Review: Domesticating Dragons by Dan Koboldt

Review: Domesticating Dragons by Dan KoboldtDomesticating Dragons by Dan Koboldt
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 345
Published by Baen Books on January 5, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Build-A-Bear workshop meets Jurassic Park when a newly graduated genetic engineer goes to work for a company that aims to produce custom-made dragons.
Noah Parker, a newly minted Ph.D., is thrilled to land a dream job at Reptilian Corp., the hottest tech company in the American Southwest. He’s eager to put his genetic engineering expertise to use designing new lines of Reptilian’s feature product: living, breathing dragons.
Although highly specialized dragons have been used for industrial purposes for years, Reptilian is desperate to crack the general retail market. By creating a dragon that can be the perfect family pet, Reptilian hopes to put a dragon into every home.
While Noah’s research may help Reptilian create truly domesticated dragons, Noah has a secret goal. With his access to the company’s equipment and resources, Noah plans to slip changes into the dragons’ genetic code, bending the company’s products to another purpose entirely.

My Review:

The blurb calls this “Build-A-Bear workshop meets Jurassic Park” and that does sum up the top level of this story – although in the end it turns out to be WAY MORE Jurassic Park than Build-A-Bear™.

After all, those bears aren’t real, but the dragons in Jurassic Park definitely are. Although the dragons that both do and don’t get domesticated don’t run quite that far amok. But they could. And they definitely do run a bit amok, but then, so do their designers – and their owners.

There are two situations at the beginning of this story, and they play into each other in ways that I didn’t expect at that beginning.

Noah Parker got into genetic engineering because his younger brother has a muscular atrophy-type disease that could be genetic. But nobody knows and with the source of the disease unidentified – and therefore medically “vague” – Connor Parker isn’t eligible for any of the experimental testing and treatment programs that are currently underway – or that ever will be.

Noah became a genetic engineer not so he could cure his brother – because that’s not possible – but so that he could identify the genetic component of his disease and get him into effective treatment.

It’s a noble goal – although the lengths that Noah goes to in order to achieve it are sometimes less than noble.

There’s also a secondary problem that most of the world considers more important than the progress of one man’s disease. A virus has killed off nearly the entire canine population the world over – and no cure has been found.

Strangely enough, that’s what leads to dragons. Because dogs fill a lot of roles in the human ecosystem, as well as making marvelous pets. There’s a huge niche that can be exploited by someone with the genetic engineering knowhow and the economic savvy to design and build a creature that can fill all those cages that used to be filled by barking dogs.

That’s where Reptilian Corporation comes in. And eventually, where it goes out. With more than a bit of help from newly minted Ph.D. Noah Parker and all of his little friends.

Escape Rating A-: Dragons may be the ultimate in charismatic fauna. They’re certainly right up there with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park for just how much sheer “grabby hands syndrome” the idea of having one’s very own dragon would create in pretty much anyone.

Including a whole lot of people who are incapable of being responsible pet owners for one reason or another. The transcripts of the calls to the Build-A-Dragon help line and support department are hilarious and so very real. Tech support for computers and computer software sounds very much like that – without the possibilities of death and dismemberment for either the owner or the product. Usually. (If you’ve never read the probably apocryphal tale of nosmoke.exe, now might be the time. We all need a laugh or two this week!)

As much as I chuckled over the tech support bits, this is a story that began by giving me a terrible sad. Imagining a world where there were no dogs was depressing as hell. And I’m a cat person. But seriously, as many jokes as there are about asking the deity to make someone as good of a person as their dog thinks there are, the idea that the dogs were all gone was heartbreaking. Strangely even more heartbreaking than the situation at the beginning of Connie Willis’ quirky time-travel classic, To Say Nothing of the Dog, which begins in a world where it’s the cats who have been killed off.)

It also made me wonder, throughout the story, why no one seemed to have thought about engineering dog species who were immune to the virus. Discovering the reason at the end was kind of a relief.

But the story here is about one extremely nerdy guy who sets out to save his brother and ends up saving an entire species. Because as much as he wants to treat the dragons as if they are merely clusters of experimental cells, he can’t. They worm, or rather fly, their way into Noah’s heart every bit as much as they do the readers’.

So when Noah discovers the truth about what’s really going on with the company and the dragons, we’re right there with him in his horror, his disgust, his fear and his determination. We cheer him on as he does what’s right instead of what’s easy.

And it’s marvelous that in the end, rather like the way that dogs (and cats) save us as much as we save them, Noah’s dragons save him every bit as much as he saves them – if not just a bit more.

Lab-based science fiction, with its grounding in the real world, real situations and people who feel like friends rather than out-of-this-world superheroes is a lot of fun when it’s done right. It’s done right in Domesticating Dragons, with its geeky hero who saves the day, gets the girl and fulfills all of our dreams of dragons.

Review: Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T.A. Willberg

Review: Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T.A. WillbergMarion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T.A. Willberg
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, steampunk, thriller
Pages: 336
Published by Park Row on December 29, 2020
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The letter was short. A name, a time, a place.
Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder plunges readers into the heart of London, to the secret tunnels that exist far beneath the city streets. There, a mysterious group of detectives recruited for Miss Brickett’s Investigations & Inquiries use their cunning and gadgets to solve crimes that have stumped Scotland Yard.
Late one night in April 1958, a filing assistant for Miss Brickett’s named Michelle White receives a letter warning her that a heinous act is about to occur. She goes to investigate but finds the room empty. At the stroke of midnight, she is murdered by a killer she can’t see—her death the only sign she wasn’t alone. It becomes chillingly clear that the person responsible must also work for Miss Brickett’s, making everyone a suspect.
Almost unwillingly, Marion Lane, a first-year Inquirer-in-training, finds herself being drawn ever deeper into the investigation. When her friend and mentor is framed for the crime, to clear his name she must sort through the hidden alliances at Miss Brickett’s and secrets dating back to WWII. Masterful, clever and deliciously suspenseful, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder is a fresh take on the Agatha Christie—style locked-room mystery with an exciting new heroine detective at the helm.

My Review:

Somewhere in the depths of Miss Brickett’s Investigations and Inquiries, which masquerades as Miss Brickett’s Secondhand Books and Curiosities, there must be a door that leads to the Invisible Library as well as some stacks that wander into the “L” space that leads to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

Or if there isn’t, there certainly ought to be. While the Discworld librarian would probably just throw some bananas at the entire mess, Irene Winters, the Librarian who serves as spy, agent and occasionally thief on behalf of the Invisible Library would fit right into Miss Brickett’s. To the point where I wonder if the Library hasn’t used Miss Brickett’s as a training program on multiple occasions.

Because first-year Miss Brickett’s apprentice Marion Lane has exactly what it takes to become Irene’s kind of librarian, and her misadventures read like just the kind of thing that Irene probably cut her teeth on.

And just as much the kind of misadventure that cut its teeth on her.

Marion Lane, like Miss Brickett’s itself (and Miss Brickett herself, for that matter) is more than she appears to be. Miss Brickett’s (the agency) is the kind of place that feels like it ought to exist, even though it really doesn’t. Both in the sense that it would be marvelous if there were people whose lives were dedicated to resolving issues and solving crimes for anyone who needs help, and it would be marvelous if said secret agency operated in secret tunnels under one of the great cities – like London.

London in particular, is so large, has been a city for so long, and has such a many-layered history that we’re not surprised when real things that have been lost for decades – or centuries – turn up under it. Like lost Underground Stations – something that has really happened.

Miss Brickett’s, both the agency and the person, also intersect with the post-World War II history of women who found important jobs and purpose during the war and just weren’t interested in giving it all up afterwards. Particularly women who served at Bletchley Park as codebreakers.

Come to think of it, Sparks and Bainbridge (The Right Sort of Man, A Royal Affair and the upcoming A Rogue’s Company) would have fit right into Miss Brickett’s – even if they would have chafed at some of its many rules and restrictions.

But there are secrets in and under Miss Brickett’s. Not just the secrets its Inquirers investigate, but the secrets that they are keeping. Including their own. Because Miss Brickett’s conceals some of the very shady parts of Britain’s involvement in the late war. And because it guards the mysterious and deadly “Border” between the worlds we know – and someplace we very much don’t.

So when the “Border Guard” is murdered in a locked room named the “Lock Room” Marion Lane risks her apprenticeship and her life to determine who really done it. Because it couldn’t have been the person who was framed for it.

It’s up to Marion and her friends and frenemies to discover the truth – before that truth discovers that they are out to get it – and definitely before it gets them.

The gorgeous UK cover

Escape Rating A-: The blurb is a bit misleading. While the murder at the heart of this mystery is a locked-room mystery, the totality of Marion’s story bears no resemblance to anything by Dame Agatha.

Rather, this reads like it sits at the dangerous crossroads between The Invisible Library and the Scholomance of A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik. The dark passages under Miss Brickett’s, the atmosphere of “here be dragons”, complete with monsters that serve as the equivalent of real, honest to goodness dragons, feels very much like the dark, dank and deadly corridors – and especially the lost halls – of the Scholomance.

It’s also clear that survival skills are an unstated but absolutely necessary part of all three curriculums.

While Marion’s misadventures read like some of Irene Winters’ training at the Invisible Library, Marion as a character is very much like El in A Deadly Education. She’s young, she’s still learning, the apprenticeship feels like her last chance to save herself, she’s in over her head and the place and everyone in it really are out to get her.

Not everyone in either case, but that’s how it feels from each of their perspectives at the time the stories open.

Marion’s situation is in many ways more poignant because it is based in the real. She knows that she doesn’t want the life everyone thinks she should want – marriage and children – and she definitely doesn’t want it with anyone that her grandmother picks out for her. She’s desperate to escape her situation and Miss Brickett’s is more than just a job, it’s Marion’s ticket out of her life and into something meaningful, purposeful and marvelous.

She has a lot riding on this apprenticeship – if she can just stick it for the three years required, not merely survive but receive good evaluations,  she’ll be offered a full-time position as an Inquirer – which includes room and board at Miss Brickett’s and away from her harridan of a grandmother.

But, as much as the creepy monsters under the agency, the mysterious “Border” and the hidden laboratories add to the chilling atmosphere of both Miss Brickett’s and the story, it’s the human side of all the equations that compels the reader to explore this world with Marion.

We feel for her personal predicament in the outside world, but it’s her motivations inside Miss Brickett’s that push her to investigate the murder. And it’s those same human motivations that are behind everything; pride, ambition, greed, jealousy and revenge, set against the need to keep the agency’s actions secret at all costs.

And it’s that balance and its breaking, the need to give justice to both the many – the people of London who rely on Miss Brickett’s services – as well as to the few – both the victim of the murder and the man framed for it, set against Miss Brickett’s own need to keep the agency secret so that “Official” London doesn’t shut down its clandestine and frequently illegal operations, that underpins the whole story and provides both its dramatic tension and its relief and release.

Marion and Miss Brickett’s are both fascinating characters. Marion’s career at Miss Brickett’s and her life are both at their starting points. Based on this initial outing, it’s clear that both have many more marvelous stories to tell us.

I hope we get to read them.

Review: All the Colors of Night by Jayne Ann Krentz

Review: All the Colors of Night by Jayne Ann KrentzAll the Colors of Night (Fogg Lake #2) by Jayne Ann Krentz
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, romantic suspense
Series: Fogg Lake #2
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley on January 5, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Two psychics plunge into a dark world of deadly secrets in this second installment of the Fogg Lake trilogy by New York Times bestselling author Jayne Ann Krentz.
North Chastain possesses a paranormal talent that gives him the ability to track down the most dangerous psychic criminals. When his father suddenly falls into a coma, North is convinced it was caused by a deadly artifact traced back to the days of a secret government laboratory known only as the Bluestone Project. North knows his only hope of saving his father is to find the artifact. He is good when it comes to tracking down killers but to locate the relic, he's going to need help from a psychic who knows the shadowy world of obsessive collectors, deceptive dealers, and ruthless raiders…
With her reputation in ruins after a false accusation, antique expert Sierra Raines is looking for a fresh start. She turns to the murky backwaters of the paranormal artifacts trade, finding and transporting valuable objects with a psychic provenance. When North Chastain approaches her for help, Sierra takes him on as a client, though not without reservations. North represents the mysterious Foundation, the secretive organization established to police the underworld populated by psychic criminals and those, like Sierra, who make a living in the shadows of that world.
North and Sierra soon find themselves at the scene of The Incident that occurred decades ago in Fogg Lake. The town and its residents were forever changed by the disaster in the nearby Bluestone Project labs. The pair unearth shocking truths about what happened that fateful night, but they are playing with fire—someone in town knows what they’ve discovered and will do anything to make sure the secrets stay buried.

My Review:

A long time ago, and partly, come to think of it, in a galaxy far, far away, there were two books written by Jayne Ann Krentz under her various pseudonyms. Second Sight, written as Amanda Quick in 2006, was the very first book in her long-running and century spanning Arcane Society series featuring characters from the Victorian era up through the present day who were gifted – or cursed – or sometimes even both – with paranormal abilities..

But before that, in 2000, or long after in the internal chronology, there was After Dark, written as Jayne Castle, the first book in the Ghost Hunters/Harmony series. The ghost hunters were the people, Harmony was the planet, and it had been settled by refugees who all left Earth because they had, you guessed it, paranormal abilities.

Those series converged in Midnight Crystal in 2010, where the thing I had always guessed was finally revealed, that the Harmony settlers were the descendants of the Arcane Society.

The long arm of coincidence being very long, and the concept that two separate populations of people with psi powers had somehow developed on Earth being too weird to be coincidental, when the marvelous first book in the Fogg Lake series, The Vanishing came out this time last year I was enthralled with the story – and fully expected Fogg Lake to link up to the Arcane Society and Harmony sooner or later.

It’s sooner. But if you’ve never dipped into either of the other series, don’t let that stop you from plunging into Fogg Lake. Because the link is tangential. It’s a hint, not a deep dive into the Arcane Society. Just a couple of brief mentions to answer the curiosity of readers – but mostly to allay the professional snoopiness of The Foundation, the early-21st century organization that is currently organizing and policing the paranormal population.

Because The Foundation has brushed up against the Arcane Society before, and they definitely don’t believe in that long arm of coincidence at all. But the clear but subtle “back off” messages they receive from both Harmony Jones, the Oracle of Fogg Lake, and Ambrose Jones of the paranormal artifacts retrieval agency, The Vault, let them know that the Arcane Society was very, very real and that that’s ALL they’re going to EVER be told.

So not nearly enough to make a new reader desperate to dive back into the other series, but a lovely little tease to let new readers know that if they enjoy their visits to Fogg Lake and want more that there is a whole universe out there to binge read.

All the Colors of Night takes place in the wake of The Vanishing. Not in the sense that the characters continue from that book, but rather that as the series opener The Vanishing literally opens the door to the series as the investigators discover the reason that the residents of Fogg Lake ALL have paranormal power when they find the ruins of the defunct Bluestone Project’s Fogg Lake labs.

Just as the protagonists of that first book are the descendants of Fogg Lake, so too are North Chastain and Sierra Raines, the heroes of this entry in the series.

For both North and Sierra, that inheritance from the “Fogg Lake Incident” is very much of a mixed blessing. They both have strong paranormal powers, but to the point where pretending to be “normal” is beyond them. It’s just too big a secret to keep and keeping it has kept them out of close friendships and romantic entanglements.

Until they meet each other, not in a romantic setting but as business partners forced to work together against their own instincts. But they need each other, at first only in the professional sense, but as they team up to chase down the people who attacked North’s father, they discover that their senses resonate together in a way that can’t be denied.

If they survive.

Escape Rating A-: The story in All the Colors of Night was every bit as fascinating as The Vanishing. This was just one of those books that I couldn’t put down – so it was a good thing I was reading it on a day when I didn’t have to.

The fun of this series so far is the slow reveal of all of the creepy woo-woo secrets and the way that kicks off and inserts itself into the romance. The idea that the government was playing around with the possibilities of paranormal powers is not a surprise – nor is it a surprise that when the government backed out the coverup began.

It would not surprise me AT ALL to learn that the secret government agency in charge of the Bluestone Project, “tiny, woefully underfunded Agency for the Investigation of Atypical Phenomena, a one-desk operation (currently unstaffed), buried deep in the basement of a building somewhere in Washington, D.C.” isn’t the same agency that Mulder and Scully worked out of in the X-Files. Although we’ll probably never know for sure.

But back to this story. North and Sierra aren’t so much investigating as digging for buried treasure – with pirates and tomb robbers chasing them at every turn. North has not one but two personal stakes in this hunt. He’s searching for the men who attacked his father, and he’s hoping to find out the truth about his grandfather’s disappearance way back when Bluestone was shut down.

He finds way more than he bargained for, that the attack on his father wasn’t the first attack on his family. Someone is poisoning him with the intent to burn out his paranormal powers. He’s not sure whether he has one enemy or lots of them – only that Sierra seems to be the one person he can trust. After all, she’s the one who discovered the poisoning.

But the chase that North begins thinking it’s all something in the present really goes back to his grandfather, his grandfather’s research partner, and a long-lost cache of weapons that holds the secret – even if that isn’t what North has been told and the cache isn’t quite what everyone believes it to be.

The romance in this one is very much opposites attract, along with more than a bit of one of this author’s specialties, the damaged hero finding a partner who is far from perfect herself, but is absolutely perfect for him – even if he can’t see it when they meet.

Both North and Sierra are afraid to let anyone other than family get close to them, both because of the powers they have to keep hidden from “mundanes” and because they each feel like they’re missing something or waiting for something to happen. Along with North initially believing that he’s about to lose his powers and fearing what will follow. While North’s situation pushes him even deeper into his own serious and driven side, Sierra comes off as a bit of a flake, job-hopping while searching for her “calling”.

They shouldn’t match, but the way that they do works really well and adds just the perfect touch of Happy Ever After to what would otherwise be a rather dark and serious story. The mix of danger and romance is just right.

While this story is a standalone, it is also clear that there is plenty more to uncover and many more stories to tell in Fogg Lake – and I can’t wait to read them!

Review: The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: The Doors of Eden by Adrian TchaikovskyThe Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, espionage, science fiction
Pages: 640
Published by Orbit on September 22, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Doors of Eden is an extraordinary feat of the imagination and a page-turning adventure about parallel universes and the monsters that they hide.They thought we were safe. They were wrong.Four years ago, two girls went looking for monsters on Bodmin Moor. Only one came back.Lee thought she'd lost Mal, but now she's miraculously returned. But what happened that day on the moors? And where has she been all this time? Mal's reappearance hasn't gone unnoticed by MI5 officers either, and Lee isn't the only one with questions.Julian Sabreur is investigating an attack on top physicist Kay Amal Khan. This leads Julian to clash with agents of an unknown power - and they may or may not be human. His only clue is grainy footage, showing a woman who supposedly died on Bodmin Moor.Dr Khan's research was theoretical; then she found cracks between our world and parallel Earths. Now these cracks are widening, revealing extraordinary creatures. And as the doors crash open, anything could come through."Tchaikovsky weaves a masterful tale... a suspenseful joyride through the multiverse." (Booklist)

My Review:

Spy games, cryptids (Sasquatch, Yetis and Loch Ness Monsters, OH MY!) with a nod to Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life. PLUS a bit of Doctor Who – at least in the audiobook. These are things that absolutely should not go together, but somehow do anyway in The Doors of Eden.

It’s really all about the butterfly. You know the one. That hypothetical butterfly who flaps its wings on one side of the world and causes a tornado on the other.

Only in this case there are perhaps thousands, or even millions of butterflies, each flapping their wings on a slightly different version of our Earth. Or, to put it another way, “the problem with wanting things to change is that things change.” Sometimes by quite a lot and not necessarily for the better.

Depending on who, or what, is defining better, along with who, what or why the change is happening at all.

It all begins with two young women out on Bodmin Moor hunting cryptids. Let’s unpack that a bit. Lee and Mal are childhood best friends who are now in college. Their intense relationship has shifted from friends to lovers over the years they’ve been together. They’re on holiday, between semesters, doing what they do when they’re together. They’re somewhere creepy, looking but not expecting to find something even creepier. And possibly mythical or magical, or maybe even both.

It seems like their cryptid hunting (cryptids are animals whose existence is unsubstantiated, like Bigfoot, or Nessie) is mostly a manifestation of their shared nerdiness. Their admission that they are both a bit weird and might as well embrace the identity they’re going to have to live with anyway.

Neither of them believes that they are EVER going to find real evidence of cryptids. They’re just having fun looking. That is, until the cryptids, or at least one set of cryptids, find them.

And take Mal away to a place that Lee can’t follow, no matter how much she wants to. When Mal returns four years later, she brings the entire rest of this story with her, the spies, the cryptids, the criminal masterminds – and entirely too many signs and portents of the end of the world, not just as we know it, but the impending extinction of all the Earths in all of the multiverse.

Along with one single, one in a billion chance of saving them all.

Escape Rating A+: There was SO MUCH going on in this book. It went to so many fascinating places, dragged in so many interesting possibilities and ended with such a marvelous bang that it’s still an A+ story in my book even if the spies did faff around a bit in the middle.

On the other hand, anyone would flail a bit at all the strange and bizarre things going on in this absolute WOW of a story.

The elements that go into this absolutely should not work together, and yet they oh so very much do. To the point where, although I started out listening to this one – and it is an excellent listen – I got impatient with needing to know how it all managed to get itself together at the end and switched to the ebook just so I could figure things out.

But the audio is where I thought two of those disparate elements came into the mix, although in the end it turned out to be only one.

The reader of the audio is Sophie Aldred, who played Ace on Doctor Who many, many moons ago, when Sylvester McCoy was the Seventh Doctor. Although, now that I think of it, the way that the parallel worlds work in The Doors of Eden could be said to have its own parallels in Who.

But I digress.

The other element that I thought came from the audio was the resemblance to Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, his fascinating and eminently readable book about the Burgess Shale. I listened to that book a LONG time ago, but it stuck with me. And it seemed like the tone of that reading was echoed in The Doors of Eden in the interstitial parts where Dr. Ruth Emerson’s treatise on “Other Edens” is read. Her work on alternate Earths had the same tone as Wonderful Life. I thought it was a coincidence, but it’s not. Wonderful Life is cited by the author as one of the inspirations for The Doors of Eden, and now that I know that it’s obvious that at least part of what it inspired was these sections of the story.

Which leads us to the story itself.

The action and the dramatic tension in this story come from Mal’s return to our own Earth, the mess that return makes of Lee’s life, and the reason for that return in the grand scheme of things.

After all, no matter how much Mal wants to return to her lover, the reason that the Nissa, just one of the so-called cryptids, bring Mal back to the Earth she calls home is a whole lot bigger and vastly more important. Mal is there to rescue mathematician and physicists Dr. Kay Amal Khan so that she can help them save ALL the Earths.

But just as Mal’s friends want to save all the Earths, there are forces that want to, not exactly prevent the rescue, but let’s say, direct that rescue. There’s a criminal mastermind who has, naturally enough, criminal plans. And there are government agencies, in this case MI5, who are tasked with protecting Kay Amal Khan from anyone who wants to either do her harm or co-opt her genius for their own purposes.

That’s where the spy games, in the persons of Julian Sabreur and Alison Matchell come in. Only to find themselves caught up in trying to save the worlds, which is way above both of their official pay grades – even if it’s all still subject to the Official Secrets Act..

There’s a saying that “Mother Nature bats last.” The quote from environmentalist Rob Watson in full goes like this:

Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics. That’s all she is.” You cannot sweet-talk her. You cannot spin her. You cannot tell her that the oil companies say climate change is a hoax. No, Mother Nature is going to do whatever chemistry, biology and physics dictate, and “Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats 1.000.

In short, that’s what this story is about, Mother Nature batting last. For select versions of Mother Nature, where she’s really a supercomputer bigger than a planet who has been trying for eons to find a way for her last “at bat” to not kill off all of everything everywhere.

Well, not exactly that either. Mother Nature doesn’t care, as the quote says so succinctly. But in this story that supercomputer does. It’s trying to help the beings on various versions of Earth, of which it is one of the few, who have developed enough sentience to not only figure out that the end is coming, but who are working to prevent it.

Which drags in Dr. Khan, and all kinds of cryptids, including the Nissa and the rat people, and Lee and Mal and the spies and the criminal masterminds. This is a story whose plot boils and bubbles – and occasionally squeaks – until the very end.

Until it ends with an almighty bang, as well as a whole lot of whimpering on the part of many of the characters, who are left with a story that they can never, ever tell and the chance to live a life much bigger than the one they thought they had to settle for.

Unless and until Mother Nature comes to bat again. Unless she already has.

Review: The Dark Archive by Genevieve Cogman

Review: The Dark Archive by Genevieve CogmanThe Dark Archive (The Invisible Library, #7) by Genevieve Cogman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy
Series: Invisible Library #7
Pages: 336
Published by Ace on November 26, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A professional spy for a mysterious Library which harvests fiction from different realities, Irene faces a series of assassination attempts that threaten to destroy her and everything she has worked for.
Irene is teaching her new assistant the fundamentals of a Librarian's job, and finding that training a young Fae is more difficult than she expected. But when they both narrowly avoid getting killed in an assassination attempt, she decides that learning by doing is the only option they have left - especially when the assassins keep coming for them, and for Irene's other friends as well...
In order to protect themselves, Irene and her friends must do what they do best: search for information to defeat the overwhelming threat they face and identify their unseen enemy. To do that, Irene will have to delve deeper into her own history than she ever has before, face an ancient foe, and uncover secrets that will change her life and the course of the Library forever.

My Review:

The Invisible Library series could also be titled, “The Perils of Irene” – without any sort of a stretch at all. Irene’s adventures aren’t just “out of the frying pan into the fire” but frying pans and fires all the way down. Until the last jump lands Irene (and company) straight into a pit where it’s always darkest just before things turn completely black. Then a light shines at the end of the tunnel and it’s always an oncoming train.

Which Irene and her friends manage to board and escape – only to have both the train and the station it crashes into transform into another frying pan and another fire. Each and every one bigger and hotter than the last.

And so it goes with this seventh book in the series, as Irene and her friends are still dealing with the fallout from the previous adventure in The Secret Chapter, only to discover that the mess that they thought they’d wrapped up hasn’t really begun. It’s just moved itself to a new home. Theirs.

Irene’s adventures tend to be caper stories. Well, they at least begin as caper stories. The opening scenes are of Irene sent somewhere questionable and doing something slightly dodgy, in order to “acquire” a book that the Library needs and that Irene has been ordered to get.

Sometimes (rarely) Irene’s methods of acquisition are on the relatively up and up – either an exchange of money or an exchange of more-or-less above board favors. When this story begins, Irene is in Guernsey in her analog of Victorian London intending to buy a copy – or possibly THE copy, of Le Morte de Merlin by Thomas Malory. (If the title sounds familiar, that’s because it’s this particular world’s foundational book of the Arthurian legends – except they’re based around Merlin instead. As if Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave were both rare and historical canon.)

Howsomever, as so often happens in the parts of Irene’s life that we are privileged to witness, the slightly clandestine but otherwise above board goes pear-shaped. The meeting place is attacked, the sellers are assassinated and Irene and her new apprentice escape the clutches of evil by the skin of their teeth – WITH the book firmly in hand.

While the beginning of this story is far from atypical for the series – and very much part of the reason that I love it so much – the farrago of death, danger and derring-do that Irene and her friends find themselves in this time turns out to be a walk through some very dark places.

Because it’s not just a book or even the future of the Library that’s at stake this time. What opens as just another one of Irene’s “little” adventures turns out to be the opening act in a fight for her very soul.

Escape Rating B: This turned out to be more of a mixed-feelings read than I was expecting. Because I absolutely adore this series and have been waiting all year for this book, so I expected to fall into instantly and love every minute of reading it.

But, but, but, it took me a while to get stuck back into Irene’s world, longer than usual. That may partly be ‘tis the season as well as ‘tis the year 2020 and everything is weird. I think it was also that the opening of this story reads like so many of the other books with tiny variations, that it felt like it started a bit in the middle – as in the opening is very dependent on events in the previous book – and that this book represents a change in direction for the series – or at least an expansion in scope as well as a contraction in focus – and it took a bit to switch from just another caper to “the end of the world as we know it” to “the end of Irene’s world as she knows it”. Which is not the same thing at all.

Also, Irene spends a lot of this story not just being reactive instead of proactive – because that’s normal – but because she’s reacting in confusion and obfuscation to the point where I as the reader felt more confused and obfuscated than I either liked or expected. Irene has a reputation for “getting shit done” but spent the beginning and middle of this book flailing around and worrying about her new apprentice instead of just dealing with shit.

At least it felt that way.

Then all of the various enemies’ schemes collapsed into (finally) one big ball of wrong instead of a whole lot of bouncing little balls of wrong and the whole story took flight even as Irene’s life crashed and burned.

The ending pushes the whole story off the original “light” rail and onto a much deeper and darker track. It’s going to be marvelous and probably heartbreaking and I can’t wait until this time next year when we’ll probably (hopefully) get book 8 in the series.

One final note, when I saw the title of this entry in the series, it sounded familiar – only because the title is oh-so-similar to another book that came out this fall, written by a real-world librarian and archivist. That similarly titled but not similar in subject book is Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin by Megan Rosenbloom. You’d think it wouldn’t be remotely relevant. But it sorta/kinda is in a much creepier way than I could ever have expected.

Read this series, starting with The Invisible Library, and you’ll see.

Review: Colonyside by Michael Mammay

Review: Colonyside by Michael MammayColonyside (Planetside, #3) by Michael Mammay
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction, space opera
Series: Planetside #3
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Voyager on December 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A missing scientist and deep pockets pull Colonel Carl Butler out of retirement, investigating another mystery that puts him and his team--and the future of relations with alien species--in danger in COLONYSIDE, the exciting follow-up to Planetside and Spaceside.
A military hero is coming out of disgrace—straight into the line of fire…
Carl Butler was once a decorated colonel. Now he’s a disgraced recluse, hoping to live out the rest of his life on a backwater planet where no one cares about his “crimes” and everyone leaves him alone.
It’s never that easy.
A CEO’s daughter has gone missing and he thinks Butler is the only one who can find her. The government is only too happy to appease him. Butler isn’t so sure, but he knows the pain of losing a daughter, so he reluctantly signs on. Soon he’s on a military ship heading for a newly-formed colony where the dangerous jungle lurks just outside the domes where settlers live.
Paired with Mac, Ganos, and a government-assigned aide named Fader, Butler dives head-first into what should be an open and shut case. Then someone tries to blow him up. Faced with an incompetent local governor, a hamstrung military, and corporations playing fast and loose with the laws, Butler finds himself in familiar territory. He’s got nobody to trust but himself, but that’s where he works best. He’ll fight to get to the bottom of the mystery, but this time, he might not live to solve it.

My Review:

It’s starting to look like Carl Butler’s purpose in the universe is to be an intergalactic scapegoat. Back at the beginning of the series, Planetside, he thought he was the one they called in when they were looking to get things done. But after the events in that story, he became much more famous – or infamous – definitely infamous – as the galaxy’s biggest mass murderer.

Because he got the job done. In the second book, Spaceside, it seems as though he got hired because of that reputation, although he still thinks it’s for the other. Just like what happened on Cappa in Planetside, he’s the one left holding the proverbial bag – and nearly dead in it.

Now he’s on a remote colony, thinking he’s there to dot a few i’s and cross a few t’s on a military report about a missing person, but he’s really there to either be the poster person for saving planetary ecology or for humans-first type planetary exploitation, or just to get left holding yet another messy bag filled with bodies.

Whether his body is in that bag – or not.

Escape Rating A+: I loved this one. Actually, I’ve loved this whole series, starting with Planetside and flying right through Spaceside. I honestly didn’t expect Butler to survive Spaceside. I mean, I hoped he would, but with that ending, I wasn’t necessarily expecting him to. And having just finished his latest “adventure”, I’m glad he did.

This story, like the previous books in the series, is a story about misdirection. It’s about hidden agendas concealed under hidden agendas, and it’s about people playing a very long game. A game that Butler has found himself in the middle of, yet again. For someone who is so smart once he’s neck-deep in shit, he’s actually kind of dumb about how he finds himself there.

Another way of looking at that is that in spite of his well-earned paranoia, he just isn’t paranoid enough. Or, and possibly more likely, as safe as it is being retired at the ass end of a planet that’s the ass end of nowhere, it’s also boring. Butler misses, if not the bullshit involved in being in service, then certainly the camaraderie of it. And the purpose. Definitely the purpose.

So the mission is kind of Butler’s excuse to get his old “band” back together, but once they’re together they’ve got one hell of a job ahead of them.

At first it seems like he’s just there to reassure the victim’s rich daddy that the investigation was on the up and up. And it was, as far up the investigators were able to get.

But the reality is that nothing on Eccasis is truly on the side of the angels, and the corporation that the victim worked for – her daddy’s company – least of all. Then again, the only truth in Butler’s whole mission is that the woman is dead. Every other single thing is a lie. Or rather, a web designed to ensnare him until the trap can close over his head.

Underneath the petty political bickering and small time sniping between the governor and the military, the real tension on Eccasis – and on all of the colony planets that humans have swarmed over – is the debate over whether human colonization should preserve the indigenous flora and fauna on any planets they colonize, or whether humans, as the dominant species, have the right to just take over whatever and wherever they want and destroy anything that stands – or sits, or crawls, or just grows – in their way.

Butler’s actions on Cappa in Planetside have resulted in laws – however poorly and/or selectively enforced – that limit the amount of impact human settlements are permitted to have. But Butler was manipulated into coming to Eccasis to be used to promote the “humans first” argument – whether he wants to or not. No matter how much collateral damage is needed to make the point that the corporate interests want made.

Carl Butler, stuck in yet another no-win scenario – the man seems to specialize at getting stuck in them – has to find a way to balance his own survival with doing the least damage he can manage. That real justice is beyond his capability to inflict is just one more reason for his abiding cynicism. The rich do buy a different brand of justice than the rest of us, and that’s just as true in our present as it is in his future. And just as frustrating.

I wouldn’t mind another trip through the screwed up side of the galaxy in Butler’s head. Meaning that I’d love another book from this author with this particular protagonist. Whether that happens or not, I’m certainly on board for this author’s next book. And the one after that, and the one after that, and all the ones after that.

Review: Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

Review: Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia HibbertTake a Hint, Dani Brown (The Brown Sisters, #2) by Talia Hibbert
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance
Series: Brown Sisters #2
Pages: 361
Published by Avon on June 23, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Talia Hibbert returns with another charming romantic comedy about a young woman who agrees to fake date her friend after a video of him “rescuing” her from their office building goes viral...
Danika Brown knows what she wants: professional success, academic renown, and an occasional roll in the hay to relieve all that career-driven tension. But romance? Been there, done that, burned the T-shirt. Romantic partners, whatever their gender, are a distraction at best and a drain at worst. So Dani asks the universe for the perfect friend-with-benefits—someone who knows the score and knows their way around the bedroom.
When brooding security guard Zafir Ansari rescues Dani from a workplace fire drill gone wrong, it’s an obvious sign: PhD student Dani and ex-rugby player Zaf are destined to sleep together. But before she can explain that fact, a video of the heroic rescue goes viral. Now half the internet is shipping #DrRugbae—and Zaf is begging Dani to play along. Turns out, his sports charity for kids could really use the publicity. Lying to help children? Who on earth would refuse?
Dani’s plan is simple: fake a relationship in public, seduce Zaf behind the scenes. The trouble is, grumpy Zaf’s secretly a hopeless romantic—and he’s determined to corrupt Dani’s stone-cold realism. Before long, he’s tackling her fears into the dirt. But the former sports star has issues of his own, and the walls around his heart are as thick as his... um, thighs.
Suddenly, the easy lay Dani dreamed of is more complex than her thesis. Has her wish backfired? Is her focus being tested? Or is the universe just waiting for her to take a hint?

My Review:

As my “week of happy endings” kicked off last Friday with the first book in the Brown Sisters trilogy, Get a Life, Chloe Brown – Dani’s older sister’s story – it is only fitting that I close the week with this book, all about the middle sister in the Brown family.

And what a story it is!

This story, and this series so far, is all about finding love a)when you are not looking for it and b) while you’re carrying baggage that you’re sure means that no one will ever really love you as you are except for family. Part of me is tempted to say these characters are all “positive” about their negative chances, because none of the protagonists so far begin their stories even remotely hopeful about their chances at finding anything resembling love and acceptance of the romantic kind.

And, as both of these stories show, it’s important to see people carrying emotional baggage finding happiness, because everyone is carrying some. Unless of course, they’re dead, and in paranormal romance even death doesn’t stop characters from finding their HEAs.

So this story, and this series so far, are about people who deal with their baggage and find love and happiness neither in spite of it nor because of it, but rather because they’re dealing with their own crap in constructive ways that make romance possible.

Love doesn’t magically cure what ails you – whether that ailing is physical or emotional – but it can help give you the strength to handle it a bit better. And that’s what is at the heart and soul of this series so far.

In the case of Dani Brown’s slightly flirty friendship with Zafir Ansari, both of them are carrying some pretty heavy baggage of the emotional kind. Nerdy, driven, single-minded and obsessively focused Dani has internalized the idea that she isn’t capable of the emotional work of maintaining a relationship. She’s happy to be friends-with-benefits with people, but relationships require work that she doesn’t believe she’s no longer interested in even attempting. So she has rules about getting involved with people outside the bedroom.

In Dani’s world, friendship is good, sex is great and romance is entirely off the table. She’s too busy pursuing her dream of becoming one of the relatively few black, female full professors in Britain to make the time for relationship maintenance and all of the compromises she knows it requires. Compromises she already knows that she’s very, very bad at.

Zafir Ansari is dealing with an entirely different set of emotional burdens. He’d love to find a happy ever after, and he’s more than willing to try, but whoever he becomes involved with has to be able to deal with his occasional panic attacks, uber-protective anxiety binges and his complete unwillingness to revisit whole swaths of his past because that way lies depression. He lost his father and his older brother in an accident and the resulting downward spiral caused his promising rugby career to implode.

But he has gotten his life mostly back on track, running a combination coaching and counseling program for boys who need help dealing with emotional and mental health issues without resorting to the dead end trap of toxic masculinity. As the program doesn’t pay the bills, he has a day job as a security guard at the university where Dani is an underpaid and over-driving teaching assistant and Ph.D. candidate.

Zafir wants a happy ever after, and Dani is just looking for a new fuckbuddy. They should restrict themselves to flirting, because they have entirely different relationship goals. Or at least they think they are.

When a recording of Zafir’s dramatic “rescue” of Dani from a trapped elevator during an evacuation drill goes viral, they decide, with eyes more or less wide shut, to embark upon a fake relationship, a classic of the romance genre, in order for the publicity to boost Zaf’s counseling program.

Oh, and they’ll be friends with benefits for the length of time it takes the social media craze to die down and the future for Zaf’s program to be secure.

Everyone knows just how fake relationships turn out in romance novels. Especially Zaf, who reads them voraciously. He’s all in, even if thought he wouldn’t be. The question is whether Dani can admit that she is, too. Before it’s too late.

Escape Rating A-: Dani’s story is even better than Chloe’s – and Chloe’s story was damn good.

But as much as I loved Chloe’s story, I found Dani’s to be just that extra bit easier to identify with because of her recognition and rejection of the performative nature of being part of a relationship. Women usually end up doing the emotional heavy-lifting in a heterosexual relationship, and some of us just aren’t equipped for it. Not that we don’t love the other person, but there are just some parts of relationship maintenance that we either don’t get or can’t be bothered with or that suffer in comparison to career or personal goals.

The latter of which is considered perfectly okay when a man feels – or doesn’t feel – that way but for which women get roundly and soundly criticized.

At the same time, part of what makes this romance so good is just what made Chloe’s story so good. In spite of often being emotionally clueless, Dani supports Zafir’s goals and his broken places, just as he does for her. They come to love each other as they are, not as the other wants them to be.

And the journey here for both of them is learning to deal better with their own shit. Zafir needs to be able to incorporate the good parts of his past with his present. He’s cutting himself off from both happiness and opportunities because he tries to maintain a hard line between the before – before the accident that took his father and brother – and the aftermath where he copes as long as that door isn’t opened.

Dani, on the other hand, needs to open the door in her own psyche to deal with a trauma that she hasn’t been willing to admit is there. That she’s afraid she can’t maintain a relationship so she refuses to try.

Like Chloe’s story, Dani’s romance with Zaf works because it feels real, and so do the tensions that nearly tear them apart. Get a Life, Chloe Brown was the perfect opening for my week of romance, and Take a Hint, Dani Brown was the perfect ending.

Even better, the Brown Sisters’ story is not over – which is wonderful because they’re part of a terrific family that continues to be marvelous to get to know. Youngest sister Eve’s story is coming up this spring in Act Your Age, Eve Brown. I can’t wait to see her try!

Review: Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade

Review: Spoiler Alert by Olivia DadeSpoiler Alert (Spoiler Alert #1) by Olivia Dade
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance
Series: Spoiler Alert #1
Pages: 416
Published by Avon on October 6, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Olivia Dade bursts onto the scene in this delightfully fun romantic comedy set in the world of fanfiction, in which a devoted fan goes on an unexpected date with her celebrity crush, who’s secretly posting fanfiction of his own. 
Marcus Caster-Rupp has a secret. While the world knows him as Aeneas, the star of the biggest show on TV, Gods of the Gates, he's known to fanfiction readers as Book!AeneasWouldNever, an anonymous and popular poster.  Marcus is able to get out his own frustrations with his character through his stories, especially the ones that feature the internet’s favorite couple to ship, Aeneas and Lavinia. But if anyone ever found out about his online persona, he’d be fired. Immediately.
April Whittier has secrets of her own. A hardcore Lavinia fan, she’s hidden her fanfiction and cosplay hobby from her “real life” for years—but not anymore. When she decides to post her latest Lavinia creation on Twitter, her photo goes viral. Trolls and supporters alike are commenting on her plus-size take, but when Marcus, one half of her OTP, sees her pic and asks her out on a date to spite her critics, she realizes life is really stranger than fanfiction.
Even though their first date is a disaster, Marcus quickly realizes that he wants much more from April than a one-time publicity stunt. And when he discovers she’s actually Unapologetic Lavinia Stan, his closest fandom friend, he has one more huge secret to hide from her.
With love and Marcus’s career on the line, can the two of them stop hiding once and for all, or will a match made in fandom end up prematurely cancelled?

My Review:

Fanfiction, and for that matter fandom culture in general, tends to get a bad rap. But, if there are really only seven basic plots, and considering that there really is nothing new under the sun, everything is fanfiction. Every story is at least a tiny bit of a takeoff on something else. I read somewhere that John Milton’s Paradise Lost (published in 1667!) was fanfic about the Bible. Whatever you think of that particular variation of the concept, the idea of fanfiction has been around for a very long time.

And you’ve probably read some yourself, whether you considered it as such or not. After all, all Sherlock Holmes stories not written by Conan Doyle are fanfiction. It just happens to be legal fanfiction as most or all of the Holmes canon, depending on which side of the pond you are on, is out of copyright and can be played with or played upon at will.

But fanfiction in the context of this story has a specific meaning, it’s fiction written about someone else’s intellectual property, in this case a hit TV show based upon a best-selling book series that is, itself a kind of fanfiction, as it is a retelling of Homer’s Aeneid, a story that has been told, retold and sorta/kinda told since Virgil first wrote down his version between 29 and 19 BC. Over 2,000 years ago.

Plenty of time for lots of fanfiction to accrete around a story.

Much of contemporary fanfiction, as propagated on Archive of Our Own (AO3), Fanfiction.net and an ever increasing number of Discord servers, just like the fanfiction in the mimeographed fanzines that came before them, tend to be romances, whether explicit or not, although often very. Explicit, that is.

Fanfiction takes that age old question, “What if?” and applies it to someone else’s story. Often by pairing – or shipping – two characters who are not romantic partners in the original, no matter how many fans think they should have been.

The story in Spoiler Alert is a glorious chef’s kiss to fanfiction, a lovely story of wish-fulfillment that goes right, and then wrong, and then right again, and a beautiful romance between two people who no one would ever have shipped – but everyone should have.

Especially the two people who are the heart and soul of this surprising and wonderful romance.

Escape Rating A: I have to say that I absolutely adore fanfiction. It’s been a saving grace this year on days when I just could not get into a book. I could drop into a piece of fanfiction and let it whisk me away to a world I already knew with characters I already loved. For hours if not days. Rereading my favorites has been a comfort this year of everything going to whack.

I’ve also written a bit of fanfiction, a long time ago. There is no feeling like pouring your heart and soul into a piece of work and getting responses and kudos and occasional constructive criticism back. I still have friends from that part of my life.

So I understood where April was coming from on more than one level. Both in just how satisfying the writing is and just how difficult it can be to maintain an identity separate from your professional life because you know the reaction you will get. It was a release for her to find somewhere that allowed her to be her authentic self at work as well as in the fanfiction community.

Her story was also a beautiful piece of wish-fulfillment. Many, many, MANY fans of media properties have had that fantasy of meeting the actor playing their dream character and having a happy ever after romance with them, in spite of all the odds against it.

What made April’s story special was that her wish-fulfillment was wrapped around Marcus accepting her and loving her for exactly who she really is – not for some magical transformation to make her more acceptable or conventional in some way. And that her part of that journey was to put herself first and remove toxic relationships from her life, even if those relationships were with her parents. Even if that relationship was with the love of her life.

It was also great that Marcus’ life wasn’t perfect either. He also had toxic relationships to either cut off or change, and what made those relationships toxic was completely different, but every bit as real, as April’s. They both need to get to better places, more authentic places in their lives. And it was crucial that they don’t help each other get there directly but rather give each other the strength to walk their own paths in their own ways.

Even when that path forced them to part because they had – or rather Marcus had  – violated that authenticity with April.

In addition to the lovely, charming, beautiful romance between April and Marcus, there are also plenty of laugh out loud aspects to this story.

It’s easy to see the parallels between Gate of the Gods and Game of Thrones, and that’s obviously intended. From a certain perspective, Spoiler Alert is fanfiction about the entire production of GOT, and the tongue-in-cheek nods and send ups of GOT make the whole thing that much funnier. Especially when it seems like half the cast is writing fanfic under various pseudonyms in order to anonymously stick it to the douchecanoe showrunners.

The whole story is kind of an in-joke on an in-joke and all the funnier – and occasionally more poignant for it. So read Spoiler Alert for the romance, but stay for the tremendous fannish fun.

Just read this book, period, exclamation point, if you’re looking for a wonderfully nuanced romance! There’s a reason – actually there are LOTS of reasons, why Spoiler Alert has been on so many Best Books lists this year. See for yourself!

OMG there’s going to be a sequel! SQUEE!

Review: The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa

Review: The Worst Best Man by Mia SosaThe Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 359
Published by Avon on February 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A wedding planner left at the altar. Yeah, the irony isn’t lost on Carolina Santos, either. But despite that embarrassing blip from her past, Lina’s managed to make other people’s dreams come true as a top-tier wedding coordinator in DC. After impressing an influential guest, she’s offered an opportunity that could change her life. There’s just one hitch… she has to collaborate with the best (make that worst) man from her own failed nuptials.
Tired of living in his older brother’s shadow, marketing expert Max Hartley is determined to make his mark with a coveted hotel client looking to expand its brand. Then he learns he’ll be working with his brother’s whip-smart, stunning —absolutely off-limits — ex-fiancée. And she loathes him.
If they can survive the next few weeks and nail their presentation without killing each other, they’ll both come out ahead. Except Max has been public enemy number one ever since he encouraged his brother to jilt the bride, and Lina’s ready to dish out a little payback of her own.
But even the best laid plans can go awry, and soon Lina and Max discover animosity may not be the only emotion creating sparks between them. Still, this star-crossed couple can never be more than temporary playmates because Lina isn’t interested in falling in love and Max refuses to play runner-up to his brother ever again...

My Review:

Sometimes, families are the absolute worst. At other times, they’re the greatest! In Lina Santos’ experience as a wedding planner, they can be both, entirely too frequently on opposite sides of the aisle at one of the weddings she has planned. Or rescued. (Three little words, “chartreuse wedding gown”. Enough said)

But the one wedding she couldn’t rescue was her own. Not only was Lina left at the altar, but she was left with the task of letting all of the guests know that there wouldn’t be a wedding after all. Because the groom had bailed, leaving his brother to inform the bride and the bride to deal with all of the fallout.

Fast forward a few years. Lina has put the wedding-that-wasn’t behind her. In a lot of ways, fairly easily. She chose Andrew because he didn’t really touch her heart, so his runaway from the runway was more of a blow to her pride than any other part of her.

Which didn’t mean that she was overcome with joy to discover that Andrew and his brother Max, the best man forced to deliver the news to the no-longer-a-bride Lina, were the PR team for the luxury hotel chain that was looking to hire a full-time wedding coordinator.

A job that Lina desperately both wants and needs. What she doesn’t either want or need is to expose their collective and seriously messy past to a possible boss. So she panics and pretends she doesn’t know either of them.

Even better – or worse – or both, they go along with the ruse.

A ruse that Lina and Max are going to have to maintain for six weeks while the hotel’s new owner goes through a very thorough vetting process. A time period that is more than long enough to strain both the ruse and Max and Lina’s ability to tolerate each other for the length of time necessary for Lina to get the job and Max to prove to both the hotelier and his mother-the-PR-boss that Max is a different and separate person from his conniving, competitive older brother Andrew.

Not that Max is any less competitive, or possibly any less conniving where Andrew is concerned. But this level of connivance, deception and, surprisingly temptation is big enough to bite them all in the ass.

Especially once Max and Lina figure out that the heat in their back-biting is masking a desire to bite each other in an entirely different way!

Escape Rating B+: Max isn’t so much the worst best man as this scenario is the worst nightmare for a wedding planner – being forced to work with the erstwhile groom who left her at the altar and the almost-best man who was stuck giving her the news. Not that Max didn’t take some of the blame for Andrew’s actions, and not that Lina wasn’t more than willing at the time to shoot the damn messenger.

But in spite of the scenario beginning as soap opera worthy and descending from there, Max isn’t even the worst best man that Lina’s ever dealt with, on the job or off.

And they do begin this mess with something in common – they both want to get something over Andrew. In a whole lot of senses, he’s a professional embarrassment for both of them – Lina for the obvious reason, but Max because Andrew has been riding on his intellectual coattails their entire lives, and managing to take all the credit for Max’ hard work into the bargain.

This enemies to lovers romance is billed as a rom-com, and it is filled with the kind of witty banter that makes rom-coms so much fun. But underneath all of that, there’s more going on in this story than first meets the eye.

At the beginning, Max’ attitude towards Andrew, their mother, the job and Lina all come off as very manipulative. His desire to get one over on his brother seems to be driving his actions, and his thoughts are more than a bit on the ugly side.

Max’ relationship with his brother is toxic for both of them, and it seems as if their mother doesn’t see just how much poison she’s adding to that brew. The situation underpins the whole story, as Max is a bit unclear at the beginning whether he’s helping Lina or just using her. And it feels like a bit of both. Max’ manipulativeness soured me a bit on the story at that point, but so many people said so many good things about it that I stuck with it and I’m glad I did.

When Lina and Max become involved with each other, there are plenty of questions all around about whether their emotions are real or whether they’re both using the situation to get back at Andrew. There’s also a heaping helping of concern about whether any relationship they might have can get itself out from under Andrew’s shadow.

At the same time, there’s also a lot that gets said, and needs to be said, that doesn’t get clearly articulated near enough. Max wants Lina to show more of her emotions, but Lina – and every other woman reading this story – is very clear that being able to display your emotions in a professional setting is very much a male privilege. If she gets righteously upset, she’ll be seen as merely a stereotypical “angry black woman” or a typical “hot-blooded Latina as she is Afro-Latinx. If she cries in a work setting, she’s labelled as a “hysterical female” who can’t control her emotions. It’s happened to her. It’s cost her a job and a career. It’s happened to all of us so we do our best to clamp down our emotions at work. As Lina successfully does.

The resolution here is for them to find a way to deal with the very real situation that their relationship drags into the light. Not to paper them over, not to magic up a happy ending, but to earn one.

And that they definitely do!

Review: A Cowboy to Remember by Rebekah Weatherspoon

Review: A Cowboy to Remember by Rebekah WeatherspoonA Cowboy to Remember (Cowboys of California #1) by Rebekah Weatherspoon
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Cowboys of California #1
Pages: 357
Published by Dafina Books on February 25, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An Oprah Magazine Best Romance Novel of 2020
In this brand-new series from award-winning author Rebekah Weatherspoon, a charming cowboy and his sleeping beauty find their modern-day happily ever after . . .
With a headline spot on a hit morning show and truly mouth-watering culinary skills, chef Evie Buchanan is perched on the edge of stardom. But at an industry party, a fall lands Evie in the hospital—with no memory of who she is. Scrambling to help, Evie’s assistant contacts the only “family” Evie has left, close friends who run the luxury dude ranch in California where Evie grew up. Evie has no recollection of them—until former rodeo champion Zach Pleasant walks into her hospital room, and she realizes his handsome face has been haunting her dreams . . .
Zach hasn’t seen Evie in years—not since their families conducted a campaign to make sure their childhood friendship never turned into anything more. When the young cowboy refused to admit the feelings between them were real, Evie left California, making it clear she never wanted to see Zach again. Now he refuses to make the same mistake twice. Starting fresh is a risk when they have a history she can’t recall, but Zach can’t bear to let go of her now. Can he awaken the sleeping beauty inside her who might still love him?

My Review:

To open this happy week, I have the first of several books that are supposed to have happy endings. This one certainly did!

But it doesn’t have a happy beginning. At all. It’s going to take a lot of changes for celebrity chef Evie Buchanan to reach her happy place. Changes in attitude and changes in latitude.

I also just realized that this is a bit of a holiday romance. It’s not that the holidays turn out to be a big deal in this one, and certainly no one gets snowbound, but the holidays are occurring in the background as the story goes in in the foreground.

Let me explain…

The story here is a second chance at love romance with one hell of a twist. Amnesia stories are usually fodder for daytime soap operas, but after an “accident” at a holiday party, Evie Buchanan is living one. The amnesia story, that is, although possibly the soap opera as well.

She “fell” down the stairs, hit her head – badly – and can’t remember a damn thing about anything at all. Her roommate, her personal assistant and her agent all gather round, but can’t help her regain her memories – if she’ll get them back, all or even at all.

Evie’s been pretty close-mouthed about the details of her life before they all met her. All they know is that she’s an only child, her parents and other relatives are deceased, and she seems to have no life outside her work as a celebrity chef and star of The Dish, her daytime cooking show.

Evie doesn’t recognize them, and they don’t know any details of her previous life. Except for the name of her “only in case of deadly emergency” contact, Jesse Pleasant. Whatever their relationship might be or have been. His tangential presence in Evie’s contact list if seemingly not her actual life is all they have to go on.

And that’s where the second chance at love story comes into this story. Not with Jesse. Jesse is the big brother that Evie doesn’t otherwise have. Jesse’s brother, very much on the other hand, was the one that broke Evie’s young heart and sent her on her quest for fame, fortune and a lot of hard work as a chef.

The Pleasant family, with their exclusive “dude ranch”, hotel, spa and wedding venue in California, are the temporary answer to all of Evie’s problems. She can go back to where she grew up, be taken care of by the family who nearly adopted her, and stay out of New York City while her friends at home take a stab at figuring out whether Evie was just unlucky or the victim of something more sinister.

But as dangerous as NYC might be for a woman with a career to protect but no idea who she is or used to be, the risk to Evie’s unprotected heart is even greater in California, spending time with a man who has invaded her dreams like no one ever has. Zach Pleasant is either the key to bringing back Evie’s memory – or the reason she had so much to forget.

Escape Rating B+: I started this book because I was still looking for a happy ending. Not that Friday’s book didn’t admirably fill that bill – rather it did it so well that I wanted a little bit more.

So I turned, technically I returned, to A Cowboy to Remember – and just as it is for Evie and Zach, the second chance at romance was the winner. Also my second time picking up the book and giving it a second chance was a winner.

I had started this once but put it down the first time. Probably because I was looking for happy and didn’t find it in the story’s opening. When we first meet Evie, she still has all of her memories and doesn’t seem to be happy about either her past or particularly her present.

Picking the story up in the aftermath of her “accident” was just what I needed. It turned out that her life-changing injury was, in a perverse way, exactly what Evie needed as well. Not remembering her life gave her the chance to start over and look at herself from the outside. Just as I didn’t enjoy reading her unhappiness in the beginning, she didn’t like what she saw as she looked in the mirror at her old self.

There are several things going on in this story, and they all work together to bring that happy ever after home, not just for the holidays, but for always.

First, there’s that whole amnesia thing. It’s been the fodder for so many soap opera melodramas that it’s difficult to do it for real – or even for something real-ish rather than over-the-top. But in this story it lasts just long enough to not fall into anything stupid or silly and it does work to give Evie a once-in-a-lifetime chance to re-evaluate her life, the dreams she thought she had, and the dreams she believed she’d lost long ago.

The way that her relationship with Zach comes back to life turned out to be bittersweet rather than just sweet – and that feels like the way it should have been. The first time around, they were both young, they both screwed up, and neither of them ever got past those events or each other.

This is a do-over. Evie knows that they almost had it all the last time around, but screwed things up instead. But she doesn’t remember the details of what happened, so she isn’t still replaying in her head all the awful things they said to each other. Still, she hasn’t let them go so much as they’ve temporarily let her go. Zach remembers everything, is worried that someday there will be one hell of a reckoning, but can’t resist attempting to build the relationship they should have had long ago.

But they can’t have anything real until they catch up to each other, and the wariness of waiting for that other shoe to drop, the bitterness when it does and the difficulty of working through the past and the present provides the romantic tension in the story and gives it a surprisingly realistic chop of near-finality, making their eventual HEA hard earned and hard won.

A big part of the charm of this story was the way that Jesse and Zach’s family scooped Evie up and brought her back home to the place she’d grown up and the family that helped raise her. The relationships among the Pleasant family were beyond pleasant, and their re-adoption of Evie was heartwarming, particularly the re-kindling of the motherly/grandmotherly relationship between Jesse and Zach’s grandmother Leona and Evie. A relationship that Evie needed quite frankly even more than she needed the romance – and she needed that pretty damn bad.

It’s a good thing that Jesse and Zach’s family is so much more than merely “Pleasant” as the series looks like it follows the Pleasant sons. The next book in the series, If the Boot Fits, features Jesse and Zach’s youngest brother Sam, the one who followed Miss Leona into the acting business. I’m looking forward to reading it as it’s been praised to the skies everywhere, but the one I’m really hoping for is Jesse’s book. He’s kind of a quiet giant and it’s going to be fun to see him fall!