Review: Domesticating Dragons by Dan Koboldt

Review: Domesticating Dragons by Dan KoboldtDomesticating Dragons by Dan Koboldt
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 345
Published by Baen Books on January 5, 2021
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Build-A-Bear workshop meets Jurassic Park when a newly graduated genetic engineer goes to work for a company that aims to produce custom-made dragons.
Noah Parker, a newly minted Ph.D., is thrilled to land a dream job at Reptilian Corp., the hottest tech company in the American Southwest. He’s eager to put his genetic engineering expertise to use designing new lines of Reptilian’s feature product: living, breathing dragons.
Although highly specialized dragons have been used for industrial purposes for years, Reptilian is desperate to crack the general retail market. By creating a dragon that can be the perfect family pet, Reptilian hopes to put a dragon into every home.
While Noah’s research may help Reptilian create truly domesticated dragons, Noah has a secret goal. With his access to the company’s equipment and resources, Noah plans to slip changes into the dragons’ genetic code, bending the company’s products to another purpose entirely.

My Review:

The blurb calls this “Build-A-Bear workshop meets Jurassic Park” and that does sum up the top level of this story – although in the end it turns out to be WAY MORE Jurassic Park than Build-A-Bear™.

After all, those bears aren’t real, but the dragons in Jurassic Park definitely are. Although the dragons that both do and don’t get domesticated don’t run quite that far amok. But they could. And they definitely do run a bit amok, but then, so do their designers – and their owners.

There are two situations at the beginning of this story, and they play into each other in ways that I didn’t expect at that beginning.

Noah Parker got into genetic engineering because his younger brother has a muscular atrophy-type disease that could be genetic. But nobody knows and with the source of the disease unidentified – and therefore medically “vague” – Connor Parker isn’t eligible for any of the experimental testing and treatment programs that are currently underway – or that ever will be.

Noah became a genetic engineer not so he could cure his brother – because that’s not possible – but so that he could identify the genetic component of his disease and get him into effective treatment.

It’s a noble goal – although the lengths that Noah goes to in order to achieve it are sometimes less than noble.

There’s also a secondary problem that most of the world considers more important than the progress of one man’s disease. A virus has killed off nearly the entire canine population the world over – and no cure has been found.

Strangely enough, that’s what leads to dragons. Because dogs fill a lot of roles in the human ecosystem, as well as making marvelous pets. There’s a huge niche that can be exploited by someone with the genetic engineering knowhow and the economic savvy to design and build a creature that can fill all those cages that used to be filled by barking dogs.

That’s where Reptilian Corporation comes in. And eventually, where it goes out. With more than a bit of help from newly minted Ph.D. Noah Parker and all of his little friends.

Escape Rating A-: Dragons may be the ultimate in charismatic fauna. They’re certainly right up there with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park for just how much sheer “grabby hands syndrome” the idea of having one’s very own dragon would create in pretty much anyone.

Including a whole lot of people who are incapable of being responsible pet owners for one reason or another. The transcripts of the calls to the Build-A-Dragon help line and support department are hilarious and so very real. Tech support for computers and computer software sounds very much like that – without the possibilities of death and dismemberment for either the owner or the product. Usually. (If you’ve never read the probably apocryphal tale of nosmoke.exe, now might be the time. We all need a laugh or two this week!)

As much as I chuckled over the tech support bits, this is a story that began by giving me a terrible sad. Imagining a world where there were no dogs was depressing as hell. And I’m a cat person. But seriously, as many jokes as there are about asking the deity to make someone as good of a person as their dog thinks there are, the idea that the dogs were all gone was heartbreaking. Strangely even more heartbreaking than the situation at the beginning of Connie Willis’ quirky time-travel classic, To Say Nothing of the Dog, which begins in a world where it’s the cats who have been killed off.)

It also made me wonder, throughout the story, why no one seemed to have thought about engineering dog species who were immune to the virus. Discovering the reason at the end was kind of a relief.

But the story here is about one extremely nerdy guy who sets out to save his brother and ends up saving an entire species. Because as much as he wants to treat the dragons as if they are merely clusters of experimental cells, he can’t. They worm, or rather fly, their way into Noah’s heart every bit as much as they do the readers’.

So when Noah discovers the truth about what’s really going on with the company and the dragons, we’re right there with him in his horror, his disgust, his fear and his determination. We cheer him on as he does what’s right instead of what’s easy.

And it’s marvelous that in the end, rather like the way that dogs (and cats) save us as much as we save them, Noah’s dragons save him every bit as much as he saves them – if not just a bit more.

Lab-based science fiction, with its grounding in the real world, real situations and people who feel like friends rather than out-of-this-world superheroes is a lot of fun when it’s done right. It’s done right in Domesticating Dragons, with its geeky hero who saves the day, gets the girl and fulfills all of our dreams of dragons.

Review: Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T.A. Willberg

Review: Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T.A. WillbergMarion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T.A. Willberg
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, steampunk, thriller
Pages: 336
Published by Park Row on December 29, 2020
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The letter was short. A name, a time, a place.
Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder plunges readers into the heart of London, to the secret tunnels that exist far beneath the city streets. There, a mysterious group of detectives recruited for Miss Brickett’s Investigations & Inquiries use their cunning and gadgets to solve crimes that have stumped Scotland Yard.
Late one night in April 1958, a filing assistant for Miss Brickett’s named Michelle White receives a letter warning her that a heinous act is about to occur. She goes to investigate but finds the room empty. At the stroke of midnight, she is murdered by a killer she can’t see—her death the only sign she wasn’t alone. It becomes chillingly clear that the person responsible must also work for Miss Brickett’s, making everyone a suspect.
Almost unwillingly, Marion Lane, a first-year Inquirer-in-training, finds herself being drawn ever deeper into the investigation. When her friend and mentor is framed for the crime, to clear his name she must sort through the hidden alliances at Miss Brickett’s and secrets dating back to WWII. Masterful, clever and deliciously suspenseful, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder is a fresh take on the Agatha Christie—style locked-room mystery with an exciting new heroine detective at the helm.

My Review:

Somewhere in the depths of Miss Brickett’s Investigations and Inquiries, which masquerades as Miss Brickett’s Secondhand Books and Curiosities, there must be a door that leads to the Invisible Library as well as some stacks that wander into the “L” space that leads to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

Or if there isn’t, there certainly ought to be. While the Discworld librarian would probably just throw some bananas at the entire mess, Irene Winters, the Librarian who serves as spy, agent and occasionally thief on behalf of the Invisible Library would fit right into Miss Brickett’s. To the point where I wonder if the Library hasn’t used Miss Brickett’s as a training program on multiple occasions.

Because first-year Miss Brickett’s apprentice Marion Lane has exactly what it takes to become Irene’s kind of librarian, and her misadventures read like just the kind of thing that Irene probably cut her teeth on.

And just as much the kind of misadventure that cut its teeth on her.

Marion Lane, like Miss Brickett’s itself (and Miss Brickett herself, for that matter) is more than she appears to be. Miss Brickett’s (the agency) is the kind of place that feels like it ought to exist, even though it really doesn’t. Both in the sense that it would be marvelous if there were people whose lives were dedicated to resolving issues and solving crimes for anyone who needs help, and it would be marvelous if said secret agency operated in secret tunnels under one of the great cities – like London.

London in particular, is so large, has been a city for so long, and has such a many-layered history that we’re not surprised when real things that have been lost for decades – or centuries – turn up under it. Like lost Underground Stations – something that has really happened.

Miss Brickett’s, both the agency and the person, also intersect with the post-World War II history of women who found important jobs and purpose during the war and just weren’t interested in giving it all up afterwards. Particularly women who served at Bletchley Park as codebreakers.

Come to think of it, Sparks and Bainbridge (The Right Sort of Man, A Royal Affair and the upcoming A Rogue’s Company) would have fit right into Miss Brickett’s – even if they would have chafed at some of its many rules and restrictions.

But there are secrets in and under Miss Brickett’s. Not just the secrets its Inquirers investigate, but the secrets that they are keeping. Including their own. Because Miss Brickett’s conceals some of the very shady parts of Britain’s involvement in the late war. And because it guards the mysterious and deadly “Border” between the worlds we know – and someplace we very much don’t.

So when the “Border Guard” is murdered in a locked room named the “Lock Room” Marion Lane risks her apprenticeship and her life to determine who really done it. Because it couldn’t have been the person who was framed for it.

It’s up to Marion and her friends and frenemies to discover the truth – before that truth discovers that they are out to get it – and definitely before it gets them.

The gorgeous UK cover

Escape Rating A-: The blurb is a bit misleading. While the murder at the heart of this mystery is a locked-room mystery, the totality of Marion’s story bears no resemblance to anything by Dame Agatha.

Rather, this reads like it sits at the dangerous crossroads between The Invisible Library and the Scholomance of A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik. The dark passages under Miss Brickett’s, the atmosphere of “here be dragons”, complete with monsters that serve as the equivalent of real, honest to goodness dragons, feels very much like the dark, dank and deadly corridors – and especially the lost halls – of the Scholomance.

It’s also clear that survival skills are an unstated but absolutely necessary part of all three curriculums.

While Marion’s misadventures read like some of Irene Winters’ training at the Invisible Library, Marion as a character is very much like El in A Deadly Education. She’s young, she’s still learning, the apprenticeship feels like her last chance to save herself, she’s in over her head and the place and everyone in it really are out to get her.

Not everyone in either case, but that’s how it feels from each of their perspectives at the time the stories open.

Marion’s situation is in many ways more poignant because it is based in the real. She knows that she doesn’t want the life everyone thinks she should want – marriage and children – and she definitely doesn’t want it with anyone that her grandmother picks out for her. She’s desperate to escape her situation and Miss Brickett’s is more than just a job, it’s Marion’s ticket out of her life and into something meaningful, purposeful and marvelous.

She has a lot riding on this apprenticeship – if she can just stick it for the three years required, not merely survive but receive good evaluations,  she’ll be offered a full-time position as an Inquirer – which includes room and board at Miss Brickett’s and away from her harridan of a grandmother.

But, as much as the creepy monsters under the agency, the mysterious “Border” and the hidden laboratories add to the chilling atmosphere of both Miss Brickett’s and the story, it’s the human side of all the equations that compels the reader to explore this world with Marion.

We feel for her personal predicament in the outside world, but it’s her motivations inside Miss Brickett’s that push her to investigate the murder. And it’s those same human motivations that are behind everything; pride, ambition, greed, jealousy and revenge, set against the need to keep the agency’s actions secret at all costs.

And it’s that balance and its breaking, the need to give justice to both the many – the people of London who rely on Miss Brickett’s services – as well as to the few – both the victim of the murder and the man framed for it, set against Miss Brickett’s own need to keep the agency secret so that “Official” London doesn’t shut down its clandestine and frequently illegal operations, that underpins the whole story and provides both its dramatic tension and its relief and release.

Marion and Miss Brickett’s are both fascinating characters. Marion’s career at Miss Brickett’s and her life are both at their starting points. Based on this initial outing, it’s clear that both have many more marvelous stories to tell us.

I hope we get to read them.

Review: All the Colors of Night by Jayne Ann Krentz

Review: All the Colors of Night by Jayne Ann KrentzAll the Colors of Night (Fogg Lake #2) by Jayne Ann Krentz
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, romantic suspense
Series: Fogg Lake #2
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley on January 5, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Two psychics plunge into a dark world of deadly secrets in this second installment of the Fogg Lake trilogy by New York Times bestselling author Jayne Ann Krentz.
North Chastain possesses a paranormal talent that gives him the ability to track down the most dangerous psychic criminals. When his father suddenly falls into a coma, North is convinced it was caused by a deadly artifact traced back to the days of a secret government laboratory known only as the Bluestone Project. North knows his only hope of saving his father is to find the artifact. He is good when it comes to tracking down killers but to locate the relic, he's going to need help from a psychic who knows the shadowy world of obsessive collectors, deceptive dealers, and ruthless raiders…
With her reputation in ruins after a false accusation, antique expert Sierra Raines is looking for a fresh start. She turns to the murky backwaters of the paranormal artifacts trade, finding and transporting valuable objects with a psychic provenance. When North Chastain approaches her for help, Sierra takes him on as a client, though not without reservations. North represents the mysterious Foundation, the secretive organization established to police the underworld populated by psychic criminals and those, like Sierra, who make a living in the shadows of that world.
North and Sierra soon find themselves at the scene of The Incident that occurred decades ago in Fogg Lake. The town and its residents were forever changed by the disaster in the nearby Bluestone Project labs. The pair unearth shocking truths about what happened that fateful night, but they are playing with fire—someone in town knows what they’ve discovered and will do anything to make sure the secrets stay buried.

My Review:

A long time ago, and partly, come to think of it, in a galaxy far, far away, there were two books written by Jayne Ann Krentz under her various pseudonyms. Second Sight, written as Amanda Quick in 2006, was the very first book in her long-running and century spanning Arcane Society series featuring characters from the Victorian era up through the present day who were gifted – or cursed – or sometimes even both – with paranormal abilities..

But before that, in 2000, or long after in the internal chronology, there was After Dark, written as Jayne Castle, the first book in the Ghost Hunters/Harmony series. The ghost hunters were the people, Harmony was the planet, and it had been settled by refugees who all left Earth because they had, you guessed it, paranormal abilities.

Those series converged in Midnight Crystal in 2010, where the thing I had always guessed was finally revealed, that the Harmony settlers were the descendants of the Arcane Society.

The long arm of coincidence being very long, and the concept that two separate populations of people with psi powers had somehow developed on Earth being too weird to be coincidental, when the marvelous first book in the Fogg Lake series, The Vanishing came out this time last year I was enthralled with the story – and fully expected Fogg Lake to link up to the Arcane Society and Harmony sooner or later.

It’s sooner. But if you’ve never dipped into either of the other series, don’t let that stop you from plunging into Fogg Lake. Because the link is tangential. It’s a hint, not a deep dive into the Arcane Society. Just a couple of brief mentions to answer the curiosity of readers – but mostly to allay the professional snoopiness of The Foundation, the early-21st century organization that is currently organizing and policing the paranormal population.

Because The Foundation has brushed up against the Arcane Society before, and they definitely don’t believe in that long arm of coincidence at all. But the clear but subtle “back off” messages they receive from both Harmony Jones, the Oracle of Fogg Lake, and Ambrose Jones of the paranormal artifacts retrieval agency, The Vault, let them know that the Arcane Society was very, very real and that that’s ALL they’re going to EVER be told.

So not nearly enough to make a new reader desperate to dive back into the other series, but a lovely little tease to let new readers know that if they enjoy their visits to Fogg Lake and want more that there is a whole universe out there to binge read.

All the Colors of Night takes place in the wake of The Vanishing. Not in the sense that the characters continue from that book, but rather that as the series opener The Vanishing literally opens the door to the series as the investigators discover the reason that the residents of Fogg Lake ALL have paranormal power when they find the ruins of the defunct Bluestone Project’s Fogg Lake labs.

Just as the protagonists of that first book are the descendants of Fogg Lake, so too are North Chastain and Sierra Raines, the heroes of this entry in the series.

For both North and Sierra, that inheritance from the “Fogg Lake Incident” is very much of a mixed blessing. They both have strong paranormal powers, but to the point where pretending to be “normal” is beyond them. It’s just too big a secret to keep and keeping it has kept them out of close friendships and romantic entanglements.

Until they meet each other, not in a romantic setting but as business partners forced to work together against their own instincts. But they need each other, at first only in the professional sense, but as they team up to chase down the people who attacked North’s father, they discover that their senses resonate together in a way that can’t be denied.

If they survive.

Escape Rating A-: The story in All the Colors of Night was every bit as fascinating as The Vanishing. This was just one of those books that I couldn’t put down – so it was a good thing I was reading it on a day when I didn’t have to.

The fun of this series so far is the slow reveal of all of the creepy woo-woo secrets and the way that kicks off and inserts itself into the romance. The idea that the government was playing around with the possibilities of paranormal powers is not a surprise – nor is it a surprise that when the government backed out the coverup began.

It would not surprise me AT ALL to learn that the secret government agency in charge of the Bluestone Project, “tiny, woefully underfunded Agency for the Investigation of Atypical Phenomena, a one-desk operation (currently unstaffed), buried deep in the basement of a building somewhere in Washington, D.C.” isn’t the same agency that Mulder and Scully worked out of in the X-Files. Although we’ll probably never know for sure.

But back to this story. North and Sierra aren’t so much investigating as digging for buried treasure – with pirates and tomb robbers chasing them at every turn. North has not one but two personal stakes in this hunt. He’s searching for the men who attacked his father, and he’s hoping to find out the truth about his grandfather’s disappearance way back when Bluestone was shut down.

He finds way more than he bargained for, that the attack on his father wasn’t the first attack on his family. Someone is poisoning him with the intent to burn out his paranormal powers. He’s not sure whether he has one enemy or lots of them – only that Sierra seems to be the one person he can trust. After all, she’s the one who discovered the poisoning.

But the chase that North begins thinking it’s all something in the present really goes back to his grandfather, his grandfather’s research partner, and a long-lost cache of weapons that holds the secret – even if that isn’t what North has been told and the cache isn’t quite what everyone believes it to be.

The romance in this one is very much opposites attract, along with more than a bit of one of this author’s specialties, the damaged hero finding a partner who is far from perfect herself, but is absolutely perfect for him – even if he can’t see it when they meet.

Both North and Sierra are afraid to let anyone other than family get close to them, both because of the powers they have to keep hidden from “mundanes” and because they each feel like they’re missing something or waiting for something to happen. Along with North initially believing that he’s about to lose his powers and fearing what will follow. While North’s situation pushes him even deeper into his own serious and driven side, Sierra comes off as a bit of a flake, job-hopping while searching for her “calling”.

They shouldn’t match, but the way that they do works really well and adds just the perfect touch of Happy Ever After to what would otherwise be a rather dark and serious story. The mix of danger and romance is just right.

While this story is a standalone, it is also clear that there is plenty more to uncover and many more stories to tell in Fogg Lake – and I can’t wait to read them!

Review: Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

Review: Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia HibbertTake a Hint, Dani Brown (The Brown Sisters, #2) by Talia Hibbert
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance
Series: Brown Sisters #2
Pages: 361
Published by Avon on June 23, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Talia Hibbert returns with another charming romantic comedy about a young woman who agrees to fake date her friend after a video of him “rescuing” her from their office building goes viral...
Danika Brown knows what she wants: professional success, academic renown, and an occasional roll in the hay to relieve all that career-driven tension. But romance? Been there, done that, burned the T-shirt. Romantic partners, whatever their gender, are a distraction at best and a drain at worst. So Dani asks the universe for the perfect friend-with-benefits—someone who knows the score and knows their way around the bedroom.
When brooding security guard Zafir Ansari rescues Dani from a workplace fire drill gone wrong, it’s an obvious sign: PhD student Dani and ex-rugby player Zaf are destined to sleep together. But before she can explain that fact, a video of the heroic rescue goes viral. Now half the internet is shipping #DrRugbae—and Zaf is begging Dani to play along. Turns out, his sports charity for kids could really use the publicity. Lying to help children? Who on earth would refuse?
Dani’s plan is simple: fake a relationship in public, seduce Zaf behind the scenes. The trouble is, grumpy Zaf’s secretly a hopeless romantic—and he’s determined to corrupt Dani’s stone-cold realism. Before long, he’s tackling her fears into the dirt. But the former sports star has issues of his own, and the walls around his heart are as thick as his... um, thighs.
Suddenly, the easy lay Dani dreamed of is more complex than her thesis. Has her wish backfired? Is her focus being tested? Or is the universe just waiting for her to take a hint?

My Review:

As my “week of happy endings” kicked off last Friday with the first book in the Brown Sisters trilogy, Get a Life, Chloe Brown – Dani’s older sister’s story – it is only fitting that I close the week with this book, all about the middle sister in the Brown family.

And what a story it is!

This story, and this series so far, is all about finding love a)when you are not looking for it and b) while you’re carrying baggage that you’re sure means that no one will ever really love you as you are except for family. Part of me is tempted to say these characters are all “positive” about their negative chances, because none of the protagonists so far begin their stories even remotely hopeful about their chances at finding anything resembling love and acceptance of the romantic kind.

And, as both of these stories show, it’s important to see people carrying emotional baggage finding happiness, because everyone is carrying some. Unless of course, they’re dead, and in paranormal romance even death doesn’t stop characters from finding their HEAs.

So this story, and this series so far, are about people who deal with their baggage and find love and happiness neither in spite of it nor because of it, but rather because they’re dealing with their own crap in constructive ways that make romance possible.

Love doesn’t magically cure what ails you – whether that ailing is physical or emotional – but it can help give you the strength to handle it a bit better. And that’s what is at the heart and soul of this series so far.

In the case of Dani Brown’s slightly flirty friendship with Zafir Ansari, both of them are carrying some pretty heavy baggage of the emotional kind. Nerdy, driven, single-minded and obsessively focused Dani has internalized the idea that she isn’t capable of the emotional work of maintaining a relationship. She’s happy to be friends-with-benefits with people, but relationships require work that she doesn’t believe she’s no longer interested in even attempting. So she has rules about getting involved with people outside the bedroom.

In Dani’s world, friendship is good, sex is great and romance is entirely off the table. She’s too busy pursuing her dream of becoming one of the relatively few black, female full professors in Britain to make the time for relationship maintenance and all of the compromises she knows it requires. Compromises she already knows that she’s very, very bad at.

Zafir Ansari is dealing with an entirely different set of emotional burdens. He’d love to find a happy ever after, and he’s more than willing to try, but whoever he becomes involved with has to be able to deal with his occasional panic attacks, uber-protective anxiety binges and his complete unwillingness to revisit whole swaths of his past because that way lies depression. He lost his father and his older brother in an accident and the resulting downward spiral caused his promising rugby career to implode.

But he has gotten his life mostly back on track, running a combination coaching and counseling program for boys who need help dealing with emotional and mental health issues without resorting to the dead end trap of toxic masculinity. As the program doesn’t pay the bills, he has a day job as a security guard at the university where Dani is an underpaid and over-driving teaching assistant and Ph.D. candidate.

Zafir wants a happy ever after, and Dani is just looking for a new fuckbuddy. They should restrict themselves to flirting, because they have entirely different relationship goals. Or at least they think they are.

When a recording of Zafir’s dramatic “rescue” of Dani from a trapped elevator during an evacuation drill goes viral, they decide, with eyes more or less wide shut, to embark upon a fake relationship, a classic of the romance genre, in order for the publicity to boost Zaf’s counseling program.

Oh, and they’ll be friends with benefits for the length of time it takes the social media craze to die down and the future for Zaf’s program to be secure.

Everyone knows just how fake relationships turn out in romance novels. Especially Zaf, who reads them voraciously. He’s all in, even if thought he wouldn’t be. The question is whether Dani can admit that she is, too. Before it’s too late.

Escape Rating A-: Dani’s story is even better than Chloe’s – and Chloe’s story was damn good.

But as much as I loved Chloe’s story, I found Dani’s to be just that extra bit easier to identify with because of her recognition and rejection of the performative nature of being part of a relationship. Women usually end up doing the emotional heavy-lifting in a heterosexual relationship, and some of us just aren’t equipped for it. Not that we don’t love the other person, but there are just some parts of relationship maintenance that we either don’t get or can’t be bothered with or that suffer in comparison to career or personal goals.

The latter of which is considered perfectly okay when a man feels – or doesn’t feel – that way but for which women get roundly and soundly criticized.

At the same time, part of what makes this romance so good is just what made Chloe’s story so good. In spite of often being emotionally clueless, Dani supports Zafir’s goals and his broken places, just as he does for her. They come to love each other as they are, not as the other wants them to be.

And the journey here for both of them is learning to deal better with their own shit. Zafir needs to be able to incorporate the good parts of his past with his present. He’s cutting himself off from both happiness and opportunities because he tries to maintain a hard line between the before – before the accident that took his father and brother – and the aftermath where he copes as long as that door isn’t opened.

Dani, on the other hand, needs to open the door in her own psyche to deal with a trauma that she hasn’t been willing to admit is there. That she’s afraid she can’t maintain a relationship so she refuses to try.

Like Chloe’s story, Dani’s romance with Zaf works because it feels real, and so do the tensions that nearly tear them apart. Get a Life, Chloe Brown was the perfect opening for my week of romance, and Take a Hint, Dani Brown was the perfect ending.

Even better, the Brown Sisters’ story is not over – which is wonderful because they’re part of a terrific family that continues to be marvelous to get to know. Youngest sister Eve’s story is coming up this spring in Act Your Age, Eve Brown. I can’t wait to see her try!

Review: Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Review: Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia HibbertGet a Life, Chloe Brown (The Brown Sisters, #1) by Talia Hibbert
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Brown Sisters #1
Pages: 373
Published by Avon on November 5, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Chloe Brown is a chronically ill computer geek with a goal, a plan, and a list. After almost—but not quite—dying, she’s come up with seven directives to help her “Get a Life”, and she’s already completed the first: finally moving out of her glamorous family’s mansion. The next items?
• Enjoy a drunken night out.• Ride a motorcycle.• Go camping.• Have meaningless but thoroughly enjoyable sex.• Travel the world with nothing but hand luggage.• And... do something bad.
But it’s not easy being bad, even when you’ve written step-by-step guidelines on how to do it correctly. What Chloe needs is a teacher, and she knows just the man for the job.
Redford ‘Red’ Morgan is a handyman with tattoos, a motorcycle, and more sex appeal than ten-thousand Hollywood heartthrobs. He’s also an artist who paints at night and hides his work in the light of day, which Chloe knows because she spies on him occasionally. Just the teeniest, tiniest bit.
But when she enlists Red in her mission to rebel, she learns things about him that no spy session could teach her. Like why he clearly resents Chloe’s wealthy background. And why he never shows his art to anyone. And what really lies beneath his rough exterior…

My Review:

Because yesterday’s book had a slightly higher, let’s call it “discomfort” factor than I was expecting from something promoted as a play on classic mysteries, I went looking for something a bit lighter in tone – or at least something I could reasonably expect to have a happy ending. My search led me to Get a Life, Chloe Brown, as I have the whole series in the virtually towering TBR pile but hadn’t quite been in the mood for it.

Until now. I was definitely in the mood for something light and maybe even a bit fluffy, and was hoping this would fill that particular bill. And even though the baggage that both of the protagonists are carrying is much too heavy to make this book either light or fluffy, it still gave me the happy ending that I was craving.

And all the better for dealing appropriately with that baggage.

Chloe needs to carve out a tiny bit of space from her loving, intrusive, extremely overprotective family. Not that Chloe doesn’t need a bit of help and protection, because she does. In the aftermath of a nearly deadly bout of pneumonia a few years ago, Chloe found herself living with both fibromyalgia and chronic pain.

It’s a situation that has forced Chloe to learn to manage her illness – with the help of the medical professionals she finally located who believed her and didn’t brush her off. Because if she doesn’t manage her health, the issues with it will manage her. And sometimes they still do, in spite of her efforts.

Along the way she’s lost friends and a fiance who refused to believe her, and her family, her parents, her grandmother, and her two sisters, have all stepped in to fill the gaps in Chloe’s social network.

But they’re smothering her with their good intentions, so after another near-death experience – this time with a drunk driver who swerves away at the last possible second – Chloe decides to go out and get herself a life without her loving family looking over her shoulder and swaddling her in cotton every single second.

She does find a new apartment, although the new social life is a bit harder to come by. What she does have is a new frenemy/obsession, the gorgeous, tattooed superintendent of the building. She sees him as a bit of a rough badass, and he sees her as a stuck up rich girl with a snooty attitude and her head up her very shapely backside.

When he discovers her rescuing a stray cat from a very tall tree, the ensuing mayhem allows them both to discover that neither is exactly who the other thought. And that each might provide the other with the kind of friendship that is forged not from what they have in common, but from the elements each needs that the other sorely lacks.

If only they can manage to get their own personal baggage out of the other’s way.

Escape Rating A-: As I said at the top, I was expecting fluff. What I got was a whole hell of a lot more nuanced than that, and I think I enjoyed it more because of that nuance. Not that fluff can’t be a wonderful thing if that’s what you’re looking for at a particular time, but this was just more than I expected and I was very happy with that.

The baggage that Chloe and Red are dealing with is both heavier than I expected and was handled so much better than I expected. The crap they’re carrying around isn’t easy and there are no quick solutions.

At the same time, they both recognize that they have a crapton of crap – even if it takes Red quite a bit longer to figure that out – and they both are coming to terms with their own shit. (I can’t be the only person in the world who had a relationship go to hell because both parties had their own crap and weren’t both willing to deal with it.)

And on my third hand, the stuff they each had to deal with was real and hard and not generally dealt with well or at all in romance. Chloe has a chronic illness. It’s something she has learned how to handle, but it will most likely never be cured. So her illness and her management of it and her health is part of what she has to deal with every single day. Even the good days, because it’s always lurking.

But there’s also the emotional baggage along with it. Not just her family’s overprotectiveness, which comes from a place of love but can be unintentionally belittling, but Chloe’s quite real fears of abandonment – because those feelings arose from reality. Her friends and her fiance didn’t believe her illness was real, so they treated her like she was a lying faker and left her to cope by herself.

The result is that she has walled herself away from people other than her family because everyone else has betrayed her trust when she needed them the most. So when her relationship with Red changes from disdain to friendship to flirting to love, she’s afraid he’ll leave because it’s happened to her before.

When he does leave she’s devastated but determined, because he leaves her not because of her crap but his own. His last girlfriend was a rich girl like Chloe, but she was abusive – something that you don’t see nearly enough in romance but does happen. He leaves Chloe because he panics and conflates her behavior with the ex, even though it isn’t so. But it’s something he has to work through and Chloe can’t do it for him anymore than he can deal with her abandonment issues for her.

No matter much he can, and does help her deal with the practical issues of her illness and the management of it.

So there was way more to unpack in this story than I was expecting – and it was all terrific stuff. Stuff that slid very nicely between the lines of this terrific, fun, flirty and very sexy romance – almost as nicely as Chloe and Red slid between the sheets – and eventually managed to stay there.

I loved Chloe Brown, and I liked her sisters Dani and Eve – along with the whole family – quite a lot. More than enough that I’m looking very much forward to reading Dani’s story next – and next week – in Take a Hint, Dani Brown!

Review: A Hanging at Dawn by Charles Todd

Review: A Hanging at Dawn by Charles ToddA Hanging at Dawn by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Bess Crawford #11.5
Pages: 176
Published by Witness Impulse on December 15, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Years before the Great War summoned Bess Crawford to serve as a battlefield nurse, the indomitable heroine spent her childhood in India under the watchful eye of her friend and confidant, the young soldier Simon Brandon. The two formed an inseparable bond on the dangerous Northwest Frontier where her father’s Regiment held the Khyber Pass against all intruders. It was Simon who taught Bess to ride and shoot, escorted her to the bazaars and the Maharani’s Palace, and did his best to keep her out of trouble, after the Crawford family took an interest in the tall, angry boy with a mysterious past.
But the Crawfords have long guarded secrets for Simon and he owes them a debt that runs deeper than Bess could ever know. Told through the eyes of Melinda, Richard, Clarissa, and Bess, A Hanging at Dawn pieces together a mystery at the center of Bess’s family that will irrevocably change the course of her future.

My Review:

A Duty to the Dead by Charles ToddFor those of us who are long-time fans of the Bess Crawford series (beginning with A Duty to the Dead), this story serves as an “origin story” for one of the series’ favorite characters, Sergeant-Major Simon Brandon. Through the course of the series, which details Bess Crawford’s service as a battlefield nurse in World War I as well as her outings as an amateur detective both at the front and back home, Brandon has been a familiar if more frequently talked about than seen character.

Brandon has often been the person to get Bess out of trouble that turns out to be too deep for her. Alternatively, he has just as often been the person getting her into that trouble by helping her to ferret out information that she shouldn’t have in pursuit of her unofficial cases.

But Brandon has also been a bit of an enigma throughout the series. From hints that are dropped within the series, while Brandon is older than Bess, it’s clear that he isn’t quite as much older as his rank and time in uniform would indicate. He’s been a part of Bess’ life as well as the life of her parents and her father’s regiment for much longer than he should have been.

This short story dives a bit into those mysteries. We still don’t know exactly who Simon’s people are by the end, but we do know how and why he managed to get into the Army at 14 and serve in India in the years before the Great War, as well as more than a bit about why he’s so attached to the Crawfords.

While this story does go into as much of Brandon’s background as has ever been shared, the heart of this story is a singular incident in India with dramatic repercussions for Brandon, for the Crawfords, and for everything that comes after.

Because that “hanging at dawn” of the title was very nearly Brandon’s. And for once, but certainly not the last time, he was saved from death by Bess Crawford, even though in this particular case she was over 4,000 miles away.

Escape Rating A-: For readers of the series, this story is fascinating and provides more than a bit of much needed background for the character. And we also get to understand why Brandon has been so reticent about the few details that we have had so far.

And I’ll confess that I wonder why anyone who is not already a fan of the series would be reading this story. Not that it’s not good, because it is, but because it’s not enough. It teases and and it torments, and it feels like it’s written with the assumption that most readers will already be familiar with the characters and find this bit of backstory fascinating – as I certainly did.

One of the things that gets more-or-less nailed down is the origin of the relationship between Brandon and the Crawford family, and it does answer a question that has been in the back of my mind from fairly early on. I’ve always wondered about the age difference between Bess and Brandon, because there’s always been a bit of romantic tension about their relationship. The answer seems to be “under a decade” making them well outside squicky territory for any possible romance after the war ends – not that any such ending has ever been hinted at by the author.

But still, one can hope.

In addition to the illumination about just how Brandon came to be part of the Crawfords, there is also a mystery, the mystery that nearly results in that hanging at dawn. I found myself of two minds about the whole thing.

On the one hand, readers of the series already know Simon Brandon as one of the “good guys”. That means we are predisposed to believe that he is innocent of the crime he’s accused of, making the Prince’s – or at least his representative’s – rush to judgment and execution seem immediately dodgy in the extreme – at best – and villainous at worst.

Very much on that other hand, it’s made very clear that the British Raj had subjugated the traditional ruling class in India and taken away nearly all of their traditional rights. And that, as a consequence, there have to have been entirely too many cases where a British soldier would have been whisked away by British authorities in order to avoid justice that was absolutely due for committing crimes against anyone Indian, including members of those same Princely Houses. Not that members of those Princely Houses didn’t also most likely get away with crimes against those they considered their inferiors back when they held all the power. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely and that’s one of the ways it inevitably corrupts.

But as this story goes, we’re meant to be on Simon’s side from the very beginning, therefore there must be something dodgy about the accusation or at least the rush to judgement. But it feels impossible not to acknowledge that the Prince could have been trying to prevent a miscarriage of justice, even though he imposes that desire on the wrong party in this particular instance.

And even though, or perhaps especially because, in this particular case it’s the threat of the power of the Raj that brings justice for Simon, it’s also true that the same threat would have worked just as well if he’d been guilty. The only difference is that if he had been guilty the Crawfords would never have raised the threat in the first place.

So, an interesting case, a moral conundrum, and oodles of background information for a beloved character. A lot to pack in a relatively short story – but excellently done. And just enough to make my anticipation for the next Bess Crawford novel, An Irish Hostage, feel all that much keener.

Review: The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

Review: The Jane Austen Society by Natalie JennerThe Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 309
Published by St. Martin's Press on May 26, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.
One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England's finest novelists. Now it's home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen's legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen's home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.

My Review:

I didn’t pick this book in any of the usual ways. A friend and I were having a discussion about the importance of the right voice for the right character in video games (yes, we both have cases of ‘voice kink’) and transferred the discussion to audiobooks and somehow ended up talking about Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit.

I decided to test her theory about being willing to listen to him read the phone book, and ended up with the audiobook of The Jane Austen Society because he’s the reader for the unabridged audiobook.

While I’m not so sure about the phone book reading, he did turn out to be a terrific reader for the story – and the story turned out to be pretty terrific too. To the point where I got impatient at the halfway point and switched from the audio to the ebook, which I just so happened to have on hand.

So I may have gotten here for the audiobook reader, but I stayed for the story. And what a lovely story it turned out to be.

First, I have to confess that I am not a big Jane Austen fan the way that most of the characters – and nearly all of the sympathetic ones – are in this book. I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility when I listened to them, but I never got bitten by the Jane Austen bug like so many readers do.

In other words, if this story was just all about the Austen I probably wouldn’t like it nearly as much.

Instead, it reminds me of The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow. That story extends the Austen classic past the end of the original by focusing on one of the secondary characters. The Jane Austen Society extends the Austen oeuvre by telling an Austen-like story that is focused, not on Jane herself as so many such stories are, but rather on the place she left behind and the people who have chosen to carry on her legacy.

Escape Rating A-: Thinking about this one after finishing, I realized that this reads very much like the type of story that Austen herself would have told. Ostensibly, it’s about the attempt to create a place for the study of Austen in her final home, but instead, just like so much of Austen’s own work, it’s a story about a group of disparate people and the complex relationships they have woven between them.

At the outset, they are all quite separate individuals, loosely linked by one small village. A village that just happens to be Chawton, the place where Austen spent her final decade.

But as the story wends its way, the group weaves itself into a whole, into, in fact, the Jane Austen Society. It’s definitely a whole greater than the sum of its parts, but its parts feel like familiar updates to Austen’s own characters.

The village doctor, the village lawyer, the farmer, the widowed teacher, the maid at the “great house”, the daughter of that same great house and the villain of the piece, the dying patriarch of the great house. Then we add the people that would not have been part of Austen’s world, the auctioneer from Sotheby’s, the American actress, and the secondary villain, the actress’ fiancé.

But what makes up this story are the relationships that develop, like the one between the doctor and the teacher, a relationship that brims with just the kind of unacknowledged romantic and sexual tension that drives so many of Austen’s own stories. As well as the textbook example of how a cad woos a woman who is much too good for him, as exemplified in so many of Austen’s stories, particularly Mansfield Park, and in the relationship between the actress and the Hollywood producer she almost but not quite marries.

The Jane Austen Society is a kind of a quiet little story, as it begins slowly – perhaps just a touch too slowly – to set up the village and the relationships there before introducing those outside influences. The story speeds up as those outsiders become part of it, just as the outside world moves a bit faster – perhaps more than a bit – than tiny little Chawton.

And it all ends on a lovely high note, with happy ever afters all around – even the ones that the reader as well as the characters – never anticipated at the beginning.

One final note. While there is something like the Jane Austen Society, and it did develop a center for the study of Austen in Chawton, the way that it came about bears no resemblance to the events in this story.

However, life does still imitate art. Just as, during the setting of this story, there was no established center for the study of Jane Austen’s works and none of the places where she lived had been preserved for that purpose, as of this writing the same can be said for another English writer, J.R.R. Tolkien (and circling back to The Hobbit). An effort is underway, established by many of the actors who have portrayed characters in the movies based on his work, to purchase Tolkien’s house in Oxford and create a cultural center for the study of his work.

Like many whose lives have been enriched by reading this author’s work, I wish them well in their endeavor.

Review: Bound by Rhys Ford + Guest Post + Giveaway

Review: Bound by Rhys Ford + Guest Post + GiveawayBound (Chinatown Demons #1) by Rhys Ford
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: M/M romance, urban fantasy
Series: Chinatown Demons #1
Pages: 105
Published by Rogue Firebird Press on November 30th 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Chinatown, San Francisco.

A different place — another time— and where the city’s streets keep secrets, shadowy mysteries SFPD Inspector Spencer Ricci needs to dig through after he finds himself on a case involving a dismembered, mummified man in a restaurant’s locked storage room.

Spencer drags around a lot of baggage, including an ongoing battle with the bottle and a long career as an LAPD detective he’d set fire to in a blaze of booze-soaked mistakes. San Francisco is supposed to be a new start but his old ghosts haunt him, beckoning him back into his self-destructive bad habits. Bad habits that include contemplating doing dirty things with the wrong kind of guy and this time, it’s a sleek, cold-tempered medical examiner named Xian Carter with a complicated reputation.

For a century-old demon, Xian Carter is content with his secretive life. Hiding his nature from the mundane world, he blends in with the city’s inhabitants as best he can but even the best of predators make mistakes. Delving into the mysteries of the dead provide a welcome distraction from endless nights and hiding in plain sight amuses him, until something supernaturally wicked comes knocking on his door with an extremely hot, broody Inspector close behind.

Murder makes for strange bedfellows and this one is no exception. The twists and turns of the case leaves Xian and Spencer on a wild goose chase after clues but Xian can only hope there’s a human at the end of the trail—because the last thing San Francisco needs is another predator.

My Review:

I feel teased. Intrigued, slightly exasperated, and definitely, definitely teased.

I was expecting Bound to be a bit like Dim Sum Asylum, and it kind of is. Bound, like that previous marvelous story, takes place in a slightly off-kilter version of San Francisco. A version of our world where magic definitely exists, although the acceptance of that magic is less in-your-face and more under-the-table in this version of that storied city.

Detective Spencer Ricci certainly starts out this adventure as garden-variety human. Albeit the kind of garden variety that includes a lot of scars, a lot of baggage, a history of alcoholism and a need to make something out of his one last chance at being a cop.

Dr. Xian Carter, on the other hand, is absolutely not original recipe human – or at least not any longer. He might have been, once.

But that once was a century and a half ago. Another continent. Another lifetime. Considering how much has changed since the mid-19th century, another world.

Dr. Xian Carter is a medical examiner for the San Francisco Police Department. He’s the one who gets all the weird and wacky cases. And the case that brings Spencer and Xian together is way past weird and wacky and over the line into downright bizarre.

Somebody found a mummy. Not an honest-to-Bast Egyptian mummy, but a contemporary murder victim. Mummified. It’s Spencer Ricci’s job to figure out who wanted the victim dead. And for that matter, the identity of the desiccated corpse.

It’s up to Xian Carter to learn how, and why and whether this mess means that someone is invading his territory. Because Xian Carter is a demon, and San Francisco belongs to him.

And possibly, so does Spencer Ricci.

Escape Rating A-: Damn, this was good. And DAMN, this was short. As I said at the outset, I feel teased. The case is fascinating, the setup is wild, the chemistry between Spencer and Xian is explosive, and I want more of this world and this story pretty much yesterday.

I wanted to scream “NO!” when this story ended. Because it does end, and it does feel like this piece is complete – but it’s such a tiny piece of such an obviously greater (and great) world. Rhys hints at so much more to discover in this San Francisco, so much tension, so much angst, and SO MUCH MAGIC!

Also magical cats. Not that all cats aren’t at least a bit magical. But seriously, magical cats for the win!

An Alternate San Francisco, Just A Step To The Left Of Our Own Glittering City — (a word from our author, Rhys Ford)

When I began to write Bound, I knew I wanted to have a bit of fantastical combined with a dash of Asian horror. Sort of. The monsters in Asian mythology are usually a bit odd and driven by fierce emotions, usually revenge. There were bits and pieces I wanted to pull together as well as give a shout out to inspirations along the way. Since I’m going to be writing this as a serialized saga, it allows me to tease out bits and pieces of the world as I go, which is a lot of fun.

There’s a long argument of the pros and cons of having a paranormal world that’s hidden or out in the open. I’ve done both, most notably in Ink and Shadows for hidden and blurring the lines of hidden and open in the Hellsinger series. For the Chinatown Demons serializations, I wanted to do a hidden world where only the very wise could see the dangers but people knew something was off about the supernatural. Kind of a step away from the world we live in now.

So with all that being said, let’s talk about world building and what the underlying layers of the Chinatown Demons’ worlds hold.

OH BUT FIRST… A GIVEAWAY! RED ENVELOPE MONEY!

At each stop, enter to win a $20 gift certificate to the online retailer of your choice! Be sure to enter at every stop!


One of the major personality quirks of Xian’s that I’ll explore is his fondness for gambling. Well, his innate love of playing hanafuda, which is a flower card game. I grew up playing hanafuda in Hawai’i and while there are a few variations of the game, it’s the simplest one to master. I’ve even taught Greg Tremblay, the narrator of Bound, how to play it. It’s addicting and challenges the player depending on the level you want to play at. A child could play it and then with the addition of yaku, the playing level becomes harder. It’s a game of patience and calculation or simply matching the cards. Really, it all depends on the level of play.

Which brings me to Xian and his love of the game.

I’m going to include a website link here for the game just so you have a reference. There are very complicated yaku and the link shows some of the basic ones. Only some of these are played in the Hawai’i but it gives you a good idea of how they are constructed. Also, the Hawai’i game does not have the plain cards as 1 pt. For us, they are rubbish and discarded.

Link to basic hanafuda rules: https://www.hanafuda.fr/en/

Hawai’i rules: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawaiian-style_Koi-Koi

In a lot of ways, hanafuda play marks the passage of time. Each suit represents a month as is depicted by a seasonal plant associated with that month. Since the play can vary, there’s a lot of intrigue while laying down your cards and that’s something that would greatly appeal to Xian. See, he truly is by nature a cat and this is one way he plays with humans. His brother, Jiro, has his own ways and those are best left for another time.

The thing with hanafuda and playing in Chinatown gambling halls is not just an exchange of money because trust me, fortunes have been won and lost betting on the appearance of the yakuza card at the wrong moment but there also is the very good chance that a favour or two will be won. Oftentimes, that’s a greater coin than actual cash. Xian is a dealer of secrets and he hoards them, tucking them away until he needs them later on. Remember, for him, this is a long game. Someone might not realize a secret shared over whiskey and cigarettes twenty years ago will come back to haunt him but it will and Xian will probably be the one to reap the rewards.

Gambling is a very serious business and hanafuda games are a great place to do business. Or even simply overhear business. While it’s technically a “Japanese” game, it’s flowed over into other types of dens, including mahjongg parlors but tile play is sometimes too chancy. Xian likes a game he can manipulate and guide.

Which is kind of why Spencer intrigues him so much. Inspector Ricci is not one to be led by the nose and Xian is very much aware of that. In a lot of ways, he is as enigmatic as the hanafuda deck, changeable and with varying levels of emotional power.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 


Rhys Ford is an award-winning author with several long-running LGBT+ mystery, thriller, paranormal, and urban fantasy series and is a two-time LAMBDA finalist with her Murder and Mayhem novels. She is also a 2017 Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Florida Authors and Publishers President’s Book Awards for her novels Ink and Shadows and Hanging the Stars. She is published by Dreamspinner Press and DSP Publications.

She’s also quite skeptical about bios without a dash of something personal and really, who doesn’t mention their cats, dog and cars in a bio? She shares the house with Harley, a grey tuxedo with a flower on her face, Badger, a disgruntled alley cat who isn’t sure living inside is a step up the social ladder as well as a ginger cairn terrorist named Gus. Rhys is also enslaved to the upkeep a 1979 Pontiac Firebird and enjoys murdering make-believe people.

Rhys can be found at the following locations:

Blog: www.rhysford.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/rhys.ford.author

Facebook Group: Coffee, Cats, and Murder: https://www.facebook.com/groups/635660536617002/

Rhys is giving away a $20 Gift Card to the online retailer of the winner’s choice at every stop on this tour. Fill out the rafflecopter for your chance to win!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

 

Review: Under a Winter Sky by Kelley Armstrong, Jeffe Kennedy, Melissa Marr, L. Penelope

Review: Under a Winter Sky by Kelley Armstrong, Jeffe Kennedy, Melissa Marr, L. PenelopeUnder a Winter Sky by Kelley Armstrong, Jeffe Kennedy, Melissa Marr, L. Penelope
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy romance
Pages: 373
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on November 19, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Four powerhouse authors of fantasy and urban fantasy bring you a feast of romantic midwinter holiday adventures. These heartwarming and pulse-pounding tales celebrate Hanukah, Christmas, the solstice, Yule – and holidays from worlds beyond our own. With fancy-dress balls, faery bargains, time travel, blood sacrifice, and festive cocktails, these stories will delight lovers of fantasy and romance, with a dash of seasonal joy.
Ballgowns & Butterflies by Kelley Armstrong
The North Yorkshire moors are always a magical place, but they’re particularly enchanting at the holidays…especially if one gets to travel back in time to a Victorian Christmas. For Bronwyn Dale, it is the stuff of dreams. Fancy-dress balls, quirky small-town traditions, even that classic one-horse open sleigh, complete with jingle bells. There’s just the tiny problem of the Butterfly Effect. How does a time-traveler make a difference without disrupting the future forever?
The Long Night of the Crystalline Moon, a prequel novella to Heirs of Magic, by Jeffe Kennedy
Shapeshifter Prince Rhyian doesn’t especially want to spend the Feast of Moranu at Castle Ordnung. First of all, it’s literally freezing there, an uncomfortable change from the tropical paradise of his home. Secondly, it’s a mossback castle which means thick walls and too many rules. Thirdly, his childhood playmate and current nemesis, Lena, will be there. Not exactly a cause for celebration.
Princess Salena Nakoa KauPo nearly wriggled out of traveling to Ordnung with her parents, but her mother put her foot down declaring that, since everyone who ever mattered to her was going to be there to celebrate the 25th year of High Queen Ursula’s reign, Lena can suffer through a feast and a ball for one night. Of course, “everyone” includes the sons and daughters of her parents’ friends, and it also means that Rhyian, insufferable Prince of the Tala, will attend.
But on this special anniversary year, Moranu’s sacred feast falls on the long night of the crystalline moon—and Rhy and Lena discover there’s more than a bit of magic in the air.
Blood Martinis and Mistletoe by Melissa Marr
Half-dead witch Geneviève Crowe makes her living beheading the dead--and spends her free time trying not to get too attached to her business partner, Eli Stonecroft, a faery in self-imposed exile in New Orleans. With a killer at her throat and a blood martini in her hand, Gen accepts what seems like a straight-forward faery bargain, but soon realizes that if she can't figure out a way out of this faery bargain, she'll be planning a wedding after the holidays.
Echoes of Ash & Tears, an Earthsinger Chronicles Novella, by L. Penelope
Brought to live among the Cavefolk as an infant, Mooriah has long sought to secure her place in the clan and lose her outsider status. She’s a powerful blood mage, and when the chieftain’s son asks for help securing the safety of the clan, she agrees. But though she’s long been drawn to the warrior, any relationship between the two is forbidden. The arrival of a mysterious stranger with a tempting offer tests her loyalties, and when betrayal looms, will Mooriah’s secrets and hidden power put the future she’s dreamed of—and her adopted home—in jeopardy.

My Review:

If it’s beginning to look a lot like the holidays where you are, this collection is a terrific way to get into the holiday spirit. Or spirits, as the case might be, for multiple definitions thereof. It certainly made me shiver with the remembered chill and sparkle of the kiss of snow, even if we don’t get much of that around here.

There are five stories in this little collection, all featuring winter and some type of solstice or longest night type story, and all with just a little bit of something extra.

It could be those holiday spirits, although not necessarily Christmas or Yule, as not all of these stories take place on our Earth. These are all some variety of fantasy romance, so the world is not necessarily the world we know – at least not quite.

Ballgowns & Butterflies by Kelley Armstrong is a bit of a time-travel story, and it is set in our world and does feature Christmas. But it isn’t quite the one we recognize – although it sorta/kinda is in a delicious way.

Because the Christmas that Lady Bronwyn Thorne is celebrating is an honest-to-goodness Victorian holiday, in the Victorian era where she spends part of her life. The Victorian Christmas celebration is the one on which many of our contemporary traditions, at least in Britain and North America, are based. As a historian, it’s the era that is nearest and dearest to Bronwyn’s heart – as is her husband who she met in that time period, but has married in both.

This was a lovely little story, and I enjoyed its evocation of the holiday spirit as well as feeling for Bronwyn’s time-travel dilemma. At the same time, this story feels like a coda to another, longer story, only because it is. This is the followup to A Stitch in Time, which is wrapped around the romance between Bronwyn and her Victorian-era husband William, and I very much wish I’d read that first.

Likewise, the only other story set at least partially in our world, Blood Martinis & Mistletoe by Melissa Marr, read like just the kind of urban fantasy that I love to sink my teeth into. But this was also part of the author’s Faery Bargains series, and I felt like I’d missed all of the setup which is in the first book in the series, The Wicked and the Dead. Which I now very much want to read because this seems awesome.

(Actually I bought the first books in both of these series because I was so intrigued.)

And now I have to confess two things before I get to my favorite story in the collection.

I didn’t read L. Penelope’s Earthsinger story because I haven’t read the series, and I just didn’t want to get teased yet again by a story that is even more bang in the middle of a series than the previous two.

And, as much as I was looking forward to reading the Grace Draven story, because I have read at least some of her Wraith Kings series, that story wasn’t included in my eARC. C’est la vie.

But, but, but, the story I got this collection for was definitely there. And I’m so happy about that.

I love Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms/Uncharted Kingdoms/Chronicles of Dasnaria mega-series, so I’m always up for more. And The Long Night of the Crystalline Moon, a prequel for Heirs of Magic, her upcoming series set in the same world, certainly delivered.

Did it ever!

The story is “the Next Generation” of that long-running saga, taking place 25 years after the (final?) defeat of the evil Deyrr at the end of the (now we know it’s not) final book, The Fate of the Tala. Which I adored even though I was sorry to see the whole thing wrap up.

I always hoped the saga would continue, so this was a treat from beginning to end.

What’s lovely about this one is that we get to see everyone we met in the previous series, know that they are all doing well and that they have all managed to have their happy ever afters. HEAs that they all definitely earned.

But this story focuses not on the previous heroes, but rather on their children, all of whom are now adults – albeit some more mature than others. Then again, that’s kind of the nature of being in one’s 20s, figuring out who one really is and what kind of a future one is looking for.

Or, in the case of these seven princes, princesses and princelings, the kind of future that is barreling towards them at breakneck speed – even if they don’t know it yet.

So, on the surface, we have the story of the longest night of the year, coupled with a romance that could either be a second-chance-at-love or a story of two lovers who missed their chance and need to close that door before their future truly begins.

The question of which it is going to be is not quite answered by the end of this story about unfinished business and lost chances because a much more dangerous future rears its ugly head just as we think there might be a resolution.

All those delicious and perilous chances are left hanging off the edge of a sheer cliff when the interlude closes, leaving readers – especially this one – absolutely salivating for what is to come.

I can’t wait. Hopefully I won’t have to wait long, as the projected publication date in Goodreads says next month!

Howsomever, just like the other stories in this collection, The Long Night of the Crystalline Moon is not the place to start your journey with this fantastic series. Start with The Mark of the Tala and settle in for a wonderful reading binge.

Possibly a long enough – and certainly captivating enough – binge to carry you through until spring!

Escape Rating A-: I got this collection for the Jeffe Kennedy story, and I loved that story, so that makes the whole thing a win. I liked both the Armstrong and the Marr stories enough that I bought the previous books in their respective series’ so also a win. I felt the chill of winter snow even in the warm Atlanta fall weather so even more of a win for bringing me just the right taste of a season that I don’t have to experience too much of, definitely a win all the way around! If you are into any or all of the series featured in this collection, you’re in for a treat!

Review: The Factory Witches of Lowell by C.S. Malerich

Review: The Factory Witches of Lowell by C.S. MalerichThe Factory Witches of Lowell by C.S. Malerich
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: F/F romance, historical fantasy, historical fiction
Pages: 128
Published by Tordotcom on November 10, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

C. S. Malerich's The Factory Witches of Lowell is a riveting historical fantasy about witches going on strike in the historical mill-town of Lowell, Massachusetts.
Faced with abominable working conditions, unsympathetic owners, and hard-hearted managers, the mill girls of Lowell have had enough. They're going on strike, and they have a secret weapon on their side: a little witchcraft to ensure that no one leaves the picket line.
For the young women of Lowell, Massachusetts, freedom means fair wages for fair work, decent room and board, and a chance to escape the cotton mills before lint stops up their lungs. When the Boston owners decide to raise the workers’ rent, the girls go on strike. Their ringleader is Judith Whittier, a newcomer to Lowell but not to class warfare. Judith has already seen one strike fold and she doesn’t intend to see it again. Fortunately Hannah, her best friend in the boardinghouse—and maybe first love?—has a gift for the dying art of witchcraft.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

My Review:

This is a story about a group of women who grab their own agency, take back their own power and harness their own magic.

And it’s definitely magical.

The “mill girls” of Lowell, their lives and working conditions, make an interesting story to begin with, even before adding in witchcraft.

Not that the real women who worked in the mills weren’t called unnatural, as well as witches and bitches every single time they went on strike, or as it was called then, a “turn out”. Because these women, mostly young, were able to live away from their families, earn their own wages and save their own money by working in the mills.

It was revolutionary.

At the same time, as is detailed in this story, the conditions really were brutal. The work days started early, ended late, the windows were closed winter and summer, the noise was “infernal” and their leisure time was both limited in duration and ringed round with conditions about where they could go, what they could do, how long they could be away.

It was still freedom – of a sort. More freedom than they would have in the homes they came from for many of them.

It was also, as the residents of many a “company town” discovered, a chain that was difficult to break, as the company they worked for controlled the wages they were paid AND the cost of their food and lodging. As this story begins, and as occurred in real history in 1836, the company could squeeze its workers between the rock of their wages and the hard place of their living expenses at any time and seemingly without recourse.

The recourse that the female mill workers in the story take is the same one that the real mill workers took in the fall of 1836. They went on strike.

The striking workers in this story had a weapon that their real-life historical sisters did not. They had witchcraft. They had the power to make their strike into a magically binding pact. And they had the leadership to make that binding so strong that even the mills bent to their will.

Not just figuratively by giving in, but literally. By magic. And by the power of love.

Escape Rating A-:This was lovely and surprisingly charming, even though the conditions under which the “mill girls” worked were anything but.

What made this story “sing” was the way that the magic of witchcraft, which is always considered to be “women’s magic” and therefore “less than”, wraps itself around the bones of the history like the weft of the women’s work wrapped around the warp of the looms.

And then there’s the character of Judith, and her love for Hannah. In a way, everything Judith does is about her love for Hannah. And they weave together as well. Because Judith is the leader and the organizer. She is the driving force behind the strike and the union and the witchcraft. And yet, it’s not her power. Judith has no “craft” of her own. The craft is Hannah’s. It’s only together that they can achieve the impossible, holding the strike – and saving Hannah’s life.

Their love, and their desire to save each other is the grace note that makes this story just rise.

One of the marvelous things about this story is that it is complete in and of itself, in spite of its relatively short length. Not that I wouldn’t love to know about what happened to all of them, particularly Judith and Hannah. But I don’t have to know to feel satisfied. They lived, they loved, and even if they spent the rest of their lives together fighting the long defeat against the powerful mill owners, it’s clear from the end of the story that there will be plenty of joy for them in that fight.

This is a story that doesn’t have a happy ending. Rather, it ends in a kind of “happy for now”. The Factory Girls Union of Lowell really can’t win the long war against the rich and rapacious “gentlemen” who own the mills. But as the story ends, they have won a big victory, and are firmly resolved to continue the fight. As they did.

As unions continue to do to this day. Unfortunately without the witchcraft – as far as we know.