Review: The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews + Giveaway

Review: The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews + GiveawayThe Belle of Belgrave Square (Belles of London, #2) by Mimi Matthews
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Belles of London #2
Pages: 432
Published by Berkley on October 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A London heiress rides out to the wilds of the English countryside to honor a marriage of convenience with a mysterious and reclusive stranger.
Tall, dark, and dour, the notorious Captain Jasper Blunt was once hailed a military hero, but tales abound of his bastard children and his haunted estate in Yorkshire. What he requires now is a rich wife to ornament his isolated ruin, and he has his sights set on the enchanting Julia Wychwood.
For Julia, an incurable romantic cursed with a crippling social anxiety, navigating a London ballroom is absolute torture. The only time Julia feels any degree of confidence is when she’s on her horse. Unfortunately, a young lady can’t spend the whole of her life in the saddle, so Julia makes an impetuous decision to take her future by the reins—she proposes to Captain Blunt.
In exchange for her dowry and her hand, Jasper must promise to grant her freedom to do as she pleases. To ride—and to read—as much as she likes without masculine interference. He readily agrees to her conditions, with one provision of his own: Julia is forbidden from going into the tower rooms of his estate and snooping around his affairs. But the more she learns of the beastly former hero, the more intrigued she becomes…

My Review:

The first book in the Belles of London series, The Siren of Sussex, introduced readers to four Victorian heroines who cared more for their horses, and the equestrienne skills required to master them, than for the marriage mart that was supposed to have been every young lady’s dream.

Not that the romantic heroes of the series, at least so far, are any more conventional than the heroines have so far proven to be.

The second book in the series’ case in point, presumed wallflower Julia Wychwood – with her dowry of 50,000 pounds, and reluctant fortune hunter and Crimean War veteran Captain Jasper Blunt.

But neither of them is exactly what they appear to be on the surface, as Julia and Jasper discover – very nearly to their cost – after it is too late to get out of their hasty marriage. Probably too late, anyway.

A problem which hinges on one of the many, many secrets that have either been kept from them or that they are keeping from each other. Any one of which could break them. Or their marriage. Or both.

Escape Rating B: In a review of another work of historical fiction, I said that “it seems as if behind every successful woman there’s either a rotten first husband, a harridan of a mother, or both.” I forgot about just how selfish and/or profligate fathers can be in attempting to doom their daughters to dependency or failure. I was definitely remiss.

Because Julia Wychwood has both the harridan of a mother and the selfish, self-indulgent cruelty of a father to contend with. And as the story begins she is not contending terribly well at all.

Her parents, both wealthy hypochondriacs, quite literally plan on marrying Julia off to a rich man who will keep her in London, near to their home in Belgrave Square, so that she can continue to be their unpaid attendant, verbal punching bag and slave for the rest of her life.

What makes the first third of this book hard to read is that she doesn’t fight back, in spite of being of age and having an inheritance of her own that is not dependent on her father. Because she is so beaten down that she can’t imagine getting out from under.

It’s only when the hypochondriacs bring in a quack doctor who bleeds her half to death that the penny finally drops that she isn’t even safe in her parents’ household. Their plan is to bleed her into insensibility so that she can be declared unfit and they can marry her off to a man they know will at least verbally abuse her just as much as they do.

It’s hard to read about Julia becoming increasingly downtrodden – particularly when it becomes known that she has options she isn’t exercising.

But that’s where Blunt comes in. He tried to do the honorable thing and marry her with her father’s permission, which was denied because Blunt intends to take Julia to his estate in the Yorkshire moors. A place where she’ll be much, much happier. She hates the London Season for a myriad of reasons that only begin with her acute social anxiety.

It’s when he finally manages to literally sweep Julia off her feet, in the most romantic fashion possible, that the story lifts itself up – right along with Julia’s health and spirits – and runs off with the reader’s heart. Because it’s when they are away from London that they are able to see all the problems that their hasty marriage has led them into – and to see a way out of those problems together.

Once they finally begin telling each other the truth.

As a reader, I have to say that Julia’s helplessness in that first third of the story hit a whole bunch of triggers for me – to the point where if this hadn’t been for a tour I would have DNF’d the book.

But I hung on because so many people love this series so much, and there were so many interesting features in the first book that I kept going to see if I could find the charm that others have found. And I have to say that I did.

In the first third of the story Julia has no agency, which is hard to read. At that point she finally takes her life into her own hands – no matter how much those hands happen to be trembling with weakness from blood loss at the time – and proposes marriage to Blunt and asks him to rescue her because she is temporarily incapacitated and rightfully afraid to stay another minute.

And who can blame her?

But once they are out of that terrible house the story takes off too. They have a lot to learn about each other, and they’ll need to grow together, but they have a solid friendship as well as a growing attraction to build upon.

Once they get all of the secrets between them out of the way.

Most of those secrets are fairly obvious to the reader pretty early on, but that doesn’t detract from the story at all. It’s the reveal of those secrets to each other that is key, not whether the reader has figured it out beforehand. Especially considering that those secrets are real and important and not just misunderstandammits. We understand the reason they were kept and empathize with how difficult it is to finally let them go.

One of the fun parts of the story is the way that literature and fairy tales are woven into the romance without ever taking it over. Julia is very much Belle to Jasper’s Beast, but that’s not the only trope that gets woven into the story.

In the end, The Belle of Belgrave Square is a charming Victorian romance about learning to face one’s tormentors, standing on one’s own two feet AND finding the right person to stand with you. It’s about planting yourself where you belong and blooming there. And it’s about doing the right thing rather than the easy thing – and taking the lumps for it.

While I had my doubts at the beginning, by the end I was all in for this one. To the point where I’m very curious to see where the series goes in its next entry, The Lily of Ludgate Hill, coming out in January of 2024.

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

Mimi has generously offered a fabulous giveaway that book tour participants can add to their post and on social media. Here are the details:

Giveaway period: October 3 – October 30

Terms & Conditions:

Giveaway hosted by Mimi Matthews. No Purchase Necessary. Entrants must be 18 years or older. Open to US residents only. All information will remain confidential and will not be sold or otherwise used, except to notify the winner and to facilitate postage of the book to the winner. Void where prohibited.

Giveaway Details:

1 winner (selected at random by Rafflecopter) receives a paperback copy of The Belle of Belgrave Square, signed and annotated by the author with personal comments, underlining of her favorite lines, and other highlights by Mimi Matthews. 

Giveaway is open from 12:01 am Pacific time 10/03/22 until 11:59pm Pacific time on 10/30/22. 

The winner will be announced on Mimi’s blog on 10/31/22.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: In the Shadow of a Queen by Heather B. Moore

Review: In the Shadow of a Queen by Heather B. MooreIn the Shadow of a Queen by Heather B. Moore
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 384
Published by Shadow Mountain on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Based on the true story of the free-spirited daughter of Queen Victoria.
Princess Louise’s life is upended after her father’s untimely death. Captive to the queen’s overwhelming mourning, Louise is forbidden to leave her mother’s tight circle of control and is eventually relegated to the position of personal secretary to her mother—the same position each of her sisters held until they were married.
Already an accomplished painter, Louise risks the queen’s wrath by exploring the art of sculpting, an activity viewed as unbefitting a woman. When Louise involves herself in the day’s political matters, including championing the career of a female doctor and communicating with suffragettes, the queen lays down the law to stop her and devotes her full energy to finding an acceptable match for her defiant daughter.
Louise is considered the most beautiful and talented daughter of Queen Victoria, but finding a match for the princess is no easy feat. Protocols are broken, and Louise exerts her own will as she tries to find an open-minded husband who will support her free spirit.
In the Shadow of a Queen is the story of a battle of wills between two women: a daughter determined to forge her own life beyond the shadow of her mother, and a queen resolved to keep the Crown’s reputation unsullied no matter the cost.

My Review:

There’s a saying that “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But sometimes, history repeats even when it is remembered. Because before Elizabeth II, the longest ruling monarch in British history, there was Victoria, relegated to being the second longest ruling monarch in that history. And there are definitely elements of that history that repeats because the patterns for it were set in protocol and tradition long before either was born.

Princess Louise c. 1860s

Queen Victoria is the queen under whose shadow all of her children existed, but the one whose early life is examined in this fictional biography is that of Princess Louise, her fourth daughter and NINTH child. The focus is on Louise because she is the one who rebelled against her mother’s strictures the most in the end and became a talented and prolific artist and sculptor. Her statues of her mother are still on display at Kensington Palace and Lichfield Cathedral in England and McGill University in Canada.

In the Shadow of a Queen is a portrait of the unconventional princess as a girl and young woman, in the ten critical years of her life after the death of her beloved father, Prince Albert. It’s the story of Louise growing up in a household of never-ending mourning amid endless and often contradictory restrictions, trying to find a space for herself in a world that remained under the constant, depressing pall of her mother’s grief.

Rather than a portrait of a rebellious royal, In the Shadow of a Queen is instead the portrait of a girl growing into womanhood under the shadow of a mother who is both larger than life and a law unto herself as that princess sows the seeds of the rebel she will one day become. Once she emerges into her own light.

Escape Rating B: As the story of Princess Louise’s early years, this is a story of obedience and eventually manipulation and maneuvering rather than rebellion. And unfortunately, disobedience would have been a lot more interesting to read about than obedience turns out to be.

At the same time, while Louise’s personal perspective on events is that of a child in the early parts of the book, what she is observing is a fascinating portrait of life in the royal household in the 1860s and 1870s. It’s easy for the reader to get caught up in the day-to-day happenings, even when not all that much happens from day to day.

What grabbed me in particular were questions outside of Louise’s experience because they reflect more recent events. Like Victoria, Elizabeth II reigned long and well into her Prince of Wales’ adulthood. Bertie was 60 when he finally became King Edward VII after a scandal plagued marriage and a long and strained relationship with his mother because of those scandals. While King Charles III’s relationship with his mother seems to have been less fraught, the scandal part of their stories does have some parallels.

The restrictions on not just Louise’s life but on any possible husband for her and all of the rules and regulations – and interference from the Queen in their lives even before the wedding – can’t help but make readers reflect on how much things have remained the same even with more than a century in between.

In spite of that invasive, restrictive, and sometimes downright capricious interference, the story ends with Louise’s marriage to John Campbell, Marquess of Lorne, heir to the Dukedom of Argyll. The story portrays their marriage as a love match, resulting in a happy ever after for the book that was not reflected in the historical record. But it does mark a convenient place to bring the story of Louise’s early years to a relatively optimistic conclusion.

This version of Louise’s story is an intimate portrait. While not told from directly inside Louise’s head, it is focused on her perspective and only deals with outside events as she would have known about them. A perspective that expands as she grows from a tween into a woman in her early twenties. It is a family portrait, just that the family in question was, at the time, the ruling family of an empire that spanned the globe.

However, In the Shadow of a Queen is not the only such portrait of Princess Louise to be published this year or even this season. An Indiscreet Princess by Georgie Blaylock, also focuses on Louise’s early adulthood, but more specifically looks at her artistic ventures outside of the Palace and her many rumored romances. I can’t resist comparing the one book to the other, so I’ll be reviewing Louise’s other fictionalized biography in the coming weeks.

Because whether one looks at her art, her romances or her strained relationship with the short but towering figure of Queen Victoria, her life and her times were absolutely fascinating. Just as In the Shadow of a Queen is a portrait of the artistic rebel as a young princess, the times in which she lived serve as a picture of the events and the family that shaped the world we live in today. For both good and ill.

Review: A Death in Door County by Annelise Ryan

Review: A Death in Door County by Annelise RyanA Death in Door County (Monster Hunter Mystery, #1) by Annelise Ryan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Monster Hunter Mystery #1
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on September 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A Wisconsin bookstore owner and cryptozoologist is asked to investigate a series of deaths that just might be proof of a fabled lake monster in this first installment of a new mystery series by USA Today bestselling author Annelise Ryan.
Morgan Carter, owner of the Odds and Ends bookstore in Door County, Wisconsin, has a hobby. When she's not tending the store, she's hunting cryptids--creatures whose existence is rumored, but never proven to be real. It's a hobby that cost her parents their lives, but one she'll never give up on.
So when a number of bodies turn up on the shores of Lake Michigan with injuries that look like bites from a giant unknown animal, police chief Jon Flanders turns to Morgan for help. A skeptic at heart, Morgan can't turn down the opportunity to find proof of an entity whose existence she can't definitively rule out. She and her beloved rescue dog, Newt, journey to the Death's Door strait to hunt for a homicidal monster in the lake--but if they're not careful, they just might be its next victims.

My Review:

Yesterday’s book left me with a hankering for a mystery I could really sink my teeth into. I just wasn’t expecting the teeth to be quite as large as they turned out to be in A Death in Door County. This book is the kind of mystery that really takes a chomp out of each and every one of its rather tasty red herrings.

Calling Morgan Carter’s side gig as a cryptozoologist a hobby – as the book’s blurb does – isn’t strictly accurate. It’s more like a passion. Or a calling. Or a way to feel closer to her late parents by carrying on their work.

Perhaps all of the above.

Live Coelacanth off Pumula on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, South Africa in 2019

She also has degrees in both biology and zoology, so she’s definitely a scientifically trained cryptozoologist. And, perhaps as a consequence of those degrees, a skeptical one. She doesn’t believe in Bigfoot or Sasquatch or Chupacabra. Nessie she’s a bit more equivocal on. Not so much on Nessie herself, but rather the possibility that some kind of deep water creature might have managed to hide from humans for millennia – because that’s really happened. Coelacanths, thought to be extinct for 66 MILLION years, turned up very much alive if not exactly flourishing in 1938. The current population is considered either endangered or vulnerable depending on subspecies, but the re-discovery of the coelacanth does give Morgan hope that another such creature could be found in the modern day.

Which is what leads Washington Island Police Chief Jon Flanders to the door of Morgan’s rather eclectic bookstore in mainland Door County. He’s got a couple of dead bodies that look like they got mauled by something that hasn’t been identified. Something with a very large mouth and rather big teeth. He’s worried it might be a cryptid. He’s equally worried that it might be someone or something mimicking a cryptid. Whether it is or it isn’t, he’s really, really worried that if word gets out either the tourists the area depends on for income will get scared away, or that the curious and the cryptid hunters will flock to the area in droves and interfere with the investigation.

So he hires Morgan to go hunting. To either find a cryptid, or reliably rule one out. Before the body count gets any higher.

Escape Rating B: This series opener kicks off its mystery series with a couple of surprising twists for something that is billed as a cozy, beginning with its protagonist Morgan Carter. Cryptozoology isn’t a vocation or even an avocation that is high on the list of ‘usual’ careers for amateur detectives – although bookstore owner certainly is.

But it is what makes her investigation so fascinating. Because she starts out looking at whether or not it’s scientifically possible for a cryptid to be involved in the crimes – but she doesn’t stop there. She’s not looking for Nessie or her Great Lakes equivalent, she’s looking for who or what might have done the damage exhibited on the victims. Which might – or might not – come back to Nessie. Or at least her North American kin.

Which means that Morgan is also looking into the victims, as well as into the conditions in and around Lake Michigan. And it’s in that investigation that she keeps running into Police Chief Flanders – who isn’t always all that thrilled. Because Morgan keeps stepping on, over and around police procedure to get her answers – and locking horns with Flanders.

It’s clear fairly early on that whatever is roiling the waters around Door County is human in origin. After all, sea monsters, no matter how terrifying, do not enter bookstores unnoticed, nor do they hit people on the head and leave notes pinned to knick-knacks with knives.

What’s roiling between Morgan and “Flatfoot Flanders” is even harder to pin down. They are clearly interested in each other but they both have issues in their respective pasts that are going to make any potential romantic relationship a bit dicey.

After all, Flanders got the recommendation to hire Morgan from his uncle, a cop in Delaware who STILL seems to believe that Morgan was responsible for the deaths of her parents.

She wasn’t, but that’s another story that leads to one of my pet peeves about this book, of which I have three. I did really enjoy the mystery, and I genuinely liked that the setting and the characters were a bit different from the ‘usual suspects’.

But, and perhaps this was because of the place and the people not being those usual suspects, there was a fair bit of infodumping about Lake Michigan, its wreck-filled maritime history, and the danger of its currents and undercurrents. Morgan also got rather far in-depth into the nature of potential marine cryptids. While necessary, it felt like both went on past the point of too much of a good thing.

The second quibble was that the solution to the mystery came completely out of deep left field until nearly the end. I knew it was a human agency and not a cryptid, but the human agents weren’t even on the radar until about the 75% mark of the story. I was not expecting a fair play mystery but I would still expect to see some of the perps in advance of the race-to-the-finish ending.

And last but not least we get back to the death of Morgan’s parents a couple of years before this story begins. Because Morgan has an EvilEx™ to beat all previous evil exes. He killed her parents when they finally figured out that he wasn’t who he said he was. He nearly managed to pin the murders on Morgan because no one ever saw him. AND he’s still out there. He was a huge Chekhov’s Gun hanging over the entire story. While it does explain Morgan’s trust issues in regards to men in general and Flanders in particular, the lack of closure in that part of the story hung over this first entry in the series like that proverbial Sword of Damocles. It’s obvious that if this series continues that issue should be resolved. Right now it’s hanging like a shoe that needs to drop in ways that left me unsatisfied at the end of this story.

Not that the villains of this entry in the series don’t get most of what they deserve. But they read like giant red herrings for a true villain left waiting in the wings. But I want to see that villain get his, one way or another. So I’ll be back for the next entry in this series in the hopes of catching him hiding in the shadows.

Review: Marple: Twelve New Mysteries by Agatha Christie et al.

Review: Marple: Twelve New Mysteries by Agatha Christie et al.Marple: Twelve New Mysteries by Naomi Alderman, Leigh Bardugo, Alyssa Cole, Lucy Foley, Elly Griffiths, Natalie Haynes, Jean Kwok, Val McDermid, Karen M. McManus, Dreda Say Mitchell, Kate Mosse, Ruth Ware
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Series: Miss Marple Mysteries
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow & Company on September 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A brand-new collection of short stories featuring the Queen of Mystery’s legendary detective Jane Marple, penned by twelve remarkable bestselling and acclaimed authors.
This collection of a dozen original short stories, all featuring Jane Marple, will introduce the character to a whole new generation. Each author reimagines Agatha Christie’s Marple through their own unique perspective while staying true to the hallmarks of a traditional mystery.

Naomi Alderman
Leigh Bardugo
Alyssa Cole
Lucy Foley
Elly Griffiths
Natalie Haynes
Jean Kwok
Val McDermid
Karen M. McManus
Dreda Say Mitchell
Kate Mosse
Ruth Ware

Miss Marple was first introduced to readers in a story Agatha Christie wrote for The Royal Magazine in 1927 and made her first appearance in a full-length novel in 1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage. It has been 45 years since Agatha Christie’s last Marple novel, Sleeping Murder, was published posthumously in 1976, and this collection of ingenious new stories by twelve Christie devotees will be a timely reminder why Jane Marple remains the most famous fictional female detective of all time.

My Review:

Unfortunately, Agatha Christie isn’t writing any new Marple stories, or for that matter any new Poirot stories. But she was the creator of the iconic “little old lady” amateur detective Miss Jane Marple and will be credited as such for as long as Miss Marple is read. And this collection of new Marple stories from the pens – or computers – of Dame Agatha’s successors in mystery is certain to keep Miss Jane Marple of St. Mary Mead in the minds and hearts of readers for another generation.

I have to confess that personally I prefer Poirot to Marple. It’s not so much about either of them as it is about the way they are treated and the world that surrounds them. Both are just a tad eccentric, a bit of an exaggeration in Miss Marple’s case while a huge understatement in Poirot’s, but because of both their respective genders and the times in which their stories are set Poirot’s eccentricities are considered a mark of his genius while Miss Marple is often disregarded and disrespected, sometimes even after she solves the case.

If Miss Marple had half of Poirot’s foibles she would have been locked up in a lunatic asylum. Men were allowed to be over-the-top, even to his degree, without being thought to be insane. Or hysterical as she would have been. Certainly, few would have taken her remotely seriously, discounting her because of her age and her gender.

While Christie got around some of the restrictions on women at the time by making Miss Marple an independent woman past a certain age who had outlived any male who might have had authority over her, the authors of this collection have taken that a step further by setting all of their stories rather later in her “career’, meaning that she already has a well-earned reputation for solving murders and has garnered a circle of influential friends in high places – at least among the police.

So she doesn’t face quite as much disrespect and disregard as she would have earlier. (It’s been decades since I read her first outing, A Murder in the Vicarage, so I just picked up a copy so I can read it again and see if memory and supposition are correct.)

One of the stories in this collection (The Second Murder at the Vicarage by Val McDermid) takes the reader back to that very place where Miss Marple solved her first case), while Miss Marple’s Christmas by Ruth Ware takes us back to St. Mary Mead for a traditional Christmas gathering Marple style, as Miss Marple finds herself solving a case of theft instead of indulging in the Christmas pudding.

Escape Rating B: For the most part, these stories were enjoyable as I read them but weren’t quite long enough to really dig into the mysteries. They also don’t feel remotely like ‘fair play’ mysteries as the detection and investigation seems to hinge a great deal on Miss Marple’s comparisons to people and situations in St. Mary Mead that we don’t know about. Her leaps of logic and inferences about human nature do give the reader an “A-ha!” moment when revealed but I never felt like I had enough to follow her trail.

I still had a good time reading this collection, and wouldn’t mind – AT ALL! – to see another collection like this one or something similar featuring my old friend Hercule Poirot. Alternatively, several of the authors in this collection of Miss Marple stories would make excellent candidates for writing a series of NEW Marple novels just as Sophie Hannah has taken up the task of writing the New Hercule Poirot series that began with The Monogram Murders.

Anyone who loves Miss Marple or is looking for a trip back to the Golden Age of mystery will enjoy this collection – and hope for more!

Review: Drunk on Love by Jasmine Guillory

Review: Drunk on Love by Jasmine GuilloryDrunk on Love by Jasmine Guillory
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley Books on September 20, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

An intoxicating and sparkling new romance by New York Times bestselling author Jasmine Guillory. Margot Noble needs some relief from the stress of running the family winery with her brother. Enter Luke: sexy, charming, and best of all in the too-small world of Napa, a stranger. The chemistry between them is undeniable, and Margot is delighted that she lucked into the perfect one-night stand she'll never have to see again. That is, until the winery's newest hire, Luke, walks in the next morning. Margot is determined to keep things purely professional, but when their every interaction reminds her of the attraction still bubbling between them, it proves to be much more challenging than she expects.
Luke Williams had it all, but when he quits his high-salary tech job in Silicon Valley in a blaze of burnout and moves back to Napa to help a friend, he realizes he doesn't want to tell the world--or his mom--why he's now working at a winery. His mom loves bragging about her successful son--how can he admit that the job she's so proud of broke him? Luke has no idea what is next for him, but one thing is certain: he wants more from the incredibly smart and sexy woman he hooked up with--even after he learns she's his new boss. But even if they can find a way to be together that wouldn't be an ethical nightmare, would such a successful woman really want a tech-world dropout?
Set against a lush backdrop of Napa Valley wine country, nothing goes to your head as fast as a taste of love--even if it means changing all your plans.

My Review: 

The meet-cute that uncorks Drunk on Love is a classic for a reason. Strangers meet in a bar, at a party, or wherever – although in this particular case it’s a neighborhood bar with excellent drinks and great food. They strike up a conversation on one pretext or another and simply hit it off in a way that neither of them can resist.

So they don’t. A great meal, a fantastic night, and a not too terribly awkward morning after and then they’ll never see each other again. Or so one or both of them believes.

Then they do meet again, later that morning after, in the most awkward way possible. And so it begins.

In the case of Margot Noble and Luke Williams, what makes that awkward morning after into an even more awkward gift that is just going to keep on giving – at least for the reader – is that the new job that Luke walks into in the tasting room of a local winery turns out to be the family winery belonging to Margot and her brother Elliot.

Elliot Noble is the winemaker, Margot Noble is the business manager, which means Elliot mostly gets to work behind the scenes, while Margot is out front, managing the finances, drumming up business, schmoozing restaurants to get them to offer and promote Noble wines – and, you guessed it, running the tasting room at the winery.

In other words, Margot is Luke’s new boss. Which is where this romantic comedy kicks into high gear – and sometimes even gets drunk on the Noble Family Wineries’ products. Because neither of them can forget the best night either of them has had in a long, long time – if ever. And they both know it can’t happen again as long as Luke is working in Margot’s tasting room

But they both want it to. So, so bad. Because they already know it’ll be so, so good. If they can just find a way to make it – or let it – happen.

Escape Rating B: I loved the way that Drunk on Love started, and even more so as Margot was a bit older than Luke which is one of my favorite tropes.

Very much on my other hand, this one middled in places that aren’t necessarily my cup of tea – or that I just wasn’t in the mood for at the moment, leaving me with some mixed reading feelings.

The kickoff for this was a winner. Absolutely. There’s always something delicious in a forbidden romance but there are few non-squicky ways to make that happen in the 21st century. This is one that works.

That there is a certain amount of deception in this kind of romance is a given. What drove me bananas about the story wasn’t so much the coverup of their relationship but rather the lies they are telling themselves about pretty much everything else.

Luke is back home in Napa because he burned out at his high-paying, high-powered, high-tech job but can’t manage to tell anyone about it – in some ways, not even himself. So in order to cover that up he covers up more stuff until he’s at the bottom of a pit of lies and just can’t seem to stop digging.

Margot, on the other hand, is doing very well in her position but can’t believe that her brother thinks she is or even wants her there. Their relationship is filled with nothing but tension that might or might not still have a cause. They’re in the middle of a giant misunderstandammit and can’t seem to find a way clear of it.

It’s not just that Margot and Luke are standing in their own ways, but that the way they are doing so stands in the way of any potential future happiness. It’s hard to watch these two very sympathetic and likeable characters flail around at reaching their HEA, but once they do it’s very much earned.

So if you like a bit of angst mixed with witty banter between a couple of really great people who need a few good swift kicks to move them to an HEA, try a glass – or a chapter or two – of Drunk on Love. If you prefer the witty banter in your romcom to be undiluted, grab a copy of the author’s The Wedding Date – a bubbly delight from the very first sip to the last.

Review: Hades: Sentinel Security #2 by Anna Hackett

Review: Hades: Sentinel Security #2 by Anna HackettHades (Sentinel Security #2) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, romantic suspense
Series: Sentinel Security #2
Pages: 245
Published by Anna Hackett on September 20th 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

He’s a gorgeous former Interpol agent.
Tall, dark, and Italian.
He’s way out of her league, but when danger explodes around them, she finds herself on the run with the sexiest man she’s ever met.
CIA analyst Gabbi Hansley has a plan—escape her dysfunctional family, excel at her job, and build a safe, stable life for herself. Boring? Maybe, but she likes boring. When tasked to meet a security contractor and give him an encrypted drive, a quick, simple job goes terribly wrong.
Gabbi didn’t expect her contact to be the hottest man she’s ever seen. Nor was she expecting the bad guys who turn up and spray the restaurant with bullets.
After years of wading through the muck, dismantling mafia crime syndicates in Italy, former Anti-Mafia officer and Interpol agent Matteo “Hades” Mancini likes his job at Sentinel Security. He also knows he has nothing permanent to offer any woman, so he keeps things fun and temporary.
But when his dangerous past rears its head, he finds himself trapped with the tough, no-nonsense Gabbi, and on a second glance, he sees past her sensible exterior to the tempting woman beneath.
Now Gabbi and Matteo are in a race for survival. While they work to track down who’s after them, attraction burns hot and bright. Gabbi knows a man like Matteo won’t be interested in her for long, and she asks him to show her all the things she’s been missing in the bedroom. But the possessive need to keep her safe is growing in Matteo, and soon he has two mission objectives: take down the bad guys, and convince Gabbi Hansley that she’s his.
*** An action-packed standalone romantic suspense.

My Review:

CIA analyst Gabbi Hansley is a “feel the fear and do it anyway” kind of person and I love her for it. As does Hades himself. Not that either is remotely what the other expected when they first meet. It’s not just that they didn’t expect the sparks between them – they didn’t expect the bullets flying around either.

And not that Sentinel Security agency Matteo Mancini hasn’t experienced plenty of bullets flying in his general vicinity – some of them even aimed directly at him – in his work with Sentinel Security or in his previous life as an undercover anti-Mafia agent in Italy. It’s that Gabbi’s job consists of boring desk-and-computer work. Gabbi may work for the CIA but what she’s looking for out of her job is safety and financial security and as much of a buffer as she can manage to maintain between herself and her sometimes criminally dysfunctional family.

But when what was supposed to be a routine handoff from the CIA to Sentinel turns into an escape from a hail of bullets in what was – and probably will be again – one of the most expensive and exclusive restaurants in DC, Gabbi’s safe and boring life is blown to smithereens.

Especially after her mind gets blown by the sexiest man she’s ever met making her come on the floor of a stranded elevator in the aftermath. As the best method of dealing with the adrenaline crash from their escape, Matteo’s method is an absolute winner. As the final blow – pun intended – to her formerly safe and moderately sane and frequently boring life it’s just the beginning of negotiations between a man who thinks he’s not worthy of love and a woman who doesn’t believe love even exists.

He needs to keep her safe from the enemies who have reached out across the years and miles to come after him. She’s desperate to keep her heart safe from a man she is certain is utterly out of her league.

While in the background his family is worried that his work will get them killed, and hers does its level worst to keep her from escaping their determination that she continue to be their meal ticket – even if they have to sell her out to the bad guys to make it happen.

Escape Rating B+: Even though I’m still on tenterhooks waiting for Killian Hawke’s romance with the CIA agent we now know to be Devyn “Hellfire” Hayden (Gabbi’s best friend at the Agency), Gabbi and Matteo’s romance still worked for me.

And that’s all down to Gabbi’s attitude. She’s afraid. She’s very, very afraid. There are bullets flying! Her job was not ever supposed to include bullets flying – and especially not flying at her. But instead of hiding in a corner or getting behind Matteo and letting the sexy security agent protect her, she stands up and helps get other people to safety and out of the way of those flying bullets.

It’s easy to identify with Gabbi because of that attitude. Most of us probably would cower. Few people are equipped or trained to fight back in the situation in which she finds herself. But putting on her big girl panties and dealing with it, feeling that fear and doing what she can anyway? That’s a response we can all identify with and hope to emulate.

Which makes Gabbi feel within reach and her relationship with Matteo feel equally possible – even if she doesn’t see it that way.

So while Matteo is the latest in a very long lineup of the author’s sexy badasses who don’t feel worthy of being loved, Gabbi feels like something fresh, a woman who is afraid but still rises up to meet the challenge and I loved that about her character.

Her dysfunctional family, on the other hand, seriously qualified as a piece of work. Dirty, nasty work at that. The reader can see how their dysfunction played into Gabbi’s self-doubt, so it made for icing on top of an already delicious cake when they get their comeuppance at the end. As Gabbi makes tracks for a job that she will love with a man that she does love and a found family who are ready, willing and able to welcome her with open arms and a boost when she needs it.

And into that lovely bargain, Matteo manages to put his demons to rest – whether that’s in the form of putting them six feet under, into long prison sentences, or simply putting the psychological damage behind him, it makes for a lovely ending to a fun action adventure romance.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the next book will be Killian’s, but based on the hints at the end of this entry in the series, it does look like it will be a lot of sexy, romantic, adventurous fun. But in the meantime I have the next book in the Galactic Kings series, Conqueror, to look forward to!

Review: The Book Haters’ Book Club by Gretchen Anthony

Review: The Book Haters’ Book Club by Gretchen AnthonyThe Book Haters' Book Club by Gretchen Anthony
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Park Row on September 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

All it takes is the right book to turn a Book Hater into a Book Lover…
That was Elliott’s belief and the reason why he started The Book Haters’ Book Club—a newsletter of reading recommendations for the self-proclaimed “nonreader.” As the beloved co-owner of Over the Rainbow Bookstore, Elliott’s passion and gift was recommending books to customers. Now, after his sudden death, his grief-ridden business partner, Irma, has agreed to sell Over the Rainbow to a developer who will turn the cozy bookstore into high-rise condos.
But others won’t give up the bookstore without a fight. When Irma breaks the news to her daughters, Bree and Laney, and Elliott’s romantic partner, Thom, they are aghast. Over the Rainbow has been Bree and Laney’s sanctuary since childhood, and Thom would do anything to preserve Elliott’s legacy. Together, Thom, Bree and Laney conspire to save the bookstore, even if it takes some snooping, gossip and minor sabotage.
Filled with humor, family hijinks and actual reading recommendations, The Book Haters' Book Club is the ideal feel-good read. It’s a celebration of found family and a love letter to the everyday heroes who run bookstores.

My Review:

Elliot Gregory is watching from somewhere over the rainbow – or somewhere in the ‘Great Beyond’ – as his business partner, her daughters and his domestic partner all flail together and separately in the aftermath of his sudden death.

Yes, this is one of those stories that starts, to paraphrase Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Elliot was dead, to begin with.

He left behind a mess. He also was a mess. And he’s left behind a whole bunch of people who all loved him in one way or another to clean it up. But first they have to find the depths of that mess.

And then they have to find the true depths within themselves and each other.

Things don’t begin auspiciously. Irma Bedford meets her daughters, Laney and Bree, along with the late Elliot’s domestic partner Thom, at the offices of a real estate development firm to inform them that she has already sold the bookstore and the land it sits on to said investment firm for a sum that does not remotely look like the true value of the business and its real estate.

And that it’s a done deal that closes in less than a month.

What Irma doesn’t tell them is why – no matter how many sneaky and not so sneaky ways they ask. As far as Irma is concerned, it’s her business and not theirs. And an argument could be made for that. (Elliot and Thom were not married, Elliot didn’t leave a will, so as the surviving business partner the bookstore is legally Irma’s to continue to operate or dispose of as she pleases. Or as she feels compelled to. Or whatever the hell is motivating her at this point.)

But it makes no sense. It’s clear from the outset that the development firm is shady AF and that they seriously lowballed the offer. Even if Irma does want to sell she’s being taken advantage of while she’s at a low place. And even if she does want to retire – and she might – she’s been grooming her younger daughter to take over the bookstore for Bree’s entire life. The change in direction is abrupt to say the least.

And the more Laney, Bree and Thom dig, the fishier the whole thing seems. So they fight back with everything they have, banding together and stepping way out of their collective comfort zones to get the developers to back off of the deal before it’s too late.

But just when they think they’ve won, they discover that they had lost the war long before they began the first battle. Now they’ll have to fight on an entirely different front – before it really is too late after all. Again.

Escape Rating B-: I expected to fall in love with The Book Haters’ Club, but I left – or rather I middled – with a whole lot of mixed feelings.

I say middled because the first half of the book is all about Laney’s, Bree’s and Thom’s all-out, no-holds barred campaign to save the bookstore – no matter what Irma thinks. While what Irma thinks, feels and for that matter what in the hell she’s doing this for is all a deep, dark secret that makes absolutely no sense at all.

At the midpoint, the story turns itself around, because it’s only then that the first layer of the secret is revealed. But it kind of feels like that slog to save the store was all a waste. It is a waste for Laney, Bree and Thom, but it’s at that point where the first half of the story feels like it was pointless for the reader as well.

But once that first, brittle, outer skin of that onion of secrets gets cracked and peels away, the story finally starts getting somewhere. Because, while Elliot may have left them all with his big, untidy mess of secrets, they all have plenty that they need to reveal, not just to each other, but to themselves.

So the first half of the story was a whole lot of frenetic action that led nowhere, The second half is a whole lot of introspection and grief and the work of opening up and letting friends in to help with your mess.

While turning a group of people who were once a roiling mass of resentment at each other – and honestly for good reason – into a surprisingly cohesive found family.

The biggest part of the charm of this story is in the characters, once we’re finally able to start getting to know them – and they’re back to getting to know each other. One of the odder things about this story is the way that dear, dead Elliot breaks the fourth wall from on high (presumably) to inject himself into both the storytelling and the proceedings in a way that just didn’t work for me. Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.

So there’s plenty to love in this story about secrets, partnerships, quirky neighborhoods and found families. And if you love books about books and reading filled with terrific book recommendations, there are plenty of those here to savor. I just wish the whole thing had gotten to its point a whole lot sooner.

Review: Desperation in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Desperation in Death by J.D. RobbDesperation in Death (In Death, #55) by J.D. Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: futuristic, mystery, romantic suspense, thriller
Series: In Death #55
Pages: 368
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 6, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The #1 New York Times bestselling author presents a gripping new thriller that pits homicide detective Eve Dallas against a conspiracy of exploitation and evil…
New York, 2061: The place called the Pleasure Academy is a living nightmare where abducted girls are trapped, trained for a life of abject service while their souls are slowly but surely destroyed. Dorian, a thirteen-year-old runaway who’d been imprisoned there, might never have made it out if not for her fellow inmate Mina, who’d hatched the escape plan. Mina was the more daring of the two—but they’d been equally desperate.
Unfortunately, they didn’t get away fast enough. Now Dorian is injured, terrified, and wandering the streets of New York, and Mina lies dead near the waterfront while Lt. Eve Dallas looks over the scene.
Mina’s expensive, elegant clothes and beauty products convince Dallas that she was being groomed, literally and figuratively, for sex trafficking—and that whoever is investing in this high-overhead operation expects windfall profits. Her billionaire husband, Roarke, may be able to help, considering his ties to the city’s ultra-rich. But Roarke is also worried about the effect this case is having on Dallas, as it brings a rage to the surface she can barely control. No matter what, she must keep her head clear--because above all, she is desperate for justice and to take down those who prey on and torment the innocent.

My Review:

The desperation that leads to the death that brings Eve Dallas and her ever-expanding crew onto this case is one that Eve is entirely too familiar with. It’s the desperation of a girl who has been trapped into a life where she is merely an object for other people’s abuse and other people’s pleasure.

In Eve’s case, the “person” who kept her trapped and bound was her father Richard Troy. He’s dead. He’s dead because Eve’s desperation led to her killing the bastard at a point when she just couldn’t take it anymore. She was eight years old.

Mina and Dorian were kidnapped as preteens and whisked away to the Pleasure Academy, where they are being groomed and indoctrinated to become sex slaves for wealthy, influential and disgusting people, mostly men, who will take pleasure in raping them, beating them, and quite possibly even killing them if it strikes their or their so-called friends’ fancies.

In desperation, these two girls band together and attempt to escape from their well-appointed prison. Only one of them makes it. But the discovery of the other girl’s body opens up the kind of far-reaching case that will bring closure to bunch of families, freedom to a bunch of trafficked women, and visit justice upon a bunch of scumbags, one way or another, while letting Eve exorcize one or two of her own ghosts.

If she can just get one runaway girl to trust her with the truth. No matter how dangerous for the girl, and no matter how many nightmares it will give Eve along the way.

Escape Rating B+: Desperation in Death is a solid and compelling entry in the long-running In Death series – even if it is a trip to Eve and Roarke’s personal angst-factories by proxy. Or maybe because of that fact, as we get to see them work through a few more of their demons without the case reaching directly into either of their traumatizing childhoods.

Not that what Dorian Gregg and all the other girls the Pleasure Academy trafficked have experienced isn’t more than traumatic enough to give pretty much everyone on the team a few nightmares. But the lack of a specific personal connection to either Eve or Roarke makes the story a bit easier – just a tiny bit considering the subject – for the reader to get caught up in. But we’re caught the way the rest of the team is caught – wanting to catch the really, really disgustingly awful villains rather than caught up in the unspooling of yet more of either Eve or Roarke’s personal demons.

I follow this series, all 55 books and counting! because I love the found family that surrounds Eve and Roarke – including just how endlessly surprised Eve is that she has gathered a family of any kind around herself. So one of the things that made this entry in the series so much fun to read was the way that the gang really pulled together to nab the villains.

It also helped that in this case the villains were not just truly, despicably villainous, but that their villainy had nothing to do with any mental illness or trauma. They’re just awful people who need to get their just desserts. And if those just desserts get served in hell, so much the better.

This is in contrast with the previous book in the series, Abandoned in Death, which dealt with some similar crimes but came at them from an angle where everyone was traumatized including the perpetrator. I found that one hard-going because the villain’s head was one I didn’t want to be in at all and couldn’t read the parts from their perspective.

The villains in this case are so cold and dispassionate about the whole thing, and their points of view are both few and equally icy that the only peeks we needed into their heads were superficial.

In a way, this story was at one remove from both its villains and its heroes, and that made it easier to follow the action without diving too deeply into the motivations.

All of that is a way to loop back around and say this is a solid and solidly entertaining entry in the series for long-time fans. If you love Dallas and Roarke you’ll enjoy this season’s peek into their lives as much as I did.

And I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series, Encore in Death, coming out in February. A little murder among the rich and famous should be just the ticket to warm up a winter night or two!

Review: Bronze Drum by Phong Nguyen

Review: Bronze Drum by Phong NguyenBronze Drum: A Novel of Sisters and War by Phong Nguyen
Narrator: Quyen Ngo
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 384
Length: 11 hours and 22 minutes
Published by Grand Central Publishing on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A stunning novel of ancient Vietnam based on the true story of two warrior sisters who raised an army of women to overthrow the Han Chinese and rule as kings over a united people, for readers of Circe and The Night Tiger.
Gather around, children of Chu Dien, and be brave.For even to listen to the story of the Trung Sisters is,in these troubled times, a dangerous act.
In 40 CE, in the Au Lac region of ancient Vietnam, two daughters of a Vietnamese Lord fill their days training, studying, and trying to stay true to Vietnamese traditions. While Trung Trac is disciplined and wise, always excelling in her duty, Trung Nhi is fierce and free spirited, more concerned with spending time in the gardens and with lovers.
But these sister's lives—and the lives of their people—are shadowed by the oppressive rule of the Han Chinese. They are forced to adopt Confucian teachings, secure marriages, and pay ever‑increasing taxes. As the peoples' frustration boils over, the country comes ever closer to the edge of war.

My Review:

“It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace.” Or so said the Greek philosopher Aristotle in the 4th century BCE. As many lessons in both military history, leadership and philosophy that we see the Trưng sisters attend in the first half of this story, it’s a lesson that they failed to learn if they heard it or the equivalent in the philosophers that they did study in 1st century CE Vietnam.

The Trưng sisters, Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, were the daughters of one of the Vietnamese lords who ruled their provinces under the oppressive thumb of the Han Chinese during the first Chinese domination of Vietnam. A domination that was ended, however briefly, by the Trưng sisters’ rebellion.

Drum From Sông Đà Vietnam. Đông Sơn II Culture. Mid 1st Millenium BCE. Bronze

So the bones of this story really happened. Including the smelting of the bronze drums that that rebellion had used so very successfully in the overthrow of their oppressors.

But 2,000 years is a long time ago, especially in the history of a people that has been conquered and subjugated, divided and reunited, over and over again. And that’s where this historical fiction account of the only queen regnant in Vietnamese history comes in.

And what a story it is!

Escape Rating B: I had two separate and distinct reactions to Bronze Drum. I was being told a story (literally as I listened to the audiobook) in a historical tradition with which I was completely unfamiliar. And that history, the history of the Trưng sisters rebellion, its causes and its ultimate failure, was fascinating. Not just because it was new to me, but because it’s a story of a women-led uprising at a point in history where we don’t expect such things to have happened at all.

But I had a separate reaction to the story as it was being told, to the narrative progress of the fictionalized version I was listening to. And I was a bit less fascinated with how the story worked as opposed to the history that inspired it.

The story begins with the Trưng sisters as very young women, and the story of their early years takes up the first half of the book. While the reader – or certainly this reader – needs an introduction to their society at that point in time, this part of the story dragged in the telling of it. They are sisters, they fight a lot, the younger resents the elder, is rebellious and misbehaves, and not much happens in the grand scheme of things.

The Trưng sisters ride elephants into battle in this Đông Hồ style painting

It’s only in the second half that the pace picks up. As the immediate reasons for the rebellion start piling up – literally as in bodies stacked like cordwood – we start reaching the events that really matter. The women of Vietnam rise up and overthrow the oppressive Han regime, through training and teamwork and an indomitable will. It’s exciting and it grabs the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go.

And I think this would have been a better story if it had focused there instead of the long, drawn out recounting of their earlier years. Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.

About the audiobook…Bronze Drum is a book that I listened to in its entirety. I did try switching to the text but the way that the names are pronounced and the way that they are transliterated from the Vietnamese into the English alphabet are markedly different. Enough to make switching between the two difficult for someone who isn’t familiar with the language. (While I recognize that this is a “me” problem, if it’s also potentially a “you” problem it’s something to keep in mind.)

A lot of the books I listen to as opposed to reading are from first-person perspectives. I find those particularly well suited to audiobooks as I really get the experience of being inside the narrator’s head. Bronze Drum is in the third person, and there is a lot more narration of that third person overview than there is either dialog or internal thoughts. Narration is, of necessity, at a bit of a remove, and as a consequence the narration of this book is dispassionate to the point of being a bit flat, making the audio experience a bit of a mixed bag as well as the story. The listening experience was much closer to that of an unvoiced (un-acted) narration and that’s not what I listen to audiobooks for.

One final note. In the way that the story is told, Bronze Drum reminds me a LOT of Kaikeyi. And not just because both stories are in traditions that I was not familiar with. Both stories spend a lot of time on that portrait of the protagonist as a young girl, when they are not able to fully participate in the important events around them or yet to come. And both are stories of women taking prominent places in men’s stories and in a man’s world at a time and place where that was not expected. The major difference, at least to this reader, is that Kaikeyi puts a female perspective and a feminist interpretation on a myth, while Bronze Drum is a feminist history that really happened.

Review: The Shop on Royal Street by Karen White

Review: The Shop on Royal Street by Karen WhiteThe Shop on Royal Street (Royal Street, #1) by Karen White
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, paranormal
Series: Royal Street #1
Pages: 384
Published by Berkley Books on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The first in a new spinoff series of Karen White's New York Times bestselling Tradd Street novels.
After a difficult hiccup on her road to adulthood, Nola Trenholm is looking to begin anew in New Orleans, and what better way to start her future than with her first house? But the historic fixer-upper she buys comes with even more work than she anticipated when the house's previous occupants don't seem to be ready to depart. Although she can't communicate with ghosts like her stepmother, luckily Nola knows someone in New Orleans who can--even if he's the last person on earth she wants anything to do with, ever again. Because Beau Ryan comes with his own dark past, a past that involves the disappearance of his sister and parents during Hurricane Katrina, and the unsolved murder of a woman who once lived in the old Creole Cottage Nola is determined to make her own whether or not the resident restless spirits agree...

My Review:

There’s just something about New Orleans. Not just the beignets and chicory coffee at the Café du Monde (although those beignets still loom large and delicious in my memory). It’s the hot, steamy mélange of gumbo and hurricanes – and HURRICANES – and blues and magic that seems to pervade both the area AND the history of it.

New Orleans is a place of stories – the kind of stories that are told in the light and the ones that are whispered in the dark. Which makes it the perfect place to set this combination of ghost story, cold case mystery and gothic thriller.

Nola Trenholm is named for the city, because that’s where she was conceived. (Thank goodness she wasn’t conceived in Poughkeepsie!) So the city represents her birth, but it also represents her downfall, as her first attempt at college – at Tulane University in New Orleans – ended in a haze of alcohol and addiction.

She intends for the city to be her rebirth as well. Clean, sober and with a Master’s degree in historic preservation under her belt, Nola has returned to the city with a job investigating the historical significance of buildings that may be demolished in the name of “progress”, unless her work bears compelling fruit.

Her plan is to do at least some of her preservation work very personally, by buying a historic home that is in need of TONS of professional preservation. And that’s where the mystery really begins.

The old Creole Cottage is meant to be hers. It’s not just that it calls to her in the way that some places do. It’s that it is literally intended to belong to her, at least as relayed by her grandmother Sarah from beyond the grave.

Which should be a red flag that Nola isn’t quite right in the head. But not in her family. Nola can’t see spirits or communicate with the dead, but her stepmother Melanie most definitely can, as is it told in the Tradd Street series of which this is a spinoff.

When Grandmother Sarah calls Melanie from the beyond to tell her that the house is meant to be Nola’s it doesn’t so much take care of Melanie’s many, many objections as it does move them to another sphere entirely.

Nola’s meant to have the house because she’s the one with the resources – or the sheer pigheadedness – to finally lay the ghosts haunting the cottage to rest. Nola’s historic fixer-upper is a murder house. A murder that’s tied into the one person Nola would really rather not see in her return to New Orleans.

But it’s not a coincidence that the cottage – and in some surprising ways that old murder – both belong to Beau Ryan, who once saved her from a ghost, twice saved her from the consequences of her addiction, and has the talents needed to save her yet again.

If she can bear to let him. And if he can let himself admit that, just like Nola’s stepmother Melanie, Beau Ryan can see dead people.

Escape Rating B+: As soon as I picked up a copy of this from the library last week it started calling my name – much like New Orleans itself. The combination of past and present mysteries along with ghostly and other perpetrators hiding in the shadows looked fascinating, and so it proved.

And I always love a good story set in New Orleans.

This is the first book in a new series, spun off from a previous series. Which I have not read, probably because Charleston, while a lovely historic city in its own right, doesn’t draw me the way that New Orleans does. There are plenty of cross-over characters from Tradd Street to Royal Street, but I didn’t feel like I missed too much by not having started there. Not that I might not go back when I’m next in the mood for a story like this one!

The whole point of the move back to New Orleans for Nola is to get a fresh start without her parents looking over her shoulder, which works even better for this series starter than it does for Nola herself. She’s building a new team of friends, helpers and supporters around herself in her new city so the reader gets to be introduced to all the new people and watch the “Scooby Gang” come together along with Nola.

And what a marvelously mixed bunch they are! Especially Nola’s best friend Jolene, who combines Southern Belle with Steel Magnolia, while speaking in metaphors that make perfect sense but seem to come out of an ether that only Jolene can access. Probably the same place that Jolene gets what seems to be magical talents in just about every skill a Southern Belle could possibly need or want. She’s amazing and amazingly offbeat at the same time.

But the mystery – and the ghosts – that haunt the cottage are tied to Nola’s frenemy, Beau Ryan, and especially his family and their relationship with the shady movers and shakers of the city. As Nola’s father says in every one of his best-selling mystery thrillers, there is no such thing as coincidence. And there are no coincidences in the fact that Nola’s new house, which she bought from Beau’s grandmother over Beau’s objections, is tied to Beau’s family all the way back to that long ago murder – and the consequences of that murder that keep spilling over into each generation.

While one piece of the puzzle gets resolved by the end of The Shop on Royal Street, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of a long and bloody history – one that will probably take several books to resolve. As will the glimmer of a romantic possibility between Beau Ryan and Nola Trenholm – in spite of both of their intentions to stay out of each other’s way romantically and otherwise.

It will be fun – with a bit of a ghostly chill – to see all the interwoven threads begin their unraveling in the next book in the Royal Street series, The House on Prytania, coming late next spring. I always look forward to a trip to New Orleans!