Review: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Review: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John MandelSea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, time travel
Pages: 255
Published by Knopf on May 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The award-winning, best-selling author of Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel returns with a novel of art, time travel, love, and plague that takes the reader from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a dark colony on the moon five hundred years later, unfurling a story of humanity across centuries and space.
Edwin St. Andrew is eighteen years old when he crosses the Atlantic by steamship, exiled from polite society following an ill-conceived diatribe at a dinner party. He enters the forest, spellbound by the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, and suddenly hears the notes of a violin echoing in an airship terminal--an experience that shocks him to his core.
Two centuries later a famous writer named Olive Llewellyn is on a book tour. She's traveling all over Earth, but her home is the second moon colony, a place of white stone, spired towers, and artificial beauty. Within the text of Olive's best-selling pandemic novel lies a strange passage: a man plays his violin for change in the echoing corridor of an airship terminal as the trees of a forest rise around him.
When Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in the black-skied Night City, is hired to investigate an anomaly in the North American wilderness, he uncovers a series of lives upended: The exiled son of an earl driven to madness, a writer trapped far from home as a pandemic ravages Earth, and a childhood friend from the Night City who, like Gaspery himself, has glimpsed the chance to do something extraordinary that will disrupt the timeline of the universe.
A virtuoso performance that is as human and tender as it is intellectually playful, Sea of Tranquility is a novel of time travel and metaphysics that precisely captures the reality of our current moment.'

My Review:

The thing about wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey bits is that the bits do wobble in erratic patterns that result in equally wobbly results.

The story begins with a man who thinks he might be going insane, and ends with one who realizes that everything that has happened, everything that we’ve read and experienced, is all his fault. And that there’s nothing he can do about it except see events through to their conclusion – a conclusion which is also their beginning.

Sea of Tranquility jumps through time and space, from Victoria BC just before the First World War to the Lunar Colony One in 2401 and several points in between, all linked by a weird glitch under an old maple tree on Vancouver Island where, if a person is standing in just the right place and walking in just the right direction they are temporarily, and temporally, transported to an airship terminal in Oklahoma City hearing an old man play a few notes of a lullaby on a violin. Right around the turn of the 20th century into the 21st. No matter when in time the “time traveler” is really standing.

Some people at the Time Institute on Lunar Colony One believe that this repeating “glitch” is evidence that life isn’t real, that we’re all part of some higher-order being’s simulation of life. Others think it’s been faked or a mass hallucination or some other less fantastical explanation. Rookie Time Agent Gaspery-Jacques Roberts is sent to investigate all of the people who have experienced the glitch, whenever and wherever they happen to be, to see if he can bring back enough evidence for the Time Institute to make a final determination.

Which, in the end, they think they do. Of him. Or so they believe. But in the end, those timey-wimey bits turn out to have one wobble left in them. And it’s a doozy.

Escape Rating B: If Eversion and Under Fortunate Stars had a book baby, it would be Sea of Tranquility. In spite of Sea having been published first.

I picked this up because I loved Station Eleven and Sea of Tranquility has won all sorts of awards, including Goodreads Best Science Fiction book for 2022. It’s interesting, it’s terribly terribly interesting, but now that I’ve read it I have to admit that it was good but not as great as all the reviews have made it out to be.

Let me, as I always try to do, explain.

One of the interesting and excellent things about Sea of Tranquility is that the author managed to write a book about the pandemic without it being truly about the recent pandemic. And yet it still managed to address the issues around all the human behavior and human reactions to the pandemic just sideways enough to make that part of the story just distant enough to let the reader see things clearly rather than being a drumbeat about everything that specifically went wrong.

Authors seem to be dealing with the pandemic in plenty of different ways, but this was particularly good because it set it in the context of pandemics in general and human responses to them more generally while still letting the pandemic that happens in 2203 – or at least one character’s reaction to it – pull at our heartstrings rather than inducing rage at what woulda, coulda, shoulda happened instead.

That this particular part of the story is framed around an author on a Book Tour made it even more appealing and comprehensible – particularly for those of us even tangentially related to the book world.

(Speaking of which, the Mercantile Library in Cincinnati that the author in the book visits on her book tour is not only a real place but it really does have a 10,000 year renewable lease for its building. What the Director’s office actually looks like may or may not match the description, but considering the pictures on the interwebs of the rest of the building I would not be at all surprised. I would be equally unsurprised to learn that the author of Sea of Tranquility had visited the Merc while on tour for either Station Eleven or The Glass Hotel.)

But my initial reaction to Sea of Tranquility was very similar to the way I felt at the beginning of Eversion. Because both books tell multiple stories seemingly dropped in different eras, and because both start out seeming to focus on one character who we get sucked into caring about. Then we discover that it isn’t his story, and it isn’t the next character’s story or even the next and it’s not until near the end that we and the protagonist finally learn who that protagonist really is.

It’s also a bit like Under Fortunate Stars in that the story is about causality and closing a time loop that no one knew was there. In Under Fortunate Stars events were being manipulated by a benevolent universe, or luck, or fate, depending on what one thinks of any of those agencies in an SFnal context. But in Sea of Tranquility there’s a self-interested Time Institute who believes that they are in control of any and all temporal meddling. Which they really, really aren’t.

In the end, the story in Sea of Tranquility is more than a bit meta, in that it comments on itself within itself – disguised as reader commentary to the author on that book tour – and seems to be telling fragments of stories that only connect up at the end, and that only loosely. It’s an interesting enough read – helped by the book being short – but it doesn’t quite gel into a compelling whole.

Which is really too bad because some parts of it, particularly the book tour, were terrific. But the whole is disjointed. We don’t have enough time to get invested in the characters, particularly the actual protagonist of the whole thing. And I have to say that while the story has SFnal aspects – because time travel – it’s not SF enough to make me think of it as a top pick for specifically SF awards.  (Putting it another way I don’t think it is nearly SF enough to place it among my Hugo nominations.)

One final note, some of the time travel aspects did give me warm fuzzies of Jack Finney’s time travel classic, Time and Again, including the author’s visit to the Dakota. Not that the stories go to the same times or places, but the process of approaching time travel and immersion in the period – as well as the punishments for messing up the supposedly sacred timeline, were very familiar.

I recently learned that The Glass Hotel provides backstory for several of the 21st century characters who have secondary roles in Sea of Tranquility. The Glass Hotel has been on my TBR pile for a while now, but it has just moved considerably up the pile!

Review: The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake

Review: The Atlas Six by Olivie BlakeThe Atlas Six (The Atlas, #1) by Olivie Blake
Narrator: Andy Ingalls, Caitlin Kelly, Damian Lynch, David Monteith, James Patrick Cronin, Munirih Grace, Siho Ellsmore, Steve West
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dark academia, fantasy
Series: Atlas #1
Pages: 384
Length: 16 hours and 59 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on March 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The Alexandrian Society is a secret society of magical academicians, the best in the world. Their members are caretakers of lost knowledge from the greatest civilizations of antiquity. And those who earn a place among their number will secure a life of wealth, power, and prestige beyond their wildest dreams. Each decade, the world’s six most uniquely talented magicians are selected for initiation – and here are the chosen few...

- Libby Rhodes and Nicolás Ferrer de Varona: inseparable enemies, cosmologists who can control matter with their minds.
- Reina Mori: a naturalist who can speak the language of life itself.
- Parisa Kamali: a mind reader whose powers of seduction are unmatched.
- Tristan Caine: the son of a crime kingpin who can see the secrets of the universe.
- Callum Nova: an insanely rich pretty boy who could bring about the end of the world. He need only ask.

When the candidates are recruited by the mysterious Atlas Blakely, they are told they must spend one year together to qualify for initiation. During this time, they will be permitted access to the Society’s archives and judged on their contributions to arcane areas of knowledge. Five, they are told, will be initiated. One will be eliminated. If they can prove themselves to be the best, they will survive. Most of them.

My Review:

This dive into the inner workings of a very dark academia begins with Atlas Blakely, Caretaker of the Alexandrian Society, visiting the six most powerful mages of their generation and making each of them an offer that they can refuse – although he knows that none of them will.

It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and they all know it. Even if, at the beginning, they don’t realize that it will absolutely be the end of at least one of theirs.

In this alternate version of our world, magic has taken the place of science, and is treated, studied, and advanced much as science is in the world we know. Magic has created the equivalent, if not the better, of the technologies that power our world. Magic is known, it is respected, and it is feared.

Magic is power every bit as much, if in a somewhat different way, as power is magic.

Those six powerful mages are being recruited to join the Alexandrian Society, the secret inheritors of the knowledge and power that was once held in and by the Great Library of Alexandria. Membership in the Society confers prestige, which, on top of their already considerable magical power, is certain to bring them wealth and yet more earthly power as well.

But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every powerful and secret society, there is at least one, if not two or six, rivals searching for a way to take that power and add it to their own.

The six mages who have been recruited by Atlas Blakely have one year to suss out all the secrets held by the Society, by its enigmatic caretaker, and by each other. It’s not enough time to even scratch the surface of that labyrinth.

But it’s all that one of them has left.

Escape Rating B: I have extremely mixed feelings about The Atlas Six. So mixed that the blender of my feelings hasn’t stopped whirling even a week after I finished the damn thing.

At the top of the column labeled ‘good’ feelings, the book is compelling as hell. Once the story gets past Libby and Nico’s barely post-adolescent sniping and swiping at each other, the whole thing is off to the races in a way that both commands and demands the reader’s attention.

I finished at 4 o’clock in the damn morning because I just couldn’t put it down – and when I tried it gnawed at me until I picked it back up again. Over and over until finally I fell out at the end, as exhausted and spent as the characters.

Howsomever, at the top of the column labeled ‘bad’ feelings is the fact that not a single one of these characters is on the side of the angels. There ARE NO angels here. There are no innocents to serve as heartbreaking collateral damage. Saying that no one is any better than they ought to be doesn’t nearly cover it. More like they are all worse than each other in a Möbius strip of turning their backs on anything that could be classified as “light” and diving straight for the bottom.

If you need to like at least one character to follow a story, even if that character is an anti-hero rather than a hero or a lovable or even just a redeemable rogue, there is absolutely no one in this story who remotely qualifies. Every single character, even the ones that at the beginning you might think will turn out to be a bit corrupt but not too awful, seems to have had their moral compass surgically removed at birth or shortly thereafter.

At the same time, for most of its length The Atlas Six seems to sit squarely on the intersection between “power corrupts” and “some gifts come at just too high a price.” And those certainly are elements of the story. But, just as we think we know what’s going on, the centrality of those two tropes is knocked off that center. Or rather, we learn that believing that those are the central tenets also centers characters who may not actually be IN that center.

Which admittedly does ramp up the tension VERY dramatically for the second book in the series, The Atlas Paradox. Which, thank goodness – or more likely badness in this case – is already out so I’ll be starting it as soon as I recuperate from the first book.

The thing is that I’m not sure there’s anything honestly new in The Atlas Six. It’s fascinating, it’s compelling, it’s stomach turning at points, but the whole corruption of dark academia thing is not exactly new under the sun. (Recent examples include Babel by R.F. Kuang, and The Scholomance by Naomi Novik to name just a couple). For this reader, the way that all the arcs, at least so far, are trending so deeply downwards means that I’ll be diving into the second book more to see just how far down into hell these people and this situation can go. I suspect it’s pretty damn far. I don’t actually care about ANY of the characters.

So, if you need to like someone, anyone in a story to want to make your way to its end, The Atlas Six may not do it for you as a reader. I’m very much of two minds about the whole thing.

Howsomever, while I may have had a ton of mixed feelings about the story, but absolutely none whatsoever about the full cast narration. The way the book was narrated was truly what both made it possible for me to read and compelled me to finish. The perspective on the events is batted around between seven first person narrators, the Atlas Six themselves plus Libby Rhodes’ boyfriend Ezra Fowler. In the narration, the actor changed when the perspective did, and the actors did a fantastic job of making each other their characters distinct and easy to recognize.

Because voice acting fascinates me, and this group did such a damn good job of it (and because I had to do a fair bit of digging and listening to figure out who played who), here’s almost the full cast list: (I think I got this right but if I didn’t or if someone knows who Damien Lynch voiced PLEASE let me know)

-Libby Rhodes voiced by Caitlin Kelly
-Nico de Varona voiced by James Patrick Cronin
-Reina Mori voiced by Siho Ellsmore
-Parisa Kamali voiced by Munirih Grace
-Tristan Caine voiced by David Monteith
-Callum Nova voiced by Steve West
-Ezra Fowler voiced by Andy Ingalls

One of the reasons that I plan to listen to the second book, The Atlas Paradox, just as I did The Atlas Six is because this stellar cast is returning for the second book, along with three additional players whose identities I have yet to discover.

However I end up feeling about the second book, even if those feelings turn out to be as mixed as they were for this one, I already know the performance is going to be riveting.

Review: Shenanigans by Mercedes Lackey

Review: Shenanigans by Mercedes LackeyShenanigans (Tales of Valdemar, #16) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: anthologies, epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Tales of Valdemar #16, Valdemar (Publication order) #55
Pages: 336
Published by DAW Books on December 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This sixteenth anthology of short stories set in the beloved Valdemar universe features tales by debut and established authors and a brand-new story from Lackey herself.
The Heralds of Valdemar are the kingdom's ancient order of protectors. They are drawn from all across the land, from all walks of life, and at all ages--and all are Gifted with abilities beyond those of normal men and women. They are Mindspeakers, FarSeers, Empaths, ForeSeers, Firestarters, FarSpeakers, and more. These inborn talents--combined with training as emissaries, spies, judges, diplomats, scouts, counselors, warriors, and more--make them indispensable to their monarch and realm. Sought and Chosen by mysterious horse-like Companions, they are bonded for life to these telepathic, enigmatic creatures. The Heralds of Valdemar and their Companions ride circuit throughout the kingdom, protecting the peace and, when necessary, defending their land and monarch.

My Review:

Last week’s Into the West – and Beyond before it – focused on the very serious adventure of the Founding of Valdemar. Kordas Valdemar and Company’s epic journey gave series fans a much better idea of just how much blood, sweat and tears went into the creation of the place that we all love. But that’s certainly not all there is to Valdemar.

Shenanigans, the sixteenth book in the Tales of Valdemar subseries (after last year’s Boundaries), presents series readers with a treat of a present for this holiday season, as the stories within are exactly what the title names them – shenanigans.

While there’s a bit of derring-do, Shenanigans is a collection of marvelous, funny and often marvelously funny stories set in all the periods of Valdemar history among all of the many peoples and creatures that make the place so much fun to read about for so many glorious years.

In spite of the blurb, most of the stories in Shenanigans do not revolve around the Companions and their Chosen. Some do, of course, or it wouldn’t be a Valdemar collection, but quite a few of the shenanigans in the collection thereof are more slice of life stories, and there are a fair number that feature people with telepathic “gifts” that are not Chosen and may not even wish to be.

Of course, there are also several stories set among the students of the Collegium, because, well, students and pranking make for a fun story no matter what world they’re set in.

Which leads to my two favorite stories in the collection, “Pranks for the Memories” by Dee Shull and “Fool’s Week” by Anthea Sharp. The stories are similar, but they are still both excellent. It’s spring. The students are restless. (Probably every teacher everywhere is nodding their head at THAT idea). In “Pranks” one student mentions a family tradition of a week of pranking. In “Fool’s Week”, someone remembers that there used to be a traditional “fool’s week” at the Collegium until the practice, not unsurprisingly, got out of hand.

It’s suddenly in hand again, to the point where even the teachers are participating. And it’s hilarious!

The other standouts – at least for this reader – come in pairs. “All Around the Bell Tower” by Stephanie Shaver and “A Bouquet of Gifts, or The Culinary Adventures of Rork” by Michele Lang. Both are stories about young girls who have gifts that the people around them can’t quite identify – and that give them each more than a few problems. What each child needs is someone to both listen and understand. The story in “Bell Tower” is a bit more traditional Valdemar in that it’s her Companion that finally brings help in the persons of both themself and their accompanying Heralds. In “A Bouquet of Gifts” we get a much fuller than usual portrait of the helpful hertasi as Rork the chef, as he sets up a feast for a returning friend, also makes a new one – along with a menagerie of mischievously ‘helpful’ creatures and animals.

We saw a lot of the hertasi in Into the West and it’s lovely to see them again here.

And then there are the two stories that include both romance and adventure in equal measure – if on nearly opposite ends of the socioeconomic strata. “A Cry of Hounds” by Elisabeth Waters and “One Trick Pony” by Diana Paxson. “Hounds” is set in the King’s Court of Valdemar. Lord Repulsive’s father is dead, and Lord Repulsive himself is trying to marry off his 12-year-old stepdaughter. In reality, he’s selling his 12-year-old stepdaughter and trying to keep the King from finding out that the child is only 12. Because he will not approve the marriage once he learns, and he will not be amused when he discovers the deception. And he is not. Lord Repulsive gets what’s coming to him with the help of his castoff brother, his sister-in-law and every dog she talks to with her AnimalSpeech. And he deserves every bit of it. (Lord Repulsive really is repulsive. It’s not his real name but “if the shoe fits” or in this case, more like “if the Foo shits”…)

Last but not least there’s, Diana Paxson’s “One Trick Pony”, which mixes a bit of the bittersweet memory of heartbreak and the horrors of war into its story about a man who has found peace after grief and war by gardening, and the way that peace is invaded by a woman who reopens his heart and a newly born Companion who is learning the limits of their own power one prank at a time.

Escape Rating B: After the necessary seriousness of Into the West, the mostly lighthearted tales of Shenanigans were an absolute delight. As with most collections, not every single story hits its mark, but more than enough of them to make Shenanigans a treat for Valdemar fans. Certainly something to tide us all over as we wait for Gryphon in Light, coming in June.

Review: Into the West by Mercedes Lackey

Review: Into the West by Mercedes LackeyInto the West (The Founding of Valdemar, #2) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: The Founding of Valdemar #2, Valdemar (Publication order) #54, Valdemar (Chronological) #5
Pages: 496
Published by DAW Books on December 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The long-awaited founding of Valdemar comes to life in this second book in the new series from a New York Times-bestselling author and beloved fantasist.
Baron Valdemar and his people have found a temporary haven, but it cannot hold all of them, or for long. Trouble could follow on their heels at any moment, and there are too many people for Crescent Lake to support. Those who are willing to make a further trek by barge on into the West will follow him into a wilderness depopulated by war and scarred by the terrible magics of a thousand years ago and the Mage Wars. But the wilderness is not as empty as it seems. There are potential friends and rapacious foes....
....and someone is watching them.

My Review:

We already knew the destination. What Valdemar is, what it became, seemed fully formed all the way back in Arrows of the Queen, which takes place almost 1400 years after the founding of Valdemar and was originally published in 1987. We’ve known the destination for a very long time.

This is the journey. Literally. Just as Beyond was the final push to start that journey, Into the West is the journey itself. Complete with all the cold, mud AND bugs that any adventure requires.

But, where Beyond was a story of running away, Into the West is a story about running towards.

As high as the stakes were, and still are, in the events that opened the way for Valdemar and his people to leave the corrupt Eastern Empire, the story itself built to a big climax – even bigger than Kordas Valdemar himself expected.

That part’s over. They’ve gotten away – at least for the moment. They believe that they left enough of a mess behind that it will take some time for the Empire to get its political shit into a big enough and unified enough pile to come after them.

Leaving a crater where the capital used to be should keep things back in the Empire in disarray for quite some time. At least until the surviving nobles and warlords and military commanders shake out which of them is going to be in charge and possibly charge after the fleeing Valdemarians.

If they can even find them after however much time that’s going to take.

So the big thing that everyone was working towards has been accomplished. Everyone was willing to unite towards that gigantic and hugely dangerous common goal. Into the West is the story of what happens next.

On the one hand, it’s an adventure. They are headed, as the title proclaims, into the west. To the place where the Mage Wars magically corrupted the land and everything on it centuries before. Kordas Valdemar knows that the land is still dangerous, but hopes that the intervening centuries have allowed the land to recover enough to make it habitable for his people.

On the other hand, it’s every bit as much of a political story as Beyond. But like the difference between running away and running towards that is the lynchpin of each book, Beyond’s portrait of the Eastern Empire was a lesson in what NOT to do and what NOT to be. It’s up to Baron Valdemar, the man who will be Valdemar’s first king, to figure out what his country and its people should do and will be in the centuries to come.

All they have to do is get past all the things and people that want to kill them along the way.

Escape Rating B: If you’ve read Beyond – and I highly recommend it – Into the West picks up just where Beyond leaves off. That Valdemar and his people are now beyond the reach of the Empire and are headed into the west.

Which makes this a much different type of story than the previous book – one that isn’t quite as exciting – but is very much necessary – in the opening several chapters.

The big story, of course, centers around Kordas Valdemar, the man who will be the first king of the country that will be named after him. If one has even read a cursory summary of the previous published books in the Valdemar series – which nearly all come AFTER this one in the internal chronology – one already knows that Kordas succeeded. He did become the legendarily good king that the history books talk about nearly a millennium later in The Last Herald-Mage series.

Which, by the way, doesn’t mean you have to have read any of the series previously in order to enjoy Beyond and Into the West. And certainly not that you have to have read any of them recently. Like even in this century recently.

But Into the West is the story of Kordas, not as a myth or a legend, but as a man facing a seemingly impossible job with an all-too-real case of impostor syndrome. He has to do this, He promised his people he’d do this. He’s in over his head and knows it – not that anyone wouldn’t be over their head under the circumstances.

He’s doing the best he can to make the best decisions he can to save not just the most people but the most people with the right ethics and the right moral compass along the way.

So this is the portrait of the legend as a real man, with all his flaws and all his virtues. And by the nature of that portrait, it is also an up close and personal view of how the sausage of government gets made.

For a lot of the story, their journey reads as more of a series of vignettes than a continuous narrative. While there are hints of the everyday drudgery of getting this mass of folks moving, the high points of the story naturally occur when things happen. Sometimes disastrously but just as often when conflicts are avoided or when kindness is paid forward and back along the way.

And then at the end they learn just what it is they’ve let themselves into – and it’s explosive and page-turning and even brutally epic.

But the getting there has a couple of hitches that Beyond didn’t, one which deals with the story in its present, and one which has its impact because of the future that is known but hasn’t happened yet. And one bittersweet heartbreaker to tempt us all to keep reading or go back and read again.

There’s a piece of Into the West that is a coming of age story for Kordas’ much younger sister-in-law Delia. In order to help her get over her entirely too obvious and cringeworthy crush on him, Kordas assigns her to a forward scouting party. It’s the making of her and gives the story a way of seeing the perils, trials and tribulations of this big journey at a much smaller and more easily encompassed scale. But her mooncalf obsession over Kordas really slowed the story down until she finally started to get over it.

The second hitch was the expedition’s winter rescue by the Hawkbrothers. As it occurs, it reads very much like a deus ex machina that shortcuts past a lot of what would have been a hard, killing winter even without the surrounding monsters. Once it happens, it does feel like something that had to have happened because it already did. It also provides a touching pause between disasters just before the newly fledged Valdemarians discover that their oh-so-convenient rescuers weren’t nearly as all-knowing as they pretended to be.

When Into the West wraps up after a truly epic concluding battle, the story is at a point where it could be the end of this Valdemar subseries. But I hope it isn’t, and that’s because of that bittersweet little heartbreaker at the end.

The one signature feature of the entire Valdemar series that we do not see in either Beyond or Into the West are the marvelous, magical, horse-like Companions who serve as guides, friends and even consciences of the best and brightest that Valdemar the country has to offer. But I think we’ve met the people who will become them, and in a scene that just about breaks the heart we get just a hint of what depth of love and kind of sacrifice was needed to make the Companions possible. And I want there to be a third book in the Founding of Valdemar so I can find out if I’ve guessed right.

But in the meantime there’s a new collection of Valdemar stories, Shenanigans, that I’ll be reviewing next week followed by a new novel about Valdemar’s legendary gryphons, Gryphon in Light, coming this summer.

Review: Pets of Park Avenue by Stefanie London

Review: Pets of Park Avenue by Stefanie LondonPets of Park Avenue (Paws in the City, #2) by Stefanie London
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction, romantic comedy, women's fiction
Series: Paws in the City #2
Pages: 336
Published by HQN Books on December 6, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

"One of the year's most delightful rom-coms."—New York Times bestselling author Julia London on The Dachshund Wears Prada
The perfect romcom for dog lovers! Pets of Park Avenue is the story of a self-confessed hot mess who learns that life is more fun when things don't go according to plan.

What do you do when The One is also the one who broke your heart?

Self-proclaimed hot mess Scout Myers is determined to prove she’s finally got her act together. Raised by grandparents who saw her as her wayward mother’s wayward daughter, Scout’s used to being written off. So when the opportunity for a promotion arises at Paws in the City, the talent agency where she works, Scout is desperate to rise to the occasion. With shared custody of her little sister also on the line, Scout can’t afford a single mistake…like suddenly needing a canine stand-in for an important photoshoot. Luckily (or not) she knows the owner of the perfect pup replacement: the estranged husband she walked out on years ago.
On the surface, it appears Lane Halliday’s life has been blissfully drama free without Scout, but she suspects her handsome-as-ever not-quite-ex-husband doth protest too much. Working together even feels like old times—except for all that lingering, unresolved tension. But Scout’s not sure she’s ready to confront the reasons she left Lane, and when their plans to finalize the divorce become very real, Scout starts to wonder whether second chances might be worth a little hot mess.
Paws in the CityBook 1 - The Dachshund Wears Prada

My Review:

Pets of Park Avenue combines a second chance at love romance with a bit of a comedy of errors wrapped around the paws of an adorably fluffy little Bichon Frisé who seems to be experiencing nearly as much sad fluff as her people.

Both the one she still has and the one that only thinks she got away.

This followup to The Dachshund Wears Prada follows the second member of the Paws in the City media team, that self-proclaimed hot mess – and Isla’s best friend – Scout Myers. When the small agency’s star Bichon Frisé, Sasha, is accidentally dyed hot pink in the middle of a big opportunity for both the dog and the agency, Scout is the one sorta/kinda in charge of their canine charge.

At least, she’s the one who feels responsible for the accidental dye-job. Because being held responsible for every accident that happens in her vicinity and taking the blame for all the fallout is just what her cold, rule-bound, hidebound grandparents have conditioned her to do.

Theirs was not a house in which the phrase “shit happens” was ever even uttered, let alone believed. If Scout was nearby, it must have been her fault – whether it was or not. Because Scout was just like her mother, their wayward daughter, and had to be straight-jacketed into proper behavior no matter how much it broke her spirit.

Reining Scout in was the only way her grandparents could hope to save Scout’s little sister Lizzie from her terrible influence. So they did. At every opportunity. Until they kicked her to the curb at age 21. For not being properly obedient and respectful and for not following every last one of their stifling and arbitrary rules.

So Scout feels responsible for the temporarily pink Bichon, and needs a well-behaved substitute until the dye and the resulting buzz-cut grow out. Which is where her not-exactly-ex-husband, and his suddenly not-exactly-perfectly-behaved Bichon come in.

Scout ran out on both the man and the dog five years ago because, well, reasons. Reasons that they never told each other. They were together for one glorious month and have been separated for five years of limbo but Scout needs a dog just like Sasha, and Twinkle Stardust (yes, really) is her best chance to fix what’s broken.

With the agency and possibly with herself.

What she really needs is to either put her past behind her or, perhaps, put it back in front of her again. She’s a bit older, possibly wiser, and trying to be more responsible. Because she wants custody of her teenage sister. Because she needs to start adulting.

And because she’s never found anyone to remotely match the one that she left behind.

Escape Rating B: The thing about Pets of Park Avenue that made this one so interesting was that it’s Scout’s discovery that she doesn’t need to get it together because she’s had it together all along. It’s also about the difference between what is said and what is meant, and that’s a sad and often hard lesson to learn.

In other words, Pets of Park Avenue isn’t as light and fluffy as one of the Bichon Frisés. I missed The Dachshund Wears Prada, at least the social media account that both establishes Isla as a media influencer AND gets her in so much trouble. Because the voice of the Dachshund that Isla puts out there is wry, funny and so very sharply observant that it gives the book a lighter tone than this one in spite of just how much Isla also needs to overcome.

Scout IS a hot mess in this book, but not for any of the reasons she thinks she is. She’s a hot mess because that’s all she’s ever been told she can be, and she’s taken that lesson so very much to heart. Throughout the story, it seems as if her grandparents are the villains of the piece. And they kind of are.

But they also kind of aren’t. Or at least, they didn’t intend to be. But what they meant versus what they said and how they said it, how much they saw AND treated Scout as if she was a carbon copy of her mother, sent their relationship and Scout herself off in some terrible directions that she spends the whole story dealing with.

The second-chance-at-love romance was, at first, heartbreaking. But as the story continues, they are both forced to acknowledge that they were just too young and too impulsive. The bitter turns to sweet as they look back at themselves and look now at each other in order to figure out what direction they need to go, together or apart. Either way would have made a satisfying ending, but I preferred the direction they chose – if only to give Twinkle Stardust her own happy ever after.

So The Dachshund Wears Prada had a whole lot more lightness in it. Pets of Park Avenue was leavened with a bit more bittersweet. I’m looking forward to seeing what just what kind of canine and human drama we’ll get in Confessions of a Canine Drama Queen next summer!

Review: The Socialite’s Guide to Murder by S.K. Golden + Giveaway

Review: The Socialite’s Guide to Murder by S.K. Golden + GiveawayThe Socialite's Guide to Murder by S.K. Golden
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebbok, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Pinnacle Hotel Mystery #1
Pages: 320
Published by Crooked Lane Books on October 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The hotel was her refuge, but scandal is afoot—and a killer stalks the halls in this charming series debut perfect for fans of Rhys Bowen and Ashley Weaver.
It’s 1958 and Evelyn Elizabeth Grace Murphy has not left the Pinnacle Hotel in fourteen months. She suffers from agoraphobia, and what’s more, it’s her father’s hotel, and everything she needs is there. Evelyn’s always been good at finding things, she discovered her mother dead in a Manhattan alleyway fifteen years earlier. Now she’s finding trouble inside her sanctuary. At a party for artist Billie Bell, his newest work is stolen, and Evelyn’s fake boyfriend (and real best friend), movie star Henry Fox, is accused of the theft. But just as Evelyn sets out to prove Henry’s innocence, she finds Billie Bell dead.
The murder weapon links the crime to the hotel’s chief of security. But why would he use a knife with his initials on the handle? With her beloved home in disarray, Evelyn joins up with hotel employee (and her secret crush) Mac Cooper to get to the bottom of the case.
As Mac picks locks and Evelyn snoops around the hotel, they discover the walls around them contain more secrets than they previously knew. Now, Evelyn must force herself to leave the hotel to follow the clues—but when she and Mac set off to chase a lead, their car crashes and they barely escape with their lives. Someone snipped Evelyn’s brake lines, and now the stakes have become dangerously high.
Evelyn’s knack for sleuthing—and her playful imagination—are always hard at work, and she throws an elaborate party at the hotel where every guest is a suspect. But will the killer emerge from the glamorous lineup? If not, Evelyn just might find herself…next in line for murder.

My Review:

The socialite of the title, is Evelyn Elizabeth Grace Murphy, the daughter of the owner of the Pinnacle Hotel in Manhattan. Her penchant for finding missing items, such as a diplomat’s daughter or a supposedly stolen necklace lead to the search for a murderer when that murder occurs in her home and sanctuary – her father’s hotel where she lives in a top-floor suite designed and decorated just for her.

And her little purse dog Presley. Mustn’t ever forget Presley.

As a socialite, Evelyn lives to be seen, especially with her society page boyfriend, actor Henry Fox. Which is a bit of a problem, because Evelyn hasn’t left the Pinnacle in months. She can, but she can’t. When she was a little girl, she found her mother’s dead body just outside the hotel. The trauma has been drawing her in ever since, to the point where agoraphobia keeps her from leaving her sanctuary – the Pinnacle.

But Evelyn’s whole world teeters on a tightrope. Her romance with Henry Fox is a ruse, concocted of her need to be featured in the society columns and his need to keep the world from discovering that he’s gay. They’re the best of friends.

Howsomever, Evelyn is also friends with Mac Cooper, one of the bellhops at her father’s hotel. Mac walks the dog, keeps Evelyn up with all the hotel gossip, and is entirely too good at more than a little bit of kiss and canoodle.

So when a high-profile artist is murdered in the hotel, Mac is the perfect person to help her stage distractions, pick the locks of rooms the police have closed off, and generally assist her with her own investigation into the crime. Because Henry Fox is the prime suspect, at least until the ham-fisted police latch onto someone even better – the hotel’s head of security.

But Evelyn isn’t going to let things rest. The sanctity of her sanctuary must be restored, and she’s just the woman to do it. All she has to do is juggle Mac, Henry and whatever other secret Henry is keeping long enough to figure out whodunnit.

Escape Rating B: The Socialite’s Guide to Murder isn’t quite a cozy, but it is a light and bubbly mystery that has much of the same appeal. The Pinnacle, while not a small town, does a surprisingly good job of functioning as one for the purpose of the story.

Evelyn as a heroine embodies both the “poor little rich girl” and “bird in a gilded cage” tropes. What’s a bit different is that her cage is completely self-imposed. There’s a lot of trauma hiding behind her ditzy, spoiled persona. She’s aware that the ditziness is an act, although she’s a bit oblivious about just how spoiled she is.

Which is reflected in her relationship with Mac. They may be, probably are, falling in love with each other. And it is more than a bit frothy and bubbly, but there’s an undertone to it that gave me more than a bit of pause while reading. There’s a rather vast power imbalance between them as she’s paying him $10 or $20 every single time he does something for her. $10 doesn’t sound like that much, but it’s the equivalent of $100 in today’s terms. It adds up to a lot of money. She’s initially not at all sure whether he’s her friend because he likes her or because she’s paying him and it doesn’t feel like she worries about it nearly enough.

(If that shoe were on the other foot it would be an extremely squicky situation. It’s not less squicky because of the role reversal even if it’s intended to feel that way.)

Once I was able to let my willing suspension of disbelief set all of that aside, the mystery itself is a lot of fun. I did guess that the initial art heist that kicks things off wasn’t exactly what it seemed, but the murder that followed had plenty of tasty red herrings to fish for and tempting would-be clues to sent this reader on many an enjoyable wild goose chase.

The setting of the mystery within the confines of this great and grand hotel was a treat. It still felt like a cozy in a setting that isn’t really cozy at all. More like elegant and opulent, and it was a pleasure to read the way it all worked and how Evelyn’s world came together.

So the mystery is appropriately puzzling, the setting is different in a delicious way and the heroine and her little dog are fun to follow. If you like your mysteries with more than a bit of bubble and froth The Socialite’s Guide to Murder is a lovely little read.

And for anyone who enjoyed The Three Dahlias, Evelyn Elizabeth Grace Murphy the amateur sleuth would fit right into their crime solving shenanigans – once she is able to leave the Pinnacle. Maybe in the next book in the series.

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Review: A Wish for Winter by Viola Shipman

Review: A Wish for Winter by Viola ShipmanA Wish for Winter by Viola Shipman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, holiday fiction, holiday romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Graydon House on November 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

“I love this book—funny, perfect and wonderfully good. A not-to-be-missed delight.” —New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery
With echoes of classic Hollywood love stories like Serendipity and An Affair to Remember, Viola Shipmans latest winter charmer following the USA TODAY bestseller The Secret of Snow is sure to tug on heartstrings and delight readers who love books about books, missed connections and the magic of Christmas.
Despite losing her parents in a tragic accident just before her fourteenth Christmas, Susan Norcross has had it better than most, with loving grandparents to raise her and a gang of quirky, devoted friends to support her. Now a successful bookstore owner in a tight-knit Michigan lakeside community, Susan is facing down forty—the same age as her mother when she died—and she can’t help but see everything she hasn’t achieved, including finding a love match of her own. To add to the pressure, everyone in her small town believes it’s Susan’s destiny to meet and marry a man dressed as Santa, just like her mother and grandmother before her. So it seems cosmically unfair that the man she makes an instant connection with at an annual Santa Run is lost in the crowd before she can get his name.
What follows is Susan and her friends’ hilarious and heartwarming search for the mystery Santa—covering twelve months of social media snafus, authors behaving badly and dating fails—as well as a poignant look at family, friendship and what defines a well-lived and well-loved life.
“Viola Shipman has written a captivating story for anyone whose memories run deep… This book keeps faith and hope alive!” —New York Times bestselling author Sherryl Woods

A Country Living Magazine Best Christmas Book to Read This Holiday Season!

My Review:

First of all, A Wish for Winter is a heartfelt love letter to the entire Mitten State of Michigan. Every single square inch and winter snowflake of it, from the hungry lakes to the deep bays to the very rocks, specifically the Petoskey stones that are foundation, the bedrock, the official state rock and the name for the tiny tourist town where the Claus family, officially known as the Norcross family, make their home.

Second, this is very much a paean to the spirit of Christmas – not necessarily in the religious sense but rather in the faith and belief that is strangely but sometimes beautifully displayed by the more ‘Hallmark-y’ aspects of the season. The idea that with a bit of belief in the magic of the season, it is more than possible to reach out and pluck a star – or at least a happy ending – down from the heavens, the top of a tree, or the place where dreams really do come true.

It is also a sometimes heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting story of Susan Norcross, the owner of the Sleigh by the Bay bookstore in beautiful Petoskey, Michigan, where her grandparents play the part of Mr. and Mrs. Claus every December in the front window of the store she inherited from them.

Susan’s grandparents may keep Christmas in their hearts all year round, and display it pretty much every chance they get, but Susan hasn’t felt all the joy of the holiday since she was ten years old. Because that’s the holiday season when her parents were killed by a drunk driver. Susan is now forty, the age her mother was when she died, and she’s been stuck cycling through the first four stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining and depression) for the past thirty years without ever reaching acceptance.

Without ever managing to forgive either the drunk driver – in a coma all these years – or herself.

Not that Susan hasn’t had her own version of a wonderful life. Her grandparents are everything anyone could ever have wanted in mentors, parents AND grandparents. She’s an integral part of a town that loves and supports her and her bookstore, she’s respected in the publishing industry to the point where authors, their agents and their publishers court her for appearances at her store and cover quotes.

And she has the best, most supportive even if sometimes a bit too up in her business best friend in the world. Along with excellent colleagues who have become the greatest found family she could ever have imagined.

As her 40th year approaches she’s becoming aware that there’s something missing. Both her mother and her grandmother met their perfect matches when said matches were wearing Santa suits. As a child, Susan expected to do the same. Then her parents were taken from her and she walled herself off from getting too involved and being too hurt.

But those friends, those wonderful, loving, a bit too intrusive friends, have a solution to Susan’s missing ‘Single (Kris) Kringle’ by putting Susan’s search for the Santa of her dreams on social media and inviting the entire country to watch her hunt for her very own one true Santa.

They’re going to pull Susan out of her uncomfortably comfortable rut – no matter how many likes and ‘thumbs up’ emojis it takes to make it happen.

Escape Rating B: If you’ve ever heard of “sad fluff” and wondered what it was, look no further because A Wish for Winter is a perfect example of the type. “Sad fluff” is a story where a whole lot of sad stuff happens but at the same time there’s an earned happy ending – whether romantic or not – and there are plenty of happy or even funny bits in the story. There’s lots of good support for the main character, but that character is still going through the story with a sucky place inside and the tone of the book is ultimately just a bit, well, sad.

And that’s A Wish for Winter in a nutshell. Susan has plenty of reasons to be sad, reasons that still overwhelm her at times even after 30 years. And there’s no one process or amount of time needed for an individual to process their grief, which in Susan’s case is not just real but also overwhelming. Because Susan suffered such a big loss so young, it has affected her entire life. It’s not something she’s ever going to get over or get past, nor should she. But she’s well past the point where she needs to reach the acceptance stage of grief and not hold onto it quite so tightly because the only person it’s hurting is herself.

The story of Susan taking those two steps forward, one step back towards that acceptance is a bit halting – not in the pacing sense but because her journey is supposed to be halting and uncertain. Still, her journey through that slough of despond hangs over all of the lighter moments in the book.

Although there certainly are plenty of those lighter moments. Her friends are an absolute delight even as they are invading her comfort zone, pushing her out of it and making her hesitant search for her HEA go viral.

I also adored the love of books and reading and bookstores, and the transformative power of all of the above that practically shines through every page. This story has all the elements of being a book lover’s delight from the very beginning.

As a reader, I found the sadness of the sad fluff took a bit too much of the joy out of a story that is ultimately joyful. For me, that pall took a bit too long for the book to process – making no comments whatsoever on how long it took the character to process it because no one can go there for another.

In the end, I liked the book, I liked some aspects of it quite a lot, but didn’t quite love it as much as I did my first exposure to the author’s work in The Clover Girls. Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.

Review: The Three Dahlias by Katy Watson

Review: The Three Dahlias by Katy WatsonThe Three Dahlias (Dahlia Lively #1) by Katy Watson
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Dahlia Lively #1
Pages: 304
Published by Hachette Books, Mobius on July 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Three rival actresses team up to solve a murder at the stately home of the author who made them famous - only to discover the solution lies in the stories themselves. A contemporary mystery with a Golden Age feel, perfect for fans of Agatha Christie and Jessica Fellowes.
In attendance: the VIP fans, staying at Aldermere; the fan club president turned convention organizer; the team behind the newest movie adaptation of Davenport's books; the Davenport family themselves - and the three actresses famous for portraying Lettice's 1930s detective, Dahlia Lively.
National treasure Rosalind King, from the original movies. TV Dahlia for thirteen seasons, Caro Hooper. And ex-child star Posy Starling, fresh out of the fame wilderness (and rehab) to take on the Dahlia mantle for the new movie.
Each actress has her own interpretation of the character - but this English summer weekend they will have to put aside their differences, as the crimes at Aldermere turns anything but cosy.
When fictional death turns into real bodies, can the three Dahlias find the answers to the murders among the fans, the film crew, the family - or even in Lettice's books themselves?

My Review:

The Three Dahlias is intended to take readers back to the genteel but thrilling mysteries of Dame Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Marjory Allingham but with a contemporary twist. What better way to combine the golden age of mystery with the present than by a convention of mystery fans, set on the grounds where one of their favorite mystery series was written, with not one but three of the actors playing their favorite character serving as guests of honor?

It may sound like a scheme guaranteed to give the fans the experience of a lifetime. But anyone who was a true student of those mysteries would tell you that the convention is also the perfect setting for murder. If only to provide the once and future Dahlias with the opportunity to solve either their last – or their first – case.

All they have to do is stop trying to one-up each other long enough to figure out whodunnit.

Escape Rating B: Although there’s a mystery, this isn’t really about the mystery. It’s about the people, and very much like Knives Out, about the relationships between the people and where the hidden stress points are.

That no one is going to miss the victims makes it that much easier for the reader to sink into the story and just enjoy the fun – even if it does take the first third of the book to really get going.

Because first we have those three Dahlias, and they are much more interesting than the murder. The three women represent different stages of life and different points in a career. If this were a fantasy they’d be the classic female triptych of maiden, mother, crone. Or perhaps the Fates. Certainly the fate of both the victims and the perpetrator.

It all starts with someone who seems to be out to get all of them – only for that person to end up getting got. And not by any of them. But along the way, what makes the story fun is the way that these women, literally set up to be rivals at every turn, band together in an unusual bond of sisterhood.

After all, they are all Dahlia, and it’s up to Dahlia to investigate murder when she sees it.

What made this fun as a reader was that I kept wanting to figure out, not so much whodunnit, as ‘who is Dahlia?’ (The idea of the convention seems more than plausible. After all, there is an annual Agatha Christie convention in Torquay.) The thing is that Dahlia Lively reminds me a lot of Phryne Fisher, but that series didn’t even start being published until 1989. There’s not enough history.

There have been more than enough Miss Marples, but that’s a role that an actor takes on much later in her career. Tommy and Tuppence hasn’t been filmed nearly often enough. But it’s fun to imagine.

The Three Dahlias turned out to be light and frothy fun. It’s a lovely little mystery, very atmospheric as a murder at a fan convention (my favorite in this vein is STILL Bimbos of the Death Sun), and as an homage to the Golden Age of Mystery and as a classic country-house murder all rolled into one.

If you’re looking for a light distraction filled with just the right amount of found sisterhood and murderous intentions, The Three Dahlias is quite the treat.

Review: Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desire by Sophie Barnes

Review: Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desire by Sophie BarnesMr. Clarke's Deepest Desire (Enterprising Scoundrels #2) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, Victorian romance
Series: Enterprising Scoundrels #2
Pages: 180
Published by Sophie Barnes on November 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

When an earl's daughter falls for a businessman in this secret identities Regency romance, she risks more than heartbreak when his connection to her past threatens her reputation...

How can he build a future with a woman whose father ruined his life?

Having recently suffered the death of her father, Rosamund Parker faces an uncertain future. Intent on retaining her independence, she plans to invest her modest inheritance. But the man whose help she seeks is as infuriating as he is handsome. For reasons she can't comprehend, he's set on thwarting her at every turn, even as he tempts her with kisses she ought not want.

Matthew Clarke needs funding for his locomotive business, but he'll not accept it from the Earl of Stoneburrow's daughter. As far as Matthew's concerned, that entire family can go hang. Unfortunately, Lady Rosamund seems to pop up wherever he goes. Ignoring the fire she stirs in him becomes an increasing challenge. But surrendering to it could prove disastrous. It could in fact ruin both their lives...

My Review:

Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desires, the second book in the Enterprising Scoundrels series after Mr. Donahue’s Total Surrender (I sense a theme in the titles, don’t you?) is a delightfully frothy bit of Victorian romance with some dark notes in the background. And a whole heaping helping of insta-lust in the lush foreground.

A part of me wants to make some terrible puns about Rosamund Parker and her need to have her engines overhauled – or at least her ashes hauled, but that’s not where this story begins. In a perverse way it began way back when, when her late, lamented, dear old dad couldn’t resist forcing their housemaid to haul his – will she or nill she. And of course he fired her when she informed him that she was carrying the inevitable consequence of his actions.

Now he’s dead and buried, and the mourning period has just officially ended. The reading of his will has left his daughter in a bit of a fix of a different sort. As the daughter (and only child) of an Earl, she knew she would not inherit his title or the entailed estate. But she expected a bit more than 500 pounds. Not per annum, but in total. Along with a binding clause that her uncle, the new Earl, was not permitted to maintain or support her.

(If you’re curious, that’s just over $60,000 in today’s dollars. A more-than-decent one year’s salary, but not nearly enough for a relatively young woman to live off of for the rest of her life.)

Rosamund, who does want to marry, also wants to have enough time going about the selection process to ensure that she makes a choice that satisfies both her head and her heart. So, instead of rushing into anything or anyone she plans to invest most of her money and life off the income from her investment while she makes a considered choice.

It’s a sensible plan, which makes sense. Because Rosamund is a very sensible woman. Also a very intelligent one.

But her plans go up almost literally in smoke when she meets Matthew Clarke, the owner of A&C Locomotive. Because Rosamund and Matthew strike more sparks from each other than any one of his engines do when they screech their brakes. Not that either of them can manage much of anything except almost literally screeching at each other.

Matthew’s mother was the housemaid that Rosamund’s father forced into his bed and then out the door, leaving both mother and 12-year-old Matthew destitute. Matthew refuses to take Rosamund’s investment money – no matter how much he actually needs it. He’s still carrying that grudge – and is an absolute ass about it to Rosamund even though she has no clue what he’s so angry about.

After all, she was all of 10 at the time and it’s not exactly a subject that any father would raise with his own daughter – particularly not in the Victorian Era!

But Rosamund is determined to invest in the burgeoning railroad industry, and Matthew still does need investors. Which means that they keep meeting – and meeting – and meeting at various gatherings of industry executives and potential investors. The more often they run into each other, the more sparks that fly – no matter how little Rosamund wants to believe the truth about her beloved father.

The push-pull of their relationship, the way that they hate each other but still want each other desperately, is hot enough to fuel a locomotive or ten without the use of coal. All they need to do is give in – before they make a mistake that will haunt the rest of their lives.

Escape Rating B+: One of the things that I really enjoy about the Enterprising Scoundrels series is that the heroes all work for a living. Admittedly it’s work among the wealthy and powerful, and they’ve done well for themselves, but it’s still real work that gives them real purpose. This is a series where happiness is not just the province of the idle rich to the point where it openly questions whether the idle rich are all that happy.

Matthew Clarke is an especially delicious hero in this mold because he’s a self-made man who has not either lost the threads of his humanity or obtained his wealth outside the law. Both of which are not uncommon backgrounds for heroes of historical romances.

What made this book downright refreshing is that even the bounder who tries to interfere with the romance between Rose and Matthew is really after Rose for her prodigious intellect and genius ideas, while her truly delectable person is icing on the cake of her splendid brain and not the other way around.

But speaking of that bounder, he’s not really a villain – at least not in the bwahaha sense that often happens. He’s out for himself and he does take advantage of a situation, but he doesn’t make the situation and he’s just not evil. Selfish and self-centered, but not beyond human reason.

So I didn’t leave this book, as I did Mr. Donohue’s Total Surrender, with the feeling that there were too many characters who did not receive the desserts they had so richly earned. If there is a villain in this piece it’s Rosamund’s father, and he’s already having that discussion with his Maker when the story begins.

I do have to say that I found the blurb for the book a bit deceptive. This isn’t really a story of secret identities. Rosamund and Matthew know exactly who each other is. She doesn’t know that he and his mother were once in service to her family – at least not at the beginning – but his business success wipes out most of that stigma. They do end up on the wrong end of a lot of social opprobrium, but it’s as a result of their actions in the present and not some hidden secret in either of their pasts.

While I’m not personally satisfied with the amount of groveling Matthew does over that incident, he does manage to screw his courage to the sticking point and fix things before it’s too late – with a whole lot of professional assistance from his soon-to-be bride. Which makes for happy endings all around – as they certainly deserved.

Review: A Matter of Happiness by Tori Whitaker

Review: A Matter of Happiness by Tori WhitakerA Matter of Happiness by Tori Whitaker
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, historical fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 364
Published by Lake Union Publishing on November 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A cherished heirloom opens up a century of secrets in a bittersweet novel about family, hard truths, and self-discovery by the author of Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish.
Melanie Barnett thinks she has it all together. With an ex-fiancé and a pending promotion at a Kentucky bourbon distillery, Melanie has figured out that love and career don’t mix. Until she makes a discovery while cleaning her Jordan MX car, a scarlet-red symbol of the Jazz Age’s independent women that she inherited from her great-great-great-aunt Violet. Its secret compartment holds Violet’s weathered journal—within it an intriguing message: Take from this story what you will, Melanie, and you can bury the rest. Melanie wonders what more there is to learn from Violet’s past.
In 1921 Violet Bond defers to no one. Hers is a life of adventure in Detroit, the hub of the motorcar boom and the fastest growing city in America. But in an era of speakeasies, financial windfalls, free-spirited friends, and unexpected romance, it’s easy to spin out of control.
Now, as Melanie’s own world takes unexpected turns, her life and Violet’s life intersect. Generations apart, they’re coming into their own and questioning what modern womanhood—and happiness—really means.

My Review:

Melanie Barnett and her ‘Great Aunt Grape’ were simpatico in a way that Melanie and her judgmental, disapproving and disappointed mother were not. So it wasn’t at all surprising that the late and much lamented Violet Bond left her classic 1923 Jordan Playboy car to Melanie when she died.


1920 Jordon Playboy at Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum

What is surprising is the treasure trove of her personal papers and memories that Violet hid inside the car – just waiting for Melanie to check all the compartments and bring them to light.

As this story opens, Melanie is finally claiming that legacy, wishing that she had taken a look a whole lot earlier. But the time is now, and Melanie discovers the whole truth of Violet’s story just in time to help her decide the path she should take for her own.

In spite of her mother’s constant needling that Melanie’s choices are all the wrong ones. Inspired by Violet’s story, Melanie takes a good hard look at what she’s doing and where she’s going, and figures out that when it comes to the matter of her happiness the choices will have to be her own.

Just as Violet’s did. No matter what anyone else might think.

Escape Rating B+: I picked up A Matter of Happiness because I loved the author’s first book, Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish. I liked A Matter of Happiness quite a bit, but it didn’t quite match up to the first book, although I think that the nostalgia of its Cincinnati setting pulled a bit more at my personal heartstrings than this one did. But I think that’s a ‘me’ thing and not a commentary on either book. A Matter of Happiness was definitely worth the read.

Like Millicent Glenn’s story, this one also exists in two time frames – but it is also told by two rather different people. Melanie’s story is set in pre-COVID 2018 (I have a feeling that authors are going to avoid the COVID years a LOT because they were just SO WEIRD). Melanie is at a bit of a crossroads in her life. The man she thought she’d marry thought that she would be happy to give up her career for his big promotion. But that promotion was taking him to Silicon Valley, and her career is in the Kentucky bourbon industry, which necessitates that she live, unsurprisingly, in her home state of Kentucky.

And now she’s sworn off men, devoting herself to her career, pursuing a promotion to management at the company she’s been working at for several years. She hopes that if she reaches a management position that her striving, seeking, disapproving mother will finally be proud of her.

But she’s found her great-aunt’s diary in the hidden compartments of that old car. A diary of Violet Bond in the 1920s, in her 20s, at a crossroads in her own life. Going off to Detroit to get a job in the burgeoning automobile industry, living on her own by her own wits and on her own wages, pursuing a career and swearing off men – albeit for different reasons than Melanie.

Melanie sees a bit of her own journey in her beloved great-aunt’s story. And we see a bit of our own in both of theirs. And in reading about the choices and the sacrifices that her aunt made in order to live the life she wanted, Melanie finds her own way forward.

Along with a secret that changes her perspective on how both she – and her mother – see their past and their places in a family they thought they knew.

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