Review: The Bookstore on the Beach by Brenda Novak

Review: The Bookstore on the Beach by Brenda NovakThe Bookstore on the Beach by Brenda Novak
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 448
Published by Mira on April 6, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"A page-turner with a deep heart."—Nancy Thayer, New York Times bestselling author of
Girls of Summer

How do you start a new chapter of your life when you haven’t closed the book on the previous one?
Eighteen months ago, Autumn Divac’s husband went missing. Her desperate search has yielded no answers, and she can’t imagine moving forward without him. But for the sake of their two teenage children, she has to try.
Autumn takes her kids home for the summer to the charming beachside town where she was raised. She seeks comfort working alongside her mother and aunt at their bookshop, only to learn that her daughter is facing a huge life change and her mother has been hiding a terrible secret for years. And when she runs into the boy who stole her heart in high school, old feelings start to bubble up again. Is she free to love him, or should she hold out hope for her husband’s return? She can only trust her heart…and hope it won’t lead her astray.
"A heart-tugging romance. Readers are sure to be sucked in.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review  

My Review:

The bookstore on the beach in Sable Beach belongs to, let’s call them late-middle-aged sisters Mary and Lauren. As this tumultuous summer opens, Mary is waiting for her grown-up daughter Autumn to arrive for one last summer with her kids, her daughter Taylor and son Caden.

There’s more than a bit of bittersweetness in Mary’s anticipation, and in Autumn’s as well as she makes the drive up from her home in Tampa. Taylor will be a senior in high school in the fall, and Caden will be a junior. This is probably the last summer of their, not exactly childhood, but the last summer when they’ll all be together as a family before Taylor and Caden accelerate their inevitable pull away into adulthood, with jobs, college and relationships speeding up that separation.

But it’s also a first summer for Autumn. This is the first summer she’s come home to the beach without even the prospect of her husband dropping in for a week or two of vacation. Not because they are divorced, and not because he’s dead.

At least not as far as Autumn knows.

Autumn is stuck in a hellish limbo. Her husband went on a business trip to Ukraine, the country his family immigrated to the U.S. from. He left 18 months ago, without telling Autumn he was going. He seems to have gone at the behest, or under the aegis, or at least with the knowledge of, the CIA and/or the FBI or one (or possibly more) of the alphabet agencies.

Nick Divac disappeared somewhere in Ukraine. Or in Russia. Or into an unmarked grave. Or a prison. Or a cave. Autumn doesn’t know and hasn’t been able to get anyone at any of those alphabet agencies to give her much in the way of information. Even the private investigator she hired in Ukraine has found nothing but dead ends. But also no confirmation of Nick’s actual death.

But this isn’t just Autumn’s story. All of the women in her family, her mother Mary, her daughter Taylor, and certainly Autumn’s self, have something huge hanging over them this summer. Some of those things, most of those things, are secrets. All of them have the power to change their lives, when, and not if, they come crashing down.

They can’t go back to the way things used to be. The only question is how they go forward, and whether they can manage to hold on to each other and do it together.

Escape Rating B-: The Bookstore on the Beach is one of those stories where not a whole lot happens, while at the same time a whole lot that might happen or probably will happen is being worried over or anticipated – if not exactly eagerly. The eventual happenings are more of a relief – mostly – than the waiting.

Every woman in the family spends the entire book waiting for the other shoe to drop. Not that the first shoe has actually dropped. They each have something HUGE hanging over their heads. I found myself looking for the collective noun for swords – like a murder of crows, a leap of leopards, an unkindness of ravens. Because this is story about a family walking around with their very own separate and individual Sword of Damocles hanging over their head and following them around.

A cache of Swords of Damocles? A store of Swords of Damocles? Perhaps even an Armory of Swords of Damocles?

Mary is on tenterhooks expecting someone to expose her past – a past she has never revealed to her daughter. Taylor is unsuccessfully pretending that she’s not avoiding even thinking about the secrets in her present. And Autumn lets herself start a new relationship with her biggest teenage crush, all the while caught between hoping and fearing that her missing husband will return – just when she’s given up and moved on.

All of their fears are very, very real, even if the situations that both Mary and Autumn are in stretch the bounds of credulity just a bit. Not that what happened to them doesn’t happen in real life, more that it’s a stretch that both things happened in the same family.

The size of the cria herd of drama llamas (yes, I looked it up, “cria herd” is the collective noun for llamas) is so large as to stretch the pasture that holds my willing suspension of disbelief.

Because this story begins with Autumn’s husband already missing, I felt a bit like I’d been dropped midway into a series. Like I should have read the earlier parts of Autumn’s story as background in someone else’s. But this is a standalone, so no.

Also, because Autumn’s husband has been gone for quite a while at the beginning, her memories of him and their life together have been overlaid or muted by time, confusion and grief. He’s not present enough even in memory for him to really be missed. And her descriptions of their life together, while they don’t paint him in exactly a bad light, don’t give the reader enough to really buy into the romance they are supposed to have had.

Unlike her romance in her present with Quinn, which is lovely and heartfelt and heartbreaking in all of its glory – of which there is quite a lot. The combination of these elements made the ending a bit abrupt. It’s the ending the reader wants, but it’s sharp and hard and doesn’t really feel earned. It’s a situation where a true HEA doesn’t feel quite right, because it’s they are caught up in a mess where someone is bound to end up very unhappy indeed.

But I really liked all three, Mary and Autumn and Taylor. I loved the town of Sable Beach, and felt very envious of the bookstore itself even though I know it’s a much harder and more precarious way to make a living than the book can or should get into. It’s a lovely place, a beautiful haven, and I wouldn’t mind visiting again.

Review: Tell No Lies by Allison Brennan

Review: Tell No Lies by Allison BrennanTell No Lies (Quinn & Costa Thriller, #2) by Allison Brennan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, romantic suspense, suspense, thriller
Series: Quinn & Costa #2
Pages: 432
Published by Mira on March 30, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Something mysterious is killing the wildlife in the mountains just south of Tucson. When a college intern turned activist sets out to collect her own evidence, she, too, ends up dead. Local law enforcement is slow to get involved. That’s when the mobile FBI unit goes undercover to infiltrate the town and its copper refinery in search of possible leads.
Quinn and Costa find themselves scouring the desolate landscape, which keeps revealing clues to something much darker—greed, child trafficking and more death. As the body count adds up, it’s clear they have stumbled onto much more than they bargained for. Now they must figure out who is at the heart of this mayhem and stop them before more innocent lives are lost.

My Review:

There’s a reason why so many jokes about how good a friend one is or has begin with something about moving, burying or just hiding bodies. As in the dead body or body of the enemies that you’ve killed. It’s usually a joke.

It’s also deadly serious in this mystery thriller, as the case begins with dead bodies. Bird bodies, killed by toxic runoff from an illegal waste dump. Probably waste from the local copper refining operation.

But those poor birds’ bodies lead to the human corpse of a young conservationist who was frustrated with her boss’ unwillingness to investigate the cause of those birds’ death. Her freelance, solo investigation results in her own body at one of the sites she hoped might lead her to the culprit.

And it kind of does, just not in any way that she expected – or lived to see.

Tell No Lies is a story that definitely puts the suspense in romantic suspense, as the murder of Emma Perez sets in motion a chain of events that seriously stretches the long rubberbanding arm of coincidence, only for it to snap back and burn all the people got stuck in its path.

This is also a story about blood being thicker than water. Not just in the usual way that people will do anything for family but also in the way that people will end up in the middle of stupid shit for family. So both thick meaning close but also thick meaning dense – as in dealing with family makes people act like they are not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer – whether they normally are or not.

So this story begins with a murder. It middles as the FBI using the murder to do an investigation into illegal toxic waste dumping by a respected local company. It’s only as the bodies start piling up that the FBI puts the pieces together into a puzzle that is on a whole other level of awful from what they initially suspected.

While one of their own is caught in the trap.

Escape Rating A-: As far as genre goes, Tell No Lies is a bit hard to pin down – kind of like the problem they have figuring out the size and shape of the case that brings this FBI mobile response team to tiny Patagonia, Arizona.

Just as the story begins with illegal toxic dumping, quickly jumps to murder, then spreads tentacles into fraud, kidnapping, human trafficking, gun running, drug smuggling and back around to murder again, this book begins as a mystery, loops in suspense and thriller, and tacks on romantic suspense for spice (so to speak) not to mention a few more bodies.

What makes the story so compelling is those tentacles. The FBI, in the person of Agent Matt Costa and his undercover team, come to Patagonia with the intent of using the murder to find the illegal toxic waste dumping. At the beginning, they kind of think they know, if not whodunnit, at least who is involved in doing it.

But, just like every twist and turn in this case, they’re sort of right and also sort of wrong at the same time. Because the things they think are connected are not. But they also are. And that confusion leads to them getting in their own way, over and over again.

Which is what makes the story so damn fascinating. It’s one step forward, two steps back, three steps sideways in an ever-widening pattern. There’s an old saying that goes, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

That’s what happens in this case. The FBI thinks they know a lot of things that just aren’t so. They think it’s all about the toxic dumping. The team has undercover agents in place to watch the people they believe are involved. They think their informant is acting on the side of the angels.

There are plenty of hints that make the reader aware that there is more going on than initially meets the eye. But the way that it explodes and the reasons for it confound everyone – including the reader. Or at least this one. Even though who was involved did eventually get clear enough, the why was not what anyone was expecting. At all.

Which is what made this an edge of the seat read from beginning to end.

One final note. This is the second book in a series that looks like its going to continue. I haven’t read the first book, The Third to Die, and didn’t feel like I’d missed much by not having done so. It’s pretty clear that this team is still in the process of jelling and it was easy to get into it. But it’s also clear that the sometimes resolved sexual tension between FBI Agent Matt Costa and LAPD Detective Kara Quinn began in that first story and at the moment in this one is just kind of a mess. I’m not certain that this one needs the romance angle, but that may be because I didn’t see it begin. Also because whatever relationship they sorta/kinda have is seriously awkward and messy at best at this point.

Hopefully their relationship gets, if not some resolution – because I suspect the on again/off again nature of it is going to be part of the suspense for a few books – at least becomes less of a mess in future books in the series. And I definitely want there to be future books in the Quinn & Costa Thriller series, because the mystery/suspense/thriller parts of this case kept me glued to the book from start to finish!

Review: The Path to Sunshine Cove by RaeAnne Thayne

Review: The Path to Sunshine Cove by RaeAnne ThayneThe Path to Sunshine Cove by RaeAnne Thayne
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Series: Cape Sanctuary #2
Pages: 336
Published by Harlequin HQN on March 30, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

With the emotional pull of Debbie Macomber, Barbara Delinsky and Susan Wiggs, RaeAnne Thayne brings readers an uplifting, brand new story told with her trademark charm and heart.

She knows what's best for everyone but herself...

With a past like hers, Jessica Clayton feels safer in a life spent on the road. She's made a career out of helping others downsize--because she's learned the hard way that the less "stuff," the better, a policy she applies equally to her relationships. But a new client is taking Jess back to Cape Sanctuary, a town she once called home...and that her little sister, Rachel, still does. The years apart haven't made a dent in the guilt Jess still carries after a handgun took the lives of both their parents and changed everything between them.
While Jess couldn't wait to put the miles between her and Cape Sanctuary, Rachel put down roots, content for the world--and her sister--to think she has a picture-perfect life. But with the demands of her youngest child's disability, Rachel's marriage has begun to fray at the seams. She needs her sister now more than ever, yet she's learned from painful experience that Jessica doesn't do family, and she shouldn't count on her now.
Against her judgment, Jess finds herself becoming attached--to her sister and her family, even to her client's interfering son, Nate--and it's time to put everything on the line. Does she continue running from her painful past, or stay put and make room for the love and joy that come along with it?

My Review:

For the reader, the actual path to Sunshine Cove is lovely, charming and very, very scenic, although for the characters proceeding along that path there are plenty of metaphorical pebbles stuck in the shoes they are walking it in, and a few outright boulders being smuggled in their baggage.

And yes, I meant baggage and not luggage, because this is a story about the baggage that sisters Jess Clayton and Rachel McBride have been carrying since their childhood.

Jess is about to turn 30, Rachel is not far behind her at 28, and that baggage lays between them like a deep rut on that path. It’s also weighing both of them down and keeping them from finding their true happy ever after – no matter how much each of them is pretending to have already found it.

There’s a famous quote about parents and their children, the one that goes, “There are two things we should give our children: one is roots, and the other is wings.” Jess and Rachel are struggling because their parents gave them neither, and as a consequence Rachel’s life has become rooted in their old baggage, while Jess has taken permanent wing in an ultimately vain attempt to fly away from it all.

But as another old saying goes, “No matter where you go, there you are.”

So, as The Path to Sunshine Cove begins, Jess is literally on the road to Sunshine Cove, on her way to help Eleanor Whitaker declutter the house that her late husband and his family have owned for generations. It’s Jess’ job and her calling, helping people go through decades of accumulated “stuff”, whether just as a grand spring cleaning, in preparation for downsizing, or as a way of moving on with life after a death in the family as Eleanor says she is.

That Eleanor’s house on the California coast is just down the road from Jess’ sister Rachel’s home with her husband and three children is both the reason that Jess took the job and a source of internal stress and conflict. Jess wants to see her sister and her family. She wishes they were close – like they used to be when they were girls and it was them against the world.

But they haven’t been close for years, and it seems like what little connection they have is brittle and ready to shatter at any moment. They talk, but they don’t say anything. They can’t manage to reach across the great divide between them, and aren’t sure whether to keep trying or to finally let go.

The thing is, all that Rachel lets Jess see is the picture-perfect life she presents to her Instagram followers. And all that Jess lets Rachel see is the footloose and fancy-free surface of her satisfying but sometimes emotionally-wrenching job.

But Rachel’s life is falling apart, and Jess’ life is emotionally empty, and it’s all a consequence of that heavy baggage they are both carrying from a childhood that caused more damage than anything else.

On their path to Sunshine Cove, it’s time to see if they can find each other again – or if they’re both too scared to let go of their baggage to reach for happiness – and sisterhood.

Escape Rating A-  was an absolutely lovely read for a lazy Sunday afternoon – which is when I started – and finished the book. The characters were absolutely charming, the setting sounded utterly gorgeous, and the story was heartwarming every step of the way.

This is one of those books that sits quite comfortably on the border between women’s fiction – or relationship fiction as my colleagues call it – and contemporary romance. The story here is really about the relationship – and the initial fumbling lack thereof – between sisters Jess and Rachel. It’s also about Rachel’s faltering relationship with her husband, and the way that those fumbles are rooted in Jess’ and Rachel’s childhood trauma.

And it’s about Jess’ growing relationship with the entire Whitaker family, and not just the romantic relationship she develops, pretty much in spite of herself, with her client’s son Nate. This is one of those stories where I like to say that “a romance occurs” rather than the story being centered on the romance. Because it’s not.

Instead, it’s centered on Jess and her developing relationships with everyone around her during her job at Sanctuary Cove, including the relationship with her sister. Because just as Jess and Rachel have taken the opposite ends of that “roots and wings” paradigm, they’ve also taken positions that are at opposite ends of the spectrum in how they deal with the damage left by their parents.

Rachel has turned into a people-pleasing perfectionist, making sure she’s part of every volunteer opportunity in town, and that her life at least appears perfect all the time. Not just for her Instagram followers, but because she needs that perfection – just as her mother did.

While Jess has arranged her life so that she never stays anywhere very long, never has a chance to develop connections with anyone, just dropping into people’s lives, doing her job, doing it very, very well, but keeping her distance and then moving on. She’s afraid to need anyone because her mother needed way too much.

They both have way more emotional baggage than could possibly fit in Jess’ beloved Vera, the classic Airstream trailer that she lives in while she criss-crosses the country from one cluttered place to another.

Stopping in Sunshine Cove, letting herself become involved in the lives around her, not just her sister but also Eleanor Whitaker, Nate and Nate’s 13-year-old daughter Sophie, allows Jess to finally put down just enough roots to have a great – but not perfect – life. While Rachel, with just a bit of tough love from her sister, gives up on perfection in order to find the happiness she almost lost.

This is the second book that the author has set in and around beautiful Sanctuary Cove, after last year’s charming The Sea Glass Cottage. Although the two stories share the setting, and have similar themes, nothing happens in Sunshine Cove that will make a new reader think they missed something by not having read the other book. (I completely lost sight of this being a second book in series while I was reading it.) So if this story sounds like your cup of tea, feel free to start here, you won’t be disappointed.

But that also means you’ll love the first book, The Sea Glass Cottage, every bit as much as this one!

Review: Murder by Page One by Olivia Matthews

Review: Murder by Page One by Olivia MatthewsMurder by Page One (Peach Coast Library Mystery #1) by Olivia Matthews
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Peach Coast Library Mystery #1
Pages: 336
Published by Hallmark Publishing on March 23, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


If you love Hallmark mystery movies,
you’ll love this cozy mystery
with humor, romance, and a librarian amateur sleuth.

Marvey’s a librarian from Brooklyn who makes book-themed jewelry as a hobby, looks after her cranky cat, and supports events for readers and authors. She’s still adjusting to quirky small-town life in Georgia—and that’s before she discovers a dead body in a bookstore.
When her new best friend becomes a suspect, Marvey develops a new hobby: solving a murder mystery. With her talents for research, her knowledge gleaned from crime novels, and a whole lot of determination, she pursues the truth. But even as she gets closer to it, could she be facing a deadly plot twist?
This first in series cozy mystery includes a free Hallmark original recipe.

My Review:

Cymbeline and Peach Coast Georgia seem to be just up the road from each other, both are picturesque small Georgia towns, not too near and not too far from the “big” cities of Atlanta and Savannah. Both are places where an outsider can be considered a “real” resident after not too much time, and both seem to be lovely places for a extremely amateur detective to take up the investigation of murder as a slightly dangerous hobby.

If you’re wondering, Cymbeline is the location of the Georgia B&B cozy mystery series, while Peach Coast is the setting for today’s cozy mystery, featuring Marvey Harris as the budding sleuth desperate to save her best friend in her new town, Jo Gomez, the owner of the oh-so-tempting To Be Read Bookstore.

Back to Marvey, who is always very tempted by that bookstore, as she is the recently transplanted Community Engagement Director at the Peach Coast Library. The more that she can raise awareness of the library and increase participation in all the wonderful things that the library has to offer, the better her chances of helping the library to get a much-needed budget increase – not to mention keep the job she moved from New York City (and the New York Public Library) to take.

Synergy between the library and the local bookstore is certainly part of her strategy as it is in real library life too. That Marvey and Jo have bonded over their mutual love of reading is icing on a very tasty cake.

Or it is until their big event at the bookstore, a multi-author book signing for several published authors who live in Peach Coast, is interrupted by the murder of one of those authors who is supposed to be signing her books.

But when Fiona Lyle-Hayes doesn’t come out for the signing, Marvey, Jo and local newspaper owner, editor AND reporter (also local heartthrob) Spence Holt start searching the store’s backrooms for their reluctant author. Only to discover her not-yet-cold corpse.

When the local cops seem to be taking the easy way out of solving the murder – accusing Jo because the body was found in her store – instead of actually investigating the crime, Marvey and Spence take the investigation into their own amateur hands.

After all, they’re both good at research, and they have much more open minds than the local deputies. The deputies want Jo to be guilty because she’s not a local and it would make their jobs easier all the way around if she were the culprit.

Marvey and Spence however, are sure that Jo is innocent – and certain that there were plenty of locals who had a much better motive – actually any motive at all – for killing one of the most unpopular people in town.

Their quest to find a better suspect makes a whole lot of people in Peach Coast extremely uncomfortable. People like the mayor, who controls the town’s, and therefore the library’s, budget; those local cops who don’t like having doubt cast on their investigative prowess – and the real killer hidden in the shadows.

Escape Rating B: Peach Coast, like Cymbeline, seems like a wonderful place to visit. One of those places where I wish I knew the town it was modeled on, because it would only be a day trip from home.

This is, after all, the start of a cozy mystery series and Peach Coast sounds so very cozy.

As the story begins, Marvey is very much an outsider in this small town, something that is often the case for detectives, whether amateur or professional, at least in fiction. She’s only been in town for four months, and no matter how long she stays she’ll always be considered a bit of an outsider. Except for being certain that her friend isn’t the murderer, Marvey doesn’t have any preconceived notions of who the murderer might be. But she does need more local knowledge than she has, and that’s where Spence comes in. His roots in the community go back generations, he knows everyone and everyone knows him. While he’s equally certain Jo didn’t do it, there are people in town he is more than inclined to believe are also innocent. That’s not an issue in this case but it might be if the series continues.

One of the things that worked very well in this amateur investigation was the way that all of the things they thought they knew about the victim turned out to be misleading at best and utterly false at worst. Because Fiona was an outsider, and because she tended to keep herself to herself, there was more gossip about her than fact and people believed the gossip because it was salacious.

Shy people are often thought to be arrogant and aloof, and Fiona got lumped into that kind of misjudgment.

The process of the amateur investigation, the one step forward two steps back nature of it, the false starts and hard stops, was done very well, even if a couple of things that happened made me feel like either I missed something or the detectives did. Specifically, we never did really get an explanation of why the local cops so very focused on Jo from the outset. She had zero motive, while the victim was a controversial figure around town to say the least, meaning that the number of people with seemingly excellent motives was rather high – much too high to be ignored by the cops. Something about that part of the scenario smelled rotten. I kept expecting the cops to either be involved or at least have their own motive for their behavior, but we didn’t see it.

That no one, neither the librarian nor the newspaperman nor the cops did any actual investigation of the victim’s life before she moved to Peach Coast felt like an obvious point that got overlooked by, clearly, everyone.

That being said, the whole thing was a lot of fun and I enjoyed following Marvey – and Spence – in the process of finding out who really done it. Also in what looked the very first steps of possibly exploring a relationship beyond mere friendship – or partners in solving crime.

Part of that enjoyment, part of the reason I picked up Murder by Page One in the first place, was that Marvey Harris was a librarian. And she read and felt like “one of us”, which made the book even more fun for this librarian to read and enjoy! (And as a librarian myself, I can’t resist recommending the Georgia B&B series, starting with Peach Clobbered, makes a terrific readalike for Murder by Page One and vice-versa!)

As this is the first book in a new series, I’m looking forward to a return visit to Peach Coast whenever Marvey finds herself involved in another case.

 

About the Author

Olivia Matthews is the cozy mystery pseudonym for Patricia Sargeant, a national best-selling, award-winning author. Her work has been featured in national publications such as Publishers Weekly, USA Today, Kirkus Reviews, Suspense Magazine, Mystery Scene Magazine, Library Journal and RT Book Reviews. For more information about Patricia and her work, visit PatriciaSargeant.com.

Author Links 
 

 

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Review: The Stills by Jess Montgomery + Giveaway

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I definitely did.

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

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

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

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

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

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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

Review: Danger in Numbers by Heather Graham

Review: Danger in Numbers by Heather GrahamDanger in Numbers by Heather Graham
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, romantic suspense, thriller
Pages: 336
Published by Mira on March 23, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

On the edge of the Everglades, an eerie crime scene sets off an investigation that sends two agents deep into a world of corrupted faith, greed and deadly secrets.
A ritualistic murder on the side of a remote road brings in the Florida state police. Special Agent Amy Larson has never seen worse, and there are indications that this killing could be just the beginning. The crime draws the attention of the FBI in the form of Special Agent Hunter Forrest, a man with insider knowledge of how violent cults operate, and a man who might never be able to escape his own past.
The rural community is devastated by the death in their midst, but people know more than they are saying. As Amy and Hunter join forces, every lead takes them further into the twisted beliefs of a dangerous group that will stop at nothing to see their will done.
Doomsday preppers and small-town secrets collide in this sultry, twisty page-turning thriller.

My Review:

I got sucked into Danger in Numbers from the first page, but there were two things that I admit it took me a while to get. The first was that the story reminded me of something but I couldn’t put my mental finger on exactly what for the longest time. (Surprisingly, it’s Faithless in Death by J.D. Robb. Humans are still screwed up and still falling for stupid stuff even in the future.)

The second was that the title is a play on words. That hit me upside the head somewhere in the middle and just didn’t let go.

Neither did the story.

At first I thought this might be my second serial killer story in a row. Then I realized it was way more gruesome than that. One person, or even two people, who have gone bloodily off the deep end is horrible enough. But the idea of dozens or hundreds being brainwashed into evil by a cult and its charismatic leader – and we know that it does happen in the real – is on a completely other level of insanity.

FBI Special Agent Hunter Forrest rushes from Micanopy in north Florida to the edge of the Everglades – most of the way down Florida the long way – because he’s dead certain that the horrifically dead body that the FDLE (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) has just discovered is related to the murder he’s investigating at his end of the state.

He’s sure because he’s seen it before. Not just because he’s made a career out of investigating cases like this one, but because, once upon a time, he was inspired to join the FBI because of a case much too much like this.

The land around the Everglades is a patchwork of federal, state, private and tribal land. The towns that are near its edge are too small to have much in the way of police forces of their own, and this case is already too big and too sensational for local cops to handle, leaving the FDLE in a slightly uneasy partnership with the FBI to locate and catch the killers.

Because this isn’t the work of an individual or even a gang. It takes an entire town – or an entire cult – to plan and carry out this kind of murder as well as an entire town – or cult – to provide both the reason for it and the means to pull it off and cover up not the crime – because they want that to be found to send a twisted message – but to hide or obscure the identities of the perpetrators.

FDLE Special Agent Amy Larson is going to have to work WITH the FBI whether she – or Forrest – like it or not. Her senior FDLE partner is in the hospital, the murder site is on disputed land, and as good as the FDLE is, the FBI is better.

Larson doesn’t like the feds moving in on the FDLE’s case. Forrest isn’t sure that Larson, still in her 20s and with only four years at the state bureau, is up to the task. And neither of them can resist the pull between them – no matter how much they try.

While the cult – and the man behind it all – is after both of them.

Escape Rating A-: I slipped into this book easily because we spend the story following Hunter and especially Amy. We don’t get into the minds of the cultists, nor is the cult either glorified or sensationalized. We follow Amy and Hunter and their cause is righteous. There’s a lot of understanding on both of their parts but particularly Hunter’s, on how easy it is for people to get sucked in and how practiced the cult leaders are at finding and sucking in the desperate and the easily swayed.

There is, after all, just a hint of truth at the heart of the very big lie that the con artist cultists are peddling – just as there is at the heart of all “Big Lies”.

It helps that Amy and Hunter are both interesting characters, who are good at their jobs and keep their focus on the victims at all times. They are in this to help people and it’s easy for the reader to be on their side from the beginning, even as they wonder whether they can manage to be on the same side without friction – of one kind or another.

I liked them both as investigators quite a bit, but I have to say that the romance that develops between them just didn’t feel necessary. I expected it but would have liked the book just as much, or maybe a bit more, without it.

A part of the story that I personally found fascinating was the location in Micanopy. I lived in Alachua County for three years so the area felt familiar. The only thing missing from what I remember of the town is that there was still quite a bit of memorabilia around town from the filming of the movie Doc Hollywood in 1991.

Nevertheless, the familiarity made the location easy to visualize.

While the fact that Hunter and his family had been part of a cult very much like the one they’re tracking felt pretty obvious from the flashback start even though the family was not named, something that took me completely by surprise was just how well the title’s play on words worked in the story.

“Safety in numbers” is a catchphrase that comes up all the time – and it even does in the story as Hunter and Amy and the members of their team try very hard to not work by themselves on this case. The times that Amy is in direct danger are the few times that she is alone.

But there is also a danger in numbers. In this story, it’s the danger of numbers of people big enough to become a cult, or a mob, or the perilous combination of the two that is at the center of the series of ritualistic murders and a whole lot of broken lives and families. Alone, most of these people would have been harmless – or more likely whining complainers or even argumentative blowhards. Even if they had succumbed to their own personal dark sides their crimes would have been, at least in comparison, few and most likely much harder to cover up.

Together they make a self-righteous, self-feeding, murderous mob.

There’s another danger in numbers. Even though it’s clear that the “Divine Leader” will face justice the last page turns, he’s left behind entirely too many true believers who will carry out his mission either for the promise of eternal glory or the filthy lucre of leading a gigantic con. The cult members were following a plan to either court or appease the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to bring about the End Times.

As the story ends, the cult is one horse down – and three to go.

Review: The Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson

Review: The Jigsaw Man by Nadine MathesonThe Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 496
Published by Hanover Square Press on March 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery...
When body parts are found on the banks of the River Thames in Deptford, DI Angelica Henley is tasked with finding the killer. Eerie echoes of previous crimes lead Henley to question Peter Olivier, aka The Jigsaw Killer, who is currently serving a life sentence for a series of horrific murders.
When a severed head is delivered to Henley's home, she realises that the copycat is taking a personal interest in her and that the victims have not been chosen at random.
To catch the killer, Henley must confront her own demons - - and when Olivier escapes from prison, she finds herself up against not one serial killer, but two.

My Review:

There’s a tension-filled junction where mystery, suspense and thriller meet – and fight it out with guns, knives and in this particular case, saws. Particularly jigsaws and ripsaws. But saws. Definitely saws.

This is a story that will have readers on the edge of their seats, wringing their hands in sympathy with Detective Inspector Anjelica Henley of the London Metropolitan Police Serial Crimes Unit as she comes to the chilling realization that she is the mouse in a cat and mouse game with not just one but two serial killers.

Killers who are determined to out-do each other in a bid for Anj’s attention. As if her life wasn’t already fraught enough – and not just because everyone, including some versions of the blurb for this book centered around her as she falls apart – misspells her damn name.

It begins when Anj, on her way to work at the SCU, is diverted to a crime scene for the first time in two plus years by her boss. Who also happens to be her on-again, off-again lover. As she’s on her way to work after yet another in a series of seemingly endless arguments with her husband about the consuming nature of her job, she’s already on edge when she arrives at the crime scene to discover that the body that’s been discovered is in pieces, like a jigsaw puzzle.

The calling card of the serial killer who tried to gut Anj like a fish when he resisted arrest two years ago.

Anj has been investigating cold cases ever since, at least until now. She’s still suffering from PTSD and panic attacks. And her assailant, Peter Olivier, is in a high security prison serving seven consecutive life sentences.

But there’s someone out there either doing Olivier’s bidding or desperately seeking his “master’s” attention. Someone who has discovered the best way to get that attention – by grabbing the place in DI Angelica Henley’s mind that remains hyper-focused on Peter Olivier.

Who simply won’t be having that. At all.

Escape Rating A+: The Jigsaw Man is sitting right on that extremely uncomfortable crossroads. Which makes it an absolutely compelling, can’t put it down kind of story, whether you see it as mystery or suspense or thriller or all of the above.

It’s that “all of the above” factor that kept me up until 4 in the morning because I just had to finish.

This one combines police procedural – although a procedure that gets shot to hell fairly quickly and riddled with holes to begin with – with one of those stories that combines the gruesomeness of serial killer stories with the suspense of stories where the investigator is an integral part of the crime spree.

In that regard, The Jigsaw Man reminded me a lot of The Silence of the White City by Eva Garcia Saenz, Who Watcheth by Helene Tursten and the Frieda Klein series by Nicci French. All of those mysteries include serial killers who are thought to be out of commission in one way or another and detectives who are forced into the conclusion that their deaths or prison terms were mistaken, reports of their deaths were greatly exaggerated, that the police had the wrong person in prison or very nearly all of the above.

The personal stakes for the detectives in all of these cases ratchet up the stakes and the tension as the investigators find themselves unravelling, looking over their shoulders at things and people they thought were safe – only to discover that nothing was as it seemed. As does Anjelica Henley in this book.

DI Henley’s plight in The Jigsaw Man is particularly fraught. Her marriage is falling apart, her father has dropped into a deep clinical depression and, her mind and body are betraying her. Her career feels like it’s all she has left – and it’s killing her even as not one but two serial killers see her as the cherry on top of their killing spree sundae.

The Jigsaw Man is one of those mystery thrillers that is impossible to put down. The way that this story morphs from a hunt for a serial killer to a hunt for his copycat to a desperate search for competing serial killers along with their hunt for each other grabs the reader and quite honestly puts the reader’s own fingers in their mouth so they can bite their nails to the quick in anticipation and rising dread.

At the same time, we see Anjelica spiraling out of control as the crime spree is rising up to engulf her. We want to help her, want her to get help, and need her to put an end to it before it puts an end to her. And yet…

Some of the descriptions of this book lead one to believe that it’s the first of a series. I very much hope that it is, because while this series of crimes is solved, it’s clear that there’s plenty of unfinished business swirling around DI Henley and the serial killer who brought her to this point.

I want more of Henley’s story and I’m dead certain that other readers will, too.

Review: Shift Work by TA Moore + Excerpt + Giveaway

Review: Shift Work by TA Moore + Excerpt + GiveawayShift Work (Night Shift #1) by T.A. Moore
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: M/M romance, paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Night Shift #1
Pages: 117
Published by Rogue Firebird Press on March 19, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

You'd think the werewolves would be the worst thing about the Night Shift; you'd be wrong.

All Officer Kit Marlow wanted was a cup of coffee and some downtime before his next night shift. Instead, he got a naked man in the elevator and an unaccounted-for dead girl in the morgue. He's going to need to deal with both before he can head for his bed.

Or anyone else's. Although not much chance of that.

Reluctantly partnered with the acerbic security consultant Cade Deacon—last seen naked in the elevator—Marlow delves into the dead girl's life. Between them, they uncover a new crime scene with the whiff of old corruption. A corruption that, five years ago, nearly took Marlow's life and ended his career.

Finding out who killed the dead girl on the slab might only be the start of this investigation. Oh, and it's the second night of the full moon. So 80% of the city, including Cade, will turn into werewolves in the middle of the case.

So, there's that.

My Review:

I’m going to try for short and sweet with this review – at least in certain senses of sweet – because I’ve got plenty of content to go with it from today’s guest, author TA Moore.

It’s sweet because I loved this book. There’s plenty of bitter to go with that sweet, but that’s all to do with the way this version of our world is set up and especially the personality of the characters. Between Marlow and Cade, there’s plenty of bitter going around. Neither of them is exactly sweetness and light, not even on a good day.

And neither of them has much in the way of good days – especially not the days after a full moon.

Cade’s description of himself pretty much sets up his personality and his take on the world, when he considers that “the wolf version of him was the same asshole he was the rest of the month. Just happier about it.”

This is a world where 80% of the human population turns wolf on the three nights of the full moon. But in a world where 80% are werewolves, that means 20% are not. Marlow is one of those “nots”. He’s Null with a capital N. Whatever makes him incapable of going were makes him perfect for the Night Shift, the cops who work those three nights when most of the population isn’t completely responsible for whatever they do and whoever they do it to.

It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

The story in Shift Work, the first book in the Night Shift series, puts cop Marlow on the same case as high-powered and highly paid private security consultant Cade Deacon.

The case of a young Null woman whose dead body was dumped in the police morgue the morning after a full moon without her hands – and whose last known location was an exclusive – and expensive – preserve for rich, entitled wolves.

Cade wants to protect his business – the firm responsible for security at the preserve. The dead girl’s last known location proves there’s at least one hole in his security net and he needs to close it up – fast.

Marlow knows that the way that the girl’s body was dumped in the morgue connects to an old, thought to be cold, case of one very dirty cop now behind bars. Marlow needs to find out if his old partner is somehow up to his old tricks – because if he is then Marlow is next on his to-do list.

All that Cade and Marlow have to do is focus on the case that’s temporarily tying them together – and not let themselves get wrapped up in the inappropriate and irresponsible attraction they have to each other.

Escape Rating A-: This is an A- because I want more so damn bad I can’t stand it. Honestly.

The reader gets dropped into this story – this world – at what feels a bit like the middle and it is one hell of a tease. Not just because Marlow is describing the naked man he’s sharing the elevator with.

The world felt fully fleshed out – pun definitely intended – but I really wanted to know more about how things got this way, because by this point in their history whatever happened happened far enough back that the world has adjusted around it. Which was great but left me wondering whether there was an “Event” and I missed it or if this is the way it’s always been.

The story is being labelled as MM romance because these two men are pulled together sexually and can’t help fantasizing about it even if they don’t get to act on it much in this first book. But really this story is urban fantasy, and like much of urban fantasy the protagonists are both hot messes and neither is ready for a real relationship – or possibly even friends with benefits because neither of them is able to handle friendship.

This one feels like its more about the case they have to solve – and the cases that this one leads back to – rather than the potential romantic relationship between Marlow and Cade. Because they’re not going to get there for a while. Just like they’re not going to get to the bottom of the crap they’ve uncovered.

And I love me some detective procedural-type urban fantasy, so this was absolutely my jam every step of the way.

But I ended the book wanting to scream! Not just because they haven’t gotten to the bottom of the case, but because when the story ends it’s a cliffie. Not just a figurative cliffie but a literal damn cliff that they’ve just been pushed off of. Where’s that next book already? I’m dying over here. And possibly Cade and Marlow are dying over there. I have to KNOW!

Guest Post from TA Moore + Chapter 2 of the Shift Work prequel short (check out Chapter 1 at Love Bytes)

First of all, thank you so much for having me! I’m thrilled to be here with my new release, Shift Work by TA Moore. It’s a novella. It’s a longish novella, but still a novella. It’s the first book in a three book series that will be coming out over the next….three months. So that’s easy! Well, for you. I’m going to have no nails left.

For the blog tour I’ve written a short story set in the Night Shift world. I hope you enjoy!

Chapter Two

Silver ammo didn’t make the gun feel any different.

Marlow weighed it in his hands for a second. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but apparently he’d expected something. When nothing changed, he slid the gun back into the holster and clipped it to his belt.

“What’s with those?” one of the other officers in the back of the Bearcat asked. She pointed forked fingers at her own eyes to demonstrate what she meant. “Contacts? You think they’ll scare the wolves off?”

He’d heard that before.

Marlow leaned back in the chair. He could feel the vibration of the engine and the uneven road under the tires through the padded leather.

“I wasn’t planning on letting wolves get that close,” he said.

She laughed, a throaty burst of genuine amusement. “Oh, they will,” she said. “Trust me.”

Up in the front of the carrier, next to the driver, Piper twisted around to look back at them.

“Listen to Bennett,” he said. “She’s a veteran now. What, six months?”

Colour swabbed Bennett’s cheekbones, and she glared at Marlow like it was his fault. “Sir,” she said. “It was seven yesterday.”

Piper grinned, a flash of perfect white teeth in a tanned face. “Excuse me,” he sing-singed. “And happy anniversary, Bennett.”

One of the other officers laughed, anonymous in the dim, jolting cab of the truck. Unable to pinpoint who, Bennett glared at all of them.

“Let’s check out the Gaslamp Quarter for that fouled meat,” Piper said as he shifted to face forward in the seat. “Clear it out.”

Bennett groaned. “Aw, come on,” she said. “It’s the rookie’s first shift, and we’re dumpster diving? What? You want him to quit?”

Piper slapped his hand against the roof without looking around. “Job’s not always glamorous, Bennie. You know that. The rookie needs to learn it sooner than later.”

Marlow scratched his neck where the harness rubbed. “I worked narcotics,” he said. “There’s worse places to look for things than dumpsters.”

Piper snorted out a laugh that was interrupted by the crackle of the radio as it cut in.

“20-David,” Dispatch said. “We’ve a 10-91 in progress on 5th Avenue and B. Can you respond.”

Piper slapped the driver’s shoulder, pointed to the next turn, and answered the radio. “20-David, responding now,” he said. “Keep us updated.”

Marlow took a deep breath, exhaled, and checked his gun again. All of a sudden, he could feel the difference between lead and silver in the weight of it.

10-91.

Werewolf attack in progress.

It looked like they weren’t going dumpster diving.

Catch the next chapter tomorrow at Book Gemz and follow the tour for the rest of the story!

About the Author:

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

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

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Goodreads |

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

$10 Amazon Gift Card – a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Meant to Be by Jude Deveraux

Review: Meant to Be by Jude DeverauxMeant to Be by Jude Deveraux
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, family saga, historical fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Mira on March 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An inspiring new family saga by New York Times bestselling author Jude Deveraux
Two headstrong sisters are bound by tradition but long to forge their own path.

It’s 1972 and times are changing. In the small farming community of Mason, Kansas, Vera and Kelly Exton are known for their ambitions. Vera is an activist who wants to join her boyfriend in the Peace Corps. But she is doing her duty caring for her widowed mother and younger sister until Kelly is firmly established. Kelly is studying to become a veterinarian. She plans to marry her childhood sweetheart and eventually take over his father’s veterinary practice.
But it’s a tumultuous time and neither sister is entirely happy with the path that’s been laid out for her. As each evaluates her options, everything shifts. Do you do what’s right for yourself or what others want? By having the courage to follow their hearts these women will change lives for the better and the effects will be felt by the generations that follow. Meant to Be delivers an emotional, smart, funny and wise lesson about the importance of being true to yourself.

My Review:

Shakespeare said that “the course of true love never did run smooth”. That’s especially true when you don’t know where it’s going in the first place. Or rather, when everyone around you is dead certain that you are “meant to be” with someone – everyone except you, that is.

Because what you’re really meant to be is – you.

Everyone in tiny Mason, Kansas knows that Vera Exton is meant to be with Adam Hatten, and that they are meant to run off together, far away from Mason. That same everyone is equally certain that Vera’s younger sister Kelly is meant to be with Paul, the stepson of the local vet.

What that same everyone did NOT know was that Vera loved escaping from Mason considerably more than she loved Adam, and that Kelly loved her future as a veterinarian, going into partnership with Paul’s stepfather Dr. Carl, more than she ever did Paul. That Adam loved taking over his responsibilities to the Hatten holdings way more than he did Vera, while Paul loved his fledgling organic apple orchard considerably more than he ever loved Kelly.

The story that opens Meant to Be in the summer of 1972 is the story of that entire herd of drama llamas sorting themselves out into a configuration that no one in town had the remotest thought might ever come to be.

Except for one important part. When the dust settled – and was there EVER a lot of dust – Vera Exton left Mason, just as she had always planned to.

Vera became a world-famous journalist and war correspondent, while life in Mason went on its slightly altered way, as Kelly married Adam, the man that Vera was supposed to marry. Paul’s organic farm became a very successful part of a growing trend – and he finally came out of the closet.

While, the man that Vera really loved stayed in Mason to raise the daughter that he fathered the night he deliberately drove Vera away to seek her fame and fortune, and fulfill her dreams and her destiny. He set her free – and she flew.

When Vera returns home for a brief visit 20 years later, the family she left behind is broken and hurting. It turns out that there are plenty of secrets still left to reveal from the mess of that singular summer so long ago.

It’s time for all of Vera’s, and everyone else’s, chickens to come home to roost – and maybe even lay a few more eggs.

Escape Rating B: I have to say that it is weird seeing a time period that I remember living through portrayed as historical. I was in high school in 1972, and the ferment about the Vietnam War was very present and feels true to life. It was also a time when attitudes towards women’s careers and women’s accomplishments were just beginning to change. We were told we could do and be anything, but faced a lot of skepticism when we tried and had few examples to follow.

Which meant that parts of both Vera’s and Kelly’s dilemmas felt very real, while at the same time their situations felt like a bit of a throwback. And it may very well be that I remember this period a bit too well and that I’m too close to it to step back and see it as “historical”.

At the same time, this is very much of a “family saga”, more women’s fiction or relationship fiction than romance. Romances definitely occur, but the backbone of the story feels like it’s wrapped around all of the many, many interrelationships among the families and the town itself.

Mason is small enough that everybody knows everyone else’s business whether they want it known or not. Expectations and assumptions are impossible to escape.

Vera and Kelly are both caught on the horns of multiple familiar dilemmas. Vera is expected to stay in Mason to take care of her mother and her sister until Kelly finishes vet school and gets married so she and her husband can take over that job. And then Vera can leave town as she’s always wanted to.

Kelly feels like the only way she can get to stay in Mason, where she wants to stay, and be a vet is to go into partnership with her boyfriend’s stepfather. Because her boyfriend’s mother is snooty and hates everyone and won’t allow a young woman to become her husband’s assistant unless that young woman is married to her son.

It seems like a lot of the story in 1972 is set up that way, where each person assumes that they have to take care of someone or something else in order to have half a shot at getting what they want. In a place where everyone relies on everyone else, no one seems to be allowed to just reach out and grab their own dreams – especially if they are female.

The first two thirds of this story, the 1972 part, read a lot like a soap opera. Everyone seems to be saying one thing, doing another, and hiding all of it from as many people as possible, until all the secrets blow up in everyone’s face, with all the mixed results and circling drama llamas that one might imagine.

What lifts this story from something typical to something a bit more interesting is the way that it continues from that 1972 soap opera start into the 1990s and eventually comes almost to the present. We get to see the consequences of the earlier events into a troubled middle and a bittersweet end.

All of the characters manage to find, not necessarily a happy ever after, which is why this isn’t strictly speaking a romance, but rather, to not just find out but to actually live as the people they were Meant to Be.

Review: The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper

Review: The Girl in the Painting by Tea CooperThe Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Thomas Nelson on March 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A young prodigy in need of family.
A painting that shatters a woman’s peace.
And a decades-old mystery demanding to be solved.
Australia, 1906
Orphan Jane Piper is nine years old when philanthropist siblings Michael and Elizabeth Quinn take her into their home to further her schooling. The Quinns are no strangers to hardship. Having arrived in Australia as penniless immigrants, they now care for others as lost as they once were.
Despite Jane’s mysterious past, her remarkable aptitude for mathematics takes her far over the next seven years, and her relationship with Elizabeth and Michael flourishes as she plays an increasingly prominent part in their business.
But when Elizabeth reacts in terror to an exhibition at the local gallery, Jane realizes no one knows Elizabeth after all—not even Elizabeth herself. As the past and present converge and Elizabeth’s grasp on reality loosens, Jane sets out to unravel her story before it’s too late.
From the gritty reality of the Australian goldfields to the grand institutions of Sydney, this compelling novel presents a mystery that spans continents and decades as both women finally discover a place to call home.
“Combining characters that are wonderfully complex with a story spanning decades of their lives, The Girl in the Painting is a triumph of family, faith, and long-awaited forgiveness. I was swept away!” —Kristy Cambron, bestselling author of The Paris Dressmaker and the Hidden Masterpiece novels
Stand-alone novel with rich historical detailsBook length: 102,000 wordsIncludes discussion questions for book clubs and historical note from the authorAlso by this author: The Woman in the Green Dress

My Review:

Who are we, really? Are we who we think we are, or are we the person we were born to be? It’s an age-old question about nature vs. nurture, and it plays out in this timeslip story powered by the wing-flap of not the butterfly of chaos theory but rather by the wingbeats of a swarm of almost-forgotten doves.

And it’s the story of two lost girls who are found, in the end, one by the other. Or maybe three lost girls.

The story opens, rather than begins, in Australia in 1906, when math-whiz Jane Piper is rescued from the local orphanage by the equally gifted Elizabeth Quinn and her brother Michael. The Quinns have made a great success of their many businesses in Maitland, New South Wales. Australia has been very, very good to the Quinns, who have never forgotten their roots as desperate Irish immigrants in the 1860s. Jane is the latest in a very long line of young people that the Quinns have taken into their home and businesses from the orphanage.

But Jane’s mathematical talent makes her special. The Quinns, now well into middle age, have expanded their original business enterprises, stores and auction houses, into philanthropy on Elizabeth’s part and politics on Michael’s. Neither has ever married, and in Jane’s mathematical talents they see someone they can train to help them in their many endeavors.

And Jane is more than willing. She’s a math prodigy but not very cognizant of social cues. In today’s terms we’d probably say that she was somewhere on the part of the autism spectrum that includes Asperger’s. Her unofficial adoption into the Quinn’s household turns out to be a boon for not just Jane but also Michael and Elizabeth, as she becomes both their quasi-niece and a valued assistant to both of the Quinns.

It is in that capacity that Jane finds herself in the midst of the Quinns’ greatest secret, as the long-buried past interferes in the suddenly fraught present.

Escape Rating A-: I originally picked this up because I really enjoyed one of the author’s previous books, The Woman in the Green Dress, and was hoping for more of the same. Which I definitely got with The Girl in the Painting.

Both stories are set in Australia, and both feature dual timelines, the historical past and then the past of the main characters, and both are centered around old and nearly-forgotten mysteries, although the stories don’t relate to each other. So if you like the sound of The Girl in the Painting, you’ll love The Woman in the Green Dress and very much vice-versa.

At the top I said this was a story about nature vs. nurture, and that turns out to be what lies at the heart of the mystery as well. A mystery that neither the readers nor the characters are aware of as the story begins.

When we first peer into Michael and Elizabeth Quinn’s past, we see the brother and sister on the gangplank at Liverpool, waiting to board a ship for Australia to reconnect with their parents. It’s only as the story continues that we discover that what we assumed about that initial scene, and what Elizabeth remembers of it – after all, she was only 4 years old at the time – are not quite what actually happened.

It’s a secret that Michael has been keeping from his sister for 50 years at this point, and it’s highly likely he intended to go right on keeping it. At least until Elizabeth has a “turn” or a psychological break, or a breakthrough of suppressed memory, at an art exhibit, and all of his secrets start to unravel.

And even though I guessed what one of those secrets was fairly early on, the story, both in their past and in their present, it still made for a compelling read. Just because I’d managed to fill in one corner of the jigsaw did not mean I had much of an inkling about the rest of the puzzle. Pulling the remaining pieces out of their box and figuring out how they fit – or perhaps didn’t fit – was part of what made this story so compelling for me as a reader.

In order to reconcile the past with the present, it’s up to Jane Piper, now a full-fledged partner in the business, to poke and prod her way into those mysteries that refuse to lie dormant in the past. Not because Jane is any kind of detective, but because she loves the Quinns, is grateful to them, and simply can’t resist her own compulsion to resolve the unresolved, as that’s part of her mathematical gift and her social awkwardness. She has to know, and she can’t rest until she does.

While I found Jane herself to be a bit of an unresolved character, more of a vehicle for the story to be told than an integral part of it, the story of Michael and Elizabeth Quinn’s rise from hardworking poverty to wealth and influence was fascinating in its portrayal of two people who lived a lie that was also the utter and absolute truth.

As much as I enjoyed the Quinns’ story, I have to say that I’m finding this author’s portrayal of Australian history wrapped in fiction to be lovely and absorbing and I’m looking forward to her next book (it looks like it will be The Cartographer’s Secret) whenever it appears.

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