process of resolving that mess.

Jenny left instructions upon her death. Detailed instructions. She was just that kind of organized. Buttoned-up. Controlled. Definitely controlled – at least for all of the life that her three sons and one daughter ever saw.

So her last request makes no sense whatsoever. For her daughter Zoe, and just her daughter Zoe, to take her ashes to a place called Wind Chime Beach and scatter them there.

Her two older brothers are up in arms. Her closest brother, Chris, wants to help her however he can.

But Zoe does what she has always done – she listens to her mother, one last time, and drives north from New Jersey to that beach.

Where she discovers that she never really knew her mother after all – but that there are a whole lot of people who did. And that they have all been waiting for Jenny to finally come home. One last time.

Escape Rating A-: I expected to like this, but I really, really liked this. Finishing at 2 am in the morning liked.

This is one of those stories where the family is hella complicated, and only gets crazier as it goes. Zoe’s two oldest brothers seem to be chips off the old block, meaning dear old (left mom for his secretary) dad. Not that they seem likely to bail on their wives, just that they’ve bought into the whole corporate, suit and tie, climbing the ladder of success, living their lives based on other people’s judgments, kind of thing.

Zoe and Chris are the rebels. Chris is an actor who is out of work as often as he’s in. He’s also gay, but that seems not to be much of an issue for the family (times definitely have changed, at least in fiction). But he’s not ever planning on doing the 9-to-5 routine that his brothers do, and it drives said brothers a bit crazy.

Zoe tried the 9-to-5 – more like the 7-to-whenever, but her job as an events manager to the stars has just dried up. She got into events managing the music business because she wanted to BE in the music business, but now she’s neither. And at more than enough loose ends to be willing to carry out her mother’s last request – no matter how little sense it makes.

Until it does. What makes this story so interesting and so much fun is what Zoe discovers at Wind Chime Beach. Once upon a time, her mother was someone entirely different from the uber-organized uber-planner who raised Zoe and her brothers.

And there are a whole lot of people who remember that Jenny. The Jenny who might have been her best self. Those people are ready and willing to welcome Zoe into their midst. Some with open arms, some with a clenched fist.

Figuring out the who and why of that past, and why Zoe’s strong resemblance to her mother evokes such strong reactions, is the heart and soul of this book. It’s Zoe’s journey of discovery, but that’s not all it is. It’s also a story of grief and reconciliation.

In the end, Zoe and the people Jenny left behind at Wind Chime Beach have a chance to finally say their goodbyes and move on with their lives. It makes for a fascinating contrast that one of them doesn’t. Some people don’t want closure, they want to clutch their hurts like pearls – and isn’t that all too human.

I enjoyed Zoe’s journey of discovery. I also found it refreshing that while Zoe opens her heart and lets plenty of new people into her life, there is no romance here – nor should there be. This is not intended to be a story about finding an HEA. It is appropriately, and wonderfully, a story about finding oneself. A Beach Wish is a terrific beach read – or a lovely read for any time at all.

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