Review: Dirt Creek by Hayley Scrivenor

Review: Dirt Creek by Hayley ScrivenorDirt Creek by Hayley Scrivenor
Narrator: Sophie Loughran
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 336
Length: 10 hours and 29 minutes
Published by Flatiron Books, Macmillan Audio on August 2, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

When twelve-year-old Esther disappears on the way home from school in a small town in rural Australia, the community is thrown into a maelstrom of suspicion and grief. As Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels arrives in town during the hottest spring in decades and begins her investigation, Esther’s tenacious best friend, Ronnie, is determined to find Esther and bring her home.
When schoolfriend Lewis tells Ronnie that he saw Esther with a strange man at the creek the afternoon she went missing, Ronnie feels she is one step closer to finding her. But why is Lewis refusing to speak to the police? And who else is lying about how much they know about what has happened to Esther?
Punctuated by a Greek chorus, which gives voice to the remaining children of the small, dying town, this novel explores the ties that bind, what we try and leave behind us, and what we can never outrun, while never losing sight of the question of what happened to Esther, and what her loss does to a whole town.
In Hayley Scrivenor's Dirt Creek, a small-town debut mystery described as The Dry meets Everything I Never Told You, a girl goes missing and a community falls apart and comes together.

My Review:

Dirt Creek is a “For Want of a Nail” story in the guise of a mystery/thriller plot. “For Want of a Nail” is a proverb that starts out with losing a horseshoe because the protagonist needs a nail to keep the horseshoe on the horse. And it results in the loss of a kingdom because of the chain of events that follows.

Dirt Creek is that kind of book. It begins with a then-unknown person discovering the corpse of a young girl buried in a shallow grave on a remote property outside of the tiny, dying town of Durton not too far outside of Sydney, Australia.

Most of the residents of Durton call it “Dirt Town”, and the creek that runs near town is “Dirt Creek”. (Dirt Town seems to have been the title of the original Australian edition of the book.)

While the book kicks off with the finding of that body, witnessed by a couple of unnamed – at least at that point – children, that event is actually the final nail in the killer’s coffin. The story, the story of how so many things fell apart in Durton, begins the Friday before, when 12-year-old Esther Bianchi doesn’t come home from school. On time. Or at all.

The story, over a long, hot weekend and part of the next week, follows the unfolding events from multiple perspectives. The police detectives who come out from Sydney to investigate Esther’s disappearance, Esther’s mother, Constance. Constance’s best friend Shelly. Esther’s best friend Veronica – who everyone calls Ronnie. And Esther and Veronica’s mutual friend, Lewis, an 11-year-old boy who is being bullied at school and beaten at home.

Everyone in Durton knows everyone else, their friends, their families, their secrets – and their lies. Sooner or later, all the truths are going to bubble to the surface. Nothing ever stays buried for long – not even poor Esther Bianchi.

But by the time Esther’s body is found, the weight of the secrets, both big and small, that are being hidden from both the police and the entire community, have already broken at least one marriage, rescued at least one mother and her children, caused one child to be savagely attacked – and torn an entire town apart.

Because at the very beginning of Esther’s story, two children saw something very suspicious. Something they were much too afraid to tell. And because they didn’t, for want of that telling at a time when it would have done the most good, one event led to another – until all the pieces came together at the quietly chilling end.

Escape Rating B-: This is going to be one of those “mixed-feelings” kinds of reviews. You have been warned.

Before I start on the things that drove me bananas, one thing that most definitely did not was the narrator, Sophie Loughran. I listened to about half the book and read the rest because I was pressed for time. I wish I could have continued with the audio because the reader was excellent and did a terrific job with the Australian and English accents. She made each of the characters sound distinctive, which would have been particularly challenging because all of them, with the exception of 11-year-old Lewis whose voice hasn’t dropped yet, were female. And yet, I always knew who was speaking by accent, by intonation, by vocal patterns. She also did an excellent job of keeping to the slow, deliberate pace of the story, particularly when voicing Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels who both spoke and thought in a thoughtful, deliberate manner.

Howsomever, Detective Sergeant Michaels’ thoughtful deliberation pointed out an issue that I had with the story. For a thriller, it moves quite slowly. It takes half the book to set itself up – and to set Michaels and her detective partner up in Durton. As a thriller, this needed to move a bit faster. The descriptions of everything and everyone were meticulous to a point close to monotony.

There’s also a lot of foreshadowing. Not necessarily the obvious foreshadowing – because the reader is pretty sure that little Esther is not going to be found alive at the end of this story. The story, and the town it is set in, are both so bleak that there’s just no way to eke a happy ending out of this one.

What gets foreshadowed is the “For Want of a Nail” nature of the story. Every time someone fails to inform someone, anyone, else about an important clue, it gets foreshadowed that this lack of information might have changed things before all of the other terrible things that happened were too far along to prevent.

Those omissions do all turn out to be important, because they send the police on wild goose chases that waste time and personnel – both of which are in short supply. But it’s also a truth that everybody lies, so there’s nothing unexpected or exceptional about people lying to the police. It’s just humans being human.

As many red herrings and half-baked clues and misdirections there were in this story, there was plenty going on and oodles of directions for the case and the reader to follow. There were two elements of the various internal monologue that felt like one-too-many. One was that Detective Sergeant Michaels is keeping a secret from the reader and in some ways from herself about the reasons behind the breakup of her recent relationship. The other was that the children of the town who were not directly involved in the plot had chapters as a kind of Greek chorus. Either element might have been fine, but together they distracted from the progress of the mystery without adding enough to offset the time and attention they took.

So very much a mixed bag. I loved the narration. I liked that the small-town mystery was set in a small town somewhere VERY far away. I thought the mystery plot and the way that the police were stuck chasing their own tails a lot of the time was as fascinating as it was frustrating. I did not figure out whodunnit as far as the child’s death was concerned, while the various villains who were exposed during the course of the investigation did receive their just desserts – which is always the best part of a mystery.

But Durton turned out to be a seriously bleak place, and in the end this was an equally bleak story. I seriously needed to visit my happy place when I left there. I’m probably not the only reader who did.

Review: Councilor by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Review: Councilor by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.Councilor (The Grand Illusion #2) by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, gaslamp
Series: Grand Illusion #2
Pages: 528
Published by Tor Books on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

L. E. Modesitt, Jr., bestselling author of Saga of Recluce and the Imager Portfolio, continues his brand new, gaslamp, political fantasy series with Councilor the thrilling sequel to Isolate. Welcome to the Grand Illusion.
Continued poor harvests and steam-powered industrialization displace and impoverish thousands. Protests grow and gather followers.
Against this rising tide of social unrest, Steffan Dekkard, newly appointed to the Council of Sixty-Six, is the first Councilor who is an Isolate, a man invulnerable to the emotional manipulations and emotional surveillance of empaths.
This makes him dangerous.
As unknown entities seek to assassinate him, Dekkard struggles to master political intrigue and infighting, while introducing radical reforms that threaten entrenched political and corporate interests.

The Grand Illusion
Isolate

My Review:

The Grand Illusion of the series title seems to revolve around the illusion that political action can “fix” things, whether what needs fixing is a country or a system or a person’s circumstances. Even, in a peculiar way, the weather. Or at least the effects of that weather.

This second book in the series, after last year’s marvelous Isolate, continues to follow Stefan Dekkard on his journey from being a political outsider, merely a security aide to one of the 66 councilors of Guldor, to his new position as a councilor in his own right. In other words, Stefan has gone from being an observer of the process – albeit an active and sometimes intimate one – to someone who is part of how the sausage gets made.

There’s a reason why politics is such a dirty business that no one REALLY wants to learn the truth of the process. Which doesn’t mean that some people don’t have to – and that some people don’t enjoy manipulating that process as much as they are able.

The setup of Guldor as a country, and its government, is a fascinating one. The setting is gaslamp fantasy, so they have steam power and electric power, they can make some unfortunately high-powered military ordinance. They are also in the middle, maybe a bit later than that, into the throes of their Industrial Revolution. Meaning that there is a lot of change and a lot of damage as a result of that change. Land and farming don’t convey the power that they used to. Large commercial interests have large amounts of money and therefor large amounts of influence. Small businesses and artisan business are on the rise but have not yet caught up in the power games being played.

If one thinks of the Guldorian political parties; Landor, Commerce and Craft, as being (very) roughly analogous to the British Tories, Liberals and Labour parties respectively, that’s probably not TOO far off.

Stories that take place in times of great upheaval are always interesting, because there are so many opportunities to go both right and wrong and so many people lining up to push in one direction or another. Guldor is at such a crossroads. The Landor (traditional) party has lost some of its sway but still thinks they could get back to their “good old days”.

The Commerce party has been the ruling party for 30 years, and have gotten so used to being on the top of the heap that they seem to have stopped bothering to cover up their abuses of power. To the point where the monarch of this constitution monarchy was forced to call for new elections – and to the point where voters were so fed up that they were willing to make a radical choice and vote in a Craft Party administration.

A circumstance that the Commerce Party doesn’t merely want but absolutely NEEDS to discredit and outright reverse by ANY means necessary. Not merely the quiet assassinations of Craft Party councilors that has been going on for YEARS at this point, but outright terrorism and revolution.

After all, they have an existing scapegoat for all their actions in the subversive Meritorist movement. Or, perhaps, and much more likely, they created one for just such a potentiality. So far, it’s been working out well for them, even if badly for everyone else.

And the entire situation is about to get a whole lot worse.

Escape Rating A: Just as with the first book in the series, Isolate, the story in Councilor is a story about politics that is told through people. Stefan Dekkard is, on the one hand, a bit of an everyman, and on the other a very singular individual with a specific set of skills, strengths and weaknesses. He is very good at observing the world around him, reaching synthesis of disparate and often contrary bits of information and then swiftly acting on his conclusions. He’s also damn good at keeping himself alive in a situation where, maybe not everyone, but certainly entirely too many people really are out to get him.

At the same time, he’s been an actual Crafter, he attended the military academy and has been a security guard to an active councilor. He’s also an isolate, think psi-null, in a society where nearly everyone can be read by elite psi-users who can both read and influence everyone except Stefan and the relatively rare others like him.

We’re following him and his career because Stefan is always an outsider in his own society and can observe without being psychically influenced or read by anyone who might want to probe his secrets or control his actions. Which does not mean that he doesn’t feel emotions or that he can’t be swayed by them, just no more or less than any of us, and in the same ways that we’re used to. It makes him an excellent surrogate for the reader.

As a new councilor, Stefan faces all of the newbie insecurities, and also starts out not knowing nearly enough to do the job. As he learns, we learn how things are – and are not – working right along with him.

He’s also newly married – to his former security partner – as this book begins. Theirs has always been a relationship of equals, and that does not change now that they are married (The author generally does an excellent job of creating these kinds of relationships and making sure that females are equally represented and equally powerful throughout his stories.)

At the same time, their relationship is changing in ways that they have to adjust to – and we see them do it. All in all, the way this story is told is that we see both the exciting things and the prosaic things and we keep following along because we get involved with the people to whom these events are happening. The story literally pulls the reader along because we want to see how they cope with the next load of feces that hits the oscillating device, whether large or small.

So this is a story about watching people do the best they can in circumstances that are less than ideal but that they know they need to get through anyway. And it does its best, which is very well indeed, to pierce through the veil that obfuscates the grand illusion that politics or political action can make absolutely everyone happy and solve everyone’s problems every time.

While still presenting the idea that a government – and the people who are part of it – doing their very best to act to promote the common weal and not for the interests of themselves and their partisans, will, by its very nature, satisfy more of the population more of the time more fairly than anyone in the game for the pursuit of their own private interests.

This is the second book in the series, and it looks like we’re going to be following Dekkard’s political career wherever it might lead him, most likely, or perhaps hopefully, from his beginning as a security aide in Isolate through his first term as a Councilor and on up the ladder of achievements and setbacks until he reaches some pinnacle that we can’t see from here. But I hope we do in the future books in this series.

Howsomever, based on the title, it’s quite possible that the next book in the series will represent one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back. The title will be Contrarian according to the author’s blog, and I already can’t wait to read it.

Review: Wolf (Sentinel Security #1) by Anna Hackett

Review: Wolf (Sentinel Security #1) by Anna HackettWolf (Sentinel Security #1) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, romantic suspense
Series: Sentinel Security #1
Pages: 306
Published by Anna Hackett on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

He’s her best friend’s older brother.

The hot, tough former Navy SEAL.

The man she’s had a crush on her entire life and now the man pretending to be her lover to keep her safe.

CEO Lainie Madden has her hands full. In charge of a growing tech company, her work and her employees are her life. She’s sworn off love, because the sad reality is that she stinks at choosing men who aren’t self-absorbed cheaters. But when she starts receiving disturbing death threats and her company’s website gets hit with relentless cyber-attacks, she’s in over her head.

What she never expected was her best friend’s bossy, rugged brother to steamroll in to play her fake boyfriend and very real protector.

Former SEAL and CIA agent Nick “Wolf” Garrick is second in command at Sentinel Security. He’s spent most of his life fighting and protecting others, proving he’s nothing like the ex-con who fathered him. He’s also spent years ignoring his scorching attraction to his little sister’s best friend. Lainie is sweet, fresh, smart…and off limits.

But when he finds out she’s in danger, it flips a switch inside him. Whatever the risk, whatever it takes, even pretending that they’re lovers, he’ll protect Lainie and take down the person hunting her.

The more time Lainie and Nick spend together, the more the lines blur. As danger swirls around them, their pretend relationship starts to feel very real. But Nick doesn’t do relationships and Lainie doesn’t want to get hurt again…

My Review:

Sentinel Security picks up where Norcross Security leaves off. At least in time. As this first book in the Sentinel Security series opens, the action moves from the Norcross’ West Coast to Killian Hawke’s East Coast. But the story does not pick up with whatever Killian Hawke does or doesn’t have going on with the frenemy/nemesis Federal Agent who has him gritting his teeth and cursing her name whenever she inserts herself into one of his cases.

I believe that the author is torturing all of her fans, including this one, by teasing the leader’s romance – the one I always like best – while drawing out the anticipation. Because this first book in the Sentinel Security series is all about Killian’s second-in-command and the woman who has had him wrapped around the axle for a whole lot longer than he’s ever been willing to admit.

Lainie Madden is the CEO of a growing tech company. A company which is suffering from an escalating series of cyber attacks just as Lainie is receiving an equally escalating series of threatening messages. Thinking those two escalations are connected does not take the services of an elite security company like Sentinel Security.

But Lainie Madden is, and has been since childhood, Nola Garrick’s best friend. And Nola Garrick is Nick Garrick’s little sister. Lainie has had a crush on Nick since she was 12 – when Nick was 18 and before he started his career with the SEALs and the CIA doing things that he’d have to kill someone if they learned about them.

That 6-year age gap loomed large when Lainie was growing up, but she’s all grown up now and has been for quite some time. She’s never forgotten her feelings for Nick, and has never found a man even remotely his equal. Nick’s never gotten Lainie out of his head or his heart.

The problem there, of course, is that if they start anything and it doesn’t work out – something that honestly neither Lainie or Nick expects because neither of them have all that great a track record with relationships – the person who will be hurt the most is Nola.

And neither of them wants that – even more than they want each other.

But those threats scare Nola a whole lot more than they do Lainie. So Nola calls her big brother and assigns him the task of protecting her bestie, whether that bestie believes she needs protection or not, whether she can bear to be that close to Nick or not, whether she and Nick can resist jumping each other’s bones long enough to get the villain caught or not.

Because they can’t. And they don’t really want to resist, either. The question is whether they can calm their own demons long enough to see if what has been simmering between them for so long has even half a chance of lasting longer than it takes to bring Lainie’s stalker to justice.

Escape Rating B+: As much as I referenced the author’s earlier series at the top, it’s not required to read the earlier series to get into this one. But it is fun! Especially when, as occurs in the climactic takedown in this book, characters from previous series show up to help save the day. It’s always lovely to see how everyone is doing after becoming so involved in all their lives.

But the first book in any of her series is always a great place to start – and to get hooked so that you can’t resist picking up the rest. Any one of Anna Hackett’s books should be considered as a gateway drug for ALL the others! This particular dark side has both cookies and yummy books!

I digress just a bit.

This is an action adventure romance series, so it’s not a surprise that someone – usually, admittedly, the heroine but not always – ends up in danger and the hero – or a team of heroes – has to rescue her. And that in the end, there is a happy ever after where that heroine falls for one member of that team and very much vice versa – after a bit of resistance, of course.

What makes this entry in the author’s lineup so much fun, at least for this reader, are two things. One is the delicious taboo-yet-not-really nature of the romance. Now that they are unattached adults, there’s absolutely no reason why Lainie and Nick can’t get together and scratch their mutual itch. But once upon a time there very much was. And the slightly forbidden yet not nature of their relationship adds just that little bit of delicious extra tension to the mix.

The second thing is the character of Lainie herself. I loved that she was a workaholic to the max who was dedicated to her company and her career. I loved her ambition and her drive and her putting her work first in her life. Not because it’s healthy, as Lainie has definitely taken her workaholism way too far for that. But because it’s so very real and it made Lainie real as well.

And it also ran a bit counter to stereotype, as we see PLENTY of workaholic heroes, and see them being celebrated for it, in fiction and in real life. But women – not so much. So I really loved that part.

Speaking of Lainie, I also liked that she was never damselfied. She’s in danger, and she hadn’t planned to ask Nick for help. Not because she had her head in the sand, as so many damsels do, but because she was working on it with very good people, and trusted her own people to have her back. That her stalker was seriously next-level put the situation out of her control – but not because she was being stupid about it.

Lainie also doesn’t do anything to sabotage her protection once it’s established. Again, things happen out of her control, because that’s the point of the whole story, but she doesn’t go wandering around on her own after ditching her bodyguard – or anything else equally stupid.

In other words, I enjoyed this because I really liked Lainie as a character and absolutely wanted her to get her HEA – which she earns, deserves and very much does. Nick seems like very yummy icing for a cake she’s already baked herself, and that’s my favorite flavor of romance.

But speaking of yummy, I was just a teensy bit disappointed that I didn’t get Killian’s romance to kick off the series. And I’m probably not going to get it in the next book either, as Killian sends one of Sentinel Security’s other agents, Matteo, off to DC to pick up something from the CIA at the end of Wolf. But it could be a case of Killian avoiding contact with his Federal nemesis. We’ll see next month!

Review: Signal Moon by Kate Quinn + Giveaway

Review: Signal Moon by Kate Quinn + GiveawaySignal Moon: A Short Story by Kate Quinn
Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld, Andrew Gibson
Format: audiobook
Source: publisher
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction, World War II
Pages: 57
Length: 1 hour and 22 minutes
Published by Amazon Original Stories, Audible Audio on August 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Diamond Eye comes a riveting short story about an impossible connection across two centuries that could make the difference between peace or war.

Yorkshire, 1943. Lily Baines, a bright young debutante increasingly ground down by an endless war, has traded in her white gloves for a set of headphones. It’s her job to intercept enemy naval communications and send them to Bletchley Park for decryption.

One night, she picks up a transmission that isn’t code at all—it’s a cry for help.

An American ship is taking heavy fire in the North Atlantic—but no one else has reported an attack, and the information relayed by the young US officer, Matt Jackson, seems all wrong. The contact that Lily has made on the other end of the radio channel says it’s…2023.

Across an eighty-year gap, Lily and Matt must find a way to help each other: Matt to convince her that the war she’s fighting can still be won, and Lily to help him stave off the war to come. As their connection grows stronger, they both know there’s no telling when time will run out on their inexplicable link.

My Review:

This story was so beautiful it just about broke me. It was gorgeous and glorious and heartbreaking all at the same time, and I was in tears at the end.

I want to say this is a timeslip story but that isn’t quite right. It’s more of a time-merging story, or a bit of technological SF sleight of hand story. It’s best to just say that it works. It all works marvelously, and let the how and why of it remain a bit nebulous.

After all, our two principals don’t completely understand the why of it themselves. They just know that it happened. And that it saved them both.

Lily Baines is a signal tech in Yorkshire in 1943, spending her days and nights with a Bakelite headset wrapped around her “bat-like” ears, listening for German signals. She’s a Petty Officer in the WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service), doing her bit for in a war that she’s entirely too afraid is being lost.

Late one shift, she picks up a signal from an American ship, broadcast in English, in the “clear”, detailing an attack on the ship by “Vampires”. An attack that results in the ship sinking with all hands after 42 minutes of harrowing transmission by the U.S. Naval signal tech, ST Matt Jackson, who gives the date as 2023.

While her superiors are certain that Lily has just been working too many days in a row without a break, Lily feels like she owes it to her fellow signal tech, the man she just heard narrate his own death, to try to help him. So she sends him a letter, a 1943-era radio, extra batteries, and a list of frequencies that she promises to listen on at a specific time every day.

There’s no science fiction involved in her package to the future. Her uncle is a solicitor and she contracts with his office to deliver the package to a certain room in a certain hotel in York on the day Matt said he checked in. Law offices do this all the time, just not necessarily for quite 80 years.

When Matt gets the radio, he’s sure it’s a prank, but he dials the frequency anyway. Even when Lily starts talking, he STILL thinks it’s a prank – at least until that night, when an event that she predicted comes true.

They have less than 24 hours to analyze the transmission that Matt hasn’t sent yet, in the hopes of figuring out what is about to go wrong so that he can prevent it. Or save his ship. Whatever it takes to prevent yet another war.

What they get is more than either of them ever bargained for. It’s enough – and it’s not nearly enough at all.

Escape Rating A++: Signal Moon is short and absolutely perfect in its length. It represents a very brief moment in time and needed to reflect that brevity. Also, it’s just so damn bittersweet – and appropriate in that bitter sweetness, that more would be just too much to take.

It’s that good.

But because of that short length, I was able to sit down with the audiobook and finish in one utterly absorbing and in the end completely heartbreaking listen. (If you have Amazon Prime you can get both the ebook and the audio as part of your Prime membership, and it’s so worth it to listen to the audio if you have a mere 82 minutes to occupy your hands while your mind wanders back to 1943 – and forward to OMG next year.)

The strength of this story is in the characters. The author sketches us a complete picture of Lily and her wartime service with just a bit of description and a whole lot of Lily’s internal monologue as she goes through her day pretending that everything is going to be alright even though she’s scared right down to her not-nearly-warm-enough fingertips that all is already lost.

While Matt’s more frank and frequently profane dialog, along with the desperation of his own internal monologue, gives the reader or listener a clear portrait of who he is and what drove him to become the person – and the officer – that he is on the brink of what could be – briefly – his very own war.

In the audiobook, the two characters are brilliantly voiced by their own narrators, Saskia Maarleveld for Lily and Andrew Gibson for Matt and they embody their characters beautifully. The audio would not have worked half so well with a single narrator. (Saskia Maarleveld is also the narrator for several of the author’s novels, including this year’s The Diamond Eye, which just moved up the towering TBR pile as a result.)

The ending of this story is inevitable. There’s just no other way this one works. But it’s easy to get so involved in their story that you just want it to have a different ending anyway. And that’s what broke me in the end. I knew what the end would be, but this was just one of those times where I really wanted a deus ex machina to step in and make that difference happen – even knowing how much I usually hate those kinds of endings. But it wasn’t, and it shouldn’t have been, meant to be.

Dammit.

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

Kate Quinn and Amazon Publishing are giving away a $50 Amazon Gift Card to one very lucky entrant on this tour!
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Review: The Bodyguard by Katherine Center

Review: The Bodyguard by Katherine CenterThe Bodyguard by Katherine Center
Narrator: Patti Murin
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance
Pages: 320
Length: 9 hours and 44 minutes
Published by St. Martin's Press on July 19, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


She’s got his back.
Hannah Brooks looks more like a kindergarten teacher than somebody who could kill you with a wine bottle opener. Or a ballpoint pen. Or a dinner napkin. But the truth is, she’s an Executive Protection Agent (aka "bodyguard"), and she just got hired to protect superstar actor Jack Stapleton from his middle-aged, corgi-breeding stalker.

He’s got her heart.
Jack Stapleton’s a household name—captured by paparazzi on beaches the world over, famous for, among other things, rising out of the waves in all manner of clingy board shorts and glistening like a Roman deity. But a few years back, in the wake of a family tragedy, he dropped from the public eye and went off the grid.

They’ve got a secret.
When Jack’s mom gets sick, he comes home to the family’s Texas ranch to help out. Only one catch: He doesn’t want his family to know about his stalker. Or the bodyguard thing. And so Hannah—against her will and her better judgment—finds herself pretending to be Jack’s girlfriend as a cover. Even though her ex, like a jerk, says no one will believe it.

What could possibly go wrong???
Hannah hardly believes it, herself. But the more time she spends with Jack, the more real it all starts to seem. And there lies the heartbreak. Because it’s easy for Hannah to protect Jack. But protecting her own, long-neglected heart? That’s the hardest thing she’s ever done.

My Review:

It’s not exactly a surprise that this a bodyguard romance. After all, the title does pretty much give it away. But before your head starts playing “I Will Always Love You” on endless repeats, this book’s version of that popular trope would have Whitney Houston guarding Kevin Costner. Which is more than a bit of a twist, at least if that’s the picture you have in your head.

In this version, it’s Executive Protection Agent Hannah Brooks guarding the uber-famous actor Jack Stapleton. (In my head, I was picturing Jack as an amalgam of the superhero movie Chris brigade, so combine the features – and the careers – of Chris Evans, Hemsworth, Pine and Pratt to get sorta/kinda the picture in my head. And now, quite possibly, yours.)

The explanation of exactly why Hannah Brooks does not look like the beefy, burly, able to bench press a Hummer, stereotype is pretty much on point. Having that kind of bodyguard advertises that something is up and someone or something needs protection. It’s not exactly discreet, The company that Hannah works for is all about protection and discretion – even if some of the agents, including Hannah, seem to have a problem with the latter in their personal lives. Hannah and her team plan and prepare for every detail and contingency so that threats are eliminated before they happen.

Even if the biggest threat that Jack Stapleton seems to face is a middle-aged stalker who keeps Corgis and knits sweaters with Jack’s face in the center. Or at least the Corgi stalker is the reason that Jack’s team at the movie studio hires the protection agency.

Once Hannah is embedded in Jack’s life and his world, it starts to seem like Jack’s older brother Hank is a much bigger threat – but not as big or as difficult to fight as his mother’s cancer.

And that’s where things go really, really pear-shaped – especially for Hannah. Jack doesn’t want to worry his mom while she’s undergoing treatment, so he wants to hide the fact that he needs protection at all. Which puts Hannah in a really tough spot, as Jack’s plan requires that Hannah pretend she’s his girlfriend and not his bodyguard.

The longer it goes on, the realer the ruse seems to be – and not just to Hannah. Unless Jack is a much, much better actor than even Hannah thinks he is.

Unless the stalker is even better than that.

Escape Rating B-: This is a story where I had both the audiobook and the ebook, which means I started by listening to the audiobook. I switched to the ebook at less than a third of the way through – not because I was impatient to see what happened next but because the audio was driving me utterly bonkers.

So many people have loved this book, and it sounded like it would be so much fun, but the audio just about had me screaming in the car. I switched to the ebook because I was determined to finish the damn thing.

The story is told in the first person singular, so we’re in Hannah’s head listening to her voice and all of her many, many, many anxious thoughts and feelings, nearly all of which are negative and are flying by at what seems like a million miles per hour. The narrator’s delivery of the rapid-fire cacophony inside Hannah’s head was spot-on, but the overwhelming mass of negativity the character was projecting – well, I just wasn’t there for it. At all.

Hannah is a person who is afraid to sit still or even to slow down. Even if she’s not moving in the physical sense, her brain is whirling at a million miles per minute. And it seems like most of those miles and minutes are negative. She’s not happy with herself, she’s not happy with her life – particularly when the story opens – and she’s doing her level best to keep in motion so she doesn’t have to deal with ANY of her issues.

That her mother just died and her boyfriend dumped her the morning after her mother’s funeral is just the tip of the rock-filled iceberg that is Hannah’s emotional state. (Her boyfriend is a douche and she’s WAY better off without him, but it takes her awhile to figure that out – as it does.)

And her boss is a complete asshole. Even when he’s right, he goes about it the worst way possible – because he admits he enjoys torturing his employees. He’d call it “tough love” if he was willing to use the word “love” at all. But it comes off as just being an abusive asshole who enjoys his assholishness.

In short, Hannah has a metric buttload of issues that she is burying under her workaholism. All of her issues feel justified, but she’s not dealing with pretty much ANYTHING that needs to be dealt with. And her mother’s death provides the straw that is breaking the camel’s back of Hannah’s coping mechanisms.

Not that Jack Stapleton is in much better shape emotionally – he just hides it better. After all, he is an actor. The irony of their situation is that as fake as their relationship is supposed to be, Hannah is a much more real person than anyone Jack has ever associated with in Hollywood – including his supposed “real” girlfriend.

The relationship that develops between Hannah and Jack, as bizarre as its starting point, is the most real thing in his life – except for his older brother’s animosity and his mother’s cancer. He’s not coping well either – and he has just as much to cope with as Hannah does.

And that’s one of the places where the story is shortchanged by its cute sweetness. Because it certainly is both of those things. The issue that I had with the story in the end is that there is too much going on with both of these people for a romance that ends up being this light and fluffy.

Not that both Hannah and Jack don’t deserve a happy ending – because they both certainly do. But the way they achieve it, and the way that their happy ever after is presented, completely glosses over everything that is really, truly not cute or sweet at all. In the end, the story shores up the fallacy that love conquers all, including learning disabilities, impostor syndrome, feelings of total inadequacy, childhood trauma, and unprocessed grief.

It ends on the note that love doesn’t just conquer all, but that it cures everything that ails a person. Which just isn’t true. And this would have been a much better story, if not nearly as fluffy, if their very important issues had been dealt – or at least showed that they would BE dealt with – instead of swept under the carpet.

In the end, this wasn’t bad – and it’s a surprisingly clean romance if you’re looking for one. But it wasn’t nearly as good as it could have been.

Review: The Courier by Ernest Dempsey

Review: The Courier by Ernest DempseyThe Courier: A Dak Harper Thriller: 1 (The Relic Runner) by Ernest Dempsey
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, thriller
Series: Relic Runner #1
Pages: 286
Published by 138 Publishing on March 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Former Special Forces operator Dak Harper needs a job.
Out of work and on the run after a shocking betrayal by his brothers-in-arms, the ex-Special Forces commando hasn’t stopped moving for months.
He can’t. Some of the same soldiers who left him for dead in the Middle East still want his head. And they’re getting closer.
So far, he’s been lucky. But Dak is low on money and nearly out of time.All he needs is an easy gig. A place to lie low, bank some cash, and quietly figure out his next move.
That’s not exactly what he finds.
Some rich kid with more money than he knows what to do with wants to open his own museum. But first, he’s got to fill it, and that’s where Dak comes in.
Not sure if his gift for hunting bad guys will translate to finding priceless artifacts, Dak’s willing to give it a shot. He needs this job. The kid will pay him a lot of money and ask no questions.
Before he knows it, Dak’s on the first flight to South America, chasing his big payday. But Dak’s about to trade one set of problems for something even worse: the deadliest mission of his life.

My Review:

The Courier is the first book in an action adventure thriller series featuring former Delta operator Dak Harper. A man on the run, but not from a crime he committed. Dak is running from a crime he didn’t commit – or rather from the man who actually did commit that crime and is pissed as hell to have it pinned on him. Particularly after all the trouble he went to in his failed attempt to put Dak in that frame.

(That origin story is told in a 6-part novella series, descriptively titled The Relic Runner Origin Story. The reader does get enough hints of those events to slip into this book fairly easily, but I’ll probably read those when I get a round tuit because I always like more background.)

So Dak is open to a job that will take him out of the country, and temporarily out of the reach of the man who wants him dead. Even if it’s a job that might add more than a few names to that list of people who are out to kill him.

But the job he picks up at the beginning of this story is nothing like he ever expected. It’s also where that passing reference to Indiana Jones comes in. Twelve-year-old Boston McClaren has parlayed his knack for video gaming into an extremely lucrative career. And he plans to use some of his legally gotten gains to do something of dubious legality – or, at least, to pay someone, hopefully Dak, to do something of dubious legality on his behalf.

The young entrepreneur hires the disgraced Delta operator to go to Lima, Peru and re-appropriate, by whatever means necessary, a priceless relic purchased on the dark web by the cartel kingpin who runs everything shady in the city of Lima.

Considering that everyone in Lima from the Mayor on down is at least partially on that kingpin’s payroll, Dak is going to have to go through a lot of people – one way or another – to “find” the relic that he’s looking for.

The kingpin needs to go down, the city needs to get out from under his thumb, and that relic needs to get into the hands of a museum where many, many more people will be able to appreciate it and its history.

Dak Harper is looking forward to taking out the trash. Unless he ends up in it.

Escape Rating B: I picked this up on a whim because a writer whose work I really like recommended this author and the series. The comparisons in that recommendation were to Indiana Jones, Dirt Pitt And Doc Savage. While I’m more familiar with Indy than the other two, I’ve certainly heard of all of them. I have to say that I was a combination of intrigued and confused, but decided it was worth a try, if only because I enjoy the work of the author providing the recommendation so damn much.

Having finished The Courier, I think all of those comparisons are dead wrong, although the book made for a terrific, edge-of-the-seat read. But the cinematic character that Dak Harper resembles more than any other isn’t Indiana Jones – it’s Nathan Drake. And not so much from the movie as from the game series, also titled Uncharted.

And that includes the level of violence. You mow down a LOT of bad guys while you’re pretending to be Nathan Drake, including a whole slew of drug dealers, gun runners and kingpins of cartels dealing one, or the other – or both. Dak’s origins are actually a bit less shady than Nathan’s, but neither of their hands are exactly clean.

Howsomever, at least in this first outing, the Relic Runner as a series does bear a sharp resemblance to that video game. There is a story, but the story is in service of watching Dak Harper outsmart all of his opponents and essentially mow them down in one way or another. The conditions he observes in Lima are heartbreaking and even horrific, and the reader does reach the point of wanting to see all those bastards go down and go down as hard as possible while Harper does his best to avoid as much collateral damage as he can.

If you see it resembling a certain type of action-adventure video game – like the Uncharted series or even Tomb Raider – it’s easy to get caught up in the rhythm of the dropping of the bodies and just go with the action. But if you’re looking for a story with any kind of depth, you’ll probably be disappointed.

I wasn’t. I was looking for a bit of mindless adventure being led by a character who was superlative at his job and I got exactly what I wanted. We’ll see if that’s true in the next book in the series, Two Nights in Mumbai, the next time I’m in this kind of mood.

Which, admittedly, is the kind of mood where I either want to vicariously kill things by playing a video game – or read about someone else doing it in a story that – you guessed it – resembles a video game.

Review: The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara Ackerman

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

Review: The Stardust Thief by Chelsea AbdullahThe Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah
Narrator: Nikki Massoud, Sean Rohani, Rasha Zamamiri
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, retellings
Series: Sandsea Trilogy #1
Pages: 480
Length: 15 hours and 38 minutes
Published by Hachette Audio, Orbit Books on May 17, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Inspired by stories from One Thousand and One Nights, this book weaves together the gripping tale of a legendary smuggler, a cowardly prince, and a dangerous quest across the desert to find a legendary, magical lamp.
Neither here nor there, but long ago . . . 
Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn.
With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan's oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie's past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality.

My Review:

“Neither here nor there, but long ago…” or so the storytellers begin their best tales. Of which The Stardust Thief is most definitely one.

Loulie al-Nazari is the legendary Midnight Merchant, an infamous smuggler of magic relics left behind in the world of humans by the powerful, dangerous and deadly jinn. But she has a secret – of course she does. She finds the jinn relics that she sells to discerning buyers at extravagant prices with the help of a jinn relic of her own – along with the able assistance of her taciturn bodyguard, Qadir. Who is one of the hated and feared jinn, hiding in very plain sight. Only Loulie knows Qadir’s true identity – not that she knows even as much of that identity as she believes she does.

Mazen bin Malik is the second son of the Sultan. He’s been sheltered to the point of imprisonment for most of his life, while his older brother Omar has become their father’s heir, not just to the throne in the hazy future, but even now to their father’s position as the leader of the infamous ‘Forty Thieves’ – jinn killers who steal and murder on behalf of their leader, the prince they call ‘King’.

Mazen would rather be one of the storytellers in the souk. At least that way he’d have some freedom – and some purpose.

They shouldn’t have anything in common – a smuggler and a prince. But they are both people who hide their real selves behind masks; the Midnight Merchant is a persona Loulie puts on, while Mazen bribes the palace guard so he can escape the confining safety of his palace prison.

They meet in the souk, where Loulie is wandering incognito as Layla, while Mazen is pretending to be Yusuf the storyteller. Where Mazen is ensorcelled by a jinn, and Loulie can’t resist following their trail where it leads.

It leads to the palace. Not directly, and certainly not in a way that either expects. But the Sultan coerces the Midnight Merchant into finding a jinn king’s relic for him, deep in the desert, and sends his older son, Omar along to ‘protect’ her – and ensure she comes back with the prize.

But Omar has schemes of his own, so he trades places with Mazen, using a relic to switch their identities. He sends one of his ‘Forty Thieves’, Aisha bint Louas with the disguised prince as a bodyguard.

As the adventure bleeds into one danger after another, and their journey comes to feel more like a trap than a quest, they begin to learn the hidden truths about themselves and each other. Only to discover that not a single one of them is what they seemed, or what they thought they were, when they set out.

And that as many times as each of them promises themselves and each other that they will not run away – at least not this time – they are forced to accept the truth that “he (or she) who runs away lives to fight another day.” If only because they must in order to prevail against the powerful forces, both human and jinn, who stand in their way.

Escape Rating B+: I’m having the same kind of mixed reaction to writing this review as I did to reading this book. Which doesn’t explain anything at all, does it? The dilemma I’m having is that I loved the story, but did like or empathize with many of the characters, and it’s a real conundrum.

The story is utterly fascinating. The jinn (or djinn or genies) are such powerful mythical and mystical creatures. This story posits a much more nuanced interpretation of the jinn, and much of what happens is based on a fundamental dichotomy in that interpretation. Humans have been taught that jinn are dangerous and evil and hate humanity. Jinn, on the other hand, have an entirely different set of myths and legends about the first encounters between themselves and humans. Encounters in which the humans coveted the jinn’s powers and murdered them indiscriminately, as they still do. Some jinn do kill humans, but it’s more often in self-defense than outright murder.

As the story continues, it certainly seems like the jinn perspective is more likely the true one – particularly based on the behavior of the humans that Loulie and Mazen meet along the way.

But the story is a nearly endless ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ kind of story, as one near-death adventure – and escaping therefrom – leads directly into another. Much as the tales that Shafia – who we know as Scheherazade – told to the Sultan to keep him from killing her. This adventure is clearly intended to remind readers of One Thousand and One Nights, as it should. Shafia was Mazen’s mother, and the Sultan of the famous story was his father.

It’s the truth of that tale, as well as so many other truths, that Mazen, Loulie and their companions must discover on their dangerous quest.

Speaking of the party, that’s where I felt conflicted. The story is told in the first person, from three different points of view; Loulie, Mazen and Aisha. I listened to the audio for about 90% of the book, and the three narrators made the differences in their perspectives quite clear. They all did an excellent job of portraying their respective characters. The problem I had was that I found that both Loulie and Mazen spent a lot of time wallowing in self-pity, self-flagellation and adolescent angst. Not that their situations weren’t more than worthy of some considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth – because they are in deep sand up to their necks. It’s more that because the story is told from inside their heads, it got repetitive. If I’d been reading instead of listening I’d have skimmed through those bits.

So I loved the adventure. This story is a thrill-a-minute ride with plenty of fascinating exploration of this world. The way that the legends come to life was absolutely riveting. But the one character I really liked and wished I had more of was Qadir, and he’s the one really important perspective we don’t have in the first person – or nearly enough of at all.

But I have hope – in a slightly twisted way. The Stardust Thief is the first book in a trilogy, although the second book doesn’t even have a title yet, let alone a publication date. It can’t come nearly soon enough because this first book doesn’t exactly end. Like the other adventures in this book, like the adventures Shafira told the Sultan, this one ends just as our heroes have jumped out of yet another frying pan but are still in freefall before they land in the inevitable fire.

It’s going to be a long, nail-biting wait to find out how hot things get in the next installment!

Review: Deadly Election by Lindsey Davis

Review: Deadly Election by Lindsey DavisDeadly Election (Flavia Albia Mystery, #3) by Lindsey Davis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Flavia Albia #3
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on July 14, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the blazing July heat of imperial Rome, Flavia Albia inspects a decomposing corpse. It has been discovered in lots to be auctioned by her family business, so she's determined to identify the dead man and learn how he met his gruesome end.
The investigation will give her a chance to work with the magistrate, Manlius Faustus, the friend she sadly knows to be the last chaste man in Rome. But he's got other concerns than her anonymous corpse. It's election time and with democracy for sale at Domitian's court, tension has come to a head. Faustus is acting as an agent for a 'good husband and father', whose traditional family values are being called into question. Even more disreputable are his rivals, whom Faustus wants Albia to discredit.
As Albia's and Faustus' professional and personal partnership deepens they have to accept that, for others, obsession can turn sour, and become a deadly strain that leads, tragically, to murder.

My Review:

I want to start this with “Once upon a time” but I’m not sure whether that’s once upon a time, in 1989, the author published the first book in a historical mystery series featuring a hard-boiled rapscallion of a private inquiry agent named Marcus Didius Falco. The series ran for 20 books, until Falco passed the investigative torch to his adopted daughter Flavia Albia. Deadly Election is the third book in her series, which is now at ten books and continuing.

It could be “once upon a time”, back when audiobooks were still on actual tape, I listened to that first book, The Silver Pigs, and picked up all the subsequent books I could get my hands on in any form.

At the time, the series was a bit like the bear dancing, in that you are not surprised it’s done well, you’re surprised it’s done AT ALL. But in the end, it was done and done very well indeed, in spite of the seeming implausibility of the protagonist.

Once you’ve read the fortunes and misfortunes of the father, it seems natural to continue the adventure with the daughter who brings her own version of wry intelligence mixed with utter cynicism to her own investigations – following in her father’s often self-indulgent footsteps.

Flavia Albia is a different kind of investigator altogether. Not that she doesn’t find herself in trouble as often as her father did. It’s just that many of the times Falco had to be broken out of jail it was his own fault due to some of that self-indulgence. When Flavia Albia gets into trouble it’s usually because she’s working too hard or following too closely in a case. The former at least was something her father was seldom accused of.

And if it seems like I’m meandering a bit or giving a lot of background, that’s actually kind of how both series work. Because there is generally a lot of background, all to the purpose of immersing the reader in the world inhabited by Flavia Albia and her frequently disreputable family – with her “dear old dad” as the head disreputable. Without his redoubtable wife, Helena Justina, he would never have managed to stay any course long enough to have enough to retire on – as he has.

But as we walk the streets of Imperial Rome with Flavia Albia, we are able to immerse ourselves in her world. It’s a fascinating view of a time and place long subsumed by history, made all the more absorbing because as much as many things are different, human beings don’t seem to have changed a bit.

For good and for ill. Considering Albia’s profession, she’s better off if a few more people are doing ill – as then they might need her services as an “informer” – otherwise known as a private inquiry agent or, as anachronistic as the term would be – private detective.

In Deadly Election, she has two cases to wrangle with. One comes to her through her friend – and possibly her eventual lover, Manlius Faustus. He’s already been elected to public office, but he’s now mentoring his childhood friend into the business. They’re using Albia’s services to investigate their rivals to see if some dirt can be found to foul up their campaigns – while trying to keep ahead of whatever dirt their opponents might dig up on them.

But the election has already turned deadly, as Albia’s other work, assisting with the family auction house, has turned up a dead body locked in a storage crate scheduled for auction. At first, Albia has no clue to the corpse’s identity, but as she investigates she discovers that the late lamented may not have had an enemy in the world, but he certainly had a relative in that race for public office.

It’s up to Albia to figure out who done it and why at a time and place where forensics were non-existence, women officially had no public role (unofficially was an entirely other matter) and where everyone is afraid to talk because the emperor’s agents are everywhere – looking for possible – or potential traitors.

Escape Rating A-: Part of what makes these series fun is that each book begins with what almost seems like a lot of extraneous information. Information that turns out not to have been extraneous at all by the time the story ends. But it does feel like an immersion process, that it takes time to become acquainted, or re-acquainted, with Albia’s Rome as she experiences it.

And to get used to her first-person voice, because she’s an intelligent outsider who has learned to be whoever and whatever she needs to be to get the job done and get paid by her client. But behind her mask of professional politeness she’s wry and snarky and frequently wishes she could let loose with a cutting remark or ten – because so many of her clients deserve it. Her thoughts can feel very modern, just as her adopted father’s did, but it works surprisingly well.

As Flavia goes on with her business and takes us through her Rome, we start to feel the cobbles under our feet, the mud between our toes, and even smell the overwhelming decay of the liquefying corpse the auction house’s staff find locked in a chest.

At first we’re watching her, and then we’re with her, in a way that wouldn’t work nearly as well if the story didn’t circle around to the case the way it does.

A lot of this particular story is about family ties and nepotism in politics. (Doesn’t that sound all too familiar?) Also it takes place in the middle of a very long, very hot summer, and that seems familiar as well. Forensics are non-existent. She has to solve her cases by painstakingly asking questions of everyone involved and piecing together the parts of the answers that might be true.

It’s easy for both Albia and the reader to get lost in the cover ups and lies, and isn’t that just politics all over.

At the same time, Albia’s relationship with Faustus is driving her crazy. He seems to be the only man in Rome immune to her charms. He’s divorced, she’s a widow, there’s no reason they can’t embark on an affair. Except that they are not of the same class. How much social opprobrium he’s willing to endure is not something she’s willing to risk her heart on.

But this case throws them together at every turn. Which makes it a lot of fun for the reader to wonder whether they’re going to get together or even if they should, while Albia takes a hard look at all the candidates for office and all the murder suspects for that poor corpse and begins to think they might be one and the same.

The heart wants what the heart wants, the cases aren’t going to be easy to solve, and the emperor is insanely paranoid – adding a level of unpredictable danger to a situation that no one except Flavia Albia wants to cope with in the first place!

But it’s all a lot of fun for any reader, like this one, who loves historical mysteries set in unusual times and places. And for any reader who likes their protagonists to have an inner asshole voice that isn’t always as inner as it should be.

In other words, I had a ball with this book, even if Albia wasn’t always having one herself. I’ll be back sometime with the next book in the series, The Graveyard of the Hesperides, the next time I’m in the right mood, if only to see how Albia’s romance is – or isn’t – going!

Review: The Lost and Found Girl by Maisey Yates

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

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

My Review:

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

And are there ever plenty of those!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your reading mileage may definitely vary.