Review: The Impossible Us by Sarah Lotz

Review: The Impossible Us by Sarah LotzThe Impossible Us by Sarah Lotz
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Romance, science fiction
Pages: 483
Published by Ace Books on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This isn't a love story. This is Impossible.
***
Nick: Failed writer. Failed husband. Dog owner.
Bee: Serial dater. Dress maker. Pringles enthusiast.
One day, their paths cross over a misdirected email. The connection is instant, electric. They feel like they've known each other all their lives.
Nick buys a new suit, gets on a train. Bee steps away from her desk, sets off to meet him under the clock at Euston station.
Think you know how the rest of the story goes? They did too . . .
But this is a story with more twists than most. This is Impossible.

My Review:

Every once in a while, even in real life, someone will text or call a wrong number, and instead of getting a hang-up or a brush-off, a connection gets made. There’s that famous story about the Arizona grandma who texted a complete stranger to come for Thanksgiving dinner in 2016. He not only came for dinner that year, he and his now-wife are still invited and attending that Thanksgiving dinner every November.

But the connection between Bee and Nick, while it still begins with a text to a complete stranger, has much further to travel, even if they don’t realize it at first.

The hook into this story is the witty and emotionally honest banter between Nick and Bee. Both are well into adulthood if not necessarily adulting, they both have serious shit to deal with and both of them, frankly, are clinically depressed in one way or another.

Bee is avoiding relationships by playing spin the one-night-stand roulette wheel on Tinder. She’s self-supporting, her business of re-purposing used wedding dresses is going gangbusters, and she’s completely alone except for her lifelong friend Leila and her upstairs neighbor. It’s an OK life but she’s lonely.

Nick sees himself as a failure – only because he is. His marriage is dying if it isn’t already dead. His career as a novelist produced one self-absorbed book and nothing since. His only real friends turn out to be his dog, Rosie and his stepson Dylan – because his wife is cheating with his other best friend so that relationship is clearly over.

Bee and Nick find each other at a point where they each desperately need a lifeline – and they become that for each other in text after text after text, all day and sometimes all night long.

Until they agree to meet. Under the clock at Euston Station. They both say they’re there, but neither can see the other. And that’s when things go wildly pear-shaped.

Eventually, after railing at each other, cursing at each other, and obsessively reading over their correspondence, they come to the heartbreaking realization that the multiverse is real and that they are not living in the same version of it.

Each of their worlds is the other’s “road not taken”. The worlds aren’t SO different. The divergence isn’t all that far in the past. In Bee’s world Clinton’s two terms were followed by W.’s two terms, then Obama’s two and then, let’s call him The Former Guy.

Nick thought Bee’s reference to The Former Guy as president was a bad joke, because his world split off at the hanging chads in Florida in the 2000 election. Clinton was followed by Gore’s two terms, then Obama’s two terms. His world managed to skip both 9/11 and Brexit. Not that his world is unequivocally better, but it is different in ways that don’t seem too surprising if you remember anything about Al Gore’s political platform.

Accepting that they can’t meet in person, they also decide that the relative closeness of their parallel worlds means that they CAN meet their world’s equivalent of each other. As they discover, however, that just because they can, doesn’t mean they really should.

Escape Rating B: This book is bonkers. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is going to be strictly in the eye of the beholder, and honestly I’m still not sure. It’s a wild ride, but I’m not sure I liked where that ride ended up.

I’m also none too sanguine about labeling this as a romance. An emotional if not physical romance does occur, but there’s no HEA for Bee and Nick. There can’t be and that’s the point of the story. It really is impossible for the two of them to become an “us”.

This is more of a story about that “road not taken”, or an example of the quote from John Greenleaf Whittier, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘it might have been’.”

Nick and Bee might have been something special, but once they meet their actual doppelgangers in each other’s realities, I’m not so sure. Or I’m not sure that Nick has it in him to find his own happy ending, Bee, who has better coping skills in the first place (admittedly that’s a REALLY low bar to get over) ends the story with at least the possibility of an HEA somewhere down the road.

(Nick reminded me a bit too much of an old quote from Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” Nick is firmly stuck in “can’t” to his own and the story’s detriment.)

But this is being marketed as a romance, which is going to lead entirely too many people to pick it up thinking there’s a happy ending, and those readers are going to be seriously disappointed. OTOH, while the SFnal elements are more than enough to push it to SF, the way the doomed romance is centered in the story is going to turn off many of those readers as well. And on my third hand in an alternate universe, although this is SFnal and does center a romance, it doesn’t gel in the right way to make it a science fiction romance, either.

For people who know what they are letting themselves in for, there is plenty of satisfaction to be had on this wild and crazy ride through the multiverse of other worlds, other selves and other lives. Just don’t expect a happy ending.

Review: When She Dreams by Amanda Quick

Review: When She Dreams by Amanda QuickWhen She Dreams (Burning Cove, #6) by Amanda Quick
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, paranormal, romantic suspense
Series: Burning Cove #6
Pages: 320
Published by Berkley Books on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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Return to 1930s Burning Cove, California, the glamorous seaside playground for Hollywood stars, mobsters, spies, and a host of others who find more than they bargain for in this mysterious town.
Maggie Lodge, assistant to the reclusive advice columnist known only as Dear Aunt Cornelia to her readers, hires down-but-not-quite-out private eye Sam Sage to help track down the person who is blackmailing her employer. Maggie and Sam are a mismatched pair. As far as Sam is concerned, Maggie is reckless and in over her head. She is not what he had in mind for a client but he can't afford to be choosy. Maggie, on the other hand, is convinced that Sam is badly in need of guidance and good advice. She does not hesitate to give him both.
In spite of the verbal fireworks between them, they are fiercely attracted to each other, but each is convinced it would be a mistake to let passion take over. They are, after all, keeping secrets from each other. Sam is haunted by his past, which includes a marriage shattered by betrayal and violence. Maggie is troubled by intense and vivid dreams--dreams that she can sometimes control. There are those who want to run experiments on her and use her for their own purposes, while others think she should be committed to an asylum.
When the pair discovers someone is impersonating Aunt Cornelia at a conference on psychic dreaming and a woman dies at the conference, the door is opened to a dangerous web of blackmail and murder. Secrets from the past are revealed, leaving Maggie and Sam in the path of a ruthless killer who will stop at nothing to exact vengeance.

My Review:

When I first visited Burning Cove, back in The Girl Who Knew Too Much, I wasn’t expecting it to become a series – but I’m very glad that it did!

Burning Cove is kind of a liminal place, and the 1930s were a liminal time. Burning Cove is in California, a place where dreams are made and lost and found. It is an offshoot of Los Angeles and Hollywood, the heart of all that dream making machinery at a time when movies and their magic were blossoming into their heyday.

While the 1930s were a time when the world was holding its breath. WW1 was in the rearview mirror, but its avatars are men and women in their 30s – in the prime of their powers and their adulthood – no matter what shadows darken their pasts or their futures. But the world is also on the brink of war, at least for those with eyes to see, while the world’s economy is still in shambles, feeding the causes and hatreds of the war about to be born.

Among all those dreams, visions and nightmares, it seems fitting that Burning Cove has become a center of dream powers, dream research and possibly dream control. Or, in this particular entry in the series, fulfilling a couple of con artists’ dreams of avarice.

And onto that stage, in this 6th entry in the series, step Maggie Lodge and Sam Sage. Maggie is a lucid dreamer with a realistically cynical view of the pros and cons of her talent. In control, she can wield it like a weapon, out of control it can be used as a weapon against her. As too many in her past have already attempted.

Sam is a private detective, still reeling from the hard knocks of divorce from a woman he never should have married, and being fired from his job as an LA police detective for being too good and too incorruptible at his job. He also happens to be the only private detective in Maggie’s tiny California town who is sober at 9 in the morning. He’s sure the job, whatever it is, will be better than divorce work.

Maggie hires Sam to investigate the blackmail attempt directed at her employer, the advice columnist known as “Dear Aunt Cornelia” in newspapers all around the country. Cornelia is out of the country on an around the world cruise, leaving Maggie with her house, her column and her checkbook to take care of any business while Aunt Cornelia, AKA Lillian Dewherst, is away from home.

Sam, Maggie and the erstwhile blackmailer converge on Burning Cove, where a dream research conference – or con game – is being held under the auspices of the suspiciously glitzy Guilfoyle Institute.

Maggie’s suspicions are already heightened, as the scientific legitimacy of what is obviously a con game or even a pyramid scheme is being shored up by the participation of a real dream scientist who once attempted to drug Maggie and experiment on her talents under the guise of “therapy”.

Sam is just as suspicious, because the Guilfoyles are so obvious about their intentions to fleece the attendees – at least according to a hunch that is so strong that it might well be a talent on its own.

And because the would-be blackmailer is found dead of a drug injection on opening night.

Escape Rating B+: Burning Cove straddles a whole bunch of genre lines. In a nutshell it’s historical paranormal romantic suspense, with pretty much the entire kitchen sink encompassed by those genres in evidence.

When She Dreams is the 6th book in this series, but I don’t think you need to have read the previous books to get into this one. While a couple of main characters from previous entries in the series turn up as side characters in this book, they are far from the focus and are not an intimate part of any of the events. The true continuing element of this series is the location, and since it neither has any dialog nor participates in any romance, not having visited before isn’t a problem for first time visitors.

The paranormal element to this series, as it is to much of the Jayneverse as the author (Amanda Quick/Jayne Castle/Jayne Ann Krentz) calls it, revolves around Maggie’s dream talent. She’s not the first character in these interconnected worlds to manifest a psychic power related to dreams and nightmares, and I’d be willing to bet she won’t be the last, either.

It’s not like that particular talent isn’t hotly debated in real life, after all.

What makes Maggie, and the other women in Burning Cove so fascinating is her realistic grasp on what it means to be a woman in a man’s world at a time when it’s all too easy for a woman to be overlooked, ignored, or in Maggie’s case, locked up for “her own good” by people who claim to love her and have her best interests at heart.

Maggie is a fighter who comes by her distrust of the world in general and men in particular unflinchingly honestly. She has carved out an independent life for herself against the odds, and she’s determined to maintain that independence, and the reader likes her all the better for it.

Sam is not as interesting a character as Maggie is. Maggie sparkles, and it’s easy to see why Sam is attracted to her, even if we don’t see a whole lot of evidence of that attraction until fairly far into the book. But he is a worthy partner for her in the investigation, and not just because he’s able to reluctantly admit that they are partners whether that’s what he planned on or not.

What does sparkle is the way that Sam and Maggie close in on this case that did not originally look like a whole, entire case. It goes from blackmail to murder to fraud to murder to obsession and then reaches back into the past to yet more murder. Following in Maggie’s footsteps as she and Sam unravel the clues one dark and dangerous step at a time makes for a terrific, page-turning thriller, clinging to the edge of one nightmare after another.

Review: Mirror Lake by Juneau Black

Review: Mirror Lake by Juneau BlackMirror Lake by Juneau Black
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Shady Hollow #3
Pages: 240
Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


The third novel in the Shady Hollow mystery series, in which Vera Vixen takes on her most challenging case yet: solving the murder of a rat who appears to still be alive.

Change is afoot in Shady Hollow, with an unusually tense election shaping up between long-serving Chief of Police Theodore Meade and Vera's beau, Deputy Orville Braun. But the political tension takes a back seat when resident eccentric Dorothy Springfield becomes convinced her beloved husband, Edward, is dead, and that the rat claiming to be him is actually a fraud.
While most of the town dismisses Dorothy's rants as nothing more than a delusion, Vera has her doubts. More than a few things don't add up in the Springfield household, but Vera will have to tread carefully, since, with Orville's attention on the election, she may be more exposed than ever.
A VINTAGE CRIME/BLACK LIZARD ORIGINAL.

My Review:

And we’re back in the very cozy, slightly twee village of Shady Hollow for one more bloody (as in there’s actual dripping blood) mystery among this (mostly) charming group of people who just happen to be animals.

Don’t let that bit fool you. All stories are about people – even if they claim they’re not. Because people are all we know how to be – and we’re the ones writing the story.

Adora Springfield is dead – but this isn’t about her. Except when it is. Adora was, all things considered, adored by pretty much everyone in Shady Hollow and the neighboring, even smaller community of Mirror Lake. She lived a long life and contributed a lot to both communities. She’ll be mourned and she’ll be missed. And she left an estate worth killing for, tied up in an estate-planning tangle that is going to require both a lawyer and an investigative journalist to unravel.

Chief of Police Theodore Meade is a deadbeat. Not exactly, as he’s earning a decent salary as the leader of Shady Hollow’s two-bear police department. But he’s not doing the job. At all. Pretty much ever. He’s too “busy” fishing, leaving all the policing in town to his deputy-bear Orville Braun.

And Orville is pretty much sick of doing all the work and not being sure whether or not he’s getting any of the credit.

The case and the campaign both revolve – one clockwise and one anti-clockwise – around the person of investigative reporter and fox-about-town Vera Vixen. As a reporter for the local newspaper, the death of one of the town’s leading lights and the first contested campaign for Police Chief in years are both juicy stories that Vera is itching to dig her way into and write all about.

But Orville and Vera are romantically involved, even as they butt heads over pretty much every case. She can’t cover his campaign – no matter how much her boss wants her to use her “inside track” to get the real scoop. Her boss is GREAT at selling newspapers but LOUSY at journalistic ethics.

It’s Vera’s search for a bit of legal cover to protect her job with that leads her into the Springfield case. A case that Orville – and the rest of the town – refuse to see as a real case at all.

Dorothy Springfield, known to all and sundry as “Dotty” for her occasional flakiness, has returned from tending to her now-late mother-in-law and taking care of the funeral arrangements to cause a very public scene by claiming that her husband is NOT her husband. That her real husband is dead and whoever this rat (literally, the Springfields are the wealthiest rats in town) may look like her beloved Edward but he is absolutely NOT her Edward.

Everyone is certain that Dotty is just being dotty again. Vera has doubts. Initially little ones, as Dotty’s reputation has definitely preceded her – but doubts that are worth digging into because they’ll make an excellent story.

A story that nearly gets Vera killed. Again.

Escape Rating B+: This was not the book I originally planned to finish the week with, but that one (Last Exit) turned out to be a bit more book than I had time to chew at the end of this week. (I’m listening to the audio and it’s good but it’s also longer than I thought. The best laid plans of mice, men and book reviewers and all that.)

So I returned to Shady Hollow for one more lovely if murderous time. And it turned out to be a charming way to finish out the week.

On its surface, Mirror Lake is a typical cozy mystery set in a typical if somewhat twee small town. That all the people are animals adds to its charm for me, but may add to its twee-ness for others. YMMV but I like visiting the place.

The two cases are the bread and butter of this kind of story. A minor conflict between the townsfolk, a case of everyone in town knowing everyone else’s business and maintaining their assumptions about the people they know so well, and a twisty little bit of murder, with an amateur sleuth in the middle of entirely too many things for probability to have any bearing whatsoever.

(I always think that Cabot Cove and Midsummer County must have such a ridiculously high homicide rate that newcomers would stay far, far, away – but they never do.)

Series like Shady Hollow, whether featuring humans or animals-as-humans, are more about the town and its inhabitants than it is about the murders that take place. Which is a good thing in Mirror Lake as I figured out whodunnit long before the big reveal at the end.

The fun in the story is watching it all work itself out. Vera is both determined and dogged (whatever her species might be), but she’s also compassionate and caring and has invested herself thoroughly in her new home of Shady Hollow. As an amateur investigator, operating mostly on her own, she’s also very much a “fools rush in” type, putting herself in extreme danger in every book because she tends to figure out whodunnit by poking her nose into the killer’s business without being aware that she’s THAT close to the solution.

Which makes following Vera a lot of fun as she drops into Joe’s Mug for life-giving coffee, consults her best friend, bookstore owner Lenore for advice and crime-solving hints, and flirts and fights with her bearish beau whenever they both have a break between cases.

Unfortunately, this is the last – so far, at least – full length novel in the Shady Hollow series. There’s one very short novella, Evergreen Chase, left to go. It’s a holiday story, so I think I’ll save it for when fall starts to nip the air. Or whenever I need a bit of Vera’s animal magnetism.

Review: And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin

Review: And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm DevlinAnd Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: dystopian, horror, post apocalyptic
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on April 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the tradition of Mira Grant and Stephen Graham Jones, Malcolm Devlin’s And Then I Woke Up is a creepy, layered, literary story about false narratives and their ability to divide us.
"A scathing portrait of the world we live in and a running commentary on what’s story, what’s truth, and what’s not."—Stephen Graham Jones

In a world reeling from an unusual plague, monsters lurk in the streets while terrified survivors arm themselves and roam the countryside in packs. Or perhaps something very different is happening. When a disease affects how reality is perceived, it’s hard to be certain of anything…
Spence is one of the “cured” living at the Ironside rehabilitation facility. Haunted by guilt, he refuses to face the changed world until a new inmate challenges him to help her find her old crew. But if he can’t tell the truth from the lies, how will he know if he has earned the redemption he dreams of? How will he know he hasn’t just made things worse?

My Review:

“How long a minute is depends on which side of the bathroom door you are on,” or so goes one very old joke about the theory of the relativity of time. Which may not exactly reflect what Einstein was thinking, but it is still unarguably true. That “minute” takes a lot longer if you’re the one on the outside of the door holding it in than if you’re the one on the inside of the door letting it out.

And the measurement of those 60 seconds can still take the same amount of objective time while still seeming to be of different duration on the opposite sides of that door.

But what happens to objective “truth” when truth becomes so mutable that all perspectives are considered equal? This may not be of earth-shattering importance when it’s a question of whether a particular dress is blue and black or white and gold. But when the differing perspectives revolve around an issue of even middling importance, such as the size of the crowd at a particular presidential inauguration, or something larger and more fundamental, such as whether an ‘impromptu’ event in the U.S. Capitol was a peaceful demonstration or an attempted coup, those differences of “opinion” can be crucial. And the tribalism that lies behind them can make those perspectives impossible to change.

To put it another way, the way that Jonathan Swift put it, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” There’s also a version from Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

And Then I Woke Up is a story about what happens when all truths are created equal, when every perspective on every issue is considered equally valid. To the point where the concept of any objective truth is under attack by what one side considers to be the barbarians at the gate and vice versa.

To the point when those who oppose us not only look and sound like monsters, but they become actual, rotting, shambling, tear out our throats and feast on our flesh murdering creatures so terrible that the ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in and we fight.

It’s a nightmare scenario, when our friends and loved ones don’t just turn on us, but turn into monsters by doing so.

Unless it isn’t that at all. Unless we’re sick and they’re doing their best to keep us from infecting them.

Or the other way around.

Escape Rating B+: I’ll admit that I wanted an unequivocal ending to this, where the point-of-view character does finally wake up, take the red pill or the blue pill, and learn what is real. The frightening thing about this story is that what is real depends so much upon our own perspectives. Those on one side see monsters in anyone who opposes them, and those on the other see sick people who can’t accept what seems like the truth of their circumstances or the way the world really works.

And I’m trying not to assign value to either side of that equation, because that’s the whole point of the story. That what we believe becomes our truth – whichever side of whatever divide we are currently on.

The point is hammered home with the way that the plague seems to work, at least as defined by one side of this divide. It’s that some people have so much charisma, are so invested in their own beliefs in their own side, that they sway followers into their perception of what the “truth”, the true narrative, really is.

What stuck in my mind after I turned the last page was the question of which side truth was really on? Are the ones who saw monsters and killed them the ones with the right answer? Or is it the side who finally tried to sway the “monster-killers” with isolation, compassion and sanitized news?

Because that divide, plague-driven or not, seems like it is headed this way at breakneck speed. And there are way more people pouring fuel on that fire than there are trying to find a way to divert the coming conflagration.

Which is the part that scares me most of all. Because as much as I wish I KNEW, in the context of the story at least, it feels true – if not very comfortable in the least – that the main character doesn’t. And neither do we.

Review: Two Storm Wood by Philip Gray

Review: Two Storm Wood by Philip GrayTwo Storm Wood by Philip Gray
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, thriller
Pages: 352
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In this thriller set on the battlefields of the Somme after the end of World War I, a woman investigates the disappearance of her fiancé.
The Great War has ended, but for Amy Vanneck there is no peace. Her fiancé, Edward Haslam, a lieutenant in the 7th Manchesters, is missing, presumed dead. Amy travels to the desolate battlefields of northern France to learn his fate and recover his body.
She’s warned that this open-air morgue is no place for a civilian, much less a woman, but Amy is willing to brave the barbed wire, the putrid water, and the rat-infested tunnels that dot the landscape. Her search is upended when she discovers the scene of a gruesome mass murder. What does it signify? Soon Amy begins to have suspicions that Edward might not really be dead. Disquieting and yet compulsively readable, Two Storm Wood builds to an ending that is both thrilling and emotionally riveting.

My Review:

“The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” Honestly, Shakespeare pretty much said everything best. This particular quote is from Julius Caesar, but it’s relevant to Two Storm Wood because the mystery in this historical thriller revolves around an attempt to attach the evil that one man did to another man’s bones – even if the man’s actual bones can never be found.

The story begins with a mystery. Two soldiers in a convalescent hospital for men with facial disfigurements back home in England after the Armistice that ended World War I. One kills the other, after stealing the victim’s uniform and identity papers. The reader knows nothing about them, not their names, not their real identities. Only that they are officers and that one is impersonating the other – whoever either or both might be.

Then the focus shifts to Amy Vanneck, whose name we definitely DO know, as she escapes from the smothering confines of her status conscious, social climbing, upper middle class family to sneak away to France with a friend. The war may be over for many, but not for Amy or the tens of thousands of others whose loved ones were listed as “missing, presumed dead.”

So Amy heads for France, to the former battlefields of the Great War, now turned into vast, disturbed – and disturbing – fields of unmarked graves, filled with bodies that may never be identified. She’s certain that her fiancée is one of those bodies, and that the responsibility for his fate can be laid at her door – whether she knew it or not.

She’s also promised him she’d find him after the war, and bring him home. Even if all she has to bring back is a corpse. But the more she digs into his fate, the less certain she is – not just about what happened to him, but about who the man she loved really was.

Or who he became in that hellscape of war.

Her search takes her from one mass grave to another, from one putrid processing station for the dead to the few and frequently shell-shocked men who served with Lieutenant Edward Haslam, teacher, choirmaster, officer, and as she discovers along her hellish journey, assassin.

There are two things she does not find. She does not find his body. And she does not find the truth – a truth which seems to be drifting further out of reach the longer and further she searches.

Along with evidence that someone is dogging her trail, determined to stop her from finding anything or anyone at all.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up expecting it to remind me of Charles Todd’s historical mysteries. With its focus on Amy Vanneck as the protagonist, I thought I’d be catching glimpses of nurse Bess Crawford, but as the story progressed I got just as many hints of Todd’s other investigator, Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard.

Little did I know that I had just swallowed a red herring.

More than either of those series, the book that Two Storm Wood resembled the most strongly was The Poppy Wife by Caroline Scott, which also focuses on the search for closure after World War I for so many whose loved ones were declared missing during the war. In some ways, Two Storm Wood is even more haunting that The Poppy Wife, as Amy’s search takes place much closer to the Armistice, when the situation was in even more flux as the ground was still literally settling over the shallowly buried dead.

Amy goes to France expecting to find closure. She honestly hopes to find and identify her fiancée’s corpse. Instead, she finds a place where no one expects her – or any other “gently bred” woman to be as she travels alone through a world that belongs more to the dead than to the living. She’s in way over her head with no idea how impossible the task she has set herself truly is.

But she is also free, free from social expectations, free from her mother’s social climbing snobbery, and free to learn just how strong a person she can be when she has no one to rely on but herself. She doesn’t thrive, because no one in these circumstances is even in the same country as “thriving”, but she does persevere.

Even as two men who both claim to be working for the Graves Commission try to dissuade her or redirect her from her self-appointed course. Yet both their involvement and Amy’s own investigations lead her inexorably to Two Storm Wood, and to a crime so heinous that the Army has already begun covering it up.

Whatever and however many other books Two Storm Wood reminded me of, at its center it felt like three stories. One is the story of Amy’s journey through the haunted battlefields, mass graveyards and half-ruined towns and villages that haven’t even begun to recover from the war. It’s not just that war is hell, but that its aftermath is every bit as hellish as the actual fighting – if not worse because it’s supposed to be over but it really isn’t.

The second story was Amy’s search for who Edward Haslam really was, and who he became in that no man’s land of trenches and raids and death on every side. We see the beginning of their relationship through Amy’s memories, and their wartime separation through the letters that Edward sent. The most chilling bit of this part of the story is the way that the more she learns, the less she feels she knows – as though everything she thought was true is slipping away from her.

The third part of the story was the mystery of what really happened at Two Storm Wood. In the end, the actions themselves become clear, but the motives behind them didn’t feel like they were as interwoven with the rest of the story as they should have been for a reveal that turned out to be so fundamental. That bit felt kind of tacked on to a story that had been both chilling and affecting as it followed Amy’s journey. They did tie together at the end, but that tie didn’t feel as tight as it should have been.

But Amy’s journey is a compelling and heartrending read about the way that the horrors of war are inflicted not just on those who fight but on those who are left behind. And that the scars war leaves behind are just as deep on all sides.

One final note, the Graves Commission whose work Amy follows in this story is not yet done. It’s successor organization, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is still finding and identifying the dead of the First World War at the rate of one per week more than a century after the Armistice.

Review: The Sacred Bridge by Anne Hillerman

Review: The Sacred Bridge by Anne HillermanThe Sacred Bridge (Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito #25) by Anne Hillerman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Series: Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito #25
Pages: 320
Published by Harper on April 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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"A fine legacy series . . . in the spirit of her late father, Tony."--Booklist
An ancient mystery resurfaces with ramifications for the present day in this gripping chapter in the Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito series from New York Times bestselling author Anne Hillerman.
Sergeant Jim Chee's vacation to beautiful Antelope Canyon and Lake Powell has a deeper purpose. He's on a quest to unravel a sacred mystery his mentor, the Legendary Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, stumbled across decades earlier.
Chee's journey takes a deadly turn when, after a prayerful visit to the sacred Rainbow Bridge, he spots a body floating in the lake. The dead man, a Navajo with a passion for the canyon's ancient rock art, lived a life filled with many secrets. Discovering why he died and who was responsible involves Chee in an investigation that puts his own life at risk.
Back in Shiprock, Officer Bernadette Manuelito is driving home when she witnesses an expensive sedan purposely kill a hitchhiker. The search to find the killer leads her to uncover a dangerous chain of interconnected revelations involving a Navajo Nation cannabis enterprise.
But the evil that is unleashed jeopardizes her mother and sister Darleen, and puts Bernie in the deadliest situation of her law enforcement career.

My Review:

Underneath the mysteries that propel the action in (and around) The Sacred Bridge is the story of a solid relationship between two people who have both reached a crossroads in their careers. Which makes it entirely fitting that one half of the story is set at Lake Powell, a man-made lake near Rainbow Bridge that was created by damming the Colorado and San Juan Rivers in 1963.

When the author picked up her late father’s long-running mystery series with Spider Woman’s Daughter in 2013, she brought back the characters of the Legendary Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, his proteges Sergeant Jim Chee and Officer Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito. Leaphorn has retired, Chee has finally grown up, and Bernie has turned into an excellent cop ready to stretch her wings.

But Chee and Bernie are married, and happily so. Except for the times when Chee gets stuck as the officer in charge at the Shiprock office of the Navajo Police and is temporarily acting as his wife’s boss.

Bernie’s considering becoming a detective, while Chee’s been a cop more than long enough to be getting a bit worn down by the job. He’s at the point where his options are to get promoted into management – which is too much like politics for his taste, keep doing what he’s doing – even though that’s already getting old and sour, or find something new.

Or go back to something old. When we first met Chee back in People of Darkness, he was training with his uncle to become a hatááłii or medicine man, a practitioner of the Navajo sacred healing ceremonies. But Chee’s uncle died years ago, if he truly wants to pick up that training, he will need to find a practitioner willing to teach him.

So as the story opens, Chee and Bernie are miles apart. She has returned home to go back to work, and to check on her elderly mother and her sometimes wayward younger sister. And almost immediately finds herself neck deep – possibly literally – in a case that will test her decision to become a detective – and test whether or not everything that goes along with that job is what she really wants.

She’s in way over her head – and will need skill, courage AND luck to break the surface.

The Rainbow Bridge and surrounding canyon seen from the Navajo Mountain side

Meanwhile, Chee is at Rainbow Bridge, the Sacred Bridge of the title, letting the peace of the place help him see into his own heart. But, like so many cops on vacation – at least in fiction – he finds himself back on the job when he looks down into Lake Powell and discovers the body of someone who will never break the surface again.

Bernie’s case is wrapped up in 21st century problems – drugs and the money they bring, along with all of the ills that follow in their wake. In the case of the K’e Hemp Farm, those ills include human trafficking, forced labor, paying workers in illegally-grown marijuana instead of cash – and the murders necessary to cover it all up.

The case that Chee has fallen into – or that the dead man he found has fallen out of – is rooted in older and deeper motives. In the resentments that still swirl around the lake and all the sacred places that were drowned to create it, but also the motive for the oldest crime in the book – the jealousy that drove Cain to kill Abel.

So Chee is trying to unravel a knot of emotions, while Bernie is trying to protect herself from being tied up in a net of drugs, money and murder. Neither case is easy, and both have the potential to provide their personal dilemmas with an all too permanent solution.

Escape Rating B: I love this series. I loved the original, and I love the way that the author has picked up her father’s torch and brought these characters into the present. So this entry in the series, as always, was a visit with some old and dear friends.

But I was hoping that this book would break the grade “B” reading week I’ve been having, and it just didn’t. It could be me, it could be that everything I’m picking up is turning into “B for Blah” whether it really is or not. But this entry in the series fell just a bit flat for me.

Some of that may be due to Leaphorn being absent entirely. Even though he’s more-or-less retired, his perspectives and insights always add some depth to the story. So I missed his presence.

Also, this revival of the series has been centered on Chee and Bernie and they usually spend at least some of each story in the same place working on the same or parallel cases. While it makes sense that they need some time on their own to think about their respective careers, they are miles apart and all-too-frequently completely out of contact with each other.

And on my third hand, Bernie’s part of the story didn’t quite gel for me. She goes undercover into the middle of a very dangerous drug operation, but she’s not remotely trained for it, she doesn’t have any reliable backup, and she’s in over her head to the point where she nearly drowns in it. It all veered very close to “heroine in jeopardy” in ways that felt cliched – but possibly entirely too real. One of the villains definitely bordered on “bwahaha” territory.

But if the point, at least from the perspective of her police superiors along with all the alphabet agencies tagging along on this case, was to throw her into the deep end to see if she sank or swam, well, mission accomplished. Howsomever, something about the combination of how extremely important the case was vs. just how underprepared she was didn’t quite match up.

Chee’s case made more sense – and/or it felt more like the cases that make up the backbone of the entire series. It was a mix of the traditional, the historic, and the contemporary with a thoughtful exploration of the characters involved. Although I did figure out whodunnit long before the reveal, I still enjoyed that part of the journey quite a bit.

In short, I liked parts of this one, but not as much overall as I usually do. But it’s always good to see how these characters are doing, and I’m curious about whether Leaphorn is going to come back from his unexpected trip to Hawaii married to his longtime companion. And I really want to find out what decisions Bernie and Chee make about their careers, their life together, and whether or not they plan to plunge ahead and have children – which will also have impacts on those careers and that life.

So sign me up for the next book in this series whenever it comes along – hopefully around this time next year.

Review: Sand Dollar Lane by Sheila Roberts

Review: Sand Dollar Lane by Sheila RobertsSand Dollar Lane (Moonlight Harbor, #6) by Sheila Roberts
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Series: Moonlight Harbor #6
Pages: 336
Published by Mira on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

USA TODAY bestselling author Sheila Roberts will have readers laughing and swooning in turn as two rival business owners compete for the homes and hearts of Moonlight Harbor.
Brody Green is finding it hard to recover after being dumped by his fiancée, Jenna Jones, then watching her walk down the aisle with someone else. Jenna is determined to make up for her love defection and find him the perfect woman, but Brody is done with love. First a divorce, then a broken engagement. From now on he’s keeping things light, no commitments. Luckily Brody’s business is booming. Beach Dreams Realty is the best real estate company in town. And the only one. Until…
Lucy Holmes needs a new start. In business, in love, in…everything. If ever there was a cliché, it was her life back in Seattle. She was a real estate broker working with her husband until she caught him trying out the walk-in shower in a luxury condo—with another agent. She’s always been the more successful of the two, and with him gone, she’s determined to build a business even bigger than what she had. Moonlight Harbor is a charming town and it has only one real estate agency. Surely there’s room for a little competition.
Or not. Looks like it’s going to be a hot market in Moonlight Harbor. And maybe these two competitors will make some heat of their own.

My Review:

“If you’re lucky enough to live at the beach, you’re lucky enough,” or so the saying goes on so many cute signs – particularly at beachfront communities.

But neither Lucy Holmes or Brody Green are feeling particularly lucky when this story begins – even though Brody already has his own house at the beach in Moonlight Harbor. Brody’s either heartbroken or cheesed off – or honestly a bit of both – that his fiancée Jenna Jones broke up with him in the previous book in this series, Sunset on Moonlight Beach, and married someone else.

Jenna owns The Driftwood Inn, a homey little B&B that seems to be the emotional if not the physical heart of tiny Moonlight Harbor. Brody, the only real estate agent in town and the head of the chamber of commerce, has no choice but to keep running into his ex and her new husband everywhere he turns.

It’s not making the hurt heal any faster, particularly since Jenna is determined to make it up to Brody for following HER heart by finding the perfect person for him to lose his to.

Lucy Holmes left her lucrative real estate business in Seattle behind – along with her marriage – after finding her husband in a cliché – and a naked clinch – with one of their junior real estate agents in a condo that Lucy was showing to prospective buyers. She gets half of everything they built together, both their marital property and their real estate business – but she needs a fresh start.

She discovers Moonlight Harbor, a little town on the Washington coast that looks like its on the cusp of discovery – and only seems to have one real estate agency in position to take advantage of the coming boom. There’s plenty of room in this growing community for two real estate agents. Or there should be. But Brody’s feeling sensitive about everything after losing Jenna, and Lucy is not only feeling sensitive about plenty herself, but NEEDS that fresh start in the worst way to get past, well, her past.

It’s a tiny town. They keep running into each other – and running after anyone in town who looks like they’re planning to buy or sell a house. Their college-age children, Brody’s son Declan and Lucy’s daughter Hannah, can’t seem to get enough of each other – enough of a worry for their parents without adding the Montague and Capulet vibes their respective parents are spreading all over town.

But the sparks that Brody and Lucy throw off every time they lock horns or glances puts the truth in another old saying about what three things kissing and real estate have in common. The guiding principles for both endeavors are “Location, location, location.”

Escape Rating B: Sand Dollar Lane is the sixth book in the author’s Moonlight Harbor series, which began with the fittingly titled Welcome to Moonlight Harbor. I haven’t read the previous books in the series – as much as I loved this author’s Life in Icicle Falls series (my favorite is Merry Ex-Mas) I think this one fell down the “so many books, so little time” conundrum.

I didn’t feel like I was missing any of the plot by not having visited this little town before – there are plenty of hints to catch a new reader right up embedded into the current action. What I think I did miss was being previously invested in Brody Green’s relationship with Jenna Jones. Her ‘torn between two lovers’ dilemma stretches over the first five books and finally ends with her marrying Seth Waters at the end of the fifth book.

So here we are in the sixth book, Jenna is happily married and Brody is miserable. (She seems to be a great person and he really did love her so his misery is completely understandable.) But, and this is where I think I missed something, I didn’t know them so I didn’t feel FOR them when this book started.

So Brody comes off as a bit of a self-absorbed jerk, and Jenna’s continuous attempts to assuage her own guilt over their breakup by awkwardly and obviously trying to match Brody up with every unattached female in their age bracket comes off as weird and intrusive. On the other hand, I’m an introvert and would want to lick my wounds in private, thankyouverymuch. Brody, Jenna and Lucy for that matter are all extroverts. So they might feel differently. Jenna certainly does, but Brody, not so much.

Lucy is every bit as salty about men and relationships as Brody is about women, but she earned it more. At the same time, she really is doing her best – and it turns out to be damn good – to wash that man right out of her hair and move forward with her own life and a fresh start.

That she turns into the Wicked Witch of the West whenever Brody gets when spitting distance is not her usual, but she’s having some trust issues about men who seem to be smooth and charming because that was her ex all over. And Brody seems to be able to turn it on and off at a moment’s notice.

In other words, this is a romance where the adults are squabbling like children on a playground and not actually adulting. It’s their newly adult children who are much closer to adulting. Not that Hannah doesn’t fall off that wagon once or twice in a really big way, but then, she’s at the age where that’s expected behavior.

But very much on my other hand, Moonlight Harbor is a lovely, close-knit community, and the people who live there seem to be utterly charming. While the romance in this particular entry in the series turned out to be not quite my cuppa, I did enjoy visiting here and I really liked the way that Lucy ‘put on her big girl panties’ and moved forward with her life. That part was terrific – even with her occasional partial transformations into Maleficent. (Although I loved the time when she had nightmares about it – not for the nightmare but because the invasion of Disney into her dreamscape was just so well done AND on point.)

To make this long story short, while I may not have fallen in love with the romance between Lucy and Brody, I did fall hard for Moonlight Harbor and would love to come back. And probably will the next time I’m in the mood for life in a lovely place that isn’t that far distant in either miles or mood from my beloved Icicle Falls.

Review: Summer at the Cape by RaeAnne Thayne

Review: Summer at the Cape by RaeAnne ThayneSummer at the Cape by RaeAnne Thayne
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Hqn on April 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From the beloved bestselling author of Season of Wonder and The Cliff House
 comes a poignant and uplifting novel about forgiveness, family and all the complications—and joy
that come with it

As the older sibling to identical twins Violet and Lily, Cami Porter was always the odd sister out. The divide grew even wider when their parents split up—while the twins stayed in Cape Sanctuary with their free-spirited mother, Rosemary, fourteen-year-old Cami moved to LA with her attorney father. Nearly twenty years later, when Cami gets the terrible news that Lily has drowned saving a child’s life, her mother begs her to return home to help untangle the complicated estate issues her sister left behind.
Navigating their own strained relationship, Cami readjusts to the family and community she hasn’t known for decades, including the neighbor who stands in the way of her late sister’s dream, while Violet grieves the loss of her twin and struggles to figure out who she is now, without her other half, as the little girl Lily saved pulls her back into the orbit of the man she once loved.
With poignancy and heart, RaeAnne Thayne once again delivers her charming signature blend of warmth, wit and wisdom.

My Review:

“A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on,” at least according to a quote attributed to Samuel Goldwyn. It is also sad but true that even a written contract isn’t worth that paper if one of the people who signed it can be easily proven to not be in their right mind at the time they signed.

And that’s just the situation that the owner of the Wild Hearts Glampground finds herself in when the story opens. Rosemary Porter is doing her best to make her late daughter Lily’s dream a reality, by opening the glampground that her daughter gave her heart and soul to in the months before she died saving two little girls from drowning.

But Lily was a “big picture” dreamer, who marched ahead with the glampground based on a verbal agreement to lease the land from her mother’s next-door (for certainly long distance definitions of “next-door”) neighbor, but never actually got Franklin Rafferty to sign on the dotted line as agreed.

Lily thought the lonely old man was just enjoying her frequent visits – and he probably was.

But Lily is dead and Franklin’s estranged son is returning home to take care of his father. A father who sometimes believes that his late wife is just in the other room and forgets to put his trousers back on after going to the bathroom. Jon Rafferty thinks that Lily took advantage of an old man who would have been exhibiting obvious signs of dementia for several months at the least.

He plans to evict the glampground as soon as he can get power-of-attorney awarded by the courts – which he’ll have no problem doing and he knows it.

But Rosemary put a second mortgage on her house/B&B/Yoga Retreat in order to make Lily’s dreams a reality. She needs help fighting this battle that she needs to win. And that’s where her older daughter Cami comes in. Cami is an attorney dealing with contract law. She knows exactly what she’s up against – and she’s surprised and annoyed that her mother, once the wife of a high-powered attorney, would ever have gotten herself into this fix.

That Lily went off half-cocked isn’t a surprise at all, but that her mother went even further makes this mess a potential catastrophe. One that Cami doesn’t have the time or inclination to deal with for reasons both personal and professional. But mostly personal.

So she does what she knows she has to, whether she wants to or not. She decides to take this chance to help her mother – and to connect with the woman who took herself and her twin daughters away from both the husband she was divorcing AND the daughter she thought didn’t need her.

In finally sticking herself into Sanctuary Cove, Cami finds all the things that have been missing from her life for so long. Her mother. Her remaining sister, mourning the loss of her twin at a depth even greater than the loss grieving both Cami and their mother, and who needs to make a connection to the sister she has left.

And in her “negotiations” with Jon Rafferty she finds a kindred spirit she never believed existed. She just has to decide whether what she’s found – in a place she never expected to find much of anything at all – is worth hanging on to.

Escape Rating B: Summer at the Cape is relationship fiction more than it is romance. Not that a romance doesn’t occur – actually three romances – but the romances are not the center of the story.

The heart of this story is the sometimes rocky, somewhat distant relationships between Cami, her twin sisters Violet and Lily, and their mother Rosemary. And, as it turns out at the end of the story, the relationship between their divorced parents Rosemary and Ted.

It’s also about the distant, fractured relationship between Franklin Rafferty and his son Jon.

Both families are in mourning in different ways. For the Porters, it’s pretty obvious that they are grieving Lily’s loss. But Lily was not the glue holding the family together – because it hasn’t been together in years.

When Ted and Rosemary divorced, the split the girls geographically, even though they were already somewhat split emotionally. Lily and Violet were twins, a unit unto themselves. Cami wasn’t just older, she was also extremely intelligent (think Hermione Granger) and very driven. Both parents thought that Cami needed the intellectual stimulation of living with her father in LA and going to “the best” schools. But that split became a chasm, leaving Cami to navigate the cutthroat social scene of prep school, college and law school pretty much alone while her dad continued to pour his heart and soul into his work and the twins developed an even closer knit relationship with their mother that involved a lot of shared activities and fun.

The relationship between Jon and his father fractured after his mother was killed in an automobile accident. Jon blamed his father for being too busy to have been with his mother – who then wouldn’t have been driving and wouldn’t have had the accident that killed her. They haven’t spoken in three years. Jon coming home is a chance for them to reconnect, even as he’s forced to realize that their break cost him time with the dad who is losing himself right in front of his eyes.

That Jon and Cami – from their separate places of career and distance and hurt – connect with each other is not a surprise – although it is a revelation for both of them. The second-chance at love romances of between Violet and her high school sweetheart and between Rosemary and her ex, Ted, are also part of the weave of the story.

But it’s the community that shines in this one. Not just the way that Sanctuary Cove comes together to honor Lily’s sacrifice, but also the way that the townies AND the guests of the glampground all pitch in to help Jon and save Franklin when the older man gets lost in a storm.

So, the romances may be a bit understated (Rosemary and Ted’s renewed relationship comes a bit out of left field) but if you’re looking for a heartwarming story of family and community, Summer at the Cape is a charming place to visit and you might even want to live there.

Review: Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham

Review: Age of Ash by Daniel AbrahamAge of Ash (Kithamar, #1) by Daniel Abraham
Narrator: Soneela Nankani
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Kithamar #1
Pages: 448
Length: 14 hours and 35 minutes
Published by Orbit on February 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From
New York Times
bestselling and critically acclaimed author Daniel Abraham, co-author of
The Expanse
, comes a monumental epic fantasy trilogy that unfolds within the walls of a single great city, over the course of one tumultuous year, where every story matters, and the fate of the city is woven from them all.
“An atmospheric and fascinating tapestry, woven with skill and patience.” –Joe Abercrombie, New York Times bestselling author of A Little Hatred
Kithamar is a center of trade and wealth, an ancient city with a long, bloody history where countless thousands live and their stories unfold.
This is Alys's.
When her brother is murdered, a petty thief from the slums of Longhill sets out to discover who killed him and why.  But the more she discovers about him, the more she learns about herself, and the truths she finds are more dangerous than knives. 
Swept up in an intrigue as deep as the roots of Kithamar, where the secrets of the lowest born can sometimes topple thrones, the story Alys chooses will have the power to change everything.
For more from Daniel Abraham, check out: The Dagger and the CoinThe Dragon's PathThe King's BloodThe Tyrant's LawThe Widow's HouseThe Spider's War

My Review:

There’s a secret at the heart of the city of Kithamar, but I’m not sure that we’ve plumbed the depths of it by the end of the first book in this projected trilogy. We’ve seen it as if through that glass very darkly indeed. I imagine that we won’t get the view face-to-face until much nearer the end.

So what do we have here?

Age of Ash is, at its own heart, a whole lot of setup and worldbuilding, in a world that really, really needs it in order for the reader to see where they are and why it matters. That setup, that story is told from the perspectives of two (very) young women at the bottom of this city-state-world’s economic ladder.

Alys and Sammish are descendants of Kithamar’s indigenous population, the Inlisc. Like most Inlisc they live in the downtrodden community-not-quite-ghetto of Longhill. They are both what the city calls “street-rats”, a term that is applied to all Longhill residents, but particularly to those who are so close to the bottom of the ladder – not that anyone Inlisc or anyone in Longhill is anywhere near the top – that they are one bad break or poor choice or unprofitable “pull” from sleeping on the streets.

(A “pull” in Longhill parlance is a theft or a cheat or a con game. Everyone does it in one fashion or another, if only to get one-up on their friends or get enough coin to spend a night out of the weather.)

But someone in the rich quarters, in the palace of the Prince of the City, has committed what looks like the biggest pull of them all. They’ve managed to steal the city from the direct line of royalty by putting a “cuckoo” in the royal nest.

The forces that are arrayed to steal the city back are deeper, darker and much more dangerous than anyone imagines. The doings of the power-that-be or would-be should be far above the tiny influence of people like Alys and Sammish.

But these two young women find themselves at the heart of a conspiracy larger, deadlier and with more far-reaching consequences than either of them ever imagined.

Neither they nor their city will ever be the same. No matter how much the city itself tries to maintain the status quo that keeps it in power.

Escape Rating B: Oh do I have mixed feelings about this one, but let me get this out of the way first. I listened to the audiobook of Age of Ash, and the narrator did an excellent job with the material. But, but, but I had some serious issues with the material. This turned out to be one of those books where I was content enough to continue the audio because the reader was terrific but had absolutely ZERO compulsion to switch to the ebook because I just wasn’t compelled to finish the story any faster. The couple of times I tried to switch to the text it kind of turned me off so I went back to the audio.

One of the things that bothered me about the story, and I think it’s something that has been growing on me as an issue, is that it seems as if when a male author writes a heroine’s journey the heroine – or in this case heroines plural – is just way more angsty and suffers considerably more, well, angst, but also grief and are just generally more downtrodden than a hero would be going through the exact same circumstances. This was also true in both Engines of Empire and The Starless Crown. Don’t get me wrong, i’s great to see more female-centric stories, but male writers just seem to give their heroines more baggage than is necessary, and it’s baggage that comes from our world’s issues with female centric-stories that are not romances, and not baggage that is inherent in the created world.

There were entirely too many points where it seemed as if the two women were in a race to see which of them would win the TSTL (that’s Too Stupid To Live), award and get themselves killed. I was both amazed and pleased to see them finally get themselves out of that spiral, but it made for some rough reading.

I’m contrasting all of this with T. Kingfisher’s female-centric stories (A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, Nettle & Bone and pretty much all the women in the Saint of Steel series but especially Bishop Beartongue), because her heroines just GET ON WITH IT, whatever it is. They don’t have the time or inclination to angst about their personal issues and they don’t have to start their stories completely downtrodden. They have a problem and they set about solving it. Like male heroes do. Like women do in real life.

The above is all my 2 cents pitched from the top of a very tall soapbox. But it tasks me. It seriously tasks me.

<Give me a second, I need to summon a stepstool to get down off this box.>

Back to Age of Ash in particular. The part of the story that is both fascinating and completely shrouded in mystery is the nature of the city and its ruling class, which is the secret at the heart of both. I don’t want to spoil it completely, although we do get hints of it fairly early, but it takes concepts from Dragon Age, The Anubis Gates, The Ruin of Kings and even more surprisingly The City We Became and wraps them up into a spiky ball with an overwhelming – but very interesting – swath of collateral damage.

And I don’t think we’ve nearly found out just how deeply awful that whole situation is yet. Probably all the way down to a circle of hell that not even Dante imagined.

Particularly because there’s plenty rotten at the heart of Kithamar, and it doesn’t all have to do with the mystical, magical mess that the plot – and the political plots IN the story – all circle around. It’s like an Ankh-Morpork without Vetinari at the helm to keep the city functional. Even the weather seems to be getting worse.

It feels like Age of Ash is an attempt to show a revolution starting at the bottom, with the tiny pebble starting an avalanche that will eventually consume the city – in spite of the city’s attempts to stop it. It’s certainly a very sympathetic portrait of life at the bottom of an epic fantasy city. By centering on Alys and Sammish barely getting by the reader gets an intimate view of just how firmly the deck can be stacked against people by accident of their birth, and how much effort, legal or illegal, is required just to get through another day in circumstances that can’t be changed easily or at all.

Also, the blurb feels wrong, because in the end this is not Alys’s story. It may start out that way, but by the end it’s Sammish’s story. And it’s the city’s story all along. It always has been. Whether it always will be is something that we’ll discover in the later books in the series.

Which I think will still be worth a listen – if only to discover what happens next.

Review: Tough Justice by Tee O’Fallon

Review: Tough Justice by Tee O’FallonTough Justice (K-9 Special Ops #1) by Tee O'Fallon
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: romantic suspense
Series: K-9 Special Ops #1
Pages: 368
Published by Entangled: Amara on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

It should have been a routine investigation. Instead, DEA K-9 agent Adam “Deck” Decker watches in horror as one Denver hospital seems to be Ground Zero for overdoses of a new drug. Now Deck can only hope a certain icy, green-eyed ER doctor will help him and his canine partner track down the deadly source.

Dr. Tori Sampson has her reasons for not trusting federal agents, especially ones working for the DEA. But the rash of overdoses―including a heartbreaking case involving a teen―is alarmingly high. And the new opioid is not only extremely dangerous, it defies all the usual medical treatments. So Tori has a choice: work with the big, brawny, and annoyingly hot DEA agent…or watch more innocent people die.

Tori’s the only person who can help Deck break the case, and they’ll need to trust each other, no matter how high the tension and attraction sizzling between them runs. But with every question answered, they realize there’s something more behind these typical teen overdoses. There’s a pattern here, and a pattern can only suggest one thing. There’s a killer on the loose.

My Review:

First, and most important to a whole lot of people in my reading circle, the dog is fine at the end of the story. Actually Thor is more than fine. He seems to be the only person in this romantic suspense thriller who survives this case pretty much unscathed. Quite a few of the central humans in this story are a bit worse for wear by the time they reach their HEA.

But the dog is just fine. So rest easy and hang on for this wild ride of a case.

There’s a temptation to call Tough Justice an enemies to lovers romance, but that just doesn’t feel right. Enemies to lovers implies that the protagonists have met before and rubbed each other the wrong way, and that’s just not the case here.

When Deck (along with Thor) and Tori first collide in the story, it’s the first time they’ve ever met. The baggage they pretty much immediately start flinging at each other is not about either of them personally. It’s about what they – or rather their professions – represent.

Deck distrusts doctors – in the extreme – because his younger sister died of a drug overdose. She got hooked on opioids after an accident, when a doctor – either overworked, irresponsible, or both – prescribed pain-killers for her very real pain and injuries but didn’t pay attention to her growing dependence on the drugs.

Tori has no love for the DEA or its agents, because they used her father to make a case against a much bigger fish. But what put her pharmacist dad in their sights in the first place were corners that he shaved and mistakes that he made – both in giving away meds without prescriptions to people who needed them but couldn’t afford them – and for helping in assisted suicides before it was legal in Colorado.

Tori blames the DEA for promising her dad to help him if he testified – but they hung him out to dry when their case was made and he lost the family savings, his pharmacist’s license and spent several months in jail. Tori attributes her mother’s death to the stress of the situation.

That Deck and Tori meet in a face-off over the care of Deck’s partner agent who has OD’d on a new super-heroin through incidental contact as part of a takedown has Deck on edge. While Tori just needed to get the behemoth out of her ER so she can save his friend’s life without literally bumping into him every time she turns around in the small, frantic treatment room.

You would not think that opening scene, especially when coupled with their past history and mutual distrust, would turn into anything positive at all – let alone a romance.

But Tori has seen too many people, especially kids, die as a result of this new heroin compound. She NEEDS to do something proactive and not just reactive to help stem this tide. Deck needs Tori’s skills, first as a doctor who knows how to treat this new and deadly epidemic, and second for her contacts with patients.

He doesn’t want to violate the laws about patient privacy, but anyone who manages to survive – already a much too small percentage – and who is willing to talk to the DEA about where they bought the drug and who they got it from will get them one step closer to figuring out who is creating and dealing this particular form of death.

That they are both looking for an excuse to see each other again isn’t something that either of them is able to admit. At least not until it is very nearly too late for more than they’d ever thought they’d want.

Escape Rating B+: Tough Justice manages to combine a downright combustible romance with a deadly twisted thriller that feels so close to real you can practically feel the heat of the literally explosive climax right through your fingers as you’re holding the book.

(Even if you’re reading an ebook, which is actually kinda dangerous!)

So, on that one hand, we have a romance between two people who start out not really knowing each other and almost hating what they do know. On the other hand, once they let each other in, just a little bit, they realize that they are more alike than would first appear.

Because they’re both scared of risking their hearts, and they both cover that fear with by letting their work consume their entire lives so they don’t have to think about what might be missing. That both of them have jobs that both require intense focus AND are all about saving people just adds to the constant pressure to be the best, do the best, and forget about anything that might distract from those goals.

Like romance. Or hobbies. Or even taking the occasional vacation that isn’t mandated one way or another.

And on the other side of the equation, there’s this big, huge, deadly case that turns out to be a mission for both of them. Someone is selling a new, “improved”, even more addictive and more deadly formula of heroin called “Gray Death” because that’s what it looks like and that’s what it delivers.

As the story begins, Tori is treating the victims and Deck is hunting the perpetrator. Then they join forces and suddenly it seems like someone is after them. Only because someone IS after them. And that’s where the case ramps up and goes just a bit over the top.

I did figure out who the villain was long before Deck and Tori – although it didn’t make sense at first. (This is one of this times when I paged to the end to see if I was right because it was driving me nuts! Also, the villain was nuts!)

The casework was painstaking in just the way I like. Linking one clue to another with a bit of luck but not too much. But once they got there, I have to say that the villain and his villainy read as more than a bit “out there”. YMMV. I expected him to be awful – after all, he is the villain. I just didn’t expect him to be “bwahaha” insane on top.

On the whole, I loved the romantic heat between Deck and Tori and the come-here-go-away progress of their romance. I found the case they were investigating to be absolutely riveting along the way, and the ending was an edge-of-the-seat thrill ride, albeit with a villain who flew off that thrill-ride and went over the top.

Still, this was a fun, absorbing read from beginning to end, and I absolutely could not put it down. It was made even better because the dog was the only character to emerge from the story without even a scratch on him – even though he helped save the day in the absolute nick of time!

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