Review: Would I Lie to the Duke by Eva Leigh

Review: Would I Lie to the Duke by Eva LeighWould I Lie to the Duke (Union of the Rakes, #2) by Eva Leigh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance
Series: Union of the Rakes #2
Pages: 384
Published by Avon on July 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

When an ambitious entrepreneur pretends to be a lady of means, she catches the eye—and heart—of a duke...

Jessica McGale's family business desperately needs investors, and she's determined to succeed at any cost. But she knows London's elite will never look twice at a humble farm girl like herself. Posing as “Lady Whitfield,” however, places her in the orbit of wealthy, powerful people—most notably the Duke of Rotherby. His influence and support could save her company, but Jess never expected the effect he'd have on her.
Society thinks Noel is a notorious, carefree duke who dabbles in investments, but there's a side to him that only his closest friends see. When he crosses paths with Lady Whitfield at a business bazaar, his world tilts on its axis. She's brilliant and compelling, and brings him to his knees like no woman has before. Trust is difficult for Noel, but Jess makes him believe anything is possible...
As time ticks down on her Cinderella scheme, the thought of achieving her goal at Noel's expense breaks Jess' heart. He doesn't just want her now, he wants her forever. But will her secret end their future before it begins?

My Review:

If the title is a question, then the answer is definitely “yes” for Jess McGale, as is her answer to the question “would I lie with the duke?”. The problem is that Jess is still lying TO him while she’s lying WITH him, and that’s very nearly too much for anyone to forgive. Particularly a duke.

Jess is doing her best to save her family’s business and her family’s home. After a disastrous fire wiped out most of McGale and McGale’s soap making and packaging equipment, that business, a manufacturer of very-high quality honey-based soaps, is in dire straits. Jess and her two siblings don’t have enough money to replace the equipment, and with replacing the equipment the business can’t make enough soap to stay afloat.

As the eldest, Jess feels like the whole mess was dumped on her shoulders when their parents died not long before the fire. Even though, as both her brother and sister remind her frequently, neither of them are exactly in leading strings. One gets the impression that they are all somewhere in their 30s, making them all well into adulthood.

But Jess, having taken all the responsibility – whether rightly or not – also takes on all the desperation of figuring out one last chance to get them back on their feet. Her initial idea is to bring in money by serving as a paid-companion to an eccentric but well-heeled widow.

While preparing said widow’s London house for her imminent arrival, Jess decides to wager everything on one grand throw of the dice. She uses her own business acumen as well as her employer’s extensive wardrobe to inveigle herself into entrance to the exclusive investment club known as the Bazaar. She captures the attention – and the sexual interest – of the Duke of Rotherby, the enabling “Pygmalion” figure of the previous book in this series, My Fake Rake.

Noel may play the rake and the debauched aristocrat, but there’s a shrewd mind and a compassionate heart behind that air of lazy insouciance. Noel participates in the Bazaar to find ethical companies in which to invest his vast holdings. In “Lady Whitfield”, the part that Jess is playing to the hilt, he finds a woman whose mind is every bit as penetrating as his own, attached to a body that seems made for sin. A sin that Jess is more than willing to explore with him.

But she knows that the lie she is living can come between them at any moment, considering that she entered the Bazaar with the intent of surreptitiously acquiring one or more investors for her family’s business.

She just didn’t count on losing her heart in the process.

Escape Rating B+: I liked the first book in this series, My Fake Rake, I enjoyed Would I Lie to the Duke quite a bit more. I think because this story doesn’t fall into the kind of romantic misunderstandammit that the first book did.

Not that Noel and Jess don’t have an epic falling out before they reach their happy ever after, but the reason behind that falling out is one that is worth all the problems it causes. Jess has, after all, been lying to Noel for the entire story by that point. And while she should have told him the truth at least before they fell into bed together – or on any other flat surface that happened to be around – it’s understandable why she didn’t. She is, after all, protecting her family.

Another refreshing thing about this story is a trend that we’re seeing more and more of, and it’s one I really like. Jess isn’t herself part of the aristocracy. She’s not a titled lady. Jess is someone who works for her living, and works hard and professionally at that living.

Part of the reason I picked this book up this week was to see if it was in dialog with this week’s other historical romance, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows. And it is, a bit, in that both Agatha and Jess are women who have always worked, and are business owners or co-owners who make their own decisions and don’t conform to the aristocratic expectations of women not involving themselves in either the business or the politics of the day. And who have to grit their teeth and bear it every time a man talks over them or acts like they can’t possibly make the best decisions for themselves or understand the oh-so-terribly-complicated world in which they live and work.

At the same time, this is also a much more traditional romance, not just because Jess’ paramour is a man but also because he’s a duke, the traditional hero of historic romance.

And yet, Noel is not traditional at all in his probing interest in investments and in his search for ethical companies in which to invest. While this isn’t the first historical romance to feature lords who use their minds as well as their capital to nurture new companies (Christy Carlyle’s Duke’s Den in the marvelous A Duke Changes Everything also features an investment club) this one is still a bit different in that the Bazaar and its denizens, while fascinating in themselves, are not the same people as the hero’s group of childhood friends who form the backbone of the series.

All in all, this was a delightful historical romance that had a lot of fun with its disguised heroine in plain sight as well as a bit of deliciously naughty romantic role-reversal.

And speaking of the members of the Bazaar in conjunction with Noel’s childhood friends, there’s certainly going to be an explosive meeting of members of those two groups in the next book in the series, Waiting for a Scot Like You, which is scheduled to warm up a winter’s night or two this coming February.

Review: Queen of the Unwanted by Jenna Glass

Review: Queen of the Unwanted by Jenna GlassQueen of the Unwanted by Jenna Glass
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Women's War #2
Pages: 592
Published by Del Rey Books on May 12, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

In this feminist fantasy series, the ability to do magic has given women control over their own bodies. But as the patriarchy starts to fall, they must now learn to rule as women, not men.
Alys may be the acknowledged queen of Women's Well—the fledgling colony where women hold equal status with men—but she cares little for politics in the wake of an appalling personal tragedy. It is grief that rules her now. But the world continues to turn.
In a distant realm unused to female rulers, Ellin struggles to maintain control. Meanwhile, the king of the island nation of Khalpar recruits an abbess whom he thinks holds the key to reversing the spell that Alys's mother gave her life to create. And back in Women's Well, Alys's own half-brother is determined to bring her to heel. Unless these women can all come together and embrace the true nature of female power, everything they have struggled to achieve may be at risk.

My Review:

I picked up this book because for the most part I enjoyed the starting book in this series, The Women’s War. But I have to say that I found the message of that first book to sometimes be heavy-handed. Not enough to spoil my enjoyment, but more than enough to make me wonder what would happen next.

Queen of the Unwanted certainly carries on directly from the events in The Women’s War, making it impossible for any reader to start here and make any sense of current events. Or, honestly, to care about what happens to the characters.

This is definitely a middle book, with all the inherent problems therein. Which means not only that you can’t start here, but that it fulfills the sense at the end of the first book, that the situation our heroines, Princess Alysoon of Women’s Well and Queen Ellinsoltah of Rhozinolm are at a point in both of their stories where things are dark and turning darker – quite possibly as a prelude to turning completely black.

So this is a story where more gets revealed but little gets resolved, setting the stage for the third book in the series at some future date. Hopefully not too far in our future, as this is a complicated series which makes picking up the action after a long hiatus a rather daunting affair for the reader.

Although I’ll certainly be back, if only to find out what happens next!

Escape Rating B-: I have to say that this book drove me absolutely bananas – and not always in a good way. I really did want to find out what happened after the earth-shaking events of the first book. But that means I wanted things to actually happen. This entry in the series, being a middle book, means that lots of people are maneuvering, and there is tons of political wrangling and shenanigans, but that in the end, not much happens.

Or at least, not until the very end, when the action suddenly proceeds apace, only to leave readers with multiple terrible book hangovers as they wait for the next book. Whenever it appears. I listened to 80% of this and then read the rest. The audio was interesting enough to keep me occupied while driving, but when things picked up I couldn’t stand to continue at that slow pace.

So, the story is slow going for a lot of its length. Of which there is rather a lot. And there are oodles of political machinations, but they don’t seem to go anywhere for much of the story.

The big message in this one is that old saw about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. The history of this place is that men have had all the power, all the time, and now that women have carved out their own, tiny piece of it the men will do anything to get their absolute domination back.

The message is extremely heavy handed, to the point where it gets overdone. The reader feels a bit bludgeoned by it – as many of the female characters are beaten and degraded on a frequent basis. The treatment of women in this entire world is utterly appalling.

At the same time, the stakes are so high, and yet, particularly in Women’s Well, the behavior of both Princess Alys and her brother Tynthanal feels so petty and selfish. Neither of them seems to be thinking of the greater good of their beleaguered kingdom, but rather railing against all the things that are just not going their way in their personal lives.

And the major villain of the piece does tip into over-the-top-ness and reaches villain fail. Not just that he is so inept he can’t possibly succeed at anything, but that it is amazing that his own country doesn’t depose him early on. He’s not just evil, he’s a bad king and it’s OBVIOUS. He is neither respected nor feared and that should be a short trip to a headsman’s axe.

Instead, he becomes a figure of ridicule, not just to his court but to the reader. He has no self-control; neither over his temper nor his overindulgence in food and drink. His steadily increasing girth is meant to evoke the figure of Henry VIII, but Henry, for all his petulance, was an effective king which Delnamal NEVER is. Instead, the villain’s increasing weight becomes a vehicle for mockery and it just feels wrong.

Speaking of things that feel wrong, one of the points I mentioned in my review of The Women’s War was the utter lack of same-sex relationships. This feels like a world where such relationships would have been frowned upon if not banned, but human nature happens. There’s a whole spectrum of it that isn’t happening here in circumstances like the all-male army barracks and the all-female abbeys for unwanted women where it feels like it would have.

I know I’m complaining a lot about a book that I gave a B- rating to. I liked this story. I liked the first book better but I’m still very interested in seeing what happens. Even if it drives me crazy yet again.

Review: The Hero of Hope Springs by Maisey Yates

Review: The Hero of Hope Springs by Maisey YatesThe Hero of Hope Springs (Gold Valley, #10) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Gold Valley #10
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on July 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Will Gold Valley’s most honorable cowboy finally claim the woman he’s always wanted?
For as long as brooding cowboy Ryder Daniels has known Sammy Marshall, she has been his sunshine. Her free spirit and bright smile saved him after the devastating loss of his parents and gave him the strength to care for his orphaned family. Only Ryder knows how vulnerable Sammy is, so he’s kept his attraction for his best friend under wraps for years. But what Sammy’s asking for now might be a step too far…
Something has been missing from Sammy’s life, and she thinks she knows what it is. Deciding she wants a baby is easy; realizing she wants her best friend to be the father is…complicated. Especially when a new heat between them sparks to life! When Sammy discovers she’s pregnant, Ryder makes it clear he wants it all. But having suffered the fallout of her parents’ disastrous relationship, Sammy is wary of letting Ryder too close. This cowboy will have to prove he’s proposing out of more than just honor…

My Review:

There’s a big part of me that wants to call this a “friends to lovers” romance. And that’s kind of true. As the story opens – actually, as the entire Gold Valley series opens, Ryder Daniels and Sammy Marshall have been friends, but never lovers. Not for the 17 years that they’ve known each other. And not that Ryder, at least, hasn’t had thoughts in that direction.

Thoughts that he has ruthlessly if not completely suppressed, every time they’ve, well, come up.

That’s something Ryder has had lots of practice with. By that I mean suppressing any thoughts he doesn’t think he can afford to let fester inside his skull – and that he can’t let out of his mouth, either.

But Sammy and Ryder are more than just friends. They’re best friends. They are deep inside each other’s lives, and occupy a whole lot of space inside each other’s hearts. So it feels more like this is a story about two people finally acknowledging a relationship that’s been there all along.

There are, however, a few problems with changing what they are to each other. As it turns out, more than a few. Lots and bunches.

The biggest one being that any attempt to change what they are to each other has the strong possibility of wrecking everything that they are to each other. A risk that neither of them is willing to take.

Until there’s no choice at all.

Escape Rating B-: This is a mixed feelings review in multiple directions. So let’s get right to it.

One of the reasons that I love this author is that she creates tension in romantic situations that feels REAL. The problems between Ryder and Sammy, and there are lots of them, feel organic to their lives and aren’t silly misunderstandammits that could be resolved with a single conversation.

The problem for the reader, or at least this reader, is that a huge chunk of their mutual problem, as much as they are definitely a case of opposites attracting, is that for entirely different reasons both of these people live a lot of their lives inside their own heads.

Ryder’s stuck inside his head because his parents died when he was 18 and about to go off to college on a football scholarship. He had big plans far away from the family ranch. But Ryder was the oldest of several children, and the only way for them all to stay together and keep the ranch was for Ryder to give up his dreams and become a surrogate father to his siblings and his cousins who also lived with them.

So Ryder’s always had LOTS of thoughts about what might have been, what he wished was, and just getting through being a parent when he wasn’t quite done with being a child himself.

Sammy lives inside her own head because it was the only place she could be free. She learned to distance herself emotionally when she couldn’t do it physically while her angry and violent father was taking out all of his disappointments on Sammy – with his fists. While her mother looked on. She left her parents and moved into a tiny camper on the grounds of Ryder’s ranch when she was 16 and he was 18, because he made her feel safe.

He still does.

While the reasons that both Ryder and Sammy live inside their own heads a lot – and with a lot of internal angst – feels like an entirely real response to the situations in their lives. It makes for hard reading. Because they also have their heads inside their own asses a lot, unable to get out of their own ways.

So this is a story where it reads like there’s more internal dialog than external dialog – or action. And that’s right for these characters but drove this reader a bit bananas. Your reading mileage may definitely vary.

As I said, I finished this book with mixed feelings. While there was more internal angst than worked for me in a romance, the reason for that angst felt real and true to life. I liked these characters and wanted them to achieve their HEA, but admit to being kind of surprised that they actually managed to do it! But I do enjoy the Gold Valley series so I’m looking forward to seeing Ryder and Sammy again as secondary characters in later books. Especially as it looks like some of Ryder’s siblings are up next!

Review: Falling for Mr. Townsbridge by Sophie Barnes

Review: Falling for Mr. Townsbridge by Sophie BarnesFalling For Mr. Townsbridge (The Townsbridges #3) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Series: Townsbridges #3
Pages: 105
Published by Sophie Barnes on July 21, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo

He knows he ought to forget her…

When William Townsbridge returns from Portugal and meets Eloise Lamont, the new cook his mother has hired, he’s instantly smitten. The only problem of course is that she’s a servant – completely off limits for a gentleman with an ounce of honor. But as they become better acquainted, William starts to realize he must make Eloise his. The only question is how.

Eloise loves her new position. But William Townsbridge’s arrival threatens everything, from her principles to her very heart. Falling for her employer’s son would be monumentally stupid. All it can lead to is ruin, not only for the present, but for her entire future. So then the simplest solution would be to walk away. But can she?

My Review:

When it comes to love and marriage, it seems that the Townsbridges are prepared to do whatever it takes, and brave whatever opprobrium society decides to administer, in order to marry the person they love.

In the first book in the series, Charles Townsbridge falls for the fiancée of his best friend – and very much vice versa. They try to do the right thing and forget each other, only to eventually realize that the so-called right thing is not the best thing and marry each other anyway in When Love Leads to Scandal.

Brother James compromises a young woman, or at least it appears that way on the surface. James and his new fiancee don’t even like each other, but the strictures of society have them stuck with each other whether they like it or not. But the lady is willing to court scandal in order to not marry a man who can’t stand her, only to discover that James Townsbridge is, after all, Lady Abigail’s Perfect Match.

But neither of these romances is nearly as unconventional as the one that occurs in this book. Because the woman who finds herself Falling for Mr. Townsbridge is the family cook, Eloise Lamont.

Unlike his brothers’ eventual wives, Eloise Lamont is not a member of the same social class as the Townsbridges, and everyone is all too aware of that fact. Not in the sense of thinking that anyone is above or below anyone else, but in the acknowledgement that any attention William Townsbridge pays to Eloise is going to ruin her reputation, no matter how innocent that attention might be.

And his family did an excellent job of educating all three of their sons that even an innocent flirtation with a servant is simply not done because of those consequences. Especially as William’s interest is not innocent at all. He’s also blunderingly obvious about it to everyone.

He just needs to look inside himself long enough and hard enough to figure out that his interest is worth courting any censure that society might administer as long as he can also court Eloise with the intention of marriage.

Something that takes him so long to figure out that she nearly escapes him altogether – no matter how little she actually wants to.

Escape Rating B: In the end, this is a lovely little romance about falling for the boss set at a time period when that possibility was fraught with even more ways that the situation can go terribly, terribly wrong. Yet it still comes out right.

Their initial teasing between William and Eloise is a bit unsettling for contemporary readers. He may intend it to be just teasing, and as the hero of this piece undoubtedly means it that way, but every single sentence is a two-edged sword that she sees all too clearly. There are obviously too many times already in her history when those exact same words in that exact same tone were just the prelude to sexual harassment. She knows it and we do too. But he has the privilege of being either oblivious or uncaring. A state that he returns to fairly often in the course of the story.

When the scene morphs into mutual banter, it’s a relief. There’s a feeling that she dodged a bullet. Until she steps right back into its path.

Because after the initial awkwardness and outright fear, there’s a mutual attraction here that neither of them is able to deny. No matter how hard both of them try to.

It felt like that was what made the story for me. They are in a supremely awkward situation. No matter how much they like each other or find each other interesting, they’re in positions that mean that his interest in her has the potential to actually ruin her life if he’s not excruciatingly careful. His entire family presses that upon him, so what would have once upon a time been the occasion for wink, wink, nudge, nudge doesn’t happen. And the story is the better for it.

I’m emphasizing his part of this dynamic because of his position of privilege. Whatever happens, it won’t affect him much. The need for caution has to be impressed upon him, frequently and often. Eloise is all too aware that the chance of this not damaging her life is vanishingly small, and she does her best to keep as far away from him as possible.

It’s his family who step in to make him aware that his privilege extends to marrying whoever he wants to, including the cook. Because for much of the story he doesn’t allow himself to think that at all and it nearly destroys any possibilities of happiness.

So, while William and Eloise form the romantic heart of this story, it feels like his family are really the heroes, because they see outside of society’s box and get him to see it too. And that part, the family love and family support – no matter how much society is going to balk – make the story.

Review: The Woman Before Wallis by Bryn Turnbull

Review: The Woman Before Wallis by Bryn TurnbullThe Woman Before Wallis by Bryn Turnbull
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Mira on July 21, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

This novel is the fictionalised story of the American divorcée who captured Prince Edward’s heart before he abdicated his throne for Wallis Simpson.
In the summer of 1926, when Thelma Morgan marries Viscount Duke Furness after a whirlwind romance, she’s immersed in a gilded world of extraordinary wealth and privilege. For Thelma, the daughter of an American diplomat, her new life as a member of the British aristocracy is like a fairy tale—even more so when her husband introduces her to Edward, Prince of Wales.
In a twist of fate, her marriage to Duke leads her to fall headlong into a love affair with Edward. But happiness is fleeting, and their love is threatened when Thelma’s sister, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, becomes embroiled in a scandal with far-reaching implications. As Thelma sails to New York to support Gloria, she leaves Edward in the hands of her trusted friend Wallis, never imagining the consequences that will follow.

My Review:

The Woman Before Wallis takes a bit of the classic “poor little rich girl” trope, mixes it with a splash of royal scandal, stirs it with more than a dash of the over-the-top behavior of the rich and famous and splashes into a punch bowl of history’s froth. It’s the kind of gossipy, scandal-ridden story that is easy to eat up with a very large reading spoon, because it’s just so delicious and decadent.

And both the fun of it and the tragedy of it is that we already know how it ends, because the worst excesses of the story are part of history.

Thelma and the Prince in 1932

Thelma Morgan Converse Furness was a secondary character in not one but two of the great society scandals of the 1930s, one on each side of the Atlantic. In England, as her marriage to the Viscount Furness was in the process of falling apart, she became one of the Prince of Wales’ many lovers. That she was the one who introduced him to her friend and fellow American divorcee Wallis Warfield Simpson is the stuff of which tragic romances are made – both hers and theirs.

At the same time, she left England and “David” to Wallis’ not-so-tender mercies in order to go to New York and support her twin sister, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, in what at the time was considered the custody trial of the century, referred to in the tabloids as “The Matter of Vanderbilt”. Thelma’s little niece, Gloria Vanderbilt (yes, THE Gloria Vanderbilt) was kidnapped by her aunt, the artist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who sued Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt for custody of the little heiress and won, based on some rather questionable evidence provided by members of both families who seem to have hated the mother much more than they cared what was best for the child. Little Gloria seems to have been a pawn of the older women in her life until she reached adulthood.

That the same person was a secondary player in both of these history-making scandals makes Thelma an ideal candidate for a salacious, gossipy, scandal-ridden story of epic proportions.

This is her story, from her ring-side seat to history. And it’s a juicy one.

Escape Rating B: I have mixed feelings about this story. On the one hand, it’s a very juicy story of debauchery and decadence, a gossipy melange of well-known historical figures with a whole lot of dirt and scandal.

On the other hand, as glitzy and glittery as this story is, the people covered in that glitz feel shallow. I think we’re meant to feel that both Thelma and Gloria, the twin Morgan girls, were in the end somewhat hard done by. That they loved and lost and didn’t have nearly enough control of the circumstances under which they lived or the choices they made. Poor little rich girls who made one hell of a lot of mistakes.

Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt with her daughter at age eight

In the end, it felt like the only person really hard done by in this story is little Gloria, whose custody and whose fortune end up being the prize in a long-running battle between her mother, her aunt and her grandmother over who hates whom the most and who can throw the most muck at whom fast enough to win. The problem with this kind of muck-racking fight is that no one emerges from it either clean or unscathed. And so it proved in this case.

Thelma, in the end, feels like a secondary player in her own life, supporting her twin sister at the cost of her own happiness. And that’s after ending her second marriage to have an affair with the Prince of Wales, only to be abandoned in favor of Wallis Simpson when the scandal of her sister’s custody trial began to turn in her direction – and his.

That all adds up to very mixed feelings. The book is compulsively readable, and I enjoyed the portrait of life among the rich and famous in the years just before and after the start of the Great Depression. But there’s a sense of “fiddling while Rome burns”, that there’s just no there there under the glamour.

I can’t help but think of the true definition of the word glamour, however. That a glamour is, according to Merriam-Webster, “An exciting and often illusory and romantic attractiveness.” By that definition, this story is glamorous indeed.

Review: The Disappearance of Alistair Ainsworth by Leonard Goldberg

Review: The Disappearance of Alistair Ainsworth by Leonard GoldbergThe Disappearance of Alistair Ainsworth (The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes Mysteries #3) by Leonard Goldberg
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Series: Daughter of Sherlock Holmes #3
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on June 11, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

In the third book of this critically-acclaimed series, Sherlock Holmes' daughter faces a new unsolvable mystery with spies and a threat to the crown. Joanna and the Watsons receive an unexpected visitor to 221b Baker Street during a nocturnal storm. A rain-drenched Dr. Alexander Verner arrives with a most harrowing tale.
Verner has just returned from an unsettling trip to see a patient who he believes is being held against his will. Joanna quickly realizes that Verner's patient is a high-ranking Englishman who the Germans have taken captive to pry vital information about England’s military strategies for the Great War. The man is revealed to be Alistair Ainsworth, a cryptographer involved in the highest level of national security.
The police are frantic to find Ainsworth before the Germans can use him to decode all of England’s undeciphered messages. Ainsworth must be found at all costs and Joanna and the Watsons might be the only ones who can connect the clues to find him.
USA Today bestselling author Leonard Goldberg returns with another puzzling case for the daughter of Sherlock Holmes to unravel in this exciting mystery sure to be enjoyed by fans of Sherlock Holmes.

My Review:

After yesterday’s book, I was looking, partly for comfort but mostly for something where I knew what I was letting myself in for before I started. (Also looking for NOT a 700 page doorstop!) Then I saw that the fourth book in this series, The Art of Deception, came out recently – but I hadn’t read the third one yet.

And I’m always a sucker for a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, so I hunted this up in the virtually towering TBR pile, read the first chapter and BOOM the game was afoot!

Not that Joanna Blalock Watson ever utters her father’s favorite catchphrase during the course of this entry in the series. Although she certainly seems to have more than her fair share of her father’s attributes, talents and personal foibles.

As well as his partner and amanuensis, Dr. John H. Watson, Sr. But her father’s old partner isn’t hers. Rather, that role has fallen to his son, Dr. John H. Watson, Jr. The younger Watson fills multiple roles in Joanna’s life, as pathologist, partner in detection, chronicler and biographer, as well as husband and stepfather to her young son, who even as a teen is already a chip off the family block.

As, to some extent, is this case, reminiscent as it is of The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter and His Last Bow, encompassing as it does some of the plot elements of Greek Interpreter with the time period and circumstances of His Last Bow, which provides some information about Holmes’ service to the Crown during the Great War. In this series of his daughter’s adventures, Holmes has been deceased for some years, so those services to the Crown are provided by his daughter Joanna instead, with the able assistance of both of the Drs. Watson.

While the story begins with the kind of convoluted opening that Holmes’ cases were famous for, it quickly morphs into something that is both more so – and less at the same time. Initially, this is a case of a doctor treating a mysterious patient at the end of an equally mysterious journey, only to learn that his patient is not so much a patient as he is a captive trying to get out the message that he is in a great deal of trouble.

And that’s where the Crown steps into this narrative, as the captive is missing from his job as one of Britain’s top cryptanalysts. It is late in 1915, there is a war going on, and Alistair Ainsworth is a key figure in both deciphering coded enemy dispatches and encoding those of the British. German agents have kidnapped the man with the obvious intent of breaking him, getting him to work on their behalf both to tighten up their own codes and to break any codes that the British have used in the past, or will in the future.

The German agents are professionals; careful, cunning and seemingly always one step ahead of Joanna, the Watsons and the police. But there are three factors that they never seem to have accounted for in all of their careful planning. Their captive is a master chess player, always two or three steps ahead, attacking on multiple fronts and willing to play as long a game as necessary. His colleagues are, while not quite up to his level, geniuses at code breaking in their own rights and able to work from the tiniest of clues provided by their colleague. And last but not least, they clearly never reckoned on needing to keep several steps ahead of the daughter of Sherlock Holmes.

Escape Rating B+: I was looking for a book where I knew pretty much what I was letting myself in for and that is exactly what I got. And yet it still managed to make me think. I’ll get to that in a minute.

This series, at least so far, is part of a group of series that take the Holmes canon that we know and twist it in, not exactly a feminist direction – although that can be part of it – but in a direction that provides a thinking woman’s perspective on what was originally an all-male preserve.

So there’s a kinship between Mary Russell (The Beekeeper’s Apprentice), Charlotte Holmes (A Study in Scarlet Women) and Joanna Blalock in that all of them use the canon as the way of telling another story entirely, a story that still works while eliminating the air of white male exclusivity and yes, privilege, that surrounds the original stories.

(The marvelous Mycroft and Sherlock series by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse does the same kind of thing but in a different direction, by inserting into the narrative a young Mycroft’s friend and frequent detecting partner, the older, somewhat calmer and generally more dispassionate Cyrus Douglas, a black man from Trinidad.)

All of which means that if you enjoy Holmes well enough to like one of these series, there’s a fair chance you’ll enjoy some of the others. Without necessarily having to start at the beginning of any as the Holmes canon has permeated pop culture to the extent that we all know at least a tiny bit, even if only from The Great Mouse Detective.

But that change in perspective, as well as the change in time period both for the story and for the author writing it, makes us see some things in a new way. Particularly when reminded of the fact that Conan Doyle wrote the originals as contemporary stories. He was living the times he was writing about. The pastiches that have followed have become historical because the Victorian era that Holmes and Doyle lived in has retreated from us further every year.

So, as much as I enjoyed this foray into a variation of Holmes that tries its best to be both different and the same at the same time, I found myself thinking about some things that felt meta rather than about the book in my hand.

What struck me was the attitude towards the German agents who had kidnapped Ainsworth. There is a tendency in times of war to dehumanize the enemy in order to justify the war and all the things that happen within it. But the perspective of Germans as a race rather than a nationality, and the way that national characteristics had become easy stereotypes felt both logical for their time and place AND sat uneasily at the same time. It reminded me that in the original stories, Holmes and Watson are creatures of their time, with all of the racism and sexism and plenty of other terrible -isms that were part of that era. I was painfully aware that I wanted them to be better because they are characters that I love, but that they were not, no matter how much more recent adaptations have tried to ameliorate or eliminate those tendencies.

On the whole, I enjoyed reading this one, except for the above niggles. I found it to be – while not as utterly absorbing as the first book in the series, The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, considerably better and more original than the second, A Study in Treason. I’ll certain be back for The Art of Deception when I’m next in the mood for a taste of Sherlock.

Review: Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

Review: Eight Perfect Murders by Peter SwansonEight Perfect Murders (Malcolm Kershaw, #1) by Peter Swanson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Pages: 270
Published by William Morrow on March 3, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

A chilling tale of psychological suspense and an homage to the thriller genre tailor-made for fans: the story of a bookseller who finds himself at the center of an FBI investigation because a very clever killer has started using his list of fiction’s most ingenious murders.
Years ago, bookseller and mystery aficionado Malcolm Kershaw compiled a list of the genre’s most unsolvable murders, those that are almost impossible to crack—which he titled “Eight Perfect Murders”—chosen from among the best of the best including Agatha Christie’s A. B. C. Murders, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Ira Levin’s Death Trap, A. A. Milne's Red House Mystery, Anthony Berkeley Cox's Malice Aforethought, James M. Cain's Double Indemnity, John D. Macdonald's The Drowner, and Donna Tartt's A Secret History.
But no one is more surprised than Mal, now the owner of the Old Devils Bookshop in Boston, when an FBI agent comes knocking on his door one snowy day in February. She’s looking for information about a series of unsolved murders that look eerily similar to the killings on Mal’s old list. And the FBI agent isn’t the only one interested in this bookseller who spends almost every night at home reading. The killer is out there, watching his every move—a diabolical threat who knows way too much about Mal’s personal history, especially the secrets he’s never told anyone, even his recently deceased wife.
To protect himself, Mal begins looking into possible suspects—and sees a killer in everyone around him. But Mal doesn’t count on the investigation leaving a trail of death in its wake. Suddenly, a series of shocking twists leaves more victims dead—and the noose around Mal’s neck grows so tight he might never escape.

My Review:

There are reliable narrators, there are unreliable narrators, and then there’s Malcolm Kershaw, who is such an unreliable narrator that by the end of the story it feels like the only thing he told us at the beginning that is still true at the end is that Nero the store cat is a cat.

After all, even the CAT’S role in the story changes at least twice over the course of the narrative. But at least he’s still the same species. It’s hard to be sure that anything else we thought we knew at the beginning is true at the end.

The story begins, or at least we think it begins, when an FBI agent visits bookseller Malcolm Kershaw at his mystery-specializing bookstore, Old Devils, on a snowy Boston winter’s day.

She’s following a thin lead that’s really more of a hunch. Actually, calling it a hunch may even be dignifying it slightly. She’s grasping at straws in a series of unsolved murders that may not even be a series – as much as she wants it to be.

It’s possible, just barely, that someone is following a template accidentally laid out by Kershaw many years ago in a blog post he called “Eight Perfect Murders”. It was a list of books – well, that’s not a surprise. But it’s a list of books that he thought at the time, rather pretentiously, narrated tales of murders that should have managed to fool the police. In other words, perfect murders where the murder is never even suspected, let alone caught.

Kershaw agrees to help her investigate her hunch. He’s a bit flattered to be contacted by the FBI, and a bit worried that it’s going to bring up his wife’s death five years before. His wife died on another winter’s night, on a remote and snowy road, on her way back from her lover’s house, while drunk or high on cocaine or a bit of both. Her death, and the death of her lover a year or so later, were both suspicious. But Malcolm just-so-happened to be out of town at bookseller conventions at the time of both deaths, so he’s in the clear.

And he’s intrigued by the possibilities of someone using his old list as a template for serial killing. Or so we believe.

As the story unravels, we get a tour through some of the classics of the murder mystery genre as seen through the eyes of an aficionado of that genre. Only to discover, in the end, that we’ve been reading one all along.

Escape Rating B-: There have been a few complaints that the story in Eight Perfect Murders, in addition to being told by the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, spoils the plots of the eight stories that might be what the murderer uses to carry out his or her murder spree. While on the one hand that’s true, very much on the other the most recent book of the bunch was published in 1992 and the others are much older. There has GOT TO BE a limit on spoiler warnings somewhere, and 28 years is definitely past it.

The story is being told from inside Malcolm Kershaw’s head. He’s our narrator, he’s our point of view of the action, and he’s also telling the story from a perspective that ALSO mimics a classic in the genre, but we don’t discover that until the end. So I’m not saying what or which one.

But the thing about unreliable narrators, and it is clear very early on that Kershaw is at least somewhat unreliable about his own past, is that they lie. They lie to everyone around them. And in the very best/worst of cases, meaning the very epitome of unreliability, they lie to themselves. So even though he seems to be relating events as he really sees them, he’s still filtering everything through a lens of the lies he’s told himself and the lies he’s told the world.

It’s only as he gets deeper into the puzzle that we begin to realize that either we never had all the pieces or that the picture we think we’re solving doesn’t match the box. It doesn’t, in the end, even match the picture on the box that Kershaw thought he was working on.

In the end, Eight Perfect Murders as a story feels more like a thought experiment than an actual murder mystery. The problem for me as a reader is that I didn’t find Kershaw all that sympathetic as a character. He starts out bland and boring, and while the things that happen in the story are anything but, he’s still bland and boring at the end.

This is in sharp contrast to another mystery thriller with an unreliable narrator that I read this year, This is How I Lied. Even though she both lied and was lied to, as Kershaw is, I felt for her and felt like I understood where she was coming from and how she got that way. She felt for herself in a way that Kershaw does not. So her story kept me glued to it until the end, while his just made me want to find out whodunnit and what it was they’d actually done so I could close the book.

One final comment. The Goodreads entry leads the reader to believe that this is the first of a series. Admittedly the ending could just be another piece of misdirection on Kershaw’s part. But if it ends the way it seems to, the way that the mystery it’s mimicking does, then a sequel is impossible. Or Kershaw is lying again. He could very well be THAT unreliable.

We’ll see.

Review: Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson

Review: Real Men Knit by Kwana JacksonReal Men Knit by Kwana Jackson, K.M. Jackson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley on May 19, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

When their foster-turned-adoptive mother suddenly dies, four brothers struggle to keep open the doors of her beloved Harlem knitting shop, while dealing with life and love in Harlem.
Jesse Strong is known for two things: his devotion to his adoptive mom, Mama Joy, and his reputation for breaking hearts in Harlem. When Mama Joy unexpectedly passes away, he and his brothers have different plans on what to do with Strong Knits, their neighborhood knitting store: Jesse wants to keep the store open; his brothers want to shut it down.
Jesse makes an impassioned plea to Kerry Fuller, his childhood friend who has had a crush on him her entire life, to help him figure out how to run the business. Kerry agrees to help him reinvent the store and show him the knitty-gritty of the business, but the more time they spend together, the more the chemistry builds. Kerry, knowing Jesse’s history, doesn’t believe this relationship will exist longer than one can knit one, purl one. But Jesse is determined to prove to her that he can be the man for her—after all, real men knit.

My Review:

Strong Knits is a mainstay in the small-town-in-a-big-city that is Harlem. And just like any small town, everybody knows everyone else’s business. But this is a community that has just lost one of its beloved pillars, Mama Joy, the owner of the knitting and yarn shop Strong Knits.

The community is reeling from their loss, but so, especially are her four officially adopted sons, Damian, Noah, Lucas and Jesse, as well as her unofficially adopted daughter Kerry. While they may all be technically adults, they all also relied on Mama Joy for love, stability, support (whether financial or emotional) and the occasionally necessary kick in the pants, administered lovingly, whenever she thought it was needed.

The neighborhood relied on her and her store as well. It was a place where a young person could find a piece of calm and support, learn a skill and some discipline, be safe and just be when needed. With cookies and milk. The women found in Mama Joy not just a sympathetic listener but a place where they could set burdens aside for a few minutes in an otherwise all too busy and all too tense life.

It was a haven. And now that Mama Joy is gone, suddenly, taken away by a heart attack, everyone wonders and worries whether and how and even if Strong Knits can continue.

Particularly the Strong brothers. Mama Joy saved them, and they want to save her store, the place where they – and so many other children in the neighborhood – grew up.

But they all have lives of their own now. They may still keep their rooms above the shop, but except for Jesse, they all mostly live elsewhere. Damian near his job on Wall Street, with his mysterious “partner”. Noah on the road as a Broadway dancer. Lucas at the firehouse, as he’s a member of the FDNY. Only Jesse, the youngest, still lives at home.

Because he can’t manage to settle on what he wants to be when he grows up. If that ever happens. So Jesse is mostly a player and only occasionally employed and seems least likely to keep the store going. But he’s surprisingly the one who wants it the most. And has the time to make the attempt.

It’s an attempt with a much closer deadline than he originally planned on. Mama Joy took out a second mortgage on the building. Now that she’s gone, the $100,000 loan has been called in. Not even the bank thinks they have a shot at making this work.

However, Jesse has an ace in the hole. Or at least a secret weapon in his corner. Kerry, the young woman their mother unofficially adopted, has been working part-time in the store since she was a little girl coming in for a refuge. Now Kerry is all grown up, working part-time at the community center and part-time in the store while she finishes her degree. She hoped to move up and out when she finished.

But with the death of Mama Joy, she steps in to help Jesse with the store. Between them, with the support of the community, they have the passion and the energy to make a go of it.

The only problem is that working in such close proximity has them wanting to make a go of each other. Even though Jesse and his brothers have all considered Kerry as untouchable. And especially because Kerry knows that Jesse is a player who loves ‘em and leaves ‘em and never leaves his heart behind. She knows that if she lets him into her heart, he’ll leave it on the floor in pieces.

Or will he?

Escape Rating B+: I mostly loved this book. Not just the way that the community rallies around the store and takes Jesse and Kerry’s attempt to make a go of it to their hearts – although that’s certainly a big plus. Even with just a bit of deus ex machina in the way that this part of the story ends.

It’s such a plus that in a lot of ways this felt more like relationship fiction than it does a romance. Because it feels like the story is all about the sometimes fractious relationships between the Strong brothers, the relationship that Mama Joy had with the community, the relationships that Kerry has with her friend and co-worker Val AND their work at the community center, and especially Kerry’s relationships with ALL of the Strongs. Including, especially, the late and very much lamented Mama Joy.

Because it’s not just about Kerry’s relationship with Jesse. Even though she and Jesse have been dancing around each other ever since they were teenagers. Kerry’s always known that Jesse was a player, and Kerry had no interest in being played – no matter how much interest she’s had in Jesse over the years.

But the brothers have always seen her as a bit of a little sister. They’re very protective of her, to the point where Kerry is a bit sick of the protectiveness and wants to be seen as the grown-ass woman she actually is.

So a lot of this story felt like it was about Kerry getting her act together, doing her best for the memory of Mama Joy, and figuring out what she wants to do next. She decides that while she’s helping Jesse get the store back on its feet, she’s going to do Jesse. Whatever her heart may want, she knows it’s a short term thing – because Jesse never sticks around.

That he eventually figures out that he wants to, stick around that is, this time is what sets up the actual romance. He’s finally growing up. And that’s a terrific part of the story. But, as much as I wanted this to end in an HEA, I’m not sure that either Kerry or Jesse is ready for that commitment. It felt like we didn’t quite see him do enough of the work to get there. And that Kerry still has plenty of work to do on her own-self as well.

So that HEA that ends the story, while it definitely feels like an HEA for the store and its future, feels a bit more like either a slightly shaky HFN for Kerry and Jesse, or the beginning of working towards an HEA that isn’t quite there yet.

But this was still a fun story and I had a great time with these characters. I found myself wishing that this was the first in a series, and that we’d see all of the Strong brothers find their own HEAs, one romance at a time. I’m REALLY curious about Damian’s mystery person!

Review: Claim of Eon by Anna Hackett

Review: Claim of Eon by Anna HackettClaim of Eon (Eon Warriors #6) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction romance, space opera
Series: Eon Warriors #6
Pages: 209
Published by Anna Hackett on July 6th, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon

She’s an alien warrior dedicated to her job, but a tough, handsome Terran captain is a temptation she never expected.

As a female Eon warrior, Second Commander Airen Kann-Felis has fought for her career and is proud of her work aboard the warship, the Rengard. She has no time for men or frivolous pleasures, especially with the deadly insectoid Kantos causing the Eon trouble at every turn. When the Eon Empire makes an alliance with the small planet of Earth, she never expected to be working alongside a man like Sub-Captain Donovan Lennox. A good-looking, smart, and tenacious man who tempts her in ways she’s never been tempted before.

Donovan Lennox was born for space, and he’s happy to be aboard a high-tech Eon warship and helping to take down the Kantos. He’s even happier to work with the disciplined, independent female Eon warrior who is very easy on the eyes. Donovan believes in respect and pleasure, but what he doesn’t believe in is the myth of love. It was the one lesson his loser dad managed to teach him. As Donovan tries to tempt Airen into playing with him, she’s keeping her walls up, even as every second they spend together draws them closer.

When Airen and Donovan are on a shuttle mission together, they find themselves under attack by the Kantos and forced to crash-land on a deadly prison planet. With only each other to depend on, both of them will have to learn to trust each other, or they stand no chance at winning the race to survive the Kantos, or the prison planet’s dangerous creatures and bloodthirsty criminals.

My Review:

This is one of those stories that leaps from one crisis to another. It’s frying pans and fires all the way down, cooked by a chemical reaction made from the combustible relationship between Airen and Donovan – and the heat of incoming weapons fire.

The Eon Warriors series, beginning with Edge of Eon, takes place in a not-too-horribly distant future. It’s both epic space opera and epic science fiction romance in one terrific package. Not that all of the Eon Warriors don’t seem to come in absolutely fantastic packages all by themselves!

In this version of the future, the Eons are one of several advanced races that are out exploring the galaxy, and the Terrans of Earth are basically uncouth upstarts just beginning their exploration of the stars. First contact did not go at all well, because the original Terran delegation seems to have consisted entirely of entitled assholes who weren’t able to even admit that they weren’t the superior race.

Sound familiar?

So the Terrans went it alone, developing a tough and scrappy attitude towards space exploration – at least until they ran headlong into the insectoid Kantos. Or the Kantos found them. That first contact was NEVER going to go well, as the Kantos are a race that expands territory purely by conquest and extermination. They don’t negotiate with anyone about anything.

The Terrans are outgunned at every turn. Even the assholes finally admit that we need help. And the only help they know about are the Eon Warriors they pissed off early on. Their plot to get the Eons’ attention – and on their side – is as assholish as the first contact was. Just with much better results.

That story is in the first three terrific books in the series, Edge of Eon, Touch of Eon and Heart of Eon.

By the point of this story, the Eon Empire and the Terrans are very much on the same side. As the saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The Kantos are very much a mutual enemy, and in their mutual need to keep them at bay – if not on the run – the Eons and the Terrans have bonded. Sometimes literally, as several Eons have found their mates among the Terrans.

And that’s where this story begins. The Eons and the Terrans are experimenting with joint operations and mixed crews. They each need to learn the strengths of the other, and to get over any lingering prejudices that remain from the decades when their peoples strove to deliberately keep half a galaxy between them.

But the Eons, who have been having less and less success finding mates among their own people, have to admit that in the scrappy Terrans they have found something their own people have been lacking for some time.

Successful relationships. Romantic partnerships. Pair-bonding. Except that, as this story opens, neither of the protagonists is looking for anything of the kind. Or even believes that it exists – at least not for them.

Which means that when they do bond, each is incapable of accepting that the other is all in. And they are both afraid that between the Kantos on their tail, the engineered bioweapons that patrol the prison planet they’ve crashed on, and the prison wardens who kill on sight, they won’t live long enough to find out.

Escape Rating B: The romance in Claim of Eon could be seen as the flip-side of the romance in book 4 in the series, Kiss of Eon. Albeit with a bit of a twist. Where in the earlier book, the Terran is a ship’s captain, and the Eon is an exchange officer on her ship, they are not exactly equals. It’s her ship and her crew and he’s there because he’s the one who has to follow her orders. This time around, while the genders and species are swapped, what makes it really interesting, and provides some unanswered questions for the future, is that it’s not about whose ship and crew is behind them this time. Second Commander Airen Kann-Felis and Sub-Captain Donovan Lennox seem to be at about the same rank. Both of them in the middle of careers that have not yet reached the pinnacle of a ship’s captaincy.

They both begin the story with career goals yet to reach, and personal demons hiding in their emotional baggage that add to the difficulties they will face in any relationship. Not that either of them intends a relationship when this story begins.

Donovan wouldn’t mind a friends-with-benefits relationship at all, but the double-standard is still very much in play. As one of the rare female Eon warriors, and an orphan who has no family connections to help her along, Airen feels that she has to put her career first at all times. She is unfortunately all too aware – and from first-hand experience – that her male counterparts among the Eon Warriors have a difficult time – to say the least – accepting that a woman can be every bit the driven warrior that they are. So she shies away from relationships.

Donovan’s experience with bad relationships is second-hand. His dad was a loser who left his mother to raise him alone. That she never recovered emotionally from that betrayal leads him to believe that love is for losers, and that relationships are foolish.

Of course they’re both wrong.

There’s also a big story overarching the individual romances in each book in the series. The Kantos are after both Eon and Earth, and the events in this story portray their latest attempts. And while they fail in their pursuit – this time – by the time the story ends we’re aware that they haven’t given up – merely changed their focus.

The Kantos have had no luck pursuing the Eons, so as this book ends the ship receives word that the enemy has gone after what they perceive is the weaker link in the alliance. They’ve attacked Earth. Which means that the next book is going to see at least some of the Eon Warriors racing to assist their allies.

But in this story, we have a reluctant romance going on in the midst of an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire, edge of the seat adventure, as Airen and Donovan seem to escape one Kantos trap only to find themselves enmeshed in another. So come to Claim of Eon for the romance, and stay for the thrill ride. Or the other way around! Either way, if you love science fiction romance, you’ll be glad you did!

Review: A Cruel Deception by Charles Todd

Review: A Cruel Deception by Charles ToddA Cruel Deception (Bess Crawford, #11) by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War I
Series: Bess Crawford #11
Pages: 305
Published by William Morrow on October 22, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

In the aftermath of World War I, nurse Bess Crawford attempts to save a troubled former soldier from a mysterious killer.
The Armistice of November 1918 ended the fighting, but the Great War will not be over until a Peace Treaty is drawn up and signed by all parties. Representatives from the Allies are gathering in Paris, and already ominous signs of disagreement have appeared.
Sister Bess Crawford, who has been working with the severely wounded in England in the war’s wake, is asked to carry out a personal mission in Paris for a Matron at the London headquarters of The Queen Alexandra’s.
Bess is facing decisions about her own future, even as she searches for the man she is charged with helping.  When she does locate Lt. Lawrence Minton, she finds a bitter and disturbed officer who has walked away from his duties at the Peace Conference and is well on his way toward an addiction to opiates. When she confronts him with the dangers of using laudanum, he tells her that he doesn’t care if he lives or dies, as long as he can find oblivion. But what has changed him? What is it that haunts him? He can’t confide in Bess—because the truth is so deeply buried in his mind that he can only relive it in nightmares. The officers who had shared a house with him in Paris profess to know nothing—still, Bess is reluctant to trust them even when they offer her their help. But where to begin on her own?
What is driving this man to a despair so profound it can only end with death? The war? Something that happened in Paris? To prevent a tragedy, she must get at the truth as quickly as possible—which means putting herself between Lieutenant Minton and whatever is destroying him. Or is it whoever?

My Review:

This is a story about being stuck in limbo, and that’s fitting for its time and place. Because in Paris, in the spring of 1919, there was nothing but limbo. Not for the residents of Paris, not for the delegates to the Peace Conference, and certainly not for Bess Crawford, one of the many nurses in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service who was wondering whether she would be able to stay in the service once the wounded from the (hopefully) late war were finally settled and cared for back home in England.

And whether, or what, that was what she truly wanted.

A Duty to the Dead by Charles ToddWhen we first met Bess, back in November 1916 in A Duty to the Dead, she was a dedicated battlefield nurse in a war that was already two years old and seemed to have no end in sight. Getting through each day and each night, saving who she could and grieving the many she could not was all that the eye could see.

But in March of 1919, when this story takes place, the Armistice has been in effect for over 5 months, but a peace treaty was nowhere in sight. The Allied Powers are in a state of such disagreement that it sometimes seems as if a shooting war will break out across their negotiating table long before they reach the point where they can present anything like a united front to the Central Powers, meaning Germany and her allies.

It’s into the middle of this muddle, slightly muddled herself, that Bess finds herself back in Paris, and just like her “adventure” in The Shattered Tree, poking her nose into places that entirely too many people think it doesn’t belong.

Especially the man that she has come to Paris to find, Lieutenant Lawrence Minton. Lt. Minton’s mother is someone whose requests Bess is unable to refuse. His mother is the current Matron, or head, of the nursing service that Bess would like to remain part of after the war is finally officially over.

Matron is concerned that her son has been reported absent from his duties as one of many military attaches to the peace conference, and when Bess arrives to investigate, she learns that those fears are more than justified. The lieutenant is not just missing, he seems to be rusticating in the French countryside and doing his level best to remain doped to the eyeballs on laudanum every waking minute.

Bess feels caught between a rock and a hard place. If she reports the man’s current state to anyone, including his mother, officialdom will step in and he will be discharged in disgrace. As the lieutenant is an officer in her father’s old regiment, that disgrace will reflect badly on the regiment and could even reach up to the Colonel Sahib, who may no longer be the regiment’s official leader but is still involved with both the regiment and the war effort.

So Bess decides to investigate the matter herself – as she so often does. She knows that something happened to Minton in Paris that seems to have changed him overnight from a dutiful, conscientious officer who wanted to remain in uniform to a lying, cruel opium addict. She is determined to find out just what is driving the man’s search for oblivion at any cost.

That her search sends her straight into the path of someone determined to drive Minton to that oblivion, and to death beyond it, by the quickest road puts Bess in the sights of a murderer with nothing left to lose.

A place that Bess seems to find herself again and again, but this time without her usual allies and with more than the usual number of enemies.

Escape Rating B: As I said at the top, this is a story about being in limbo. There are just too many things that are very much up in the air, and Bess’ investigation into Minton’s circumstances are just one of the many, many things that are hanging.

The problem for the book is that limbo is a frustrating place to be, but not generally an interesting one. Limbo is angsty without a resolution in sight. While Bess’ investigation does eventually lead to resolution and the hope of closure for Minton, most of the other circumstances are out of her control, even at the story’s end.

And it seems as if Minton’s situation is equally unresolved for about 2/3rds of the story. Bess spends a LOT of time trying to figure out what’s wrong with him and then searching for answers that seem to be out of reach, either lost in Minton’s confused mind or eluding her through the streets of war-weary Paris.

As is known from history, the formal state of war between the Allies and the Central Powers did not end until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. A treaty which, again as we know now, led directly to the conditions which brought about World War II. But at the point where this story takes place, the Allies are still wrangling. France wants Germany to pay crippling reparations, a condition which they eventually won. The U.S., under President Woodrow Wilson, has his optimistic vision for the League of Nations, which he also eventually won. Neither side got exactly what they hoped for, but hindsight is always 20/20.

However, as this story takes place, the treaty is in the future. What is known is that all the powers, with the possible exception of the U.S., are much too war-torn and war-weary for the hostilities to continue, no matter what it takes to get everyone to the treaty-table.

Bess herself is in limbo, as the nursing service is drawing down rapidly. Many women are resigning in order to marry the men they either waited for or met during the war. Those that survived. England lost a generation of young men in the war, and many women would be unable to marry after the war because there weren’t nearly enough men left TO marry.

Bess can return to her parents house and be their daughter again. Not that she was ever disowned – far from it. She has, however, the option to be the daughter that she would have been if the war hadn’t intervened. But it did. She’s used to being on her own, making not just her own decisions but decisions of life and death for the men under her care. Going back to being anyone’s protected, obedient and dependent child is not a path she wants to take.

At the same time, in spite of the number of proposals that she has received during the war, she has no desire to see if any of those proposals were real. She may have liked or been fond of the men who made them, but she doesn’t love any of them. She’s not sure if there’s anyone she does love enough to marry. Except possibly her father’s regimental sergeant, Simon Brandon, a man who has been part of her life and her family for many years. But Brandon is absent throughout this story, as far as Bess knows off in Scotland courting someone else. Maybe or maybe not.

So Bess is in a personal limbo for this whole story. Admittedly, she doesn’t angst about it a lot, and when she does, it is mostly about her career and future in general, and not about marriage in particular, to Simon or anyone else. Not that Simon has ever offered. But it never read, at least to me, like romantic pining or that the story was in any way revolving around her love life. Bess is trying to figure out what her future will look like at a time when all futures were very much up in the air. As an intelligent, thoughtful person, worrying about the future in these circumstances is the right thing for her to be doing.

But limbo is just not as interesting as action. Or at least forward motion in some form. Something that I hope to see a lot more of whenever Bess returns in her next adventure.