Review: The Cottages on Silver Beach by RaeAnne Thayne + Giveaway

Review: The Cottages on Silver Beach by RaeAnne Thayne + GiveawayThe Cottages on Silver Beach by RaeAnne Thayne
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic suspense
Series: Haven Point #8
Pages: 384
Published by Hqn on June 19, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Years after betraying her, he’s back in Haven Point…and ready to learn the truth.

Megan Hamilton never really liked Elliot Bailey. He turned his back on her family when they needed him the most and it almost tore them all apart. So she’s shocked when Elliot arrives at her family’s inn, needing a place to stay and asking questions that dredge up the past. Megan will rent him a cottage, but that’s where it ends—no matter how gorgeous Elliot has become.

Coming back home to Haven Point was the last thing bestselling writer Elliot Bailey thought he’d ever do. But the book he’s writing now is his most personal one yet and it’s drawn him back to the woman he can’t get out of his mind. Seeing Megan again is harder than he expected and it brings up feelings he’d thought were long buried. Could this be his chance to win over his first love?

My Review:

First of all, the story bears almost no resemblance to the blurb. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a good story or a lovely romance, because it’s both. But the story as written is only tangentially similar to the blurb.

The romance is between Megan Hamilton and Elliot Bailey. And he does come to stay at her family’s inn. But does the story ever diverge from those points!

Once upon a time, Megan Hamilton was dating Elliot’s younger brother Wayne. We’ve met the rest of the Bailey family in the course of the Haven Point series. But Megan and Wayne’s romance never went anywhere because Wayne was killed while helping a stranded motorist during a blizzard.

So she never officially became part of the Bailey family, but in tiny Haven Point, where everyone’s lives are intertwined, the Hamiltons and the Baileys have remained close. Then again, pretty much everyone in Haven Point is close.

Megan and Elliot also remember each other from growing up in Haven Point. Megan and her friends called Elliot, Mr. Roboto. The name was not intended to flatter. Elliot was a bit older, very, very serious, and did everything by the book.

Those tendencies have made him an absolutely stellar FBI agent. But are a bit ironic for the other side of Elliot’s life, because he is also a best-selling true-crime author. And he seems to invest all of his caring and understanding into his books.

Megan is even a fan of his writing – in spite of the fact that she never believed that Elliot thought she was good enough for his brother. And particularly in spite of the fact that when her brother’s wife disappeared 7 years ago, leaving him to raise their two children, Elliot was one of many people in Haven Point who believed that Luke Hamilton had murdered his wife and hidden her body.

When Elliot returns to Haven Point, he’s on leave from the FBI. He disobeyed orders, got himself shot, killed an informant, messed up a DEA case and is now on suspension while he heals from the bullet wound.

He’s also working on his next book. And he’s booked himself into Megan’s inn to work on it. He’s not quite willing to admit to himself that he’s staying at the inn in the hopes of running into Megan – and he’s surprised to discover that she’s living in the cabin next to his.

And that the undercurrents between them are as strong as ever – in spite of all the skeletons in their respective closets.. The question is whether they can lay those bones to rest, or whether the past will continue to stand between them and the future they might have – together.

Escape Rating B+: The Cottages on Silver Beach feels like its about two things. One is trust, and the other is about just how much the baggage of the past holds you back from your brightest future.

The baggage that both Megan and Elliot carry from their birth families is pretty heavy. Megan’s father was both physically and emotionally abusive. While he reserved his physical abuse for his wife, he doled out the emotional abuse to everyone in the house. All Megan ever heard from her dad was that she was plain, dumb and useless. The bastard is long dead, and good riddance to bad rubbish, but she still hears his voice in her head whenever she steps outside her comfort zone.

And it’s that disparaging voice that has kept her from realizing her dream of being an art photographer. She has the skill, but lacks the confidence to put her work out there.

Elliot, on the other hand, is hyper-responsible. In a big family of drama kings and queens, Elliot was expected to take care of everyone and everything – and he’s internalized that message to the point where he suppresses his own emotions and personality.

They can help each other get past their fears, but only if they can get rid of the elephant-sized baggage that’s always in the room with them. Seven years ago Megan’s sister-in-law disappeared after a fight with her husband, Megan’s brother Luke. Neither she nor her body were ever found, and there are many in town who believe that Luke got away with murder.

As a law enforcement officer, Elliot feels duty-bound to admit that it is entirely possible that Luke killed his wife. He may not want to believe it, but it is possible as far as the evidence shows. Megan believes in her brother unconditionally, and as long as they are on opposite sides of this fence, they have no future. Even though they can’t seem to trust themselves when they’re together, as long as Elliot has even a glimmer of an idea that Luke might be guilty, Megan can’t trust him with her heart.

But resolving the issue may reveal Luke’s guilt. Or it may reveal that the previous police chief, Elliot’s late father, mishandled his last big case. That’s a lot of real, painful stuff to get in the way of a romance.

It’s up to Elliot to find a way for all of them to move forward, not just his romance with Megan, but his former friendship with Luke, closure for Luke’s kids, and finally removing the dark cloud over the town. If he can. If he should.

In the end, it’s that dilemma that drives the story much more than the romance. And it felt right.

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

I am giving away a copy of The Cottages on Silver Beach to one lucky US commenter on this tour!

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Review: Echo Moon by Laura Spinella + Giveaway

Review: Echo Moon by Laura Spinella + GiveawayEcho Moon by Laura Spinella
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, romantic suspense
Series: Ghost Gifts #3
Pages: 428
Published by Montlake Romance on May 22, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

A past life, a past war, and a past love. Peter St John can’t foresee a future until he confronts his past sins.

When photojournalist Peter St John returns home after a two-year absence, the life he’s been running from catches up. For years his mother’s presence, coupled with Pete’s own psychic gift, has triggered visits to 1917. There, he relives battles of the Great War, captures the heyday of Coney Island on canvas, and falls in love with an enchanting and enigmatic songstress named Esme. Present-day Pete still pines for Esme, and his love endures…but so does his vivid memory of killing her.

When he discovers family heirlooms that serve as proof of his crimes, Pete will have to finally confront his former life. He also meets a young woman—who is more than what she seems—with a curious connection to his family. As century-old secrets unravel, can Pete reconcile a murder from his past before it destroys his future?

My Review:

Echo Moon is a haunting story about the way that the past can quite literally haunt the present. Or at least Peter St. John’s present. And fair warning, I’m going to use the word “haunting” a lot in this review, because it’s the only one that really fits.

Pete has a gift, or a curse depending on one’s perspective, of being able to speak to the dead. He receives messages, and his receipt is beyond his control. As this story opens, Pete himself is running out the edges of his control.

While his mother Aubrey receives what they call “ghost gifts” from the past, Pete remembers his entire previous life – or at least his previous life up to the point where he murdered the woman he loved.

He can’t escape his visions of that past, and he can’t manage to escape his love for the beautiful, talented and ultimately doomed Esme Moon. Esme was a singer and medium in World War I era New York City, and Pete vividly remembers both loving her and killing her.

When his mother inherits a New Jersey beach shack from his grandmother, who worked the traveling carnivals in her own youth, Pete’s past and his present collide. In the uncertainty of whether he’s losing control or losing his mind, Pete finally lets himself explore the history that he has refused to acknowledge, no matter where it leads.

They say the truth will set you free. Pete needs the truth to make him whole – in one century or another.

Escape Rating B+: Although this is not strictly a time-travel story, the atmosphere in Echo Moon reminds me an awful lot of that classic, lyrical work of time travel, Time and Again by Jack Finney. It’s not the time period, but both stories have that strong bittersweet sense of the past haunting and looming over the present. Richard Matheson’s equally classic Bid Time Return (filmed as Somewhere in Time) also has that same bittersweet romantic feel.

But more than the time travel, Echo Moon reminds me of Robin D. Owens’ Ghost Seer series, which begins (naturally enough) with Ghost Seer. Clare Cermak’s gifts are very similar to Pete St. John’s, without the overwhelming sense of guilt that haunts Pete. After all, while Clare can lay the ghosts of her assigned era to rest, she isn’t responsible for turning them into ghosts in the first place.

Echo Moon is the third book in the Ghost Gifts series, although those first two books (Ghost Gifts and Foretold) feature Pete’s mother Aubrey and not Pete himself. Not having read those first two books, it took me a while to get into this one. It’s not that the action doesn’t pick up easily, or that what happens to Pete is truly reliant on what happened to his mother – or at least not exactly and certainly not at the beginning.

But not having already been immersed in the family’s history, the events here didn’t have quite the resonance they otherwise might have. We know that Pete is running from himself, but the reasons why aren’t as deep as they eventually become once the reader becomes invested in Pete’s story and especially Pete’s trauma.

Having PTSD because of events one experienced in a previous life is not the way that textbook definitions of PTSD usually go – and that makes it all the more difficult to treat or resolve.

In the end, the story does suck even the newbie reader into its web of romance, intrigue and mysticism. Once that happens, the story moves fast, as neither Pete nor the reader are ever quite sure whether the past is merely influencing the present or actively impinging on it or whether Pete has just finally lost it altogether.

When he finds it, and himself, it makes for a lovely ending.

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

I am giving away a signed copy of Echo Moon to one lucky US/Canadian commenter on this tour!

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This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: The Girl Who Stepped Into the Past by Sophie Barnes + Giveaway

Review: The Girl Who Stepped Into the Past by Sophie Barnes + GiveawayThe Girl Who Stepped Into The Past by Sophie Barnes
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: time travel romance
Pages: 256
Published by Sophie Barnes on June 5, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

She was looking for inspiration…

When historical romance author Jane Edwards goes to England on a research trip, she doesn’t expect to travel two hundred years into the past. She also doesn’t expect to be accused of murdering the Earl of Camden’s sister. Presented with few choices, Jane decides the best course of action is to help Camden find the real killer. But the more time she spends in his company, the more she falls for the dashing earl, and the more she hopes for a life with him by her side.

And found love in the most impossible place.

James Sullivan, Earl of Camden, is convinced Jane had something to do with his sister’s murder. Until he learns she lacked the ability to accomplish the feat. Still, her explanation about stopping by his home in the middle of a rainstorm to seek employment, doesn’t add up. And yet, when he offers her the position she supposedly seeks, he discovers the smart resourceful woman she is. Which makes him wonder if marrying his new maid, might be worth the risk of scandal.

My Review:

It’s a tale as old as time – or at least as old as the concept of time travel. The premise will sound familiar to anyone who has read any time travel romances. The details change a bit. In this particular version of this old tale, a woman who is looking for a fresh start after the end of a relationship falls in love with a man in a portrait. When the thunder booms and the lightning cracks, she finds herself back at the period of that portrait, face to face with the man of her dreams.

When the trope is as tried and true as this one, whether a particular variation of it stands out from the crowd lies with the execution – because we know how it’s going to end. Somehow there’s going to be an HEA, whether in the past or the present. Or it’s going to be a tragedy, but romance writers generally don’t go there. Readers love their HEAs after all.

Although the beginning of this one reminded me particularly of Timeless Desire by Gwyn Cready, in the end it mostly recalled The Geek Girl and the Scandalous Earl by Gina Lamm. Both of those stories were a lot of fun, and The Girl Who Stepped Into the Past is as well.

Jane Edwards doesn’t merely find herself in the Regency period that she has studied long and hard as part of her research for her own series of historical romance novels, she finds herself standing over a dead body in the middle of a unsolved murder. A murder that was never solved, so she does not have any future knowledge about who done it.

In an era where circumstantial evidence ruled, her position is rather damning. The Earl of Camden, the man that Jane has fallen for via his portrait, is certain that Jane must have just killed his sister. Jane has her work cut out for her, not only proving her innocence but also explaining her sudden presence in the middle of the English countryside.

Jane turns out to be more than up to the task. But involving herself in the life and household of James Sullivan, Earl of Camden, causes her no end of problems, as one might expect. The two bond over their investigation into his sister’s death, in spite of Jane’s rather unconventional appearance and manners.

Jane begins to realize that James is the man she has been looking for all of her life. But falling in love has its own risks. Will he believe her strange story? Is he willing to be shunned by society to marry a woman who at best seems to be an American adventuress? And is Jane willing to give up the safety, convenience, freedom and loneliness of the 21st century for life with the man she loves in a world that will otherwise never accept her?

And will solving the murder change history too much to make any of their wishes even remotely possible?

Escape Rating B: This is a fun little story. I enjoyed reading it but it doesn’t rise above some of the truly great time travel stories like Outlander and The Jane Austen Project. And there are plenty of nods to Jane Austen herself in this story.

Jane Edwards, our heroine, is a lucky woman. By the time she tells him, James manages to believe her story, as outlandish as it seems. He believes, perhaps, just a bit too easily. I considered it all part of the handwavium of time travel and didn’t let it bother me too much.

Jane does have an awfully easy time figuring out who killed James’ sister. To the point where the reader may be surprised that she was a Regency romance author and not a mystery author! But it is all in good fun, at least fun for anyone not the victim or the perpetrator.

The heart of the story is the romance between Jane and James. While they fall in love rather quickly, the dilemma they face is the one that tears at the heart. She might be able to go back. It will be difficult for a 21st century woman to live with the restrictions imposed on women in the 19th century. If she stays so they can marry, James will be shunned by his peers for the rest of his life, and that shunning may also fall on any children they have. They have to be willing to give up a great deal in order to be together. What we feel for, in the end, is the internal conflict they each have to resolve and their ultimate willingness to be all to each other, and to hell with what the rest of the world thinks.

And that’s a hard thing to do under any circumstances, time travel or no time travel. By the time they reach that ultimate decision, we are right there with them.

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

Sophie is giving away a signed print copy of The Girl Who Stepped Into The Past + a $10 Amazon gift card to one lucky winner on this tour.

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Review: Too Wilde to Wed by Eloisa James + Giveaway

Review: Too Wilde to Wed by Eloisa James + GiveawayToo Wilde to Wed (The Wildes of Lindow Castle, #2) by Eloisa James
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Wildes of Lindow Castle #2
Pages: 384
Published by Avon on May 29, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The handsome, rakish heir to a dukedom, Lord Roland Northbridge Wilde—known to his friends as North—left England two years ago, after being jilted by Miss Diana Belgrave. He returns from war to find that he's notorious: polite society has ruled him "too wild to wed."

Diana never meant to tarnish North's reputation, or his heart, but in her rush to save a helpless child, there was no time to consider the consequences of working as a governess in Lindow Castle. Now everyone has drawn the worst conclusions about the child's father, and Diana is left with bittersweet regret.

When North makes it clear that he still wants her for his own, scandal or no, Diana has to fight to keep from losing her heart to the man whom she still has no intention of marrying.

Yet North is returning a hardened warrior—and this is one battle he's determined to win.

He wants Diana, and he'll risk everything to call her his own.

My Review:

Too Wilde to Wed is an absolutely delightful romp of historical romance, and definitely a fitting sequel to the equally fun and utterly frothy Wilde in Love. The Wildes are indeed very, very wild. And the wilder they are the better things seem to turn out for them.

So it proves with North, the oldest surviving son of the Duke of Lindow. We met North in Wilde in Love, as that story, while it features his brother Alaric’s romance with Willa Ffynche, begins at North’s betrothal party and ends with that betrothal going smash.

And did it ever need to.

Too Wilde to Wed begins two years after that stunner of an ending. North has just returned from two years commanding a regiment in the Colonies, during the events that on this side of the pond are referred to as the American Revolution.

He leaves the Colonies disgusted with his superiors and their idiocy. He knows that England is losing the Colonies and believes that they should let them go. He feels that he’s lost too many good men by following bad orders and he’s had enough.

But he discovers that leaving the field of battle does not mean that the war has left him. And when he comes home he discovers that he has a new battle to face. His erstwhile fiancee, Miss Diana Belgrave, a woman he once believed fit to become the next Duchess of Lindow, is in residence at his country home, serving as governess to his youngest sister, along with a little boy that everyone seems to believe is his.

A boy that he is certain was fathered by someone else before he ever met Diana. We’ll he’s half right.

Neither Diana nor North are who they were two years ago. Not that either of them was the person that the other thought they were, even at the time. The Diana he saw was an illusion created by her mother, and the North that asked for her hand was an illusion created by his valet in order to win her hand if not her heart.

Now that their circumstances have drastically changed, they are forced to start over, getting to know the people they actually are, and discovering that they like each other a whole lot more when they are being their true selves.

And therein lies the rub. Because North’s true self is the future Duke of Lindow. And Diana’s true self wants to be anything, even a governess, even a barmaid, rather than being a future Duchess.

No matter how much she’s like to be North’s wife.

Escape Rating B+: This was just plain fun. As in, read in one day fun.

One of the great things about this story is the way that it took two people that we had already been introduced to and showed that we really didn’t know them at all. And that no matter what either of them thought, they didn’t know each other the tiniest little bit either.

In Wilde in Love, Diana was almost a cipher. There was a person filling her gowns, but she seemed to have almost no personality. Now we know why, and we hope there’s a hotter place in hell for her mother. The Diana that North saw had almost no relationship to the person she actually was. When keeping up the pretense became too much for her, she fled. And while she was foolish in many practical ways, all of her reasons were quite sound.

North acted like he had the proverbial stick shoved very, very far up his fundament. He was an entitled, overdressed prig. He deserved Diana’s jilting. But as was true with Diana, the person he pretended to be only had a passing relationship with who he really was. Part of that was due to his own self-deception, and part of it was a result of his trying to please the woman he thought Diana was. Their original relationship, if you can call it that, was doomed to failure. It’s lucky for both of them that it failed before the grand wedding instead of after.

The real people underneath both of their carefully constructed facades are much nicer, and much, much more interesting. Also much more real. And have more in common than either of their fake personas might have guessed.

North makes a worthwhile hero for a couple of reasons. He is doing the British stiff-upper-lip thing and doing his duty the best he can. He’s the oldest surviving son, he was not originally the heir. And he doesn’t want it, but doesn’t feel as if he can just give it up. He’s coping, but he certainly isn’t happy. He also went to war, and the experience left him with almost as many scars as his older brother’s death. He certainly has PTSD. It was also fascinating to see someone on the English side of the Revolution realize that any attempt to hold the Colonies was doomed to failure and deserved to be.

Unlike the fake version in Wilde in Love, this version of North is difficult not to like.

Diana as the heroine was a mass of contradictions. On the one hand, she was proud of her ability to earn her own living, and unlike so many Regency heroines, felt much more at home as the governess than she ever did as a potential duchess. On the other hand, so few of her decisions seem to have been backed up by any practicality or sense. She does the right thing for the right reasons, but goes about the practicalities the wrong way pretty much every time, and often, as the saying goes, bites off her nose to spite her face. She’s tenderhearted when she can’t afford to be, and all too often proud when she really can’t afford to be.

At the same time, she’s right about not being a good candidate to be the next duchess. She does eventually discover that she wants to be North’s wife, but thinks too little of herself to take the bad of being duchess as the necessary evil required to be with the man she loves.

They also both have a bad cases of thinking that they are not worthy of the other, but they are also surprisingly honest about it with each other. In spite of the description in the book blurb, North does figure out that this is not a battle, and that he can’t really win in the traditional sense. He can overwhelm Diana’s objections and defenses, but that will only result in both of them being completely miserable.

They both need a way out. When it comes from the most surprising source, everyone is astonished at just how long it took them both to see it. But it makes for a lovely ending. And sets readers up for more to come in the third book in the series, Born to be Wilde.

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

LINK: https://goo.gl/gceRD3

GIVEAWAY TERMS & CONDITIONS:  Open to US shipping addresses only. One winner will receive a hardcover copy of WILDE IN LOVE by Eloisa James and a peacock keychain. This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Avon Romance.  Giveaway ends 6/10/2018 @ 11:59pm EST. Avon Romance will send the winning copies out to the winner directly. Limit one entry per reader and mailing address. Duplicates will be deleted.

Review: The Magic of Recluce by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Review: The Magic of Recluce by L.E. Modesitt Jr.The Magic of Recluce (The Saga of Recluce #1) by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy
Series: Saga of Recluce #1
Pages: 501
Published by Tor Books on May 15, 1992
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Young Lerris is dissatisfied with his life and trade, and yearns to find a place in the world better suited to his skills and temperament. But in Recluce a change in circumstances means taking one of two options: permanent exile from Recluce or the dangergeld, a complex, rule-laden wanderjahr in the lands beyond Recluce, with the aim of learning how the world works and what his place in it might be. Many do not survive. Lerris chooses dangergeld. When Lerris is sent into intensive training for his quest, it soon becomes clear that he has a natural talent for magic. And he will need magic in the lands beyond, where the power of the Chaos Wizards reigns unchecked. Though it goes against all of his instincts, Lerris must learn to use his powers in an orderly way before his wanderjahr, or fall prey to Chaos.

My Review:

“The burned hand teaches best. After that, advice about fire goes to the heart.”

The above quote is from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, but it could equally apply to the way that all of Lerris’ teachers operate in The Magic of Recluce. They all want him to think for himself and learn for himself, and not expect answers to be handed to him. At the same time, it is all too easy to sympathize with his position that they all already know, and why won’t they just tell him already!

And on my hidden third hand, it is clear that while their desire for him to learn things for himself is reasonable, they don’t exactly give him the building blocks from which to start. He’s 15, he’s exiled from the only home he’s ever known, and no one has bothered to really explain why.

All that he knows is that the endless striving for absolute ORDER bores him to exasperation. And that no one can be bothered to help him make sense of it all. There are always secrets within secrets, and cryptic answers within enigmas. He doesn’t even know that his own father is a High Master of Order until long after he has left the boring, orderly paradise that is Recluce.

But speaking of order, this is also a story about order vs. chaos, and the need to maintain the balance between the two. Lerris is actually kind of right in that pure order can be boring. Recluce is the bastion of order, and seems to be needed to balance the untrammeled chaos outside its borders.

However, while in this world it seems to be easier to create evil through chaos than through order, the fact is that both order and chaos, taken to their extremes, are bad. If that sounds familiar, it is also one of the premises of the Invisible Library series and of the Shadow War that was so much a part of Babylon 5. Unchecked chaos is ultimately destructive, but unchecked order leads to tyranny. Neither is particularly good for humans.

It’s up to Lerris, in his journey of training and discovery, to figure out where he belongs on that spectrum between order and chaos. The moral and ethical dilemmas that he faces illustrate the fine lines that separate the two, and show just how easy it is to fall down what turns out to be an extremely slippery slope – in either direction.

Escape Rating A+: The Magic of Recluce was the first book published in the author’s long-running Saga of Recluce. As such, it carries the weight of the initial worldbuilding that is needed for all of its prequels and sequels. However you may feel about reading series in publication order vs. the internal chronological order, this feels like the place to start.

And I fell right into it. I didn’t so much read this book as get absorbed by it. I started one night at dinner and finished the next afternoon. All 500-plus pages later. It’s a good story that keeps twisting and turning until the very end – and, I think, beyond.

Lerris’ story is both a coming-of-age story and a coming-into-power story. At the beginning, he doesn’t know who he is or what he is. He doesn’t even know there is a who or a what to be discovered – and that’s his journey. His internal doubts and fears, his constant questioning of what his purpose is, along with all of his very human frustrations, make him a fascinating character to follow.

What he does eventually realize, after fits and starts and mistakes and catastrophes, is just how equal, opposed and opposite chaos and order are – and how necessary the one is to the other. And that both sides are more than capable of deciding that the ends justify the means.

In the end, Lerris strikes his own path – by doing the best he can with what he has and what he knows – and often by ignoring what he doesn’t – occasionally with disastrous results. But in the end, he discovers or embodies that necessary balance even if it hurts. Because the person who is usually the most wounded is himself – every single time.

His journey is the making of him, and it’s the making of an utterly marvelous story as well as a terrific beginning to a fantastic series.

In celebration of the release of Outcasts of Order, the OMG 20th book in the series, The Magic of Recluce and the following two books in the series are being re-released with new covers this fall.  (The panorama view of the three covers is below, and it is gorgeous!) After falling in love with this series, I have a lot of catching up to do. And I can’t wait!

Review: I Am Justice by Diana Munoz Stewart + Giveaway

Review: I Am Justice by Diana Munoz Stewart + GiveawayI Am Justice (Band of Sisters, #1) by Diana Munoz Stewart
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: romantic suspense
Series: Band of Sisters #1
Pages: 384
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on May 1, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

This bad-ass band of sisters plays for keeps.


She's ready to start a warJustice Parish takes down bad guys. Rescued from the streets by the world-renowned Parish family, she joined their covert sisterhood of vigilante assassins. Her next target: a sex-trafficking ring in the war-torn Middle East. She just needs to get close enough to take them down...

He just wants peaceSandesh Ross left Special Forces to found a humanitarian group to aid war-torn countries. But saving the world isn't cheap. Enter Parish Industries and limitless funding, with one catch— their hot, prickly PR specialist', Justice Parish. Their chemistry is instant and off-the-charts. But when Justice is injured and her cover blown, Sandesh has to figure out if he can reconcile their missions. With danger dogging their every move, their white-hot passion can change the world— if it doesn't destroy them first.

My Review:

Think of this story as a big message about paying it forward – backed up with bullets. Or as a 21st century league-of-extraordinary-but-not-in-the-least-bit-gentle women. Or perhaps as the story of a group of contemporary Amazons who specialize in giving people who abuse women and girls every single thing that they deserve – with extreme prejudice.

The Parish family has a secret. Or is a secret. Actually it’s a little bit of both. On the surface it looks like Mukta Parish runs an elite boarding school for girls. She has also adopted a number of young girls from heartbreaking circumstances. And both of those things are true.

But it is also a front. The Parish family rescues girls and women being abused and trafficked, just as Mukta herself was once abused. The foundation she founded continues to rescue girls and women in those horrible circumstances, all over the world. And some of those girls she adopts into her family – and trains them to be covert operators and assassins, who go in and rescue women in countries and situations where official authorities won’t go – or don’t care to even try.

Justice Parish is one of her daughters. But someone in Justice’s family has betrayed her, so she’s sent, undercover, with a charitable organization that can get her where she needs to be without relying on her family’s resources.

In the process of exposing the traitor in her own home, Justice finds herself leaning on, or falling for, the ex-special forces soldier who thinks that she’s just a PR flack. When all of their plans go completely pear-shaped – they realize that the only person that each of them can really count on is the other.

And that so much of what they’ve always believed is a lie.

Escape Rating B+: As the saying goes, this story is not for the faint of heart. Justice was herself rescued from horrific circumstances – circumstances which still haunt her days and disrupt her nights. In turn, she spends her life rescuing others from hells that would be neverending if not for her family’s operations.

She has no doubt that she is a vigilante operating outside the law. And the same time, in most of the places where she operates, the law either turns a blind eye to the abuses or is corrupt to the point of being part of the problem.

But whatever her mission ostensibly is in Jordan, the truth is that she is out for revenge. The traffickers that she intends to kill are the same men who killed her sister Hope. And she wants to make them suffer. But she’ll settle for making them dead – no matter what it takes.

She hasn’t factored falling in love into her plans. Nor has she counted on questioning not just the loyalties of those who have betrayed her, but also her own. It’s a hard journey for Justice. It begins in a difficult place and mostly gets worse – as well as more torturous.

Justice reminds me of some of the more tortured and less busty versions of Lara Croft in that both are fighters and neither have pretty background stories. I like her loyalty to her family, and at the same time I like the way she finally wakes up and starts to question what she’s always believes. This story is a wake-up call for her. But it’s also a very gritty story, and lots of bad things happen to both good and bad people, described in graphic ways that do not make for easy bedtime reading.

Yes, this is a romance and her hero is both drool-worthy and worthy of her. Sandesh Ross is a man who will fight beside her, and never try to keep her safe – especially as they both know that safety is an illusion. They make a great team.

But it’s Justice Parish’ story all the way. And if you like your heroines very gritty and extremely kick-ass, it’s a damn good one.

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

I am giving away a copy of I Am Justice to one lucky US/CAN commenter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Review: All the Ever Afters by Danielle Teller

Review: All the Ever Afters by Danielle TellerAll the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella’s Stepmother by Danielle Teller
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow on May 22, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the vein of Wicked, The Woodcutter, and Boy, Snow, Bird, a luminous reimagining of a classic tale, told from the perspective of Agnes, Cinderella’s “evil” stepmother.

We all know the story of Cinderella. Or do we?

As rumors about the cruel upbringing of beautiful newlywed Princess Cinderella roil the kingdom, her stepmother, Agnes, who knows all too well about hardship, privately records the true story. . . .

A peasant born into serfdom, Agnes is separated from her family and forced into servitude as a laundress’s apprentice when she is only ten years old. Using her wits and ingenuity, she escapes her tyrannical matron and makes her way toward a hopeful future. When teenaged Agnes is seduced by an older man and becomes pregnant, she is transformed by love for her child. Once again left penniless, Agnes has no choice but to return to servitude at the manor she thought she had left behind. Her new position is nursemaid to Ella, an otherworldly infant. She struggles to love the child who in time becomes her stepdaughter and, eventually, the celebrated princess who embodies everyone’s unattainable fantasies. The story of their relationship reveals that nothing is what it seems, that beauty is not always desirable, and that love can take on many guises.

Lyrically told, emotionally evocative, and brilliantly perceptive, All the Ever Afters explores the hidden complexities that lie beneath classic tales of good and evil, all the while showing us that how we confront adversity reveals a more profound, and ultimately more important, truth than the ideal of “happily ever after.”

My Review:

As Agnes says, “The stories we tell ourselves have great power.” And that is as true of the story that Agnes tells of her own life as it is about the fairy tale that becomes wrapped around the life of her stepdaughter Ella – known to legend as Cinderella. Although Ella never spent a day amongst the cinders in her entire privileged life.

Well, there was that one day, but it wasn’t exactly like the fairy tale. Then again, nothing was like the fairy tale. Because fairy tales aren’t real. They are just more compelling than day-to-day reality.

At least reality according to Ella’s not-so-wicked stepmother. Who may, of course, be an unreliable narrator of her own life – but then, aren’t we all?

Agnes begins her life as the second daughter of a poor serf in the village of Aviceford. Her family is too poor to feed her along with everyone else, so she is sent to the manor to become a laundry maid. It’s the best/worst thing that ever happens to her, and pretty much sets the pattern for her entire life.

Agnes is a woman who never manages to take two steps forward without taking at least one step back. While there are some happy moments in her life, they seem to mostly occur in spite of every single deck stacked against her pretty much all the time.

It’s a sad tale.

Just when it seems Agnes has finally found a way to have a fairly good and productive life, if not exactly a happy one, she finds herself face to face, or tantrum to tantrum, with her stepdaughter Ella. The world may see Ella as a fairy tale princess, but Agnes has to deal with her as a spoiled little brat who grows into a spoiled and self-indulgent young woman.

Not that Agnes ever says any of that to herself. She’s doing her level best to raise Ella, and she’s actually a pretty reasonable stepmother, but circumstances, along with the girl’s father and her godmother – who is certainly no magical being – thwart any attempt at the slightest amount of discipline at every turn.

What we’re left with is the story of a young woman who managed to get her way all her life, and the poor woman who has been cast as evil not because of anything she actually said or did, but because it fits the fairy tale so much better.

Escape Rating B: The obvious comparison is to Wicked, which I admit I have not read. Just as in Wicked, we have the “true” story, told in her own words, of a character that myth has turned into an absolute monster. Of course no one ever sees themselves as a monster.

At the end, I found myself sympathizing with Agnes and her two daughters, and thinking that Ella is at best a spoiled and self-indulgent little brat, who barely has the intelligence to keep manipulating circumstances to her own advantage.

Agnes’ story, on the other hand, reads like a tragedy. She does her best, and life knocks her down at every turn. But I did like the way that the author turned the whole “ugly stepsister” trope on its tiny little head.

It is true that we have an unfortunate tendency to equate beauty with goodness, and that correlation is far from proven. Ella’s stepsisters Charlotte and Matilda are objectively not beautiful by the standards of the time. Their father was one of the Moors from Spain, and as a consequence their skin is too dark for conventional beauty. Charlotte suffered an accident with scalding water as a child, and Matilda survived a terrible case of smallpox. Both left scars. But they both are considerably more beautiful on the inside (and a whole lot cleverer) than Ella has the wit to be. I wish we saw a bit more of them.

I also enjoyed the way that Agnes simply questioned the logic of some of the stranger conclusions drawn by the fairy tale. Of course the Prince could easily find Ella. That’s what loyal retainers are for. And while he may have been completely smitten, he would instantly recognize her the moment they were face to face again. And that whole business of cutting off toes and heels – UGH!

I enjoyed Agnes journal entries in the present much more than her memories of the past. Her story seems to move from downtrodden tragedy to downtrodden tragedy, and while it feels at least somewhat true to medieval life and its lack of opportunities for women, it becomes disheartening to read after a time.

The story ends with poor Agnes worrying that she was not charitable enough in her behavior towards Ella. Not because that behavior has resulted in her current circumstances, but because she finds herself believing that she didn’t bend over backwards to indulge the child nearly enough.

In this version of the fairy tale, at least, the stepmother has nothing to feel guilty about.

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Review: Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist

Review: Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion and Anne BuistTwo Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion, Anne Buist
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, travel
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on May 1, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Rosie Project comes a story of taking chances and learning to love again as two people, one mourning her husband and the other recovering from divorce, cross paths on the centuries-old Camino pilgrimage from France to Spain.

“The Chemin will change you. It changes everyone…”

The Chemin, also known as the Camino de Santiago, is a centuries-old pilgrim route that ends in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Every year, thousands of walkers—some devout, many not—follow the route that wends through quaint small villages and along busy highways alike, a journey unlike any other.

Zoe, an artist from California who’s still reeling from her husband’s sudden death, has impulsively decided to walk the Camino, hoping to find solace and direction. Martin, an engineer from England, is road-testing a cart of his own design…and recovering from a messy divorce. They begin in the same French town, each uncertain of what the future holds. Zoe has anticipated the physical difficulties of her trek, but she is less prepared for other challenges, as strangers and circumstances force her to confront not just recent loss, but long-held beliefs. For Martin, the pilgrimage is a test of his skills and endurance but also, as he and Zoe grow closer, of his willingness to trust others—and himself—again.

Smart and funny, insightful and romantic, Two Steps Forward reveals that the most important journeys we make aren’t measured in miles, but in the strength, wisdom, and love found along the way. Fans of The Rosie Project will recognize Graeme Simsion’s uniquely quirky and charming writing style.

 

My Review:

Two Steps Forward, which begins as kind of the ultimate road trip journey of self-discovery and ends with a romance between two mature adults is absolutely charming from its beginning in Cluny, France to its ending in Santiago, Spain. It will remind readers of Eat, Pray, Love, but with a bit less self-indulgence.

And so are all of the places, and most of the people, that Zoe and Martin meet along the way, whether they are travelling separately, together, or a bit of both.

Their separate roads to that self-discovery, as well as their journey along the pilgrim’s path variously known as the Carmino de Santiago, the Chemin, or simply the Way, is definitely a story of two steps forward and one step back – and sometimes the other way around.

Both Zoe and Martin are at very loose ends in their mid-lives. It would be a cliche to say that either of them is having a mid-life crisis, and that’s not really the case. They are both in crises that have been thrust upon them. The story of Two Steps Forward is about coming to terms with those crises, the effects on their lives and hearts, and figuring out how to move forward.

They say that the Chemin changes everyone. That, at least, is Zoe’s purpose for taking her first ill-prepared steps along the Way. She is in her mid-40s, and has unexpectedly been widowed. Her daughters are adults, and don’t seem to need her much anymore. And after two marriages, one ending in divorce and one ending in death, she’s not quite sure who she is anymore. Only that the identities that she has crafted for herself – or compromised herself into – no longer fit.

So she walks.

Martin, on the other hand, is flat broke after a messy divorce, and an ill-considered dare. His ex had an affair with his boss, so he’s also out of a job. As he puts it, he’s 52 and skint. And British.

He’s not traveling the Chemin to find himself. Instead, he’s an engineer testing a prototype for a rolling cart that hikers could possibly use to travel the Chemin without either carrying a backpack, the traditional mode, or hiring the service that portages one’s bag(s) from one stop to another. Of course, the purists consider that to be cheating.

But just because he isn’t looking to find himself or resolve any of the many, many issues he’s running, well, walking, away from, doesn’t mean that those issues don’t follow him along the road. And it equally does not mean that he does not, after all, learn the lessons that the Chemin needs to teach him.

Along the way, they keep running into each other. And occasionally from each other. And it is absolutely charming, every step of the way.

Escape Rating B+: Your feet will hurt after reading this book, or at least mine did. In sympathy with their incredible journey. It’s a 2,000 kilometer walk, in other words, over 1,200 miles. On foot. Walking.

The description of the route, the places they stop or pass, and just the effects of the sheer volume of time, distance and effort, are lyrical, and they feel real, as they should. The authors of Two Steps Forward have themselves walked the Chemin, including the particular route taken by Martin in this book, and have traveled other trails along this pilgrim’s path in the years since.

The blisters in particular sound downright painful.

But as fascinating as the sheer volume of the mechanics of the journey are, what makes this story so charming are the characters of Zoe, Martin and everyone they meet along the way.

The story is told from alternating points of view, with one chapter seen from Martin’s perspective, and the other from Zoe’s. While we do read what they think and feel about each other, it’s more important that we also get to look at what brought them on this journey, what they discover about themselves along the way – and just what baggage they leave behind.

That they also find each other gives the story its happy ending, but this is one where the journey, and its fellow travelers, are infinitely more fascinating, may I even say moving, than the destination.

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Review: A Scandalous Deal by Joanna Shupe + Giveaway

Review: A Scandalous Deal by Joanna Shupe + GiveawayA Scandalous Deal (The Four Hundred, #2) by Joanna Shupe
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Four Hundred #2
Pages: 384
Published by Avon on April 24, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Joanna Shupe returns with another unforgettable novel set in the glittering world of New York City’s Gilded Age…

They call her Lady Unlucky…

With three dead fiancés, Lady Eva Hyde has positively no luck when it comes to love. She sets sail for New York City, determined that nothing will deter her dream of becoming an architect, certainly not an unexpected passionate shipboard encounter with a mysterious stranger. But Eva’s misfortune strikes once more when she discovers the stranger who swept her off her feet is none other than her new employer.

Or is it Lady Irresistible?

Phillip Mansfield reluctantly agrees to let the fiery Lady Eva oversee his luxury hotel project while vowing to keep their relationship strictly professional. Yet Eva is more capable—and more alluring—than Phillip first thought, and he cannot keep from drawing up a plan of his own to seduce her.

When a series of onsite “accidents” makes it clear someone wants Lady Unlucky to earn her nickname, Phillip discovers he’s willing to do anything to protect her—even if it requires A SCANDALOUS DEAL.

My Review:

The business deal between Eva Hyde and Phillip Mansfield may be scandalous, but the story about it is delightful.

And the reason that it is so delightful is that the hero and heroine, especially the heroine, are so different from what is expected, particularly what is expected for their time and place, New York City in 1890.

Phillip Mansfield is a scion of the “Four Hundred”, the extreme upper-crust of New York society. But he’s also a hard man who exorcises the demons in his soul by boxing. He’s serious about the sport, but not a professional. Not that he isn’t good at taking on all comers. He’s very serious about it – also seriously ripped.

And that’s what Lady Eva Hyde notices under his bespoke suit and pristine white shirt – that the body underneath is deliciously well-muscled. Not that she has much experience in that regard. She’s been betrothed three times, but never married. All of her erstwhile fiances have died – and not only not at her hand but far from wherever she happened to be at the moment. But even though she’s completely blameless, three dead fiances does give a girl a nickname, and in her case it’s Lady Unlucky.

Eva doesn’t really care about the name, and she didn’t care a whole lot about the men, either. Not that she wished them dead. But her father arranged her betrothals for business purposes of his own, and she wasn’t sorry to see any of the betrothals end, even if she felt any grief at the reason for the endings.

But her father is now well past arranging anything. Lady Eva’s father, the celebrated architect E.M. Hyde, has gone senile. Today we’d recognize his condition as Alzheimer’s Disease, but in Eva’s day all that is understood is that her father is incapable of working, no longer recognizes her, and is sliding downhill fast.

And that while he may have been an absolute genius of an architect, he was consistently an idiot when it came to his personal finances. He should be wealthy, but instead he is nearly penniless.

To keep them financially afloat, Eva has been pretending to be her father, at least as far as architecture and design is concerned. She has taken commissions in his name, done all the design and drawings herself, and supervised the work, multiple times, pretending that her father is merely ill and will get better.

He won’t, but she will. While the lies gall her, Eva is every bit as great an architect as her father ever was, if not more so. But no one will recognize it, not just because she is forced into this masquerade, but purely because in 1890 no one believed that a woman could be an architect at all, great or otherwise.

One night aboard ship on her way from England to New York to take up the commission that she and her father both need to pay their bills and finance his medial care, Eva lets herself be herself for just one night with a perfect stranger.

Only to discover that her “perfect stranger” is the man she needs to convince that she can oversee his legacy hotel in place of her ailing father. He’s already seen her at her least polished and most vulnerable, and now she has to convince him that she is not merely capable, but twice as capable as any man he might hire in her place.

It’s much easier to sell Phillip Mansfield on her architectural talents than it is to pretend that what happened on board ship can never happen again. And as much as she eventually succeeds at the first, she completely fails at the second.

And it’s the best thing that ever happened to either of them – even if neither of them is willing to recognize it.

Escape Rating A-: The first book in the Four Hundred series, A Daring Arrangement, was certainly a treat, and A Scandalous Deal is even better. It’s also a bit less predictable, which for this reader is always a good thing.

What makes A Scandalous Deal so delicious is the character of Lady Eva Hyde, because she is nothing like the expected heroine for this time or place, nor is she anything like the hero or anyone she deals with thinks she ought to be. But her differences are what make her such a wonderful heroine for 21st century readers.

Lady Eva is an architect. While this seems anachronistic, it turns out that it’s only by a hair. The architect of Hearst Castle in California, begun in 1919, was also a woman. It’s easy to imagine Eva as a role model for Julia Morgan.

But the difficulties that Eva faces feel very real. No one believes she can possibly be an architect, not even once the truth is revealed and it becomes obvious that she IS an architect. She is also very career minded, and is unwilling to marry because marriage in the 1890s (and considerably thereafter) subsumed the woman’s identity under her husband’s. She needed her work to be HER work, and to receive commissions based on her efforts and not who her husband might be – and she didn’t want to put anyone in a position where they could force her to stop.

While the sexual tension between Eva and Phillip is palpable, the dramatic tension in the story revolves around Eva’s insistence on being treated as an equal, and Phillip’s inability to understand that even his protectiveness is ultimately condescending – no matter how right and proper he thinks it is.

So while the romance is the central core of this story, it is Eva, her work and her need to do that work at any price that give it both its heart and its stand up and cheer resolution. Especially when Phillip performs a very good and very, very necessary grovel.

After this terrific story, which I read in a single day because I just couldn’t put it down, I’m really looking forward to the next book in this series, A Notorious Vow.

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

 

Link: https://goo.gl/5V8ncm

GIVEAWAY TERMS & CONDITIONS:  Giveaway open to US shipping addresses only. One winner will receive a paperback copy of A DARING ARRANGEMENT by Joanna Shupe. This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Avon Romance.  Giveaway ends 11/14/2017 @ 1159pm EST. Avon Romance will send the winning copy out to the winner directly. Limit one entry per reader and mailing address. Duplicates will be deleted.

Review: Total Bravery by Piper J Drake + Giveaway

Review: Total Bravery by Piper J Drake + GiveawayTotal Bravery by Piper J. Drake
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: romantic suspense
Series: True Heroes #4
Pages: 304
Published by Forever on April 24, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

True heroes will do anything to protect the women they love...

As the newest recruit at Search and Protect, Raul has a lot to prove. Luckily, he's got the best friend and partner a man could ask for: a highly trained, fiercely loyal German Shepherd Dog named Taz. Together, Raul and Taz make an unbeatable team. But their first mission in Hawaii really puts them to the test when an international kidnapping ring sets its sights on the bravest woman Raul's ever met . . .

Mali knows her latest job has put one hell of a target on her back. And on this small island paradise, there's nowhere to hide. With a service dog like Taz, Mali feels safe. Sharing close quarters with a smoldering muscle-for-hire like Raul, she feels something else - an unexpected wave of desire. Raul feels it too. But when the kidnappers make their move, he's got to turn that slow-burning passion into hard-hitting action - and save the life of the woman he loves.

My Review:

Although I read the previous book in this series, Absolute Trust, this book does not feel like it followed from that one. At all.

That doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a good time with the people and dogs of Total Bravery, but it does mean that if you want to get into this series and haven’t read the previous books – no problem at all. They are equally good (more on that later) but don’t seem to connect up.

There is one way in which Total Bravery is very much like the previous book in this series. In both cases, while the heroine is in jeopardy and needs the hero’s help to stay safe and alive, said heroine is not the victim of a stalker, or a evil ex (evilex™) or any man with a sexual agenda directed at her. Nor were either of them in danger merely because they are women.

In both cases, the suspense part of the plot revolves around what the heroine does, specifically what she does for a living. It’s her agency that gets her into trouble, and it’s her agency that helps get her out. Nor in either case is the heroine TSTL (that’s Too Stupid To Live) so that she puts herself in unnecessary trouble.

Mali in particular is smart and savvy and knows just what to do when her research partners are suddenly swept off the streets of Hawaii by overheated men in tailored suits. No one wears dark suits in Paradise – unless they are up to something no good and are willing to advertise that fact.

While Mali follows the safety protocols set up by her research team, but she also has an ace in the hole – her sister Arin is part of Search and Protect, a private security and investigation firm that does just what the name implies – and is located in Hawaii.

So Mali doesn’t just hide out – she calls for help from people she knows can definitely help her. In fact, they are experts at it. But with her sister Arin off the island, Mali’s rescue falls to the company’s newest recruits, Raul Sai and his German Shepherd Dog Taz. Once Raul and Taz meet Mali, the three of them form an almost instant team – even in the face of big sister Arin’s confused disapproval.

Arin still sees Mali as the little girl she once protected from bullies, while Mali still sees Arin as the scary big sister who took care of her by displaying her dark side to anyone who threatened little Mali.

Mali may still be a lot smaller than her big sis – but she’s a grown up now with a job that takes her into places as dark and dangerous in their own way as her sister’s military service. Mali and her team are researching human trafficking on the streets of Hawaii, and they’ve gotten into someone’s way.

It’s up to Search and Protect to find her missing team and rescue them, and protect Mali from bad people who want to kill or kidnap her, without trying to shove her into a tight little box the way that her sister wants.

And while Raul and Mali do their best to alternately ignore and explore the explosive chemistry between them – before they have to go their separate ways.

Escape Rating B+: I really, really like the fact that Mali never loses her agency in this story. It’s refreshing, because so often in romantic suspense the heroine gives up her ability to act for herself in order to get rescued, and Mali never does.

I also loved the way that Raul and Taz, along with the other teams in Search and Protect, are so obviously a team. It is a joy to read the way that the two of them work together and are growing towards each other in a true partnership – and that both of them, in obviously different ways, see Mali as a part of their “pack”. Taz is possibly even more protective of Mali than Raul is, but then again, Taz has considerably less emotional baggage to deal with.

In spite of the obvious physical differences, one of the things that is emphasized in this romance is that Raul and Mali, if they pursue a relationship, can hurt each other. All too often it’s all about the woman getting hurt, and about her giving up essential pieces of herself to stay with the man. That doesn’t happen here.

And it’s both that Mali will have to deal with Raul’s focused and deadly military side, as well as the things he has to do and the acts that he has committed to stay alive, and that Raul will have to deal with the fact that Mali will put herself in danger for her work. It’s also that they live as far apart in the U.S. as possible (Boston vs. Hawaii) and that they will have to compromise to be together, but without giving up anything essential to either of them. The author makes it work.

Another thing that worked for me in this story is that Raul never minimizes or discounts anything that Mali says. Not only does that happen too often in fiction, it happens entirely too damn often in real life, where women’s words, intelligence, warnings and gut instincts are ignored or discounted because they are women. He takes her seriously every step of the way, and by example makes sure that the rest of the team does too.

The romance in this story takes a bit of a back burner to finding and rescuing Mali’s teammates, and that’s as it should be. That both sides of the story do resolve happily is what made this one so much fun.

As much as I am a cat person in real life, I love this trend of smart, protective dogs as characters in military romance and romantic suspense. Bring on the puppies!

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

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