Review: Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Review: Old Baggage by Lissa EvansOld Baggage by Lissa Evans
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 320
Published by Harper Perennial on April 16, 2019
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The author of the acclaimed Crooked Heart returns with a comic, charming, and surprisingly timely portrait of a once pioneering suffragette trying to find her new passion in post-WWI era London.

1928. Riffling through a cupboard, Matilda Simpkin comes across a small wooden club—an old possession that she hasn’t seen for more than a decade. Immediately, memories come flooding back to Mattie—memories of a thrilling past, which only further serve to remind her of her chafingly uneventful present. During the Women's Suffrage Campaign, she was a militant who was jailed five times and never missed an opportunity to return to the fray. Now in middle age, the closest she gets to the excitement of her old life is the occasional lecture on the legacy of the militant movement.

After running into an old suffragette comrade who has committed herself to the wave of Fascism, Mattie realizes there is a new cause she needs to fight for and turns her focus to a new generation of women. Thus the Amazons are formed, a group created to give girls a place to not only exercise their bodies but their minds, and ignite in young women a much-needed interest in the world around them. But when a new girl joins the group, sending Mattie’s past crashing into her present, every principle Mattie has ever stood for is threatened.

Old Baggage is a funny and bittersweet portrait of a woman who has never given up the fight and the young women who are just discovering it.

My Review:

I’ve just realized that the title of this book is a bit of a pun. The main character, Mattie Simpkin, is referred to as an “old baggage”, meaning a cantankerous old woman. But the point of this story is that she is also carrying a lot of “old baggage”, as in emotional baggage. And that the old baggage actually isn’t carrying her old baggage terribly well, leading to the crisis point in the story.

Mattie is also fond of sprinkling her speech with quotations from authors, historians and philosophers. There’s one that’s used in the book, and is extremely appropriate to the story, even if there seems to be some debate on who originated it.

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.” And so it proves for Mattie Simpkin.

At first, this seemed to be a simple story about someone whose glory days were long behind them – and that same person’s inability to cope with that fact. But it’s not nearly that simple.

As the story begins, it’s 1928. Mattie is in her late 50s, and while she may not think of herself as old, it’s clear that others around her do. (I found this poignant and ironic at the same time as I’m older than Mattie but don’t see myself that way at all. It’s true that “old” starts at least 15 years past one’s own age)

Once upon a time, Mattie was one of the celebrated (and frequently derided) suffragists that marched, agitated and were jailed to goad the powers-that-were to grant women in Britain the right to vote. (It wasn’t any better in the U.S.)

The right was granted, under rather stringent conditions, in 1918 in the exhausted aftermath of World War I. At which point the movement towards women’s equality collapsed. (If this sounds familiar, let’s just say the pattern repeats).

But Mattie has never given up the fight, and ten years later she is still on the lecture circuit, attempting to enlist a new generation of women into the cause. She’s failing, and her lectures are increasingly poorly attended.

The situation changes when an old frenemy comes back into her life, and Mattie is galvanized into bringing young girls of her present some of the same educational and recreational experiences that formed her character. The problem is that her frenemy is plumping for the nascent Nazi party.

And Mattie’s need to prove herself to someone who has never had any intention but to bring her down and keep her there has no end of bad consequences. For Mattie, for her best friend Florrie, and especially for the girls and young women they have taken under their wings.

Escape Rating B+: At first, it didn’t seem like a whole lot happened in this book. Looking back on it, not a whole lot does – at least not in the sense of groundbreaking or earthshaking adventure. But there is plenty of drama underneath the quiet surface.

Initially, Mattie seems like somewhat of a comic figure. She’s an old battle axe who doesn’t seem to recognize that it’s time to put the axe up on the wall. While her mannerisms can be amusing, and her stubbornness is plenty infuriating to her friends and neighbors, she’s also right. Those two things don’t cancel each other out.

The cause was not won, only placated a bit. The fight was not over. Women were not equal. (They still aren’t) But Mattie’s methods don’t do her any favors, and she alienates as many people as she convinces. Probably alienates more people than she convinces.

The quiet drama in the story is the way that Mattie gets led astray, not so much from her cause as from her bedrock straightforward way of going about it.

Because while Mattie may be an old baggage, there are also a couple of nasty pieces of baggage who are deliberately, or not so deliberately, undermining her efforts. And her sense of self is what suffers along the way.

It’s when she finally comes back to herself that she is finally offered that opportunity to be what she might have been. And it’s her redemption that she takes it.

In the end, Old Baggage was nothing like I expected. But it was a charming read every step of the way.

Review: Winds of Marque by Bennett R. Coles

Review: Winds of Marque by Bennett R. ColesWinds of Marque: Blackwood Virtue by Bennett R. Coles
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Blackwood & Virtue #1
Pages: 368
Published by Harper Voyager on April 16, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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"Bennett R. Coles ranks among my go-to list in SF. Entertaining and intelligent storytelling and terrific characters. In Winds of Marque, Coles may well have invented a whole new subgenre that has me scrambling for a description--Steam Space?  Whatever you call it, a blast to read. Here's hoping that many more adventures are in the offing for Blackwood and company."  Steven Erikson, New York Times bestselling author

The first novel in an exciting science fiction series—Master and Commander in space—a swashbuckling space adventure in which a crew of misfit individuals in the king’s navy are sent to dismantle a dangerous ring of pirate raiders.

In a dense star cluster, the solar winds blow fiercely. The star sailing ship HMSS Daring is running at full sheet with a letter of marque allowing them to capture enemy vessels involved in illegal trading. Sailing under a false flag to protect the ship and its mission, Daring’s crew must gather intelligence that will lead them to the pirates’ base.

Posing as traders, Daring’s dashing second-in-command Liam Blackwood and brilliant quartermaster Amelia Virtue infiltrate shady civilian merchant networks, believing one will lead them to their quarry.

But their mission is threatened from within their own ranks when Daring’s enigmatic captain makes a series of questionable choices, and rumblings of discontent start bubbling up from below decks, putting the crew on edge and destroying morale. On top of it all, Liam and Amelia must grapple with their growing feelings for each other.

Facing danger from unexpected quarters that could steer the expedition off course, Blackwood and Virtue must identify the real enemy threat and discover the truth about their commander—and their mission—before Daring falls prey to the very pirates she’s meant to be tracking.

My Review:

The blurbs and the reviews for this book say the same two things fairly consistently. One, that it’s a whole lot of fun. Two, that it’s Aubrey and Maturin (Master and Commander) in space.

The first thing is definitely true. Winds of Marque is a whole lot of fun. I’m a bit less sure about the second thing – and I’m saying that as someone who read the entire Aubrey and Maturin series.

What makes this so much fun is that it is a romp of swashbuckling derring-do, but set in space in the distant future – on a Navy ship under letters of marque (government-licensed piracy) with a mission to find the real pirates and wipe them out before humans end up in a war with the insect-like Sectoids.

Our plucky heroes are Subcommander Liam Blackwood and Petty Officer Amelia Virtue. Fraternizing between the ranks is about to become the least of their problems.

Blackwood, second-son of the nobility and Executive Office (XO) of the HMSS Daring, has a reputation for coddling, chivying and generally outmaneuvering dunderheaded noble Captains so that they manage not to kill their entire crews in acts of noble idiocy. He’s unfortunately good at his job – because it’s bad for his career. Someone has to take the blame for the untouchable nobles’ disasters, and it’s generally their frustrated XO.

Virtue is the newly promoted quartermaster of the Daring. She’s relatively young, hyper-competent, and has the combined duty of making sure the Daring is fully supplied without resorting to Naval stores while instructing Blackwood in just how different the life of a commoner ranking sailor is from that of even a second-born noble son.

It’s probably going to be the making of him, if they survive the mess they are currently in.

Because nothing about their mission is exactly what it seems. Not the inexperienced but not unintelligent Captain Lady Sophia Riverton, not the pirates and certainly not the Sectoids.

That there’s a noble fop on board who is just dead certain that he can do everything better than his Naval superiors but social inferiors is nearly the deadly icing on a very explosive cake.

And it’s a blast from beginning to end.

Escape Rating B+: I had a great time while I was reading this. The verve and drive of the narrative really sweeps the reader along. But, I’m not sure how well it holds up upon further reflection. Not that I won’t pick up the next book in the series when it comes out. I did have a great time.

Part of the problem for this reader may be in all those comparisons to the Aubrey and Maturin series. Which was marvelous and excellent and terrific and if you enjoy naval stories or Napoleonic war stories is highly recommended. The audio is particularly good.

One issue, at least so far, is that Blackwood is not analogous to Aubrey (neither is Riverton) and there is no Maturin, at least so far. And that one aspect of the story, the Napoleonic wars in space, has been done before by David Weber in the Honor Harrington series. (It’s also been done in fantasy in the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik!)

Where it is similar to the Aubrey and Maturin series is in its detailed descriptions of the working of the ship. That the Daring is a ship powered by “solar sails” makes that resemblance more pronounced, but also a bit out of place. I’m not sure whether it’s that we’ve become so used to FTL (Faster Than Light) ships being sleek and powered internally that solar sails feel less possible (not that FTL drives in general are possible at the present) or that the whole “sailing” aspect feels like an artificial way for the author to insert sailing jargon and terminology that would not otherwise be present.

One aspect of the story, although not the primary aspect, is the developing romance between Blackwood and Virtue. As much as I like both characters, there doesn’t feel like there’s enough there to sell the romance. While it does take a reasonable amount of time for them to fall in love, because the story is told from Blackwood’s perspective we don’t see enough of Virtue’s thought processes to “feel” their romance. It’s a not nearly enough significant glances and conversations about ship’s business that fall into bed – or rather office floor at a crisis point.

Although this is a navy that has given up on anti-fraternization regulations, these are people from two different worlds that don’t mix. If they are going to be together, there need to be a whole lot more conversations about how that’s going to work. Because what Virtue tells Blackwood is correct – as a noble he can do anything at all to her, up to and possibly including murder but certainly including rape and assault – and he will never be punished because he’s a member of the aristocracy and she’s a commoner. That power imbalance is going to require one hell of a reckoning at some point.

The book this reminds me of the most is The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis. That book incorporates its equivalent ship jargon much more smoothly. Transferring the terminology of sailing vessels to an airship that sails the air felt smoother even if the war they are flying in is just as deadly. That story also includes a noble fop, but that one manages to get better – if not less foppish – as the adventure goes along.

The situation that the Daring finds herself in is a well-worn and well-loved trope. The ship of misfit naval personnel go rogue with official sanction but no official backing to do a job that desperately needs to be done – but that no one in the official navy wants to be caught dirtying their hands to actually get done. If they complete their mission someone else will get the glory, but if they fail the survivors will take all the blame.

And it’s so much fun that none of them can resist signing up for another mission. Readers won’t be resisting either!

Review: If This Goes On edited by Cat Rambo

Review: If This Goes On edited by Cat RamboIf This Goes On by Cat Rambo, E. Lily Yu, Aimee Ogden, Rachel Chimits, Cyd Athens, Scott Edelman, Jack Lothian, Gregory Jeffers, Conor Powers-Smith, Priya Sridhar, Andy Duncan, Lynette Mejía, Hal Y. Zhang, Nick Mamatas, Steven Barnes, Kitty-Lydia Dye, Tiffany E. Wilson, Nisi Shawl, Kathy Schilbach, Zandra Renwick, Chris Kluwe, Sarah Pinsker, Calie Voorhis, Marie Vibbert, James Wood, Jamie Lackey, Paul Crenshaw, Langley Hyde, Judy Helfrich, Beth Dawkins, Sylvia Spruck Wrigley
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: anthologies, dystopian, post apocalyptic, science fiction, short stories
Pages: 304
Published by Parvus Press LLC on March 5, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A bold new anthology born of rage and sorrow and hope. 30 writers look at what today's politics and policies will do to shape our world a generation from now. Some of today's most visionary writers of science fiction project us forward to the world of the future; a world shaped by nationalism, isolationism, and a growing divide between the haves and have nots. This anthology sits at the intersection of politics, speculative fiction, and American identity. The choices we make today, the policies of our governments and the values that we, as people, embrace are going to shape our world for decades to come. Or break it. Edited by Cat Rambo, the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the stories of If This Goes On invite you to worlds very like this one-- but just a little different.

Table of contents:Green Glass: A Love Story by E. Lily YuTwelve Histories Scrawled in the Sky by Aimee OgdenDead Wings by Rachel ChimitsWelcome to Gray by Cyd AthensThe Stranded Time Traveler Embraces the Inevitable by Scott EdelmanGood Pupils by Jack LothianAll the Good Dogs Have Been Eaten by Gregory JeffersThe Sinking Tide by Conor Powers-SmithMustard Seeds and the Elephant’s Foot by Priya SridharMr. Percy’s Shortcut by Andy DuncanA Gardener’s Guide to the Apocalypse by Lynette MejíaBut for Grace by Hal Y. ZhangHurrah! Another Year, Surely This One Will Be Better Than The Last; The Inexorable March of Progress Will Lead Us All to Happiness by Nick MamatasThe Last Adventure of Jack Laff: The Dayveil Gambit by Steven BarnesThree Data Units by Kitty-Lydia DyeOne Shot by Tiffany E. WilsonKing Harvest (Will Surely Come) by Nisi ShawlCounting the Days by Kathy SchilbachMaking Happy by Zandra RenwickThe Machine by Chris KluweThat Our Flag Was Still There by Sarah PinskerThe Editor’s Eyes by Calie VoorhisFree WiFi by Marie VibbertDiscobolos by James WoodFine by Jamie LackeyBulletproof Tattoos by Paul CrenshawCall and Answer by Langley HydeA Pocketful of Dolphins by Judy HelfrichTasting Bleach and Decay in the City of Dust by Beth DawkinsThe Choices You Make by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

My Review:

I picked this up around the same time I received Cory Doctorow’s Radicalized to review for Library Journal. Just from the descriptions, it seemed that these two books either springboarded off the same event, were in dialog with each other, or both. (This is also a giant hint that if this book interests you that one will too!)

They’re not exactly in dialog with each other, but they certainly arose out of the same event – the 2016 election. Both are wrapped around the question about what the state of the US – and by extension the world – will be in the future if the hateful politics and policies that were given voice and force by the election of 45 continue into the future relatively unchecked.

That premise is explicit in If This Goes On, and implicit in Radicalized, but it is definitely there in both books.

They are very different collections, however. Radicalized consists of four novellas by a single author, where If This Goes On is a collection in the broader sense, of relatively short stories by 30+ authors around the single theme.

A theme that the collection is screaming about – loudly and with metaphorical expletives. As far as the authors and editor are concerned (and this reader) the policies of those elected in that mess are undoing much of the good that the US has done and are making both the country and the world into a worse place than it was.

None of the writers want the situation to continue – and have done science fiction’s usual excellent job of extending the present out into the possible, even plausible, end point of the contemporary mess in order to show just how awful things can be.

In the hopes that we will band together and do something about it before it is too late.

Escape Rating B+: My feels are all over the place on this one.

First, because it bothered the hell out of me and presumably will other people, the title of the collection sounds familiar because it is. If This Goes On— is the title of a novella by Robert A. Heinlein, a novella which would itself feel at home in this collection.

Whether the title of the collection is in homage or not, there is still plenty of resonance between the two.

This is not a collection to be read late at night, particularly with only the light of one’s screen to push back the darkness. Because there’s plenty of darkness in these stories. While some of them border on horror in the traditional sense, most of the stories give the reader the sense that they are looking at something horrible. And I was appropriately – and shudderingly – horrified.

There is some humor in some of the stories, but it is primarily humor of the “gallows” persuasion. These futures are all bleak in one way or another. While the stories themselves are excellent, the overall tone is fairly dark.

Each story is followed by an editor’s note that tends to hit that dark tone over the head with a baseball bat. The stories generally speak for themselves so that repeated emphasis felt a bit like being bludgeoned with the point of the collection – over and over again. I was already metaphorically bleeding so this was a case where the beatings didn’t need to continue until morale improved because it wasn’t going to happen. But there’s something about the reference to that t-shirt saying that seems appropriate just the same – possibly because hearing the news these days does feel a bit like that proverbial beating.

As much as I agreed with the authors’ and the editor’s perspectives, I’ll admit to getting tired of having it beaten into my head over and over again. YMMV.

These stories stand on their own. Sometimes swaying in the wind from the apocalypse, but they do stand. And the collection is well worth reading. If you read nothing else from this collection, look for Mustard Seeds and the Elephant’s Foot by Priya Sridhar – it’s lovely.

As the saying goes, in reference to the collection as a whole, “Read ‘em and weep.”

Review: The Library of Lost and Found by Phaedra Patrick + Giveaway

Review: The Library of Lost and Found by Phaedra Patrick + GiveawayThe Library of Lost and Found by Phaedra Patrick
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: women's fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Park Row on March 26, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A librarian’s discovery of a mysterious book sparks the journey of a lifetime in the delightful new novel from the international bestselling author of
The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

Librarian Martha Storm has always found it easier to connect with books than people—though not for lack of trying. She keeps careful lists of how to help others in her superhero-themed notebook. And yet, sometimes it feels like she’s invisible.

All of that changes when a book of fairy tales arrives on her doorstep. Inside, Martha finds a dedication written to her by her best friend—her grandmother Zelda—who died under mysterious circumstances years earlier. When Martha discovers a clue within the book that her grandmother may still be alive, she becomes determined to discover the truth. As she delves deeper into Zelda’s past, she unwittingly reveals a family secret that will change her life forever.

Filled with Phaedra Patrick’s signature charm and vivid characters, The Library of Lost and Found is a heartwarming and poignant tale of how one woman must take control of her destiny to write her own happy ending.

My Review:

What is lost and finally found at this library is the heart and spirit of volunteer library worker Martha Storm. The story of how she was “lost”, is told in flashbacks, but the story of what she found and how she found it is part of the present.

And it’s completely charming.

I found myself caught up in Martha’s initially self-restricted life and eventual flowering almost in spite of myself. To the point where I started and finished the book in a single day.

Not a lot happens in this story. There aren’t any great adventures or major events. Well, not exactly. Except that there are – mostly in the sense of a journey of the spirit, with signposts provided by the events of her life along the way.

Martha Storm volunteers at her local public library in tiny little Sandshift – a small town on the coast of England. She’s the person who does everything for everybody, always going above and beyond on every side, with no hope of compensation and nary a word of thanks.

She’s a woman who seems constitutionally incapable of saying “No” to anyone. And no one seems to appreciate her for it – not her boss, not her co-workers, not the villagers she helps and certainly not her sister. Not until she finally, suddenly, almost inexplicably manages to say that one word – and both her world and that world’s view of her, begins to shift.

So does she. And as Martha starts to find herself, she also finds what she lost long ago – her grandmother.

Escape Rating B+: This is a story about family secrets, their power to harm, and their power to destroy. And it’s about the freedom that comes with setting those secrets free.

In my own family, there was a secret. At my grandfather’s funeral my aunt revealed that my grandmother was not her mother – that my grandfather had been married before. It wasn’t a big secret – nor was it destructive in the way that the secrets in this story were. But it told me a vital piece of information that explained a great deal about my childhood – I was my grandmother’s only grandchild. She was already deceased, so it had no effect on my relationship with her – but it colored my memories of her differently.

The secrets that have been kept from Martha Storm all of her life, while they don’t change the past, definitely put it into a much different light. A light that illuminates so many events and relationships that defined her – and not always for her benefit.

When she was in her early teens, her parents told her that her charismatic, beloved grandmother Zelda was dead. They refused to let her go to the funeral, and she never found the grave.

When a local bookseller gives her a worn-out copy of a book, written by her grandmother, made up of stories that Martha wrote and told to her grandmother and stories that her grandmother wrote and told to her, she’s flabbergasted. When she reads the dedication at the front of the book, a dedication to her, written three years after her grandmother’s “death”, Martha’s world starts to unravel.

But what unravels are all the accretions and protections, all the shoulds and don’ts, all the negging that her uber-controlling father wrapped around Martha, her mother, and her sister. All the things that kept Martha from venturing out into the world, and letting the world venture into her.

All the things that would have challenged her father’s control of her. Like her grandmother.

In her search for her grandmother, Martha rediscovers herself and her childhood joy of the world around her.

She gets a second chance at life. At love. And with her beloved Zelda. The truth sets her free to be her best self.

And it makes an absolutely charming story.

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Review: Lonen’s Reign by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: Lonen’s Reign by Jeffe KennedyLonen's Reign (Sorcerous Moons #6) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy romance
Series: Sorcerous Moons #6
Pages: 160
Published by Brightlynx on March 20th 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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A Looming Threat
The sorceress Oria has finally come into her own—able to wield the power of her birthright and secure in the marriage she once believed would bring her only misery. But the past she escaped still chases her, and the certainty of war promises to destroy everything she’s fought to have.

An Impossible War
Once before Lonen led an army in a desperate attempt to stop the powerfully murderous sorcerers of Bára—and he nearly lost everything. Now he must return to the battlefield that took the lives of so many of his people. Only this time he has more to risk than ever.

The Final Conflict
With guile, determination—and unexpected allies—Oria and Lonen return to the place where it all began… and only hope that it won’t also be the end of them.

My Review:

This was a lovely wrap up to the series. Or, to put it another way that feels much more accurate, Lonen’s Reign provides the concluding chapters to this lovely fantasy romance.

That’s a hint, by the way. The Sorcerous Moons series reads way more like a single book split into chunks than it does a series of individual books. It only works if you read from the beginning. Every time I get a new “chapter” I find myself reading the synopses and my reviews of the previous books to catch myself up – even if it hasn’t been all that long since the previous book.

All the action in this book rests on what came before. Which is fitting for the concluding “chapter” of an epic (in scope if not in length) saga.

This is also the point where the story comes full circle. We began, in Lonen’s War, with then-Prince Lonen and his Destrye attacking the stronghold of their enemies, the Bara. Where Lonen discovers a disregarded Princess Oria imprisoned in her tower by her own weaknesses.

Oria finds herself the only functioning member of the Baran royal house, and brokers a peace treaty between her people and the Destrye – only to have that well-thought out and surprisingly well-working peace broken the moment her brother wakes up and forcibly takes the crown.

From that point forward, the story moves back and forth between Destrye and Bara, as Oria discovers the depths to which her own people have sunk – and the desperation that has forced Lonen’s people to rise and strike back.

Along the way, Oria discovers that all of the prohibitions, weaknesses and fears that have held her back are a tissue of lies and misdirections. And Oria and Lonen make a marriage of state and convenience that turns into so much more.

This is the point where the finally undisputed King of the Destrye, and his newly anointed Queen Oria risk everything they have on one final gamble against the heavily fortified and magically defended Bara – in the hopes of saving both their peoples.

All of their people. On both sides.

Escape Rating B+: I’m kind of reviewing the whole series at this concluding point. Because this book really doesn’t make much sense on its own, it feels necessary to look at the series as a whole.

At the same time, I have to say that Lonen’s Reign feels like a fitting conclusion to the saga begun in Lonen’s War – and it feels equally fitting that both the first and the last book are titled after him. He began the action at the outset, followed by Oria’s reaction in Oria’s Gambit, followed by two middle books, then Oria’s finally coming into her own power in Oria’s Enchantment and now we sit at the conclusion.

The two sides began at war, not that the Barans would have considered their actions warlike. Bara used to be a lush paradise, but the climate changed and their city turned into a desert. Instead of adapting, they used magic as well as engineering to steal water from the lands that surrounded them, making even more desert. Eventually they reached the lands of the distant Destrye, absolutely certain that their magical might gave them the right to strip those lands of their water and kill anyone who fought back.

Lonen brought the war home to them. And left with the prize and pride of Bara, Princess Oria. As they fell in love, it gave her strength of will, and the desperate determination to reach beyond everything that she had been taught. She had to in order to survive – and to be able to do the right thing.

Oria grounded Lonen, giving him the wisdom to become the king his people needed, in spite of the betrayals he suffered at home.

Their union, which does indeed become the love story for the ages as I said in my review of Lonen’s War, provides a path forward for both of their peoples, who have now become one.

In some ways, the story in Lonen’s Reign feels as if it is missing a few bits – almost all of the backstory is in their earlier books.

Because I really enjoy worldbuilding, it also felt as if Oria’s final revelations – the climate change, the resulting subjugation and despoiling of a wider and wider swath of territory, and, most of all, the way that magic as practiced in Bara became ossified in a way that almost literally set their people, and particularly the women, into stone that preserved the predatory status quo – got a bit of a short shrift. I’d love to know more about how it happened.

Maybe that’s another book sometime in the future.

Lonen’s Reign turned out to be a quick and mostly satisfying wrap-up to a fascinating fantasy romance series. I’m looking forward to both the author’s eventual return to the awesome Twelve Kingdoms series – because that is edging towards its final confrontation – and to her new fantasy romance series, beginning with The Orchid Throne later this year.

Review: Glory Road by Lauren K. Denton

Review: Glory Road by Lauren K. DentonGlory Road by Lauren K. Denton
Format: ebook
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Southern fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Thomas Nelson on March 19, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Written in Lauren Denton's signature Southern style, Glory Road tells the story of three generations of women navigating the uncertain pathways of their hearts during a summer that promises to bring change--whether they're ready for it or not.

At thirty-eight, garden shop owner Jessie McBride thinks her chances for romance are years behind her and, after her failed marriage, she's fine with that. She lives contentedly with her fiery mother and her quiet, headstrong daughter. But the unexpected arrival of two men on Glory Road make her question if she's really happy with the status quo. Handsome, wealthy Sumner Tate asks her to arrange flowers for his daughter's wedding, and Jessie finds herself drawn to his continued attention. And Ben Bradley, her lingering what-could-have-been from high school days who's known her better than anyone and whom she hasn't seen in years, moves back to the red dirt road. Jessie finds her heart being pulled in directions she never expected.

Meanwhile, Jessie's fourteen-year-old daughter, Evan, is approaching the start of high school and trying to navigate a new world of identity and emotions--particularly as they relate to the cute new guy who's moved in just down the road. At the same time, Jessie's mother, Gus, increasingly finds herself forgetful and faces a potentially frightening future.

As all three women navigate the uncertain paths of their hearts and futures, one summer promises to bring change--whether they're ready for it or not.

My Review:

Good things come in threes, and so it proves in this lovely story of three generations of the McBride women. Take that as a hint that, in spite of Goodreads characterizing this as a romance, it’s really women’s fiction or relationship fiction. While romances do occur within the pages of this book, the backbone of the book is the relationship between the women and not the men who find their way into – or back into – their lives.

Also, in spite of the Amazon classification of Glory Road as both “Christian” and “Historical”, it isn’t either. This is a contemporary story set in a small (very small) Alabama town. And even though the book is published by noted Christian publisher Thomas Nelson, there’s nothing particularly religious or inspirational in the story, although the romantic aspects are downright squeaky clean.

I like a good romance. It doesn’t have to get to the bedroom to qualify as romance – and I like a well-written “fade to black” better than a risible risque scene. I didn’t notice that no one did anything more than kiss, and very little of that, until I finished and thought back on the story. So it works.

But what is it?

The McBride women all live on Glory Road just outside tiny Perry Alabama. They are all at crossroads in their lives. How those crossroads intersect, and how they walk along after, both together and separately, is what makes the story.

Gus McBride is nearly 70. She’s happy to have her daughter Jessie and granddaughter Evan back on Glory Road, but at the same time has become aware that proximity means that the secret she is trying to hide even from herself will be exposed sooner rather than later. Gus isn’t ready to deal with the Alzheimer’s disease that took both her mother and grandmother, and is now overtaking her.

Evan is about to enter 9th grade – she’s starting high school. It’s a new school and a whole lot of new opportunities. She’s growing up and starting to push boundaries. And she’s making new friends, including the older boy who has just moved into Perry with his dad. Evan has her first crush on Nick Bradley, not knowing just how history is both repeating – and not.

Jessie is the sandwich between her mother Gus and her daughter Evan. She has put behind her past with Evan’s wayward father, and has figured out why her marriage didn’t work. She spent her high school years pretending to be someone she wasn’t, and her ex fell in love with that pretense and not the person she really is.

The person Jessie really is isn’t that perky, blonde, highlighted cheerleader. She’s the quietly introspective woman who owns Twig, the local gardening shop. And she’s the person her best friend all those years ago, Ben Bradley, fell in love with.

Ben has returned to Glory Road, and has brought his son Nick. A boy who would have been theirs if things had gone differently. There’s a chance they might this time. Or it might be too late. Or Jessie might make the same mistake all over again.

Escape Rating B+: This was, just like my reading of The Hideaway a couple of years ago, lovely. Not quite as unexpected this time around.

Three is a powerful number, and the three McBrides are powerful women, albeit in different ways. While their stories are individually interesting, the relationship between them powers the story as it switches perspectives from one to another but always making clear the depth of the bond between them.

Evan’s story is the easiest. She’s only 14, her entire life is still before her. This is the summer of her first real crush, her first serious testing of her mother’s boundaries, the deepening of her quest to discover the person she’s meant to be … and the escalating fear over her grandmother’s badly hidden illness.

Gus’ story is both tragic and uplifting, as she faces both the fear that has dogged her for her entire adult life – and the man who is willing to stand beside her in the dark days ahead. She both comes to terms with what the future will bring her, and reaches out to wring all the happiness possible from the days yet to come.

But the lion’s share of the story is Jessie’s. She is caught at multiple decision points, and the crises they bring to her life make her examine who she’s been, who she is, and who she wants to be. They also make her both appreciate her comfort zone and make her willing to step out of it.

She’s worried about her mother’s increasing forgetfulness. She’s also worried about her business, as a nearby “big box” store has opened and is stealing more than a few of her formerly faithful customers.

And her ancient laptop computer gives up its ghost in the middle of it all. Thanks to the aforementioned big box store, money for a replacement is absolutely nowhere in the budget. Then Ben comes back to town and offers to fix it.

Jessie’s relationship with Ben Bradley recalls the famous quote by John Greenleaf Whittier, the one that goes, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, “It might have been.” Back in high school, Jessie and Ben were best friends. He was the only one besides her family who knew the real Jessie McBride. But their comfortable friendship ended when Ben confessed that he loved Jessie – and she didn’t respond. Instead, she let her popular friends pull her away from the man who loved her and the life that might have been.

A life that would probably have worked out better than her marriage to a man who wanted the perky, popular Jessie she pretended to be. A road not taken that Jessie has never stopped thinking about.

Now Ben is back in Perry, and they might have another chance to see what they might be. But Jessie is also involved with another flashy charmer like her ex – admittedly one who’s a bit more down to earth and sees the person Jessie is now a bit better. But someone who represents a life bigger and brighter than Perry, and a life she left behind.

With everything else going on in her life, the world outside of Perry seems mighty tempting for a brief while.

It’s pretty obvious to the reader who represents Jessie’s best future and happiest self. Watching her figure that out for herself is the charm of the story. And this reader was definitely charmed.

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Guest Review: Orb by Gary Tarulli

Guest Review: Orb by Gary TarulliOrb by Gary Tarulli
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 322
Published by Gary Tarulli on November 16, 2011
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Three months outbound from Earth and the starship Desio approaches its planetary destination, her crew eager to commence a mission of scientific discovery. Kyle Lorenzo, however, has a personal reason for being on board--an inner conflict that will ultimately propel him to explore not only of the furthest reaches of an enigmatic ocean world but the nebulous recesses of his inner psyche.

During the long and isolating interstellar journey a physical relationship develops between Kyle and the ship's physician, Kelly Takara. That part is easy. Understanding the reasons for avoiding the emotional commitment desired by Kelly is harder. So, too, is trying to penetrate the mind of Larry Melhaus, the mission's brilliant and reclusive physicist - a failure to communicate made exponentially more troublesome when the scientist's disturbing behavior begins to threaten the crew.

While Kyle struggles to comprehend himself and Melhaus, the ship's crew, led by their strong-willed commander, Bruce Thompson, attempt to fathom a planet where none of the precepts of science seem to apply. A world where every preconceived notion of what constitutes life must be re-examined and challenged.

Two journeys: One inward, one outward.Culminating at the same destination.

Guest Review by Amy:

Interstellar exploration is hard, even if you have a wormhole to make the trip shorter. They only pick the best of the best, but the first crew that went to the planet labeled “231-P5” … had problems. The stress of the trip, being alone with only each other for months on end, the situation they found themselves in, no one’s entirely sure. This crew is carefully hand-picked: five scientists, one…wait, what? A writer? And a poodle?

Months out there in space, and our intrepid wordsmith has fallen for the ship’s doctor, one Kelly Takara, but Kyle Lorenzo is sort of afraid of commitment. Things are tense, and only get more so as the expedition’s physicist, Dr. Larry Melhaus, starts acting even more strange than usual.

Escape Rating: B+. The first chapter or two of this book didn’t quite grab me the first time I picked it up about a year ago. I chalked it up to the mood I was in at the time, and threw it back on my TBR heap for later consideration. When I decided to give it another whirl last week, I discovered that the problem with the book wasn’t me. Well, not exactly.

I’m reminded of the first time I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. While visually stunning, there is an awful lot of the early part of the film that, to me as a then-very-young person, just didn’t serve the plot in a meaningful way. That’s the problem I had with the first couple of chapters of Orb. Author Gary Tarulli gets us deeply into the head of a literary-minded person, and it reminded me rather a lot of the existential maunderings I had to read in freshman lit classes in the late 1980s: slightly less-exciting than cold oatmeal with no butter.

Let me say right now that that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Existentialist fiction, if I may paint it with that deliberately-broad term, isn’t by definition bad, despite what I just said about my poor freshman lit teacher’s choices. I just didn’t expect it to come at me in a book labeled “Science Fiction.” And far be it from me to dish on a self-published author–as self-published first works go, this one isn’t bad, really–it just took me a while to catch on to what Tarulli was trying to give us. I’m a slow learner, sometimes.

When our crew arrives, early-ish in the book, at the water world that they are there to explore, the sci-fi story starts to emerge, and it’s a good one. The intelligence that populates the planet is so wildly different from ours that our crew struggles with first-contact matters in unexpected ways, and watching Dr. Melhaus’ slow-motion implosion gives us a nice dose of tension, if not quite a villain. Kyle’s internal dialogue over his relationship with Kelly Takara is fairly-understandable, and watching him progress into that relationship is a sweet counterpoint to the precarious situation the crew is in.

“Not quite a villain,” I just said–there’s really no villain, as such, in this story. Our cast of characters spends the whole book discovering a place and flavor of life that is incomprehensibly different from ours, and spends even more time discovering … themselves. This is a book that, if you can digest it, will make you think about things rather a lot. It did me. This book is not escapist fiction, not like lots of other reviews I’ve brought you here at Reading Reality; it’s a thinker’s book. Read it with that in mind, and I’m sure you’ll get something out of it, as I have.

Review: Hunting Game by Helene Tursten

Review: Hunting Game by Helene TurstenHunting Game (An Embla Nyström Investigation #1) by Helene Tursten, Paul Norlén
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Series: Embla Nystrom #1
Pages: 288
Published by Soho Crime on February 26, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The first installment in Helene Tursten’s brand new series featuring the strong, smart Detective Inspector Embla Nyström.

From a young age, 28-year-old Embla Nyström has been plagued by chronic nightmares and racing thoughts. Though she still develops unhealthy fixations and makes rash decisions from time to time, she has learned to channel most of her anxious energy into her position as Detective Inspector in the mobile unit in Gothenburg, Sweden, and into sports. A talented hunter and prize-winning Nordic welterweight, she is glad to be taking a vacation from her high-stress job to attend the annual moose hunt with her family and friends.

But when Embla arrives at her uncle’s cabin in rural Dalsland, she sees an unfamiliar face has joined the group: Peter, an enigmatic young divorcé. And she isn’t the only one to take notice. One longtime member of the hunt doesn’t welcome the presence of an outsider and is quick to point out that with Peter, the group’s number reaches thirteen, a bad omen for the week.

Sure enough, a string of unsettling incidents follow, culminating in the disappearance of two men from a neighboring group of hunters. Embla takes charge of the search, and they soon find one of the missing men floating facedown in the nearby lake, his arm tightly wedged between two rocks. Just what she needs on her vacation. With the help of local reinforcements, Embla delves into the dark pasts of her fellow hunters in search of a killer.

My Review:

A couple of years ago I reviewed Who Watcheth by this author for Library Journal. It was my first “real” dip into scandinavian noir, and I found the story really compelling, as well as a bit creepy. But I really enjoyed the main character, Inspector Irene Huss. Enough so that I picked up the short story collection An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good to get just a bit more of her. (She is not the elderly lady of the title, she is investigating the elderly lady of the title).

Inspector Irene Huss’ series has ended, but the author has begun a new series, and I decided to pick it up – from the beginning this time. And so we come to Detective Inspector Embla Nyström of the mobile crime unit, on her annual vacation at her uncle’s hunting cabin.

The moose isn’t the only creature being hunted. So when the human bodies start piling up, Embla finds herself back on the clock, investigating a group of men she’s known – and mostly respected – all of her life. Along with one charmer who might just be a bit too good to be true.

Only because he is.

Escape Rating B+: This isn’t so much of a whodunit as a whydunit, as has been pointed out by multiple reviewers. It is a bit obvious who must be the killer. There’s only one newcomer to this rather tight-knit group. If one of them had been a serial killer, the dead bodies would go back decades. And they don’t. Mostly.

The group, with the exception of 28-year-old Embla and the newcomer, are also middle-aged if not older. For the most part, they are successful and well-to-do. Embla and her uncle are definitely not in the same financial strata as some of the others. (Or come to think of it, I don’t think they are. We don’t actually know enough about her uncle’s situation to be certain. He does, after all, own a house in town AND a hunting cabin.)

Embla is a cop. And a good one. She’s just multiply conflicted on this case.

Not just because she knows everyone well, except that newcomer. On the other hand, she gets to know the newcomer in the biblical sense, creating yet more conflict. And this case echoes back to an unsolved and unresolved trauma in her own past.

She knows there’s something wrong, but has a difficult time putting all the pieces together. Just as with the issue in her own past, the criminal is acting out of his own unresolved trauma. This is a case that just isn’t going to be solved without digging into a whole lot of the dirty laundry of everyone involved.

Embla is an interesting character, and she’s going to be good to follow for a series. On the one hand, she is a bit of an outsider in this group. By the time the crimes start occurring, she’s both the only woman, and with the exception of the newcomer, the only person under 40.

Her profession makes her suspect everyone and everything, and at the same time it sets her apart, making some of the party members suspicious of her, because she’s a young woman in a man’s job, and in authority once the moose hunt turns into a manhunt.

As a championship boxer, she’s a woman used to and capable of taking care of herself – a skill that turns out to be necessary in the course of the story. One of the unusual things we see is that in her own small team, while she’s not the leader, she is the muscle. We don’t often see that in fiction in a mixed gender team and it’s refreshing.

Her past trauma makes this case more poignant for her, and provides avenues for the author to explore in future entries in the series. That this case is wrapped up entirely in a hunting trip and the hunting culture of Scandinavia may put some readers off. There’s a lot of detail about the process of hunting and the annual hunts. I found it interesting – not that I’d want to do it myself but just how much tradition and culture are still wrapped around it.

I certainly enjoyed Hunting Game more than enough to want to read the next book in the series when it’s translated into English. I like Embla and her team and want to see how they go.

Review: California Girls by Susan Mallery

Review: California Girls by Susan MalleryCalifornia Girls by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 432
Published by Mira on February 26, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The California sunshine’s not quite so bright for three sisters who get dumped in the same week…

Finola, a popular LA morning show host, is famously upbeat until she’s blindsided on live TV by news that her husband is sleeping with a young pop sensation who has set their affair to music. While avoiding the tabloids and pretending she’s just fine, she’s crumbling inside, desperate for him to come to his senses and for life to go back to normal.

Zennie’s breakup is no big loss. Although the world insists she pair up, she’d rather be surfing. So agreeing to be the surrogate for her best friend is a no-brainer—after all, she has an available womb and no other attachments to worry about. Except…when everyone else, including her big sister, thinks she’s making a huge mistake, being pregnant is a lot lonelier—and more complicated—than she imagined.

Never the tallest, thinnest or prettiest sister, Ali is used to being overlooked, but when her fiancé sends his disapproving brother to call off the wedding, it’s a new low. And yet Daniel continues to turn up “for support,” making Ali wonder if maybe—for once—someone sees her in a way no one ever has.

But side by side by side, these sisters will start over and rebuild their lives with all the affection, charm and laugh-out-loud humor that is classic Susan Mallery.

My Review:

Last week when I posted the Excerpt and Spotlight for this book, I said that I’d be reviewing it shortly. This is shortly. Probably also a bit longly, as I seldom write short reviews – and this isn’t going to be one.

I can’t do short for this because there are three separate stories packed into this lovely bit of Women’s Fiction. (A term that is attempting to morph into “Relationship Fiction” but I digress.)

Like both of her previous standalone titles, When We Found Home and Daughters of the Bride, this is a story about family. Also like both of those awesome stories, this is a book about three siblings and their sometimes fraught relationship with their remaining parental unit.

This particular story kicks off when all three of the Corrado sisters get dumped on the same day. All the dumps are different, and not all of them are either tragic or even dramatic. But the ones that are really, really are.

Finola, a daytime talk show host in the cutthroat Los Angeles TV market, gets dumped just before showtime. Her husband waltzes in to tell her that he’s leaving her just before she goes on air. Still shell-shocked, her first guest informs her that the woman Finola’s husband has just dumped her for is her. That she’s young, gorgeous and a country music sensation makes the story all that much more titillating to everyone who discovers it.

And said country music queen makes sure that EVERYONE does discover it. After all, she goes after married men on purpose because she likes the scandalous publicity – and seems to enjoy watching the dumped wife get even more dumped on by the voracious maws of both the media and public opinion.

Ali gets dumped less than two months before her wedding. By a douchebag who can’t even manage to do the dumping in person so he sends his brother instead. Leaving Ali with both the ugly job of cancelling all of the wedding arrangements AND dumping her with all of the cancellation fees that result. She’s also going to be homeless in the equally cutthroat LA housing market because she gave up her lease. After all, she was supposed to be moving in with the douchebag after the wedding.

Unlike Finola, Ali gets a knight in shining armor in the person of the douchebag’s brother. A little help with the wedding cancellation turns into a solid friendship – and more.

Zennie’s dumping is completely non-dramatic. Her relationship with Clark just isn’t working out. Or, to use the sad but true cliche, she’s just not that into him. But her non-dramatic breakup turns into something very dramatic indeed, as her newly uncommitted status lets her commit to something really, really big. She agrees to become a surrogate mother for her best friend.

The drama only increases when Zennie becomes pregnant with the first IVF treatment – and she discovers that nearly no-one in her circle of family and friends agrees with her decision AT ALL. Except for Clark, that guy she just wasn’t that into. She may not have been into him as a potential romantic partner, but a solid and supportive friendship is an entirely different thing.

But it’s not just Zennie’s decision to be a surrogate that some people disapprove of. Their mother disagrees and disapproves, loudly, frequently and with some pretty damn awful cutting remarks, that she’s unhappy with every single one of her daughters for not living their lives exactly the way she wants them to. And, ironically, for not giving her grandchildren. Yesterday.

We get to watch all of them “woman up” in the ways that work for them as they each (including mom!) discover what’s important to them, and what they want and need to have the lives they’ve each dreamed of.

A life that includes their frequently dysfunctional, sometimes crazy, but generally loving, family.

Escape Rating B+: I enjoyed California Girls, but not quite as much as Daughters of the Bride, which I absolutely, totally adored. Consider that both a recommendation and a comment that if you loved this one you’ll love that one too – and possibly more.

What makes this story is that their happy ever afters are all different, and that they all reach them in different ways. There might be an expectation that everyone ends up coupled at the end, but they don’t.

And they shouldn’t.

In many ways, Finola’s story is the most interesting as well as the most cliched and least traditional – all at the same time. She begins the story thinking she has it all – the fantastic career and the successful, adoring and understanding husband. Only to discover that what she really has is a successful career that she adores, and a whole lot of other people in her life who have played second (or third or even lower numbered) fiddles to that career.

Being dumped makes her take a long, hard look at herself, who she is and what she really wants – after she takes a realistic but not too lengthy dive into victimhood. She deserves it, she is, after all, a victim of the media circus that disrupts what’s left her life. It takes time for her to figure out that she isn’t the victim in her actual breakup. It takes two to keep a marriage strong – and it takes two to weaken it. Owning her part of her situation makes her own up to her part in what went wrong as well.

Ali’s story is the romance that readers will expect in the story – but it has its own twist. She is supposed to bounce back and find true love. She’s just not supposed to find it with her ex’s brother.

That she also finds herself as part of her journey is the icing on her particular cake.

Zennie’s story is different from her sisters’ – just not as different as I wanted it to be. At the beginning, she is happy being single as well as fairly resistant to society’s (and her mother’s) need to see her couple up with someone. Anyone. Her status as a happy single with a solid support network of friends has her mother convinced she must be a lesbian. She’s not. She’s just not interested in being half of a whole, and she hasn’t discovered sex to be “all that” in any way at all.

I was kind of hoping that Zennie would turn out to be an Ace – an asexual. I think that would have made an interesting perspective to follow through in the story as she begins with an unusual perspective and I’d like to have seen it carried through. That’s my 2 cents.

The storyline about Zennie becoming a surrogate felt well done, but also just not my cuppa. That being said, the reasons she did it worked well within the story. Her desire to help her friend and her willingness to put herself on the line for it were terrific. That pregnancy turned out to be a not exactly awesome experience was real, as were her very mixed emotional reactions all the way down the line. That her friends and family were divided and frequently disapproving also felt real.

I also have mixed feelings about their mother’s part of the story. On the one hand, it was absolutely terrific that she got her own second-chance at love with the movie star who once loved her and then dumped her. On the other hand, she was kind of a bitch to all of her daughters for much of the story. I wish her character had been more than two-dimensional.

That being said, a good time was still had by this reader with these California Girls. I look forward to the author’s next standalone story as well as my next visit to Happily Inc.!

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Review: When Love Leads to Scandal by Sophie Barnes + Giveaway

Review: When Love Leads to Scandal by Sophie Barnes + GiveawayWhen Love Leads to Scandal (Townsbridges #1) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Townsbridges #1
Pages: 96
Published by Sophie Barnes on February 19th 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Two people fated to be together…

Recently engaged to the Earl of Langdon, Lady Bethany is content with the knowledge that she’s made a wonderful match for herself. Until a chance encounter with a handsome stranger makes her wish she was still unattached – a sentiment that grows even stronger when circumstance causes her to spend more time in this gentleman’s company.

And the duty that threatens to come between them…

Charles Townsbridge is not prepared to learn that the mystery woman he met in the park, the very same woman he cannot get out of his head, is in fact his best friend’s fiancée. Determined to do the right thing, he tasks himself with quashing the attraction, only to discover that the heart cannot be so easily controlled.

My Review:

Think of this as a historical version of the trope about falling for your significant other’s best friend – just with a whole lot of added consequences.

After a Transatlantic crossing where they had a chance to get to know one another, Lady Bethany agreed to marry Robert, the Earl of Langdon. It seemed like an excellent match – and it possibly might have been. Except for that whole best friend problem.

And because Robert basically saw their engagement as a business transaction, one where once the contract was signed and sealed he didn’t have to put forth any future effort to win the woman who had agreed to become his wife.

He had plenty of other unspoken expectations as well. Love didn’t enter into it – and it honestly didn’t for Bethany, either. But she did hope that when they got to know one another that they would have a solid foundation on which to build a marital partnership of some kind.

He couldn’t be bothered. Which probably goes to show just how much he cared in the first place.

On that very infamous other hand, Bethany met his best friend Charles Townsbridge in the park. Chasing after her runaway bonnet. And felt the spark that had completely eluded her in all of her meetings with Langdon.

She could have considered it just a passing fancy. Or a bored impulse. Or pretty much anything except that spark of an attraction she was no longer eligible to feel.

But Charles felt it too. Leaving him determined to suppress his desires at every turn. Of which there were entirely too many – because Bethany’s fiance trusted his best friend to take care of the woman he couldn’t be bothered to even take tea with.

Nothing happened. There was no affair. Plenty of temptation, but just the barest hint of flirting – and even that only after being thrown together too many times. They were both completely honorable – and both suffering in silence. A silence they both planned to take to their graves.

Lucky for ALL of them, Athena Townsbridge was completely unwilling to let her brother suffer alone for the rest of his life – no matter how much scandal SHE had to cause, with his permission – or without.

Escape Rating B+: This book feels like the absolute ultimate read in UST. That’s “unresolved sexual tension” for those who are not familiar with the acronym from reading fanfic.

The story here is delicious. It’s also appropriately short. I say that because the tension between Bethany and Charles is palpable from their very first meeting, to the point where it quickly becomes painful for them to be together, and equally painful for the reader to watch.

What makes the story is that they are both trying to do the honorable thing. She affianced herself to Langdon quite willingly – albeit not with nearly enough information. Also, he seems to have put on an act of being truly interested in her while they were aboard ship, only for him to completely drop the act once the contract was signed.

He doesn’t come off very well, and he shouldn’t.

But Charles and Bethany both feel stuck. There will be a terrible scandal if she cancels the engagement and it will all fall on her and her family. While they can weather the storm, it could easily mean the difference between her making a good marriage and not marrying at all.

It’s just a mess, and we feel for both of them the whole way through. Robert, not so much.

All of the adults are trying to do the responsible thing, which makes it doubly delicious when Charles’ young sister decides to hell with leaving everyone to wallow in their misery. I hope she gets her own romance sometime later in this series. She’s already earned her own HEA!

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