Review: Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters by Aimee Ogden

Review: Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters by Aimee OgdenSun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters by Aimee Ogden
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, retellings, science fiction
Pages: 112
Published by Tordotcom Publishing on February 23, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Gene-edited human clans have scattered throughout the galaxy, adapting themselves to environments as severe as the desert and the sea. Atuale, the daughter of a Sea-Clan lord, sparked a war by choosing her land-dwelling love and rejecting her place among her people. Now her husband and his clan are dying of an incurable plague, and Atuale’s sole hope for finding a cure is to travel off-planet. The one person she can turn to for help is the black-market mercenary known as the World Witch—and Atuale’s former lover. Time, politics, bureaucracy, and her own conflicted desires stand between Atuale and the hope for her adopted clan.
Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters has all the wonder and romance of a classic sci-fi novel, with the timelessness of a beloved fairy tale.

My Review:

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting with this one. I know it isn’t like anything I expected it to be – and that’s always marvelous.

OK, I was expecting it to be short and it was. This week kind of fell apart for me, so I was looking for something short to round out the week and get me back on track and this definitely ticked off those boxes.

Now that I’ve had a chance to cogitate on it a bit, Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters has left me with three sets of resonances that really shouldn’t gel, but somehow do.

First, there is a fairytale at the heart of this story, although I didn’t figure out which one until after the end. I was just not expecting an SFnal retelling of The Little Mermaid. And it isn’t obvious at first, but when you look back, all of the elements are definitely there, even though the happy ending in this version is way more bittersweet than Disney would ever have left things.

Although I think Atuale is actually a selkie rather than a mermaid, that isn’t clear in the story and it really isn’t necessary to know. What is known about her story is just about enough. She gave up her place as a Sea-Lord’s daughter because she fell in love with a land-dweller.

But Saareval is not a prince. And he doesn’t need to be. Love is love is love, as becomes even clearer as the story continues. Atuale’s shift from sea-creature to land-dweller was also the result of intervention by a witch with a hidden agenda, but the World-Witch is no Ursula.

And in spite of its fairy tale underpinnings, this story is no fantasy.

There’s a plague on Atuale’s world, and it is raging among the land-dwellers. Her husband and his entire family have been struck down with it and the healers are unable to find a cure. It’s up to Atuale to reach out to her friend-turned-enemy, the World-Witch, to make a deal to take her out to the stars in order to find a cure that her husband’s people won’t even want if she finds it.

But her journey among the stars makes her question every single thing that has happened since the day she left the sea. There’s an entire universe out there and Atuale is eager to explore it, along with someone who loves her exactly as she is and not just the parts of her that he finds acceptable.

“For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been’”. Atuale’s choices are both sad. She can save her husband’s people, knowing that they will never fully accept her or the cure she brings. Or she can travel among the stars. She can never do both.

And the choice, her choice, is both bitter and sweet.

Escape Rating B+:The above quote is by John Greenleaf Whitter from his poem Maud Muller, and it kept running through my head the entire time I was reading this story. It’s so clear that the story isn’t about the plague, but about Atuale’s choices about what to do about it.

She’s immune, she’s not going to get it no matter what happens. The process that made her capable of living on land did not fully make her one of her husband’s people, leading to their grudging tolerance of her but also her immunity to a plague that strikes only them.

So this is a story about what we sacrifice for love, because that’s the choice that faces Atuale at every turn. In order to have one love she has to give up another, and it’s a choice that tears her in two through the entire story.

I think I felt most for Atuale as she experiences the wonders – and very definitely the dangers – of exploring the wider universe. It’s a tease and a torment and she wants it and wants to share it, but the price is too high. Which does not erase that wanting at all.

But, and it’s just enough of a but to have kept this from getting an A grade, I wanted a bit more about Atuale’s people and their world, because it’s a much bigger world and a much sadder story than we see at first. It’s not that this story isn’t complete in itself, because it is, but rather that the relationship between Atuale and the World-Witch has SO MUCH history behind it and we get hints rather than a full picture. And I wish I had that full picture, complete with its story of love both requited and unrequited, royal privilege, royal politics and revolution. I felt teased and wished I had more to go on.

Initially, I said there were three things rattling around my head after reading this book. One was The Little Mermaid. The second was that quote from Whittier. The third is also from Disney, and was that ever a surprise. The ending of Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters and the post-credits scene from the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, At World’s End, encapsulates the ending to the romances in both stories in a way that echoes back to the bitter sweetness of that quote from Whittier. Love and happiness, pain and heartbreak, all jumbled together in a ball of tears.

Review: The Rakehell of Roth by Amalie Howard + Giveaway

Review: The Rakehell of Roth by Amalie Howard + GiveawayThe Rakehell of Roth (Regency Rogues, #2) by Amalie Howard
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, regency romance
Series: Regency Rogues #2
Pages: 400
Published by Entangled: Amara on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In this game of seduction, the rules don't apply...
As owner of the most scandalous club in London, the last thing the notorious Marquess of Roth wants is a wife. Keeping up his false reputation as a rake brings in the clients with the deepest pockets—money he needs to fund a noble cause. Even though everything inside tells him not to leave his beautiful, innocent wife behind at his country estate...he must.
But three years later, tired of her scoundrel of a husband headlining the gossip rags, Lady Isobel Vance decides enough is enough. She is no longer a fragile kitten, but as the anonymous author of a women’s sexual advice column, she’s now a roaring tigress...and she can use her claws.
Isobel decides to go to him in London, channeling her powers of seduction to make him beg to take her back. But she didn’t expect her marauding marquess to be equally hard to resist. Now the game is on to see who will give in to the other first, with both sides determined like hell to win.

My Review:

There are marriages of convenience. And there are convenient marriages, which is more the case of the marriage between Winter Vance, Marquess of Roth, and his wife Lady Isobel.

But after  Roth conveniently weds her and beds her and leaves her at his father’s country estate in Chelmsford so he can return to London to run his gaming hell, the girl he leaves behind is most emphatically NOT the woman his father escorts to London three years later.

The little mouse in desperate rescue has grown up into a hell-cat bent on sinking her claws into her wayward husband – one way or another. Although she certainly knows which way she’d prefer she’ll take a win any way she can get one.

Almost any way.

What she wants is a husband and a real marriage, with the possibility of children – even if she has a hard time admitting that her young and innocent heart fell in love with her handsome husband – and that his subsequent dastardly behavior has not killed that love.

What he wants is to be left alone. Not just by Isobel, but also by the rest of his estranged family; his uptight father and his jealous younger brother. Winter’s heart is frozen in the past, with the sister he couldn’t protect and the mother who was betrayed and abandoned by her husband. Both women are dead, and Winter believes that if he couldn’t protect them, he shouldn’t let anyone else get close out of fear that he won’t be able to protect them either.

Winter is pretty much a complete mess. A successful businessman, but emotionally and psychologically more than a bit of a wreck – albeit a VERY well built one.

Isobel comes to London believing that she’s there to get revenge on her wayward husband for the disrespect he’s shown her. And that she’ll be able to return to the country – after he’s groveled at her feet, of course – with her heart intact.

Winter believes that all he has to do is keep pushing Isobel away until she finally gets the message that she’s better off as far away from him as possible. Back in the country at his father’s estate.

Of course, they’re both wrong, wrong, wrong. But watching them figure that out is a whole lot of sexy and scandalous fun!

Escape Rating B+: For all the people who are shying about from this book because the blurb reads as if he cheats – he really doesn’t – and that’s obvious early on so not a spoiler. This book is a fun romp and I’d hate for people who are interested to miss it because of something that doesn’t happen after all.

I have to say that the first chapter is very hard reading. Isobel is so naïve that her attitudes and internal dialog are sweet to the point of tooth decay, while Winter is a cold, jaded bastard – except in the bedroom – where he burns hot enough to immolate them both – only to abandon Isobel as soon as he’s spent. Calling him an ass is an insult to asses everywhere.

Fortunately, in fact very fortunately for the entire story, Isobel’s cloying innocent phase doesn’t last long at all. After Winter leaves immediately upon consummating their marriage (and I do mean IMMEDIATELY and not the next morning), the story picks up 3 years later and Isobel has changed a LOT and for the better.

This is where the story gets to be fun!

It’s not just that Isobel has grown up and gotten righteously angry at her situation, it’s the WAY she’s gotten angry. She and her best friend Clarissa have not just been rusticating at Chelmsford.

Together, they’ve become the early 18th century version of Dr. Ruth, writing and publishing a scandalous sex education column for women under the penname Lady Darcy. Under the guise of research, they’ve acquired a LOT of book knowledge about love, sex, what men want and more importantly, what women want and especially what women need to know. Not about pleasing men or capturing men, but about pleasing themselves. Possibly by capturing, or at least captivating, men.

But it’s sex writing and sex education centered on women. It’s marvelous. It’s scandalous. And it gives them both an independent income. It also gives Isobel the inner fortitude to go to London and confront – and possibly captivate – the husband who has just been featured in the gossip rags for fighting a duel over another woman!

The romance in this one is all about the push and pull between Isobel and Winter. Not just that they burn up the pages like fire, but that the burn has all of the sex positivity in it that The Rakess tried to have and just didn’t, or at least it didn’t for me. The romance between Isobel and Winter is all about the way that they explore every facet of what they have together, including more than a bit of totally consensual kink. And it’s wonderful.

On the other hand, after all of the asshattery that Winter has committed, he doesn’t grovel nearly enough when he finally does figure out that he is both capable of loving and that he really does love Isobel in spite of his protestations.

And that the scene where they save each other from thieves, kidnappers and murderers and then screw each other senseless was the only point where I missed having read the first book in the series, The Beast of Beswick. Because everything to do with their being in danger in the first place circled back to events from that book. Their mutual ravishment in a back alley did, however, make the scene end with a resounding climax even if I didn’t get all of the underlying causes of the fight.

There’s one thing keeping this from being a “Grade A” read for me. The hero who believes his unworthy of love is a tried and true trope that I enjoy when it’s done well. A lot of the reasons that Winter believes he’s unworthy make sense, that he couldn’t protect his mother and sister and has never been able to measure up to his father’s high expectations. But he’s also unwilling to love anyone because his mother was destroyed by her love for his father and his father’s lack of ability to return that love. He’s learned that love is a destoyer and he has no interest in being that vulnerable to anyone. Period.

Even before we discover the truth of that past, this part of Winter’s motivations didn’t quite work for me. Men had so many more options for, well, everything, in the early 19th century than women. Winter proves to be not nearly stupid enough or oblivious enough to NOT be aware of that fact, as some of his later actions prove. I just didn’t buy that part of his story.

But overall, The Rakehell of Roth is a terrific froth of a Regency romp with just enough serious bits to really keep the reader engaged – if occasionally also enraged at the hero along with the heroine. If this kind of story sounds like your cup of tea, it reminded me a lot of The Wildes of Lindow Castle series by Eloisa James and any of Eva Leigh’s three series, The Union of the Rakes, The London Underground and especially The Wicked Quills of London. The heroines of all of those series would find plenty of common cause with Isobel and her BFF Clarissa. So if you find yourself cheering Isobel on and want more like her then those ladies will fill your TBR pile nicely indeed.

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

I’m giving a copy of The Rakehell of Roth to one lucky US commenter on this tour!

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that they definitely do!

Review: A Cowboy to Remember by Rebekah Weatherspoon

Review: A Cowboy to Remember by Rebekah WeatherspoonA Cowboy to Remember (Cowboys of California #1) by Rebekah Weatherspoon
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Cowboys of California #1
Pages: 357
Published by Dafina Books on February 25, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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An Oprah Magazine Best Romance Novel of 2020
In this brand-new series from award-winning author Rebekah Weatherspoon, a charming cowboy and his sleeping beauty find their modern-day happily ever after . . .
With a headline spot on a hit morning show and truly mouth-watering culinary skills, chef Evie Buchanan is perched on the edge of stardom. But at an industry party, a fall lands Evie in the hospital—with no memory of who she is. Scrambling to help, Evie’s assistant contacts the only “family” Evie has left, close friends who run the luxury dude ranch in California where Evie grew up. Evie has no recollection of them—until former rodeo champion Zach Pleasant walks into her hospital room, and she realizes his handsome face has been haunting her dreams . . .
Zach hasn’t seen Evie in years—not since their families conducted a campaign to make sure their childhood friendship never turned into anything more. When the young cowboy refused to admit the feelings between them were real, Evie left California, making it clear she never wanted to see Zach again. Now he refuses to make the same mistake twice. Starting fresh is a risk when they have a history she can’t recall, but Zach can’t bear to let go of her now. Can he awaken the sleeping beauty inside her who might still love him?

My Review:

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

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

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

Let me explain…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Mission: Her Justice by Anna Hackett

Review: Mission: Her Justice by Anna HackettMission: Her Justice (Team 52 #8) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, romantic suspense
Series: Team 52 #8
Pages: 229
Published by Anna Hackett on November 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
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When a dangerous redhead invades his office and his base, and warns that his team is in danger, Director Jonah Grayson doesn’t know if she’s friend or foe.

Former elite Army aviator Jonah Grayson was forced to give up flying, but now serves as director of the covert black ops team, Team 52. He takes care of the brass in Washington D.C. to ensure his team can do their job: keeping the world safe from dangerous, ancient artifacts. But when he’s confronted by a tough, skilled, mysterious redhead with a warning that his team is being targeted, he’ll do whatever it takes in order to find out who she is and what she wants.

Evan Fletcher’s life has imploded. She’s on the run, been labeled a rogue and traitor, and she knows a very bad, powerful man has Team 52 in his sights. He’s after a deadly artifact and wants the team out of his way...but Evan plans to stop him. She’ll use all of her particular skill set to bring him down, clear her name, and protect Team 52…and that includes the team’s handsome, oh-so-tempting director.

Surrounded by danger at every turn, Evan and Jonah are drawn to each in ways they can’t explain. To keep Team 52 safe, stop the enemy, and find justice for Evan, they will put everything on the line. But when you’re under fire, trust is hard, and falling in love is even harder.

My Review:

The Team 52 series has always had a Stargate vibe for me, between its location right next door to the infamous Area 51, and it’s mission to protect and study powerful ancient artifacts, also very much like Stargate.

In this final entry in the series, there’s even the equivalent of an Asgard head-grabber, and just like in Stargate, the head it grabs is that of the leader of the team. In this case Jonah Grayson, the leader of Team 52.

Evan Fletcher’s solution to the problem was a lot quicker, considerably more visceral, and much more permanent than anything the TV show ever came up with.

But Evan has way more skin in the game – even if she’s not quite ready admit it to herself. Because in a contest between a priceless repository of knowledge and the life of the man she has hesitantly and so-very-reluctantly come to love – there’s absolutely no contest at all.

Only a fight for survival and love that Evan is determined to win – no matter what abyss she has to drag Jonah Grayson back from or how much he kicks and screams along the way.

Escape Rating B+: Mission: Her Justice is the wrap up for the entire 8-book series, and it’s difficult to talk about this one without referring to the others.

This one feels like the payoff for the whole series, meaning that it only sorta/kinda stands alone. Except for the first book and this last one, the series can otherwise be read in any order, but the first book, Mission: Her Protection, sets the stage for the whole thing and this one puts as much emphasis on wrapping up the series as it does on the individual romance.

The Team 52 series is more action/adventure romance, like Treasure Hunter Security and Norcross, than it is like any of the author’s science fiction romance series. So, in spite of my reference to Stargate, this isn’t SF in the way that Hell Squad or Eon Warriors are. (Although if you watched Stargate really, really hoping that Sam would get together with either Jack or Daniel or both, you’ll love Team 52.)

But Team 52 is just as good, and just as much sexy adventurous fun, as Hell Squad and Eon Warriors,  just not quite in the same vein. Although plenty of veins get sliced open or shot through. There’s a lot of danger in this romantic mix.

What makes the romance in this entry in the series particularly explosive is that Jonah and Evan are both beyond leery of loving or trusting anyone outside an extremely tight circle. Both have been betrayed by teammates in the services to which they gave allegiance, and both have learned the hard way that anyone can be a traitor – and that their own instincts can be their worst enemies when it comes to figuring out who.

What makes the romance hard-won in this story is that the pain in both of their pasts results from teammate betrayals and not romantic betrayals. They’re not just afraid to fall in love, they’re afraid to believe that anyone might be on their side for any reason whatsoever.

That’s a hard chasm to jump, which makes it all that much more rewarding when they finally do.

I will admit, however, that I found Evan’s particular betrayer to be a bit too much of a generic douchecanoe. Brennan read as merely “bwahaha” evil rather than a believable villain.

But we’re not supposed to like Brennan, so finding him both unlikeable AND unbelievable didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story all that much. I always love the romance in this author’s series that feature the team leader, and Mission: Her Justice was no exception to that rule. I loved Evan as the heroine. And I especially enjoyed that her mom even managed to get her own HEA to sweeten the entire deal.

Team 52 has been a winner from beginning to end – and it definitely went out on a high note. I hope that we get glimpses of this crew in the author’s later series(es) just so that we can see how well their HEAs turned out!

Review: Lowcountry Boughs of Holly by Susan M. Boyer

Review: Lowcountry Boughs of Holly by Susan M. BoyerLowcountry Boughs of Holly (A Liz Talbot Mystery, #10) by Susan M. Boyer
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Liz Talbot #10
Pages: 258
Published by Henery Press on November 17, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but Private Investigator Liz Talbot is struggling to feel festive. She hasn’t seen her best friend, Colleen, in weeks and fears she may never see her again in this life. Meanwhile Nate, Liz’s husband and partner, is spending money like he prints it in the attic on a mysterious family Christmas celebration. Liz’s nerves are shot, and she hasn’t even decked a single hall. But there’s simply no time to fret.
On a morning beach run, Liz spots a wooden rowboat run aground with Santa inside. Did Old Saint Nick have too much eggnog at the boat parade? No indeedy—Santa’s been shot. And he’s none other than C.C. Bounetheau, patriarch of one of Charleston’s wealthiest families.
Liz and Nate already unwrapped quite a few family secrets while searching for the Bounetheau’s missing granddaughter last year—enough to make them swear to steer forever clear of the entire clan. But as Mr. Bounetheau’s body is found in Stella Maris, and Liz and Nate are the police chief’s on-call detectives, they’re on the case.
With no shortage of suspects, Liz and Nate dash to find a killer who may be working his or her way down a naughty list.
Spend Christmas in the Lowcountry with the Talbot family and their friends in Susan M. Boyer’s latest Southern charmer, Lowcountry Boughs of Holly. Tis the season for merry mayhem!

My Review:

As the saying goes, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” But there’s a kind of codicil to that saying that goes, “Every woman needs roots.” And in several peculiar, holly covered and sometimes holly strangled ways, that combination of contradictions is the essence of this story.

Along with that always-applicable thing about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely.

Not that anyone in Stella Maris actually has absolute power, not even Colleen the ghost with her mission from, let’s call it, “on high” to preserve the character, ecology and population balance of beautiful Stella Maris island.

(Please consider all of the above as a tease, because if I explain ANY of it I’ll give away the entire thing.)

There are always some people who think they have that power – and certainly act like they do. And one of them has just turned up dead on the Stella Maris shoreline, the morning after the island’s annual Christmas boat parade. Whatever the circumstances surrounding C.C. Bounetheau’s death, one thing that Private Investigator Liz Talbot is certain of is that he didn’t die of drowning, despite his corpse’s location.

Someone shot C.C. straight through the heart. While he was wearing a Santa suit.

The question is not only whodunnit but why they did it. C.C.’s wife has a well-deserved reputation for “eliminating” people that get in her way, but Abigail Bounetheau has always hired out her dirty work.

The family certainly has plenty of money to make that possible. Even after the ill-gotten gains of her drug-kingpin twin sons were removed from the equation – along with the two men, the apples of their mother’s eye, who are now serving a lot of time in prison.

But money makes for plenty of motives, and the Bounetheaus certainly have plenty of it.

The question before Liz and her partner/husband Nate is whether that money is the reason for C.C.’s murder – and if so in what way? Did someone need C.C. to die earlier than nature intended – even though the man was 80 – so that they could inherit whatever they believed was coming to them?

Did someone want revenge for either the twins’ actions or C.C.’s own – even if that action was in the long past? Or did one of the twins’ former partners fear that C.C. knew of their involvement – and would talk?

Liz and Nate, contracted to the Stella Maris Police Department for any cases that required more investigative skills that the tiny SMPD has on tap, find themselves in the thick of the case and under the gun – literally and figuratively – and without the assistant of Liz’ ghostly friend Colleen.

But this case is so twisted that it may take Colleen’s “special gifts” to get it solved in time for Christmas!

Escape Rating B+: I didn’t realize until I started this entry in the series that I missed a couple of the preceding books. While I didn’t absolutely NEED to have read Lowcountry Boomerang and Lowcountry Boondoggle to get into this one, I’m kinda sorry that I hadn’t read them first, as they introduce the Bounetheau family and explain why Colleen seems to have abandoned Liz at the beginning of this story.

Howsomever, there’s plenty of explication about the Bounetheaus to make the situation perfectly clear to anyone who hasn’t read those two books. But the whole thing, particularly Abigail’s apparently well-known but never proven murderous ways, sounds absolutely fascinating and I’ll have to go back and pick up what I missed.

That being said, this is not the place to get started with this series if you haven’t read any of them at all. The background on Colleen’s part in the whole series as the genius loci of Stella Maris needs more explanation than one gets 10 books into this series.

Besides, the whole thing is tremendously fun and highly recommended pretty much anytime there’s a Goodreads or Facebook query about terrific cozy mystery series. So if you haven’t had the pleasure, and it definitely is a great deal of pleasure, start with Lowcountry Boil.

But I decided to read this now instead of backtracking because, this is a holiday story and well, ‘tis the season and all that. And I’m very happy that I did!

There’s something about this series that reminds me of both of Miranda James’ cozy mystery series, Cat in the Stacks and Southern Ladies Mysteries. Part of that is the setting, as James’ series are set in a small college town in Mississippi, while Stella Maris is a small town on a small island in the South Carolina Lowcountry. The towns do have a similar feel to them, as well as a similarly unrealistic number of murders.

I think I just compared Diesel, the intelligent and empathetic Maine Coon cat from the Cat in the Stacks to Colleen the ghost, and it sorta/kinda works. Abigail Bounetheau certainly reads like the Ducote Sisters’ evil twin. But they wield the same kind of economic and social power in their respective communities, even though the Ducote Sisters only use their powers for good.

And I’ll confess that I like the idea of an 80something woman as an evil villain. It gives me something to aspire towards. Not the villainy, but certainly the vitality!

If you like Liz Talbot and Stella Maris, you’ll like Charlie Harris and Diesel, and very much vice versa. Which is a great thing as the publication date for Liz’ next adventure is still a mystery!

Review: The Forgotten Sister by Nicola Cornick

Review: The Forgotten Sister by Nicola CornickThe Forgotten Sister by Nicola Cornick
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Graydon House on November 10, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In the tradition of the spellbinding historical novels of Philippa Gregory and Kate Morton comes a stunning story based on a real-life Tudor mystery, and of a curse that echoes through the centuries and shapes two women’s destinies…
1560: Amy Robsart is trapped in a loveless marriage to Robert Dudley, a member of the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Surrounded by enemies and with nowhere left to turn, Amy hatches a desperate scheme to escape—one with devastating consequences that will echo through the centuries…
Present Day: When Lizzie Kingdom is forced to withdraw from the public eye in a blaze of scandal, it seems her life is over. But she’s about to encounter a young man, Johnny Robsart, whose fate will interlace with hers in the most unexpected of ways. For Johnny is certain that Lizzie is linked to a terrible secret dating back to Tudor times. If Lizzie is brave enough to go in search of the truth, then what she discovers will change the course of their lives forever.

My Review:

The fate of Amy Robsart has been one of those long-standing historical questions, to the point where the mystery of whether it was accident, suicide or murder was one of the historical mysteries presented to Inspector Alan Grant at the beginning of The Daughter of Time. While he decided to investigate the “Princes in the Tower”, the question of Amy Robsart is still an interesting one, because of the way that it ties back to a towering figure of English history, Queen Elizabeth I.

Whether the “Virgin Queen” really wanted to marry her Master of Horse, Robert Dudley, or not, the questions that surrounded his wife’s death pushed that possibility forever out of reach. But it’s easy to get caught up in the alternate paths of history. If Dudley and Elizabeth had married, would she still have managed to become the legendary Gloriana? Would they have had children? How much different would history be if Elizabeth had a child of her own to follow her on the throne, instead of the endless plots of Mary, Queen of Scots and the English throne passing to HER son, James VI of Scotland who became James I of England.

There might have been no King James’ Bible. The Stuarts would never have come to the throne, which means that the Hanovers would never have followed them. If there was no George III, there would have been no American Revolution.

Now there’s a fascinating idea, and just the kind of rabbit hole that alternate history stories love to go down. But that’s not what happens in this story.

The story of The Forgotten Sister is kind of a time slip story that provides illumination on that long-ago mystery but doesn’t change the outcome.

In the 21st century, Lizzie Kingdom and Dudley Lester have been friends since childhood. They are also A-List celebrities. What they aren’t is married to each other. Nor do they seem to have any desire to be. Rather, Dudley is married to Amelia Robsart, while he spends a great deal of time palling around London and partying with his best friend Lizzie.

To the point where Amelia Lester feels neglected, only because she is – gets depressed, only because her life is depressing – and falls down a flight of marble stairs. At her home, Oakhanger, which was constructed using the stones from Cunmor, where, guess what? Amy Robsart fell down a marble staircase and died in 1560, neglected and depressed because everyone knew her husband was off cavorting with Elizabeth Tudor while she was forced to rusticate in the country.

The parallels between Amelia Robsart’s fate in the 21st century and Amy Robsart’s fate in the 16th are filled with similarities and congruences to the point where we think we know what happened both times around – and that the same things happened both times around. And we kind of do.

But we kind of don’t.

Because the 16th century part of this story may be told from Amy Robsart’s point of view, but the 21st century perspective is not Amelia’s. Instead, we see the events in the 21st century through the eyes of Lizzie Kingdom. A woman who, like her 16th century avatar, is determined to finally seize the reins of her own life, but someone who has an entirely different set of options.

If she can just get out from under the accessory to murder charge she’s currently saddled with – along with the fleet of managers and assistants and toadies who are determined to keep her under glass and under their control – so they can continue to drain her dry.

Escape Rating B+: One of the things I wondered about as I read this was whether it worked better if you knew the history – or if it worked better if you didn’t and everything was a revelation. This was history I knew and knew well, so the parallels were easy to spot – although the way the author twisted Amy/Amelia’s story was fascinating. Historically perhaps not plausible, but not completely implausible either.

The one problem with knowing the history was that while the name parallels mostly worked pretty well, the idea that anyone had named their child Letty Knollys in the late 20th century was almost a bridge too far. The congruences didn’t need to be THAT on the nose to work.

That being said, what makes this story work is that the 21st century protagonist isn’t Amelia but rather Lizzie. And that the similarities between Lizzie’s life – and especially Lizzie’s choices – and those of OMG Elizabeth I are less direct equivalences and more of a looser connection. Although it was inspired to think that the closest match to the life of a royal in the 16th century was that of an A-Lister in the 21st. And it so works.

But the story works because as much as the Amy/Amelia Robsart deaths turn out to be history repeating itself, what we see in Lizzie is her breaking out of the bubble she’s been living in, breaking away from the sycophants who are actually controlling her, and finally making a life of her own and making her own choices and taking her own chances. She’s in her late 20s, money seems to be no object, she can afford to take a chance – at least once the murder is solved – and search for a life that has meaning for her rather than a life that makes money for everybody else.

The bits of paranormal woo-woo that serve as kind of the glue between the two time streams are done once-over-lightly in a way that makes them part of Lizzie’s taking charge of her own life as well as part of the ultimate resolution to the timestream. It was just right and just enough and made the ending just lovely.

Review: Masquerade in Lodi by Lois McMaster Bujold

Review: Masquerade in Lodi by Lois McMaster BujoldMasquerade in Lodi (Penric and Desdemona #4) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Penric and Desdemona #4
Pages: 103
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency on October 14th 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Bastard’s Eve is a night of celebration for most residents in the canal city of Lodi -- but not for sorcerer Learned Penric and his Temple demon Desdemona, who find themselves caught up in the affairs of a shiplost madman, a dangerous ascendant demon, and a very unexpected saint of the fifth god.
This novella falls between “Penric’s Fox” and “Penric’s Mission” in the internal chronology of the Penric & Desdemona tales.

My Review:

Penric, whose adventures have featured in this novella series since its beginning in Penric’s Demon, is a fascinating character. Or perhaps that should be characters. And that is part of the fascination.

Because Penric was knocked sideways out of the life he planned to lead by the advent of Desdemona in his life, and there his adventures definitely began.

That sounds like a romance, doesn’t it? But that’s not what this is. Not at all. Not that Penric doesn’t have his own romantic adventures, and not that Desdemona didn’t have hers. Two centuries worth of them.

In the World of the Five Gods, those five gods are not just worshipped. They are real, can appear before their followers, and can act directly upon the world. But mostly they act indirectly, through their priests, their learned divines, of which Penric is one, and their god- or goddess- touched Saints, one of whom is featured in this entry in the series.

Those gods are the Mother, the Father, the Sister, the Brother and the fifth god whom Penric serves, the “master of all disasters out of season”.

Penric is a Learned Divine of the White God, the Lord Bastard. Desdemona is the demon who shares Penric’s head. They are partners. He provides the physical body which allows her to move in the world, and she gives him magic. And the benefit of her two centuries of experience – sometimes whether he wants it or not. From Penric’s perspective it’s often like have a dozen older sisters and aunts giving him advice whether he’s asked for it or not. Generally not.

The series began when Desdemona jumped from her previous host, the dying Learned Divine Ruschia, to young Penric, knocking his life into another channel from the one he was expected to have as the younger son of a prosperous landowner.

He also expected to be bored out of his skull, but life with Desdemona inside his skull has been anything but boring. Often dangerous, occasionally life-threatening, but never, ever dull.

In Masquerade in Lodi, Penric is definitely not bored. Tired, footsore, terrified and manipulated, occasionally all at the same time, but never, ever bored.

Even if the story begins by his thwarted attempt to take a half-day off in preparation for the local festival in honor of his god. But then, the Lord Bastard is the god of misfortune and bad luck, along with prostitutes, executioners and vermin.

And Penric runs into pretty much all of the above as he attempts to squire a very young Saint of his order along on a mission to find a demon-touched man who may or may not be either a murderer or a potential victim. Or both.

Whether he is saint or villain, the young man’s mother is still expecting him to come home. It’s up to Penric, with the help and sometimes hindrance of the saint, to make it happen.

Escape Rating B+: The beginning of Masquerade in Lodi may be a bit confusing for faithful readers of this series. The book published immediately before this one, The Physicians of Vilnoc, takes place several years and a whole lot of life and adventures after Masquerade in Lodi. Some fairly dangerous and rather significant adventures, including Penric’s marriage.

Those events are still in Penric’s future in Lodi, and it takes a bit of a reset to get one’s reading self back on track. A worthwhile mental adjustment, but definitely an adjustment. The book whose events immediately precede this one is Penric’s Fox, and that was several books ago.

On my oft-cited other hand, one of the things that this entry in the series does very well, is to not just tell its adventure but also to show and not tell a whole lot more about how the system works.

By that I mean the system of gods, temples, demons, saints and worship. Because this religion functions for the actual good of its people, which is rare in fantasy. Usually the “church” is a source of evil or oppression or corruption or villainy or all of the above. Not in the World of the Five Gods.

So when Penric is called to the dockside mission to investigate the case of a man who might be demon-touched or might merely be out of his own head, it’s normal and accepted and expected. When Penric discovers that the poor man is harboring an untamed demon, there are no torches and pitchforks. No signs of the “evil eye”.

Instead, there’s a process in place for Penric to take the poor man to a Saint of the White God to have the demon taken by the Lord Bastard. A process which the victim will survive.

Except, it’s not nearly that simple. Otherwise there wouldn’t be an adventure. But in the discussion between Penric, his demon Desdemona, all of the Temple officials who become part of the merry chase of the escaped victim, the young Saint who is occasionally god-touched but always way more observant and intelligent than anyone expects, we learn a wondrous amount of stuff about this world, how it works, and both Penric’s and his god’s place in it.

And we get a tour of friends and enemies in low places, because nothing about the victim, the demon, or the reason they met in the first place is remotely as it seems.

Discovering how everyone got to be in this pickle in the first place is all the fun.