Review: The Beast Hunter by Lindsay Schopfer

Review: The Beast Hunter by Lindsay SchopferThe Beast Hunter (The Adventures of Keltin Moore, #1) by Lindsay Schopfer
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: adventure, fantasy, steampunk
Series: Keltin Moore #1
Pages: 269
Published by Createspace on May 8, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Beast hunter and local hero Keltin Moore joins a desperate campaign to save faraway Krendaria, a nation on the verge of revolution. A swarm of beasts threatens to destroy the country’s desperately needed crops, and an unprecedented team of hunters is assembled to cleanse the infested farmlands. But the grand adventure quickly becomes a desperate fight for survival as the horde of beasts seems endless and distrust among the hunters eats away at the campaign from within. In desperation, Keltin and his new friends embark on a dangerous mission into the heart of the deadly swarm, prepared to make a final stand against the oncoming beasts to try and save all of Krendaria from starvation.

My Review:

I read the second book in the Keltin Moore series, Into the North, a few months ago, and really, really enjoyed it. But it was the second book in the series, and while it did work as a standalone, there were plenty of hints to Keltin’s wider world that I wanted to explore. Hence this review of the first book in the series, which was every bit as fascinating as Into the North.

But this is a different story. And as much as Into the North reminded me of Jack London with its Gold Rush setting, The Beast Hunter does not. Instead, this one feels a bit more like fantasy or steampunk than its successor. At the same time, it feels like it could be a frontier story from our own past – albeit with a few twists and turns.

Keltin lives in a small town in an area that has a kind of frontier feeling to it. Transportation is either horse or mule or “shank’s mare” – meaning one’s own two feet. There are trains, but the town Keltin lives in is too small to have a station. And he does need to reach one.

His job is to hunt fairly fantastic beasts that are causing problems for local farmers or townsfolk, and he makes a halfway decent living at it. He’s also developed a reputation for it that has grown beyond his native Riltvin.

The story here is that his reputation has made the wider world come calling for him. There’s a huge beast infestation in far away Krendaria, and the government is looking to hire beast hunters from all over the world – for a fantastic bounty, of course – to help them contain it.

Also, unbeknownst to Keltin as he starts on his journey, to try to give the people of Krendaria a reason NOT to rebel. It’s hoped that the beasts can be beaten back before the harvest season so that farmers can go back to their farms and food can be brought in for the starving masses who are rebelling.

Some things are more possible than others.

No matter how many hunters are brought in, the supply of beasts seems endless. The patience of the rebels is much less so. But along the way, Keltin learns lessons about himself that are still taking shape in the second book.

The lone wolf hunter learns that loneliness is easy, leadership is hard, and that survival isn’t of the fittest, but of the one who learns to accept a little help from his friends, and to be one. And that two hearts might just possibly be better than one.

Escape Rating A: It’s neat to have read these in the wrong order. I enjoyed Into the North a lot, it was a terrific adventure and completely different from other things I was reading at the time and I just really liked it. It was the right book at the right time. But I was teased by the background of Keltin’s world and Keltin’s life before the point where that story begins – and now I have at least some of that backstory.

The story of The Beast Hunter is the adventure that Keltin has just returned from in Into the North – the Gold Rush location where that story takes place, is definitely to the north of Keltin’s native Riltvin.

But those names are also hints that this series does not take place on any obvious variation of the world we know. At the same time, we don’t actually know. We’re dropped into the middle of both Keltin’s life and his world. The political situation seems to be totally FUBAR, and the wildlife that Keltin hunts as a beast hunter is a whole lot wilder than anything currently or historically seen on our Earth.

So wherever and whenever Keltin’s story takes place, it isn’t here, it isn’t now, and it isn’t any then that we know of.

It does feel like Keltin’s story sits on a tricornered space between an adventure story, fantasy, and steampunk. It also feels like it would be a great book to give to someone who likes adventure stories and is curious about either of the other two genres but doesn’t want to get deep into their weeds on their first outing.

The names and histories of places like Krendaria and Malpinon hint of a wider world with a deeper history, and possibly portend a deeper dive into epic fantasy in a later story. Keltin’s world feels epic in scope, but not in the way that epic fantasy usually does. Keltin is living his life, and we see and hear what he does. His world may be big, but it maintains a human perspective, just as we live in a wider world than the parts that we experience on a daily basis. There’s no big conflict of good vs. evil. Keltin is just trying to do the best he can against certain small or medium-sized – and fairly monstrous monster-type – evils.

At the same time, both the non-humans that Keltin befriends and the beasts that he hunts clearly hint at a world not our own. But the magic that appears in the story is confined to those entities, at least so far. Humans seem to rely on tools and weapons that we’re familiar with, and in that the series feels like steampunk.

But it’s the adventure that carries the story. Keltin has come to help kill fantastic and horrible beasts that seem intent on wiping out not just the human population, but anything they can eat including each other. Keltin becomes the leader of a small band within the hunters, and does his best even as he is sure he isn’t doing a good job. His perspective, and his world, are all about surviving the next incursion and keeping himself and his men alive to fight another day.

At every stage it seems as if the entire enterprise is on the verge of collapse or extermination – whether by the rampaging beasts or by internal strife. The reader spends the entire story on the edge of their seat, wondering who will live, who will die, and whether Keltin will emerge from this whole mess with more damage than can ever be healed.

It’s a wild ride of an adventure every step of the way! So much so that I’m looking forward to reading the tale of Keltin’s third adventure, Dangerous Territory, the next time I need to escape from the everyday!

Review: The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review: The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette KowalThe Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction, space opera
Series: Lady Astronaut #2
Pages: 384
Published by Audible Studios, Tor Books on August 21st 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Mary Robinette Kowal continues the grand sweep of alternate history begun in The Calculating Stars.The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well established on the moon and looking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars. 

Of course the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, but there's a lot riding on whoever the International Aerospace Coalition decides to send on this historic - but potentially very dangerous - mission. Could Elma really leave behind her husband and the chance to start a family to spend several years traveling to Mars? And with the civil rights movement taking hold all over Earth, will the astronaut pool ever be allowed to catch up, and will these brave men and women of all races be treated equitably when they get there? 

This gripping look at the real conflicts behind a fantastical space race will put a new spin on our visions of what might have been.

My Review:

In the Yiddish of which Elma York would approve and Stetson Parker would be desperate for a translation, I am verklempt after finishing The Fated Sky, the second book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s utterly marvelous Lady Astronaut series.

I am also in tears, just as I was at the end of The Calculating Stars. Not because the story is sad, although there are plenty of sad parts amongst the adventure, but because when she waxes so marvelously lyrical about her first sight of stars in the sky over a planet after the years of occluded skies on Earth, I feel like I’m right there with her. Sharing her joy at the sight.

As well as her exhilaration at simply being on Mars. And in spite of everything that has happened to get her to that point, I wish I could see what she sees, not through her eyes, but with my own.

And my eyes are full because I know that it will never be. So I have to live vicariously through Elma York’s terrible and wondrous journey, through this series. And what a fantastic journey it is!

This series began in The Calculating Stars with a very big bang. Not THE Big Bang. More like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. In 1952 a meteor struck Earth, specifically the Chesapeake Bay, and kicked off what mathematician Dr. Elma York, with a little bit of help from her meteorologist brother Hershel, recognizes as an extinction-level event.

The water blown into the atmosphere is going to start a runaway greenhouse effect, leaving Earth completely uninhabitable in a century. Not that things aren’t going to start getting pretty awful within a decade.

So the race is on. A decade before it occurred in real history, and with a whole lot more oomph behind it, the space race slams into high gear in the 1950s instead of the 1960s, with a goal of getting at least the seedlings of colonies established elsewhere in the solar system. Specifically the moon and Mars.

Dr. Elma York, former WASP pilot, mathematician and human computer, finds herself recognized worldwide as the “Lady Astronaut” and uses her reluctant fame to get herself into the first lunar mission, in spite of resistance from pretty much everyone to even the idea of women in space.

Although how anyone thinks a colony could be established without putting women into space is anyone’s guess.

As The Fated Sky opens, the meteor strike is a decade in the past, travel between the Earth, the Lunetta Station and the Moon has become a regular event, at least for astronauts, scientists and, unfortunately for Elma, the Press.

Ten years, however, is plenty of time for the effects of the meteor to get worse, while people’s memories of the actual event are starting to fade. A century is a long time, and humans are all too often shortsighted.

It’s also plenty of time for the racism that was behind post-meteor rescue efforts to affect relocation and refugee assistance, admission to the space program and pretty much everything else. It’s not just painfully obvious that not everyone will be able to escape, but that seats on the escape vehicles will be determined by the color of people’s skin.

Tensions are high as the first Mars expedition goes through its training. “Earth First” terrorism is on the rise, budgets for the space program are shrinking, and a trip to Mars will take three years and a LOT of money that many people believe should be spend to ameliorate problems on Earth – not willing to recognize that the climate problems at least cannot truly be ameliorated, only delayed a tiny bit.

Elma hadn’t planned on going to Mars. Three years is a long time to be away from her husband, and she’s at the age where it’s either Mars or a child of their own – but not both.

But it’s a decision that is taken out of her hands when the International Aerospace Commission needs the “Lady Astronaut” and all of her perky, positive publicity to go to Mars, to bring the hearts and minds of Earth – as well as the U.S. Congress with their budgetary authority – along for the ride.

No matter how conflicted she is about the whole thing – or how much her crewmates do NOT want her along.

Escape Rating A+: The Fated Stars was every bit as beautiful, and every single bit as complex and frustrating, as The Calculating Stars. I called the story in the first book, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and they are all still here in all of their complex, human and frequently painful “glory”.

The Lady Astronaut series is alternate history, set in the 1950s and now in the early 1960s. The constant drumbeat of draining, wearing, annoying, disgusting sexism and misogyny that Elma faces at every turn will make any woman grit their teeth, scream in exasperation and roll their eyes in sympathy all at the same time. (Try it, it hurts). It also feels entirely realistic. The 1950s were awful for women. And the racism was even worse, and deadlier. The 1950s really were like that, and through Elma’s eyes we feel it and see it. We also see her struggle to grasp just how truly pervasive and horrible the racism was, because she CAN ignore it and sometimes does – and then hates herself afterwards for doing so.

At the same time, when the realization does slap her upside the head, she also wonders where those racists would put her. She looks white. But she is a Jew, and at least some of the people who hate and fear anyone non-white, include her among the people they hate. The calculus of that question is one that I am all too familiar with. It was one of the many ways I found it so very easy to get inside Elma’s head.

Which is good, because we spend the entire book inside Elma’s head. This is her story – her hopes, her fears, her dreams and her nightmares. Her desperate loneliness and need to belong, while knowing that she left everyone she belongs to and who belongs to her back on Earth. The longing in her voice is marvelously captured by the narrator of the audio, who in this case is also the author. We’re in her head and we feel with her.

The story of the actual expedition, the “intrepid explorers” cut off from home and planet, reminded me a great deal To Be Taught, If Fortunate. Particularly in the way that the group feels cut off from Earth even before (and after) they actually are, and in the ways that the small crew both does and does not bind together into a unit wrapped around their mission. Taught also does the same excellent job of telling a story of big science and remote discovery and putting it into a very human scale.

There was also a lovely bit of life imitates art imitates life circularity. In the story, Gene Roddenberry is inspired by black astronaut Florence Grey to create the character of Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, which he still produces in this alternate universe. In real life, Uhura inspired Mae Jemison to become the first black woman astronaut.

But what carries the story, at least for this reader, is the way that it takes its huge scientific story and makes it real and easy to identify with. I can feel Elma’s joy of discovery, her fear of failure, her love of complex calculations and her need to make a difference. I can participate in her love of science and her mastery of its complexity without needing to understand the details of that science. I’m in her head and I feel like I’m in her shoes. Or her Mars boots, as the case may be.

Just as with The Calculating Stars, I’m trying to keep from squeeing and I’m failing. Happily and miserably.

I loved The Fated Sky every bit as much as I did The Calculating Stars. And I can’t wait for The Relentless Moon, coming in July. And I’m hoping that the author will return for another turn behind the narrator’s microphone, because she’s just awesome at it.

Review: Sisters by Choice by Susan Mallery

Review: Sisters by Choice by Susan MallerySisters by Choice (Blackberry Island, #4) by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Series: Blackberry Island #4
Pages: 400
Published by Mira on February 11, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the
New York Times
bestselling author of
California Girls
comes an all new original Blackberry Island novel told with Susan Mallery's trademark humor and charm.
Sisters by Choice
is a heartfelt tale of love, family and the friendships that see us through.


Cousins by chance, sisters by choice...

After her cat toy empire goes up in flames, Sophie Lane returns to Blackberry Island, determined to rebuild. Until small-town life reveals a big problem: she can't grow unless she learns to let go. If Sophie relaxes her grip even a little, she might lose everything. Or she might finally be free to reach for the happiness and love that have eluded her for so long.

Kristine has become defined by her relationship to others. She's a wife, a mom. As much as she adores her husband and sons, she wants something for herself--a sweet little bakery just off the waterfront. She knew changing the rules wouldn't be easy, but she never imagined she might have to choose between her marriage and her dreams.

Like the mainland on the horizon, Heather's goals seem beyond her grasp. Every time she manages to save for college, her mother has another crisis. Can she break free, or will she be trapped in this tiny life forever?

My Review:

I picked this book because I generally enjoy Susan Mallery’s explorations of small-town sisterhood, whether those sisters are by blood or by choice. In this particular story it’s a little bit of both. And I also chose it because I was part of an Excerpt Tour for the book a couple of weeks ago, and the teaser was more than enough to make me want to read the story!

I’d say this was a story about three women whose lives have gone off the rails, but that’s not quite right. As the story opens Sophie’s life has just gone spectacularly off the rails – and up in flames. Kristine’s life is about to go off the rails, and she just doesn’t know it yet. Heather’s life, however, has never been ON the rails, so it can’t actually go off those rails. The issue in Heather’s life is that she has been letting someone else drive her train and it’s not working for her. It’s doubtful if it’s even working for them.

Sophie, Kristine and Heather are cousins who all grew up in the little town of Blackberry Island. Sophie and Kristine grew up together, but Heather is kind of a half-generation behind them. Her mother was closer to Sophie and Kristine in age, but much further from them in spirit.

The three are also at different points in their lives when everything goes completely pear-shaped. Sophie’s business empire has just gone up in flames, Kristine’s marriage runs into tsunami-sized waves and Heather is just plain drowning.

In a strange way, all of their troubles end up wrapped around the issue of control. Sophie, restarting from scratch, doesn’t want to acknowledge that she cannot do every single job in her business and still lead and grow the business. She has to learn to let go enough to trust people to do their jobs, and to trust that people who promise to be there for her will be.

Kristine, on the other hand, in the course of her 16-year marriage has ceded all control to her husband. He gets everything he wants, and she gives in whenever there is any conflict between them. But now that their three sons are growing up, she knows it’s time for her to finally reach for some dreams of her own, a bakery business that she has planned for years but the time has never been right to execute – until now. Only to have the entire thing explode in her face when her husband turns Neanderthal and leaves rather than let her have anything of her own.

Meanwhile, Heather feels trapped. She’s 20 years old and working 4 jobs to support herself and her mother. Her mother isn’t even 40 year, perfectly healthy and refuses to either hold down a job or even begin to see that mooching off her daughter and being completely unwilling to lift a finger to do anything except spend more money is only working for her. But then, Amber twists every situation to make herself the victim. In order to save herself, Heather needs to bring her courage to the sticking point and just leave – before she ends up just like her mother.

The fire at Sophie’s business brings Sophie back home to start again. Her return to Blackberry Island sets events in motion. Where all three women will be in terms of their lives, their personal relationships and their relationship with each other by the time that Sophie is back on her feet provides the tension through the entire book.

It is terrific watching them all find their way – especially because the ways that they are all different pull them together.

Escape Rating B: Reading Sisters by Choice felt a bit like watching three snowballs roll down the hill, picking up speed, along with plenty of grass and twigs, as they go. And then, at the halfway point, one by one those snowballs start to brake. Until they each suddenly get a grip on their trajectory, and somehow learn to ski like an Olympic gold medal contender.

The first half of this book was a hard read. I felt for all of the characters and all of their lives are going to hell in a handcart in ways that felt very familiar. I wanted them all to get better, but I didn’t enjoy suffering through their pain. And it was extremely painful.

Heather’s situation was the hardest. She’s in so deep, and there’s just no hope. Her mother is not going to change and the situation is not going to get better. Heather’s only choices are leaving and drowning, and we’re not sure until near the end which she is going to choose. (Someone I know had a mother just like hers, and there are just no other options. You can only save yourself because the other person does not want to be saved and doesn’t even see the need to be saved. They’re doing just fine because you’re doing all the work and they’re perfectly happy with that arrangement no matter how much they complain.)

Kristine’s situation felt equally awful. She wants to open a bakery. She’s been selling baked goods for years, every weekend, to the tourist venues around town, and she has all the business she can handle without professional sized ovens and equipment. Her sons are all between 10 and 14, so while they still need her, they don’t NEED her the way they did when they were all under 5. But when her husband refuses to even listen to her, let alone support her dreams the way she’s always supported his, she is forced to acknowledge that she’s always been the one to give in and she just can’t anymore. Marriage is supposed to be 50/50, but she’s been giving both 50s for way too long. But standing up for herself is hard. Necessary, but damn difficult every step of the way.

Sophie has the easiest time, and it’s still difficult. But most of her wounds feel self-inflicted. She’s a control freak who can’t let go – and she needs to. But it’s a hard lesson. In the end, it feels like she learns more from the two pregnant cats – and their kittens – that she fosters than she does from any of the humans who keep trying to tell her that she can’t and shouldn’t do it all. And that’s OK. Part of Sophie’s frenetic pace is to keep her from grieving for the cat who saw her through college and was the foundation of her business. It takes Lily and Mrs. Bennett to clue her in that life goes on, even after a loss, or two, or all ten of their kittens off to furever homes.

In the end, these three women build a stronger relationship with each other and find their completely different versions of happy. Heather spreads her wings towards college and freedom. Kristine and her husband repair their marriage on a more equal footing. And Sophie, along with Lily and Mrs. Bennett, make their home with a man who loves them as they are and has no intention of changing them.

And that’s just the way it should be.

The beginning of this one was rough, but the way it turned around at the halfway makes me want to go back and read the previous books in the series, starting with Barefoot Season. The next time I want to spend some quality time in a lovely place with interesting people and just the right amount of drama and romance!

Review: Wild Wild Rake by Janna MacGregor + Giveaway

Review: Wild Wild Rake by Janna MacGregor + GiveawayWild, Wild Rake (The Cavensham Heiresses #6) by Janna MacGregor
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Cavensham Heiresses #6
Pages: 368
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on February 25, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


Her first marriage was an epic failure.

Lady Avalon Warwyck never did love her husband. Arrogant, selfish, and cruel, it’s a blessing when she’s widowed and left to raise her son all by herself. Finally, Avalon can live freely and do the work she loves: helping fallen women become businesswomen. She’s lived these past ten years with no desire to remarry―that is, until Mr. Devan Farris comes to town.


Can he convince her to take another chance at happily ever after?

Devan Farris―charming vicar, reputed rake, and the brother of Avalon’s son’s guardian―is reluctantly sent to town to keep tabs on Avalon and her son. Devan wishes he didn’t have to meddle in her affairs; he’s not one to trod on a woman’s independent nature and keen sense of convictions. But she’ll have nothing to do with vicar with a wild reputation―even though he’s never given his heart and body to another. If only he could find a way to show Avalon who he really is on the inside―a good, true soul looking for its other half. But how can prove that he wants to love and care for her. . .until death do they part?

My Review:

Avalon Warwick’s marriage showed just how much grit was hidden under the glitter of the Regency. Her parents sold her in marriage to a man who absolutely despised her, to the point where he put his mistress in her place and exiled her to his country estate with as little money as he could indecently get away with.

All the while spreading stories around town that painted her as a cold, waspish spendthrift who left him. He ruined her reputation among the ton in every possible way except sexual, as he claimed she was much too cold to want any man in her bed.

But the only time their marriage was consummated left her with his son and heir, so when he died she received enough to maintain them, raise her son, and start an extremely charitable foundation in the village he exiled her to.

So things stand until the story opens, when the young Marquis is rising 10 and his male guardian, her late, unlamented husband’s friend, decrees that the boy should go to Eton as soon as he’s ready. Which in Avalon’s mind will be never.

The man he sends to tutor Thane is his brother Devan, a vicar known for his libertine ways. Devan’s job is to become the parish priest, tutor the boy in anything he might be lacking, and discover just exactly where Avalon is getting the money to set up and maintain that charitable foundation.

He’s happy to do the tutoring, but refuses the spying. Not that Avalon isn’t perfectly aware of why he’s been sent. She just thinks she can make him a better offer financially, to either turn him to her side or drive him away.

But her son wants to go to Eton. And he wants a father. He’s willing to manipulate events to keep Devan around as both tutor and father so he can go to Eton and not leave his mother lonely.

Devan discovers that he is surprisingly onboard with that plan. At least until fate steps in and makes a hash of everything, including the tenuous but surprising romance between Devan and Avalon.

Escape Rating B: This was definitely a mixed-feelings read for me, and it’s going to be a mixed feelings review.

This was a very hard book to read after the two previous books this week. Why? Because both of those featured heroines with a LOT of agency in situations where they could, or were forced to, exercise that agency at every turn.

Avalon, on the other hand, is in a situation where she needs agency and wants it badly but is forced at pretty much every turn to confront how little she has truly managed to claw out of the hands of the men who are legally able to control her life.

Not that she hasn’t done a damn good job carving out a fiefdom as best as she can, and not that she is not administering said fiefdom extremely well when the story begins, but the tension that underpins the eventual romance is the fact that Devan’s brother can take Avalon’s son away from her whenever he wants, and that Devan was sent by his brother to provide a pretext for that taking.

He doesn’t actually need such a pretext, but he’s trying to be a “gentleman” about it. GRRRR.

So the situation in this story gave me a screaming fit. At the same time, I finished the book at 2 in the morning because I wanted to see how the author resolved the romantic dilemma. Which means that the book is plenty well written, just that I’m not the audience for it.

But for readers who can get past or ignore the harsh realities that underlie Avalon’s situation, there’s a lovely romance between a woman who has done her very best to stand firmly on her own two feet and help as many other women as possible to rise with her and a man who appears to be one thing and is actually something entirely different.

Both Avalon and Devan do a very successful job of putting up a strong front – one that hides their equally soft and gooey centers. They are, after all, made for each other. Watching them figure that out was definitely the fun part of the story.

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

I’m giving away a copy of Wild, Wild Rake to one lucky US commenter on this tour!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

TLC
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Review: Hell Squad Survivors by Anna Hackett

Review: Hell Squad Survivors by Anna HackettHell Squad: Survivors (Hell Squad #19) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: dystopian, science fiction romance
Series: Hell Squad #19
Pages: 222
Published by Anna Hackett on February 11th, 2010
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

In the aftermath of a deadly alien invasion, a band of survivors fights on…

Survivors contains three action-packed novellas in the Hell Squad series.

Includes:

Nate – Long before the aliens invaded, former Marine Nate Caldwell came home a broken man. Going off-grid in a cabin he inherited in Australia’s Blue Mountains, he survived the invasion with only his dog Blue for company. For two years, he’s avoided the aliens and any survivors – he’s done his fighting and can’t go into battle again. But when a young woman crashes into his lonely existence, with the aliens hot on her heels, she changes everything…

Dak – Captain Dak Vaughn only has room for his job as head of security for Groom Lake Base. His focus has to be on keeping all the survivors alive, and not on the tough, attractive new recruit who gets under his skin. But when a dangerous mission requires them to go deep into alien territory, Dak finds himself up close and personal with a woman who is pure temptation.

Alexander – Marine engineer turned base leader, Alexander Erickson, leads a tiny base of survivors in the snowy climes of Norway. Balancing the needs and safety of his group keeps him busy, and he longs for someone to share the load, someone to call his own. The one independent woman he wants refuses to see him as anything more than a leader and a younger man. But when mysterious alien activity encroaches on their safety, they will join forces to investigate and Alexander might finally have his chance.

My Review:

Survivors is, OMG thank you Anna so much, the next-to-last book in the Hell Squad series, which began all the way back with Marcus back in 2015. I think more real world time has elapsed since that first book than has world time within the series.

Although the world of Hell Squad has certainly had one hell of a worse time than the real world has, in spite of everything awful that has happened since 2015.

Why? Because we haven’t been invaded by rapacious alien insectoids intent on stripping the Earth of its resources and converting the entire population, both human and animal, into more of their kind.

The Gizzida are basically space locusts with much too high an IQ. They are unfortunately way too good at conquering and consuming their way across the galaxy. And now they’re here.

The Hell Squad series has been a race against time from the very beginning. The Gizzida plan to strip the planet and move on, leaving nothing behind them. The remaining human population has been waging a constant guerrilla war to slow the aliens down long enough to either kill them all, shove them back into space, or preferably both.

That race is now down to the wire, as the Gizzida are building three superbombs filled with their DNA. They plan to deploy those bombs in a coordinated strike, blanketing Earth in their genetic material and converting the remaining population in one exceedingly fell swoop.

The story in Survivors is all about the human survivors plan to thwart them.

But those bombs are distributed around the globe, and so are the novellas in this collection, giving readers a chance to finally see some of the action happening in the human enclaves outside of Australia where the series so far has been set.

We do start “down under” with the kind of person we know must have existed but haven’t seen much of. Most of the survivors have banded together in The Enclave, under the protection of as many of the United Coalition Armed Forces as could make their way to the base. But some lone wolves would have managed to survive in remote locations far away from either the aliens or the protective squads.

Nate’s story is that of one of those isolated survivors, a man who left his war behind before the aliens invaded, and stayed on his own because he felt too damaged to return to any fight. His peace is invaded by a courageous woman escaping from an alien experimentation lab with the Gizzida hot on her heels. But Ali has seen one of those terrible bombs, and its location has to reach The Enclave at any cost.

Speculation has placed the second bomb in North America, and it’s up to the security forces at Groom Lake (that’s Area 51) to locate its hiding place. Meanwhile, the third bomb is hidden by the snow and ice of Norway, and it’s the job of the their base leader to dig up its location so the humans can enact their plans before the Gizzida can complete theirs.

Escape Rating A-: I liked Survivors a lot, more than many of the recent entries in the series, for a whole bunch of reasons.

One reason is that we got to see some things we haven’t seen before. While both Groom Lake and Setermoen Base have been mentioned before in the series, we hadn’t had a chance to go there until now.

Second, I loved that the romances were different from each other, and that two of them were different from the usual pattern in this series. Nate, as mentioned above, is a lone wolf survivor. While he’s very much the kind of damaged, scarred soldier as the men who make up the squads, the shattering of his fragile peace by Ari allows him to reconnect with the rest of humanity.

Liv, in the third story, is a solitary who visits the Setermoen Base for supplies but prefers to live on her own. So not as lone wolf as Nate but also not as “part of the tribe” as the protagonists of the other story. I liked that the leader of her base was an engineer, not a soldier, and that he had managed to save most of his extended family, so he has connections to parents and siblings that most people in the other bases no longer have. And I always love an older women/younger man romance when it is done well, and this one is.

Also, both Nate and Liv have marvelous canine companion animals.

While Dak and Naomi’s romance in the Groom Lake story did follow a similar pattern to many of the romances in this series, their high-stakes, high-wire exploration of and escape from Hoover Dam was terrific.

And in all three cases, the stories moved the overall series plot forward by leaps and bounds. They’ve found all the bombs. They have allies to work with, and time to finalize their plans and kick the Gizzida off Earth once and for all.

That’s a story I’ve been waiting for since 2015, and it’s finally here. The next book in the series, Tane’s story, will be the last. The human survivors will get to celebrate their very own Independence Day this summer. And I can’t wait.

Review: The Fate of the Tala by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: The Fate of the Tala by Jeffe KennedyThe Fate of the Tala (Uncharted Realms #5) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy romance
Series: Uncharted Realms #5
Pages: 398
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on February 4th, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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An Uneasy Marriage,
An Unholy Alliance.

The tales tell of three sisters, daughters of the high king. The eldest, a valiant warrior-woman, conquered her inner demons to become the high queen. The youngest, and most beautiful outlived her Prince Charming and found a strength beyond surface loveliness.

And the other one, Andi? The introverted, awkward middle princess is now the Sorceress Queen, Andromeda—and she stands at the precipice of a devastating war.

As the undead powers of Deyrr gather their forces, their High Priestess focuses on Andi, undermining her at every turn. At the magical barrier that protects the Thirteen Kingdoms from annihilation, the massive Dasnarian navy assembles, ready to pounce the moment Andi’s strength fails. And, though her sisters and friends gather around her, Andi finds that her husband, Rayfe, plagued with fears over her pregnancy, has withdrawn, growing ever more distant.

Fighting battles on too many fronts, Andi can’t afford to weaken, as she’s all that stands between all that’s good in the world and purest evil.

For Andi, the time to grow into her true power has come. . .

My Review:

Once upon a time, there was a story about three sisters. The daughters of a mad king and his foretold (and foretelling) queen. But soothsayers, especially true ones, always fare badly – just ask Cassandra. In the end, Queen Salena went mad and died, before her time but not before she had fulfilled her purpose.

Once upon a time, even longer ago than the first story, there was a story about an innocent young woman, betrayed by her parents, abused by her husband, and saved by her baby brother with a little bit of help from a warrior priestess.

The story of those three princesses, the sorceress Andromeda, the beautiful Amelia and the warrior Ursula, was told as the three parts of The Twelve Kingdoms, where Andi was swept away by a sorcerer king, Ami loved and lost her prince charming, and Ursula took her father’s throne as well as his life.

Through all of their trials and tribulations, the sisters fought against the dead minions of the Priestess of Deyrr, and the machinations of the voracious Drasnarian empire.

That young abused woman was once a Drasnarian princess. She escaped and fled to a faraway land where her former family could not reach her – not through the ranks of the elephants who came to guard her and the people she came to call hers. Her story was told in the Chronicles of Drasnaria.

But the baby brother who helped rescue his sister the former Drasnarian princess grew up to become the mercenary leader who captured the heart of the Warrior Queen Ursula, tying the two stories, and all of their peoples, together.

Throughout the followup to The Twelve Kingdoms, The Uncharted Realms Andi, Ami and Ursula, now queens with lands of their own to rule, found themselves fighting the deeply entrenched tendrils of that High Priestess they first defeated in their father’s throne room.

The Fate of the Tala is the climax to this entire 12-book saga, and it is an epic and stunning conclusion to everything that has come before it.

The series ends, as it began all the way back in The Mark of the Tala five years ago, with the magical kingdom of Annfwn, once the tiny keeper of all of the magic in the world. Andi married Rayfe, the King of Annfwn, to protect the precious heartstone that controlled that magic. A control that has been under attack since long before the sisters were born. An attack that their birth was intended to finally defeat.

If they can. If Andi can let herself embrace all of the power that could be at her command, without giving way to the doubts and fears that have plagued her all her life. And without giving in to the insidious voice of the High Priestess who has planted so many of those fears in order to exploit them now, at the climax of it all.

But the visions of the future that Andi has seen show her the defeat of all she loves and the loss of all she holds dear. She fears can only save the kingdoms only at the cost of her heart and soul. A cost that she only thinks she is willing to pay.

Escape Rating A+: The Fate of the Tala is the shattering conclusion of an epic long in the making – and the reading. And as the conclusion of such an epic, the depths of which I have barely hinted at above, it needs to be read as the conclusion to either a long and lush reading binge or, as I did, years of waiting with bated breath for the next installment in the series.

One of the things that I love about this series, and this is every bit as true for this entry as the others, is that these women, their stories, their kingdoms, their worlds, are complex and beautiful and sometimes terrible in that beauty. Many of their stories walk through very dark places, and we feel their pain, deeply and even heartbreakingly.

So it is in The Fate of the Tala. Andi is assaulted on all sides by the fears that have plagued her all her life – and those fears are so very real. She is pregnant and fears that her husband no longer loves her, wants her, or values her as a partner. She knows that they were fated to marry, whether they loved each other or not, and while she has come to love him desperately it seems that his mask of caring has slipped.

More importantly, he no longer seems to trust her as his co-ruler, meaning that she cannot trust him as hers. Their kingdom, their world is in a desperate fight for its life, a fight that is centered on their kingdom. The division at their very heart could be the crack that destroys them all.

As readers, we can see what is wrong, and we both empathize with Andi and desperately want her to be able to repair the breach, even as we understand that she must do what is right for her people above all, and that the breach may not be repairable – and neither may be her marriage or her husband. And yet she shoulders on.

At the same time, this is also a story about desperation and struggle and hope and fear and pulling together against all the odds. And it’s a story about finding sisterhood and family and hope in even the darkest and most desperate of times.And that last stands do not have to be the last – or actually even a stand, and that sometimes the way to win it all is to let it all go.

If you love fantasy romance and/or epic fantasy tinged with romance, you owe it to yourself to begin with The Mark of the Tala and immerse yourself in a beautifully created and fantastically detailed world. This series is epic in scope and marvelous in detail. If you’re looking for a sweeping heroines’ journey this series can’t be beat.

Although I’d love to see the author try, with more heroines and even more fantastic worlds.

Review: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Review: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah GaileyUpright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, LGBT, science fiction
Pages: 176
Published by Tor.com on February 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In Upright Women Wanted, award-winning author Sarah Gailey reinvents the pulp Western with an explicitly antifascist, near-future story of queer identity.

"That girl's got more wrong notions than a barn owl's got mean looks."

Esther is a stowaway. She's hidden herself away in the Librarian's book wagon in an attempt to escape the marriage her father has arranged for her--a marriage to the man who was previously engaged to her best friend. Her best friend who she was in love with. Her best friend who was just executed for possession of resistance propaganda.

The future American Southwest is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.

My Review:

I was expecting this to remind me of the stories of the Pack Horse Library Project, stories like The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek and The Giver of Stars. And it certainly feels like Upright Women Wanted was at least partially inspired by that history.

What I wasn’t expecting was the crossing with The Handmaid’s Tale (which I confess I STILL have not read) or a reversal of The Gate to Women’s Country, especially in a setting that reminds me of even more surprisingly American War and Junkyard Cats. A future that is so FUBAR that the means and standards of living have gone backwards, because war is hell and the entire country is being sacrificed to it one bit at a time.

There’s also a heaping helping of George Orwell’s 1984 to add to the mix, but in a really subversive way. In the world of the Upright Women, Big Brother doesn’t actually need to watch everyone all the time. The propaganda of the ubiquitous and extremely carefully curated “Approved Materials” has created a society where “Big Brother” has been more or less successfully uploaded into each individual’s own brain without them being consciously aware of it.

What makes this story so fascinating is the way that its protagonist, Esther, is such a marvelously conflicted example of all of the ways in which those Approved Materials both have and have not taken – and what she does about it.

Esther is queer in a world where the only stories she sees about women like herself are stories where people like her, or people who are in any way different from the accepted world order, are punished or dead or mostly punished and dead.

She’s fled her town after being on the sharply pointed receiving end of one such object lesson. Her best friend and lover has been hung, by Esther’s own father – the local sheriff – for having been caught in possession of Unapproved Materials. Reading anything not approved by the state is a hanging offense.

While Esther is still “safe” for certain select values of safe, she is all too aware of the writing on her wall. She can hide what she is and pretend to be subservient to the man her father has picked out for her – or she can run. Everything she has read has led her to believe that she will come to a bad end no matter what she does, but at least if she runs she might not bring the consequences of her supposed evil to her town.

And she might have a chance to atone for her “sins”. So she smuggles herself aboard the Librarians’ wagon, believing that in their service she will find a way to live and serve the state without being put in the way of the temptation she can’t make herself resist.

But the Librarians are nothing like what she thought they were, nothing like what all the Approved Materials that she has read, that the Librarians themselves have brought to her town, have led her to believe.

They say that the truth will set you free. The truth certainly sets Esther free. But first she has to learn to recognize it for herself.

Escape Rating A-: There’s a part of me that found this story to be just a bit of a tease. This is a novella, so it is relatively short. The points of the story are sharp, laser-focused even, but we don’t ever find out how this future version of our world got to be the way it is, or even much in the way of details of exactly how it is – even though it feels like a not-too-far-out-there possibility from where we’re standing. But I always want to know more about how things ended up this way. I’d love to revisit this world to learn more.

But even though I didn’t get to learn the history lessons of this place, the story still has plenty to teach.

The first lesson of this story is never to mess with librarians. And that’s a fantastic lesson to learn – or so says this librarian. I’m also terribly glad that this lesson about librarians is all about the subversive nature of information. And the way that these librarians are using the appearance of conforming to participate in a revolution. Or at least a rebellion.

So yes, this is a story about a plucky resistance versus at least a repressive empire if not a completely evil one. As far as we know, there’s no Palpatine here, just a whole lot of people going along to get along to keep themselves safe. There’s just no place for anyone who can’t move in the proper lockstep and the punishment for not marching in step is death.

The second lesson is about not believing what you read. Instead of “trust, then verify” the lesson is “verify, then trust”. And to always examine everything you see and hear and read to figure out why you’re being told what you’re being told and who benefits from you believing it. Because it usually isn’t you. And no one can say that this particular lesson doesn’t have a hell of a lot of applicability in the here and now.

The most important lesson is the one about self-acceptance. Esther goes from believing that she must be evil because that’s what she’s always been taught, to accepting that she is who she is meant to be, and that who she loves is her right. And that she has every right to fight for who and what she wants and that those horrible lessons that the state tried to install are not the truth of her – not at all.

And while that lesson of self-acceptance is explicitly about queer self-acceptance, there’s a lesson there for all of us, particularly those of us living while female. Because society has boxes for all us, and those boxes don’t fit a lot of us in all sorts of ways. Accepting that not being the kind of woman that society seems determined to force us to be is an important but necessary lesson we all need to hear – a hell of a lot more often than we do.

Review: Golden in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Golden in Death by J.D. RobbGolden in Death (In Death, #50) by J.D. Robb
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, romantic suspense, suspense
Series: In Death #50
Pages: 400
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In the latest thriller in the #1 New York Times bestselling series, homicide detective Eve Dallas investigates a murder with a mysterious motive―and a terrifying weapon.

Pediatrician Kent Abner received the package on a beautiful April morning. Inside was a cheap trinket, a golden egg that could be opened into two halves. When he pried it apart, highly toxic airborne fumes entered his body―and killed him.

After Eve Dallas calls the hazmat team―and undergoes testing to reassure both her and her husband that she hasn’t been exposed―it’s time to look into Dr. Abner’s past and relationships. Not every victim Eve encounters is an angel, but it seems that Abner came pretty close―though he did ruffle some feathers over the years by taking stands for the weak and defenseless. While the lab tries to identify the deadly toxin, Eve hunts for the sender. But when someone else dies in the same grisly manner, it becomes clear that she’s dealing with either a madman―or someone who has a hidden and elusive connection to both victims.

My Review:

I wanted to read about someone righteously kicking ass and taking names. And that is absolutely what I got. And it was awesome.

Golden in Death was also a bit of a welcome throwback to earlier books in the series. While there is, as always, plenty of romantic action between Eve and Roarke, the focus in this OMG 50th book in the series was on the murder and the hunt for the murderer.

So, this is a compelling narrative about an experienced detective and her kick-ass team of cops and technicians on the trail of an inventive but cold-blooded killer, with an appropriately righteous takedown at the end.

In the fairy tale, the goose is supposed to lay the golden eggs – not commit murder with them. But that’s just what happens in this convoluted case that starts with the murders of seemingly unrelated people in the present, but hearkens back to a past that someone has never forgotten – or let go of.

This is also a case about privilege, the privilege of being rich, young, white and indulged at every turn. It’s about feeling the entitlement of revenge against anyone and everyone who interfered with that privilege and that entitlement, no matter how long ago. And it’s about believing that the rules don’t apply to you – because that’s what your privilege has encouraged you to believe.

It’s also about running your privilege straight into the sights of Eve Dallas and the Homicide Division of the NYPSD. Because once that entitlement led to murder, all of the victims were hers to stand for – until she made sure that the perpetrator marched into a cage.

Righteously – just as it should be. That she gets to serve that justice with extreme prejudice is fantastic icing on a very tasty book, and case, and cake.

Escape Rating A-: I’ve often said that I read this series just to visit with all my friends, the found family that has come to surround Eve and Roarke. This particular entry in the series also reminded me that one of the things I love about this series is that it is basically “competence porn”, which I also enjoy very much.

By “competence porn” I mean that everyone involved on the side of the angels – or at least on the side of the NYPSD, are the best of the best at their jobs. Even the ones like Chief Tech Dickie Berenski (almost always referred to as “Dickhead”), who may have horrible personalities but are fantastic at their jobs, no matter how much they complain about said jobs or how much they have to be bribed to do those jobs expeditiously.

I also read the series for Galahad, Eve and Roarke’s very large and extremely spoiled cat. Even in the future, cats are still cats, and Galahad is a perfect example of that.

But the emphasis on the case in this one, and that the case does not in any way tie back to any of the many, many traumas in either Eve’s or Roarke’s pasts made this entry a nostalgic cut above many recent books in the series.

The murderer is suitably deadly, slimy and smart but not quite smart enough. The dialog between Eve and her motley crew zips and zings along, provoking a frequent chuckle and an occasional outright laugh – just as it should. And the scene where Eve and Peabody confront that formerly smirking murderer in the interview box was perfect and deserved and perfectly deserved.

Job well done. Case closed. And I have Shadows in Death (sounding creepy and ominous) to look forward to in September.

Review: Back in Black by Rhys Ford

Review: Back in Black by Rhys FordBack in Black (McGinnis Investigations, #1) by Rhys Ford
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: LGBT, mystery, suspense
Series: McGinnis Investigations #1
Pages: 200
Published by Dreamspinner Press on February 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

There are eight million stories in the City of Angels but only one man can stumble upon the body of a former client while being chased by a pair of Dobermans and a deranged psycho dressed as a sheep.

That man is Cole McGinnis.

Since his last life-threatening case years ago, McGinnis has married the love of his life, Jae-Min Kim, consulted for the LAPD, and investigated cases as a private detective for hire. Yet nothing could have prepared him for the shocking discovery of a dead, grandmotherly woman at his feet and the cascade of murders that follows, even if he should have been used to it by now.

Now he’s back in the dark world of murder and intrigue where every bullet appears to have his name on it and every answer he digs up seems to only create more questions. Hired by the dead woman’s husband, McGinnis has to figure out who is behind the crime spree. As if the twisted case of a murdered grandmother isn’t complicated enough, Death is knocking on his door, and each time it opens, Death is wearing a new face, leaving McGinnis to wonder who he can actually trust.

My Review:

Once upon a time, there was a book titled Dirty Kiss, in which ex-LAPD-turned-private-investigator Cole McGinnis investigated the case of a cheating wife who put the sex in sexagenarian – with leather on it. Also a whip and thigh-high boots, because the lady wasn’t merely cheating on her husband, she was cheating on him as a dominatrix for hire. When Cole discovered her shenanigans, she came after him with a shotgun – and almost got him.

Fast forward a few years. Cole is now happily married to the man he met during the course of that first book. They’ve been good years – and they’ve also been fairly peaceful years for Cole, Jae and their friends and family.

When Cole trips over the leather-clad corpse of that senior-citizen dominatrix while running from two dobermans and a guy in a sheep costume who has just been caught in flagrante delicto in an abandoned house, Cole’s peace is definitely at an end. And not just because he needs brain bleach to remove the image of the sheep chasing him with his “flagrante” flopping out of the front of that sheep suit.

Cole feels an obligation to Adele Brinkerhoff and her husband Arthur. The original case was resolved satisfactorily for all concerned, but it did, in a very roundabout way, bring him to Jae and his current happiness.

And no one else is going to get justice for the old lady. Not just because of the spill of manufactured diamonds next to her corpse, but because her past is even shadier than her previous moonlighting as a dominatrix would suggest.

But even before Cole takes on the case, his peace is shattered – along with the victim’s house and the victim’s husband. When the assailant starts shooting up the neighborhood, including Cole and his friend and brother-in-law Bobby Dawson, Cole becomes even more determined to get to the bottom of a case that seems to be every bit as weird as the first time he tangled with Adele and Arthur Brinkerhoff all those years ago.

And even more deadly.

Escape Rating A+: I absolutely adored this book. To the point where I’m desperately trying not to just sit here and squee for endless pages. But that’s not particularly informative – dammit.

Part of my glee about this book is just how much fun it is to see Cole, Jae and all their friends and family – found and otherwise – again. Especially Jae’s cat Neko, who is the cattest cat who ever catted.

But in all seriousness, something that is difficult to maintain in the face of the truly unbelievable messes that Cole gets himself into, the arc of Cole’s first series left everyone in a good place and came to a cathartic and well-earned resolution. I didn’t expect to see them back, but I’m so happy to see them back.

(You don’t need to read the first series to get into Back in Black – although that first series is wonderful. But seriously, Back in Black is the start of a new series, and it has a different feel to the first one. However, Cole does an excellent job of providing enough backstory info as it goes to get new readers into his life and his world, and to get series fans caught up on anything they might have forgotten.)

Enough time has passed between the end of the final book in that series, Dirty Heart, that life has moved on, mostly for the better, for Cole and Jae and their circle. The biggest change is that Cole and Jae have been married for a few years. (That story is told in the blog tour for Back in Black and began here at Reading Reality last week.) It’s not just Cole and Jae that have found their HEA – Cole’s brother Ichi and his friend Bobby (the protagonists of Down and Dirty) have also married, making Cole and Bobby brothers-in-law to the surprise of them both, if not necessarily to the delight of either of their husbands.

Because Cole and Bobby tend to lead each other into trouble, including gun-toting would-be assassins, and that’s just what happens in Back in Black.

But unlike the previous series, which leaned more towards romantic suspense, Back in Black and the McGinnis Investigations series fall firmly onto the mystery side of that suspense. Cole starts by doing a security check for a friend-of-a-friend (Rook Stevens from Murder and Mayhem) and literally trips over a former client’s dead body – while being chased by the sheep and the dobermans.

From that hilarious but inauspicious beginning, the case and the story are off to the races. It’s up to Cole, along with his police contact Dell O’Byrne, to determine not just whodunnit but also why it was done. An investigation which seems to be a mystery wrapped in an enigma and covered in a painter’s drop cloth.

Meanwhile Cole and Bobby find themselves dodging assassins, sometimes not terribly well. Assassins who seem determined to take them out of the picture before Cole discovers what the picture actually is.

And the entire story is told from Cole’s wry, snarky and frequently self-deprecating first-person perspective. In a voice that elicits groans and laughter in equal proportions, even if the laughter is all too often the result of some truly atrocious gallows humor.

On the other hand, it’s the voice of the man who got chased by a sheep. And two dobermans. And to whom stuff like that just keeps happening. Cole doesn’t go looking for trouble, but trouble clearly has his address on its GPS and has zero problem hunting him down and shooting at him. Over and over again.

Of course Cole does eventually solve the case. Which turns out to be nothing like anyone, not Cole and not the reader, expected when he tripped over that first body. But Cole, with more than a little help from his friends, gets the job done in his own inimitable style.

Considering the life he’s led, Cole McGinnis really should know better than to ask the universe, “what’s the worst that can happen?” because the universe is likely to take that question as a challenge.

On the other hand, just thinking about that is a fantastic way to end Cole’s first investigation in his new series, Back in Black, because that means there will be more. Hopefully lots, lots more!

Review: Last Day by Luanne Rice + Giveaway

Review: Last Day by Luanne Rice + GiveawayLast Day by Luanne Rice
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense
Pages: 412
Published by Thomas & Mercer on February 1, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

From celebrated New York Times bestselling author Luanne Rice comes a riveting story of a seaside community shaken by a violent crime and a tragic loss.

Years ago, Beth Lathrop and her sister Kate suffered what they thought would be the worst tragedy of their lives the night both the famous painting Moonlight and their mother were taken. The detective assigned to the case, Conor Reid, swore to protect the sisters from then on.

Beth moved on, throwing herself fully into the art world, running the family gallery, and raising a beautiful daughter with her husband Pete. Kate, instead, retreated into herself and took to the skies as a pilot, always on the run. When Beth is found strangled in her home, and Moonlight goes missing again, Detective Reid can’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu.

Reid immediately suspects Beth’s husband, whose affair is a poorly kept secret. He has an airtight alibi—but he also has a motive, and the evidence seems to point to him. Kate and Reid, along with the sisters’ closest childhood friends, struggle to make sense of Beth’s death, but they only find more questions: Who else would have wanted Beth dead? What’s the significance of Moonlight?

Twenty years ago, Reid vowed to protect Beth and Kate—and he’s failed. Now solving the case is turning into an obsession . . .

My Review:

This is a story about lightning striking twice – and for the same reasons. It’s also a page-turner of a mystery combined with a story of friendship and sisterhood.

The story opens on Beth Lathrop’s last day. Or at least the last day when anyone who loved her woke up and believed that she was alive. But she isn’t.

Instead, Beth’s corpse is found in her bedroom, several days dead, by her sister and the local police. Those events would normally be the place where everyone’s nightmare begins, but it isn’t.

The nightmare began years ago, when thieves broke into their family’s art gallery and left Beth, her sister Kate, and their mother bound and gagged in the basement while they robbed the place. The girls spent 22 hours in that basement, tied to the body of their mother who choked to death on her gag.

Beth turned outward, her sister Kate turned inward, and the cop who rescued them still keeps tabs on them in the hopes of protecting them again.

But their first ordeal happened because their father betrayed them. It was his plan and his idea, and he’ll be paying the price for it for the rest of his life in prison.

Now tragedy has struck again. Beth is dead, Kate and the rest of her family and friends are lost in grief. But just as before, their peace has been shattered because someone in their inner circle betrayed Beth and betrayed them all.

The question is whether that same cop can figure out just who hides the evil behind a mask of grief.

Escape Rating B: Last Day was a compelling read. I think my feelings can be summed up by saying that it was good, and it was just on the edge of great – but didn’t quite get there, at least not for me. A couple of things made it fall just short of the mark.

The biggest thing that threw me off was that there are a few very brief chapters from Beth’s point of view, including the opening and closing chapters. She’s dead. Those chapters are weird, and they took me out of the story every time.

Beth’s contributions aside, the story itself is a page-turner. We see most of the action by following Kate, Beth’s older sister, and Conor Reid, the cop who found them all those years ago. Conor is now on the Major Case Team of the Connecticut Bureau of Investigation, and as soon as he learns of Beth’s death, he assigns himself to the case even though he knows he shouldn’t.

He also shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but he knows all of the principals of this case much better than any investigator should. And he wants the husband to be guilty of Beth’s murder.

Not that Pete Lathrop isn’t guilty of plenty of things, but murder may not be one of them. And Conor’s desire to punish Pete for all of the crap he put Beth through in life blinds him to the man’s lack of means, motives and opportunity to cause her death.

At the same time, Kate is left trying to make sense of it all, not just her sister’s death, but all of the secrets that made up her life that Kate knew nothing about. Somewhere among all the things that Beth hid from her sister but revealed to their best friends may lie the reason for her death. Or may just provide Kate with more reasons to grieve.

In the end, the truth is revealed not by dogged investigation, but by a little girl who is unable to let a lie stand, no matter who tries to gaslight her into believing the lie instead of the truth. The case is finally solved, and the perpetrator is revealed. And it is a betrayal, just as the truth of Beth’s and Kate’s mother was long ago.

But this time only Kate is left to pick up the pieces.

This was one where I didn’t figure out whodunnit at all. I wanted it to be the husband, but it felt too obvious so eventually I read the last chapter just to figure it out – and I was still plenty surprised. I think that, as much as I was riveted by the investigation and the unraveling of Beth’s life as well as the truth of her death, I found the ending a bit unsatisfactory. I’m glad that the murderer was uncovered, but I’m not sure I felt the catharsis I expected. The motives didn’t make complete sense.

Like the detective, I really wanted the husband to be guilty after all.

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