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!

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

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Review: Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian

Review: Never Saw Me Coming by Vera KurianNever Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: psychological thriller, suspense, thriller
Pages: 400
Published by Park Row on September 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Meet Chloe Sevre. She’s a freshman honor student, a leggings-wearing hot girl next door, who also happens to be a psychopath. Her hobbies include yogalates, frat parties, and plotting to kill Will Bachman, a childhood friend who grievously wronged her.
Chloe is one of seven students at her DC-based college who are part of an unusual clinical study for psychopaths—students like herself who lack empathy and can’t comprehend emotions like fear or guilt. The study, led by a renowned psychologist, requires them to wear smart watches that track their moods and movements.
When one of the students in the study is found murdered in the psychology building, a dangerous game of cat and mouse begins, and Chloe goes from hunter to prey. As she races to identify the killer and put her own plan into action, she’ll be forced to decide if she can trust any of her fellow psychopaths—and everybody knows you should never trust a psychopath.
Never Saw Me Coming is a compulsive, voice-driven thriller by an exciting new voice in fiction, that will keep you pinned to the page and rooting for a would-be killer.

My Review:

The collective noun for a group of psychopaths is a sling. It’s a necessary bit of trivia for this story, because the fictional DC-based John Adams University has given full-ride scholarships to seven students who have been officially diagnosed as psychopaths.

In other words, there’s a sling of psychopaths at John Adams, and it looks like one of them is bent on killing the other six. Because, after all, that’s what psychopaths are best known for in the popular imagination – being serial killers. So just as the saying goes that it takes a thief to catch a thief, it seems as if it takes a psychopath to knock off a sling of psychopaths.

But just as psychopaths are lacking empathy for others, it would seem like a story about one psychopath killing several others would not contain many, well, empathetic characters. So it’s more than a bit of a surprise for the reader to find themselves not just following the point of view of several members of the group, but feeling for them, more than they feel for each other, if not for themselves.

That is part of why they are there, or at least why they got those full-rides. They are part of a study, conducted by a respected psychologist who studies, naturally, psychopaths, to see if there are ways that psychopaths can work their way around their lack of empathy, compassion and even conscience in order to live relatively normal lives.

Something that obviously won’t happen if one of their number bumps off the rest in this multidimensional cat and mouse game where ALL the participants believe that they are the cats – only to discover they were the mice after all.

Escape Rating B+: This book, like Local Woman Missing a few months ago, is a book I picked up because it was recommended by someone in my reading group. I don’t read a ton of thrillers and this sounded interesting.

I’ll admit to having a strange reaction to this one as compared to Local Woman Missing, in that I liked this book more even though I recognize that Local Woman Missing was a better book of this type. There was just a bit too much domestic in that domestic thriller to really wow me, even though I’m pretty certain that domestic thriller readers – who are legion – will probably adore it.

What made this work for me is that in spite of all the main characters being psychopaths, they still turned out to be sympathetic characters in their own slightly twisted ways.

We follow three of the students in the study, Andre, Charles and Chloe. They are all unreliable narrators, some of which is down to their diagnoses, but quite a bit of which is simply because they are young and still a bit naïve and filled with a bit too much bravado. While it’s possible that time will fix some of those issues and turn them into more successful psychopaths, at the moment they are still young and still have some seriously dumb moments in spite of their intelligence.

It probably helps that the only murder we see committed by the three students we are following is Chloe’s murder of the guy who raped her when she was 12, while his friend recorded the rape on his cellphone. She wants the cellphone, and she wants her rapist dead. She knows she’ll get no justice any other way. And even if the reader decries her methods, it’s hard to dispute that the dude earned some serious punishments. (After all, there are a lot of books where delivering just this kind of justice to a rapist would be the entire book.)

As meticulous as Chloe’s plan is to get her revenge, she gets thrown more than a bit off the tracks when first one student and then a second one in their tiny group of seven are murdered. That’s when Andre, Charles and Chloe form their little circle of untrusting trust. Because they know that people like them lie like they’re breathing. They can’t trust each other.

So they maneuver, and lie, and scheme. Whatever they tell each other, they’re always holding something back. And even when they do reveal some of the truth, it’s filtered through their flawed ability to read and empathize with other people.

And that’s just as true of Andre as it is of Chloe and Charles, even though Andre faked his diagnosis to keep the scholarship. Because he’s maintaining that lie at all costs. Which may make his diagnosis as true as either of theirs.

The other thing that made this story work is that the reader can empathize with the characters without necessarily liking them. Because they’re not all that likeable. Andre is gaming the system, Chloe reads as if she’s likely to become a version of Harley Quinn, and Charles is on his way to becoming the kind of amoral conservative politician that we see all too often these days.

(Would it surprise anyone if entirely too many politicians were secretly psychopaths? Really?)

In the end, they’re all scared and young and dumb, because they all believed they were smarter than the hunter they thought they were hunting, and because none of them could get past the lies they told themselves to uncover the killer they never did see coming – even if the reader does. Watching the trap tighten around them all makes for one hell of a thrill-ride of a story.

Review: The Inheritance by JoAnn Ross

Review: The Inheritance by JoAnn RossThe Inheritance by JoAnn Ross
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, historical fiction, relationship fiction, women's fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on September 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

With a dramatic WWII love story woven throughout, JoAnn Ross's women’s fiction debut is a generational saga full of sisterly affection and rivalry, perfect for fans of Susan Wiggs, Mary Alice Monroe and Lisa Wingate.
When conflict photographer Jackson Swann dies, he leaves behind a conflict of his own making when his three daughters, each born to a different mother, discover that they’re now responsible for the family’s Oregon vineyard—and for a family they didn’t ask for.
After a successful career as a child TV star, Tess is, for the first time in her life, suffering from a serious identity crisis, and renewed resentment around losing her father all over again.
Charlotte, brought up to be a proper Southern wife, gave up her own career to support her husband's political ambitions. On the worst day of her life, she discovers her beloved father has died, she has two sisters she never knew about, and her husband has fallen in love with another woman.
Natalie, daughter of Jack’s longtime mistress, has always known about her half sisters. And she can’t help feeling that when Tess and Charlotte find out, they’ll resent her for being the daughter their father kept.
As the sisters reluctantly gather at the Maison de Madeleine to deal with their father's final wishes, they become enchanted by the legacy they've inherited, and by their grandmother’s rich stories of life in WWII France and the wounded American soldier who would ultimately influence all their lives.

My Review:

When Pulitzer Prize winning conflict photographer Jackson Swann died, the most important thing that he left to his three daughters was not the award-winning Oregon winery that had been handed down in his family for generations, but each other.

The problem, the one that he left to his lawyer and his winery manager, was to get them to accept. Not just the winery – although certainly that, too – but mostly each other.

Tess Swann, Charlotte Aldredge and Natalie Seurat are all adults, all have – or have at least the shreds of – artistic careers of their own. But they’ve never met. They haven’t necessarily known that the others even existed.

These three women have been gathered together, not so much to celebrate the life of the man who links them, but rather to pick up the pieces of their own.

Tess, after a successful career as a child actress, a spectacular failure as a pop singer, and another successful career as a best-selling novelist, is looking for a third act in a life that has already seen plenty. She comes to the winery to recharge and search for a story idea that will get her past her writer’s block.

Her career sacrificed to her controlling husband’s political ambitions, her supposedly perfect marriage in tatters, Charlotte comes to the winery in search of respite and a place to call home – because her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s over-gilded and over-decorated faux antebellum McMansion certainly wasn’t it.

While Natalie returns to the winery to mourn the father that she knew best of all the sisters, and to make sure that her beloved, 96-year-old grandmother is doing as well as she can in the wake of her only son’s death.

Whether they will find what they are each looking for, or something more, or merely closure, they have one growing season at the winery to figure it all out together – or to tear themselves apart.

Escape Rating B: Like yesterday’s book (and a fair number of books in the chick lit/women’s fiction/relationship fiction genre), this is a story about three women, all of whom, coincidentally or otherwise, are at a crossroads in their lives or that face a crossroads because of the events of the story that bring them together.

In this case, the death of their larger-than-life father, no matter how much (Natalie) or how little (Tess) he participated in their lives. Jack Swann, who never seemed to quite know what to do with any of them when he could, manipulates them all after his death in a way that could have been horrible, but isn’t.

He provided an opportunity for all of them that he couldn’t have managed in life, for them to meet, be obligated to spend time together, get to know the grandmother that only Natalie was allowed to know about, and discover the legacy of the family they share.

The story of The Inheritance is, in a word, charming. Just as Jack Swann himself was, even if he couldn’t ever manage to stick around. The sisters are different enough from each other to stand as individuals, while at the same time sharing just enough characteristics to seem like they might make their initially tenuous connection work.

Their father turns out not to be the glue that ultimately binds them. That position is reserved for their grandmother Madeleine, who tells them the story of how she met and married their grandfather in France fighting for the Resistance in WW2. A story which inspires Tess’s writing, Charlotte’s realization that the life she has is not the one she wants or needs, and Natalie throwing caution to the winds in order to pursue the man she’s loved all her life.

I was charmed by this story, and thought that the way that the lives of the sisters finally mingled was lovely even if it was a bit contrived in the service of the story. There were a couple of bits that niggled at me.

Tess never met her father. That he didn’t raise her was one thing, but they never seem to have met at all in her conscious memory, and we never do find out why. As many family secrets as get revealed – and there are PLENTY – that omission felt like it just…dangled. Even after his marriage to Charlotte’s mother fell apart he was still a real if occasional presence in her life. But not Tess.

Second, there’s the show/tell repetition of Madeleine’s fascinating story about meeting, falling for and marrying her American pilot, Robert Swann. It’s a lovely and romantic story, and it serves as inspiration to all three sisters even though Tess is the one who plans to turn it into a novel. But we read Madeleine’s account as she remembers it and then it is repeated as she tells it to her granddaughters. While it’s normally better to show instead of tell, by the way the story works the telling feels like the better option. But one or the other would have been sufficient.

So I enjoyed reading The Inheritance, but it didn’t quite hit the spot as well as yesterday’s book. That’s possibly because this one reminded me a bit of Rhys Bowen’s World War II books, particularly In Farleigh Field, one of the subplots in Pardonable Lies, part of  the Maisie Dobbs series and a third book I can’t put my finger on and it’s driving me bananas. It could be just because it’s a bit too similar to yesterday’s book and would have been a better read not quite so close.

But if you’re looking for a charming read that touches on a few dark places but doesn’t go too deeply, includes not one but four happy endings, and tells a lovely story of a surprising sisterhood, The Inheritance is a great way to while away some cozy reading hours.

Review: Write My Name Across the Sky by Barbara O’Neal + Giveaway

Review: Write My Name Across the Sky by Barbara O’Neal + GiveawayWrite My Name Across the Sky by Barbara O'Neal
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 366
Published by Lake Union Publishing on August 10, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

The USA Today bestselling author of When We Believed in Mermaids returns with a tale of two generations of women reconciling family secrets and past regrets.
Life’s beautiful for seventysomething influencer Gloria Rose, in her Upper West Side loft with rooftop garden and scores of Instagram followers—until she gets word that her old flame has been arrested for art theft and forgery. Knowing her own involvement in his misdeeds decades earlier, Gloria realizes she could be the next arrest and must flee. But first, she needs to make sure her nieces are protected from any fallout.
The sisters, though in their thirties, are still constantly at odds with each other. Willow, struggling to live up to their mother’s fame as a singer-songwriter, is recovering from a failed album and yet another heartbreak, while Sam is desperate to revive her floundering video game company.
When circumstances out of their control bring the three women back together, they will each have to reckon with and reconcile their interwoven traumas, past loves, and the looming consequences that could either destroy their futures or bring them closer than ever.

My Review:

This is the story of two pairs of sisters all of whom were, in their own ways, trailblazers. Sam and Willow are in their late 30s when this story opens. Sam was one of the first women to head her own gaming company, and one of the first to design action/adventure games specifically intended to appeal to girls. While her company was an “overnight” success 20 years ago, in internet time, 20 years is a century, and her company is floundering.

Her sister Willow is a musician, a violinist who’s most recent solo album tanked. Sank without a trace, taking her boyfriend, her current home and pretty much everything she owned down with it. Willow is a folk/electronica violinist with a unique sound who just hasn’t found the right audience. But at 35, her time couch-surfing and hoping for a big break is running out.

Gloria and her sister Billie came of age in the so-called “Swinging 60s”. Gloria was a stewardess for TWA, back in the days of Coffee, Tea or Me, when stewardesses were expected to tolerate getting groped on every flight in return for the opportunity to visit exotic places for multi-day layovers back when international travel was an expensive novelty and not an every-hour-on-the-hour occurrence.

Bille was a rock musician in the 1960s and 70s, said to be a combination of Joan Jett and Janis Joplin. Unfortunately Billie followed Janis’ trajectory all the way down to an early death, leaving her sister Gloria to raise the daughters she left behind – not that she was all that present when she was alive.

And Billie’s ghost still haunts them all when this story begins. And not just because Gloria is still living in the luxury New York apartment that Billie bought with the royalties from her first album, the place where Gloria raised her girls to adulthood and left them with a yearning to blaze their own trails.

But they’re both failing when this story begins, while Gloria is faced with the sudden failure of the facade she has been maintaining for over 50 years. The man she has loved for all of those years has finally been caught. By Interpol. Suddenly, the biggest of her youthful sins looks like it’s either going to send her on the run or land her in jail for the rest of her life.

Escape Rating A-: Let me get this out of the way first, because it drove me crazy. If the title of the book is giving you an earworm you can’t quite place, it’s because it IS a line in a song, just not the title and not exactly word for word. In the 1971 song by the Stylistics, it went “Write YOUR name across the sky…” but Billie Thorne turned it around because she’d learned from both her mother and her sister not to let anyone else define or restrict her life. Which didn’t stop the world from doing it anyway.

Like the two previous books by this author that I have read, The Art of Inheriting Secrets and When We Believed in Mermaids, this is a story about the past crashing headlong into the present, pushing all of the characters to remember people and events that they have forced into the background of their minds and hearts, until their memories crash into the same heartbreaking epiphany and they’re all finally able to move forward.

I liked this one just a tiny bit better than the previous books, although I certainly liked both of them quite a lot. But the difference in this one was the character of Gloria, who represents a different generation and an entirely different perspective on the people and events that shaped all of their lives. Because through Gloria’s memories we’re allowed to see the late Billie Thorne as she was, through the eyes of someone who was an adult at the time, and not just through the memories of the childhoods that she scarred.

This is also explicitly not a romance, although there are romances in it, and that includes 74-year-old Gloria. For both Gloria and Sam, it’s a second chance at romance, while Willow puts herself and her music first, and finds love as the reward.

As much as the story’s focus is on Sam and Willow, it was Gloria’s story that held my attention. As much as all three women are at crisis points in their lives, it was Gloria’s that brought me the most “feels”, probably because I’m closer to her age than to either of her nieces. I loved that Gloria is happy with the career she had, and has found a second act through her plants and her friends and her instagram feed and followers, because I know how that goes. At the same time, while she doesn’t handle the crisis she is faced with terribly well for most of the story, it was all too easy to slip inside her feelings of desperation, her desire to protect the ones she loves, and her acknowledgement that the long ago events that brought her to this pass were of her own making.

I certainly liked the way that all three of these women’s stories resolved themselves. Gloria faced the demons of her past. Sam found a way to silence the demons inside her head, or at least learned to stop letting them spill out of her mouth. And Willow, in learning from the stories of her mother AND her sister, played her way to the top of the world. A feel good ending all around that I hope will bring as big a smile to other readers’ faces as it did mine.

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

I’m very happy to say that I’m giving away a copy of Write My Name Across the Sky to one lucky US commenter on this tour. But some of you will hate me because the question in the rafflecopter is about songs that give you earworms and how you get rid of them, which will probably implant the song you least want stuck in your head in your brain. “It’s a Small World After All” anyone?

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Review: For the Love of April French by Penny Aimes + Excerpt

Review: For the Love of April French by Penny Aimes + ExcerptFor the Love of April French by Penny Aimes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, LGBT
Pages: 352
Published by Carina Adores on August 31, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An Entertainment Weekly Best Romance of Summer 2021!
“This book gave me every last one of the Intense Romance Feelings I crave.” —New York Times bestselling author Talia Hibbert

April French doesn't do relationships and she never asks for more.
A long-standing regular at kink club Frankie's, she's kind of seen it all. As a trans woman, she’s used to being the scenic rest stop for others on their way to a happily-ever-after. She knows how desire works, and she keeps hers carefully boxed up to take out on weekends only.
After all, you can't be let down if you never ask.
Then Dennis Martin walks into Frankie's, fresh from Seattle and looking a little lost. April just meant to be friendly, but one flirtatious drink turns into one hot night.
When Dennis asks for her number, she gives it to him.
When he asks for her trust, well…that's a little harder.
And when the desire she thought she had such a firm grip on comes alive with Dennis, April finds herself wanting passion, purpose and commitment.
But when their relationship moves from complicated to impossible, April will have to decide how much she's willing to want.
Carina Adores is home to highly romantic contemporary love stories where LGBTQ+ characters find their happily-ever-afters. Discover a new Carina Adores book every month!

My Review:

At the beating heart of this story is the romance between two people who might just be perfect for each other. The potential heartbreak in this romance is that just as much as their likes and dislikes, quirks and propensities align to make them a perfect match, their insecurities and emotional baggage are just as well (or poorly, depending on how you look at it) aligned to drive them apart.

Both April French and Dennis Martin are kind of new in Austin. Both have fled there, from opposite coasts, after each of them left places and lives that were just too full up of memories of everything that went wrong in their previous relationships.

April’s been in Austin just a few years, but long enough to have settled in, as much as she can, into Austin being her city and her home, with the kink club Frankie’s being the center of the life that she has carved out for herself, one painstaking piece at a time.

Dennis’ best friend Jason – rumored to be a silent partner in Frankie’s – steers him towards the club because he knows that Dennis has a place there, and that the kink community in Austin is at least one place Dennis will be able to call home.

April is a submissive whose previous long term relationship was with a Domme who abused both her love and her trust. In his last long term relationship, Dennis unknowingly abused his power as a newbie Dom over his sub because he didn’t learn how to separate the power dynamic of the play from the rest of their lives. She was drowning, he thought everything was copacetic until it all blew up in both their faces.

Both are feeling guilty and insecure. Both are starting over. When they meet for the first time, they connect instantly on multiple levels. Their kinks align perfectly. But the guilt and insecurity they carry from their previous relationships creates an emotional minefield. He’s learned enough to know that he needs clear consent at every stage. He’s afraid to push too hard out of fear that he’ll recreate the mess he caused before. He’s learned more but not nearly enough.

And April has learned to her cost that partners like her, and are interested in playing with her for a while, but that no one ever stays. She’s internalized the feeling that she is not enough, so she’s learned not to let herself get too involved, because that only ends in heartbreak.

But from the moment they meet, they each want more than just a fling, or even a friends with benefits kind of thing. In their heart of hearts, they want a happy-ever-after with each other.

And they’re both, out of their own equal and opposite baggage, afraid to reach for it.

Escape Rating A: On the one hand, For the Love of April French is some of the fluffiest fluff that ever fluffed. And that’s both in spite of AND because of the way that the story deals with a whole bunch of really serious stuff along with, under, besides and on top of its fluffy fluff. I want to say it’s like cotton candy with a Sweet-Tart center, which captures the flavor but perhaps trivializes issues that shouldn’t be trivialized and that the story does not.

This is a nerd romance. And it’s a BDSM romance that emphasizes the romance while not shortchanging either the BDSM or the sexual aspects of their relationship. It’s an interracial romance, as Dennis is black and April is white. It’s also a romance between a transwoman and a cis man. As the icing on the surprisingly sweet cake of all of the above, it is also, briefly – very briefly – a secret workplace romance, which turns out to be the straw that very nearly breaks the proverbial camel’s back.

There’s also an explicit message about not just acknowledging your own baggage but actually dealing with your own crap, because no one else can do it for you. They can support you through the hard parts, but they can’t pick up your emotional baggage and process it on your behalf. If you don’t do it for yourself, if you don’t learn to love and care for yourself, whoever and whatever and however you might be, you won’t truly be a fit partner for anyone else.

And that’s a message of universal applicability that doesn’t get the attention it deserves in romance. A happy ever after won’t heal your emotional wounds. Working on your own emotional scars gets you ready for an HEA.

Not that, in this story, both April and Dennis don’t have a few extra pieces of emotional baggage to deal with because of the ways that societal expectations and limitations impact them because of their identities. Something which gives them each an insight into the shape of what the other faces without having much knowledge of details of it.

An exploration that feels like it’s handled both well and not so well at the same time. For example, each knows that the other faces a metric buttload of microaggressions – and all too often macroaggressions – without knowing the details until they get slapped in the face with exactly what the other faces.

The way that this got dealt with was the one thing in the story that got handled both well and not so well. It feels fair to say that the author probably assumed that readers wouldn’t know every detail about what it’s like to live as a black man or as a white transwoman and/or a member of the kink community and every other detail of those lives that makes them different. We may have some knowledge and hopefully a lot of empathy but not full knowledge of absolutely everything.

The method for dealing with those different perspectives and levels of knowledge was to tell the story in the first person, first from April’s perspective and then from Dennis’. As Dennis has more to learn because he didn’t learn what he should have about being a Dom in addition to what he needs to know to be the right partner for April, his point of view is more informative for those of us who are less aware. But the story is more April’s journey than Dennis’ so we start with her point of view and stay with it for the first half or so of the story. Then we switch and see the exact same events from his perspective.

It’s a bit jarring, because we go back in time several months on that start over. I think it would have worked better as a storytelling device if they’d alternated perspectives chapter by chapter or event by event.

Both perspectives are necessary, because we see more from her perspective but we learn more from his. Still the switches between them are just awkward. And very much on my other hand, as rough as those changeovers were they give the reader way more than a glimpse into the minds of a transwoman in a cis world, and a Black man in a largely-white world, both in the kink community and in general. That the author covers this territory at all, and covers it well, is noteworthy and absolutely adds to the reader’s empathy for these characters.

So the roughness of the changes between perspectives, which is a writing thing and not a story thing, is enough to drop the rating from an A+ to an A because at that level I start getting a bit picky about the writing things.

But the story, oh this fluffy, romantic, wonderful story is so very worth reading. It’s the kind you finish with a smile on your face and possibly even a bit of a happy song in your heart.

Considering that this is the author’s debut novel, the whole thing is beautifully awesome and I can’t wait to read more of her work! But first, you get to experience a bit of this wonderfully fluffy romance with this excerpt from the first chapter. Enjoy!

Excerpt from For the Love of April French

April French was having what she considered to be a good night. She was lonely and she was horny, but the lovely thing about Frankie’s, even on a Wednesday, was that she was probably not the only one. And the welcome wagon gambit was working. New doms always responded well to a little attention. She wondered how many of the hookups in her limited sexual history it accounted for—post-transition, of course. Her sexual history pre-transition was not only limited but singular.

On second thought, that was a depressing thing to contemplate. She decided to steer her mind back to the present, because her present was damn good-looking. He was Black, looked to be about her age, dark-skinned and tall, with narrow hips and shoulders that were probably narrower than hers, too.

There were clear hints of lean muscle under his suit, and the suit looked expensive. She didn’t really care about the name brand, but she had to admit the cost was reflected in how well it draped his body. He had short-cropped, wiry hair and that sexy kind of two-day stubble thing happening. A reassuring bass voice and an unreadable calm that made his face a handsome mask. The tightly wound dominants were almost always the most fun to see come unraveled with desire.

“So. You can flirt,” she said, trying to keep her voice even despite the smile tugging the corners of her mouth. It wouldn’t do to tip her hand just yet about how attractive he was. “And you wear nice suits. What else should I know about you?”

“Well, I just moved here,” he said. “Which you also knew. My name is Dennis. I came here from Seattle.”

She nodded, as Aerith set down a new Painkiller in front of her. “I’m April. Grow up out there?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Illinois, actually. Little tiny town.”

“Oh hey,” she said, her smile shifting to be a little less flirtatious and a lot more genuine. It was always a treat to meet someone from the same basic context; someone she could count on to get it. Not that she expected to spend much time talking about growing up in the Midwest, but it was still a nice bonus. “Ohio. I went to school out East, though, and worked there for a while.”

He laughed. “So a lot like me, but in the opposite direction. UC Santa Barbara.”

She bobbed her head. “Wesleyan.”

They exchanged graduation years; she guessed he was probably thirty-five or thirty-four to her thirty-two. “What took you out there?” he asked.

“It was as far away as I could get without driving into the

ocean,” she said with a laugh. “And they had good financial aid. You?”

“About the same, about the same. Lots of loans, in the end.” She nodded as he went on. “While I was getting my masters, a couple of my friends got a start-up going and brought me in, and we headed up the coast to Seattle.”

“Ooh,” she said. “A techie. I should’ve known.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“Well, most of the folks who come here from the West Coast are,” she said. Especially the ones who could afford that suit.

“You’re right, anyway. I was the support team, not the talent, though. My degree’s in technology management.” He sipped. “Start-up life isn’t for the long haul, so I came here to take a job as CTO for a small firm. What about you?” he asked.

She fidgeted with the little straw in her drink, then drew it out. Chomped a cherry deliberately. “Poli-sci major. I don’t use it, though.”

“Hm.” His eyes watched her mouth. Good. “So weird, isn’t Austin where they have that political particle accelerator?”

He was smirking at his pun, and she snorted. “Queeons and Kingons?” At his blank expression, she added, “You don’t read Terry Pratchett, do you?”

He shook his head. “No, I was just teasing.”

Her smile snatched at the corners of her mouth again. “Teasing’s okay.” She was fighting herself not to relax fully into the moment, to keep up her boundaries until they crossed the preliminary hurdles. This might not be anything, yet. But he was cute, and he was funny, and he was—so far—gentle. She thought she could really like this guy. She knew she liked the way his eyes settled on her, the weight his gaze seemed to have.

Review: A Terrible Fall of Angels by Laurell K. Hamilton

Review: A Terrible Fall of Angels by Laurell K. HamiltonA Terrible Fall of Angels by Laurell K. Hamilton
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Zaniel Havelock #1
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley on August 17, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Angels walk among us, but so do other unearthly beings in this brand new series by #1 New York Times Bestselling author Laurell K. Hamilton.
Meet Detective Zaniel Havelock, a man with the special ability to communicate directly with angels. A former trained Angel speaker, he devoted his life to serving both the celestial beings and his fellow humans with his gift, but a terrible betrayal compelled him to leave that life behind. Now he’s a cop who is still working on the side of angels. But where there are angels, there are also demons. There’s no question that there’s evil at work when he’s called in to examine the murder scene of a college student—but is it just the evil that one human being can do to another, or is it something more? When demonic possession is a possibility, even angelic protection can only go so far. The race is on to stop a killer before he finds his next victim, as Zaniel is forced to confront his own very personal demons, and the past he never truly left behind.
The first in a new series from the author of the Anita Blake and Merry Gentry series.

My Review:

First, I have to say that I’m surprised at just how good this book is. Pleased as punch, but also surprised as Heaven, as the characters in the book would say.

Second, I feel the need to say upfront that nobody gets laid in this book. I know that’s a strange place to start a review, but as one of the many readers who loved the first few Anita Blake books before they got to be a sex-fest, I felt like that needed to be said early on because it became such an overwhelming feature of both the Anita Blake and Merry Gentry series.. Not that there isn’t a potential romance brewing – actually more than one – but this book goes back to the good old days of urban fantasy, back when the main character had a magical or mysterious crime to solve and a love life like a sinking ship. When the focus was on the story and the world and the insanely powerful beings who were out messing things up and not on how many people the protagonist could get between the sheets.

The above is probably going to disappoint some readers who are expecting more of like her other series, but it was a relief to me. Your reading mileage may vary.

Zaniel “Havoc” Havelock is a detective in the Metaphysical Coordination Unit of the City of Angels, which is probably a stand-in for the city of Los Angeles, whose name literally translates from Spanish as “the Angels”. His world, and his city, are a variation of our own, not just a place where magic works, as is so often the case in urban fantasy, but a place where angels manifest in the world and where specially talented children, including Zaniel once upon a time, are recruited by the hierarchy that serves the Angels to be their representatives here on Earth.

Zaniel was trained to be an angel-speaker. But something broke – it seems like a lot of things broke – just as he was about to take his final vows. So he left, joined the army, and eventually became a cop who deals with crimes that involve angels and/or demons. And that’s where we meet him, called into a case because an angel has deliberately left a feather at the scene of a rape/murder that otherwise has no ethereal or infernal overtones whatsoever.

Until the angel who left that feather tells Zaniel that circumstances are not at all what they appear, and that there is something infernal going on in the City of Angels that not just should not be happening but that should not even be capable of happening.

And that it is up to Zaniel to pick up the mantle he left behind, or at least as much of it as he is willing to carry, figure out what has gone so terribly wrong, and fix it – along with possibly himself – before the impossible-to-exist demon gets too big for anyone to possibly stop.

First Anita Blake book, cover circa 1993

Escape Rating A: I have to say that I picked this up because my curiosity bump itched something fierce. I loved the early Anita Blake books, back when in the day when they were urban fantasy with just a hint of paranormal romance, but I kept on reading long after they turned into recitations of just how much sex Anita had. At least the Merry Gentry series started out that way, so I knew what I was getting into. But for me, at least, there’s a point where other people’s sex lives gets boring, and Anita passed that somewhere earlier in the series than when I finally stopped reading it.

So I came into this book with a whole lot of reading baggage in the hopes I might get to drop some of it. And I’m extremely happy to say that I was able to drop pretty much all of it. Because A Terrible Fall of Angels harkens back in the best way to the early Anita Blake books. It’s solidly urban fantasy, with terrific setup and just enough otherworldly world building to create a strong foundation for a new series.

And in Zaniel “Havoc” Havelock the author has created an appropriately tormented detective with a fascinating background and a foot in both camps. He’s a veteran police detective in the unit that handles crimes that are wrapped around the axle of angels and demons, who are real and manifest entirely too frequently in our world – to both their and our cost.

Because what’s good for the demons, and even what’s good for the angels, might not be what’s good for humanity. As Havoc knows entirely too well. As the story opens, we don’t know what happened in Havoc’s past to tear him away from his upbringing in the College of Angels and place him on the streets of the city as a cop. We just know that whatever it was it was heartbreaking in a way that is still echoing through his life like the tolling of a bell.

The other thing we know about Havoc is that his current personal life is a mess. He’s separated from the wife and child that he loves because she can’t handle being a cop’s wife. They’re still in counseling but even though there seems to be some hope at the end of this story I honestly hope they don’t make it. It reads like there’s something wrong with her – or wrong with the way she treats him – that can’t be fixed.

On the other hand, and very different from the author’s previous series, Zaniel is still married, still hopeful, and still in love with his wife. He finds other women attractive, and he’s tempted but he never crosses that line. And that was a huge surprise throughout the entire book.

One of the things that fascinated me about the way that this world and its magic systems are set up is that in spite of the influence of angels and demons, all faiths and belief systems are recognized as not just valid but as having actual power – by everyone except those who serve the angels. A conflict that I suspect is going to become more overt and more problematic as the series continues. Or at least I hope so.

This turned out to be a fast one-day read for me. I absolutely could not put it down. It reminded me of the early Anita Blake books in all the best ways, particularly the way that it seemed like there was a force embedded between the pages that kept me reading late into the night because I was so caught up in the story and it was just so good.

The world here is complex and compelling. Even as Havoc keeps unravelling the case and the case keeps on unravelling all the trauma in his past, there’s just so much going on and it was all just so captivating that I kept reading long after the point where I should have called it a night because I could not stop. I loved Zaniel as a character and really liked the cop shop vibe of the people who surround him at work in spite of not really liking his wife at all but still loving his continuing to try to make things better.

And the creeping evil of the crime spree put just the right amount of shiver up my spine. This was just very well done all the way around. I want more! Please!

Review: The Bookseller’s Secret by Michelle Gable

Review: The Bookseller’s Secret by Michelle GableThe Bookseller's Secret by Michelle Gable
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, women's fiction, World War II
Pages: 400
Published by Graydon House on August 17, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Bookseller's Secret is a delight from start to finish, a literary feast any booklover will savor!”—Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Rose Code
ARISTOCRAT, AUTHOR, BOOKSELLER, WWII SPY—A THRILLING NOVEL ABOUT REAL-LIFE LITERARY ICON NANCY MITFORD
In 1942, London, Nancy Mitford is worried about more than air raids and German spies. Still recovering from a devastating loss, the once sparkling Bright Young Thing is estranged from her husband, her allowance has been cut, and she’s given up her writing career. On top of this, her five beautiful but infamous sisters continue making headlines with their controversial politics.
Eager for distraction and desperate for income, Nancy jumps at the chance to manage the Heywood Hill bookshop while the owner is away at war. Between the shop’s brisk business and the literary salons she hosts for her eccentric friends, Nancy’s life seems on the upswing. But when a mysterious French officer insists that she has a story to tell, Nancy must decide if picking up the pen again and revealing all is worth the price she might be forced to pay.
Eighty years later, Heywood Hill is abuzz with the hunt for a lost wartime manuscript written by Nancy Mitford. For one woman desperately in need of a change, the search will reveal not only a new side to Nancy, but an even more surprising link between the past and present…
“With a vivid cast of unforgettable characters, Gable expertly and cleverly delivers wit, humor, and intrigue on every page. What a delightful escape.”—Susan Meissner, bestselling author of 

The Nature of Fragile Things


“A triumphant tale that highlights the magic of bookshops and literature to carry people through even the darkest days of war.”—Kristina McMorris, New York Times bestselling author of Sold on a Monday

My Review:

The secret that the bookseller is keeping forms a link between the lives of two women who are facing the same crisis in the same location – eighty years apart.

When Nancy Mitford and Katharine Cabot each step through the doors of the Heywood Hill Bookshop in London, they are writers who seem to have lost their writing mojo – even if Nancy Mitford wouldn’t have known what that term meant.

Both have had moderate success, along with a couple of books that sank nearly without a trace. In 1942, Mitford was still smarting from the failure of timing that was the publication of Pigeon Pie, a book lampooning the “Phoney War” of 1939. Unfortunately for Mitford, the book was released just as the Sitzkrieg became the Blitzkrieg, making the book not just passe but in very poor taste.

(The sinking of Pigeon Pie got a brief mention in another recent WW2 book set in a bookstore, The Last Bookshop in London, as the unsold copies got summarily returned to the publisher. If you liked that book you’ll probably like this one and vice versa.)

As each of the women crosses the threshold of Heywood Hill they are facing variations of the same crossroad. In the midst of the war, Mitford feels as if she’s lost both the time and the inclination to write. Katie, in the wake of multiple personal losses, isn’t sure she has it in her to write again, and is even less certain that it’s worth trying.

We follow their stories back and forth, from Nancy during the war years working in the bookshop to keep body and soul together in a material sense while worried that she’ll ever find time to write anything ever again. She’s somewhat desperately in search of both a few spare minutes a day to write and a muse to inspire her to write.

It’s that search for inspiration, or rather what she seems to have found to fill it, that links Mitford to Katie. Peter Bailey has scraps of evidence that Mitford was writing an autobiography about her war work with refugees, a story that would feature his own grandmother. He’s searching for the manuscript of that book – if it even exists.

Katie, who wrote her thesis on Mitford, is willing to help him search for that manuscript so she can continue procrastinating over her own empty pages. That Bailey is intelligent, interesting and incredibly handsome doesn’t impact Katie’s desire to help him in the slightest.

Right.

In the past, we follow Mitford during the war years – a period that she did not write about herself – as she uses that attempted autobiography to get out of her slump – even if it never sees the light of day.

In the present Katie uses her search for the manuscript and her flirtation with Bailey to inspire her to pick up her own pen – or in her case open her word processor.

While the current manager of Heywood Hill looks on and hopes that he is doing the right thing. It’s left up to the reader to be the judge of that!

Escape Rating A-: I was a lot more charmed by this than I expected to be, and also a lot less lost than I thought I might be. I have not read Mitford at all, so when I came into this the only background I had were some of the better-known historical bits, that her family was involved in leftist politics before, during and after the war. I did think this might be a bit more like The Last Bookshop in London than it turned out to be, so that reference to Pigeon Pie did link the two a bit.

My lack of background about Mitford wasn’t really an issue as this story is very much a “what if?” kind of story. It’s not biographical because little is known about Mitford’s activities during the war, particularly her work at Heyward Hill. So all of the parts from Mitford’s perspective are meant to look and sound and act like her, but may or may not bear huge resemblance to what she actually did during those years.

Nancy Mitford

Whatever she truly did during the war, it’s clear that Nancy Mitford was a complex individual who mined the triumphs and tragedies of her life – and there were plenty of both – in her fiction. Her best known works, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, both published after the end of the war, managed to tell and retell different variations of her life in a way that let her explore her past and possibly expiate it without making relationships with her family any worse or more strained than they already were.

But when this story takes place, those bestselling books weren’t even a gleam in the author’s eye. Her success was still in the future and her present was a bit bleak in more ways than one.

And that’s where Katie’s story comes in. She has one bestselling book under her authorial belt and zero inspiration for a second. She turns to Mitford for both comfort and inspiration, comfort in the re-reading of her favorites and inspiration because Mitford went through a 15-year dry spell and Katie’s isn’t nearly that long yet. What she hopes for but doesn’t expect to find is a way forward for herself in both her life and her art.

Both parts of this story weave the personal with the professional, the difficulty of getting out of a slump, the relentless pressures of time and just plain life in general, and the way that real life intrudes and inspires at the same time. Katie both feels for Mitford and gains perspective from her at the same time.

I think that’s the part that charmed me. Coming into this cold, so to speak, I didn’t have any preconceptions about Mitford so was able to see the ways in which the two women were alike in spite of the difference of nearly a century. Both independent, both sometimes bowed under the weight of other people’s expectations, both having an approach/avoidance conflict about their work and everything else in their lives. They seemed like sisters under the skin and I wanted a happy ending for them both, but on their terms. Mitford seems to have more or less gotten hers, so Katie definitely has a chance!

Because that bookseller kept his secret after all.

Review: Radar Girls by Sara Ackerman

Review: Radar Girls by Sara AckermanRadar Girls: a novel of WWII by Sara Ackerman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large Print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, women's fiction, World War II
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on July 27, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An extraordinary story inspired by the real Women’s Air Raid Defense, where an unlikely recruit and her sisters-in-arms forge their place in WWII history.
Daisy Wilder prefers the company of horses to people, bare feet and salt water to high heels and society parties. Then, in the dizzying aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Daisy enlists in a top secret program, replacing male soldiers in a war zone for the first time. Under fear of imminent invasion, the WARDs guide pilots into blacked-out airstrips and track unidentified planes across Pacific skies.  
But not everyone thinks the women are up to the job, and the new recruits must rise above their differences and work side by side despite the resistance and heartache they meet along the way. With America’s future on the line, Daisy is determined to prove herself worthy. And with the man she’s falling for out on the front lines, she cannot fail. From radar towers on remote mountaintops to flooded bomb shelters, she’ll need her new team when the stakes are highest. Because the most important battles are fought—and won—together.
This inspiring and uplifting tale of pioneering, unsung heroines vividly transports the reader to wartime Hawaii, where one woman’s call to duty leads her to find courage, strength and sisterhood. 

My Review:

Like the author’s previous books, including last year’s Red Sky Over Hawaii, Radar Girls is a story that talks about World War II on a slightly different homefront from most.

The experience of the war was a bit different in both Hawaii and Alaska, as these two U.S. territories were considerably closer to the front lines than the 48 contiguous states. Alaska was vulnerable because of its large size and relatively small population, making it an easy target – except for the weather. Islands in the Aleutian chain were occupied during the war.

Hawaii, on the other hand, was a small, sparkling, isolated jewel in the middle of the Pacific. It was the perfect location for the U.S. to have a forward base in the Pacific – and provided a tempting target for Japanese forces to use as a stepping stone to the U.S. mainland.

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 showed the U.S., and especially the Islands’ residents, just how vulnerable their paradise could be. In the wake of the attack, they were determined not to get caught with their defensive pants down a second time.

The centerpiece of that determination forms the heart of this story, as Hawaii mobilizes its men for war and its women for defense, armed with a new tool in their arsenal – RADAR.

This story of previously unsung heroines is wrapped around three fascinating threads. First, of course, there’s the war. But secondly, there’s the story of the sisterhood of women who were recruited to learn military communication, signal interpretations and vectorology, in spite of all the men who said they couldn’t do it. Daisy Wilder, her friends and her frenemies become the heart and soul of the Women’s Air Raid Defense of the Islands, watching for enemies approaching by air and sea, locating downed American pilots and piloting those in trouble safely home.

Daisy comes into the program as a loner, having been raised around more horses than people in the isolated cabin she and her mother have shared since her father’s death. Daisy has been her little family’s primary breadwinner, and dropped out of school in order to make a living at the stables where her father was once employed.

She doesn’t expect to become part of this group of women – after all, it’s not something she has any experience with. That two of the other women are upper class and look down on her for lack of education, her towering height and her practical, unfeminine wardrobe is what she expects. She expects to fail.

Instead she succeeds. Her supposedly “unfeminine” traits and interests make her a good fit for the WARD, and becomes part of this tight-knit sisterhood in spite of those expectations – and in spite of those frenemies.

So a story of unexpected sisterhood set amidst a story of rising to the occasion in the midst of war. But it wouldn’t be complete without the romance that weaves through it. A romance that might never have happened without the war breaking down the barriers between the son of one of the richest men on the island and the daughter of the man his father accidentally killed.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up because I enjoyed the author’s previous book, Red Sky Over Hawaii, in spite of one seriously over-the-top villain – as if the ordinary wartime conditions weren’t enough trouble for one woman to be dealing with.

I liked Radar Girls more than Red Sky because it didn’t go over that top and dump ALL the troubles of the world onto the same woman’s shoulders. Not that Daisy and her group of found sisters didn’t have plenty of problems, but they were a bit more evenly shared.

One of their training officers is a creeper, stalker and sexual harasser. One of their husbands is MIA and presumed dead. Another woman’s husband is a gambler who has lost their house. Someone else just has terrible luck with men – or makes terrible choices of men. Or a bit of both. Daisy herself is in love with someone she can’t believe could love her back considering their backgrounds.

And they adopt a kitten, who has kittens providing comfort and comic relief in equal measure. While someone in the neighborhood keeps stealing their lingerie from the clothesline.

And over all of it, the constant tension of interpreting radar signals that might, this time, be a second invasion, knowing that getting it wrong could have potentially dire consequences. It’s a stress that increases with each day and each potential sighting – and that never lets up.

Considering that WARD operated behind the scenes – or underground – this is a story where there aren’t a lot of really BIG events happening onstage. There are lots of radar sightings that have the potential to be a second invasion – but it never happens. The women are, by the top secret nature of the job, in an isolated environment. There are big battles, and they all listen to them on the radio, but the battles don’t come to them.

But in spite of all that, in spite of the big drama happening offstage, the story is captivating from the very first page, with Daisy on a remote beach seeing the Japanese planes screaming overhead. Daisy is a fascinating character who is just different enough for 21st century readers to identify with while still feeling like a part of her own time.

Also, I love a good training story, so the parts of this one where Daisy and her cohort get a crash course in their new duties and master them was a treat. It was easy to imagine oneself being part of that crew and doing one’s own bit to fight their war.

This author seems to be making a specialty of telling captivating stories about the homefront experience of her own home state during World War II. I’m looking forward to more – and I expect them to keep getting better and better!

Review: The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

Review: The Final Girl Support Group by Grady HendrixThe Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, thriller
Pages: 352
Published by Berkley Books on July 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A fast-paced, thrilling horror novel that follows a group of heroines to die for, from the brilliant New York Times bestselling author of The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires.
In horror movies, the final girl is the one who's left standing when the credits roll. The one who fought back, defeated the killer, and avenged her friends. The one who emerges bloodied but victorious. But after the sirens fade and the audience moves on, what happens to her?
Lynnette Tarkington is a real-life final girl who survived a massacre twenty-two years ago, and it has defined every day of her life since. And she's not alone. For more than a decade she's been meeting with five other actual final girls and their therapist in a support group for those who survived the unthinkable, putting their lives back together, piece by piece. That is until one of the women misses a meeting and Lynnette's worst fears are realized--someone knows about the group and is determined to take their lives apart again, piece by piece.
But the thing about these final girls is that they have each other now, and no matter how bad the odds, how dark the night, how sharp the knife, they will never, ever give up.

My Review:

Whew! This was an extremely compelling, one-sitting kind of read. I’m not going to say I enjoyed it, because honestly, joy is an emotion that doesn’t get anywhere near this book. But I was certainly fascinated, to the point where I couldn’t stop until I got to the end.

And then I had to go to my happy place for a while to get over the whole experience.

This doesn’t exactly take place in the real world. But it’s close enough to make some really disturbing parallels. Because this is a story that begins with the premise that all of those teenage slasher movies are based on real people’s real stories which have been adapted and exploited for sensationalism and especially for cash..

Which means that the girl – and it’s usually a girl – who survives and kills the monster is a real person who has been violated first by the monster and second by the sexualization of violence against women and third by the system and fourth by all the sick fans and sicker media – is also a real person.

A young woman who has to live her life after all the horrible things that have happened to her with one hell of a case of PTSD. It’s not paranoia if someone really is out to get you, and someone really is out to get all of these women – even before the members of their support group start getting killed, one after another, in VERY rapid succession.

One of those women, one of those survivors, is on the run, desperately trying to keep her shit together and searching for the person who really is out to get all of them. Each twist of the plot is like a turn of the screw for Lynnette Tarkington, as she escapes from custody, alienates all of her friends, and accuses one member of the support group after another as she works her way through her own psychoses along with a breadcrumb trail of clues that is designed to make her look even more crazy than she is. Right before the monster at the heart of this web finally ends her story.

Unless she ends theirs.

Escape Rating B+: I’m not a horror reader, so I wasn’t expecting to get as involved in this as I did. I also started it with more than a bit of an approach/avoidance conundrum, because not only am I not a horror reader, but I think I was the only person in my reading circle that did not absolutely adore the author’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires last year. I went into this one with concerns that the same issues that tripped me up in that book would appear again.

That certainly did not happen. This time, the point-of-view character, the not really a Final Girl Lynnette Tarkington really worked for me as a perspective. Her head may have been a really messed up place to be, but it was messed up in a way that felt consistent for her story and her experience. I felt for her even as I was grateful not to be her.

(She kind of reminded me of Linda Hamilton’s character at the beginning of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, all alone and prepping obsessively for a doomsday that she is certain is going to come to pass even if no one else is. And of course her fears are justified, just as Lynnette’s are.)

But the story here mixes its slasher sequel plot of the endless parade of descendants, copycats and slavish fans of the original monster returning to kill the one that got away, over and over again, with a commentary on the sexualization and fetishization of violence against women in a way that is not even subtext, but is actual text underpinning the story. (I certainly  saw it as text, but I’m sure people who want to ignore the entire sick, ugly business will either see it as subtle subtext or not see it at all.)

And that’s what disturbed me the most in reading this. While Lynnette comes off as a slightly crazed and increasingly desperate woman, she turns out to be the hero of this story – even though someone is trying to victimize her yet again. That’s what kept me reading through every twist and turn and walk through the valley of the shadow of nightmare. I wanted to see her not just survive, but win – and I was so afraid so often that she wouldn’t.

So I didn’t enjoy this at all, but I felt compelled to keep turning pages and finish. There was absolutely no way this had a happy ending, but I was hoping for catharsis. And I can say that the ending turned out to be relief, release and redemption all rolled into one slightly crazed ball.

I may not have exactly enjoyed this book, but my cats certainly did. I sat still for most of three hours, and they were all overjoyed that I was providing them a warm lap to nap in. I was just glad of their comfort.

Review: Lady Sunshine by Amy Mason Doan

Review: Lady Sunshine by Amy Mason DoanLady Sunshine by Amy Mason Doan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Graydon House on June 29, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

“A delicious daydream of a book.” —Elin Hilderbrand, New York Times bestselling author of 28 Summers
“With lyrical writing and a page-turning plot, this sun-dappled book has it all: heart, smarts, and an irresistible musical beat. A tone-perfect evocation of the free-spirited late 1970s and a riveting coming-of-age story.” —Karen Dukess, author of The Last Book Party
“In LADY SUNSHINE, Amy Mason Doan has crafted an engrossing tale of secrets, memory, music, and the people and places you can never outrun. This novel will transport you to the ‘70s and summertime magic and a long overdue reckoning. A fantastic summer read.”—Laura Dave, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Thing He Told Me
ONE ICONIC FAMILY. ONE SUMMER OF SECRETS. THE DAZZLING SPIRIT OF 1970S CALIFORNIA.

For Jackie Pierce, everything changed the summer of 1979, when she spent three months of infinite freedom at her bohemian uncle’s sprawling estate on the California coast. As musicians, artists, and free spirits gathered at The Sandcastle for the season in pursuit of inspiration and communal living, Jackie and her cousin Willa fell into a fast friendship, testing their limits along the rocky beach and in the wild woods... until the summer abruptly ended in tragedy, and Willa silently slipped away into the night.
Twenty years later, Jackie unexpectedly inherits The Sandcastle and returns to the iconic estate for a short visit to ready it for sale. But she reluctantly extends her stay when she learns that, before her death, her estranged aunt had promised an up-and-coming producer he could record a tribute album to her late uncle at the property’s studio. As her musical guests bring the place to life again with their sun-drenched beach days and late-night bonfires, Jackie begins to notice startling parallels to that summer long ago. And when a piece of the past resurfaces and sparks new questions about Willa’s disappearance, Jackie must discover if the dark secret she’s kept ever since is even the truth at all.
Lady Sunshine is shot through with free love, hope, and all the magic of the ’70s, but under the sun and music lie dark secrets.It’s a thrilling ride, a beautiful evocation of an era, and a story that will keep readers entranced from the first page to the last.”—Rene Denfeld, bestselling author of The Child Finder
“This book is gorgeous. A gold-drenched nostalgic dream with a fierce female friendship at its heart.”—Marisa de los Santos, New York Times bestselling author of I'll Be Your Blue Sky
“Haunting and vivid, with layered, complex characters and an evocative setting that sparkles with detail, LADY SUNSHINE will stay with me for a long time.”—Julie Clark, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Flight

My Review:

This story feels like its drenched in summer, not just any summer, but those summers that exist only in memory, the summers of childhood where the season seems endless when school lets out, but speeds up inexorably as the number of carefree sunny days dwindles down at the end as school looms on the horizon.

Even though Jackie and her cousin Willa are not children in this particular summer. But at 17 when the story begins, they are not exactly adults either. This is a story of that summer where it all changes.

It’s also a story about another summer, the summer twenty years later when Jackie returns to the place she left behind, all alone with her memories of friendship and love and loss. Only to find that she isn’t quite as alone as she believed, and that those memories, as painful as they are, are not quite done with her yet – no matter how much she wants to be done with them.

It’s the summer of 1979, and Jackie has come to spend her last summer of high school at the Sandcastle, the home of her uncle Graham Kingston, a famous folk singer of the 1960s whose best performing and recording years seem to be behind him – along with the demons that lifestyle brought with them.

Jackie, escaping from the straitjacket of conformism that is life with her father and stepmother, finds herself, and finds herself a home, in the free-spirited and freewheeling circle of artists, musicians and friends that hangs around her uncle at the Sandcastle. And she finds the sister of her heart in her cousin Willa.

Twenty years later it’s all gone. Her larger-than-life uncle is long dead, as is her cousin Willa. No one is left except Jackie to inherit the house, the grounds, the studio and all the memories they left behind. She’s back for one final summer, the summer of 1999, to pack it all up and sell it all away. Forever.

But first she has to go back to the time, and the place, where it all went so very wrong. There are pieces still left to break her heart one last time – if only she’ll reach out and grab them.

Escape Rating B: This is such a summer book. The heat of both of those long-ago summers practically steams off the page, and the sound of the surf rolls in your ears as you read Jackie’s old diary over her shoulder.

But the story also moves at the pace of those long ago summers, in that it builds slowly at the beginning, like the early days of summer when it feels like the season will last forever. And occasionally it feels like that part of the book is taking its own sweet summer time to get itself off the ground.

Once it catches its own wave, once the end of both summers is on the horizon, the pace picks up as the girls of 1979 and the woman of 1999 try to wring the last drop of bittersweetness out of each and every day that is left.

In 1979, Jackie doesn’t want to leave. In 1999, it feels like she can’t until she’s done. Or until it’s done with her.

Although speaking of 1979, on the one hand I have to say that it read like I remember. I was just a few years older than Jackie and Willa at the time. On the other hand, I kept wondering why the author chose that particular time period, and I think it must have been the music.

As I said, Jackie’s 1979 felt like the one I remember. Which is part of what carried me through the early parts of the story.

Because it’s the story of that golden summer that sweeps the reader up and carries them away, just as Jackie was carried away by the larger than life figure of her uncle and the place he created around himself on the northern California coast.

Because of the dual timelines, we start the story know that something terrible happened at the end of that summer. The questions all revolve around what that something was that made the idyll crash and burn.

Waiting to discover what that “something” was hangs over the entire book, because even in the secondary timeline of 1999 Jackie refuses to get near that memory. As the story spun out, it became clear that it was a loss of innocence, but not sexual. This is not Summer of ‘42 and the girls neither lose their virginity nor get sexually abused by a trusted mentor or family member. It’s much more complicated, and therefore more interesting, than that.

It turns out that the loss is twofold, they discover that their hero has feet of clay up to the knees, and they discover that their attempts to “fix” things can have tragic consequences. But it takes a fair bit of story to get there.

While the foundation of everything is in 1979, the 1999 portions of the story were more dynamic. More things happen and they happen faster, even as Jackie continues to avoid the real issues that brought her back.

But when those issues finally come full circle, it provides a lovely ending for the whole emotional package. There were points in the middle where I wondered whether this story was ever going to get itself to its sticking point, but when it finally did it made for just the right coda to the entire journey.