Review: Branded as Trouble by Delores Fossen + Giveaway

Review: Branded as Trouble by Delores Fossen + GiveawayBranded as Trouble (Wrangler's Creek, #3) by Delores Fossen
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Wrangler's Creek #3
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on June 27th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Every town needs a bad boy, and Wrangler's Creek's has been gone far too long
Getting his high school girlfriend pregnant was just one square in Roman Granger's checkered past, but it changed him forever. When his son's mother skipped town after the birth, Roman decided to do the same, baby Tate in tow, hoping for a fresh start.
Now Roman fears his teenage son is following in his wayward footsteps, so he returns home to Wrangler's Creek, aiming to set him straight. It's there he encounters Tate's aunt, Mila Banchini, the good-girl opposite of Roman who's had a crush on him since childhood. The old spark between them undeniably never died, though Roman worries it'll only lead to heartache. But if falling for Mila is such a bad idea, why does everything about holding her feel so right?
"

My Review:

This book, and this entire series, feels like a “train wreck” read for me. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – after all, the reason why gazer block is such a problem after a highway accident is that we can’t turn our eyes away from the disaster.

And so it is for me with the Wrangler’s Creek series. The entire thing is so overrun with stampeding drama llamas, in so many coats and stripes and colors, that even as it drives me absolutely bananas I can’t turn my eyes away. I have to keep going to see what other brand of crazy happens next.

Branded as Trouble is plenty crazy, and plenty entertaining.

This series has been the story of the Granger siblings of Wrangler’s Creek. Or rather, the story of the Granger siblings coming back to Wrangler’s Creek. In Those Texas Nights, sister Sophie comes home to stay. No Getting Over a Cowboy was her brother Garrett’s story, and now it’s bad-boy older brother Roman’s chance to find his own happy. If only he can only get out of his own way.

(I have mixed feelings about whether one needs to read the series from the beginning to “get” what’s going on. I think not. The siblings obviously appear in each other’s stories, as do many of the background characters. But the individual books stand mostly alone.)

Roman doesn’t want to come back to Wrangler’s Creek. He doesn’t want to live anywhere near his mother Belle, and while I can’t blame him, it was good to find out the cause of all the bad blood between them. And there was plenty of cause, and knowing what it was makes a whole lot of their past and present interactions make a lot more sense.

It’s also clear that Roman needs to get past a lot of the bad stuff in his past, not because it wasn’t bad, not because his feelings aren’t justified, but because hanging on to all that old baggage is hurting him more than the people he throws it at – and it’s really hurting his teenage son Tate, who needs Roman to get his head out of his own ass and do what’s best for both of them.

Not that Tate doesn’t have plenty of growing up of his own to do. And his own share of baggage to lose.

Mila is there for both of them. She’s loved Roman since forever, but is all too aware that the feeling is not returned. And she’s mostly made her peace with that. Until Roman comes back to Wrangler’s Creek for the summer, and they find themselves thrown together over and over. Tate needs their help. And they need each other.

Escape Rating B: A great writer, probably several of them, have said that one of the differences between fiction and nonfiction is that fiction has to be plausible, while nonfiction merely has to be true. Branded as Trouble may be the point where the Wrangler’s Creek series fell over the line between crazy-fun and too crazy to be plausible. At least for me. Which doesn’t mean that I didn’t still have a good time, but the amount of eye-rolling I did as I read it was starting to hurt!

I have never liked the character of Belle, Roman’s mother. She’s slightly less offensive in Branded as Trouble, but no less crazy. And she’s not crazy in a fun way, she’s crazy in an annoying and overbearing way. (If no one has guessed, yes, some of her characteristics remind me a bit too much of my own mother. It just doesn’t make a comfortable read for me. Your mileage on this probably does vary).

Mila’s mother Vita is just plain nuts. She’s out there, marching to the beat of her own drummer – and it’s probably some kind of spirit drummer, because Vita seems like a caricature of a practicing witch. Or she’s listening to the voices in her head, or a bit of both. Surprisingly, Vita’s wacky pronouncements do usually make sense in the end, but her method of getting there makes her, as her daughter Mila describes her, into the “ultimate person repellant”, no one wants to get near her. Being Vita’s daughter in a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business must have been absolutely hell.

Where things past plausibility for this reader was in both the hero and the heroine have mothers who are way out there in different left fields of cray-cray land. This did pass “over-the-top” for me. Which does not mean that I didn’t like both Roman and Mila, because I certainly did.

Mila owns the local bookstore, which of course makes her my heroine. But the other thing I really like about her character is the way that she makes her own happy. She’s always loved Roman, but has no expectations that it will ever work out. That she’s come to the realization that she has to move on because he won’t make a move on her makes her brave, even if some of her efforts involve more drama llamas than the possibility of actual romance.

But she’s not pining. She keeps moving forward. And that’s what eventually makes her dreams come true.

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

I am giving away a copy of Branded as Trouble to one lucky US/Canadian commenter:

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Review: Illumination by Susannah Sandlin + Giveaway

Review: Illumination by Susannah Sandlin + GiveawayIllumination (Penton Legacy #5) by Susannah Sandlin
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: paranormal romance, vampires
Series: Penton Legacy #5
Pages: 364
Published by Suzanne Johnson on July 4th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

He came to Penton seeking peace. Nik Dimitrou joined the Army to escape his family legacy, only to have his psychic abilities exploited as a weapon. Now, as a civilian, he turns to the bottle to veil the images that haunt his mind whenever he touches anyone—except vampires. With them, he has finally found a place. But as Penton moves into open warfare with the Vampire Tribunal, Nik finds himself a linchpin in the deepening conflict, not to mention a transformation in his own body more frightening than anything he’s faced.

She wanted to change the world. Shay Underwood watched her Peace Corps parents move from one third world country to another—until both died following an outbreak of fever. Driven to her own career in tropical medicine, Shay works to cure the disease that killed her parents—until a careless weekend outing draws her into a world far more dangerous than the diseases she studies: a vampire society engaged in human trafficking.

Two cities, two strangers, one world. With Penton rebellion leader Aidan Murphy making risky choices and chief vampire lieutenant Mirren Kincaid forced to take a leadership role for which he is unsuited, it will fall to two outsiders, Nik and Shay, to find a way for Penton—and themselves—to survive in this much-anticipated conclusion to the award-winning Penton Legacy series.

My Review:

Redemption by Susannah SandlinIn my review of the first book in this series, Redemption, I called this series “vampire toffee”. Once you sink your teeth into it, you can’t unstuck. And that was just as true in Illumination as it was in the previous books in the series. I’ve been waiting for THREE years to find out how the mess that we were introduced to in Redemption finally got resolved.

And now I know.

One of the things that seems to be a hallmark of most vampire fiction is vampire politics. It does make a certain amount of sense that people who live for centuries if not millennia would end up spending entirely too much time jockeying for power. And as the ultimate apex predators, vampires often end up in that quandary where power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And when that absolute power is challenged, any and all horrific means can be justified to serve their ends – those ends being to get back in power and eliminate all threats – even the threats that have the potential to save their lives.

The background to this series is one that has been used before, but with a twist. Vampires have always existed among us. They can ensnare people they need, feeding a vampire produces an addictive high, and they can wipe out inconvenient memories of those who have seen or heard to much. Or just kill them, as we are not really people to most of them, merely food.

However, the world has changed, and not in a good way – at least not for the vampires. I don’t mean technology, although that plays into it a bit. But in this near-future scenario, a worldwide pandemic was averted through the development of a preventive vaccine. As the pandemic was widespread (that’s what pandemic means, after all) most of the world’s population got inoculated against it. Something in the vaccine makes the blood of the vaccinated humans poisonous to vampires. It’s an unintended consequence the humans are completely unaware of.

But the vampires are starving. The population of unvaccinated humans is tiny.

The conflict that runs through the entire Penton Legacy series revolves around the best method for dealing with the vampire food shortage. The Vampire Tribunal, the, let’s call it the traditional viewpoint, wants to capture and enslave unvaccinated humans by any means necessary, and will kill anyone, human, vampire or shifter (yes, this world has shifters, too) who gets in their way.

The scheme they hatch in Illumination is possibly their most disgusting yet. They must be stopped.

The forces on the side of stopping them begin Illumination very much on the ropes after the horrific events that end Allegiance. Aiden Murphy, the leader of the Penton vampire scathe, has come up with a different way for vampires to survive. Instead of coercing, co-opting and controlling humans, Penton only accepts volunteers who are willing to live in cooperation with humans and shifters. It’s an alliance of equals, and the Tribunal sees it as a threat to their way of life.

Penton fights back with everything and everyone they have. They might just lose it all, but if they do, they’ll go down fighting every step of the way.

Escape Rating B: Before I talk about what I thought of Illumination, there are a few PSAs (public service announcements) that I need to get out of the way.

First, Illumination is the end of a story that begins in Redemption, continues through Absolution, Omega, Storm Force and Allegiance before it comes to its epic conclusion in Illumination. In order for the conflict between the vampire factions to make sense, for the created world to hold together, and for the reader to care about all the characters, it really is necessary to read the whole series in order.

Second, that really isn’t a problem because the whole thing is vampire romance crack. You’ll be hooked, and you’ll feel compelled to see what happens next.

Third, even though Storm Force was not labelled as part of the Penton series, it really is. It comes between Omega and Allegiance and begins the second arc of the Penton saga.

And now back to my review of the actual book in hand, Illumination.

Allegiance ended on a terrible cliffhanger. Not that book was terrible, because the books in this series have all been tons of fun, but terrible in the “things are always darkest just before they turn completely black” sense. It ends on a serious downer, the situation looks bleak, and the reader isn’t sure if the Pentonites can recover.

And that was back in 2014. It’s been a damn long time. It took me awhile to get back up to speed on what was and wasn’t happening, who it was happening with/to, and figure out what was what.

Also, because of the events in Allegiance, Illumination gets off to a slow start. The heroine is literally trapped, the hero is unconscious, and Aiden Murphy, the prime mover and shaker of everything Penton, has completely lost his grip. It takes the first third of the book for Aiden to begin to get back into fighting shape. Once he comes back to life, the book does too.

While Illumination does contain a romance, as all the books in this series do, the romance in this one takes a back seat to the resolution of the vampire civil war. And it needs to. Without a solution to the dwindling food source problem, there can’t be a lasting solution to much of anything. Nobody gets a happy ever after if there is no ever after.

As with the first book, Redemption, the romance in this entry has a bit of a Stockholm Syndrome problem. There’s an attempt to gloss it over because the hero and heroine were also high school sweethearts, but it’s still definitely there. It doesn’t keep the romance from working, but it’s a presence.

On my other hand, one of the great things about this entry in the series is the way that everyone works together, and that everyone’s skills are needed to win this fight. This is not a series where the alpha male vampires rescue and protect the weak human females. Everyone has a stake in this war, and everyone, vampire, human, shifter, male and female has skills that are required to win it.

And bringing the dinosaurs back to life, even temporarily, was just plain cool.

In the end, I really got a kick out of this series. I’m a bit sorry to see it end, but happy that all those poor people hanging from cliffs at the end of Allegiance finally got let off the hook. And while my trip to Penton is over, I have more books from this author to look forward to. Susannah Sandlin also writes as Suzanne Johnson, and she’s awesome under both names!

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

Susannah is giving away 2 $25 Amazon gift cards (or equivalent order from Book Depository for entrants outside the U.S.) to lucky participants on this tour

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Review: File M for Murder by Miranda James

Review: File M for Murder by Miranda JamesFile M for Murder (Cat in the Stacks, #3) by Miranda James
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Cat in the Stacks #3
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley on January 31st 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Athena College's new writer in residence is native son and playwright Connor Lawton, known for his sharp writing- and sharper tongue. After an unpleasant encounter, librarian Charlie Harris heads home to a nice surprise: his daughter Laura is subbing for another Athena professor this fall semester. It's great news until he hears who got her the job: her old flame, Connor Lawton...
Fearing competition for Connor's affections, one of his admirers tries to drive Laura out of town. And then, before Connor finishes the play he is writing, he is murdered- and Laura is the prime suspect. Knowing she's innocent, Charlie and his faithful sidekick, Diesel, follow Connor's cluttered trail of angry lovers, bitter enemies, and intriguing research to find the true killer before his daughter is forever cataloged under "M"- for murderer.

My Review:

I am predisposed to like this series. The amateur sleuth is a 50-something librarian named Harris who loves his enormous cat. Said cat is excellent at providing aid and comfort (but mostly comfort) to anyone in his orbit who needs it, and sometimes serves as a great sounding board for his human.

We all talk to our cats, and we all believe that they understand at least some of what we say, and vice versa. Diesel, while rather large for a cat, because Maine Coons are very large cats, acts like a cat a bit on the high end of feline intelligence. But no more than that. One of the things I love about Diesel is that he never does anything that cats don’t do – albeit writ somewhat large. It’s not uncommon for Maine Coon cats to be three feet long from nose to tail, and for the males to top out at over 20 pounds. Diesel is a big, handsome boy with a purr that sounds like, you guessed it, a diesel engine.

And Charlie Harris is very much a librarian. I can easily identify with what he does at work, and why he does it. And also why he loves the parts of this job that he loves, and dislikes the parts he doesn’t love. He rings true as “one of us”. Except for that fascinating habit he has of getting involved in murder. Like so many fictional small town amateur detectives, he does have a gift for tripping over dead bodies and inserting himself into police investigations. It’s a knack that the local police detective finds more annoying than endearing, to say the least.

This particular case hits rather close to home. On the plus side, Charlie’s daughter Laura is home in Athena for the summer, teaching a drama class at the local college where Charlie works. On the minus side, she got the temporary gig through the influence of this year’s resident playwright at the university. And Connor Lawton is a major pain in the ass. Not just to Charlie, but to every single person he comes in contact with. He’s rude, arrogant and downright nasty to all, and no one likes him one bit.

He’s one of those people who is just such a big arsehole that no one seems to mourn him when he’s found dead in his apartment. Rather, the long line of people who might want to do him in stretches rather far.

But once Connor is out of the way, whoever is behind his death turns their gaze upon Laura Harris, and her family finds itself under threat from all sides. Charlie, as usual, feels like it’s all up to him to figure out whodunit – before the killer manages to either kill his daughter or burn down his house with everyone inside.

Escape Rating B: This series is always a good time. I got hooked when I picked up Twelve Angry Librarians, and so far I have yet to be disappointed by a single trip to Athena, Mississippi. I grabbed this one because I bounced hard off of two books, and needed something that I knew would draw me right in, and File M for Murder certainly delivered.

The mysteries in this series are definitely cozy. And not just because Diesel, like all Maine Coons, is a very furry cat. Athena, Mississippi is a small college town, and everyone pretty much does know everyone. When Charlie needs to find the dirt on someone living in town, he knows just who to ask. And when he has to do research on someone’s past doings, he knows just which library has all the resources he needs, as well as the skill to use them.

There are plenty of cat mysteries, but one of the things that I like best about this series is that Diesel is just a cat. A very big cat, but just a cat. He doesn’t do anything that cats don’t do. Even in this particular story, where there is one point where Diesel really does save the day, he does it by smelling something off and meowing about it until he gets his human’s attention. Not all of us receive letter bombs (thank goodness) but that a cat would sniff out that the thing just smells “wrong” in a big way is quite possible.

It’s not that I don’t love Shirley Rousseau Murphy’s Joe Grey series, because I do, but one talking cat mystery series is probably enough. Or at least it is for this reader.

Another thing that I enjoy about this series is that Charlie is not always the first person to solve the mystery, the best person to solve the mystery, or even the person who saves the day by solving the mystery. In Charlie’s cases, he does get in the way of the police as often as he helps them. He doesn’t always do the cliche thing of getting all the suspects together for the big reveal. Sometimes the solution is anti-climactic, and Charlie is a step behind the police. It feels more human, and more likely, that an amateur sleuth would be as much of a hindrance as a help, while it still gives the reader a chance to put the pieces together along with Charlie, mistakes and all.

If you are looking for a light, fluffy and fun mystery series, with lovely people in an interesting setting, check out Charlie and Diesel. You don’t have to start with Murder Past Due (I didn’t) – this series is just good cozy fun wherever you jump in.

Review: Secrets of the Tulip Sisters by Susan Mallery

Review: Secrets of the Tulip Sisters by Susan MallerySecrets of the Tulip Sisters by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Harlequin Books on July 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The relationship of sisters Kelly and Olivia Van Gilder has been, well… complicated ever since their mother left them as teens, though it's the secrets they have been keeping from each other as adults that have unwittingly widened the chasm. But one thing they do share is the not-so-secret torch they carry for the Martin brothers.
In the small enclave of New Holland, Washington, Griffith and Ryan Martin were demigods. While Griffith was the object of Kelly's high school crush and witness to her mortal teenage humiliation, Ryan was for Olivia the boy who got away-something she's never forgiven Kelly for-and the only person since her mother who appreciated her wild streak.
Now, ten years later, both brothers are newly returned to town. Believing they're destined to be together, Olivia's determined to get Ryan back, until she discovers that she's not the only one keeping secrets…and that perhaps he's not the handsome prince she remembered. And even though Griffith has grown up to be more irresistible than ever, Kelly's impulse is to avoid him and the painful memory he represents, despite his resolve to right the wrong he caused her long ago-and her desire to let him.

My Review:

I want to say that the Murphy family puts the fun back in dysfunctional – but too many of the relationships within this family are all dysfunction and damn little fun. Of course, those dysfunctions add to the drama of the story – and there is plenty of fun outside these very messy family dynamics.

This is a story about three women, Kelly Murphy, her sister Olivia, and her best friend Helen, in their little small town of Tulpen Crossing, Washington. Tulpen Crossing is a lot closer to Spokane than Seattle, on the eastern side of the Cascades – a location that matters a lot in Washington state. Tulpen Crossing, and nearly everything in town, is named for it’s annual tulip crop, the economic engine of the entire town.

The Murphy family have been growing tulips in Tulpen for generations. Kelly Murphy and her dad Jeff are continuing the family tradition. They also still share the Murphy family house, in spite of Kelly being well-past the age where most young adults fly out of the family nest – Kelly is 28. And seems to not think that love and marriage are for her. She watched her parents’ marriage implode, explode and every other ‘plode when she was in her early teens, and wants to stay as far away from that kind of mess as possible.

Until it comes looking for her.

Griffin Burnett is the prodigal son – he returned to Tulpen Crossing to set up his very successful Tiny House business. He’s had his eye on Kelly for a long time. He likes her no-nonsense no-games attitude, and he thinks her no-fuss, no muss style is beautiful, as is she. But he’s not interested in love and marriage either, just a long-term relationship of friendship, respect and, of course, benefits.

Kelly, whose self-esteem issues know very few bounds, thinks he’s nuts. But she’s willing to try.

And that’s where all the dysfunction in the Murphy family comes home to roost – and to stir up trouble. First Olivia comes back, after over a decade of absence. She got sent to boarding school when she was 15, not long after their mother abandoned the family – after seducing every single post-pubescent male for about 100 miles around Tulpen Crossing – and being far from discreet about it.

Just as Olivia and Kelly begin to rebuild their very strained sibling relationship, Marilee returns to Tulpen Crossing in Olivia’s wake, not because she’s missed either of her daughters, but because she wants to stir up as much trouble as possible.

She nearly succeeds beyond even her wildest expectations.

Escape Rating B+: As much as I hate the label, Secrets of the Tulip Sisters falls squarely into that category so awfully named “women’s fiction”. While there are not just one but three romances in this story, it’s really about the relationships between Kelly, Olivia and Helen, how they support each other and sometimes how they sabotage each other, and their relationships with the town and the way that all of them step forward, sometimes hesitantly and sometimes boldly, into their own futures.

One of the themes of the story is about the keeping of secrets. Olivia arrives in Tulpen Crossing with a huge secret. Every time she and Kelly begin to get their relationship back on track, a piece of that secret gets let out of its bag and derails their relationship. That the derailment is intended makes it all that much more heartbreaking.

Kelly also has plenty of secrets. A whole lot of it is self-blame – she has persisted in the belief that it is all her fault that her mother left, and even more damning, all her fault that Olivia was sent to boarding school. She was 15 when she and her mother had the supposedly fateful argument, and 18 when she convinced her father to send Olivia to boarding school. As much as she needs to tell Olivia about her part in some of the worst parts of Olivia’s life – Kelly was not the adult in either situation. Her mother was always going to leave – and it was her father’s choice to send Olivia to boarding school. It helps a lot that, in retrospect, Olivia realizes that Kelly was probably right, no matter how selfish her motivations seemed at the time.

And then there’s Helen. She too, has a secret that impacts the Murphy family. Helen, who is a few years older than her best friend Kelly, owns the local diner. And she’s been in love with Kelly’s dad for years. Jeff Murphy is clueless about Helen’s feelings, but well aware of his own – and can’t imagine that Helen, 16 years his junior, could possibly be interested in him.

Of course he’s wrong. He’s wrong about a whole lot of things, as we discover when Marilee breezes back into Tulpen Crossing to screw with everyone’s heads and screw up everyone’s life. She’s irredeemable. But everyone else, learning to cope with the crises she leaves in her wake, finally rise to the challenge to find their happy and boot her out of their lives, and especially out of the headspace she’s taken from all of them over the years.

At the end, everybody stands taller and stronger. And it’s wonderful.

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Review: Raisins and Almonds by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Raisins and Almonds by Kerry GreenwoodRaisins and Almonds (Phryne Fisher Mystery #9) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #9
Pages: 217
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on June 6th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Phryne Fisher loves dancing, especially with gorgeous young Simon Abrahams. But Phryne s contentment at the Jewish Young People s Society Dance is cut short when Simon s father asks her to investigate the strange death of a devout young student in Miss Sylvia Lee s East Market bookshop. Miss Lee has been arrested for the murder, and Phryne believes that she is a very unlikely killer. Investigation leads her into the exotic world of Yiddish, refugees, rabbis, kosher dinners, Kadimah, strange alchemical symbols, and chicken soup. With help from the old faithfuls Bert and Cec, her taxi driver friends; her devoted companion Dot; and Detective Inspector Call me Jack Robinson, Phryne picks her way through the mystery. She soon finds herself at the heart of a situation far graver and more political than she at first appreciates. And all for the price of a song ."

My Review:

The best fictional detectives are nearly always outsiders. As outsiders they have no vested interest in any or all of the potential victims, nor are they predisposed to protect or defend any of the potential suspects merely because of some connection, perceived or otherwise. Finally, they tend to make fewer or no assumptions based on prior knowledge, because as outsiders they have little or none.

Phryne Fisher is always somewhat of an outsider. Her early years were spent in Melbourne’s slums, her family destitute and with never enough to eat. But she’s not poor any longer. A lot of young men died, and suddenly her father inherited a dukedom in England and the money to go with it. She and her family were whisked away to England, to a life of luxury. But she never forgot.

Even though she learned to pretend to be “to the manor born”, she is all too aware that she was not. While she can walk in both worlds easily, she is not quite a member of either.

In Raisins and Almonds, she is even further an outsider, as the investigation of this particular crime requires that Phryne insert herself into Melbourne’s Jewish community, at least as much as a shiksa (a rather pejorative Yiddish word for a female non-Jew) can insert herself. She begins by knowing only one person, her current lover, Simon Abrahams. And she is aware from the very beginning that she is only borrowing him, and must return him, possibly heartbroken but otherwise unharmed, to his people and his heritage. And she’s fine with that, even though Simon is not.

But Simon’s father is more than willing to make use of the female detective temporarily in their midst, when one of his tenants in the Eastern Market is accused of a murder she so obviously did not commit. Especially because the man who was most definitely murdered was also a member of the Jewish community. Miss Lee the bookshop proprietor may not have committed the deed, but somebody surely did.

And the elder Mr. Abrahams wants that murderer found, quickly, quietly and correctly, before whispers about the Jews rise to the level of violence that all the members of the community left behind in whatever European country they once called home.

While those fears feel unfounded both to Phryne and to the Australian-born generation of the Jewish community, it is also impossible to deny that anti-Semitism is definitely on the rise in Europe as well as in post Revolutionary Russia. The recent publication of Mein Kampf has caused many to turn worried eyes towards Germany, while the younger and more passionate among them seek adventure and purpose in Zionism with its promise of a homeland in Palestine.

Any or all of these tensions could be the cause of murder. But the motives of this particular murder turn out to be much, much more primitive. Greed is universal. So are envy and jealousy. And no one ever wants to see the snake in their own private garden.

Escape Rating B+: Phryne is always the consummate outsider. At the same time, one of the characteristics that seems singular to Phryne is that she seems to be immune to the prejudices of her day. She takes everyone as she finds them, and does not seem to enter into any conversation or association with any preconceived notions, at least not any notions based on race, class, gender identity, sexual preference or religion. So far in the book series, Phryne has demonstrated that she carries none of the anti-gay, anti-Asian and now anti-Semitic views that were common in the 1920s. And as a reader, I can’t help but wonder if this is a reflection of the author’s times rather than Phryne’s.

Which doesn’t keep me from being appreciative. One of the difficulties of reading what are now historical mysteries but were contemporaneous in their day is the amount of casual racism and sexism that often imbues the pages.

There was plenty of overt anti-Semitism in the 1920s. And indeed well into my own lifetime. While there seems to be a relatively recent resurgence of open and vitriolic anti-Semitism, it never completely goes away – it just goes underground. There have been times in my life where it has been more subtle, and also times when it has been less so. But the dark underbelly of human nature seems ineradicable, and the impulse to hate others, and oftentimes it has been the Jews, never disappears completely.

Which meant I understood completely the desire of the older generation of the Abrahams family to find a just solution to the crime as quickly as possible. Too much attention from the police or especially from the press would be seen as inviting just the kind of trouble that they had all left behind in Europe. Not that there weren’t occasionally violent impulses and certainly casual anti-Semitism in Australia, but so far, those impulses had not broken out in pogroms and outright persecutions.

Unlike many detective stories, Phryne’s cases often involve multiple perpetrators. This always serves to increase the number of red herrings and confuse the proceedings mightily. These stories are also not traditional stories in the sense that we don’t always see all the clues that Phryne sees, or at least it seems that way, even at the end.

This was a case where the differing motives for the various sets of crimes practically tripped each other up. There was murder, there were multiple attempts at robbery, but underlying that whole mess was a quite deceptive morass of espionage. All of which kept me, and everyone else involved in the case, guessing until the very end.

Raisins and Almonds was not my first trip to Phryne Fisher’s 1920s Melbourne (I began with Cocaine Blues and so should you, not because you need to read this series all the way through from the beginning but because they are all good fun), and I know it will not be my last.

Review: Thieves Quarry by D.B. Jackson

Review: Thieves Quarry by D.B. JacksonThieves' Quarry (Thieftaker Chronicles, #2) by D.B. Jackson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical mystery, urban fantasy
Series: Thieftaker #2
Pages: 317
Published by Tor Books on July 2nd 2013
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, September 28, 1768
Autumn has come to New England, and with it a new threat to the city of Boston. British naval ships have sailed into Boston Harbor bearing over a thousand of His Majesty King George III’s soldiers. After a summer of rioting and political unrest, the city is to be occupied.
Ethan Kaille, thieftaker and conjurer, is awakened early in the morning by a staggeringly powerful spell, a dark conjuring of unknown origin. Before long, he is approached by representatives of the Crown. It seems that every man aboard the HMS Graystone has died, though no one knows how or why. They know only that there is no sign of violence or illness. Ethan soon discovers that one soldier -- a man who is known to have worked with Ethan’s beautiful and dangerous rival, Sephira Pryce -- has escaped the fate of his comrades and is not among the Graystone’s dead. Is he the killer, or is there another conjurer loose in the city, possessed of power sufficient to kill so many with a single dark casting?
Ethan, the missing soldier, and Sephira Pryce and her henchmen all scour the city in search of a stolen treasure which seems to lie at the root of all that is happening. At the same time, though, Boston’s conjurers are under assault from the royal government as well as from the mysterious conjurer. Men are dying. Ethan is beaten, imprisoned, and attacked with dark spells.
And if he fails to unravel the mystery of what befell the Graystone, every conjurer in Boston will be hanged as a witch. Including him.

My Review:

I plucked the first book in this series, Thieftaker, from the midst of the towering TBR pile back in February. At the time, a book about pre-Revolutionary America seemed like a good read for Presidents Day. After the Fourth of July, earlier this week, it seemed like an appropriate time to dig out the second book in the series.

And I’m glad I did. This was definitely the right book for the right time. Again.

Thieves’ Quarry takes place three years after the events in Thieftaker. Which makes the year 1768, the year that the British, in their infinite wisdom, decided to teach those fractious colonists in Boston a lesson by occupying the city with British regulars. Those muttering “revolution” mutter a whole lot louder as armed Redcoats stand on every street corner to watch the citizens. Even Ethan, who began the series as a British loyalist, feels uneasy at the occupation – and he’s not alone.

But in the case that forms the central mystery of Thieves’ Quarry, Ethan is working for the British Crown. Not precisely as a thieftaker, although as he puts it, all the men were certainly robbed of their lives, but as a conjurer. Someone killed every man aboard one of the British transport ships bringing troops to the colonies, and did it with an extremely powerful spell.

It’s up to Ethan to figure out who that powerful speller is, before the frustrated colonial Lieutenant Governor, Thomas Hutchinson, has Ethan and every conjurer in Boston hanged as a witch. Which won’t resolve ANY of the outstanding problems, nor will it trap the killer, but will give the restless populace something to focus on other than the occupation, and will have the added benefit of getting the Crown off of Hutchinson’s back, as he will have done SOMETHING to resolve the issue. Even if it doesn’t solve anything at all.

So Ethan finds himself in a race against time, trying desperately to figure out who committed this terrible crime, while the Sheriff, the Lieutenant Governor and his arch-rival Sephira Pryce dog his every step – when they are not out in front of him throwing roadblocks in his path.

And in the end, he discovers that the answer is one that he should have known all along.

Escape Rating B+: The author does an absolutely fantastic job of bringing pre-Revolutionary Boston to life. As we follow Ethan, it almost feels like the reader can not just see what he sees, but sometimes even smell what he smells. Even when it smells really, really rank.

So much of this story, in spite of the fantastical elements, rings true. As do most of the characters. While real historical figures play small parts in this story, notably Samuel Adams and the aforementioned Lieutenant Governor, all the characters feel like real people living in a real time and real place. Except for one.

For this reader, every time Sephira Pryce appears I have to grit my teeth and wait for her to step off the page again. She does not feel like a real person, instead, she reads like a caricature of a female criminal mastermind – ruthless, capricious, petulant, self-indulgent and gorgeous. Ethan’s lingering descriptions of her looks each time she enters the scene get old. I’m only grateful that there’s no “will they, won’t they” chemistry between them, because frankly that would make me drop the series. But there’s just something about her that doesn’t ring true, and it always bothers me.

But the mystery in Thieves’ Quarry kept me turning pages until the very end. And no, I didn’t figure it out. When Ethan finally unravels the whole mess, it’s easy to see how he (and we) should have figured things out much, much sooner. But didn’t. And that’s marvelous.

I enjoyed Thieves’ Quarry and its mystery as well as its gritty portrait of pre-Revolutionary Boston. Enough so that I may not manage to wait until the next appropriate holiday to pick up A Plunder of Souls. Next Presidents Day is awfully far away.

Review: Serenity Harbor by RaeAnne Thayne + Giveaway

Review: Serenity Harbor by RaeAnne Thayne + GiveawaySerenity Harbor (Haven Point, #6) by RaeAnne Thayne
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, small town romance
Series: Haven Point #6
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on June 27th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In the town of Haven Point, love can be just a wish — and one magical kiss — away…
Computer-tech millionaire Bowie Callahan is about the last person that schoolteacher Katrina Bailey wants to work for. As far as she can see, he’s arrogant, entitled and not up to the task of caring for his young half brother, Milo. But Kat is, especially if it brings her closer to her goal of adopting an orphaned little girl. And as her kindness and patience work wonders with Milo, she realises there’s more to sexy, wary Bo.
Bo never imagined he’d be tasked with caring for a sibling he didn’t know existed. Then again, he never pictured himself impulsively kissing vibrant, compassionate Katrina in the moonlight. Now he’s ready to make her dream of family come true…and hoping there’s room in it for him, too…

My Review:

I really enjoyed my first trip to Haven Point with Riverbend Road. I liked it so much that I went back again to experience Snowfall on Haven Point. So when this one popped up at Serenity Harbor, it seemed like a great time to go back!

I haven’t managed to go back and read the first four books in the series, but I’ll probably get around to it sooner or later – this is a nice place with terrific people. It also feels like it’s right next door to Robyn Carr’s Thunder Point, even if the geography doesn’t work out. But you don’t have to read them all to get right into the action of this one.

That being said, I’m kind of glad I had read Riverbend Road, because the wedding that all of the Baileys are back in town for is the one that is set up in Riverbend Road, the wedding between Wyn Bailey and her former boss, Haven Point Police Chief Cade Emmett. The story in Serenity Harbor is not really dependent on the previous book, but it is nice to see Wyn get all of her happy.

Serenity Harbor is Wyn’s sister Kat’s story. Katrina Bailey is back in town for her sister’s wedding. She’s spent the past year in Colombia, teaching English and helping out at a local orphanage, where she’s fallen hard for Gabi, a special needs child who has become her daughter in everything but blood. And paperwork. Endless, endless, EXPENSIVE amounts of paperwork.

And Wyn seems to be the only member of her family who really, really gets that Kat will do anything to take care of 4-year-old Gabi, even if that means moving to Colombia permanently. Kat’s overbearing mother is just certain that if the right man comes along, Kat will forget all about little Gabi.

Because that’s the way Kat used to be. She ended up in Colombia because she was following the wrong man. That’s what Kat used to do, fall for whoever was handy, without thinking. But since she found herself in Colombia, alone and broke with Gabi depending on her, Kat has been determined to become a different, better and more responsible person.

And that’s where Bowie Callahan steps into the picture, along with his little brother Milo. Milo, like Gabi, is a special needs child. But where Gabi has Down Syndrome, Milo is somewhere on the autism spectrum, and Bowie, chief technical wizard at Caine Technology, has no idea how to cope.

But then again, until about a month ago, Bowie had no idea he had a little brother. It was only upon the death of their mother that Bowie learned that she had had another child long after he cut ties – ties that he desperately needed to cut for his own survival.

That’s where Kat steps in. Literally. She’s an elementary education teacher who specializes in kids with special needs, so when she sees Milo about to have a meltdown at the grocery store, she steps in and deflects him until he calms down.

Bowie offers Kat an absolutely outrageous salary to become Milo’s live-in nanny, baby-sitter, caretaker and teacher while she’s in town for her sister’s wedding. Kat, partially against her better judgment and partially to get away from her overbearing mother, takes the job, reasoning that the outrageous salary will help fund her quest to adopt Gabi.

What she doesn’t count on is falling in love with both of the Callahans. By the time she’s ready to go back to Colombia, she breaks both Milo’s and Bowie’s hearts, and very much vice versa. But Gabi needs Kat. And Kat needs to stand on her own two feet, for the first time in her life.

No matter what it costs.

Escape Rating B: The ending of this one seriously got me in the feels. So much so that it raised the grade from the Cs to the Bs in one single pang of my heart.

I also really liked Bowie and his relationship with Milo. He loves his little brother and manages not to resent all the changes that Milo has made in his life. He’s frustrated a whole lot of the time, and with good reason, but he never resents Milo himself. But his life is completely out of control, and he has no idea how to get it back on track. Not that he hasn’t tried, but Milo defeats anyone who doesn’t know how to care for him. There’s a specialist on the way, but she’s tied up for another three weeks, and Bowie has a gap he can’t fill. He’s tried. He loves Milo, but love is not enough.

Bowie is a computer programmer, and a damn good one. Also very successful at it. But I recognized his habit of losing all track of time when he’s “in the zone” because it’s a very familiar pattern to anyone who has a programmer in their life. When they’re coding, they are just gone. So I smiled every time Bowie did this, because it was so familiar.

I liked Kat as a person. She was a great heroine for this story, and the author did an excellent job of introducing the challenges and the joys of parenting a special needs child through Kat’s and Bowie’s relationships with Milo and Gabi. This story did a great job of making me feel for this situation, in spite of my not usually enjoying stories that center around difficulties with child-raising.

But, and it turned out to be a very big but, I had a difficult time understanding why Kat refused to let Bowie in. I didn’t feel as if I got enough of Kat’s past trauma to really buy into her belief that what she felt for Bowie, and what he felt for her, was just another one of her bad decisions about men, which don’t seem all that bad in retrospect. They seemed like typical high school, college and early 20s experiments.

I understood why she wanted to stand on her own two feet in regards to Gabi’s adoption, but she walled everyone out to the point of not discussing her her hopes, or her quite reasonable concerns about the process, with anyone who might help her think things through or even provide a sounding board. Every time she dithered about it, the story sagged a bit. At least for this reader.

But that ending made me tear up. Happy tears, but an intense reaction for a book that I struggled with a bit in the middle. I’ll be back to Haven Point this winter with Sugar Pine Trail. I want to see how they’re all doing! And the heroine is a librarian, which makes this one doubly irresistible!

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Review: Liar’s Key by Carla Neggers

Review: Liar’s Key by Carla NeggersLiar's Key (Sharpe & Donovan, #6) by Carla Neggers
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, romantic suspense
Series: Sharpe & Donovan #6
Pages: 384
Published by Mira on August 30th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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An FBI legend, a mysterious antiquities specialist and a brazen art thief draw top FBI agents Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan into a complex web of blackmail, greed and murder in the eagerly awaited new novel in the highly acclaimed Sharpe & Donovan series
Emma Sharpe is suspicious when retired Special Agent Gordon Wheelock, a legend in FBI art crimes, drops by her Boston office for a visit. Gordy says he's heard rumors about stolen ancient mosaics. Emma, an art crimes specialist herself, won't discuss the rumors. Especially since they involve Oliver York, an unrepentant English art thief. Gordy and Emma's grandfather, a renowned private art detective, chased Oliver for a decade. Gordy knows Wendell Sharpe didn't give him everything he had on the thief. Even now, Oliver will never be prosecuted.
When a shocking death occurs, Emma is drawn into the investigation. The evidence points to a deadly conspiracy between Wendell and Oliver, and Emma's fiancé, deep cover agent Colin Donovan, knows he can't stay out of this one. He also knows there will be questions about Emma's role and where her loyalties lie.
From Boston to Maine to Ireland, Emma and Colin track a dangerous killer as the lives of their family and friends are at stake. With the help of their friend, Irish priest Finian Bracken, and Emma's brother, Lucas, the Sharpes and Donovans must band together to stop a killer.

My Review:

I’ve read this series from the very beginning, all the way back to the prequel novella, Rock Point. (But don’t read Rock Point first. It makes more sense if you start with Saint’s Gate and meet ALL the characters. Not that you need to read ALL of the previous books to enjoy this one, but this entry in particular deals with so many previous threads (and people) that it helps a lot if you’ve read at least some of the earlier books.)

In this mystery series, the detectives are FBI Agents Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan, even though they find themselves working apart as often as they work together. Emma is an art specialist, and Colin, at least up until now, has usually worked alone on deep-cover assignments.

They are also originally from neighboring small towns on the Maine coast. But while they grew up a few short miles apart, they didn’t meet until an assignment threw them together. In the even smaller world of coastal Maine small towns, they knew of each other’s families, but just never met.

So as they count down the final days to their wedding in Emma’s home town of Heron’s Cove, there are plenty of intrusions from friends, family and old cases to keep everyone on their toes to the end.

Colin’s family are law enforcement in their little town, but Emma’s family are world-famous art detectives. And this time around it’s Emma’s family and their connections that cause all the trouble, as well as solve the mystery.

It all begins when a retired FBI Agent shows up in Emma’s Boston office. Gordy Wheelock is on a fishing expedition, looking for something to make him feel relevant a year after his sudden retirement. While Emma isn’t hooked enough to give Gordy any information, she is concerned enough to connect the dots and figure out that there is something going on that there shouldn’t be.

Whatever Gordy thinks he’s involved in, it ties into his last, unsolved case. And it also ties into the seemingly accidental death of an art expert and to Emma’s family’s business. There are too many loose threads. They all tie into something, but Emma isn’t quite sure what.

But as she investigates, and waits for Colin to make it back from his undercover assignment, she learns that at least some of her family are plotting more than just her wedding. And that someone is working, either for her or against her, to figure out not just whodunit but exactly what they done, before she does.

And Gordy Wheelock gets tripped up by his lies.

Escape Rating B+: I read this one on a plane, and completely lost track of where I was or just how much turbulence we hit. I got a copy of this last year when it came out, but for some reason lost track of it at the time. Now that the next book in the series, Thief’s Mark, is due out, it felt like time to pick this back up. And I’m glad I did.

Like so many mystery series, a big part of what makes Sharpe and Donovan isn’t due to Sharpe and Donovan, but rather to the group of people who surround them, and occasionally (or not so occasionally) help and/or hinder them in their investigations. They are smart and interesting people to follow, and they surround themselves with equally smart and interesting people. And as usual, while the wedding and the investigation are proceeding, some of those people have separate crises of their very own to add to the mix.

As families do. Because that’s what these people have become to each other, family.

The case is really all about Gordy Wheelock’s last hurrah. He made a hell of a mistake before he retired, and it’s cost him. Perhaps not enough.

But part of what Emma is investigating is cooked up by her grandfather and her frenemy Oliver York. Wendell Sharpe and Oliver are on the trail of someone who is stealing ancient mosaics and getting them onto the market with fake provenance. Basically, someone is money laundering, with mosaics substituting for money. The comparison is to “conflict diamonds” because these ancient artifacts are being expropriated from places where they shouldn’t and putting the money into the hands of people who underwrite terrorism.

But Wendell and Oliver are playing a dangerous game, particularly since they, as well as Gordy, leave Emma and the FBI out of their loop. It’s a misstep that will result in more bodies, more disruption, and less trust. Not a good combination. But it is a fascinating one.

In the end, the criminals do get unmasked, and Emma and Colin manage to get married. I am very happy to say, however, that this is not the end of their adventures. Thief’s Mark is coming in August. After all, Emma and Colin could not possibly have expected to have an uninterrupted honeymoon, could they?

Review: A Most Unlikely Duke by Sophie Barnes + Giveaway

Review: A Most Unlikely Duke by Sophie Barnes + GiveawayA Most Unlikely Duke (Diamonds in the Rough, #1) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Diamonds in the Rough #1
Pages: 384
Published by Avon on June 27th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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He never thought he'd become a duke, or that the secrets of his past would cost him his greatest love...

Raphe Matthews hasn’t stepped foot in polite circles since a tragedy left his once-noble family impoverished and in debt. The bare-knuckle boxer has spent the last fifteen years eking out an existence for himself and his two sisters. But when a stunning reversal of fortune lands Raphe the title of Duke of Huntley, he’s determined to make a go of becoming a proper lord, but he’ll need a little help, and his captivating neighbor might be just the woman for the job…
After her sister’s scandalous match, Lady Gabriella knows the ton’s eyes are on her. Agreeing to tutor the brutish new duke can only lead to ruin. Although she tries to control her irresistible attraction to Raphe, every day she spends with him only deepens her realization that this may be the one man she cannot do without. And as scandal threatens to envelop them both, she must decide if she can risk everything for love with a most unlikely duke.

My Review:

A Most Unlikely Duke is a surprisingly likely source of fun. It takes one of the standard tropes and turns it on its head, then beats it to a satisfying pulp – just as its hero does with any contenders for his bare-knuckle boxing crown.

That is part of what makes this particular duke so very, very unlikely. Raphe Matthews and his two sisters have survived in one of London’s worst neighborhoods, St. Giles. (If that name sounds familiar, St. Giles is also the setting of Elizabeth Hoyt’s marvelous Maiden Lane series. And that’s also a read-alike suggestion – anyone who enjoys the Maiden Lane series will also like Diamonds in the Rough.)

Raphe and his sisters Amelia and Juliette used to be gentry, once upon a time. But when their father died in debt and their mother abandoned them, Raphe and his sisters were forced into poverty. Raphe eventually grew into his work at the dockyards and his career as a bare-knuckle brawler, and now they have a measure of comfort. They’ve adapted to their surroundings, and most people forget that where they are isn’t where they came from.

Until Raphe receives a letter informing him that, due to a quirk of the law and a series of unfortunate events, he is now the Duke of Huntley. It’s a shock. It’s a surprise. It’s not even something that Raphe wants for himself. He hates the gentry and has no desire to become one. But he loves his sisters, and the wealth and power that comes with being a Duke will make their lives much, much easier. And considerably a whole lot safer. And they can all stop wondering where their next meal is coming from – an all too frequent occurrence during their early days in St. Giles.

All they have to do is learn to play the parts that they were born for, but have outgrown and discarded along the way.

That’s where Gabriella Warwick comes in. Lady Gabriella remembers all too well what it was like to be condemned by society, not for something she did, but for something that she is. She has a fascination with insects, and studies entomology in her spare time. Time that she used to have much more of, before her older sister made a scandalous marriage and nearly ruined the family’s social standing. Gabriella’s parents are determined to mold her into the proper young woman she was never quite meant to be, and seem perfectly willing to crush her into submission. She is dutiful but miserable.

When Raphe and his sisters arrive on the scene, she finds Raphe compelling, but it is his sisters to whom her heart reaches out. After the past year she has spent having social lessons drummed into her nearly 24/7, she is capable of teaching them what they need to know to have half a chance in society. And she wants to keep them from suffering the stings of social opprobrium as much as possible.

But spending time with the Matthews sisters necessitates spending time with Raphe Matthews as well. And she likes his unaffected manners as much as he likes the enthusiastic woman who occasionally peeks out from behind the socially polite mask she has been forced to wear.

They discover that they belong together – but only if they can weather the storms that threaten to drive them apart at every turn.

Escape Rating B: The “lessons” trope is one that I’ve always liked. As I read A Most Unlikely Duke I had the feeling that I had read a similar story before – it’s a pretty common trope. Likewise, the device where an unlikely hero is suddenly elevated to the peerage has also been done before. I think what made A Most Unlikely Duke so much fun was the way that those lessons in deportment took place between Gabriella and Raphe’s sisters, rather than Raphe himself. Not that Raphe didn’t need the help, because he most certainly did, but because Gabriella’s fellow feeling was for the young women. Raphe got his lessons elsewhere.

Part of what worked for me in this story was the way that Raphe merely takes on protective coloration, and only but so much of it. He changes his manners, but he never loses sight of the fact that all of the social rules and meticulous etiquette are just so much bunk. He does what he has to, but he never loses himself, and he makes friends because of that authentic self.

And it’s that authentic self that Gabriella comes to love. Not just because Raphe is way more real than the fop her parents want her to marry, but because Raphe loves the person she really is as she is, and not the person that her parents and society expect her to be. Loving Raphe sets her free, where the man her parents chose for her wanted to break her spirit. He’d probably treat his horses better – because he valued them more.

There were any number of times during the course of this story where it kept toeing up to some of the expected traps, but didn’t fall in. There were a few too many occasions where it looked like Gabriella was going to cave in and do what her parents wanted. And when she dithered about it, the story dragged a bit. Her forced engagement to the pompous ass was one of the very low points. While her desire to get out of it without risking further social ruin felt real, it kept things on tenterhooks a bit longer than I would have liked.

But all in all, A Most Unlikely Duke was a fun read for a long day of waiting in airports. I liked the cast of characters, and I’m looking forward to Amelia’s story in The Duke of Her Desire, coming just in time for a cozy Xmas read.

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Review: Barbarian by Anna Hackett

Review: Barbarian by Anna HackettBarbarian (Galactic Gladiators #6) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, science fiction romance
Series: Galactic Gladiators #6
Pages: 200
Published by Anna Hackett on June 27th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Abducted by alien slavers, experimented on, and left blind, the last thing doctor Winter Ashworth needs is a big barbarian gladiator in her life, especially an annoying one who thinks she's small and weak.

Rescued by gladiators on the desert world of Carthago, Winter is doggedly working to embrace her new life. But two of her friends are still missing and she'll do anything to help get them back...even if she has to work alongside Nero Krahn: hunter, barbarian, gladiator. The scowly, brooding man is too big, has too many muscles, and pushes all her buttons.

Nero is the House of Galen's best hunter and tracker. Raised on a barbarian world, where strength and might are prized, he was bred to hunt and fight. Now the arena is his home and his loyalty is to his imperator. He knows he can use his skills to find the two lost women, even if that means protecting a small blind woman who takes every chance to misjudge his words and lash him with her sharp tongue.

But as they follow a dangerous trail to save their friends, a new enemy emerges--one who wants Winter. The pair find themselves reluctantly attracted to each other, uncovering a scorching desire that shocks them both. As Nero fights to protect Winter, the barbarian gladiator will discover the true meaning of strength from the small Earth woman he wants to claim as his.

My Review:

I always have a good time with Anna Hackett’s series, and Barbarian was no exception. This was a perfect airplane book. The plane may have been flying over the American Heartland, but I was exploring the deserts of Kor Magna and loving every minute of it.

The Galactic Gladiators series is a kind of sun and sandals meet spaceships series. Kor Magna is basically Vegas on steroids, and the gladiatorial fights are just a part of the entertainment on offer. All of the galaxy’s sins, temptations and degradations seem to be available on Kor Magna – for a price.

But it isn’t all fun and games. Kor Magna may be where the rich come to play, but it has a seamy side. Someone has to be providing all the fun, all that tempting sin, and not all of the providers are willing.

There’s an unfortunately thriving slave trade that feeds the fleshpots of Kor Magna, and an ever expanding number of humans have found themselves under its thumb. Slavers exploited a temporary wormhole from Kor Magna to Jupiter, and kidnapped or killed an entire space station.

But that wormhole was a temporary fluke. Our solar system is too far away to get to, over 600 years away at the fastest sublight speeds currently available. So the humans that were captured are exotic and rare, therefore valuable in the wrong hands. And none of them can get home.

Over the course of the series, the captive humans have been rescued, one by one, by gladiators from the successful and honorable House of Galen. Galen and his gladiators have made it their mission to rescue slaves, especially those who just aren’t suited for the life of a gladiator.

And one by one, as each human is rescued, another gladiator falls into the arms of love. At this point, the remaining unmated gladiators are getting a bit sick of all the mushy stuff, and worried about when it will be their turn to fall. (This reader is really looking forward to Galen’s fall, but that’s probably a couple of books away at least. Damn)

The story in Barbarian is the romance between blind Winter and warrior Nero. Winter is a doctor who was blinded in an experiment after she was captured by the slavers. She has a lot of fears and insecurities about how she will make a life and a place for herself now that she is blind. A surgeon can’t operate if they can’t see what they are operating on.

The warrior Nero pushes all of Winter’s buttons, both the good ones and the insecure ones. A warrior from a savage planet, Nero was taught to believe that the weak were a drain on resources, and that protecting them only drains the tribe. He’s learned better in the House of Galen, but Winter’s presence makes him even more tongue-tied, and more blunt, than usual. And she takes all of his comments and runs with them, generally in the wrong direction.

There is more than one kind of strength, and more than one version of bravery. As the gladiators trek out into the harsh desert to rescue more humans from extremely inhumane conditions, Winter and Nero finally figure out that all of their arguments mask a whole lot of deeper emotions that neither of them is ready to deal with.

But life on Kor Magna, even under the best of circumstances (something the gladiators never seem to find) is too harsh to put off loving the person who makes your heart sing.

Escape Rating B+: I really liked Nero and Winter. In the end, they made a great team. And it was good to see Winter take her new life by the horns, in spite of her handicap. She’s scared, she’s uncertain, but she never retreats and she never gives up.

Not even when an evil robot is dragging her to its leader.

That leader is what keeps this book, for me at least, from rising into the A grades.

The slave traders, as awful as they are, make a bad kind of sense. They’re in it for the money. It’s a disgusting motive, and their tactics are brutal, but we understand why they do what they do, even as we abhor it.

The villain of this piece, the Catalyst, is just plain nuckin’ futz. Crazy as a loon. A few parsecs short of a quadrant. You get the picture. He’s doing what he’s doing just because he can, and because he believes he’s so intelligent that he’s entitled, and that no one will be able to stop him. He was terrible and awful and dangerous, but he just didn’t make enough sense. At least not for me.

The gladiators, on the other hand, are terrific. And they are all very much individuals, just as are the humans they fall for. So far, it’s been one male human and five females, but there is nothing in the structure of the series that says that couldn’t change. One of the things that I like about the series is that each of the humans, upon recognizing that they literally can’t go home again, buckles down and finds work and hope and purpose as well as love. And the work varies – only two so far have become gladiators. In addition to Winter finding a way to continue as a healer, one has become an engineer, another an inventor, and one has taken on the sometimes thankless task of business manager for the House of Galen.

One thing that makes this series so much fun is that the pattern can be stretched indefinitely without feeling too stretched. The Hell Squad series has hit that point for me, even though I still enjoy the individual entries in it. And you don’t have to read the entire series to get in on the action (but probably the first one (Gladiator) just to introduce the scene, setting and players) But the Galactic Gladiators only has to stop when the plausible number of captives from the Jupiter station has been reached, and that’s a LONG way off.

Thank goodness!