Review: Peachy Scream by Anna Gerard + Giveaway

Review: Peachy Scream by Anna Gerard + GiveawayPeachy Scream (Georgia B&B #2) by Anna Gerard
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Georgia B&B #2
Pages: 320
Published by Crooked Lane Books on August 11, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

To die or not to die? Georgia B&B proprietor Nina Fleet struts and frets to bring the curtain down on a Shakespearean actor's killer.
It's nothing short of inevitable that Cymbeline, GA, hosts an annual Shakespeare festival. But stage-struck Nina Fleet is about to learn that putting on an amateur theatrical production can be murder. Nina's anticipating showbiz glamour and glitz when a community Shakespearean troupe arrives for a two-week stay at her B&B. But the lights dim when she learns the company's director is her nemesis, struggling actor Harry Westcott--who still claims to be the rightful heir to Nina's elegant Queen Anne home.
Meanwhile, the troupe members are not content to leave the drama upon the stage. Accusations of infidelity and financial malfeasance make a shambles of rehearsals. And then, two days into the troupe's stay, the lead actor is found dead in Nina's formal Shakespeare garden. Murder most foul!
Worse, it seems every member of the amateur troupe has a motive--including wealthy construction company owner Marvin Jeffers, who seems to have a personal interest in Nina. But when the sheriff arrests the supposed boyfriend of the slain actor's widow, Nina suspects that the wrong troupe member is in jail. She and her trusty Australian Shepherd, Matilda, join forces (none too happily) with Harry to sleuth out the murder plot.
Will they find the real killer before someone else shuffles off this mortal coil? Find out in Anna Gerard's delightful second Georgia B&B mystery.

My Review:

The first book in this series, Peach Clobbered, was just the quintessential first book in a cozy mystery series. The location was marvelous, the characters were appropriately quirky, the dog was adorable and the mystery was properly twisty while the story had a lot of heart – and a superfluity (that’s the correct word, I looked it up) of surprisingly with-it elderly nuns.

I miss the nuns. (Now there’s a sentence I never expected to write!)

Not that Nina Fleet – and her still adorable dog Mattie – aren’t still operating the Fleet House B&B in lovely Cymbeline Georgia. And not that I still wouldn’t love to find the place that inspired it once travel is safe again.

But I miss the nuns. They brought something to the first book that isn’t present in the second one. Making Peachy Scream more of a typical cozy than one that stands head and shoulders above the rest.

The story in Peachy Scream is still plenty charming – although the murder victim certainly is not.

When Nina’s nemesis, jobbing actor Harry Westcott, returns to her B&B with a troupe of amateur Shakespeare players in tow, Nina is certain that Harry is up to something. Again.

After all, when Nina and Harry first met, it was over his lawsuit to vacate her ownership of his great-aunt’s house. The place that Nina had just bought and just started setting up as a B&B in touristy Cymbeline. Not that Nina didn’t buy the house fair and square, rather that Harry’s contention was that the seller had no rights to sell because his great-aunt promised to leave him the house in her will. Which she didn’t – or at least no such will has ever been found although I expect it to turn up at some point later in the series. (That is a guess on my part and not a spoiler. I could be totally wrong. Time will eventually tell. Hopefully.)

Still, Harry’s back and Nina’s suspicious. As she should be.

But Cymbeline, named for Shakespeare’s play, is just about to open its popular, profitable and annual Shakespeare Festival. Harry and his troupe are the contracted acting company for this year’s play, Hamlet. And every other possible place for the players to stay was booked long ago. The festival is very popular!

Which means that Nina, rightfully suspicious as she is, can’t afford to throw Harry out on his rather delectable ass. Not that she’s noticed. Much.

It’s clear to Nina from the moment that she is introduced to Harry’s troupe of players that, to quote the Bard, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” or at least in the state of the company. When the man whom everybody seems to hate – including his trophy wife – turns up his toes in the middle of Nina’s Shakespeare garden, there’s a bushel of suspects, a peck of motives and no end in sight. But the show must go on.

And so must Nina’s and Harry’s reluctant collaboration in investigation. But this time, it’s not the play that’s “ the thing to uncover the conscience of the king”, it’s the play within a play within a play that catches the murderer.

Escape Rating B: Anyone who has spent their school years being endlessly compared to an older sibling or cousin and always failing to measure up will understand my reaction to Peachy Scream. I absolutely loved Peach Clobbered and picked up Peachy Scream because I was hoping for more of the same – or hopefully even better – in the second book in the series now that the setting and characters had been established.

I just didn’t realize how much of the charm of the first book was owed to the nuns. Without them, Peachy Scream doesn’t have quite the same charm. It’s still a good cozy mystery, but the nuns made the first book rise in a way that this one doesn’t.

Not that the story doesn’t have its own charms. The troupe of players, their surprisingly convoluted relationships and the almost internecine warfare amongst them certainly adds plenty of drama to a scenario that is already fraught with it. After all, these are actors – albeit amateur ones – and drama is their natural state.

The whole concept of the play within a play within a play really works here, especially as it seems completely natural for Cymbeline to host a Shakespeare Festival. It would be more of a surprise if they didn’t!

And the hidden agendas of the players make for an appropriate tipping of drama into melodrama, while the strange and strained relationship between Nina and Harry adds an element of farce.

There’s one element of the story that, while in some ways it’s done very well, in one particular aspect adds to some discomfort while reading. It was a common device in several of Shakespeare’s plays, for example in As You Like It, for the Bard to play with gender roles and gender stereotyping by having one or more female characters spend much of the play masquerading as male characters, with all of the dramatic and comedic possibilities for mistaken identities and misplaced affections on full display.

So the concept that one of the members of the troupe is a woman pretending to be a man fits right into the Shakespearean milieu that Cymbeline plays homage to with its festival.

But Nina’s reaction to discovering the possibility that the Chris that presents themselves as male may be female made for a very uncomfortable read. In 21st century terms, when this story is set, it is entirely possible that Chris is in transition rather than in disguise. Nina’s waffling about how to refer to Chris inside her own head, her seeming compulsion to hang herself up on knowing Chris’ gender felt so wrong that it literally dropped the grade of the book from a B+ to a B. The point where Harry just tells Nina to get over herself and use the gender nonspecific “they” in reference to Chris made ME heave a sigh of relief. And it should not have been necessary.

That being said, there was a lot about Peachy Scream to enjoy. The cast was even quirkier, in their own way, than the previous book. The town of Cymbeline is filled with a terrific bunch of folks, and while the Reverend Dr. Bishop, local minister, funeral home director and county coroner, wasn’t as much fun as the nuns; he was a fascinating character in his own right and I hope we see more of him in the series.

And Nina’s relationship with Harry, as weird as it already is, got even weirder at the end of the book. I’m terribly curious to see how THAT plays out in future books in the series!


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Review: The Friendship List by Susan Mallery

Review: The Friendship List by Susan MalleryThe Friendship List by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

[ ] Dance till dawn

[ ] Go skydiving

[ ] Wear a bikini in public

[ ] Start living


Two best friends jump-start their lives in a summer that will change them forever…
Single mom Ellen Fox couldn’t be more content—until she overhears her son saying he can’t go to his dream college because she needs him too much. If she wants him to live his best life, she has to convince him she’s living hers.
So Unity Leandre, her best friend since forever, creates a list of challenges to push Ellen out of her comfort zone. Unity will complete the list, too, but not because she needs to change. What’s wrong with a thirtysomething widow still sleeping in her late husband’s childhood bed?
The Friendship List begins as a way to make others believe they’re just fine. But somewhere between “wear three-inch heels” and “have sex with a gorgeous guy,” Ellen and Unity discover that life is meant to be lived with joy and abandon, in a story filled with humor, heartache and regrettable tattoos.

My Review:

There’s an old saying that the only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions. And that’s where this story begins, with best friend Ellen Fox and Unity Leandre both stuck in very long ruts. Very, very long.

The problem with ruts is that they can be surprisingly comfortable down there at the bottom. There’s nothing challenging a person out of their comfort zone. Ruts are easy and change is hard – and frequently painful.

Ellen had sex once, 17 years ago, found herself pregnant and unenthused about the process that got her there and settled into life as a single mother with a tiny bit of help and a whole lot of grief and attitude from her disapproving parents. Now she’s in her mid-30s, her son is at the end of his junior year in high school, and the kid is unwilling to apply to the colleges he really wants to go to because he’s afraid of leaving his poor mother all by herself because she doesn’t have a life outside of her teaching job, her two best friends, and him.

The worst part is that he’s not wrong.

Unity is even more stuck than her bestie. Her young husband died serving his country, but Unity seems to have thrown herself at least partway in that grave with him. She lives in his childhood home, sleeps in his childhood room, and has kept all of his things right where he – and his late parents – left them. She’s either living with his ghost or waiting to die. Or both. All of her friends except Ellen live in the age-restricted community where she does a lot of her home handyman work, and it’s a good thing the place is age-restricted or she’d have moved right in. If she could bring herself to move, that is.

Even Unity’s grief group has had enough of the way that Unity seems to feed her grief instead of letting it heal.

So they challenge each other to step out of their oh-so-comfortable ruts. To stretch their horizons and find out who they still have plenty of time to be before it’s too late. Before the dimensions of their ruts close off at the ends into graves.

Because they are both still young and have way too much life ahead of them to spend it waiting for the end. They’ll just have to make that hard climb over the sides of those ruts.

Escape Rating A-: Ellen and Unity may need to step out of their comfort zones, but in picking up this book I stepped right into mine. This was just the kind of friendship story that this author does so well, and reading it was a terrific pick-me-up for these troubled times.

What was great was that I felt for the situations of both of these women, in spite of both of their experiences being so far outside my own. Sometimes I wanted to beat them both with a clue-by-four, but in the way one does with long-term friends. As in I may think you’re way off base and I’ll tell you that in private while in public I’ll defend you from all comers.

Ellen and Unity have that kind of friendship and it’s an enviable one. It’s also easy to empathize with the way that they are both just trying to get through this thing called life and doing the best they can at it, even if from the outside it’s clear that they’re not really doing all that well at all. They are sabotaging themselves in ways that are easy to recognize and understand.

I also loved that they were able to finally figure out that many of their issues were sourced in the same place – Ellen’s rule-bound, disapproving parents – and that they both started figuring out ways to remove themselves from those naysaying voices.

One of the highlights of the story was Unity’s friendship with the larger-than-life Dagmar, and the contrast between Dagmar’s 70-something joie de vivre and eagerness to live each day to the absolute fullest, while Unity seems to be counting down the days, weeks, months and years until she can move into the senior village. Dagmar is clearly refusing to go gentle into that good night, in stark contrast to Unity who seems to have already went even though she’s still alive.

I loved the way that they each managed to work their way out of their respective ruts. It also felt very real that they had to be separate for a few weeks in order to make that happen. They were clearly enabling each other to stay stuck, whether intentionally or not.

But as much as I enjoyed this story, and I very much did, there’s a niggle that kept it from being an A. I think I’d have enjoyed the whole thing more if the solution to both women’s issues hadn’t been a romance. Or if it hadn’t felt like the romance and the healing were tied in a bit too strongly together. These women both needed to heal themselves first, and that’s not quite how it felt, particularly in Unity’s case. That Unity was healed enough at the end for an actual HEA doesn’t feel right, although Ellen certainly earned hers.

Still, this was a lovely read and I’m very glad I read it. I just picked up the ARC for Susan Mallery’s next standalone book, The Vineyard at Painted Moon, and I’m already looking forward to it.

In the meantime, if you’re thinking about picking up The Friendship List, I posted an excerpt from the first chapter last week as part of a tour. You can still follow the tour entries to get a taste of this delicious story.

Review: The Hero of Hope Springs by Maisey Yates

Review: The Hero of Hope Springs by Maisey YatesThe Hero of Hope Springs (Gold Valley, #10) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Gold Valley #10
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on July 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Will Gold Valley’s most honorable cowboy finally claim the woman he’s always wanted?
For as long as brooding cowboy Ryder Daniels has known Sammy Marshall, she has been his sunshine. Her free spirit and bright smile saved him after the devastating loss of his parents and gave him the strength to care for his orphaned family. Only Ryder knows how vulnerable Sammy is, so he’s kept his attraction for his best friend under wraps for years. But what Sammy’s asking for now might be a step too far…
Something has been missing from Sammy’s life, and she thinks she knows what it is. Deciding she wants a baby is easy; realizing she wants her best friend to be the father is…complicated. Especially when a new heat between them sparks to life! When Sammy discovers she’s pregnant, Ryder makes it clear he wants it all. But having suffered the fallout of her parents’ disastrous relationship, Sammy is wary of letting Ryder too close. This cowboy will have to prove he’s proposing out of more than just honor…

My Review:

There’s a big part of me that wants to call this a “friends to lovers” romance. And that’s kind of true. As the story opens – actually, as the entire Gold Valley series opens, Ryder Daniels and Sammy Marshall have been friends, but never lovers. Not for the 17 years that they’ve known each other. And not that Ryder, at least, hasn’t had thoughts in that direction.

Thoughts that he has ruthlessly if not completely suppressed, every time they’ve, well, come up.

That’s something Ryder has had lots of practice with. By that I mean suppressing any thoughts he doesn’t think he can afford to let fester inside his skull – and that he can’t let out of his mouth, either.

But Sammy and Ryder are more than just friends. They’re best friends. They are deep inside each other’s lives, and occupy a whole lot of space inside each other’s hearts. So it feels more like this is a story about two people finally acknowledging a relationship that’s been there all along.

There are, however, a few problems with changing what they are to each other. As it turns out, more than a few. Lots and bunches.

The biggest one being that any attempt to change what they are to each other has the strong possibility of wrecking everything that they are to each other. A risk that neither of them is willing to take.

Until there’s no choice at all.

Escape Rating B-: This is a mixed feelings review in multiple directions. So let’s get right to it.

One of the reasons that I love this author is that she creates tension in romantic situations that feels REAL. The problems between Ryder and Sammy, and there are lots of them, feel organic to their lives and aren’t silly misunderstandammits that could be resolved with a single conversation.

The problem for the reader, or at least this reader, is that a huge chunk of their mutual problem, as much as they are definitely a case of opposites attracting, is that for entirely different reasons both of these people live a lot of their lives inside their own heads.

Ryder’s stuck inside his head because his parents died when he was 18 and about to go off to college on a football scholarship. He had big plans far away from the family ranch. But Ryder was the oldest of several children, and the only way for them all to stay together and keep the ranch was for Ryder to give up his dreams and become a surrogate father to his siblings and his cousins who also lived with them.

So Ryder’s always had LOTS of thoughts about what might have been, what he wished was, and just getting through being a parent when he wasn’t quite done with being a child himself.

Sammy lives inside her own head because it was the only place she could be free. She learned to distance herself emotionally when she couldn’t do it physically while her angry and violent father was taking out all of his disappointments on Sammy – with his fists. While her mother looked on. She left her parents and moved into a tiny camper on the grounds of Ryder’s ranch when she was 16 and he was 18, because he made her feel safe.

He still does.

While the reasons that both Ryder and Sammy live inside their own heads a lot – and with a lot of internal angst – feels like an entirely real response to the situations in their lives. It makes for hard reading. Because they also have their heads inside their own asses a lot, unable to get out of their own ways.

So this is a story where it reads like there’s more internal dialog than external dialog – or action. And that’s right for these characters but drove this reader a bit bananas. Your reading mileage may definitely vary.

As I said, I finished this book with mixed feelings. While there was more internal angst than worked for me in a romance, the reason for that angst felt real and true to life. I liked these characters and wanted them to achieve their HEA, but admit to being kind of surprised that they actually managed to do it! But I do enjoy the Gold Valley series so I’m looking forward to seeing Ryder and Sammy again as secondary characters in later books. Especially as it looks like some of Ryder’s siblings are up next!

Review: Falling for Mr. Townsbridge by Sophie Barnes

Review: Falling for Mr. Townsbridge by Sophie BarnesFalling For Mr. Townsbridge (The Townsbridges #3) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Series: Townsbridges #3
Pages: 105
Published by Sophie Barnes on July 21, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

He knows he ought to forget her…

When William Townsbridge returns from Portugal and meets Eloise Lamont, the new cook his mother has hired, he’s instantly smitten. The only problem of course is that she’s a servant – completely off limits for a gentleman with an ounce of honor. But as they become better acquainted, William starts to realize he must make Eloise his. The only question is how.

Eloise loves her new position. But William Townsbridge’s arrival threatens everything, from her principles to her very heart. Falling for her employer’s son would be monumentally stupid. All it can lead to is ruin, not only for the present, but for her entire future. So then the simplest solution would be to walk away. But can she?

My Review:

When it comes to love and marriage, it seems that the Townsbridges are prepared to do whatever it takes, and brave whatever opprobrium society decides to administer, in order to marry the person they love.

In the first book in the series, Charles Townsbridge falls for the fiancée of his best friend – and very much vice versa. They try to do the right thing and forget each other, only to eventually realize that the so-called right thing is not the best thing and marry each other anyway in When Love Leads to Scandal.

Brother James compromises a young woman, or at least it appears that way on the surface. James and his new fiancee don’t even like each other, but the strictures of society have them stuck with each other whether they like it or not. But the lady is willing to court scandal in order to not marry a man who can’t stand her, only to discover that James Townsbridge is, after all, Lady Abigail’s Perfect Match.

But neither of these romances is nearly as unconventional as the one that occurs in this book. Because the woman who finds herself Falling for Mr. Townsbridge is the family cook, Eloise Lamont.

Unlike his brothers’ eventual wives, Eloise Lamont is not a member of the same social class as the Townsbridges, and everyone is all too aware of that fact. Not in the sense of thinking that anyone is above or below anyone else, but in the acknowledgement that any attention William Townsbridge pays to Eloise is going to ruin her reputation, no matter how innocent that attention might be.

And his family did an excellent job of educating all three of their sons that even an innocent flirtation with a servant is simply not done because of those consequences. Especially as William’s interest is not innocent at all. He’s also blunderingly obvious about it to everyone.

He just needs to look inside himself long enough and hard enough to figure out that his interest is worth courting any censure that society might administer as long as he can also court Eloise with the intention of marriage.

Something that takes him so long to figure out that she nearly escapes him altogether – no matter how little she actually wants to.

Escape Rating B: In the end, this is a lovely little romance about falling for the boss set at a time period when that possibility was fraught with even more ways that the situation can go terribly, terribly wrong. Yet it still comes out right.

Their initial teasing between William and Eloise is a bit unsettling for contemporary readers. He may intend it to be just teasing, and as the hero of this piece undoubtedly means it that way, but every single sentence is a two-edged sword that she sees all too clearly. There are obviously too many times already in her history when those exact same words in that exact same tone were just the prelude to sexual harassment. She knows it and we do too. But he has the privilege of being either oblivious or uncaring. A state that he returns to fairly often in the course of the story.

When the scene morphs into mutual banter, it’s a relief. There’s a feeling that she dodged a bullet. Until she steps right back into its path.

Because after the initial awkwardness and outright fear, there’s a mutual attraction here that neither of them is able to deny. No matter how hard both of them try to.

It felt like that was what made the story for me. They are in a supremely awkward situation. No matter how much they like each other or find each other interesting, they’re in positions that mean that his interest in her has the potential to actually ruin her life if he’s not excruciatingly careful. His entire family presses that upon him, so what would have once upon a time been the occasion for wink, wink, nudge, nudge doesn’t happen. And the story is the better for it.

I’m emphasizing his part of this dynamic because of his position of privilege. Whatever happens, it won’t affect him much. The need for caution has to be impressed upon him, frequently and often. Eloise is all too aware that the chance of this not damaging her life is vanishingly small, and she does her best to keep as far away from him as possible.

It’s his family who step in to make him aware that his privilege extends to marrying whoever he wants to, including the cook. Because for much of the story he doesn’t allow himself to think that at all and it nearly destroys any possibilities of happiness.

So, while William and Eloise form the romantic heart of this story, it feels like his family are really the heroes, because they see outside of society’s box and get him to see it too. And that part, the family love and family support – no matter how much society is going to balk – make the story.

Spotlight + Excerpt: The Friendship List by Susan Mallery

Spotlight + Excerpt: The Friendship List by Susan MalleryThe Friendship List by Susan Mallery
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

[ ] Dance till dawn

[ ] Go skydiving

[ ] Wear a bikini in public

[ ] Start living


Two best friends jump-start their lives in a summer that will change them forever…
Single mom Ellen Fox couldn’t be more content—until she overhears her son saying he can’t go to his dream college because she needs him too much. If she wants him to live his best life, she has to convince him she’s living hers.
So Unity Leandre, her best friend since forever, creates a list of challenges to push Ellen out of her comfort zone. Unity will complete the list, too, but not because she needs to change. What’s wrong with a thirtysomething widow still sleeping in her late husband’s childhood bed?
The Friendship List begins as a way to make others believe they’re just fine. But somewhere between “wear three-inch heels” and “have sex with a gorgeous guy,” Ellen and Unity discover that life is meant to be lived with joy and abandon, in a story filled with humor, heartache and regrettable tattoos.

Welcome to the Excerpt tour for The Friendship List by Susan Mallery. Susan always manages to write stories that sweep me up and take me away, and I’m sure that The Friendship List will be no exception. I’m so sure, in fact, that I’ll be reviewing this book next week! I’m definitely looking forward to reading this, and I hope you will be too!

Excerpt from The Friendship List by Susan Mallery (continued from yesterday’s Excerpt at Moonlight Rendezvous)

When Unity had driven away, Ellen returned to the kitchen where she quickly loaded the dishwasher, then packed her lunch. Cooper had left before six. He was doing some end-of-school-year fitness challenge. Something about running and Ellen wasn’t sure what. To be honest, when he went on about his workouts, it was really hard not to tune him out. Especially when she had things like tuition to worry about.

“Not anymore today,” she said out loud. She would worry again in the morning. Unity was right—Cooper was going to keep changing his mind. Their road trip to look at colleges was only a few weeks away. After that they would narrow the list and he would start to apply. Only then would she know the final number and have to figure out how to pay for it.

Until then she had plenty to keep her busy. She was giving pop quizzes in both fourth and sixth periods and she wanted to update her year-end tests for her two algebra classes. She needed to buy groceries and put gas in the car and go by the library to get all her summer reading on the reserve list.

As she finished her morning routine and drove to the high school where she taught, Ellen thought about Cooper and the college issue. While she was afraid she couldn’t afford the tuition, she had to admit it was a great problem to have. Seventeen years ago, she’d been a terrified teenager, about to be a single mom, with nothing between her and living on the streets except incredibly disappointed and angry parents who had been determined to make her see the error of her ways.

Through hard work and determination, she’d managed to pull herself together—raise Cooper, go to college, get a good job, buy a duplex and save money for her kid’s education. Yay her.

But it sure would have been a lot easier if she’d simply married someone with money.

*

“How is it possible to get a C- in Spanish?” Coach Keith Kinne asked, not bothering to keep his voice down. “Half the population in town speaks Spanish. Hell, your sister’s husband is Hispanic.” He glared at the strapping football player standing in front of him. “Luka, you’re an idiot.”

Luka hung his head. “Yes, Coach.”

“Don’t ‘yes, Coach’ me. You knew this was happening—you’ve known for weeks. And did you ask for help? Did you tell me?”

“No, Coach.”

Keith thought about strangling the kid but he wasn’t sure he could physically wrap his hands around the teen’s thick neck. He swore silently, knowing they were where they were and now he had to fix things—like he always did with his students.

“You know the rules,” he pointed out. “To play on any varsity team you have to get a C+ or better in every class. Did you think the rules didn’t apply to you?”

Luka, nearly six-five and two hundred and fifty pounds, slumped even more. “I thought I was doing okay.”

“Really? So you’d been getting better grades on your tests?”

“Not exactly.” He raised his head, his expression miserable. “I thought I could pull up my grade at the last minute.”

“How did that plan work out?”

No bueno.”

Keith glared at him. “You think this is funny?”

“No, Coach.”

Keith shook his head. “You know there’s not a Spanish summer school class. That means we’re going to have to find an alternative.”

Despite his dark skin, Luka went pale. “Coach, don’t send me away.”

“No one gets sent away.” Sometimes athletes went to other districts that had a different summer curriculum. They stayed with families and focused on their studies.

“I need to stay with my family. My mom understands me.”

“It would be better for all of us if she understood Spanish.” Keith glared at the kid. “I’ll arrange for an online class. You’ll get a tutor. You will report to me twice a week, bringing me updates until you pass the class.” He sharpened his gaze. “With an A.”

Luka took a step back. “Coach, no! An A? I can’t.”

“Not with that attitude.”

“But, Coach.”

“You knew the rules and you broke them. You could have come to me for help early on. You know I’m always here for any of my students, but did you think about that or did you decide you were fine on your own?”

“I decided I was fine on my own,” Luka mumbled.

“Exactly. And deciding on your own is not how teams work. You go it alone and you fail.”

Tears filled Luka’s eyes. “Yes, Coach.”

Author Info:

#1 NYT bestselling author Susan Mallery writes heartwarming, humorous novels about the relationships that define our lives-family, friendship, romance. She’s known for putting nuanced characters in emotional situations that surprise readers to laughter. Beloved by millions, her books have been translated into 28 languages.Susan lives in Washington with her husband, two cats, and a small poodle with delusions of grandeur. Visit her at SusanMallery.com.

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Review: The Woman Before Wallis by Bryn Turnbull

Review: The Woman Before Wallis by Bryn TurnbullThe Woman Before Wallis by Bryn Turnbull
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Mira on July 21, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

This novel is the fictionalised story of the American divorcée who captured Prince Edward’s heart before he abdicated his throne for Wallis Simpson.
In the summer of 1926, when Thelma Morgan marries Viscount Duke Furness after a whirlwind romance, she’s immersed in a gilded world of extraordinary wealth and privilege. For Thelma, the daughter of an American diplomat, her new life as a member of the British aristocracy is like a fairy tale—even more so when her husband introduces her to Edward, Prince of Wales.
In a twist of fate, her marriage to Duke leads her to fall headlong into a love affair with Edward. But happiness is fleeting, and their love is threatened when Thelma’s sister, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, becomes embroiled in a scandal with far-reaching implications. As Thelma sails to New York to support Gloria, she leaves Edward in the hands of her trusted friend Wallis, never imagining the consequences that will follow.

My Review:

The Woman Before Wallis takes a bit of the classic “poor little rich girl” trope, mixes it with a splash of royal scandal, stirs it with more than a dash of the over-the-top behavior of the rich and famous and splashes into a punch bowl of history’s froth. It’s the kind of gossipy, scandal-ridden story that is easy to eat up with a very large reading spoon, because it’s just so delicious and decadent.

And both the fun of it and the tragedy of it is that we already know how it ends, because the worst excesses of the story are part of history.

Thelma and the Prince in 1932

Thelma Morgan Converse Furness was a secondary character in not one but two of the great society scandals of the 1930s, one on each side of the Atlantic. In England, as her marriage to the Viscount Furness was in the process of falling apart, she became one of the Prince of Wales’ many lovers. That she was the one who introduced him to her friend and fellow American divorcee Wallis Warfield Simpson is the stuff of which tragic romances are made – both hers and theirs.

At the same time, she left England and “David” to Wallis’ not-so-tender mercies in order to go to New York and support her twin sister, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, in what at the time was considered the custody trial of the century, referred to in the tabloids as “The Matter of Vanderbilt”. Thelma’s little niece, Gloria Vanderbilt (yes, THE Gloria Vanderbilt) was kidnapped by her aunt, the artist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who sued Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt for custody of the little heiress and won, based on some rather questionable evidence provided by members of both families who seem to have hated the mother much more than they cared what was best for the child. Little Gloria seems to have been a pawn of the older women in her life until she reached adulthood.

That the same person was a secondary player in both of these history-making scandals makes Thelma an ideal candidate for a salacious, gossipy, scandal-ridden story of epic proportions.

This is her story, from her ring-side seat to history. And it’s a juicy one.

Escape Rating B: I have mixed feelings about this story. On the one hand, it’s a very juicy story of debauchery and decadence, a gossipy melange of well-known historical figures with a whole lot of dirt and scandal.

On the other hand, as glitzy and glittery as this story is, the people covered in that glitz feel shallow. I think we’re meant to feel that both Thelma and Gloria, the twin Morgan girls, were in the end somewhat hard done by. That they loved and lost and didn’t have nearly enough control of the circumstances under which they lived or the choices they made. Poor little rich girls who made one hell of a lot of mistakes.

Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt with her daughter at age eight

In the end, it felt like the only person really hard done by in this story is little Gloria, whose custody and whose fortune end up being the prize in a long-running battle between her mother, her aunt and her grandmother over who hates whom the most and who can throw the most muck at whom fast enough to win. The problem with this kind of muck-racking fight is that no one emerges from it either clean or unscathed. And so it proved in this case.

Thelma, in the end, feels like a secondary player in her own life, supporting her twin sister at the cost of her own happiness. And that’s after ending her second marriage to have an affair with the Prince of Wales, only to be abandoned in favor of Wallis Simpson when the scandal of her sister’s custody trial began to turn in her direction – and his.

That all adds up to very mixed feelings. The book is compulsively readable, and I enjoyed the portrait of life among the rich and famous in the years just before and after the start of the Great Depression. But there’s a sense of “fiddling while Rome burns”, that there’s just no there there under the glamour.

I can’t help but think of the true definition of the word glamour, however. That a glamour is, according to Merriam-Webster, “An exciting and often illusory and romantic attractiveness.” By that definition, this story is glamorous indeed.

Review: Silk Dragon Salsa by Rhys Ford + Excerpt + Giveaway

Review: Silk Dragon Salsa by Rhys Ford + Excerpt + GiveawaySilk Dragon Salsa (Kai Gracen, #4) by Rhys Ford
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Kai Gracen #4
Pages: 206
Published by Dreamspinner Press on July 14, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

SoCalGov Stalker Kai Gracen always knew Death walked in his shadow. Enough people told him that, including his human mentor, Dempsey. Problem was, the old man never told him what to do when Death eventually caught up.
Where Tanic, his elfin father and the Wild Hunt Master of the Unsidhe Court, brought Kai pain and suffering, Dempsey gave him focus and a will to live… at least until everything unraveled. Now caught in a web of old lies and half-truths, Kai is torn between the human and elfin worlds, unsure of who he is anymore. Left with a hollowness he can’t fill, Kai aches to find solace in the one elfin he trusts—a Sidhe Lord named Ryder—but he has unfinished business with Dempsey’s estranged brother, a man who long ago swore off anything to do with the feral elfin child Dempsey dragged up from the gutter.
Reeling from past betrayals, Kai searches for Dempsey’s brother, hoping to do right by the man who saved him while trying to keep ahead of the death haunting his every step. Kai never thought he’d find love or happiness as a Stalker, but when Death comes knocking at his door, Kai discovers a fierce need to live life to the fullest—even if that means turning his back on the people he calls family.

My Review:

There’s something that Kai says, about 3/4ths of the way through Silk Dragon Salsa, that really hit me, because Kai thinks he’s talking about other people, not realizing that he’s really talking about himself. Not that he’s not talking about other people too – for rather elastic and expansive definitions of people – but his comment is really about the story of Kai’s life in general, and this installment in particular.

“There was a constant, roaming quest to discover the depths or heights of humanity, and sometimes that journey took a hard left turn into a what-the-hell neighborhood.”

Kai’s whole story is hard left turn into that particular neighborhood, but especially this part of it. Because the opening of this story takes away everything that Kai thought he knew about himself when his adopted father Dempsey makes a deathbed confession. It’s Dempsey’s chance to clean his slate, but it strips away too many of the things that Kai believed, not just about himself, but about his relationship with Dempsey and his relationship with all of the people who have come to make up his world and his family.

Well, at least all of the purely human members of that family.

Kai is a chimera, a construct of both Sidhe and Unsidhe. An abomination according to his own people. An experiment and a slave according to the being who was both his biological parent and his creator.

Dempsey always told Kai that he won him in a card game. But that deathbed confession reveals that the man kidnapped him as part of an under-the-table Stalker hunt. And not that Kai wasn’t sorely in need of rescue.

But Kai had grown up – or matured – or stopped being feral – or all of the above, believing that Dempsey had trained him and adopted him after that card game and that the human family that he’d become a part of loved him and cared for him. Now he’s learned that Dempsey had to fight with all of them to keep him and train him rather than turn Kai in for a very hefty bounty.

A bounty that is either still active – or has been reactivated. In the wake of Dempsey’s death, Kai is being hunted again. This time by his own kind. Meaning by his fellow Stalkers. Kai has to delve in Dempsey’s past as well as his own to discover who is still after him after all these years.

So he can take them out before they do him in.

Escape Rating A+: The beginning of this story is a gut-punch, and so is the ending. In the wild ride of a middle, there’s a quest, and it’s one of the oldest and best ones in the book. While on the surface Kai is searching for whoever wants him captured or dead, what he’s really hunting for is his identity.

After all, if he’s not who Dempsey told him he was, then who is he? And if his “family” wanted to turn him in rather than help him up, who will stand with him in a world where he knows many are against him, doing a job that is pretty much guaranteed not to let anyone make old bones. Not even an immortal elfin.

It’s a quest that literally tears him apart and puts him back together. It’s a story where, even though Kai has been an adult for all the life he remembers, he finally grows up and reaches out for who he’s meant to be.

And that allows him to finally become comfortable in his own skin – no matter how much pain and discomfort has been and will continue to be inflicted on that skin and the heart that lives inside it. Also, no matter how many times his semi-feral cat Newt tries to claw that heart out and eat it because his dinner is 5 seconds late.

I read the first book in this marvelous urban fantasy series, Black Dog Blues, way, way back in 2013, before Dreamspinner published it, at a point where Kai was the author’s half-feral child and there was no certainty there would even BE a series. Book 2, Mad Lizard Mambo, was on my “Best E-Originals” list for 2016 in Library Journal, and the cover quote for Silk Dragon Salsa is from that review. (And I’m still over the moon seeing that on the cover!)

But at Kai’s introduction it was very much urban fantasy in a fascinating world where the elfin realms of the Sidhe and the Unsidhe had crashed – or merged – into ours, with catastrophic results. At the time, it was definitely urban fantasy because Kai read like the kind of urban fantasy protagonist with a really shitty love life. At the beginning, Kai didn’t even like himself enough to love anyone else.

He’s healed a lot since then. Not that he’s not still a mess, but he’s more accepting of himself, warts and all, than seemed possible in the beginning. Of course, that means that just as this story ends, and it finally looks like Kai might be within spitting distance of something that might be as close to happy ever after as Kai is likely to get, a piece of his past crawls out of the woodwork to set things up for even more danger and angst in his next outing.

And I can’t wait to read it!

Guest Post from Rhys PLUS Part 4 of License to Stalk, a NEW Kai Gracen short story

Hello! 

And welcome back to my world of dragons, intrigue, hot guns, fast cars and a grumpy, slightly anti-social Chimera of a Sidhe and an Unsidhe who really only wants to hunt monsters and go home to his probably carnivorous cat. My name is Rhys Ford and I’ll be your guide today as on July 14th,I’ll take you back to the Kai Gracen series for Book Four — Silk Dragon Salsa. 

If you’re following the blog tour from the beginning, you can skip this bit and head to the serialized part of the story but if this is your first time with me, let me ramble a bit about my grouchy special kitten, Kai. I’ve used the past three books to set up his relationships and world and kind of settling him for what should have been a changing environment. He’s never really had a lot of contact with the elfin and never really wanted any. Ryder, the Lord of the Southern Rise Court, blew into Kai’s life like a hurricane with a grudge and Kai’s had to not only learn how to get along with the man but also adjust to the fact the elfin are in his life to stay. Not something Kai ever wanted. He was raised by humans, thinks of himself as human, and was pretty happy about it.

Then his world changed and he was dragged kicking and screaming and probably stabbing into a bit of elfin affairs even as he knew it would probably be the death of him.

And in Silk Dragon Salsa, I really turn his world upside down. 

It was a long time coming and Kai, in his true quick-on-his-feet fashion, knows he must change with it. Because the Merged world is going forward — with or without his approval — and this time, he has a chance for a bit of happiness, if he can find it in the chaos storm hunting him down in Silk Dragon Salsa.

Silk Dragon Salsa Information and Purchase Links

Kai’s fourth book is being published by Dreamspinner Press and I’ve had the fantastic honour of working with Chris McGrath again for its cover. Chris is a fantastic artist and he totally captured the feel of the book in this cover. I am so very grateful for his contributions in bringing Kai to life.

AND Greg Tremblay will once again bring his talent and gorgeous voice to breathing life and mayhem into Kai’s world as he narrates — nay, acts — Silk Dragon Salsa. I’ll be announcing the audiobook’s release date once I have it so watch my social media for further details.

Silk Dragon Salsa can be purchased at Dreamspinner Press, Amazon and other fine online ebook retailers.

And now… for License to Stalk, A Kai Gracen Short Story

Part Four

We’d holed up in one of the town’s farmer’s empty barns, parking Dempsey’s truck at an angle near the structure’s open back doors. The place seemed solid enough, probably meant for goats or smaller livestock. It smelled faintly of hay and dusky farm animal discards, a lingering ripeness of old droppings clinging to its walls. A hundred yards to the right sat another barn, much bigger and newer and as I dressed the remainder of the two small deer I’d brought in with the salamander, voices carried across the yard, getting louder with each cut I made.

“All I’m saying is that you didn’t do the Run so I’m not paying for two Stalkers.” The big bellied man who’d been grateful to see us taking their contract when we first arrived now was a blustery, red-faced wobbling hunk of angry flesh. His liver spotted pate glistened in the late afternoon sun, sweat dotting his brow and a few drops slipped down his forehead, catching in his nettle-patch white eyebrows. “’Sides, the other one doesn’t count. He’s not even human.”

“He’s my apprentice,” Dempsey spat back. His fingers were curled around a stub of a cigar but it was unlit, probably to the relief of the young farmer pacing behind the pack of older men. “Stalker regulations state I can send him out in my stead and get a full payment.”

“Yeah? Then let’s see his license,” a thin man dressed in overalls spat out. A look of revulsion curdled his features, his tiny dark eyes flicking back and forth to where I stood. “Because I don’t think any state’s going to let one of those things carry a gun, much less a Stalker license.”

I glanced up from where I stood near the truck’s lowered tailgate, one hand wrapped around a bloodied knife while I used the other to pull on the deer’s remaining back leg to stretch out the joint. The young farmer met my gaze and held it, a burning heat searing over the town elders’ shoulders then he looked away, a red flush creeping over his cheeks. I knew what he wanted. It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten that kind of appraisal from someone lingering on the edges of a collective outrage and it probably wasn’t going to be the last. 

“If he’s got a license, I’m a fairy princess.” One of the other men chortled, his fleshy neck wobbling with each guffaw. “’Sides, what are you lot going to do? Put the damned thing back?”

I stopped cutting, flicking my knife clean with a twist of my wrist. The stamped down hay at my feet was slick with blood, cast off from the bled-out carcasses. I found Dempsey’s eyes, readying for a fight if he was going to take a step in. Sometimes things went bad and while I called him an old man, his fists were stone blocks and tireless but there were six of them and only two of us since Jonas stayed in town to pick up supplies. 

The soulful eyed farmer back pedaled away from the older men, his hands up in surrender. “I didn’t sign on for cheating them. I lost the most stock. I think we should—”

“You didn’t put in the most money though, O’Malley.” The mustached man spat at his feet. “Greany is right. They’ll take what they get and move along. Worse than thieving gypsies, that’s what Stalkers are.”

“Think we can’t do anything?” I finally said, strolling over to where the men stood. My clothes were mostly clean and my knives were bare of blood, but the smell of death still clung to me. “Dempsey here can put a black mark on your town. Same as Jonas. Two strikes and no one’s going to pick up any contract you take out. This time it’s a salamander. What if the next time it’s an ainmhi dubh? What are you going to do when no Stalker comes in to save your asses then?”

“This time it’s chicken and goats,” Dempsey murmured in his low, angry voice. Stabbing his cigar stub into the corner of his mouth, he worked at the end. “Next time, it’s your kids. Maybe even your wives and mothers. You willing to do that over a handful of money? Because the boy here’s stocked up our stores for a long time. Even enough to spread out over to those families who don’t have much. We finish up here without a payout and we’re not just dropping venison off. We’ll be telling everyone we run into how you don’t think their lives are worth the shit you’re stepping in.”

They paid. 

And I went back to dressing the deer, fairly certain I was going to have a bit of company later on and not sure I was going to be up to it. Especially since the men were right. There was no way in hell any state government was going to pin a Stalker badge on me. 

Follow the Silk Dragon Salsa Blog Tour (for the rest of the story!)

 

About Rhys Ford

Rhys Ford is an award-winning author with several long-running LGBT+ mystery, thriller, paranormal, and urban fantasy series and is a two-time LAMBDA finalist with her Murder and Mayhem novels. She is also a 2017 Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Florida Authors and Publishers President’s Book Awards for her novels Ink and Shadows and Hanging the Stars. She is published by Dreamspinner Press and DSP Publications.

She’s also quite skeptical about bios without a dash of something personal and really, who doesn’t mention their cats, dog and cars in a bio? She shares the house with Harley, a grey tuxedo with a flower on her face, Badger, a disgruntled alley cat who isn’t sure living inside is a step up the social ladder as well as a ginger cairn terrorist named Gus. Rhys is also enslaved to the upkeep of a 1979 Pontiac Firebird and enjoys murdering make-believe people.

Rhys can be found at the following locations:

Blog: www.rhysford.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/rhys.ford.author
Facebook Group: Coffee, Cats, and Murder: https://www.facebook.com/groups/635660536617002/
Twitter: @Rhys_Ford

For more information and to keep track of his upcoming releases, visit Greg Tremblay at: https://gregtremblay.com/

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

And what would be a blog tour without a giveaway? Enter to win a $20 USD gift certificate to the online etailer of your choice! Amazon! Dreamspinner! Starbucks! Funko! Where your heart desires so long as I can get the winner a gift certificate there! Enter at every blog on the tour because it’s a gift certificate giveaway for every stop!

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Review: Pirate’s Persuasion by Lisa Kessler + Giveaway

Review: Pirate’s Persuasion by Lisa Kessler + GiveawayPirate's Persuasion (Sentinels of Savannah #4) by Lisa Kessler
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: paranormal romance
Series: Sentinels of Savannah #4
Pages: 280
Published by Entangled: Amara on June 22, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Immortal pirate Drake Cole has a reputation in Savannah for his custom woodworking and historical restorations, but his work has grown into an obsession. He's become a stranger to his crew since the Sea Dog sank in 1795. None of them know his painful secret. A young stowaway went down with the ship, one that Drake swore a blood oath to protect.
The ghost of a young boy, lost at sea over two hundred years ago, leads local medium, Heather Storrey right to Drake’s door. He saved her life before, and now she has a chance to return the favor, but how can she protect him from a curse that no one can see?
A dark coven possesses the figurehead from the Flying Dutchman, and if Heather and the immortal Sea Dog crew don't locate the relic soon, Drake may be lost to them forever. Heather has seen the passionate man behind the veil of guilt, and she's determined to free him from his self-imposed prison, and persuade this pirate to love again.

My Review:

Pirate’s Persuasion is the 4th book in the Sentinels of Savannah series, which began with Magnolia Mystic. And that’s probably where you should start if you haven’t already met the crew of the Sea Dog. (You don’t really HAVE to, but you probably should read at least the first one first!)

You would think a story about pirates would be historical romance, but this isn’t. And you would think that a series about immortals still living in a haunted city would be about vampires, but that’s not what’s happening here either.

Instead, the crew of the Sea Dog managed to miss their scheduled trip to Davy Jones’ Locker back in 1795 by having drunk from the Holy Grail not long before their ship went down off the coast of Savannah.

Yes, that Grail. It’s been around. And it still is, as the events of this series have shown.

Over the centuries immortality has turned out to be as much of a curse as blessing, although not so much of a curse that any of them are willing to give it up – at least not without a greater blessing to counterbalance the effects of mortality.

As this book opens, three of the members of the Sea Dog’s crew have found their happily ever after with women tangentially connected to the paranormal and supernatural community of Savannah. Some of the couples have chosen immortality together, while others have chosen mortality together.

The together part being the entire point.

Ship’s carpenter Drake Cole has found immortality more of a burden than the others, but still chose not to give it up when faced with the choice in Pirate’s Passion. But Drake left too much behind in 1795 to live easily in the 21st century, and both come back to haunt him, literally and figuratively, in the course of this story.

The old Sea Dog had a stowaway back in 1795, Drake’s nephew Thomas. When the ship went down, Drake believed that they would die together, only for Drake to wash up on shore with the rest of the crew, and for the boy to meet Davy Jones alone. Drake has never gotten past his guilt for bringing the child aboard – and for not dying with him.

He also left the woman he loved behind in England when the Sea Dog set sail, and he’s never gotten over that loss.

His past catches up with him and tries to drag him under when a beautiful woman who talks to the dead tells him that his nephew asked her to pass on the message that his uncle was in danger, here and now, from someone very much alive.

Someone with seriously nefarious plans to ruin both Drake and the woman who has always held his heart – life after life after life.

Unless death manages to come for them both.

Escape Rating B: The premise behind this series is still an absolute hoot. On the one hand we have those immortal pirates. And who doesn’t love a good pirate romance? On the other hand, we have, well, the 21st century in which they are still living. On my third hand (call me an octopus for this one) we have not just the Holy Grail that gave the crew their immortality, but also other ancient and extremely powerful artifacts, like Pandora’s Box featured in Pirate’s Pleasure, and the figurehead of Davy Jones’ ship, The Flying Dutchman, in this story.

And on my fourth hand, we have Agent David Bale of Department 13, the government agency that deals with the paranormal, the legendary, the supernatural, and all of the other dangerous objects that need to be locked up in Warehouse 13 or Area 51. Last, but not least, we have the Digi Robins, a group of sometimes white hat but mostly black hat hackers who comb the dark web looking for priceless objects to steal – so that they can use the proceeds to help people with expensive medical problems who are all out of options.

Five points make a pentagram, which is pretty apt for this story, as it mixes the immortals with a beautiful medium who can talk to the dead and a coven of witches who plans to use the figurehead of Davy Jones’ ship to control the spirits of the dead. And at the center, a witch who will use any means available to get her revenge on everyone she thinks owes her – especially her sister and the pirate she loves.

Like the previous entries in this series, there’s a lot going on between all of the various elements. But the center of this one is medium Heather Storrey. She thinks she’s just taking a warning from a ghost to the family he left behind, only to eventually figure out that she’s been at the center of a dastardly plot all along.

I have to admit that while I love this series and it’s blend of the historical, the contemporary and the supernatural, Heather’s part in this story gave me a bit of a fit. I liked her as a person, I loved her relationship with Drake, and I’ve always enjoyed the camaraderie of the Sea Dog’s crew, but it felt obvious at least to this reader that her sister was the evil witch (literally) at the heart of the whole plot, that she had been after Heather all along, and that Heather was way too naive about their entire relationship. It may have been a case of hope over experience, but I really wanted to hit Heather with a clue-by-four a little too early on. And that spoiled the suspense aspects of the plot for me.

So, while I did enjoy the story, and I liked the way it moved the entire arc of the Sea Dog’s crew forwards, Heather is not my favorite of the heroines so far. That doesn’t mean I won’t be back, waiting on the dock for the next time the Sea Dog comes to port – because I definitely will.

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

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Review: The Woman in the Green Dress by Tea Cooper

Review: The Woman in the Green Dress by Tea CooperThe Woman in the Green Dress by Tea Cooper
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Thomas Nelson on June 16, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A cursed opal, a gnarled family tree, and a sinister woman in a green dress emerge in the aftermath of World War I.
After a whirlwind romance, London teashop waitress Fleur Richards can’t wait for her new husband, Hugh, to return from the Great War. But when word of his death arrives on Armistice Day, Fleur learns he has left her a sizable family fortune. Refusing to accept the inheritance, she heads to his beloved home country of Australia in search of the relatives who deserve it more.
In spite of her reluctance, she soon finds herself the sole owner of a remote farm and a dilapidated curio shop full of long-forgotten artifacts, remarkable preserved creatures, and a mystery that began more than sixty-five years ago. With the help of Kip, a repatriated soldier dealing with the sobering aftereffects of war, Fleur finds herself unable to resist pulling on the threads of the past. What she finds is a shocking story surrounding an opal and a woman in a green dress. . . a story that, nevertheless, offers hope and healing for the future.
This romantic mystery from award-winning Australian novelist Tea Cooper will keep readers guessing until the astonishing conclusion.
“Readers of Kate Morton and Beatriz Williams will be dazzled. The Woman in the Green Dress spins readers into an evocative world of mystery and romance in this deeply researched book by Tea Cooper. There is a Dickensian flair to Cooper’s carefully constructed world of lost inheritances and found treasures as two indomitable women stretched across centuries work to reconcile their pasts while reclaiming love, identity and belonging against two richly moving historical settings. As soon as you turn the last page you want to start again just to see how every last thread is sewn in anticipation of its thrilling conclusion. One of the most intelligent, visceral and vibrant historical reads I have had the privilege of visiting in an age.” —Rachel McMillan, author of The London Restoration 
“Refreshing and unique, The Woman in the Green Dress sweeps you across the wild lands of Australia in a thrilling whirl of mystery, romance, and danger. This magical tale weaves together two storylines with a heart-pounding finish that is drop-dead gorgeous.” —J’nell Ciesielski, author of The Socialite
Full-length historical story with both romance and mysteryStand-alone novelIncludes Discussion Questions for Book Clubs

My Review:

Particularly large and/or valuable gems often have legends attached to them. Or curses. Or both. Generally both. Based on its history, the Hope Diamond is probably safest in the Smithsonian, rather than around the neck of someone who might be the victim of its curse. Although its owner during the 1920s seems to have made a habit of letting her Great Dane wear it!

The gem at the heart of this intricate work of timeslip fiction would have been a magnet for myths, curses and thieves had it ever existed; a great, big, beautiful opal, the first of its kind to be discovered in Australia, at a time when Queen Victoria had made the wearing of opals all the rage. In spite of their previous reputation as unlucky.

Or cursed.

But the opal, cursed or otherwise, kind of acts like a brooch that pins this story together. A story that takes place in two separate time periods, 1853 and 1919. This is, after all, a timeslip story, so it’s the past that is unveiled in the 1853 timeline that needs to be resolved in the 1919 “present”.

And it’s a doozy.

Australia in 1853 is not too distant from its penal colony roots. Just distant enough that the emancipationists – the deported convicts, while still looked down upon, do have a chance of making a new life for themselves. Equally, they have a chance of getting up to their old tricks. Or perhaps a bit of both.

Australia is also a vast country much like the American West, where the white “settlers” were doing their level best – or should that be absolute worst – to push the continent’s original owners out of their ancestral lands – and even to the brink of extinction if it can be managed. But at the same time, it’s a big place and there are still, at least in 1853, places where the whites have not encroached much – at least not yet – and where the unique native flora and fauna still thrive. Although all are under threat.

And that’s where the earlier portions of this story begin. With a young woman who does her best to protect the native people she views as friends and fellow stewards of the lands around her. A woman whose job, whose art, is to preserve the native fauna at least through expert taxidermy, as her father did before her.

At least until her home and her life are invaded by a young man from Austria, on a journey to visit the sites that his mentor visited 20 years before. Together they find themselves caught up in a search for that fabulous missing opal, only to dig up way more than they bargained for in family secrets – and murder.

In 1919, Fleur Richards learns that her husband of just a few months has been killed in action in the closing days of the Great War, and that he has left his grief-stricken wife an inheritance she never knew he had. She thought that the dashing Australian soldier, Hugh Richards, was a young man with an eye to the future, but no more or greater financial prospects than her orphaned and impoverished self.

But the inheritance she does not want spurs her to travel halfway around the world to discover just who her husband really was, in the hopes of finding someone more deserving of his fortune than she believes herself to be.

She finds more than she bargained for. A cursed gem, a locked and abandoned shop of curios and wonders, the solution to a long-ago mystery. And a home.

Escape Rating A-: I have to say that The Woman in the Green Dress gets off to a bit of a slow start, hence the A- rating. Somewhere past the first third of the book the story takes off and develops all sorts of lovely twisty-turny plot threads that keep the story zipping along from there to the end.

But it takes a while to get there, approximately the amount of story it takes for Fleur to get to Australia and get fed up with the runaround she’s getting in Sydney. And on the historic side, the amount of time for Della to meet Stefan and decide to take her life back in her own hands by returning to Sydney to discover what changes her Aunt Cordelia has made in the shop that Della owns.

And I’ve just realized the juxtaposition, that Della’s story takes off when she gets to Sydney, and Fleur’s gets its wings when she leaves it. Not that Fleur doesn’t return fairly quickly, but as the two heroines start moving – so does the story.

Both the past and the present stories are wrapped around secrets. Della has to uncover the secrets that her Aunt is keeping – before those secrets get her killed. Not that they haven’t already left a trail of bodies in their wake. Fleur needs to uncover the secret of who her husband really was, and to learn the truth about the legacy he left behind for her to unravel and resolve.

In the end, it’s a story about the truth setting them both free. And about a beautiful, captivating opal that was both lost and found.

But that woman in the green dress – she’s pure poison. Her story, however, is as delicious as her tonic is deadly.

TLC
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Review: The Marriage Game by Sara Desai

Review: The Marriage Game by Sara DesaiThe Marriage Game by Sara Desai
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Berkley on June 9, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A high stakes wager pits an aspiring entrepreneur against a ruthless CEO in this sexy romantic comedy.

After her life falls apart, recruitment consultant Layla Patel returns home to her family in San Francisco. But in the eyes of her father, who runs a Michelin starred restaurant, she can do no wrong. He would do anything to see her smile again. With the best intentions in mind, he offers her the office upstairs to start her new business and creates a profile on an online dating site to find her a man. She doesn’t know he’s arranged a series of blind dates until the first one comes knocking on her door…

As CEO of a corporate downsizing company Sam Mehta is more used to conflict than calm. In search of a quiet new office, he finds the perfect space above a cozy Indian restaurant that smells like home. But when communication goes awry, he's forced to share his space with the owner's beautiful yet infuriating daughter Layla, her crazy family, and a parade of hopeful suitors, all of whom threaten to disrupt his carefully ordered life.

As they face off in close quarters, the sarcasm and sparks fly. But when the battle for the office becomes a battle of the heart, Sam and Layla have to decide if this is love or just a game.

My Review:

To kick this off, just let me say that if you like Sonali Dev and Nisha Sharma you’re going to love Sara Desai, and very much vice versa – all the way around.

I had The Marriage Game in the virtually towering TBR pile but managed to lose track of having signed up for this blog tour. The reminder came just in time and I am SO GLAD it did.

Because this was lovely and awesome with just the right amount of fluff overlaying just the best amount of serious to make this both a terrific summer read and an absolutely wonderful book for getting my reading mojo back and taking me away from all the crap going on in the world.

Mental breaks are good for the soul.

And that’s kind of where this story begins, because Layla Patel definitely comes home to her parents’ and their Michelin-starred restaurant in need of some family TLC, a mental break from the mess she left behind in New York City, and a bit more than her vague plans to open her own recruiting agency.

Then it all goes pear-shaped, in some ways even more so than the events that led to her rather abrupt departure from New York City.

Her father has a heart-attack. Her parents’ restaurant is in financial trouble. And the office that her father planned to let her occupy rent-free to get her business started is already occupied – by the most uptight, order-driven, stick-up-his-ass but gorgeous man that Layla has ever met.

Not that Sam Mehta isn’t having a similar set of thoughts about Layla. She is chaos, she’s a trouble-magnet, she’s free-thinking and free-wheeling, she’s disorganized and unprofessional and utterly captivating.

They are complete opposites. And they get along like kerosene and matches – absolutely combustible every two-steps-forward and one-step-back of the way.

Escape Rating A: This marvelous piece of contemporary romance is one of those stories that absolutely brims with witty, snarky and frequently panty-melting banter. Well, at least Layla’s panties certainly end up melted on more than one occasion – even the gray granny panties. It’s an opposites-attract/frenemies-to-lovers romance that really pulls out all of the stops on both of those well-loved tropes.

It’s also a story NOT to read if you’re hungry. Layla’s family owns a restaurant, her office is above said restaurant, the food is frequently described in loving detail and it all sounds absolutely delicious. To the point where I’m pretty sure I’ve already decided on exactly where we’re getting takeout from this weekend. But I digress. Slightly. But I also repeat: DO NOT READ WHEN HUNGRY!

There’s also more than a touch of relationship fiction mixed into this romance, as Layla’s family is a big part of the story – as is Sam’s lack of relationship with his.

Although this one begins with Layla pretty much hitting rock bottom, her journey in this story is, while not easy, fairly straightforward. For her it’s about getting out of her own way, stepping out of her late brother’s very long shadow and determining what she wants out of life – then reaching out for it and settling for nothing less.

She’s Buttercup whether Sam is Westley or not, and she just needs to figure out how to save herself from the evil prince – even if that evil prince turns out to be Sam.

Sam actually has the much harder road. He has to forgive himself for something that wasn’t his fault but that he blamed himself for. He’s been running away from that guilt and that grief by telling himself that his current pursuit is vengeance. But he’s made himself a monster in order to catch the monster, and only he can make himself step back from the abyss before it’s too late.

Before he loses Layla.

There is just so much to love about The Marriage Game. Except Sam’s business partner Royce. He’s a real piece of work. But possibly redeemable if the author ever returns to this family. There are plenty more stories here, and I would love to read them all!