Review: Stargazer by Anne Hillerman

Review: Stargazer by Anne HillermanStargazer (Leaphorn & Chee, #24) by Anne Hillerman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Leaphorn and Chee #24, Leaphorn Chee and Manuelito #6
Pages: 318
Published by Harper on April 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Murder, deception, Navajo tradition, and the stars collide in this enthralling entry in New York Times bestselling author Anne Hillerman’s Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito series, set amid the beautiful landscape of the American Southwest.
What begins as a typical day for Officer Bernadette Manuelito—serving a bench warrant, dealing with a herd of cattle obstructing traffic, and stumbling across a crime scene—takes an unexpected twist when she’s called to help find an old friend. Years ago, Bernie and Maya were roommates, but time and Maya’s struggles with addiction drove them apart. Now Maya’s brother asks Bernie to find out what happened to his sister.
Tracing Maya’s whereabouts, Bernie learns that her old friend had confessed to the murder of her estranged husband, a prominent astronomer. But the details don’t align. Suspicious, Bernie takes a closer look at the case only to find that nothing is as it seems. Uncovering new information about the astronomer’s work leads Bernie to a remote spot on the Navajo Nation and a calculating killer.
The investigation causes an unexpected rift with her husband and new acting boss, Jim Chee, who’s sure Bernie’s headed for trouble. While she’s caught between present and past, Chee is at a crossroads of his own. Burdened with new responsibilities he didn’t ask for and doesn’t want, he must decide what the future holds for him and act accordingly. 
Can their mentor Joe Leaphorn—a man also looking at the past for answers to the future—provide the guidance both Bernie and Chee need? And will the Navajo heroes that stud the starry sky help them find justice—and the truth they seek?

My Review:

It’s not exactly a surprise – or a spoiler – for a mystery to open with the discovery of a dead body. But when that discovery is immediately followed by a voluntary confession to a circumstance that the police haven’t yet even determined is a homicide, well, that is kind of a surprise.

Although in real life the police would probably be thrilled to have a case wrapped up so neatly and tied with such a pretty bow, in mystery fiction that easy resolution could end the book – with 300+ pages or so left to fill.

So, the reader is pretty sure that there must be more to this story from the very beginning. Luckily, so is Officer Bernadette Manuelito of the Navajo Police. Once upon a time, when Bernie was in college, she and the confessed murderer were roommates, while the victim was the bilagaana lover who whisked her friend off to Hawaii for marriage, a son, and a later breakup.

It’s not that Bernie can’t imagine that her once-friend isn’t capable of murder, because after ten years on the force she knows too well that every person is capable of killing someone in the right – or wrong – circumstance. But THIS murder doesn’t match the person she knew.

Particularly as the confession is a bit threadbare, to say the least. The supposed murderer isn’t saying much of anything about either how or why – and the circumstances just don’t add up. But the circumstances do conspire to keep Bernie on the case, even though the crime was not committed on Navajo land and therefore not in Bernie’s jurisdiction.

She’s, not happy about driving back and forth the four hours between Shiprock and the county sheriff’s office in Socorro but she is more than a bit relieved to get away from her substation, where her husband, Sergeant Jim Chee, is currently also serving as the supervisor – and Bernie’s temporary boss.

Bernie and Chee need their captain to get back from his meetings in Window Rock before their marriage suffers any more stress than is normal for two cops married to each other. And Bernie wants to make sure that she does right by her old friend.

The more times that Bernie makes that long drive, the more certain she is that her friend’s convenient but threadbare confession doesn’t hold up to any examination whatsoever. But if the woman won’t help herself and tell the police – and Bernie – something, ANYTHING to make the whole thing make sense, the system is going to grind her under and spit her into prison whether she deserves it or not.

It’s up to Bernie to find the answers – to the crime, to her marriage, to her relationship with her mother and even to the future of her own career – on those long, solitary drives before it’s too late to fix any of the messes that she’s stuck in the middle of.

Escape Rating B+: I read this series because it’s a comfort read. It’s been a comfort read for decades at this point, as I started the series back in the 1990s when I had a really long car commute, and the then Leaphorn & Chee series written by the author’s father was one of the few things available in audiobook at my library. What a long, strange trip it’s been!

So I know and love these characters, and visiting them again is as comfortable as a warm pair of slippers – even if the case they end up investigating turns out to be considerably less warm and fuzzy. This week, when I wasn’t feeling all that great, I found myself searching out comfort reads – and lo and behold, here’s Bernie Manuelito, her husband the Cheeseburger, and the Legendary Lieutenant Leaphorn to see me through.

There are two threads to this story. The primary thread, of course, is the case. The second thread is the part where this being an ongoing series comes into play, as Bernie, Chee and even Leaphorn are all facing decision points, whether large or small, in their lives.

The case, although it’s a twisted mess, is the easy part. Or the easy-er part, anyway. It’s fairly obvious from the beginning that the confession doesn’t really solve anything. Partly because the book would end at that point if it were correct, but mostly because it doesn’t make sense, whether to Bernie or to the reader.

There’s no there, there. To the point where it was obvious, at least to this reader, that the woman confessed in order to protect someone else. The questions then become who is she protecting and why is she protecting that person? The protection was, as I said, obvious, but the who and the why weren’t nearly as obvious as they seemed. I bit down on that red herring pretty hard and didn’t manage to extract myself until close to the point where Bernie extracted herself.

And even then I was half right after all, making the mystery of this entry in the series not quite mysterious enough.

The parts of the story that deal with the life-decisions that the characters have to face were much more interesting – at least to this long-time reader of the series. Leaphorn’s decision isn’t all that earth-shattering, but Chee and Bernie are on the horns of some pretty big dilemmas, both together and separately.

It’s always Bernie’s decisions that interest me the most, because she’s the point of departure from the original series. And because she faces conflicts that neither of the men will ever have to. Bernie’s caught between her career, her marriage, and her love of and duty towards her aging mother. All of her decisions are hard, and they all impact each other, because they face in different directions.

So I love this series. Sometimes for the mystery, sometimes just to keep up with these beloved characters and their lives. Often a bit of both. I’m looking forward to my next visit to Four Corners, hopefully this time next year. And if you’re looking for a fresh take on a well-loved series, you can get hooked back into these characters and this place in Spider Woman’s Daughter, the marvelous mystery where the author picked up the threads that her father dropped and made them her own.

Review: A Rogue’s Company by Allison Montclair

Review: A Rogue’s Company by Allison MontclairA Rogue's Company (Sparks & Bainbridge Mystery, #3) by Allison Montclair
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Sparks & Bainbridge #3
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on June 8, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In Allison Monclair's A Rogue's Company, business becomes personal for the Right Sort Marriage Bureau when a new client, a brutal murder, two kidnappings, and the recently returned from Africa Lord Bainbridge threatens everything that one of the principals holds dear.
In London, 1946, the Right Sort Marriage Bureau is getting on its feet and expanding. Miss Iris Sparks and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge are making a go of it. That is until Lord Bainbridge—the widowed Gwen's father-in-law and legal guardian—returns from a business trip to Africa and threatens to undo everything important to her, even sending her six-year-old son away to a boarding school.
But there's more going on than that. A new client shows up at the agency, one whom Sparks and Bainbridge begin to suspect really has a secret agenda, somehow involving the Bainbridge family. A murder and a subsequent kidnapping sends Sparks to seek help from a dangerous quarter—and now their very survival is at stake.

My Review:

I’ve just realized that the title is a pun – or a spoiler, take your pick – on multiple levels. Iris Sparks, co-owner of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau, is keeping company with Archie Spelling, a known gangster. Quite willingly and fairly often.

Gwen Bainbridge, her friend and co-owner of the agency, very much on the other hand, has been forced to keep company with a gang of rogues because they’ve kidnapped her while she was in the unfortunate company – and unfortunately in the company – of her douchecanoe of a father-in-law, Lord Harold Bainbridge.

That Harold is a complete and utter rotter is not a spoiler at all. I think I rage-read the first half of this book because Harold’s douchecanoe nature and general all-around misogynistic asshattery is on display from practically the first page of the book.

I hated not just every scene the man was in but every time Gwen was forced to deal with the power the man had over Gwen’s – and every other person in the household’s – life. A power that he indulged to a disgusting degree at every possible turn as well as at plenty of turns that one wouldn’t have thought were possible, if only because he was willing to insult and demean everyone except his cronies in front of any audience at all. Going completely against that whole idea that one didn’t air one’s dirty linen in public.

Harold has power over Gwen because he had Gwen declared mentally incompetent when she was unable to maintain the proper British stiff-upper-lip in the face of her husband’s (Harold’s son’s) death during the late war. Along with that declaration, Harold captured custody of Gwen, her son Ronnie (his grandson) and all of the shares in Bainbridge Ltd., that his son left to his wife in his will.

And thereby hangs a good chunk of the tale. For Gwen, it’s all about little Ronnie, and not letting Harold send her 6-year-old boy off to the boarding school that his father hated and that turned his grandfather into the disgusting, overbearing ass that he became.

As Gwen grabs hold of her courage and her will and begins to finally fight back, she – with the aiding, abetting and more-than-able assistance of her partner Iris – puts her very superior brain to work to figure out what’s behind her consignment to her father-in-law’s clutches, along with exactly what’s behind his consignment to the clutches of his (their) kidnappers.

It’ll be the making of Gwen – if she survives. Even if calling in favors from her friendly neighborhood gangster puts Iris’ future happiness at risk.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up because I loved the first two books in this series, The Right Sort of Man and A Royal Affair. In the end, I loved this one too, but not as much as the first two because, well, see my comments about rage-reading the first half located above.

I’m starting to think I’m just allergic to stories that feature women caught in impossible situations because men are entitled assholes whether the jerks in question are actually titled or not. Gwen Bainbridge’s situation has always been a bit precarious vis a vis her titled, overbearing, petty dictator of a father-in-law, because he’s always held the whip hand in their relationship and seems to enjoy using it. Her husband – his son – died in the war and Gwen’s mourning of him did not exactly exhibit the stiff upper lip that Brits are known for. She was labeled as a “hysteric” and placed under the guardianship of her late husband’s family. Under the thumb of her father-in-law who threatens and demeans every single person with whom he comes in contact at every possible turn – including his grandson, Gwen’s 6-year-old son Ronnie. The dinner party scene with the toasts was particularly horrific in this regard – but it was just the latest in a continuing line of horrors in that household.

It’s not a surprise that both Sparks and Bainbridge, along with nearly every other person who comes into contact with the man, wants to commit some kind of mayhem upon his odious person. It’s only a surprise that it didn’t happen sooner – and more often.

I’m going to try to stop ranting now. It’s more difficult than I thought it would be. Gwen’s asshat-in-law has the same name as my ex-husband, so there might be a teensy bit of transference going on here.

Moving right along…

This story isn’t about Gwen’s family troubles, although it certainly is about families, and troubles, and the trouble that we will put ourselves through for our families – or at least for the members of our family that we love.

Because the other half of this story starts out with a bit of a dilemma for Gwen and Iris. They have a new client – well of course they do, that’s the whole raison d’etre of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau after all. But their new client causes them to question a whole host of assumptions that they both had when they began their enterprise.

Their new client, Simon Daile, is African. Not a Brit who has gone to Africa to make a fortune – like the odious Lord Bainbridge – but a man from Africa who came to England to study agriculture and got stuck there during the war. He’s the first black client the agency has had, and they are surprised. Then they are surprised that they are surprised.

And finally, they figure out that they’ve been missing out on clients because they assumed that all their clients would be just like themselves. White. And that they need to throw their assumptions out the window, no matter how comfortable clinging to them might have been.

Their bit of soul searching feels like it’s handled reasonably well, at least right up until the point where Gwen’s bit of sixth sense about when people are lying to her kicks in. Because Mr. Daile is lying about something. Or she thinks he is. And she’s afraid that her intuition has gone off or is leading her astray because she’s uncomfortable. Which is logical, merely incorrect in this case. Also, that she’s just second-guessing herself because Lord Bainbridge does nothing but try his worst to make her feel small, incapable and lacking in pretty much everything at every turn.

(Speaking of comfort, my soapbox is apparently a bit too comfortable. Moving right along AGAIN…)

It turns out that she’s both right and wrong, and that the wrongness ties into the mystery genre’s convention about coincidences. There are two threads to this story, Mr. Daile and the kidnapping of Lord Bainbridge and Gwen. Those threads connect – just not in any of the ways that Gwen – or the reader – might have initially suspected..

And Gwen rescues herself. Not just from the kidnapping, but from Lord Bainbridge. And it’s glorious! Now that she’s gotten THAT albatross off from around her neck. I have really high hopes for future books in this series! Meanwhile, I’m going to take a look at The Haunting of the Desks, a short story in the series that looks like oodles of fun!

Review: Her Scottish Scoundrel by Sophie Barnes + Giveaway

Review: Her Scottish Scoundrel by Sophie Barnes + GiveawayHer Scottish Scoundrel (Diamonds in the Rough, #7) by Sophie Barnes
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Series: Diamonds in the Rough #7
Pages: 424
Published by Sophie Barnes on May 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Destined for the hangman's noose, love is a dream he cannot afford to have...
When Blayne MacNeil agrees to be Miss Charlotte Russell's bodyguard, he doesn't expect her to expand the job description to fake fiancé. After twenty years in hiding, announcing his engagement to a viscount's daughter could prove fatal. For if anyone were to recognize him, he'd be charged with murder.
Determined to keep her independence in order to safeguard her writing career, Charlotte must avoid marriage. After all, no respectable gentleman would ever permit his wife to pen outrageous adventure novels. But when her most recent manuscript disappears, the roguish Scotsman posing as her fiancé becomes her closest ally—and the greatest threat to her freedom.

My Review:

I picked this up because I fell in love with this series all the way back at its very beginning, with A Most Unlikely Duke. Because he was, and because the way that story worked was just lovely.

I’ve stuck with the series because I’ve enjoyed every single one of these unsuitable romances, admittedly some more than others as is generally the case with a series that is 8 books and happily counting.

Or at least I’m happily counting, and I’m sure that other readers are too.

What makes this series so much fun in general, and this entry in particular, is that all of the matches that occur are not just unlikely, but are completely unsuitable and generally downright scandalous into the bargain. And that the reason for the unlikeliness, unsuitability and scandalousness shifts and changes from one story to the next and from the spear side (male) to the distaff side (female) and back again as the series continues.

(I had to look up just what the opposite of “distaff” actually was.)

The other thing that makes these so fascinating, and something that was a big part of this particular story, is that the women have agency in an era when we didn’t used to expect that in a romance, and, even better, that their agency feels at least plausible – if not necessarily likely – for their time and place.

BUT, and this is a huge but that provides a lot of both realism and tension, their agency is always precarious, even if they aren’t necessarily aware of it. They have agency at the sufferance, benign neglect or downright absence of their fathers. And that agency can be taken away at any point.

That’s what happens in this particular story. Now in her late – very late – 20s, Charlotte Russell is very firmly on the shelf. She’s happy with that fate, and believes that her parents are resigned to it. Charlotte, because of her on-the-shelf designation, has a fair bit of freedom, and she has used that freedom to become a best-selling author of the slightly scandalous adventures of a rakehell spy.

Of course, those stories are written under a male nom-de-plume, and published by a friend who owns a small publishing company. Keeping her secret is of paramount importance to Charlotte, as the scandal that would result from her exposure would taint not just her own non-existent chances of marriage but also her parents’ reputation in society as well as that of her two sisters and their husbands.

And it would absolutely kill sales of her books, which she is counting on to secure her own freedom.

But everything Charlotte believes about her life and her parents’ acceptance of it all goes down the drain when her father announces that he’s invited an American businessman to London to not just meet her but to marry her, will she or nil.

In response to being essentially bought and sold, Charlotte makes an arrangement with the entirely unsuitable owner of a dangerous pub and boxing establishment in the East End to be her bodyguard and fake fiance. Not that she’s consulted him about the second part of the arrangement before she springs it on him in front of her parents!

So Charlotte Russell finds that she was always much less free than she thought. She has no idea that Blayne MacNeil is much more unsuitable than she believed.

And neither of them expects to fall in love.

Escape Rating B+: What made this story for me was, honestly, Charlotte. Because she wants the same two things that many of us still want – love and purpose. And she’s honest enough with herself to understand that those two desires may lie in opposition to each other.

Not that fulfillment through marriage and children is not a noble or worthwhile purpose, but it isn’t Charlotte’s purpose. Her dream is to write, and she is aware that in order to be free to achieve that dream she’ll most likely have to be a spinster. And she’s okay with that choice.

Her parents don’t know about her writing, because it’s too scandalous to reveal, and don’t understand or don’t care that she is willing to quietly flout societal expectations in order to make her own way in the world.

Her mother, honestly, just wants what’s best for her and isn’t able to make that leap that what most people think is best just isn’t what is best for Charlotte. But her father doesn’t care what Charlotte wants and further doesn’t care that he initially treated her as a son because he didn’t have any, and his expectation that she will now be obedient like a daughter is supposed to be is more than a bit shortsighted.

And he needs the money that her marriage to the American businessman will bring – because he screwed up the family finances – and can’t bring himself to give a damn about any dissenting voices from anyone.

Charlotte’s crisis is that she just didn’t see how easily all of her freedom could be taken away if she didn’t tow the line. That diminishing of freedom diminishes her spirit and in turn, herself.

Where Blayne gets himself in trouble is that he can’t bear to watch that diminishment, no matter how dangerous it makes his own situation. And it IS dangerous. Because he is not what he seems.

This is a big part of the reason that this entire series reminds me of the Maiden Lane series by Elizabeth Hoyt, in that many of the characters either live and work on the wrong side of the law abiding fence or are caught in criminal circumstances not of their own making. In Blayne’s case it’s both.

And the resolution of that part of the scenario was a bit of a surprise. It’s not a surprise that Blayne and Charlotte manage, in spite of several rather desperate circumstances, their HEA, because this is after all a romance and they’re supposed to reach it. What’s surprising is the way it’s achieved.

Blayne has to choose between being right and being happy. In real life that can be a harder choice than it ought to be, and it’s not easy here, either. But it makes that ending very much earned.

Diamonds in the Rough will be back later this year when The Dishonored Viscount (of course through no fault of his own!) makes his own way to his own kind of honor – and falls in love along the way.

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Review: Stealing from Mr. Rich by Anna Hackett

Review: Stealing from Mr. Rich by Anna HackettStealing from Mr. Rich (Billionaire Heists #1) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic suspense
Series: Billionaire Heists #1
Pages: 286
Published by Anna Hackett on May 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
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To save my brother, all I have to do is steal from a billionaire.
My brother is in trouble. Again. But this time he’s in debt to some really bad people, and I’ll do anything to save him. Even be blackmailed into cracking an unbreakable safe belonging to the most gorgeous man in New York. And one of the richest.
Steal from Zane Roth—King of Wall Street and one of the famous billionaire bachelors of New York—sure thing, piece of cake.
You see, some people can play the piano, but I can play safes. My father is a thief, safecracker extraordinaire, and a criminal. He also taught me everything he knows. I’ve spent my entire life trying not to be him. I own my own business, pay my taxes, and I don’t break the law. Ever.
Now I have to smash every one of my rules, break into a billionaire’s penthouse, and steal a million-dollar necklace.
What I never expected was to find myself face to face with Zane. Tall, dark, handsome, and oh-so-rich Zane. He’s also smart, and he knows I’m up to something.
And he’s vowed to find out.

My Review:

On the surface, the first meeting between billionaire Zane Roth and “Lady Locksmith” Monroe O’Connor reads like a slapstick version of a meet-hot-and-cute with more than a touch of the movie Maid in Manhattan.

Unlike the movie, Monroe is only pretending to be a maid, while Zane is a bit too naked to be on his way out to walk anybody’s dog. (And I’m so tempted to keep this joke going, but it’s going to hit the gutter really fast. Sorry, not sorry)

Monroe is in Zane’s apartment to “case the joint” so that she can steal a priceless piece of jewelry as ransom for her not-as-mature-as-he-ought-to-be younger brother, who made the mistake of gambling with the Russian Mafia. Literally. Stupidly. And entirely too typically for Maguire O’Connor.

So Monroe is going to have to break into an unbreakable safe that’s hidden in the penthouse of one of the richest men in New York, break every vow she’s made to herself to stay on the straight and narrow and not follow in her daddy’s criminal footsteps in order to save Mags. Again. From his own idiocy.

But those moments of slippery slapstick on the floor of Zane’s penthouse shower are the most fun and the best sexytimes that either of them have had in weeks, months, possibly even years. Which means that even though Zane learns that Monroe shouldn’t be trusted, and even though Monroe knows that the only ending to their instant flirtation is either a pair of broken hearts or her brother’s broken body, she can’t resist trying to have the little bit of Zane that she thinks she can have.

Neither Zane nor Monroe figure out that they’re playing for even higher stakes than the Russian Mafia. And that they are both already all in.

Escape Rating B+: I enjoyed Stealing from Mr. Rich more than I expected after reading the blurb. That’s partly because there were parts of the description that reminded me a bit too much of the parts of the Norcross Security series that I had some trouble with. In that series, it seemed like the heroines were much too re-active and didn’t have nearly enough agency. There was often a creeptastic element in that series where the villains were sexual predators who intended to add the heroines to their “collections”, whether that was part of the initial evil plot or not.

One of the things I liked about Monroe and her story is that it was all strictly business from the villains’ point of view. Not that there weren’t some disgusting dudes along the way, but the big bads are strictly business. Mags owes them money, Monroe has a skill that they can use to get her to do their dirty work for them, and there’s nothing about their deal that expects Monroe to do any of her work for them on her back. So I enjoyed Monroe’s story – and Monroe’s first person perspective – all the more because she’s actively pursuing a solution to her problem that doesn’t require a rescue and she never loses her agency while she works – however reluctantly – to win her brother’s freedom.

Something else that happened in this story is wrapped around the way that books often remind me of, of course, other books. Like the way that The Specialist, my favorite book in the Norcross Security series, reminded me of Rock Hard, another big favorite.

So it’s not actually a surprise that another interesting thing I realized about this story has to do with my love of J.D. Robb’s In Death series. Whenever a romance features a billionaire, I kind of expect to see someone either very like Roarke or his direct opposite. Like him if it’s the hero, the opposite if it’s the villain.

I am not digressing, I swear.

Zane and Monroe are both Roarke, or Roarke if he’s split into two characters. Zane is the self-made billionaire who gives megabucks to charity, plays the part he has to play while keeping his real self separate, has created a circle of real friends to rely on, knows how to take care of himself in a fight – and is, of course, devilishly handsome.

Monroe is the child of a thief and a conman who has done her best to distance herself from her dad’s criminal ways, but has used the skills he taught her to create a business and make both a living and a difference. People keep trying to drag her back into the muck, but she keeps right on fighting to get out. And has also created a circle of real friends she can rely on – even if she has a difficult time trusting that other people will be there for her.

And all of that is also Roarke, so it’s inevitable that these two parts of a whole will find each other and be drawn together like iron filings to a magnet.

That both Zane and Monroe have SERIOUS trust issues – with good reason – both gives them a lot in common and pulls them apart on a regular basis. After all, they meet because she’s planning to rob him. That’s not exactly a scenario that builds trust.

Neither of them is all that good at relying on others – or on anyone at all outside a tiny, trusted circle. They shouldn’t reach out to each other – and they especially shouldn’t hold on to each other. That they do it anyway, in spite of all the voices on both the inside and the outside saying that they shouldn’t, is what gives this story its zing and its spark.

Although the naked slapstick start sure didn’t hurt – AT ALL!

Review: The Lady Has a Past by Amanda Quick

Review: The Lady Has a Past by Amanda QuickThe Lady Has a Past (Burning Cove #5) by Amanda Quick
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, paranormal, romantic suspense
Series: Burning Cove #5
Pages: 352
Published by Berkley on May 4, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Beauty and glamour meet deception and revenge in this electrifying novel by New York Times bestselling author Amanda Quick.
Investigative apprentice Lyra Brazier, the newest resident of Burning Cove, is unsettled when her boss suddenly goes on a health retreat at an exclusive spa and disappears without another word. Lyra knows something has happened to Raina Kirk, and she is the only one who can track her down. The health spa is known for its luxurious offerings and prestigious clientele, and the wealthy, socialite background Lyra desperately wanted to leave behind is perfect for this undercover job. The agency brings in a partner and bodyguard for her, but she doesn't get the suave, pistol-packing private eye she expected.
Simon Cage is a mild-mannered antiquarian book dealer with a quiet, academic air, and Lyra can't figure out why he was chosen as her partner. But it soon becomes clear when they arrive at the spa and pose as a couple: Simon has a unique gift that allows him to detect secrets, a skill that is crucial in finding Raina.
The unlikely duo falls down a rabbit hole of twisted rumors and missing socialites, discovering that the health spa is a façade for something far darker than they imagined. With a murderer in their midst, Raina isn't the only one in grave danger—Lyra is next.

My Review:

All the ladies in this story have a past. Honestly, all the ladies in every Amanda Quick/Jayne Ann Krentz/Jayne Castle story have a past. It makes them all that much more interesting to read about – and just that much more fascinating for the heroes who oh-so-frequently come to rescue them – but generally end up fighting right alongside them.

Raina Kirk, who becomes the focus of the investigation rather than the heroine of this particular story, very definitely has a dark and dangerous past. A past that her lover Luther Pell –  hotel and casino owner and occasional government secret agent – thought he knew about.

But when that past reaches out and snatches Raina, Luther discovers that he didn’t know as much as he thought he did. He is, however, smart enough to know that as much as he wants to rush in guns blazing, that he’s a bit too close to the case – and more than a bit too high profile – to investigate Raina’s disappearance without tipping all the cards.

That’s where Simon Cage and Lyra Brazier come in.

Raina’s last known location was a luxurious and exclusive – read that as expensive – deluxe hotel, health spa and over-the-top beauty emporium. All done up in shades – and scents – of the exclusive violet perfume that the beauty products maven Madam Guppy has created as her signature perfume.

But that nearly overpowering smell of violets is covering up something rotten. It’s up to Simon and Lyra to get to the bottom of the stink and rescue Raina – before the poison miasma that surrounds the entire enterprise drags them under.

Escape Rating B+: This is the fifth book in the author’s Burning Cove paranormal historical romantic suspense series. (I dare you to try and say THAT three times fast!)

While it does tie in a bit with the previous books in the series, (which begins with The Girl Who Knew Too Much), and offers plenty of hints that it is somewhere in the recesses of the Arcane Society that the author invented as Quick, continued into the 20th and 21st centuries as Krentz and shipped out to the stars as Castle.

However, those are hints only, providing a smile for the reader if you’re in the know but not spoiling the enjoyment if you don’t. Although the entire collective series is wonderful and would make a great reading binge if you have not already indulged.

This would also be a plausible place to begin in Burning Cove, as Simon and Lyra are new to the place and the series in this volume, while we haven’t ever exactly seen Raina and Luther’s romance and probably won’t see it in full. They are VERY private people with extremely murky pasts.

But this story is about the pasts of all of the “ladies” that it touches upon. The case begins with the unrevealed parts of Raina’s already shady past but the real focus is on Lyra’s past and her present.

It’s between the wars, the Roaring 20s, and a time when young women had a bit more freedom than previous generations – especially wealthy young women such as Lyra. She’s not exactly running away, more like walking away swiftly and deliberately from a purely decorative life that did not suit her – while heading towards a life filled with both purpose and adventure – if she can just figure out exactly what that would be.

And one of the things that I love about anything tied to the Arcane Society, however tangentially as Burning Cove seems to be, is the way that the heroines are either forced to or decide to ignore the restrictions placed on women in every time period – at least so far – and live the lives they choose – damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead – even with the not-so-occasionally forced step back.

Something that this particular story displays in abundance is the way that Lyra insists on taking charge of her own life and her own talents. Simon wants to protect her – increasingly so and in spite of himself – but ends up acknowledging that while she is differently talented she is equally talented. They make good partners – in investigation, in adventure and in romance.

It will take both of them, and both of their talents, to get to the bottom of this messy, misdirected and multi-layered case. It begins with a missing person, but the trail of bodies, living and dead, leads to some very dark places hidden in the shadows of the once – and future – war. Which is perfect, at least story-wise, because it means that there will be more to come in this terrific series!

Review: Peaches and Schemes by Anna Gerard + Giveaway

Review: Peaches and Schemes by Anna Gerard + GiveawayPeaches and Schemes: A Georgia B&B Mystery by Anna Gerard
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Georgia B&B #3
Pages: 304
Published by Crooked Lane Books on May 11, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Anna Gerard's third delightful Georgia B&B mystery, Nina Fleet learns that despite the satin, lace, and buttercream trappings, weddings often prove to be anything but sweet...
Undeterred by the handful of hiccups she's had with her bed and breakfast in the small tourist town of Cymbeline, Georgia, Nina Fleet has her pedal to the medal to make her inn the best it can be with her trusty Australian Shepherd, Matilda. Looking for potential new guests, Nina takes a booth at the annual Veils and Vanities Bridal Expo, put on by the town's two wedding pros: Virgie Hamilton, retirement-aged dress shop owner, and Roxanna Query, a Gen X event planner and Nina's new friend. But everything goes wrong when Roxanna comes tumbling out of an oversized prop wedding cake, strangled to death by a scarf.
Virgie is immediately arrested for the crime, having been overheard accusing her partner of embezzlement. Nina is incensed to believe Roxanna's denials from the argument since Virgie has a relationship for burning bridges. Meanwhile, Nina's sometimes nemesis and current tenant Harry Westcott informs Nina that her lousy ex-husband is engaged to be married again. Unable to wrap her mind around the news, and incensed by her friend's murder, she goes to do the very least she can: rescue Roxanna's now ownerless dog. But when she does to Roxanna's house, the place is ransacked.
Virgie's been in custody this whole time, without enough time to have made the scene since Roxanna left her house. The police have the wrong man, but when he's released from custody, he immediately disappears, and Nina is convinced it's more than a case of skipping bail. That's when she finds on her front gate a scarf identical to the one on Roxanna's neck when she died. A warning? Now Nina fears that if she can't find Virgie, tying the knot will take on a whole new meaning just for her.

My Review:

I have to say that Cymbeline Georgia is growing on me with every book in this series – but I still miss the nuns from Peach Clobbered. They were definitely something special and I’m still hoping for a return visit.

Even if the homicide rate is approaching that of Cabot Cove, Maine.

The murder that kicks of this particular installment of “as the bodies drop” takes place in a scene that is often fraught with high drama – even if in this case the drama inducement is a bit of by proxy.

I’m referring to weddings. Tensions often run high at weddings, whether on the part of the couple getting married, their respective families, the audience, or all of the above. The stakes feel so high and so many people want to get everything perfect on this special day. But there are plenty of ways that things can go wrong, and so many people are so stressed that its easy for even the littlest things to get blown out of proportion.

The wedding business, therefore, is a business of high stakes and high drama. So it’s not all that surprising that Nina Fleet, owner of the Fleet House Bed and Breakfast, hears not one but two threatening “conversations” between one of the organizers of the local wedding convention and various participants in the event said organizer organized.

But the stakes get higher when the corpse of one of the participants in those conversations spills out of a fake cake at the end of the bridal fashion show in front of an audience expecting to see the latest in bridal creations and not the town’s most recent corpse.

Nina can’t help getting involved this time – not that ever can. The victim was a close friend, while the suspected murderer – as argumentative as the woman ALWAYS is – just plain didn’t have the physical strength to strangle someone with their own scarf. Especially considering that the scarf tripped her Trypophobia.

The cops aren’t quite ready to believe they’ve got it wrong – but someone sure thinks that Nina is on the right track – and keeps trying to run her over with their car to prove it. The question is who – along with why. And how many “shots” at Nina will they get to take before Nina finally puts the pieces together.

Escape Rating B+: Part of the charm of this series – and it certainly is charming – is in the cast of characters and the setting the author has created to contain them and their murderous ways.

Well, not their murderous ways exactly. So far, at least, when Nina puts on her “Secret Squirrel” hat and starts looking into something she has no business investigating, both the victim and the murderer inevitably turn out to be people who are new in town – or new back in town. Nina and her cast of friends and regulars may occasionally be suspects but they’re never the guilty party.

And that’s the way it should be in a cozy mystery series.

But there’s one continuing character in this series who, while not generally a murder suspect, is usually suspected of being up to something, and this entry in the series is no exception.

Nina Fleet and Harry Westcott have been the best of frenemies since Peach Clobbered, when Harry rode into town on a tour bus dressed as Harvey, the 6’ tall white rabbit, claiming that he was the true owner of the home that Nina had just converted into a B&B. Harry is now living at Fleet House, in the high turret he used to occupy when his great-aunt owned the place. Nina and Harry aren’t exactly friends, aren’t exactly enemies, and certainly aren’t lovers, but they have come to rely on and depend upon each other in a way that makes both of them more than a bit uneasy.

They care about each other but they don’t exactly trust each other. They can’t resist sniping at each other about their true motivations for continuing to look out for each other. Neither of them is ready for any kind of a relationship and neither of them is quite willing to let go.

So they end up as partners in crime and the solving of it more often than not. I hope the resolution of whatever they are going to be to each other takes a long time because it’s fun to watch them spark and snipe.

Reading Nina’s latest adventure, I also can’t help but think that Nina Fleet and Charlie Harris, the increasingly less amateur detective of the Cat in the Stacks series, would get along like a house on fire, comparing notes on how they each got into being amateur detectives in their small Southern towns, and just how often they’ve each promised local law enforcement to keep their inquisitive noses out of police business – only to break that promise as soon as the case starts to hit too close to home. As small as both Cymbeline GA and Athena MS are, it’s all too easy for that to happen in blink of an eye.

As it does in Peaches and Schemes, much to my reading enjoyment. I had a great time visiting Cymbeline again and I’m looking forward to Nina’s next case. But I still miss those nuns!

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Review: The Stills by Jess Montgomery + Giveaway

Review: The Stills by Jess Montgomery + GiveawayThe Stills (Kinship #3) by Jess Montgomery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Kinship #3
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on March 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

With compassion and insight, Jess Montgomery weaves a gripping mystery and portrait of community in The Stills, the powerful third novel in the Kinship series.
Ohio, 1927: Moonshining is a way of life in rural Bronwyn County, and even the otherwise upstanding Sheriff Lily Ross has been known to turn a blind eye when it comes to stills in the area. But when thirteen-year-old Jebediah Ranklin almost dies after drinking tainted moonshine, Lily knows that someone has gone too far, and—with the help of organizer and moonshiner Marvena Whitcomb—is determined to find out who.
But then, Lily’s nemesis, the businessman George Vogel, reappears in town with his new wife, Fiona. Along with them is also her former brother-in-law Luther Ross, now an agent for the newly formed Bureau of Prohibition. To Lily, it seems too much of a coincidence that they should arrive now.
As fall turns to winter, a blizzard closes in. Lily starts to peel back the layers of deception shrouding the town of Kinship, but soon she discovers that many around her seem to be betraying those they hold dear—and that Fiona too may have an agenda of her own.

My Review:

I picked up The Stills for two reasons. One, because I read the second book in the Kinship series, The Hollows, and was absolutely fascinated with this fictional portrait of a female sheriff in rural southeastern Ohio in the 1920s. A time and a place where the last thing that a reader – or a resident – would expect is that the hand of local law enforcement belongs to a woman. Or that the fictional Sheriff Ross is based on a real historical figure, Maude Collins of Vinton County, Ohio.

The second reason is that Prohibition is a singularly fascinating failure in American history. It is almost a textbook case for the road to hell being paved with good intentions. The concept was laudable, but the result was a disaster. One that we seem to have learned few lessons from.

Those two fascinations combine in The Stills. It’s the winter of 1926. Even before the Great Depression, that part of Ohio was economically depressed, as it has been historically. What is not well known outside of the area is that this particular part of Ohio is considerably more a part of Appalachia than it is the city and suburban Midwest that are typically thought of when Ohio is mentioned.

Which meant, at least in the 1920s and probably a whole lot longer, that in spite of Prohibition the making of moonshine was still a part of the local culture AND the local economy.

The story of The Stills is wrapped around two women. Sheriff Lily Ross, who stayed in Kinship, married, was widowed, took over from her late husband as sheriff and was elected in her own right at the end of The Hollows. Lily, a strong, resolute and pragmatic woman – also a good shot and a grown-up tomboy – is surrounded by a whole phalanx of women as strong as herself who all support her the best they can – which is generally quite well indeed.

On the other side of the story is Fiona Vogel. Fiona was also born in Kinship, but she left for the bright lights and big city charms of Cincinnati. On the surface at least, Fiona is a more traditional example of what women are supposed to be. Under that demure exterior lies a woman who knows that she has shackled herself to a criminal. A man that she is determined to get the best of and get away from before he “takes care” of her the way he has so many others who got in his way.

Fiona is the opposite to Lily in another way. Where Lily is surrounded by a group of friends who stand beside her, a group that is mostly but not entirely female, Fiona is nearly imprisoned by a group of enemies, mostly but not completely male. All of whom are out to subjugate her in as many ways as possible if not just kill her outright.

The Stills of the title are, quite literally, stills. Moonshine stills. It’s about the lengths – and depths – that one man will go to in order to control them and the illegal trade they represent. It’s about the collateral damage that became the wreck by the side of Prohibition’s good-intention paved road to hell.

And it’s the story of one female sheriff doing her very best to follow the law, appease her conscience – and protect those she holds dear.

Escape Rating B+: Where the previous book in the series, The Hollows, wrapped itself around three perspectives – Lily and her friends Marvena and Hildy – The Stills only follows two of its primary characters, Lily and her “opposite”, Fiona.

And as much as Hildy’s dithering and everyone else dithering about Hildy drove me crazy in The Hollows, I have to say that I liked Fiona’s perspectives even less. I would have been a much happier reader if the entire story was told from Lily’s point-of-view, leaving the inner workings of Fiona’s rather twisted mind to be revealed along with the rest of the plot.

Some of which turned out to be Fiona’s own convoluted plot to get rid of her bastard of a husband in order to get control of not just her life but both his legal AND illegal empires. Fiona is a victim who looks like she’s going to perpetuate the cycle. She may begin as a victim but by the end she’s on her way to becoming a perpetrator and I’d rather not have been near her head.

Lily, on the other hand, does an excellent job of, well, her job, but also of being a female character who is both true to her time AND has the kind of agency that makes her perspective dynamic to follow as well as making her easy for 21st century readers to empathize with.

And I definitely did.

I also liked that Lily might be developing a romantic relationship, but that she is taking it very, very slowly, is cognizant of everything that is at risk both personally and professionally, and is very careful about balancing the professional life that she loves – even though she’s not supposed to even have it – with the possibility of falling in love again. Those hesitant thoughts, the stop and start of possibility versus caution, feel very real.

This series, at least so far, combines historical fiction with mystery in a way that brings the historical period to life and provides a background that makes the mystery feel like it is grounded in its time, place, and characters. While I haven’t read the first book, The Widows, this does feel like a series where the individual books can be read as standalone, while creating a deeper story for those who have followed Lily’s adventures from the beginning.

This entry in the series makes it clear that Lily has plenty of sheriffing to do in the future. And I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next!

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

I’m giving away a copy of The Stills to one very lucky US commenter on this tour!

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Review: Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert

Review: Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia HibbertAct Your Age, Eve Brown (The Brown Sisters, #3) by Talia Hibbert
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Brown Sisters #3
Pages: 400
Published by Avon on March 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Act Your Age, Eve Brown the flightiest Brown sister crashes into the life of an uptight B&B owner and has him falling hard—literally.
Eve Brown is a certified hot mess. No matter how hard she strives to do right, her life always goes horribly wrong—so she’s given up trying. But when her personal brand of chaos ruins an expensive wedding (someone had to liberate those poor doves), her parents draw the line. It's time for Eve to grow up and prove herself—even though she's not entirely sure how…
Jacob Wayne is in control. Always. The bed and breakfast owner’s on a mission to dominate the hospitality industry—and he expects nothing less than perfection. So when a purple-haired tornado of a woman turns up out of the blue to interview for his open chef position, he tells her the brutal truth: not a chance in hell. Then she hits him with her car—supposedly by accident. Yeah, right.
Now his arm is broken, his B&B is understaffed, and the dangerously unpredictable Eve is fluttering around, trying to help. Before long, she’s infiltrated his work, his kitchen—and his spare bedroom. Jacob hates everything about it. Or rather, he should. Sunny, chaotic Eve is his natural-born nemesis, but the longer these two enemies spend in close quarters, the more their animosity turns into something else. Like Eve, the heat between them is impossible to ignore—and it’s melting Jacob’s frosty exterior.

My Review:

At the tail end of 2020, I was in a rather desperate mood for stories with happy endings – so I scheduled an entire week of romances. Two of those romances were the first two books in the Brown Sisters trilogy, Get a Life, Chloe Brown and Take a Hint, Dani Brown. Both of them turned out to be exactly what I was looking for that week, contemporary romances with a bit of bite and more than a bit of depth, and with absolutely marvelous and hard won happy endings.

But the series is a trilogy, because there are not one, not two, but three Brown Sisters. Now it’s time for the third and youngest of the Brown Sisters to get her due, by following, as her sisters did in their turns, the titular instruction.

Eve’s parents pretty much force the issue as the story begins. It seems as if 20something Eve is an example of a “failure to launch”. She’s in her mid-20s, she’s still living at home, she’s still living off the generous allowance – read that as trust fund distribution – her wealthy and successful parents provide for her, and she’s never held down a “real” job for any length of time.

She’s tried plenty of things, but Eve has a tendency to give up when the going gets tough. Something that she can afford to do, because her parents are financially backstopping her seeming inability to start adulting.

When Eve gives up her latest venture as a wedding planner because her client turned bridezilla, Eve’s parents give her an ultimatum that admittedly feels a bit like kicking her when she’s down.

They’re taking away her allowance and her room in the family mansion. She has a year to find and keep a job, AND support herself with her own earnings, before they’ll consider supporting her again.

At first, it feels like a bit of necessary tough love. Eve doesn’t seem to be adulting, and her self-talk sounds very self-defeating. She sees herself as a failure next to her driving and successful older sisters, and she does run away when things get hard.

And yet, she tries. She tries hard at everything she does. But just like her sisters, the drumbeat of her parents’ disappointed voices keeps her putting herself down at every single turn. She knows she’s a disappointment to them, because they constantly reinforce that message. So she lives down to it.

Faced with having to figure out things by herself and for herself, or so it seems, Eve first takes herself on a long drive to think over her options and escape her demons. Only to quite literally run right over one.

Eve needs a job. Jacob Wayne needs a chef for his Bed and Breakfast. Cooking classes are among the many, many things that Eve has dabbled in, so she sees his “help wanted” sign and drops in without an appointment or a CV in hopes that she can wow him into letting her have the job, at least on a temporary basis.

Jacob is sure it’s not going to work. He’s anal retentive to the max, and Eve is a master chaos agent. He shouldn’t let her into his B&B, let alone into his life. But once she’s run over him with her car, he doesn’t have much of a choice.

Not that, as it turns out, either of them ever seriously did have any choice but each other.

Escape Rating B+: The entire Brown Sisters trilogy has been absolutely marvelous, but I think that Eve is probably my least favorite of the sisters. Now that the series is complete, I can say that I liked Dani’s story the best, Chloe’s second and Eve’s not quite as much – but still quite a lot.

First let me say that I think these books can each be read as a standalone. The stories don’t exactly depend on each other, or on knowledge gained in one carrying over to the next, but I think there’s more depth if you read them all. And they’re all marvelous so why wouldn’t you?

But I said that Eve was my least favorite of the sisters, or at least her story is my least favorite – and I need to get back to that.

Although this series isn’t in first-person singular, this book still reads as being very much from Eve’s point of view. At the beginning, Eve’s negative self-talk really reads like a downer. And it also reads very much as if Eve’s parents are right – however disastrously they go about it. That Eve’s problems are self-inflicted because she just doesn’t have enough stick-to-itiveness.

It’s only as the story goes on, as we see Eve stick to her new job at the B&B, and most importantly as we see into the heart of her coping mechanisms, that we begin to realize that Eve is dealing with her own shit in ways that are much less obvious than either her sister Chloe’s chronic pain and fibromyalgia or Dani’s commitment-phobic workaholism.

Once Eve is able to put a name to her neurodiversity, that she is on the autism spectrum, as she accepts herself as she is, we do too. And it’s much easier to both feel for her and to see that her coping skills and where they fall short also feed into the way that her autism and the fact that girls are less likely to be diagnosed than boys has fed into her parents’ ableism and assumptions about the reasons for her behavior.

In comparison, Jacob is a whole lot more straightforward. He is also on the spectrum, but, well, he’s a guy. His autism was diagnosed in childhood, he’s been learning to cope with it ever since. His behavior, his actions, his coping mechanisms all seem more obvious because they are – because as soon as he was under the care of someone who actually cared, he got help. And he got that help because his caregiver knew what to look for because he was male and the signs were what they were expected to be.

Also, as much as Eve’s parents and extended family love each other, and they definitely do and it’s wonderfully obvious, her family is also a hot mess. They mean well, but that well-meaning really messes things up in the execution. It was obvious from the outset of Jacob and Eve’s romantic relationship exactly what was going to precipitate the inevitable breakup crisis. It was like waiting for the other shoe to drop while watching it hanging up their heads by a fraying shoelace. That her family turned out to be the agency for it seemed equally inevitable.

Not that the friendship stuff that was inserted to string out that tension a bit longer wasn’t fun and interesting on its own but I had reached the point where the story needed to get on with it so they could reach the happy ending.

I was so very ready for that. And it was awesome and lovely and acknowledged the progress of both of their journeys, all at the same wonderful time. I’m kind of sad to say goodbye to the Brown Sisters and their eccentric family, but I’m looking forward to whatever and whoever this author introduces me to next!

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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