Review: Last Exit by Max Gladstone

Review: Last Exit by Max GladstoneLast Exit by Max Gladstone
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, urban fantasy
Pages: 400
Length: 21 hours and 3 minutes
Published by Tor Books on March 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Ten years ago, Zelda led a band of merry adventurers whose knacks let them travel to alternate realities and battle the black rot that threatened to unmake each world. Zelda was the warrior; Ish could locate people anywhere; Ramon always knew what path to take; Sarah could turn catastrophe aside. Keeping them all connected: Sal, Zelda’s lover and the group's heart.
Until their final, failed mission, when Sal was lost. When they all fell apart.
Ten years on, Ish, Ramon, and Sarah are happy and successful. Zelda is alone, always traveling, destroying rot throughout the US.
When it boils through the crack in the Liberty Bell, the rot gives Zelda proof that Sal is alive, trapped somewhere in the alts.
Zelda’s getting the band back together—plus Sal’s young cousin June, who has a knack none of them have ever seen before.
As relationships rekindle, the friends begin to believe they can find Sal and heal all the worlds. It’s not going to be easy, but they’ve faced worse before.
But things have changed, out there in the alts. And in everyone's hearts.
Fresh from winning the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Max Gladstone weaves elements of American myth--the muscle car, the open road, the white-hatted cowboy--into a deeply emotional tale where his characters must find their own truths if they are to survive.

My Review:

There was a serpent gnawing at the roots of the world. Zelda, June, Sarah, Ramon and Ish go on the road trying to do something to slow it down or keep it at bay or just stop it. If they can. Because they believe they must. Because they tried before – and they failed.

But, and it’s a very big but that fills the sky with thunder and lightning and cracks the ground all around them every place they go – is that “last exit” they’re searching for the last exit to get OFF the road that is heading TO hell, or is it the last exit to get ON that road. Differences may be crucial – and nearly impossible to judge when the critical moment arrives with the ring of boot heels on cracked and broken pavement.

Ten years ago, five college students (Sal, Zelda, Sarah, Ramon and Ish) who all felt like outsiders at their preppy, pretentious Ivy League school (cough Yale cough) discovered that they each had a ‘knack’ for exploring the multiverse. So, they decided to go on an adventure instead of heading out into the real world of adulting, jobs and families.

They wanted to make the world better – or find a world that was better – rather than settle for and in the world they had. So they went on ‘The Road’ and explored all the alternate worlds they could find within the reach of their “souped up” car.

They found adventure all right. And they were all young enough to shrug off the danger they encountered and the damage they took escaping it. But what they did not find was anyplace better. They didn’t even find anywhere that was all that good.

They helped where they could and escaped where they had to and generally had a good time together. But, and again it’s a very big but, all the worlds they found had given way to the same terrible applications of power and privilege and use and abuse that are dragging this world down. They found death cults and dictatorships and slavery and madness everywhere they went.

The multiverse was rotting from within, because there was a serpent gnawing at the roots of the world.

So together they embarked upon a desperate journey to the Crossroads at the heart of all the multiverses, the place where there might be a chance to not just shore up the forces of not-too-bad in one alternate world, but in all the alternate worlds all at the same time.

They failed. And they lost the woman who was their heart and their soul. Sal fell through the cracks of the world. She was lost to the rot that was destroying not just the alts but their own world as well.

That could have been the end of their story. And it almost was. Without Sal, they fell apart. Individually and collectively. Sarah went to medical school and raised a family. Ish raised a tech empire. Ramon tried to destroy himself, tried to forget, and ended up back where he started.

And Zelda stayed on the road, sleepwalking through ten years of loneliness, doing her best to plug the holes in this world where the rot was creeping in.

Because it was all their fault – it was all her fault. She lost Sal, the woman she loved – and then everything fell apart. She feels duty-bound, obligated and guilt-ridden, to fix it.

It takes ten years, and a kick in the pants from Sal’s cousin June, for Zelda to finally acknowledge that the only way she can fix what she broke, what they broke, is going to require more than a little help from their friends.

If they’re willing to take one final ride on the road.

American Gods by Neil GaimanEscape Rating A-: In the end, Last Exit is awesome. But it takes one hell of a long and painful journey to reach that end. Because it starts with all of them not just apart, but in their own separate ways, falling apart. And it ends with all of their demons coming home to roost – and nearly destroying them – as they relive the past and do their damndest to push through to either some kind of future – or some kind of sacrifice to balance out the one they already made when they lost Sal.

The reader – along with Zelda and Sal’s cousin June – starts out the story believing that it’s all about the journey. Or that it’s a quest to reach a specific destination that may or may not be Mount Doom. It’s only at the very, very bitter end that they – and the reader – figure out that it was about the perspective all along.

A lot of readers are going to see a resemblance to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, but I haven’t read that so it wasn’t there for me. What I saw was a sharp comparison to American Gods by Neil Gaiman – both because it’s very much an “American Road Story”, even if most of the Americas are alts, but especially because of that sudden, sharp, shock at the end, where the reader has to re-think everything that came before.

I listened to Last Exit all the way through, and the narrator did a terrific job of differentiating the voices. There was a lyricism to the characters’ internal dialogs that she conveyed particularly well – it was easy to get caught up in each one’s internal thoughts and understand where they were coming from, even if the sheer overwhelming amount of angst most of them were going through was occasionally overwhelming – both for the characters and for the listener.

Part of what makes this a densely packed and difficult story and journey is that the main character and perspective is Zelda – who is just a hot mess of angst and guilt and regret. We understand why she blames herself for everything – whether anything is her fault or not – but there seems to be no comfort for her anywhere and you do spend a lot of the book wondering if she’s going to sacrifice herself because she just can’t bear it a minute longer.

The story feels a bit disjointed at points because the narrative is disjointed both because Zelda keeps telling and experiencing snippets of what happened before interwoven with what’s happening now and because the alts themselves are disjointed. It’s clear there’s some kind of organizing geography, but I just didn’t quite see it. To me, the alts all sounded like various aspects of the fractured future Earth in Horizon: Zero Dawn and I stopped worrying about what went where.

There were a lot of points where I seriously wondered where this was all going. Where it ended up wasn’t what I was initially expecting – at all. But it was one hell of a journey and I’m really glad I went, even if I needed a cocoa and a lie-down to recover from the sheer, chaotic wildness of the ride..

Review: Heroic Hearts edited by Jim Butcher and Kerrie L. Hughes

Review: Heroic Hearts edited by Jim Butcher and Kerrie L. HughesHeroic Hearts by Jim Butcher, Kerrie Hughes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 368
Published by Ace Books on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

An all-star urban fantasy collection featuring short stories from #1 New York Times bestselling authors Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Charlaine Harris, Kelley Armstrong, and more . . .
In this short story collection of courage, adventure, and magic, heroes--ordinary people who do the right thing--bravely step forward.
But running toward danger might cost them everything. . . .
In #1 New York Times bestselling author Jim Butcher's "Little Things," the pixie Toot-Toot discovers an invader unbeknownst to the wizard Harry Dresden . . . and in order to defeat it, he'll have to team up with the dread cat Mister.
In #1 New York Times bestselling author Patricia Briggs's "Dating Terrors," the werewolf Asil finds an online date might just turn into something more--if she can escape the dark magic binding her.
In #1 New York Times bestselling author Charlaine Harris's "The Return of the Mage," the Britlingen mercenaries will discover more than they've bargained for when they answer the call of a distress beacon on a strange and remote world.
And in #1 New York Times bestselling author Kelley Armstrong's "Comfort Zone," the necromancer Chloe Saunders and the werewolf Derek Souza are just trying to get through college. But they can't refuse a ghost pleading for help.
ALSO INCLUDES STORIES BY Annie Bellet * Anne Bishop * Jennifer Brozek * Kevin Hearne * Nancy Holder * Kerrie L. Hughes * Chloe Neill * R.R. Virdi

My Review:

I was looking for a bit of a change of pace to wrap this week’s reviews, so I turned to my favorite pick-me-up genre, urban fantasy, and to this excellent collection of it, Heroic Hearts, which features stories by some of the stars in the genre, while giving me a chance to explore worlds both familiar and not.

Four of the stories were set in worlds that I am at least somewhat familiar with; Jim Butcher’s Little Things, set of course in the Dresden Files, The Dark Ship by Anne Bishop in previously unexplored part of her World of the Others, Fire Hazard by Kevin Hearne in the Iron Druid Chronicles and Patricia Briggs’ Dating Terror in her Alpha & Omega spinoff of Mercy Thompson’s world.

What made both Little Things and Fire Hazard so much fun to read wasn’t just their familiarity but the way that both stories gave that familiarity a bit of a twist by telling the story from alternate points of view.

Harry Dresden is too busy to be the main character or narrator of Little Things. That role is reserved for the pixie Toot-Toot who leads the castle’s forces of pixies and other small creatures to fend off a gremlin invasion. While Toot-Toot and his minions start out just defending their beloved pizza, by the time the story is baked to its conclusion they’ve saved the whole castle and everyone in it – with a bit of assistance from Dresden’s cat Mister. Even if they can’t manage to help Dresden with his angst about the terrible “conomee” and his regular fight with the dread monster “budget”.

Fire Hazard, which deals with the very serious issue of the wide-spread fires in Australia, is both lightened and made a bit more profound – surprisingly so! – by being told from the perspective of Oberon, Atticus’ Irish wolfhound. While the fires were started through either natural causes or human error, there is something supernatural that is, quite literally, fanning the flames. That Atticus can take care of. But it’s Oberon’s meditations on the nature of courage and sausage that give this story both its heart and its humor.

The Dark Ship is one of the darker stories in the World of the Others, and that’s saying something because the world as a whole is often plenty dark. But what makes this one chilling isn’t the looming threat of the Others, it’s that the evil that men do is so terrible that the reader completely understands why the Others get involved – even though on this occasion the Others are not the target of that evil. I still think there’s reading crack somehow embedded into this series, because even in ebook form once I start one I can’t put the damn thing down.

I haven’t kept up – at all – with the Mercyverse. I read the series as it stood a long time ago, including the first Alpha & Omega book, and that was enough to make the world of this story feel familiar. In the end Dating Terror is a story about taking control of your own life with a bit of help from your friends, but it does it through a fake dating agency scenario that blends a subtle bit of humor with the righteous takedown of a monster.

The rest of the stories in this collection are either standalones or set in worlds I’m not familiar with. And for the most part that didn’t matter either way. Except for one story, Silverspell by Chloe Neill. It’s part of her Heirs of Chicagoland series. I liked it well enough as a standalone but I think there would have been more there, there if I were familiar with the series.

The one story that didn’t work for me was The Vampires Karamazov. There were plenty of villains in this one, but no real hero and the story was just dark and grim.

On the other hand, my favorite stories in the collection, Troll Life by Kerrie L. Hughes, Grave Gambles by R.R. Virdi and The Necessity of Pragmatic Magic by Jennifer Brozek were all set in worlds completely new to me.

Troll Magic features the troll probationary station master of a train line that takes paranormal creatures from one realm to another. It’s part of his magic to manage the station, make sure that no one is aboard who shouldn’t be, and keep the vending machines stocked. When a couple of runaways – and the villains who are chasing them – use his station for their confrontation, it’s up to the station master and his pet barghest to see justice done and evil get its just desserts, along with some help from some sentient and surprisingly gossipy trains.

Grave Gambles was interesting as a kind of paranormal variation on Quantum Leap – which seems apropos as that classic series might be coming back. But instead of science powering the leaps, it’s magic. Specifically the magic of meting out deathly justice to those who have escaped the earthly kind. It’s a quietly atmospheric story with a fascinating premise.

I liked The Necessity of Pragmatic Magic because it features two elderly ladies, one of whom would probably be excellent friends with the protagonist of An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good. It’s the story of two old witches who are comrades a bit more than they are friends, bringing their magical power to bear on an ancient terror that wants to consume their favorite museum – along with, most likely, the town it sits in.

I had mixed feelings about Return of the Mage by Charlaine Harris, and based on the reviews I’m not alone. I did rather like it, even though it isn’t really urban fantasy, but that’s because it reminds me a lot of episodes of both Stargate and Star Trek. It’s a story about a mage who has settled down on a primitive planet and made himself king, emperor and god even though he really ought to know better. The mage/mech/merc forces that come to pry him out of his cozy, exploitative little nest certainly do.

The last two stories are Train to Last Hope by Annie Bellet and Comfort Zone by Kelly Armstrong.

Comfort Zone reminded me a bit of the Harper Connelly series by Charlaine Harris, in that Chloe sees – and speaks to – dead people. So the story is about helping a ghost save his little sister from the mess he got her in before he died because of said mess.

Train to Last Hope is the kind of Weird West story that haunts. Two women go on a quest to find out what happened to their daughter. They broke up a decade ago, because one accepted that the girl was dead while the other refused to let go. Not that either of them truly ever has let go of the girl or each other. One became a Reaper to harvest the souls of the dead in order to extend her search, while the other waits at Last Hope, the last stop of the train of the dead, hoping that one day her daughter will pass by. This story about closure is bittersweet and sticks with the reader once it’s done. It also reminds me more than a bit of T.J. Klune’s Under the Whispering Door.

Escape Rating A-: This was a collection with plenty of great reading but surprisingly just the one story that didn’t work for me. There’s always at least one, but usually it’s more, so I’m very happy to have picked this up and read the lot. I do think the ones that are set in established worlds work better with at least some familiarity, but it is a great way to sample and see if you like what those worlds have to offer.

To make a long story short, if you love urban fantasy, this collection is fantastic – pun certainly intended. If you’re curious, this is a great place to start!

Mister rules, as cats always do, but Oberon, as always, is a very good boy indeed.

Review: By the Book by Jasmine Guillory

Review: By the Book by Jasmine GuilloryBy the Book (Meant to Be #2) by Jasmine Guillory
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, retellings
Series: Meant To Be #2
Pages: 320
Published by Hyperion Avenue on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


A tale as old as time—for a new generation…

Isabelle is completely lost. When she first began her career in publishing right out of college, she did not expect to be twenty-five, living at home, still an editorial assistant, and the only Black employee at her publishing house. Overworked and underpaid, constantly torn between speaking up or stifling herself, Izzy thinks there must be more to this publishing life. So when she overhears her boss complaining about a beastly high-profile author who has failed to deliver his long-awaited manuscript, Isabelle sees an opportunity to finally get the promotion she deserves.
All she has to do is go to the author’s Santa Barbara mansion and give him a quick pep talk or three. How hard could it be?
But Izzy quickly finds out she is in over her head. Beau Towers is not some celebrity lightweight writing a tell-all memoir. He is jaded and withdrawn and—it turns out—just as lost as Izzy. But despite his standoffishness, Izzy needs Beau to deliver, and with her encouragement, his story begins to spill onto the page. They soon discover they have more in common than either of them expected, and as their deadline nears, Izzy and Beau begin to realize there may be something there that wasn't there before.

Best-selling author Jasmine Guillory’s reimagining of a beloved fairy tale is a romantic triumph of love and acceptance and learning that sometimes to truly know a person you have to read between the lines.

My Review:

When we meet Isabelle Marlowe, it’s the first day of her dream job – or at least the starter job on her dream job ladder. She’s the new editorial assistant to Marta Wallace, one of the top editors at TAOAT Publishing.

That intro clues the reader into the two themes of this story. TAOAT stands for “Tale as Old as Time”, part of the chorus of the Oscar and Grammy winning song “Beauty and the Beast” from the 1991 Disney movie of the same name. By the Book is a contemporary retelling of that now-classic movie.

The second theme is conveyed by Isabelle’s passion for her brand new job. Isabelle loves books and everything about them. She loves reading, she loves editing, she loves writing, she loves looking for new books and she loves talking about books. Working in the publishing industry (also being a librarian, a nurse, or a teacher, BTW) is what’s commonly called a “passion job”. People go into those and certain other fields because they have a passion for the work. Or, at least, a passion for what they think the work will be. They know they’ll be overworked and underpaid, but they expect the joys of the job to make up for the many shortfalls.

As the story fast forwards two years, we see that Izzy’s passion for the work and everything that surrounds it has been ground out – and Izzy has been ground down – by the circumstances and drudgery that surround it. She’s even more overworked than she expected, as she is not only Marta’ assistant but also her gopher, AND as one of the very few POC on the staff of TAOAT (the publishing industry as a whole is still mostly white IRL), Izzy gets called in whenever someone needs to represent diversity in the office or the industry.

That her boss Marta seems to be modeling herself after the villainess of The Devil Wears Prada – or at least the lower budget publishing industry version – is nasty icing on top of the already tasteless cake. And Izzy’s heard from one of the other editors that Marta still doesn’t think Izzy’s up to the job – even after two years.

But Izzy and her office bestie Priya are on their way to a publishing conference in Los Angeles with Marta. They’ll still be overworked, underpaid and underappreciated – but at least they’ll be able to escape New York City’s frigid winter for a few days of California sunshine.

Izzy’s pretty much at the end of her last rope – and she’s getting sick of just hanging on. That’s when she overhears Marta complaining about a former child actor she signed for an autobiography who not only refuses to deliver a manuscript – he refuses to communicate at all. Izzy leaps before she looks into the fray, and volunteers to drive from LA to Santa Barbara to get in the would-be author’s face about his book and the lack thereof.

Driving to the beast’s coastal “castle” gets Izzy one more night in sunny California. Barging her way into the house where that beast, Beau Towers, has been holed up for a year gets her the chance of a lifetime.

A chance to read. A chance to write. And a chance to recover her passion.

Escape Rating A-: The heart of this story is in Izzy’s invasion of Beau Towers castle and what happens after. Because what happens first is that Beau is pretty damn beastly.

He gets better.

While the romance between Izzy and Beau is intended as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, it hits the obvious beats of the movie pretty hard. When Izzy starts talking to her luxurious bathtub and she’s almost sure it’s talking back, the way that those familiar beats get pounded borders on overkill.

But the romance is just so damn charming that if you liked the original at all it’s impossible not to love this version as well.

While the romance begins with a meet cute, the situations they are separately in are both pretty damn ugly. We know about the mess that Izzy is in, and we already feel for her when she barges into Beau’s house. We start out sharing her opinion, that Beau is an overprivileged, irresponsible asshole – and he does nothing to counter that impression. Quite the reverse – he leans into it in an attempt to drive Izzy away.

He’s retreated into his very own “Fortress of Solitude” and is desperate to pull up the drawbridge behind him. But Izzy’s stuck – and he’s stuck with her. Or so it seems at first.

Their work into friendship into romance works because they both have mountains to climb and shells to climb out of. She needs to find her own voice again, and he needs to get past his own hurt and shame. And they both need to do it the same way, by writing it all out – even the hard parts.

Especially the hard parts.

The more they write – separately but together in the same space – the more they expose to each other. Beau gets to see Izzy’s dreams and how much she has invested in them, while Izzy sees Beau’s pain and how much he needs to let it out so he can forgive himself.

They fall in love because they get to really know each other all the way down to the bone. And just as in the movie, once Beau is able to let out all the terrible secrets he has been hiding, he stops being a beast.

While that part was beautiful, what was even better was the way that once Izzy let herself reach for her dreams she was able to find the passion she once had for her passion job – and the success that was her due.

If it worked that way for passion jobs in real life, the world would be a much happier place!

Review: The Dachshund Wears Prada by Stefanie London

Review: The Dachshund Wears Prada by Stefanie LondonThe Dachshund Wears Prada by Stefanie London
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Paws in the City #1
Pages: 336
Published by Hqn on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

"London’s characters leap off the page... It’s a delightful start to a series that promises to be good fun."—Publishers Weekly
"This is the romcom Carrie Bradshaw would have written if she were a dog person, and I'm obsessed!"—Teri Wilson, USA Today bestselling author of 
A Spot of Trouble


How do you start over when the biggest mistake of your life has more than one million views?

Forget diamonds—the internet is forever. Social media consultant Isla Thompson learned that lesson the hard way when she went viral for all the wrong reasons. A month later, Isla is still having nightmares about the moment she ruined a young starlet’s career and made herself the most unemployable influencer in Manhattan. But she doesn’t have the luxury of hiding until she’s no longer Instagram poison. Not when her fourteen-year-old sister, Dani, needs Isla to keep a roof over their heads. So, she takes the first job she can get: caring for Camilla, a glossy-maned, foul-tempered hellhound.
After a week of ferrying Camilla from playdates to pet psychics, Isla starts to suspect that the dachshund’s bark is worse than her bite—just like her owner, Theo Garrison. Isla has spent her career working to make people likable and here’s Theo—happy to hide behind his reputation as a brutish recluse. But Theo isn’t a brute—he’s sweet and funny, and Isla should not see him as anything but the man who signs her paychecks. Because loving Theo would mean retreating to his world of secluded luxury, and Isla needs to show Dani that no matter the risk, dreams are always worth chasing.
Paws in the City

My Review:

Camilla the dachshund can wear anything she wants in this pawsitively delightful romantic comedy. She even has the opportunity to wear Prada for her photoshoot with Anna Wintour’s Vogue – whether her infamous dress-a-like is present at the time or not.

This romcom starts with both a meet cute and a meet ugly – and it’s the meet ugly, along with a whole lot of ugly crying – that happens first.

Camilla’s person is gone. After a long, extravagant, philanthropic and larger-than-life life, Etna Francois Garrison is dead, leaving behind a grieving grandson, an equally grieving dog – and leaving the two of them to each other.

Theo Garrison, the press-dubbed “Hermit of Fifth Avenue”, has lost the last person in the world that he loved. Who left him her spoiled little diva of a dog as a final consolation – or a final kick in the pants to let other people into his life. Or possibly both. His beloved grandmother always did know what was best for him – not that he’s even close to admitting that a month after her death, as Camilla has ruined his carefully ordered life, as many of his bespoke suits and imported silk ties as she can find – and driven off more than a dozen pet sitters along with an entire pet sitting agency.

Camilla has cut a wide swath through Theo’s formerly regimented life. He’s desperate.

So desperate that when Camilla escapes her leash in Central Park and runs to a woman that neither Camilla nor Theo have ever met and starts actually obeying commands and offering her belly for a scratch, Theo offers this miracle pet whisperer a job on the spot.

A job that Isla Thompson is desperate enough to take. Her formerly high-powered career as a social media consultant and influencer went up in flames after a disastrous video went viral. It was explosive. Well, her former client was exploding chunks down the front of a designer dress on a phone camera that had been off up until the fatal moment. Fatal to Isla’s career, that is.

Camilla needs a person. Isla needs a job. Theo needs to get out of his self-isolating rut. But when Isla invents an Instagram persona around Camilla as “The Dachshund Wears Prada”, Isla starts out having fun but finds herself receiving career validation and the seeds of success on her own terms.

A success that has the potential to break open the wall of obsessive privacy that Theo has been building around himself for years. A wall that he might be willing to open for Isla, if he can trust her enough.

But can he?

Escape Rating A-: I picked this one for the title. Not that the cover isn’t cute as well, but this is just one of those times when the title sucked me right in and I had to find out how the book lived up to it or even just explained it.

But it does. It absolutely does. And that part of the story is a hoot – or perhaps I should say that it justifies plenty of barks of laughter.

However, underneath that lighthearted fluff – and fluffy golden fur – there’s plenty to pull at the reader’s heartstrings. (Just don’t worry about Camilla – she comes out of the story happier and better dressed than she comes into it.)

There are serious issues aplenty dealt with and worked on in this story, which reads as if it were the book baby of Batman, the death of Princess Di, and the movie Maid in Manhattan.

And by Batman, I mean the original origin story created by Bob Kane back in 1939. The one where a young Bruce Wayne watches the murder of his wealthy parents on the streets of Gotham City. Young Theo Garrison watched his gorgeous, successful and wealthy parents die on the streets of New York City, being chased to death by paparazzi in the same way that Princess Di lost her life – complete with conspiracy theories.

Theo grew up isolated, raised by his grandmother with only a few people inside his circle of trust – because every time he lets someone in they betray that trust.

Isla’s side of the story is very Maid in Manhattan, in that she is a single pseudo-mother, raising her younger sister after their mother abandoned them both. She is desperate and blaming herself for the viral video that killed her career. Not that she did anything deliberately, but the series of unfortunate events has been laid at her door and she’s not just fired, she’s blacklisted from the industry. She’s running through her savings, is determined to keep her little sister not just fed, clothed, housed and schooled but also in the ballet shoes that represent her life and her dreams, when fate in the form of Camilla and Theo intervenes.

All three of them, Camilla, Isla and Theo, have issues. Camilla bites first to keep the world at bay. Theo is afraid to care about anyone because everyone he has ever loved; his parents, his grandmother; has died and left him. He’s afraid to be hurt again so he isolates himself as completely as possible. And he has the fortune to make that very possible indeed. Isla is just running as fast as she can, giving up as much as possible, to give her little sister the love and care and security that neither of them ever really had. She wants to give Dani her dreams because Isla’s got sidetracked at age 20 when their mother left her the responsibility of raising her sister.

The relationship that grows between Camilla and Isla is charming because it’s every loving, caring, pet-person doing their damndest to bring a scared or abused fur person out of their shattered shell. The ill-advised but life-giving relationship between Isla and Theo comes out of Isla’s care for Camilla. It’s kind of the reverse of “love me, love my dog”. The Insta account of The Dachshund Wears Prada is tongue in cheek, laugh out loud funny and sharply biting social commentary all rolled into one. But the more that Isla and Theo get involved, the clearer it is that it’s also going to be the breaking point for their relationship.

The redemption and resolution at the end was wonderful because it tied up the end of their fairytale romance with just the right amount of mutual groveling and HEA fairy dust with one big beautiful bow – made, of course, out of Prada scarves.

Review: Kiss Hard by Nalini Singh

Review: Kiss Hard by Nalini SinghKiss Hard (Hard Play, #4) by Nalini Singh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, sports romance
Series: Hard Play #4
Pages: 329
Published by TKA Distribution on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh brings you a sinfully playful contemporary romance between two sworn enemies turned partners in crime...
Daniel Esera is a young god on the rugby field, a sexy and charming man who's got the world at his feet. There's just one problem: his sudden potent attraction to his number one nemesis--Catie River. No. Just no. Not happening.
Catie River is on her way to Paralympic gold, and she's not about to allow Danny "Hotshot" Esera to derail her plans. Too bad her body isn't cooperating. Even worse? Her heart might be coming along for the ride. No. Nope. Never.
The pair are united in their desire to remain enemies... until a stranger's reckless action threatens both their careers. Now, the only way out for Catie and Danny is to pretend to be in a relationship. How bad can it be? They're adults in full control of their hormones and their hearts. There will be no kissing. No PDA. And definitely no falling in love.
Let the games begin.

My Review:

The Hard Play series has been all about the sons of the Bishop/Esera clan of New Zealand Rugby “Royalty” finding their HEAs, beginning with big brother Gabriel “T-Rex” Bishop in the precursor story, Rock Hard. T-Rex and his story were universal, squeeing, over-the-moon favorites over at The Book Pushers, so I’m always happy to see just how happy his and his “Mouse’s” HEA has turned out to be.

Gabriel Bishop is Danny Esera’s half brother – not that any of the Bishop/Esera brothers ever waste a breath on that half. The first “official” book in the Hard Play series, Cherish Hard, was all wrapped – like a vine – around the romance between Sailor Bishop, the second son in the family, and Isa Rain, the (half) sister of Catie River, Danny’s frenemy in the blended family from the day they met.

So long-time readers of this series have met these people before, back in that earlier book, and an earlier time in both their lives, as Sailor and Isa are more than a bit older than their (half) siblings. Again a half that only matters for the amount of time between their parents’ marriages and not anything to do with the amount of love in either family. (You don’t have to read the earlier books in the series to get right into the action in this one, but they are all delicious so why wouldn’t you?)

Which leads to a big part of this story, in that there was and is plenty of unconditional love in the Bishop/Esera clan, while Isa and Catie mostly had just each other. Not that their parents aren’t all still among the living, but that their presence in their daughters’ lives is a bit, shall we say, lacking.

Jacqueline Rain has always been more interested in being a corporate shark than a mother, while Isa’s father was every bit as invested in his own corporate sharkhood and not so present for his daughter. While Catie’s dad was an unreliable gambler who let his luck and the wind blow him wherever the next good time happened to be. Clive Rain loves his child, but he’s only rarely there for her. He stood steadfast for one, long, big, huge time when her legs were crushed along with her dreams of being an Olympic sprinter. But the rest of the time, Clive has been the one running.

Now Danny and Catie are all grown up, they are both sports stars in their own respective rights – Danny on the New Zealand National Rugby Team and Catie as a medal-winning Paralympic sprinter. They are also the best of enemies, snarking at each other at family gatherings and in social media. If there’s a poster couple for frenemies, Danny and Catie are it. They snark not to wound but to one-up each other in ways that are intelligent and funny rather than truly hurtful.

So, when Catie sees clean-cut, clean-living Danny stumbling and slurring his words at a big party, she knows something is wrong. Danny doesn’t drink to excess, and he doesn’t do drugs – because there’s too much riding on his good image and his success. In the best frenemy tradition, she gets Danny out of the party before he either passes out or does something stupid and unforgiveable.

Only for the news that they are holed up in her apartment in the suddenly snowbound city to potentially be as damaging to both their images as pictures of Danny under the influence might have been.

Which leads to damage control for the damage control. A fake relationship will explain their sudden cozy snowbound interlude. A fake relationship that lasts a reasonable amount of time will make the whole thing acceptable to both sets of fans and keep the media away from the real story.

And in the best tradition of fake relationship romances, when the fake turns real, neither of them are sure that the other is able to trust their very mutual change of heart.

Escape Rating A-: At first it seems like this one hits the “Trope Trifecta” – it’s a snowbound, fake relationship, enemies to lovers romance. But under those easy-to-spot covers is something with a whole lot more delicious nuance.

The one part of the trope trifecta that is unequivocally true is the snowbound part. Catie and Danny do end up spending a couple of nights stuck in her apartment during a freak snowstorm. But those other two tropes, not so much – in a very good way.

This isn’t really an enemies to lovers romance because Danny and Catie aren’t truly enemies. Not that their mutual snarkfest isn’t real, rather that it doesn’t represent real enmity. They are constantly trying to one-up each other, and they are very salty to each other both online and in person, but it’s all very much in jest in a way that only works with someone you trust not to hurt you. Which they do.

Their relationship isn’t exactly fake, either. Or rather, they already have a relationship – a relationship of true friends who snark and play-fight to keep the world at bay. They already love each other, if not romantically. There’s nothing shameful or wrong in loving your friend, and that’s what they are to each other underneath all that snark.

So this is a story about both of them reaching for more with a person who is already inside their circle of trust – but who they are afraid to trust too much because of the emotional baggage they are carrying from other relationships in their lives when that trust was broken.

Especially Catie, who loves her father but was forced at a young age to recognize that he was not in the least trustworthy – and that he’d always walk away without a second’s notice.

To make a long story short, Kiss Hard is every bit as worthy a successor to the rest of the Hard Play series as Daniel Esera is to the tradition of his family’s rugby dynasty. The joy in the story is watching Catie and Danny turn their salty friendship into a beautiful romance.

Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí ClarkThe Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, steampunk
Pages: 111
Published by Tordotcom on August 21, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In an alternate New Orleans caught in the tangle of the American Civil War, the wall-scaling girl named Creeper yearns to escape the streets for the air--in particular, by earning a spot on-board the airship Midnight Robber. Creeper plans to earn Captain Ann-Marie’s trust with information she discovers about a Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls The Black God’s Drums.

But Creeper also has a secret herself: Oya, the African orisha of the wind and storms, speaks inside her head, and may have her own ulterior motivations.

Soon, Creeper, Oya, and the crew of the Midnight Robber are pulled into a perilous mission aimed to stop the Black God’s Drums from being unleashed and wiping out the entirety of New Orleans.

My Review:

There is just something about New Orleans that makes it seem, not just possible but downright plausible, that there is magic on those streets and always has been. Whether the version of the city is the one we know from history, or some other New Orleans out there in the multiverse of parallel universes and alternate histories.

The U.S. Civil War has its own magic – not that magic with a capital “M” happened, but rather the magic of possibility, that so many never weres and might have beens hinge on the events that occurred during those few years that must have felt like they lasted forever.

It’s not just that the history and meaning of that conflict have been reinterpreted, re-imagined and re-written in the century and a half that followed, but that the entire enterprise balanced on a knife edge and could have tipped in pretty much any bloody direction.

That particular “might have been” has been the stuff of much alt-history science fiction. One very readable toe in that water is Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South, but he needed time-travel to make it work. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and her saga of the grim, steampunk Clockwork Century posits a U.S. Civil War that never ended as collateral damage of a catastrophic event in Seattle during the Klondike Gold Rush that created zombies.

The Black God’s Drums takes place in an alternate version of New Orleans in a world where the U.S. Civil War tipped off the knife edge in the direction of a negotiated almost-peace, into an armistice between the Union and the Confederacy. An armistice that left the crucial port of New Orleans as an independent neutral city-state, governed by its citizens – ALL its citizens, black and white.

The Union counts this New Orleans as an ally, if not officially, while the Confederacy views it as a repudiation of all they hold dear. Under the armistice, the city may not be an open battleground, but it is sometimes a covert one. Which is what takes place in this story.

Right alongside the coming-of-age story of Creeper, a girl on the cusp of adulthood (Creeper’s OK with creeping up to adulthood, but she’s much less sanguine about approaching womanhood in any way, shape, or form) who wants more than anything to find a way out of the city she has lived in all of her life. She thinks her accidental discovery of a plot to drown the city in magically created storms can be traded for a berth on a smuggler’s airship.

But Creeper has magic of her own, a magic that leads her to be in the right place at the right time to save her city. And the knowledge that this place is hers to love and hers to defend – for as long as she has the favor of her goddess.

Escape Rating A-: The Black God’s Drums was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Award for Best Novella back in 2019 – and I meant to read it then but it got swallowed by the “so many books, so little time” event horizon and it didn’t happen. Then I read the author’s A Master of Djinn last year and this popped back up to the top of the virtually towering TBR pile. So when I went hunting for novellas for this week, there it was near the top of the heap.

And am I ever glad that it was – even though this is nothing like A Master of Djinn. Instead, it reads like a combination of every book of magical New Orleans from the Sentinels of New Orleans to The City of Lost Fortunes to The Map of Moments combined then tossed in with steampunk like Boneshaker but stirred with the perspective of the author’s Ring Shout in the way that magic of the African diaspora is interwoven into the story and to the events of the alternate history.

So Creeper’s New Orleans feels like New Orleans even if it isn’t exactly the one that history records. Even though the work (and misuse of the work) of those gods, the orishas, have produced effects that both remind the reader of Katrina and make the hurricane seem tame in comparison.

And on top of all that, we have not just the coming-of-age story, but a pulse-pounding adventure with deadly danger both in the immediate term and in the consequences if things go wrong. As they very nearly do. Along with the possibility of a daring rescue by pirate airship – or an ignominious crash of defeat.

The thing about novellas is that even when they are complete in and of themselves, and The Black God’s Drums does tell its story beautifully in the length it has, I’m left wanting more. This adventure does come, rightly and properly, to its end. But what happens next? And what happened before? There’s so much of this alternate version of the city – and the country – to explore.

So, just as the author’s short works, A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 embiggened their Dead Djinn Universe into the utterly captivating A Master of Djinn, I hope that someday the New Orleans of the orisha and the pirate airships will embiggen into something bigger, bolder and even more grand.

Review: Detroit Kiss by Rhys Ford

Review: Detroit Kiss by Rhys FordDetroit Kiss by Rhys Ford
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: M/M romance, urban fantasy, vampires
Pages: 150
Published by Dreamspinner Press on April 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

For Javi Navarro, Detroit will become another blood-splattered city in his rearview mirror after he puts its dead back into the ground. Expecting an easy hunting job, Javi instead finds a kiss of ancient vampires on the hunt for a descendant of their long-dead creator.

Reclusive Ciarnan Mac Gerailt abandoned his family legacy of blood and death magic after it nearly destroyed him. Unfortunately for Ciarnan, the Motor City can only be saved if he resumes his dark arts and joins forces with Javi Navarro, the hunter who brought the vampire apocalypse—and hope for the future—straight to Ciarnan’s front door.

Previously published as "Legacy of Blood and Death" in the anthology Creature Feature 2

My Review:

Have you been wondering where urban fantasy went? I certainly have. Once upon a time, it was the hottest thing since, well, whatever metaphor seems appropriate for the 1980s or thereabouts, but then it kind of died off, sort of like the vampires that seemed to be the backbone of its antiheroes and tormented villains, sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Not that ongoing series didn’t continue, but new ones just didn’t emerge from the shadows.

So to speak. Ahem.

I love urban fantasy and missed it when it slunk back into those shadows. It was one of my go-to genres when I was in a reading slump. But it’s starting to feel like it’s back from the dead. Or the graveyard. Or wherever it’s been hiding for the last decade or so. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at Holly Black’s Book of Night when it comes out next month. Because the heroine Charlie Hall is pretty much every hard luck and worse trouble kick ass heroine to ever stalk the pages of an urban fantasy. But I digress. Sort of.)

Because when I started reading Detroit Kiss, the first, second and third things I thought of were just how much it reminded me of the early Dresden Files books, to the point where I’m not sure whether Javi’s musings as to why so many magic-wielding heavy-hitters ended up in Detroit instead of Chicago. It felt like half explanation, half intercity rivalry and half homage to Harry Dresden’s stomping ground.

I realize that’s too many halves, but there are always too many somethings nasty in this kind of urban fantasy. In the case of Detroit Kiss, too many feral vampires. The bloodsuckers are definitely not the heroes of this piece. They’re the evil pests, to the point where the good guys call them “ticks” because they are mindless evil bloodsuckers.

So the tone of Detroit Kiss, with Javi Navarro working as a bounty hunter for the beleaguered Detroit Police Department, had the same feel as the early Dresden books, minus Harry’s somewhat leery male gaze. Plus, however, a slightly better love life – eventually – as Javi’s luck turns out to be better than Dresden’s frequently was. At least so far.

We’re introduced to this version of Detroit in decay when a construction crew attempting to revive the city yet again uncovers a “kiss” of vampires who have been trapped underground, gnawing on the bones of their makers and each other for a century. They’ve been stuck in the ruins of a speakeasy since Prohibition with nothing to drink except each other.

Until they eat the construction crew, that is.

But these ticks are fixated on the two magic users whose bones they’ve been picking clean all these years, so once they escape they go hunting for whoever is left of the bloodlines that made them.

And that’s where Ciarnan Mac Gerailt comes in, the only descendant of one of those mages within easy reach. Ciarnan is existing someplace between hiding out and living in an old theater he’s never bothered to refurbish in one of the many down-at-heels neighborhoods in this version of the city. He’s given up the death magic that is his family’s heritage and taken up growing vegetables and just trying to get himself, his wolf dog Elric and his fae familiar Shaddock through the day and the sometimes very long and dark nights.

Ciarnan looked into the abyss, the abyss looked back and took his friends, his apprentice and very nearly his life. He’s given up magic. Really, truly.

At least until Javi Navarro helps him put down one of the entirely too many ticks that has come after him in place of his several greats-grandfather. Javi wants Ciarnan to help gather up the ticks so they can pick the place and time and have a better chance at bringing them down.

And honestly, he just wants Ciarnan the minute he sees him – even though Ciarnan clocks him with a shovel the minute after.

But in order to help Javi, Ciarnan will have to look back into that abyss – and hope to heaven or hell that this time it doesn’t swallow him whole. While praying that the vampires don’t either.

Escape Rating A-: I have one and only one complaint about Detroit Kiss. It’s too damn short.

I mean that. Seriously. It’s too damn short and there aren’t any more. Rather like the author’s Dim Sum Asylum, which was another gem of urban fantasy that bordered just a bit on paranormal romance AND also had a fascinating world that seemed like there was oodles of backstory to explore, a riveting case to solve, a terrific pair of heroes and DAMN no sequel.

I loved the way that this almost-now/nearish future Detroit felt like an all too easy extension of where the city has been for the past decade or two (or maybe three), partially devastated and partly gentrifying and still trying to get back up on its feet in spite of all the forces trying to tear it down.

The magic system seems cool and interesting, and the whole idea of finding a buried speakeasy filled with rogue vamps was an absolutely chilling way to kick things off.

Ciarnan is one of the author’s signature wounded-but-trying heroes who do the right thing even if sometimes for the wrong reasons and are always one half-step away from backsliding into darkness.

The climactic scene is dark, deadly, dangerous AND squicky and heroic at the same time. I’d absolutely adore seeing where these guys and their world go next. I hope the author gets there someday because I’d be all in for it!

Review: Under Lock and Skeleton Key by Gigi Pandian

Review: Under Lock and Skeleton Key by Gigi PandianUnder Lock & Skeleton Key (Secret Staircase Mystery, #1) by Gigi Pandian
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Secret Staircase #1
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on March 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Under Lock & Skeleton Key layers architecture with mouthwatering food in an ode to classic locked-room mysteries.
An impossible crime. A family legacy. The intrigue of hidden rooms and secret staircases.
After a disastrous accident derails Tempest Raj’s career, and life, she heads back to her childhood home in California to comfort herself with her grandfather’s Indian home-cooked meals. Though she resists, every day brings her closer to the inevitable: working for her father’s company. Secret Staircase Construction specializes in bringing the magic of childhood to all by transforming clients’ homes with sliding bookcases, intricate locks, backyard treehouses, and hidden reading nooks.
When Tempest visits her dad’s latest renovation project, her former stage double is discovered dead inside a wall that’s supposedly been sealed for more than a century. Fearing she was the intended victim, it’s up to Tempest to solve this seemingly impossible crime. But as she delves further into the mystery, Tempest can’t help but wonder if the Raj family curse that’s plagued her family for generations—something she used to swear didn’t exist—has finally come for her.

My Review:

Under Lock and Skeleton Key is the first book in the author’s Secret Staircase Mystery series. With that series title, it sounds like this should be a case for Nancy Drew – and it sorta/kinda is.

A grown-up Nancy Drew who grew up sharing her love of puzzle solving and misdirection with her BFF. A BFF she ghosted ten years back. A hurt they’ll both have to get over in order to get this mystery-solving partnership back together.

It’s also the story of Tempest Raj and her family’s very special construction company, Secret Staircase Construction. Because that’s what her family builds – homes and offices with hidden doors, concealed nooks and yes – secret staircases.

Tempest Raj is back home in California in her family’s eclectic, multi-ethnic and multi-family, nearly vertical piece of almost-paradise. She’s back licking her still-smarting wounds after the literal explosion of her career as a famous – and now infamous – Las Vegas stage magician. EVERYONE in the industry and on social media blames Tempest for the trick that went catastrophically wrong in both water AND fire, but Tempest is certain that the costly disaster was the result of her body-double assistant attempting to paint Tempest as a risk too dangerous to back or insure, in the hopes that said assistant could finally become the main event.

Instead the show shut down, putting everyone out of work – including said duplicitous assistant – while Tempest has been forced to retreat back home after losing her Las Vegas house along with her reputation. She’s waiting for the other shoe to drop, or should that be shoes, as it seems like everyone involved has threatened to sue her.

But her successful show wasn’t just her success, the money she earned allowed her to keep her family’s business, Secret Staircase Construction, afloat. Now that money is gone and she’s back home hoping that she won’t have to resort to taking a job that doesn’t exist as part of her dad’s somewhat misfit crew. A crew he can barely afford as it is.

When her dad calls her to report to a job site, she’s sure that fate has just come upon her. Instead, her dad needs her to look at the house they’re currently working on because they’ve found something that is more in her professional line than his. They’ve spotted a dead body in an enclosed space that no one has opened in a century – and none of them can figure out how it got there.

That kind of trap door illusion is just the sort of thing that Tempest specialized in, so she’s intrigued by the puzzle – at least until she’s chilled by the discovery that the dead body isn’t merely too recent to have been walled up for a century. When the wall is opened, Tempest recognizes the corpse just a bit too well. Her duplicitous assistant, Tempest’s near-duplicate, is dead – and the woman didn’t wrap her own corpse in a sack and put itself in a locked room.

The woman is dead. The biggest question in Tempest’s mind is whether she was killed for herself – or in place of the woman she resembled so strongly. It’s up to Tempest and her friends to figure out both whodunnit and who was intended to be done before the killer catches up with her!

Escape Rating A-: This cozy mystery thriller – as much of a contradiction in terms as that feels – is a mystery wrapped in an enigma enclosed in a puzzle in a way that is shot through with both magic and suspense. But the magic in Tempest’s life and in her family’s Anglo-Indian history is mostly of the stage magic variety.

This is also a mystery that manages to pay homage to the classics of the genre – from Agatha Christie and John Dickinson Carr to Scooby-Doo, without ever falling into the trap of slavish imitation – no matter how many hidden switches and actual trap doors the story has built into it.

But this is not a fair play mystery, unlike so many of those classics. It’s a mystery of misdirection, both for Tempest AND for the reader. It’s also the story of how Tempest gets her own “Scooby gang” together to help her solve the mystery.

A mystery that manages to contain so many red herrings that it’s a surprise that her grandfather – an excellent cook whose lovingly described dishes are guaranteed to make the reader’s mouth water – doesn’t take the opportunity to cook them up into something delicious. (His recipes at the end of the book all sound scrumptious!)

The initial crime seems impossible – a locked room mystery that would tax Holmes’ famous logic and Poirot’s little grey cells at the same time. But the rules about locked room mysteries point the way to possibilities that make the impossible not quite so impossible. Tempest just needs to color-code those red herrings.

But the story is also hedged around with family fears and family secrets. Everyone seems to be protecting Tempest – and themselves – from a truth that no one wants to talk about. There might be a curse on their family going all the way back to their roots in India under the Raj.

And it all might be just another one of those tasty red herrings.

It’s only once Tempest is able to pull a tiny thread of one of the many tangled threads in this case – in the Locked Room Library no less! – that she is finally able to tease out a solution. Not just to this convoluted case – but to the question that has been plaguing her since the day she came home. The question about what’s next for Tempest. And in working towards a resolution to the mystery, she finally finds her answer.

Tempest’s answer means that this is the beginning of what looks like it will be a fun and fascinating series – one that I am very much looking forward to exploring. In the meantime, I’ll just have to go back to some of this author’s other cozily magical mystery series. I’ve already read a bit of her Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt series (The Ninja’s Illusion) and now I have the perfect excuse to go back!

Review: Sweet Home Cowboy by Maisey Yates, Nicole Helm, Jackie Ashenden, Caitlin Crews

Review: Sweet Home Cowboy by Maisey Yates, Nicole Helm, Jackie Ashenden, Caitlin CrewsSweet Home Cowboy by Maisey Yates, Caitlin Crews, Nicole Helm, Jackie Ashenden
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Jasper Creek #3
Pages: 448
Published by Hqn on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Four half sisters create the family they’ve always dreamed of in this enchanting quartet from bestselling authors Maisey Yates, Nicole Helm, Jackie Ashenden and Caitlin Crews.
The Hathaway sisters might have grown up apart, but when they agree to move to Jasper Creek, Oregon, to revitalize their grandfather’s farm, it seems a straightforward decision. Until they meet their neighborhood cowboys…
Sweet-natured Teddy has never met a man worth taking a risk on, until now. Tomboy Joey has more affinity with farm equipment than men, until a brooding cowboy changes her mind. Prickly baker Georgie can’t resist the temptation of the most forbidden cowboy of all, and sparks fly between ceramicist Elliot and the grumpy single-dad rancher next door.
The sisters’ feelings are anything but simple, but with the love and support of each other, they discover that a cowboy might be the sweetest thing of all about coming home.

My Review:

The best thing that Mickey Hathaway ever did for his four daughters was to leave before any of them were ever born – although some of their mothers would disagree. And not that his absence from their lives didn’t leave a “Dad” sized hole in all of their hearts. But that’s a hole that Mickey wasn’t capable of filling – whether he was around or not.

Teddy, Joey, Georgie and Elliott, in spite of being raised all over the country by four different women, share more than their gender-obscuring names, their violet eyes and their sperm donor. They are also all the same age, 25, as their deadbeat dad impregnated all of their mothers the same year.

(There’s a story there I wish we knew a bit more of, but it’s a humdinger all the same.)

They share a heart, a yearning to make a home together, and a curmudgeonly grandfather in tiny Jasper Creek, Oregon who has just had a heart attack but claims not to want their assistance or their presence. But grumpy is Jack Hathaway’s love language, so he might just be lying.

Whether he is or not, his health scare gives his girls the impetus they need to pull up stakes from wherever they’ve been and gather at the place their hearts all call home. The place where they have always wanted to put down roots and build the life together, as sisters, that they never had growing up.

Thus Four Sisters Farm is born. The four of them, pitching together with their creative skills and boundless love to fix the old ranch house that Jack has refused to live in for over a decade, work the land that has become a bit much for the old man, and build a self-sustaining set of businesses that will keep the farm afloat and in the hands of the Hathaway family even as it brings people and money to their little town.

Along the way, each of the sisters finds their own way to a Happy Ever After that none of them ever dreamed of when their journeys began.

Escape Rating A-: The stories in Sweet Home Cowboy are all stories of love and loss. The losses come first. It’s not just that “Dad” shaped hole in all of the girls’ hearts, it’s also the messages and the messes that each inherited from the mothers – the women that Mickey Hathaway left behind.

But it’s not just the sisters. The men that get swept into their lives – or sucked into the vortex they create – have also been through emotional wringers. The individual love stories in this four-leaf clover of a book are all about finding the person who makes you stronger in your broken places.

That his girls have come home to build their futures also helps to heal Grandpa Jack, which turns out to be the icing on this very sweet and lovely cake.

My favorite story of the four was Joey’s, written by Maisey Yates, who was is the organizer for this  Jasper Creek series. Joey was the hard-nosed, practical, fix-it, “tomboy” of the sisters. She’s kind of a blunt object, and that object is usually a hammer – whether figuratively or literally. She the one who learned to stand alone and be self-sufficient at all costs, lest she be thought weak OR be let down by relying on someone who can’t be relied upon. Learning to let go enough to let someone else in is hard, but watching Joey finally figure that out was lovely. And, just as in so many of the author’s previous works, and the reason why I picked this book up in the first place, Joey’s perspective and her issues with the cowboy she falls in love with feel real and do not require a misunderstandammit to reach that HEA.

I also enjoyed Teddy’s and Elliot’s stories, although they were different in tone to Joey’s, because they were different people and occupy different places in the kaleidoscope of the Hathaway sisters. I have to say that Georgie’s story didn’t quite work for me as well as the others did.

When I started Sweet Home Cowboy I had no idea that this was book three in a series, although that didn’t impact my reading and I didn’t feel like I needed to know what happened in the earlier books in order to get stuck right into this one. All the books in the series are written by the same group of friends that wrote Sweet Home Cowboy, and are about groups of four women returning to Jasper Creek, which is near both Copper Ridge and Gold Valley, the sites of Maisey Yates’ other long-running cowboy romance series(es). So far, Jasper Creek has featured four cousins (A Cowboy for All Seasons), four friends (A Good Old-Fashioned Cowboy), and now four half-sisters. Sweet Home Cowboy turned out to be a delicious treat of a read, so now I want to go back and see what else has happened!

Review: Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May

Review: Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca MayWild and Wicked Things by Francesca May
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: F/F romance, historical fantasy, historical fiction, paranormal
Pages: 432
Published by Redhook on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the aftermath of World War I, a naive woman is swept into a glittering world filled with dark magic, romance, and murder in this lush and decadent debut.
On Crow Island, people whisper, real magic lurks just below the surface. 
Neither real magic nor faux magic interests Annie Mason. Not after it stole her future. She’s only on the island to settle her late father’s estate and, hopefully, reconnect with her long-absent best friend, Beatrice, who fled their dreary lives for a more glamorous one. 
Yet Crow Island is brimming with temptation, and the biggest one may be her enigmatic new neighbor. 
Mysterious and alluring, Emmeline Delacroix is a figure shadowed by rumors of witchcraft. And when Annie witnesses a confrontation between Bea and Emmeline at one of the island's extravagant parties, she is drawn into a glittering, haunted world. A world where the boundaries of wickedness are tested, and the cost of illicit magic might be death.

My Review:

The wild and wicked things of Wild and Wicked Things weren’t quite like anything I was expecting.

That may be because both “wild” and “wicked” are in the eyes of the beholder. And there seems to be plenty of both to behold on Crow Island, somewhere mythical and magical just off the coast of England.

Part of the fascination for me in this story was the setup. This is a post-World War I story, but the variation of the Great War that this story is post of isn’t quite the one we know. Because in this version of history, the gas that killed so many in the trenches wasn’t mustard gas.

It was magic. A magic that transformed the soldiers it touched into supersoldiers with no conscience, no morals, no scruples and no fear of death. It’s only hinted at, but it seems as if it was worse than that. It certainly left behind a version of “shell shock” or PTSD that gave the survivors even more regrets and worse nightmares than they suffered in our real history. Which is definitely saying something.

But the war is over. Politically, the powers-that-be that embraced witchcraft when they needed it to prosecute the terrible war are now backing away. Magic has fallen from favor – and from legality – and faces a Prohibition that will probably be just as effective as the real Prohibition was in U.S. history. Meaning not at all.

Still, the “Lost Generation” has even more they want to forget about than in real history. And one of the places they come to do that forgetting – at least among the rich and glittering – is Crow Island, where magic has seeped into the blood and bones of the place and its people.

Annie has come to Crow Island to pack up the estate of a man she never knew. Her absent father. She’s been warned all her life against magic and has no plans to get caught up in the mystery and glamour of the island. But as that old saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men (and women) often go astray.

Especially as her best friend, Bea, ran away to Crow Island and married there. Annie feels compelled to find out what happened to the girl she grew up with. And the house that is just down the beach from her rented cottages shines so brightly in the night that she can’t resist exploring, no matter how many times she’s already been warned to stay away from magic in general, and from the residents of Cross House in particular.

Because they practice magic. Also sin, debauchery and perhaps a bit of drug dealing along with the fortune telling. But definitely magic – which is to be avoided at all costs.

But for once in her life as a timid little mouse, Annie doesn’t listen to all those cautioning voices. She finds herself caught in Emmeline Delacroix’ glamorous and glittering web. Only for Emmeline to discover that she has landed a much bigger fish than she expected, and that naïve, innocent Annie has caught her as well.

Or the magic has caught them both.

Escape Rating A-: The lesson of Wild and Wicked Things is to be very, very careful what you wish for, because you might get it at a cost that is not fully revealed until it is much, much too late. Along with a reminder that some gifts most certainly do come at way too high a price.

Initially, the person who got what they wished for was Annie’s friend Bea. But Bea has refused to pay the price for her wish, is refusing to acknowledge that it was her wish in the first place, and seems to be perfectly willing to let Emmeline Delacroix pay the price for it – even if that price is Emmeline’s own life.

Then again, one of the things we learn over the course of the story is that Bea is a user and a bitch to pretty much everyone. As we learn more about Annie and Bea’s shared girlhood, and Bea’s involvement with Emmeline and Cross House, we lose pretty much any sympathy for her and end up wondering why Annie put up with her for so long or why Emmeline didn’t see right through her.

But Bea is just the catalyst for everything that happens and that she refuses to accept any responsibility for. The story is Annie’s. It’s Annie’s story of feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Of coming into her own and admitting who she really is.

In a way, it’s one of those things that still felt like a mystery at the end. Was Annie a mouse because that was her nature, or was Annie a mouse because so much of her true nature was suppressed? We never do find out, although there are hints.

As Annie gets herself involved in all the things she’s not supposed to be involved in, like magic, witchcraft, murder, raising the dead and falling in love with Emmeline, she breaks out of the straightjacket her life has been contained in. It is, very much on the one hand, the making of her.

And on the other, thinking that raising the dead is a good idea that will solve all the problems they are all already in feels like seriously the wrong way to go about things. As the situation proves.

Considering the period in which this is set, it has a surprisingly gothic feel to it. Cross House has a mind of its own, and it’s a brooding one filled with darkness and secrets. The story also reminds me a lot of Amanda Quick’s Burning Cove series (start with The Girl Who Knew Too Much), with the way that the paranormal has been turned so completely dark.

War is dangerous. Witchcraft is dangerous. Love is dangerous. Mix them together and it’s all too easy to end up with a whole big ball of explosive wrong.

However, following along with Annie as she figures out all of the above may not exactly be “right” (for select definitions thereof) but it is absolutely riveting from beginning to end.