Review: Becoming Superman by J. Michael Straczynski

Review: Becoming Superman by J. Michael StraczynskiBecoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood by J. Michael Straczynski
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: autobiography, biography, science fiction
Pages: 460
Published by Harper Voyager on July 23, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

With an introduction by Neil Gaiman!

In this dazzling memoir, the acclaimed writer behind Babylon 5, Sense8, Clint Eastwood's Changeling and Marvel's Thor reveals how the power of creativity and imagination enabled him to overcome the horrors of his youth and a dysfunctional family haunted by madness, murder and a terrible secret.

For four decades, J. Michael Straczynski has been one of the most successful writers in Hollywood, one of the few to forge multiple careers in movies, television and comics. Yet there's one story he's never told before: his own.

Joe's early life nearly defies belief. Raised by damaged adults--a con-man grandfather and a manipulative grandmother, a violent, drunken father and a mother who was repeatedly institutionalized--Joe grew up in abject poverty, living in slums and projects when not on the road, crisscrossing the country in his father's desperate attempts to escape the consequences of his past.

To survive his abusive environment Joe found refuge in his beloved comics and his dreams, immersing himself in imaginary worlds populated by superheroes whose amazing powers allowed them to overcome any adversity. The deeper he read, the more he came to realize that he, too, had a superpower: the ability to tell stories and make everything come out the way he wanted it. But even as he found success, he could not escape a dark and shocking secret that hung over his family's past, a violent truth that he uncovered over the course of decades involving mass murder.

Straczynski's personal history has always been shrouded in mystery. Becoming Superman lays bare the facts of his life: a story of creation and darkness, hope and success, a larger-than-life villain and a little boy who became the hero of his own life. It is also a compelling behind-the-scenes look at some of the most successful TV series and movies recognized around the world.

My Review:

I jumped at the chance to read this book and be on this tour because, well, basically because Babylon 5. Which I’ve watched more than once, and have frequently cited in regards to its treatment of chaos vs. order in the Shadow War. Because that dichotomy rears its head, over and over, in SF, in Fantasy, in life.

It’s what makes Loki such a fascinating character, because he represents chaos. While the MCU may equate chaos with evil, it ain’t necessarily so. There’s a reason why seemingly every mythology has a chaos avatar – because chaos and the response to it pushes us forward.

It’s what makes Ben Franklin’s quote about sacrificing freedom to obtain security so powerful, as freedom is generally a bit chaotic, while security generally aligns with order. But too much of either, no matter how well intentioned, is always a bad thing.

The surprising thing about this autobiography is just how much chaos swirled around the author’s early life. And that his adult response seems to have been, not to fight against the chaos, but to embrace it. To grow stronger from the fight – no matter how much it hurt.

And it’s a fascinating journey from beginning to end – even if – or especially because – it (and the author) took a very long walk through some very dark places.

Reality Rating A+: I opened this book, fell completely into it, and didn’t emerge until I turned the last page. Sort of like the first time I watched Babylon 5, somewhere in Season 3, and got so deeply entranced – or entrenched – that I went back to the beginning to catch up then waited with the proverbial bated breath for each episode thereafter.

One of the fascinating things about the author’s life is the way that he knows and addresses the fact that he might not be the most reliable narrator of the early parts of it. Not because of lies or embellishments – or at least not because of his own lies or embellishments. Rather because the people whose memories he is forced to rely on for the parts that take place before his birth or during his early childhood were themselves far from reliable. His family’s story is a story of lies and coverups hiding multiple essential and nasty truths.

All families have secrets. All families centered around any kind of abuse have particular kinds of secrets designed to protect the abuser from the consequences of their actions. All of that is in this life story.

But the dark heart hidden underneath all of that is even more rotten than most people have to deal with in one lifetime. And it left the kind of damage that makes all too many people not merely dysfunctional, but sets them up for a lifetime of perpetuating their abuse.

What makes this story so special? For one, the book is compulsively readable. I started and absolutely couldn’t put it down until about 2:30 in the morning – and not just because I wanted to get to the good parts. I felt so compelled because the man is a consummate storyteller, no matter how painful the story is. I was hooked and I stayed that way for 5 hours of reading, just as I stayed that way for 5 years of B5.

The story begins as a shitshow of epic proportions, travels inexorably from endless defeats to seeming victories to yet more defeats, only to rise and fall again and again, until the end is, not so much a triumph as a paean of gratitude for all the chances that came, and for all of the million-to-one shots that surprisingly and delightfully paid off.

And it’s an absolutely marvelous read every step of the way. Even the hard parts. Especially the hard parts. Because the author spares no one, particularly not himself.

My one and only regret about this book is that I didn’t have time to listen to the audio, which is read by the actor who played the clown-turned-emperor Londo Mollari on Babylon 5. The only way that could have been better would be if G’Kar were still with us to participate. And now, I think it’s time for a rewatch.

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Review: The Wedding Party by Jasmine Guillory

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

Maddie and Theo have two things in common:

1. Alexa is their best friend

2. They hate each other

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so do we.

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

Review: Sweep of the Blade by Ilona Andrews

Review: Sweep of the Blade by Ilona AndrewsSweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles, #4) by Ilona Andrews
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, space opera, urban fantasy, vampires
Series: Innkeeper Chronicles #4
Pages: 314
Published by NYLA on July 16, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Maud Demille is a daughter of Innkeepers—a special group who provide ‘lodging’ to other-planetary visitors—so she knows that a simple life isn't in the cards. But even Maud could never have anticipated what Fate would throw at her.

Once a wife to a powerful vampire knight, Maud and her young daughter, Helen, were exiled with him for his treachery to the desolate, savage planet of Karhari. Karhari killed her husband, and Maud—completely abandoned by his family—has spent over a year avenging his debts. Rescued by her sister Dina, she's sworn off all things vampire.

Except... In helping Dina save the world, she met Arland, the Marshal of House Krahr, one of the most powerful vampire houses. One thing led to another and he asked for her hand in marriage. She declined. Arland is not used to hearing the word ‘no;’ and try as she might, Maud can't just walk away from Arland. It doesn't help that being human is a lot harder for Maud than being a vampire.

To sort it all out, she accepts his invitation to visit his home planet. House Krahr is extremely influential and Maud knows that a woman—a human, with a very questionable past—who's turned down a proposal from its most beloved son won't get a warm reception. Maybe she’s not sure about marrying Arland, but House Krahr isn’t going to decide for her. Maud Demille has never run from a fight, and House Krahr will soon discover that there's a lot more to Maud than they’re expecting.

My Review:

Vampires and politics. They go together like love and marriage. Complete with ALL the possibly messy endings. Along with the occasional happy ever after – as well as the rare but not unheard of “red wedding”.

This is also a book that manages to be both considerably different from the previous books in the Innkeeper Chronicles and follow directly from its immediate predecessor, the marvelous One Fell Sweep.

In this version of the universe, there is interstellar travel, and there are plenty of places and peoples in the very big galaxy, not all of whom are even humanoid. But Earth is not a participant in any of what’s “out there”. Because Earth sits on a very large and very rare nexus of space travel conduits, it has been declared a kind of intergalactic Switzerland – albeit one kept a bit in the space-faring dark ages.

Earth is off-limits to every species out there, and it’s an off-limit that’s enforced by everyone in return for safe passage through that nexus. Earth’s knowledge of the wider galaxy is confined to a group of people called innkeepers, who have complete control over the grounds of their inns. Inns that provide safe harbor, safe haven and safe rest-and-recuperation for any beings traveling through the nexus.

The story of the first three books has revolved around Dina Demille, daughter of two lost innkeepers, returning to Earth and taking control of the inn her parents left behind – and defending it from all comers, of which there have been entirely too many.

Dina’s adventures have been the heart of the first three books, and they are awesome. This is also a broad hint to start with the first book, Clean Sweep. This worldbuilding in this series is fascinating and grows with each new book in the series.

Sweep of the Blade is the story of Dina’s sister Maud. Formerly Lady Maud. Exiled and disowned ex-wife of one of the lesser ruling Vampiric Houses. There are vampire knights in this universe, but they are not much like our versions of vampires. On the other hand, the werewolves seem to be pretty much on the legendary nose.

I digress.

Maud survived a prison planet that spit her lying, deceitful, cheating husband out in little tiny pieces. And she, in her turn, avenged his death on every single one of his killers. Now she’s out, and safe, and home with her sister Dina.

But safe is not what Maud is built for. She could make a home with her sister, or become an innkeeper on her own. She could also, and more likely, become an enforcer for the innkeeper’s guild. Because Maud is a fighter – and she’s good at it.

However, Maud has a daughter, Helen, who is five years old and half-vampire by genetics, but all vampire in spirit. Earth, and the Innkeeper network, may be safe for Helen, but not what’s best for her. She’ll always be isolated and alone.

Maud’s other option is a tall, handsome hunk of vampire Marshall, who loves her, wants to marry her, and can provide Helen with a place where she can be who she is. Maud just has to accept.

But she can’t. She spent years as one vampire house’s trained human monkey, only to be discarded like trash for a crime her husband committed that she had no part of. She’s not willing to be anyone’s second class citizen ever again.

Arland offers her a place where she can fight to be first, for herself and for her daughter. She just has to survive every single thing, and every person, that his House can throw at her. Including a murderous attack by her potential mother-in-law and a pirate coup led by his House’s enemies.

And a very red wedding.

Escape Rating A+: This was a book that I gobbled up over dinner, and didn’t let go of until it was done. It starts with a bang, ends with a mic drop, and in the middle there’s the biggest and most delicious story of political skullduggery, underhanded betrayals, complex negotiations and epic romance.

This series is awesome from beginning to end, but this entry is a bit different. The previous stories have been set on Earth, with the ever expanding galaxy of characters making their way to Dina’s inn. While there have been some epic battles, the fighting has all been defensive, protecting Dina’s inn and her varied guests.

Maud goes away from Earth and she goes on the offensive – even if that is sometimes in the sense of the best defense being a good offense. She has a goal, and for the most part it’s the same goal she’s always had – to protect her daughter at all costs.

She wants what’s best for Helen, and that means making a place for them among Arland’s ancient, respected and feared House. He is, in effect, a prince among his people, and if Maud is to stand at his side as his equal, she’ll have to earn that place. That’s the story here, of her earning that place – not by pretending to be a trained monkey, as she did in her first marriage – but by being her fighting self. And by letting Helen fight an appropriate number of her own battles.

It’s that fight that makes the story so much fun. There are maneuvers, there are counter-measures. There are wheels within wheels within wheels. The vampires respect strength, so that’s what Maud must project at all times – no matter how much she hurts or how wounded she is.

At the same time, she is underestimated at every turn, and has to walk a fine line between lowering her enemies’ guards and not letting them walk all over her. The way that she eventually earns her place is by combining her strengths, both as a warrior and as a human. And it’s glorious. And so is she.

I enjoyed this book so much because I really liked Maud and wanted her to succeed. She is both kickass and clever, and both of those characteristics were needed in order for her to defeat her enemies – as well as to earn her place in Arland’s House by defeating theirs!

Sweep of the Blade ends, thank goodness not with a cliffhanger, but with a truly thunderous mic drop that promises more story in this universe. I can’t wait.

Review: A Beach Wish by Shelly Noble

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

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

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

Zoe has another family.

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

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

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

My Review:

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

That’s only part of the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Peach Clobbered by Anna Gerard + Giveaway

Review: Peach Clobbered by Anna Gerard + GiveawayPeach Clobbered: A Georgia B&B Mystery by Anna Gerard
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Georgia B&B Mystery #1
Pages: 320
Published by Crooked Lane Books on July 9, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

What’s black and white and dead all over? Georgia bed and breakfast proprietor Nina Fleet finds out when she comes across a corpse in a penguin costume.

Nina Fleet’s life ought to be as sweet as a Georgia peach. Awarded a tidy sum in her divorce, Nina retired at 41 to a historic Queen Anne house in quaint Cymbeline, GA. But Nina’s barely settled into her new B&B-to-be when a penguin shows up on her porch. Or, at least, a man wearing a penguin suit.

Harry Westcott is making ends meet as an ice cream shop’s mascot and has a letter from his great-aunt, pledging to leave him the house. Too bad that’s not what her will says. Meanwhile, the Sisters of Perpetual Poverty have lost their lease. Real estate developer Gregory Bainbridge intends to turn the convent into a golfing community, so Cymbeline’s mayor persuades Nina to take in the elderly nuns. And then Nina finds the “penguin” again, this time lying in an alley with a kitchen knife in his chest.

A peek under the beak tells Nina it’s not Harry inside the costume, but Bainbridge. What was he doing in Harry’s penguin suit? Was the developer really the intended victim, or did the culprit mean to kill Harry? Whoever is out to stop Harry from contesting the sale of his great-aunt’s house may also be after Nina, so she teams up with him to cage the killer before someone clips her wings in Peach Clobbered, Anna Gerard’s charming first Georgia B&B mystery.

My Review:

I want to know where Cymbeline is – because it sounds like a great place to visit that would only be a hop, skip and a jump from my home in the Atlanta exurbs. And we all need a quiet place to escape to every once in a while.

Not that things are really quiet in tiny Cymbeline – especially not for Nina Fleet.

Nina would love to open a B&B in her newly acquired Victorian house, but there are roadblocks a-plenty in her way, including plenty of B&Bs that beat her to the punch. As much of a tourist mecca as Cymbeline has become, no place needs an infinite number of inns – until a sudden influx of displaced nuns gives the mayor a reason to fast-track Nina’s application.

Opening an instant B&B isn’t the only problem that Nina has to contend with. She bought her house legally, fair-and-square, cash on the barrel-head, etc., etc., etc. And she absolutely loves it. But Harry Westcott, the nephew of the late owner of Nina’s house, believes that he is the rightful owner of the property – and he’ll see her in court.

The worst part for Nina is that he might be. He probably isn’t, but there’s an off chance. Not that Nina did anything wrong in her purchase, but that the seller might not have had the right to sell in the first place. She’d get all her money back, but she really, really, really just wants the house. In a few short months, it’s become home.

Between Harry and the nuns, Nina seems to have her hands full. They only get fuller when a local property developer is killed while wearing Harry’s penguin suit. How that translates to Harry becoming a suspect in his murder is anybody’s guess, considering that Harry may be one of the few people in town who didn’t have a motive.

Including the nuns.

Nina can’t resist poking her curious nose into the affairs of her neighbors, and the murder of the least liked among them. And she can’t help but band together with Harry and the nuns when they are all under threat.

When they set a trap to catch the killer, the tables get turned. It’s up to the nuns to save the day!

Escape Rating A-: This was just a load of fun from beginning to end, from Harry’s first appearance in the penguin suit right up to his driving off into the sunset at the end, with the murder resolved but the ownership of the B&B still very much up in the air – along with Nina and Harry’s completely unresolved potentially romantic and currently contentious relationship.

Their “relationship” begins with a fairly twisted meet cute. Harry arrives on Nina’s doorstep, suffering from heat stroke (all too plausible with our hot, muggy Georgia summers) while wearing a penguin costume. Which isn’t helping with the heat stroke. Clutching an envelope in his hand that he believes proves his rights to own Nina’s house.

Watching the ebbs and flows of their always just-one-tick-away-from-mutually-assured-destruction relationship is always fun. They want to like each other. They want to trust each other. It’s entirely possible that they have the hots for each other. And they want to destroy each other’s claim to the house they both love.

And they need each other to solve the murder, just adding to the fraught possibilities.

The nuns, on the other hand, are surprisingly delightful from beginning to end. They are the perfect opening guests for Nina’s B&B, even if their reason for landing in her lap (so to speak) is pretty awful. And directly relates to their possible motive for killing that hateful real estate developer.

He’s the one who evicted them from their home and business. Most of the nuns have been together, making excellent cheese and saying their prayers, for 50 years together. With the loss of their convent and fromagerie, the archdiocese plans to retire them to separate communities. They are broken-hearted at the thought of losing their family-of-choice.

And absolutely perfect guests. Also surprisingly with the 21st century for a group of elderly semi-cloistered nuns. Their customers have kept them firmly rooted in the now – to Nina’s surprise, and to the detriment of the killer stalking Cymbeline.

This is definitely a cozy mystery, as it’s wonderfully light-hearted – even if it does feature a dead body – albeit a dead body in a borrowed penguin suit.

Nina’s exploration of the town in her process of eliminating would-be suspects introduces readers to all of the residents of this quirky little place. Even if she does go off the track of whodunnit on more than one occasion. Or perhaps especially because. And I went right there with her. I didn’t guess this one at all.

As Peach Clobbered reads like the first book in a series, I’m looking forward to reading Nina’s (and hopefully Harry’s) future adventures. And definitely getting to know the denizens of Cymbeline a whole lot better.

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Review: Never Look Back by Alison Gaylin

Review: Never Look Back by Alison GaylinNever Look Back by Alison Gaylin
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on July 2, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Reminiscent of the bestsellers of Laura Lippman and Harlan Coben—with a Serial-esque podcast twist—an absorbing, addictive tale of psychological suspense from the author of the highly acclaimed and Edgar Award-nominated What Remains of Me and the USA Today bestselling and Shamus Award-winning Brenna Spector series.

When website columnist Robin Diamond is contacted by true crime podcast producer Quentin Garrison, she assumes it's a business matter. It's not. Quentin's podcast, Closure, focuses on a series of murders in the 1970s, committed by teen couple April Cooper and Gabriel LeRoy. It seems that Quentin has reason to believe Robin's own mother may be intimately connected with the killings.

Robin thinks Quentin’s claim is absolutely absurd. But is it? The more she researches the Cooper/LeRoy murders herself, the more disturbed she becomes by what she finds. Living just a few blocks from her, Robin’s beloved parents are the one absolute she’s always been able to rely upon, especially now amid rising doubts about her husband and frequent threats from internet trolls. She knows her mother better than anyone—or so she believes. But all that changes when, in an apparent home invasion, Robin's father is killed and her mother's life hangs in the balance.

Told through the eyes of Robin, podcaster Quentin, and a series of letters written by fifteen-year-old April Cooper at the time of the killings, Never Look Back asks the question:

How well do we really know our parents, our partners—and ourselves?

My Review:

There are all sorts of sayings about not being able to know where you’re going until you know where you’re coming from. At the same time, there are plenty of sayings about looking forward and not looking back.

This is a book about when happens when you look back a little too hard and a little too deeply. Because when you undermine the foundations of your life, pretty much everything gets washed away in the resulting flood.

It’s also a story about just how small the world, especially the world of a small town, can be. No matter how long its been since you lived there or how far away you managed to escape.

Or how many bodies you buried along the way. Particularly when there are actual corpses involved.

Once upon a time in the 1970s, a couple of teenagers went on a killing spree, until they were themselves killed in a fire that wiped out an entire cult/hippie compound.

But it’s over 40 years later, and one of the many, many people whose lives were impacted by that crime spree is looking for closure. He thinks the case about the killers is open and shut, and that it’s only the mess it made of his own life – even though he hadn’t been born yet – that needs to be resolved.

It’s not that simple. Closure is hard to come by, especially in a case that might still be open after all.

Escape Rating A-: I can’t really talk about this book without giving much too much away. So I’ll get into what I thought and especially what I felt.

This was a book that I really didn’t expect to get into nearly as much as I did. While I like the occasional thriller, that isn’t usually my jam. Too many heroines in jeopardy for my taste. But this isn’t one of those, not at all.

It’s actually kind of debatable whether there’s either a hero (or heroine) of any kind in this one. This is a story about a lot of confused people who are tied to each other in ways that no one expects or even knows at the beginning.

And no one is a reliable narrator of their own life. Not even while its happening. Perhaps especially while it’s happening.

What wrapped me up into this story were the questions that it asked about all the characters, and about how the past is viewed and how much interpretation, both at the time and later, influences what we think.

It seems indubitable that April Cooper and Gabriel LeRoy killed the people they killed back in the 1970s. Certainly those people are all dead, and equally certainly some of the witnesses are still alive. But, and it turns out to be a very big but, we see from the very beginning that even the witnesses interpreted events and motivations in ways that smack of hindsight and putting the pieces together more than they do what was actually seen – and done.

Eyewitnesses are infamously not reliable, after all. And humans want to ascribe causation to events in ways that can’t be verified, because we want things to make sense, even when they don’t. Perhaps especially when they don’t.

The story is about lives unravelling, April and Gabriel’s in the past, and Robin’s and Quentin’s in the present. Not that Quentin’s life seems to have ever been all that ravelled in the first place.

The person I felt for most was Robin. She begins the story believing that her life is a certain way, and that the foundation of it is strong. When it all falls apart, she almost drowns in it, but the truth does set her free.

And I had no idea what that truth would be until it arrived. Which was marvelous!

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Review: Protect the Prince by Jennifer Estep

Review: Protect the Prince by Jennifer EstepProtect the Prince (Crown of Shards, #2) by Jennifer Estep
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy
Series: Crown of Shards #2
Pages: 448
Published by Harper Voyager on July 2, 2019
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First, Evie has to deal with a court full of arrogant, demanding nobles, all of whom want to get their greedy hands on her crown. As if that wasn’t bad enough, an assassin tries to kill Evie in her own throne room.

Despite the dangers, Evie goes ahead with a scheduled trip to the neighboring kingdom of Andvari in order to secure a desperately needed alliance. But complicating matters is the stubborn Andvarian king, who wants to punish Evie for the deaths of his countrymen during the Seven Spire massacre.

But dark forces are at work inside the Andvarian palace, and Evie soon realizes that no one is safe. Worse, Evie’s immunity to magic starts acting in strange, unexpected ways, which makes her wonder whether she is truly strong enough to be a Winter Queen.

But Evie’s magic, life, and crown aren’t the only things in danger—so is her heart, thanks to Lucas Sullivan, the Andvarian king’s bastard son and Evie’s . . . well, Evie isn’t quite sure what Sullivan is to her.

Only one thing is certain—protecting a prince might be even harder than killing a queen…

My Review:

Payback is a bitch.

That truism works in multiple ways in Protect the Prince. After all, this is the second book in the Crown of Shards series, after last year’s absolutely marvelous Kill the Queen. After the events in the series opener, there is PLENTY of payback to go around.

Queen Everleigh Saffira Winter Blair is on both ends of that aphorism in this book. On her one hand, she has the desire, the opportunity, and in many cases the absolute necessity of being the bitch delivering payback to all of the people who cut her down and stepped on her when she was the lowest of the royals in the late Queen Cordelia’s court.

But Queen Everleigh remembers full well every single one of those cuts and slights and insults. The court expects her to conveniently forget, believing that Queen Everleigh is still the doormat that poor Evie pretended to be. But the gloves are off. Queen Everleigh won her throne by right of conquest, and she intends to hold it – and hold everyone’s feet to the fire to keep it.

They may all expect her to be assassinated in less than a year, but she plans to go down swinging. If she has to swing at them first, so be it.

Howsomever, her ascension to her throne didn’t just kill her predecessor, it also upset the plans of the Morta, the “evil empire” next door that planned to conquer the continent using their late puppet queen of Bellona as their stalking horse and the armies of Bellona as cannon fodder – while keeping their own hands clean.

The Mortan assassin who thought she had Bellona under control wants payback after Evie upset all her plans. And she doesn’t care who gets in the way. Or goes down in the way.

Kill the Queen got off to its running start with a red banquet of assassination. Protect the Prince opens with the first of several attempts to assassinate Evie.

But, as much as the Mortans, in the person of the assassin Maevan and her “Bastard Brigade” of illegitimate Mortan royals want to eliminate Evie from the board, she is not their primary target this time around. Not that taking her out wouldn’t be icing on their very bloody cake.

As the title implies, in this second entry in the series it is up to Evie, her friends and whatever help she can enlist, to protect the prince of the neighboring – and formerly allied – kingdom of Andvari. Because the Mortans are playing a very long game, and Andvari is also in their crosshairs.

The only question for Evie is which Andvari prince should she protect? The one she should marry – or the one she wants to.

Escape Rating A+: I finished this in one evening. Well, if 2:30 in the morning still counts as evening. Protect the Prince is utterly awesome and I absolutely loved it.

However, it very much starts in medias res, so for readers who attempt to start the series here it will feel like they’ve started in the middle. Which they have. The actions – and reactions, definitely the reactions – in Protect the Prince all hinge on the events of Kill the Queen. Meaning this is not the right place to start.

For those of us who have devoured Kill the Queen, there is more than enough backstory and reminiscences to bring us right back up to speed. Just not quite enough to start here.

Just as Kill the Queen took off the moment that the first queen in the story was killed, now that Evie is queen the story continues at the breakneck pace set by the last 2/3rds of that first book. Which explains what kept me up until 2:30 am. Protect the Prince starts fast, with a court to lesson and an assassin to eliminate in short order. From that point, the political skullduggery never lets up – and neither does the story.

Kill the Queen was billed as “Gladiator meets Game of Thrones”. I wasn’t sure about that description then, and I’m even less so now. For this reader, the Crown of Shards series feels like a mashup between Queen of the Tearling, The Twelve Kingdoms, and The Goblin Emperor.

Of course, those are awesome antecedents, so being reminiscent of those books is pretty excellent company to be in. The Crown of Shards combines the disregarded royal princess turned queen of Tearling with the ascension by killing mad predecessor of The Twelve Kingdoms (and both have evil magical empires to contend with) while The Goblin Emperor brings in that bit about the disregarded new ruler who isn’t expected to live long and has to garner some respect really, really fast.

At the top, I said that payback is a bitch. In the case of Evie being the bitch delivering the payback, it’s righteous and it feels right. It’s not egregious. She’s not out to kill her own court – no matter how tempting the prospect. But she has to take control and the scene where she does so sets the tone for her reign – and her story. It’s necessary, and I loved the way she fought back with her words and her voice and her appearance, even as under the surface she is dealing with a whole lot of completely understandable impostor syndrome.

A good chunk of Evie’s internal struggle revolves around her both acknowledging that she was not meant to be queen, and is only on the throne by happenstance, but that she is there and has to do the best she can for her people. No matter the cost to herself.

Kill the Queen was all about getting Evie to the throne. Protect the Prince is about her taking control of her place and her power. And it makes for a terrific story.

I can’t wait for the third book in the Crown of Shards, Crush the King, coming next March. I think I know who the king of the title is, I just want to see him get righteously crushed!

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Review: Someone to Honor by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone to Honor by Mary BaloghSomeone to Honor (Westcott, #6) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Westcott #6
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley on July 2, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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First appearances deceive in the newest charming and heartwarming Regency romance in the Westcott series from beloved New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh.

Abigail Westcott's dreams for her future were lost when her father died, and she discovered her parents were not legally married. But now, six years later, she enjoys the independence a life without expectation provides a wealthy single woman. Indeed, she's grown confident enough to scold the careless servant chopping wood outside without his shirt on in the proximity of ladies.

But the man is not a servant. He is Gilbert Bennington, the lieutenant colonel and superior officer who has escorted her wounded brother, Harry, home from the wars with Napoleon. Gil has come to help his friend and junior officer recover, and he doesn't take lightly to being condescended to—secretly because of his own humble beginnings.

If at first Gil and Abigail seem to embody what the other most despises, each will soon discover how wrong first impressions can be. For behind the appearances of the once-grand lady and the once-humble man are two people who share an understanding of what true honor means, and how only with it can one find love.

My Review:

The entire Westcott series is the story of one family making lemonade out of what initially were some rather bitter lemons – with no sugar at all.

Humphrey Westcott is dead, to begin with. And that’s a good thing for him, because if he hadn’t died before the series opened, the line to kill him would stretch for miles. The late and totally unlamented Humphrey was a bigamist, a fact that was only discovered after his unexpected death.

The series is the story of all of the applecarts that were upset by that discovery learning, one way or another, and sometimes quite painfully, that the overturning of the lives they thought they had was actually the best thing that ever happened to them.

Someone to Honor is Abigail Westcott’s turn. Abigail was the youngest child and second daughter of Humphrey-the-arsehole and the woman everyone believed was his wife, Viola Kingsley. Abigail, as the daughter of the Earl of Riverdale, as Humphrey the figurative bastard was, expected to have her Season on the Marriage Mart, find a wealthy and titled husband, and be married. It was not necessarily what she wanted, but it was her duty and she seems to have had no objections to fulfilling it.

(I never have anything nice to say about the late, unlamented Humphrey. NO ONE in any of the stories has anything nice to say. If divorce had been possible, his family would have kept Viola and abandoned Humphrey – and he deserves every bit of opprobrium heaped on his coffin. But it is amazing just how present he still is, in spite of his death.)

Abby has spent the last six years trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be. After all that time, the one thing that she is certain of is that the upending of the life she expected was a gift. She still has her family – all of it including her late father’s family – she still has all the friends who matter – and she knows who her true friends are. She has enough money that she doesn’t have to marry in order to put a roof over her head.

And she has the opportunity to be who she wants to be without having to deal with the expectations of the ton and its perpetual search for any character flaw that allows it to tear down her life, her character, her standing and her prospects.

She’s free.

But she’s not free of her well-meaning family’s desire to make a place for her on the fringes of the society that has rejected her for the so-called stain of her illegitimate birth. She loves them, they love her, she doesn’t want to anger or disappoint them – but she doesn’t want to be begrudged a place in the shadows. That life is over for her – and she knows she’s the better for it.

So when the opportunity arises to stay in her childhood home with her brother Harry, a wounded veteran of Waterloo, she jumps at it. Harry needs someone around who won’t coddle him, and Abby needs the quiet to figure out her next steps in life.

What she does not count on is Harry’s friend Gil, the fellow officer who rescued Harry from a convalescent hospital in Paris and brought him home.

In some ways, Gil and Abby are opposites. Where Abby was raised as a lady only to discover she is a bastard, Gil was raised as a bastard only to rise to the officer ranks, and therefore become a gentleman-by-courtesy, in the Army. The illegitimate son of a washerwoman and a nobleman, Gil raised himself up mostly by his own efforts, while Abby fell through no fault of her own.

In their little household of three, Harry, Abby and Gil, Abby and Gil draw closer to each other in fits and starts. Both over their shared concern about Harry, and in their surprising commonalities with each other.

When Gil’s secrets are finally laid bare, Abby is ready to stand up – and stand beside him – come what may. That the entire Westcott family stands with them guarantees that love will triumph, no matter who stands in the way.

Escape Rating A-: I have loved this series from beginning to end. (There was one half-exception, but even that was good – just not great). A big part of what I love about this series is that they are romances but are not frivolous. Or perhaps I should say that the heroines are not frivolous. The heroines of this series, to a woman, both have agency and remain a part of their times. Their situations are not pulled out of whack in anachronistic ways in order to give them the kind of choices that make them relatable for 21st century readers.

It helps that, with the exception of Anna Snow in Someone to Love, the women are no longer members of the aristocracy. Humphrey’s asshattery pulls them down into the upper middle class, removing them from the absurd expectations of the ton while giving them obstacles to overcome and lives to make of their own choosing.

Abigail can be who and what she wants to be and her family will still love her and support her in the emotional sense. Her finances give her freedom to be anything a woman of her times could be – including a spinster if that’s what she decides.

Her decision to marry Gil is not initially a love match – nor is it an arranged one. They have become friends, more or less. They like and respect each other – and they desire each other. She would like to marry, and Gil needs to marry. They enter their marriage with eyes wide open to everything except their true feelings towards each other. Because the seeds of love are certainly there, even if neither of them has the experience to see them.

Plenty of happy marriages begin with much shakier foundations.

In the end, this is a series about a fascinating group of people dealing with unexpected adversity. Life has thrown a monkey wrench into their expectations, and with each book we see the Westcott’s make lemonade out of that crop of lemons. And we see them rise together and support each other, which is certainly a treat.

The Westcotts seem to be the exception that proves the rule about all happy families being alike – they have become a happy family, and a stronger one, by moving forward from something that should have divided them by behaving in a manner that no one expected. It’s what makes them so much fun to read.

So I’m very happy to say that they’ll be back in Someone to Remember, late in the fall. I can’t wait!

Guest Review: Phaze by S. C. Mitchell

Guest Review: Phaze by S. C. MitchellPhaze by S.C. Mitchell
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: paranormal romance, science fiction romance, superhero romance
Series: Xi Force #2
Pages: 215
Published by Soul Mate Publishing on April 4th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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When Kayla Armstrong is attacked in her lab, she falls into a chemical stew. Now she’s walking through walls and falling through floors.

As the leader of Xi Force, Joel Weisberg is always looking for new superheroes for his team. What he wasn’t looking for was sexy Kayla Armstrong falling through the ceiling of his apartment right into his bed. Still he isn’t complaining when the event finds him a new Xi Force member and a new love. Now she just needs some training and some time.

But when an old enemy comes back with new powers and captures Joel, it’s up to Kayla to lead the Xi Force against her. But can they rescue Joel before he’s murdered . . . again?

Guest review by Amy:

Kayla Armstrong is a scientist for a hush-hush operation for the government, dubbed “Xi Force.” From the very first words of the book, she’s doing fancy science for her team, when she’s waylaid by someone who – honest to gosh – teleports into the room, knocks her about, steals her laptop, and vanishes. In the midst of the roughing-up she knocks over a cart with chemicals, and the soup of it she falls into changes her. She’s got superpowers! She’s going to be a field member of Xi Force! Just call her…Phaze.

Escape Rating: A-: I’m not quite sure whether this is a sci-fi romance, or a paranormal. There’s an awful lot of science going on for a paranormal, and an awful lot of mystical woo-woo goings-on happening for a sci-fi. Off the pen of S. C. Mitchell, though, it works, somehow. Kayla falls through the floor of her lab after getting soaked in chemicals, leaving her clothes behind, and landing in the bedroom of the on-site apartment occupied by her boss. Who’s just gorgeous, and she’s had the hots for him for a while. Oh, and he sleeps naked, too. Isn’t that convenient? She rapidly finds out she has the ability to walk through walls, fall through floors, all that. Pass through solid matter. That’d be a handy skill; it’d make it hard for me to lock my keys in the car again.

Joel Weisberg is, of course, a member of Xi Force. Some time in the past, Xi Force got attacked; it was an inside job, near as I can figure, and someone Joel loved. But she turned on him, and did a lot of damage in the process. She’s in prison now…well, until she’s not. And she’s got blood in her eye for Joel. What follows is a mystical, superhero-ey story where the good guys get some help from a dead girl, her mage brother, and a man who had his DNA blended with a wolf. Things move fast, so hang onto your seat. Xi Force originally thinks that all the shenanigans, including the attack on Kayla’s lab, are done by their arch-rivals, the multinational criminal entity Ghaim, but when the leaders of Ghaim start turning up dead, the plot gets thicker than Southern gravy, until finally Amber makes her move. She kidnaps Joel, while he’s on his first date with Kayla, now also known as the superhero Phaze. How rude!

Amber has loosed a demon. She thinks she can control it, but (of course) she’s dead wrong about that. So Xi Force has not only Amber’s powers, augmented by a mystical Japanese sword, but the demon that she’s turned loose in the process. Our hero team takes some lumps, of course, but this wouldn’t be a romance without a happy-ish ending, which, after a bit, they do get.

Phaze is a fun, fast-moving, romp of a read. Nothing too challenging, if you can suspend some disbelief, but all of the science and mystical elements fit just fine in the story, without a lot of exposition, so you can fall right into the tale. Enjoy!

Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora GossEuropean Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, historical mystery
Series: Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club #2
Pages: 720
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on July 10, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the sequel to the critically acclaimed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Mary Jekyll and the rest of the daughters of literature’s mad scientists embark on a madcap adventure across Europe to rescue another monstrous girl and stop the Alchemical Society’s nefarious plans once and for all.

Mary Jekyll’s life has been peaceful since she helped Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the Whitechapel Murders. Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, and Mary’s sister Diana Hyde have settled into the Jekyll household in London, and although they sometimes quarrel, the members of the Athena Club get along as well as any five young women with very different personalities. At least they can always rely on Mrs. Poole.

But when Mary receives a telegram that Lucinda Van Helsing has been kidnapped, the Athena Club must travel to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue yet another young woman who has been subjected to horrific experimentation. Where is Lucinda, and what has Professor Van Helsing been doing to his daughter? Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, and Justine reach her in time?

Racing against the clock to save Lucinda from certain doom, the Athena Club embarks on a madcap journey across Europe. From Paris to Vienna to Budapest, Mary and her friends must make new allies, face old enemies, and finally confront the fearsome, secretive Alchemical Society. It’s time for these monstrous gentlewomen to overcome the past and create their own destinies.

My Review:

After absolutely raving about The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, I couldn’t resist picking up European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. I had so much fun with the first book that I couldn’t resist the second – and now I’m eagerly awaiting the third.

This story, and this series so far, is the story of all of the erased women in all of the classic monster and horror stories of the 19th century. It’s their voices that give this rollicking tale both its derring-do and its monstrous heart, and it’s marvelous from beginning to end.

As this story opens, Mary Jekyll (Dr. Jekyll’s daughter), Diana Hyde (Edward Hyde’s daughter), Catherine Moreau (Dr. Moreau’s daughter), Justine Frankenstein (Dr. Frankenstein’s daughter) and Beatrice Rappaccini (the Poisonous Girl) have banded together to form the Athena Club, which is both their home and their place of business.

And the heart of their quest to investigate the completely amoral Société des Alchemists, of which all of their fathers were members – if not necessarily in good standing. Under the auspices of the Société, their fathers experimented on all of them in one monstrous way or another. And they want the Société stopped.

So when Mary receives a letter from her former teacher and governess, Mina Harker (nee) Murray, the women of the Athena Club drop all their plans and race to Vienna. Why? Because Mina’s friend Lucinda van Helsing has gone missing, and Mina rightfully fears that Lucinda is being experimented upon by her father, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, and that Lucinda needs to be rescued. And Dr. Van Helsing needs to be stopped.

Of course they are right on all counts. And, come to think of it, Counts. With the help of Irene Norton (nee) Adler in Vienna, the Athena Club races to save the day – and rescue their newfound sister.

No matter what it takes.

Escape Rating A+: This is another book where I started with the audio, and had an absolute blast. Part of what makes the audios for this series so much fun is the way that the story is told. Catherine Moreau is writing the story, but she is writing it in the presence of all of the other women, who cannot resist adding their bits to just about every line.

All of the women have very distinct personalities, and those personalities come through both in their words and in the voicing of the excellent narrator, Kate Reading. If you have the time to take this series in via audio, it is well worth the time.

But I don’t have that much patience. I reached a point, about halfway, where I just couldn’t stand it anymore and had to finish in the ebook. I needed to know what happened next (and next and next) so badly that I just couldn’t wait.

The story hook for this series is just awesome. All I have to do is say “Jekyll’s daughter and Hyde’s daughter and Moreau’s daughter and Frankenstein’s daughter” and whoever I’m talking to (read as squeeing about this series to) is instantly intrigued and wants to know more. It’s terribly monstrous and terribly wonderful and absolutely fantastic.

Part of what makes this series so much fun is the “who’s who” of 19th century horror. All of the men of the Société des Alchemists were the heroes of their respective novels, but to the Athena Club they are all the villains. And their fathers. And doesn’t that make for a fascinating brew of love and guilt and horror and ultimately, adventure?

Every woman in this story – except Irene Norton – has daddy issues. And so they all should, because their daddies literally turned them into monsters. It’s the way that they cope with their monstrousness and rise above the restrictions placed on females that makes this series so very delicious.

About Irene, she’s the perfect “mentor” figure for this series. If her name sounded familiar, it should. Irene Norton, nee Irene Adler, was THE woman in the Sherlock Holmes stories, the only woman ever to get the better of him. Holmes is out of the action in this one – appropriately so – and it is time for a woman to take up the reins. Irene is perfect for this role because unlike Holmes, Irene is used to working from the shadows. The members of the Athena Club do not need someone to protect them, a role that Holmes and Watson constantly try to assume. Irene enables them and lets them do their work.

And she’s a marvelous character in her own right, in multiple senses of that phrase.

By the end of European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, the Athena Club has acquired more members – and more allies. Just in time to rescue Sherlock Holmes from Moriarty in their next adventure, The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl. I can’t wait.