Review: The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery

Review: The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan MalleryThe Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 448
Published by Mira on May 31, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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From #1 New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery—a story of friends who become family, giving each other courage to start over…
When fate brings three strangers to a charming space for lease on the California coast, the Boardwalk Bookshop is born. Part bookstore, part gift shop, part bakery, it's a dream come true for Bree, Mikki and Ashley. But while their business is thriving, their personal lives are…not.
Bree, wounded by brilliant but cold parents and her late husband's ultimate betrayal, has sworn to protect her heart at all costs. Even from Ashley's brother, a writer and adventurer who has inspired millions. He's the first man to see past Bree's barricades to her true self, which terrifies her. Mikki has this divorce thing all figured out—somehow, she's stayed friends with her ex and her in-laws…until a new man changes how everyone looks at her, and how she sees herself. Meanwhile, Ashley discovers that the love of her life never intends to marry. Can she live without being a wife if it means she can have everything else she's ever wanted?
At sunset every Friday on the beach in front of the Boardwalk Bookshop, the three friends share a champagne toast. As their bond grows closer, they challenge one another to become the best versions of themselves in this heartachingly beautiful story of friendship, sisterhood and the transformative power of love. 

My Review:

Six months after their decision to move their businesses in together, Ashley, Bree and Mikki are all pretty happy with the results. Between the new, more central, beachfront location, and the synergy between Bree’s bookshop on one end, Mikki’s gift shop on the other and Ashley’s cupcakery in the middle, traffic is up, profits are up and all three businesses are booming.

Howsomever, on the personal front, while Ashley believes she’s happy with her live-in boyfriend Seth, and Bree is certain she’s happy with using men for sex as long as she’s up front about her unwillingness to commit for more than a night or two. Meanwhile Mikki believes that she’s content with the company of Earl – her vibrator.

Their business successes are real. Their romantic contentment, on the other hand, is considerably more questionable as each of their respective illusions crash and burn in different and unexpected ways.

Bree meets someone who makes her wish she wasn’t too damaged to let anyone into her heart ever again. Ashley discovers that her perfect boyfriend has commitment issues of his own – he claims to want to be with her forever but refuses to even consider marriage. While Mikki’s realization that a vibrator is far from enough finds her leading not one but two men on while believing she’s doing no such thing.

The story of the Boardwalk Bookshop and its three proprietors is the story of what happens after things fall apart. And how they help each other put everything back together. Not the same as before. Not necessarily and certainly not completely better. But getting up and putting one foot in front of the other no matter how hard it is until it gets just a bit easier. Because they have each other.

Escape Rating B+: Although this book is being billed as a romance, the heart of the story isn’t the romances. The heart of the story is the friendship. It’s not that love doesn’t lift them up, it’s that the love between these women who began as strangers is what gives them the support to make those romances possible.

Bree is the one who comes into the story with the most damage. Her famously intellectual parents saw her as an interruption to their work and were not in the least bit shy about reminding her of that fact. Looking for love and acceptance, she married a man who made her feel important because he needed her to take care of him, not because he either loved her or respected her. She tries to say she’s not capable of falling in love, but what she really means is that she’s too afraid to risk her heart again so keeps people at arm’s length so they can’t get close enough to hurt her. Bree is the one who needs the most help and the most healing, but it’s not going to happen unless she is able to admit that she’s just plain scared.

Ashley’s initial damage is old and scarred over and she’s learned to deal with it reasonably well. Her older brother barely survived a hit and run accident. While her parents were taking care of him, she learned to take care of herself. Her habit of compromising her own needs because others’ were so much greater makes her cling too long to a relationship that just isn’t working because she’s so used to giving up what she wants for others. When she can’t this time she’s crushed. (And IMHO he’s an asshat.)

I have to admit that I found it easier to empathize with Bree and Ashley than I did Mikki. She’s so competent in her business and so ditzy in her personal life that I didn’t enjoy her parts of the story as much as the others – although her frequent conversational gaffes about Earl were hilarious. But Mikki’s dilemma is that she’s considering remarrying her ex-husband while dating someone else. If second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience, what are second marriages to the person you divorced? The triumph of hope over experience AND knowledge? I know it does happen in real life but in her situation it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Getting herself out of the mess that she’d unwittingly gotten herself into required lots of uncomfortable conversations and a whole lot of groveling.

All in all, this is a charming story about three women who help each other to be strong in their broken places – sometimes even in spite of themselves. So come for the champagne-fueled walks on the beach, and stay for the healing power of friendship. It’s all here in The Boardwalk Bookshop.

Review: When She Dreams by Amanda Quick

Review: When She Dreams by Amanda QuickWhen She Dreams (Burning Cove, #6) by Amanda Quick
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, paranormal, romantic suspense
Series: Burning Cove #6
Pages: 320
Published by Berkley Books on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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Return to 1930s Burning Cove, California, the glamorous seaside playground for Hollywood stars, mobsters, spies, and a host of others who find more than they bargain for in this mysterious town.
Maggie Lodge, assistant to the reclusive advice columnist known only as Dear Aunt Cornelia to her readers, hires down-but-not-quite-out private eye Sam Sage to help track down the person who is blackmailing her employer. Maggie and Sam are a mismatched pair. As far as Sam is concerned, Maggie is reckless and in over her head. She is not what he had in mind for a client but he can't afford to be choosy. Maggie, on the other hand, is convinced that Sam is badly in need of guidance and good advice. She does not hesitate to give him both.
In spite of the verbal fireworks between them, they are fiercely attracted to each other, but each is convinced it would be a mistake to let passion take over. They are, after all, keeping secrets from each other. Sam is haunted by his past, which includes a marriage shattered by betrayal and violence. Maggie is troubled by intense and vivid dreams--dreams that she can sometimes control. There are those who want to run experiments on her and use her for their own purposes, while others think she should be committed to an asylum.
When the pair discovers someone is impersonating Aunt Cornelia at a conference on psychic dreaming and a woman dies at the conference, the door is opened to a dangerous web of blackmail and murder. Secrets from the past are revealed, leaving Maggie and Sam in the path of a ruthless killer who will stop at nothing to exact vengeance.

My Review:

When I first visited Burning Cove, back in The Girl Who Knew Too Much, I wasn’t expecting it to become a series – but I’m very glad that it did!

Burning Cove is kind of a liminal place, and the 1930s were a liminal time. Burning Cove is in California, a place where dreams are made and lost and found. It is an offshoot of Los Angeles and Hollywood, the heart of all that dream making machinery at a time when movies and their magic were blossoming into their heyday.

While the 1930s were a time when the world was holding its breath. WW1 was in the rearview mirror, but its avatars are men and women in their 30s – in the prime of their powers and their adulthood – no matter what shadows darken their pasts or their futures. But the world is also on the brink of war, at least for those with eyes to see, while the world’s economy is still in shambles, feeding the causes and hatreds of the war about to be born.

Among all those dreams, visions and nightmares, it seems fitting that Burning Cove has become a center of dream powers, dream research and possibly dream control. Or, in this particular entry in the series, fulfilling a couple of con artists’ dreams of avarice.

And onto that stage, in this 6th entry in the series, step Maggie Lodge and Sam Sage. Maggie is a lucid dreamer with a realistically cynical view of the pros and cons of her talent. In control, she can wield it like a weapon, out of control it can be used as a weapon against her. As too many in her past have already attempted.

Sam is a private detective, still reeling from the hard knocks of divorce from a woman he never should have married, and being fired from his job as an LA police detective for being too good and too incorruptible at his job. He also happens to be the only private detective in Maggie’s tiny California town who is sober at 9 in the morning. He’s sure the job, whatever it is, will be better than divorce work.

Maggie hires Sam to investigate the blackmail attempt directed at her employer, the advice columnist known as “Dear Aunt Cornelia” in newspapers all around the country. Cornelia is out of the country on an around the world cruise, leaving Maggie with her house, her column and her checkbook to take care of any business while Aunt Cornelia, AKA Lillian Dewherst, is away from home.

Sam, Maggie and the erstwhile blackmailer converge on Burning Cove, where a dream research conference – or con game – is being held under the auspices of the suspiciously glitzy Guilfoyle Institute.

Maggie’s suspicions are already heightened, as the scientific legitimacy of what is obviously a con game or even a pyramid scheme is being shored up by the participation of a real dream scientist who once attempted to drug Maggie and experiment on her talents under the guise of “therapy”.

Sam is just as suspicious, because the Guilfoyles are so obvious about their intentions to fleece the attendees – at least according to a hunch that is so strong that it might well be a talent on its own.

And because the would-be blackmailer is found dead of a drug injection on opening night.

Escape Rating B+: Burning Cove straddles a whole bunch of genre lines. In a nutshell it’s historical paranormal romantic suspense, with pretty much the entire kitchen sink encompassed by those genres in evidence.

When She Dreams is the 6th book in this series, but I don’t think you need to have read the previous books to get into this one. While a couple of main characters from previous entries in the series turn up as side characters in this book, they are far from the focus and are not an intimate part of any of the events. The true continuing element of this series is the location, and since it neither has any dialog nor participates in any romance, not having visited before isn’t a problem for first time visitors.

The paranormal element to this series, as it is to much of the Jayneverse as the author (Amanda Quick/Jayne Castle/Jayne Ann Krentz) calls it, revolves around Maggie’s dream talent. She’s not the first character in these interconnected worlds to manifest a psychic power related to dreams and nightmares, and I’d be willing to bet she won’t be the last, either.

It’s not like that particular talent isn’t hotly debated in real life, after all.

What makes Maggie, and the other women in Burning Cove so fascinating is her realistic grasp on what it means to be a woman in a man’s world at a time when it’s all too easy for a woman to be overlooked, ignored, or in Maggie’s case, locked up for “her own good” by people who claim to love her and have her best interests at heart.

Maggie is a fighter who comes by her distrust of the world in general and men in particular unflinchingly honestly. She has carved out an independent life for herself against the odds, and she’s determined to maintain that independence, and the reader likes her all the better for it.

Sam is not as interesting a character as Maggie is. Maggie sparkles, and it’s easy to see why Sam is attracted to her, even if we don’t see a whole lot of evidence of that attraction until fairly far into the book. But he is a worthy partner for her in the investigation, and not just because he’s able to reluctantly admit that they are partners whether that’s what he planned on or not.

What does sparkle is the way that Sam and Maggie close in on this case that did not originally look like a whole, entire case. It goes from blackmail to murder to fraud to murder to obsession and then reaches back into the past to yet more murder. Following in Maggie’s footsteps as she and Sam unravel the clues one dark and dangerous step at a time makes for a terrific, page-turning thriller, clinging to the edge of one nightmare after another.

Review: Mirror Lake by Juneau Black

Review: Mirror Lake by Juneau BlackMirror Lake by Juneau Black
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Shady Hollow #3
Pages: 240
Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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The third novel in the Shady Hollow mystery series, in which Vera Vixen takes on her most challenging case yet: solving the murder of a rat who appears to still be alive.

Change is afoot in Shady Hollow, with an unusually tense election shaping up between long-serving Chief of Police Theodore Meade and Vera's beau, Deputy Orville Braun. But the political tension takes a back seat when resident eccentric Dorothy Springfield becomes convinced her beloved husband, Edward, is dead, and that the rat claiming to be him is actually a fraud.
While most of the town dismisses Dorothy's rants as nothing more than a delusion, Vera has her doubts. More than a few things don't add up in the Springfield household, but Vera will have to tread carefully, since, with Orville's attention on the election, she may be more exposed than ever.
A VINTAGE CRIME/BLACK LIZARD ORIGINAL.

My Review:

And we’re back in the very cozy, slightly twee village of Shady Hollow for one more bloody (as in there’s actual dripping blood) mystery among this (mostly) charming group of people who just happen to be animals.

Don’t let that bit fool you. All stories are about people – even if they claim they’re not. Because people are all we know how to be – and we’re the ones writing the story.

Adora Springfield is dead – but this isn’t about her. Except when it is. Adora was, all things considered, adored by pretty much everyone in Shady Hollow and the neighboring, even smaller community of Mirror Lake. She lived a long life and contributed a lot to both communities. She’ll be mourned and she’ll be missed. And she left an estate worth killing for, tied up in an estate-planning tangle that is going to require both a lawyer and an investigative journalist to unravel.

Chief of Police Theodore Meade is a deadbeat. Not exactly, as he’s earning a decent salary as the leader of Shady Hollow’s two-bear police department. But he’s not doing the job. At all. Pretty much ever. He’s too “busy” fishing, leaving all the policing in town to his deputy-bear Orville Braun.

And Orville is pretty much sick of doing all the work and not being sure whether or not he’s getting any of the credit.

The case and the campaign both revolve – one clockwise and one anti-clockwise – around the person of investigative reporter and fox-about-town Vera Vixen. As a reporter for the local newspaper, the death of one of the town’s leading lights and the first contested campaign for Police Chief in years are both juicy stories that Vera is itching to dig her way into and write all about.

But Orville and Vera are romantically involved, even as they butt heads over pretty much every case. She can’t cover his campaign – no matter how much her boss wants her to use her “inside track” to get the real scoop. Her boss is GREAT at selling newspapers but LOUSY at journalistic ethics.

It’s Vera’s search for a bit of legal cover to protect her job with that leads her into the Springfield case. A case that Orville – and the rest of the town – refuse to see as a real case at all.

Dorothy Springfield, known to all and sundry as “Dotty” for her occasional flakiness, has returned from tending to her now-late mother-in-law and taking care of the funeral arrangements to cause a very public scene by claiming that her husband is NOT her husband. That her real husband is dead and whoever this rat (literally, the Springfields are the wealthiest rats in town) may look like her beloved Edward but he is absolutely NOT her Edward.

Everyone is certain that Dotty is just being dotty again. Vera has doubts. Initially little ones, as Dotty’s reputation has definitely preceded her – but doubts that are worth digging into because they’ll make an excellent story.

A story that nearly gets Vera killed. Again.

Escape Rating B+: This was not the book I originally planned to finish the week with, but that one (Last Exit) turned out to be a bit more book than I had time to chew at the end of this week. (I’m listening to the audio and it’s good but it’s also longer than I thought. The best laid plans of mice, men and book reviewers and all that.)

So I returned to Shady Hollow for one more lovely if murderous time. And it turned out to be a charming way to finish out the week.

On its surface, Mirror Lake is a typical cozy mystery set in a typical if somewhat twee small town. That all the people are animals adds to its charm for me, but may add to its twee-ness for others. YMMV but I like visiting the place.

The two cases are the bread and butter of this kind of story. A minor conflict between the townsfolk, a case of everyone in town knowing everyone else’s business and maintaining their assumptions about the people they know so well, and a twisty little bit of murder, with an amateur sleuth in the middle of entirely too many things for probability to have any bearing whatsoever.

(I always think that Cabot Cove and Midsummer County must have such a ridiculously high homicide rate that newcomers would stay far, far, away – but they never do.)

Series like Shady Hollow, whether featuring humans or animals-as-humans, are more about the town and its inhabitants than it is about the murders that take place. Which is a good thing in Mirror Lake as I figured out whodunnit long before the big reveal at the end.

The fun in the story is watching it all work itself out. Vera is both determined and dogged (whatever her species might be), but she’s also compassionate and caring and has invested herself thoroughly in her new home of Shady Hollow. As an amateur investigator, operating mostly on her own, she’s also very much a “fools rush in” type, putting herself in extreme danger in every book because she tends to figure out whodunnit by poking her nose into the killer’s business without being aware that she’s THAT close to the solution.

Which makes following Vera a lot of fun as she drops into Joe’s Mug for life-giving coffee, consults her best friend, bookstore owner Lenore for advice and crime-solving hints, and flirts and fights with her bearish beau whenever they both have a break between cases.

Unfortunately, this is the last – so far, at least – full length novel in the Shady Hollow series. There’s one very short novella, Evergreen Chase, left to go. It’s a holiday story, so I think I’ll save it for when fall starts to nip the air. Or whenever I need a bit of Vera’s animal magnetism.

Review: And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin

Review: And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm DevlinAnd Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: dystopian, horror, post apocalyptic
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on April 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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In the tradition of Mira Grant and Stephen Graham Jones, Malcolm Devlin’s And Then I Woke Up is a creepy, layered, literary story about false narratives and their ability to divide us.
"A scathing portrait of the world we live in and a running commentary on what’s story, what’s truth, and what’s not."—Stephen Graham Jones

In a world reeling from an unusual plague, monsters lurk in the streets while terrified survivors arm themselves and roam the countryside in packs. Or perhaps something very different is happening. When a disease affects how reality is perceived, it’s hard to be certain of anything…
Spence is one of the “cured” living at the Ironside rehabilitation facility. Haunted by guilt, he refuses to face the changed world until a new inmate challenges him to help her find her old crew. But if he can’t tell the truth from the lies, how will he know if he has earned the redemption he dreams of? How will he know he hasn’t just made things worse?

My Review:

“How long a minute is depends on which side of the bathroom door you are on,” or so goes one very old joke about the theory of the relativity of time. Which may not exactly reflect what Einstein was thinking, but it is still unarguably true. That “minute” takes a lot longer if you’re the one on the outside of the door holding it in than if you’re the one on the inside of the door letting it out.

And the measurement of those 60 seconds can still take the same amount of objective time while still seeming to be of different duration on the opposite sides of that door.

But what happens to objective “truth” when truth becomes so mutable that all perspectives are considered equal? This may not be of earth-shattering importance when it’s a question of whether a particular dress is blue and black or white and gold. But when the differing perspectives revolve around an issue of even middling importance, such as the size of the crowd at a particular presidential inauguration, or something larger and more fundamental, such as whether an ‘impromptu’ event in the U.S. Capitol was a peaceful demonstration or an attempted coup, those differences of “opinion” can be crucial. And the tribalism that lies behind them can make those perspectives impossible to change.

To put it another way, the way that Jonathan Swift put it, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” There’s also a version from Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

And Then I Woke Up is a story about what happens when all truths are created equal, when every perspective on every issue is considered equally valid. To the point where the concept of any objective truth is under attack by what one side considers to be the barbarians at the gate and vice versa.

To the point when those who oppose us not only look and sound like monsters, but they become actual, rotting, shambling, tear out our throats and feast on our flesh murdering creatures so terrible that the ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in and we fight.

It’s a nightmare scenario, when our friends and loved ones don’t just turn on us, but turn into monsters by doing so.

Unless it isn’t that at all. Unless we’re sick and they’re doing their best to keep us from infecting them.

Or the other way around.

Escape Rating B+: I’ll admit that I wanted an unequivocal ending to this, where the point-of-view character does finally wake up, take the red pill or the blue pill, and learn what is real. The frightening thing about this story is that what is real depends so much upon our own perspectives. Those on one side see monsters in anyone who opposes them, and those on the other see sick people who can’t accept what seems like the truth of their circumstances or the way the world really works.

And I’m trying not to assign value to either side of that equation, because that’s the whole point of the story. That what we believe becomes our truth – whichever side of whatever divide we are currently on.

The point is hammered home with the way that the plague seems to work, at least as defined by one side of this divide. It’s that some people have so much charisma, are so invested in their own beliefs in their own side, that they sway followers into their perception of what the “truth”, the true narrative, really is.

What stuck in my mind after I turned the last page was the question of which side truth was really on? Are the ones who saw monsters and killed them the ones with the right answer? Or is it the side who finally tried to sway the “monster-killers” with isolation, compassion and sanitized news?

Because that divide, plague-driven or not, seems like it is headed this way at breakneck speed. And there are way more people pouring fuel on that fire than there are trying to find a way to divert the coming conflagration.

Which is the part that scares me most of all. Because as much as I wish I KNEW, in the context of the story at least, it feels true – if not very comfortable in the least – that the main character doesn’t. And neither do we.

Review: Two Storm Wood by Philip Gray

Review: Two Storm Wood by Philip GrayTwo Storm Wood by Philip Gray
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, thriller
Pages: 352
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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In this thriller set on the battlefields of the Somme after the end of World War I, a woman investigates the disappearance of her fiancé.
The Great War has ended, but for Amy Vanneck there is no peace. Her fiancé, Edward Haslam, a lieutenant in the 7th Manchesters, is missing, presumed dead. Amy travels to the desolate battlefields of northern France to learn his fate and recover his body.
She’s warned that this open-air morgue is no place for a civilian, much less a woman, but Amy is willing to brave the barbed wire, the putrid water, and the rat-infested tunnels that dot the landscape. Her search is upended when she discovers the scene of a gruesome mass murder. What does it signify? Soon Amy begins to have suspicions that Edward might not really be dead. Disquieting and yet compulsively readable, Two Storm Wood builds to an ending that is both thrilling and emotionally riveting.

My Review:

“The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” Honestly, Shakespeare pretty much said everything best. This particular quote is from Julius Caesar, but it’s relevant to Two Storm Wood because the mystery in this historical thriller revolves around an attempt to attach the evil that one man did to another man’s bones – even if the man’s actual bones can never be found.

The story begins with a mystery. Two soldiers in a convalescent hospital for men with facial disfigurements back home in England after the Armistice that ended World War I. One kills the other, after stealing the victim’s uniform and identity papers. The reader knows nothing about them, not their names, not their real identities. Only that they are officers and that one is impersonating the other – whoever either or both might be.

Then the focus shifts to Amy Vanneck, whose name we definitely DO know, as she escapes from the smothering confines of her status conscious, social climbing, upper middle class family to sneak away to France with a friend. The war may be over for many, but not for Amy or the tens of thousands of others whose loved ones were listed as “missing, presumed dead.”

So Amy heads for France, to the former battlefields of the Great War, now turned into vast, disturbed – and disturbing – fields of unmarked graves, filled with bodies that may never be identified. She’s certain that her fiancée is one of those bodies, and that the responsibility for his fate can be laid at her door – whether she knew it or not.

She’s also promised him she’d find him after the war, and bring him home. Even if all she has to bring back is a corpse. But the more she digs into his fate, the less certain she is – not just about what happened to him, but about who the man she loved really was.

Or who he became in that hellscape of war.

Her search takes her from one mass grave to another, from one putrid processing station for the dead to the few and frequently shell-shocked men who served with Lieutenant Edward Haslam, teacher, choirmaster, officer, and as she discovers along her hellish journey, assassin.

There are two things she does not find. She does not find his body. And she does not find the truth – a truth which seems to be drifting further out of reach the longer and further she searches.

Along with evidence that someone is dogging her trail, determined to stop her from finding anything or anyone at all.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up expecting it to remind me of Charles Todd’s historical mysteries. With its focus on Amy Vanneck as the protagonist, I thought I’d be catching glimpses of nurse Bess Crawford, but as the story progressed I got just as many hints of Todd’s other investigator, Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard.

Little did I know that I had just swallowed a red herring.

More than either of those series, the book that Two Storm Wood resembled the most strongly was The Poppy Wife by Caroline Scott, which also focuses on the search for closure after World War I for so many whose loved ones were declared missing during the war. In some ways, Two Storm Wood is even more haunting that The Poppy Wife, as Amy’s search takes place much closer to the Armistice, when the situation was in even more flux as the ground was still literally settling over the shallowly buried dead.

Amy goes to France expecting to find closure. She honestly hopes to find and identify her fiancée’s corpse. Instead, she finds a place where no one expects her – or any other “gently bred” woman to be as she travels alone through a world that belongs more to the dead than to the living. She’s in way over her head with no idea how impossible the task she has set herself truly is.

But she is also free, free from social expectations, free from her mother’s social climbing snobbery, and free to learn just how strong a person she can be when she has no one to rely on but herself. She doesn’t thrive, because no one in these circumstances is even in the same country as “thriving”, but she does persevere.

Even as two men who both claim to be working for the Graves Commission try to dissuade her or redirect her from her self-appointed course. Yet both their involvement and Amy’s own investigations lead her inexorably to Two Storm Wood, and to a crime so heinous that the Army has already begun covering it up.

Whatever and however many other books Two Storm Wood reminded me of, at its center it felt like three stories. One is the story of Amy’s journey through the haunted battlefields, mass graveyards and half-ruined towns and villages that haven’t even begun to recover from the war. It’s not just that war is hell, but that its aftermath is every bit as hellish as the actual fighting – if not worse because it’s supposed to be over but it really isn’t.

The second story was Amy’s search for who Edward Haslam really was, and who he became in that no man’s land of trenches and raids and death on every side. We see the beginning of their relationship through Amy’s memories, and their wartime separation through the letters that Edward sent. The most chilling bit of this part of the story is the way that the more she learns, the less she feels she knows – as though everything she thought was true is slipping away from her.

The third part of the story was the mystery of what really happened at Two Storm Wood. In the end, the actions themselves become clear, but the motives behind them didn’t feel like they were as interwoven with the rest of the story as they should have been for a reveal that turned out to be so fundamental. That bit felt kind of tacked on to a story that had been both chilling and affecting as it followed Amy’s journey. They did tie together at the end, but that tie didn’t feel as tight as it should have been.

But Amy’s journey is a compelling and heartrending read about the way that the horrors of war are inflicted not just on those who fight but on those who are left behind. And that the scars war leaves behind are just as deep on all sides.

One final note, the Graves Commission whose work Amy follows in this story is not yet done. It’s successor organization, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is still finding and identifying the dead of the First World War at the rate of one per week more than a century after the Armistice.

Review: Tough Justice by Tee O’Fallon

Review: Tough Justice by Tee O’FallonTough Justice (K-9 Special Ops #1) by Tee O'Fallon
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: romantic suspense
Series: K-9 Special Ops #1
Pages: 368
Published by Entangled: Amara on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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It should have been a routine investigation. Instead, DEA K-9 agent Adam “Deck” Decker watches in horror as one Denver hospital seems to be Ground Zero for overdoses of a new drug. Now Deck can only hope a certain icy, green-eyed ER doctor will help him and his canine partner track down the deadly source.

Dr. Tori Sampson has her reasons for not trusting federal agents, especially ones working for the DEA. But the rash of overdoses―including a heartbreaking case involving a teen―is alarmingly high. And the new opioid is not only extremely dangerous, it defies all the usual medical treatments. So Tori has a choice: work with the big, brawny, and annoyingly hot DEA agent…or watch more innocent people die.

Tori’s the only person who can help Deck break the case, and they’ll need to trust each other, no matter how high the tension and attraction sizzling between them runs. But with every question answered, they realize there’s something more behind these typical teen overdoses. There’s a pattern here, and a pattern can only suggest one thing. There’s a killer on the loose.

My Review:

First, and most important to a whole lot of people in my reading circle, the dog is fine at the end of the story. Actually Thor is more than fine. He seems to be the only person in this romantic suspense thriller who survives this case pretty much unscathed. Quite a few of the central humans in this story are a bit worse for wear by the time they reach their HEA.

But the dog is just fine. So rest easy and hang on for this wild ride of a case.

There’s a temptation to call Tough Justice an enemies to lovers romance, but that just doesn’t feel right. Enemies to lovers implies that the protagonists have met before and rubbed each other the wrong way, and that’s just not the case here.

When Deck (along with Thor) and Tori first collide in the story, it’s the first time they’ve ever met. The baggage they pretty much immediately start flinging at each other is not about either of them personally. It’s about what they – or rather their professions – represent.

Deck distrusts doctors – in the extreme – because his younger sister died of a drug overdose. She got hooked on opioids after an accident, when a doctor – either overworked, irresponsible, or both – prescribed pain-killers for her very real pain and injuries but didn’t pay attention to her growing dependence on the drugs.

Tori has no love for the DEA or its agents, because they used her father to make a case against a much bigger fish. But what put her pharmacist dad in their sights in the first place were corners that he shaved and mistakes that he made – both in giving away meds without prescriptions to people who needed them but couldn’t afford them – and for helping in assisted suicides before it was legal in Colorado.

Tori blames the DEA for promising her dad to help him if he testified – but they hung him out to dry when their case was made and he lost the family savings, his pharmacist’s license and spent several months in jail. Tori attributes her mother’s death to the stress of the situation.

That Deck and Tori meet in a face-off over the care of Deck’s partner agent who has OD’d on a new super-heroin through incidental contact as part of a takedown has Deck on edge. While Tori just needed to get the behemoth out of her ER so she can save his friend’s life without literally bumping into him every time she turns around in the small, frantic treatment room.

You would not think that opening scene, especially when coupled with their past history and mutual distrust, would turn into anything positive at all – let alone a romance.

But Tori has seen too many people, especially kids, die as a result of this new heroin compound. She NEEDS to do something proactive and not just reactive to help stem this tide. Deck needs Tori’s skills, first as a doctor who knows how to treat this new and deadly epidemic, and second for her contacts with patients.

He doesn’t want to violate the laws about patient privacy, but anyone who manages to survive – already a much too small percentage – and who is willing to talk to the DEA about where they bought the drug and who they got it from will get them one step closer to figuring out who is creating and dealing this particular form of death.

That they are both looking for an excuse to see each other again isn’t something that either of them is able to admit. At least not until it is very nearly too late for more than they’d ever thought they’d want.

Escape Rating B+: Tough Justice manages to combine a downright combustible romance with a deadly twisted thriller that feels so close to real you can practically feel the heat of the literally explosive climax right through your fingers as you’re holding the book.

(Even if you’re reading an ebook, which is actually kinda dangerous!)

So, on that one hand, we have a romance between two people who start out not really knowing each other and almost hating what they do know. On the other hand, once they let each other in, just a little bit, they realize that they are more alike than would first appear.

Because they’re both scared of risking their hearts, and they both cover that fear with by letting their work consume their entire lives so they don’t have to think about what might be missing. That both of them have jobs that both require intense focus AND are all about saving people just adds to the constant pressure to be the best, do the best, and forget about anything that might distract from those goals.

Like romance. Or hobbies. Or even taking the occasional vacation that isn’t mandated one way or another.

And on the other side of the equation, there’s this big, huge, deadly case that turns out to be a mission for both of them. Someone is selling a new, “improved”, even more addictive and more deadly formula of heroin called “Gray Death” because that’s what it looks like and that’s what it delivers.

As the story begins, Tori is treating the victims and Deck is hunting the perpetrator. Then they join forces and suddenly it seems like someone is after them. Only because someone IS after them. And that’s where the case ramps up and goes just a bit over the top.

I did figure out who the villain was long before Deck and Tori – although it didn’t make sense at first. (This is one of this times when I paged to the end to see if I was right because it was driving me nuts! Also, the villain was nuts!)

The casework was painstaking in just the way I like. Linking one clue to another with a bit of luck but not too much. But once they got there, I have to say that the villain and his villainy read as more than a bit “out there”. YMMV. I expected him to be awful – after all, he is the villain. I just didn’t expect him to be “bwahaha” insane on top.

On the whole, I loved the romantic heat between Deck and Tori and the come-here-go-away progress of their romance. I found the case they were investigating to be absolutely riveting along the way, and the ending was an edge-of-the-seat thrill ride, albeit with a villain who flew off that thrill-ride and went over the top.

Still, this was a fun, absorbing read from beginning to end, and I absolutely could not put it down. It was made even better because the dog was the only character to emerge from the story without even a scratch on him – even though he helped save the day in the absolute nick of time!

TLC
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Review: The Summer Getaway by Susan Mallery

Review: The Summer Getaway by Susan MalleryThe Summer Getaway by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Hqn on March 15, 2022
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"The perfect escape for readers wanting to get away."—Booklist
One woman takes the vacation of a lifetime in this poignant and heartwarming story about the threads that hold a family together from #1
New York Times
bestselling author Susan Mallery.
Single mom Robyn Caldwell needs a new plan for her future.  She has always put her family first.  Now, with her kids grown, she yearns for a change. But what can she do when her daughter has become the most demanding bride ever, her son won’t even consider college, her best friend is on the brink of marital disaster and her ex is making a monumentally bad decision that could ruin everything?
Take a vacation, of course. Press reset. When her great-aunt Lillian invites her to Santa Barbara for the summer, Robyn hops on the first plane to sunny California.
But it’s hard to get away when you’re the heart of the family. One by one, everyone she loves follows her across the country. Somehow, their baggage doesn’t feel as heavy in the sun-drenched, mishmash mansion. The more time Robyn spends with free-spirited Lillian, the more possibilities she sees—for dreams, love, family. She can have everything she ever wanted, if only she can muster the courage to take a chance on herself.

My Review:

No matter where you go, there you are. But when Robyn Caldwell decided to take a break from, well, her life, she didn’t expect for all of the people in her life to end up there with her.

While a part of me wants to say that Robyn is at a crossroads, it feels a lot more like Robyn has let herself be sucked into a whirlpool – and now she’s drowning. She’s in over her head and sinking fast under the weight of everyone’s expectations, including her own.

She’s just been hit upside the head with the realization that she’s the person who allowed it to happen. And that her circumstances changed – not recently but four whole years ago. That she literally can’t afford to continue drifting through her own life while giving in to all the demands that everyone around her seems to dump on her with abandon – knowing full well that she won’t abandon them.

Even though she needs to abandon something before her own personal ship sinks without a trace.

Robyn, for better and often for worse, is a fixer. She tries to make everyone around her happy. This means that she puts herself last – if she considers herself at all. And she has finally come to the realization that she has to stop.

Robyn is 42. She’s been divorced for four years and she’s glad she stopped forgiving her ex-husband for his lack of consistency, lack of commitment, and absolutely total lack of fidelity. Although she’s still been making up for his shortcomings when it comes to their two adult-ish children.

And that’s where Robyn’s life turns into an entire herd of drama llamas. A herd that she has finally decided not to keep feeding, caring for and especially not cleaning up the poop.

Her son has just graduated high school. According to the terms of her divorce, she has six months to either sell the house or buy her ex-husband out. To the tune of $2 MILLION DOLLARS or thereabouts. And that’s the reckoning that has come due. She hasn’t saved money from her settlement since her divorce. That settlement only has six years left to run. She has a part time job that doesn’t pay nearly enough for the lifestyle she became accustomed to.

She has to sell the house. She’s fine with selling the house. She never did like the damn house. But her daughter, planning to get married next year, has her spoiled little heart set on getting married in the backyard of the house – and throws a temper tantrum worthy of a two year old about it.

Robyn’s already ready to tear her hair out along with her heart when she learns that her ex-husband’s new girlfriend is – wait for it – the sister of THEIR daughter’s fiancé. Meaning that her ex-husband might possibly end up being their daughter’s father AND her brother-in-law!

Just thinking about how weird her daughter’s wedding is going to be – no matter where it’s held – along with her daughter’s drama, her son’s seeming failure to launch, her ex-husband still expecting her to clean up his messes, and her own looming financial crisis gives Robyn the urge to run away from it all.

So she does. Only to have all of it follow her across the country from Naples Florida to Santa Barbara California – dragging every single one of their drama llamas behind them.

Escape Rating B+: It’s hard not to start any description of Robyn’s trials and tribulations without wanting to end it with “and a partridge in a pear tree.” Not because this is a Christmas story, but because of the way the drama llamas keep piling on. And on. And ON.

But I was reading this – several other books – during a 12-hour layover in a rather small airport and it was diverting and absorbing and took me very far away from the extremely uncomfortable seat I was stuck in. So while The Summer Getaway does make its way a bit into farce – it’s a very enjoyable one – particularly as it’s happening to somebody else.

The idea of getting a do-over at midlife, which is essentially what Robyn is considering, is a compelling one. Her children are mostly grown. She’ll always have a place for them, but they’re moving out into their own lives – whether or not she believes their choices are the right ones. She’s finally reached a point where she acknowledges that their choices are theirs – and that hers are HERS.

Her great-aunt in Santa Barbara, the woman who has always been her rock and her safe space, is 94. Aunt Lillian may be a healthy 94, but she’s all too aware that her time is running out. She needs to finalize arrangements for what happens after – to her palatial but extremely quirky house, to her beautiful collections of so many priceless things – including her 15 cats. And to the people that she loves, especially Robyn and her children.

Along with making sure that the house will be in good hands with her husband’s chosen heir for the place, a great nephew that she’s been corresponding with for over a decade but never met. It turns out that Mason is a wonderful person to care for her late husband’s legacy. He might just be perfect for Robyn as well – if they can both manage to get out of their own way.

The Summer Getaway is the story of a summer when everything changes. For Robyn, for her children Harlow and Austin, for Mason, and for all the people attached to all the drama that invite themselves to follow Robyn along her way.

Everybody manages to grow up – at least a bit. Except the cats, because cats are always perfect just as they are. Just ask all 15 of them!

Review: A Matter of Death and Life by Simon R. Green

Review: A Matter of Death and Life by Simon R. GreenA Matter of Death and Life (Gideon Sable #2) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Gideon Sable #2
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House Publishers on March 1, 2022
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Master thief, rogue and chancer Gideon Sable is back for another fast-paced supernatural heist - and this time he has the vault of a Las Vegas casino in his sights

Judi Rifkin is one of the world's most successful collectors of the weird and unnatural. In a London underworld filled with criminals with very special talents, Judi is a force to be reckoned with.
And Gideon Sable - thief, rogue and chancer - owes her a very large favour.
Judi makes him an offer he can't refuse: steal her the legendary Masque of Ra, tucked up safe in a Las Vegas casino, and she'll wipe the slate clean.
This isn't Gideon's first heist by a long shot. But with old grudges threatening to cloud his judgment, an unpredictable crew who don't entirely trust each other and a formidable supernatural security team guarding his target, this job might be a gamble too far . . .
A Matter of Death and Life is the sequel to The Best Thing You Can Steal, and is the second supernatural heist thriller featuring master conman Gideon Sable from British SFF veteran and New York Times bestselling author Simon R. Green.

My Review:

The snark is turned up past 11 and all the way to 13 in this second book in the author’s Gideon Sable series. But don’t let the indication that this is the second book in the series fool you into thinking that all you need to read to get completely up to speed is that first book, The Best Thing You Can Steal.

Not that it isn’t a whole lot of snarky fun.

But the thing about the author of this urban fantasy series – along with several others, a couple of paranormal series and some epic space opera – is that all of his stories are told in the first person singular voice of the main character – in this case Gideon Sable.

Whether that featured antihero – because honestly, none of them are exactly heroes in any classic mold whatsoever – is John Taylor (Nightside), Eddie Drood (Secret Histories) or a whole host of others, the truth is that the voice of the protagonist reads like its the voice of the author. Because they all more or less the same voice – with just a few minor variations.

Not that that’s a bad thing, because I like my snark dial turned all the way up. This is an author who always makes me laugh out loud because his snark – and his characters – are clever in their actions and especially in their way with words. And those characters are more often archetypes than actual individuals. For readers who are familiar with the author’s previous works, they are archetypes that seem very, very familiar. Like old friends that you can’t totally trust not to either break your heart or your bank account. Or both.

Most likely both.

All of the above means that he’s an acquired taste. He just happens to be a taste I acquired a long time ago. Just like my nostalgia for Cincinnati Chili. It’s not something I’d want all the time, or even too often too close together, but when I have a taste for it, nothing else will do.

And I definitely had a taste for it – the author, not the chili – this weekend.

The story in A Matter of Death and Life is a direct followup to the events in the first book, The Best Thing You Can Steal. Gideon and his girlfriend, Annie Anybody, are roped into committing a heist for the person they cheated in the earlier book.

This time, they have to steal a supernatural and extremely creepy mask from a Las Vegas casino. The mask is supposed to grant eternal life and youth. Gideon’s, well, let’s call her his patron, wants the mask in order to get one up on her ex-husband. Gideon wants to get his own back from the current owner of the mask. His patron also wants to get one up on him – and it sure seems like someone is manipulating them both.

It’s going to be the job from hell. And it might just send them all there – and possibly back again – before it’s over. One way or another.

Escape Rating B+: This is a story where I don’t have any mixed feelings. I had a cracking good time with Gideon Sable and his more-misfit-than-usual crew as they took on Las Vegas. Calling this book a fantastic, slightly supernatural version of Ocean’s Eleven – complete with ALL the wisecracks – would be more accurate, and more fun, than anyone might have expected.

Clearly, I had fun. In fact, I had laugh out loud fun. It helps that Las Vegas as the public sees it, the casinos, the glitz and the fake glamor hiding a rapacious money machine, is a setting that is just ripe for all of the snarkitude that Gideon Sable can muster.

It’s also a wheels within wheels within wheels kind of story. As much as the setting reminds me of Ocean’s Eleven, the caper itself just screams Leverage – but with a twist. With multiple twists, some with lime and some with cyanide – or something worse, creepier and deadlier.

Under the supernatural gloss, this is a story about power, greed, paranoia and revenge all tied up in a great big ball of wrong. It’s also a cat and mouse game where each character believes they are one of the cats – only to discover that they are one of the mice after all. And that the real cat has been preparing them for dinner the entire time.

But the characters, especially Gideon and his crew, are also more than a bit of an in-joke. A joke that the reader only gets if they are familiar with at least the author’s previous urban fantasy series. Because Gideon Sable used to be someone else, before the real Gideon Sable died and our protagonist assumed his identity. The author closed out all of his previous urban fantasy series with Night Fall back in 2018. But Gideon and his crew sound an awful lot like many of his previous bands of misfits. So it’s possible that Gideon in particular used to be part of one of those other stories – until he had to find another identity.

Which means that the whole setup of Gideon Sable’s twisted version of our world could be one we’ve already seen, and Gideon himself could be someone we’ve already met. A possibility that teases me no end. But probably would not resonate with someone who had not been previously exposed to this author’s brand of Gordian Knot worlds within worlds and shadows hidden behind shadows.

But when I’m in the mood for extreme snarkitude, there’s none better. Gideon Sable, and all of this author’s characters, have refined smart-assery into a fine art – and sometimes that’s just what a reader needs to get through. So I hope Gideon Sable will be back in the not too distant future.

Review: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

Review: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuireIn an Absent Dream (Wayward Children, #4) by Seanan McGuire
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #4
Pages: 204
Published by Tordotcom on January 8, 2019
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This fourth entry and prequel tells the story of Lundy, a very serious young girl who would rather study and dream than become a respectable housewife and live up to the expectations of the world around her. As well she should.
When she finds a doorway to a world founded on logic and reason, riddles and lies, she thinks she's found her paradise. Alas, everything costs at the goblin market, and when her time there is drawing to a close, she makes the kind of bargain that never plays out well.

My Review:

As the story began, it was easy – very easy – for me to empathize with Katherine Lundy. In 1964, when Lundy was six years old, she was learning that the world had a very tiny box into which it shoved little girls – and that it was more than willing to lop off extra limbs – or at least what it called inappropriate thoughts, feelings, ambitions and ideas – in order to force those little girls to fit into the box labeled “womanhood” when the time came.

Lundy knew it wasn’t fair – and if there was one thing Lundy believed in, it was fairness – a fairness that this world did not provide.

So she found a door to a world where she could thrive – a world where fairness, absolute fairness – was enforced by an invisible but inexorable hand. Lundy found her door to the Goblin Market, a place governed utterly by the concept of “fair value”.

Which does not mean that there is not a price for everything in this fair and just community – just that the system is set up so that no one can take advantage of anyone else. Whether the Goblin Market takes advantage of everyone it claims as a citizen is a deeper philosophical question than six-year-old Lundy is capable of understanding.

Yet. Or possibly ever.

Unlike many of the worlds behind the doors in the Wayward Children series, the Goblin Market allows children – as long as they remain children – to jump between the Market and the world that gave them birth. In fact, it wants them to see both sides, to “Be Sure” of their choice, before that choice is forced upon them at age 18.

So Lundy jumps back and forth between the worlds, staying in each long enough for the consequences of her absences to be visited upon her when she returns. In the Goblin Market, a friend who loses her way in despair and almost gives up her humanity. In the “real” world, a family that loves her, hates her and misses her in equal measure, that pulls at her to stay and be part of them, and a younger sister who needs her to be her guide, mentor and above all, a sister who will put her first as no one else does. Just as no one ever put Lundy first before she went to the Goblin Market.

Lundy, being a person who likes rules because once she understands them it’s easy to find a way around, wants to, as the saying goes, “have her cake and eat it, too.” She wants to keep her promises on all sides, even though she knows that there is not world enough or time enough for that to be possible.

So she hunts for a loophole. And finds one. But loopholes are cheats. They do not provide the fair value that the Goblin Market enforces at every step.

“Cheaters never win and “winners never cheat.” – or so goes the quote. I remember this saying, or at least a version of it, being flung about during my childhood, which was at the exact same time as Katherine Lundy’s childhood.

It’s a lesson that Lundy should have taken to heart. Because when she finally does learn it – it takes hers.

Escape Rating B+: Everything I picked up this week struck me wrong in one way or another. Sometimes very wrong as yesterday’s book demonstrated a bit too clearly. In desperation I went looking for comfort reads that were short and punchy to get me out of my reading slump, and that’s something that the Wayward Children series has definitely provided.

So here we are at In an Absent Dream, the fourth book in the series that began with the bang of a slamming door in Every Heart a Doorway.

There were parts of this one that I really, really loved. It was terribly easy for me to empathize with Lundy and her total unwillingness to step into the box that society expected her to close herself into because she was female. Along with her frustration at her father who refused to look at her and see her and not just a biddable child he didn’t have to think about much – even though he could have helped make a Lundy-shaped space for her in the real world.

When both Katherine Lundy and I – I was seven in 1964 – were born, the world expected girls to become wives and mothers, have no career ambitions, only work at certain “acceptable” jobs until we married and had those expected children. We were born into the expectations of the 1950s.

Then the 1960s happened. Those expectations were still there, but, if you pushed hard enough, worked hard enough, tried hard enough and were stubborn enough, a space could be made that did not meet those expectations. It was hard, the pushback was intense, but the world for girls did start opening up. With Lundy’s father as a school principal he could have encouraged her academic ambitions and he just didn’t. Because it was hard and he didn’t want to make waves or upset his own personal applecart.

I loved the portrayal of the Goblin Market, and could easily understand why Lundy found it such a compelling place. What fell just a bit short for me was the way that Lundy’s biggest and most catastrophic adventures in the Market were glossed over. That glossing made the story lose a bit of its oomph every time she left.

The choice she had to make was an impossible one – which was something she refused to acknowledge. But the imposition of “fair value” in the Goblin Market doesn’t allow people to cheat. Searching for loopholes is a value of this world and not the world of the Market, because using a loophole is just another way of getting something over someone or something else. And that is not fair value.

But Lundy was young and not nearly as smart as she thought she was. In spite of her time in the Market, Lundy was much too used to having only herself to rely on because she was the only person she could really count on. Which meant that in the end, she cheats herself most of all. And it’s heartbreaking.

This series is special and awesome in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s as though the dreams of all of us who were bookish misfits as children dreamed all our dreams only to see those dreams come true in the form of nightmares. Some gifts come at just too high a price – and sometimes we’re desperate enough to pay that price anyway.

I’ve read the Wayward Children series mostly out of order, so now I have just one book left to catch up to myself before the new books in the series come out next year. Which means I’ll be reading Come Tumbling Down the next time I’m looking for a story with the power to cut me like knife.

Review: Love Code by Ann Aguirre

Review: Love Code by Ann AguirreLove Code (Galactic Love #2) by Ann Aguirre
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera
Series: Galactic Love #2
Pages: 324
Published by Ann Aguirre on January 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

He's cute. He's cranky. His code is sleek as hell.What's an amnesiac AI doing in a place like this? Helix has no idea. He knows he planned to build a life for himself on Gravas Station, but he has no clue what he's been doing for the last half cycle. Nor does he understand why his ship crashed. A genius Tiralan scientist saved him by copying his code into an organic host, and after meeting her meddling mothers, it seems like his problems have only just begun...
She's clever. She's creative. She claims that he's her mate.Qalu has no interest in relationships. She'd much rather be working in her lab, innovating instead of socializing. Problem is, the Tiralan believe that one cannot be happy alone. When a solution literally falls from the sky, she leaps at the opportunity to advance her research and teach Helix how to be Tiralan while calming her mothers' fears. It might be unconventional, but she's ready to break all the rules for a little peace.
They agree to pose as each other's mates for the most logical reasons, but love always finds a way.

My Review:

Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy. Data wanted to experience what it meant to be human. Howsomever, Helix, the self-aware, self-willed and occasionally downright deceptive AI of Strange Love had no desire to experience “meat space”.

So of course he gets what he absolutely did not wish for. The chance to experience “life” in a mostly organic body. And in a case of karma being a bitch galaxy-wide, his program has been deposited into an organic construct on Tiralan. He knows plenty about Tiralan history, customs and behavior because he fabricated a Tiralan identity in order to lure his friend Zylar off of Baranth, through an equally fabricated data glitch so that he could get the shy, self-effacing Baranthi to Earth where his friend had the best chance of meeting someone who would be willing to go through his planet’s Mating Trials with him.

That was the story in the first book in this series, Strange Love. And it’s absolutely marvelous, so if you like science fiction romance or alien romance at all – read it before picking up Love Code.

By the end of Strange Love, Helix the rather conniving AI had become self-aware, sentient and even sapient – making him too much AI to get around the laws of Baranth. So Zylar set Helix free and on his way to a place where he might be safe to explore his own destiny, while untethering the AI from the shit that is just about to hit Zylar’s personal fan.

The best laid plans and all that meant that Helix crash landed on Tiralan instead, to be rescued by Qalu, a femme Tiralan cybernetic engineer who was experimenting with placing AI consciousness into mostly organic constructed bodies. Who just so happens to have the perfect body all ready for her to transplant Helix’ code into.

Well, it’s perfect from her perspective. The body she designed is ready in an engineering sense, as well as fully functional and perfectly designed to trip every single one of her triggers. After all, even in the ancient Greek myth about Pygmalion, that long ago sculptor didn’t design nor fall in love with an ugly statue.

When Helix recovers from the surgery/transplant/metamorphosis, he has a difficult time adjusting to his new circumstances. He’s never experienced ANYTHING to do with having a meat space body made of real meat. The scene where Qalu has to explain hunger, eating, and the inevitable result of the latter is a marvel of cringing hilarity.

The story here is initially about the dovetailing – you might almost call it fated – of Qalu’s needs with Helix’. Helix needs a safe place to learn and recover – both his newly physical self and the puzzling gaps in his memory. Qalu needs to evaluate the results of her experiment – which is after all her life’s work.

More immediately, she also needs a fake potential mate to fend off the well-meaning interference of her four mothers, all of whom want Qalu to find a nice partner or two or three (love groups are the usual form of family on Tiralan), stop spending so much time alone in her laboratory or with her pet Pherzul Aevi (think intelligent, talking cat – which may not be strictly correct but works anyway).

So Helix and Qalu – with Aevi’s agreement – choose to tell a bit of a white lie. But just as their fake relationship tilts towards a actual one, reality rears its ugly head. A bounty hunter has come to Tiralan, chasing Helix. Possibly just for existing as a self-aware AI, but more likely for something Helix did before he crashed on Qalu’s doorstep.

It’s time for them to run, in the hopes of escaping whatever is dogging Helix’ heels. It’s already too late for them to run from each other – no matter how much Helix believes that they should.

Escape Rating B+: While Love Code wasn’t quite as much fun as the first book in the trilogy, Strange Love, it was still an awful lot of fun. Which is exactly what I was looking for as yesterday’s book wasn’t quite up to its series and the book I planned to review today just wasn’t working for me. It happens.

I loved Strange Love so much that I was reasonably sure that I’d have a good reading time with Qalu and Helix – and I was NOT disappointed.

Howsomever, the planet Tiralan turned out to be a surprising place for a meet-cute and a fake relationship type of romance – especially with the fascinating issues of power dynamics and informed vs. forced consent in all their permutations.

Helix is very much in the experimental stage with his new and initially unwelcome body and all of its many sensations – not all of which are pleasurable or even seemly from his perspective. He’s learning, he’s trying, he’s adapting and he’s confused more often than not. He also doesn’t know what either attraction or love feel like. So he doesn’t recognize those feelings when they start happening to him.

Qalu knows what she wants, and also knows that it would be unethical for her to reach for it. Or rather, reach for Helix, the way that she wants to. She recognizes that he’s dependent on her on Tiralan.

But when they go on the run, the situation changes. Helix has traveled the stars. He may be in a meat space body now, but he knows how to act and react and has lots of information to help them on their clandestine journey.

Now Qalu is lost. She’s always stuck close to home, not just the planet but her own homespaces. She’s scared, she feels inadequate and useless, and she’s homesick. So is Aevi. Qalu doesn’t know how to help and fears she’s an actual hindrance that Helix will eventually leave behind. (She kind of regrets that she made him so very handsome for their species!)

What makes this story work so well is the way that their power dynamics shift, and the way that they both adapt in spite of so many things standing – sometimes literally – in their way.

The story in Love Code ended up being a bit more of a straightforward romance than Strange Love, which is probably why I liked Strange Love a bit more. I enjoyed the journey of exploration of this new universe as much as I did the romance. But I definitely had a good reading time with Helix and Qalu so I’m glad I was able to follow up with this series so quickly.

The final book in the series, Renegade Love, is set up in this book, just as this one turned out to be set up in the first book. And I am so looking forward to reading it!