Review: Blood and Circuses by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Blood and Circuses by Kerry GreenwoodBlood and Circuses (Phryne Fisher, #6) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #6
Pages: 208
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on July 1st 2007
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Phryne Fisher is bored. Life appears to be too easy, too perfect. Her household is ordered, her love life is pleasant, the weather is fine. And then a man from her past arrives at the door. It is Alan Lee from the carnival. Alan and his friends want her to investigate strange happenings at Farrells Circus, where animals have been poisoned and ropes sabotaged. Mr. Christopher has been found with his throat cut in Mrs. Witherspoon s irreproachable boarding house and Miss Parkes, an ex-performer, is charged with his murder.Phryne must go undercover deeper than ever to solve the circus malaise. She must abandon her name, her title, her protection, her comfort, even her clothes. She must fall off a horse twice a day until she can stay on. She must sleep in a girls tent and dine on mutton stew. And she must find some allies.Meanwhile, in Melbourne, the young and fresh-faced policeman Tommy Harris has to solve his own mysteries with the help of the foul-spoken harridan Lizard Elsie, or Miss Parkes will certainly hang. Can Phyrne uncover the truth without losing her life?"

My Review:

There are two crimes to be solved in this story. Or is it three?

The first one is easy. Phryne begins the story feeling bored to death. Diving headfirst into solving the second crime takes care of that. If she doesn’t discover the perpetrator in time, she won’t be merely bored to death. She’ll just be dead.

But just as Phryne is screwing up her own courage, there’s a murder. And this one isn’t Phryne’s case. At all. At least at first.

Mr. Christopher has been found murdered in his bed at his boarding house. Nothing about this case is exactly as it appears. Not even the corpse.

Mr. Christopher was also Christine. He was a member of Farrell’s Circus, performing as the half-man/half-woman. The circus was the one place where his accident of birth afforded him some respect and a reasonable living. Mr. Christopher was a true androgene. He was born intersex, with both male and female sexual characteristics. He lived his life as Mr. Christopher, and that is how he shall be referred to.

Mr. Christopher’s death is a locked room mystery. And there is only one person in the boarding house who could possibly have entered his second-story room from the window. Miss Parkes, formerly known as Mrs. Fantocci, used to be a star performer in a circus trapeze act. She just got out of prison for murdering her disgusting, abusive husband ten years ago. Some of the police are all too ready to believe that a woman who has murdered before would all too easily murder again.

Jack Robinson is not so convinced. He may not be the Jack we’re used to from the TV series, but he is still a very good, and very fair, cop. Something in the setup does not make sense, and Jack has all sorts of suspicions – he just needs some facts to back them up.

Phryne, meanwhile, is off to Farrell’s Circus. Not as a paying customer, or even as a patron. She is undercover, posing as a trick rider. And all too frequently falling down as a trick rider. It’s not easy to stand up on a horse while it is moving.

It’s also not easy for Phryne to investigate while pretending to be the lowest person in the group and stripped of all her resources. She doesn’t understand how the circus community really functions, not nearly well enough to guess at what is making this particular community suddenly not function. She’s also not used to not being able to bully her way to a solution, whether that’s through her considerable charm or by an application of her considerable fortune.

Phryne suffers from a surprising amount of self-doubt. It’s refreshing to see her have to reach into herself and see what she is made of on the inside.

But Phryne is at Farrell’s because some old friends are afraid for their lives and their livelihood. Whether it’s a curse, an against-the-odds string of very bad luck, or an active conspiracy at work, someone or something is driving Farrell’s into the ground. And it’s up to Phryne to figure out the true source of all their woes, and bring it to a halt.

It seems as if Phryne and Jack are investigating completely different crimes that just coincidentally take place among the denizens of Farrell’s circus. But this string of crimes is bigger than either of them imagines.

And Phryne gets saved by a bear.

Escape Rating B: I bounced off of three books this week, and finally ended with Phryne as my comfort read. However, this may be the least comfortable of Phryne’s books so far. She takes herself far out of her own comfort zone, and finds herself lost, alone and more uncertain of herself than has been shown in the previous books.

That makes the beginning of this story a bit rough going. Phryne isn’t acting like Phryne, and part of the comfort in these stories is that same cast of characters and all of their interactions.

Something that always leaves me thinking at the end of one of Phryne’s adventures are the attitudes portrayed towards sex and sexuality throughout the series. Although the series is set in Australia in the 1920s, the first book was published in the 1990s and the book series is still ongoing, although the TV series is unfortunately in hiatus.

But both the era it portrays and the era is was written in have a profound effect on the ways that sex, whether that be sex roles, sexual activity, sexual preferences or anything else that touches on sex and gender and the morality supposedly belonging thereto are often dealt with in layers.

Phryne can, in some ways, be seen as ultra liberal, for multiple versions of that word. Like male detectives, Phryne has a lover in every port, and in every book. Sometimes more than one. She likes men, she likes sex, and she’s not remotely interested in serious relationships. This has been true for many male detectives over the entire history of the genre, but Phryne feels unique among women.

She also likes and respects everyone for who they are. She doesn’t pass blanket judgments on groups because of what society dictates. That includes whether the people she meets are gay or straight, cis or het, Australian or elsewise, communist or capitalist, and in the case of Blood and Circuses, vertically challenged or average height. Phryne judges people as she finds them individually.

At the same time, particularly in this book, other characters are used to voice the prejudices of society as a whole. The juxtaposition of Phryne’s views with that of conventional society is made clear without putting anything offensive in her mouth. But still portraying that in this era, attitudes were what they were. It’s a very useful way of not pretending that the past attitudes did not exist in all their disgustingness while also commenting on the possibility that at least some people thought otherwise even then.

This is also the second book I’ve read recently that delves into 20th century circus life. (The other book was The Orphan’s Tale). In both cases, it’s hard to let go of the sad irony that in both stories the circus performers believed that the circus, as a concept and way of life, even if not their particular example of it, was strong and would go on forever, no matter what. Even in 1994 when Blood and Circuses was first published, that probably still seemed true. The reality that in 2017 the circus as they knew it is about to raise its very last big top gave this reader more than a touch of nostalgia.

The circus may not be going on, but Phryne certainly is. The next time I need a comfort read, I know I’ll be pulling out Ruddy Gore.

Review: Grimoire of the Lamb by Kevin Hearne

Review: Grimoire of the Lamb by Kevin HearneThe Grimoire of the Lamb (The Iron Druid Chronicles, #0.4) by Kevin Hearne
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Pages: 64
Published by Del Rey on May 7th 2013
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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There's nothing like an impromptu holiday to explore the birthplace of modern civilisation, but when Atticus and Oberon pursue a book-stealing Egyptian wizard - with a penchant for lamb - to the land of the pharaohs, they find themselves in hot, crocodile-infested water.
The trip takes an even nastier turn when they discover the true nature of the nefarious plot they've been drawn into. On the wrong side of the vengeful cat goddess Bast and chased by an unfathomable number of her yowling four-legged disciples, Atticus must find a way to appease or defeat Egypt's deadliest gods - before his grimoire-grabbing quarry uses them to turn him into mincemeat.

My Review:

With great power comes great responsibility, at least according to the Spiderman mythos. But there are plenty of people who want that great power, but want to completely sidestep that whole great responsibility price tag. While history and politics are both littered with the bodies of the victims of those “great” figures, in urban fantasy that shortcut to great power usually travels down the road to hell, often paved with no good intentions whatsoever. That shortcut is nearly always dark magic.

And so it proves in Grimoire of the Lamb.

The Druid now known as Atticus O’Sullivan is 21. That’s 21 centuries old, not 21 years. But his magic keeps him looking much closer to 21 years old, and if that’s what people want to assume, he’s happy to let them.

While Atticus isn’t old enough to have visited Egypt when the pyramids were built, he is more than old enough to have visited Egypt before the Library at Alexandria was burned to the ground. And that long ago bit of library looting is the root of this story.

In the 21st century, Atticus lives in Tempe, near Arizona State University, and owns a shop that sells a combination of new age trinkets, minor magical items for the knowledgeable practitioner, arcane-seeming (and sometimes really arcane) used books and very special herbal teas that help students study just before exams.

While Atticus does seem to sell a few safe or relatively safe used books, most of his collection belongs in the Restricted Section at Hogwarts, or the nearest local equivalent, which happens to be a magically locked case in his shop.

And that case contains at least two books that are on semi-permanent loan from the defunct Library of Alexandria. One is that Grimoire of the Lamb, which Atticus believes is an ancient cookbook. The other is a book he calls Nice Kitty, which he describes somewhat like an illustrated guide to tantric sex to be practiced in the worship of Bast.

Bast is not happy that Atticus has that book. She’s so unhappy, in fact, that Atticus has avoided going to Egypt for centuries. But now he’s stuck.

An evil wizard has just stolen the cookbook, but only after informing Atticus that it isn’t a cookbook. That poor lamb isn’t for dinner, it’s a blood sacrifice to one of the ancient Egyptian gods. And it’s a sacrifice that will let the sorcerer kill his (and his god’s) enemies and place himself in a position of power. Someone has seriously given in to the dark side of the Force, and not just because he discovered the book by conjuring up a demon.

So Atticus, along with his faithful Irish wolfhound Oberon, takes off for Egypt to track down that stolen (or is that re-stolen) book, before it’s too late.

Escape Rating B+: I was looking for something quick and fun, and this certainly filled the bill. I was tempted to say light and fun, but Atticus often isn’t light. There are always plenty of humorous moments, if only within the confines of Atticus’ own thoughts, but there’s also always something darker at work.

And even if Atticus doesn’t provide a lot of levity, Oberon always does. When Bast’s many, many, MANY minions chase Atticus and Oberon through the streets of Cairo, poor Oberon’s attempts to visualize just how many cats are following them nearly breaks the poor dog’s enhanced brain. Bast commands a lot of cats. All the cats. And they all chase Atticus and Oberon with a vengeance. Possibly literally.

Grimoire of the Lamb is a prequel story to the Iron Druid Chronicles. Although it takes place before the absolutely marvelous Hounded, it was written after it, so while it introduces the characters we are familiar with, it also already knows who they are and what they are supposed to be.

This story is more intimate than Hounded in that the only two characters that we are familiar with are Atticus and Oberon. His werewolf lawyer appears in a phone call, but doesn’t participate in the action. This one is all on the druid and his dog.

Especially on Atticus. Just as in Hounded, the story is written in first-person singular, so we are always inside Atticus’ head, even when he’s gibbering to himself in pain. Which is often. Atticus gets knocked around a lot.

Tangling with a crocodile, let alone a crocodile god, is always messy. Especially when, as so often happens with Atticus, he’s making it all up as he goes along.

One of the fun things about this series is the way that it mixes multiple ancient mythologies with contemporary sensibilities. Atticus has survived by adapting from century to century and country to country. He never forgets who he is, where he comes from, or what he remembers, but he doesn’t cling to the dead past. There’s probably a lesson in there someplace.

Most of the time when Atticus is forced to deal with myths, legends and deities, they are from his own Celtic pantheon. But he remembers the other old gods, and they certainly remember him. Bast certainly does. And will. He’s planning to steal Nice Kitty back, as soon as he heals up from dealing with Sobek the Crocodile God. Hopefully for the last time.

But this is certainly not my last time visiting Atticus and Oberon.

Review: Mitla Pass by Leon Uris + Excerpt + Giveaway

Review: Mitla Pass by Leon Uris + Excerpt + GiveawayMitla Pass by Leon Uris
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook,
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 496
Published by Estate of Leon Uris on December 13th 2016 (first published July 1st 1988)
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A “riveting” New York Times bestseller by the author of Exodus about an American in Israel drawn into the danger of the Suez Crisis (Library Journal). How did Gideon Zadok, an American novelist and screenwriter, end up pinned by artillery shells in Mitla Pass? It was never his plan to fight someone else’s war. He came to Israel to research a book, but also to escape a crumbling marriage, a dysfunctional family, and the pressures of newfound success in the States. But in fleeing from personal troubles he charged headfirst into one of the great global crises of the twentieth century. Perhaps Leon Uris’s most introspective work, Mitla Pass portrays a man caught between his own demons and the epic sweep of Middle Eastern history.

I still remember when I first picked up one of Leon Uris’ books. It was in the early 1970s, and I was at my grandparents’ apartment after Sunday School. As usual, my dad was arguing politics with my grandfather (his father) and also as usual, it looked like it was going to take forever. As usual. I discovered a beat-up copy of Exodus lying around, and started reading. I could always get lost in a good book, and I certainly got lost in this one. After devouring Exodus, I went back and read some of the author’s earlier books, like Battle Cry, and then picked up subsequent volumes as they came out, always certain of being swept away by a great story. QBVII turned out to be my favorite. I loved the ending.

So when the Estate of Leon Uris contacted me about featuring one of his books, it provided me with the opportunity to become re-acquainted with an author I had fond memories of. It was also a bit of struggle to find one of his books that I had not read. In the end, we settled on Mitla Pass (the only other possibility was The Haj. I had read everything else way back when).

Today seemed like the perfect day for this review. Yesterday, April 23, was annual Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and Mitla Pass, like so many of the author’s books after Battle Cry, reflects both on the author’s Jewish heritage and on the scars left behind by the Holocaust, not just on the survivors but on the world that finally admitted the truth of the atrocities. In so many ways, the vast swath of death and destruction of the Jewish communities in Europe under the bootheel of the Nazis led directly to the formation of the State of Israel. And, in due historical course, to the story told in Mitla Pass.

My Review:

The story in Mitla Pass is told both in its present, late October 1956, and in its past, the past of all of the characters in the novel that led them to be part of that particular moment.

The main focus of the story is writer Gideon Zadok, who has come to Israel to write a book about the birth of the modern State out of the fires of Zionism and the ashes of the gas chambers. Gideon is an American who made his reputation as a writer on the strength of his best-selling book about his experiences as a Marine in the Pacific Campaign of World War II. (Any and all resemblances to the author of the book are probably intended).

After months of research, Gideon finds himself and Israel in the middle of a crossroads. He doesn’t think that he has quite captured the soul of the people. Of his people. And Israel is being squeezed on all sides by its Arab neighbors. The proximate causes of the 1956 Suez Crisis were Egypt’s embargo of Israeli shipping through the Suez Canal, and the English and French desire to take the Canal back from Egyptian control. The alliance between the Israelis and the English and French was very shaky, with everyone looking over their shoulders at probably interference from the Americans, the Russians, or both at any moment.

So Gideon, now somewhat trusted by the Israelis, gets himself attached to a paratroop drop into the western edge of the Sinai Peninsula. But the story really isn’t about that completely FUBAR’ed drop. It’s about everything that came before.

And it’s a marvelous story.

Escape Rating B: It is a marvelous story, and I was caught up in it until the wee hours of the morning. That’s part of what I remember about the author’s work – once you got sucked in, you stayed sucked until the end.

But the world has changed a bit since this story was written in 1988, and even more so since the period it covers, 1956 and the years that came before. And I’ve changed since the 1970s and 1980s, so there are things that bother me now that didn’t raise an eyebrow then.

Gideon’s own story is the one that carries the book, and he’s an absolutely captivating character. A charmer and a storyteller almost from the moment that he first draws breath. Also a cocky, egotistical, selfish, self-absorbed son-of-a-bitch. His thoughts about women in general, and his treatment of his wife and his mistress made me gnash my teeth on more than one occasion.

But what fascinated and disturbed me most, often in equal measure, is that Gideon is so clearly a fictionalized version of the author himself. Both were Marines in World War II, and fought the same battles and were injured in the same places and the same way. Both turned their experiences into best-selling books and later successful screenplays. Both were in Israel in 1956 researching books about the formation of Israel. At the ending of Mitla Pass, Gideon envisions his upcoming book and its first scenes extremely close to where Exodus begins and how Exodus opens.

It’s a little eerie. So eerie that I’m left wondering how much of the earlier history of the character mirrors the author’s own. And because of that I’m left pondering some of Gideon’s background. In particular, the book for the most part clips along at a very rapid and intensely readable pace, with one exception. The parts of the story that dive deep into Gideon’s family background, particularly the experiences of Gideon’s father Nathan, stop cold because Nathan is such a completely unlikable and unfortunately completely predictable character. Also incredibly annoying to read about. It makes me wonder if the author was describing his own father, possibly as a way of exorcising a few ghosts. And if that was so, based on the description, it’s hard to blame him.

Teeth-gnashing aside, I had a good time with Mitla Pass, obviously better than the characters stuck in that seemingly pointless battle. The vast historical background, from the shtetls of the 19th century Pale of Jewish settlement in Russia to the early 20th century Jewish community in Baltimore to the beginnings of Zionism to the brief flourishing of the Communist Party in America are fascinating. The cross-section of people, places and events keep the pages turning. It makes a very tasty goulash.

I’m glad I had this opportunity to revisit an author who I remember reading quite fondly, and my reading of his books in a time and place that exists now only in my memories.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

5 digital copies of MITLA PASS will be distributed to giveaway winners via Trident’s Digital Downloads page. Each giveaway winner will be given a separate download code that expires within 24 hours of use. Winners may download ebook files to the device of their choice; however, please note that these copies are not protected by DRM.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

To get a taste for Mitla Pass, read the opening excerpt, below the fold.

TEL AVIV
October 20, 1956
D DAY MINUS NINE

THE PRIME MINISTER’S COTTAGE, a remnant of the former German colony, sat unobtrusively in the midst of the outsized defense complex on the northern end of Tel Aviv. Midnight had come and gone. The stream of callers faded to a trickle, then halted.

For the moment David Ben-Gurion sat alone, his first opportunity all day for solitary contemplation. He was behind a desk that looked down a long conference table which was covered with green felt. Dead cigarette butts spilled over their ashtrays. The fruit baskets held spoiling apple and pear cores, grape seeds, banana skins, and peach pits, their fruit devoured. Half-empty soda bottles had lost their fizz and others, tipped over in disarray, appeared like a platoon of soldiers caught in a cross fire.

The cleanup crew of soldiers, two young men and two young women wearing top-security clearance badges, tiptoed in and attacked the mess.

“Can I get you anything—some tea?” one of the girls asked.

Ben-Gurion shook his head. It was a great head that seemed even greater perched on his short dumpling body. It was bald on top with an angry white mane flaring out in every which direction. The cherub face remained deceptively peaceful.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“Morocco,” one of the girls said.

“Romania. I live at Moshav Mikhmoret.”

“South Africa. My family is in Haifa,” the second girl said.

“I am a sabra, Kibbutz Ginnosar.”

“Yigal Allon’s kibbutz,” Ben-Gurion said.

“Yes,” the soldier boy answered proudly.

Ben-Gurion’s head tilted and his eyes blinked. He was a past master at grabbing forty winks, a skill honed at a hundred Zionist conferences. When the crew departed it was nearly two o’clock in the morning.

The Old Man’s eyes fluttered open and became fixed on a single paged document awaiting his signature, the approval of a plan, Operation Kadesh, that would commit his young nation to war. Only eight years earlier he had signed another document, a proud document that declared statehood. Would there even be a ninth birthday, or would it all end in horror like a biblical siege with a final ghastly scene of a national massacre?

The past three weeks had been nightmarish in the speed and intensity of events: the secret meetings in Paris with the French and later the British and the clandestine agreement to go to war together … the return of Israeli officers who had been training in military academies and army specialty schools around the world … the call-up of reserves … the near-disastrous raid on Kalkilia to make the world believe that Jordan, not Egypt, was the enemy of record … French equipment arriving without spare parts … pressure from Eisenhower and the Americans mounting daily … dire threats from the Russians …

Operation Kadesh. How esoteric, Ben-Gurion thought. The biblical site in the Sinai where the Jews dwelled for a time during their wanderings with Moses.

Operation Kadesh needed a series of miracles to succeed. Every assessment was frightfully the same: Israel must win the war in the first four days. A prolonged conflict in which every Arab nation would join would be disastrous.

No small country goes to war without the support of a major power, yet David Ben-Gurion felt, in the depths of his being, that Israel’s partners, England and France, would falter, leaving her alone, outmanned and outgunned.

Israel must win the war in the first four days!

All sorts of things were going wrong as D day approached. The ordinance reports all but crushed the spirit: no spare steel matting to roll vehicles over the sucking sands of the desert … aged tanks being cannibalized, further reducing their already inferior armored force … rifles from Belgium not up to spec … no filters for the tracked vehicles to keep them from choking in the desert … a shortage of tank tracks, chains, pulleys, winches, flatbeds, four-wheel-drive trucks, repair stations, batteries, belts … an obsolete air force of World War II piston planes to face double the number of the latest MiGs owned by the Egyptians … no aircraft batteries to defend the cities against Egyptian bombers flown by “volunteers” from Poland and Czechoslovakia.

The orders to the brigade commanders were desperately simple. They said, in effect, “You have an objective. You must reach the Suez Canal in three days despite the resistance. You will not ask for reinforcements or further supplies for there are none available.”

Worse was the constant gnawing conviction that the British and French would quit. This would release divisions of fresh Egyptian troops to reinforce the Sinai. If France and England failed to bomb out the Egyptian airfields, Nasser could put his Russian-made bombers to work on Israel’s cities.

We must win the war in four days!

Two of the brigades must traverse over a hundred miles of semi-charted wilderness …

… and the 7th Battalion, the Lion’s Battalion, must be dropped deep into the Sinai behind enemy lines, exposed to a disaster, a sacrificial force. The Old Man had argued for hours with the Defense Chief of Staff, Moshe Dayan, to try to dissuade him from parachuting the Lion’s Battalion near Mitla Pass. Dayan was adamant. It was the linchpin of the entire operation, a maneuver to initially confuse the enemy, then stop Egyptian reinforcements. When the brigade linked up with the battalion, the combined force would wheel south to free the blockaded passage to the Red Sea. Yes, there was great risk—but try to engage in a war without risk.

Jacob Herzog, B.G.’s confidant and closest adviser on the campaign, entered the room with Natasha Solomon. Herzog was pale, in a scholarly way; an Irish Jew, the son of the chief Ashkenazi rabbi, with a magnificent religious and legal mind. He put all the late communications and a day’s summary before the Old Man.

Natasha Solomon set a batch of papers on the desk, translations of messages from the French. Even at this hour Natasha was a warming sight. She was one of those women who gained an extra dimension of beauty through weariness, a certain sensuality in the black rings of fatigue forming beneath her eyes, as if from exhaustion at the end of a day of lovemaking. She was softness itself, different from many of the roughhewn sabra and kibbutz women, groomed in a Middle European way that made the silk of her blouse float over her terrain and shout “female!” even at two in the morning. An all but forgotten memory flitted through the Old Man’s mind … a girl, long ago. Such a thing to remember at a time like this.

Ben-Gurion picked up the summary but his eyes were fatigued. He handed the papers to Natasha and waved her into a seat, then took up a pad and pen to jot notes as she read.

The British were being very cautious, very cagey, deepening B.G.’s distrust. Herzog tried to tidy up the day’s events, but new events were already overtaking them.

Both the Soviet Union and America were bogged down in their own problems. An American presidential election was to take place in a few days, and traditionally it was a good time to catch Washington off guard.

Revolts against the Russians were brewing in Poland and Hungary. The students in Budapest had rioted and the unrest was growing. Israeli intelligence estimated a Russian tank force would enter Budapest in a matter of days.

Herzog reckoned these events could give Israel a slight advantage. Russia and America might be slow to react to the Israeli attack on Egypt. If Israel could stall diplomatically for three days, her forces might reach the Canal and Israel’s part of the war would be over.

But America was certain to be outraged that her two closest allies, England and France, would initiate military action without advising them. As for the Soviets, they had to put on a barking show for their Egyptian clients.

“Is there anything at all we haven’t covered, Yakov? Anything … anything …”

Herzog pointed to the document setting Operation Kadesh into motion.

“Your signature,” he said.

Ben-Gurion would not quit, gleaning for the stray, minute detail that might have been overlooked. It all boiled down to the same thing. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, was on a heady binge. He had seized the Suez Canal and evicted the British and French. He had closed the Strait of Tiran, at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, to Israeli shipping. He had turned the Gaza Strip into one enormous terrorist base which violated the Israeli border hourly. He had massed a huge army in the Sinai armed with a larder filled with Russian weapons. The bottom line was that Israel had no choice other than military action—with or without the British and French.

He scribbled his name on the paper. His nation was at war!

Review: Cold Welcome by Elizabeth Moon

Review: Cold Welcome by Elizabeth MoonCold Welcome by Elizabeth Moon
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Vatta's Peace #1
Pages: 448
Published by Del Rey Books on April 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Nebula Award winning author Elizabeth Moon makes a triumphant return to science fiction with a thrilling series featuring Kylara Vatta, the daring hero of her acclaimed Vatta s War sequence. After nearly a decade away, Nebula Award winning author Elizabeth Moon makes a triumphant return to science fiction with this installment in a thrilling new series featuring the daring hero of her acclaimed Vatta s War sequence. Summoned to the home planet of her family s business empire, space-fleet commander Kylara Vatta is told to expect a hero s welcome. But instead she is thrown into danger unlike any other she has faced and finds herself isolated, unable to communicate with the outside world, commanding a motley group of unfamiliar troops, and struggling day by day to survive in a deadly environment with sabotaged gear. Only her undeniable talent for command can give her ragtag band a fighting chance. Yet even as Ky leads her team from one crisis to another, her family and friends refuse to give up hope, endeavoring to mount a rescue from halfway around the planet a task that is complicated as Ky and her supporters find secrets others will kill to protect: a conspiracy infecting both government and military that threatens not only her own group s survival but her entire home planet.

My Review:

I finished up the Vatta’s War series nearly ten years ago, when the final and much anticipated book, Victory Conditions, was published. I enjoyed the series a lot, and while I was a bit sad to see it end, it did come to a completely satisfying conclusion.

I read Vatta’s War at the same time that I read two other military SF series with female protagonists, David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, which I eventually got tired of but seems to have never ended, and Tanya Huff’s Valor/Confederation series (the official name is Confederation, I always think of it as the Valor series), which I loved and which also ended not long after Vatta’s War, and also with a satisfying conclusion.

Valor came back two years ago, and now it’s Kylara Vatta’s turn to return in a sequel series. While the first series was very appropriately titled Vatta’s War, this new series title, Vatta’s Peace, feels somewhat aspirational. Although there should be peace after everything Ky and her world went through in the first series, that peace is immediately disturbed at the beginning of Cold Welcome.

Grand Admiral Kylara Vatta is supposed to be returning to her home planet of Slotter’s Key for a ceremonial welcome and a whole lot of paperwork concerning the Vatta family’s vast mercantile empire. Instead, her shuttle is sabotaged and she and its crew find themselves stranded in the icy waters of the south polar sea just as winter is coming on, with no hope of rescue. Not because no one wants to look for them, although there are some who certainly don’t, but mostly because weather conditions are so horrendous that no one CAN look for them.

And no one expects anyone to have survived. The entire polar continent has been cemented in everyone’s worldview as a terraforming failure, and no one has gone there in centuries. There aren’t even any satellite scans of the place – something about Miksland interferes with any scanning equipment. Which should have raised someone’s suspicions at some point, but it’s become an accepted fact that Miksland is uninhabited and unlivable.

But Ky being Ky, she manages to scrape survival out of the jaws of certain death, and keeps right on doing so, one task at a time, keeping the crew together and getting them off the churning ocean and at first just onto dry land, and then into a secret base that isn’t supposed to exist. Knowing all the while that another saboteur likely hides among her battered survivors.

It’s a race to the finish, with Ky determined to keep her crew alive and out of the hands of whoever has protected so many secrets for so many centuries at who knows what cost. And a race for her friends, family and loved ones to figure out just who is after Ky and everyone else yet again, before her luck finally runs out.

Escape Rating B: I expected to love this a lot more than I did. It was great slipping back into Ky’s world again, she’s a fascinating character and the Vatta family and their universe are always interesting, albeit deadly. Both the Vattas and whoever is out to get them.

But the story has a very slow start. The journey of Ky and her crew just to survive one day, and then the next, is cold and brutal, but wears on the reader almost as much as it does the characters. Ironically, except for the initial crash of the shuttle, the whole thing reads a bit like Ernest Shackleton’s famous journey. The cold is relentless, and the problems of surviving it don’t change much from planet to planet or century to century.

It’s only when Ky’s makeshift crew discovers the secret base that the story heats up, just as the crew finally gets thawed out. There’s more to do, more to see, more to explore, more to question, and the action starts to flow. Also, up until Ky discovers the base, we don’t get nearly as much leavening of the unrelieved hardship from Ky’s allies on the outside as we do once she finds that base.

The action heats up on all fronts at the same time and the story clips along at a pace that keeps the reader flipping pages at a rapid pace.

But as harrowing as Ky’s side of this journey is, the big questions are all on the outside. Someone, undoubtedly a lot of someones, have kept an entire continent secret for centuries. For that to be remotely possible, they had to have collaborators across all the offices of government and the military, and for centuries. Something very, very rotten is going on, and Ky has just exposed it. Whatever it is.

And the secret is still ongoing. The base is fully stocked, and the diaries of the base commanders going back centuries show that the base is staffed every summer for some unknown purpose. Last but certainly not least, whatever that purpose is, the base closed up early this year, just in time for Ky’s crash and intended mysterious and watery grave.

The problem I had with the book, as much as I was enjoying the action, is that it just didn’t stick the dismount. Ky does get rescued, which isn’t really a spoiler as there couldn’t be a series without her, but nothing else felt resolved. Ky is back, and in an even bigger soup than she was in the previous series, but so far no one seems to have any clues about who, what, when, where or especially why that base is there and what secrets it is intended to keep. It’s a giant black hole, waiting for future books in the series to fill it. And while there needs to be something for the series to focus on, some answers to some of the many, many more immediate questions would have brought this particular installment to a more satisfying conclusion.

Now we wait, with that proverbial bated breath, hoping that those future installments show up soon.

Review: Any Day Now by Robyn Carr + Giveaway

Review: Any Day Now by Robyn Carr + GiveawayAny Day Now (Sullivan's Crossing, #2) by Robyn Carr
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Sullivan's Crossing #2
Pages: 384
Published by Mira Books on April 18th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The highly anticipated sequel to #1 New York Times bestselling author Robyn Carr's What We Find transports readers back to Sullivan's Crossing. The rustic campground at the crossroads of the Colorado and Continental Divide trails welcomes everyone—whether you're looking for a relaxing weekend getaway or a whole new lease on life. It's a wonderful place where good people face their challenges with humor, strength and love.
For Sierra Jones, Sullivan's Crossing is meant to be a brief stopover. She's put her troubled past behind her but the path forward isn't yet clear. A visit with her big brother Cal and his new bride, Maggie, seems to be the best option to help her get back on her feet.
Not wanting to burden or depend on anyone, Sierra is surprised to find the Crossing offers so much more than a place to rest her head. Cal and Maggie welcome her into their busy lives and she quickly finds herself bonding with Sully, the quirky campground owner who is the father figure she's always wanted. But when her past catches up with her, it's a special man and an adorable puppy who give her the strength to face the truth and fight for a brighter future. In Sullivan's Crossing Sierra learns to cherish the family you are given and the family you choose.

My Review:

First of all, I love the places that Robyn Carr creates. Thunder Point was a terrific little town, and now Timberlake Colorado, the town near Sullivan’s Crossing, also seems like a fine place to get a fresh start.

And that’s just what Sierra Jones is looking for when she arrives in Timberlake in her beat-up orange VW Beetle, fondly known as “The Pumpkin” for obvious reasons. Nearly 30 and just 9 months sober, Sierra has come to Timberlake planning to spend some quality time with her brother Cal (hero of What We Find) and getting to know her new sister-in-law and the ‘bump’ that will become her niece in a few short months time.

Cal found a new life and fresh start in Timberlake, and healing in the beauties of nature that surround Sullivan’s Crossing at the conjunction of the Colorado and Continental Divide Trails. Sierra hopes for the same.

She ran away to rehab to escape something horrible, only to discover that the events that led up to her break happened, at least partially, because she really was an alcoholic, just like so many people, including Cal, told her. Running away from her messes into rehab was the first smart decision she had made in quite a while.

Sierra got scared straight. And she’s putting in the work to stay straight, one day at a time. But what scared her is big and bad and very, very real, and until she deals with it, she’s always going to feel just one day away from making more bad choices, or having her choices taken away from her, once and for all.

So Sierra comes to Timberlake for a fresh start where she can stand on her own two feet but still have support when she needs it. And so that she can be there for Cal when he needs her. It’s about time.

But just like her brother, Sierra comes to Timberlake looking to heal herself, and certainly not looking for a relationship. And that’s always just when you find one – when you are definitely not looking.

Conrad Boyle, (everyone calls him Connie whether he likes it or not), is a member of the Timberlake Fire Department. He’s also a paramedic who does search and rescue in his “off” hours. He doesn’t think he’s any better at picking the right partner than Sierra is. His last relationship ended in disaster, and he’s sure he’s better off not looking for love, because what finds him turns out to be anything but.

So of course Sierra and Connie fall for each other. Both unwilling at first to admit that what they have found is more than a fling. And Sierra more than a little bit afraid that when Connie learns the whole truth about her, he’ll run away as far and as fast as he can, leaving her devastated and alone. Again.

Instead, her past comes looking for her. But when it finally catches up to her, this time she doesn’t cave in. She nails it to the wall and beats it with a baseball bat.

Escape Rating B: I do love visiting Sullivan’s Crossing. It’s a great place, populated with a terrific bunch of people. Even the local bad apples are reasonably sympathetic and understandably human, if still a bit sour to the local taste.

I also like that the protagonists of the series are all adults with real adult problems. There’s plenty of angst at the right spots, but it’s real-life angst. Everyone has been banged around a bit in the school of hard knocks, and whatever they are agonizing over is stuff that’s really there, not made up drama. The series so far is also blissfully free of ridiculous misunderstandammits.

In spite of his spectacularly bad luck at relationships, Connie is a genuinely nice guy. He’s a good man who does some very hard things. Being a paramedic, even in a small town, means that he’s seen a lot of death and dismemberment, and had to rescue a lot of people from a lot of bad things. Sometimes he fails. So although his life looks mostly sunny, he understands in his bones that there are dark places and dark things in the world. He has the empathy to understand Sierra’s pain without either papering it over or rejecting it, and her.

Sierra, of course, is just certain that he can do better than her mixed-up self. But the heart wants what the heart wants.

The journey in this book is Sierra’s. She needs to decide she’s worthy, and she does it by facing the demons in her past. And that’s where things get both interesting and a bit murky.

I loved watching Sierra build a life for herself. Not just the romance, but everything that Sierra does to make herself part of Sullivan’s Crossing, and the way that it makes itself part of her. The mentor/father-figure relationship she builds with Sully is lovely. I’d say sweet but Sully probably wouldn’t approve.

But the more she reveals about herself, not just inside her own head but to Cal and eventually Connie, the more the reader is certain that her past is coming to get her. Literally. The story builds and builds the tension of Sierra waiting for that very dangerous other shoe to drop, to the point where I wanted to read ahead just to find out if they ever did get Chekhov’s gun down off the wall and just shoot it already.

When that climax finally comes, it gets wrapped up a bit too quickly. The way it gets wrapped up was wonderful, but that other shoe hung up there much longer than the actual drop got wrapped up.

But I loved my visit to Sullivan’s Crossing, and enjoyed it so much that I raced through the book just to see how everyone was doing and get to know the newbies. I can’t wait to go back!

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away a copy of Any Day Now to one lucky winner in the continental U.S.

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Review: The Librarians and the Lost Lamp by Greg Cox

Review: The Librarians and the Lost Lamp by Greg CoxThe Librarians and The Lost Lamp (The Librarians #1) by Greg Cox
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: media tie-in, urban fantasy
Series: The Librarians #1
Pages: 286
Published by Tor Books on October 11th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Librarians is one of the biggest new hits on cable. Spinning off from a popular series of TV-movies, the TNT series begins its second season this Fall. The Librarians and the Lost Lamp is the first in a series of thrilling all-new adventures that will delight fans of the TV series and movies.
For thousands of years, the Librarians have secretly protected the world The Librarians from dangerous magical relics and knowledge, including everything from Pandora’s Box to King Arthur’s sword.
Ten years ago, Flynn Carson was the only living Librarian. When the ancient criminal organization known as the Forty steals the oldest known copy of The Arabian Nights by Scheherazade, Flynn is called in to investigate. Fearing that the Forty is after Aladdin's fabled Lamp, Flynn must race to find it before the Lamp's powerful and malevolent djinn is unleashed upon the world.
Today, a new team of inexperienced Librarians, along with Eve Baird, their tough-as-nails Guardian, is investigating an uncanny mystery in Las Vegas when the quest for the Lamp begins anew . . . and the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

My Review:

Because this is the start of National Library Week, I was looking for at least one book this week with some kind of library theme. When the much more serious book I originally planned on turned out to be a little too serious, I went for the much more fun option.

The Librarians, the TV series, is always fun. And after having watched it, I’ll admit that it gives saying, “I’m the Librarian” just a bit more of kick whenever I introduce myself in certain work situations.

But being an ordinary librarian isn’t near as much of a thrill as being one of THE Librarians, and that’s probably a good thing.

Our more adventurous, and fictional, counterparts are having a much more dangerous time than we are. Not that most of us don’t secretly envy them in one way or another. The seemingly unlimited resources, if nothing else.

The Librarians in this series work for a presumably mythical Library whose mission is to keep the rest of us from finding out that magic really exists, and that all too many of the legends and fables that we believe are purely fiction are in fact based in fact – and fairly dangerous fact at that.

In this particular case, the legend that is being turned on its head is the legend of Aladdin’s lamp, and the genie contained therein, as well as the legend of Scheherazade and the 1,001 Arabian Nights, along with a very specific story among those 1,001 nights, that of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

In the world of the Librarians, nothing is ever quite as it seems. And no great magic ever comes without an equally great price. It’s the paying of that price that the Library attempts to prevent, usually by locking up the magical artifact involved.

The story in The Librarians and the Lost Lamp switches between two different occasions when the Library (and those Forty Thieves) went after the lamp and the djinn imprisoned within, with rather tumultuous results.

In 2006, when Flynn Carsen was the solo librarian, and before the catastrophic events of 2014 that caused the Library to recruit three additional Librarians and their Guardian, a researcher in Baghdad discovered the earliest known copy of the 1,001 Nights. Both the Library and the Forty Thieves criminal organization hoped that the manuscript contained clues to the location of Aladdin’s lost lamp and its djinn. The Library wanted the lamp locked up for everyone’s safety, and the Forty wanted the djinn to grant their wish for power and wealth. The djinn, of course, had a somewhat different agenda.

No one came out of that particular encounter with exactly what they wanted. So in 2016, when the lamp resurfaces, both the Library and the Forty chase after it again, with even messier results than the last time.

In 2006, the lamp was in the middle of an empty desert. In 2016, it turns up in Las Vegas. The chaos that ensues is absolutely epic, and a complete blast of fun and adventure from beginning to end.

Escape Rating B: For anyone who loves the series, The Librarians and the Lost Lamp reads like a terrific episode. And for fans, that’s a great thing. I’m not certain how it would read to anyone not familiar. So consider this one a book for those in the know.

That being said, not all media tie-in books do justice by their source material, either because they mess with the canonical timeline or by just not sounding or feeling like part of their original. Or by not being true to the characters. That’s not the case here. The characters are all very true to their TV counterparts, and this feels like a slightly-longer-than-an-hour episode of the series, complete with the series’ hallmarks of adventure, teamwork and madcap humor.

Again, if you love it, that’s good.

The series itself is out of the urban fantasy tradition, mixed with a whole lot of myths and legends. The place where it plays off of urban fantasy is in that concept that magic is real, and that for some reason most of us don’t see it, no matter how much we want to. In this version of the world, it’s the Library, and the many Librarians who have served it (and usually died) who have kept magic from leaking out everywhere.

The way that the Librarians, in this particular case Cassandra, resolve the dilemma of the djinn who plans to break out of his lamp and burn the world (no pressure!) fits well with the way the Librarians generally work, and with Cassie’s personality and methods in particular. However, it will also feel familiar to anyone who remembers the I of Newton episode of the 1985 revival of The Twilight Zone, or the Joe Haldeman story the episode was based on. Clearly, methods of dealing with the Devil on your doorstep apply equally well to angry djinn.

I had a lot of fun reading this, enough so that I’m looking forward to the author’s next contribution to the series, in The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase. And to going back a rewatching the show!

p.s. I read most of this on a flight from Cincinnati to Atlanta. Wait, what was that? Is that a gremlin on the wing?

Review: No Getting Over a Cowboy by Delores Fossen + Giveaway

Review: No Getting Over a Cowboy by Delores Fossen + GiveawayNo Getting Over a Cowboy (Wrangler's Creek, #2) by Delores Fossen
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Wrangler's Creek #2
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on March 28th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The golden cowboy of Wrangler's Creek returns home to Texas to discover some old flames never fizzle…
There are plenty of things Garrett Granger hadn't counted on losing—his child to miscarriage, his wife to another man and the family business thanks to a crooked CFO. He also hadn't counted on moving back to the family ranch, where he's met by another surprise—former flame Nicky Marlow, who is renting his grandmother's old house.
Nicky's been rebuilding her shattered life since her husband's death two years ago. But Garrett's timely arrival in Wrangler's Creek doesn't automatically make him the missing piece of the puzzle. Even if he does seem to adore her two-year-old daughter… Even if seeing him again stirs up old feelings Nicky would gladly keep buried, forcing her to wonder if moving forward has to mean leaving everything behind…

My Review:

The Granger Ranch doesn’t just keep cattle. They seem to have plenty of pasturage for an entire herd of drama llamas. Maybe two herds.

Just like the first book in the Wrangler’s Creek series, Those Texas Nights, this one is off to the races from the very first page, and doesn’t let up until the very last sentence. And even then, only sort of lets up, because I fully expect the entire series to be just this kind of crazy.

If you like your romances beginning in chaos, middling in chaos, and ending in chaos, this is a great series.

But about all that insanity, and some of it is, it makes for a very wild ride that occasionally feels like it is going to throw the reader completely off the track. Instead, it’s more like a roller coaster, where just as you pass the crest of the big hill and think you’re going to fly out of your seat, the seat belt (and gravity) pull you back firmly into the ride.

Our story begins with Garrett Granger expecting to add pasturage near his great-grandfather Z.T.’s eyesore of a tumbledown Victorian monstrosity in the middle of Granger Ranch. But instead of seeing a vacant and decaying house, he discovers that the long-abandoned homestead is a beehive of activity.

His mother, Belle, about whom more later, has leased the house to a widow’s support group for an entire year, to serve as a retreat and healing center. Belle just never bothered to tell him, and doesn’t seem to give a damn about the ranch plans that Garrett not only had, but had informed her of. And this is unfortunately typical behavior for Belle.

As soon as Garrett meets the organizer of the “Widow’s House” he figures out exactly what his mother has in mind. That organizer is Nicky Marlow, and Garrett remembers all too clearly the night that Nicky gave him her virginity at that very same house, back when they were both in high school.

It may have been half a lifetime ago, but it seems that neither of them has ever forgotten. And his mother is matchmaking again.

But it was a lifetime ago. Garrett broke up with Nicky, fell in love with another girl (unfortunately not in that order) and eventually married that other girl. He and Meredith had a daughter who was stillborn, and eventually divorced. After Meredith got caught in a YouTube video giving some anonymous cowboy a blowjob.

A cowboy who turns out to have been Nicky’s older brother.

There’s plenty of fodder for those drama llamas just between Nicky and Garrett, without factoring in the other 15 widows and Nicky’s little daughter Kaylee – along with Garrett’s heartbreak at seeing a little girl who is just the age that his daughter would have been.

The discovery of a dead body in the pantry of the old house brings the police onto the scene, along with a whole lot more craziness. And in the middle of all of this, Garrett and Nicky discover that half a lifetime isn’t nearly enough to douse the fire they still raise in each other – even if they have a hell of a time finding a moment or two for each other in the midst of the insanity that surrounds them.

Escape Rating B+: This one went way, way over the top, but in a fun way. There are a couple of points where it seems like the long arm of coincidence is just a bit too long, but then it passes that point and the reader is just along for the ride.

There does not seem to be a single person in this story who isn’t in the middle of some kind of crazy. With the exception of Nicky and Garrett, it’s all in fun, from the three widowed sisters who all have variations of penis-phobia to the tow truck owner with execrable taste in advertising signs who is assuaging her grief with the entire male population of Wranglers Creek and everyone in between. In spite of the tragedies that made all of these women candidates for the Widow’s House, they are a fun and funny bunch, even if often unintentionally. The penis-phobic sisters are a laugh riot all by themselves, albeit usually at their own expense.

The heart of the story is Nicky and Garrett, along with little Kaylee and the machinations of Garrett’s ex-wife Meredith. That Meredith wants him back isn’t much of a surprise. That she thinks she has a chance of getting him back requires an extreme amount of either self-confidence or self-absorption. Having seen Meredith in action, it’s a bit of both.

But what keeps Nicky and Garrett apart is not Meredith’s shenanigans, not that she doesn’t try. Instead, it’s their shared past, and how it affects their present. Not just that long-ago tryst, or even that Garrett broke Nicky’s heart afterwards. Both of them carry a lot of baggage from those years in-between. Most of Garrett’s baggage is out in the open – it seems like everyone saw that video. But Nicky’s is hidden. Not just her horrific childhood in Wranglers Creek, but also her disastrous marriage and its one bright result, little Kaylee.

That there is a secret about Kaylee seems obvious fairly early on. But the nature of that secret is a complete surprise, and not one the reader expects. Also not one that is stock and trope, but still has all kinds of potential negative consequences. That this particular plot thread defied all of my expectations was very well done.

But as much as I liked Nicky, Garrett and Kaylee, I really, really, really don’t like Belle. I didn’t like her in Those Texas Nights, and I don’t like her any better here. I could go a long time without reading another book about adult children who have a certifiably crazy mother. Luckily she is not as big a part of this book as she was the first one, because she doesn’t seem to approve of the way that any of her children have turned out, even though they are all quite functional and successful adults. She acts so far out-there that her children have to continually placate her in ways that drove this reader crazier than Belle. And I’m continually astonished that someone in town, if not her children, doesn’t tell her where to get off and what she can do when she gets there.

Partially because there is more Belle in Those Texas Nights, and partially because the events in the first story that are really important for the second are recapped within the context of this story, it’s not absolutely necessary to read that first book in this series before the second. But it was a lot of fun if you can either ignore Belle or if her “type” doesn’t bother you as much as it does me.

I digress.

But as much as I don’t like their mother, I do like the Granger siblings very much. The chaotic nature of their journeys to their respective happy ever afters is a hoot from beginning to end. I’m very much looking forward to bad-boy Roman finding his own good-bad girl in Branded as Trouble, coming just in time for a sizzling Summer read.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I am giving away a signed copy of No Getting Over a Cowboy to one lucky commenter on this tour.

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Review: In Shining Armor by Elliott James

Review: In Shining Armor by Elliott JamesIn Shining Armor (Pax Arcana, #4) by Elliott James
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Pax Arcana #4
Pages: 464
Published by Orbit on April 26th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

This fairy godmother's got claws.
When someone kidnaps the last surviving descendant of the Grandmaster of the Knights Templar, it's bad news. When the baby is the key to the tenuous alliance between a large werewolf pack and the knights, it's even worse news. They're at each other's throats before they've even begun to look for baby Constance.
But whoever kidnapped Constance didn't count on one thing: she's also the goddaughter of John Charming. Modern-day descendant of a long line of famous dragon slayers, witch finders, and wrong righters. John may not have any experience being a parent, but someone is about to find out that he can be one mean mother...
IN SHINING ARMOR is the fourth novel in a series which gives a new twist to the Prince Charming tale. The first three novels are Charming, Daring, & Fearless.

My Review:

Actually, John Charming is a knight in rather tarnished and bloodstained armor. It also seems to be covered in slime and shit all-too-frequently. But he’s still a knight, even if he is also a werewolf. And based on his adventures in his first three books, Charming, Daring and Fearless, that contradiction he embodies seems to be getting both more and less contradictory at the same time.

But the moral of this particular fairy tale (because the fae are always in the background in this series, somewhere, even if it’s fairly deep background) revolves around that tried and true old saw, “ Assume makes an ASS out of U and ME. Because everything that goes wrong in this story begins with John (and everyone else) making a very big assumption that turns out to be far from true.

Even professional paranoids, like the Knights Templar in general and John Charming in particular, occasionally can’t manage to be paranoid enough. And in this case it very nearly bites all of them, along with the werewolves, in their collective (and extremely well-muscled) asses.

At the end of Fearless, a very, very tenuous peace has finally broken out between the Knights Templar and the werewolves. It’s so tenuous because until very, very recently, the Knights’ first response to a werewolf was to kill it on sight as an automatic violation of the Pax Arcana that prevents us normals from finding out that there really is a whole lot of magic out there.

But most werewolves (and vampires, and even naga and gorgons) are just like everyone else, they want to live in peace, hold down a job, raise their kids and participate in the American dream. Or whatever the dream is wherever they happen to live. They have even less desire to reveal the magic in the world than the Knights do, because they know they’ll probably be first on the firing line when the mundanes bring out the contemporary equivalent of torches and pitchforks.

And the Knights have just realized (a very few of them, all at the top) that they are really only geas-bound to enforce the Pax, and that as long as any magical creatures don’t violate the Pax, there is no obligation whatsoever to hunt them down and kill them. And, of course, a lot of them don’t want to give up the status quo.

Human beings are still human, extra power, extra knowledge, extra whatever, or not. And some humans are still arseholes.

The literal embodiment of this tenuous peace is little baby Constance. She’s the last descendant of the Grandmaster of the Knights Templar. And she’s going to be a werewolf when she grows up. Just like John Charming, little Constance has a tiny foot in both worlds. And both the Knights and the werewolves have been pledged to protect her. She’s the hidden little darling of both camps.

Until someone nefarious and unknown decides to disrupt that detente for reasons that, while obviously nefarious, remain nebulous and hidden for most of the story. The (very bad) idea was to kidnap little Constance and make the werewolves look guilty and responsible. Detente instantly explodes, werewolves hide far away from the Knights and whatever the evildoer wants hidden.

But evil never seems to reckon on John Charming. And he intends to wreck a reckoning on them. Just as soon as he figures out who they are, what they want, and what’s the best way to kill them very, very dead.

If they don’t kill him first.

Escape Rating B+: I liked this, but saying I enjoyed it doesn’t feel quite right. There are a lot of points in the story where things are very, very dark, to that point where it feels like things are getting darker just before they turn completely black. Which doesn’t quite happen, but gets really, really close. And occasionally feels like it’s dragging its feet just a bit.

For anyone wondering about the baby being in danger through the book, it doesn’t work that way. Constance is the catalyst but not the point, and John rescues her fairly early on. It’s never really about the baby. It’s always about breaking up the tentative peace between the Knights and the werewolves, even if John can’t put his finger on why for nearly the entire book.

And the reader can’t either. The hidden motives remain hidden until the very end. The plot in this plot turns out to be incredibly convoluted, and unlike a mystery, in spite of the first person singular perspective the reader is not privy to everything that John Charming knows or does. In fact, he makes a habit of reaching his resolution and only then revealing all of the secret things he did to make it all work out in his favor. After they work. Sort of.

If he wasn’t one of the good guys, he’d be downright annoying. A fact which his partner reminds him of on frequent occasions. One of the great things about this book, and the series, is John’s relationship with his partner and lover, Sig. Who is a valkyrie, and therefore even more badass than John is, with powers (and problems) of her own. They balance each other out, support each other, protect each other, and sometimes drive each other crazy. It’s terrific to see an urban fantasy where the protagonist both manages to have a fairly successful and monogamous relationship, and where the woman is every bit the equal of the man. That mix still feels rare, and is always welcome.

But as straightforward as John’s and Sig’s relationship is, the plot (and counterplot, and counter-counterplot) in this one seems almost overly twisted. In the end, the reader is just along for the wild ride, without much ability to see the twists and turns or even process all the changes. There’s a LOT going on in this story. But once John and Sig and the Knights get to the final battle, it’s a race to see if the reader can turn the pages fast enough.

As someone who has read the entire series, I have to say that I really missed the gang that John and Sig created (or that grew around them) in the first three books. And I missed those people, and the feeling of family and friends that they developed. But even though In Shining Armor pulls them completely out of their trusted sphere, it is still very grounded in the world that has been created, to the point where I don’t think In Shining Armor is the best place for someone to start this series. The operation of the Knights Templar is very complicated, and seems to get more so all the time. So start with Charming.

But speaking of that group of familiar faces, I’m really looking forward to the next book, Legend Has It, so John and Sig can get back to their extremely motley band of monster hunters and do what they do best all together – try to out-snark each other while racing to eliminate the most (and worst) monsters they can find.

Review: Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister + Giveaway

Review: Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister + GiveawayGirl in Disguise by Greer Macallister
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 308
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

For the first female Pinkerton detective, respect is hard to come by. Danger, however, is not.
In the tumultuous years of the Civil War, the streets of Chicago offer a woman mostly danger and ruin-unless that woman is Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton detective and a desperate widow with a knack for manipulation.
Descending into undercover operations, Kate is able to infiltrate the seedy side of the city in ways her fellow detectives can't. She's a seductress, an exotic foreign medium, or a rich train passenger, all depending on the day and the robber, thief, or murderer she's been assigned to nab.
Inspired by the real story of Kate Warne, this spirited novel follows the detective's rise during one of the nation's greatest times of crisis, bringing to life a fiercely independent woman whose forgotten triumphs helped sway the fate of the country.

My Review:

The subject of this fictionalized biography would be downright offended at its title. By the time this book begins in the mid-1850s, Kate is a woman whose illusions seem to have been stripped away long ago. She’s also a widow.

“Girl” doesn’t fit her at all, and she wouldn’t want it to. What she wants, at least as she is portrayed in this book, is to be treated as an equal. The equal of any man in the Pinkerton Agency. And it’s a hard-knock fight every single step of the way.

Kate Warne was a real person. Admittedly, a real person about whom not very much at all is known. Which makes her a great character on which to hang a work of historical fiction. Particularly since what is known about Kate Warne is the stuff of fiction to begin with.

Kate was the first female Pinkerton agent. Hired in 1856, she was one of the first, if not the first, female detectives in the world. No one expected her to succeed. No one even expected her to apply. There was no such thing as female detectives or female police officers when Kate Warne answered Allan Pinkerton’s “Help Wanted” advertisement for new agents.

But as she says, “Someone has to be first.”

Her life, what little we know of it, is the stuff of legends. Most of the information about her real career was kept in the Pinkerton office in Chicago. And most of it was wiped out in the Great Chicago Fire. (Mrs. O’Leary’s cow has a LOT to answer for)

One of the things that is known, and that made her fame, was her part in spiriting then-President-Elect Abraham Lincoln through a risky Baltimore night ride on his way to his inauguration – and his subsequent date with history. Without Warne, the history of the U.S. as we know it might have been far different.

But this book is a fictionalized version of her life, stitching together what little is known about her, with considerably more that it known about the Pinkerton’s in general and their work during the Civil War in particular, and making a fascinating story out of it, without descending into rank sensationalism or outright melodrama, at least until the very end.

Kate Warne lived a brief but fascinating life. I wish history had left us more details of her adventures. But if they were even half as hair-raising as this story, her candle must have burned very bright indeed.

Escape Rating B: I left myself plenty of time to read this one, because while I was very interested in the subject, I was a bit unsure about the author. As much as so many people loved The Magician’s Lie, when I gave it a try I couldn’t get into it at all. But Girl in Disguise grabbed me from the first page.

I think that had to do with Kate’s voice. The book is written in first-person singular, so throughout the story we are always in Kate’s head. It’s a fascinating place to be. While the circumstances of Kate’s life are particular to her time and place, so many of her thoughts seem universal to working women.

She wants to be considered as a professional, on an equal basis to the men in the agency. She never trades on her feminine wiles, and has nothing but professional relationships with all of the male Pinkerton’s, particularly including Allan Pinkerton himself. As portrayed in the book, the relationship between them was strictly professional from beginning to end. He mentored her and trusted her in a way that would have raised no eyebrows if she had been a man, but because she was a woman she constantly battled rumors that they were having an affair – rumors that persist to the present day in spite of a complete lack of evidence either then or now. It was simply assumed that a woman could not possibly be hired or trusted on her own merits.

Until the end, Kate is in love with her job, and as so many of us do, sacrifices most of her life to the pursuit of her work. But Kate isn’t the only one. As one of the male agents comments, none of them have personal lives, with the exception of Pinkerton himself. They are on the road too much, and they must keep way too many secrets. No spouse, male or female, is willing to tolerate that kind of treatment for very long.

What made Kate so relatable, at least for this reader, is just how dispassionate she is about her own life. She’s not given to flights of either hyperbole or fancy, at least in the privacy of her own head. This is who she is, this is what she does, this is what it costs her. She’s a heroine, but she never sees herself that way. She’s a woman doing a job that challenges her in ways that she can’t find anyplace else, and that she absolutely loves. She’s doing what she was born to.

There is historic evidence that Kate was part of the team that kept Lincoln alive on his way to his inauguration. Many of the other cases in the book where she is involved are based on real Pinkerton cases, even if Kate’s specific involvement is not known, and a few have been combined for dramatic license.

I really enjoyed the perspective of Kate the professional woman, both her triumphs and her many and frequent qualms about whether the ends justified the means. She has a lot to live with, and sometimes, quite reasonably so, she has second, third and fourth thoughts.

As a reader, I wish that her dispassion had not failed her in the last quarter of the book. I very much enjoyed reading about Kate in love with her work, and the details of that work as the Civil War heated up. I was less enthralled when Kate fell in love with a fellow agent. At that point the melodrama swept in.

But all in all, Girl in Disguise is a fascinating portrait of an unsung heroine – Kate Warne, the first female “private eye”.

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

Greer and Sourcebooks are giving away 3 copies of both The Magician’s Lie AND Girl in Disguise to lucky participants in this tour.
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Review: Finding Our Forever by Brenda Novak + Giveaway

Review: Finding Our Forever by Brenda Novak + GiveawayFinding Our Forever (Silver Springs, #1) by Brenda Novak
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Silver Springs #1
Pages: 224
Published by Harlequin Special Edition on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Brenda Novak welcomes readers to the town of Silver Springs, where surprises wait around every corner!
The search for her birth mother brought Cora Kelly to the New Horizons Boys Ranch. Getting a job there was easy enough, but confiding in Aiyana, the ranch's owner, that she's really her daughter? Cora's not sure she can do that, not unless she's confident the news will be welcomed. And once she gets to know Elijah Turner, Aiyana's adopted son and ranch manager, that decision becomes even more difficult.
Although Elijah can't deny his deep attraction to Cora, he's always struggled with trust. Anyone with his past would, and there's something about the ranch's newest employee that isn't exactly as it seems. But if the feelings she awakes in his guarded heart are any indication, she might be just what he's long been waiting for.

My Review:

Welcome to tiny Silver Springs California, only two hours from the bright lights and big city of Los Angeles in miles, but light years away in everything that counts.

Everyone believes that Cora Kelly has come to Silver Springs to teach art at New Horizons Boys Ranch. And she certainly has. But that’s not the real reason she desperately wanted the job there, two hours from her family and friends back in LA. And two hours away from the job she could have had, teaching full-time at the school where she’d been subbing for the past six years. A job she had originally been looking forward to. Very much.

But New Horizons has one thing that LA can’t begin to match. Cora’s birth mother is the woman who has poured her own life into New Horizons. And Cora, after years of searching, wants to see who her birth mother really is, and especially find out why she gave her up all those years ago. Because it seems like the woman who has poured her heart and soul into helping, saving and sometimes even adopting boys from extremely difficult and/or troubled backgrounds and circumstances does not seem remotely like the kind of woman who would give up her own child.

Cora’s had a terrific life. Her adoptive parents love her dearly, and never loved her less than their biological son. She hasn’t lacked for anything – except the answers that most of us take for granted. And that lack of answers has driven her to Silver Springs, to take a year out of her life to teach at New Horizons, in the hopes of finally getting at least some of those answers.

But she isn’t sure, when, if, or whether she will reveal who she really is. She’s unsure whether or not she’d be welcome. But concealing that truth, living that very big lie, becomes an even dicier proposition than Kelly had planned on when she can’t resist the attractions of Elijah Turner, her boss, the ranch manager, and her mother’s eldest adopted son.

And in spite of Eli’s scarred past and taciturn present, he can’t seem to resist Cora, either. But the more deeply they become involved, not just romantically but also in each other’s lives, the more difficult it becomes for Cora to risk her heart and her happiness to reveal a truth that could shatter everything.

Or bring her everything her heart desires.

Escape Rating B+:The romance in Finding Our Forever is a relationship that often gets relegated to “taboo” erotica, but there’s no feeling of that kind of dirty secret here. If Cora and Eli had been raised together, it might feel different, but they weren’t so it doesn’t. They meet as adults, and are attracted to each other as adults. While Cora is aware that Eli is technically her adopted brother, they share no blood or genes to make any relationship actually be taboo.

But it does make things considerably more complicated, and they are plenty complicated to begin with. The angst in this story does not feel either manufactured or false. Cora has a secret, and she has very valid reasons both for keeping that secret and wanting to reveal it. She’s extremely conflicted about it, and so she should be. At the same time, Eli in particular has equally valid concerns about trust. The deeper they get into a relationship that neither of them expected, the more worried Cora becomes that Eli will feel betrayed by Cora’s hidden identity.

On top of that, when her secret comes out, she could be out of a job, as well as brokenhearted AND forced to go back to her adoptive parents to face a cloud of “I told you so’s” They were not in favor of Cora’s quest for her birth mother, feeling as if Cora’s search was an indictment of their love and their parenting, which it isn’t. But again, their conflicted feelings on this matter are also understandable.

The only person whose feelings don’t ring true in this entire mess is Cora’s ex-boyfriend, who shows up early in her school year in an attempt to either manipulate her back to him or otherwise horn in on her life. He’s a jerk rather than a threat, but his appearance and Cora’s reaction to it were the one emotional point in the story that just didn’t quite hit the mark.

But Cora’s story certainly does. She gets her answers, and they are nothing like she expected. And she doesn’t get everything that she wanted. But she gets enough for readers to feel more than satisfied that she got her happy ending. And it happens in a way that feels right for the story and the characters.

I really enjoyed my visit to Silver Springs, and I’m looking forward to more. It looks like the series is going to follow the romantic adventures of Eli’s brothers, and I can’t wait to see what happens next, in No One But You.

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

Brenda and Harlequin are giving away a $25 gift card to one lucky entrant on this tour.

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