Review: The Troubleshooter by Anna Hackett

Review: The Troubleshooter by Anna HackettThe Troubleshooter (Norcross #2) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, contemporary romance
Series: Norcross #2
Pages: 258
Published by Anna Hackett on October 18, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Never, ever fall for your brother’s annoying, infuriating, gorgeous best friend.

Gia Norcross’ life is exactly how she likes it. She has a successful PR firm in San Francisco, a beautiful apartment, a loving family of overprotective brothers, and her fabulous designer shoe collection. Perfection. Sure, occasionally she has to deal with her aggravating nemesis who happens to be her brother’s best friend. Saxon Buchanan: tall, rich, handsome, bossy, and knows how to work her last nerve.

She’ll never, ever admit to anyone that most days, she isn’t sure if she wants to punch the arrogant, tattooed, suit-wearing know-it-all…or kiss him.

After a military career spent in a covert special ops team doing hard, dirty, and very classified missions, Saxon Buchanan is happy working at Norcross Security as the company’s top troubleshooter. He also enjoys the perks of civilian life. That includes sparring with smart, sexy Gia of the wide brown eyes, luscious curves, and sharp tongue. He’s spent half his life fighting the pull of his best friend’s little sister.

But seeing a man aim a gun at Gia changes everything.

When Gia’s troubled childhood best friend drags her into a really, really bad situation, soon bullets are flying, precious gemstones are missing, and Gia’s in danger. Saxon’s done pushing away the one woman he’s ever wanted. He’ll do everything to protect her, and he’s not letting anything get in his way: not the bad guys, not his best friend, and especially not Gia.

My Review:

This is the story I was expecting after the hints at the end of the first book in the Norcross series, The Investigator. And it was exactly the kind of terrific doozy of an action adventure romance that I expect from this author!

Gia Norcross has entirely too many brothers – or at least that’s how she sees it at least some of the time.

Not that she doesn’t love every single over-protective one of them. But they do have a testosterone-fueled tendency to try to protect her even when she doesn’t need protecting. And especially when she does.

As she does fairly often in this entry in the series.

Not, as happened a bit too often in the first book in the series, because the heroine couldn’t seem to recognize the obvious risks that she kept walking right into. But rather because Gia’s heart is very big and extremely loyal, and she’s unwilling to cut off one of her childhood friends. Even if that friend has become a liar, a thief, and a user of both pharmaceuticals and people.

And Gia is most often her target. Or her sucker. She’s someone who seriously needs some tough love, but Gia keeps on bailing her out of the trouble that she’s gotten herself into.

In this particular case, seriously big time trouble that follows her friend right to Gia’s doorstep. In search of the stolen jewels that said “friend” is letting Gia hide for her. Gems that are way more valuable – and chased by people way more deadly, than her friend is willing to admit.

Unlike her lying, using, so-called friend, Gia has some real badasses fighting in her corner. Because they’re her brothers, sometimes she’s fighting them more than the bad guys who are after her.

But one of those badasses is not one of her brothers, and in spite of the number of years they’ve been pissing each other off on a regular basis, she definitely doesn’t have any sisterly feelings towards Saxon Buchanan.

Occasionally murderous feelings, but even those are just a cover for how much she wants him and how long it’s been going on. But Saxon has been parading a seemingly endless stream of long leggy blondes through his bed, and Gia’s not remotely interested in being a notch on anyone’s bedpost. Especially not someone who seems to prefer women who are her exact opposite.

But, this isn’t the story of a rake reformed. Instead, it’s the classic story of the older brother’s best friend falling for his friend’s underage sister – who has grown up into the woman he wants but shouldn’t have.

Something about that damn ‘bro code getting in the way.

With at first one, then two and eventually three different sets of villains chasing after Gia for those stolen jewels that she doesn’t even have, Saxon Buchanan finally makes keeping Gia safe and making her his not just his top priority, but his only priority.

No matter what her brothers or any of those villains have to say in the matter. His real challenge is to get Gia to admit that she’s been on that train all along.

Escape Rating B+: I liked The Troubleshooter considerably more than I did The Investigator, so I’m really happy to say that the books stand more than enough alone that you don’t have to read the first to get into the second.

The reason I liked this one better is that Gia was a much more active character than Haven. Haven kept falling into trouble, and seemed to always be reacting to the crap that happened TO her.

Gia, on the other hand, felt proactive. Some of her actions didn’t turn out for the best, or didn’t turn out quite the way she planned, and occasionally the bad guys planned better, but it always felt like Gia was pushing her own action forward. She was never passive. She was not a passive person in any way, and she was always the prime mover of her own story no matter how much Saxon and her brothers tried to wrap her in cotton and keep her safe. Not always successfully. And that lack of success wasn’t remotely always Gia’s fault.

Instead, Gia’s fault isn’t a fault. Well, her temper is definitely a fault, but it isn’t what got her into this mess. Gia’s loyal, and always tries to see the best in people. As faults go, it’s a pretty good one. And it is one that gets her in trouble, but her actions, even when they turn out wrong, still keep the story moving and make her the prime agent of her own story.

I liked Gia a lot. She’d be a loyal friend and a whole lot of fun. But she’s also a serious businesswoman who has made her own way. There’s just a lot to admire about her character and I did.

I did enjoy the way that Saxon and Gia’s relationship exploded. Developed is not the right word, because it’s been there all along. Definitely exploded. They have explosive chemistry AND explosive tempers and they caught serious fire. Saxon is every bit as troubled as most of this author’s heroes, but the chemistry between them burned up the page and just plain worked.

One tiny thing niggled at me. In the previous story there was an evil old man who collected women to be his sex slaves. In this one there’s an evil old man who buys women to be sold as sex slaves. In neither case was the evil old lech the main villain. He felt over the top both times and I’m tired of reading about him. That’s my 2 cents and I’m sticking to it.

Howsomever, I’m definitely NOT tired of reading about the Norcross family. Especially as the hints at the end of this book promise that the next romance in the series will follow one of my favorite tropes, the falling for the boss trope. This time with the added bonus that the assistant is in no way intimidated by her boss’ power, or his money, or pretty much anything or anyone at all.

This is going to be so much fun!

Review: A Duke for Miss Townsbridge by Sophie Barnes + Giveaway

Review: A Duke for Miss Townsbridge by Sophie Barnes + GiveawayA Duke for Miss Townsbridge by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, regency romance
Series: Townsbridges #4
Pages: 100
Published by Sophie Barnes on October 20, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

She threatens to conquer his heart…
When Matthew Donovan, Duke of Brunswick, proposes to Sarah Townsbridge, she’s shocked. After all, she’s never met him before. One thing is clear though – he obviously needs help. So after turning him down, she decides to get to know him better, and finds out she’s right. But fixing a broken man is not the same as adopting a puppy. Least of all when the man in question has no desire to be saved.
Matthew has his mind set on Sarah. Kind and energetic, she’ll make an excellent mother. Best of all, her reclusiveness is sure to make her accept the sort of marriage he has in mind – one where they live apart. The only problem is, to convince her, they must spend time together. And the more they do, the more he risks falling prey to the one emotion he knows he must avoid at all cost: love.

My Review:

Life may or may not be like a box of chocolates, but A Duke for Miss Townsbridge is a deliciously light confection of froth and fluff with a tasty but chewy center to give it just the right amount of bite.

I’ve just realized that this analogy makes Sophie Barnes’ work the equivalent of that box of chocolates, and that definitely works. They are always delicious!

Initially, the duke in question is not for Miss Townsbridge. At all. Oh, he thinks he is, but she’s having none of him after he invades an afternoon party being held in her honor, gets down on one knee and doesn’t so much propose marriage as command it.

The Duke of Brunswick’s literal first words to his intended bride are “Marry me,” as though he has the right to order it and she has no choice but to go along.

In spite of being near the end of her sixth season, 22 years old and in danger of being considered permanently on the shelf, Sarah Townsbridge does have a choice in the matter, and her choice is to decline the honor.

But that “no” is only the beginning of a romance that Brunwsick had intended to forgo altogether. He needed a wife and a mother for his eventual heir. He wanted someone capable of presenting herself as his duchess while maintaining her own household and keeping herself occupied for the rest of their lives.

He had no intention of loving, or frankly even liking his would-be Duchess. His entire family had been killed in a carriage accident when he was a child. An experience that he has NEVER gotten over. Or past. Or even let the tiniest bit go of.

That’s what makes Sarah decide to give him another chance. She’s made a hobby of taking in wounded animals and “fixing” them. And Matthew Donovan, the high-in-the-instep Duke of Brunswick, is definitely a wounded animal that needs just Sarah’s kind of care. He needs to heal, and she wants to “fix” him.

It should be an even worse beginning for a relationship than his initial commanding proposal. And it very nearly is. Until it finally isn’t.

Escape Rating B+: All of the stories in the Townsbridges series of historical romantic novellas have been utterly delicious, and A Duke for Miss Townsbridge is certainly no exception.

They have also all been romances with just a little bit of bite. Romances where there’s something unconventional in the way that the hero and heroine begin their romantic adventure. Even better, it’s never the same something.

It’s also generally something that shouldn’t work, from When Love Leads to Scandal, where the heroine begins the story engaged to the hero’s best friend, to Lady Abigail’s Perfect Match, where the hero initially makes the heroine literally sick to her stomach, to the previous story, Falling for Mr. Townsbridge, when a son of the household falls for his mother’s new cook – and chooses to ignore convention and marry her.

It’s not necessary to have read the previous books in the series to enjoy this one, but they are all lovely, short, eventually sweet and utterly delicious.

In this outing, Sarah falls for the Duke because she wants to fix him. In real life, this is downright dangerous, and relationships like this one nearly always end in disaster AND heartbreak. Plenty of people have issues that need fixing, but no one can BE fixed. They have to want to fix themselves and then carry through – something that doesn’t happen nearly enough except in Romancelandia.

And it nearly doesn’t happen here, either. It’s not that Matthew is a terrible person, it’s that he’s lived his entire life up to this point clinging to his pain – and he doesn’t know how to stop. Sarah, at least doesn’t think it will be easy, but she does see that it’s necessary. Her mistake is thinking that Matthew is all in on doing the work, when he really isn’t.

So there’s a romance here, where these people fall in love but only one of them is willing to admit it. And they marry anyway. It’s only after Matthew breaks Sarah’s heart that the healing can begin.

That the author didn’t gloss over just how much hard work is going to be involved made this unworkable premise work. In the end, their happy ending was definitely earned!

But speaking of earning a happy ending, the jilted fiance from the very first book in this series, will finally have the chance to earn his in the next book, An Unexpected Temptation, when he gets stranded in a winter storm with his nemesis, just in time for the holidays.

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Review: Murder on Cold Street by Sherry Thomas

Review: Murder on Cold Street by Sherry ThomasMurder on Cold Street (Lady Sherlock, #5) by Sherry Thomas
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Lady Sherlock #5
Pages: 352
Published by Berkley Books on October 6, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Charlotte Holmes, Lady Sherlock, is back solving new cases in the USA Today bestselling series set in Victorian England.
Inspector Treadles, Charlotte Holmes’s friend and collaborator, has been found locked in a room with two dead men, both of whom worked with his wife at the great manufacturing enterprise she has recently inherited.
Rumors fly. Had Inspector Treadles killed the men because they had opposed his wife’s initiatives at every turn? Had he killed in a fit of jealous rage, because he suspected Mrs. Treadles of harboring deeper feelings for one of the men? To make matters worse, he refuses to speak on his own behalf, despite the overwhelming evidence against him.
Charlotte finds herself in a case strewn with lies and secrets. But which lies are to cover up small sins, and which secrets would flay open a past better left forgotten? Not to mention, how can she concentrate on these murders, when Lord Ingram, her oldest friend and sometime lover, at last dangles before her the one thing she has always wanted?

My Review:

Welcome to another captivating AND frustrating entry in the Lady Sherlock series. And I really do mean both parts of that.

The series as a whole, and this particular entry in it, provides a fascinating look at an alternative version of Sherlock Holmes, and I’m always a sucker for a good Holmes pastiche, which this series definitely is.

The alternate Sherlock explored by this series is one where Sherlock Holmes is the entirely fictitious invalid brother of the “real” detective, Charlotte Holmes.

And that’s where both the genius and the frustration of this series comes in. It’s not that Charlotte is female, it’s that Charlotte has to deal with all of the frustrations and restrictions that come with living while female – and in the Victorian Era to boot, when those restrictions were even more ridiculously restrictive than they sometimes are today.

Making Charlotte’s life an endless series of situations that she has to work her way around. Her workarounds – like the fictitious invalid brother – are an absolute necessity. And that’s what makes reading this series so endlessly frustrating. The reader wants her to be able to just “get on with it” and she literally can’t if she is to remain a true – albeit atypical – creature of her time.

The social obligations and restrictions don’t really bother her, but they definitely bother other people when she doesn’t at least nod in their direction. So it’s both right and annoying at the same time. (Obviously I’d have done very poorly as a middle-class Victorian woman!)

What makes this particular case so fascinating is that the case, in its entirety, seems to be hedged about with all of the issues that, well, hedged women about, even though both the victims and the accused perpetrator are men.

Inspector Treadles, who serves as Charlotte’s Inspector Lestrade, meaning that Treadles is the Scotland Yard detective who both assists and is assisted by Charlotte, and who therefore gets to take the official credit for the cases she solves, has been accused of murder. Considering that he was found standing over two dead bodies inside a locked room with his service revolver in his hand, it is not surprising that he was assumed to be the killer.

Particularly as he didn’t seem to have anything to say that would explain the circumstances. Mrs. Treadles comes to Sherlock Holmes in desperation, hoping against hope that the great detective will not just come to the aid of his colleague, but will be able to extricate his head from the seemingly inevitable hangman’s noose.

But Treadles has held himself distant from Holmes, after discovering that Charlotte, a mere woman, was the real detective. And he’s held himself distant from his poor wife ever since she inherited her family’s manufacturing business from her late brother.

It seems as if Treadles’ unwillingness to accept either his wife’s or his “colleague’s” ability to be both female and intelligent is at the heart of this case. One of the murder victims was his wife’s mentor, and the other is rumored to have been her lover.

He has too many motives and seemingly no defense whatsoever. It will be up to Charlotte, with the able assistance of her own band of irregulars, Mrs. Watson, Miss Redmayne and especially Lord Ashburton, to figure out the truth.

Escape Rating B: As should be clear by now, I feel a bit of a push-pull about Charlotte. She fits her time – more or less – and her time is frustrating. One of the interesting things about this particular entry in the series is the way that Lord Ashburton is beginning to understand just how privileged he is, not in the sense that he is a privileged member of the upper class, although he certainly is, but that his movements through the world are eased immeasurably simply because he is a man.

His consciousness of that fact feels a bit ahead of his time, but not unduly so. But it does serve to highlight just how many restrictions Charlotte – and by extension for this particular case, Mrs. Treadles – has to deal with.

The heart of this case is both simple and complex. On the one hand, there’s the financial malfeasance that is finally uncovered. And on the other, there’s that huge undercurrent that swirls around just how fragile a woman’s place in the world can be, and how easy it is for an unscrupulous man – or simply an unthinking or uncaring one – to make a woman’s life a misery of recriminations and blame even if she hasn’t put a single step wrong.

This made the mystery fascinating. It was fairly obvious that Inspector Treadles’ silence was intended to protect someone from something, but protect who from what was the darkest part of the mystery until near the end. That ALL of the goings-on in the place where he was found turned out to be a nearly impenetrable farce just added to the stew of red herrings in the case.

But five books in, I’m seeing a pattern that, well, tasks me. It feels like the circle is much too close, too centered on Charlotte. There should be more cases that aren’t so personal if Charlotte is operating as a consulting detective. But so far, all of the cases have centered around people close to her; her parents (A Study in Scarlet Women), her half brother (A Conspiracy in Belgravia), Lord Ashburton himself (The Hollow of Fear), Mrs. Watson (The Art of Theft) and now Inspector Treadles. There should be some cases that don’t have such high emotional stakes.

Each of the individual cases has been interesting, but the entire world shouldn’t revolve around Charlotte. Or it feels that way. Definitely on another hand, having that world revolve around Moriarty, as it also does, feels right. At the same time, it also feels like the solution that Charlotte Holmes comes up with for her final Moriarty problem is likely to end the series.

And as much as Charlotte and her world drive me a bit crazy, I don’t want that to be anytime soon.

Review: Happily this Christmas by Susan Mallery

Review: Happily this Christmas by Susan MalleryHappily This Christmas by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, holiday romance, women's fiction
Series: Happily Inc #6
Pages: 336
Published by Hqn on September 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Susan Mallery, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Fool’s Gold romances, proves there’s no place like Happily Inc for the holidays…

There’s no place like Happily Inc for the holidays…

Wynn Beauchene has a thriving business, a great kid and a mildly embarrassing crush on the guy next door—local cop Garrick McCabe. She’s a strong, independent woman who can’t help dreaming what-if about a man she barely knows. Until he needs her help…
Garrick’s pregnant daughter will be home for Christmas, and his house needs a woman’s touch. Garrick and his little girl were tight once and he’s hoping a small-town Christmas will bring her back to him. But thawing his daughter’s frosty attitude will take more than a few twinkle lights. Maybe sharing the holiday with Wynn and her son will remind her of the joy of family.
As the season works its magic on these wounded souls, Wynn realizes it’s time to stop punishing herself for a painful secret, while Garrick remains haunted by the ghosts of past mistakes. Will he allow Wynn to open the only gift she truly wants—his heart?
Read more in the reader-favorite Happily Inc series:Book 1: You Say It FirstBook 2: Second Chance GirlBook 3: Why Not TonightBook 4: Not Quite Over YouBook 5: Meant to Be YoursBook 6: Happily This Christmas

My Review:

I decided I wanted a happier book in the middle of this week, and it doesn’t get much happier than a trip to Happily, Inc., the little town that makes big wedding dreams come true.

But the situation that opens Happily this Christmas isn’t all that happy. And as much as Garrick McCabe wants it to change, he’s far from sure that it can. Not that he isn’t going to try his level best to make it happen.

His 21-year-old, 8-months pregnant daughter is coming to stay with him in Happily for a few weeks before Christmas, when her baby is due to be born and her husband is scheduled to return from his military deployment in Afghanistan.

Hopefully not in that order.

Garrick’s daughter Joylyn used to be his best girl, his buddy, his partner in crime and the light of his life. And those feelings used to be mutual. But somewhere in the middle of her teenage years Joylyn withdrew from him. Completely, utterly and extremely bitchily into the bargain.

He’s sure he must have done something wrong – but he doesn’t know what that something was. Joylyn refuses to tell him. She also refuses to act like a decent human being in his presence.

This visit is a chance to make things right. Of course, it could also cement the estrangement in stone.

But Garrick has a secret weapon. He enlists the help of his next door neighbor, the single-mother, business-owner and generally put-together Wynn Beauchene to help him welcome Joylyn to Happily and get her visit off to the best start possible.

Only to find himself charmed by Wynn – a feeling that is definitely mutual.

It’s a good thing that Garrick has Wynn and her teenaged son Hunter in his corner, giving Joylyn people to meet, things to do and something to think about besides missing her husband, brooding over her mistakes and continuing to treat her completely confused Dad like he’s the scum of the earth.

Which he definitely isn’t.

Joylyn has a chance to make things right, if only she’s willing to take it. Garrick and Wynn have a chance at the happy ending neither of them ever managed to have – if they’re willing to take a chance on each other – and give themselves a second chance at not just love, but life itself.

Escape Rating B+: I was definitely in the mood for a happy book this week. I’ve read nearly all of the Happily series and really enjoyed them. The portrait of the wedding destination town, all the people who are part of the town’s primary industry, and everything that goes into pulling off those dream weddings has always been good for a smile or ten, along with the HEAs of the individual characters in each book.

So I fell into Happily this Christmas pretty quickly, even if I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around holiday romances this early in the year. On my other hand, perhaps wishing the rest of this year away is the best idea in the universe. 2020 has been pretty epic on the awful scale.

But this one wasn’t quite as happy as I was expecting. It was fascinating, but not happy. Because for the first half of the story, Joylyn feels like the main character and she is frankly a bitch. And it feels like that’s all on her.

As the story evolves, it turns out it isn’t ALL on her, but a lot of it is. Her reasons for cutting her dad out of her life are only partly her fault. And her current levels of extreme bitchiness are, while not excused, at least understandable as she’s extremely pregnant, her husband is deployed and quite honestly she’s scared about being a new mother.

But she’s also a spoiled, privileged little princess taking all of her problems out on everyone around her. When Wynn contrasts her own young motherhood, single, completely alone and utterly broke but still gamely trying to keep it together, that privilege becomes pretty clear and Joylyn starts to get over herself a bit.

Then the town, through Wynn and all of her friends, starts to take Joylyn to their hearts and her attitude finally gets better. She starts to grow up – and did she ever need to!

For a lot of the story, Joylyn and her issues overshadow the budding romance between Garrick and Wynn. But that’s also part of the story, as between Joylyn, Wynn’s son Hunter, all the holiday preparations and planning for both Thanksgiving AND Xmas, and the circle of friends and family-of-choice that Wynn gets Joylyn involved in, there are a lot of people around ALL of the time, and a lot of busy that needs to be worked through and handled.

While that handling is something that Wynn is very good at, the whole thing turns into the kind of three-ring circus that keeps its central participants, in this case Garrick and Wynn, so busy that they have enough time to acknowledge their attraction to each other, plenty of need to spend time together dealing with stuff, but not a lot of time just being together without at least part of the crowd to see if they have what it takes to turn that attraction into a real relationship.

Of course they do, but it nearly takes a village to help them figure it out.

So this entry in the series was bigger on the family and friendship aspects of living in Happily than it was the romance, but it was still – as always – a lovely read.

Review: Remember Me by Mario Escobar

Review: Remember Me by Mario EscobarRemember Me: A Spanish Civil War Novel by Mario Escobar
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by Thomas Nelson on September 15, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From international bestseller Mario Escobar comes a 20th-century historical novel of tragedy and resilience inspired by Spain’s famed Children of Morelia and the true events that shaped their lives.
Historians refer to the Spanish Civil War as one of the bloodiest wars of the twentieth century. In 1937, at Mexico’s request and offer, nearly 500 children from Spain—remembered as Los Niños de Morelia—were relocated via ship to Mexico to escape the war’s violence. These children traveled across the sea without their families and were expected to return at the war’s end. No one could have foreseen another world war was on the way—or that that Franco’s regime would prevent the children from coming home. These enduring conflicts trapped the children in a country far from their homeland, and many never made it back.
Remember Me is Mario Escobar’s novelization of these events, as told by a fictional survivor—one of the children of Morelia—who looks back upon his life after making the long and devastating journey across the Atlantic. This story explores the endurance of the human spirit as well as the quandary of a parent’s impossible decision, asking: At what cost do you protect your child in the face of uncertainty?

My Review:

I picked this book up because I was moved by Children of the Stars and was hoping for something similar. And it is that, a fictionalized account of real history, and real history of roughly the same period.

In other words, I was expecting a story where fiction is the lie that tells the truth – in this case the truth about the very real children of Morelia, the nearly 500 children who were sent out of the Spanish Civil War to Mexico in the hopes that they would be safe.

There are all kinds of versions of safe, however. They were safe from the direct effects of the war – and its immediate aftermath. Many of the children were the sons and daughters of the left-leaning Popular Front government. Which was defeated by Franco and his right-leaning Nazi supported Nationalists. Who brutally suppressed the left after their victory. Which meant that their parents weren’t safe either during or after the war. The children weren’t exactly safe either – but neither were they being shelled.

The Spanish Civil War is often referred to as a dress rehearsal for World War II, as the countries who became the Allies supported the Republican government of the Popular Front, while the Axis supported the Nationalists.

And just as happened elsewhere before and even during that war, parents tried their best to keep their children safe – or at least as safe as possible. That meant that parents faced a terrible choice – to keep their children with them, to do their own best to keep them safe in a country that was the front for war, or to send them away in the hopes that they would be safer far from the battlefield.

The story in Remember Me is the story of those children sent to Mexico under the sponsorship of the Mexican government. And while the experiences of the children of Morelia were not as brutal as the Stein brothers endured in Children of the Stars as young Jewish orphans trekking across a Nazi-dominated Europe that hunted them in order to exterminate them, it was far indeed from the safety and security that their parents had hoped for.

Escape Rating B+: This is a hard book. It’s hard because what happens to the children of Morelia is both all too horrible and all too familiar. On the one hand, this was a history that I wasn’t familiar with in its particulars, although the outline of it is part of many stories that happened during the war, from the children of London shipped to the countryside to escape the Blitz to the Kindertransport that rescued 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Nazi Germany and other countries in the months prior to World War II to the Danish resistance movement’s evacuation of over 90% of the country’s Jewish population to Sweden.

But the rescue itself is only part of this particular story, which is wrapped in the particular circumstances in Spain during and after the Civil War, and of the conditions that the children faced in Mexico.

And quite probably elsewhere, because the story of what the children went through reads like a combination of Lord of the Flies with all the old sayings about power corrupting. Much of what happened read like it could be attributed to people who had power over the children while they were in Mexico either being venal or neglectful or having their own axe to grind. Or multiple axes, as Spanish colonial oppression was not that far in Mexico’s past that there weren’t people who wanted to punish the children for the sins of their figurative grandparents. There was also conflict with the Catholic Church that just added to the issues. Many of the children were secular, having been raised in left-leaning revolutionary families. The Catholic Church in Mexico was very powerful, and there was a fair amount of pious skullduggery involved, with children who still had parents being assigned as orphans to the Church.

The money that was intended to support the children was siphoned into multiple pockets, the people put in charge of the children had no idea how to take care of them, and the facility ended up being run by the bullies. Parts of that story, awful as they are – and they are awful – felt both sad and predictable.

Human beings often suck. While wartime may make some rise to the occasion, it also makes the sucky even suckier.

This is reading like a downer, and that feels appropriate. While it ends on a hopeful note, that didn’t feel like the tone for much of the story. And I’ll admit that I am not in a hopeful mood this week, and this was probably not the right book at the right time, as compellingly readable as it is. And it certainly is.

In the end, the book this reminded me of more than any other was not the author’s Children of the Stars but rather The Brothers of Auschwitz. While a bit of that is the period setting, it is mostly due to the way that both stories are unflinching in their look at a terrible history, and in their emphasis on the ongoing cost of that history to its surviving victims.

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Review; The Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky

Review; The Seventh Perfection by Daniel PolanskyThe Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on September 22, 2020
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Daniel Polansky returns with The Seventh Perfection, an innovative, mind-bending fantasy mystery
When a woman with perfect memory sets out to solve a riddle, the threads she tugs on could bring a whole city crashing down. The God-King who made her is at risk, and his other servants will do anything to stop her.
To become the God-King's Amanuensis, Manet had to master all seven perfections, developing her body and mind to the peak of human performance. She remembers everything that has happened to her, in absolute clarity, a gift that will surely drive her mad. But before she goes, Manet must unravel a secret which threatens not only the carefully prepared myths of the God-King's ascent, but her own identity and the nature of truth itself.

My Review:

I’m not sure what I expected when I picked up this book, but I don’t believe this was it. Actually I don’t believe I would ever have expected this – particularly as I’m still not exactly sure what this was.

Somewhere in the middle I thought it was a story about history being written by the victors. In the middle, it certainly seems that way.

As Manet searches the country for the secret of the holographic locket she mysteriously received, we observe that her country seems to have deliberately expunged its past in favor of the present moment. And that her search digs into a past that few remember and fewer even want to.

The act of remembering the time before the Revolution that overthrew the Divine Empress – now referred to as the Anathema – and raised up the God-King Ba’l Melqart – seems to have become an act of defiance. Even for Ba’l Melqart himself.

Which led me to my second thought about what this story is, a story about the circle of life turning into a cycle of death, as the entire country embodies the saying about those who don’t remember the past being condemned to repeat it.

Ba’l Melqart doesn’t remember his own past, not even why he had the locket sent to Manet.

Manet, on the other hand, can do nothing but remember. Everything. Always. Forever. It’s what the seventh perfection has trained her to do. She’s been trained to be both slave and memory for the God-King who can no longer remember much of anything.

Because that’s what the ascension to the throne costs. The loss of who he once was.

He was once Manet’s father, even if his memories of her mother, their legendary romance, and Manet’s own birth are just a hazy dream. When he remembers at all.

Manet was set on a search for a truth that costs her dear, and that no one seems to want her to find. But what is truth in a land where everyone but Manet herself, seems to be trained to forget?

Escape Rating B-: In the end, The Seventh Perfection reads more like an experiment than a story. The problem for this reader is that I read for the story, and in this book the story is more teased than realized.

Part of that is due to the nature of the experiment itself. This is an experiment in voice, specifically that the entire thing is written in the second person. Manet is never “I”, we never hear her words or delve into her thoughts.

Manet is a vessel of memory. She remembers every single thing she sees, hears, smells, tastes, feels. Someday it will drive her mad. If she survives – which is questionable at many points in the story.

The story, such as it is, is Manet conducting a series of interviews with people – and occasionally not-exactly-people – who are supposed to know something about the image in the locket and the person it might represent. The legendary revolutionary Amata. The God-King’s one true love. And seemingly Manet’s mother.

But we don’t hear Manet ask questions. Or know what she thinks about what she hears. Instead, we read the responses that people make to her questions, and are left to assume what Manet must have asked and said. We could be wrong.

In the end, I’m left with the feeling that I was looking for a tiny epic (it’s a short book) but am left with hints of a tragedy. Not necessarily Manet’s tragedy, as she embarked on her quixotic quest willingly. Or at least her quest wasn’t a tragedy, although its result may turn out to be one.

But Manet might not think so. We’ll never know. But I wish I knew more about Manet’s world. The hints that I got were tantalizing.

Review: The Investigator by Anna Hackett

Review: The Investigator by Anna HackettThe Investigator (Norcross #1) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, contemporary romance, romantic suspense
Series: Norcross #1
Pages: 253
Published by Anna Hackett on September 15, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

It should have been easy. Stay away from her boss’ hot brother.
Museum curator Haven McKinney has sworn off men. All of them. Totally. She’s recently escaped a bad ex and started a new life for herself in San Francisco. She loves her job at the Hutton Museum, likes her new boss, and has made best friends with his feisty sister. Haven’s also desperately trying not to notice their brother: hotshot investigator Rhys Norcross. And she’s really trying not to notice his muscular body, sexy tattoos, and charming smile.
Nope, Rhys is off limits.
Investigator Rhys Norcross is good at finding his targets. After leaving an elite military team, he thrives on his job at his brother’s security firm, Norcross Security. He’s had his eye on smart, sexy Haven for a while, but the pretty curator with her eyes full of secrets is proving far harder to chase down than he anticipated.
Luckily, Rhys never, ever gives up.
When thieves target the museum and steal a multi-million-dollar painting in a daring theft, Haven finds herself right in the middle of a deadly situation. With the painting gone and Haven in danger, Rhys vows to do whatever it takes to keep her safe, and Haven finds herself risking the one thing she was trying so hard to protect—her heart.

My Review:

The Norcross family of next-level badasses/security consultants was first introduced in Mission: Her Safety when Team 52 needed some high-level intel on the villainous badass they were hunting for. They got in touch with Vander Norcross, and we got the seeds of this series of contemporary, high-octane action adventure romance.

Which does not begin with Vander’s romance. Instead we have his younger brother Rhys on the trail of a bunch of seriously high-end art thieves who have just stolen part of Monet’s Water Lilies series from the high-class art museum owned by business mogul brother Easton Norcross.

(Norcross is also the name of two towns in the U.S., one in Georgia and one in Minnesota. I live near the one in Georgia, so every time I see the Norcross name I have a bit of a giggle.)

This series opener introduces readers to the four Norcross siblings, brothers Vander, Easton and Rhys, along with sister Gia, whose new best friend Haven McKinney is the new curator of Easton’s museum.

You would think that Haven would finally have achieved, if not a happy ever after yet, at least a solid sense of life finally being unfair in her favor. She left an abusive ex and a douchecanoe job behind in Miami, while life in San Francisco has provided her with a dream job, a fantastic new best friend, and a whole lot of seriously yummy man candy in the persons of her boss and his brothers to drool over in private.

Because publicly she’s decided she’s over men. Mostly she’s still smarting after her misjudgment of the abusive ex back in Miami.

But it seems like the roller coaster ride of Haven’s life in Miami isn’t nearly done with her yet. She thought she was through with shit happening when she switched coasts, only to discover that all of the bad stuff she left behind has reached all the way across the country to mess up her life one more time.

Water-Lily Pond and Weeping Willow, 1916-19 by Claude Monet

Over and over and over again, just starting with that theft of Water Lilies.

But things are different now. In Miami she was on her own, and her best course of action was to flee. In San Francisco, she has the Norcross family in her corner. They’ll fight to protect her, because she’s theirs. And she’ll fight to stick, because they’re hers. And not just her bestie Gia.

Because Haven McKinney isn’t really over men at all. And she never wants to get over Rhys Norcross. Not ever.

Escape Rating B: I have to say that while I certainly liked The Investigator, I didn’t love it as much as I have most of this author’s previous series openers like Marcus (Hell Squad), Edge of Eon (Eon Warriors) and Mission: Her Protection (Team 52). Actually, this is an author I just plain like – and often more, period, so liking the book was a given. This one just didn’t have the something extra that wows me the way that her science fiction romance generally does.

But I still had a good reading time with The Investigator, and if you’re more into contemporary romance than SFR this would be a great place to start with Anna Hackett.

That being said, I have to talk a bit about why this was a like and not a love – unlike Haven and Rhys who are gone on each other long before either of them is willing to admit it.

As I was reading Haven’s story, it felt like she was someone to whom bad things kept happening, generally through no fault of her own. It felt like a “heroine in jeopardy” story where every single thing turned out to be yet another way for Haven to end up in such deep trouble that she needed to be rescued by the Norcross family.

Poor Haven often felt like a vehicle for the plot rather than a participant in the story. She isn’t in a position where she can act, she’s always in a position where she has to react. And after a story of Haven having one bad thing after another center on her, the final plot screw where the evil, villainous art collector takes one look at her and just HAS to add her to his collection pushed things well over-the-top, at least for me. It was just a cliche too far to maintain my willing suspension of disbelief.

At the same time, the walking, talking cliche that was Haven’s abusive ex-from-Miami played into all the stereotypes about men who are abusive, blame it on just how much they love the woman they’ve abused and expect to be taken back because they really, really love her, read like a terrific expose of just how rotten this stereotype is and just how entitled the male brat thinks he is. He read as a total jerk and Haven as utterly righteous for dumping him in the trash where he belonged.

That he didn’t stay in that trash is both an example of exactly what an entitled bastard he is AND the starting point for every single bad thing that happens to Haven in the story. Except for the cliche, evil, villainous collector of women as well as art. His attempt to collect Haven was entirely his own evil – except that he wouldn’t have met her at all if not for the ex and his stupid shenanigans. See, it does all come back that ex!

So, I had a good but not great time with this one. This series continues next month with The Troubleshooter. If that turns out to be Gia’s story, as the hints in The Investigator suggest (and it is! YAY!), I expect to be wowed because Gia is definitely going to be the star of her own story!

Review: The Ancestor by Lee Matthew Goldberg + Giveaway

Review: The Ancestor by Lee Matthew Goldberg + GiveawayThe Ancestor by Lee Matthew Goldberg
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, mystery, thriller
Pages: 348
Published by All Due Respect on August 21, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A man wakes up in present-day Alaskan wilderness with no idea who he is, nothing on him save an empty journal with the date 1898 and a mirror. He sees another man hunting nearby, astounded that they look exactly alike. After following this other man home, he witnesses a wife and child that brings forth a rush of memories of his own wife and child, except he's certain they do not exist in modern times-but from his life in the late 1800s. After recalling his name is Wyatt, he worms his way into his doppelganger Travis Barlow's life. Memories become unearthed the more time he spends, making him believe that he'd been frozen after coming to Alaska during the Gold Rush and that Travis is his great-great grandson. Wyatt is certain gold still exists in the area and finding it with Travis will ingratiate himself to the family, especially with Travis's wife Callie, once Wyatt falls in love. This turns into a dangerous obsession affecting the Barlows and everyone in their small town, since Wyatt can't be tamed until he also discovers the meaning of why he was able to be preserved on ice for over a century.
A meditation on love lost and unfulfilled dreams, The Ancestor is a thrilling page-turner in present day Alaska and a historical adventure about the perilous Gold Rush expeditions where prospectors left behind their lives for the promise of hope and a better future. The question remains whether it was all worth the sacrifice….

My Review:

After living in Alaska for several years, I can never resist an Alaska story when it catches my reading eye. The Ancestor is definitely a fever dream of an Alaska story. Ironic when you think about it, as Alaska is not exactly a place that brings fever dreams to mind. More like the opposite; frozen dreams.

But this is that too, one man’s frozen dream of a past that only he remembers, and his fever dream in the present to recapture the life he once had – not by going back to the past, but by recreating a new version of his old life in the present, no matter how many sins he has to commit along the way.

The Ancestor is kind of a Rip Van Winkle story, if ol’ Rip, instead of being meek, mild, easygoing and henpecked, was instead an amoral sociopath of a serial killer.

Not quite, but closer than any other description I can come up with, considering that old saw about the past being another country where they do things differently.

Because that’s where Wyatt Barlow is from. The past. He went into the ice not terribly far from Nome, Alaska, in 1898, and woke up in 2020. The world has changed – even in Alaska. (Although it’s not mentioned specifically, he probably defrosted because the permafrost in Alaska is melting due to climate change. I digress. I have a feeling I’m going to do that a lot in this review.)

When Wyatt wanders into town, looking pretty much like death warmed over – as that’s none too far from the truth – he discovers that his descendants are still in the area, living in the tiny town of Laner. That he has a doppelganger descendant he hears called “Trav” who turns out to have a beautiful wife and a baby boy who resemble Wyatt’s own lost wife and baby boy.

A baby boy who turns out to be Trav – actually Travis’ – great grandfather. Making Wyatt his great-great-grandfather. Not that either of them have the relationship figured out exactly at the time.

But Wyatt Barlow is a man used to getting what he wants, no matter who or what might stand in his way. So he hatches a plot to involve himself in his great-great-grandson’s life, with an eye to taking over that life.

After all, that uncanny resemblance between them must be good for something. There must be a purpose to it. A purpose that Wyatt can exploit, just as he has exploited so many other things and people in his life, in order to achieve what he wants. Just like he found the gold that brought him to Alaska in the first place. Just like he killed his partner to get that gold.

And now he’s found a way to get back what he lost. A wife and a son. Who won’t even know that he’s taken Travis’ place. All he has to do is become Travis – and put him under that ice. After all, in the here and now, there can be only one Travis Barlow. And Wyatt intends to be that Travis, no matter what it takes.

Escape Rating B: I’ll admit to being all over the place on this one. It certainly kept me turning pages. It’s also not exactly what the blurb says it is, either. I’d certainly debate whether Wyatt falls in love with Travis’ wife. What he’s feeling, and what he’s planning, aren’t nearly so romantic. Or anything even close to that.

There are two stories here. One is the obvious, about Wayne and Travis and the way that Wayne inveigles himself into Travis’ life, his family and eventually his place in the world. But the story that follows Travis’ life and that of his family reminds me a lot of the stories about life in the tiny towns sprinkled through the state. That Nome is the nearest “big” place to Laner, and that Nome only has a population of 4,000 people, gives a hint of the size and remoteness of the place. Callie’s part of this story, Travis’ California-born wife, also feels familiar. Anchorage, with a population of nearly 300,000, feels remote and small relative to anything in the Lower 48, or as it’s called in Alaska, “Outside”. So Callie’s feelings of near-claustrophobia, complete isolation and frequent boredom are all too real. She loves Travis, she loves Laner, but it is a damn hard life and it seriously gets to her.

The other story is Wayne’s story about life during the Klondike Gold Rush. Not that plenty of stories about the Gold Rush haven’t been told before. And perhaps that’s where some of the issues lie.

Wayne has a difficult time remembering everything that happened to him in the past. Saying his brain is a bit frozen isn’t exactly a stretch. That he survived in the ice is a bit of handwavium, as all time travel stories generally are. That’s the part the reader has to take on faith, and it works that way.

But the way he gets back his memory is to take heroin. Again, not that there isn’t plenty of it available, along with meth and booze, in those tiny remote villages. It’s the same as everywhere else, perhaps even more so considering the long, dark, cold winters. Any escape is chased, even if its just an escape inside one’s own head.

I think where my willing suspension of disbelief went a bit haywire was not just in the way that Wyatt recovered his memories, but what he remembered. And that the consequences of what is clearly already an addiction aren’t dealt with at all.

Smith at bar in Skagway, Alaska, 1898

On the one hand, Wayne’s heroin coma lets him relive his experiences in their seeming entirety. And they are unflinching when it comes to his abandonment of his family back in Washington state, the murder he committed on his way to Sitka, and the murders he commits along his way from Juneau to Dawson City to “The Unknown”, which turns out to be Anvil Creek near Laner. But one of those killings is of a bunch of conmen led by one of Alaska’s more colorful legends, “Soapy” Smith. The problem is that the events in Wyatt’s story occur after Smith was gunned down, extremely publicly, in Skagway. His body was even autopsied. There is no doubt that Smith was dead before he met Wyatt. Which threw off my perception of the accuracy of Wyatt’s memories.

Except those memories really did lead him to the gold. So the question of just how much Wyatt dreamed vs. how much he actually remembered is still bothering me. A lot.

And that I’m thinking about this so much after I closed the book is just an example of what made this book so compelling – even as it drove me crazy.

There is a lot of darkness in this book. While this story begins as winter sort of turns to spring, the fact is that daylight hours in Nome in winter average around 4 hours per day in December and January. It’s a dark place in the winter, and a cold place most of the year. The temps are only in the 30s in April when this story begins and don’t get to 60 even in July. The cold and the dark are part of the “ambiance”.

At the same time, Travis’ family is going through some rough times. The economy is down, the big employers have all closed, his grandfather is dying, his brother was murdered and Travis is generally depressed. Wyatt’s sudden advent into Laner may not be a good thing, but it is a different thing in a place that craves novelty.

Wyatt’s own story is itself dark. It’s brutal in regards to his abandonment of his own family, and equally so about the obsession that consumes his own thoughts. He wants what he wants and no one is allowed to stand in his way. I ended the story feeling sorry for Callie because she’s now married to a monster who will do anything to have her and to keep her, whether she wants to be kept or not.

So there are no happy endings here. Instead, The Ancestor is dark and chilling every step of its enthralling way. A terrific chilling read for this long, hot summer.

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

I’m giving away a copy of The Ancestor to one lucky U.S. commenter on this tour!

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Review: Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones

Review: Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham JonesNight of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: horror
Pages: 144
on September 1, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Stephen Graham Jones returns with Night of the Mannequins, a contemporary horror story where a teen prank goes very wrong and all hell breaks loose: is there a supernatural cause, a psychopath on the loose, or both?
Praise for Night of the Mannequins
“Reading Stephen Graham Jones is like sitting in the corner of a bar with an old friend, and everyone quiets down the moment they start telling a story. Night of the Mannequins is dark and twisted, funny, a little crazy, and unsettling as hell. The opening setup gets way under your skin, and then Jones takes the story somewhere much darker than you imagined. If there’s an heir apparent to the kind of no-rules, wild imagination, down home storytelling perfected by Joe R. Lansdale, it’s this guy right here. Read him.”—Christopher Golden
"Sly, surprising psychic sleight-of-hand, in a tale of teenage madness where the next plastic face might be your own."—John Skipp
"Wicked and wry, this is a terrific story by one of my favorite writers, Stephen Graham Jones. Tip-top with a twist of dead. The narrator's first person delivery is the most notable aspect of this surprising and creepy tale that nods to popular stalker-killer films of the past, but is so much better than the bulk of those films, and what an ending. You definitely need this."—Joe R. Lansdale
"Stephen Graham Jones' has one of the most gripping, stream-of-consciousness voices in horror fiction. Night of the Mannequins is propulsive and poignant, capturing the mundane terror of adolescence, and adding that ever-so-essential dab of killer mannequin. You won't put it down." —Sarah Langan

My Review:

I’m here for the Autons. No, seriously, I picked this one up because the “monsters” sounded a lot like the Autons, the monsters in the first episode of the new Doctor Who in 2005. The store mannequins all came to life and the Ninth Doctor uttered a line to Rose Tyler that was emblematic of the entire series – “Run!.” She did, and the rest is history.

Actually, the advice to “Run” works pretty well for this story, too. (Hey, I got to Tomb of Gods, which I LOVED, by way of Pyramids of Mars, so this is not as big a reach – at least for me – as it seems.)

It starts with plastic people. Really, just one plastic person. And a whole lot of imagination.

At first, it’s the imagination of a circle of friends. When they were kids they found a mannequin in a swamp, named him Manny and used him to play all sorts of just-slightly-mean-spirited but mostly funny pranks around their neighborhood.

For one halcyon summer, Manny was their best friend. Then school started in the fall, and they all kind of forgot about him, sitting in Sawyer Grimes garage on the back of his dad’s slightly wrecked motorcycle – that neither Sawyer nor his dad are allowed to ride.

When this story begins, that same circle of friends is closing in on high school graduation. The college questions are coming thick and fast from the parents, the grandparents, the extended family and pretty much every other adult who comes anywhere near them – and maybe they just aren’t ready for that, at least not yet.

They’re growing up, whether they want to or not, and they all know, in that way of knowing what you don’t really want to know, that the last vestiges of their childhoods are coming to an end and that they are doomed or destined to leave their tight friendship behind as they move into adulthood.

So they decide to pull one last prank. With Manny along for the ride. They think they’re taking him to the movies for one, last fling at irresponsible not-quite-adulthood.

As much as they think they’re taking Manny, Sawyer Grimes believes that Manny is taking them. All of them. On one last prank-to-end-all-pranks.

Or is he?

Escape Rating B: That question, “Or is he?” can be read two different ways, depending on whether you put the emphasis on the second or the third word in the question. Which means that there’s also more than one answer.

I came to Night of the Mannequins expecting plastic people. Actually, I kind of got that, but more in the sense that people are still plastic, still able to make a whole lot of changes almost without meaning to, at the age of the protagonists of the story.

But instead of the science fictional version of plastic people – which I admit was more what I was hoping for – I got the plasticity of people in their late teens, as a prank that goes mildly wrong turns into more of a take-off of teenage slasher movies.

The situation they’re in is also plastic in an entirely different way, as events reshape themselves – or reshape the people in them – from something simple and slightly stupid to something complex and extremely deadly, just by passing through the mind of one teenager who has seen way too many movies and leaps to way too many coincidences.

This story kind of begins with a plastic body in a swamp, and it kind of ends with a plastic body in a swamp. But they’re not the same body, they’re not the same kind of plastic, and the second body had real agency in a way that only imagination can give the first. Even if he thinks he didn’t have any at all.

It’s creepy, bloody, scary and riveting every step of the way – and not to be read in the dark.

Review: Cat Me if You Can by Miranda James

Review: Cat Me if You Can by Miranda JamesCat Me If You Can (Cat in the Stacks Mystery #13) by Miranda James
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Cat in the Stacks #13
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley Books on August 25, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Charlie Harris and his feline companion Diesel take a bookish vacation but discover that murder never takes a holiday, in this all-new installment of the New York Times bestselling series. Charlie and Diesel along with Charlie's fiance, Helen Louise Brady, are heading to Asheville, North Carolina to spend a week at a boutique hotel and participate in a gathering of a mystery reader's club composed of patrons of the Athena Public Library. In addition to seeing the local sights, the members will take turns giving talks on their favorite authors.
The always spry Ducote sisters, friends of the hotel's owners, are helping underwrite the expenses, and they've insisted that Charlie, Helen, and Diesel join them. Anxious to get Helen Louise away from her bistro for a vacation, Charlie readily agrees. While Charlie is looking forward to relaxing with Helen Louise and Diesel, other members of the group have ulterior motives including a long-standing score to settle.
When an intrusive, uninvited guest turns up dead, only one mystery club member with a connection to the deceased appears to have a motive to kill. But could the answer really be that simple? Charlie and Diesel, along with the detecting Ducote sisters, know that every murder plot has an unexpected twist.

My Review:

This is my second cozy mystery this month where a significant part of the plot wraps itself around a literary genre and runs away with it. Earlier this month, Peachy Scream was set at a Shakespeare festival, involved a troupe of actors, and used Shakespearean plot devices in both the crime and especially its solution.

Cat Me If You Can is set at an extra-special meeting of the Athena Mystery Book Club, one where the Ducote sisters, Miss An’gel and Miss Dickce, take the entire club on a trip from Athena Mississippi to Asheville North Carolina, to a historic Bed and Breakfast near the famous Biltmore Estate, to get to know each other better, discuss their favorite Golden Age mystery writers, and get an insider tour of Biltmore.

But in the middle of this private little mystery convention, murder breaks out. When the ex-lover of not one but two members of the mystery club is murdered in the B&B, followed by the murder of one of the B&B’s staff, the mystery lovers are confined to the city by the local police.

It feels like they have found themselves in the middle of one of those Golden Age mysteries, and they’re all a bit worried that it might turn out to be Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Not a comfortable prospect for any mystery fan – or possibly any guest of the inn.

But Charlie Harris, professional librarian and very amateur sleuth, is in the midst of the action – as usual. And on the case, also as usual. But in this city far away from his usual haunts, it takes the assistance of both the formidable Miss An’gel and the surprise appearance of Chief Deputy Kanesha Berry straight from the Athens PD to keep Charlie out of the official soup and on the track of the killer.

Escape Rating B+: This series is a comfort read for me, and I was VERY comfortable reading this book. The cat on my lap was even apropos to the story!

But seriously, this is a series to read because you want to find out what’s up with the cast of characters – especially Diesel – and want to see what they’re up to since last you met. That was certainly true for me with Cat Me If You Can as it brought me up to date with all of the recent goings on in Athena. (If the sound of the series appeals, start with Murder Past Due. You don’t have to read them all to get into this one, but you do need to have read some in order to care enough about the characters for this latest entry to truly appeal.)

It also, at least temporarily, dealt with one of the major issues in ongoing, small town cozy mystery series. No one in their right mind would move to Athena, as the homicide rate must be well above the national average. In a small town like this one, that would have to be noticed.

I loved the shout-out to Cabot Cove and another series of small town mysteries that stretched this particular point of credulity. Charlie Harris and Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote would have a lot to talk about – including any possible stratagems for keeping their fellow townsfolk alive!

It was good to see Charlie – and the Ducote sisters, who also solve mysteries in the author’s Southern Ladies series – get away from their usual haunts while still bringing murder along for the ride.

It was also great fun to see the way that the group’s increasing confinement to their hotel began to resemble one of those cozy, small town Golden Age mysteries that they had come to discuss. A case of art imitating life imitating art – or something like that.

And while it was lovely to see Charlie and Helen Louise finally talking about getting married – I was a bit surprised that they didn’t just elope while in Asheville – it did strain credulity a bit that Charlie brought Diesel to Asheville.

Admittedly, I love the series FOR Diesel, but the logistics of dealing with a cat, even one as well-behaved as Diesel, often seemed intrusive. Although it was even more of a stretch when Athena’s Chief Deputy Kanesha Berry showed up. The point of getting the protagonist detective, whether amateur or professional, away from home in most stories is to take them out of their setting and away from their usual support group.

That the small, understaffed Athena Police Department was willing to second their only homicide detective to Asheville – a bigger city with more resources – was either a testament to the power of Miss An’gel Ducote, a bit too much of a stretch for the long arm of coincidence, or more than a bit of both.

The best part of this one wasn’t the mystery or its solution, but the book discussions that managed to take place between bodies, interviews, gossip and speculation. That part of the story was both a mystery reader’s and a librarian’s dream. I was particularly gratified to see a shout-out to two of my old favorites, Josephine Tey’s marvelous The Daughter of Time and it’s slightly more recent (1974 vs 1951) counterpoint, Elizabeth Peters’ The Murders of Richard III.

This is a book where I came for the comfort read. Conversely, I found the story even cozier than usual because they were able to travel where real life is still in the situation where it is just not advisable. I’m always happy to see how Diesel is doing, even if he was uncomfortable during a lot of this story and probably shouldn’t have been along for this ride. I wish there had been more of the book discussions, but that might not be most readers’ cup of tea.

And I’ll be looking forward, as always, to my next visit with Diesel and his human, in What the Cat Dragged In, just in time for my 10th Blogoversary next April!