Review: When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

Review: When No One is Watching by Alyssa ColeWhen No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 352
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on September 1, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The gentrification of a Brooklyn neighborhood takes on a sinister new meaning…
Sydney Green is Brooklyn born and raised, but her beloved neighborhood seems to change every time she blinks. Condos are sprouting like weeds, FOR SALE signs are popping up overnight, and the neighbors she’s known all her life are disappearing. To hold onto her community’s past and present, Sydney channels her frustration into a walking tour and finds an unlikely and unwanted assistant in one of the new arrivals to the block—her neighbor Theo.
But Sydney and Theo’s deep dive into history quickly becomes a dizzying descent into paranoia and fear. Their neighbors may not have moved to the suburbs after all, and the push to revitalize the community may be more deadly than advertised.
When does coincidence become conspiracy? Where do people go when gentrification pushes them out? Can Sydney and Theo trust each other—or themselves—long enough to find out before they too disappear?

My Review:

This is a bit of a three-legged race of a book. There are three threads to this story, all heading towards an ending, but one is going slow like a Model T, one is speeding along like it’s racing for NASCAR, and one is tootling along in a clown car.

Except that none of this story is funny.

But seriously, there are three separate plot threads to this story. While they are all heading towards the same finish, they are not racing at the same pace or with nearly the same amount of success.

When the story begins it looks kind of like we’re at the beginning of a (very) slow burn romance between Sydney and Theo, when Theo and his about-to-be-ex-girlfriend move in across the street from Sydney in the Brooklyn neighborhood where she grew up.

Both of their lives are in turmoil. Theo because of the impending breakup, but Sydney because well, shit has happened to her and it just keeps happening. Her marriage failed, her ex was emotionally abusive and wrecked her self-esteem, she’s unemployed, her mother was scammed out of her house and Sydney’s trying to get it back AND she’s trying to pay off back taxes and huge medical bills for both of them.

In the middle of their intersecting and imploding lives – drops the second thread about the consequences of gentrification for the people who live in the area being gentrified. A euphemism that usually means moving the brown people and the marginalized people OUT by fair means or foul, mostly foul, so that the white people can move IN.

Sydney is creating a walking tour of the neighborhood for an upcoming holiday celebration, and Theo gets recruited as her research assistant. The history that they uncover is well and truly appalling and it’s hard not to see it happening all around them as they are watching and researching, because Theo’s soon-to-be-ex is right in the thick of it.

But then there’s the depth of the evil that is behind this particular wave of gentrification, and is hinted at having been behind many if not most of the previous waves. And there’s the clown car rolling in.

Not that they aren’t truly evil, because they are. But because once Sydney and Theo find their way to the center of this particular tentacle of the long-running conspiracy it seems to be run by folks who learned how to be evil from comic book villains.

They’ve been successful not because they’re intelligent, but because so many people are complicit and so few seem to have chosen to stand and fight. They represent both the mediocrity of evil and and a perfect example of the old adage about the only thing required for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.

Which may make this book the perfect thing to encapsulate recent events in the U.S. but caused it to fall a bit flat at the end.

Escape Rating B-: The history that underpins this story is absolutely fascinating. And it was great to see a book that managed to give the evils of gentrification not just a human face, but to make it comprehensible without becoming either a history text, an info dump, or just a boring lecture.

The way that the gentrification subplot wove into both of the other parts of the story was the best part of this book.

The romance, on the other hand, was a slow burn that didn’t really need to burn at all. I’m not sure I bought the chemistry between Sydney and Theo, and both of them were rebounding from such shitty relationships – and somewhat the same kind of shitty – that I wasn’t left with any real hope of even much of a happy for now.

And both of them were such unreliable narrators of their own lives that I’m left wondering if there really was anything there but sex and desperation – and whether or not there should have been. The first 100 pages of the book are a complete downer as both of their lives just seem to be spiraling towards the drain at an increasing rate of speed.

The thriller part of this story, discovering that this particular act of replacement, removal and rebuilding, or break and build as the book puts it, was a mixed bag. On the one hand, once that part of the story finally gets going it really gets going. The final 50+ pages move along like gangbusters.

Or like a first-person shooter type of video game. The pace is fast, the bodies are falling, the discoveries are horrific and the heroes barely manage to survive the boss battle at the end.

The problem was that the bosses we saw, the people behind it all, read like comic book villains. It felt like they succeeded in spite of their incompetence and not because of their competence. They succeeded up until that point because “the system” is set up for them to succeed.

Which may be the most evil thing of all. But it didn’t make for the best story, which was a disappointment because this was a book I really wanted to love and just didn’t.

Reviewer’s Note: I think I read the books in the wrong order this week. Because the “happy, happy, joy, joy” reaction I’m having post-Inauguration makes it difficult to get into a thriller that gets pretty dark but doesn’t get there half as successfully as I expected. It’s definitely making me wonder how books written during the mess of the last four years and especially during the pandemic are going to fare once we get further down the road to normal.

Although that journey feels like it’s already begun, leading to my fit of exuberance.

Review: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

Review: The Hollow Places by T. KingfisherThe Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, horror
Pages: 352
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on October 6, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A young woman discovers a strange portal in her uncle’s house, leading to madness and terror in this gripping new novel.
Recently divorced and staring down the barrel of moving back in with her parents, Carrot really needs a break. And a place to live. So when her Uncle Earl, owner of the eclectic Wonder Museum, asks her to stay with him in exchange for cataloguing the exhibits, of course she says yes.

The Wonder Museum is packed with taxidermy, shrunken heads, and an assortment of Mystery Junk. For Carrot, it's not creepy at all: she grew up with it. What's creepy is the hole that's been knocked in one of the museum walls, and the corridor behind it. There's just no space for a corridor in the museum's thin walls - or the concrete bunker at the end of it, or the strange islands beyond the bunker's doors, or the whispering, unseen things lurking in the willow trees.

Carrot has stumbled into a strange and horrifying world, and They are watching her. Strewn among the islands are the remains of Their meals - and Their experiments. And even if she manages to make it back home again, she can't stop calling Them after her...

My Review:

At the beginning, this reminded me way more of The Doors of Eden than it did Narnia – at least until it talked about The Magician’s Nephew and “the wood between the worlds”. Because that was a “between” place, and so is the place that Carrot and her friend Simon find themselves in when they step into a passageway between her uncle’s Wonder Museum and Simon’s sister’s coffee shop next door.

A passageway that leads someplace else. An elsewhere that is MUCH scarier than most of the places in the multiverse that those Doors of Eden led to, and much more inherently frightening than that wood between the worlds.

Physically, it sounds a lot more like the Barrow Downs of Middle Earth – at least a version of the Barrow Downs where the evil trees of Mirkwood had moved in and taken over. There’s also a “between” very much like this one, without the creepy trees, in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I have a feeling there was a Doctor Who episode that had more than a bit of the same feel.

Or at least featured a similarly misplaced school bus. (It’s Planet of the Dead, which is a little too on the nose)

(My mind wandered a bit as I was reading, especially at the beginning, because it kept getting pinged by hints of so many familiar things!)

But the place that Carrot – her name is really Kara but her uncle still calls her Carrot – and Simon find themselves is definitely somewhere at the seriously creepy, downright Lovecraftian edge of the multiverse. Well, Lovecraftian if you squint and see tree roots as tentacles.

As Carrot says, everything in Lovecraft had tentacles. As scary as this story is, the tree roots will definitely do.

The story begins innocently enough, with Kara discovering a hole in the wall of the museum. A hole probably caused by a tourist. Because tourists make all the messes.

Kara and Simon both seemed to be afflicted with nearly terminal curiosity. Kara has returned to her tiny hometown of Hog Chapel, North Carolina, to a rent-free room over her uncle’s eclectic museum, after her unsatisfactory marriage ends in quiet divorce. If home is the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in, then the Wonder Museum is certainly Kara’s.

Simon lives next door, also rent-free, over his sister’s coffee shop and earns his keep as her barista. Both Kara and Simon are theoretically adults, but seem a bit frozen in time and lack of maturity. They bond together because neither of them quite fits in, and they have way too much time on their hands, and much too much imagination.

So when Kara discovers that hole in the museum’s wall, she and Simon just have to investigate. When the hole leads to a corridor that simply doesn’t fit within the geography they know, they don’t board it up. They go back to get better supplies for further exploration.

The world that they discover on the other side of that hole in the wall will provide both of them with nightmares for the rest of their lives. If they can manage to make it back alive. And lock the door behind them.

Escape Rating B: I don’t usually care for horror, and I knew this was horror when I picked it up. But I love this author’s voice so I was more than willing to give it a try. After making sure that ALL the lights were on.

At first it did remind me of The Doors of Eden rather a lot. The idea that there was an opening to a “between” place that opened into who knows how many different worlds is something they have in common. And what Mal, Lee and Kay found on the other side of that “between” was every bit as scary as what Kara and Simon found.

But Doors was more science fictional. It might not be real science, but it did its best, and a very damn good best it was, to sound like it was based on something real. Or at least real-ish.

The Hollow Places, even though it started with the same kind of weird, wacky museum as The Museum of Forgotten Memories, took a turn straight into things that go bump in the night in very short order. Because there is definitely something lurking in those hollow places, those bunkers, and it is coming to get Kara, Simon, Beau the cat, and if it can get fully established, all the rest of us.

At the same time, so much of what happens in that other world reads like a kind of fever dream and it feels that way to Kara and Simon as it is happening. Beau just wants to kill any monsters that enter his territory. Or honestly pretty much any other thing that looks like prey that enters his territory. He’s very cat.

What makes the story work are the characters of Kara and Simon. (Also Beau, I loved Beau). To say that they are not adulting well probably sums up their surface. They’ve found a place where they can manage. It’s not exactly comfortable, but they’ve made their lives work. They’re not brave, they’re not heroic, they’re both unlucky in love and not with each other (Kara is straight and Simon is gay) but they hold each other up when the situation is at its absolute worst with a bit of common sense, a whole lot of bravado and just enough of the snarkitude that I read this author for.

Still, Kara and Simon are profoundly there for each other even when neither of them is willing to articulate precisely what it is they are there for, because that way lies madness and they both know it. I started this book for the snark – didn’t get quite as much of it as I was hoping for – but I finished it for them. And Beau.

The ending reminded me of something completely different from anything I was expecting in a horror novel. This may have started with The Magician’s Nephew, but it ended with The Velveteen Rabbit. Because Kara loved the tatty, stuffed and badly taxidermied animals that were such a big part of the Wonder Museum. She loved them enough that for one brief moment, when she needed all the help she could get from whatever place she could get it from, all those animals became, as the Rabbit so poignantly described, Real.

Review: Breathe the Sky by Michelle Hazen

Review: Breathe the Sky by Michelle HazenBreathe the Sky by Michelle Hazen
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books: Penguin Random House on August 18, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Two strangers start out saving animals and end up rescuing each other in this heartwarming romance from the author of Unbreak Me. 
Mari Tucker is a wildlife biologist who scoops bunnies and endangered tortoises out of harm’s way on construction sites. Still haunted by her past, she takes the most remote jobs in the Mojave Desert to avoid people and hide from her ex. It’s a simple, quiet life filled with sweet animals and solar-powered baking until she ends up assigned to Jack Wyatt’s crew.
Construction foreman Jack Wyatt’s loud, foul-mouthed temper keeps even the most rugged of men on his crew in line. No mistake is overlooked, because out in the desert it could mean life or death. In his opinion, the job site is no place for sensitive biologists, especially one as shy as Mari. But instead of wilting from the heat and hard work, Mari wins over Jack and his crew one homemade brownie at a time.
Jack and Mari find a comfortable rhythm, building a friendship that’s rare for both of them. After Jack’s rocky childhood, they have more in common than they’d imagined. But even the Mojave sun can’t chase away the shadows when the past is determined to track them down…

My Review:

This one had me from “turtle rubber”. Honestly, “turtle rubber”, as in a condom for handling turtles. I started chortling along with the characters and didn’t stop, even though I already knew there was an EvilEx™ lurking in the shadows. And I usually don’t have kind thoughts about stories that rely on the return of an EvilEx™ to power their story.

But turtle rubbers? That, along with “consensual grabbing” of the turtle, tickled my funny bone, got me to empathize with the characters – including the poor, grabbed turtle – and got me hooked.

In spite of the chelonian (crossword puzzle answer meaning “relating to turtles”) humor, Breathe the Sky is not exactly a happy book. It does manage to grope its way towards a happy ending, but it’s a hard, rough ride to get there.

Because there isn’t just one EvilEx™ hanging over this romance like the proverbial Sword of Damocles, there are actually, sorta/kinda, two.

Wildlife biologist Mari Tucker begins the story on the run from her abusive ex-husband. That’s not a secret, not even at the very beginning. Everything Mari says and does seems to lead back to the vicious bastard.

Except, hopefully, her trail from her old life to her current job as a nomadic wildlife biologist – or bio – monitoring construction sites in the Mojave Desert to make sure that the towers that are built don’t contribute any further to the endangerment of the region’s many already endangered species.

Like those turtles.

Mari lives out of her truck, stays on the move, and uses most of her hard-earned cash to make inadequate payments on the thousands of dollars of medical debt she got left with after her divorce. Debts that she accumulated in treatment for all of the damage her ex did to her.

And she’s still looking over her shoulder, and still hearing his voice in her head, telling her that she’s stupid and clumsy, and incapable, and that no one will ever love her or take care of her except him.

There’s still a part of her that believes it, too. That is aware that the real reason that she left him was to keep him from killing her – not for her sake but to save him from a murder charge.

As much as Mari is used to making herself as small as possible in order to dodge the next fist, she still recognizes something of herself in construction foreman Jack Wyatt. Jack is rough and loud and yells more than he talks. But Mari figures out that Jack is, in a peculiar way, just like her.

That he’s waiting for the next blow or the next fist. That he’s scared, too. Just that his way of dealing with his fear is to make himself bigger and louder so that no one else ever sees that he’s afraid. That he’s hearing that same voice in his head telling him that he’s not enough and that he’s never going to amount to anything.

One inch, one step, and especially one solar-oven home cooked brownie at a time, Mari and Jack manage to help each other put some of their broken pieces together.

Only for their rising tide of possibility to get swamped by those old voices, reaching out of their past to try to destroy the present. And possibly succeeding.

Escape Rating B: Breathe the Sky is very much of a slow burn romance. And the reason that the burn is so slow boils down to the weight of the baggage that is dragging behind, and dragging down, both Mari and Wyatt. It’s like they are dragging the chains of Marley and Marley in A Muppet Christmas Carol – but without nearly as much of the humor that leavens that particular version of what is, honestly, a pretty dark story.

After reading Breathe the Sky, and particularly the author’s notes at the end, it feels as if this is really two stories combined into one that are both strong and good stories but don’t meld into as strong of a whole – or possibly that don’t appeal to the same audience.

One story, and it’s the one that brings with it the happy ending, parallels the author’s own life as a nomadic wildlife biologist. One who shares her love of working in remote places and that nomadic lifestyle with her very own romantic hero and has found her own HEA.

But it’s the darker story that dominates this book. Both Mari and Wyatt are domestic abuse survivors. Both come from families where domestic abuse is a repeating pattern. Mari doesn’t admit it, but there was abuse in her childhood, and she repeated the pattern with her ex-husband, who also came from a family with a pattern of abuse. Wyatt’s abuse began with his father and continued with his older brother.

They both have shit they haven’t dealt with, because it’s hard and it’s hard to admit that people who say they love you are hurting you. Even though by the time of this story they have physically escaped their abusers, mentally they are both still trapped and it is keeping them from moving on with their lives.

Neither of them trusts their own judgement, and they don’t feel capable of judging whether or not the other is trustworthy.

So the story operates on two different levels. Readers will probably have different thoughts and feelings about the story depending on which they see as dominant. I found the way that the abuse in their earlier lives continued to hang over them and hold them back to be the larger part of the story, which made it a hard slog for me.

One thing about this part of the story that I did love. In the end they each rescued themselves. They didn’t rescue each other. You can only break your own chains, you can only deal with your own shit. No one can do it for you and it was important to show that.

But it still makes for a very hard read.

Howsomever, readers who see their recovery as the lion’s share of the story will probably come out of the story happier than I did. This one is definitely a case where the reading mileage is going to vary.

Review: The Secrets of Colchester Hall by Sophie Barnes + Giveaway

Review: The Secrets of Colchester Hall by Sophie Barnes + GiveawayThe Secrets Of Colchester Hall by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: Gothic, historical romance, regency romance
Pages: 148
Published by Sophie Barnes on January 12, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

As one of six possible candidates vying for Viscount Sterling's hand, Lady Angelica has been invited to stay at his grand manor for a week-long house party. But an unpleasant feeling lurks within Colchester Hall. It's almost as if someone's watching Angelica just beyond the edge of her vision. And while she tries to explain the chill creeping up behind her as merely a draft, she can't shake the feeling that something disturbing might be at play.
When Sterling decides she's the woman he wants, can Angelica accept her new home and the sinister secrets she fears it might hold, or will she give up on true love because of what could prove to be nothing more than her own imagination?
NOTE: This novella was previously included in the anthology, Wicked Liaison

My Review:

It’s not illogical that the result of a man discovering that his late wife was unfaithful would be for him to ensure that his next wife wouldn’t be tempted. Or in the case of Viscount Randolph Sterling’s search for a new bride, wouldn’t be tempting to others.

The problem is that his next viscountess really does need to be tempting to him.

It’s a conundrum that he intends to solve by inviting six women who are “on the shelf” to his home, with their chaperones, in the hopes that one will strike his fancy – even if it seems that the entire ton has labelled them as unmarriageable for one reason or another.

Three are shy to the point of paralysis, which explains their lack of previous offers. One is a bit shy, but is mostly disqualified because she’s already in love with someone else, who of course doesn’t seem to notice that she exists. (I really liked Lucy and wouldn’t mind seeing her story!)

One of the eligible ladies has the personality of a narcissistic velociraptor. And I might have just insulted velociraptors. It’s clear upon first meeting that the reason no one has offered marriage to Lady Seraphina is because she’s a vicious bitch. And again, that’s an insult to both vicious people and bitches. She’s a piece of work.

That leaves our heroine, Lady Angelica. She’s not shy. In fact, many might say that her lack of shyness, certainly her lack of what was considered decorum and proper behavior for ladies, was the reason that no one – at least so far – had wanted to marry her. Angelica speaks her mind, to the point where she is considered to be blunt to a fault.

Angelica is exactly what Randolph Sterling has been looking for. Over the course of a week where he “interviews” all of his prospective brides, he already knows that he has made his choice.

If Angelica will agree. And if the malign spirit that seems to haunt Colchester Hall will let her live long enough to reach the altar.

Escape Rating B+: For a surprisingly short book, The Secrets of Colchester Hall manages to encompass some seriously creepy Gothic chills while solving the mystery of those titular secrets and leading to a satisfactory – and heated – romantic happy ever after.

Of course, the protagonists need the heat of that HEA to get over the chills induced by those terrible secrets.

The Secrets of Colchester Hall is billed as a gothic romance, and was originally published as part of an anthology of gothics. Gothic romances are a subgenre that isn’t as popular as it was once upon a time, so it was fascinating to read one that invoked some of the classics of the genre.

There are hints of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, to the point where that story is deliberately lampshaded in the bookstore when the hero recommends the book to the heroine. A heroine who is a fan of such gothic romances, as is the heroine of Northanger Abbey herself.

But it feels like the real inspiration for this foray into those secrets at Colchester Hall is Dame Daphne du Maurier’s classic creeper Rebecca. The story has several similar elements, enough to let a reader predict at least some of the outcome. But it stands more than well enough on its own to keep the reader shivering and turning pages to the very last.

What makes this one stand out is the character of Angelica. Her bluntness and plain-speaking make her easy for contemporary readers to identify with, and her willingness to say what she really thinks, no matter the social cost, provides the story with many of its best and most lighthearted moments – as well as providing Sterling with all the reasons he could ever want to ask Angelica for her hand.

Like most gothic romances, there is more than a bit of willing suspension of disbelief involved. The actual villain of the piece is flesh-and-blood and certainly among the living, and that person’s machinations are plausible. Sinister, murderous, manipulative, but still plausible. But there’s an element of paranormal woo-woo involved in most gothics and this one was no exception. Angelica is receiving messages from the beyond and those messages are getting her attention – as well as the attention of the villain. That the story requires her to believe those messages and for the hero to believe her and not have her committed, is a bit of a stretch.

A stretch that works, and chills the reader right to the bone.

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

a Rafflecopter giveaway

 

Review: Find Me in Havana by Serena Burdick

Review: Find Me in Havana by Serena BurdickFind Me in Havana by Serena Burdick
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Park Row Books on January 12, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A stunning new novel of historical fiction from the author of
The Girls with No Names
based on the true unsolved murder of Cuban-born Hollywood actress Estelita Rodriguez.
Cuba, 1936. As her family struggles to recover from the Cuban Revolution, Estelita's own world opens when she's "discovered" singing in Havana nightclubs. At fifteen, her dreams to travel to America come true with the invitation to sing at the Copacabana. There, she begins a whirlwind romance with Chu Chu Martinez, a handsome actor she later marries. But when Chu Chu forbids her from performing, Estelita takes their daughter, Nina, and escapes to Hollywood.
Big Sur, 1966. Nina Rodriguez grew up enamored by her mother's beauty and glamour. She still doesn't understand how her vivacious mother could have died so quickly from influenza and suspects a more sinister plot pointing to her mother's most recent romance. When Nina finds herself repeating her mother's destructive patterns with men, she looks to the lessons of her mother's past to find a new way forward.
Based on the true events of Estelita Rodriguez's sensational life and exclusive interviews with the real Nina, Find Me in Havana beautifully captures the love, sacrifice and deep understanding that can only come from a mother-daughter relationship.

My Review:

This is one of those stories that lives up to the adage “fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” Because this is a fictionalized story of a real life, a real death, and a real mystery. The author, having been told this story, filled in the blanks provided by the story of a daughter, 30 years later, telling the story of the mother who died under mysterious circumstances, and whom, quite possibly, she never really knew.

The woman at the center of this story is Estelita Rodriguez, a Cuban actress who was featured in a series of Westerns with Roy Rogers, and whose best known role was in Rio Bravo with John Wayne.

She died young and under rather mysterious circumstances in 1966, at the age of 37, leaving behind a husband she was about to divorce and a 20-year-old daughter whose memories provide the heart of this pseudo-speculative biography.

I say pseudo because Nina Rodriguez, although she tells this story much, much later in her life, is remembering events in her mother’s life that she either witnessed as a child or pieced together long after the events. Much of what she remembers is filtered through her childhood perspective and some of it may be inaccurate, either because of a lack of perspective, a lack of information, or simply the tendency of memories to blur over time.

So Nina’s memory of her stepfather Grant Withers’ death isn’t quite what happened. Or rather it isn’t quite when and where it happened. He did die that way, but four years after her mother divorced him and neither Estelita nor Nina were witnesses.

Time and memory play tricks on us all.

The story is also speculative because the cause of Estelita’s death was not determined at the time, so the mystery surrounding her death has never been resolved. It may be as Nina describes it in the book. That story fits the pieces she had but we’ll never really know.

Estelita Rodriguez

What we do have is a story that blends Nina’s memories with messages that are written as if they came from Estelita. It’s the story of a life that had its highs and lows, but also a life that traveled from, through, and returned to some very dark times and places.

And she survived, even if entirely too often by the skin of her teeth. Until, suddenly and unexpectedly, she was gone. Leaving her daughter to pick up the tiny, broken pieces of both of their lives.

Escape Rating B: In a week where I was looking for stories with happy endings, this one was particularly heartbreaking. Estelita’s story is a walk through some very dark places, to the point where the reader sometimes questions how she managed to survive as long as she did.

It’s also a story where the protagonist has sown the seeds of their own destruction to the point where it’s not really a surprise that it finally reaches out and sucks her under.

One of the things that surprised me while reading is just how much Estelita and the heroine of yesterday’s book have in common. That they are both Latinx is the superficial part of that similarity. The deeper underlying commonality is the way that they both spend their lives looking for validation through the eyes of and in their relationships with, men. Usually the wrong men, at that. The differences begin because Jasmine, yesterday’s heroine, gets herself out of that trap, where Estelita never does. But part of Jasmine’s ability to do that comes from her marvelously supportive family, where Estelita seems to have always been an outsider in hers.

And that the times they lived in were so very different.

The hardest part of Estelita’s life to read, however, relates to her experience of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when she briefly returned to her homeland after her father and two of her brothers-in-law had been imprisoned for their support of the ousted Batista. The harrowing events of those few brief months, at least according to this fictionalized biography, left both Estelita and Nina emotionally scarred for the rest of their lives.

If it happened this way, or at all.

In the end, I have mixed feelings about this book. It is, as I said earlier, a walk through very dark places, whether fictionalized or not. It’s an absorbing read, even if it was not what I was in the mood for, and that colors my perceptions. The story also feels very subjective, as it isn’t so much Estelita’s story as it is Nina’s recollections of Estelita’s story as seen through Nina’s eyes as a child and young adult. The two women don’t relate as much to or understand each other nearly as well as the blurb might lead readers to believe.

In the end, a frequently compelling read, but not a remotely happy one.

Review: You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria

Review: You Had Me at Hola by Alexis DariaYou Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 365
Published by Avon on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Leading Ladies do not end up on tabloid covers. 
After a messy public breakup, soap opera darling Jasmine Lin Rodriguez finds her face splashed across the tabloids. When she returns to her hometown of New York City to film the starring role in a bilingual romantic comedy for the number one streaming service in the country, Jasmine figures her new “Leading Lady Plan” should be easy enough to follow—until a casting shake-up pairs her with telenovela hunk Ashton Suárez. 
Leading Ladies don’t need a man to be happy
After his last telenovela character was killed off, Ashton is worried his career is dead as well. Joining this new cast as a last-minute addition will give him the chance to show off his acting chops to American audiences and ping the radar of Hollywood casting agents. To make it work, he’ll need to generate smoking-hot on-screen chemistry with Jasmine. Easier said than done, especially when a disastrous first impression smothers the embers of whatever sexual heat they might have had. 
Leading Ladies do not rebound with their new costars. 
With their careers on the line, Jasmine and Ashton agree to rehearse in private. But rehearsal leads to kissing, and kissing leads to a behind-the-scenes romance worthy of a soap opera. While their on-screen performance improves, the media spotlight on Jasmine soon threatens to destroy her new image and expose Ashton’s most closely guarded secret.
 

My Review:

I went looking for happy endings again. Is anyone surprised? In that search I discovered a whole bunch of friends’ recommendations for this book, as well as remembering that it had been on several best of the year lists – and that I had a copy! Problem solved for a day – not that I didn’t immediately go looking for more for the rest of this week.

While Jasmine and Ashton do have each other at “Hola”, there’s also a truth that the title is quite a bit catchier than the truth, which is more like a mutual “you had me when you spilled coffee on me” because that’s not half so romantic sounding – or succinct.

This is a story that works in multiple directions. One is that it’s a story of two people who both believe, and for very good but completely different reasons, that they need to concentrate on their careers and absolutely NOT on any possibility of romance.

Second, it’s a story about validation. Again, for entirely different reasons, both Jasmine and Ashton are laboring under the mistaken belief that they are not good enough, not doing enough, not accomplishing enough, not trying hard enough, not doing the right things enough.

In other words, they both have serious cases of impostor syndrome. Some of that arises from their family situations, and some of it comes from the way that the entertainment industry which they are both involved in, suffers from a baked-in preference for not just actors like themselves but also people behind the camera and in the front office, who are not like them.

Both are Latinx and both have had plenty of barriers put in their way in their chosen profession. Which leads to the third thing about this story, in that it is a celebration, not just of LatinX culture in all of its own diversity, but also in the joy of being part of a team that has your back and helps you put forth your best everything because of what you all share – particularly in a world that tells you how “other” you are at pretty much every turn.

The romance is, in many ways, an opposites attract kind of love story. Jasmine is very open. She trusts easily and she falls in love easily – both to her own detriment. As a result, much too much of her personal life gets splashed on the tabloids, even if most of what they write is made up nonsense.

Ashton, on the other hand, is extremely private and closed off. He has a secret that he is desperate to keep, but keeping that secret also keeps him from opening himself up even to friendship, let alone anything more.

She’s public and he’s private. She’s gossip fodder and he ruthlessly suppresses publicity. It shouldn’t work. Neither of them really wants it to work, at least as the story begins.

But they’re playing the romantic leads in a made-for-streaming romantic comedy series. On screen, they have to generate serious chemistry, which means that off screen they need to at least be able to talk to one another.

Talking, as it so often does, leads to a whole lot more. A more that neither of them wants to reveal. Until the paparazzi take care of all of that for them in, of course, the worst way possible.

And very nearly destroy the best thing that’s ever happened to either of them.

Escape Rating B+: While this wasn’t quite as transportive as a couple of the romances from my week of happy endings – I’m thinking in particular of Take a Hint, Dani Brown and Spoiler Alert – a good reading time was definitely had by all. Or at least by moi.

I loved the romance between Jasmine and Ashton. It read like a variation of the fake-romance trope, but a variation that definitely worked. It wasn’t exactly that they were faking a romance, but they were faking a romance. It’s just that everyone knew it was a fake, because it was the onscreen romance between their characters.

Come to think of it, they were really faking NOT being a romance. A kind of double-fake. It worked, and the reasons for it worked.

While Ashton’s reason was more important, that he was a single father who was hiding his son in order to keep him safe, it was Jasmine’s reason that resonated most with me. As a middle child, she often felt overlooked between her overachieving older sister and her younger, always the baby sister. And so many of her family interactions, while well-meaning, intentionally or otherwise reminded her over and over (and over) that her goals and achievements weren’t as important or as successful, from her family’s perspective, as theirs. She felt overlooked and as a consequence looked for validation in romantic relationships – and looked too hard and all too often with men who didn’t value her either.

Jasmine’s feelings, and her response to them, will resonate with a lot of women who felt overlooked or overshadowed in their families and used similar methods to find validation, whether that overshadowing was the result of middle-child syndrome, workaholic parents or some other reason.

Ashton’s reasons, on the other hand, while they make sense were more the result of his understandable paranoia after a stalking incident than anything actually based in reality – as Jasmine pointed out. If he wants to be a famous actor and someday win an Oscar, he can’t keep his private life truly private. It’s understandable that he wants to but his goals are mutually exclusive.

In the story he clung to that overwhelming desire to keep his son a secret a bit too long. The point had been made, and made, and made to the point where it began to feel repetitive and I just wanted the story to get on with it. Your reading mileage may vary.

That being said, the story was lovely and I really enjoyed myself with Jasmine, her team and especially the Primas of Power, her terrifically supportive cousins who always had her back – especially when they needed to push her forward.

So a wonderful romance, a terrific story, and I’d love to see more about the Primas of Power and Jasmine’s entire clan!

Review: The Dark Archive by Genevieve Cogman

Review: The Dark Archive by Genevieve CogmanThe Dark Archive (The Invisible Library, #7) by Genevieve Cogman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy
Series: Invisible Library #7
Pages: 336
Published by Ace on November 26, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A professional spy for a mysterious Library which harvests fiction from different realities, Irene faces a series of assassination attempts that threaten to destroy her and everything she has worked for.
Irene is teaching her new assistant the fundamentals of a Librarian's job, and finding that training a young Fae is more difficult than she expected. But when they both narrowly avoid getting killed in an assassination attempt, she decides that learning by doing is the only option they have left - especially when the assassins keep coming for them, and for Irene's other friends as well...
In order to protect themselves, Irene and her friends must do what they do best: search for information to defeat the overwhelming threat they face and identify their unseen enemy. To do that, Irene will have to delve deeper into her own history than she ever has before, face an ancient foe, and uncover secrets that will change her life and the course of the Library forever.

My Review:

The Invisible Library series could also be titled, “The Perils of Irene” – without any sort of a stretch at all. Irene’s adventures aren’t just “out of the frying pan into the fire” but frying pans and fires all the way down. Until the last jump lands Irene (and company) straight into a pit where it’s always darkest just before things turn completely black. Then a light shines at the end of the tunnel and it’s always an oncoming train.

Which Irene and her friends manage to board and escape – only to have both the train and the station it crashes into transform into another frying pan and another fire. Each and every one bigger and hotter than the last.

And so it goes with this seventh book in the series, as Irene and her friends are still dealing with the fallout from the previous adventure in The Secret Chapter, only to discover that the mess that they thought they’d wrapped up hasn’t really begun. It’s just moved itself to a new home. Theirs.

Irene’s adventures tend to be caper stories. Well, they at least begin as caper stories. The opening scenes are of Irene sent somewhere questionable and doing something slightly dodgy, in order to “acquire” a book that the Library needs and that Irene has been ordered to get.

Sometimes (rarely) Irene’s methods of acquisition are on the relatively up and up – either an exchange of money or an exchange of more-or-less above board favors. When this story begins, Irene is in Guernsey in her analog of Victorian London intending to buy a copy – or possibly THE copy, of Le Morte de Merlin by Thomas Malory. (If the title sounds familiar, that’s because it’s this particular world’s foundational book of the Arthurian legends – except they’re based around Merlin instead. As if Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave were both rare and historical canon.)

Howsomever, as so often happens in the parts of Irene’s life that we are privileged to witness, the slightly clandestine but otherwise above board goes pear-shaped. The meeting place is attacked, the sellers are assassinated and Irene and her new apprentice escape the clutches of evil by the skin of their teeth – WITH the book firmly in hand.

While the beginning of this story is far from atypical for the series – and very much part of the reason that I love it so much – the farrago of death, danger and derring-do that Irene and her friends find themselves in this time turns out to be a walk through some very dark places.

Because it’s not just a book or even the future of the Library that’s at stake this time. What opens as just another one of Irene’s “little” adventures turns out to be the opening act in a fight for her very soul.

Escape Rating B: This turned out to be more of a mixed-feelings read than I was expecting. Because I absolutely adore this series and have been waiting all year for this book, so I expected to fall into instantly and love every minute of reading it.

But, but, but, it took me a while to get stuck back into Irene’s world, longer than usual. That may partly be ‘tis the season as well as ‘tis the year 2020 and everything is weird. I think it was also that the opening of this story reads like so many of the other books with tiny variations, that it felt like it started a bit in the middle – as in the opening is very dependent on events in the previous book – and that this book represents a change in direction for the series – or at least an expansion in scope as well as a contraction in focus – and it took a bit to switch from just another caper to “the end of the world as we know it” to “the end of Irene’s world as she knows it”. Which is not the same thing at all.

Also, Irene spends a lot of this story not just being reactive instead of proactive – because that’s normal – but because she’s reacting in confusion and obfuscation to the point where I as the reader felt more confused and obfuscated than I either liked or expected. Irene has a reputation for “getting shit done” but spent the beginning and middle of this book flailing around and worrying about her new apprentice instead of just dealing with shit.

At least it felt that way.

Then all of the various enemies’ schemes collapsed into (finally) one big ball of wrong instead of a whole lot of bouncing little balls of wrong and the whole story took flight even as Irene’s life crashed and burned.

The ending pushes the whole story off the original “light” rail and onto a much deeper and darker track. It’s going to be marvelous and probably heartbreaking and I can’t wait until this time next year when we’ll probably (hopefully) get book 8 in the series.

One final note, when I saw the title of this entry in the series, it sounded familiar – only because the title is oh-so-similar to another book that came out this fall, written by a real-world librarian and archivist. That similarly titled but not similar in subject book is Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin by Megan Rosenbloom. You’d think it wouldn’t be remotely relevant. But it sorta/kinda is in a much creepier way than I could ever have expected.

Read this series, starting with The Invisible Library, and you’ll see.

Review: The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa

Review: The Worst Best Man by Mia SosaThe Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 359
Published by Avon on February 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A wedding planner left at the altar. Yeah, the irony isn’t lost on Carolina Santos, either. But despite that embarrassing blip from her past, Lina’s managed to make other people’s dreams come true as a top-tier wedding coordinator in DC. After impressing an influential guest, she’s offered an opportunity that could change her life. There’s just one hitch… she has to collaborate with the best (make that worst) man from her own failed nuptials.
Tired of living in his older brother’s shadow, marketing expert Max Hartley is determined to make his mark with a coveted hotel client looking to expand its brand. Then he learns he’ll be working with his brother’s whip-smart, stunning —absolutely off-limits — ex-fiancée. And she loathes him.
If they can survive the next few weeks and nail their presentation without killing each other, they’ll both come out ahead. Except Max has been public enemy number one ever since he encouraged his brother to jilt the bride, and Lina’s ready to dish out a little payback of her own.
But even the best laid plans can go awry, and soon Lina and Max discover animosity may not be the only emotion creating sparks between them. Still, this star-crossed couple can never be more than temporary playmates because Lina isn’t interested in falling in love and Max refuses to play runner-up to his brother ever again...

My Review:

Sometimes, families are the absolute worst. At other times, they’re the greatest! In Lina Santos’ experience as a wedding planner, they can be both, entirely too frequently on opposite sides of the aisle at one of the weddings she has planned. Or rescued. (Three little words, “chartreuse wedding gown”. Enough said)

But the one wedding she couldn’t rescue was her own. Not only was Lina left at the altar, but she was left with the task of letting all of the guests know that there wouldn’t be a wedding after all. Because the groom had bailed, leaving his brother to inform the bride and the bride to deal with all of the fallout.

Fast forward a few years. Lina has put the wedding-that-wasn’t behind her. In a lot of ways, fairly easily. She chose Andrew because he didn’t really touch her heart, so his runaway from the runway was more of a blow to her pride than any other part of her.

Which didn’t mean that she was overcome with joy to discover that Andrew and his brother Max, the best man forced to deliver the news to the no-longer-a-bride Lina, were the PR team for the luxury hotel chain that was looking to hire a full-time wedding coordinator.

A job that Lina desperately both wants and needs. What she doesn’t either want or need is to expose their collective and seriously messy past to a possible boss. So she panics and pretends she doesn’t know either of them.

Even better – or worse – or both, they go along with the ruse.

A ruse that Lina and Max are going to have to maintain for six weeks while the hotel’s new owner goes through a very thorough vetting process. A time period that is more than long enough to strain both the ruse and Max and Lina’s ability to tolerate each other for the length of time necessary for Lina to get the job and Max to prove to both the hotelier and his mother-the-PR-boss that Max is a different and separate person from his conniving, competitive older brother Andrew.

Not that Max is any less competitive, or possibly any less conniving where Andrew is concerned. But this level of connivance, deception and, surprisingly temptation is big enough to bite them all in the ass.

Especially once Max and Lina figure out that the heat in their back-biting is masking a desire to bite each other in an entirely different way!

Escape Rating B+: Max isn’t so much the worst best man as this scenario is the worst nightmare for a wedding planner – being forced to work with the erstwhile groom who left her at the altar and the almost-best man who was stuck giving her the news. Not that Max didn’t take some of the blame for Andrew’s actions, and not that Lina wasn’t more than willing at the time to shoot the damn messenger.

But in spite of the scenario beginning as soap opera worthy and descending from there, Max isn’t even the worst best man that Lina’s ever dealt with, on the job or off.

And they do begin this mess with something in common – they both want to get something over Andrew. In a whole lot of senses, he’s a professional embarrassment for both of them – Lina for the obvious reason, but Max because Andrew has been riding on his intellectual coattails their entire lives, and managing to take all the credit for Max’ hard work into the bargain.

This enemies to lovers romance is billed as a rom-com, and it is filled with the kind of witty banter that makes rom-coms so much fun. But underneath all of that, there’s more going on in this story than first meets the eye.

At the beginning, Max’ attitude towards Andrew, their mother, the job and Lina all come off as very manipulative. His desire to get one over on his brother seems to be driving his actions, and his thoughts are more than a bit on the ugly side.

Max’ relationship with his brother is toxic for both of them, and it seems as if their mother doesn’t see just how much poison she’s adding to that brew. The situation underpins the whole story, as Max is a bit unclear at the beginning whether he’s helping Lina or just using her. And it feels like a bit of both. Max’ manipulativeness soured me a bit on the story at that point, but so many people said so many good things about it that I stuck with it and I’m glad I did.

When Lina and Max become involved with each other, there are plenty of questions all around about whether their emotions are real or whether they’re both using the situation to get back at Andrew. There’s also a heaping helping of concern about whether any relationship they might have can get itself out from under Andrew’s shadow.

At the same time, there’s also a lot that gets said, and needs to be said, that doesn’t get clearly articulated near enough. Max wants Lina to show more of her emotions, but Lina – and every other woman reading this story – is very clear that being able to display your emotions in a professional setting is very much a male privilege. If she gets righteously upset, she’ll be seen as merely a stereotypical “angry black woman” or a typical “hot-blooded Latina as she is Afro-Latinx. If she cries in a work setting, she’s labelled as a “hysterical female” who can’t control her emotions. It’s happened to her. It’s cost her a job and a career. It’s happened to all of us so we do our best to clamp down our emotions at work. As Lina successfully does.

The resolution here is for them to find a way to deal with the very real situation that their relationship drags into the light. Not to paper them over, not to magic up a happy ending, but to earn one.

And that they definitely do!

Review: A Cowboy to Remember by Rebekah Weatherspoon

Review: A Cowboy to Remember by Rebekah WeatherspoonA Cowboy to Remember (Cowboys of California #1) by Rebekah Weatherspoon
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Cowboys of California #1
Pages: 357
Published by Dafina Books on February 25, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An Oprah Magazine Best Romance Novel of 2020
In this brand-new series from award-winning author Rebekah Weatherspoon, a charming cowboy and his sleeping beauty find their modern-day happily ever after . . .
With a headline spot on a hit morning show and truly mouth-watering culinary skills, chef Evie Buchanan is perched on the edge of stardom. But at an industry party, a fall lands Evie in the hospital—with no memory of who she is. Scrambling to help, Evie’s assistant contacts the only “family” Evie has left, close friends who run the luxury dude ranch in California where Evie grew up. Evie has no recollection of them—until former rodeo champion Zach Pleasant walks into her hospital room, and she realizes his handsome face has been haunting her dreams . . .
Zach hasn’t seen Evie in years—not since their families conducted a campaign to make sure their childhood friendship never turned into anything more. When the young cowboy refused to admit the feelings between them were real, Evie left California, making it clear she never wanted to see Zach again. Now he refuses to make the same mistake twice. Starting fresh is a risk when they have a history she can’t recall, but Zach can’t bear to let go of her now. Can he awaken the sleeping beauty inside her who might still love him?

My Review:

To open this happy week, I have the first of several books that are supposed to have happy endings. This one certainly did!

But it doesn’t have a happy beginning. At all. It’s going to take a lot of changes for celebrity chef Evie Buchanan to reach her happy place. Changes in attitude and changes in latitude.

I also just realized that this is a bit of a holiday romance. It’s not that the holidays turn out to be a big deal in this one, and certainly no one gets snowbound, but the holidays are occurring in the background as the story goes in in the foreground.

Let me explain…

The story here is a second chance at love romance with one hell of a twist. Amnesia stories are usually fodder for daytime soap operas, but after an “accident” at a holiday party, Evie Buchanan is living one. The amnesia story, that is, although possibly the soap opera as well.

She “fell” down the stairs, hit her head – badly – and can’t remember a damn thing about anything at all. Her roommate, her personal assistant and her agent all gather round, but can’t help her regain her memories – if she’ll get them back, all or even at all.

Evie’s been pretty close-mouthed about the details of her life before they all met her. All they know is that she’s an only child, her parents and other relatives are deceased, and she seems to have no life outside her work as a celebrity chef and star of The Dish, her daytime cooking show.

Evie doesn’t recognize them, and they don’t know any details of her previous life. Except for the name of her “only in case of deadly emergency” contact, Jesse Pleasant. Whatever their relationship might be or have been. His tangential presence in Evie’s contact list if seemingly not her actual life is all they have to go on.

And that’s where the second chance at love story comes into this story. Not with Jesse. Jesse is the big brother that Evie doesn’t otherwise have. Jesse’s brother, very much on the other hand, was the one that broke Evie’s young heart and sent her on her quest for fame, fortune and a lot of hard work as a chef.

The Pleasant family, with their exclusive “dude ranch”, hotel, spa and wedding venue in California, are the temporary answer to all of Evie’s problems. She can go back to where she grew up, be taken care of by the family who nearly adopted her, and stay out of New York City while her friends at home take a stab at figuring out whether Evie was just unlucky or the victim of something more sinister.

But as dangerous as NYC might be for a woman with a career to protect but no idea who she is or used to be, the risk to Evie’s unprotected heart is even greater in California, spending time with a man who has invaded her dreams like no one ever has. Zach Pleasant is either the key to bringing back Evie’s memory – or the reason she had so much to forget.

Escape Rating B+: I started this book because I was still looking for a happy ending. Not that Friday’s book didn’t admirably fill that bill – rather it did it so well that I wanted a little bit more.

So I turned, technically I returned, to A Cowboy to Remember – and just as it is for Evie and Zach, the second chance at romance was the winner. Also my second time picking up the book and giving it a second chance was a winner.

I had started this once but put it down the first time. Probably because I was looking for happy and didn’t find it in the story’s opening. When we first meet Evie, she still has all of her memories and doesn’t seem to be happy about either her past or particularly her present.

Picking the story up in the aftermath of her “accident” was just what I needed. It turned out that her life-changing injury was, in a perverse way, exactly what Evie needed as well. Not remembering her life gave her the chance to start over and look at herself from the outside. Just as I didn’t enjoy reading her unhappiness in the beginning, she didn’t like what she saw as she looked in the mirror at her old self.

There are several things going on in this story, and they all work together to bring that happy ever after home, not just for the holidays, but for always.

First, there’s that whole amnesia thing. It’s been the fodder for so many soap opera melodramas that it’s difficult to do it for real – or even for something real-ish rather than over-the-top. But in this story it lasts just long enough to not fall into anything stupid or silly and it does work to give Evie a once-in-a-lifetime chance to re-evaluate her life, the dreams she thought she had, and the dreams she believed she’d lost long ago.

The way that her relationship with Zach comes back to life turned out to be bittersweet rather than just sweet – and that feels like the way it should have been. The first time around, they were both young, they both screwed up, and neither of them ever got past those events or each other.

This is a do-over. Evie knows that they almost had it all the last time around, but screwed things up instead. But she doesn’t remember the details of what happened, so she isn’t still replaying in her head all the awful things they said to each other. Still, she hasn’t let them go so much as they’ve temporarily let her go. Zach remembers everything, is worried that someday there will be one hell of a reckoning, but can’t resist attempting to build the relationship they should have had long ago.

But they can’t have anything real until they catch up to each other, and the wariness of waiting for that other shoe to drop, the bitterness when it does and the difficulty of working through the past and the present provides the romantic tension in the story and gives it a surprisingly realistic chop of near-finality, making their eventual HEA hard earned and hard won.

A big part of the charm of this story was the way that Jesse and Zach’s family scooped Evie up and brought her back home to the place she’d grown up and the family that helped raise her. The relationships among the Pleasant family were beyond pleasant, and their re-adoption of Evie was heartwarming, particularly the re-kindling of the motherly/grandmotherly relationship between Jesse and Zach’s grandmother Leona and Evie. A relationship that Evie needed quite frankly even more than she needed the romance – and she needed that pretty damn bad.

It’s a good thing that Jesse and Zach’s family is so much more than merely “Pleasant” as the series looks like it follows the Pleasant sons. The next book in the series, If the Boot Fits, features Jesse and Zach’s youngest brother Sam, the one who followed Miss Leona into the acting business. I’m looking forward to reading it as it’s been praised to the skies everywhere, but the one I’m really hoping for is Jesse’s book. He’s kind of a quiet giant and it’s going to be fun to see him fall!

Review: The Eighth Detective by Alex Pavesi

Review: The Eighth Detective by Alex PavesiThe Eighth Detective by Alex Pavesi
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 289
Published by Henry Holt on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

There are rules for murder mysteries. There must be a victim. A suspect. A detective. The rest is just shuffling the sequence. Expanding the permutations. Grant McAllister, a professor of mathematics, once sat down and worked them all out – calculating the different orders and possibilities of a mystery into seven perfect detective stories he quietly published. But that was thirty years ago. Now Grant lives in seclusion on a remote Mediterranean island, counting the rest of his days.
Until Julia Hart, a sharp, ambitious editor knocks on his door. Julia wishes to republish his book, and together they must revisit those old stories: an author hiding from his past, and an editor, keen to understand it.
But there are things in the stories that don’t add up. Inconsistencies left by Grant that a sharp-eyed editor begins to suspect are more than mistakes. They may be clues, and Julia finds herself with a mystery of her own to solve.

My Review:

This book is like one of those nesting dolls. It begins as a story within a story. Then it morphs into a bunch of stories within a story, only for that assumption to shift again into those stories, within a story, within two entirely different stories.

And they are all about detective stories. About classic mysteries. Until they’re not. And then, they are again.

The framing story, well, the initial framing story, involves the editor from a small, independent press that specializes in crime and mystery books, visiting the reclusive author of a single, privately published book of mystery stories that was released in VERY limited numbers over 30 years ago and it now nearly forgotten and completely out of print.

That editor comes to the author’s remote island hideaway to read through all those old stories and discuss the possibility of bringing the collection back into print. The stories, all wrapped around a mathematical exploration of the mystery genre, represent different takes on classic, so-called Golden Age, mysteries.

And the stories themselves are interesting enough. They’re all just a bit creepy, just slightly off-putting in one way or another. They all end with a kind of sick twist, where the character that the reader empathized with throughout the story turns out to be the villain after all.

Sometimes a sick villain, at that.

So all the stories from the collection are disturbing. But absorbing. And all illustrate the author’s original premise about the requirements for a book to be a mystery being mathematically quantifiable.

But as the editor probes the writer, the reader gets the sensation that there is more going on here than meets the eye. And then that there is even more going on here than that.

The mystery is wrapped, not in the proverbial enigma, but in yet another mystery. It’s only after the big reveal that we discover that there really was an enigma hiding underneath all along.

Escape Rating B: Once upon a time, a library I used to work at required that, in order for a book to be classed as a mystery, it had to have a body and a detective. In other words, someone had to be dead and someone had to be trying to figure out who made them that way. The mathematical foundation of the original book reads as an extension of that principle as well as a set of mystery stories in the classic mode.

There must be a victim. There must be a killer. There must be suspects. And there must be a detective. There may be more than one of any or all of the above. An individual may occupy more than one, or even all, of those possible slots.

And that’s the formula for the stories. Single victim, multiple victims. Single killer, multiple killers. The detective may be a suspect and may even be the killer. The detective may be the victim. The stories will remind the reader of some of the classic mystery stories, with homages in particular to Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None and surprisingly, the movie The Sixth Sense. I’m sure there were others that I didn’t catch.

The individual stories were good to excellent, but they all had that touch of something being awry that generally came as a surprise to this reader. But the stories, while they occupy the bulk of the book, turn out not to be the main point of the whole thing.

And that’s where it just missed being something special. Your mileage, of course, may vary. But compared to just how good most of the individual stories were, the endings veered into melodrama rather than mystery, and felt just a bit flat. A little too much of the old deus ex machina there at the end.

So the framing story – and then the frame wrapped around the framing story – didn’t quite gel for me, but came oh-so-close. The individual stories, however, were great little homages to classic mystery fiction that were a lot of fun to read with just a shiver of creeping evil at the end of each.