Review: Peachy Scream by Anna Gerard + Giveaway

Review: Peachy Scream by Anna Gerard + GiveawayPeachy Scream (Georgia B&B #2) by Anna Gerard
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Georgia B&B #2
Pages: 320
Published by Crooked Lane Books on August 11, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

To die or not to die? Georgia B&B proprietor Nina Fleet struts and frets to bring the curtain down on a Shakespearean actor's killer.
It's nothing short of inevitable that Cymbeline, GA, hosts an annual Shakespeare festival. But stage-struck Nina Fleet is about to learn that putting on an amateur theatrical production can be murder. Nina's anticipating showbiz glamour and glitz when a community Shakespearean troupe arrives for a two-week stay at her B&B. But the lights dim when she learns the company's director is her nemesis, struggling actor Harry Westcott--who still claims to be the rightful heir to Nina's elegant Queen Anne home.
Meanwhile, the troupe members are not content to leave the drama upon the stage. Accusations of infidelity and financial malfeasance make a shambles of rehearsals. And then, two days into the troupe's stay, the lead actor is found dead in Nina's formal Shakespeare garden. Murder most foul!
Worse, it seems every member of the amateur troupe has a motive--including wealthy construction company owner Marvin Jeffers, who seems to have a personal interest in Nina. But when the sheriff arrests the supposed boyfriend of the slain actor's widow, Nina suspects that the wrong troupe member is in jail. She and her trusty Australian Shepherd, Matilda, join forces (none too happily) with Harry to sleuth out the murder plot.
Will they find the real killer before someone else shuffles off this mortal coil? Find out in Anna Gerard's delightful second Georgia B&B mystery.

My Review:

The first book in this series, Peach Clobbered, was just the quintessential first book in a cozy mystery series. The location was marvelous, the characters were appropriately quirky, the dog was adorable and the mystery was properly twisty while the story had a lot of heart – and a superfluity (that’s the correct word, I looked it up) of surprisingly with-it elderly nuns.

I miss the nuns. (Now there’s a sentence I never expected to write!)

Not that Nina Fleet – and her still adorable dog Mattie – aren’t still operating the Fleet House B&B in lovely Cymbeline Georgia. And not that I still wouldn’t love to find the place that inspired it once travel is safe again.

But I miss the nuns. They brought something to the first book that isn’t present in the second one. Making Peachy Scream more of a typical cozy than one that stands head and shoulders above the rest.

The story in Peachy Scream is still plenty charming – although the murder victim certainly is not.

When Nina’s nemesis, jobbing actor Harry Westcott, returns to her B&B with a troupe of amateur Shakespeare players in tow, Nina is certain that Harry is up to something. Again.

After all, when Nina and Harry first met, it was over his lawsuit to vacate her ownership of his great-aunt’s house. The place that Nina had just bought and just started setting up as a B&B in touristy Cymbeline. Not that Nina didn’t buy the house fair and square, rather that Harry’s contention was that the seller had no rights to sell because his great-aunt promised to leave him the house in her will. Which she didn’t – or at least no such will has ever been found although I expect it to turn up at some point later in the series. (That is a guess on my part and not a spoiler. I could be totally wrong. Time will eventually tell. Hopefully.)

Still, Harry’s back and Nina’s suspicious. As she should be.

But Cymbeline, named for Shakespeare’s play, is just about to open its popular, profitable and annual Shakespeare Festival. Harry and his troupe are the contracted acting company for this year’s play, Hamlet. And every other possible place for the players to stay was booked long ago. The festival is very popular!

Which means that Nina, rightfully suspicious as she is, can’t afford to throw Harry out on his rather delectable ass. Not that she’s noticed. Much.

It’s clear to Nina from the moment that she is introduced to Harry’s troupe of players that, to quote the Bard, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” or at least in the state of the company. When the man whom everybody seems to hate – including his trophy wife – turns up his toes in the middle of Nina’s Shakespeare garden, there’s a bushel of suspects, a peck of motives and no end in sight. But the show must go on.

And so must Nina’s and Harry’s reluctant collaboration in investigation. But this time, it’s not the play that’s “ the thing to uncover the conscience of the king”, it’s the play within a play within a play that catches the murderer.

Escape Rating B: Anyone who has spent their school years being endlessly compared to an older sibling or cousin and always failing to measure up will understand my reaction to Peachy Scream. I absolutely loved Peach Clobbered and picked up Peachy Scream because I was hoping for more of the same – or hopefully even better – in the second book in the series now that the setting and characters had been established.

I just didn’t realize how much of the charm of the first book was owed to the nuns. Without them, Peachy Scream doesn’t have quite the same charm. It’s still a good cozy mystery, but the nuns made the first book rise in a way that this one doesn’t.

Not that the story doesn’t have its own charms. The troupe of players, their surprisingly convoluted relationships and the almost internecine warfare amongst them certainly adds plenty of drama to a scenario that is already fraught with it. After all, these are actors – albeit amateur ones – and drama is their natural state.

The whole concept of the play within a play within a play really works here, especially as it seems completely natural for Cymbeline to host a Shakespeare Festival. It would be more of a surprise if they didn’t!

And the hidden agendas of the players make for an appropriate tipping of drama into melodrama, while the strange and strained relationship between Nina and Harry adds an element of farce.

There’s one element of the story that, while in some ways it’s done very well, in one particular aspect adds to some discomfort while reading. It was a common device in several of Shakespeare’s plays, for example in As You Like It, for the Bard to play with gender roles and gender stereotyping by having one or more female characters spend much of the play masquerading as male characters, with all of the dramatic and comedic possibilities for mistaken identities and misplaced affections on full display.

So the concept that one of the members of the troupe is a woman pretending to be a man fits right into the Shakespearean milieu that Cymbeline plays homage to with its festival.

But Nina’s reaction to discovering the possibility that the Chris that presents themselves as male may be female made for a very uncomfortable read. In 21st century terms, when this story is set, it is entirely possible that Chris is in transition rather than in disguise. Nina’s waffling about how to refer to Chris inside her own head, her seeming compulsion to hang herself up on knowing Chris’ gender felt so wrong that it literally dropped the grade of the book from a B+ to a B. The point where Harry just tells Nina to get over herself and use the gender nonspecific “they” in reference to Chris made ME heave a sigh of relief. And it should not have been necessary.

That being said, there was a lot about Peachy Scream to enjoy. The cast was even quirkier, in their own way, than the previous book. The town of Cymbeline is filled with a terrific bunch of folks, and while the Reverend Dr. Bishop, local minister, funeral home director and county coroner, wasn’t as much fun as the nuns; he was a fascinating character in his own right and I hope we see more of him in the series.

And Nina’s relationship with Harry, as weird as it already is, got even weirder at the end of the book. I’m terribly curious to see how THAT plays out in future books in the series!

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Review: Enemies at Home by Lindsey Davis

Review: Enemies at Home by Lindsey DavisEnemies at Home (Flavia Albia Mystery, #2) by Lindsey Davis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Flavia Albia #2
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on July 15, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

“There are rules for private informers accepting a new case. Never take on clients who cannot pay you. Never do favours for friends. Don’t work with relatives. If, like me, you are a woman, keep clear of men you find attractive. 
“Will I never learn?”

In Ancient Rome, the number of slaves was far greater than that of free citizens. As a result, often the people Romans feared most were the “enemies at home,” the slaves under their own roofs. Because of this, Roman law decreed that if the head of a household was murdered at home, and the culprit wasn’t quickly discovered, his slaves—all of them, guilty or not—were presumed responsible and were put to death. Without exception.
When a couple is found dead in their own bedroom and their house burglarized, some of their household slaves know what is about to happen to them.  They flee to the Temple of Ceres, which by tradition is respected as a haven for refugees. This is where Flavia Albia comes in. The authorities, under pressure from all sides, need a solution. Albia, a private informer just like her father, Marcus Didius Falco, is asked to solve the murders, in this mystery from Lindsey Davis.

My Review:

The past is another country, they do things differently there – or so the saying goes.

In my reading of this particular book, the saying can be interpreted more than one way. The Flavia Albia series is set in Imperial Rome in the year 89 AD, during the reign of the emperor Domitian. And I first encountered Flavia, or at least her adopted father Marcus Didius Falco, in the first book in his series, The Silver Pigs, 30 years ago, at a time when I had a one hour plus commute to and from work each day, and good, unabridged audiobooks were still pretty thin on the ground. Falco’s world-weary voice made a long journey shorter and considerably more entertaining.

I welcomed Flavia Albia back into my reading life with all the enthusiasm of greeting a long-lost and much-missed friend. After all, she is a chip off the disreputable old block in all the best ways!

Both Flavia and Falco were private informers and inquiry agents, in other words, private detectives, in an imperial Rome that for all of historical trappings feels a lot more contemporary than most readers probably expected. One of the things that this author does so well is to emphasize the things that we have in common, rather than the details that differentiate that time from our own.

After all, Flavia and Falco are both paid to investigate wandering spouses and uncover criminal activity. While technology has changed a lot in the intervening millennia, it’s not difficult to get caught up in the writer’s interpretation that human nature hasn’t changed much, if at all, in that same period – if ever.

But the setting does play its part. In this case, Flavia is hired by an up-and-coming official that she’s worked with before, Tiberius Manlius Faustus, on a case that she has to break all of her own rules to take – and almost immediately wishes that she hadn’t.

Faustus has hired Albia to determine which, if any, of the slaves from the household of burgled and murdered newlyweds were culpable in the crime. If she can’t determine that some of them neither participated in the murder, nor the theft, nor sat back and allowed it all to happen while they stood idly by, they’ll all be killed in the Coliseum – as public fodder for the beasts.

It’s clear from her initial interviews of the potential subjects that they are all hiding something. The question that Albia has to figure out is whether they’re merely covering up a bit of spiteful backbiting and petty thievery, or whether they are responsible for theft of a staggering – in more ways than one – amount of silver serving ware and the murder of their masters.

Albia finds herself caught between the officials who want a quick solution, a criminal gang unwilling to take responsibility for a job they didn’t do, her own meddling uncles, neighbors who seem to have seen nothing and heard less, and a group of people who seem to be lying at every turn.

Just as she decides that this is one case that she’s never going to solve, there’s another body. A body that can’t be laid at the feet of the original suspects, as Albia was interviewing them all at the time!

Once the case breaks wide open, with Albia squarely on the scene this time, she finally has a chance to figure out what really happened the first time around. Before anyone else winds up dead – justly or not.

Escape Rating A-: Slipping back into Albia’s world was like slipping into a warm bath or under a comfy blanket – in spite of the story being just chock full of lying witnesses, murder suspects and dead bodies. Mystery is a comfort read because it’s the romance of justice. More or less. It may start with a dead body, whether much lamented or completely unlamented, but it ends with good triumphing, or at least normal order prevailing, while evil, or at least misguided criminals, receive their just desserts.

There are two things that make this series, as well as its predecessor featuring Albia’s father Falco.

One is the first-person, cynical, sometimes world-weary voice of the protagonist. Admittedly, Falco was a bit more world-weary than Albia, but by the end of his series in Nemesis he was a bit older than Albia is here. Not that Albia is a newbie in either her work or her life, as this story opens she is 29, a widow with no children, and has been working in her father’s old profession for a number of years.

She’s had plenty of time and experience to observe human behavior in all its ugliness to earn the wry cynicism in her perspective. Also, her world is a bit darker than her father’s and not just because there are more obstacles in her way as a woman doing a man’s job, or any job at all. The Emperor Vespasian, who Falco worked under and occasionally worked for, was a much different man than Domitian, the emperor of Albia’s time.

For one thing, Vespasian was a soldier, a realist, and generally not insane. A condition that Domitian is heading towards by this point in history. Falco had friends in high places when he was a private informer, while during Albia’s time no one would want to have friends in those same places if they had any sense. Which she certainly does.

The other thing that makes this series work is the way that the author brings the commonalities of life in Imperial Rome to life. It’s a big, complicated city, a center of government, a hive of activity. And in the complexities of life in a major metropolis, we see that some things are the same. People gossip about their neighbors. Divorces are more often acrimonious than friendly. Some people rub other people the wrong way. Life in a big city is portrayed as not all that different once you get past 20th or 21st century technology.

Even though Albia doesn’t have contemporary forensics to help her solve this case, the things she does have to work with haven’t changed all that much. She has to examine the crime scene, interview the witnesses, interrogate the suspects, establish a timeline, pull together the evidence she does have and determine who is innocent and who is guilty.

And we get vicarious pleasure in watching her do so, as well as observing the tentative steps she takes towards a relationship with Manlius. Something that we’ll see develop in later books in the series. I’m looking forward to Albia’s next case, Deadly Election, the next time I need to see someone receive their just desserts!

Review: Would I Lie to the Duke by Eva Leigh

Review: Would I Lie to the Duke by Eva LeighWould I Lie to the Duke (Union of the Rakes, #2) by Eva Leigh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance
Series: Union of the Rakes #2
Pages: 384
Published by Avon on July 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

When an ambitious entrepreneur pretends to be a lady of means, she catches the eye—and heart—of a duke...

Jessica McGale's family business desperately needs investors, and she's determined to succeed at any cost. But she knows London's elite will never look twice at a humble farm girl like herself. Posing as “Lady Whitfield,” however, places her in the orbit of wealthy, powerful people—most notably the Duke of Rotherby. His influence and support could save her company, but Jess never expected the effect he'd have on her.
Society thinks Noel is a notorious, carefree duke who dabbles in investments, but there's a side to him that only his closest friends see. When he crosses paths with Lady Whitfield at a business bazaar, his world tilts on its axis. She's brilliant and compelling, and brings him to his knees like no woman has before. Trust is difficult for Noel, but Jess makes him believe anything is possible...
As time ticks down on her Cinderella scheme, the thought of achieving her goal at Noel's expense breaks Jess' heart. He doesn't just want her now, he wants her forever. But will her secret end their future before it begins?

My Review:

If the title is a question, then the answer is definitely “yes” for Jess McGale, as is her answer to the question “would I lie with the duke?”. The problem is that Jess is still lying TO him while she’s lying WITH him, and that’s very nearly too much for anyone to forgive. Particularly a duke.

Jess is doing her best to save her family’s business and her family’s home. After a disastrous fire wiped out most of McGale and McGale’s soap making and packaging equipment, that business, a manufacturer of very-high quality honey-based soaps, is in dire straits. Jess and her two siblings don’t have enough money to replace the equipment, and with replacing the equipment the business can’t make enough soap to stay afloat.

As the eldest, Jess feels like the whole mess was dumped on her shoulders when their parents died not long before the fire. Even though, as both her brother and sister remind her frequently, neither of them are exactly in leading strings. One gets the impression that they are all somewhere in their 30s, making them all well into adulthood.

But Jess, having taken all the responsibility – whether rightly or not – also takes on all the desperation of figuring out one last chance to get them back on their feet. Her initial idea is to bring in money by serving as a paid-companion to an eccentric but well-heeled widow.

While preparing said widow’s London house for her imminent arrival, Jess decides to wager everything on one grand throw of the dice. She uses her own business acumen as well as her employer’s extensive wardrobe to inveigle herself into entrance to the exclusive investment club known as the Bazaar. She captures the attention – and the sexual interest – of the Duke of Rotherby, the enabling “Pygmalion” figure of the previous book in this series, My Fake Rake.

Noel may play the rake and the debauched aristocrat, but there’s a shrewd mind and a compassionate heart behind that air of lazy insouciance. Noel participates in the Bazaar to find ethical companies in which to invest his vast holdings. In “Lady Whitfield”, the part that Jess is playing to the hilt, he finds a woman whose mind is every bit as penetrating as his own, attached to a body that seems made for sin. A sin that Jess is more than willing to explore with him.

But she knows that the lie she is living can come between them at any moment, considering that she entered the Bazaar with the intent of surreptitiously acquiring one or more investors for her family’s business.

She just didn’t count on losing her heart in the process.

Escape Rating B+: I liked the first book in this series, My Fake Rake, I enjoyed Would I Lie to the Duke quite a bit more. I think because this story doesn’t fall into the kind of romantic misunderstandammit that the first book did.

Not that Noel and Jess don’t have an epic falling out before they reach their happy ever after, but the reason behind that falling out is one that is worth all the problems it causes. Jess has, after all, been lying to Noel for the entire story by that point. And while she should have told him the truth at least before they fell into bed together – or on any other flat surface that happened to be around – it’s understandable why she didn’t. She is, after all, protecting her family.

Another refreshing thing about this story is a trend that we’re seeing more and more of, and it’s one I really like. Jess isn’t herself part of the aristocracy. She’s not a titled lady. Jess is someone who works for her living, and works hard and professionally at that living.

Part of the reason I picked this book up this week was to see if it was in dialog with this week’s other historical romance, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows. And it is, a bit, in that both Agatha and Jess are women who have always worked, and are business owners or co-owners who make their own decisions and don’t conform to the aristocratic expectations of women not involving themselves in either the business or the politics of the day. And who have to grit their teeth and bear it every time a man talks over them or acts like they can’t possibly make the best decisions for themselves or understand the oh-so-terribly-complicated world in which they live and work.

At the same time, this is also a much more traditional romance, not just because Jess’ paramour is a man but also because he’s a duke, the traditional hero of historic romance.

And yet, Noel is not traditional at all in his probing interest in investments and in his search for ethical companies in which to invest. While this isn’t the first historical romance to feature lords who use their minds as well as their capital to nurture new companies (Christy Carlyle’s Duke’s Den in the marvelous A Duke Changes Everything also features an investment club) this one is still a bit different in that the Bazaar and its denizens, while fascinating in themselves, are not the same people as the hero’s group of childhood friends who form the backbone of the series.

All in all, this was a delightful historical romance that had a lot of fun with its disguised heroine in plain sight as well as a bit of deliciously naughty romantic role-reversal.

And speaking of the members of the Bazaar in conjunction with Noel’s childhood friends, there’s certainly going to be an explosive meeting of members of those two groups in the next book in the series, Waiting for a Scot Like You, which is scheduled to warm up a winter’s night or two this coming February.

Review: The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis

Review: The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona DavisThe Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Dutton Books on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

A Good Morning America Book Club Pick!
“A page-turner for booklovers everywhere! . . . A story of family ties, their lost dreams, and the redemption that comes from discovering truth.”—Adriana Trigiani, bestselling author of The Shoemaker's Wife

In nationally bestselling author Fiona Davis's latest historical novel, a series of book thefts roils the iconic New York Public Library, leaving two generations of strong-willed women to pick up the pieces.
It's 1913, and on the surface, Laura Lyons couldn't ask for more out of life--her husband is the superintendent of the New York Public Library, allowing their family to live in an apartment within the grand building, and they are blessed with two children. But headstrong, passionate Laura wants more, and when she takes a leap of faith and applies to the Columbia Journalism School, her world is cracked wide open. As her studies take her all over the city, she finds herself drawn to Greenwich Village's new bohemia, where she discovers the Heterodoxy Club--a radical, all-female group in which women are encouraged to loudly share their opinions on suffrage, birth control, and women's rights. Soon, Laura finds herself questioning her traditional role as wife and mother. But when valuable books are stolen back at the library, threatening the home and institution she loves, she's forced to confront her shifting priorities head on . . . and may just lose everything in the process.
Eighty years later, in 1993, Sadie Donovan struggles with the legacy of her grandmother, the famous essayist Laura Lyons, especially after she's wrangled her dream job as a curator at the New York Public Library. But the job quickly becomes a nightmare when rare manuscripts, notes, and books for the exhibit Sadie's running begin disappearing from the library's famous Berg Collection. Determined to save both the exhibit and her career, the typically risk-adverse Sadie teams up with a private security expert to uncover the culprit. However, things unexpectedly become personal when the investigation leads Sadie to some unwelcome truths about her own family heritage--truths that shed new light on the biggest tragedy in the library's history.

My Review:

Once upon a time, there really were apartments built into at least some of the branches of the New York Public Library, including the branch on 5th Avenue – the one with the lions. So the apartment that Laura Lyons and her family live in really did exist, and was occupied by the real-life family of the first Superintendent, John Fedeler, who had an interesting history but thankfully no stories of stolen books – not that THAT doesn’t happen in plenty of libraries in real life. As the source material the author lists at the end demonstrates all too clearly.

While NYPL’s iconic Schwarzman Building is nearly as much of a character in the story as Laura Lyons and her granddaughter Sadie Donovan, the heart of this timeslip story revolves around the ways that family legacies and family stories shape our lives for both good and ill.

The story runs on two parallel tracks, both wrapped around the enigma of a series of thefts of rare, collectible books from NYPL’s rare book collection. And the way that both series of thefts implicate the Lyons family, past and present, and call into question their honor, their honesty and their service to a beloved institution.

Laura Lyons story is both the most difficult, and the most dynamic, as she starts her story in 1913 as a traditional wife and mother, albeit with a rather unusual address, an apartment on the Mezzanine level of the 5th Avenue branch of NYPL. Her journey is the longest and the hardest, as she struggles to make her own place in a world that expects her to stand quietly and respectfully behind and not beside her husband, the first Superintendent of the grand, new, library building.

But Laura wants to be more than a wife and mother. She wants to be a full participant in the rapidly changing world around her, and even more, she wants to help lead those changes. In her quest to become a journalist, she steps out of her husband’s shadow and away from her traditional role to find her own voice and her own life.

The gap left by her frequent absences causes a rift in her family, a rift that leaves a crack through which her son falls – into the clutches of an unscrupulous young thief and conman. Someone who gives the boy the attention and direction that is missing from his own family. Leading to the destruction of her husband’s career and his legacy – but to the making of Laura’s own.

In parallel, we see her granddaughter Sadie Donovan in 1993, the new and temporary curator of the now-famous Berg Collection – a collection that includes a walking stick that once belonged to her grandmother, the famous, and occasionally infamous feminist essayist Laura Lyons. When Sadie’s new position is threatened by another series of thefts from the Berg Collection, thefts that strikingly parallel the events that destroyed her grandmother’s family, history repeats as the granddaughter is under exactly the same suspicion that her grandfather was so long ago – that she is the insider responsible for the thefts.

In her quest to exonerate herself by finding the thief, Sadie investigates the events of the past – a past that her mother refused to discuss – ever. But in that search Sadie finds the link between her now and Laura’s then, and a truth that gives her all the answers she never knew she needed.

Escape Rating A: I have to say that this story had me at library. The idea of living in a big library like NYPL is probably every booklover’s dream. So the story of Laura and her family being fortunate enough to live inside that iconic building would have captured me if the story had been all sweetness and light. Which it isn’t, and that’s what made it so good.

I also have to say at this point that I am a librarian, and have to say that the description of Sadie’s career and day-to-day working life rang a lot of bells for me. What she did, how she got there, how she felt were all very reminiscent of my own working life. I was a working librarian in 1993 just as Sadie was, and her experiences were similar enough to my own that she was easy to identify with.

On my third hand, there are parts of Laura’s story that feel like they are in dialog with yesterday’s book, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, in spite of the stories taking place on opposite sides of the Atlantic and nearly a century apart. Both Laura and Agatha were women who straddled the line between being traditional wives and mothers and wanting more for themselves and more from their partners. That so little had changed about traditional women’s roles and how much censure women received when they deviated from those roles makes the century that separates them seem much shorter than the 80 years that separates Laura from her granddaughter. Laura’s messages about women’s lives and women’s labor and women’s need for both true partners and real independence has resonance because there’s still so far to go. There was in 1993 and there still is today.

But the heart of this story is the secret. The secret of how to steal from the locked cages of the Berg Collection. It’s a secret that is discovered by one generation and taught to another. A secret that breaks Laura Lyons’ family. A secret that reaches down through the generations. A secret that taints the life of her daughter and very nearly ruins the life of her granddaughter, just as it did her husband’s life.

The investigation of that secret, an investigation that fails in the past but finally succeeds at the end is so simple that you’re surprised no one figured it out sooner – including the reader. It’s also complicated by the weight of the secrets and lies that accreted around it, and so devastating that it nearly claims another generation of victims.

Sadie doesn’t so much uncover the secret as stumble over it, but the way that her stumbling takes her through her family’s history is absolutely captivating every step of the way.

Review: The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

Review: The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia WaiteThe Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows (Feminine Pursuits, #2) by Olivia Waite
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: F/F romance, historical romance
Series: Feminine Pursuits #2
Pages: 416
Published by Avon Impulse on July 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

When Agatha Griffin finds a colony of bees in her warehouse, it’s the not-so-perfect ending to a not-so-perfect week. Busy trying to keep her printing business afloat amidst rising taxes and the suppression of radical printers like her son, the last thing the widow wants is to be the victim of a thousand bees. But when a beautiful beekeeper arrives to take care of the pests, Agatha may be in danger of being stung by something far more dangerous…
Penelope Flood exists between two worlds in her small seaside town, the society of rich landowners and the tradesfolk. Soon, tensions boil over when the formerly exiled Queen arrives on England’s shores—and when Penelope’s long-absent husband returns to Melliton, she once again finds herself torn, between her burgeoning love for Agatha and her loyalty to the man who once gave her refuge.
As Penelope finally discovers her true place, Agatha must learn to accept the changing world in front of her. But will these longing hearts settle for a safe but stale existence or will they learn to fight for the future they most desire?

My Review:

I picked this up because I really enjoyed the first book in this series, The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, and was hoping for not just more but even better from this second book – and that’s exactly what I got – both the more and the better!

As this story opens, Mrs. Agatha Griffin and Mrs. Penelope Flood are just about to meet over a hive of bees who have decided to make their honey amongst the stored printing plates of previously published works by Griffin’s print shop, the business that Agatha inherited from her late – and much missed – husband.

Penelope is the local expert on rehoming swarms of bees that are swarming in places where they are not wanted. Or in Agatha’s case, a swarm that has formed a quite industrious hive in a place where they are not wanted – her auxiliary printing house in Melliton.

They are opposites in every way. Agatha is a city woman, at home in London and still feeling a stranger in Melliton. Penelope may enjoy a visit to the metropolis but her home is in Melliton with her bees. Agatha is tall, Penelope is short. While both are what we would consider middle class, Penelope is comfortably off while Agatha works for her living, albeit in a business which she owns. Agatha has a grown son, Penelope has no children. Because Agatha’s marriage was mostly happy, while Penelope’s is entirely a marriage of convenience. Penelope married John Flood because he is her brother’s best friend and lifetime companion. Their marriage makes it easier for her brother Harry and John to hide their relationship in plain sight, while Penelope believed that she’d never marry. Just as her brother prefers the company of his own sex, so does Penelope prefer the company of hers.

It’s an arrangement that Penelope begins to call into question as the sudden attraction she feels for Agatha turns into something both mutual and more. Into a love that Agatha feels is forbidden, not so much because they are both women as because Penelope is married and subject to all the expectations that society has for married women – no matter what mischief their husbands happen to be up to.

They are both under threat from those expectations of society, although not in the same ways. When Penelope sets herself against the wishes of the local squire, or more accurately the expectations of the local squire’s wife, all of the ways in which she flouts convention come screaming down on her head, and on the heads of her brother, her husband, and all of the many beekeepers in the area who are her friends, her colleagues and in many ways her family of choice.

Meanwhile in London, it is 1820, and King George IV, the Prince Regent now king, is in dispute with his wife and his parliament. The revolutions in both France and those stubborn former colonies – the United States – are still very much on the minds of the aristocrats who want to remain on top of the heap, while Radicals who want more power for the people are fomenting, not exactly rebellion, but certainly disrespectful questioning of the established order.

Agatha is a practical and pragmatic woman who knows that she must steer a course for her publishing house that keeps them both solvent and out of the sights of government agents who will shut them down at the slightest provocation – which they very nearly do.

But her son is 19 and more than willing to tilt at all the windmills of that established order – no matter the cost.

The tightropes walked by Agatha and Penelope are dangerous, and if not deadly, certainly threatening to all that they hold dear. Including, especially, each other.

Escape Rating A: It felt like there were three threads being pulled in this story, and they braided together marvelously.

The first, the foremost, the loveliest thread is, of course, the romance between Agatha and Penelope. This is a romance that, unlike the one in the first book, takes an appropriate amount of time to develop. It begins with an unexpected friendship with an unquestioned amount of good old-fashioned lust, but it moves slowly and methodically as these two, separately and eventually together, work their way through all of the things that lie between them, their possible happiness as well as the potential for scandal.

At the same time, there’s that second, and very important thread that runs directly through the political turmoil of the time. Which leads directly into the part of the story that centers around Agatha’s printing house, her son who wants to throw in their lot with the Radicals, and her female apprentice who is more than educated enough to know that marriage is all too often a trap and a cage for women. This part of the story, including apprentice Eliza’s sensible but possibly slightly anachronistic attitude, reads similarly to A Duke in Disguise by Cat Sebastian, which takes place no more than a couple of years before this story and also centers around a printing shop with Radical sympathies.

The final thread winds its way through the town of Melliton, where Penelope lives and Agatha has her auxiliary printing press. Just as the government is cracking down on Radicals in London, so in the countryside are there factions determined to stamp out all threats to morality, decency and the status quo that keeps them in power. Penelope, already considered outre, sets herself against those forces by setting herself against the local squire’s wife on pretty much every front. And is reminded at every turn that the established order is not only against her but has the power to make her life, and the lives of those she loves, a misery. Simply because she is a woman.

Like the previous book in the series, The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, the story never loses sight of the fact that the deck was stacked against women in this time and place every single step of the way. Not even the Queen is exempt from that universal truism. At the same time, the story doesn’t beat the reader over the head with it in quite the same way the setup of that first story does. Agatha and Penelope, being older and more experienced when this story begins than Lucy was in Celestial Mechanics, are better able to beat against the tide at least some of the time. They just never lose their awareness that they are being beaten by that tide.

That being said, while this is the second book in the series, it feels like it’s only tangentially related to the first book. In other words, Waspish Widows can be read very enjoyably without having read Celestial Mechanics, although if you like one you’ll certainly like the other.

To sum up, while I merely liked Celestial Mechanics, I loved Waspish Widows. We get to root for the underdogs, we get to see the forces of conformity routed – just a bit – and we get to fall in love with two women who are determined to find the happy ever after that they want for themselves no matter what society says they are supposed to want.

Feminine Pursuits will continue next year with The Hellion’s Waltz. I’m looking forward to the dance!

Review: Search the Dark by Charles Todd

Review: Search the Dark by Charles ToddSearch the Dark (Inspector Ian Rutledge, #3) by Charles Todd
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Inspector Ian Rutledge #3
Pages: 310
Published by St. Martin's Press on May 15, 2000
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

The introspective hero of Wings of Fire and A Test of Wills (Edgar Award nominee) returns in Search the Dark, a provocative new mystery by Charles Todd. Inspector Ian Rutledge, haunted by memories of World War I and the harrowing presence of Hamish, a dead soldier, is "a superb characterization of a man whose wounds have made him a stranger in his own land." (The New York Times Book Review)
A dead woman and two missing children bring Inspector Rutledge to the lovely Dorset town of Singleton Magna, where the truth lies buried with the dead. A tormented veteran whose family died in an enemy bombing is the chief suspect. Dubious, Rutledge presses on to find the real killer. And when another body is found in the rich Dorset earth, his quest reaches into the secret lives of villagers and Londoners whose privileged positions and private passions give them every reason to thwart him. Someone is protecting a murderer. And two children are out there, somewhere, in the dark....

My Review:

I picked this up because I was looking for a comfort read, as paradoxical as it is to find murder comfortable. Of course, I don’t find actual murder comfortable at all, but murder mysteries have to follow certain conventions – a body, a detective, a suspect, a few tasty red herrings – and I find that quite comfortable. I ended up here with Inspector Ian Rutledge because I just picked up a new book in the series (A Fatal Lie) and remembered that I was nowhere near caught up with him yet.

And I love the work of his creators, the mother-and-son writing team known as Charles Todd. So here we are.

One of the things that makes this series so fascinating is its atypical detective. The series takes place in the years following World War I. The events of Search the Dark occur in August of 1919, and the war is less than a year over at this point. Officially, the war ended in late June of 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, so the semi-certainty of true peace has barely begun to settle.

The war is very present in this story, both in the continuing economic deprivations and the losses that are still fresh and grieved for. It is also literally present in the mind of Inspector Ian Rutledge, a man who continues to suffer from shell-shock and carries in his mind the voice of a young soldier he executed for dereliction of duty. Corporal Hamish MacLeod may have died in France, but he also lives in Ian’s mind as a voice that provides insights and recriminations by turns throughout the story.

This is also a story centered around the damage that the war inflicted on its survivors. War is always hell, but the so-called Great War, with its fatal gases and its endless trenches, seems to have been worse than most.

The effects linger most obviously around Ian, who constantly doubts himself, both in his own voice as well as that of Hamish, but also in the lives of three men in the tiny villages surrounding Singleton Magna in Dorset. One old soldier thinks he saw his dead wife and their two children. The woman he thought was his wife has been found dead by the side of the road. The local police want to believe he did it, because that makes their lives easier.

But the area holds two other men who came back from the war less than mentally whole. The late rector’s son and the late squire’s son don’t have much else in common, but when a second dead woman is discovered, that the new body has been in the ground for at least three months throws the comfortable theory about a stranger rampaging around the county out of the bounds of reasonable possibility.

That’s where Rutledge comes in. The longer he investigates, no matter how much the local police resent his presence, it’s clear that someone local has to be involved with the mini-crime spree.

And that just because a lot of people are throwing smoke at someone they dislike, doesn’t mean that that’s where the fire started.

Until an actual fire starts, and all of the comfortable theories burn to ash – along with more than a few lies – and lives.

Escape Rating A-: Part of that comfort in reading a murder mystery is that the reader knows at the beginning that whoever the initial suspect is – they didn’t do it. (Yes, there are rare occasions when they did, but they’re so rare that when it does happen it’s a shocker!)

It’s certainly true in this story that poor Bert Mowbray didn’t kill the woman. He certainly seems to have had a psychotic break – but it just doesn’t seem like THAT kind of break. Especially since the dead woman wasn’t his wife, who died along with both their children while he was somewhere in a trench in France.

But Singleton Magna is a small town and it would make everyone a hell of a lot more comfortable if the killer were a random stranger instead of someone local. But if the dead woman was Mowbray’s wife, and he really did see her and their two children as the train he was on rushed by, there’s a huge question remaining – what happened to those children?

It’s the pathos of those missing little ones that gets Scotland Yard involved, bringing Rutledge to Dorset to upset the settled case that the local inspector thinks he has all tied up with a neat bow. A bow that Rutledge immediately tries to untie.

In the search for those missing children, the case widens out to the nearby towns and villages. Only to discover that the woman the locals decided had to be Mrs. Mowbray is actually Margaret Tarlton. And that Margaret Tarlton had just interviewed for a position as a museum assistant with the local squire, Simon Wyatt.

And that’s where the case both reaches out to far off London and weaves its way into the life of the even tinier town of Charlbury, where that local squire came home from his war not quite the man he used to be, and with a French wife that the locals don’t like, don’t trust and would be willing to blame for anything – even murder.

The way that the spiral of lies, suspicions and half-truths winds its way around Aurore Wyatt was reminiscent of the “conviction by the mob” that occurred in A Pattern of Lies, part of the author’s Bess Crawford series.

But what makes this series work is the dogged and tormented character of Inspector Ian Rutledge. He’s often caught between knowing that he’s right and fearing that he’s wrong. He’s afraid at every turn that he’ll fail, and that the result of that failure will condemn both an innocent and himself. He carries the seeds of his own destruction within himself, scared that others will see and judge him the less for them while knowing that they do. And yet, he can’t stop from trying, with every case, to reach for what is right. Even in a case like this one, where in the end his success has as many victims as his failure would have.

As I’m reaching the end of several of the other series I turn to when I’m looking for a comfort read, I know that I’ll be back to catch up with Inspector Ian Rutledge the next time I’m looking for a spot of murder to bring me back to reading life. I’m looking forward to picking up Legacy of the Dead when that happens.

Review: The Friendship List by Susan Mallery

Review: The Friendship List by Susan MalleryThe Friendship List by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

[ ] Dance till dawn

[ ] Go skydiving

[ ] Wear a bikini in public

[ ] Start living

Two best friends jump-start their lives in a summer that will change them forever…
Single mom Ellen Fox couldn’t be more content—until she overhears her son saying he can’t go to his dream college because she needs him too much. If she wants him to live his best life, she has to convince him she’s living hers.
So Unity Leandre, her best friend since forever, creates a list of challenges to push Ellen out of her comfort zone. Unity will complete the list, too, but not because she needs to change. What’s wrong with a thirtysomething widow still sleeping in her late husband’s childhood bed?
The Friendship List begins as a way to make others believe they’re just fine. But somewhere between “wear three-inch heels” and “have sex with a gorgeous guy,” Ellen and Unity discover that life is meant to be lived with joy and abandon, in a story filled with humor, heartache and regrettable tattoos.

My Review:

There’s an old saying that the only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions. And that’s where this story begins, with best friend Ellen Fox and Unity Leandre both stuck in very long ruts. Very, very long.

The problem with ruts is that they can be surprisingly comfortable down there at the bottom. There’s nothing challenging a person out of their comfort zone. Ruts are easy and change is hard – and frequently painful.

Ellen had sex once, 17 years ago, found herself pregnant and unenthused about the process that got her there and settled into life as a single mother with a tiny bit of help and a whole lot of grief and attitude from her disapproving parents. Now she’s in her mid-30s, her son is at the end of his junior year in high school, and the kid is unwilling to apply to the colleges he really wants to go to because he’s afraid of leaving his poor mother all by herself because she doesn’t have a life outside of her teaching job, her two best friends, and him.

The worst part is that he’s not wrong.

Unity is even more stuck than her bestie. Her young husband died serving his country, but Unity seems to have thrown herself at least partway in that grave with him. She lives in his childhood home, sleeps in his childhood room, and has kept all of his things right where he – and his late parents – left them. She’s either living with his ghost or waiting to die. Or both. All of her friends except Ellen live in the age-restricted community where she does a lot of her home handyman work, and it’s a good thing the place is age-restricted or she’d have moved right in. If she could bring herself to move, that is.

Even Unity’s grief group has had enough of the way that Unity seems to feed her grief instead of letting it heal.

So they challenge each other to step out of their oh-so-comfortable ruts. To stretch their horizons and find out who they still have plenty of time to be before it’s too late. Before the dimensions of their ruts close off at the ends into graves.

Because they are both still young and have way too much life ahead of them to spend it waiting for the end. They’ll just have to make that hard climb over the sides of those ruts.

Escape Rating A-: Ellen and Unity may need to step out of their comfort zones, but in picking up this book I stepped right into mine. This was just the kind of friendship story that this author does so well, and reading it was a terrific pick-me-up for these troubled times.

What was great was that I felt for the situations of both of these women, in spite of both of their experiences being so far outside my own. Sometimes I wanted to beat them both with a clue-by-four, but in the way one does with long-term friends. As in I may think you’re way off base and I’ll tell you that in private while in public I’ll defend you from all comers.

Ellen and Unity have that kind of friendship and it’s an enviable one. It’s also easy to empathize with the way that they are both just trying to get through this thing called life and doing the best they can at it, even if from the outside it’s clear that they’re not really doing all that well at all. They are sabotaging themselves in ways that are easy to recognize and understand.

I also loved that they were able to finally figure out that many of their issues were sourced in the same place – Ellen’s rule-bound, disapproving parents – and that they both started figuring out ways to remove themselves from those naysaying voices.

One of the highlights of the story was Unity’s friendship with the larger-than-life Dagmar, and the contrast between Dagmar’s 70-something joie de vivre and eagerness to live each day to the absolute fullest, while Unity seems to be counting down the days, weeks, months and years until she can move into the senior village. Dagmar is clearly refusing to go gentle into that good night, in stark contrast to Unity who seems to have already went even though she’s still alive.

I loved the way that they each managed to work their way out of their respective ruts. It also felt very real that they had to be separate for a few weeks in order to make that happen. They were clearly enabling each other to stay stuck, whether intentionally or not.

But as much as I enjoyed this story, and I very much did, there’s a niggle that kept it from being an A. I think I’d have enjoyed the whole thing more if the solution to both women’s issues hadn’t been a romance. Or if it hadn’t felt like the romance and the healing were tied in a bit too strongly together. These women both needed to heal themselves first, and that’s not quite how it felt, particularly in Unity’s case. That Unity was healed enough at the end for an actual HEA doesn’t feel right, although Ellen certainly earned hers.

Still, this was a lovely read and I’m very glad I read it. I just picked up the ARC for Susan Mallery’s next standalone book, The Vineyard at Painted Moon, and I’m already looking forward to it.

In the meantime, if you’re thinking about picking up The Friendship List, I posted an excerpt from the first chapter last week as part of a tour. You can still follow the tour entries to get a taste of this delicious story.

Review: Queen of the Unwanted by Jenna Glass

Review: Queen of the Unwanted by Jenna GlassQueen of the Unwanted by Jenna Glass
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Women's War #2
Pages: 592
Published by Del Rey Books on May 12, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

In this feminist fantasy series, the ability to do magic has given women control over their own bodies. But as the patriarchy starts to fall, they must now learn to rule as women, not men.
Alys may be the acknowledged queen of Women's Well—the fledgling colony where women hold equal status with men—but she cares little for politics in the wake of an appalling personal tragedy. It is grief that rules her now. But the world continues to turn.
In a distant realm unused to female rulers, Ellin struggles to maintain control. Meanwhile, the king of the island nation of Khalpar recruits an abbess whom he thinks holds the key to reversing the spell that Alys's mother gave her life to create. And back in Women's Well, Alys's own half-brother is determined to bring her to heel. Unless these women can all come together and embrace the true nature of female power, everything they have struggled to achieve may be at risk.

My Review:

I picked up this book because for the most part I enjoyed the starting book in this series, The Women’s War. But I have to say that I found the message of that first book to sometimes be heavy-handed. Not enough to spoil my enjoyment, but more than enough to make me wonder what would happen next.

Queen of the Unwanted certainly carries on directly from the events in The Women’s War, making it impossible for any reader to start here and make any sense of current events. Or, honestly, to care about what happens to the characters.

This is definitely a middle book, with all the inherent problems therein. Which means not only that you can’t start here, but that it fulfills the sense at the end of the first book, that the situation our heroines, Princess Alysoon of Women’s Well and Queen Ellinsoltah of Rhozinolm are at a point in both of their stories where things are dark and turning darker – quite possibly as a prelude to turning completely black.

So this is a story where more gets revealed but little gets resolved, setting the stage for the third book in the series at some future date. Hopefully not too far in our future, as this is a complicated series which makes picking up the action after a long hiatus a rather daunting affair for the reader.

Although I’ll certainly be back, if only to find out what happens next!

Escape Rating B-: I have to say that this book drove me absolutely bananas – and not always in a good way. I really did want to find out what happened after the earth-shaking events of the first book. But that means I wanted things to actually happen. This entry in the series, being a middle book, means that lots of people are maneuvering, and there is tons of political wrangling and shenanigans, but that in the end, not much happens.

Or at least, not until the very end, when the action suddenly proceeds apace, only to leave readers with multiple terrible book hangovers as they wait for the next book. Whenever it appears. I listened to 80% of this and then read the rest. The audio was interesting enough to keep me occupied while driving, but when things picked up I couldn’t stand to continue at that slow pace.

So, the story is slow going for a lot of its length. Of which there is rather a lot. And there are oodles of political machinations, but they don’t seem to go anywhere for much of the story.

The big message in this one is that old saw about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. The history of this place is that men have had all the power, all the time, and now that women have carved out their own, tiny piece of it the men will do anything to get their absolute domination back.

The message is extremely heavy handed, to the point where it gets overdone. The reader feels a bit bludgeoned by it – as many of the female characters are beaten and degraded on a frequent basis. The treatment of women in this entire world is utterly appalling.

At the same time, the stakes are so high, and yet, particularly in Women’s Well, the behavior of both Princess Alys and her brother Tynthanal feels so petty and selfish. Neither of them seems to be thinking of the greater good of their beleaguered kingdom, but rather railing against all the things that are just not going their way in their personal lives.

And the major villain of the piece does tip into over-the-top-ness and reaches villain fail. Not just that he is so inept he can’t possibly succeed at anything, but that it is amazing that his own country doesn’t depose him early on. He’s not just evil, he’s a bad king and it’s OBVIOUS. He is neither respected nor feared and that should be a short trip to a headsman’s axe.

Instead, he becomes a figure of ridicule, not just to his court but to the reader. He has no self-control; neither over his temper nor his overindulgence in food and drink. His steadily increasing girth is meant to evoke the figure of Henry VIII, but Henry, for all his petulance, was an effective king which Delnamal NEVER is. Instead, the villain’s increasing weight becomes a vehicle for mockery and it just feels wrong.

Speaking of things that feel wrong, one of the points I mentioned in my review of The Women’s War was the utter lack of same-sex relationships. This feels like a world where such relationships would have been frowned upon if not banned, but human nature happens. There’s a whole spectrum of it that isn’t happening here in circumstances like the all-male army barracks and the all-female abbeys for unwanted women where it feels like it would have.

I know I’m complaining a lot about a book that I gave a B- rating to. I liked this story. I liked the first book better but I’m still very interested in seeing what happens. Even if it drives me crazy yet again.

Review: A Royal Affair by Allison Montclair

Review: A Royal Affair by Allison MontclairA Royal Affair (Sparks & Bainbridge Mystery #2) by Allison Montclair
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Sparks & Bainbridge #2
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on July 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

More goes wrong than could be imagined when Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn Bainbridge of The Right Sort Marriage Bureau are unexpectedly engaged to dig into the past of a suitor of a royal princess in Allison Montclair’s delightful second novel, A Royal Affair.
In London 1946, The Right Sort Marriage Bureau is just beginning to take off and the proprietors, Miss Iris Sparks and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge, are in need of a bigger office and a secretary to handle the growing demand. Unfortunately, they don't yet have the necessary means. So when a woman arrives—a cousin of Gwen's—with an interesting and quite remunerative proposition, they two of them are all ears.
The cousin, one Lady Matheson, works for the Queen in "some capacity" and is in need of some discreet investigation. It seems that the Princess Elizabeth has developed feelings for a dashing Greek prince and a blackmail note has arrived, alluding to some potentially damaging information about said prince. Wanting to keep this out of the palace gossip circles, but also needing to find out what skeletons might lurk in the prince's closet, the palace has quietly turned to Gwen and Iris. Without causing a stir, the two of them must now find out what secrets lurk in the prince's past, before his engagement to the future Queen of England is announced. And there's more at stake than the future of the Empire —there is their potential new office that lies in the balance.

My Review:

I picked this up because I absolutely adored the first book in this series, The Right Sort of Man. So I wanted to see what happened next to Sparks and Bainbridge.

In spite of the titles of the books, this is emphatically NOT a romance series. Set in the immediate post-World War II period, Iris Sparks and Gwen Bainbridge run a marriage bureau, called The Right Sort. As in they are looking to find the right sort of man or woman for their clients to marry. They get paid, not by the hour, but by their successful matchmaking.

But in the first book in the series, their matchmaking investigation leads them into a murder investigation – as the investigators. Which may, or may not, have been just the kind of notoriety they needed to get their fledgling business off the ground.

That notoriety, however, does bring them to the attention of the Palace. Buckingham Palace, that is.

The Queen – the one who became known as the “Queen Mum” – in the person of her confidential agent Lady Matheson, has a case for Sparks and Bainbridge that should be right up their alley. The only problem is that the alley in question is covered by the Official Secrets Act.

They want Sparks and Bainbridge to vet one of Lilibet’s suitors. Because whoever marries Lilibet, better known to history as Queen Elizabeth II, will become Prince Consort and the father of the next heir to the throne. While not King, whoever it is will still represent the United Kingdom on the world stage.

While kings and princes may later have scandals attached to their names – the debacle of Edward VII’s abdication is still in recent memory – the royal family can’t afford to let anyone in with a scandal already attached.

It’s obvious from recent photos, gleefully published by the gossip papers, that Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark is going to propose to Princess Elizabeth – and probably soon. It’s unfortunately clear from recent correspondence addressed to the Princess that someone has dirt on Philip.

Well, not exactly on Philip himself. After all, no one is responsible for the circumstances of their own birth. But even a hint of a question about whether said birth was legitimate will be more than enough scandal to wreck any possibility of his marrying the future Queen.

As well as throw a spanner into any possibility that his cousin, King George II of Greece, will ever get the chance to sit on his own throne.

It all sounds like a case that should be a bit too big for a simple marriage bureau to handle. But Sparks and Bainbridge are more than up to the job!

24th November 1947: Princess Elizabeth and The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh enjoying a walk during their honeymoon at Broadlands, Romsey, Hampshire. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Escape Rating A-: After decades of pictures of Queen Elizabeth as matron, mother, grandmother and now great-grandmother, it’s hard to remember that once upon a time she was the young and beautiful princess in love with her very own handsome prince. But the pictures from the time when this story takes place, while they may or may not show the true state of the affection between Elizabeth and Philip certainly show them as being young and quite photogenic at the very least.

I was expecting this story to be more of the wonderful formula that we first saw in The Right Sort of Man, two women in a strong and developing friendship – or womance, to use the female equivalent of bromance. Iris and Gwen are from different backgrounds and have taken different roads to get where they are, but they each have something the other lacks.

Iris has street smarts, but more than that she has the training to use those smarts. Training that was honed during the late war in her service as an undercover operative doing things that would put her in prison in peacetime. Things that would have certainly gotten her killed if she had been caught. Which she wasn’t.

In addition to her deadlier skills, Iris also brings a whole host of “friends in low places” to their partnership. She can get things done. She can get bodies buried. She can get them into and out of trouble.

Gwen Bainbridge is a single mother being essentially held hostage by her wealthy in-laws. It’s a privileged life, but Gwen is very much the bird in the gilded cage. Working with Sparks is a way of keeping her sanity and giving her purpose – which also helps her keep her sanity. And it keeps her out of her in-laws house where they watch her like a hawk. After her husband’s death during the war, Gwen went into a slough of despond – she descended into a deep depression. During that period her in-laws took custody of her young son – their grandson. Now that she’s well on the mend, she wants custody back. And they are holding that over her head at every opportunity.

What Gwen brings to the partnership is her knowledge of the upper crust, and her membership in those rarefied circles as well as her Cambridge education. She can get them entree into places that would otherwise be closed to them, and can get information out of people who would otherwise show them the door – or at least the entrance to the servants’ quarters.

The progress of this case both makes their partnership stronger and shows the places where they still need to work on it. They are friends and partners, but there is also more than a hint of lingering resentment and jealousy on both sides, as each wishes they had some of the other’s circumstances or advantages. And they occasionally play one-upsmanship (up-womanship?) games with each other.

But it was the case that held my interest in this one. I was not expecting to get something that matched the espionage and governmental skullduggery that occurred in Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook, not even with a much happier ending. Especially not combined with the romance that forms the backdrop of The Gown.

These are two great tastes that I did not expect to even see together, let alone to discover that they taste great together. But they definitely do!

I hope that we’ll see more of Sparks & Bainbridge’s adventures. I can’t wait to see how they top this one!


Review: Anthems Outside Time by Kenneth Schneyer

Review: Anthems Outside Time by Kenneth SchneyerAnthems Outside Time and Other Strange Voices by Kenneth Schneyer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, short stories
Pages: 372
Published by Fairwood Press on July 14, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Curator's notes from an art exhibition. Exam questions. A children's social-studies textbook. An end-user license agreement from God. From Nebula-nominated author Kenneth Schneyer comes this collection spanning the range from fantasy to science fiction to horror to political speculative fiction. Representing more than a decade of work, these 26 weird, disorienting stories will accost your expectations while relocating your heart. This volume includes such celebrated works as "Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer," as well as two stories never before published.

My Review:

When I read this collection a few weeks ago, I found myself astonished all the way around. And I mean that in the best way possible.

That very pleasant surprised was on two counts. The first being that short story collections usually aren’t my favorite thing. I tend to find them a mixed bag at best, with some strong stories mixed with at least one or two that missed the boat – or in this case the rocket ship – completely. That didn’t happen here. At All. Every story hits its mark – sometimes with a bang. And occasionally – when completely appropriate to the story – with a whimper. Usually on the part of the reader. A kind of contented, contemplative “OH!”

That the collection was written by an author I hadn’t heard of before – in spite of the Nebula nomination – was the second thing that surprised me. I wouldn’t have picked up a collection of something I don’t normally care for by an author I don’t otherwise know without receiving it as an assignment from somewhere.

In this particular case, an assignment from Library Journal. But I loved this book so hard that I felt compelled to signal boost it here, as many reviews in LJ are behind a paywall – although this review might not be. But here we are, just in case.

What I found so compelling about this collection was the way that it does something that SF and fantasy don’t always do well. So much of speculative fiction in general concentrates on the gee whiz of either rocket ships or dragons – or sometimes both – that it misses the human connection.

Not that I don’t love me a good hard SF story. Or for that matter a good time travel story or a good story about dragons either doing or done wrong or a big high-flown epic fantasy. Or a mix of all of the above – although that’s HARD.

But all stories written by humans are about humans, no matter what skin or fur or feather or metal they might be wearing on the outside. And that’s what this collection does so well, whether in its SF or its fantasy stories.

This author is great at letting the reader see the effects of the SFnal or fantasy elements on the humans who are our perspective on what’s happening. And that’s fantastic!

Escape Rating A: This author has what can wonderfully be called a somewhat sideways view of the world. A view that is certainly on display in that Nebula-nominated story, Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer. It’s a story told through the unusual lens of museum case notes. One of this author’s fascinating devices is to tell a story through something else, often something small like the tiny notes next to exhibit entries, and let the pulling together of the story in its entirety occur in the reader’s mind – as it does anyway.

(For the curious, the winner that year was If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky which was itself a nominee for the Hugo the following year. Eligibility periods for the Hugo and the Nebula are confoundingly different!)

The stories in this collection, those Anthems Outside Time, are not fluffy bunnies. Most of them come from the darker corners of the imagination, and all of them are compellingly readable.

The stories in this collection manage to be prescient, heartbreaking and provocative, sometimes by turns and sometimes all at once. They are stories for readers who want their SF and fantasy to make them think, and think hard, about the human condition. And they’re marvelous.

I’ll certainly be looking for more of this author’s work, starting with his previous collection, The Law & the Heart.