Review: Mission: Her Protection by Anna Hackett

Review: Mission: Her Protection by Anna HackettMission: Her Protection (Team 52 #1) by Anna Hackett by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: action adventure romance
Series: Team 52 #1
Pages: 226
Published by Anna Hackett on August 14th, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

When Rowan’s Arctic research team pulls a strange object out of the ice in Northern Canada, things start to go wrong…very, very wrong. Rescued by a covert, black ops team, she finds herself in the powerful arms of a man with scary gold eyes. A man who vows to do everything and anything to protect her…

Dr. Rowan Schafer has learned it’s best to do things herself and not depend on anyone else. Her cold, academic parents taught her that lesson. She loves the challenge of running a research base, until the day her scientists discover the object in a retreating glacier. Under attack, Rowan finds herself fighting to survive…until the mysterious Team 52 arrives.

Former special forces Marine Lachlan Hunter’s military career ended in blood and screams, until he was recruited to lead a special team. A team tasked with a top-secret mission—to secure and safeguard pieces of powerful ancient technology. Married to his job, he’s done too much and seen too much to risk inflicting his demons on a woman. But when his team arrives in the Arctic, he uncovers both an unexplained artifact, and a young girl from his past, now all grown up. A woman who ignites emotions inside him like never before.

But as Team 52 heads back to their base in Nevada, other hostile forces are after the artifact. Rowan finds herself under attack, and as the bullets fly, Lachlan vows to protect her at all costs. But in the face of danger like they’ve never seen before, will it be enough to keep her alive.

My Review:

Team 52 is a loose spinoff from Treasure Hunter Security. Very loose. It’s also a bit of a science fiction in-joke. Team 52 is based at Groom Lake, right next door to the infamous Area 51 where all of the alien invasion artifacts are supposed to be stored. Team 52 is hiding in plain sight while everyone thinks all the good stuff is next door – when it really, really isn’t.

While we’ve certainly met Lachlan Hunter and his team before, their introduction in Unmapped didn’t tell us, or the THS operatives, very much. One thing that seems to be certain is that Team 52 operates under U.S. governmental aegis – not that THAT is necessarily reassuring these days.

But they seem to be the good guys. For certain definitions of “good”, and definitely not all of them are “guys”.

They are all ex-military. Or ex-CIA. Certainly ex-Special Ops of one stripe or another. And they are all damaged. Every single one of them seems to have been wounded enough in the line of duty that they were forced to retire – and none of them was ready for that step. Team 52 is their way of continuing the good fight, against forces that the regular military, even the units they mustered out of, isn’t quite ready, willing, or able to deal with.

While THS is strictly action-adventure romance, Team 52 sits much closer to the crossroads between action-adventure and science fiction. At least science fiction of the lab based variety, as well as more than a hint of the old Chariots of the Gods scenario thrown in.

There are no space ships, and no aliens. At least not so far. But this is a version of our world where advanced human, or human-ish, civilizations pre-dated the last ice age, when their people, their cultures and their technology were wiped out and buried by the encroaching glaciers.

Global warming is bringing all of their stuff back to the surface. All too much of it would make handy-dandy high-tech weaponry – especially in the hands of certain nefarious people and organizations. Team 52’s mission is to secure all this dangerous technology and keep it out of the hands of organizations that want to reverse engineer it for the, let’s call it, “greater bad”, as well as for lots of filthy lucre.

As people who have been through a hell of a lot of the worst of war, the members of Team 52 also seem to be more or less emotionally scarred, if not downright broken. And that’s where our romance kicks off. Lachlan Hunter sees himself as damaged goods, incapable of forming an emotional tie to anyone except his team, and unwilling to risk any relationship where he might find himself becoming his abusive father.

But the “Mayday” call from Dr. Rowan Schafer’s Arctic research base brings him face-to-face from the little girl who was once his light in the darkness, just as he was hers. That was back when she was 10 and he was 13. Now they are both all grown up, and both afraid of letting themselves care for anyone else – because both of them have much too much experience of love going wrong, one way or another.

It’s already too late. They are already inside each other’s hearts – and always have been. The just have to stop pushing each other away. Because someone really is out to get Rowan, and only Lachlan and his Team can keep her safe. And only Rowan can make him whole.

Escape Rating A-: This series opener is a hell of a lot of fun. It reminded me a lot of Stargate SG-1, even without the gate. One of the threads of the Stargate universe, just as in Team 52, was the idea that advanced human civilizations existed on Earth prior to the last ice age, and that remnants of that ancient tech is occasionally discovered in our present. Rowan’s Arctic research station and the artifact her team find there conjured up images of the Antarctic base on Stargate where the second gate is found. Some of the operations of the Team 52 base had a similar feel to the way that Stargate Command operated. Just no gate.

Team 52 is, as I said, a loose spinoff of Treasure Hunter Security. You do not have to have read any of THS to enjoy Team 52, but that series is a lot of fun and highly recommended. If you like the flavor of action adventure mixed with treasure hunting in Team 52, you’ll love THS.

There is, as there always is in this author’s work, a terrific romance riding on the action adventure story. Lachlan and Rowan make an interesting couple, and not just because both of them have unusual names.

Their story is an offbeat use of the friends into lovers trope. They were childhood friends at a dark time in both their lives. They gave each other a ray of hope at a time when neither of them had one. While Lachlan’s story is tragic, Rowan’s is heartbreaking in its familiarity. She had parents, successful parents, who only ever saw her as a reflection of their own importance and their own careers. They both made sure she had all the material things, but never seem to have loved her or cared about her as herself because their careers were just so much more important than anything she wanted or needed or even her near-death in the Arctic.

The interaction between them is fun to watch because they begin this story already inside each other’s skins. These are two people who are both good at pushing other people away, but they begin already too close for that to happen.

As the introduction to the series, a part of this story revolves around the team, how its set up, how it works and how its members work together. Rowan makes an excellent foil for this process as she worms her way from protectee to team member. As she adapts, we learn how the whole thing works.

And Lachlan learns that he can’t live without her – and that making the attempt isn’t living.

I’m really looking forward to the next book in this series, Mission: Her Rescue. While I find the titles for the Team 52 series a bit cheesy, the stories are fantastic!

A+ Giveaway Hop

Welcome to the A+ Giveaway Hop, hosted by MamatheFox!

And welcome to my second blog hop of the week. I’m on vacation, so you have more chances to win either a $10 Amazon Gift Card or a $10 Book from the Book Depository.

This is a back-to-school themed hop. I don’t have children, so it seems weird to me that we’re already talking about back to school and we’re not that far into August. In my mind, and admittedly a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, school didn’t start until after Labor Day. Even college. Lots of my friends went to colleges that started the fall semester in mid-to-late-August, but mine didn’t start until mid-September or thereabouts.

The Gwinnett County Schools, the system where I live now, have already started! That just seems much too early. And too hot. But then I’m remembering schools that were not air conditioned, which I presume is no longer the case. Both June and September in Cincinnati could be pretty beastly hot. Being there in August would have been unrealistic unless they were air conditioned, which they most definitely were not at the time. But undoubtedly are now. Time marches on.

And now it’s time to march into the rafflecopter for your chance at the prize!

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For more fabulous prizes be sure to visit the other stops on this hop!

MamatheFox and all participating blogs are not held responsible for sponsors who fail to fulfill their prize obligations.

Review: Planetside by Michael Mammay

Review: Planetside by Michael MammayPlanetside by Michael Mammay
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Voyager on July 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

--“PLANETSIDE is a smart and fast-paced blend of mystery and boots-in-the-dirt military SF that reads like a high-speed collision between Courage Under Fire and Heart of Darkness.” – Marko Kloos, bestselling author of the Frontline series

--“Not just for military SF fans—although military SF fans will love it—Planetside is an amazing debut novel, and I’m looking forward to what Mammay writes next.” – Tanya Huff, author of the Confederation and Peacekeeper series

--“A tough, authentic-feeling story that starts out fast and accelerates from there.” – Jack Campbell, author of Ascendant

--“Definitely the best military sci-fi debut I’ve come across in a while.” – Gavin Smith, author of Bastard Legion and Age of Scorpio

A seasoned military officer uncovers a deadly conspiracy on a distant, war-torn planet…

War heroes aren't usually called out of semi-retirement and sent to the far reaches of the galaxy for a routine investigation. So when Colonel Carl Butler answers the call from an old and powerful friend, he knows it's something big—and he's not being told the whole story. A high councilor's son has gone MIA out of Cappa Base, the space station orbiting a battle-ravaged planet. The young lieutenant had been wounded and evacuated—but there's no record of him having ever arrived at hospital command.

The colonel quickly finds Cappa Base to be a labyrinth of dead ends and sabotage: the hospital commander stonewalls him, the Special Ops leader won't come off the planet, witnesses go missing, radar data disappears, and that’s before he encounters the alien enemy. Butler has no choice but to drop down onto a hostile planet—because someone is using the war zone as a cover. The answers are there—Butler just has to make it back alive…

 

My Review:

If Cold Welcome and Old Man’s War had a love child you might get something like Planetside. And it would be, and is, pretty damn awesome. I would say it’s awesome for a debut novel, but that isn’t nearly praise enough. It’s just plain awesome. Period. Exclamation point.

The story is a combination of military SF with a bit of detective work. Because there’s something wrong on Cappa, and it’s up to Colonel Carl Butler to figure out what. And to contain the problem – no matter the cost.

It begins simply enough – except it isn’t simple at all.

Butler is an old soldier, less than a year away from retirement. He’s been stationed somewhere really, really safe and far from the front lines to serve out his remaining time. But his best friend is the current overall military commander of SPACECOM, and needs the help of a friend that he can trust – not just to keep his secrets – but to make the hard choices and do the right thing without caring how bad it might look. Or be.

A High Councillor’s son is missing on a planet where SPACECOM is engaged in a hot war with the natives over natural resources. All the human settlements need silver, and Cappa is rich in it. Some of the native Cappans, who are an intelligent humanoid but not human species, are fighting with SPACECOM, and some are fighting against it.

In military terms, Cappa is a SNAFU (Situation Normal: All Fucked Up). It’s just a much bigger and nastier SNAFU than anyone is willing to admit. Butler comes in and kicks over the local anthill, and all hell breaks loose.

The investigation has been stalled for months, mostly in red tape. There are three commands on Cappa, SPACECOM, MEDCOM and SPECOPS, and the right hand and the left hand don’t know, don’t care, and don’t have to cooperate with each other or the hand in the middle.

Butler can easily see that there’s a coverup going on – he just can’t make any headway on figuring out who is covering up what.

It’s only when he goes planetside and the situation goes completely pear-shaped that he’s finally able to see the forest for the trees. It’s not just that one thing is wrong – it’s that everything is. And has been. And will be.

Unless Butler contains the whole sad, sorry mess – once and for all.

Escape Rating A+: I just finished and I’m still in shock. This one is going to stick with me for a long, long time.

I used Old Man’s War and Cold Comfort as antecedents because Planetside has strong elements of both of them, and they were themselves both absolute standouts.

The voice of Colonel Carl Butler in Planetside sounds very much like the voice of John Perry in Old Man’s War. They are both, after all, old men still at war. The difference is that Perry has taken his long experience into a new, young body, where Butler’s has all the mileage, artificial parts, aches and pains, of a life lived mostly in battle. Perry’s scars are on the inside, Butler’s are on the outside. But their first-person perspectives sound remarkably similar. They both do what needs to be done, but they both think it through, a lot. And they’ve both been around long enough to recognize bullshit when they hear it and hate it every single time.

There is also an element to both Planetside and the Old Man’s War series that what you think you know, what you’ve been told is true, mostly isn’t.

From Cold Harbor there’s the betrayal from within aspect of the story. Just as Butler learns that an awful lot of people in Cappa Base and on Cappa are getting in the way of his investigation for reasons that he has to figure out, so too does Kylara Vatta have to conduct an investigation under extremely adverse circumstances while fighting against an enemy within, facing betrayal at every turn while the situation goes from bad to awful to completely FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition).

So in Planetside we have the story of a man who has been deliberately placed in a terrible situation by a friend who seems to be exploiting the fact that he has nothing left to lose. Butler is trusted to, not sweep something under the rug, but discover all the awful secrets there are to be discovered and make sure that none of them get out.

We’re inside his head. We feel his frustration, we understand his confusion, and we empathize with his hatred of the obfuscation and the bullshit that is keeping him from getting the job done for no good reason whatsoever. In the end, we ache for his choices but we understand his reasons.

At the end, I’m left with two sets of competing quotes running through my head. In one ear, I’m hearing Robert E. Lee, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” In my other ear, it’s Edmund Burke, paraphrased by Simon Wiesenthal, “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.” And there’s quite a lot of irony that the second quote is from Wiesenthal, a noted Nazi hunter.

I have extremely high hopes for more from this author. Soon, please! I already know that Planetside will be on my Hugo Ballot next year.

Review: Tiffany Blues by M.J. Rose + Giveaway

Review: Tiffany Blues by M.J. Rose + GiveawayTiffany Blues by M.J. Rose
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Atria Books on August 7, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York, 1924. Twenty‑four‑year‑old Jenny Bell is one of a dozen burgeoning artists invited to Louis Comfort Tiffany’s prestigious artists’ colony. Gifted and determined, Jenny vows to avoid distractions and romantic entanglements and take full advantage of the many wonders to be found at Laurelton Hall.

But Jenny’s past has followed her to Long Island. Images of her beloved mother, her hard-hearted stepfather, waterfalls, and murder, and the dank hallways of Canada’s notorious Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women overwhelm Jenny’s thoughts, even as she is inextricably drawn to Oliver, Tiffany’s charismatic grandson.

As the summer shimmers on, and the competition between the artists grows fierce as they vie for a spot at Tiffany’s New York gallery, a series of suspicious and disturbing occurrences suggest someone knows enough about Jenny’s childhood trauma to expose her.

Supported by her closest friend Minx Deering, a seemingly carefree socialite yet dedicated sculptor, and Oliver, Jenny pushes her demons aside. Between stolen kisses and stolen jewels, the champagne flows and the jazz plays on until one moonless night when Jenny’s past and present are thrown together in a desperate moment, that will threaten her promising future, her love, her friendships, and her very life.

My Review:

This is a story about finding beauty in what is broken. It is also a story about creeping menace among the beauty. And it’s a love story. Not just about romantic love, but also the love of family, the love of making beauty – and love gone very, very wrong.

As the story begins, Jenny Bell is standing in the charred ruins of Laurelton Hall, looking back at her past. Or at least one particular summer of her past, the summer of 1924, how she got there, why she left, and finally, what brought her to come back, and look back, on the events that transformed her life – both the dark side and the light.

Laurelton Hall circa 1924

Laurelton Hall was the real-life home of a school for artists run by the famous artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. Yes, that Tiffany, of the gorgeous stained glass windows and the little signature blue boxes. (At least, the only Tiffany boxes I’ve ever received have been very, very small.)

Tiffany’s Foundation sponsored summer artists’ retreat for several years. (This is real, not fictional.) Jenny Bell and most of the events of the summer of 1924, however, are mostly fictional – with the possible exception of the visit by Thomas A. Edison.

Jenny is an artist, a painter, who is exploring the creation and perception of light through her paintings. But she has washed all the colors out of her work after a terrible tragedy, accompanied by an equally terrible miscarriage of justice. And even though Jenny was not to blame for the events that have cast a shadow over her life – she is the only one left who knows the truth of the day that her stepfather died. Not just why and how his death occurred, but why the events that came afterwards seemed necessary at the time.

But Jenny put that horrible day, and the years that followed it, behind her. Or so she thinks. At least until her past follows her to Laurelton, and takes away her brightest future.

Unless it is not too late to pick up the threads she left behind.

Escape Rating A-: There are so many marvelous things to unpack about this story. All of them fascinating and all of them guaranteed to both keep the reader on the edge of their seat and draw them deeply into the world of Laurelton and the Jazz Age.

Jenny is a great character to follow. She is both very, very strong and completely broken all at the same time. As are the people who become closest to her, her best friend Minx Deering and her lover Oliver Tiffany. But then, all of the artists who come to Laurelton are broken in one way or another. World War I feels just barely over, and even those who did not serve lived in its terrible shadow.

And the frenetic gaiety that followed has caused its own damage.

Jenny tries to be an enigma to those around her, but inside her own head she is all too aware of what happened and what she did. But also what she didn’t. And she’s paid a very high price for protecting her mother and her unborn brother – a price that in its aftermath may not have been worth it after all.

Even though she has tried to bury her past, there is someone at Laurelton who seems to know at least the public version of events, and either wants to reveal her secrets, punish her more directly, or just break her all over again – for reasons that Jenny does not know.

All she knows is that something is very, very wrong, and both she and her friend Minx are in terrible, but terribly different, kinds of danger. The portrait of a woman who knows that there is something wrong, who fears that she knows at least part of what that is, but is too afraid to ask for help and for a long time too willing to disbelieve her own fears is both compelling and all too familiar.

The air of creeping menace is palpable, and permeates the whole story. It casts a shadow over the beauty of the place, much in the way that the contrast between shadow and light creates both beauty and perspective in art.

In the end, the resolution is both cathartic and bitter. Jenny pays a great price, yet again, for a crime that she did not commit. But then there is the sweet, and the ending shows that there is beauty in the breakdown, and even in the shards of our lives.

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

I’m giving away a copy of Tiffany Blues to one very lucky US or Canadian commenter!

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

Review: Gift of Griffins by V.M. Escalada

Review: Gift of Griffins by V.M. EscaladaGift of Griffins by V.M. Escalada
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Faraman Prophecy #2
Pages: 352
Published by DAW Books on August 7, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The second book in the Faraman Prophecy epic fantasy series returns to a world of military might and magical Talents as Kerida Nast continues the quest to save her nation.

Kerida Nast and her companions have succeeded in finding Jerek Brightwing, the new Luqs of Farama, and uniting him with a part of his Battle Wings, but not all their problems have been solved. Farama is still in the hands of the Halian invaders and their Shekayrin, and it's going to take magical as well as military strength to overcome them.

Unexpected help comes from Bakura, the Princess Imperial of the Halians, whose Gifts have been suppressed. As the Voice of her brother the Sky Emperor she has some political power over the Halian military, and she will use it to aid the Faramans, if Kerida can free her from what she sees as a prison. But whether Kerida can help the princess remains to be seen. If she succeeds, Bakura may prove their salvation. But should Kerida fail, all may be lost....

My Review:

Gift of Griffins is the direct followup to last year’s terrific Halls of Law. The action in Gift picks up right where Halls leaves off, and the two books as a whole feel like one single story that was just too long to fit into a single volume. So the author committed duology.

Gift makes no sense whatsoever without Halls. Consider yourself warned.

The story told in the two, however, is a lot of fun. This is epic fantasy that plays with some of the standard tropes in neat twisty ways.

Our point of view character is Kerida Nast. Ker was planning to be a soldier, like pretty much all of the women and men in her family before her. Two of her older sisters have risen to high rank in the Faraman military, and Ker expects to follow in their bootsteps.

So from the very beginning, the story feels like a heroine’s journey rather than a hero’s journey. One of the truly neat things about the story is the way that it turns out that Ker Nast is not the heroine whose journey fulfills the epic prophesy and saves the day.

Ker is only a piece, admittedly a big piece, of the prophecy that kicks the invaders out of the Faraman Peninsula and brings the mythic griffins back to their long abandoned home.

As we discover in Gift of Griffins, all of the various magics used by the human population of this world were literally gifted to them by the griffins centuries if no millennia ago. But humans being human, pretty much the first thing those magic users did was band into tribes based on exactly which kinds of magic they used in exactly what way. Then they bickered amongst themselves until, humans being human again, wars broke out, different groups gained ascendancy, and then ruthlessly tried to wipe out whichever faction was sucking hind tit.

Humans do kind of suck sometimes. The griffins, taking the very (very, very) long view, are none too happy with the way that their gift is being abused.

So when Ker finds their stronghold, courtesy of her friend Wiemark – a very, very young griffin that she found and “woke” in the griffins old ancestral home – the griffins tell her to solve her own problems and refuse to let Wiemark go back with her to help her.

Ker has a lot of problems to solve. Her homeland has been invaded by the forces of the Sky Emperor of Halia across the ocean, along with their mages. The Halians believe that women are chattel, and therefore maraud through Faraman killing every woman they see who does not immediately obey their every command – as well as all the women in the military because of course women bearing arms is absolute anathema.

They also kill every single Faraman mage (called Talents) that they find. Because Faraman magic is also utterly corrupt – because they believe it is used by women to deceive and enslave men.

(Any commentary on any contemporary groups, issues or problems feels intentional to this reader. Your mileage may vary.)

Ker, along with the friends and allies that she has gathered along her journey, has to figure out a way to defeat a force of magic users who specialize in mind control – and are all too proficient at it.

But she has an unexpected ally – in the middle of the enemy stronghold. If she can be rescued. If they can join forces. If Faraman can be saved. If the prophecy can be brought to fruition.

The odds are long, the stakes are high – and not everything is quite the way it seems.

Great fun.

Escape Rating B+: On the one hand, it is very nice indeed to have an epic fantasy that seems to be complete in merely two books – and only a year apart at that. On the other hand, the ending felt a bit rushed. It seemed like Ker was still getting her allies lined up when the villains essentially delivered themselves into her waiting (and fully armored) arms.

Not that I wasn’t perfectly happy to see more-or-less good triumph and for definitely evil to get its just desserts – but it felt like 1.9 books of build up and only .1 books of resolution. It felt like the ending happened awfully fast. I wasn’t ready and it didn’t feel like they were, either.

Again, not that they are supposed to be so fully ready that the final battle turns out to be a cakewalk – but they didn’t feel quite ready enough.

On my third hand (so, I’m an alien – or Kali the Destroyer. Sue me if you dare! BWAHAHAHAHA) and not that Ker and her allies couldn’t have used Kali’s power, one of the things I really liked about Gift of Griffins was the discover that while Ker is part of the prophecy, she is not the usual “prophesied one” or “chosen one” who is supposed to save the day. And that the “chosen one” in this story was also a woman and not the boy king – a character who does exist in this story and does help but is also just part of the prophecy and not its culmination.

The characters, well, the ones on the side of the angels at least, are all interesting and Ker in particular is a lot of fun to follow. One of the things that also makes this story work, at least for me, is that Ker’s side, while it is manifestly better than the villains, is never claimed to be perfect. Ker’s people have certainly done their share of murder and suppression, just not on the grand and horrific scale that the Halians are engaging in.

That the Halians turn out to not be the cookie-cutter villains they first appear to be makes the story just that much more involving.

That Ker is working to restore a system that may very well separate her from the man she loves, because it is a better system overall for everyone else, is a big and interesting part of her internal conflict – and we like her because of it. We want her to both help save the day and find a way to keep her own personal happiness.

She’s earned it.

Review: Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

Review: Meet Me at the Museum by Anne YoungsonMeet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 272
Published by Flatiron Books on August 7, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

“Warm-hearted, clear-minded, and unexpectedly spellbinding. A novel to savor.” —Annie Barrows, co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

In Denmark, Professor Anders Larsen, an urbane man of facts, has lost his wife and his hopes for the future. On an isolated English farm, Tina Hopgood is trapped in a life she doesn’t remember choosing. Both believe their love stories are over.

Brought together by a shared fascination with the Tollund Man, subject of Seamus Heaney’s famous poem, they begin writing letters to one another. And from their vastly different worlds, they find they have more in common than they could have imagined. As they open up to one another about their lives, an unexpected friendship blooms. But then Tina’s letters stop coming, and Anders is thrown into despair. How far are they willing to go to write a new story for themselves?

My Review:

Meet Me at the Museum is a quietly marvelous little gem of a book. That it is also the author’s debut novel just makes it that much more special.

This is an epistolary novel, which is a fancy way of saying that the entire story is written as a series of letters. In this particular case, the letters are between two semi-accidental correspondents, both in their early 60s, who find themselves asking each other some of the big questions.

Questions like, “Does my life have meaning?” and, “Have I been my best self?”, as well as, “Where do I go from here?” and the big one, “Is this all there is?”

They are both at crossroads in their lives, and neither of them seems to have anyone with whom they can discuss what is really important to them – or to even to reveal what is really important to them.

The well-preserved head of Tollund Man

Tina has just lost her best friend. The friend who has been with her since childhood. And the one with whom she made a vow to go to Denmark and see the Tollund Man. When they were girls, the expert on this archaeological artifact, this Iron Age man who was dug up (or perhaps decanted) from a peat bog in Denmark, wrote a book about the Tollund Man and dedicated to his daughter and to all the children in their class in East Anglia. (This book, with its dedication, really does exist although the rest of this story is fiction.)

Tina writes to that author, all these years later, because she is putting her own thoughts down on paper, thoughts she wishes she could ask, not the old professor, but the Tollund Man himself. If he could talk.

The man who answers her from Denmark is the current curator of the museum, Anders. And at first his answers are rather dry and factual. He’s still grieving the recent death of his wife, and dry and factual seems to be all that he has in him.

But, the writing of the letters is cathartic for Tina, even if at first Anders isn’t very responsive in an emotional sense. So she keeps writing. And he keeps responding, and as he responds they step cautiously towards friendship. A friendship that is lacking in both their lives.

Anders is alone. He has his work and his children. Those children are grown now, and are beginning to have children of their own. He loves them, and they love him, but he cannot confide in them as equals. Writing to Tina becomes a solace for him. Her friendship allows him to hope again.

Tina is married, and also has children who are now having children of their own. But she is also alone – a fact which grows on both her and the reader through this correspondence. She should be talking with her husband but the fact is that they don’t really talk. They have a life together, but it is his life as a family farmer in East Anglia, a life that Tina did not want but was persuaded into when she became pregnant at 20. The person she really is only exists on the margins of her life. Her husband is one of those people for whom the only way is his the right way which is his way in everything, and he ruthlessly suppresses any of Tina’s impulses that don’t mesh with his way of life on his farm.

In her correspondence with Anders she can share her innermost thoughts. For that matter, she can share that she HAS innermost thoughts. They share the hopes, doubts and fears that neither of them is able to express to anyone in their daily lives.

So when Tina’s life finally breaks, Anders is more than willing to catch her. The question is whether she will be able to let him.

Escape Rating A+: This is absolutely completely marvelous. You wouldn’t think that reading a bunch of letters written between two strangers would be so utterly compelling, and yet it is. The reader feels like a secret witness to their correspondence, turning to each new letter as eagerly as its intended recipient.

That the two characters are both 60 or thereabouts is an interesting choice. This is a debut novel, and the writer herself is also (more or less) at that age. As am I. With modern medical science, 60 is no longer truly old, but one is certainly aware that one is no longer young. We may have 30 or even more years of mostly healthy and active living to do, but at the same time some choices are irrevocably behind us and some patterns are now too established for us to want to change even when change is possible.

Much of what Anders and Tina explore in their letters is at that crossroads. They are both aware of the roads not taken, and are searching for the meaning both in the choices they made and the ones they passed by – and whether or not it is too late to pick up some threads they left behind along the way.

This book is also the story of an emotional affair. When the story reaches its end, they have still not met in person. There are no possibilities for actual infidelity on Tina’s part, but she has come to invest a great deal of emotional capital in this relationship – which she has kept secret from her husband. That there is something wrong in her marriage becomes increasingly clear as the story progresses, and her relationship with Anders becomes both a wellspring of solace and a source of guilt as her life reaches its crisis. She has to take time out to recognize that the depth of her correspondence with Anders is a symptom of what is wrong and not its cause – but it isn’t easy.

Then again, nothing worth having or doing ever is truly easy. But Tina and Anders are marvelous and sympathetic characters. As they get to know each other, we get to know them – and we want them to find the answers to all those important questions – and to find their own best happiness.

Both the story and the way it is presented remind me very much of 84 Charing Cross Road, of which I have extremely fond memories. It may also remind readers of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which is unfortunately lost in the depths of my towering TBR pile.

But I like the comparison to 84 Charing Cross Road a bit better, although where Charing Cross has a definitive and slightly tragic ending, Meet Me at the Museum is both less definitive and more hopeful. I like leaving the book with the possibility that Tina and Anders may have brighter days ahead. And astonishingly, Meet Me at the Museum may be the first work of literary fiction that I have not merely liked, but actually, sincerely loved. I hope that you will, too.

Review: The Wedding from Hell: The Reception by J.R. Ward + Excerpt

Review: The Wedding from Hell: The Reception by J.R. Ward + ExcerptThe Reception (The Wedding From Hell, #2; Firefighters, #0.6) by J.R. Ward
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Firefighters #0.6
Pages: 39
Published by Gallery Books on August 7, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads


The Wedding from Hell, Part 2: The Rehearsal Dinner
is the exciting second adventure in J.R. Ward’s three-part ebook serialization: The Wedding From Hell. This exclusive prequel to her upcoming standalone suspense, Consumed (available in October 2018) takes us to where it all started between arson investigator Anne Ashburn and ‘bad boy’ firefighter Danny Maguire. The Wedding From Hell is a sexy standalone novella that sets up Consumed's storyline, leaving fans hungry for more and dying to snatch it up.

The Wedding From Hell, Part 2: The Reception: As the wedding from hell continues, Anne and Danny find themselves walking the delicate balance between professional distance and explosive attraction. Will the desire they feel last through the night and change their lives? Or are they doomed to part after one night of passion?

My Review:

This really is the wedding from hell. It’s so obvious that it should not be happening, that everyone involved has to grit their teeth to get through it – including the bride and the groom.

But this little prequel to the author’s upcoming book Consumed does not, thank goodness (or possibly thank badness, because this wedding is really, really awful) feature the bride and groom.

Instead, it revolves around two members of the groom’s firefighting company, who are both serving as groomsmen at the wedding. They may possibly be two of the most ironic characters to serve as groomsmen, possibly ever.

Anne Ashburn isn’t actually a groomsMAN after all. But the rest of their fire company are groomsmen, so she is too. And happy to be so. She has no desire to descend into the snakepit that is the cookie-cutter bridesmaid clones – and she doesn’t fit in with the clones, either. And also thank goodness for that – because none of that bunch would make remotely sympathetic characters – although possibly bad henchwomen with the bride being the evil villainess.

I digress… just a bit.

The other groomsman featured is Danny McGuire. Unfortunately for everybody concerned, he met the bride first and made the mistake of having a one-night stand with the….hellspawn. She turned to her poor groom in order to make Danny jealous and it backfired spectacularly. Which didn’t stop her from propositioning Danny one last time the night before her wedding.

Danny turned her down. Not just because she’s marrying his friend. Not even just because she’s evil, although both of those things are certainly true. But Danny turned her down because the only woman he wants is Anne.

It seems like Anne has finally stopped fighting the epic attraction between them – or at least she’s willing to for just one night. She’s right that any relationship between them will have long-term consequences to her career and her life, and that all those consequences will fall on her.

Life isn’t fair.

But when the fire burns as hot as it does between Anne and Danny…once is never going to be enough.

Escape Rating B+: This is a direct follow up from the first prequel novella, The Wedding from Hell, the Rehearsal Dinner. The character development and situational setup are all in that first prequel, so grab that before heading to The Reception. Both novellas are short, and both are FREE, so there’s no excuse not to indulge in the whole steamy story.

Now that the prequel is finished, we get a glimpse of where the first book in the series will be going. Danny and Anne have incredibly hot chemistry, and their work partnership is so solid that they can practically read each other’s minds on the job.

They need each other, both personally and professionally. But Anne is also correct that they aren’t supposed to have both. There are rules about fraternizing within a fire company. If they want to have a relationship, one of them has to transfer to a different company.

While that sounds simple, it actually isn’t – because nothing is ever that easy. Right now, they both work in the premier company, the one that gets all the hard jobs and does all the biggest, hottest and most dangerous fires. It’s a step down for the career of whichever one transfers out.

Which would be Anne, not because she’s the woman but because she has less seniority. All of the rest of the crap that would follow would all be because she’s a woman. Once it becomes known that she is in a relationship with one firefighter, her professionalism will be questioned at every turn. She’s worked hard to get where she is, and she’s not willing to lose the respect she’s earned for good sex. Or even epically fantastic sex.

Whether they’ll be able to keep away from each other, and keep their hands off each other, when Anne runs headlong into the danger that makes up the suspense part of the first book in the Firefighters series, Consumed, is something that we will all find out in October.

After these hot, steamy teasers, I can hardly wait!

Excerpt from The Wedding from Hell: The Reception

Saturday, October 31
T minus 2 hours ’til blastoff
St. Mary’s Cathedral, New Brunswick, Massachusetts

Anne Ashburn had never had veil envy, as they called it. As a young girl, she had never pictured herself walking down an aisle in a white dress, ready to be rescued by a knight-in-shining-armor groom who was going to take charge and take care of her for the rest of her life.
Nope. Anne had wanted to fight fires like her father and then her brother. Even though she no longer respected the former, and had a strained relationship with the latter, she’d wanted to pull on turnouts and strap an air tank to her back and breathe canned air as she ran into open flames dragging hundreds of pounds of charged line with her. She’d wanted to rescue grandmothers, and children, and people who had succumbed to smoke inhalation. She’d been ready to cut open crumpled cars and drag broken bodies out of wreckage at the sides of highways. She’d been determined that the extremes of cold winter nights, hot summer days, physical exhaustion, and mental fatigue would never keep her from doing her job.
So, yup, the old fashioned Mrs. degree had never held any fascination for her. There was no way in hell she was going to be like her mother, living a derivative, nineteen-fifties version of life, nothing but a pretty blow-up doll that was expected to cook, clean, and cut the yapping.
On that note, as she pulled into St. Mary’s parking lot and looked up at the great cathedral’s stained glass windows and lofty spires, she decided it made sense that not only was she not the bride, she wasn’t even a bridesmaid.
Like the rest of the crew down at the 499 firehouse, she was a groomsmen in the impending nuptials of Robert “Moose” Miller and Deandra—what the hell was her last name anyway? Cox. That was it.
Anne was thinking groomsmen was a role she might as well get used to. Not that Duff, Emilio, Deshaun, or any of the other men she worked with were settling down anytime soon.
Especially not Dannyboy Maguire.
Right on cue, a Ford truck entered the parking lot, the late afternoon sun flashing across its windshield.
As Anne’s heart kicked in her chest, she was tempted to hustle in the side door of the church—but she had never been one to run from a challenge.
Danny was more than just a challenge, though.
And okay, fine. So maybe she had already run out of his way at least once: Last night, at the rehearsal dinner, she’d positively bolted after he’d made that speech of his.
I never believed in love . . . I thought it was just a word, a title folks gave to daydreams and misconceptions about destiny, a lie folks told to themselves to make them feel solid in this imperfect, unreliable, and mean-ass world.
Now I know it can happen between two people. And it doesn’t have to make sense because it’s not about logic. And it doesn’t have to have good timing because forever is like infinity, without beginning or end. And it doesn’t have to be defined because truth is like faith—it just is.
So, let’s toast to love.
He’d looked at her while he’d spoken. He had been talking . . . to her . . . in that slow, deep voice.
Everybody else had toasted Moose and Deandra. But Anne had known it hadn’t been about them. Danny, ever the ladies man, king of the one-night stand, he who shalt never be tied down . . . seemed to be suggesting not just that he’d had a change of heart.
But that he might have given his own to Anne.
Unless she was misreading everything? Then again, they had kissed the night before that. In her living room. While riding an adrenaline high after they’d saved a life in an alleyway.
And lips-to-lips had been better than good, the rare circumstance when reality had improved on a fantasy. After two years of attraction and sizzle and unacknowledged heat, that which had been pushed under the rug was exposed now. And there was no going back.
Especially as she felt the same way.
So hell yeah she had bolted out of that restaurant. The second she had been able to get up from her chair, she had hit the exit and left Danny without a ride home.
He’d called two hours later. He’d been in a bar, probably
Timeout where the crew always went, the noise in the background loud and raucous.
She had not answered. He had left a short message, but not called again.
Anne just wasn’t sure what to do. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. There were plenty of things she wanted to do to him, with him, on him—all of which were naked and erotic and not necessarily only horizontal.
Refocusing, she watched Danny’s truck pass by. From behind the wheel, he looked over at her.
She waited for him to find a space and get out, and as he walked across to her, she tried—tried—not to go sixteen-year-old girl at the sight of him in a tuxedo.
#epicfail
He was very tall, over six feet five, and he was built hard and muscular, his shoulders so wide, his chest so broad, his waist the point of the inverted triangle of his torso. His jet-black hair was still damp, and what sunlight there was in the mostly cloudy sky flashed blue in its depths. He was freshly shaven—his cologne reaching her nose even before he stopped in front of her—and his eyes were that brilliant blue that had always arrested her. Irish eyes.
But they were not smiling.
For a man who was rarely serious, he looked positively grim, and she frowned.
“You okay?” Stupid question. “I mean—”
“Yeah, no. I’m fine.”
Standard answer for firefighters when they were in pain. And she wondered if it had to do with that speech of his, and what she could have sworn he had been telling her.
His eyes shifted off to the side and then his mouth got thinner.
“And here’s the blushing bride.”
A stretch limo entered the parking area and made a fat turn toward the back door of the cathedral. When it stopped, its driver got out and went to the rear door.
Seven all-in-pink, spray-tanned, body-glittered, and blond-streaked women got out one by one, a clown car of bridesmaids who were such carbon copies of each other, it was like they had been ordered out of a catalogue.
And then the white dress emerged.
Deandra, Moose’s intended, had her blond-streaked hair—natch—piled up on her head in an organized, sculpted waterfall of curls. Her veil was a gossamer fall over her tiny waist and her big skirt, and the shimmer of crystals across the bodice and down the front and sides of the gown made her look like a princess.
Provided you didn’t catch her expression.
She was sour as an old woman with gout and shingles. In spite of the fact that she was supposedly marrying her true love, she looked downright nasty as she snapped at the driver, glared at her maid of honor, and yanked her skirting up to march into the back of the church.
“Wow,” Anne muttered. “That’s a happy bride.”
“Whatever. They’re on their own with this dumbass idea.”
“Did you happen to talk to Moose last night?” she blurted.
“As in out of this? Or would that be considered tacky given it was less than twenty-four hours before the priest hit the altar with them.”
Danny rolled his eyes. “He’s bound and determined to ball-and-chain himself. Personally, I’d be running in the opposite direction.”
And then there was silence between them. Tension coiled up quick, and as Anne’s temples started to pound, she decided it was going to be a long night, just not for the reasons she’d assumed at the beginning of the weekend.

Review: Bayside Heat by Melissa Foster / Sweet Heat at Bayside by Addison Cole

Bayside Heat (Bayside Summers #3) by Melissa Foster
Format read: eARC
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genre: contemporary romance
Series: Bayside Summers #3
Length: 342
Publisher: World Literary Press
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
Sweet Heat at Bayside (Sweet with Heat: Bayside Summers #3) by Addison Cole
Format read: eARC
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genre: contemporary romance
Series: Sweet with Heat: Bayside Summer #3)
Length: 324
Publisher: World Literary Press
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Fall in love at Bayside, where sandy beaches, good friends, and true love come together in the sweet small towns of Cape Cod. Bayside Summers is a series of standalone steamy romance novels featuring alpha male heroes and sexy, empowered women. They’re fun, flirty, flawed, deeply emotional, always passionate, and easy to relate to.

Drake Savage has always done the right thing, especially where beautiful and fiercely determined Serena Mallery is concerned-even when it means keeping his feelings for her to himself. Serena has always wanted more than what their small town of Wellfleet, Massachusetts has to offer, and Drake’s roots are so deeply entrenched in the Cape, it’s all he can do to watch her pack up her life and move away.

Serena has always had big dreams. As a teenager she dreamed of becoming an interior designer and marrying smart, musically inclined, sexy-as-sin Drake Savage. Now she’s finally landed a killer job with a top interior design firm, but though she has spent the last four years working side by side with Drake, he’s never made a move. Four years is long enough for her to accept reality, and her new job in Boston is the perfect way to move on.

A weak moment leads to sizzling, sensual kisses, opening a door through which they’ve both been aching to walk. But Serena’s determined not to give up her shot at the career she’s always dreamed of, and Drake has loved her for too many years to stand in her way. With true love at their fingertips and a world of unstoppable passion igniting between them, can the two star-crossed lovers find their way to their happily ever after?

My Review:

This is going to be a bit different – which is kind of ironic because I’m going to be talking about two books that are pretty much the same – but are different in some crucial ways.

Sweet Heat at Bayside by Addison Cole and Bayside Heat by Melissa Foster are the same book. Except when they’re not.

Let me explain…

Sweet Heat at Bayside, and the entire Sweet with Heat: Bayside Summers series, is the “sweet and clean” version of the story. Bayside Heat, and the entire Bayside Summers series, are the steamier and naughtier versions of the very same stories.

So first the story…

This is a really good take on the classic “friends to lovers” trope. Drake and Serena grew up together (along with all of their friends and siblings!) in the tiny town of Bayside on Cape Cod.

But not only was Drake Serena’s first crush, it seems like she never really got over it. Drake is about three years older than Serena, a gap that looms large in grade school and even high school, but now that they are in their late 20s/early 30s it no longer matters.

What does matter is that Serena has always dreamed of taking her interior design talents from tiny Bayside to the big city, meaning Boston. But when Drake started opening his chain of music shops four years ago, Serena came to help out. She’s not only designed the look and feel of all the stories, but helped Drake run both his whole operation as well as the inn that his family owns in Bayside.

She was clear from the very beginning that her work in Bayside was only temporary. And now its time for her to move on. Partly because the stores, the inn and even the local design firm that she’s been working at have all reached a point where the trail has been blazed and now it’s all just keeping on keeping on. But it’s also because as much as she wishes it were otherwise, her relationship with Drake has never moved out of the dreaded “friend zone”.

But Drake is so protective of her that even when she does date in order to try to get over her crush he doesn’t really let any other man get close. It’s obvious to Serena that in order to move on with her life on every front, she really needs to move away.

No matter how much she’s going to miss her friends, her sister, and especially Drake.

But the idea of Serena moving away finally hits Drake with the clue by four. Or another way of putting it is that now that she’s leaving, now that each dinner and each meeting is nearly the last, he discovers that he’s no longer able to hide his feelings for Serena.

No matter how “noble” he’s trying to be, and he thinks he is, he’s always loved her. He’s just never let himself show it.

At first it was because of their age gap. When he was a senior in high school, she was just a freshman. That gap is huge. When she was a senior in high school, he was in college – and away. Also a gap. The timing wasn’t right. When she came back to Bayside to work with him, they were both adults and both in the same place at the same time.

But her declaration that it was only temporary held him back. He didn’t want to get between her and her dreams. What he didn’t know was something important that Serena’s mother told her, that “what you wish for today may not be what you truly want tomorrow.”

So he never asks if she still wants that big city career more than anything else. And he never tells her how he feels. So when they finally begin breaking down the barriers between the friendship they have and the romance they both want, there’s more than a bit of confusion and anger on Serena’s side. It does feel like he’s messing with her.

But she’s committed to Boston and her new job. Over time both she and Drake become committed to figuring out how to make a long-distance relationship work. And then a miracle occurs, and they find a way to move forward so that they both get not just what they want, but what they need – and each other.

Escape Rating for Sweet Heat at Bayside: B-
Escape Rating for Bayside Heat: B+

Even though the story is the same, I think it does matter which version you read. And the steamier version just reads better. It’s not just about the sex. Actually, it’s not about the sex, per se, at all.

The series is about a group of 20- and 30- something who have mostly known each other forever, some of whom are siblings, who have met and/or recognized the love of their lives and have found their happy ever afters. Most of the ones who have paired off by the third book in the series are still newlyweds. They are all adults and there’s a fair amount of sexy talk and sexual teasing among the entire group. Both about who is and isn’t getting any, and how little anyone’s brother or sister wants to hear any details about their sibling’s sex life. It’s frequently funny and often a bit dirty and it all loses something in the translation when it has to all be toned down.

Also, one of the characters just has a potty mouth. Every time she means to drop an “f-bomb” and it’s changed to “frick” it drops me out of the story.

Part of Drake and Serena’s mutual seduction uses a lot of hot, steamy, dirty talk as foreplay. It’s as intelligent and as much fun as the eventual sex. At the point they are in their relationship, convincing themselves as well as each other that they are all in for whatever their relationship might become, seduction by words is every bit as hot as when they finally touch. It needs to be suggestive and naughty and dirty and the need to keep it sweet lets too much of the steam out of the room.

There is also one sexual encounter early in their relationship that is very sexy but does not include actual sex. It’s a scene where exactly what they did, and exactly what they didn’t, is a part of the emotional confusion between the two of them. Because the clean version can’t detail what happened, the entire scene is reduced to a single sentence – one that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense until you go back and read the steamy version.

As a friends into lovers story, Drake and Serena’s romance is a whole lot of fun to read. While they do have a lot of baggage that makes the arc of their relationship finally make sense, it’s not so heavy that it can’t be lifted with a little help from their friends. The gang as a whole has really great chemistry, so even though this is Drake and Serena’s story and we don’t see how everyone else got together, they are still a fun bunch to be with and we do get a good view of how our hero and heroine for this story fit into the whole.

And even though I haven’t read either version of the previous books in the series, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything – except that I wouldn’t mind hanging out with these folks myself. We’d all like to have a circle of friends this tight.

In summary (I know I can’t say “in short” at this point) it feels like Bayside Heat is the better and more authentic version of the story. But for those who feel like they have already read enough “f-bombs” for their lifetime the sweet version does a credible job of telling this “friends to lovers” tale with plenty of love but a bit less lust.

For this reader, the next time I’m faced with this particular dilemma, I know I’ll choose the “full Monty” version for my reading…pleasure.

Review: Entropy by Jess Anastasi + Giveaway

Review: Entropy by Jess Anastasi + GiveawayEntropy (Atrophy, #4) by Jess Anastasi
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Atrophy #4
Pages: 387
Published by Entangled Publishing on August 6, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Captain Qaelan Forster is used to trouble. He lives on the wrong side of the law and he’s on the most-wanted lists. He’s mixed up in his cousin's mess who has problems on a cosmic level—like shape-shifting aliens who want them dead. But Qaelan’s not prepared for the cheeky kind of trouble called Camille Blackstone, whose infamous father has any man interested in his daughter executed.

After Camille drags Qaelan into an impulsive act of rebellion, she finds herself trying to defend the sexy captain from her overprotective father's wrath, even if she has to handcuff herself to the captain to keep him alive. However, it soon becomes apparent there are much more dangerous things lurking in the dark corners of the universe than a vengeful pirate lord. And she's just landed in the middle of it.

My Review:

Initially Entropy has more of the feel of the Blood Hunter/Dark Desires series by Nina Croft (which are awesome BTW), or this author’s own Valiant Knox series than it does the earlier books in the Atrophy series. Then a significant part of the focus switches from Captain Qaelan Forster to his cousin Captain Rian Sherron, and we’re back at Firefly – or at least a version of Firefly where Captain Mal Reynolds and River Tam are combined into one crazy person with Mal’s dark moods and unsavory enemies along with River’s insane powers and even more insane nightmares.

And where it turns out that this universe’s version of Inara Serra has more than a bit of River Tam in her, too.

If you’re not still mourning Firefly, or if the resonances just don’t work for you, it doesn’t matter. The Atrophy series is not a clone of Firefly by any means. But if you still have a Serenity-shaped hole in your heart, it does come more than close enough to staunch that wound.

What we do have is a band of misfits and rebels out to save the galaxy from itself. Because this crew of rebels and misfits has found itself in the midst of a galaxy gone terribly, terribly wrong. We’ve been invaded, not by the usual bug-eyed monsters, but monsters nevertheless.

The Reidar are shapeshifting aliens from another galaxy who think that homo sapiens is so far from sapient that they’re using us as lab rats while impersonating key members of every planetary government in the system.

Only Rian Sherron and the crews of the Imojenna and the Ebony Winter know the threat. And Rian Sherron is out to eliminate that threat any way he can – even if that means allying with pirates and taking the Reidar out one at a time.

But Rian’s lost his ship, and his crew has been laying low in the Barbary Belt, a notorious pirate haven run by an even more notorious pirate. And that’s where the trouble begins. It’s not even Rian’s fault – at least not this time. At least it’s not all Rian’s fault.

His cousin Qaelan Forster makes the mistake of getting involved with the pirate’s daughter. Cami Blackstone. Her father has killed plenty of men for a whole lot less. Instead, he sends Qae on a wild goose chase that might get him killed – or might pay off what the pirate sees as Qae’s debt to him. Mostly the pirate sends him on a dangerous and possibly suicidal mission just to protect his own street cred. The man is, after all, a notorious pirate.

Cami has other plans. Her plans, her father’s plans, Qae’s plan to pay her daddy back, and Rian Sherron’s plans to get his ship back all collide in one big ball of wrong that might just have a chance or turning out right.

But has a much higher chance of getting them all killed. All in a day’s work for the crew of the Imojenna – even when the Imojenna herself is nowhere to be found.

Escape Rating B+: There’s a lot going on in this entry in the Atrophy series, and all of it turns out to be a rip-roaring good time. But be warned, while Atrophy is not so much like Firefly that you won’t get it if you don’t remember the show, it is very much like unto itself. This is a series where the action and the overall story build from one book to the next. So if this sounds like your kind of trip into the black, start with the first book in the series, Atrophy. (If you love SFR you’ll understand why this series has won multiple SFR Galaxy Awards.)

The relationship between Qae and Cami is a big part of this story, but not by any means all of it. They are an interesting couple. Qae is openly flirtations with anyone of any gender. Think of Captain Jack Harkess in Doctor Who and Torchwood, or the character of Reyes Vidal in the video game Mass Effect Andromeda. Qae has plenty of charisma, no humility whatsoever, and a trail of previous lovers from one end of the galaxy to the other. He doesn’t lead anyone on, but he also doesn’t leave anyone with even a chance at a piece of his heart.

Cami, on the other hand, is buttoned up tight, and with good reason. Her daddy, the pirate Rene Blackstone, has “disappeared” any guy she’s ever looked at twice. She doesn’t know whether those guys are dead or just far, far away – and she’s way too scared to find out. She’s caught in the middle, working for her father, living at home, treated like a teenager when she’s well into her 20s, and too scared to go out on her own. She’s both afraid of her father and afraid of the kind of people who will go after her in order to get at her father – and she’s right to be afraid.

Literally chaining herself to Qae is her chance, not only at rebellion, but at putting her demons to rest and making a life for herself out from underneath her father’s heavy thumb. That Qae, Rian and their crew are strong enough to stand up to her father is a big part of her reasoning.

In addition to the romance, there is also a big piece of this book that moves the overarching story forward. Rian goes after his missing ship after a year dirtside. His need to get his ship back lines up very well with the older Blackstone’s need to get back at his deadliest rival – AND – gives Cami a chance to take her life back from the bastard who stole her confidence and her innocence years ago. It’s going to take a big, bold plan with a lot of moving pieces to make good on all of the competing and conflicting agendas in play. There are so many ways it can go pear-shaped – and so many times it very nearly does.

This story feels like a turning point in Sherron’s one-man crusade against the Reidar. He finally finds a way to take the fight to them, and it’s clear that things are going to heat up – and get a whole lot bloodier, from here.

And I’m all in with his crew. I can’t wait to see what crazy twists and turns this series goes through next, as well as which crew member finds that one person in the galaxy who makes them whole – and fills an empty spot on the ship’s roster!.

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

Jess is giving away a $15 Amazon Gift Card to one lucky entrant on this tour!

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Review: The Locksmith’s Daughter by Karen Brooks

Review: The Locksmith’s Daughter by Karen BrooksThe Locksmith's Daughter by Karen Brooks
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 576
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on July 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From acclaimed author Karen Brooks comes this intriguing novel rich in historical detail and drama as it tells the unforgettable story of Queen Elizabeth's daring, ruthless spymaster and his female protégée.

In Queen Elizabeth's England, where no one can be trusted and secrets are currency, one woman stands without fear.

Mallory Bright is the only daughter of London's most ingenious locksmith. She has apprenticed with her father since childhood, and there is no lock too elaborate for her to crack. After scandal destroys her reputation, Mallory has returned to her father's home and lives almost as a recluse, ignoring the whispers and gossip of their neighbors. But Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's spymaster and a frequent client of Mallory's father, draws her into his world of danger and deception. For the locksmith's daughter is not only good at cracking locks, she also has a talent for codes, spycraft, and intrigue. With Mallory by Sir Francis’s side, no scheme in England or abroad is safe from discovery.

But Mallory's loyalty wavers when she witnesses the brutal and bloody public execution of three Jesuit priests and realizes the human cost of her espionage. And later, when she discovers the identity of a Catholic spy and a conspiracy that threatens the kingdom, she is forced to choose between her country and her heart.

Once Sir Francis's greatest asset, Mallory is fast becoming his worst threat—and there is only one way the Queen’s master spy deals with his enemies…

 

My Review:

If you like utterly absorbing, densely plotted historical fiction, then The Locksmith’s Daughter is going to open a key into your reading heart.

This story is set at a time of intense political and religious ferment. It’s also a time we think we know, the Elizabethan period of English history. In fact, a particular piece of that period, the 1580s, the time when religious persecution of Catholics was at its height, right alongside, and considerably as a result of, Catholic plots to overthrow Elizabeth and bestow the crown on some supposedly worthier Catholic monarch. (I’m not making a religious comment here, but I am doubtful that any ruler of any religious stripe could have done a better job for their country in that particular place and time than Elizabeth did for England.)

That decade includes the execution of Elizabeth’s most prominent Catholic rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as the debacle of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Well, it was certainly a debacle from the Spanish perspective. The English perspective, the one we tend to adopt here in the U.S., was that it was a resounding success for England.

History is always written by the victors.

But Elizabeth’s reign in general, and this period in particular, was also a period of political and social upheaval. And whenever there are societal changes, there are plenty of people on both sides of every issue working as hard as they can to ensure that their side is the one that comes out on top.

In other words, politics. Lots and lots of politics. And wherever there are politics, there are plenty of people manipulating events behind the scenes, both by fair means and foul.

Espionage may not be the oldest profession, but it is certainly one of the oldest. One of its foremost practitioners was either a hero or villain of this period. Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster.

Our peek into the skullduggery and machinations at the heart of Elizabeth’s reign is Mallory Bright, the titular locksmith’s daughter. This story of underhanded dealings at the centers of power – or on its shadowy fringes, is told from Mallory’s first person perspective.

For her time and place, Mallory is singular. She’s not merely the daughter of a respected locksmith, but also his unofficial apprentice, better at picking locks than even the master himself. She is also an educated woman at a time when that was not the norm. And as the story opens, she has returned to her parents’ household after her own disgraceful actions ruined her reputation and her prospects.

Mallory needs a future. Her father’s surprising friendship with Walsingham provides her with a means to make her own. With her education in languages and mathematics as well as her skill in lock-picking, Mallory is the perfect candidate to learn the art of spycraft.

At first, it is a game at which she excels. She enjoys the learning of it, and she relishes the challenge. But when the ciphers and secrets turn deadly, she discovers that her challenges come at too high a price. A price that is initially paid by others, but could all too easily be wrenched from her own heart, soul and body.

Escape Rating A: The Locksmith’s Daughter is a LOT of book. An absolutely absorbing lot, but definitely one to tackle when you either have plenty of time on your hands or are willing to forego a certain amount of sleep. Or both.

That being said, Mallory’s first-person perspective sucks the reader right in. Even though we initially know little about her circumstances, we see it all through her eyes and hear her thoughts and feel right there with her. There are two things that make Mallory an excellent first-person narrator. She’s intelligent, so she’s very thoughtful about everything that passes through her head. And she’s lonely. She has very few people to talk to, and no one to confide in. She both keeps her thoughts to herself and works them over in her own mind on a regular basis. Some first-person narrators are either not introspective or are so censorious of their own self-talk that even the view from inside their heads is limiting. Mallory is not that way. She thinks, she ponders, she considers – and we get to see it all.

It’s not just that Mallory is an easy character to empathize with, but also that what she experiences is absolutely fascinating. There are lots of stories where a big part of the story is the training of the character from apprenticeship to master. This is one where that process is done well. It’s doubly interesting to see her master the tradecraft of espionage in a way that shows just how little has changed from the 16th century to the 21st, as well as how much.

If you want to be transported back in time to Elizabethan England, The Locksmith’s Daughter is a fabulous time machine.

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