Review: Death in Focus by Anne Perry

Review: Death in Focus by Anne PerryDeath in Focus (Elena Standish #1) by Anne Perry
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War I, World War II
Series: Elena Standish #1
Pages: 320
Published by Ballantine Books on September 17, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the start of an all-new mystery series set in pre-World War II Europe, an intrepid young photographer carries her dead lover's final, world-shattering message into the heart of Berlin as Hitler ascends to power.

On vacation from London on the beautiful Italian coast, twenty-eight-year-old Elena Standish and her older sister, Margot, have finally been able to move on from the lasting trauma of the Great War, in which the newly married Margot lost her husband and the sisters their beloved brother. Touring with her camera in hand, Elena has found new inspiration in the striking Italian landscape, and she's met an equally striking man named Ian. When Ian has to leave unexpectedly, Elena--usually the more practical of the sisters--finds she's not ready to part from him, and the two share a spontaneous train trip home to England. But a shocking sequence of events disrupts their itinerary, forcing Elena to personally deliver a message to Berlin on Ian's behalf, one that could change the fate of Europe.

Back home, Elena's diplomat father and her secretive grandfather--once head of MI6, unbeknownst to his family--are involved in their own international machinations. Worried when Elena still hasn't returned from Italy, her grandfather starts to connect the dots between her change in plans and an incident in Berlin, where Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich are on the rise. It seems the message Elena delivered has forced her into a dangerous predicament, and her grandfather's old contacts from MI6 may be the only people who can get her out alive--if Elena can tell the difference between her allies and her enemies.

New York Times bestselling author Anne Perry merges family secrets with suspense on the world stage, as darkness bubbles under the surface of a Europe on the brink of change. In these complicated times, Elena emerges as a strong new heroine who learns quickly that when nothing is certain, she can rely only on herself.

My Review:

Today is Veterans Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in the U.K. and other Commonwealth countries. On this day in 1919, “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month”, the guns of World War I finally went silent.

I don’t usually post a review on this day, but this marvelous book dropped into my lap, and it seemed so perversely relevant to the day that I couldn’t help myself.

Death in Focus does not take place during the Great War, but the war and its aftermath directly influences everything that happens within it. Both because all of the characters are still scarred by the war well over a decade later, but also because the seeds of World War II were sown in the treaty that ended World War I.

But that’s something that is taken as a given now. One of the things that underpins this story is that those seeds were sown on both sides of that first conflict. The punishing reparations inflicted upon Germany as the losing side set up the desperate economic conditions that fueled Hitler’s rise to power.

The brutal death toll on the winning side, particularly in Great Britain, led to the tragic appeasement tactics of the interwar years. Britain had lost an entire generation of young men, and few of the survivors were willing to entertain the possibility that all of those sacrifices might be in vain. Many, including those in government, were willing to tolerate anything, no matter how heinous, in order to preserve the fragile peace.

Not that there weren’t plenty of people in Britain, including Duke of Windsor (the former King Edward VIII) who sympathized with entirely too many of Hitler’s goals, including the concept of the Aryans as the so-called “master race” along with the willingness to eliminate any people who were not part of that “race”. A belief that led to the concentration camps and the gas chambers.

While Death in Focus doesn’t deal directly with the factions in Britain who believed that the concentration camp opened at Dachau in 1933 when this story takes place) were just a good start, it does give insight into those, both in government and out, who simply could not face the idea of another war because they lost so much in the last war and couldn’t even bear the idea of doing it again.

So, the story of Death in Focus operates on two fronts. One is the story that follows Elena Standish as she finds herself in the midst of Nazi Germany on the run from both the Gestapo and the British Foreign Service, betrayed by her own country and framed for a crime that she did not commit.

Meanwhile, back on the home front, her father and grandfather are at loggerheads, and not just about Elena’s current plight.

Her father is a senior official in the diplomatic service who is certain that his father, a paper pusher during the first war, can’t possibly know what the current situation in Germany – or anywhere else – is really like. That the old man can’t possibly understand why so many, including himself, will do anything to prevent another war. And that both Hitler and Mussolini are actually doing good things for their countries that shouldn’t be interfered with from the outside.

But granddad is actually the retired head of MI6. He knows perfectly well what happened during the first war, and still has his finger on the pulse of current events around the world. He is certain that another war is coming and is beyond worried that his beloved granddaughter seems to have been unwittingly caught up in it.

Escape Rating A: As much as I got completely wrapped up in this story, I have to admit that what grabbed me wasn’t Elena, even though this is the first book in a projected series that will follow her exploits.

Exploits that remind me more than a bit of those of Maisie Dobbs, particularly in Journey to Munich, where Maisie was undercover in Nazi Germany in 1938. Although Maisie’s official cover doesn’t fail quite as badly as the way that Elena gets dumped in the soup.

Instead, the fascination for me with Death in Focus was on the home front, with her grandfather’s internal conflict. He has kept his secrets for so long, to the point where he and his son have become estranged, because he knows the war is coming and his son, in grief over his own wartime losses, needs desperately to stick his head in the sand and believe that the peace will last. Their characters and their dilemma resonated more for me, perhaps because they felt more fully developed as characters. Elena, like Maisie Dobbs in the first book in her series, has a lot of development yet to come.

In spite of his diplomatic service, her father doesn’t see what is going on because he doesn’t want to see. And in his willful blindness we see the same in plenty of others, including the government of Neville Chamberlain. Hindsight is not only 20/20, but it is downright painful.

At the same time, this is a murder mystery. Elena seems to be trailing dead bodies behind her, and she doesn’t know why. She only knows that she herself is not the killer. So there is a traditional mystery to solve, albeit in very nontraditional circumstances.

In the end, many characters discover that things are not quite as they seem. Including everything that Elena believed about her trip to Berlin and what she discovered. And that while revenge is still a dish best served cold, sometimes the chef for that dish misjudges their enemies and finds themselves served instead.

Review; Someone to Remember by Mary Balogh

Review; Someone to Remember by Mary BaloghSomeone to Remember (Westcott, #7) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Series: Westcott #7
Pages: 272
Published by Berkley Books on November 5, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

It's never too late to fall in love in this enchanting new story, a novella in the Westcott series from New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh.

Matilda Westcott has spent her life tending to the needs of her mother, the Dowager Countess of Riverdale, never questioning the web of solitude she has spun herself. To Matilda, who considers herself an aging spinster daughter, marriage is laughable--love is a game for the young, after all. But her quiet, ordered life unravels when a dashing gentleman from her past reappears, threatening to charm his way into her heart yet again.

Charles Sawyer, Viscount Dirkson, does not expect to face Matilda Westcott thirty-six years after their failed romance. Moreover, he does not expect decades-old feelings to emerge at the very sight of her. When encountering Matilda at a dinner hosted by the Earl of Riverdale, he finds himself as fascinated by her as he was the first day they met, and wonders whether, after all these years, they have a chance at happiness together. Charles is determined to crack the hard exterior Matilda has built up for more than three decades, or he will risk losing her once again....

*Includes bonus excerpts from the Westcott novels*

My Review:

There’s always something that links all the books in an ongoing series. It’s often family – or at least found family. Sometimes it’s place – even if occasionally that’s work place rather than home place.

At first, in the terrific, long-running Westcott series (start with Someone to Love and settle in for a fantastic binge-read), it seemed like it was family. And it sort of is. The late, unlamented Humphrey Westcott is a presence throughout the series, even in his absence.

Very much in his absence, as the series only kicks off because he’s kicked off.

But now I’m starting to think that the link between all the entries in the series is that all these people, at least one in each story, had lives that were blighted in some way by the late unlamented, and their story is their chance at a Happy Ever After that he denied them, or delayed for them, or did or would have derailed in one way or another.

While it’s fairly obvious exactly how Humphrey blighted the lives of the children who thought they were legitimate – only to discover they were not (Camille in Someone to Hold, Abigail in Someone to Honor), or the wife who discovered that she wasn’t (Viola in Someone to Care) it’s a bit less obvious here.

But still relevant. It’s not that Humphrey had the direct ability to prevent his older sister’s marriage – because he didn’t. But his misbehavior did. His sister Matilda and his parents wanted to believe that Humphrey’s terrible behavior were the result of him being led astray by his scandalous friend Charles Sawyer. Sawyer’s behavior after Matilda rejected his suit certainly lent credence to that belief.

Sawyer became such a figure of scandal, even after his ascension to his father’s title, that it made him a byword as a rake and a rogue. And Matilda comforted herself with that, even as she continued into spinsterhood, at the beck and call of her rather waspish mother.

Or so it all seemed. For years. Decades even. Until Matilda inserted herself back into Charles’ life, however briefly, in order to wrest some happiness for one of those blighted nieces at the end of Someone to Honor.

Only to discover that very few of the things that either Matilda – or her mother – assumed long ago were quite the way they appeared to be. Humphrey’s long-ago scandalous behavior was certainly not due to the malign influence of Charles – more likely the other way around.

And that even 36 long years is not enough to erase a love that was meant to be. After all, it’s never too late to become the person you might have been.

Escape Rating A-:With one half of an exception, I’ve loved every single book in this series, and Someone to Remember is definitely not an exception to that!

But Someone to Remember is different from the other books in this series. First, this is a novella, so it’s rather delightfully short. (It’s even shorter than it appears to be from the description as a fair bit of that page count is devoted to teaser chapters for ALL of the previous books in the series).

Second, while one could start the series in any number of places – Humphrey casts such a long shadow that his disgraceful actions are explained at least a bit in every story – there’s no way to start the series here. Someone to Remember works because we have read what has come before and are already rather deeply involved with the Westcott family. And some of what makes this story so lovely is the way that the assumptions that we – and Matilda – have come to during previous events get so delightfully turned on their heads in this one.

Third, this is a story that has more internal life than external. It’s a story where more – much more – is thought and felt than occurs on the surface. Matilda, and Charles spend a lot of this book thinking about the past and their missed chances – the many roads not taken – and those events in the past are more dramatic than what happens in the present.

It’s not so much that this is a second chance at love story as it is that it exemplifies a quote from John Greenleaf Whittier that goes, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been’.” Charles and Matilda spend much of this story contemplating those ‘might have beens’, looking back at all that they did, and just how different the present might be if they had done things just a bit differently. And yet, the problem with wanting to change things is that things change. Just because things might have been different, doesn’t mean they would have been better.

They’ll never know what that different past might have looked like, even though neither of them can stop thinking about it. All they can do is move forward into a new and brighter present – and future. And it’s lovely to read a romance between two 50somethings that, while different, is every bit as romantic as any story in this lovely and charming series.

And this series is blissfully not over. After all, Humphrey Westcott blighted a LOT of lives. The next book in the series will be Someone to Romance, this time next year.

Review: The Other Windsor Girl by Georgie Blalock

Review: The Other Windsor Girl by Georgie BlalockThe Other Windsor Girl: A Novel of Princess Margaret, Royal Rebel by Georgie Blalock
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on November 5, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In a historical debut evoking the style of The Crown, the daughter of an impoverished noble is swept into the fame and notoriety of the royal family and Princess Margaret's fast-living friends when she is appointed as Margaret's second Lady-in-Waiting.

Diana, Catherine, Meghan…glamorous Princess Margaret outdid them all. Springing into post-World War II society, and quite naughty and haughty, she lived in a whirlwind of fame and notoriety. Georgie Blalock captures the fascinating, fast-living princess and her “set” as seen through the eyes of one of her ladies-in-waiting.

In dreary, post-war Britain, Princess Margaret captivates everyone with her cutting edge fashion sense and biting quips. The royal socialite, cigarette holder in one hand, cocktail in the other, sparkles in the company of her glittering entourage of wealthy young aristocrats known as the Margaret Set, but her outrageous lifestyle conflicts with her place as Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister. Can she be a dutiful princess while still dazzling the world on her own terms?

Post-war Britain isn’t glamorous for The Honorable Vera Strathmore. While writing scandalous novels, she dreams of living and working in New York, and regaining the happiness she enjoyed before her fiancé was killed in the war. A chance meeting with the Princess changes her life forever. Vera amuses the princess, and what—or who—Margaret wants, Margaret gets. Soon, Vera gains Margaret’s confidence and the privileged position of second lady-in-waiting to the Princess. Thrust into the center of Margaret’s social and royal life, Vera watches the princess’s love affair with dashing Captain Peter Townsend unfurl.

But while Margaret, as a member of the Royal Family, is not free to act on her desires, Vera soon wants the freedom to pursue her own dreams. As time and Princess Margaret’s scandalous behavior progress, both women will be forced to choose between status, duty, and love…

My Review:

Vera Strathmore may be telling this story, but it’s Princess Margaret who dominates every single page, just as she does Vera for ten of the best/worst/most notorious years of both of their lives.

This isn’t a complete biography of Margaret, nor is it intended as nonfiction. Not that the reader doesn’t wonder, every single step of the way, how much fact underlies the fiction.

After all, this was a storied life, conducted all too frequently in public, and most of the facts are known. Whether the author has captured the feelings behind those facts? Well, that’s something that the reader will have to decide for themselves.

But what we have feels like a peek behind the scenes of Buckingham Palace – or Buck Place as it is referred to in the book – into the life of Princess Margaret, the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II, during Margaret’s glory years. The years when Margaret was to the post-war Press what Princess Diana became in the late-20th century – a source for endless photographs and reams of scandalous speculation and gossip, as well as a tear-jerker of a story of tragic romance.

The difference is that Margaret outlived her legend, while Diana never did.

But the times were very different. In 1949, when Vera meets the Princess, Britain is still languishing in the doldrums of post-war austerity. Unlike the US, rationing was still in force – and enforced. The old, privileged aristocratic way of life, so lovingly portrayed in Downton Abbey, was breathing its last – and Vera felt like her life was expiring with it.

Princess Margaret in 1951

Into the gloom of Vera’s life, as well as the gloom of post-war Britain, Princess Margaret, her outrageous bon mots and the larger-than-life antics of her “Set” blew through like a strong wind – a harbinger of change.

In the story, Vera served the Princess from 1949 to 1959. During that decade, Margaret went from the spoiled and self-indulgent but favorite daughter of the King to the disregarded and scandal-prone sister of the Queen. It’s no surprise that the years when Margaret is at her most sparkling are the years before her beloved father’s death.

And that she never manages to recapture that sparkle again.

Instead, we watch through Vera’s eyes as the Princess’ “set” breaks up and Margaret is increasingly alone. While the author never attempts to portray Margaret’s inner life, we see her actions, and their consequences, through Vera as she makes the Princess’ world her own – to her own detriment.

Because the Princess lives in a bubble of her own making. And when Vera, out of love and friendship, pricks that bubble even a little, she finds herself on the outside, alone and adrift, as everyone around her warned she would.

It’s only at that point that Vera finally takes her life in her own hands and forges her own path. A feat that Margaret, for all her privilege, never manages to achieve.

Escape Rating A-: I stayed up half the night reading this. It was like the best kind of gossip – compelling and absolutely fascinating from beginning to end, a peek into a world that I’ll never see in real life. At the same time, it also has the compulsion of driving by a wreck and being unable not to look. Knowing anything of Princess Margaret’s history we already know it’s a train wreck – but we can’t turn our eyes away as the vehicle – in this case Margaret’s life – crashes and burns.

I will also say that it is weird to see events that I remember contemporaneously being treated as historical fiction. Very weird. The whole idea that the 1960s have now become “historical” feels very odd indeed.

What everyone remembers of Margaret’s life is the irony factor in her tragic romance with Peter Townsend. In 1936, her uncle King Edward VIII was forced to abdicate the throne to her father, King George VI, because he wasn’t permitted to marry divorcee Wallis Warfield Simpson. The head of the Church of England could not marry a divorced person. By 1953, Margaret had dropped from being heir presumptive to the throne on her sister’s ascension to being fourth in line after Elizabeth, Prince Charles and Princess Anne. But she was still high enough in that line, and divorce was still so deeply frowned upon that her desire to marry the divorced Peter Townsend – was forbidden by both her sister the Queen and the Church of England.

I always found it ironic that Margaret’s eventual marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones ended in divorce. In 1953 it was anathema for her to marry a divorcé, but by 1978 she had become one herself. In all likelihood, Margaret’s marital failure paved the way for the acceptance of the same by several of her royal nephews and nieces, including the Prince of Wales.

Princess Margaret in 1958

But Margaret in the 1950s is a compelling character who stands firmly at the center of this story – to the point where Vera and her own needs, wants and desires fade into the background – even for herself. We also see Margaret change from glittering to brittle as the spotlight moves away from her to her sister, the “perfect” Queen.

While Margaret had always been capricious and frequently cutting, the more she is pushed into the background the more she tried to escape that background by being as outrageous as possible – and the more those around her suffered for her whims and moods. Margaret is never a villain, but she is also never someone that Vera could or should rely on. Her whims could be cruel, and Vera and the other members of Margaret’s household were her closest and most frequent targets.

In the end, this is the portrayal of two women locked together in a crisis of their own making. The one who seemingly holds all the cards having less freedom than the one who initially feels like the dependent partner of a codependent relationship.

Margaret’s life was a train wreck, not all of it of her own making. And we can’t turn our eyes away.

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Review: Tell Me No Lies by Shelley Noble + Giveaway

Review: Tell Me No Lies by Shelley Noble + GiveawayTell Me No Lies (Lady Dunbridge) by Shelley Noble
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Lady Dunbridge #2
Pages: 368
Published by Forge Books on November 5, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Miss Fisher meets Downton Abbey in Tell Me No Lies, part of the critically acclaimed Lady Dunbridge Mystery series from New York Times bestselling author Shelley Noble.

Rise and shine, Countess, you're about to have a visitor.

Lady Dunbridge was not about to let a little thing like the death of her husband ruin her social life. She's come to New York City, ready to take the dazzling world of Gilded Age Manhattan by storm. The social events of the summer have been amusing but Lady Phil is searching for more excitement---and she finds it, when an early morning visitor arrives, begging for her help. After all, Lady Phil has been known to be useful in a crisis. Especially when the crisis involves the untimely death of a handsome young business tycoon.

His death could send another financial panic through Wall Street and beyond.

With the elegant Plaza Hotel, Metropolitan Museum of Art and the opulent mansions of Long Island's Gold Coast as the backdrop, romance, murder, and scandals abound. Someone simply must do something. And Lady Dunbridge is happy to oblige.

My Review:

I picked up Tell Me No Lies because I really enjoyed the first book of Lady Dunbridge’s adventures, Ask Me No Questions. And yes, I sense a theme in those titles and I’m wondering where it goes from here. The (presumably) original Oliver Goldsmith quote, from his play She Stoops to Conquer, just say “Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no fibs.” Close enough.

So, here we have the delicious fun of Tell Me No Lies. And it is definitely delicious – and that’s no fib at all. And fun. Also deadly. But Lady Philomena Dunbridge, Phil to her friends and readers, is there to save the day.

Where in Ask Me No Questions Phil literally walked into the murder, and is caught in the middle of the investigation because she needs to get her friend Reggie and herself out of the frame that they have definitely been placed in, she has spent the several months since those events researching the proper procedures for conducting investigations, with the able assistance of her supposed servants, Preswick and Lily.

All in order to be of future assistance to the charming, mysterious Mr. X who is paying Phil’s rent in exchange for future investigative services – and possibly more.

Phil’s involvement with this new case is a direct result of the previous. High society in Gilded Age Manhattan is rather a tight circle, and Phil has developed a reputation for saving reputations where such is warranted. The morning after Phil’s attendance at the sparkling debut ball for debutante Agnes Pratt, Mr. Luther Pratt, the debutante’s father, appears at Phil’s door to request her immediate return to the scene of the festivities.

The corpse of one of the other guests has been found in the laundry. It’s up to Phil to figure out just how the man ended up dead, and whether the deed was done by one of the well-heeled guests or one of their respectable servants. But better a servant than a guest – especially since the guests were all important titans of banking and industry, and a scandal amongst them could precipitate a further destabilization of the volatile stock market.

Little do they know that it’s already too late for most of them to save themselves from either the investigation, the fallout, or the impending crash.

All Phil can do is make sure that only the guilty are punished for the crime. As soon as she can figure out the who, the how and most especially the why of it all. No matter how important the man who stands in her way.

Escape Rating A-: I enjoyed Tell Me No Lies every single bit as much as I did Ask Me No Questions. I absolutely adore the character of Phil, her perspective is witty and trenchant and just the right amount of cynical. That she reminds me very much of Phryne Fisher is certainly a plus.

Howsomever, I do have just a couple of quibbles. The blurbs describe this series as Miss Fisher (presumably of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) meets Downton Abbey. Those same blurbs also set the series in Gilded Age New York City. There’s truth in those descriptions, as well as more than a bit of hyperbole.

Also more than a hint of misdirection. This entry in the series in particular is set in late October, 1929. As the story opens, the talk of the town is that J.P. Morgan and his business associates have just attempted to stop the fall of the banks by injecting millions of dollars of their own money into the system. (This really happened.) But their efforts were doomed to fail, a fact that is fairly obvious in the background of the story.

In other words, this story takes place in the days, the very last days, before Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the day the stock markets fell in a crash that had been anticipated for over a month – and was certainly both feared and foreseen by the many financiers in this story.

So not actually the Gilded Age, but the glorious excess of that Gilded Age probably sounds more lively than the Great Depression. Not that this book isn’t plenty lively in spite of the shadows of doom. Phil is guaranteed to put plenty of life into any party.

Also there’s not so much of Downton Abbey here. Not just because the story is set in New York, and service in the U.S. was never nearly as entrenched as it was in Britain, but also because Phil exists between the classes. By birth she is upper class, but she is also living by her wits. She knows how the upper class thinks and functions – at least back home – but she isn’t exactly a part of it the way the Crawleys are. And certainly her two loyal retainers, the butler Preswick and the lady’s maid Lily, are much more partners-in-solving-crime than they are servants in any traditional sense.

But the strong resemblance to Miss Fisher, Miss Phryne Fisher, is definitely present. Phil and Phryne would either get along like the proverbial house on fire, or would fight like two cats over the same territory – and possibly the same men. They are very much alike in perspective and attitude.

And Phil’s handsome cop with somewhat of a stick up his ass, Detective Sergeant John Atkins, is a dead ringer for Detective Inspector John “Jack” Robinson, at least as portrayed by Nathan Page in the TV series. With zero resemblance (by either) to the same character in the book series. The flirtation between Atkins and Phil certainly furthers the likeness.

At the beginning I referred to the Oliver Goldsmith quote as the source – so far – of the titles for this series. But there’s a Lynyrd Skynard song has a few more lines that might be relevant later.

So, don’t ask me no questions
And I won’t tell you no lies
So, don’t ask me about my business
And I won’t tell you goodbye

We’ll see. Hopefully. Soon.

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

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Those who Came Before by J.H. Moncrieff

Review: Those who Came Before by J.H. MoncrieffThose Who Came Before by J.H. Moncrieff
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: horror
Pages: 256
Published by Flame Tree Press on October 10, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

People are dying at Strong Lake, and the worst is yet to come.

An idyllic weekend camping trip is cut short when Reese Wallace’s friends are brutally murdered. As the group’s only survivor, Reese is the prime suspect, and his story doesn’t make much sense. A disembodied voice warning him to leave the campground the night before? A strange, blackened tree that gave him an electric shock when he cut it down for firewood?

Detective Greyeyes isn’t having any of it―until she hears the voice herself and finds an arrowhead at the crime scene―an arrowhead she can’t get rid of. Troubling visions of a doomed Native American tribe who once called the campground home, and rumors of cursed land and a mythical beast plague the strangest murder case she’s ever been a part of.

My Review:

Today is Halloween, which marks my annual foray into horror – or at least horror-adjacency. But this time, it’s horror. Real, honest-to-goodness, not to be read with the lights off or right before bedtime, horror.

And it’s creepy and compelling and compellingly creepy. And I’m still creeped out.

There’s that whole thing about “mystery wrapped in an enigma”. Those Who Came Before, is horror wrapped in a police procedural interwoven with true crime historic horror and coated with blood and gore and stink and plenty more horror. The creepy kind that keeps you – or at least me – up at night. And the historic kind that makes you sick to your stomach as well at humanity’s past and present inhumanity to anyone of its kind that it can pretend isn’t – even though it most definitely is.

There’s horror and then there’s horror. The horror of the series of inexplicable deaths, and the historic horror of the smallpox epidemic among the Native tribes that was deliberately inflicted by the white settlers.

All in a tiny campground that absolutely no one wants. A place that should either be labeled “Here Be Monsters”, “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here” or both. Definitely both.

Reese Wallace begins the story, and the night, as a dorky, jerky kid, a college graduate who hasn’t grown up yet. In the morning he wakes up in that campground, covered in blood, surrounded by the bodies of the three friends he went camping with.

He didn’t hear a thing while they were tormented and dismembered. But he didn’t do it.

The question that Detective Maria Greyeyes has to solve is not so much whodunnit as what dunnit? And does she need to believe in it in order to stop it before it kills again? It certainly believes in her.

Escape Rating A-: Reese is way too much of an entitled jerk in the beginning, and the bullying, abusive cop (who does get what’s coming to him) is a bit too much of a cliche to make this a full A – but it was definitely close. But OMG this thing is compelling, especially the parts where Maria Greyeyes is trying to follow standard police procedure to investigate a crime that is so far from standard that it follows her home at night – literally.

At the same time, the terrible history that is explored, through dreams as well as research, is chilling because that part of the story is real. White settlers really did deliberately infect Native tribes by handing out blankets infected with smallpox. And plenty worse. This part of the story reminded me of the excellent, totally chilling true crime story Killers of the Flower Moon.

What happens in Those Who Came Before is creepier because it veers from that historic horror to contemporary horror, as the bodies pile up. And as the spirit of whatever has gone so very wrong manages to invade both Reese’s and Maria’s daily lives.

As a story, that felt like the most horror invested – or infested – part. In their attempt to find out what went wrong and fix it, they become unable to trust themselves and their own actions and reactions. They are both afraid that they have become the horror they are trying to prevent.

The ending of this one is terrifying in the wide openness of its possibilities – and the horror that might return.

Review: Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory

Review: Royal Holiday by Jasmine GuilloryRoyal Holiday (The Wedding Date, #4) by Jasmine Guillory
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Wedding Date #4
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley on October 1, 2019
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New York Times bestselling author Jasmine Guillory makes her hardcover debut with a heartwarming Christmas romance.

Vivian Forest has been out of the country a grand total of one time, so when she gets the chance to tag along on her daughter Maddie's work trip to England to style a royal family member, she can't refuse. She's excited to spend the holidays taking in the magnificent British sights, but what she doesn't expect is to become instantly attracted to a certain Private Secretary and his charming accent and unyielding formality.

Malcolm Hudson has been the Queen's Private Secretary for years and has never given a personal, private tour...until now. He is intrigued by Vivian the moment he meets her and finds himself making excuses just to spend time with her. When flirtatious banter turns into a kiss under the mistletoe, things snowball into a full-on fling.

Despite a ticking timer on their holiday romance, they are completely fine with ending their short, steamy fling come New Year's Day...or are they?

My Review:

I picked up Royal Holiday because I absolutely fell in love with the first book in this series, The Wedding Date (also the title of the series) and have been following along ever since, hoping that the subsequent books in the series would recapture the magic of that first book.

While I enjoyed both The Proposal and The Wedding Party, they didn’t quite recapture the magic of The Wedding Date. But Royal Holiday, the fourth book in the series, definitely did.

And it did it by being different from the others. The previous books in the series have all been wrapped around the wedding of Alexa and Drew, the couple of who meet, court and spark in that marvelous first book.

But now that they are married, and their best friends have found their own HEAs – sometimes with each other – the story has gone into a fascinating new direction.

Maddie has found her HEA with Theo (in The Wedding Party), but they haven’t tied the knot themselves yet. Meanwhile,Maddie, a freelance fashion consultant, has just received the contract of a lifetime. Her friend and mentor is the fashion consultant for one of the young British Royals.

While the princess in question is never named, it is fairly obvious who it is. In any case, that person’s identity isn’t really important. What is important is that her regular consultant is in the midst of a high-risk pregnancy and confined to bed rest over the holidays. And that Maddie is going to pinch-hit for her. In England. Over Christmas. Dressing the princess.

And she gets to bring someone with her for her working holiday, spending the days leading up to Xmas and Boxing Day at Sandringham House (the private residence of the Queen), and then having a few days of true vacation in London – all details arranged and all expenses paid by the House of Windsor.

Maddie convinces her mother to come with her to England. Vivian Forest is a respected social worker back home in California. She’s also been a working single-mother who scrimped and saved to help her daughter achieve her dreams. Vivian is about to take a promotion at work that will increase her pay, her hours and her responsibilities rather drastically, cutting her free time in equal if not greater amount. This is the last chance she’ll have for a while to take a really long, slightly indulgent vacation.

And probably the last opportunity she’ll have for some bonding time alone with her daughter, who will herself be married in a few short months. Life as they know it is about to change, mostly in a good way. But neither of their lives will be the same. So, in spite of some reservations about her family obligations back home, Viv gets on that plane for what she believes will be a wonderful but brief getaway with her daughter.

Only to embark on a surprising holiday fling that turns into much, much more.

Escape Rating A+: This is one of those books that gave me an earworm, as they sometimes do. In this case, the earworm goes like this, “Fairy tales can come true. It can happen to you, if you’re young at heart.” This classic from the “Great American Song Book” was recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1953. And it’s the perfect song to accompany Vivian Forest’s romance with Malcolm Hudson.

Both Viv and Malcolm are in their 50s, and it was incredibly refreshing to read a romance that featured two people who were not 20-somethings. Life doesn’t end at 50, and neither do love or romance. Watching them court and spark was every bit as marvelous as Drew and Alexa back in The Wedding Date. And just as lovely.

While on the one hand the banter between Viv and Malcolm makes this story in the same way as that first book, part of what makes it so special is the way that their romance was every bit as sexy and romantic as the earlier books in the series, while still dealing with the issues that are the result of them being at a much different place in their lives than the earlier couples.

Because they are older, they have more baggage trailing behind them – and they both understand that. They have careers that they are in the middle of – and starting to think about retiring from in a future that is not so distant. It is much easier to pick up stakes and move and change your whole life at the beginning than it is in the middle. There are more consequences – and more hesitations about those consequences.

At the same time, the questions of the heart are still the same. They have to balance what makes them each happy against how happy they can be together. That Viv is also wrestling with the question of what she wants the rest of her career to be vs. what everyone expects the rest of her career to be makes some of those decisions both more immediate and more poignant.

In the end, I loved Royal Holiday every bit as much as I did The Wedding Date not quite two years ago. It was so lovely that it even managed to reverse the romance reading slump I’ve been in for a while, because it felt incredible to read a romance that featured a woman closer to my own age that I could identify with so completely.

I’m completely hooked on this author and can’t wait to see where she takes me next!

Review: The Painted Castle by Kristy Cambron

Review: The Painted Castle by Kristy CambronThe Painted Castle (Lost Castle #3) by Kristy Cambron
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Series: Lost Castle #3
Pages: 400
Published by Thomas Nelson on October 15, 2019
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Bestselling author Kristy Cambron concludes the Lost Castle novels with this sweeping tale of art and secrets long buried in England.

It was supposed to be a one-week job: survey an art find, collect a hefty fee, and use that to settle historian Kiera Foley’s life back into balance. But from the moment she sets foot in the East Suffolk countryside, the mysteries surrounding the old English manor and the enigmatic art thief who’s employed her stir more questions than answers. Then, Kiera finds the existence of a portrait captivating enough to upend all of her expectations. This one could be a twin—a painting so close in composition to a known masterpiece, it may be rendered priceless if it truly captured the likeness of a young Queen named Victoria.

Set in three time periods—the rapid change of Victorian England, the tumultuous skies over England’s eastern shores in WWII, and modern day—The Painted Castle unfolds a legacy of faith, family, and stories that are generations in the making.

My Review:

The Painted Castle is a charming and entrancing time slip story – and this reader was so completely entranced that I finished it on one single rainy afternoon.

Like the previous books in this series, The Lost Castle and Castle on the Rise, the story is set in three distinct time periods. In this particular castle, the 1840s, the 1940s and the present. What links the three time periods in this story is a portrait. And a secret. And a secret about the portrait.

In the present day, disgraced art expert Keira Foley is back in Dublin working in the family pub, after her disaster-at-love derailed her career. And it’s there that suspected art thief Emory Scott tracks her down. Scott has a project that he believes is right up her alley – and will provide her with professional vindication as well.

He’s in charge of the restoration of Parham Hill Estate in Suffolk, and he has a portrait that he needs Keira to identify and authenticate. It’s a portrait of Queen Victoria, and it looks like a companion piece to the famous “secret picture” painted by famed portrait artist Franz Xavier Winterhalter in the 1840s. The portrait shows a young, newly married Victoria, with her hair down, looking as if she is thinking rather wicked thoughts about her new husband.

Queen Victoria by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. Signed and dated 1843

Speculation about the existence of such a picture formed a piece of what crashed Keira’s professional career. The personal crash was something else altogether. But determining whether this portrait is what it appears to be is an inducement guaranteed to bring Keira to Parham Hill – where the long-shuttered estate casts its own spell on both Keira and Emory – whatever their initial thoughts on the matter – or each other.

As they research the history of the estate, the past they discover comes alive through chapters revolving around the actual painting of that portrait – and the circumstances that brought Winterhalter’s surprising apprentice to the notice of the Queen.

Alongside the chapters in the 1840s, the portrait of the artist as a young woman, readers are also treated to a later and much more recent chapter in the estate’s – and the portrait’s – history. In the 1940s, during WWII and the repeated German bombings of London and the English countryside, the young widow of the last owner of the Estate is doing her level best to keep body and soul together, not just for herself and the estate, but for a host of children sent to the country for safety – and two German-Jewish orphans smuggled out of their homeland after Kristallnacht.

When the nearby U.S. Airbase requisitions the use of Parham HIll for quarters for excess officers, Parham HIll and its lady, Amelia Wood, open their doors and their hearts. Particularly to one American officer who captures her heart – in spite of how deeply, painfully inadvisable it is to build even friendships that can be taken away in the blink of an eye – or the drop of a bomb.

It is in the 1840s that the portrait is painted, in the 1940s that it is hidden, and in the here and now that it is brought to light. Churning up secrets and lives every step of the way.

Escape Rating A-: I picked up The Painted Castle because I really enjoyed The Lost Castle – and was surprised by how much I did enjoy it. I was expecting more of the same with The Painted Castle and I was definitely NOT disappointed. At all.

That being said, I don’t think one absolutely HAS to read the first two books in order to get into the third. There are links, but they are all in the present and add depth without having the story dependent on having read the previous. Particularly as the link in the present is between Keira and her two brothers, while the important storyline in each book is the link between the women in the three separate time periods.

What makes the interlinked stories so interesting is that all the stories are impacted, in one way or another, by great change. In the 1840s it was the Industrial Revolution – which does impact that part of the story, although not in the way that the reader, or the heroine of that period, initially believes.

The upheaval of the World War II era is obvious, even on the home front.

And then there’s the now, where both Keira’s and Emory’s lives are more than a bit of a mess – as is the neglected estate they are investigating and renovating. And change always stirs up plenty of the elements that make a great story. In this particular case, not one but three.

I think it’s the World War II story that had the greatest depth – or at least it’s the one that pulled at my heartstrings the strongest. But all three have their tragedies – and their triumphs.

My rainy afternoon in The Painted Castle was VERY well spent. So well spent that the middle book in this series, Castle on the Rise, which I have not read – YET – has moved up a whole bunch of slots in the towering TBR piles. The first book in this trilogy, The Lost Castle, was lovely, and so is this entry in the series. I expect great things from that second book and am looking forward to the reading treat some rainy afternoon – soon.

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Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette KowalThe Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1) by Mary Robinette Kowal
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction
Series: Lady Astronaut #1
Pages: 431
Published by Tor Books on July 3, 2018
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On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.

Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.

Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

My Review:

This was one of those times when I had to put off writing my review for a few days after finishing the book so that I could tone down the squeeing and be halfway coherent. And I’m still not sure I’m going to manage it.

The Calculating Stars is enthralling, exhilarating and infuriating, sometimes in equal measure. And those are three things that are just not meant to go together. But this time they absolutely do.

There are three, let’s call them prongs, to this story. Or themes. Or threads. They happen simultaneously and are completely interwoven, but there are three of them just the same.

The first is the very big bang that sets off the entire story. It’s 1952 and Drs. Nathaniel and Elma York are vacationing in the Poconos when they witness, from a barely safe enough distance, a meteor crashing into the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. Somewhere near DC.

It turns out to be the Chesapeake Bay, or thereabouts. And thereby lies the crux of the matter. Because the meteor strikes water and not land. Which initially is thought to be better – for extremely select definitions of better – but is actually much, much worse than a land strike.

As Elma York flies herself and her husband inland to someplace where there might still be “civilization” or at least safety, she begins the calculations. That’s what she does, she’s a mathematics genius who can do most of the work in her head.

And the results, eventually confirmed by climatologists and meteorologists around the world, is chilling in its results. That water strike was an extinction-level event. Like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Except that human beings are capable of figuring out what is coming. The question, throughout the book, is whether they are capable of mustering the political will to do something about it, before it is too late.

And that is the heart of this marvelous book – and where human beings show both the best and worst sides of themselves – often at the same time.

Nathaniel York is an engineer. He and Elma were both employed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. Nathaniel is the leading survivor of NACA’s engineering team, and finds himself the lead engineer for everything that comes next.

Elma is a computer. In the 1950s, computers were women and not machines, as has been detailed in several recent nonfiction books about the period, notably Hidden Figures and The Rise of the Rocket Girls.

But it’s the 1950s, and Elma’s mathematical genius, wartime pilot experience as a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot) and not just one but two Ph.Ds, is initially completely ignored by the men running the show. Even though it was her calculations that determined the scope of the disaster.

The response to the disaster is the second prong of this story. Earth is going to go through a brief but survivable mini-ice age and then the temperatures are going to start rising. The water thrown up by the meteor strike is going to kick off a runaway greenhouse effect. In a century or so, the seas are going to boil away.

The only way out is off. Human beings need to find another basket in which to put our eggs. We have to get off this rock before it’s too late. The second prong of the story is the development of the space program a decade before it happened in our history, and under much more desperate conditions.

The third prong of the story relates to the way that Elma’s contributions are ignored, because it comes back to the fact that the general population in the 1950s had terribly misogynistic views about women, and terribly racist views about anyone who wasn’t white. And that’s combined with the usual human problems of not being willing to think in the long term when current conditions seem pretty good for their individual perspective – think of current reactions to climate change to see how that part works.

The story is told from Elma’s educated, intelligent, informed perspective as she is forced to deal with a whole bunch of men who either hate her for her achievements, disbelieve her because she is female, or both, and will do anything to keep her down and out because her existence and perseverance upsets their worldview.

We are with her every step of the way as she is forced to cajole, accommodate, hope, fear, pray and scream as she pushes or sidles her way into the halls of power – and into the stars.

Escape Rating A+: In my head, I’ve labeled those three plot threads as “the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” – complete with theme music. Do not mistake me, that rating is for real, this book is utterly awesome from beginning to end. And the audio is fantastic and amazing and read by the author. Which is even more amazing. The only author I’ve ever listened to who is half this good as a narrator is Neil Gaiman.

But those prongs of the story, they definitely fit the theme. The initial meteor strike is the Bad. Very, very bad. There really isn’t a way to think of an extinction-level event as good, after all. The sheer number of people who are wiped out in that instant should defy imagination – and it does. At the same time, the author does a fantastic job of personalizing all of the attendant grief through Elma’s reactions. Her family, her parents and grandparents, and pretty much everyone she knew or worked with, is gone in an instant. Her grief is heart-felt and utterly heartbreaking.

The space program is the Good part of the equation. Not that some of the details of how that sausage gets made don’t dive into the Ugly, but the concept and overall progression of the space program were very good. So good that it made me cry when we see all the emotions in Elma’s head and heart when she attends a launch with her great-aunt. (In the end Elma does discover that she has two surviving family members besides her husband. And her commingled joy and grief at those discoveries is beautiful.)

But there’s plenty of ugliness in this story, and it’s that ugliness that makes the reader want to scream. Or at least this reader.

This story takes place in an alternate 1950s. Sexism and racism were at a high-water mark during that decade, which resulted in the cultural upheavals of the 1960s in real history. In this story, it’s all on display, and it’s ugly right down to the bone. Not just in the way that Blacks are treated when they are present in the narrative – and they definitely are – but also the way that political forces try to use the terrible circumstances to literally remove them from that narrative. And the ways that they fight back. That part of the story sent chills up my spine both in its verisimilitude and its portrayal of an entire society’s callous disregard for millions of people due to the color of their skin.

And, because the story is told through Elma’s perspective, we feel every time she is ignored or set aside or deliberately blocked from achieving her dreams as a body blow. I wanted to reach through the book and knock some sense into many, many of the male characters. Most of them deserve a good swift kick where it would hurt the most.

Elma’s husband Nathaniel, however, is a complete mensch. Mensch is a Yiddish term of high compliment, implying just how truly good that person is.

It also signifies something that is a kind of underlying thread through this entire story. Elma and Nathaniel are Jewish. And it matters. To others it may not be that big of a deal, but for me it mattered so much. In Elma’s use of occasional Yiddish, the way that she sat Shiva and mourned for all of the family that she had lost, her desire to be a bit more observant in the wake of both the Holocaust and the ongoing tragedy, I more than felt for her. I felt part of her. I felt heard and represented at a very deep level.

The way that I was drawn into her story because she represented me in a way that most characters do not gave me a new appreciation for the power of representation in literature and the arts. It made me appreciate the Cuban heritage of Eva Innocente in Chilling Effect because I knew that if Elma made me feel represented in The Calculating Stars, then Eva gave those exact same feels to the LatinX women that she represents while telling her own marvelous story.

But the story of the Lady Astronaut has barely begun when The Calculating Stars ends. The Fated Sky continues Elma’s journey and is already out. A parallel story, The Relentless Moon, will be released next summer. I can’t wait to see just how far Elma goes, and how she manages to get there.

There’s a reason that The Calculating Stars won the Hugo Award for Best Novel this year. Take flight with the Lady Astronaut and see for yourself.

Guest Review: Dearly Beloved by Peggy Yeager

Guest Review: Dearly Beloved by Peggy YeagerDearly Beloved (A Match Made in Heaven Book 1) by Peggy Jaeger
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Match Made in Heaven #1
Pages: 430
Published by The Wild Rose Press on November 12, 2018
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Colleen O'Dowd manages a thriving bridal business with her sisters in Heaven, New Hampshire. After fleeing Manhattan and her cheating ex-fiancé, Colleen still believes in happily ever afters. But with a demanding business to run, her sisters to look after, and their 93-year-old grandmother to keep out of trouble, she's worried she'll never find Mr. Right.

Playboy Slade Harrington doesn't believe in marriage. His father's six weddings have taught him life is better as an unencumbered single guy. But Slade loves his little sister. He'll do anything for her, including footing the bill for her dream wedding. He doesn't plan on losing his heart to a smart-mouthed, gorgeous wedding planner, though.

When her ex-fiancé comes back into the picture, Colleen must choose between Mr. Right and Mr. Right Now.

Guest Review by Amy:

Given what Colleen had been through, we shouldn’t be surprised if she’s burnt out on the whole idea of marriage. Which she is – for herself. She’s enjoying running her own wedding-planning business, with collaboration from her sisters, in the small town from whence she came. And she’s apparently good at it: wealthy socialites from all over retain her to plan their nuptials, and she’s happy to deliver.

Isabella Harrington and her beau are her latest happy couple, with the wedding coming up soon. And things are ticking along swimmingly, until Colleen meets Izzy’s brother Slade Harrington. He loves his sis, and he’s the checkbook behind this wonderful wedding. He’s not sparing the shekels, it’s true – but he may be the most frustratingly handsome man in existence.

Escape Rating: A: Small-business owner lady, wealthy playboy – it’s a common trope, and author Peggy Yeager has given us a pleasant if predictable spin on the story. This book isn’t going to challenge your thinking about world-shaking things, but it does deliver a briskly-moving, sweet story of two people from very different worlds falling for each other. Along the way, we have a nice collection of interesting side characters: Isabella, Isabella’s mother (Slade’s stepmother), Isabella and Slade’s father, a famously exotic supermodel who’s seen with Slade way too often for Colleen’s taste, Colleen’s sisters and grandmother, and even the local chief of police round out an interesting and diverse cast of characters who add a wonderful flavor.

Slade, for his part, has always lived the part of playboy, although his own life experience has him soured on the idea of a long-term relationship. He’s a serious cynic about it, and not at all interested in the long game. Except, well, that wedding planner lady is really…really…ahem.  Nope, not gonna do it.  Back and forth he goes with Colleen, playing get-away-closer for quite a big chunk of the book. Colleen, for her part, is enjoying all the attention, but she’s not really interested in someone from a world too like that of her ex (who, of course, must turn up a couple of times in the story, just to stir the pot a little).  Back and forth she goes…and so it goes, until right after the wedding, and Colleen finds out that he did something that – in her mind – was Really Bad. A violation of her trust! An end run around something she’d already laid down the law on! What a dastard!

Being a stereotypical Irish redheaded lass, she lets him have it with both barrels, and walks away from their budding relationship, just as it was starting to get pretty interesting. But of course, neither of them is happy with this, and it takes something pretty serious happening to convince each of them to bend.

One of the things I liked the most about this tale is that we spend a the whole book firmly in Colleen’s point of view. The tale is told first-person, and we’re given a rich look at her own internal dialogue, even as she (and we) see things going on around her. Her moments of self-deprecation reminded me rather a lot of my own. There but for the grace of…well, whatever. I could really identify with some of her more-flustered moments, and that really got me engaged with this story.

If you’re looking for a great lazy-day read, here’s a good one for your list. It’s a feel-good story without too much complexity, well-crafted and easy to get into. Enjoy.

Review: Jade War by Fonda Lee

Review: Jade War by Fonda LeeJade War (The Green Bone Saga, #2) by Fonda Lee
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Green Bone Saga #2
Pages: 590
Published by Orbit on July 23, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In Jade War, the sequel to the World Fantasy Award-winning novel Jade City, the Kaul siblings battle rival clans for honor and control over an Asia-inspired fantasy metropolis.

On the island of Kekon, the Kaul family is locked in a violent feud for control of the capital city and the supply of magical jade that endows trained Green Bone warriors with supernatural powers they alone have possessed for hundreds of years.

Beyond Kekon's borders, war is brewing. Powerful foreign governments and mercenary criminal kingpins alike turn their eyes on the island nation. Jade, Kekon's most prized resource, could make them rich - or give them the edge they'd need to topple their rivals.

Faced with threats on all sides, the Kaul family is forced to form new and dangerous alliances, confront enemies in the darkest streets and the tallest office towers, and put honor aside in order to do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival - and that of all the Green Bones of Kekon.

Jade War is the second book of the Green Bone Saga, an epic trilogy about family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of blood and jade.

My Review:

I picked up Jade War just about the minute I finished the absolutely awesome Jade City. And then I couldn’t stop, to the point where I bought the ebook just so I could seamlessly switch between the audio and the text. The only problem is that I finished it very quickly and now, well now I really, really want to go back to Kekon, and I can’t until Jade Legacy comes out – maybe next year and maybe the year after. The story is marvelous, but the book hangover is truly terrible.

Kekon and the story of the Green Bone Saga seem to have gotten into my blood – or infected my brain. Not unlike the bioenergetic jade that infuses the culture of Kekon and underlies everything that happens in this epic saga.

Although Jade War expands upon and opens up the story that was begun in Jade City, like its predecessor, it also takes one act and brings it full circle. Jade War begins when Emory Anden, cousin and adopted son of the Kaul family of the No Peak clan, is exiled from his home in Kekon after refusing to wear jade and take up the life of a green bone that is expected of him. The story closes when Anden returns from his exile, picks up his jade, but finds a different path than the one that was originally laid out for him.

A big part of the story of this book is the making of Anden into his own man – but his part is told far from home, and uses his exile to tell the story of Kekon’s influence on the wider world – and that wider world’s influence on Kekon. Whether Kekon wants those effects or not.

Anden is not the only character that we watch grow and change during the course of the story. Watching the world change, both for him and for Kekon, draws the reader into the story in a way that just doesn’t let you out at the end.

And it’s enthralling and compelling every step of the way.

Escape Rating A+++: As I said at the beginning, this is a book that I both read and listened to, in equal turns. I couldn’t put it down and didn’t want to let it go – and I still don’t. I felt compelled to find out what happened next – and at the same time I’m devastated that it’s over – at least for the moment. I want to go back. Kekon and it’s world isn’t just a story – it felt like a place that breathed and lived.

Jade War both expands the story that began in Jade City and strengthens in central focus. It is, ironically both a bigger story and a more intimate one at the same time. The story of Jade City is insular, taking place almost in its entirety in the city of Janloon, and focusing on the growing tension between the two rival clans.

The first book featured Kaul Lan, the leader, or Pillar, of the No Peak clan. Lan was a reactive leader and not, unfortunately for him and his family, a proactive one. Lan’s tragedy was that he was a well-suited to be a peacetime Pillar, but he was faced with a clever and extremely proactive enemy in the Pillar of the Mountain, Ayt Mada. And Ayt Mada had been planning behind the scenes for years to propel No Peak into a war that she expected to win.

But no plan survives engagement with the enemy, and that turned out to be especially true for the Mountain’s plans for No Peak. Ayt’s maneuvers were intended to bring about the death of Lan’s brother Hilo, the head of No Peak’s enforcement arm. Without his warrior brother at his side, Lan would have sued for peace and accepted the subjugation of his clan sooner or later.

But all that plotting and planning brought about the consequence that Ayt Mada desired least. Instead of the reactive and passive Lan, now the active and vengeful Hilo leads No Peak, with his brilliant sister Shae at his side as Weather Man. And together they are more than a match for their enemies both at home and abroad.

Two heads really are better than one, particularly when each has strengths that the other lacks and they respect those strengths. They know they are stronger together than they are separately, even when they butt heads – as they regularly do.

Jade War is a bigger story than Jade City because the action expands outward. No Peak and the Mountain are still at war with each other, although the war mostly turns from a hot war to a cold one as Kekon is forced to turn its gaze outward. The major powers of this world, of which Kekon is explicitly not one, are conducting a hot war of their own not nearly far enough away. Kekon’s strategic allies put pressure on the country, forcing the rival clans to conduct their internal rivalry more strategically. Meaning fewer guns and duels, and more economic warfare conducted through proxies instead.

As well as a war for public opinion. No Peak courts the outside world, as symbolized by Anden’s exile to Kekon’s ally Espenia, while the Mountain gins up nationalistic fervor at home. And Anden has a front row seat to watch how that proxy fight plays out among the Kekonese immigrant community far from their island home.

But the story is also more intimate in that the reader sees more closely into the lives and minds of, not only Anden, but the two new leaders of No Peak, Lan’s younger brother Hilo, who has become Pillar in the wake of Lan’s death at the end of Jade City, and his sister Shae, the new CFO or Weather Man, who stepped up into the role after the betrayal of her predecessor.

They are young and mostly untried, and have to grow into their positions while the whole world watches. But they are more interesting to watch than Lan was. Both Hilo and Shae, out of a combination of desperation and their own styles of leadership are simply more proactive than their brother Lan ever would have been.

Their characters, especially Hilo, are more dynamic – and therefore more interesting to follow. They act rather than react, which means that they both push the action forward. Even when their actions are questionable – or downright morally reprehensible – they both err on the side of doing rather than sitting back and waiting for events to overtake them – not that THAT doesn’t occasionally happen anyway.

Jade War also takes this story of gangland warfare to a wider stage while telling a tale that provides standout roles for the women as well as the men of the clan AND adds a fascinating dose of world-wide political skulduggery to what was initially an urban fantasy about warring criminal organizations. The Green Bone Saga was a terrific story when it was confined to two families and one city. Now that it has gone world-wide, it is epic in every sense of the word. This is one of those books that just needs a higher grade than A+. Seriously, all the stars for this one.

Jade Legacy can’t come soon enough.