Review: The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara Ackerman

Review: The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara AckermanThe Codebreaker's Secret by Sara Ackerman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by Mira Books on August 2, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A brilliant female codebreaker. An “unbreakable” Japanese naval code. A pilot on a top-secret mission that could change the course of WWII. The Codebreaker's Secret is a dazzling story of love and intrigue set during America’s darkest hour.
1943. As war in the Pacific rages on, Isabel Cooper and her codebreaker colleagues huddle in “the dungeon” at Station HYPO in Pearl Harbor, deciphering secrets plucked from the airwaves in a race to bring down the enemy. Isabel has only one wish: to avenge her brother’s death. But she soon finds life has other plans when she meets his best friend, a hotshot pilot with secrets of his own.
1965. Fledgling journalist Lu Freitas comes home to Hawai'i to cover the grand opening of the glamorous Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Rockefeller's newest and grandest project. When a high-profile guest goes missing, Lu forms an unlikely alliance with an intimidating veteran photographer to unravel the mystery. The two make a shocking discovery that stirs up memories and uncovers an explosive secret from the war days. A secret that only a codebreaker can crack.

My Review:

Like the author’s previous work, The Codebreaker’s Secret is primarily set in the author’s home state, Hawai’i, during World War II. And like her other books, this one mixes a touch of romance with a story about both brave and nefarious wartime deeds on a homefront that experienced the war just a bit differently – and considerably closer to home – than did the mainland.

This one is also a bit different because it has a bit of a timeslip element to it. Not exactly, and not all that far apart in time, but just far enough for that wartime experience to seem both far away in the rearview mirror but still very much relevant – and impactful – on the characters’ present.

We begin in 1942, in Washington DC, with codebreaker Isabel Cooper desperate to get to Hawai’i. Her brother was an Army pilot, who was stationed at Pearl on that “Date which will live in infamy” when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Walt Cooper went down with his plane. He was his sisters’ big brother, protector and best friend, and her world seems empty without him to share it with.

She’s determined to go to Hawai’i, to meet Walt’s friends, to see what he saw and walk where he walked, so that she can feel closer to him – even though he’s gone. When she manages to break the code of Japan’s complex naval cipher machine, she’s on her way to Pearl, where her adventure truly begins.

In 1965, Luana (call her Lu, please!) Freitas is on her way back to her home in Hawai’i, but not for a visit to her family. She’s a features writer for Sunset Magazine and she’s come to cover the opening of Laurance Rockefeller’s brand new hotel, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, on the Kohala Coast of the island of Hawai’i. Sunset was, and is, a lifestyle magazine. Lu was supposed to write about the luxurious splendor of the hotel and the parties attended by the rich and famous.

But the first person Lu meets on the way to the hotel is the famous singer Joni Diaz. The second person is the legendary Life Magazine photographer Matteo Russi. When Joni goes missing, the writer and the photographer team up to learn what, and especially who, happened to the singer for her body to wash up on the hotel’s otherwise pristine beach.

What they discover is that the secrets and the enemies that have been hidden since the war still have the power to destroy. But that the wounds left behind by that war can still be healed, and that what was once lost can be found again. Even in the last place that anyone ever expected to look.

Escape Rating A: This is my third book by Sara Ackerman (after Red Sky Over Hawaii and Radar Girls) and so far it’s my favorite. (I’m saying “so far” because there are two earlier books of hers that I have not yet read – and because of course I expect more!)

A huge part of what made this work so well for me was the way that the “timeslip” worked. First we follow Isabel in 1943, then we are with Lu in 1965. There’s no need for any supernatural woo-woo or lost diaries to make the two stories link up, because Matteo Russi becomes a central figure in both time periods.

Which is entirely plausible and even realistic. Think about that whole meme on the interwebs about the foreshortening of time, that in our heads we think of 1980 as being twenty years ago when it’s really 40 years ago and what a mindbend that is.

But in 1965 the men and women who served in World War II (and survived) were mostly in their 40s, and often their early 40s at that. Very much in their primes, with most of their lives still ahead of them. A lot of TV heroes in the mid-1960s had served in either WW2 or Korea, which led to them being cops or private investigators or something else dangerous and sexy. Not that I was thinking that last bit when I watched those shows, I was only eight in 1965.

That Matteo is a young aviator in 1942 and an experienced photographer in 1965 at the top of his game grounds the story. As does Lu’s position of being a young female journalist who feels compelled to beat the men who are certain that she can’t cut it because she’s a woman.

There have been a lot of recent books about women serving as code breakers and other top secret positions during the war – a trend that this author has herself contributed to. This is also something that would have once been believed to be too sensational to be true, but with the war years now mostly declassified, those truths have come out and aren’t they glorious?

One of the things that made this work so much better for me than Red Sky Over Hawaii is that the villain of The Codebreaker’s Secret is entirely realistic and not over-the-top at all. There were plenty of Nazis who were brought to the U.S. after the war, with their records sanitized by the U.S. government, in order to advance the U.S. missile program and give us a leg up against the Soviets in the Cold War arms and space race.

That there were spies and agents working for the Nazi cause during the war is hardly a surprise. It’s been a topic for conspiracy theories and espionage thrillers for decades. And it allows for a disgustingly slimy, smarmy villain who is all-too-realistic and not over-the-top at all.

I’m always fascinated with the history in historical fiction, but what really makes this story sing – and even occasionally dance – are the personalities of its three protagonists, Isabel Cooper, Luana Freitas, and especially Matteo Russi who links the two – although not in the way that you’re probably thinking. And the story is infinitely better for that link not following the usual patterns.

Although their stories take place two decades apart, both Lu and Isabel are in the same place in each of theirs. Not just geographically, but also personally and professionally. They are both in their early 20s, both experiencing their first taste of freedom and responsibility, both driven to excel in professions that are dominated by men. And both willing to put themselves on the line for the truth.

At the same time, Matteo, who is the same human being in both time periods, is radically different. Time, experience and war have changed him from the brash young man who was Isabel’s friend but never her lover, to the womanizing bastard who is at the top of his profession but heading towards the bottom of his life.

He has no idea that mentoring Lu will heal so much of what has ailed him since the war. If only he can open himself up enough to try.

As I said earlier, I loved The Codebreaker’s Secret. I can’t wait for the author’s next book, because I’m highly anticipating more historical fictional goodness set in a captivating place and manages to provide a bit of a fresh perspective on a time period that has been endlessly explored – but not from this marvelous angle. Hopefully this time next year!

Review: The Lost and Found Girl by Maisey Yates

Review: The Lost and Found Girl by Maisey YatesThe Lost and Found Girl by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic suspense, women's fiction
Pages: 400
Published by Hqn on July 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

"Yates packs an emotional punch with this masterful, multilayered contemporary…pitch-perfect plotting and carefully crafted characters make for a story that’s sure to linger in readers’ minds.” —Publishers Weekly
New York Times bestselling author Maisey Yates dazzles with this powerful novel of sisterhood, secrets and how far you’d go to protect someone you love…
Ruby McKee is a miracle. Found abandoned on a bridge as a newborn baby by the McKee sisters, she’s become the unofficial mascot of Pear Blossom, Oregon, a symbol of hope in the wake of a devastating loss. Ruby has lived a charmed life, and when she returns home after traveling abroad, she’s expecting to settle into that charm. But an encounter with the town’s black sheep makes her question the truth about her mysterious past.
Dahlia McKee knows it’s not right to resent Ruby for being special. But uncovering the truth about Ruby’s origins could allow Dahlia to carve her own place in Pear Blossom history.
Recently widowed Lydia McKee has enough on her plate without taking on Ruby’s quest for answers. Especially when her husband’s best friend, Chase, is beginning to become a complication she doesn’t want or need.
Marianne Martin is glad her youngest sister is back in town, but it’s hard to support Ruby’s crusade when her own life is imploding.
When the quest for the truth about Ruby’s origins uncovers a devastating secret, will the McKee sisters fall apart or band together? 

My Review:

This story about the importance of stories is wrapped around the four McKee sisters, Marianne, Lydia, Dahlia and Ruby. They are all adults as the story opens, and for the first time as adults, all four of them now live in the tiny town of Pear Blossom, Oregon. It’s Ruby’s return home that precipitates all the crises in the story.

And are there ever plenty of those!

There are also four themes or plot threads running through the story, but not, as you might expect, one per sister. Rather they are all being put through the same set of wringers at the same time. It can be a lot. And it frequently is for one or more of them.

Ruby’s return home sets all the wheels in motion, just as Ruby’s original advent set Pear Blossom on its current trajectory as a well-known tourist destination. Because Ruby wasn’t born to the McKee family, she was found by them. A tiny baby, abandoned on the historic, picturesque Sentinel footbridge, on a cold December evening. The young McKee sisters found Ruby as they walked home from Christmas choir practice. Nothing about her origins was ever discovered and she was adopted by the McKee family as the youngest sister.

The town saw her as a miracle, and she kind of was. But her miraculous appearance provided a weird sense of catharsis for a tragic event the winter before. A young woman went missing and was never found. She was presumed dead, but with no body and very little evidence of any kind, the boy who was assumed to be her killer was charged – and imprisoned – but the state had to eventually drop the case.

He became the town bogeyman – at all of 15 – just as Ruby became the town’s savior – at least in an emotional sense. Those reputations remain tied to both of their lives, deserved or not, in both cases.

So one thread of this story is about some of the less-lovable aspects of small town living, that everyone knows everyone’s business, and that lives and reputations can be made or ruined by the sins of the parents – because everyone knows just what they are. Ruby can’t step out of her role as the sunshine bringer, while Nathan Brewer was condemned because his father was a violent drunk with a mean streak and the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. But sometimes Miss Mary Sunshine has rain clouds in her life, and sometimes the apple throws itself as far from that parent tree as it can get.

The second thread is the driving power of stories, and the power of the past to impact the present. Because of the great mystery around Ruby’s origins and the way her adoption affected the McKee family, both Ruby and her sister Dahlia have made careers out of questioning and investigating the past.

Ruby is a historian, and the job she has just taken in Pear Blossom is to serve as the local museum’s archivist. Dahlia is a newspaper reporter. Together, they decide to do a series of newspaper stories and museum exhibits about the history of Pear Blossom. And it’s impossible to look back at the history of the town without taking a hard look at its two biggest stories; the disappearance and presumed death of Caitlin Groves, and the mysterious arrival of Ruby the following year.

But those events are just over 20 years in the past. There are plenty of people in town who remember what happened. And among those memories might be the key to unlocking one or both mysteries.

All four sisters are going through romantic crises, all at the same time. Marianne fears her husband is having an affair, Lydia is recently widowed and is still trying to figure out what happens next for herself and her children, Dahlia’s self-imposed inferiority complex is keeping her from pursuing the man she’s always loved. And Ruby herself, Miss Mary Sunshine, has fallen for the town’s biggest villain – because she realizes that he’s not the villain after all.

Which means that someone else is – and that they might still be around.

And that leads inexorably to the power of telling the truth, whether in big ways or small ones, and how the lies we tell ourselves are the hardest ones to let go of. Even if they are destroying not just ourselves but all those we love.

Escape Rating B-: One of the things I like about this author’s contemporary romances is that the situations that her protagonists are in tend to be fairly plausible. The dramatic tension in the romance is never a misunderstandammit, but rather two people honestly coming from different places that are, in real life, hard to resolve. (My personal favorite of hers is last year’s Confessions from the Quilting Circle.)

That plausibility was a bit lacking in The Lost and Found Girl. Any of the individual situations could easily happen, but all of them at once in the same family was a bit over the top. Honestly, more than a bit. Out of four sisters it seems like the odds would be that one of them would be doing okay – and not just think she was only to have the rug pulled out from under her.

And I have to say that the surprising conclusion to the more suspenseful elements of this story, particularly as there were two of them, seriously tested my willing suspension of disbelief. One felt plausible if barely. The second headed towards paranormal – which was both surprising and heading towards unbelievable.

Howsomever, I did like the overall concept of the story, about the importance of history and keeping it alive. That the stories we tell about ourselves and about who we came from matter and should be preserved. I loved the idea that Ruby and Dahlia were working together, from their entirely different angles, to create a living history for the town that everyone could enjoy.

That turning over rocks in the not-so-distant past uncovered some snakes in the grass pushed the story forwards and brought the sisters together. But the combination of that suspenseful part of the plot with all of the various forms of romantic angst went a bit over the top for me.

Your reading mileage may definitely vary.

Review: This Place of Wonder by Barbara O’Neal

Review: This Place of Wonder by Barbara O’NealThis Place of Wonder by Barbara O'Neal
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 316
Published by Lake Union Publishing on July 19, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the wake of a personal tragedy, four women face the past, their futures, and each other in a novel of broken ties and healing by the Amazon Charts bestselling author of When We Believed in Mermaids.
When famed chef Augustus Beauvais dies, he leaves behind a celebrated reputation―and four women grappling with loss, anger, pain, and the question of how the world will turn without him…
Meadow, the ex-wife with whom Augustus built an empire―and a family―still holds a place for him in her heart, even as she continues to struggle with his infidelities, which ended their twenty-year marriage. More unforgiving is Maya, his estranged daughter, who’s recently out of rehab but finally ready to reclaim her life. Norah, his latest girlfriend, sidelined her own career for unexpected love and a life of luxury, both of which are now gone with Augustus. And then there’s Rory, Meadow’s daughter, the voice of calm and reason in a chorus of discontent.
As Meadow, Maya, Norah, and Rory are flung together by tragedy, grief, and secrets yet to be revealed, they must accept―or turn away from―the legacy of great intentions and bad decisions Augustus left them. And when the circumstances around his death are called into question, their conflicted feelings become even more complicated. But moving forward is the only choice they have, and to do so, they’ll need to rely on family, friendship, and inner strength.
Set on the stunning, rugged California coastline, This Place of Wonder is an emotional, lush, and empowering story of four women finding their way in a changed world―and what a wondrous journey it will be.

My Review:

As wonderful as this story is, its protagonists are not exactly in a place of wonder as it opens. Unless that wonder is wondering WTF happens now that Augustus Beauvais is dead.

Not in the way that stories like this used to be written, with all of the late man’s “relicts” desperate to figure out how they are going to survive in the literal sense now that their financial support is gone. Thankfully, women’s stories don’t work that way anymore.

But Beauvais was a towering figure (literally as he was 6’4”) in the American culinary scene of the 1990s and early 2000s. And even though his best days may have been behind him, he was still a huge personality and an outsized influence on everyone whose life he touched.

Especially the four women he, in various ways, tried to save. Because he needed to be needed. And because he couldn’t save the one woman who mattered the most.

Meadow was the love of his life, something that was as true on the day he died as it was on the day he met her, even though they had been divorced for eight years because the two things he seems to have been incapable of being were faithful in marriage or alone either inside or outside of it.

Rory, the daughter he adopted and Maya, the daughter he abandoned. And last, but surprisingly not least in the end, Norah, the much, much younger woman he thought needed saving, but who, in the end, turned out to be strong enough to help his family save themselves.

In the aftermath of Beauvais death, in the midst of the suspicious questioning of police who are adding two plus two and reaching a number that might be getting a bit too close to four, Maya learns that the father she never forgave left her everything except one final opportunity to get him to accept the blame for so many things he did that were so very wrong. And Meadow accepts that just because she built a life more or less without him it doesn’t mean that she will ever be ready to let him go – no matter how much she needs to.

Escape Rating A-: Like several of the author’s previous books that I have enjoyed, When We Believed in Mermaids, The Art of Inheriting Secrets and Write My Name Across the Sky, This Place of Wonder is about a multi-generational group of women who share a tragedy in the past that has come crashing down in the present.

What links all four of these women, besides their obvious links to Augustus Beauvais, is that they all see – or at least saw – themselves as damaged. Or perhaps it’s that Beauvais saw them all that way and that’s how he drew them into his orbit – because he needed their damage to fix his own.

Only Meadow – and by extension Augustus, are old enough to even have a past – or at least one far enough in the past for it to be hidden. For good or for ill, Rory’s and Maya’s lives have been lived in the public eye – because of their relationships with August and Meadow.

Who isn’t actually Meadow at all. Or at least wasn’t, back in the days before the internet made all the salacious details of everyone’s life available at the press of a few keys.

Which is what Norah came to California to discover, once upon a not very long ago time, before she got caught up by Augustus’ magnetic pull. And with the loss of his overwhelming presence, its a search she picks back up again. Because Norah is a whole lot stronger, and a whole lot less damaged, than anyone thought.

The stories are on a collision course from the opening of the book. Augustus is dead, in the arms of yet another damaged young woman. His death was sudden, the tests are inconclusive and the stories told by the women in his life almost but not quite match up. At least not until the other half of the story is revealed, and Norah’s probe into Meadow’s past reveals exactly how the past connects to the present.

But for a lot of the book, that investigation is in the background. In the foreground is the way that this strange and damaged family stitches itself together and learns that the hole in their center is something that has always been there. That, in some ways, it’s easier to deal with now that they know it will never be filled. And that they have a way forward without it, and without him, both together and separately.

And it’s that part of the story that gives this its heart. In spite of where they came from. In spite of what was done to them – and in spite of what he did to them as well. That they are, each of them, the legacy of a flawed and fascinating man. And that they are all, together and separately, so much more than that.

And they always have been, even if they haven’t always been able to see it.

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Review: The Binding Room by Nadine Matheson

Review: The Binding Room by Nadine MathesonThe Binding Room (Inspector Anjelica Henley, #2) by Nadine Matheson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Inspector Anjelica Henley #2
Pages: 512
Published by Hanover Square Press on July 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Detective Anjelica Henley confronts a series of ritualistic murders in this heart-pounding thriller about race, power and the corrupt institutions that threaten us
When Detective Anjelica Henley is called to investigate the murder of a popular preacher in his own church, she discovers a second victim, tortured and tied to a bed in an upstairs room. He is alive, but barely, and his body shows signs of a dark religious ritual.
With a revolving list of suspects and the media spotlight firmly on her, Henley is left with more questions than answers as she attempts to untangle both crimes. But when another body appears, the case takes on a new urgency. Unless she can apprehend the killer, the next victim may just be Henley herself.
Drawing on her experiences as a criminal attorney, Nadine Matheson deftly explores issues of race, class and justice through an action-packed story that will hold you captive until the last terrifying page.

My Review:

This case is gruesome, Henley and her team are flailing around in the pitch dark, and someone might seriously be eaten by an actual grue before it’s finally wrapped up. There are plenty of other disgusting, creepy, crawly things eating plenty of the bodies, so a grue isn’t all that far outside the realms of terrible possibility this time around.

And it’s utterly riveting. So as much as the reader is creeped out and chilled to the bone, it’s impossible to turn one’s eyes away. No matter how much the stomach turns.

We first met DI Anjelica Henley in The Jigsaw Man, another heart-stopping, gruesome thriller where Henley and her team were both the investigators in a serial killer case AND potential victims.

It’s not a surprise that the aftermath of that case left them all with PTSD flashbacks. Nor it is a surprise that nearly all of their personal lives – which weren’t all that stable to begin with – seem to be in even more of a shambles.

Henley’s marriage is hanging by a thread, as is her ability to do her job. There’s too much grief and anger in her not-so-distant past and she can’t seem to let it out or find any closure for it – no matter how many sessions she attends with a therapist who keeps calling her on her bullshit. Of which there is rather a lot.

But it’s the case that draws the reader in, and sticks in both the mind and the queasy belly long after you turn the final page. If it is final – something I’m still wondering about.

It starts with a body. The dead body of a self-ordained preacher in the office of his more than a bit shady megachurch. But the thing that really kicks off this case is that the preacher’s body isn’t the only body in the church. As the cops sweep the building looking for clues, Henley discovers a locked room hidden inside a bland meeting room, and inside that room there’s another body. A body that’s clearly been starved for weeks and tortured before, during and after whatever else happened in that room.

And it’s somehow still alive – in spite of it’s ghastly appearance. But what’s it doing there? And how, by all that is or isn’t holy in that supposed house of worship, did it get into that room and why is it there in the first place?

Caleb Annan – known to his worshipful congregation as Annan the Prophet – is dead. When Henley starts digging into his life, she discovers plenty of reasons why someone might have wanted to kill the bastard, starting with his wife. But nothing explains what that battered young man was doing bound to a bed and locked into that torture cell.

But the closer that Henley gets to the answer, the more bodies that investigation uncovers. And the more pitch dark and gruesome the story gets. Until the scab is finally pulled all the way off and the maggots crawl out.

Escape Rating A: I can’t use words like “enjoy” when talking about the reading of The Binding Room, because this doesn’t feel like the kind of story one enjoys – or at least that I enjoy. It’s the kind of story that has me on the edge of my seat, biting my nails, holding down my gorge and making sure all the lights are on. It’s compelling in the way that does not let the reader turn their eyes away because what it at its heart is a display of the many brutal ways in which human beings seriously suck and are entirely too capable of committing terrible evil in the name of the so-called “greater good”.

There are two cases here. The first, and the one that the powers that be would much prefer be the more prominent case, is the murder of Caleb Annan. That’s partly because he appears to be a pillar of the community and more than a bit because no matter what it seems like he was hiding – and he most definitely was hiding a whole lot – it’s a relatively straightforward case.

And there are the optics of the case, that Caleb was a black man, while the barely alive John Doe who was found hidden in the church is white. It seems like the press would rather follow the case of a missing white man rather than a dead black man – and there are plenty of political hacks willing to ride that angle as far as it will get them.

There’s also the problem that the more Henley discovers about that preacher, the less that any of the cops are able to see him as the victim of a crime. If he weren’t already dead, they’d be prosecuting his ass for everything they could get.

The other thing that hides under that surface is that the case of John Doe is a murky monster concealed under a whole lot of oozing muck. He’s not been reported missing, he has no identification, he was clearly tortured, and no one seems to be looking for him. And while he may have been found alone in that room, the more Henley digs the more she realizes that he was not the only victim of something so vile that no one wants to examine it closely. Or at all.

But she has no choice but to keep turning over rocks to see just how much slime crawls out.

That in the middle of all this her life and her marriage are still falling apart just adds to the ratcheting sense of danger and threat all the way around.

The Binding Room is a story to be read with all the lights on – and possibly a comfort animal or two or ten cuddled around. Because it’s not really about that simple murder. It’s a case about the evil that men and women do and it gets under the reader’s skin and just oozes and you can’t stop wanting to scratch it away.

It’s clear from the way that The Binding Room concludes that this will not be the final case for DI Anjelica Henley and the Serial Crimes Unit. Whenever the next book in the series comes out, I know I’m going to feel compelled to read it – and very possibly in one sitting as I did this one. Because I expect it to be another riveting, edge-of-the-seat, stomach churning read.

Review: The Edge of Summer by Viola Shipman

Review: The Edge of Summer by Viola ShipmanThe Edge of Summer by Viola Shipman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 400
Published by Graydon House on July 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Bestselling author Viola Shipman delights with this captivating summertime escape set along the sparkling shores of Lake Michigan, where a woman searches for clues to her secretive mother's past
Devastated by the sudden death of her mother—a quiet, loving and intensely private Southern seamstress called Miss Mabel, who overflowed with pearls of Ozarks wisdom but never spoke of her own family—Sutton Douglas makes the impulsive decision to pack up and head north to the Michigan resort town where she believes she’ll find answers to the lifelong questions she’s had about not only her mother’s past but also her own place in the world.
Recalling Miss Mabel’s sewing notions that were her childhood toys, Sutton buys a collection of buttons at an estate sale from Bonnie Lyons, the imposing matriarch of the lakeside community. Propelled by a handful of trinkets left behind by her mother and glimpses into the history of the magical lakeshore town, Sutton becomes tantalized by the possibility that Bonnie is the grandmother she never knew. But is she? As Sutton cautiously befriends Bonnie and is taken into her confidence, she begins to uncover the secrets about her family that Miss Mabel so carefully hid, and about the role that Sutton herself unwittingly played in it all.

My Review:

When she was a very young woman Mabel Douglas learned a hard lesson that it is dangerous to let people in – because once they are inside your guard they are close enough to administer a fatal blow to your heart if not to your body. So she keeps everyone in the small Ozark town of Nevermore at arm’s length – even her much loved daughter, Sutton.

So it’s fitting, in a terrible and sad way, that “Miss Mabel”, as she is known to her neighbors, dies alone, under quarantine in a nursing home during the early, deadly months of the COVID-19 pandemic, only able to see or be seen by her grief-stricken daughter through a window, the glass all too frequently darkly at best.

Sutton is alone, nearly 40, at best partially employed due to the pandemic, and suddenly aware that the few facts she thought she knew about her mother and her mother’s hidden past were all at best misdirection, and at worst outright lies. That’s one of the few certainties to be gleaned from her mother’s last letter to her, delivered to Sutton by the nursing home in a box of her mother’s effects.

In her mother’s cottage, Sutton has all the things her mother prized most – her vintage Singer sewing machine – known fondly as “Ol Betsy”, her few hidden keepsakes, and her vast collection of vintage buttons. Along with just a few hints to their real origins – a story that Mabel refused to tell her daughter in life and barely left a hint of after her death.

But once Sutton emerges from the depths of her grief, and the world emerges from quarantines and lockdowns, Sutton discovers that she doesn’t want to return to her job as a principal buyer and designer at a Chicago-based women’s clothing store chain. What she wants to do is follow those few tiny clues her mother left her, in the hopes of learning, at last, who her mother really was.

And to perhaps discover who Sutton is meant to be after all.

Escape Rating B: I very much liked the parts of The Edge of Summer, but in the end I wasn’t quite sure whether or not it gelled into a whole. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

The story begins during the early days of COVID-19 pandemic. At the point where everything was uncertain, the disease was deadlier than anyone wanted to think about, and the end wasn’t remotely in sight. Which means we meet Sutton at pretty much her lowest ebb. Not just because her mother is dying – although that’s a big part of it – but because she can’t even BE with her mother while she’s passing. Sutton is alone on the outside of the nursing home while her mother is dying alone on the inside of it. Sutton’s life is in chaos and her one anchor in the world is dying – leaving all of Sutton’s questions unanswered and probably unanswerable.

Everyone Sutton knows or meets during this story lost someone to the pandemic. It’s still a very close and real event to people, and the reaction in the story is that a lot of people have drawn closer and become more supportive of each other in the aftermath. I’ll admit that bit felt more hopeful than real, but it was still nice to read. It was, however, heartbreaking but very real that people were impacted and were still being impacted even after the vaccines were available and the quarantines had ended.

Sutton’s sparse clues about her mother’s past lead her to the resort towns on the Lake Michigan shoreline, Saugatuck and Douglas. Douglas was, at least for the purpose of this book, once the pearl button capital of not just Michigan but the entire U.S. That’s where all those tiny clues point, and that’s where Sutton goes to hunt them down.

It’s a past that is elusive in a way that makes it clear that there’s a secret – or two – or ten – buried in the sand dunes near the towns. But as much as the story is about Sutton’s search for her mother’s past it’s also about a search for her own present and future away from her mother’s shadow – even as she learns the reasons why that shadow was so deep and so dark.

So it felt like there were three stories blended into one in The Edge of Summer. One was the bittersweet story of Sutton growing up in a tiny town in the Ozarks with her mother Mabel. It was a childhood filled with love and lies, where Mabel and Sutton were all in all to each other – if only because Mabel refused to let anyone else into their tiny world and taught Sutton to do the same.

The second story was Sutton’s quest to discover the truth about her mother’s past, and the real reason she ended up in Nevermore all alone with a baby seemingly before she turned 20. The past that Sutton searches for is still there to find, a snake lying in the grass ready to bite and poison her just as it did her mother all those years ago.

For this reader, that story had a bit of villain fail. There’s no question her mother’s reasons for leaving were real and valid and necessary, where I thought it fell down a bit was in the villain’s perspective. We know what happened but not really why it happened. Villains are never the villains of their own stories and I felt like I missed someone’s justification for their actions, however twisted it might have been.

The third story, of course, was Sutton’s search for a life no longer bounded by all the self-protective and isolating lessons that her mother taught her. Those are the kind of lessons that are most difficult to unlearn, because they were taught with love and were meant for the best. But Sutton is rightfully tired of being alone and she needs to let some of those lessons go in order to reach out to others. That she finds love as part of her journey is expected and even welcome, but I didn’t get quite enough of the romance to buy into this particular part of her HEA.

All in all, three lovely stories that didn’t quite gel into one whole, at least not for this reader. But a heartwarming time was still had by all, so I’ll be back during the holidays for the author’s next book, A Wish for Winter, which sounds like it might be a bit of a follow-up to this charming story.

Reviewer’s Notes: Two final notes before this review is closed. First, I had a surprising amount of fun jumping down rabbit holes trying to guess which dying Chicago department store Sutton was working for when the story begins. The trip down memory lane took me back to Marshall Field’s, Carson, Pirie, Scott and even Lytton’s in an attempt to narrow it down. I’m probably not even close but I had a grand time looking. Second, I never expected to find another reference to “crown shyness” in a book any time soon after A Prayer for the Crown Shy. I was wrong because it’s in The Edge of Summer as well. It’s turning out to be a surprisingly useful metaphor and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see it turn up again!

Review: A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen

Review: A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa ArlenA Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, historical fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Berkley Books on July 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A sumptuous novel based on the fascinating true story of Belle Epoque icon Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, a woman determined to shatter the boundaries of the fashion world and support herself and her young daughter with her magnificent designs.
Lucy Duff Gordon knows she is talented. She sees color, light, fabric, and texture in ways few other people do. But is the world ready for her? A world dominated by men who would try to control her and use her art for their own gain?
After being deserted by her wealthy husband, Lucy is desperate to survive. She turns to her one true talent to make a living. As a little girl, the dresses she made for her dolls were the envy of her group of playmates. Now, she uses her courageous innovations in Belle Époque fashion to support her own little girl. Lucile knows it is an uphill battle, and a single woman is not supposed to succeed on her own, but she refuses to give up. She will claim her place in the fashion world; failure simply is not an option.
Then, on a frigid night in 1912, Lucy’s life changes once more, when she becomes one of 706 people to survive the sinking of the Titanic. She could never have imagined the effects the disaster would have on her career, her marriage to her second husband, and her legacy. But no matter what life throws at her, Lucile will live on as a trailblazing and fearless fashion icon, never letting go of what she worked so hard to earn. This is her story.

My Review:

In historical fiction it seems as if behind every successful woman there’s either a rotten first husband, a harridan of a mother, or both. In A Dress of Violet Taffeta, this fictionalized biography of groundbreaking British couturier Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, there’s both.

(Historically, we’re certain about the rotten first husband. She divorced him for multiple infidelities and her divorce was granted in 1895. Whether her mother was quite the harridan portrayed in this fictional account of her life is not so certain – but it makes for an even better story.)

What made Lucy special, and fascinating enough for her to be portrayed more than once in both fiction and biography, are the choices she made and the life that she led. She’s famous, not for who she married or who she knew – although she absolutely married better the second time around and certainly knew the rich and famous of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but because of what she did.

She had a dream, and she worked for decades to achieve it. And succeed – which she certainly did. To support herself, her daughter, and her widowed mother (see harridan above) Lucy took her talent for not just dressmaking but dress designing and turned it into a worldwide brand of haute couture at a time when all the famous fashion houses were headed by men.

Lucile dress designed by Lucy Duff-Gordon

Her company, her brand, Lucile, Ltd, was an innovator both as a business and as a design studio, inventing trends that became the foundation of the modern fashion industry. She was the first to train models and use shows to display her creations. And that was only one of her “firsts”.

She was a pioneer and a trailblazer in a world that may have been changing but still expected women like her to sit and look pretty. She chose to make a life, a business and a career out of making other women look pretty instead.

In some ways, her story is a “rags to riches” tale. Lucy pulled herself up – and as many women as she could take with her – by her own shoebuttons if not bootstraps – going from wondering whether she could pay the rent and feed her family to opening shops in Paris and New York in addition to her signature London shop and studio.

But that wealth and fame bought her – along with her second husband, Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, a first-class cabin on the maiden voyage of the ill-fated RMS Titanic. Both Lucy and Cosmo survived their harrowing ordeal – only for them to lose their reputations in the relentless search for scapegoats in the aftermath.

Whatever the ratio of facts to conjecture in this particular fictionalized biography, the life of Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon makes for a fascinating read.

Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon

Escape Rating A-: Lucy Duff-Gordon led a great big huge storied life. Hers would have been a larger-than-life story even without the misadventure of the Titanic. With it, she becomes an English version of the “Unsinkable Molly Brown”, another famous female entrepreneur – albeit American – who survived that disaster. (And they did meet afterwards!)

Lucy’s story as written here is utterly compelling. She starts with nothing but a dream and the barebones of a plan. With a bit of help from her sister (who also became famous as the novelist Elinor Glyn and creator of the concept of the “It girl”) Lucy turned that dream into, a somewhat more realistic plan that was going to take all of her time, effort and attention for years to turn into a success. Which she eventually did.

This was the part of the story I loved best, where Lucy is working flat-out all the hours of the day and entirely too many of the hours of the night to turn her dream into something that will keep them all afloat. This was also the part of the story where the second perspective, that of Celia Franklin, her once scullery maid turned right hand woman was best presented alongside Lucy’s own. We see what Lucy is thinking and feeling but also get a glimpse into what an opportunity it was and how many opportunities it, in turn, provided to others.

(Celia was not a real historical person, but rather a combination of two separate people. Her perspective on Lucy sheds a lot of light, but certainly made me wonder how much of that perspective was fabricated rather than based on history. Lucy’s insistence on bringing other women up in her studio by providing them with good jobs at decent wages under excellent working conditions reads well in 21st century terms but may or may not reflect her actual views. I wish we knew.)

But as much as I loved the part about building her business, once it was built the story shifted to her second marriage (a bit, as much as Lucy seems to have) and to her higher and higher rise into the upper echelons of society – at least in New York City. The parts about the business are a case of the journey being more interesting than the destination, but if her relationship with Cosmo was meant to portray a grand romance I’ll admit that I wasn’t feeling it.

Which doesn’t mean he wasn’t an excellent choice for Lucy. As her husband, he could have forced her back into the kind of life that women were expected to have. Instead, he was as much of an iconoclast as she was and they were a good match. I bought that their marriage was successful but not the romance of it. And that may have been an accurate impression after all.

There are things in Lucy’s life that are either left out or elided over, and the biggest of these was in the manner and timing of its ending. The aftermath of the Titanic disaster was disastrous in an entirely different way for Cosmo Duff-Gordon. He was one of the scapegoats of the inquiries and his reputation was ruined in the press. While he was eventually exonerated, the public and the press never forgot, and the loss of his reputation cast a pall over his remaining years. That the author chose to end Lucy’s story on a note of recovery made sense fictionally – we want stories to end happily, after all – but probably didn’t reflect the reality of the rest of their lives.

I’ve written a LOT about this particular book. Obviously I was caught up in it and it gave me a lot to think about. Also, there always seem to be two issues in historical fiction that is based this closely on real history. One is the question of how it reads, while the other is the question about how much it does or does not match the historical facts that are known.

In the case of A Dress of Violet Taffeta, it reads very well indeed. And most of the variations from history make sense in the course of the story’s narrative, even though they niggle a bit as the amateur historian in this reader. All in all, a compelling read about a woman whose achievements made her larger-than-life.

Review: A Proposal They Can’t Refuse by Natalie Cana

Review: A Proposal They Can’t Refuse by Natalie CanaA Proposal They Can't Refuse by Natalie Caña
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Vega Family Love Stories #1
Pages: 336
Published by Mira on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Natalie Caña turns up the heat, humor and heart in this debut rom-com about a Puerto Rican chef and an Irish American whiskey distiller forced into a fake engagement by their scheming octogenarian grandfathers.
Kamilah Vega is desperate to convince her family to update their Puerto Rican restaurant and enter it into the Fall Foodie Tour. With the gentrification of their Chicago neighborhood, it's the only way to save the place. The fly in her mofongo--her blackmailing abuelo says if she wants to change anything in his restaurant, she'll have to marry the one man she can't stand: his best friend's grandson.
Liam Kane spent a decade working to turn his family's distillery into a contender. Now he and his grandfather are on the verge of winning a national competition. Then Granda hits him with a one-two punch: he has cancer and he has his heart set on seeing Liam married before it's too late. And Granda knows just the girl...Kamilah Vega.
If they refuse, their grandfathers will sell the building that houses both their businesses. With their futures on the line, Kamilah and Liam plan to outfox the devious duo, faking an engagement until they both get what they want. But soon, they find themselves tangled up in more than either of them bargained for.

My Review:

This story may have elements of a rom-com, but it absolutely does not start with anything remotely resembling a “meet cute”. The first meeting we witness between Kamilah Vega and Liam Kane is clearly not their first meeting. Their grandfathers have been best friends since before their parents were born, Kamilah and Liam have known each other since childhood – even if they can’t seem to stand each other as adults.

But the real reason that their meeting in the opening of this story isn’t a meet-cute is because the first interaction we see between Kamilah and Liam is when she punches him in the junk. Hard and fast. (I can still hear him wheezing in agony from here.)

That opening scene sets up a surprising amount of the action in this “proposal”, even if that’s not obvious to the players in that particular scene.

Both the Vega Family and the Kane Family owe their hearts, their souls and their origin to this two octogenarians, Kamilah’s beloved Abuelo, Santiago Vegas and Liam’s cantankerous grandpa Killian served together, bought a former blacksmithy in Chicago’s Humboldt Park together, and have raised their businesses and their families side-by-side.

Now the old men, the misbehaving delinquents of their senior citizens’ home, have come to their grandchildren with an offer that neither Liam nor Kamilah can afford to refuse.

Kamilah wants to modernize the Vega Family’s Puerto Rican restaurant to compete with the new, bougie eateries that are moving in on the gentrifying neighborhood. Her parents and her siblings never listen to anything she says, always brushing her off with tales of childhood misdemeanors – even though she has a degree in the culinary arts and is the person they all rely on to get shit done.

She still gets shit on to the point of abuse by pretty much everyone in the family – even though she’s right. They have to either compromise a bit to stay in business – or let the family business fade away with so many other local institutions that are being washed away in the tide of gentrification.

Liam just wants his grandpa to stick around long enough for them to realize Liam’s father’s dream. The Kanes are whiskey distillers, and the signature blend that Connor Kane put up before he died in a boating accident is about to mature. Killian has cancer that he’s not planning to even think about treating. Liam wants him to at least try to stick around – because he can’t bear the thought of losing anyone else.

The old men still own those family businesses and the building that houses both the businesses AND the families, even if they’ve left it to the next generation to run those enterprises. So the deal is simple. Kamilah gets her shot at running the restaurant, Liam gets his grandpa to enter treatment, and in return Liam and Kamilah get engaged and move in together – even though they haven’t been able to be in the same room with each other without breaking into a fight since they were children. And in return their grandfathers don’t sell the building out from under them all..

Nobody’s motives are remotely pure in this arrangement, but everybody gets something they want. Except, of course, for Kamilah and Liam’s friends and family – who all believe that this fake relationship is real.

Unless, of course, it is.

Escape Rating B: I’m not exactly sure that this book is a romantic comedy. It is certainly a romance, but I didn’t think a bit of it was funny – at least not once we learn what the grandfathers are up to besides switching out ALL the decaf at their community with espresso. And even that’s not really all that funny, as someone nearly had a heart attack from the caffeine surprise.

These families are both hot messes, with Kamilah and Liam being the biggest messes of them all. A big part of this story is them revealing to each other exactly what’s packed inside the emotional baggage that each of them has been lugging around since they were children. The unpacking of that messy luggage is heartbreaking all by itself without factoring in Killian’s cancer diagnosis.

It’s also not funny that the Vegas’ treatment of Kamilah, as much as they love her and as much as they mean well, borders on abuse. Nothing she does is ever right, nothing she says is ever taken seriously, and she’s beaten down at every single turn with a recitation of her failures going all the way back to early childhood. Whatever they think they’re accomplishing, all they’re really doing is undermining her self esteem while expecting her to pick up everyone’s slack.

That Kamilah has turned into a martyr about it may not be a healthy reaction – but it’s not a surprising one either. She’s learned that the only way to get anything approaching what she wants is to be a big underhanded about it – in ways that eventually bite her in the ass.

Liam still blames his father for dying when Liam was 11. His grandmother died in the same accident and his grandfather drove Liam’s mother away in the aftermath. Liam expects all relationships to end in people leaving him, as his grandfather is about to do. He pushes everyone away and doesn’t know how to make himself stop.

Kamilah’s manipulations run smack into Liam’s need to push people away before they leave him – giving him the perfect excuse to expose everyone’s machinations in this mess into the bargain. It’s not funny at all. It’s downright tragic.

What makes this story work is that they get the help they both need. It’s not so much a complete happy ever after as it is a happy work in progress with a sincere hope of ever after. Love doesn’t conquer or cure all – nor should it. There’s too much that needs fixing in this case. But it does provide a firm foundation to stand on to get the work done.

That’s a lesson we don’t see often enough in romance, but I’m definitely here for it.

Review: The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery

Review: The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan MalleryThe Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 448
Published by Mira on May 31, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery—a story of friends who become family, giving each other courage to start over…
When fate brings three strangers to a charming space for lease on the California coast, the Boardwalk Bookshop is born. Part bookstore, part gift shop, part bakery, it's a dream come true for Bree, Mikki and Ashley. But while their business is thriving, their personal lives are…not.
Bree, wounded by brilliant but cold parents and her late husband's ultimate betrayal, has sworn to protect her heart at all costs. Even from Ashley's brother, a writer and adventurer who has inspired millions. He's the first man to see past Bree's barricades to her true self, which terrifies her. Mikki has this divorce thing all figured out—somehow, she's stayed friends with her ex and her in-laws…until a new man changes how everyone looks at her, and how she sees herself. Meanwhile, Ashley discovers that the love of her life never intends to marry. Can she live without being a wife if it means she can have everything else she's ever wanted?
At sunset every Friday on the beach in front of the Boardwalk Bookshop, the three friends share a champagne toast. As their bond grows closer, they challenge one another to become the best versions of themselves in this heartachingly beautiful story of friendship, sisterhood and the transformative power of love. 

My Review:

Six months after their decision to move their businesses in together, Ashley, Bree and Mikki are all pretty happy with the results. Between the new, more central, beachfront location, and the synergy between Bree’s bookshop on one end, Mikki’s gift shop on the other and Ashley’s cupcakery in the middle, traffic is up, profits are up and all three businesses are booming.

Howsomever, on the personal front, while Ashley believes she’s happy with her live-in boyfriend Seth, and Bree is certain she’s happy with using men for sex as long as she’s up front about her unwillingness to commit for more than a night or two. Meanwhile Mikki believes that she’s content with the company of Earl – her vibrator.

Their business successes are real. Their romantic contentment, on the other hand, is considerably more questionable as each of their respective illusions crash and burn in different and unexpected ways.

Bree meets someone who makes her wish she wasn’t too damaged to let anyone into her heart ever again. Ashley discovers that her perfect boyfriend has commitment issues of his own – he claims to want to be with her forever but refuses to even consider marriage. While Mikki’s realization that a vibrator is far from enough finds her leading not one but two men on while believing she’s doing no such thing.

The story of the Boardwalk Bookshop and its three proprietors is the story of what happens after things fall apart. And how they help each other put everything back together. Not the same as before. Not necessarily and certainly not completely better. But getting up and putting one foot in front of the other no matter how hard it is until it gets just a bit easier. Because they have each other.

Escape Rating B+: Although this book is being billed as a romance, the heart of the story isn’t the romances. The heart of the story is the friendship. It’s not that love doesn’t lift them up, it’s that the love between these women who began as strangers is what gives them the support to make those romances possible.

Bree is the one who comes into the story with the most damage. Her famously intellectual parents saw her as an interruption to their work and were not in the least bit shy about reminding her of that fact. Looking for love and acceptance, she married a man who made her feel important because he needed her to take care of him, not because he either loved her or respected her. She tries to say she’s not capable of falling in love, but what she really means is that she’s too afraid to risk her heart again so keeps people at arm’s length so they can’t get close enough to hurt her. Bree is the one who needs the most help and the most healing, but it’s not going to happen unless she is able to admit that she’s just plain scared.

Ashley’s initial damage is old and scarred over and she’s learned to deal with it reasonably well. Her older brother barely survived a hit and run accident. While her parents were taking care of him, she learned to take care of herself. Her habit of compromising her own needs because others’ were so much greater makes her cling too long to a relationship that just isn’t working because she’s so used to giving up what she wants for others. When she can’t this time she’s crushed. (And IMHO he’s an asshat.)

I have to admit that I found it easier to empathize with Bree and Ashley than I did Mikki. She’s so competent in her business and so ditzy in her personal life that I didn’t enjoy her parts of the story as much as the others – although her frequent conversational gaffes about Earl were hilarious. But Mikki’s dilemma is that she’s considering remarrying her ex-husband while dating someone else. If second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience, what are second marriages to the person you divorced? The triumph of hope over experience AND knowledge? I know it does happen in real life but in her situation it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Getting herself out of the mess that she’d unwittingly gotten herself into required lots of uncomfortable conversations and a whole lot of groveling.

All in all, this is a charming story about three women who help each other to be strong in their broken places – sometimes even in spite of themselves. So come for the champagne-fueled walks on the beach, and stay for the healing power of friendship. It’s all here in The Boardwalk Bookshop.

Review: Never Coming Home by Hannah Mary McKinnon

Review: Never Coming Home by Hannah Mary McKinnonNever Coming Home by Hannah Mary McKinnon
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, psychological thriller, suspense, thriller
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on May 24, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

First comes love. Then comes murder. Lucas Forester didn't hate his wife. Michelle was brilliant, sophisticated and beautiful. Sure, she had extravagant spending habits and that petty attitude, a total disregard for anyone below her status. But she also had a lot to offer. Most notably, wealth that only the one percent could comprehend.
For years, Lucas had been honing a flawless plan to inherit Michelle’s fortune. Unfortunately, it involved taking a hit out on her.
Every track was covered, no trace left behind, and now Lucas plays the grieving husband so well he deserves an award. But when a shocking photo and cryptic note show up on his doorstep, Lucas goes from hunter to prey.
Someone is onto him. And they’re closing in.
Told with dark wit and a sharply feminist sensibility, Never Coming Home is a terrifying tale of duplicity that will have you side-eyeing your spouse as you dash to the breathtaking end.

My Review:

Lucas Forester probably wasn’t the only person to have more than a few idle thoughts about killing their spouse during the long months of COVID induced lockdowns. He probably wasn’t even the only one to come up with more than a few not-so-hypothetical scenarios to accomplish it. Hopefully there weren’t too many that actually contracted to get the job done once things went back to normal.

Then again, part of Lucas’ normal was that he didn’t like his wife all that much. He married her for her money, and has been playing a long game since the day they met, successfully pretending to be a loving, doting spouse. He’d planned to divorce her and take her to the cleaners in the settlement. It’s not his fault she made him sign an iron-clad prenup, leaving her demise as his only option to collect all the money she was just throwing away anyway.

Lucas thought that he had tied up all the loose ends. He used the darkweb not just to find a contract killer but even to vet the qualifications of the contractor he found. He paid in cryptocurrency. He only used burner phones for the rare contacts. He made sure to have an ironclad alibi for when the hit took place. It was his brilliant idea to make the whole thing look like kidnapping for ransom, because his wife’s family had plenty of money for ransom.

It was supposed to be a flawless performance. A perfect murder. All he had to do was wait until someone else – the police, her mother, the insurance company – declared her dead. He was prepared to play the long game of being the grieving almost-widower for as long as it would take.

Then it all started falling apart – and so did he.

Escape Rating A-: What makes this story surprisingly compelling is that we see it from inside Lucas’ head – which is an honestly funny place to be. Because Lucas is right, there is a little bit of evil in all of us. So as we follow along with him as his plans come apart around his ears, we’re a bit him and we do kind of feel for him as well as with him.

Because he did have a pretty hard-knock life that he’s done his best to leave behind. Unfortunately the way that he’s left it behind is by hiding his true origins and conning pretty much the entire world.

(The idea of being inside the head of the murderer can be squicky, but Lucas isn’t insane and isn’t a serial killer. He’s not interested in blood and gore for their own sake and doesn’t dwell on them at all even in the privacy of his own head. Lucas is all about getting the job done. If it weren’t for the fact that the job that needs doing – at least from his perspective – is murder he’d be an interesting guy to be around. And he’s got such a snarky and wry perspective on life that his observations often ring true.)

It helps a lot that he’s intelligent and brutally honest inside his own skull. His running commentary about everything he does and everyone he interacts with along the way generates a TON of rueful chuckles. His wife was a bit of a Karen. She was an over privileged trust-fund baby who never grew up and never even saw the people she stepped on and over along her self-indulgent way.

And he really, really loves his dog.

This is not the story of Lucas’ original plan to have his wife murdered. When we first meet Lucas that event is already in the past. Instead, this is a story about Lucas’ chickens all coming home to roost. Not just about the bad karma from his recent actions, but going all the way back to all the bad eggs that Lucas has hatched over his entire, never above board life.

At the beginning, it really, really looks like Lucas is going to get away with it all. And he’s pretty proud of himself about it. As the story gets going, we start to get an inkling that maybe it isn’t going to go his way after all, but we’re not sure why or how it’s going to fall apart. Or even how we feel about it because we do feel for him a bit more than might be comfortable.

And his story gets even more compelling as we watch him crash and burn. We’re even with him as he figures out just how he got done in.

As the old saying goes, those best laid plans of mice and men often going astray – and Lucas’ plans certainly have. That saying makes absolutely no mention of the best laid plans of women – and maybe that’s something Lucas should have thought of before he ever got the idea to murder his wife.

 

Review: The Honeymoon Cottage by Lori Foster

Review: The Honeymoon Cottage by Lori FosterThe Honeymoon Cottage by Lori Foster
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Series: Cemetery Indiana #1
Pages: 384
Published by Hqn on May 24, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

She was fine arranging other people’s weddings… But life had other plans.

When it comes to creating the perfect happily-ever-after, Yardley Belanger is a bona fide miracle worker. From bridal bouquets to matching cowboy boots, the quirky wedding planner’s country-chic affairs have caused quite a stir in the small town of Cemetery. But when it comes to her own love life? She’s clueless.

Completely clueless.

Perhaps it’s for the best. The thirty-one-year-old has poured her heart and soul into her business and doesn’t have time for anything—or anyone—else. And that’s something not even the gorgeous older brother of her newest client can change…right?

All Travis Long wanted was to give his little sister, Sheena, the wedding of her dreams. Ever since the tragic death of their parents, he’s done everything he can to make her feel loved and give her everything she needs. Still…a country wedding? In a place called Cemetery? But Yardley seems to know exactly what to do and how to do it—and Travis finds himself falling for her a little more each day.

Soon Yardley and Travis find themselves being nudged together by well-meaning locals who want to see the town’s favorite wedding planner get her own happy ending.

My Review:

If you love quirky romances set in equally eccentric small towns you’ll love The Honeymoon Cottage, set in the weirdly named Cemetery, Indiana, where every business in town is required to include the town’s name in their own.

Which is a bit of a problem for wedding planner Yardley Belanger. She is terrific at planning weddings – and she’s a bit of a genius at marketing her business. But it’s hard for Yardley – as well as people who are shopping for a wedding planner – to get past “Cemetery Weddings” as a concept. Those two words just don’t go together.

(I’ve seen this in real life. We drove through a town named Newborn several months ago. There’s a taxidermy shop in Newborn called “Newborn Taxidermy” and I have the pictures to prove it. Those are two words that should NEVER appear in the same sentence. I digress.)

So Yardley’s story begins with her regular agitation of the town council to remove the naming requirement. Cemetery weddings, Cemetery candy, Cemetery florist and Cemetery Pit Stop BBQ are all on Yardley’s side.

But the president of the town council, 84 year old Betty Cemetery, great-granddaughter of the town founder Henry Harrison Cemetery, fights Yardley – and every other business owner in town – at every turn.

Howsomever, The Honeymoon Cottage is a small town romance, so the battle between Yardley and Betty isn’t the main event. That’s reserved for Yardley and her latest client, Sheena Long. Well, not exactly them either.

Because when Sheena comes to visit Yardley and plan her wedding, Sheena is accompanied not by her soon-to-be-groom (also the father of her soon-to-be-child) but by her older brother Travis. Travis raised Sheena after their parents died in an accident when Travis was 20 and Sheena was only 5. He’s been big brother, father, mother, uncle and best friend to his little sister for nearly all of her life and he’s the one paying for the wedding – no matter how many doubts he has about the groom.

Sheena and Yardley hit it off instantly. Travis and Yardley draw sparks from each other just as instantly. The kind of sparks that 31-year-old Yardley had pretty much given up on ever feeling ever.

But Travis is wary of getting involved with someone who is rapidly becoming important to his sister. It’s happened before and the results were NOT GOOD. Yardley has spent her whole life being denigrated by the two women who raised her – her mother and her aunt. Aurora and Lilith Belanger have spent Yardley’s whole life telling her how awkward and unlovable she is and that she didn’t inherit any of the family beauty or charm and that she can never do anything quite right.

The only person who believes in Yardley is her lifelong bestie Mimi. Yardley doesn’t even believe in herself.

So at first she doesn’t believe that Travis is really interested in her. Or that all of her fellow business owners in town really, truly want her to run for president of the town council in opposition to the recalcitrant Betty.

But all is not as it seems, because we never know what’s in someone else’s heart.

Travis really is interested, and they really are falling for each other. And in spite of their actions and attitudes, her mother and her aunt really do love her – even if they have a terrible way of showing it. While Betty is fighting Yardley not because there’s any real animosity, but because she’s lonely and arguing with Yardley has put more spring in her step than anything in a very long time.

And all it takes is the love of one adorable scamp of a dog to help put the pieces of Yardley’s life and her heart together.

Escape Rating A-: Like so many of my recent reads, The Honeymoon Cottage sits right on that line between romance and relationship. It sits very comfortably on that line, because it has oodles of elements of both of those genres.

For this reader, the most interesting parts of the story wrapped around Yardley’s terrific relationship with her bestie Mimi, her supporting and supportive relationships with the other business owners in Cemetery, and her surprising frenemy-ship with Betty Cemetery. Along with her growing love for Travis Long and especially for the dog Dodger who scampers his way into pretty much everyone’s hearts.

And on the other hand there’s her bizarre, toxic relationship with her mother and her aunt. Like Mimi, I wanted Yardley to blast those two for the way they treated her. The degree to which they’ve been negging her all of her life, to the point where her mother continually reminds her that getting pregnant with Yardley ruined her life, deserved a good blast or ten. In those circumstances, that Yardley turned out to be such a terrific person is beyond surprising all the way into practically unbelievable. It’s pretty clear that Mimi’s friendship and support saved Yardley’s sanity, and kept her self-esteem from being any lower and sinking straight into clinical depression.

That Yardley’s willingness to listen and empathize results in bringing Betty Cemetery out of her self-imposed shell and turns the two from potential enemies to very good friends worked beautifully. Something about the way the situation with her mother and aunt resolved didn’t quite feel real – but then it didn’t feel real to Mimi either.

The romance between Yardley and Travis is wonderful, it just didn’t feel like the center of the story, hence my wavering over whether this is romance or relationship. And again, falling on the relationship side, that both Yardley and Mimi develop strong friendships with Sheena, that Mimi’s husband and Sheena’s fiance become friends, and that Travis even comes to understand and approve of Sheena’s fiance and their relationship just adds to that feeling.

Whichever side you fall on, romance or relationships, The Honeymoon Cottage is a lovely story. The romance is heart melting, the relationships are, for the most part, heartwarming, and the dog naturally steals more than a few of the scenes. And the scenes that Dodger doesn’t steal are hilariously capped by the town’s mannequin mascot Kathleen – who somehow manages to be present for ALL of the town’s big events.

I confess I am a bit surprised that this is the first book in a series set in Cemetery because the story seemed complete. However, I look forward to seeing how Dodger and his humans are doing, and I can’t wait to see who will find their HEA next!