Review: The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper

Review: The Girl in the Painting by Tea CooperThe Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Thomas Nelson on March 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A young prodigy in need of family.
A painting that shatters a woman’s peace.
And a decades-old mystery demanding to be solved.
Australia, 1906
Orphan Jane Piper is nine years old when philanthropist siblings Michael and Elizabeth Quinn take her into their home to further her schooling. The Quinns are no strangers to hardship. Having arrived in Australia as penniless immigrants, they now care for others as lost as they once were.
Despite Jane’s mysterious past, her remarkable aptitude for mathematics takes her far over the next seven years, and her relationship with Elizabeth and Michael flourishes as she plays an increasingly prominent part in their business.
But when Elizabeth reacts in terror to an exhibition at the local gallery, Jane realizes no one knows Elizabeth after all—not even Elizabeth herself. As the past and present converge and Elizabeth’s grasp on reality loosens, Jane sets out to unravel her story before it’s too late.
From the gritty reality of the Australian goldfields to the grand institutions of Sydney, this compelling novel presents a mystery that spans continents and decades as both women finally discover a place to call home.
“Combining characters that are wonderfully complex with a story spanning decades of their lives, The Girl in the Painting is a triumph of family, faith, and long-awaited forgiveness. I was swept away!” —Kristy Cambron, bestselling author of The Paris Dressmaker and the Hidden Masterpiece novels
Stand-alone novel with rich historical detailsBook length: 102,000 wordsIncludes discussion questions for book clubs and historical note from the authorAlso by this author: The Woman in the Green Dress

My Review:

Who are we, really? Are we who we think we are, or are we the person we were born to be? It’s an age-old question about nature vs. nurture, and it plays out in this timeslip story powered by the wing-flap of not the butterfly of chaos theory but rather by the wingbeats of a swarm of almost-forgotten doves.

And it’s the story of two lost girls who are found, in the end, one by the other. Or maybe three lost girls.

The story opens, rather than begins, in Australia in 1906, when math-whiz Jane Piper is rescued from the local orphanage by the equally gifted Elizabeth Quinn and her brother Michael. The Quinns have made a great success of their many businesses in Maitland, New South Wales. Australia has been very, very good to the Quinns, who have never forgotten their roots as desperate Irish immigrants in the 1860s. Jane is the latest in a very long line of young people that the Quinns have taken into their home and businesses from the orphanage.

But Jane’s mathematical talent makes her special. The Quinns, now well into middle age, have expanded their original business enterprises, stores and auction houses, into philanthropy on Elizabeth’s part and politics on Michael’s. Neither has ever married, and in Jane’s mathematical talents they see someone they can train to help them in their many endeavors.

And Jane is more than willing. She’s a math prodigy but not very cognizant of social cues. In today’s terms we’d probably say that she was somewhere on the part of the autism spectrum that includes Asperger’s. Her unofficial adoption into the Quinn’s household turns out to be a boon for not just Jane but also Michael and Elizabeth, as she becomes both their quasi-niece and a valued assistant to both of the Quinns.

It is in that capacity that Jane finds herself in the midst of the Quinns’ greatest secret, as the long-buried past interferes in the suddenly fraught present.

Escape Rating A-: I originally picked this up because I really enjoyed one of the author’s previous books, The Woman in the Green Dress, and was hoping for more of the same. Which I definitely got with The Girl in the Painting.

Both stories are set in Australia, and both feature dual timelines, the historical past and then the past of the main characters, and both are centered around old and nearly-forgotten mysteries, although the stories don’t relate to each other. So if you like the sound of The Girl in the Painting, you’ll love The Woman in the Green Dress and very much vice-versa.

At the top I said this was a story about nature vs. nurture, and that turns out to be what lies at the heart of the mystery as well. A mystery that neither the readers nor the characters are aware of as the story begins.

When we first peer into Michael and Elizabeth Quinn’s past, we see the brother and sister on the gangplank at Liverpool, waiting to board a ship for Australia to reconnect with their parents. It’s only as the story continues that we discover that what we assumed about that initial scene, and what Elizabeth remembers of it – after all, she was only 4 years old at the time – are not quite what actually happened.

It’s a secret that Michael has been keeping from his sister for 50 years at this point, and it’s highly likely he intended to go right on keeping it. At least until Elizabeth has a “turn” or a psychological break, or a breakthrough of suppressed memory, at an art exhibit, and all of his secrets start to unravel.

And even though I guessed what one of those secrets was fairly early on, the story, both in their past and in their present, it still made for a compelling read. Just because I’d managed to fill in one corner of the jigsaw did not mean I had much of an inkling about the rest of the puzzle. Pulling the remaining pieces out of their box and figuring out how they fit – or perhaps didn’t fit – was part of what made this story so compelling for me as a reader.

In order to reconcile the past with the present, it’s up to Jane Piper, now a full-fledged partner in the business, to poke and prod her way into those mysteries that refuse to lie dormant in the past. Not because Jane is any kind of detective, but because she loves the Quinns, is grateful to them, and simply can’t resist her own compulsion to resolve the unresolved, as that’s part of her mathematical gift and her social awkwardness. She has to know, and she can’t rest until she does.

While I found Jane herself to be a bit of an unresolved character, more of a vehicle for the story to be told than an integral part of it, the story of Michael and Elizabeth Quinn’s rise from hardworking poverty to wealth and influence was fascinating in its portrayal of two people who lived a lie that was also the utter and absolute truth.

As much as I enjoyed the Quinns’ story, I have to say that I’m finding this author’s portrayal of Australian history wrapped in fiction to be lovely and absorbing and I’m looking forward to her next book (it looks like it will be The Cartographer’s Secret) whenever it appears.

TLC
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Review: Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

Review: Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de BodardFireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 112
Published by Tordotcom on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Award-winning author Aliette de Bodard returns with a powerful romantic fantasy that reads like The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle in a pre-colonial Vietnamese-esque world.

Fire burns bright and has a long memory….
Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh was sent away as a hostage to the powerful faraway country of Ephteria as a child. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court, haunted not only by memories of her first romance, but by worrying magical echoes of a fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace.
Thanh’s new role as a diplomat places her once again in the path of her first love, the powerful and magnetic Eldris of Ephteria, who knows exactly what she wants: romance from Thanh and much more from Thanh’s home. Eldris won’t take no for an answer, on either front. But the fire that burned down one palace is tempting Thanh with the possibility of making her own dangerous decisions.
Can Thanh find the freedom to shape her country’s fate—and her own?

My Review:

I was expecting this to remind me of When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, and it did, but not because of the tiger. It’s more that it reminded me of both of the books in the Singing Hills Cycle, not just Tiger but also the first book, The Empress of Salt and Fortune. Now that I think about it, it reminds me much more of Empress, in spite of that Tiger.

Like The Empress of Salt and Fortune, this feels like a story that is creating a legend along with its secondary world. And both stories feature women that their contemporaries saw as disposable and forgettable.

Thanh has spent her whole life living under her mother the empress’ disapproving eye – and thumb. Her accomplishments, her achievements, her very person swallowed up by the long shadows cast by her two older, more accomplished, more favored sisters.

Even the one time that Thanh was sent away in order to further the goals of her empire and empress, she failed to impress, she failed to learn, and she was sent home early and in disgrace.

But Thanh brought back more than anyone imagined from her time as a political hostage in powerful, dominant Ephteria.

The love, or at least the romantic obsession, of Ephteria’s Crown Princess Eldris, and the fire that destroyed the royal palace where she was held captive for her country’s “good” behavior.

Now Ephteria has come to Thanh’s home, to take possession of what she believes is hers by right of her superior power. Not just Thanh, but also her country. Not as outright conquest, but through the latest in a long list of political maneuvers where Eptheria trades guns for the autonomy of countries, including Thanh’s, piece by inexorable piece.

Until Thanh says “No”. To her mother, to Eldris, to Ephteria. And finally embraces the fire at the heart of the tiger – and her own.

Escape Rating A-: While a romance occurs, or rather an affair occurred and as the story ends it seems like a real romance is about to happen, this is not a romance. It’s a coming-of-age and/or coming-into-power story.

In fact, it’s Thanh’s realization about the truth of her relationship with Eldris that helps her come into her power. Her own power and not power derived from her relationship to anyone else.

Because this is also a story about politics and history. These events may take place in a fantasy setting, but this has all happened before and it will all happen again. Specifically, what is happening sounds all too much like the way that the British Raj swallowed up India, and the way that the British and other Western forces inserted themselves into China.

So it’s clear what the Ephterians want. They want control – and they’re taking it – one concession at a time. In order to maintain her country’s security, Thanh’s mother needs to acquire more weapons to protect herself from the surrounding regions. But Ephteria encroaches just a little bit more on that precious independence in every negotiation and with every shipment.

Eldris’ desire for Thanh, to capture the one who got away, is part and parcel of that encroachment. Their relationship was never about love – at least not on Eldris’ part no matter what she might call it.  It’s always and only been about possession, and eventually, subjugation. A situation that Thanh almost falls back into, with eyes wide shut, in order to save her country the only way she knows how, by giving in to the greater power – in this case the power of Eldris – in order to stave off the depredations of an even greater threat, Ephteria’s armies.

So this whole story revolves around the politics of the relationship of Thanh’s subservient country to Eldris’ dominant one, and it’s personified in the relationship between Thanh and Eldris.

But Thanh can only come into her power when she steps away from that subservient path, subservient to both her mother and Eldris. When Thanh takes hold of the reins of her own life, of the fire in her own heart and mind and soul, she’s able to forge a new path for her country and most of all, for herself.

And that’s what sets this story on fire – along with the heart of fire elemental in the shape of a tiger.

Review: Matagorda Breeze by Lyla Hopper

Review: Matagorda Breeze by Lyla HopperMatagorda Breeze by Lyla Hopper
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: alternate history, post apocalyptic
Pages: 196
Published by Joy House Publishing on December 20, 2020
Publisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The Age of Oil ends in a cataclysm that kills millions of people. Two centuries after The Day, mankind has adapted, and a second Age of Sail is thriving. Ruby Turner is the first woman to serve aboard ships of the Gulf Shipping Company. She’s an excellent Navigator, but the Commodore has promoted her to Captain of the Matagorda Breeze, a ne’er-do-well ship where sailors who can’t quite make the grade elsewhere end up. She’s got to prove to the Commodore, herself, and her new team that she’s got what it takes to turn the ship around. On the way, she must face the biggest challenges of her career. Adventure awaits!

My Review:

What happens after the world comes to an end? It’s a fascinating question, and one that has been dealt with many, many, many times. But the stories about what happens when the world as we know it comes to a cataclysmic end have a certain sameness to them.

The exact way in which the world ends may be different, but humans still do human, so the range of how people deal with it is often fairly similar.

But whatever happens after that, assuming that humanity survives at all, can take so many routes down the trousers of time that those trousers might as well belong to a centipede. The apocalypses may all have a sameness to them, but the way that the world has gone after a couple of centuries, well, that has some interesting possibilities that don’t all have to be gloom and doom.

And that’s the story that Lyla Hopper chose to tackle in Matagorda Breeze. What does the world look like 200 years after an apocalypse that takes fossil fuels out of the world-wide equation?

As Matagorda Breeze opens, that cataclysm, “The Day” as it’s often referred to in the story, is two centuries in the past. Fossil fuels and the world they both permitted and destroyed are long gone. Humanity has gone both back and forward from there. Wind, water and animal power have returned to prominence. Solar power is a possibility, but political shenanigans (humans still human) have put that out of reach for most places because the components are rare and not widely available – or distributed.

In the areas that surround the Gulf of Mexico, sailing ships handle most of the heavy-duty cargo and transportation business. When we meet Ruby Turner, she is just getting her first ship’s command. An assignment that she is expected to fail.

In those two centuries since the Day, gender roles have reverted back to the pre-Civil Rights era. Women are expected to marry and take care of the home. And all of the other expectations that go along with that assumption.

Ruby is the first woman to rise to her current rank of Navigator, and the powers-that-be want to see her fail at being a captain so that she will go back to the role that’s expected of her. This command looks like it will do the trick, as her predecessor committed suicide, her first-mate is a thief and a bully, and her crew is filled with men who have hit bottom.

Of course she turns it around. This is her story and she’s the heroine. But it’s the way that she does it, the way that she not only succeeds but makes it a success for her entire formerly rag-tag crew, that makes this story an absolute joy to read from beginning to end.

Escape Rating A-: First and foremost, Matagorda Breeze is a very fun read. For one thing, it is competence porn, and I really like competence porn. This is a story about a woman who is better than anyone else at her job, surrounds herself with the best people – or helps them become the best people – and succeeds very much against the odds.

Howsomever, as much as loved following Ruby, it also felt like things were much too easy for her. It was GREAT watching her go from triumph to triumph, but it seemed like the sea chains blocking her way were almost no impediment to her progress.

Even the pirates succumbed to Ruby’s overwhelming abilities. It’s not like that’s a bad thing, but I did expect a bit more dramatic tension along the way. It’s very clear in the way that Ruby and others speak about events in her past that there WERE plenty of impediments along her way – but we don’t really experience them at the point where her life is now. She has learned what to do and how to do it and seems to have very few self-doubts about any of it. I wish we’d either seen more of her specific memories of incidents or that she’d had at least a bit of a struggle in her present. Your nautical mileage may vary.

As I was reading Matagorda Breeze, it reminded me very much of three other books; Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, On Basilisk Station by David Weber, and Island in the Sea of Time by S.M. Stirling (also, come to think of it, 1632 by Eric Flint). On Basilisk Station and Master and Commander belong very much together as they were both inspired by the same real-life Napoleonic War naval commander, and the Honorverse is pretty much the Napoleonic Wars in space.

But the attention to ship’s details and operations is a big part of both Master and Commander and Matagorda Breeze, and the female captain receiving her first command against the odds is a big part of On Basilisk Station.

Island in the Sea of Time is a bit different in that it’s also a story about what happens after the apocalypse – but not the usual kind of apocalypse – as the people in that story are transplanted from the late 20th century to the Bronze Age circa 1250 B.C.E. So the 20th century humans have to adapt to the loss of their 20th century technology but civilization is still alive and well and growing. Just not the civilization that they left, and that situation read like the world of Matagorda Breeze more than I expected. 1632 explores a similar scenario a bit differently, but the people in Island have a ship so it’s a knot or two closer.

Back to the book in hand. Matagorda Breeze is a story that explores a fascinating alternate world – one that I’d be very interested in returning to if the author decides to go there. It’s also a great story about a woman for whom the course of not just true love but true-pretty-much-everything goes fairly smoothly, but has just enough adventure to make it interesting.

And definitely, absolutely, competence porn for the win!

Full disclosure: Lyla Hopper is a pen name for my dear friend Amy Daltry who contributes the occasional really snarky review here at Reading Reality. She’s a dear friend and I’m really sorry that she, her husband, their dog, and the RV they are living in are currently even further away than they were before they took up vagabonding. This is her first book and I loved it and hope that there are more where this came from!

Review: The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

Review: The Lost Apothecary by Sarah PennerThe Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Pages: 320
Published by Park Row on March 2, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A female apothecary secretly dispenses poisons to liberate women from the men who have wronged them—setting three lives across centuries on a dangerous collision course
Rule #1: The poison must never be used to harm another woman.
Rule #2: The names of the murderer and her victim must be recorded in the apothecary’s register.
One cold February evening in 1791, at the back of a dark London alley in a hidden apothecary shop, Nella awaits her newest customer. Once a respected healer, Nella now uses her knowledge for a darker purpose—selling well-disguised poisons to desperate women who would kill to be free of the men in their lives. But when her new patron turns out to be a precocious twelve-year-old named Eliza Fanning, an unexpected friendship sets in motion a string of events that jeopardizes Nella’s world and threatens to expose the many women whose names are written in her register.
In present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, reeling from the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. When she finds an old apothecary vial near the river Thames, she can’t resist investigating, only to realize she’s found a link to the unsolved “apothecary murders” that haunted London over two centuries ago. As she deepens her search, Caroline’s life collides with Nella’s and Eliza’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.

My Review:

The Lost Apothecary combines a bit of a time slip story with historical fiction, a soupcon of magical realism and just a touch of mystery, then wraps it all up, not in a nice tidy bow, but rather in a potpourri of savory herbs, pungent spices and well-hidden poisons.

It begins in the present, with 30-something Caroline Parcewell alone in London on a trip that was supposed to have been a celebration of her tenth wedding anniversary.

But Caroline discovered that her husband was an unfaithful arsehole just before they were supposed to leave Ohio for England, and Caroline decided to use the non-refundable airline tickets and hotel booking as an opportunity to get some space and take some time to figure out whether to resign herself to the safe, secure and boring life she has or to figure out what of her own independent hopes and dreams she still has a shot at fulfilling.

And at the tips of her loose ends she unearths the tip of a mystery that sets her back on the road to the person she used to be, before she let her husband talk her into being the person that he needs to further his career.

So Caroline undertakes a bit of a historical treasure hunt. The tiny glass vial she has found could be nothing. Or it might just possibly be the key to unlocking a historical mystery. Or two. Or three.

In her search for a late 18th century female apothecary and serial killer, she has a chance to uncover a hidden chapter of history. Along the way she might also find the person she was meant to be.

Or she might be prosecuted for murder.

Escape Rating A-: If you crossed The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane with In the Garden of Spite you might get something in the neighborhood of The Lost Apothecary. And I mean that in all its strangeness, all its depth, all its death, and definitely all its sense of women helping women and women making sure that other women are, if not celebrated, at least remembered.

Even in Caroline Parcewell’s 21st century framing story, it’s still about women’s skills, women’s magic, and women helping each other stand up in the face of men who want to keep them down at every turn and by any means available.

There are two stories in The Lost Apothecary. Caroline’s 21st century story and Nella and Eliza’s late 18th century story. Both are about women doing their best to help other women, although Nella and Eliza are the helpers in their tale, while Caroline is the helpee in hers, and both end with them learning to help themselves and to get by, as they say, with a little help from their friends.

There isn’t a lot of mystery in Caroline’s own story. Her husband is a selfish, self-centered, manipulative douchecanoe and many of the events in Caroline’s story relate to his douchiness in one way or another.

In other words, I loved her and I hated him and there weren’t a lot of surprises in that part of the story.

But this is also Caroline’s journey of self-discovery – and there were plenty of fascinating things happening along that particular way. One of the things that this story does well is the way that it portrays the joy and the compulsion of historical research. While it is seldom as easy as it turns out to be for Caroline, the way that she gets sucked into her deep dive into the past and her need to keep hunting no matter what was very well done. The reader absolutely gets sucked in right alongside her.

That the friend she makes on her journey of discovery is a librarian at the British Library was absolutely the best icing on the cake for this reader.

The story of the apothecary herself, or herselves as it turns out, Nella and Eliza, was a different kind of fascinating, but I didn’t find their story – at least not until the end – as compelling as Caroline’s. The idea that a female apothecary was helping women poison their husbands was sensational on many levels, but their internal dialog, the beliefs that drove them, while they felt true to the times in which they lived at the same time felt like a bit of a strain from my 21st century perspective. It’s not that it didn’t work, because it definitely did, but more that I wanted to reach through the book and shake both of them. Which, come to think of it, says a lot about how compelling I found their characters.

But the way that the two stories wrapped themselves together was utterly marvelous. I am absolutely astonished that this is the author’s debut novel – and I can’t wait to see where she takes me next!

Review: Level Up by Cathy Yardley

Review: Level Up by Cathy YardleyLevel Up (Fandom Hearts, #1) by Cathy Yardley
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Fandom Hearts #1
Pages: 154
Published by St. Martin's Press on April 11, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Geeky introvert Tessa Rodriguez will do whatever it takes to get promoted to video game engineer– including create a fandom-based video game in just three weeks. The only problem is, she can't do it alone. Now, she needs to strong-arm, cajole, and otherwise socialize with her video game coworkers, especially her roommate, Adam, who’s always been strictly business with her. The more they work together, though, the closer they get…
Adam London has always thought of his roomie Tessa as “one of the guys” until he agreed to help her with this crazy project. Now, he’s thinking of her all the time… and certainly as something more than just a roommate! But his last girlfriend broke up with him to follow her ambitions, and he knows that Tessa is obsessed with getting ahead in the video game world.
Going from friends to something more is one hell of a challenge. Can Tessa and Adam level up their relationship to love?

My Review:

I reviewed the second book in the Fandom Hearts series, One True Pairing, several years ago for Library Journal. I loved it so much that I gave it a Starred Review. While that review may be behind a paywall, a variation of it is here on Goodreads.

I also enjoyed it so much that I bought the first book in the series, Level Up, certain that I would get a round tuit eventually. When the notification for this tour popped up I decided that eventually was finally here.

And I have to say that Level Up was just as much geeky fun as One True Pairing.

The title of Level Up is a bit of a pun. Both Tessa and Adam work for the game design company MPG, whose name is also a pun but stands for Mysterious Pickles Games – not that anyone really calls the place that.

And they’re roommates. Adam owns the house, Tessa rents a room and shares the public spaces. They’re friend-ly rather than friends, as Tessa is very much of an introvert while Adam has a whole coterie of male friends that he works with and spends time gaming with outside of work.

The thing is that both Tessa and Adam need to do some leveling up in their lives and neither of them are quite ready to acknowledge it. Both are a year out of long-term relationships that went badly, and that’s a lot of it.

But Tessa in particular is in more than a bit of a “pickle” of her very own. She’s an excellent coder, she has serious skills in coding and design, but she’s a woman trying to break into a profession, a company and a gang that is an entirely male preserve.

She knows that she’s ready to level up her career and move from being merely the audio coder to a member of the engineering team. She’s been keeping her nose to the grindstone nearly 24/7 in the hopes that her talents will be recognized.

And it just doesn’t work that way. It should, but it doesn’t.

If Tessa wants to be recognized, she needs to put herself into a position where she can be known – at least a little bit. She needs to spend some time with her colleagues and co-workers and not holed up in her cubicle or her room.

Stepping outside of her comfort zone – and her walls – brings her the friendship of the geeky women who operate the geeky bookstore around the corner from the house. Tessa finds friendship and sisterhood with a group of women who are every bit as nerdy and geeky as she is herself. She belongs.

And she can help them as much as they can help her.

They need to win a fandom contest to say the bookstore. Tessa needs a gaming project that she can spearhead to bring herself the right kind of attention at MPG. And Adam needs to get over his high-maintenance ex by getting himself a girlfriend.

Those things shouldn’t quite go together. But they do. And it’s awesome, geeky romantic fun every level along the way.

Escape Rating A-: There is just so much to love in the Fandom Hearts series, especially for anyone who is a bit of a geek themselves. The portrait of life at a game developer in Level Up, and the way that One True Pairing speaks to the heart of “shipping” are just so much fun.

This story succeeds on multiple levels – and they’re all a lot of fun.

The romance here is a geeky version of friends to lovers. Tessa and Adam are platonic roommates. They’ve worked together for a while and shared a house for a year. They’ve had a chance to get to know each other and they’re friend-ly without being close friends. It also seems like their bad breakups have insulated them from each other, keeping them from seeing each other as possible romantic partners.

There are, after all, plenty of professional pitfalls for Tessa if she gets romantically involved with a co-worker or even dresses like anything other than “one of the guys”. She’s in an awkward spot. And it’s a very real kind of awkward. Software development companies of all types are known to be sausage-fests. All guys, all the time, to the point where measuring whose is biggest is practically a daily event.

That the team lead of this particular development group is a known asshole to everyone but especially to women makes this scenario feel especially true to life. Tessa still wants in, but knows that she’ll have to prove herself every single day and pay for it with her career if she ever falls a bit short – even if that shortfall is something that a man would be forgiven for instantly.

So Tessa’s spearheading of this project for her new friends is ballsy. Necessary for her career. And a tightrope walk every minute. And we feel for her.

The romance is glittery icing on top of Tessa’s hard-working and hard-won cake. Adam has to both get over his ex and see her for the user that she really is. And that he and Tessa are good for each other because they already like each other for who they really are and not anyone they need to pretend to be.

And it’s lovely that they figure that out while snowbound – even if that particular part of the scenario felt a bit too close to real life this month!

For those of us who are geeky girls, Fandom Hearts is a series that demonstrates that we can be just exactly who we are and still meet cute and find romance without compromising on our love of all things nerdy.

BTW if the plot of One True Pairing reminds readers a bit of last year’s marvelous Spoiler Alert, just remember that One True Pairing was originally published in 2017. So if you like one you’ll love the other and definitely vice-versa. After all, we’ve all shipped the story of a romance between one of the characters we love – or the actor who plays them – and a real-life person more than a few times in our fannish lives, haven’t we?

Review: Best Laid Plans by Roan Parrish

Review: Best Laid Plans by Roan ParrishBest Laid Plans (Garnet Run, #2) by Roan Parrish
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, M/M romance
Series: Garnet Run #2
Pages: 304
Published by Carina Adores on February 23, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A man who’s been moving his whole life finally finds a reason to stay put.
Charlie Matheson has spent his life taking care of things. When his parents died two days before his eighteenth birthday, he took care of his younger brother, even though that meant putting his own dreams on hold. He took care of his father’s hardware store, building it into something known several towns over. He took care of the cat he found in the woods…so now he has a cat.
When a stranger with epic tattoos and a glare to match starts coming into Matheson’s Hardware, buying things seemingly at random and lugging them off in a car so beat-up Charlie feels bad for it, his instinct is to help. When the man comes in for the fifth time in a week, Charlie can’t resist intervening.
Rye Janssen has spent his life breaking things. Promises. His parents’ hearts. Leases. He isn’t used to people wanting to put things back together—not the crumbling house he just inherited, not his future and certainly not him. But the longer he stays in Garnet Run, the more he can see himself belonging there. And the more time he spends with Charlie, the more he can see himself falling asleep in Charlie’s arms…and waking up in them.
Is this what it feels like to have a home—and someone to share it with?

My Review:

The original phrase (in the original Scots) by the immortal Robbie Burns goes, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” But in contemporary English it’s usually paraphrased as “the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray”. Or something along those lines.

The point is pretty clear, whatever the language.

There are two kinds of plans going astray in this second book in the Garnet Run series, after last year’s terrific series opener Better Than People. Even better, you don’t have to read the first to enjoy the second, although both books are lovely and well worth reading.

Rye Janssen comes to the tiny town of Garnet Run Wyoming with not much more than the ghost of a plan – a ghost that gets exorcised just about the minute he arrives in town.

Rye inherited a house in Garnet Run from the grandfather he never met. Rye has been couch-surfing in Seattle since his most recent eviction. He’s broke, unemployed and has no place left to turn when the news that he owns a whole house in what he thinks of as the middle of nowhere turns out to be true and not the scam he expected it to be.

With no ties left in Seattle except his cat Marmot (who will happily come with him), and no economic prospects whatsoever, he climbs into his barely functional car and sets out for the unknown. He’s thinking that a house has to be a better place to live than his current circumstances. His plan is to get to Garnet Run, move into the house and see what happens next.

As I said, a ghost of a plan that goes up in smoke when he sees the sagging, teetering house that is his legacy from his grandfather. But he has no place and nothing else, so Rye and Marmot haul in the sleeping bag they share and start making do – because that’s what they always do.

Charlie Matheson has done nothing but live his life according to a self-imposed plan since the day his parents were killed in a car accident, leaving the just barely 18-year-old Charlie with a decent house, a failing hardware store, and the custody of his then 13-year-old brother Jack. (Jack is the protagonist of Better Than People.)

20 years later, Charlie has completely refurbished the house, has turned the hardware store into a profitable business and managed to see Jack through to a successful adulthood, living his dream as a successful book illustrator and commercial artist.

But Charlie never got to live his own dreams. Actually, Charlie barely lets himself live. The only people who are part of his inner circle are his brother Jack and his Maine Coon cat Jane. Outside of them, he has acquaintances, he has colleagues, but no close friends and definitely no lovers.

Until Rye Janssen slinks into his hardware store looking for as few cheap parts as possible to keep that house from falling down around his ears. He’s already put his leg through the rotting floorboards.

Charlie loves projects and Rye desperately needs help that he’s both ashamed and afraid to accept. That shouldn’t be enough to start a relationship – even though their cats are all in on that front LONG before their humans are on board.

Can a man who has nothing but roots and one who is all wings have anything like a chance?

Escape Rating A-: A lot of this series, at least so far, is centered around not just the romance but about the romantic partners and their relationships with their marvelously well drawn companion animals. And I’ll confess that I loved this one just a bit more than the first book because most of the animals in that story were dogs, while the star animal attractions in this one are both cats – not that I didn’t like the dogs, too.

But cats. Definitely cats for the win.

There’s something else about this series that definitely needs a shout-out, and that’s the way that it shows and doesn’t just tell two important things. One of the protagonists in the first book is neuroatypical, and that’s not something we see nearly often enough in one of the main characters in a romance. Happy endings are for everyone – or at least they should be.

In this book, Charlie is possibly a bit on that scale, but mostly it feels like he’s a trauma survivor whose coping mechanisms are now getting in his way. What makes this story shine is its attitude of total sex positivity. This is a story that demonstrates, over and over and over again, until both Charlie and the reader get the message, that love and sex are whatever works for each person. There is no rule that says only certain acts are or are not sexual, and that only certain behaviors are or are not okay. As long as everyone involved freely consents, whatever does or does not float a particular person’s boat is just fine.

And if they choose not to put their boat out at all, that’s fine too.

There’s a saying “that love is all there is is all we know of love” and that’s at the heart of this book.

But it also tells a lovely story about someone who has never had a place to call his own discovering that he can put down roots and make a life in a place he can call home. And that someone who had to grow up much too scared and much too soon still can still find a person who can help him make new dreams and take new wings.

And that every town, no matter how small or remote, can use an absolutely kick-ass cat playground and shelter to help make a town into a  community.

Review: The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

Review: The Four Winds by Kristin HannahThe Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, literary fiction
Pages: 464
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 2, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Nightingale and The Great Alone comes an epic novel of love and heroism and hope, set against the backdrop of one of America’s most defining eras—the Great Depression.
Texas, 1934. Millions are out of work and a drought has broken the Great Plains. Farmers are fighting to keep their land and their livelihoods as the crops are failing, the water is drying up, and dust threatens to bury them all. One of the darkest periods of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl era, has arrived with a vengeance.
In this uncertain and dangerous time, Elsa Martinelli—like so many of her neighbors—must make an agonizing choice: fight for the land she loves or go west, to California, in search of a better life. The Four Winds is an indelible portrait of America and the American Dream, as seen through the eyes of one indomitable woman whose courage and sacrifice will come to define a generation.

My Review:

Today is the Presidents Day Holiday in the U.S., so I went looking through the virtually towering TBR pile for something with an Americana theme. Which led me straight to The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah. While the Great Depression happened everywhere, the Dust Bowl feels like a distinctly American bit of history. At least this particular telling of it certainly is. Just as the topsoil of Texas and the Great Plains States blew east as far as Washington D.C., many of the people living in the former – and future – breadbasket of America blew west to California.

Like many of the people who went west, in that or any other era of American history, these former farmers – and doctors, lawyers, bankers and businessmen – and their families went west to make a better life for their families. Or at least a life where the very land that once sustained them wasn’t killing them with every breath.

The story, this era of devastation and loss, is seen through two women, Elsa (Elsinore) Wolcott Martinelli and her daughter Loreda. The story begins with Elsa, over-protected and under-loved, a 25-year-old woman who sees the life her upper-class parents have mapped out for her and wants none of it.

Elsa is no beauty, and she was diagnosed with a heart condition in her early teens. Her parents expect her to live the life of an invalid, doomed to spinsterhood and expected to sit quietly and self-effacingly in a corner, waiting until her parents become elderly and need her to take care of them.

Elsa wants a life for herself. One evening she goes out in secret and meets a man who is just as lonely and feels just as trapped as she does. In stolen moments together, she discovers love while he honestly just finds a temporary escape.

At least until the child they make changes all of their plans. And the dry years and the dust take away everything they ever dreamed of. It’s left up to Elsa to take her children somewhere that they might have a chance.

Or at least somewhere that the land itself won’t kill them – although there will be plenty of other things and people that just might do the same.

Escape Rating A-: I’m having a bit of a mixed feelings reaction to this book and in an unusual way. Those mixed feelings are because I recognize that this book is really, really good, while at the same time feeling like it’s not for me.

And I’m thinking that’s because for historical fiction, which it very much is, The Four Winds definitely borders on Literary Fiction which is generally not my jam. So I’m torn.

The alternative explanation is that the historical parts really drew me in, but the character of Elsa didn’t. On the one hand, she’s an indomitable spirit, surviving in a situation that would bring anyone to their knees – as it certainly does Elsa.

The difference is that Elsa doesn’t so much rise up until the very end as she puts her head down and keeps on keeping on for the sake of her children Loreda and Anthony. But she doesn’t so much exhibit courage or selflessness as she does a lack of self. She’s been beaten down her whole life and now she beats herself down whenever her situation isn’t doing a hard enough job at it.

I think that is where the story verges on Literary Fiction as she’s downtrodden internally even before she’s trodden down externally.

But the history wrapped into this is intensely compelling. It’s as though the author reached into the Dust Bowl Migration photographs by Dorothea Lange and just pulled out all of the emotion and backstory and poured it onto the page. If you’re not seeing the iconic image of the woman with her children as you’re reading this you need to take a good, hard look at Lange’s work because the images are still absolutely soul-searing 80-plus years later.

And those scorching is on every page of The Four Winds. Not just the despair of the land and the life blowing away – and into everyone’s lungs – in Texas, but the hate and derision on the face of so many Californians when they arrive. The inhumane treatment that Elsa and her children – and all of the other migrant workers – receive in California echoes through the years right up to the present and the way that immigrants are spoken about, written about and treated to this very day.

Review: A Vineyard Valentine by Nina Bocci

Review: A Vineyard Valentine by Nina BocciA Vineyard Valenting by Nina Bocci
Format: audiobook
Source: publisher
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Published by Audible Studios on February 4th 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

An unforgettable night of romance awaits in this funny, charming novella by USA Today best-selling author Nina Bocci!

The annual Valentine’s Day singles soiree is always a big money-maker for Eloisa Giordono’s winery. What could be more romantic than looking for love at a quaint family vineyard on the most romantic night of year? Well, just about anything as far as Eloisa is concerned. She’s a Valentine’s Day Grinch who thinks it’s the lamest, most clichéd holiday ever invented.

Fortunately, she’ll get to hang out with like-minded folks this year by hosting an Anti-Valentine’s Day party on the same night. She’ll just need to alternate between events to keep them both running and she’ll be raking in the profits. But Eloisa is thrown for a loop when a sexy, self-described hopeless romantic shows up at the singles soiree and keeps her captivated. Will he change her mind about the holiday...and about love?

My Review:

If you’ve soured on love, or romance, or simply the commercialization of Valentine’s Day, you’d probably fit right in with winery owner Eloisa Giordono’s Anti-Valentine’s Day shindig – complete with black roses, dead cupids and a much more murdery and depressing vibe than she originally intended.

As a self-proclaimed Valentine’s Day Grinch, Elo was hoping to create an alternative celebration of the holiday of all-things-love for the happily single crowd. A place to celebrate friendship, acknowledge that loving yourself can be enough, and simply a place for those who aren’t ready to jump back into the dating pool to find some like-minded people for a fun evening.

Elo’s anti-love bash – or her bash against love, take your pick – is competing with her vineyard’s annual – and more traditional – Valentine’s Day event, Love at the Vineyard, which may sound hokey and cliché but works. Especially with the planning genius of the vineyard’s PR director – and Elo’s best friend – Mac.

Speaking of planning and genius, the genius plan is for Mac to handle the traditional event while Elo hosts the bashing Valentine’s bash. It’s all going SO WELL – until Mac makes the tired and hangry mistake of eating some leftover Seafood Alfredo that is way, way, way past its “safe to eat” date.

Food poisoning ensues, and the best laid plans of mice, women and vineyard owners go very much “gang aft agley” as Mac wakes up on the day of the dueling events with a desperate need to spend the day – and probably the night – worshipping at the porcelain altar to really bad decisions.

With Mac down for the count for at least a day if not more, Elo is on her own with both events. Now she’s responsible for two things that just aren’t her thing, a traditional love fest and public hosting and event management duties, along with worrying about Mac.

It should be the worst night of Elo’s life, at least recently. But just as the “festivities” are about to begin, Elo runs into Mr. Chardonnay. Literally. With a golf cart. But figuratively, as that’s not his real name.

In between shuttling from “murder Cupid” to “love is in the air” Elo and the mysterious man she has named “Mr. Chardonnay” flirt, banter and play a game of “strangers in the night”.

As the magic of the evening wraps around them both, the two mysterious strangers both start thinking that there might be something to this Valentine’s Day magic after all.

Escape Rating A-: This is kind of an amuse-bouche of a story. A chef’s kiss of a bit of romance. One that goes perfectly with the bite-sized wine and cheese pairings that are being served at the winery’s pro-Valentine’s Day event.

But seriously, this is a short story. A VERY short story. At most 100 pages if it’s length were being measured in pages.

That’s actually the right length. Because this is a story about the possibilities of love and the thrill of discovering that this person might just be the one. It’s the opening of the romance, with all of the internal angst and flirty banter that any romance reader could want.

It’s a meet-cute. And it’s ALL ABOUT the meet-cute. At the end, we’re left with the same possibility that the characters have, that this might lead to a happy ever after. It also might not. But that’s what first meetings are all about when you just click with someone and all you can see in front of you are possibilities.

One of the things that I, as the reader/listener loved about this story was Elo’s internal voice. She’s witty, snarky, and generally honest with herself no matter what actually comes out of her mouth. But she’s marvelously gifted with snarkitude and the reader’s voice was perfect for her.

The reader also does a good job voicing Mr. Chardonnay, but…I would have liked this one more if he’d been voiced by a male reader. Although I probably would have swooned while driving, which would be bad. His dialog is not just flirty but frequently downright sexy, and a second reader would have really put it over the top.

Speaking of over the top, there is one character who, in spite of her inability to leap tall buildings – or jump at all – was the perfect sidekick for the snarky but soft-hearted Elo, and that’s her adorable dog Olive in her equally adorable little cart. Olive steals hearts and scenes every time Elo brings her ANYWHERE and it’s just really, really cute.

So come for the yummy-sounding wine-and-cheese pairings. Stay for the flirty banter that turns Valentine’s Day Grinch Elo into a match with hopeless romantic Mr. Chardonnay. And don’t leave without giving Olive a scritch or three.

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Review: Ladies of the House by Lauren Edmondson

Review: Ladies of the House by Lauren EdmondsonLadies of the House: A Modern Retelling of Sense and Sensibility by Lauren Edmondson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Genres: relationship fiction, retellings, women's fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Graydon House on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

AN IRRESISTIBLE FAMILY DRAMA THAT PUTS A MODERN SPIN ON JANE AUSTEN’S CLASSIC SENSE AND SENSIBILITY
“I was absolutely charmed by Ladies of the House. A wonderful debut.” —Allison Winn Scotch, bestselling author of Cleo McDougal Regrets Nothing
No surprise is a good surprise. At least according to thirty-four-year-old Daisy Richardson. So when it’s revealed in dramatic fashion that her esteemed father had been involved in a public scandal before his untimely death, Daisy’s life becomes complicated—and fast.
For one, the Richardsons must now sell the family home in Georgetown they can no longer afford, and Daisy’s mother is holding on with an iron grip. Her younger sister, Wallis, is ready to move on to bigger and better things but falls fast and hard for the most inconvenient person possible. And then there’s Atlas, Daisy’s best friend. She’s always wished they could be more, but now he’s writing an exposé on the one subject she’s been desperate to avoid: her father.
Daisy’s plan is to maintain a low profile as she works to keep her family intact amid social exile, public shaming, and quickly dwindling savings. But the spotlight always seems to find the Richardsons, and when another twist in the scandal comes to light, Daisy must confront the consequences of her continued silence and summon the courage to stand up and accept the power of her own voice.
“A stellar novel that celebrates sisterhood and the way women can step out of flawed men’s shadows. I delighted in every page.”—Amy Meyerson, bestselling author of The Bookshop of Yesterdays and The Imperfects
“Warm, witty, and whip-smart. Edmondson’s talent shines in her expertly crafted story of two sisters breaking free of their father’s legacy. A sensational debut.”—Amy Mason Doan, author of The Summer List and Lady Sunshine

My Review:

The blurb for this book says that “no surprise is a good surprise.” While that’s true in the context of this story, I have to say that this book turned out to be a surprise, and for the most part it was a damn good one.

The subtitle of the book feels just a bit misleading, but also in a good way. With that proclamation of “A Modern Retelling of Sense and Sensibility” I was expecting something a bit more Jane Austen-like, and that isn’t exactly what I got. So if you’re looking for a version of Sense and Sensibility dropped whole and entire into the 21st century, that’s not exactly what you’re going to get.

Instead, think about what would happen if a family like the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility, or at least the female members of that family, existed in the present day. Or at least a present day before the pandemic restrictions.

Because the plot of the original story was driven by the circumstance of the widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters being forced into reduced circumstances by the death of their patriarch in an era when women’s only road to financial security was to be attached to a man – and they’d just lost theirs.

The story in Ladies of the House both has the same beginning as the original but differs widely and wildly in its execution because the world that the Richardson women inhabit is vastly different.

They may be reduced in circumstances, rather dramatically so, but they have choices that were completely unavailable to the Dashwoods.

The story of these Ladies of the House, rather than slavishly following its inspiration, follows the course of those choices. And in the process, creates a different, new and much more fascinating story than I, at least, originally expected.

Escape Rating A-: I’ll admit that I didn’t figure out what was going on until I read the Author’s Notes at the end of the book. At first, I saw very little of Sense and Sensibility and a whole lot of a contemporary piece of women’s fiction with a political twist for spice.

Although younger sister Wallis’ relationship with the fast-moving, fast-talking son of a political enemy certainly brought Marianne’s fast but equally  ill-fated romance with the equally smarmy Willoughby to mind.

But the heart and soul of this story is Daisy’s journey. If Wallis is “sensibility” as Marianne was, Daisy is playing the part of “sense” as Elinor did in the original. Daisy was her father’s favorite, and she’s the one who has followed in his footsteps into politics, as the chief-of-staff to a liberal Senator.

So when the late Senator Richardson was revealed to have had feet of clay up to the knees, it’s Daisy who suffers the most. Her job requires that she not become the story, her job is to make the Senator she works for be the story at every turn.

Her instinct is to deny, dismiss and minimize the scandal her father left behind him, even as she is forced to reckon with the part that she played in his downfall and her own. Her best friend is writing the investigative report of the whole sad affair, and the more he digs, the more Daisy buries herself.

It’s only when she finally and irrevocably steps away from her father’s shadow that she is able to find her own light.

But that’s part of what makes this modern retelling so different from its original. Daisy, Wallis and their mother Cricket all have choices that the Dashwood women did not. This is the story of what they do with those choices, now that they have them.

And how the making of those choices shapes them all – and very much for the better.

Review: The Narrowboat Summer by Anne Youngson

Review: The Narrowboat Summer by Anne YoungsonThe Narrowboat Summer by Anne Youngson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Flatiron Books on January 26, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the author of Meet Me at the Museum, a charming novel of second chances, about three women, one dog, and the narrowboat that brings them togetherEve expected Sally to come festooned with suitcases and overnight bags packed with everything she owned, but she was wrong. She arrived on foot, with a rucksack and a carrier bag. “I just walked away,” she said, climbing on to the boat. Eve knew what she meant.
Meet Eve, who has left her thirty-year career to become a Free Spirit; Sally, who has waved goodbye to her indifferent husband and two grown-up children; and Anastasia, a defiantly independent narrowboat-dweller, who is suddenly landlocked and vulnerable.
Before they quite know what they’ve done, Sally and Eve agree to drive Anastasia’s narrowboat on a journey through the canals of England, as she awaits a life-saving operation. As they glide gently – and not so gently – through the countryside, the eccentricities and challenges of narrowboat life draw them inexorably together, and a tender and unforgettable story unfolds. At summer’s end, all three women must decide whether to return to the lives they left behind, or forge a new path forward.
Candid, hilarious, and uplifting, The Narrowboat Summer is a novel of second chances, celebrating the power of friendship and new experience to change one’s life, at any age.

My Review:

Instead of two roads diverging in a wood, this story begins with three roads, three women, meeting on a towpath. All of the women are at crossroads, crossroads that lead them to each other – to the complete surprise of them all.

The blurb is not quite accurate, and it’s those inaccuracies that make the story so charming.

Eve has not left her 30-year career. Her career, at least temporarily, has left her. She’s been fired. As the only woman on an otherwise entirely male engineering team, she’s been let go because she’s the easy scapegoat. She’s not one of “the boys” and somewhere along a 30-year career she’s stopped pretending. When they need a sacrificial lamb to offer up to executive management, she’s everyone else’s obvious choice. As the story begins, it’s still the morning of Eve’s unceremonial dismissal and she’s still carrying the bits and bobs from her old office as she’s making her way home.

Sally hasn’t exactly left her husband, and he isn’t exactly indifferent, but her children are grown-up and out on their own. Rather, Sally has told Duncan she will be leaving, but she hasn’t quite left yet, mostly because she hasn’t figured out what she’s going to do. Duncan isn’t so much indifferent as oblivious to anything other than his own hastily formed opinions, and Sally has stopped trying to get him to see her way. She’s been placating him for years and she’s tired of it.

Anastasia, the owner of the narrowboat Number One, which is also her home, isn’t landlocked yet, although she certainly is vulnerable. She’s seriously ill and she knows it. The doctors want her to stay in Uxbridge for several weeks, so they can do tests and see if whatever is wrong is fixable or not. But she can’t afford to moor the Number One in Uxbridge for weeks on end.

The women meet on that towpath and their needs, surprisingly for all of them intersect. Eve needs something to do while she figures out what she’s going to do. Sally needs a place to be, away from her husband and her old life, to figure out who she really wants to be. Anastasia needs help but doesn’t want to be dependent on anyone even though she, temporarily at least, has to depend on someone.

A bargain is struck between these three strangers. Eve and Sally will take the Number One to Chester and back, because a friend of Anastasia’s who repairs and maintains boats like hers is willing to put it in drydock and do a round of necessary maintenance and repairs for free if the boat can just be delivered to him.

Meanwhile, Anastasia will live in Eve’s apartment in Uxbridge, take herself to her various doctors, and see what’s what about what’s wrong.

For one strange and glorious summer, all three of them will have to become something they’re not. Eve will have to slow down and let life take her one day at a time. Sally will have to stop living for other people and live for herself – whoever that might be. And Anastasia will have to trust two strangers with her boat and trust herself to the care of a whole bunch of doctors she’d rather never see at all let alone again.

Along the way they all discover that even if they don’t have plenty of time left to them, they do have plenty of life left to enjoy. If they are willing to take what comes at the speed that the narrowboat brings it to them.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this book up because I adored the author’s debut novel, Meet Me at the Museum, and I was hoping for more of the same – but different. The same kind of charm, the same kind of slow-building but lovely and transporting story. The same idea that just because someone is past a certain age it doesn’t mean that they can’t change, or grow, or discover their best self, a new self, or both.

And I definitely got it, including the slow building of the story. This one does take a bit of time to undock and set off up the canals from Uxbridge to Chester. That’s how it should be, as the whole point of traveling by narrowboat along the canals of England is that nothing moves terribly fast until you get off.

Eve, Sally and Anastasia are all complete strangers when the story opens. They meet completely by chance, as Eve and Sally are about to pass each other on the towpath beside Anastasia’s boat, drawn there by Anastasia’s dog Noah who is inside howling like a banshee. As, it turns out, he does on a regular basis whenever he’s left alone because he’s basically a teenage drama king in a dog-suit.

There’s a part of me that wants to make puns about this chance meeting and the title, Three Women and a Boat (the UK publication title) To Say Nothing of the Dog (Connie Willis’ classic time travel story, inspired by the even more classic Jerome K. Jerome story, Three Men in a Boat which has three men floating up the Thames).

There’s certainly a bit of both classic stories in this one absolutely including the dog – although without the time travel.

But this is really about the beauty of friendship, the rediscovery of self in a story that features women who are so frequently overlooked or discarded, both in society and in fiction. Eve and Sally are both somewhere in their 50s. Anastasia is indeterminately older, considerably frailer, and determined to stave off her inevitable loss of independence as long and as fiercely as she can.

They come together out of necessity, but they bond because they come to care about each other. It takes them a while to recognize that each supplies what the others lack. Not just that Eve and Sally have the physical and economic capacity to take care of Anastasia and the narrowboat, but that they also need the narrowboat and most importantly each other to live their best life. And that’s what makes the story so beautiful.

The Narrowboat Summer is a story about second chances, a story about friendship, and definitely a story about how the second helps and supports you while you handle the first. And it is thoughtful, and lovely, and charming every step and nautical mile of its way.