Review: The Woman in the Lake by Nicola Cornick

Review: The Woman in the Lake by Nicola CornickThe Woman in the Lake by Nicola Cornick
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Gothic, historical fiction, horror, timeslip fiction
Pages: 320
Published by Graydon House on February 26, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the bestselling author of House of Shadows and The Phantom Tree comes a spellbinding tale of jealousy, greed, plotting and revenge—part history, part mystery—for fans of Kate Morton, Susanna Kearsley and Barbara Erskine


London, 1765

Lady Isabella Gerard, a respectable member of Georgian society, orders her maid to take her new golden gown and destroy it, its shimmering beauty tainted by the actions of her brutal husband the night before.

Three months later, Lord Gerard stands at the shoreline of the lake, looking down at a woman wearing the golden gown. As the body slowly rolls over to reveal her face, it’s clear this was not his intended victim…

250 Years Later…

When a gown she stole from a historic home as a child is mysteriously returned to Fenella Brightwell, it begins to possess her in exactly the same way that it did as a girl. Soon the fragile new life Fen has created for herself away from her abusive ex-husband is threatened at its foundations by the gown’s power over her until she can't tell what is real and what is imaginary.

As Fen uncovers more about the gown and Isabella’s story, she begins to see the parallels with her own life. When each piece of history is revealed, the gown—and its past—seems to possess her more and more, culminating in a dramatic revelation set to destroy her sanity.

My Review:

After reading The Phantom Tree last year, I was expecting The Woman in the Lake to be yet another marvelous piece of timeslip fiction by this author. I loved The Phantom Tree and was looking forward to more.

That’s not quite what I got.

The Woman in the Lake is what I call horror-adjacent. It’s really creepy with a constant air of menacing danger. Although it does “slip time” between the 18th century and the 21st, those slips just add to the air of Gothic horror.

You’ve heard about “Say Yes to the Dress”? This is a story where all of the people touched by it should have not merely said “No” to the dress, but really should have screamed “Hell NO” and run far and fast.

The dress is pure evil. Also laced with arsenic. And yes, you really can kill someone that way. The Borgias did, after all.

How the dress came to both embody and emanate so much evil is something that we only find out part of. We do learn how it was made – we just don’t ever find out how it got to be so powerfully malevolent in its own right.

What we see in this story about all the lives that revolve around and are ruined by this one beautiful, deadly, golden dress is that in the way that time slips and history almost repeats – there is a path to freedom.

But the only way to reach it is through fear, and pain. And even more fear.

Escape Rating B: This story was well and truly creepy. A bit creepier than I generally like to go. It did make the cross country plane trip go very fast – but I’m really glad I read it with ALL the lights on – and with plenty of company.

It’s not really about the dress. Well, it is, but it isn’t. The dress can’t make anyone do anything they weren’t already inclined towards, but it does seem to remove the inhibitions of conscience. We all have nasty thoughts from time to time, but conscience, or fear of consequences, prevent most of us from acting on the worst of those thoughts.

The story begins, and circles back around to, a group of men who did not have to let their consciences be their guides. In fact, the opposite. The Moonrakers of Swindon were smugglers. Smuggling wasn’t romantic, it was organized crime. Led by a group of men who would do anything to protect their illicit trade – including murder. In other words, these were men who terrorized an entire region and explicitly told their consciences to STFU.

The plan was for the gang leader to aid and abet a local lord with the murder of his wife, only for the plot to go horribly awry. And for the dress that was intended to do the dead to go skipping through history, leaving death and destruction in its wake.

Until it fetches up in the 21st century, in the hands of a woman who has no clue that she’s part of its long lost history, and a man who intends to reenact that long ago attempted murder.

One of the things that I loved about this book was the way that the story and the history came full circle in the end – and in a surprising way. Not just that history almost but not quite repeated, although it nearly does, but that everything that went around really did come around by the end.

One of the things that drove me a bit batty was the air of creeping menace that hangs over the entire story. It sucked me in. I kept looking for an exit, much as the heroine keeps looking for a way to escape her own past. As was certainly true for the heroine, the only way was through.

In the end, I’m left with mixed feelings. This is not the kind of book that I usually enjoy, but I was enthralled and couldn’t put it down until the end. And I’m still creeped out by the whole thing.

One final note, the ending of the blurb feels very wrong. The revelation at the end does not threaten the heroine’s sanity. Quite the opposite. Instead, the revelation at the end proves that she has been sane all along. It may also kill her.

I’ll be over here in the corner. Still shuddering…

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Guest Review: Dark Currents by Jacqueline Carey

Guest Review: Dark Currents by Jacqueline CareyDark Currents (Agent of Hel, #1) by Jacqueline Carey
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, suspense, urban fantasy
Series: Agent of Hel #1
Pages: 356
Published by Roc on October 2, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Jacqueline Carey, New York Times bestselling author of the acclaimed Kushiel’s Legacy novels, presents an all-new world featuring a woman caught between the normal and paranormal worlds, while enforcing order in both. Introducing Daisy Johanssen, reluctant hell-spawn…

The Midwestern resort town of Pemkowet boasts a diverse population: eccentric locals, wealthy summer people, and tourists by the busload; not to mention fairies, sprites, vampires, naiads, ogres and a whole host of eldritch folk, presided over by Hel, a reclusive Norse goddess.

To Daisy Johanssen, fathered by an incubus and raised by a single mother, it’s home. And as Hel’s enforcer and the designated liaison to the Pemkowet Police Department, it’s up to her to ensure relations between the mundane and eldritch communities run smoothly.

But when a young man from a nearby college drowns—and signs point to eldritch involvement—the town’s booming paranormal tourism trade is at stake. Teamed up with her childhood crush, Officer Cody Fairfax, a sexy werewolf on the down-low, Daisy must solve the crime—and keep a tight rein on the darker side of her nature. For if she’s ever tempted to invoke her demonic birthright, it could accidentally unleash nothing less than Armageddon.  

Guest review by Amy:

What kind of a mom would name her demon-spawn child “Daisy?”  Really?  But here’s Daisy as a plucky young adult with…erm…anger-management issues. Oh, and a tail. She’s the daughter of a human woman, and…well, a demon. Literally making the case for never, ever getting around a Ouija board ever again. Her dad, if Daisy just calls on him, can, in fact, bring on the Apocalypse. It doesn’t make for a close daddy-daughter relationship.

But she’s got her mom, who’s quirky and adorable, and she’s got a job working for the police department as a part-time file clerk, her friends, even a crush (on a fellow cop, who also happens to be a werewolf).  Oh, and a second job as liaison to the local goddess, Hel, who kind of runs things in the local eldritch community. Certainly grounds for an interesting life, but early in our story, a frat boy from a nearby college dies under suspicious circumstances.

Escape Rating: A+. I’m a huge fan of Carey’s Kushiel universe, which are delicious epic fantasy reads. Jacqueline Carey shows us she’s not a one-trick pony with Dark Currents. This story moves along rather a lot faster than her Kushiel works (aside from Kushiel’s Dart, which was over much too soon for my tastes), and we’re shown a solid cast of characters, all of whom seem to have a pretty good grasp on who they are in the grand scheme of things.

One of the things I like about this book (as with my prior review of MaryJanice Davidson’s Derik’s Bane) was that our supernatural beings aren’t…inhuman. Even the ones most-divergent from humans (faeries, naiads, a mermaid, a frost giant) have concerns and cares and lives that – while necessarily different from ours because of their nature – aren’t so far different from us that we can’t understand their motives. They’re just trying to get along with the overwhelming force of humanity around them, that’s all. Even the ghouls and vampires, as creepy as they are, make sense, and become characters you can understand and even like, in a way.

Daisy is a snark-o-matic, and her nature adds to this, along with her occasional frustration with being who she is. I had lots of giggles reading this tale, thanks to a generous sprinkling of puns and silly one-liners.

I tagged this as a suspense novel, and it is The core story here is a whodunit that crosses between the mortal and immortal realms. Daisy must stand astride that line, and dispense the justice she is empowered to hand out by her boss Hel, while making sure that any involved mortals get the treatment they deserve from her other boss, the police chief. But this book is more than that.

There’s a taste of romance here, too. Daisy tells us right up front about her long-time crush (a werewolf, who ends up partnering with her to solve the case), and we meet two other men who express interest in her, one a very intelligent, very dapper ancient ghoul, and one a mortal, with a fake Jamaican accent. All three are fascinating men, and I spent quite a while wondering which one she’d center on–if any, since there was also that flirtation with the very feminine lamia who used to babysit her, back-when. She says she’s straight, but this one does something for her even with the millenia-sized age gap.

I enjoyed this book immensely, and can’t wait to read (and maybe review for you here – Marlene? Can I?) the other two books in this series. My only downer in the book came right at the end, when Daisy ended up dating a different one of her crushes than I would have, in her shoes. I can’t tell you which, now, that’d ruin the whole thing for you, wouldn’t it? Go read for yourself!

Marlene’s Note: The next book, for those following along at home, is Autumn Bones. And YES, you certainly may review it for me here. In fact, that’s pretty please would you review it for me here. With bells on. I also love the Kushiel series. And I cite her Banewreacker/Godslayer duology fairly often as a classic in the “history is written by the victors/good and evil depend on which side of the fence you’re on” fantasy.

Review: Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik

Review: Polaris Rising by Jessie MihalikPolaris Rising (Consortium Rebellion, #1) by Jessie Mihalik
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera
Series: Consortium Rebellion #1
Pages: 448
Published by Harper Voyager on February 5, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A space princess on the run and a notorious outlaw soldier become unlikely allies in this imaginative, sexy space opera adventure—the first in an exciting science fiction trilogy.

In the far distant future, the universe is officially ruled by the Royal Consortium, but the High Councillors, the heads of the three High Houses, wield the true power. As the fifth of six children, Ada von Hasenberg has no authority; her only value to her High House is as a pawn in a political marriage. When her father arranges for her to wed a noble from House Rockhurst, a man she neither wants nor loves, Ada seizes control of her own destiny. The spirited princess flees before the betrothal ceremony and disappears among the stars.

Ada eluded her father’s forces for two years, but now her luck has run out. To ensure she cannot escape again, the fiery princess is thrown into a prison cell with Marcus Loch. Known as the Devil of Fornax Zero, Loch is rumored to have killed his entire chain of command during the Fornax Rebellion, and the Consortium wants his head.

When the ship returning them to Earth is attacked by a battle cruiser from rival House Rockhurst, Ada realizes that if her jilted fiancé captures her, she’ll become a political prisoner and a liability to her House. Her only hope is to strike a deal with the dangerous fugitive: a fortune if he helps her escape.

But when you make a deal with an irresistibly attractive Devil, you may lose more than you bargained for . . .

My Review:

If you love science fiction romance, this one is for you. Polaris Rising is one of those “chocolate in my peanut butter vs. peanut butter in my chocolate books. It’s marketed as just science fiction, because that’s where the money is – and the SFnal worldbuilding is definitely part of what makes this story work. But if you like more than a bit of rocket fuel in your romance, you’ll love Polaris Rising.

This is space opera of the merchant empire as opposed to military empire type. The High Houses that control everything in the ‘verse are great mercantile powers. Admittedly they do also have plenty of ships of the line, but the source of their power seems to be economic. In fact, the system they have set up (to benefit themselves of course) is designed to keep them at each other’s throats in the figurative but while fending off the literal sense.

At least usually not the literal sense with knives or guns at each other’s throats. Admittedly the line is occasionally as thin as the blade of a stiletto.

We begin the story with our heroine, Ada von Hasenberg, fifth child of that High House, being shoved into a cell. Ada, like many “princesses” before her, ran away from home to escape a political marriage. Her father finally put the bounty on her living head up high enough that mercenaries made it their business to hunt her down.

They’ve finally caught up with her. But they’ve also caught another high-value prisoner, Marcus Loch, known as the Devil of Fornax Zero. He’s a soldier who killed his entire squadron as well as his commanders and the military wants to put him on trial for his crimes – or at least make sure he pays for them with his own life.

These two shouldn’t have anything to do with each other, but the mercenary ship that holds them both is just a bit short on jail cells. They get thrown in together, and in the finest tradition of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” cook up an escape plan that gets pushed into high gear when her erstwhile fiance arrives to keep her from being returned to her family.

Ada doesn’t think she’s worth nearly this much fuss – but lots of people suddenly seem to. When she finally gets the chance to figure out why, she knows exactly why she’s suddenly in so many crosshairs.

There’s only one person she can trust at her back – if he doesn’t double cross her somewhere along the way.

Escape Rating B: The elements of this story have been used before in both SF and SFR, if not necessarily combined together in quite this way.

There’s something about the tone of the book, and the shifting alliances between the various merchant empires, that reminds me of Vatta’s War series by Elizabeth Moon. (Start with Trading in Danger).

The difference between Polaris Rising and Vatta’s War is that in the Vatta’s War series the romance that eventually occurs is a secondary or even tertiary part of the plot. In Polaris Rising the romance between the “princess” and the “criminal”, is very close to center stage. To the point where a reader who wants nothing to do with “icky mushy stuff” may be turned off by this book – which would be a pity because the SFnal elements are very well done.

On that other hand, anyone who loved Amanda Bouchet’s recent foray into SFR, Nightchaser, is going to lick Polaris Rising up with a spoon. The two books hit many of the same plot beats, and both stories have that “perils of Pauline”, “out of the frying pan into the fire” type of careening adventure plot.

And they both feature family betrayals.

I’ll admit that while I enjoyed Polaris Rising, I didn’t find it quite as compelling as either of the readalikes that I’ve mentioned. Some of that may be a bit of pique. I understand why the decision was made to market this as SF instead of SFR, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still annoy me a bit.

Also, while this story has lots of elements that I’ve loved in other stories, they are also elements that I’ve read in other stories. Neither Ada nor Marcus are what they initially appear to be. The reveal of Marcus’ story felt a bit anticlimactic – I knew what he was long before he told Ada. While the whole is put together in quite the interesting fashion, it just didn’t feel fresh or new to this reader. YMMV.

One thing that I did like was the way that the romance developed. It wasn’t slow, but then the circumstances don’t allow for that. But it also wasn’t insta-love. Insta-lust, yes, but that’s way more believable.

In the end, I found myself wanting to know more about the House system and how it works – and doesn’t. There’s something niggling at me that there are a few too many contradictions involved but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

I’m certainly more than intrigued enough to stick around for book two in the series, Aurora Blazing. Ada (and Marcus) kicked over one hell of an anthill on their way out of the central systems. Ada’s sister Bianca looks like she’ll be in the thick of the mess they left behind in the next story!

Review: Mission: Her Defense by Anna Hackett

Review: Mission: Her Defense by Anna HackettMission: Her Defense (Team 52 #4) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, military romance
Series: Team 52 #4
Pages: 250
Published by Anna Hackett on February 12th 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's Website
Goodreads

One former special forces Marine. One tall, handsome police detective who pushes all her buttons. One dangerous investigation that forces them to work together.

Blair Mason is badass to the bone. She’s no stranger to loss and barely survived the mission that ended her military career. Now, as part of Team 52, she never shies away from a fight to ensure pieces of powerful ancient technology don’t fall into the wrong hands. Unfortunately, she’s often forced to “liaise” with the team’s contact at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police. The tall, hard-bodied detective ignites her temper quicker than any man she’s ever known…and after a terrible massacre, she’s horrified to find that she and MacKade are being ordered to work together.

Detective Luke MacKade was born a protector. He takes care of his family, and as a dedicated homicide detective, he protects his city. He is less thrilled with his job of cleaning up after Team 52 after they tear through Vegas on a mission. Blair is a woman who sets him off just by breathing, but even he can’t deny the powerful attraction he feels to her strength and skill. When several cursed samurai swords are stolen in a bloody attack, it is up to Luke and Blair to get them back…before more blood is shed.

But others are after the swords and their hidden powers. As Luke and Blair’s dangerous investigation intensifies, they face danger at every turn. Luke battles his intense need to protect the woman he’s falling for, a woman who neither wants or needs his protection. But as their desire burns white-hot, Luke will learn that the toughest defenses are the ones around Blair’s heart.

My Review:

It’s Valentine’s Day, which makes it a particularly appropriate day to post this review. Because a) it’s a romance and b) it’s by an author I absolutely love.

It would be perfect if it were my favorite genre by this author, science fiction romance, but c’est la vie. Like the song says, “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

The Team 52 series is a cross between action adventure romance and military romance. Because the members of Team 52 are nearly all ex-military, and the ones that aren’t are ex-CIA or something even more secretive. That’s certainly true in the case of our heroine, Blair Mason.

And like all of the other former military members of Team 52, Blair is ex-military not because she wanted to be, but because her last (and very nearly final) mission left her with injuries that made her ineligible to continue to serve.

But the high-tech advances kept under as many wraps as possible at Area 52 (yes, it’s next door to the place you’re thinking of) gave her back her eye, and her sight, even better than before. It’s just that if you learn the details of either her last mission, her current status, or just how it was done, she’d probably have to kill you.

Unless one of her teammates gets there first.

The Team 52 series contains some of the earthbound elements of Stargate SG-1. Occasionally, although it’s starting to feel like not-so-occasionally, someone or something unearths powerful and dangerous technology leftover from surprisingly highly developed pre-Ice Age civilizations.

And that’s where Team 52 comes in. Because when these extremely dangerous devices come to light, there’s usually one or more villainous organizations who want to do very dark deeds with those devices.

So Team 52 swoops in to clean up the resulting mess.

But someone has to clean up their mess in a way that provides plausible explanations for the press and the public. It’s hard to completely cover up an entire ballroom full of dead bodies in the middle of a major city. A city like Las Vegas.

That’s where Detective Luke MacKade of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department comes in. It’s his job to make Team 52’s mess appear less messy to the powers that be and the noses that snoop. It’s not his only job, and it’s certainly not his favorite part of his job. He’s in the LVMPD for the “serve and protect” parts of the job and he’s convinced that all Team 52 does in come in and make his job harder without regard for the civilians who get caught in the crossfire.

His favorite part of the job seems to be riling up Blair Mason – even if he’s not willing to admit it.

But when one of their dangerous artifacts cuts a literal swath through his city, he gets an up close and person look at exactly what Team 52 does and why somebody has to do it.

And he finally manages to get close enough to Blair Mason to get an up close and personal view of the woman hiding under the prickly, badass exterior. And he wants to see a whole lot more.

Escape Rating A-: As far as this reader is concerned, the Team 52 series is back in fine form with this entry – even though I still think the titles are slightly cheesy.

I loved the first book (Mission: Her Protection), liked the second (Mission: Her Rescue) and thought the third (Mission: Her Security) was ok. This one is back to “love” on my list. I think because the focus is on Blair more than it is Luke.

What can I say, I like it when the heroine is every bit as badass, if not a bit more, than the hero. I also felt for her perspective of feeling like she needed to be all badass all the time in order to be respected by her teammates. And that the hero isn’t merely ok with that, but loves her and respects her for the badass she is and doesn’t need or want her to be anything else.

While her teammates respect her as she is, that she was socialized that way because the rest of the world doesn’t makes perfect sense.

One of the things that I love about this author’s work is the way that it so often ties into one or more of my other geekish interests. As I keep saying, this series, and the Treasure Hunter Security series it spun off of, have elements of Stargate.

The macguffin in this particular book are antique Japanese swords crafted by Muramasa, the rival of the legendary swordmaker Gorō Nyūdō Masamune. There are surviving Masamune swords in museums and private collections, but Muramasa appears to be more legendary than historical. I found this element of the story particularly fascinating because it tied in to my longstanding love for all things Final Fantasy X, where there is a sword Masamune named after the legendary but historical swordsmith and carried by the game’s resident badass.

I digress, but that’s what Team 52 does to me. It makes me digress into other geekish loves. Which is part of its charm, at least for me.

It’s awesome action-adventure/military romance, so if either of those are your jam, spread open the pages of this series!

Review: Duchess by Deception by Marie Force

Review: Duchess by Deception by Marie ForceDuchess by Deception (Gilded, #1) by Marie Force
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Gilded #1
Pages: 320
Published by Zebra on January 29, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In New York Times bestselling author Marie Force's dazzling historical romance debut, the clock is ticking for a wealthy Duke who must marry by his thirtieth birthday—or lose his title...

Derek Egan, the dashing Duke of Westwood, is well aware of his looming deadline. But weary of tiresome debutantes, he seeks a respite at his country home in Essex—and encounters a man digging on his property. Except he's not a man. He's a very lovely woman. Who suddenly faints at his feet.

Catherine McCabe's disdain for the aristocracy has already led her to flee an arranged marriage with a boorish Viscount. The last thing she wants is to be waylaid in a Duke's home. Yet, she is compelled to stay by the handsome, thoughtful man who introduces himself as the Duke's estate manager.

Derek realizes two things immediately: he is captivated by her delicate beauty, and to figure out what she was up to, Catherine must not know he is the Duke. But as they fall passionately in love, Derek's lie spins out of control. Will their bond survive his deception, not to mention the scorned Viscount's pursuit? Most important, can Catherine fall in love all over again—this time with the Duke?

My Review:

I finished Duchess by Deception feeling sadly disappointed. I wondered if it might be me, that this might be a genre that just didn’t work for me anymore. Because I expected a whole lot better from the author of the Fatal romantic suspense series.

Then I looked at some of the other reviews on Goodreads and discovered that I am far from alone in my feelings. Which leaves me feeling better about the other historical romances in my virtually towering TBR pile – but somewhat at a loss for words about this book.

Duchess by Deception is a historical romance that includes an extended ride on the “Troperville Trolley”. There are enough all-too-common tropes and cliches packed into this book for three stories – and it might have been better if it had been three separate stories.

Because there are three stories here. The first is the one about the Duke of Westwood and his nuptial deadline. If he doesn’t marry by the day of his 30th birthday he’ll be forced to relinquish the title in favor of his nasty, greedy, grasping uncle. And his birthday is at the end of the week as the story begins.

So of course he runs off to his country estate instead of staying in London to find a bride. He discovers a young man digging holes at his estate who is immediately revealed to be not merely female but actually a damsel in distress who is on the run from a fate worse than death.

Yes, my eyes are rolling.

That they fall instantly in love is, of course, a given.

Then the misunderstandammits start rolling in. Because he doesn’t tell her he’s a duke since she hates the aristocracy, even though she is part of it. And he doesn’t tell her he has to marry by the end of the week because, well, he’s already lying to her about being the duke’s estate manager instead of the duke himself.

So when the dastardly villain her father has literally sold her to starts investigating the area around the duke’s estate, he whisks her away to Gretna Green for a hasty marriage over the anvil.

Then the same thing nearly happens to her sister. And that’s not the half of it.

Escape Rating D+: I haven’t dragged the D+ out in a while. I didn’t so much finish this book as skim it to see how it ended. Because there is a third plot thread that is even crazier than the first two.

There’s a whole lot of insta-love going on here, well past the point where it’s believable or even plausible. Not only does the duke fall instantly for his future duchess when she faints in his arms, but then his cousin falls equally precipitously for her sister across a crowded ballroom.

Really? The family seems prone to falling sickness, or possibly insanity.

We don’t have a chance to see either relationship actually develop. What we do get is a lot of sex scenes substituting for the development of the romance. I like a good sex scene as much as the next romance reader, but porn-without-plot is not a substitute for an actual plot. YMMV.

The villains of the piece were both caricatures, and yes, there are two. One is a leering pig of a villain, and the other is a greedy, grasping, murderous villain. Who have no relationship to each other. Which stretches the long arm of coincidence a bit too long for a single book.

And both women forgive their father for selling them to the leering pig WAY too easily.

This story had promise. Actually, it had multiple promises. It just didn’t live up to any of them.

Review: The Victory Garden by Rhys Bowen + Giveaway

Review: The Victory Garden by Rhys Bowen + GiveawayThe Victory Garden by Rhys Bowen
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 305
Published by Lake Union Publishing on February 12, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

From the bestselling author of The Tuscan Child comes a beautiful and heart-rending novel of a woman’s love and sacrifice during the First World War.

As the Great War continues to take its toll, headstrong twenty-one-year-old Emily Bryce is determined to contribute to the war effort. She is convinced by a cheeky and handsome Australian pilot that she can do more, and it is not long before she falls in love with him and accepts his proposal of marriage.

When he is sent back to the front, Emily volunteers as a “land girl,” tending to the neglected grounds of a large Devonshire estate. It’s here that Emily discovers the long-forgotten journals of a medicine woman who devoted her life to her herbal garden. The journals inspire Emily, and in the wake of devastating news, they are her saving grace. Emily’s lover has not only died a hero but has left her terrified—and with child. Since no one knows that Emily was never married, she adopts the charade of a war widow.

As Emily learns more about the volatile power of healing with herbs, the found journals will bring her to the brink of disaster, but may open a path to her destiny.

My Review:

Unlike this author’s previous standalone books, The Victory Garden is set in 1918 as World War I is drawing to its close.

However, just as In Farleigh Field, this is a book about the homefront of the war and not about the ugliness of the war itself. Not that there isn’t plenty of ugly at home.

As the story begins our heroine is immured at home in Devon. Her upper-middle-class parents are determined that the ugliness of the war will completely pass her by – whether that’s what she wants or not. And not that it has not already touched her life. Her brother Freddie was killed in action in the opening battles of the war, and her parents are determined to keep her under their eye and locked away so that nothing can possibly happen to her. Of course life is never like that – even Rapunzel found a way out of her tower, after all.

Emily is the bird in the gilded cage, but with her 21st birthday on the horizon, she will be able to unlock the door of her cage herself – if she is willing to deal with the consequences of her actions.

She falls in love with a young man that her ultra-conservative, ultra-conventional mother considers to be completely unsuitable. Ironically, there’s nothing wrong with Flight Lieutenant Robbie Kerr except for his Australian cheek. His family is probably as well off as hers. The problem with Robbie is that his Aussie upbringing has led him to think that all of the mannered conventions of the English upper crust are patently ridiculous – which of course they are.

Meeting Robbie gives Emily a taste of life on the outside of her mother’s over-protective restrictions, and her 21st birthday gives her the opportunity to fly away. She wants to become a volunteer nurse, but in 1918 the need was for somebody, anybody, to harvest the crops of England with all the men gone.  So Emily joins the Women’s Land Army. She finds herself in the midst of a surprising sisterhood – a sisterhood that becomes her salvation when Robbie is killed in action and she finds herself unwed and pregnant.

The story in The Victory Garden is the story of that sisterhood. Emily can’t go home to her disapproving parents, and many of her fellow “Land Girls” have no homes left to go to. Instead they band together, returning to a small village they worked during their Land Army tenure. A place where the men have all gone to war, and the women are left keeping life together by any means they can.

And together, they find a way to move forward – even as the worst history of the village repeats itself with nearly disastrous consequences for Emily – and for them all.

Escape Rating A-: You may not be able to go home again, but that doesn’t stop you from making a new home someplace else, with people of your own choosing. You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other until you find that place and those people.

In the end (also in the beginning and the middle!) this is a story about sisterhood. In what amounts to a lovely bit of role reversal, the few men in this story exist to push the women’s story forward. It makes for a terrific story – and it also makes sense.

England lost an entire generation of young men in World War I. (It has been posited that this is the reason that so many of the Commonwealth countries did so much of the fighting for Britain in WW2 – either because Britain didn’t have that generation of men to lose, and/or because the powers that be were determined not to sacrifice a second generation so soon after the last one.)

Whatever the truth about WW2,by this point in WW1 there just weren’t any able-bodied young or even young-ish men left on the homefront. And it was clear by 1918 that society was going to have to change after the war was over because there was a resulting generation of young women that had no men to marry. So when some of the characters talk about the world being different after the war, and women filling many of the jobs that men used to do, it feels right.

Things were not going back to the pre-war “normal” because the conditions that allowed that situation to be “normal” no longer existed.

So what we see in this story is a whole generation of women stepping up to take care of each other, because no one is going to do it for them. Even the women whose husbands do come home face a life where they will be the primary breadwinners because their husbands are suffering from permanent, life-altering wounds, PTSD (known as ‘shell shock’) or both.

Emily is the focal point of the story because she is the one who makes the biggest changes. This story is her journey to self-sufficiency – with more than a little help from her friends. We like her because we understand her determination to stand on her own two feet – in spite of everything that life and war has thrown in her way.

And while she begins the story as a pampered little miss, it’s a role that she rejects the moment she is able – while still attempting to not cause her parents more worry than she possibly can. And we feel for that tightrope she is walking. She wants to live her own life. She needs to do her bit. And its the making of her. And the story.

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

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Review: Dragon Age Library Edition Volume 2 by Greg Rucka, Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir, Carmen Carnero, Fernando Heinz Furukawa

Review: Dragon Age Library Edition Volume 2 by Greg Rucka, Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir, Carmen Carnero, Fernando Heinz FurukawaDragon Age Library Edition Volume 2 by Greg Rucka, Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir, Carmen Carnero, Fernando Heinz Furukawa
Format: eARC, hardcover
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover
Genres: fantasy, graphic novel
Pages: 232
Published by Dark Horse Books on December 4, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Journey to the world of Thedas in these canonical comics from BioWare and Dark Horse!

Tessa and Marius are mercenary partners who eliminate those using magic to hurt others. When they betray a powerful patron intending to kill them, they're forced to flee and join the Inquisition. Later, they're taken captive during a mission and it's up to an unwitting agent to rescue them: elven squire Vaea, who's just arrived in Kirkwall for a lavish party thrown by Varric Tethras. A talented thief, Vaea takes on an easy side job . . . but when she chooses to change the terms of the deal mid-heist, she is entangled in this dangerous recovery mission that is surely above her pay grade.

Featuring work by Greg Rucka, Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir, Carmen Carnero, and Fernando Heinz Furukawa, this oversized hardcover edition collects Dragon Age: Magekiller #1-#5 and Dragon Age: Knight Errant #1-#5 and features creator commentary and behind-the-scenes material!

My Review:

I just started a new play-through of the whole Dragon Age saga, which made this a perfect time to review this. The title is a rather unhelpful mouthful of not very informative. What this big little volume is is a hardcover compilation of two Dragon Age graphic stories, Magekiller and Knight Errant.

I knew I was going to get to this eventually – I even picked up an eARC from Edelweiss. But in the end, I bowed to the inevitable and purchased the hardcover. While graphic novels CAN be read on my iPad, that doesn’t mean they SHOULD be read on my iPad – unless I’m really desperate and away from home. The hardcover is large and awkward – but fun reading at the table.

The interesting thing about the two stories in this book is that they both take place in the interstices of the plot of Dragon Age Inquisition. This means three things:

  1. These stories only make sense if you are already a fan of the video game series
  2. They feel/read like short stories that just so happen to be illustrated. I’m not saying that the graphics aren’t terrific – because they are – but both of these stories would work equally well as short stories without the lovely, additional graphics.
  3. The stories are canonical – nothing in them conflicts with the game story canon. A fan can imagine them taking place around the edges of the game(s) actually played. These events happened while your Inquisitor was somewhere else being, as Varric Tethras might say, “all Inquisitorial”.

The first story begins a bit before the game starts, with a pair of mercenary magekillers (hence the title) who have been coerced into killing known cult members before the cult manages to murder the Divine and kick off the whole thing. They find themselves working for the Inquisition, alongside many of the other side characters in the story.

What’s fun about Magekiller is that the male/female mercenary partners are work partners without being romantic partners – nor is there a will they/won’t they vibe to the story. It was pretty neat that the romantic pairing in the story turns out to be between the female mercenary and one of the Inquisition’s better known spies. Who is also female.

That the hero of Magekiller has a very similar vibe to one of my (and many people’s) favorite characters in Dragon Age II is icing on a surprisingly tasty cake.

Knight Errant also feels like it has some callbacks to Dragon Age II, as well as to the game that started it all, Dragon Age Origins – which I’m playing again now.

But the story is all about the power of stories. There’s a quote from Varric Tethras, the author of Hard in Hightown and the premiere storyteller in the series: “There’s power in stories, though. That’s all history is: the best tales. The ones that last. Might as well be mine.”

Varric writes fiction, but he also fictionalizes the heroic deeds of his friends – including himself as a secondary character. It’s a practice that causes him no end of trouble, and makes him an interesting but extremely unreliable narrator.

In Knight Errant, Varric is a secondary character in someone else’s unreliable narration – and he’s more than willing to play along. But under this seemingly simple tale about a has-been knight who travels the world on the strength of the stories he tells about himself, there’s a lot to unpack about why we tell the stories we tell, and how much of ourselves we invest in those stories.

And if you don’t finish this story hearing the original cast of Hamilton singing “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story” you weren’t paying attention.

Escape Rating B: If you’re a fan, this collection is a lot of fun. Possibly even more fun than Hard in Hightown. There are a ton of in jokes scattered throughout both stories, and we get a chance to see a different bit of this world and different facets of characters we have come to know and love.

There are also some informative annotations from the creators on the process of both the story and the graphics.

While I can’t think that anyone else would be interested, for those of us who are working through our hundredth play-through of the series and trying to keep from chewing our nails waiting for Dragon Age 4 (which probably won’t be out until 2021 at the earliest!) it’s a fun way to pass some time in Thedas.

Guest Review: Derik’s Bane by MaryJanice Davidson

Guest Review: Derik’s Bane by MaryJanice DavidsonDerik's Bane by MaryJanice Davidson
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Fiction, Romance, Contemporary, Erotica, fantasy
Series: Wyndham Werewolf #3
Pages: 298
Published by Penguin on January 1, 2005
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Derik's a werewolf with alpha issues--and a body to die for.

Sara is the personification of unspeakable evil--and smells like roses.

Now if they could just stop drooling over each other long enough to save the world.

Okay, okay. I said in my review of Davidson’s Sleeping With the Fishes a while back that I didn’t care much for paranormal romances with werewolves in them. I may have to rethink my position, at least in the case of this series.

Guest review by Amy:

Derik has a problem, you see – he’s an alpha, born to it, and now that he’s coming into his own, it makes it really hard to get along with his pack’s alpha, Michael. There can only be one, of course, so things are tense right from the get-go. The seer in the group, though, has seen a solution. Out on the west coast, there is a woman who is a reincarnation of an ancient evil. Taking care of her will prevent the destruction of the world. Aha! A quest!

The ancient evil, however, is reincarnated into a really ditzy, unbelievably lucky, stunningly gorgeous woman. And…she’s really not that evil. Derik tries to kill her, and fails, of course. Derik and Sara embark on a cross-country trip to find and prevent the end of the world, and along the way, they get a little bit crazy for each other.

Escape Rating: A-. I had such a good time reading Sleeping With the Fishes last year that when I saw this book at my used bookstore, I had to pick it up. Davidson gives us another really fun romp of a read, complete with Milk Bone jokes from the snarky Sara that had me laughing until I wheezed.

I’ve spotted a pattern with Davidson’s supernatural characters: they’re real people. In Derik’s case, he’s a real guy, who just-happens-to-be a werewolf, and has to deal with that. No big drama, no woo-woo mystical magic-ness in them; they’re just…people, of a different species, who must necessarily deal with who they are, living in a world full of homo sapiens. I’ve gotta say, I like that feature in both of these books. One of the things that’s been so off-putting to me about paranormal romance in the past is the near-fetish status of the supernatural character. People make a Big Deal about that lycanthrope in their life, or worse, the lycanthrope in their life fetishizes themself. Davidson’s “we’re all just people here” aesthetic really lets me fall into the story, suspend disbelief, and enjoy it, without the distraction of the otherworldliness of one or more characters.

Derik’s Bane gives us a comedy-of-errors, North by Northwest kind of frenzied trip from coast to coast, and, like many road-trip stories, the characters end up way closer to each other than they originally planned on. The quality of the story in that part of the book was so good that the ending, where our hero and heroine discover the awfulness that will end the world if they don’t stop it, comes as a tiny bit of a disappointment. I won’t spoil it for you, but imagine the Monty Python and the Holy Grail scene where the knights come to a cave, and the horrid guardian of the cave turns out to be a rabbit. The semi-heroic battle that followed picked things back up a bit, and what the clairvoyant tells our happy couple after the fact makes it clear that, of course, things were never quite as they seemed to Derik all along.

It’s official: MaryJanice Davidson is going on my list of read-for-fun authors. There’s no way to call this “serious” fiction, for any construction of that term, but Derik’s Bane gives us another rollicking read, with rich, entertaining characters. No deep thinking required, just enjoy!

Review: Oria’s Enchantment by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: Oria’s Enchantment by Jeffe KennedyOria's Enchantment by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy romance
Series: Sorcerous Moons #5
Pages: 166
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on January 26, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

A Narrow Escape

With her secrets uncovered and her power-mad brother bent on her execution, Princess Oria has no sanctuary left. Her bid to make herself and her new barbarian husband rulers of walled Bára has failed. She and Lonen have no choice but to flee through the leagues of brutal desert between her home and his—certain death for a sorceress, and only a bit slower than the blade.

A Race Against Time

At the mercy of a husband barely more than a stranger, Oria must war with her fears and her desires. Wild desert magic buffets her; her husband’s touch allures and burns. Lonen is pushed to the brink, sure he’s doomed his proud bride and all too aware of the restless, ruthless pursuit that follows…

A Danger Beyond Death…

Can Oria trust a savage warrior, now that her strength has vanished? Can Lonen choose her against the future of his people? Alone together in the wastes, Lonen and Oria must forge a bond based on more than lust and power, or neither will survive the test…

My Review:

This series began back in Lonen’s War with Princess Oria being betrayed by her own brother, an event that echoes down the entire length of the series so far.

In this latest book in the series, events have almost, but not quite, come full circle, as this title is named for Oria, but the events that it encompasses revolve around Prince Lonen’s brother and his betrayal of Lonen.

But a whole lot of things have happened along the way. Oria, the princess-bird freed from her gilded cage, will have to come into the power that she does not even believe she has in order to save both of their kingdoms – and both of themselves, as well.

Lonen has to grasp his duty and his destiny – even if, or especially because – he needs to leave Oria behind in order for her to be able to leap ahead and save them both.

If she survives a testing process directed by dragons. Either she finally masters her power – or they will destroy her before she destroys everything around her – including herself.

Escape Rating B+: Oria’s Enchantment is the fifth book in what was originally listed as a trilogy – and the story isn’t done yet. It’s turning out to be “trilogy times two”. So a Hexology, or a dual-trilogy, or a sextet.

Sextet feels appropriate, as the Sorcerous Moons series, whatever you call it, is a fantasy romance that does some very interesting things with sex and seduction. Lonen and Oria’s marriage begins as a marriage of convenience because her magic will not allow anyone else to touch her skin-to-skin without causing her tremendous pain. That their relationship changes from cautious allyship to a true marriage in spite of that limitation – and just how far and how sensuously they manage to skate the edge of that restriction, has been steamy as well as fascinating.

About the story as a whole – the story is a whole. By that I mean that the Sorcerous Moons “series” feels like one long story rather than a series of even slightly separate books. Like the Lord of the Rings, where the story that begins in Fellowship ends in Return of the King. The ending of Fellowship is merely a pause as that book does not tell a complete story in and of itself.

So it is with Sorcerous Moons, This is one story from its beginning in Lonen’s War to what looks like will be its ending in the next book, Lonen’s Reign. So start at the beginning and not anywhere in the middle. The individual books are relatively short – so the compilation of the whole is only a moderately sized tome.

The part of the story that takes place in Oria’s Enchantment is a rise from the “waiting game” that occurred in the previous book in the series, The Forests of Dru. That book felt like the trough of the entire story arc, and now we’re on the rise that leads to the conclusion.

Things finally happen here, although mostly in the second half of the book. The first half is a “road story”, of which there have been many in this series. Lonen and Oria do a LOT of travelling, in order to fix what’s wrong in either one kingdom or another – and to give them time to bond as a marital partnership.

It’s in the second half of this story that events begin to ramp up, as Oria finally takes control of her power and her destiny while Lonen forces himself to do the right thing for the kingdom he never expected to rule.

I can’t wait for what should be the epic conclusion to this series in Lonen’s Reign. Because Lonen and Oria are going to have to make a lot of war to fix everything that’s wrong in both Bara and Dru!

Review: The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff + Giveaway

Review: The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff + GiveawayThe Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Park Row on January 29, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the author of the runaway bestseller The Orphan’s Tale comes a remarkable story of friendship and courage centered around three women and a ring of female spies during World War II.

1946, Manhattan

Grace Healey is rebuilding her life after losing her husband during the war. One morning while passing through Grand Central Terminal on her way to work, she finds an abandoned suitcase tucked beneath a bench. Unable to resist her own curiosity, Grace opens the suitcase, where she discovers a dozen photographs—each of a different woman. In a moment of impulse, Grace takes the photographs and quickly leaves the station.

Grace soon learns that the suitcase belonged to a woman named Eleanor Trigg, leader of a ring of female secret agents who were deployed out of London during the war. Twelve of these women were sent to Occupied Europe as couriers and radio operators to aid the resistance, but they never returned home, their fates a mystery. Setting out to learn the truth behind the women in the photographs, Grace finds herself drawn to a young mother turned agent named Marie, whose daring mission overseas reveals a remarkable story of friendship, valor and betrayal.

Vividly rendered and inspired by true events, New York Times bestselling author Pam Jenoff shines a light on the incredible heroics of the brave women of the war, and weaves a mesmerizing tale of courage, sisterhood and the great strength of women to survive in the hardest of circumstances

My Review:

The story told in The Lost Girls of Paris is absolutely fascinating, all the more so for being rooted in history.

In some ways it’s a lot like the nonfiction stories in Hidden Figures, Code Girls, and other books that have brought the hidden contributions of women to recent events in history out of the shadows and into the light.

During World War II, women stepped up to do all the jobs that used to be reserved for men before the war, because there were few men left at the homefront. This was true in the U.S. and it was especially true in Britain and France as men were either in the armed services, conscripted into labor camps in France, or dead.

As the Allied forces prepared for what we now know as D-Day, the Allies needed the French Resistance to step up their sabotage and misinformation efforts. War is, as always, a very dirty business.

When it became nearly impossible to place any more male agents in France, the Special Operations Executive created a women’s section, run by Eleanor Trigg (based on real-life SOE Officer Vera Atkins), to place female agents in France. By that point, there were so few young, able-bodied men around that male agents were unmasked almost as soon as they hit the ground.

It was hoped that women would be able to blend into the remaining population. They were trained to do the dirty work needed to bring that hoped for invasion to fruition – even if they didn’t personally live to see it.

The story of The Lost Girls of Paris is about those female British agents, and the story is told from three perspectives. Eleanor Trigg, the creator of the women’s section, the designer of their training and the person who chose each and every woman who entered the program; Marie Roux, one of the women she recruited who went to France in those dark days, and Grace Healey, a young widow in the immediate aftermath of the war, who discovers a suitcase full of photographs under a bench in New York’s Union Station, and finds herself drawn into a quest to reveal the truth.

Not just the truth of what those women endured, but the truth about their betrayal by their own government – and that same government’s willingness to bury their history along with their bodies – whether their actual corpses can ever be found – or not.

Escape Rating B+: I have mixed feelings about this book. The story it tells is both compelling and harrowing, but some parts more than others.

I found Eleanor Trigg to be a fascinating character. (She reminds me a bit of the character of Hilda Pierce in Foyle’s War – a woman who also served in the SOE.) A Jewish refugee from Poland, Eleanor and her mother have reinvented themselves as Englishwomen – but Eleanor is never quite accepted as “one of us” by the government bureaucracy – or its bureaucrats.

She began as a secretary to the Director of the SOE, became his unofficial right hand, and then the chief of the women’s section – only to be unceremoniously discarded even before the end of the war – and set up to be a scapegoat for the dirty deeds done by her agents on behalf of the government and by the government TO her unsuspecting agents.

Eleanor seems like a one-woman representative of all the ways that women were distrusted, disrespected, successful in spite of systemic misogyny, and then betrayed and discarded when they were no longer needed.

Grace’s perspective from the post-War United States is a reflection of that misogyny and betrayal. Her husband died in an auto accident before he deployed, leaving her a widow but not exactly a war widow. She comes to New York City searching for work and purpose in a country that wants all its women to go back to home and hearth and pop out babies. But the soldier who should have returned to her after the war can’t, and she’s not ready to move on.

Putting herself into the middle of Eleanor’s search for truth gives her purpose and new life. As someone who was not a part of the original events, she is both an unimpeachable witness and empathetic searcher.

I’ll admit that I had problems with Marie. The parts of the story that covered her recruitment and training were absorbing – and the story of her capture and torture were harrowing beyond belief, but I stopped being interested in her as a character when she got captured. Not because she was captured, but because of the way it happened. She literally brought it on herself by being TSTL (too stupid to live). Her capture and subsequent torture became inevitable – when they shouldn’t have been. Many of the female agents were captured, tortured and killed through betrayal, bad luck or just circumstance. It wasn’t necessary for Marie to be a fool for love to show the terrible fate of so many of these brave women. For this reader, the spark of romance in this part of the story was unnecessary and detracted from their courage and sacrifice.

On my other hand or hands, the entire story is compelling from beginning to end. I finished it in one day and could not put it down – although I had to pause at points while Marie was being tortured. Those parts of the story are not for the faint of heart – but they are an important part of the story all the same.

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

I am giving away a copy of The Lost Girls of Paris to one lucky US commenter on this tour!

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