Review: Blood and Blade by Lauren Dane

Review: Blood and Blade by Lauren DaneBlood and Blade: Goddess with a Blade by Lauren Dane
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Goddess with a Blade #6
Pages: 384
Published by Carina Press on December 30th 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Rowan Summerwaite is ready to finish what she started in
Blood and Blade
, the next installment in the Goddess with a Blade series by
New York Times
bestselling author Lauren Dane.

It’s been only days since Rowan and her friends eliminated the immediate threat to magic users and Vampires, but they’re already back on the hunt. Rowan’s out for vengeance, and she’s never been more driven—or angry. But she’s up against a being stronger than any she’s ever fought. To bring it down she’ll need more than the powers the goddess Brigid gave her…

This time she’ll need her friends, too.

She knows her husband will always have her back. As an ancient Vampire and Scion of North America, Clive has more clout and dominance than almost anyone. Rowan’s small but trusted inner circle insist they’ll join her in the thick of the battle, even as she argues it’s too dangerous for them. She’s also got a new dog. Familiar. Whatever. Star is a magical being put in Rowan’s path to help and protect her.

The hunt for ancient evil takes Rowan and her team to London and back to Las Vegas, bringing with them an unexpected alliance. Fortified by their rage, grief and determination, Rowan and her friends will stop at nothing when they track their enemy to the high desert in a final, deadly showdown.

This book is approximately 77,000 words

One-click with confidence. This title is part of the
Carina Press Romance Promise
: all the romance you’re looking for with an HEA/HFN. It’s a promise!

My Review:

This is the last day of 2019 and this is my final review of the year. It seemed fitting to close out the year with this book, the sixth book in the Goddess with a Blade series. Why? Because the first book in this series, the book for which the series was named, was the first book I ever reviewed from NetGalley back in 2011 when Reading Reality first started as Escape Reality, Read Fiction.

I still remember not just the book, but the whole scene, sitting at the table in the house we were living in at the time, racing through Goddess with a Blade accompanied by a glass of iced tea and being completely sucked into the world that the author had created.

(As an aside, the cover on the left is the original cover for Goddess with a Blade. I much preferred the original cover aesthetic for the series and wish that they’d continued in that direction. My 2 cents.)

So this is a series that I read and review pretty much as soon as the next one appears on NetGalley. And here we are, six books in and Rowan Summerwaite is very much still going strong. Goddess strong.

But this is the sixth book in an ongoing series, and the events in Blood and Blade are the direct consequences of the shit that went down in the previous book, Wrath of the Goddess. And the story in Wrath of the Goddess is a consequence of what went right and wrong in the previous books.

So this one is the end of the chain. It doesn’t feel like the end of the series, but it is definitely the end of the long arc. As someone who has read the whole thing – although not nearly recently enough, it felt like I could hear the thud of one door closing echoing throughout the entire book – along with the whisper-creak of the next door being wrestled open at the other side.

In other words, this is no place to start the series. It would be like watching Avengers: Endgame without watching any of the movies that led up to it. The endgame has no resonance without knowing where the game began.

But if you’re looking for a fascinating and compelling blend of urban fantasy and paranormal romance, this series has all the mysterious mythology, arrogant but romantic vampires, ugly political infighting and kickass heroines you’ll ever want to meet.

Start with Goddess with a Blade and watch Rowan Summerwaite kick ass, take names and bring down corruption with a load of snark, a lot of deeply hidden heart, and one really big-ass sword.

Escape Rating B+: You can’t start the series here. Period. Exclamation point. It just won’t make any sense whatsoever. That being said, there is so much that still needs cleaning up that has been festering for so damn long that it was a bit difficult to get back into exactly where Rowan was at the end of Wrath of the Goddess and what’s left to clean up.

What I loved about this series from the very beginning is the depth of the worldbuilding. One of the things that I’ve always loved about urban fantasy is the way that it twists on the world we know and adds so much depth, both in its mythology and in its politics. Immortal beings tend to hold immortal grudges and I really dig on watching that play out in the modern world.

Another thing I love about this series in particular is the way that Rowan in particular, as well as her relationship with Clive, reminds me very fondly of Eve Dallas and Roarke in the In Death series. Rowan and Eve have a LOT of traits in common, to the point that if their worlds ever collided they’d either adopt each other as sisters or fight to the death because they are too much alike. But they both have the kind of no-nonsense attitude with full snarkitude, that I adore along with the brains and strength to back it up.

I compare their relationship to Eve and Roarke because Rowan and Clive also start out on what look like the opposite sides of a barbed-wire fence and work out their relationship early in the series. Dane, like Robb, does an excellent job of portraying a romance that is still sweet, hot and occasionally barbed between two strong-willed alpha personalities and that’s always fun to watch.

This series has been a wild and marvelous ride from the very beginning. It is obvious from the way that Blood and Blade ends that there are more stories to be told in Rowan’s world – and I can’t wait to read them.

Review: The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan

Review: The Governess Affair by Courtney MilanThe Governess Affair (Brothers Sinister, #0.5) by Courtney Milan
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Brothers Sinister #0.5
Pages: 96
Published by Courtney Milan on April 21st 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

She will not give up. Three months ago, governess Serena Barton was let go from her position. Unable to find new work, she's demanding compensation from the man who got her sacked: a petty, selfish, swinish duke. But it's not the duke she fears. It's his merciless man of business -- the man known as the Wolf of Clermont. The formidable former pugilist has a black reputation for handling all the duke's dirty business, and when the duke turns her case over to him, she doesn't stand a chance. But she can't stop trying -- not with her entire future at stake.He cannot give in.Hugo Marshall is a man of ruthless ambition -- a characteristic that has served him well, elevating the coal miner's son to the right hand man of a duke. When his employer orders him to get rid of the pestering governess by fair means or foul, it's just another day at the office. Unfortunately, fair means don't work on Serena, and as he comes to know her, he discovers that he can't bear to use foul ones. But everything he has worked for depends upon seeing her gone. He'll have to choose between the life that he needs, and the woman he is coming to love... The Governess Affair is a novella of about 32,500 words.

My Review:

Courtney Milan is an author who has been highly recommended to me on multiple occasions. After reading The Governess Affair I certainly understand why.

This wasn’t quite what I expected based on the blurb – but in a good way. I haven’t been reading as much romance as I used to, particularly historical romance, because the characters and the situation have become increasingly difficult to identify with. Love may conquer a lot, but it doesn’t conquer ALL.

Heroines with agency often feel anachronistic, while heroines without agency just aren’t worth bothering with.

But The Governess Affair was an extremely pleasant surprise. Heroine Serena Barton has grabbed her agency with both hands and is hanging onto it as if it is her only hope – because it is. Even though the deck is stacked high against her from the very beginning, she never lets go. At the same time the way that she takes that agency feels like it fits into her time and place. Because what she is demanding is her due in that time and place – no more and no less.

The hero, Hugo Marshall, is every bit as fascinating because he’s the kind of person that we know must have existed but doesn’t usually find himself the hero of a romance. He’s not particularly handsome. Not that he’s ugly either, just that he’s relatively ordinary.

He’s definitely not an aristocrat. In fact, the aristocrat is the villain of this piece and deservedly so.

Instead, Hugo Marshall works for a living. Admittedly he begins the story as the villainous aristocrat’s “fixer”, but it is definitely work. Hugo’s not striving for a life of idle luxury, just enough money and contacts to stake himself in business. He’s ambitious, hard-working and just plain hard. (Take that wherever your imagination wants to go)

But Serena has made herself a problem for Hugo’s employer. It’s Hugo’s job to eliminate his employer’s problems – one way or another.

He doesn’t resort to murder. It’s not that kind of problem elimination. Hugo’s usual methods are payoffs and ruination.

The problem is that Serena doesn’t want a small payoff because it won’t be enough to fix HER problems. And he really can’t ruin her because his employer has already done that.

And Hugo discovers that he can’t bring himself to do it again – no matter how much his own future rides on the outcome.

Escape Rating A-: I’ve had this book in my virtually towering TBR pile for almost seven years. It zoomed to the top of that rather large pile this week when the news of the dumpster fire at the Romance Writers of America broke on Xmas Eve. It’s a story of WTF’ery, of tone policing, of organizational idiocy, of having no clue about the way that social media works on the eve of 2020, and of trying to lock the barn door after the horse has gone while attempting to pretend that there was never a horse in the first place AND blaming the jockey for raising the alarm about the missing equine. A brief summary – with documents – can be found at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. The TL;DR version is that RWA officially blamed an author of color for calling out racism in the industry and pretty much the entire industry except the pearl-clutchers clapped back. HARD. Courtney Milan is the author blamed for calling out her own experience. So I wanted to send love both in the form of a review of something I had already purchased and the purchase of something new.

Which led to a deep dive into that TBR stack to see what I had on tap. And this is one of the things I had, the prequel novella in her Brothers Sinister series (The entire rest of the series was the purchase of something new). And it was a lovely read.

As is obvious from my comments above the rating, I liked both Serena and Hugh very much. And I’m saying that even though Serena’s predicament isn’t one I usually have much interest in reading about. Because the story isn’t ABOUT her pregnancy. It’s about her taking her future in her own hands and standing up for her own self in a society that expects her to do neither.

And I loved her internal voice, that she’s standing up NOW because she didn’t stand up then. She gave up her own voice once and it cost her dearly. She refuses to do it again – no matter what follows.

I found the relationship between her and her sister Freddy fascinating on multiple levels, and not just because Freddy clearly has agoraphobia. The way that the sisters love each other, support each other and have absolutely no understanding of each other all at the same time feels so real. I identify with Serena’s position completely while still being able to see where Freddy is coming from – even knowing that she would drive me bonkers too.

Hugh’s aspirations and his work ethic make him a different kind of hero for a story set in England in the immediate post-Regency period. The only member of the aristocracy we really see is Hugh’s employer, who is essentially the rotter that kicks off the whole story. He doesn’t get nearly as much as he deserves. What I loved about the story is that, at least in Hugh’s internal voice, the glitter of the Regency is exposed for the sham it was – or at least the sham the “nobility” were.

The romance between Serena and Hugh is an enemies into lovers romance that sparkles with wit and banter. They fall in love by talking to each other with both of their keen intellects on display at every turn.

I also loved the way that Hugh helped Serena get past her trauma. The sensitivity of that scene reminded me very much – and very favorably – of a similar occurrence in Lady Abigail’s Perfect Match.

The end of The Governess Affair is a teaser for the first complete novel in the Brothers Sinister series, The Duchess War. And at the end of my reading of The Governess Affair, while I decry the reason I found myself hunting this book up, I’m glad that I finally did.

Review: Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield

Review: Alice Payne Arrives by Kate HeartfieldAlice Payne Arrives (Alice Payne, #1) by Kate Heartfield
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction, steampunk, time travel
Series: Alice Payne #1
Pages: 171
Published by Tor.com on November 6, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A disillusioned major, a highwaywoman, and a war raging across time.

It’s 1788 and Alice Payne is the notorious highway robber, the Holy Ghost. Aided by her trusty automaton, Laverna, the Holy Ghost is feared by all who own a heavy purse.

It’s 1889 and Major Prudence Zuniga is once again attempting to change history―to save history―but seventy attempts later she’s still no closer to her goal.

It’s 2016 and . . . well, the less said about 2016 the better!

But in 2020 the Farmers and the Guides are locked in battle; time is their battleground, and the world is their prize. Only something new can change the course of the war. Or someone new.

Little did they know, but they’ve all been waiting until Alice Payne arrives.

My Review:

The problem with wanting to change things is that things change. The road to Hell is always paved with good intentions. The problem with humanity is, well, humans.

And wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey bits have a way of biting everyone in the ass – every single time.

Time travel has always been an irresistible idea for SF and other genres to play with and things always seem to turn out alright in the end. For values of “alright” that seem to be relatively definable. Or at least reasonably fixable.

The time travel in Alice Payne’s version of history – or rather versions of history – turns out to be not nearly so simple. Or half so easily fixable. And it makes so much sense – in a really, really horrible sort of way.

It all goes back to that road to Hell and those good intentions. Mostly.

Some of the damage is already present. From the perspective of the future, global warming and a whole bunch of other crap that we’re already dealing with has sent the planet into a state of anarchy by the time that time travel is invented.

And then there was bureaucracy – a hell in itself – but a hell created with the noble goal of going back in time to make things better. The problem with that little idea is “who decides”? One person’s meat is another person’s poison. One person’s better is someone else’s worse. Not to mention that there is no universal definition of “better”. We all think we know, but the devil is in those terrible details. Which leads, directly and inexorably, to rival factions of time travelers – or perhaps that should be time meddlers – who are just absolutely certain that their way is the right way.

Also, there’s the issue that every writer of alternate history runs into. Once you flap the butterfly’s wings in a different direction or a different rhythm, the changes ripple out forever and in ways that were never expected. A change that looks good at the outset may lead to terrible consequences later.

“Millions will die who did not die in what would have been our history.” If that line sounds familiar, it’s what Spock tells Kirk in the TOS episode The City on the Edge of Forever when he realizes that the woman Kirk loves, the woman at the foundation of a peace movement, has to die so that her peace movement doesn’t delay the entry of the U.S. into World War II – allowing Hitler to rise to global dominion. The peace movement looked like a wonderful thing – and in another time and another place it might have been. But there and then the immediate good thing led to a terrible consequence. And the needs of the many always outweigh the needs of the few or of the one.

Prudence Zuniga in 2070 believes that it all has to end. That every attempt to change history “for the better” is only making things worse and rippling that worse further back into history. That it’s time to end the tinkering, let the chips fall where they may, and move forward and only forward into a single future – whatever it might be.

Not that she’s not going to make one last play to make sure that her faction of the history changers wins the “History Wars”. She just needs one person in 1788 to fix a few last minute details.

She plans to involve a tinkerer, but ends up with a highwayman – or rather a highwaywoman, Alice Payne. So Prudence changes her plans – just a bit. And finds herself in the midst of that old dilemma, the one about the problem with changing things is that things change.

And change, and change, and change.

Escape Rating B: Alice Payne’s ride has echoes and origins in many time travel stories, from Doctor Who to The Chronicles of St. Mary’s to The Anubis Gates to The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. But Alice Payne isn’t nearly so lighthearted as that dog.

The difference is that most of those stories try their damnedest not to change the history they explore. They kind of operate on a temporal version of the Prime Directive – to add in another Star Trek reference. They are trying NOT to change things and they do worry very much about the ‘grandfather paradox’.

What makes Alice Payne’s, or rather Prudence Zuniga’s, story feel so probable in its improbability is that no one is careful. It feels all too true to human nature that if the capability of time travel existed that it would be abused and only make things worse.

The story feels like it is set up to parallel the situations of Alice Payne and Prudence Zuniga. While the series is named after Alice, it feels like it is as much Prudence’s story – and more about Prudence’s time(s) and the mess that the world has gotten itself into than it is about Alice.

At the same time – so to speak – as a character Alice has more drive and ambition. And we get more inside her head – possibly because it’s a much less convoluted place that Prudence’s. After all, Alice knows who she is and what she’s doing and as far as she knows that doesn’t change. She’s in the late 1800s doing the best she can to hide her love for her friend Jane, dodge the amorous attentions of several disgusting men AND keep her family’s house halfway livable and her father out of debtor’s prison by posing as a highwayman and robbing the coaches of the aforementioned disgusting men.

Prudence is trying to stop time travel. Alice’s story is easy. It takes the reader a while to understand why Prudence feels like she needs to essentially commit treason – and we get enough to grasp what’s wrong by the tip of our reading fingernails without understanding it in quite as much depth as I’d like. The ending felt both a bit rushed and a bit of a tease for the next book in the series.

I’m quite teased. I’ll definitely be back to see where Alice Payne Rides take her – and us – next.

Review: The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde

Review: The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran WildeThe Jewel and Her Lapidary (Gemworld #1) by Fran Wilde
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Gem Universe #1
Pages: 96
Published by Tor.com on May 3, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From Fran Wilde, the Andre Norton and Compton Crook Award-winning author of Updraft.

The kingdom in the Valley has long sheltered under the protection of its Jewels and Lapidaries, the people bound to singing gemstones with the power to reshape hills, move rivers, and warp minds. That power has kept the peace and tranquility, and the kingdom has flourished.

Jewel Lin and her Lapidary Sima may be the last to enjoy that peace.

The Jeweled Court has been betrayed. As screaming raiders sweep down from the mountains, and Lapidary servants shatter under the pressure, the last princess of the Valley will have to summon up a strength she’s never known. If she can assume her royal dignity, and if Sima can master the most dangerous gemstone in the land, they may be able to survive.

“The central fantastical idea is pretty cool… nicely written… I suspect the world it’s set in might yield more fine stories.” – Locus

My Review:

I was looking for something with some adventure – with either a fantasy or SF bent. And I was looking for something short. Which left me trolling the Tor.com backlist because I knew I’d find something good that would take care of all my wants – at least of the brief and bookish type.

Which led to me The Jewel and Her Lapidary – along with a few other gems.

So much story gets told here. Through the dynamic between Lin and Sima, and their own internal dialogs, we get just enough background to understand why they and their kingdom has come to this terrible pass – and just how little anyone would expect them to do about it.

They are supposed to be royal, young and submissive. Coddled youngest children considered too weak and too female to do anything but submit to their fate as conquered property of a warlord. Too cowed to do anything but obey and be subjugated – along with their people.

Instead, they fight back. Not as warriors, because they are neither of them that. But with what weapons they have. Brains, cunning, the underestimation of their enemies. And love. Love for those who came before them. Love for their country. Love for each other.

This is a story of triumph not by conquest but by endurance. And it is absolutely a gem. It’s also about gems. And about power and control and love and sacrifice and a whole lot else – packed into a tiny, sparkling package. Like a gem.

Escape Rating A-: This story is probably the shortest epic fantasy ever written. And it doesn’t seem to sacrifice anything for its tiny length. Not that I wouldn’t have loved to have had more backstory and character building and setup and everything – because I always want more of all of those things. And not that I’m not hoping to get more of those things from the next book in the series, The Fire Opal Mechanism. Because I certainly am.

However, we learn what we need to learn about the Jewel Lin, her Lapidary Sima, how they found themselves and their kingdom in the terrible situation that they are in – and just how much they will have to sacrifice to save what they can. This is one of those stories where there really is a fate worse than death – and it’s a fate that these two young women are determined to prevent at all costs.

This is an epic where the victory is not in a big battle with brave warriors – but instead won by quiet sacrifice – all alone in the dark.

This story, short thought it may be, still manages to be complete and heart wrenching in and of its tiny little self. And that’s pretty awesome.

Review: A Trace of Deceit by Karen Odden

Review: A Trace of Deceit by Karen OddenA Trace of Deceit (Victorian Mystery #2) by Karen Odden
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Victorian Mystery #2
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on December 17, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the author of A Dangerous Duet comes the next book in her Victorian mystery series, this time following a daring female painter and the Scotland Yard detective who is investigating her brother’s suspicious death.

A young painter digs beneath the veneer of Victorian London’s art world to learn the truth behind her brother’s murder...

Edwin is dead. That’s what Inspector Matthew Hallam of Scotland Yard tells Annabel Rowe when she discovers him searching her brother’s flat for clues. While the news is shocking, Annabel can’t say it’s wholly unexpected, given Edwin’s past as a dissolute risk-taker and art forger, although he swore he’d reformed. After years spent blaming his reckless behavior for their parents’ deaths, Annabel is now faced with the question of who murdered him—because Edwin’s death was both violent and deliberate. A valuable French painting he’d been restoring for an auction house is missing from his studio: find the painting, find the murderer. But the owner of the artwork claims it was destroyed in a warehouse fire years ago.

As a painter at the prestigious Slade School of Art and as Edwin’s closest relative, Annabel makes the case that she is crucial to Matthew’s investigation. But in their search for the painting, Matthew and Annabel trace a path of deceit and viciousness that reaches far beyond the elegant rooms of the auction house, into an underworld of politics, corruption, and secrets someone will kill to keep.  

My Review:

“I think all our memories have a trace of deceit in them,” at least according to Inspector Matthew Hallam, the hero of our story – and of the previous book in this series, A Dangerous Duet.

He’s not wrong, not in the context of the story, and not in real life, either. It’s been said that looking at a memory is like opening a page in a book, and that every time we do so, we change it just a little bit – blur the edges, smudge a section, make it sound better – or worse – until the original memory has been altered into the memory of the story we tell ourselves – and everyone else.

Sometimes we remember things, situations, people being better or happier than they really were. And sometimes we remember them as worse. It all depends on whatever story we want – or need – to tell ourselves.

Annabel Rowe has spent most of her adult years telling herself the story of how her brother Edwin abandoned her. And he did. Edwin fell into drink and eventually drugs at school, and didn’t quite manage to fall out until after a prison sentence made him rethink his life. It probably helped that the man Edwin was rebelling against, their father, was dead.

But Edwin and Annabel had been best friends and close companions as children. And when Edwin was sent off to boarding school, things changed – and not for the better. He did more than leave her behind – as was inevitable. He stopped communicating. And then, like so many addicts, he started making promises he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – keep.

He seemed to have turned over a new leaf after prison. Now Annabel and Edwin, both artists, both living on their own in London, had begun a tentative friendship. Annabel was beginning to trust again – but just couldn’t let go of her old hurts. Hurts which were real and legion. She feared, reasonably so, that Edwin would slide back into his old habits and abandon her again.

They were both young, there was plenty of time to get back to where they used to be – or at least an adult approximation of it.

Until the day that Annabel went to Edwin’s flat and found the police, in the person of Inspector Matthew Hallam, inspecting the scene of his death.

Time has run out for Annabel and Edwin to repair their relationship. But it has just begun on Annabel’s opportunity to provide justice for the brother she still loved. If she and Hallam can manage to figure out exactly why Edwin was killed.

At the heart of this case lies yet another deceit of memory.

Escape Rating A-: I liked A Trace of Deceit better than its predecessor, A Dangerous Duet. The first story was very plot driven, and it felt like the characters, particularly its central character Nell Hallam (Matthew’s sister) was a vehicle for the plot rather than a fully-fleshed out person. (That all being said, it feels like the link between the two books is fairly loose, and this book can definitely be read as a stand-alone.)

A Trace of Deceit, on the other hand, was very much Annabel’s story. She feels like a more rounded person as we explore not just where she is now, but her childhood, her relationship with her brother, with their parents, and her conflicted feelings about who she is and where she’s been.

While I did figure out what happened to Edwin in the past, what made him change, fairly early in the investigation, this is not after all Edwin’s story. And I understood and empathized with Annabel’s need to finally figure out the person her brother had been and what made him that person – and what led to his death.

The title of the story is ironic in a way. Annabel had remembered her childhood with Edwin as being less bright than it was in order to sustain her caution and mistrust. In her investigation of his murder she reclaims the brighter memories of their childhood. Even as she wonders whether they have only become so bright because she needs them to be, or whether she suppressed them because they only made Edwin’s frequent betrayals sharper.

But Edwin’s death is the result of someone else’s deceitful memories. Someone who has cast Edwin as the villain of their story rather than tarnish the image of someone they held dear.

So, I enjoyed the story and found the mystery fascinating. But what made the book for me was the character of Annabel and the way that she fit into her setting. One of the things that can be difficult about female protagonists in historical fiction is the need for the character to have agency and yet not seem out of her time in either attitudes or opportunities. Annabel feels like she belongs. Her story was set at a time when women could just manage to have an independent life if circumstances aligned. She has just enough income to keep herself, but has to be frugal about her expenses. She lives on her own and that’s accepted and acceptable. She doesn’t expect anyone to rescue her or take care of her – and she’s right not to do so. Nothing is easy for her as a woman alone – but it is possible in a way that feels right.

I read this one in a single day and felt like the story closed properly and yet I was a bit sad to see it end. Not that I wanted Annabel’s travails to go on a moment longer – more that I was hoping there would be an opportunity to visit her again.

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Review: Thunderbolt by M.L. Buchman

Review: Thunderbolt by M.L. BuchmanThunderbolt (Miranda Chase NTSB #2) Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #2
Pages: 440
Published by Buchman Bookworks on December 17, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The best ground-attack support fighter jets ever built—the A-10 Thunderbolt “Warthogs”—are falling out of the sky.

The Air Force brass repeatedly schemes to decommission this low-tech jet. They’ve been blocked by soldiers, pilots, and Congress…so far.

The “Hog” lies at the crux of a high-tech struggle for power. An interagency skirmish that now rapidly descends into a battle fought on a global scale.

Miranda Chase, air-crash savant for the National Transportation Safety Board, and her team dive in. The high-risk stakes mount in the battlespace—and a secret from their past could make them the next target. Miranda may become the spark that ignites a war.

My Review:

“Friendly fire” – it sounds kind of warm and snuggly, doesn’t it? In a video game it can be no big deal – except for maybe the resulting trash talk. But in real life, in a real life military situation, it doesn’t matter whether the fire comes from friendlies or foes – because the result is just as deadly no matter who pulls the trigger. It also doesn’t matter whether you know which end of the fire you are on – or why you are on it or why it is happening at all. If it is really happening at all.

The story in Thunderbolt is a wheels-within-wheels political technothriller – the kind the Tom Clancy used to write.

But Miranda Chase isn’t like any of Clancy’s heroes – or anyone else’s. Clarissa Reese, on the other hand, is just the kind of self-centered and villainous operate that Clancy used to wrap whole books around.

And the matchup between Chase and Reese is an absolute doozy every step of the way – even if – or especially because Chase never sees it that way.

All that Miranda Chase ever sees is that there’s a plane (or two, or in this case nine) down, and that it’s up to her to figure out why it happened – so that she can prevent it from ever happening again. Or at least prevent it from ever happening again the exact same way.

After all, that’s why Chase joined the NTSB in the first place, to prevent anyone else from losing their parents the same way that she lost hers – in a crash. Her single-minded focus – and possibly her neuro-atypicality – has made her a savant that even the military calls upon when the situation goes really really pear-shaped. And it makes her a fantastic protagonist for this thrill-a-minute ride of a series.

Miranda Chase doesn’t seem to ever be the person that anyone expects – but when she’s what they need to solve the most complicated problem – she always delivers.

Escape Rating A: I enjoyed Thunderbolt even more than I did the first book in Miranda Chase’s series, Drone. And I liked that one an awful lot. But Thunderbolt is even better – at least in part because the team has already been introduced and set up, so now we get to sit back and enjoy the ride as we watch them work.

Part of what I love about this series so far is the team dynamic. It isn’t quite a “Five-Man Band” or at least not yet, but the roles that the members play do mirror the members of the trope, while at the same time turning the whole thing a bit on its head. Miranda, of course is the leader, and Jeremy is definitely the Smart Guy, but the “Chick” in this group is Mike, the only person whose specialty is human dynamics and not engineering or geekery of any kind. And in a complete subversion, the role of the Lancer (second-in-command) and Big Guy strongman is former SAS operative Holly. So a woman is in the traditional masculine roles while a man is in the traditional female role.

I like a good subversion when it works and this one definitely does.

The other fun thing about this series so far is that both the hero and the villain are women. Women who are at the top of their fields and are both smart and successful. They also represent very different versions of female protagonists/antagonists, as one uses her sexuality as a tool in her arsenal while the other acts as if she doesn’t have any. Another contrast is that one does most of her work through other people, while the other leads from the front. One is very much a manipulator while the other honestly doesn’t understand how other people think or what other people feel well enough to manipulate anyone. Her people follow her because they want to – and with eyes wide open.

I will also say that the while both women are cold in their own ways, it’s Clarissa’s cold calculation of means and ends that really sent chills up my spine. And I hope we get to see her comeuppance in a not too distant entry in the series.

But what makes this book and this series stand out is the edge-of-the-seat thriller of the plot. Just as with the “spheres” that Miranda Chase uses to analyze a crash site, the story begins with a broad focus on a narrow event. There’s a downed plane. Miranda’s team then pokes into, under and around every facet of the crash site and the downed plane. Despite temptation, they do not reach conclusions. They just gather evidence – often right before it blows up in their faces or over their heads. That painstakingly gathered evidence leads, slowly but inexorably, towards the reason why the plane crashed.

That’s it’s never the obvious is what makes Miranda’s investigation so compelling to follow. That someone is out there trying to prevent her from discovering that non-obvious solution is what adds the accelerant to the incendiary device of this story, and puts readers right in the middle of the action watching for the explosion – or its prevention.

I’ll admit that I can’t wait to see what catastrophe Miranda Chase draws as her next assignment, but I’m looking forward to finding out next year in Condor.

“I received a free copy of this title from the publisher for an honest review.” And I honestly loved this story!

Guest Review: Hard Duty by Mark E. Cooper

Guest Review: Hard Duty by Mark E. CooperHard Duty (Merkiaari Wars #1) by Mark E. Cooper
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction
Series: Merkiaari Wars #1
Pages: 388
Published by Impulse Books UK on August 20, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Humanity's last encounter with aliens saw sixteen point two billion people killed in a war with the Merkiaari that had spanned decades.

Two hundred years later, the Alliance is cautiously exploring beyond its borders again, but the survey corp. is considered a mere gesture by some. General Burgton of the 501st Infantry Regiment believes a lack of expansion is leading the Alliance into stagnation. So when one small ship discovers a new alien race, it should be an easy decision to make contact, but what if the aliens are like the Merkiaari?

Captain Jeff Colgan of the survey ship ASN Canada is at the tip of the spear. His ship made the discovery, his crew's lives are on the line, and his decisions will decide the outcome. Will the Alliance make new friends or will he be responsible for another sixteen billion deaths? When the aliens discover his ship and begin hunting him through their system, his mission changes from one of study to one of survival.

Guest Review by Amy:

Two hundred years ago, when humankind met the Merkiaari, it resulted in over sixteen billion deaths, and an enduring fear of space exploration. Now, as humankind reaches out into the darkness once more, they’re more careful about it. When Jeff Colgan’s ship, the ASN Canada, hears a radio transmission of unknown origin, they have to investigate – carefully.

If it’s the Merki, that’s really bad, of course. If it’s not their mysterious, hated enemy, then they have to find out if they are as bad or worse. If not that, then they need to convince this other race to not be so noisy, so as not to attract the Merkiaari’s attention!

Escape Rating: B: There’s a lot going on in this book. Besides the viewpoint of the Alliance folks who have discovered the new race (they call themselves the Shan), we spend a fair amount of time exploring their lives. Meanwhile, in another part of the galaxy, seemingly unconnected with this drama out in the hinterlands, we have a Viper at work. Vipers are the souped-up humans who made it possible to defeat the Merkiaari back when, we’re told, and many of them still work for the Alliance now, as our man Eric does. Eric’s on a mission, to infiltrate a guerrilla movement on some planet that is trying to decide if they should join the Alliance – I think?

It’s very confusing, having this one plot line that doesn’t seem connected to the other two. What redeemed this book for me was that all three are colorfully written stories in their own right, any one of which I’d be happy to read. Eric’s Viper story is certainly action-packed and engaging, but I don’t see a lot of connection between it and the first-contact situation with the Shan. The disparate stories at work here distract somewhat from the otherwise high quality of the work, and having both ends of the galaxy end the book on hairy cliffhangers was a little bit off-putting.

One of the most-impressive parts of this book, for me, was the new race, the Shan. They’re technologically advanced, yet still have a jungle-predator culture, in many ways. Cooper’s descriptions of these beings, their relationships and their culture are all richly described, and the first-contact scenario could easily have come out of any of Star Trek‘s incarnations without looking like a misfit. The stress on the scenario of needing to stay hidden from the Merkiaari adds some good tension to this plot line, and kept me reading through to the tantalizing end.

I’m still left wondering what the point of the Viper plot line was, but there are seven books planned in this series, so perhaps Mark Cooper will make things clearer in later books.

Hard sci-fi: check! Adventure: check! Cloak-and-dagger: check! First contact with alien race: check! Satisfaction: …not so much.

Review: The Girl Who Reads on the Metro by Christine Feret-Fleury

Review: The Girl Who Reads on the Metro by Christine Feret-FleuryThe Girl Who Reads on the Métro by Christine Féret-Fleury
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 175
Published by Flatiron Books on October 8, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the vein of Amelie and The Little Paris Bookshop, a modern fairytale about a French woman whose life is turned upside down when she meets a reclusive bookseller and his young daughter.

Juliette leads a perfectly ordinary life in Paris, working a slow office job, dating a string of not-quite-right men, and fighting off melancholy. The only bright spots in her day are her metro rides across the city and the stories she dreams up about the strangers reading books across from her: the old lady, the math student, the amateur ornithologist, the woman in love, the girl who always tears up at page 247.

One morning, avoiding the office for as long as she can, Juliette finds herself on a new block, in front of a rusty gate wedged open with a book. Unable to resist, Juliette walks through, into the bizarre and enchanting lives of Soliman and his young daughter, Zaide. Before she realizes entirely what is happening, Juliette agrees to become a passeur, Soliman's name for the booksellers he hires to take stacks of used books out of his store and into the world, using their imagination and intuition to match books with readers. Suddenly, Juliette's daydreaming becomes her reality, and when Soliman asks her to move in to their store to take care of Zaide while he goes away, she has to decide if she is ready to throw herself headfirst into this new life.

Big-hearted, funny, and gloriously zany, The Girl Who Reads on the Metro is a delayed coming-of-age story about a young woman who dares to change her life, and a celebration of the power of books to unite us all.

My Review:

There’s a power in stories, and not just the ones that last. There’s magic in books, and not just the ones that stand the test of time. The Girl Who Reads on the Métro is a charming tale of a young woman who takes that power and uses that magic to finally begin a story of her very own – a story not limited to between the pages of a book.

This is a story that invokes feels rather than thoughts – until it settles into your psyche and generates lots of thoughts. All the thoughts.

The plot is rather simple. Juliette lives a small life in the “real” but a large life within the pages of books. And she’s too shy, or scared, or too deeply programmed to even think about trading the one for the another.

She just knows she’s not truly happy. But she’s not really unhappy, either. She’s just going through the motions.

Until one morning when she meanders her way to work instead of taking the straight and narrow path and finds herself in an extremely eclectic bookstore – and at the edge of a brand new life.

Juliette has always made up stories about the people she sees reading on the Métro. Soliman and his Book Depot give her a mission – to take books from the Depot and find exactly the right person to give them to.

It’s a calling – one that takes Juliette out of her comfort zone and into the Book Depot full-time when Soliman needs someone to take care of his daughter while he goes on a mysterious journey.

But just as Juliette and the other book passers of the Book Depot find the person who needs to read each book, Soliman has found the right person to take over the Depot in Juliette. Right for her and right for the Depot.

She takes it on a new adventure – and it most definitely takes her.

Escape Rating A-: This is one of those little books that sticks with you after its done – sort of like the way that the books that Juliette gives away stick with the people she gives them to.

In spite of being set in Paris, this isn’t really a book about Paris. The focus is very tight on Juliette’s small life, her daily ride on the Métro, and her journey of discovery in, by and for the Book Depot. There really isn’t a lot about the feel of the city, so It could be any city big enough to have a well functioning commuter system. The Chicago ‘L’ would serve as well as the Paris Métro, and there are plenty of unlikely and untidy corners of that great city to house a magical bookshop like the Book Depot. And it doesn’t matter, because this isn’t about the location of the Book Depot. It’s about the magic of the Book Depot.

It’s possible to interpret this story as a paean to the physical book. Certainly the physicality of books is part of what Juliette – and many other people – love about them. The way that they absorb the atmosphere and even the aroma of the places and people who keep them – and the way that they hold their own history within the leaves of their pages and tucked inside their bent spines.

At the same time, this feels like it’s more about the power of story to change a life. The lives of the people that the passers pass those books to, and especially the power to change Juliette’s own. The right story at the right time can move mountains – or at least shift the hardest heart. And that doesn’t have to be the printed book – it’s the story that matters.

But books as artifacts are sure a lot easier to pass around. There’s always a magic in connecting the right person with the right story at the right time. After all, that’s one of the reasons that librarians do what they do.

The Girl Who Reads on the Métro is a charming story of a young woman gathering her courage to begin writing her own story – while sharing the books she loves with as many others as possible. Including the reader – as Juliette’s own list of books to pass to that reader is an extensive tease of possibilities – just like her story.

Review: The Wicked Redhead by Beatriz Williams

Review: The Wicked Redhead by Beatriz WilliamsThe Wicked Redhead: A Wicked City Novel by Beatriz Williams
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Series: Wicked City #2
Pages: 432
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on December 10, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In this follow-up to The Wicked City, New York Times bestselling author Beatriz Williams combines past and present in this delicious Jazz Age adventure featuring a saucy redheaded flapper, the square-jawed Prohibition agent who loves her, and a beautiful divorcee trying to remake her life in contemporary New York.

New York City, 1998: When Ella Gilbert discovers her banker husband is cheating on her, she loses both her marriage and the life she knew. In her new apartment in an old Greenwich Village building, she’s found unexpected second love with Hector, a musician who lives upstairs. And she’s discovered something else, just as surprising—a connection to the mesmerizing woman scandalously posed in a vintage photograph titled Redhead Beside Herself.

Florida, 1924: Geneva “Gin” Kelly, a smart-mouthed flapper from Appalachia, barely survived a run-in with her notorious bootlegger stepfather. She and Oliver Anson, a Prohibition agent she has inconveniently fallen in love with, take shelter in Cocoa Beach, a rum-running haven. But the turmoil she tried to leave behind won’t be so easily outrun. Anson’s mother, the formidable Mrs. Marshall, descends on Florida with a proposition that propels Gin back to the family’s opulent New York home, and into a reluctant alliance. Then Anson disappears during an investigation, and Gin must use all her guile and courage to find him.

Two very different women, separated by decades. Yet as Ella tries to free herself from her ex, she is also hunting down the truth about the captivating, wicked Redhead in her photograph—a woman who loved and lived fearlessly. And as their link grows, she feels Gin urging her on, daring her to forge her own path, wherever it leads.

My Review:

I picked up The Wicked Redhead because I absolutely loved this author’s A Certain Age, and liked the predecessor to this, The Wicked City well enough. So I signed up to see what happened next.

Unlike most of this author’s books, which are loosely connected with some of the same people slipping in and out of the story, The Wicked Redhead is a direct sequel to The Wicked City. The action in this book picks up immediately where the other left off – broken bones, bruises and all.

Meaning that while most of this author’s books seem to stand well alone – the connections between them are quite loose – it feels really necessary to have read The Wicked City before The Wicked Redhead – and possibly recently at that – otherwise the story feels very much like it starts in the middle. It took me a bit to feel like I had caught up – or back – to where this story begins as I read The Wicked City almost three years ago..

But one of the other differences between the Wicked City series and the author’s other books is that the connection all the others share – along with these two, is a setting among the glitterati of New York City during the Roaring 20s. A period that roared because of all the illegal booze coming into the city and being fought over both in and out of it.

In other words, during Prohibition. (BTW there is an absolutely fantastic Prohibition Museum in Savannah – but I seriously digress.)

What makes this series different is that unlike the author’s other works, this is a time slip story. In both books, the framing story revolves around Ella in the late 1990s, about to divorce her seriously slimy soon-to-be-ex and living in the building next door to the Speakeasy where the 1920s action of that first book takes place.

As Ella can hear the music of the past – literally – her story frames that of Geneva Kelly, the redhead of the title. Also the step-daughter of one of those rumrunner kingpins and the lover of an FBI agent out to fight the trade in illicit booze – albeit mostly because of the even worse crime that surrounds it.

At the end of The Wicked City, Geneva, now former FBI agent Anson Marshall, and Geneva’s little sister Patsy are on the run after the death of her stepfather at their hands. (The two adults’ hands, not little Patsy!)

They run to Cocoa, Florida, straight to Anson’s friends Simon and Virginia, the protagonists of Cocoa Beach.

And that’s where the story really begins, as the FBI reaches out its rather dirty – at least in this instance – hands to grab Anson back again. And then proceeds to lose him.

Gin Kelly isn’t a woman for sitting around and waiting for other people to take care of her business for her. With the help of, of all people, Anson’s mother – a woman who hates Gin’s from the top of her redhead to the bottom of her low-class (at least according to Mrs. Marshall) feet, Gin sets out to find and rescue the man she loves.

While back in the 1990s, Ella works to discover who Gin really was and why the rare, beautiful and quite salacious “art” photos of “The Redhead” have landed in her lap.

Escape Rating B-: The difficulty with time slip fiction usually revolves around how to handle the two separate timelines. When the slip in time revolves around the main character moving back and forth – as in Outlander – focusing on that character takes care of the dilemma. But in most timeslip fiction the story slips between two interconnected time periods – with separate casts in each.

That’s the case here as Ella’s story in 1998 connects to Gin’s story in 1924 through that photograph of “The Redhead” and Ella’s residence in the NYC apartment building that Gin used to own, as well as a connection through a whole lot of people in 1998 whose past back in the 1920s is connected one way or another to Gin Kelly – connections that Ella uncovers – or that they uncover to her – in the course of this story.

And that’s where this one fell down for me. I found Gin’s story absolutely fascinating – as I did in The Wicked City. But Ella’s story was much less interesting – but with all of those discoveries it  was more of it than just a framing story. If we had stayed back in 1924 with Gin and her lovers, friends and enemies – as we did in the marvelous A Certain Age with Anson’s mother! – I’d have been a happy reader.

But Ella’s story – which I found unnecessary in The Wicked City – I just didn’t care for at all this time around. Having her discover that she was pregnant by the ex-husband she left in the first book seemed like just a way of screwing up her life – a life which had plenty of problems already without adding a very untimely pregnancy into the mix. Your reading mileage may vary.

Gin’s story on the other hand was a wild thrill ride complete with epic betrayals, high highs, low lows, boat chases, pirates and a desperate race against the odds. I could have followed her story all day – or at least most of a night of good reading. And I wish this story had stuck with her – because, as one of the characters says – Gin draws all eyes to her the instant she steps into the room and keeps them focused there until after she’s left.

So read this one for Gin and the rumrunners. Her story is worth a book all of its own.

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Review: The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa Cole

Review: The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa ColeThe A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa Cole
Format: audiobook
Source: publisher
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: science fiction romance
Published by Audible Audio on December 3rd 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

A captivating romantic comedy with a thrilling sci-fi twist by award-winning author Alyssa Cole!

Trinity Jordan leads a quiet, normal life: working from home for the Hive, a multifunctional government research center, and recovering from the incident that sent her into a tailspin. But the life she’s trying to rebuild is plagued by mishaps when Li Wei, her neighbor’s super sexy and super strange nephew, moves in and turns things upside down. Li Wei’s behavior is downright odd—and the attraction building between them is even more so. When an emergency pulls his aunt away from the apartment complex, Trinity decides to keep an eye on him…and slowly discovers that nothing is what it seems. For one thing, Li Wei isn’t just the hot guy next door—he’s the hot A.I. next door. In fact, he’s so advanced that he blurs the line between man and machine. It’s up to Trinity to help him achieve his objective of learning to be human, but danger is mounting as they figure out whether he’s capable of the most illogical human behavior of all…falling in love.

My Review:

I thought I knew where this was going. Since I was enjoying where it was going, I was happy to be along for the ride. But then, it went in a direction I wasn’t expecting – and it got even better.

What I expected after the first chapter or so was something like the classic A.I. romance The Silver Metal Lover – or perhaps Data proclaiming that he was “fully functional” in the Star Trek Next Gen episode The Naked Now, but set in a world that felt like a slice of Unauthorized Bread by Cory Doctorow from his Radicalized collection.

Instead, I got a terrific science fiction romance set in a near-future dystopian U.S. crossed with a spy thriller. And I loved every minute of it – especially after I got surprised by the turn.

So, at first we have Trinity Jordan, working from home while recovering from an accident. But this is the future. Her home is a tiny apartment and all of her appliances are way too smart for Trinity’s own good – especially Penny, her home monitoring app – and secret therapist.

But it’s obvious from the beginning that things aren’t quite what they appear.  A suspicion that only gets deeper when Trinity meets her neighbor’s visiting nephew, Li Wei. (Actually, it turns out that nothing and no one are quite what they appear to be.)

Something isn’t right about Li Wei. Her neighbor passes off his strangeness as memory issues due to recovering from an accident – not a dissimilar case to Trinity’s. While Li Wei’s social skills may be so lacking as to be non-existent, he’s so damn good-looking that Trinity’s libido wakes up from an extremely long nap to sit up and take notice. And notice. And notice.

The more time they spend together, the better Li Wei gets at communicating – and the more obvious it becomes that something is wrong with both Li Wei and Trinity. And that it’s the same kind of wrong – and the same kind of right.

Escape Rating A: First of all, I absolutely loved this. It was short and sweet and went in directions I wasn’t expecting and it was all just marvelous.

Second of all, this is the first romance audiobook I’ve ever reviewed. I read plenty of romance, but those are ebooks. Listening to romance is a bit different. It felt weird listening to the sex scenes. They were well done – they definitely were – but there’s a psychological difference between having those scenes go through my eyes vs through my ears.

Third, this is a full-cast recording. Most audiobook narrators are good at differentiating the voices of the different characters, but full-cast recordings are always extra special.

The one downside of this being an audiobook and only an audiobook is that I have no idea how to spell the name of any character who isn’t mentioned in the Goodreads blurb. For most of the time I was listening to this story, I thought that “Li Wei” was “Leeway”. This does not change my enjoyment of the whole thing one little bit, but it makes me wary of mentioning any character whose name I have no idea how to spell. Like Trinity’s neighbor who claims that Li Wei is her nephew. Or Trinity’s two girlfriends. I’m pretty sure that Tim the cat is just “Tim”. And he’s an adorable cat even though he does turn out to be 50 pounds of bio-synthetic feline.

What I loved about this story was the ever-deepening layers of subversion. At first it feels like a robot romance – and those have been around at least since 1981. So there’s nothing new about the romance between Trinity and Li Wei. But then things get deeper – and darker. The more that Li Wei falls in love with Trinity, the more he realizes that there is something wrong – even more wrong than what is obvious on the surface.

The deeper he digs, the more he uncovers, and the deeper they fall. Until the story finally breaks open – and it changes everything.

So grab The A.I. Who Loved Me for the romance – and stay for the surprisingly deep science fiction surprise tucked into its gooey center. You’ll be glad you did. Meanwhile, the audiobook promises that there will be more in this series, following Trinity’s friends. And I’m really looking forward to hearing what happens next!