Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Singular Affair by M.K. Wiseman

Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Singular Affair by M.K. WisemanSherlock Holmes & the Singular Affair by M.K. Wiseman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Pages: 200
Published by M.K. Wiseman on December 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Before Baker Street, there was Montague.
Before partnership with a former army doctor recently returned from Afghanistan, Sherlock Holmes had but the quiet company of his own great intellect. Solitary he might be but, living as he did for the thrill of the chase, it was enough.
For a little while, at the least, it was enough.
That is, until a client arrives at his door with a desperate plea and an invitation into a world of societal scandal and stage door dandies. Thrust deep in an all-consuming role and charged with the safe-keeping of another, Holmes must own to his limits or risk danger to others besides himself in this the case of the aluminium crutch.

My Review:

After last week’s marvelous book, I was looking for more Sherlock Holmes – as is often the case. So here we are with this little gem.

Many, it feels like most, Sherlock Holmes stories purport to be written by another, usually Dr. John H. Watson, and published by a third or fourth party. By presenting the story as being another person’s recollections and/or impressions of the Great Detective, while the reader is left thinking that they know what Holmes was “like”, what they really know is what the writer/observer “thought” Holmes was like.

As a writing device, it puts Holmes at one or more removes, as the writer imbues the character with his or her own slant on what Holmes thought and did, and then the reader slants that slant. Which fits fairly well with Holmes’ perception or presentation of himself as a thinking machine with few human emotions.

It’s also part of what makes the saying that “every generation has its Sherlock” so true, in that a 21st century author has the opportunity to fit Holmes into the writer’s time and place – as Conan Doyle himself did – or the reader’s time and place or any other in between depending on who is used as Holmes’ biographer/narrator.

This particular entry in the not-quite-canon of Holmes pastiches takes an entirely different tack. The Singular Affair that Holmes must deal with in this adventure occurred before he ever met Watson. Holmes is young – only 26 – and living alone on Montague Street in a flat that is in no way large enough to contain his experiments, his office, and himself.

In other words, his housekeeping is atrocious, there is no Mrs. Hudson in sight, and the tools of his trade have outgrown any and all possible housing for them in the space available. Or, in his present circumstances, affordable.

It allows us to see that Holmes already needs Watson, even if he doesn’t believe he will ever find someone who will be able to tolerate his work, his mess, his single-mindedness or himself with any degree of equanimity.

So Holmes is at the beginning of his career, just far enough along that his name opens many doors – and closes a few others. He has no one to serve as his amanuensis, so he tell the story himself.

But it is removed, as this story is in a manuscript that Dr. John H. Watson discovers amongst Holmes’ papers in the wake of the Great Detective’s death. It’s a story that Holmes tells, but one that he tells of his early career written at the end of his long and celebrated one.

And what a fascinating tale it is.

Escape Rating B: On the one hand, the story does its best to read as the kind of adventure that Watson so successfully wrote. It is chock full of desperate clients, misdirection, multiple identities and shady underworld connections as any Holmes’ fan might wish.

At the same time, it also includes a bit more feeling and not-quite-purple prose than one’s interpretation of Holmes would lead one to expect. The sort of prose and the sort of internal feelings that were part of Watson’s narration but aren’t as expected coming from Holmes’ own pen based on the interpretation of the man that we are familiar with from the pen of Watson.

(The author’s previous foray into Holmes pastiches, Sherlock Holmes & the Ripper of Whitechapel, also foregoes the use of Watson as chronicler, but for an entirely different reason. if this author continues her chronicles of Holmes’ adventures we’ll see if this trend continues in any form. I hope we do.)

On yet another hand, the story is of Holmes’ own early days, when he was both a bit full of the false sense of immortality that we all are capable of at that age, while still more than occasionally being hit upside the head – sometimes literally – by the things he does not yet know or understand.

So the case, as his cases often do, starts out simple to the point of not seeming to be worth his time, only to end up nearly getting Holmes and the man he originally thought was the villain, killed.

It begins with a young woman who is certain that her childhood friend and correspondent has been abducted and that someone else has taken his place – even though everyone else tells her that she’s wrong. She’s not, of course, or Holmes wouldn’t have a case to follow.

But in the best Holmesian traditional mistaken identities and misdirection, she is also wrong. A conundrum that leads Holmes on a very wild goose chase indeed.

The game is afoot! Chasing after Sherlock Holmes as he chases after that game is as much fun as ever. I hope that we see more such tales from this author in the future.

Review: Forever Home by Elysia Whisler

Review: Forever Home by Elysia WhislerForever Home (Dogwood County, #2) by Elysia Whisler
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, romantic suspense, women's fiction
Series: Dogwood County #2
Pages: 384
Published by Mira on November 30, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

If home is where the heart is, Dogwood County may have just what Delaney Monroe needs
Newly retired from the Marine Corps, Delaney is looking for somewhere to start over. It’s not going to be easy, but when she finds the perfect place to open her dream motorcycle shop, she goes for it. What she doesn’t expect is an abandoned pit bull to come with the building. The shy pup is slow to trust, but Delaney is determined to win it over.
Detective Sean Callahan is smitten from the moment he sees Delaney, but her cool demeanor throws him off his game. When her late father's vintage motorcycle is stolen from Delaney's shop, Sean gets to turn up in his element: chasing the bad guy and showing his best self to a woman who’s gotten under his skin in a bad way.
Delaney isn't used to lasting relationships, but letting love in—both human and canine—helps her see that she may have found a place she belongs, forever.
"Complex, quietly compelling characters… A poignant reminder that ‘home’ is often more than a place." —Maggie Wells, author of Love Game
Dogwood County
Book 1: Rescue YouBook 2: Forever Home

My Review:

As the sayings go, “home is where the heart is” and “a dream is a wish your heart makes.” Delaney Monroe’s home was working on motorcycles with her father in Omaha, and their shared dream was to open their own motorcycle repair shop.

But Delaney’s beloved father is dead. Killed in an accident between his motorcycle and an SUV whose driver wasn’t paying nearly enough attention to the other vehicles on the road. She’s just retired from the Marine Corps after putting in her 20. She can’t face living in Omaha without her dad, no matter how much her adopted uncles love her and want to help her.

They want to take care of her just a bit too much, and Delaney can’t stop seeing the hole in their formation where her dad used to be.

There’s a part of that dream that is still alive. She has just enough money saved up to buy what used to be a motorcycle shop in Dogwood County. It comes with a tiny apartment, a screaming need to be cleaned up and fixed up, and a dog who can’t figure out whether he wants his home to be in the shop he used to live in or the dog rescue park on the other side of the creek.

Wyatt the dog is afraid to trust that his heart has led him home. Making him not all that different from Delaney. Maybe they can figure it out together.

Or maybe Delaney will give up and run away, again, in the face of the dastardly and determined opposition of the men who used to own both the shop and the dog.

Along with a suspected slice of the local drug trade.

Escape Rating A-: At the end of the story, the dog is fine. I’m saying that first because my reading circle gets very upset if the starring animals don’t make it. No worries on that score, Wyatt has a few adventures but he’s fine, actually better than fine, at the end.

Which doesn’t stop Delaney and Wyatt from being equally heartbroken at the beginning – and some of the middle – of the story. They both need to feel that it’s OK to trust, safe to open their hearts, and the right time and place to put down roots so they can flourish. Neither of them is anywhere near there at the beginning.

And neither, in an entirely different way, is Detective Sean Callahan. He’s been going through the motions for a long time, having little holding him together except his job and his duty. He’s a good cop but a sad human being.

The situation in Dogwood County, between Delaney, Sean, Wyatt, the Dudebros – literally, they’re the Dude Brothers – and each and every one of their pasts is on a collision course.

It’s not just that the Dudebros are trying to wreck her business and take her dog – although they are.

Someone has stolen Delaney’s prize bike, the classic Indian Motorcycle that has been passed down in Delaney’s family for four generations. It’s that they tinkered with it and then put it back. It was heartbreaking while it was gone, and it’s baffling now that it’s back. But as much as Delaney wants to pin it all on the Dudebros, Sean knows that’s not the right answer no matter how tempting it is.

Also how tempting it must have been for the author. That would have been such an easy solution – but the real answer added so much to the story that I was surprised and pleased at the way things turned out.

Although the Dudebros do get theirs in the end.

Forever Home turned out to be one of those books where the whole was much greater than the sum of the parts. It sits right on the border between contemporary romance and relationship fiction, and it’s a surprisingly comfortable border in this case.

A romance occurs between Delaney and Sean, with an HEA that definitely feels earned. But that romance doesn’t completely hold the center of the story. The HEA is the icing on the cake and not the cake.

The suspense element was suspenseful in a surprising way, in that the obvious perpetrators were both obvious and not obvious at the same time.

The heart of the story was in Delaney – and Wyatt – finding their way to a home in Dogwood County. The way that Delaney establishes her shop, makes friends and allies, and makes a home and a life for herself in this new place and with these (mostly) terrific people.

I very much enjoyed my visit to this place, and I’m looking forward to seeing these people again. The next book in this series, Becoming Family, won’t be available until next August, but the first book, Rescue You, is available and I’m looking forward to reading it the next time I need a bit of a reading pick-me-up.

Review: Hex Work by TA Moore + Excerpt + Giveaway

Review: Hex Work by TA Moore + Excerpt + GiveawayHex Work (Babylon Boy, #1) by T.A. Moore
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Babylon Boy #1
Pages: 136
Published by Rogue Firebird Press on November 23, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

My name is Jonah Carrow, and it’s been 300 days since I laid a hex.

OK, Jonah Carrow isn’t actually an alcoholic. But there’s no support group of lapsed hex-slingers in Jerusalem, so he’s got to make do. He goes for the bad coffee and the reminder that he just has to take normal one day at a time.

Unfortunately, his past isn’t willing to go down without a fight.

A chance encounter with a desperate Deborah Seddon, and a warning that ‘they’re watching’, pulls Jonah back into the world he’d tried to leave behind. Now he has to navigate ghosts, curses, and the hottest bad idea warlock he’s ever met…all without a single hex to his name.

But nobody ever said normal was easy. Not to Jonah anyhow.

My Review:

The central theme of Hex Work might be “Lead me not into temptation; I can find the way myself.”

It’s not merely that Jonah Carrow has to resist turning his truck down the road to temptation – and his family’s home place in Babylon, Pennsylvania – every single day, but that something happened when he left home a year ago that made him swear off using his family gift. A gift for casting – and warding off – hexes.

We may not know what went wrong – at least not yet – but we are riding along with Jonah as his old life does its best to drag him back under its spell. Literally.

A woman enlists his help in a way that seems so random and nebulous that he isn’t exactly sure what it’s about. Not until the people who are chasing her drag him in for a little “chat” about ghosties and ghoulies and just how many of them are going to be set upon him if he doesn’t figure out what she’s up to. Or why she stole something nasty from them. Or both.

Everyone thinks he doesn’t know what it’s all about. Because he’s left his home, his name and his reputation behind in the hopes of making a new start – or outrunning his own ghosts. Except the ghost of his brother who haunts his front yard at night. He’s stuck with that one. Why? We don’t exactly know. Yet.

And even though this wasn’t initially his fight, his circus or his monkeys, by the time he solves the supernatural mystery that stalks Jerusalem (PA) he’s right back in the thick of it. Even if he has, at least so far, still managed to resist falling off the hex wagon.

It’s only a matter of time – and the things that stalk the night have plenty of that.

Escape Rating A-: I was looking for something, let’s say.a bit less complicated after a long weekend reading marathon (because reasons). Not that I expected the characters in the book to be in an uncomplicated situation – from that perspective the more messed up the better. Rather I was looking for something where the story would suck me right in and take my mind away – not tie it up in knots that I wouldn’t be able to unravel for hours or days later.

Urban fantasy has always been my go-to when I want a world to slip right into, and Hex Work certainly fulfilled all my dark, dirty magical expectations. Although, at least so far as this series starter goes, all of the dirt is quite literally dirt. Grave dirt. Not the other kind – at least not yet. This series may eventually switch from urban fantasy to paranormal romance at some point – but neither it nor Jonah are there yet.

The story of Hex Work is told from Jonah’s first-person perspective. We’re inside his head and it’s a pretty damn snarky place to be, which is just fine as one of the things I love about urban fantasy is that it is generally snarky as hell – and sometimes snarky IN hell- and Jonah is no exception.

So we know what he’s thinking in the moment, and we see what he’s struggling with. But we also see that there are plenty of shadowy places in his past that he’s definitely, absolutely, obsessively trying his best NOT to think about. The places that I really hope this series goes as it continues.

Right here and right now, Jonah is in a kind of limbo. He’s sworn he’s not going to lay another hex. He’s left Babylon in order to get away from the supernatural world. But it’s found him. The story is of his struggle to get to the bottom of the grave that the hag that is chasing him pulled itself out of, so he can maybe get back to that fresh start he’s working on.

Only to discover that even though the hag has been laid to rest and the mystery has been solved, he’s still neck deep in the supernatural – and not getting out. We’re left wondering if, in his heart of hearts, he truly wants to.

This reader certainly doesn’t want him to at all. The magic of this world is fascinating, both simple and complex by turns. It feels like it’s been drawn right out of myths and legends and has been hiding in plain sight all along. (It also feels a bit like Midnight Crossroads, so if you liked either the book series or the TV series you’ll probably love this.)

Jonah himself has secrets that I’m itching to discover. I can’t wait to see what trouble finds him next!

Guest Post from TA Moore + Chapter 2 of Stories of Babylon (check out Chapter 1 at Book Gemz)

Hi! Can you believe it’s November already? I feel entirely adrift in the calendar these days. It’s 1934th of Morch! One thing I have managed to keep on track for, more or less, is the whole publication schedule for Hex Work…more or less! 

Hex Work is NOT the book I was meant to be writing, but it’s the one that wanted to come out of my head. So I hope people like it in order to make the absolute shambles it made of my writing schedule worth it. I like it, so I guess that’s a good start!

Thanks for having me and I hope you enjoy the exclusive short story prequel to the Hex Work novella!

Read the rest of the story at TAMooreWrites.com

Stories of Babylon: Chapter Two

He followed the crushed crash and tire tracks to a pick-up truck wrapped around a beech tree. The front end was crumpled and the windows smashed in over the burned, half-melted sheets. It had been red once, but it was smoke-scarred now with black, brittle patches of cracked blisters on the doors.

The kid sat on the rutted ground with his head in his hands. He looked up when Jonah cleared his throat.

Shit, the kid said, my dad’s going to kill me.

His name was John Samuels and he’d been dead for a week. His funeral was tomorrow. That always…cut some sort of thread. Not that John would move on, but being John would start to wear off him. He’d not think he was alive anymore.

“You weren’t meant to have the truck?” Jonah asked. 

He already knew the answer. John was fifteen and he’d gotten home early from football practice. There’d been a casserole in the oven for him and chores to do before his homework. He knew better than to take the truck. His Dad had said that over and over.

Lot—always friendlier—squeezed by Jonah and stuck his nose into the John’s face. His tongue slobbered up, and through, John’s vaguely insubstantial nose until he got a snuffle of laughter and a hand came up to pet his ears.

No, John said. He looked up at Jonah through his tangled fringe, His voice changed—breathy and light, the catch of fear wet in the back of his throat—but his face didn’t. We have to go. Jonah, Joey, we have to go. He’s COMING.

Wife leaned against Jonah’s legs and sighed heavily. The hot, living weight of her anchored Jonah and he pulled away from the hook of that voice. It hadn’t been his name, not when he played it back in his head, it probably hadn’t been John’s either.

“Who was she?” Jonah asked. “Did you know her?”

Some girls are like that, John said, some segment of memory queued up to suit the question. I thought we were the same, but she was….she was…

The words glitched together. Awful/Beautiful/DEADDEADFUCKINGDEAD/Lost. Jonah took a step back and shook his head to clear it. There was blood in his mouth, but when he turned his head to spit it was just saliva. Not his copper and salt thick on his tongue, not his fear thick and clotted in his throat.

For a second John knew what he was and it peeled the facade away. A chunk of glass glittered in his cheek as he talked—speared through flesh and into the mess of broken teeth and gums the impact had left of the kid’s mouth—and the side of his skull was caved in. Blood matted dark blond, curly hair and when he raised a hand it was gone.

He gaped that ruined mouth and screamed. It was a thin, pinched sound that just made the dogs look curious, but it spilled over to something and awful on the unnatural side of things. A handful of confused birds were jostled from their roost as it grated on them, and took off into the sky.

John lurched up from the ground and lunged at Jonah, his hand curled into a claw tipped with bony spikes that poked through his fingertips. His breath hung in the air, dark and oily as smoke.

You have her touch her take her away. I wontletyouhurtheragaaaaaaaa!

The words ran into each other, slurred back into the harrowing, static howl of the scream that drew the other side closer. Moonlight faltered and faded into a grey miasma as the air thickened and chilled.

It was always cold in Babylon, even in summer. A climatic anomaly apparently. Good for the shop that sold coats in town, not so great for tourism. 

Jonah snapped the piece of chalk in his pocket and crumbled the bit he hung onto between his fingers. He threw it into the air.

Technically it should have been drawn on a door or a wall, or a bit of paper to shove down the hag’s throat. Jonah was a Carrow, though, and magic still owed one him for that. Chalk powder dripped from his fingers as he sketched the rune in the air and it hung between him and poor, dead John.

“Holy, holy,” he said and clenched his hand into a fist, thumb extended, to cross himself in a quick, careless swipe. The hex burned on his tongue and stung his lips as he spat the words out. They’d probably meant something once, years and books ago. Now it was just sounds that worked and who cared why? In the moment. “Salt and dirt. Hold your breath and it won’t hurt.”

John smashed into the rune. The little bits of chalk dust stuck to him and spread, white and powdery skin that filled in the holes of his death and clogged up his mind. He staggered to a stop as he forgot, again, why he was so angry. He coughed and licked his lips with a greyish tongue.

I’m thirsty, He said and reached up to rub his head, breaking off sections of crust. It dusted the ground under his feet. What happened?

Catch the next chapter tomorrow at Two Chicks Obsessed and follow the tour for the rest of the story!

About the Author:

TA Moore is a Northern Irish writer of romantic suspense, urban fantasy, and contemporary romance novels. A childhood in a rural, seaside town fostered in her a suspicious nature, a love of mystery, and a streak of black humour a mile wide. As her grandmother always said, ‘she’d laugh at a bad thing that one’, mind you, that was the pot calling the kettle black. TA Moore studied History, Irish mythology, English at University, mostly because she has always loved a good story. She has worked as a journalist, a finance manager, and in the arts sector before she finally gave in to a lifelong desire to write.

Coffee, Doc Marten boots, and good friends are the essential things in life. Spiders, mayo, and heels are to be avoided.

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

TA Moore is giving away a $10 Amazon Gift Card to one lucky winner on this tour!

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Review: The Hookup Dilemma by Constance Gillam

Review: The Hookup Dilemma by Constance GillamThe Hookup Dilemma by Constance Gillam
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 309
on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Perfect for fans of Jasmine Guillory, this laugh-out-loud #OwnVoices story proves that sometimes the least perfect arrangement can lead to something perfect for them.
Rashida Howard has never been a one-night-stand kind of woman, but she has good reason for making an exception with Elliott after meeting him in a bar. Cliché? Yes. Utterly amazing? Absolutely. Regrets? None.
Elliott Quinn is a workaholic. The one night he decides to break his routine, he has an encounter with the woman of his dreams. But no matter how amazing they are together, work will always come first.
Both of their lives get turned upside down when they find themselves on opposite sides of an ongoing fight between Elliott’s company and Rashida’s community. Though their chemistry is undeniable, neither of them will risk their integrity…or their heart.
And just when they think they might have found a solution that benefits both sides, they uncover a secret that will change everything.

My Review:

One way of thinking of The Hookup Dilemma is as a sexing-to-love romcom. The title certainly leads in that direction. But it’s not nearly that simple a story to describe, to the point where I might need some arithmetic notation or something similar. Because it’s more like sex to enemies to (frenemies AND lovers) to (frenemies OR lovers) to an HEA so big it encompasses an entire community.

It all begins with that hookup. An instant connection that leads to an evening of very hot sex with no strings attached and no plans for doing it again. Not that they didn’t do it plenty of times that night.

The thing is that both Elliott and Rashida want to do it again – and not JUST the sex. With each other. As often as possible. A possibility that intrigues Elliott and scares Rashida to the point where she does a nearly literal midnight flit, leaving a sleeping Elliott in a suite in the Ritz Carlton in downtown Atlanta. They know nothing about each other except their first names and that they’ve just had the best sex of their entire lives.

She never expects to see him again. She’s not interested in a relationship. He’d love to see where their chemistry might lead them, but he has no leads on her identity and not nearly enough information to get any.

When they meet again it’s a case of worlds colliding the way continents collide through plate tectonics, complete with the earth shaking and volcanos rising to spew molten lava. They meet at a Zoning Board hearing in the neighborhood where Rashida grew up and where her beloved grandmother still lives. Rashida, her Grammy, and Grammy’s neighbors are there to protest the zoning change to convert a parcel in their neighborhood to commercial use. The plan is to bring in high-end stores like Whole Foods – stores that the neighborhood of mostly retired senior citizens on fixed incomes won’t be able to afford to shop at. It’s the opening wedge of gentrification and everyone knows it.

The request to rezone was made by the new owner of the property, the construction company owned by Elliott’s father. Elliott is stuck carrying the ball on this project for his old man, who is recovering from a massive heart attack. And the company needs this project to succeed in order to get itself back on track after years of questionable financial decisions – made, of course, by Elliott’s father.

Elliott is caught between a rock, a hard place, and a community that plans to stonewall him every step of the way. He’s torn between pursuing a relationship with Rashida and keeping the peace in his relationship with his steamroller of a father.

Rashida’s all in on saving her grandmother’s home. She may be falling for Elliott, but her grandmother was there for her when she needed a refuge and a place to heal. Now it’s her turn to support her Grammy.

Rashida knows exactly what she wants, even if she’s having a bit of difficulty figuring out how to get it. Elliott has been too busy reacting to his father’s demands – his entire life – to completely figure out what he wants for himself. Let alone stick to it. But Elliott has to decide whether what he really wants to do is cave into his father one more time, or stick to his guns, get his father to retire before he has ANOTHER heart attack, and go all in with Rashida on a project that will actually help the neighborhood instead of bulldozing it.

Because if he doesn’t “man up” he’s going to lose it all, one way or another.

Escape Rating A-: The blurb is correct that this does have a similar feel to many of the books in Jasmine Guillory’s Wedding Date series – particularly The Wedding Party. It also has more than a touch of Alyssa Cole’s When No One is Watching, which is a suspense thriller about gentrification of a neighborhood not unlike the fictional Millhouse.

So this is kind of what When No One is Watching would have been if the author had written it with her romance hat on instead of her thriller hat.

This is also one of those stories where the tension keeping the couple apart isn’t a will they/won’t they? They already have and they can’t seem to stop from having each other again every time they’re alone.

Instead, this is a story about herding the elephant out of the room so they have a chance. Which is really difficult to do if they aren’t both ready to lay hands on that elephant and PUSH!

What makes this book so good is that once the story gets past the meet-cute, the issues that they face together and separately are very real and very much in the way.

Rashida’s issues are, well, not exactly easy but they are at least straightforward. She wants to save her Grammy’s neighborhood. She wants to save her Grammy’s house. She wants to save her Grammy’s friends’ houses. She also needs Grammy and her friends to stop driving their gas-guzzlers – sometimes without licenses – before they have more serious accidents than they’ve already had. Underlying all of that is saving a place that Rashida loves AND allowing her Grammy and her friends to live their retirements in their own homes as long as they are able to rather than be forced out by corporate greed or corporate desperation.

All of that is a very real struggle. Forms of that struggle are happening everywhere, all the time.

Elliott’s issues are, in some ways, a lot smaller than Rashida’s, but in other ways a whole lot bigger. In comparison, honestly, the idea that it’s Elliott’s father’s company going bankrupt because of his father’s poor business decisions vs driving Rashida’s grandmother and her friends out of their homes, Rashida’s situation feels more serious.

Underneath that, however, is Elliott’s very real fear that if he can’t get his father to slow down and obey his doctor’s orders the man is going to have another heart attack and die. Really, really, soon. But that doesn’t mean Elliott should keep kowtowing to the man when he’s so clearly in the wrong and so completely unwilling to listen to any advice from anyone at all. Which is a huge chunk of what caused that heart attack in the first place.

So the issues that keep Rashida and Elliott are not simple, and the solutions are not going to be easy. Reaching for them is going to cause a LOT of short term trouble in order to reach a long term HEA.

And that’s what made this story so very appealing. Read it for yourself and see what I mean!

TLC
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Review: A Secret Never Told by Shelley Noble + Giveaway

Review: A Secret Never Told by Shelley Noble + GiveawayA Secret Never Told (Lady Dunbridge Mystery, #4) by Shelley Noble
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Lady Dunbridge #4
Pages: 336
Published by Forge Books on November 23, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Philomena Amesbury, expatriate Countess of Dunbridge, is bored. Coney Island in the sweltering summer of 1908 offers no shortage of diversions for a young woman of means, but sea bathing, horse racing, and even amusement parks can’t hold a candle to uncovering dastardly plots and chasing villains. Lady Dunbridge hadn’t had a big challenge in months.
Fate obliges when Phil is called upon to host a dinner party in honor of a visiting Austrian psychologist whose revolutionary theories may be of interest to the War Department, not to mention various foreign powers, and who may have already survived one attempt on his life. The guest list includes a wealthy industrialist, various rival scientists and academics, a party hypnotist, a flamboyant party-crasher, and a damaged beauty whose cloudy psyche is lost in a world of its own. Before the night is out, one of the guests is dead with a bullet between the eyes and Phil finds herself with another mystery on her hands, even if it’s unclear who exactly the intended victim was meant to be.
Worse yet, the police’s prime suspect is a mystery man who Phil happens to be rather intimately acquainted with. Now it’s up to Lady Dunbridge, with the invaluable assistance of her intrepid butler and lady’s maid, to find the real culprit before the police nab the wrong one . . .

My Review:

If someone threw Phryne Fisher and Mary Russell into the proverbial blender, they’d get someone like Lady Philomena Dunbridge, the protagonist/more-or-less amateur detective of this series. (The publisher originally referred to the series as Miss Fisher meeting Downton Abbey, but the Downton Abbey reference is starting to fall by the wayside – which is a good thing as it was never terribly apropos and now isn’t at all.)

Splitting the differences between Phryne and Mary Russell works better, especially considering the number of times that Phil and her inner circle refer to Mary’s husband, Sherlock Holmes. (If this intrigues you the series starts with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and it’s marvelous)

But the blend applies in other ways as well. Russell is based in England and Phryne in Australia, with Phil sitting squarely in the middle, in Gilded Age New York City. Although, like all good detectives, Phil is an outsider looking in on her adopted homeland.

It’s Phryne’s sensibilities, however, that ring truest for Phil – and the similarity of names is probably not a coincidence – in spite of the two decades between them. Phryne’s stories are set in the late 1920s, while Phil’s are in the early 1900s – in spite of some of the plot of the second book, Tell Me No Lies, seemingly lifted straight out of the later period.

I started to say that unlike the earlier books in the series, Phil doesn’t have much of a connection to either the murder victim or the accused killer, upon further reflection that isn’t strictly true. Although no one ever gets quite so far as to catch, let alone arrest, Phil’s occasional lover and sometime colleague, the mysterious Mr. X.

Rather, Phil just happens to be in the midst of doing the polite thing, hosting a dinner party for a friend, when one of the guests is murdered right before her eyes. Not even the guest that her host, officially part of the U.S. War Department and unofficially somewhere high in its ranks, was concerned would be murdered.

And that’s only the first piece of misdirection amid the tastiest red herrings served with just the right amount of mystery and sauce.

Coney Island c. 1905

Escape Rating A-: The story in A Secret Never Told mixes two fascinating premises that initially don’t seem like they belong together. The opening dinner – and opening salvo in the mystery – consisted of a group of psychiatrists, psychologists, psychoanalysts and charlatans who were students together over a decade before. At that time, they were all scrambling for a place in a profession that had just begun moving from hypnotism as a parlor trick to studies of the mind becoming a respected scientific practice. A mad scramble that is still spinning out consequences at that tense dinner table.

And on the other hand, much of the action takes place in and around turn-of-the-century Coney Island. A place where the study of the human mind was dedicated to the best way to separate a mark from his or her money. (The portrait of Coney Island in this heyday is one of the highlights of the book.)

A man was threatened. A woman is dead. Does the case relate to his theories about how to create supersoldiers through exploiting Pavlovian responses? Or did she hold a secret dating back to their college days? It’s up to Phil and her friends to figure out not just whodunnit but what was done and why, in spite of stonewalling on the part of both the government AND the NYPD in the person of the handsome Detective Sergeant John Atkins.

I’m loving this series because of the personality of Phil, otherwise known as Lady Dunbridge. While the story is not in the first person, it very much follows Phil, her actions, her reactions, and her internal monologue. And Phil and Phryne Fisher read like sisters under the skin, from their wry observations of the social niceties and the hollowness that underlies them to their attitudes about men and sex and not letting their romantic passions overcome their common sense or their intellectual pursuits.

Considering the way that her government colleague and her detective sergeant try to keep both Phil and each other at bay and in the dark in order to be able to put their own spin on whatever the truth of the case turns out to be, Phil’s attitude seems more than fair.

I really enjoyed the first two books in this series, Ask Me No Questions and Tell Me No Lies, so I was definitely up for this fourth book in the series. (I have the third book, A Resolution at Midnight, but it seems to have fallen into the black hole of “so many books, so little time.” I clearly need to rescue it and move it up the towering TBR pile!)

Nothing about this story felt like an ending for the series, so I have high hopes that Lady Dunbridge will return, hopefully this time next year. In the meantime, I’ll have to dig out my copy of A Resolution at Midnight and catch up with Lady Dunbridge’s adventures!

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Review: The Cartographer’s Secret by Tea Cooper

Review: The Cartographer’s Secret by Tea CooperThe Cartographer's Secret by Tea Cooper
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Pages: 400
Published by Harper Muse on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A map into the past. A long-lost young woman. And a thirty-year family mystery.
The Hunter Valley, 1880. Evie Ludgrove loves to chart the landscape around her home—hardly surprising since she grew up in the shadow of her father’s obsession with the great Australian explorer Dr. Ludwig Leichhardt. So when an advertisement appears in The Bulletin magazine offering a thousand-pound reward for proof of where Leichhardt met his fate, Evie is determined to use her father’s papers to unravel the secret. But when Evie sets out to prove her theory, she vanishes without a trace, leaving behind a mystery that haunts her family for thirty years.
Letitia Rawlings arrives at the family estate in her Ford Model T to inform her great-aunt Olivia of a loss in their family. But Letitia is also escaping her own problems—her brother’s sudden death, her mother’s scheming, and her dissatisfaction with the life planned out for her. So when Letitia discovers a beautifully illustrated map that might hold a clue to the fate of her missing aunt, Evie Ludgrove, she sets out to discover the truth. But all is not as it seems, and Letitia begins to realize that solving the mystery of her family’s past could offer as much peril as redemption.
A gripping historical mystery for fans of Kate Morton and Natasha Lester’s The Paris Seamstress, The Cartographer’s Secret follows a young woman’s quest to heal a family rift as she becomes entangled in one of Australia’s greatest historical puzzles.
“A galvanizing, immersive adventure . . . forcing the characters to reckon with the choice found at the crux of passion and loyalty and the power of shared blood that can either destroy or heal.” —Joy Callaway, international bestselling author of The Fifth Avenue Artists Society
Daphne du Maurier Award Winner, 2021Historical story with both romance and mysteryFull-length, stand-alone novel (c. 104,000 words)Includes discussion questions for book clubs

My Review:

I picked this up because I loved not one but two of the author’s previous books, The Woman in the Green Dress and The Girl in the Painting. At the time I finished The Girl in the Painting, The Cartographer’s Secret had already been published in the author’s native Australia, so the reviews were already out. Once I read them I couldn’t wait for this book to appear, as we seem to get her books a year later.

The Cartographer’s Secret was most definitely worth the wait!

This is kind of a “lost and found” story, slipped in time between 1880 and 1911, set in Australia’s Hunter Valley. But it really starts earlier, in 1848. That’s really, really starts, with the very real disappearance of the German explorer and naturalist, Ludwig Leichhardt.  Leichhardt disappeared in 1848 while exploring the Swan River. Or at least while intending to explore the Swan River. He disappeared somewhere along the way, and was never seen again – or at least not that anyone was able to verify, in spite of an awful lot of people spending an awful lot of time AND money looking very, very hard.

The search for Leichhardt is the real historical hook that kicks off this story. Where the fiction comes in is in the involvement of William Ludgrove, a fictional explorer who ran across Leichhardt on one of his much earlier explorations of the Hunter Valley – and helped the explorer safely reach his destination – at least that time.

Ludgrove, severely injured in a later expedition, maintained his fascination with his old colleague long after the man he referred to as the “Prince of Explorers” disappeared without a trace. Ludgrove’s obsession over the fate of the explorer was such that he invested entirely too much of his own capital in funding later searches. It’s an obsession he also passed on to his younger daughter Evie, much to his family’s despair.

Evie herself disappeared at the age of 18, and the devastation wrought by this second disappearance sent Ludgrove into a tailspin from which he never recovered. It also left the family broken in two, with his sister Olivia barely hanging on to the family horse stud in the Hunter Valley while his remaining daughter was living the high life in Sydney.

When tragedy strikes again in 1911, William’s granddaughter Lettie runs away from home. To home. Her brother has just been killed in a tragic accident, Lettie can no longer cope with her socially ambitious steamroller of a mother. So she flees. To the Hunter Valley, to her Great-Aunt Olivia and the land that her family once called home. And all the secrets that land and its surroundings conceal.

At Olivia’s behest, Lettie takes up the search for the lost and the missing by following the trail of the missing Evie as she followed the trail of documentation for the lost Leichhardt. Lettie has no idea just how much her Great-Aunt has put her own life on hold out of grief and guilt, all she knows is that the search gives her purpose and the lands at Yellow Rock have given her a place where she can belong.

If only she can manage to stand up to her mother.

Escape Rating A-: This is a “truth sets people free” story, even if the original mystery never does get solved – and hasn’t yet. Maybe someday. It only took five centuries to find the remains of Richard III, so there’s still PLENTY of time.

But this story really isn’t about Leichhardt’s disappearance. It’s about the shared family obsession over Leichhardt’s disappearance and the tragic consequences for that family. Not that everything that happened to the Ludgrove/Maynard family is directly related to William’s unwillingness to just “let it go”. By the time Lettie comes to Yellow Rock, a good bit of what’s still wrong is wrapped around Olivia’s inability to let go of William’s – and Evie’s – inability to let go. It’s a vicious cycle that just keeps on turning.

What I loved about this story was Lettie’s journey of discovery and exploration. I always like a well done research story, and this definitely was that, even if it wasn’t research in a traditional way. Lettie has a riddle to solve. Actually she has many riddles to solve, including some that she’s not aware of or not willing to admit need solving.

She thinks she’s sorting through her grandfather’s papers to find out what Evie was working on when she disappeared. She’s trying to follow Evie’s trail in the hopes of either finding evidence of Leichhardt’s long-ago journey or more possibly, finding evidence of Evie’s slightly less long-ago journey..

What she’s unconsciously looking for is closure, even if she doesn’t know just how many losses her great-aunt needs closure for. It may be about Evie but it isn’t all about Evie.

One of the recurring threads of this story is the way that so many people protect themselves or believe they are protecting someone else by concealing truths that should be revealed. So many of the reasons for Olivia’s losses in particular are wrapped in the secrets she hid from others – particularly Evie – because she didn’t want to deal with them herself.

In sorting through her family’s past, Lettie is also forced to face the truths that she’s been hiding from herself about who she is, who she wants to be, and how much she needs to find her own path. Lettie is afraid that if she lets herself know her own truths, she’ll lose even more of her family. So she’s been hiding from herself. Following Evie’s journey lets her finally be who she is meant to be instead of who and what her mother has tried to force her to be.

For this reader, it was the journey that I loved. The destination was cathartic, but what kept me glued to this book was the way that Lettie kept searching – even when the discoveries were painful.

And speaking of painful, the author’s next book, The Fossil Hunter, also set in the Hunter Valley, is wrapped around an Australian nurse in the aftermath of World War I who goes searching for a surcease of pain from her wartime experiences and losses and discovers a link to the past that she never expected. And I can’t wait to see what she finds.

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Review: The Wedding Wager by Eva Devon

Review: The Wedding Wager by Eva DevonThe Wedding Wager by Eva Devon
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, regency romance
Pages: 317
Published by Entangled: Amara on October 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

All Lady Victoria Kirby wants is to dig in the dirt, take notations, and record history, thank you very much. Bumbling through ballrooms and getting disdained by the ton for her less than ideal looks, on the other hand, is the last thing she wants. But her reckless father has a different idea for her future when he puts up the ultimate ante—her hand in marriage—and loses. Over her dead body.
The Duke of Chase cannot bear to see a woman misused. After all, he saw that often enough as a child. So when he’s witness to a marquess gambling away his daughter to a lecher of a man, he has no choice but to step in and rescue her. Lady Victoria has a reputation for being as tart as a lemon and as bitter as one, too. So, he may have just found the perfect wife to keep a promise he made to himself long ago--to never have an heir. With her, surely, he'll never be tempted to take her to bed and break that promise.
But when he meets the wild, witty intelligent young lady he’s bound to marry, he knows trouble is headed his way... And everything he ever swore to uphold may very well come undone, especially his heart.

My Review:

Once we get to know the Duke of Chase, it seems as if he’s a bit too good to be true. Even if at the beginning he seems a bit too bad to be trustworthy.

However, I loved Victoria from her very first appearance – as did Chase although he was much less willing to admit that even to himself.

But Chase is absolutely right about Victoria’s father. He is utterly irredeemable. There are no such thing as best intentions when one is wagering one’s daughter’s hand in marriage on a roll of the dice – even if it’s best two out of three and the dice are rigged.

That’s where we meet our hero, and our villain. Not that Victoria’s father turns out to be all that effective – or energetic – in that particular endeavor. The Marquess of Halford is determined to find his bluestocking daughter a husband before she’s permanently on the shelf – even though that’s exactly where his older daughter wants to be.

Victoria is a dedicated archaeologist, who has served as her father’s lead assistant ever since she was a child. She enjoys her work, and indeed pretty much any intellectual pursuits. She also hates the ton and the feeling is very, very mutual. She thought her father understood that, and he certainly encouraged her work.

Until the night he wagers her future, allowing her hand to be won by the scandalous rakehell otherwise known as Derek Kent, the Duke of Chase. A man whose reputation is hard-earned, hard-won, and utterly false.

Chase seems to have more than a bit of “white knight” syndrome, and Victoria is the latest in a long line of damsels he has rescued – generally by helping the world to think that they are not damsels at all.

Victoria doesn’t want the usual lot of high born women, marriage, motherhood and never allowed a thought in her head about anything serious, important or intellectual. Chase is caught on the horns of a dilemma, he needs a wife to keep the predatory mamas of the ton at bay, but he gave his word that he would never father an heir to the dukedom. Marrying Victoria, with her reputation as a plain-faced shrew should solve all of both their problems. He’ll give her the respectability of being his duchess, and the freedom to do whatever she likes. He’ll never desire her enough to bed her, so there will be no danger of an heir.

All’s fair in love and war, and the best laid plans of mice and men often go very far astray. While it’s true that Victoria’s caustic wit and sharp tongue are quite capable of disemboweling a man with a single phrase, she is beautiful. The ton’s narrow definition of beauty simply can’t encompass a woman who is meant to stride through the world like a goddess.

But by the time they’re each past admitting, at least to themselves if not each other, that they both want a marriage in full and not merely a platonic friendship, they’re both so deep in lies and misconceptions that they may not be able to wade across the chasm that they’ve dug between them.

Escape Rating B: The Wedding Wager is deliciously frothy and a quick and utterly lovely read. I liked Victoria so very much as a character, and I loved Chase’s response to her. He does think she’s beautiful, but the attraction between them is as much about her intellect as it is about her appearance. Nor does the story dwell on every detail of her appearance, and I really liked that. It felt like we got way more of the female gaze, Victoria’s appreciation of Chase’s charms, than we did the other way around.

And yet we still got that sense that she is beautiful and that the ton’s rules have become so narrow that they just can’t see it. Victoria doesn’t have to change anything about her physicality to become a “success” with the ton, she just has to own her authentic self.

One of the parts of this story that really sings is Victoria’s forthright nature and her unabashed cultivation and use of her own intellect. She’s smart, she’s thoughtful, she finds the restrictions of the ton unbearably frustrating, finds the entire thing a stupid but stupidly painful farce and does her best to ignore it as much as possible. I particularly enjoyed the scene at the theater where the older woman, Lady Gannet, enjoys Victoria and matches her in intelligence and agreed that the girls of the ton were generally forced to be stupid. Yes, Lady Gannet believed that Victoria’s prime duties as duchess were to take care of her husband and provide him with children, but she also used her brain and missed a time when other women did as well and wasn’t in the least bit shy about saying so.

I loved Victoria and Chase’s intelligent banter, although he seemed a bit too good to be true in his appreciation and support of her goals and ambitions. I wanted him to be, it makes the romance work, but at the same time it felt a bit too easy.

Speaking of easy, Chase’s secrets were too easy to figure out, so I’m glad that he revealed them to Victoria relatively early on. In the end, the conflict between them wasn’t about the secrets, it was about his clinging to the past that created those secrets.

And he gives very good grovel when he finally figures it out.

One final note. Something about the way the story was set up gave me the niggling feeling that this was part of a series. I think it was in the depth of Chase’s friendship with Brookhaven. It felt like there was prior history that was known but not present in this book. That might be true, but this is not – at least so far – part of a series. Howsomever, if it turned out to be, particularly if the next book were about Brookhaven himself, I’d be EXTREMELY interested!

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Review: Sisters of the Great War by Suzanne Feldman

Review: Sisters of the Great War by Suzanne FeldmanSisters of the Great War by Suzanne Feldman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 400
Published by Mira on October 26, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Inspired by real women, this powerful novel tells the story of two unconventional American sisters who volunteer at the front during World War I
August 1914. While Europe enters a brutal conflict unlike any waged before, the Duncan household in Baltimore, Maryland, is the setting for a different struggle. Ruth and Elise Duncan long to escape the roles that society, and their controlling father, demand they play. Together, the sisters volunteer for the war effort--Ruth as a nurse, Elise as a driver.
Stationed at a makeshift hospital in Ypres, Belgium, Ruth soon confronts war's harshest lesson: not everyone can be saved. Rising above the appalling conditions, she seizes an opportunity to realize her dream to practice medicine as a doctor. Elise, an accomplished mechanic, finds purpose and an unexpected kinship within the all-female Ambulance Corps. Through bombings, heartache and loss, Ruth and Elise cherish an independence rarely granted to women, unaware that their greatest challenges are still to come.
Illuminating the critical role women played in the Great War, this is a remarkable story of resilience, sacrifice and the bonds that can never be vanquished.

My Review:

“It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.” The quote is by William Tecumseh Sherman. While Sherman was referring to the American Civil War, it is just as germane to World War I, and indeed any war either before or since.

Sisters of the Great War focuses on, not those who fired the shots, but rather those whose duty it was to hear the shrieks and groans of the wounded. Those who were tasked with the duty of transporting the wounded from the “front” to the makeshift hospitals nearly always inadequately staffed with doctors, nurses and orderlies who did the best they could with what little they had to patch them up if they could, invalid them out if they could not, or at least give them as much peace and surcease from pain as possible as they died.

Ruth and Elise Duncan represent two of those women. Ruth as a nurse, and Elise as an ambulance driver and mechanic. The story in Sisters of the Great War is the story of service on the front lines of that hell, undertaken with a lot of pluck, a great deal of stubbornness, and no small amount of naivete as a way of escaping privileged but unfulfilled lives under their father’s dictatorial thumb.

In Baltimore. In the United States. In 1914. Three years before the Americans entered the war. They volunteered, not really knowing, as no one did in 1914, that the war was going to take four long years of trenches and gas and devastation. Ruth left behind her father’s stern disapproval in the hopes that somehow, someway, serving as a nurse in wartime would give her the experience and the attitude needed for her to live her dream and become a doctor.

Elise just came along to keep her sister safe. Not that, as it turned out, safety was what either of them was built for. Nor was there any safety to be had in hospital tents or in barely functioning ambulances that were shelled almost as often as the trenches.

This is a story of perseverance in the face of bombs, shells and prejudice, railing against the lice and the substandard food and the even worse conditions and the sheer bloody-mindedness required to do not nearly enough with not nearly enough in order to save as many as possible – even if that wasn’t nearly enough either.

But they tried their best. They kept trying in the face of all the odds. And in the end, it was enough.

Escape Rating A: There have been plenty of stories featuring women who served in World War I as nurses or ambulance drivers. I can think of three off the top of my head; Phryne Fisher, Maisie Dobbs and Bess Crawford. (It may or may not be a coincidence that all lead mystery series.)

But the thing that struck me about all three of those heroines in comparison to Ruth and Elise Duncan is that in all three of those cases, in spite of the war being a critical part of each of their experiences, the brutal, devastating, depressing horror of the experience itself is a bit glossed over.

Phryne firmly keeps herself from looking back at her experience as an ambulance driver, while Maisie’s wartime experience effectively occurs between stories. Even Bess Crawford a nurse in a forward aid station, just as Ruth Duncan is at the beginning of her career, seems to carefully glance away from the worst of the gore in the operating theater to focus on the more individual gore of the murders that Bess uncovers.

What feels singular about Sisters of the Great War is that it uses Ruth’s and Elise’s slightly separated perspectives to put the nearly neverending horrors of the war and the desperation of the health care workers attempting to save them in the center of the story.

We’re with them every draining, numbing step of their way. We feel for them and with them and it makes their experience searing and horrifying and so very human. They’re both trying so hard and it’s never enough and they keep doing it anyway. We can’t turn our eyes away from their story – because they didn’t.

And yet, they’re not superhuman. We see their hopelessness and their fears and their exhaustion and we’re with them.

But because the story doesn’t gloss over just how much hell this war is, it’s a hard book because their experience, and the entire experience of that war, was so very hard and so deeply dark.

Not that there aren’t light moments in the story and in their hopes for the future – even as both of those things are full of fear. Ruth may have volunteered to escape their father, but she is also following the man she loves. Elise finally admits the truth of her own heart, and lets herself fall in love with another woman in spite of the censure they will face.

They do emerge from their war, bloody, often literally, and not either unscathed or unbowed. But they find the light at the end of their long dark tunnel and the entire experience makes for an extremely compelling read.

Review: An Impossible Promise by Jude Deveraux and Tara Sheets

Review: An Impossible Promise by Jude Deveraux and Tara SheetsAn Impossible Promise: A Novel by Jude Deveraux
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, time travel romance
Series: Providence Falls #2
Pages: 288
Published by Mira on September 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

They can’t be together, but they can’t stay apart…
Liam O’Connor has one purpose in this life—to push the woman he loves into the arms of another man. The Irish rogue unknowingly changed the course of destiny when he fell in love with Cora McLeod over a century ago. Their passion was intense, brief and tragic. And the angels have been trying to restore the balance of fate ever since.
Now police officers in Providence Falls, North Carolina, Liam and Cora are partners on a murder investigation. The intensity of the case has drawn them closer together—exactly what Liam is supposed to avoid. The angels have made it clear Cora must be with Finley Walsh. But headstrong Cora makes her own decisions and she’s starting to have feelings for Liam—the only thing he’s ever really wanted.
Liam knows this is the last chance to save his soul. But does he love Cora enough to let her go?
Providence Falls
Book 1: Chance of a Lifetime

My Review:

Okay, I’m hooked. Also confused, frustrated and annoyed – but hooked. I have to find out how this whole soap opera turns out.

Which constitutes fair warning on two counts. Count number one, that the insane story begun in Chance of a Lifetime does NOT conclude in An Impossible Promise. Count number two, this series is one story broken up into chapters, not two separate stories with some kind of link between them. In other words, you have to start at the beginning and it’s not done yet.

The third book isn’t even announced yet. Hence both the frustration AND the annoyance. I want to know how this is all going to get resolved – if only to find out if ANY of my guesses are right. And I need to know that the answers will be forthcoming at hopefully the not too distant future, but at least at some fixed date in the future.

Let me explain, which isn’t going to be easy because this story, at least so far, completely broke my willing suspension of disbelief meter and then set it on fire. This story needs resolution in the hopes that at the end it will all make sense.

The concept for the whole thing, as I discussed in my review of the first book in the series last week, has a lot of potential. It’s a time travel romance with a bit of angelic interference taking the place of any SFnal handwavium that often powers the jaunt through time.

What makes this different from the usual run of such things is that Liam O’Connor doesn’t go backward in time – he goes forward. From 1844 to an undefined present day probably just pre-pandemic.

Way back when, Liam O’Connor messed with Cora McLeod’s destiny when he convinced her to run away with him rather than marrying the man her father picked out for her. Whatever that destiny was, it was so huge and important that the angels, two of them specifically, have given Liam a second chance to get it right by giving up the woman he really does most sincerely love.

The angels fast forward Liam to now, where Cora McLeod, still with the same name, has another chance to marry her destined mate, Finley Walsh. It’s up to Liam to put aside his own desires – and honestly Cora’s as well – to make sure that this time things turn out the way they were supposed to.

All the while pretending to be a 21st police detective in a tiny town in North Carolina, learning how to live in a world he never imagined, while helping Cora solve a series of murders that have everyone in town on edge.

While a couple of meddling angels blow celestial trumpets in his ears to remind him that he only has three months to fix what he broke long ago before he goes straight to hell.

Escape Rating C+: As I said at the top, I am hooked on this story, and eaten up with speculation about how the whole thing is finally going to be worked out. But, but, but there are a whole lot of things about this story that drive me crazy because they don’t make sense – or at least they don’t make sense without a whole lot more explication than we have so far.

Liam, at one point in this book, asks the angels who have stuck him in this situation whether they are really angels or whether they’re working for the other side. I do not blame him AT ALL for wondering. They say they’re working for the “greater good” and all that, but anyone who works for the so-called “greater good” without explaining a whole lot about whose good and why it’s greater makes me twitchy and gives me mad Albus Dumbledore vibes and not in a good way.

Liam was kind of “voluntold” to participate in this mess, but it seems like everyone else is being manipulated rather a lot in order to accept Liam’s place in the world and in all of their lives. It also feels like a vast coincidence, beyond any angelic arrangement, that all the people in Providence Falls are reincarnations of the people Liam and Cora knew in their first go around, that they ALL have the same names and they are all in the same relationships to Liam, to Cora, and to each other.

The long arm of coincidence does not stretch that far – even in fiction.

Aside from the setup, the big issue in this romance is the romance. Liam really does love Cora, past and present. Cora is falling for Liam, again, even though she doesn’t remember their first time around.

Because we experience the story from Liam’s perspective, he’s the one we have empathy for. We want him to get his HEA and there’s no way that happens if he fulfills his promise to the angels. The entire story goes against the grain of the way it’s being told, especially when Cora’s growing feelings for Liam are taken into consideration. That she is not getting to make her own choices just bites. Seriously.

That’s not to say that this incarnation of Finley Walsh isn’t a good guy or in any way unworthy – but he’s not Cora’s choice. Although at least the story gives us a little more depth about him in this second installment. I would be happy to see Finn get his own HEA, but so far at least I’m not on board with that HEA being with Cora.

That’s where all of my thoughts about how this is going to play out go pear-shaped. At the end of this book, Liam finally gets a full explanation of why Cora has to marry Finn – but we don’t see it. All we get is Liam’s epiphany that his wants don’t matter, that Cora’s destiny is too important for him to mess up.

The problem I’m having is that I just don’t believe it. I’m not convinced. At all. The angels could be manipulating him, they could have shown him something that leads to this conclusion without it being the truth, and they could still be demons. On an entirely other hand they could be demons like Crowley (in Good Omens) was a demon, meaning that they might be doing the right thing in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. That’s actually an explanation I could seriously get behind.

But I want to know so, so badly. So I’m hooked. Along with being confused, frustrated and annoyed. The next book can’t come out soon enough. The horns of this particular dilemma are downright painful!

Review: Deadly Summer Nights by Vicki Delany + Giveaway

Review: Deadly Summer Nights by Vicki Delany + GiveawayDeadly Summer Nights (Catskill Summer Resort Mystery #1) by Vicki Delany
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, historical mystery
Series: Catskill Summer Resort Mystery #1
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley Books on September 14, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An immersive setting with details of running a Catskillsresort in the 1950s (think Kellerman's in Dirty Dancing) beautifully frame a story with plot twists and a cast of well-delineated characters.--Booklist
A summer of fun at a Catskills resort comes to an abrupt end when a guest is found murdered, in this new 1950s set mystery series.
It's the summer of 1953, and Elizabeth Grady is settling into Haggerman's Catskills Resort. As a vacation getaway, Haggerman's is ideal, and although Elizabeth's ostentatious but well-meaning mother is new to running the resort, Elizabeth is eager to help her organize the guests and the entertainment acts. But Elizabeth will have to resort to untested abilities if she wants to save her mother's business.
When a reclusive guest is found dead in a lake on the grounds, and a copy of The Communist Manifesto is found in his cabin, the local police chief is convinced that the man was a Russian spy. But Elizabeth isn't so sure, and with the fate of the resort hanging in the balance, she'll need to dodge red herrings, withstand the Red Scare, and catch a killer red-handed.

My Review:

Remember the movie Dirty Dancing? That romantic drama was set in the same location as this cozy mystery series, just ten years later. Things don’t seem to have changed much in the Catskills summer resorts during that intervening decade, but that was kind of the point.

One of the real Catskill resorts during its glory days

Back in the 1950s, the time period of this series, the Catskills resorts were in their storied heyday, not just a place but an entire experience, a setting where middle and upper class New Yorkers could retreat from the city’s heat to a beautiful mountain location upstate, close enough that the husbands could come up on the weekends to visit their families but still work in the city on weekdays.

And the resorts were self-contained enough to keep the wives and children entertained and cosseted for as long as the family could afford. An entire summer if they could manage it. Kind of like a cruise ship, just without the shore excursions.

Elizabeth Grady, manager of Haggerman’s Catskills Resort, and her mother, retired Broadway star Olivia Grady, are new to the Catskills. The summer of 1953 is only their second season, and Elizabeth is determined to make a go of the only asset she and her mother have. No matter who, or what, gets in her way.

They seem to be on track to profitability this year – or at least they are until the dead body of one of their guests is pulled from the lake one night.

That a guest might die while at the resort is not unheard of. Many of their guests are neither young nor in perfect health. Families have come to the Catskills resorts for at least two generations at this point, and sometimes those generations pass while at the resort.

But a murder is entirely other matter. Guests come to the Catskills to GET away from it all, not to be done away with as this one certainly was. This pot of scandal is further stirred when the local police chief searches the guest’s cabin, discovers a couple of maps and a copy of the Communist Manifesto, and calls the FBI in on suspicion that the “Reds” that Senator Eugene McCarthy is screaming about in Washington have made their way to the Catskills.

Elizabeth needs to find the murderer before the scandal takes her fledgling business right under the water along with the corpse. While her competition from the other resorts cheer on her business’ demise.

Some of them, at least, are absolutely salivating at the very though. After all, it will just prove what they’ve been saying all along, that running a business like Haggerman’s is simply not a suitable job for a woman.

Escape Rating A-: There is a lot to like in Deadly Summer Nights, and one thing that niggled at me a lot. I’ll get to that in a bit.

What I really liked about this story was the way that it dug a bit deeper into what the real world was like during the 1950s, as opposed to keeping reality at bay as the Catskills resorts were famous for doing in their heyday. Which were, after all, the 1950s.

Elizabeth is a woman running a business at a time when women were expected to stay home with the children and not “worry their pretty little heads” about such things as payrolls and suppliers and invoices and contracts. She’s every bit as competent and capable as any man around her and knows they’re being stupid and ridiculous but she plays as much of the game as she must in order to get by.

And she’s very good at asserting her authority when she has to – as she all too frequently does. That she can’t assert any authority over her mother is an entirely different matter. Most of us can’t manage that particular trick no matter how necessary we feel it might be.

I loved the way this story dealt with McCarthyism and the “Red Scare” of the 1950s. The police chief’s witch hunt is bogus and everyone knows it’s bogus. At the same time everyone has to take it seriously out of fear of very real consequences.

I also enjoyed the way that this series opener creates Elizabeth’s world, the resort and it’s annual three months of frenzy, the relationships between Elizabeth and her mother and her aunt, the way she treats her employees, how she deals with the guests, including the demanding divas, and the symbiotic relationship between the resorts and the towns that they are not quite a part of.

I have to say that the focus of the story is on the worldbuilding rather than the mystery, and that works for a series opener. The red herrings are certainly tasty, but Elizabeth has so many fish to fry on an average day that her investigation gets a bit lost in the chaos. I liked her more than enough to enjoy watching her work, whether on the murder or just keeping the resort afloat.

About that thing that niggled at me.

Although this review is being posted around the publication date of the book, I actually read it back in July. On the weekend I read this one of the last of the “Borscht Belt” comedians, Jackie Mason, passed away at the age of 93. I know this seems like a non sequitur, but it’s not. Because the “Borscht Belt” where Mason and so many others honed their stand up routines was just another name for the Catskills summer resorts where this story takes place. The Catskills resorts catered to a Jewish clientele, served Kosher food and gave a lot of Jewish comedians their start or bolstered their careers.

As is mentioned in the story, Milton Berle really did perform in the Catskills. The comedian who gets caught up in the murder investigation was probably based on Lenny Bruce, who also performed there during his all-too-brief but controversial career.

At first, I couldn’t figure out what was missing at Haggerman’s, until I realized that the context of who the clients were and who many of the owners were was entirely missing. If it was subtext it was so sub that I missed it. And I feel like a lot of the flavor of the area was lost.

Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.

But I really liked Elizabeth, her family and her resort, more than enough that I’ll be back for her next Catskills season in Deadly Director’s Cut, coming next March. Just at the point where winter’s doldrums will make reading about the summer sun seem like a real getaway!

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