Review: Hiddensee by Gregory Maguire

Review: Hiddensee by Gregory MaguireHiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker by Gregory Maguire
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy, historical fiction, mythology
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow on October 31st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the author of the beloved #1 New York Times bestseller Wicked, the magical story of a toymaker, a nutcracker, and a legend remade . . .

Gregory Maguire returns with an inventive novel inspired by a timeless holiday legend, intertwining the story of the famous Nutcracker with the life of the mysterious toy maker named Drosselmeier who carves him.

Hiddensee: An island of white sandy beaches, salt marshes, steep cliffs, and pine forests north of Berlin in the Baltic Sea, an island that is an enchanting bohemian retreat and home to a large artists' colony—a wellspring of inspiration for the Romantic imagination . . .

Having brought his legions of devoted readers to Oz in Wicked and to Wonderland in After Alice, Maguire now takes us to the realms of the Brothers Grimm and E. T. A. Hoffmann—the enchanted Black Forest of Bavaria and the salons of Munich. Hiddensee imagines the backstory of the Nutcracker, revealing how this entrancing creature came to be carved and how he guided an ailing girl named Klara through a dreamy paradise on a Christmas Eve. At the heart of Hoffmann's mysterious tale hovers Godfather Drosselmeier—the ominous, canny, one-eyed toy maker made immortal by Petipa and Tchaikovsky's fairy tale ballet—who presents the once and future Nutcracker to Klara, his goddaughter.

But Hiddensee is not just a retelling of a classic story. Maguire discovers in the flowering of German Romanticism ties to Hellenic mystery-cults—a fascination with death and the afterlife—and ponders a profound question: How can a person who is abused by life, shortchanged and challenged, nevertheless access secrets that benefit the disadvantaged and powerless? Ultimately, Hiddensee offers a message of hope. If the compromised Godfather Drosselmeier can bring an enchanted Nutcracker to a young girl in distress on a dark winter evening, perhaps everyone, however lonely or marginalized, has something precious to share.

My Review:

Hiddensee is about the creation of a myth. Or perhaps it’s a myth itself, and just includes the creation of an entirely different myth.

And it’s a story wrapped around a fairy tale. It begins with the Brothers’ Grimm, off in the distance, collecting folktales for future sanitization into fairy tales. It ends with a fairy tale, the story of the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, just in time for this Christmas season.

But mostly Hiddensee is the story of a boy, who begins as a foundling in the midst of a folktale, and who drifts through his long life to become the toymaker who makes the Nutcracker, and gives it to his goddaughter.

Dirk, who is initially just Dirk and not even Dirk Drosselmeyer, spends his early years in a remote woodcutter’s cabin in the Bavarian forest, raised by an “old man” and an “old woman” who he knows are not his parents.

It’s a simple life that comes to an abrupt end, when it is time for the old man to teach the boy the job of woodcutting. Or so it seems. It is possible that either the boy killed the old man by accident, or the old man killed the boy on purpose. But either way, someone was supposed to end up dead.

Instead, young Dirk begins his travels with an adventure. On his way to the nearest village he finds himself caught up in the story of the “Little Lost Forest”, forced to choose between order and chaos, between life as a hermit or life among people, and between the mythological figures of Pan and the Pythia. It’s a decision that colors his entire life – even if he spends most of it never really making a choice of his own.

Until the Christmas night, late in his long and often passive life, when he gives his dying goddaughter the gift of the original Nutcracker. The old toy contains a piece of Pan’s knife – a tiny bit of magic and the start of his own adventures, so long ago.

In the magic of Christmas, or perhaps the magic of the Nutcracker, or even a little bit of both, young Clara witnesses the great battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King – and her life is saved.

Escape Rating C+: I have a ton of mixed feelings about this story. The Nutcracker, of course, is a holiday classic. But I have to confess that I am not as familiar with the story as I might be.

And I’ll also confess that I have never read Wicked, which may not have been the author’s first book, but which is certainly the book that made his reputation for taking stories that everyone knows and giving readers a look behind the curtain to see what happened before the story. Or after it. Or while the more familiar story is going on elsewhere.

Hiddensee certainly fits in that tradition. And readers who either love the story of The Nutcracker, or who are fans of this author’s work, will probably eat this one up with a spoon.

As a story on its own, Hiddensee didn’t quite gel for this reader. Dirk may be the protagonist of the book, but he is a character who has little to no agency in his own life. He doesn’t act. He doesn’t move the action forward. He drifts, and things happen to him and around him. He reacts, and sometimes he doesn’t react very much. Certainly never very forcefully.

But, as little as Dirk takes any control of his own story, the story of what happened to him definitely pulled me along. Each individual chapter felt like a tiny story of its own, and I felt compelled to read from one to the next in spite of the passivity of the hero of the story.

However, I got to the end and wondered if there shouldn’t have been more. The Nutcracker tale itself, while it is the crescendo to the entire tale, also felt a bit tacked on. It’s not Dirk’s story at this point, it’s Clara’s. And there is a certain sense that it was all a dream. Or that it all happened in a dream.

It’s not quite real, which seems true for much of Dirk’s life.

There were so many fascinating ideas that were briefly touched on within the confines of this story. I’d love to have seen more about the Little Lost Forest and the Pan and the Pythia. It felt like there was a terrific myth in there that always hovered just out of reach. Just as it was for Dirk during his life.

Perhaps that was the point. Hiddensee is a haunting tale, but I just expected more.

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: Slow Burn Cowboy by Maisey Yates + Giveaway

Review: Slow Burn Cowboy by Maisey Yates + GiveawaySlow Burn Cowboy (Copper Ridge, #7) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Copper Ridge #7
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on April 18th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Copper Ridge, Oregon, a cowboy's best friend might turn out to be the woman of his dreams…
If Finn Donnelly makes a plan, he sticks to it. After his brothers left Copper Ridge, Finn stayed behind, determined to keep their ranch going by himself. And when he realized his feelings for Lane Jensen were more than platonic, he shoved that inconvenient desire away. It was easy…until it wasn't. Suddenly his brothers are coming home to claim their share of the property. And Lane is no longer just in his fantasies. She's in his arms, and their friendship is on the line…
He's been her buddy, her handyman, her rock. But until that one breathtaking kiss, Lane somehow overlooked the most important thing about Finn Donnelly—he's all man. They're right together, no matter how much his volatile past has bruised him. Finn wants to hold Lane's body, but he doesn't want to hold her heart. But Lane is falling fast and now she's got a plan of her own…to show Finn there's nothing hotter than friendship turned to slow-burning love.

My Review:

I loved Last Chance Rebel, and my friend Amy loved Hold Me Cowboy, so I expected to love Slow Burn Cowboy. But that’s not what happened.

Instead I have very much of a mixed feelings review on tap. Very mixed.

The friends-to-lovers trope is one of my favorites, so again, I was expecting to like the story line in this book. But something, actually multiple somethings, don’t quite work.

The set up is excellent, Lane and Finn have been best friends for ten years, ever since Lane left her parents’ home back East and moved to Copper Ridge to live with her brother Matt. At the time, Lane was sixteen and obviously just a bit fragile. Finn was 23 or 24 and more than a bit too old for her.

But that 8 or 9 year gap closes pretty quickly after a few years. Now Lane is in her late 20s and Finn is in his mid-30s. They’re both adults. But they are both still awfully fragile.

They are best friends. Really, truly. They spend time together and they care for each other and they need each other. But they are filling the gaps in each other’s lives that would normally be filled by a spouse or significant other. Not that their relationship isn’t significant, but they have fallen into a situation where they are friends with a different set of benefits. She cooks and buys his clothes, he kills spiders, changes lightbulbs and fixes the porch steps. It works for them.

Until it doesn’t.

Finn’s grandfather has just died. Instead of leaving his ranch to Finn, who has been working with him for that same last bunch of years, the old man left it to Finn and his three half-brothers equally. The Donnelly Brothers are all at crossroads in their lives, and they all move back to the ranch, into the house and the land that Finn expected would be his.

All of their relationships are strained and distant, and no one seems to be happy about any of it. So Finn, in a crazed need to re-establish control over something, anything, in his suddenly chaotic life, decides that he wants more from Lane than he’s ever asked for. He wants to push past their carefully maintained boundaries and turn their relationship into that of friends with the usual benefits.

He thinks its possible to make love and not feel at least a little love. And he’s an idiot.

Finn’s perfectly happy to tear down all of Lane’s defenses and push for whatever he wants. But when Lane turns the tables on him and starts pushing him for what she wants out of a relationship, he pushes her away as hard and as fast as he can.

The question of whether Finn can get his head out of his ass long enough to figure himself out is an open one. Finn needs to open his eyes, and his heart, before he throws away his best chance at happiness. And he needs to grovel.

Escape Rating C+: There was so much potential in Slow Burn Cowboy, but it never quite gels into the book that I was looking forward to.

Both Lane and Finn are damaged people, and neither of them thinks that they are worthy of happiness or love. They protect themselves in different ways. Lane by walling off what hurts her, and Finn by pushing away anyone who might get close enough to hurt him.

It’s amazing that they have managed to sustain a friendship, but they definitely have.

While Finn is a bit of an arsehole about it, his trauma is understandable. His dad seems to have been a serial philanderer, leaving a string of exes with his sons all across the country. Dad left everyone. But his mom also abandoned him. And he’s just sure everyone else will too.

Lane’s trauma just isn’t one that was easy for this reader to identify with. Her sense of loss at giving a baby up for adoption when she was sixteen is understandable, but she’s been wearing the past like a hair shirt ever since, to the point where the hair felt like it had been woven from a drama llama rather than anything real. Her story felt like angst for angst’s sake.

Also, these are two people who live inside their heads an awful lot, which also doesn’t feel right for Finn’s character. It felt like there was much more internal dialog than actual dialog. And Lane tended to think and talk in circles a lot of the time. That’s a habit that drives this reader crazy in real life, not just fictional life.

There are a lot of moments when the reader wants them to just stop talking inside their heads and let those words out where they might do some good!

But, and this is where the good stuff comes in, Copper Ridge just feels like a wonderful place. I like the people a lot. One of the great things in this story is all about the enduring power of women’s friendships. Lane, along with her best female friends, have a terrific, supportive and caring friendship. One of the ways in which Lane comes out of this story stronger than she went in is the realization that she is so much better off than she was when she arrived in Copper Ridge because those friendships will always see her through. She’s not alone, with or without Finn.

Finn’s supporting cast is his family, his three half-brothers and his niece Violet. They have all moved into the ranch and are now part of his life, where they have all been separate and alone up til now. Finn is really, really bad at letting people in, but having them be part of his life, whether he originally wanted it or not, is terrific. They bite and snap and growl at each other all the time, but they are all great characters and I’m looking forward to their stories in future books in the series.

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

Maisey and Harlequin are giving away a $25 Gift Card to one lucky entrant on this tour.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase by Greg Cox

Review: The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase by Greg CoxThe Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase by Greg Cox
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: media tie-in, urban fantasy
Series: The Librarians #2
Pages: 288
Published by Tor Books on April 25th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

For millennia, the Librarians have secretly protected the world by keeping watch over dangerous magical relics. Cataloging and safeguarding everything from Excalibur to Pandora’s Box, they stand between humanity and those who would use the relics for evil.
Stories can be powerful. In 1719, Elizabeth Goose of Boston Massachusetts published a collection of rhyming spells as a children's book, creating a spellbook of terrifying power. The Librarian of that age managed to dispose of all copies of the book except one, which remained in the possession of Elizabeth Goose and her family, temporarily averting any potential disaster.
However, strange things are happening, A window washer in San Diego who was blown off his elevated perch by a freak gust of wind, but miraculously survived by landing on a canopy over the building entrance. A woman in rural Pennsylvania who was attacked by mutant rodents without any eyes. And, a college professor in England who somehow found herself trapped inside a prize pumpkin at a local farmer’s market. Baird and her team of Librarians suspect that the magic of Mother Goose is again loose in the world, and with Fynn Carson AWOL once again, it is up to Cassandra, Ezekiel, and Stone to track down the missing spellbook before the true power of the rhymes can be unleashed.

My Review:

I read The Librarians and the Lost Lamp a couple of weeks ago, and I really enjoyed it because it felt so much like an episode of the show, including all of the madcap adventure and especially all of the banter. I had a great time, just as I do when I watch The Librarians. It was fun!

But The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase felt like it was more of a strain. The Librarians, of course, are always a bit strained in the midst of yet another hair-raising case, but there was something about this one that made it feel like a strain for the reader, too. Or at least this reader.

Fair warning, I may get a bit meta here. It’s hard to review a media tie-in novel without some references to the media it ties into, and how it “feels” related to how the original feels, And works. I would say or doesn’t work but the fact is that a person for whom the original does not work is unlikely to read novels based on it. My 2 cents.

Part of what makes The Librarians work as a show is their marvelous team dynamic. The Librarians and their Guardian are a close knit team and also kind of a family. What they do is designed to be a bit outside the mundane world, and they of necessity have bonded together. Along with Jenkins, the combination archivist, caretaker and zookeeper of the Library and the Library Annex in Portland they work out of.

On the one hand, parts of this story provide a marvelous and much broader view of just how big, how strange, and how magical the Library’s collections truly are. Nobody wants the job of cleaning the pen that holds the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs, but it’s a dirty job and somebody has to do it. Usually Jenkins.

On that other hand, the Librarians spend a lot of this story on separate parts of the quest. This group is stronger when it’s together. It’s also funnier and occasionally more heartwarming when it’s together. So for this reader story lost some of its steam when it separated the group, Also the way they were split up felt a bit contrived. Their separate quests seem to rely on their weaknesses more than their strength, and the individuals they were paired up with instead felt like contrivances designed to teach them each something rather than get the job done. As usual, my 2 cents and your mileage may vary.

And the action got a bit bogged down as it split into four separate stories, which at times felt a bit repetitious.

The concept that Mother Goose was not only real but a powerful witch who encoded her spells into nursery rhymes fits right into the mythos of the Library. That her magic could get out of hand if left in the hands of the “wrong people” could make an episode or a great story.

But the way that this one wrapped up, which unfortunately I did see coming a mile away, fell flat. Again, at least for this reader.

So, as much as I love The Librarians, I didn’t have nearly as much fun with Mother Goose as I did with the Lost Lamp.

Escape Rating C+: The scenes where Eve and Jenkins are chasing several of the Library’s more colorful (and volatile) exhibits around the Library are hilarious. My personal favorite is when Jenkins throws Arthur’s Crown at the Sword Excalibur and tells it to play “Keep Away” with the King of Beasts and the Unicorn. Eve’s solution to the problem of the Dead Man’s Chest was also lot of fun. But the gang spends too much time not being a gang, and I missed the way they play off of each other much too much.

Review: The Captive Shifter by Veronica Scott

Review: The Captive Shifter by Veronica ScottThe Captive Shifter (Magic of Claddare #1) by Veronica Scott
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy romance
Series: Magic of Claddare #1
Pages: 250
Published by Veronica Scott on March 24th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Concealing her own considerable magical powers, Caitlyn enters the service of the northern Witch Queen masquerading as a simple healer. Under order from her goddess, she’s searching for a magical gem stolen long ago from her own people, believed to be hidden in the massive castle. The task is daunting but Caitlyn is sure she can locate the gem and escape, bringing the prize back to the temple where it belongs. Until she meets the captive shifter and her loyalties become dangerously divided.

In payment for her past services to his people, Kyler the leopard shifter has entered into a life of servitude far from his forest home, allowing the Witch Queen to tap his magic to power her ever darker spells. Factions at Court are threatening to turn the Queen to the Shadow. Her increasing demands for magic will cut short his nearly immortal lifespan. Kyler’s resigned to his fate until the day he crosses paths with the new arrival, whose secrets and magic entice and attract both man and leopard. Has he met his mate at last?

The Queen will never willingly release him from captivity. Caitlyn’s goddess refuses to grant her any delay in accomplishing her own task. Can they locate the magical gem, fight the Shadow and win free of the Witch Queen to earn the right to be together?

My Review:

There is something very, very rotten in the state of Azrimar, but that isn’t what Caitlyn has come to the capital to deal with. Not that all roads and all missions don’t eventually lead that way – but that isn’t how they start.

Instead, Caitlyn has arrived at court just in the nick of time for the annual testing of potential sorceresses, only to discover that her preparation missed the key points of the ritual. It is crucial to her mission that she find a place at court – even if that mission is not what it appears to be.

She succeeds, just barely, but only by earning the enmity of the Crown Princess Bradana, and the intense curiosity of the Witch-Queen’s pet shifter, Kyler. Caitlyn knows she’s going to spend the rest of her time at court dealing with those two very opposite interests, just not in the way that she originally expected.

Because both Bradana and Kyler are much more than they appear. But then, so is Caitlyn.

That Caitlyn is some kind of spy on some type of secret mission is obvious from the beginning, but we don’t learn who, how, or why until we get a bit into the story.

This is a fantasy romance, so Caitlyn’s world is not our own, and not even in our past or future. As this world is set up, Caitlyn is from a kingdom to the south, and is a priestess of the nature goddess on a special mission. Because something is rotten in the central kingdom of Azrimar and apparently has been for quite some time.

Long ago, a relic was stolen from the goddess, and she needs it back. Caitlyn has one year to infiltrate the palace and find the missing article. And that’s more than long enough to figure out just how much has gone wrong, and for Caitlyn to fall in love.

Unfortunately for both of them, Caitlyn falls for Kyler, a leopard shifter who has been oath-bound to the Witch Queen for 10 years. He knows that the Queen has been gravitating towards the dark side of the force, but he also knows that he’s dying. Whatever is going wrong, it isn’t going to be his problem fairly soon.

Until Caitlyn comes along and shakes him out of the depths of his depression. Kyler can help Caitlyn find the relic. Caitlyn can beseech the gods on his behalf. And it will take both of them to even take a stab at all that has gone wrong.

Caitlyn, Kyler, the Witch Queen and her kingdom have all come to a crossroad. The choices they make will have dire consequences, not just for themselves, or even for the kingdom, but for their entire world.

They must choose wisely – or all will be lost in the conflagration to come.

Escape Rating C+: This is a mixed feelings review. There were some things about this story I liked a lot, and some that drove me a bit batty.

I liked both Caitlyn and Kyler quite a bit. Caitlyn is very focused. She has a mission to carry out with a very strict time limit, but she still finds time to make friends and to care for and about people. She’s involved with her world, even for the short time she will be in the kingdom, and her actions always trend towards good. At the same time, Caitlyn is in service to a nature goddess, attempting to conceal herself, her power and her mission in a place that seems to be the antithesis of anything natural. It’s no surprise that she befriends Kyler, as he is the only nature-oriented being in the palace.

Kyler’s situation is tragic from the outset, and only becomes more so as we learn more about it. His captivity began honorably, but as time has gone on the Witch Queen has broken all of her oaths and agreements about it. And he is not free to leave – she has bound him with her magic. He has freedom of thought and some free will, but he literally cannot leave the palace, nor can he refuse the Queen’s use of his magic. Caitlyn’s friendship is his one light in a very dark place, and yet he is afraid to spend too much time with her or show her too much favor. While the Queen needs him alive for his magical power, punishing anyone close to him has become a sport for her and especially for her sister Bradana.

The palace intrigue is nasty and the methods of it feel a bit too predictable. And the characters of evil are a bit too much of evil for evil’s sake, which doesn’t work well as motivation. Or rather, that’s Bradana’s character, the Witch Queen’s motives are entirely too clear. She’s her sister’s pawn, and has let herself be manipulated into the darkness. In spite of her being queen, there just doesn’t turn out to be a lot of there, there. She’s an empty shell. To say that Brandana is evil because she was made that way (and she quite literally was) doesn’t give us much insight into the evil that made her. Hopefully we’ll get more of that in later books in the series.

I don’t expect to like the villains, although occasionally one does, but I need to understand them. And I didn’t here. On my other hand, there’s a tendency in fantasy for the West to represent good and the East to represent evil. The Lord of the Rings isn’t the only story where this happens, and it plays to some very old stereotypes, right along with white hats and black hats. In this series it looks like the West is where evil has its kingdoms, and the center and East are where the good, or at least neutral, kingdoms are. It’s always nice to see stereotypes turned on their heads a bit.

I end where I began, with mixed feelings. I liked the heroine and hero a lot, but found the plot to be on the predictable side and the villains a bit cookie-cutter. And while there were hints at interesting worldbuilding, it felt like too many of the details were left on the cutting-room floor. Hopefully things will be become clearer in later books in the series.

Review: The Rescue by Diana Palmer

Review: The Rescue by Diana PalmerThe Rescue (The Morcai Battalion #4) by Diana Palmer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardvoer, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Morcai Battalion #4
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on March 28th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


New York Times
bestselling author Diana Palmer returns with the next edge-of-your-seat installment of The Morcai Battalion series.
Rhemun, commander of the Cehn-Tahr Holconcom, has worked tirelessly to get where he is and he's not going to let any human drag him back down. Especially not Lt. Commander Edris Mallory, whose very presence aboard the Morcai serves as a too-painful reminder of a past tragedy he can neither forgive nor forget.
But Mallory has secrets of her own, ones she can't afford to see come to light. Frantic to protect herself, she flees, abandoning her position. When Rhemun learns of her devastating situation, he realizes the all-consuming feelings he's harbored for her may not be hatred. But in a vast universe rife with peril, is it already too late?

My Review:

I read the first book in this series, The Morcai Battalion, back in 2007 when the expanded edition was republished by Harlequin Luna. At that time, there wasn’t a lot of outright science fiction romance being published, and The Morcai Battalion filled a need I don’t even think I knew I had.

(Luna was a terrific imprint. I discovered several marvelous authors through their line of SFR and fantasy romance, not just this series but also Michelle Sagara’s Elantra series and Gail Dayton’s Compass Rose, among others, and I wish they were still around.)

Back to The Morcai Battalion. I loved the setting, and the characters, in the original book. Not just the space opera aspects of the intergalactic war, but the relationships between the characters, the culture clash of melding two species into a single crew, and the heart stopping action of the prison planet and eventual breakout. It was a winner and I kept looking for more.

There were a couple of sequels over the years, The Recruit and Invictus. And then nothing from 2010 until now, with The Rescue.

The first three books in the series followed the human doctor, Madeline Ruszel and the alien Cehn-Tahr Dtimun, who begins as her commander and eventually becomes her husband, in spite of all the taboos and restrictions that surround the Cehn-Tahr and any possible relationship between Cehn-Tahr and humans. But the story built their relationship up over time, and it worked. It worked so well that they finally won their HEA at the end of Invictus.

Which leaves either a hole or an opportunity for the series. After reading The Rescue, I’m not quite sure which we got.

The relationship in The Rescue is between Dtimun’s successor as head of the unit, and Madeline’s successor as alien-species medic. But Rhemun is not Dtimun and Edris Mallory is not Madeline. While some of those changes make for good dramatic tension, some of them just fall a bit short.

Because Rhemun hates humans, and Edris frequently acts like a scared rabbit, or perhaps a better description would be a scared schoolgirl with a crush on a strict teacher. And it doesn’t quite work.

Dtimun, Madeline and their crew went through a bonding experience on that prison planet that transcended species or pretty much anything else. They became family in the process of saving each other, and it erased any interspecies prejudices they might have started with.

Rhemun, on the other hand, feels like all of the losses that he has experienced in his life are some human’s fault, and he has an unreasoning prejudice against the entire species. His strict disciplinary style alienates the human members of his crew, which is his intention. He also cuts Edris down at every turn, because she looks just like the woman who accidentally killed his son.

And unfortunately for Edris, his species has a highly enhanced sense of smell, so she is unable to hide her really, really unfortunate attraction for him. And he resents her for that, too.

The situation is a mess, and just gets messier, until Rhemun finally drives Edris off the ship, and very nearly drives every other human out the airlock along with her. It’s when the message finally gets through his very thick skull that he has put her in deadly danger because he can’t help but be attracted to her that their relationship moves from hate to love.

And then he drives her away again.

Escape Rating C+: I enjoyed the first part of the book. While Edris is on the ship, we see her working, we see her continuously fighting with Rhemun, we see her doing her duty as best she can under circumstances that become increasingly more unbearable by the minute. But the action clips along, and we get to see how the ship and crew both work together and don’t. It’s sad but interesting to watch Rhemun tear down a stellar unit that Dtimun spent years building up, and even sadder just how much easier it is to break than it was to build.

But through it all, Edris stands up for herself at every turn, and does her best to do her job, keep her career, and try to keep her life her own and on track. When she flees, while her reasons make sense, the story goes off the rails.

She’s in terrible danger, and it is very real. In the end, Rhemun and the crew have to rescue her to save her life from multiple dangers. And there’s a big portion of the book where she completely loses her agency, going from independent woman to beating victim to worshipful wife in a few too many steps.

And then lets herself be driven away again. Just when she finally has her new life on track, Rhemun swoops back in and tears it all apart again, even if unintentionally. The second half of the book doesn’t quite hang together. As far as the romance is concerned, his side of their relationship isn’t fully fleshed out. It’s easy to see that he wants her and wants to possess her, but we don’t see the build up of his emotions. It feels like that piece is missing.

There’s also a running theme that he omits much of the truth that Edris really needs to know. Lies of omission are still lies, and Rhemun keeps much too much from Edris that ends up biting them both in the ass – but always hers much more than his. And she’s so worshipful that she never calls him to account for any of it. She’s also much too gullible.

So I enjoyed the first half of this book, but found the second half disappointing, and sincerely hope that if the series continues, we get more heroines like Madeline Ruszel who are always part of the action and don’t let anyone steamroller them.

If you like SFR the first three books of this series are a good read, but this one feels skippable. Dammit. And they need to go back to the original cover designs, which at least hinted that this was SFR and not contemporary romance. The new covers make the series look way more like a motorcycle club romance than SFR, which is bound to disappoint people on all sides of the equation. Color me disappointed, too.

Review: For Whom the Bread Rolls by Sarah Fox

Review: For Whom the Bread Rolls by Sarah FoxFor Whom the Bread Rolls (A Pancake House Mystery #2) by Sarah Fox
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Pancake House #2
Pages: 248
Published by Alibi on March 14th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

From the author of The Crêpes of Wrath comes another decadent cozy mystery. This time, pancake house owner Marley McKinney is tangling with a salty troublemaker . . . and a ravenous killer.
Bonus content: includes original recipes inspired by the Flip Side Pancake House menu!
Tourist season’s in full swing in the small seaside town of Wildwood Cove, and Marley McKinney couldn’t be happier. Since taking over the Flip Side restaurant, she’s made a few close friends, adopted a cat named Flapjack, and started dating her childhood crush. The only cloud on the horizon is local nuisance Ida Winkler, who blames Marley for landing her nephew in prison. Trying to get a rise out of Marley, Ida’s been making crank calls and even vandalizing the pancake house.
The police can’t do much about the pranks, so Marley sets out to bury the hatchet once and for all. But someone’s beat her to it—in the most shocking way possible. After stumbling across Ida’s dead body, Marley’s suddenly the number-one suspect in her murder. Clearing her good name is going to be a tall order, but Marley’s not about to let Ida keep ruining her life—especially from beyond the grave.

My Review:

Just like the first book in this cozy series, The Crepes of Wrath, the title of this second book is just a bit over-the-top cute. And so is the book.

The series is definitely very cozy. In Crepes, Marley inherited her cousin Jimmy’s small-town pancake house, The Flip Side. And solved his murder. In this second book, Marley is settling into her new life in tiny, touristy Wildwood Cove – and neck deep in yet another murder.

I sense a trend.

At the end of Crepes, Marley’s meddling into the investigation of Cousin Jimmy’s death results in, among other things, nasty Ida Winkler’s son landing, quite justifiably, in prison. But Ida is both nasty and crazy, and is doing everything she can to run Marley out of business and out of town. However, Ida isn’t terribly effective, and Marley is just (and quite justifiably) annoyed.

Not that anyone in town has a single nice thing to say about Ida. She’s a piece of work. But while no one would miss her if she moved away, no one seems to hate her enough to want her dead. Which doesn’t stop Marley from just about tripping over Ida’s corpse.

And Marley has just enough of a motive, and just enough of a window of opportunity, to put herself at the top of the suspect list. So of course she decides that the best thing she can do to clear her name and protect her business is to “help” the police investigate the murder, annoying half the town (but not as badly as Ida) and putting herself squarely in the killer’s sights.

Again.

Escape Rating C+: The series is still cute. I particularly love Marley’s cat Flapjack, who is just a cat and doesn’t solve murders. But he’s a sweet boy and I wouldn’t mind having one just like him. He’s also very good, as cats often are, at knowing when his person needs an extra cuddle.

Sticking oneself into the middle of a murder investigation is enough to make any sane person need a little extra feline TLC.

But Marley’s motives for nosing around town don’t seem quite as clear-cut or as compelling as in the previous book. She loved Cousin Jimmy, and felt terribly guilty that she hadn’t been around more. And as his unexpected heir, she really was the logical murderer, if not the correct one. Following the money led straight to Marley.

However, no one seriously believes that Marley is Ida’s murderer, and that includes the cops. Not just because they know her now, but because they actually are capable of doing their jobs. Marley’s insecurity about how this latest investigation will affect her business is a bit all in her head.

And while she “investigates” one crime, she trips over two more. Someone seems to have been blackmailing local residents over mostly petty incidents, and everyone assumes that it was the late, unlamented Ida. She certainly was nasty and judgmental enough to have been the blackmailer. As if that wasn’t enough of a crime spree, someone is illegally dumping large garbage piles on the shore, and one of those dumps contains remnants of a meth lab.

While this probably isn’t a lot of crime for a small town with loads of tourists, it is a lot of coincidence for one completely amateur and occasionally inept investigator to trip over and more or less solve. The connections between the crimes feels tangential at best, and Marley just can’t resist poking her nose into all of them. It felt like more than a bit much.

Over-the-top, just like the titles. But I like Marley a lot, and I’m still enough interested in her adventures to give the series one more try. The next book, Of Spice and Men, is scheduled for the end of the summer. The perfect time for a beach read, set in a beach town, possibly with a beach murder. We’ll see.

Review; Law and Disorder by Heather Graham + Giveaway

Review; Law and Disorder by Heather Graham + GiveawayLaw and Disorder by Heather Graham
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: romantic suspense
Series: Finnegan Connection #1
Pages: 256
Published by Harlequin Intrigue on January 17th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


Trust the enemy?
Desperate to escape her kidnappers, Kody Cameron can turn to only one man—and he's holding a gun. Outnumbered and trapped in the deadly Everglades, she has little recourse, but something in this captor's eyes makes her believe she can trust him. Does she dare to take the risk?
Undercover agent Nick Connolly has met Kody before and knows she might very well blow his cover. Though determined to maintain his facade, he can't let Kody die. He won't. And his decision to change his own rules of law and order are about to make all hell break loose.
The Finnegan Connection

My Review:

A while back, I read some of Heather Graham’s Krewe of Hunters series and really liked them. But it’s a big series and I’m going to need a large round tuit to get caught up. So when Law and Disorder came up as the first book in a new series, it seemed like a great chance to get in on the ground floor.

But I’m not sure that I did.

Law and Disorder is a quick and enjoyable read, but it doesn’t feel like the first book in a series. There are lots of references to the main characters in her other recent started series, New York Confidential. To the point where the Finnegan Connection feels like a side-series to New York Confidential. That connection being Finnegan’s Pub in New York City, which seems to be the centerpiece for the other series.

Nick and Kody, the hero and heroine in Law and Disorder are both friends of those Finnegans, and they actually bumped into each other, very briefly, one night at Finnegan’s. A chance encounter that helps to set up what would otherwise be a case of insta-love in Law and Disorder, mixed with just a bit of Stockholm Syndrome.

That earlier encounter takes the romance out of squicky territory, considering the way that the couple meets in this story. She thinks that he’s an upstanding (so to speak) member of the criminal gang that has just taken her and her entire staff hostage while they search for a mythical treasure. When she finally remembers where she’s seen him before, she also remembers that he’s no criminal, but rather an FBI agent who must be undercover in this mess.

She’s still kidnapped, and her captors still want that mythical treasure. Even weirder, they expect her to find it. And she just might.

Kody Cameron is an expert on her family’s strange heritage – the former home of mobster Jimmy Crystal and its extremely checkered history. A former resident of the Crystal Palace left tantalizing clues to a never recovered bank heist of gold and gems, and the kidnappers think that if they put enough pressure on Kody she’ll be inspired to discover a trove that may have been swallowed by the Florida Everglades.

And so might they.

Escape Rating C+: Law and Disorder is a relatively short book, somewhere in that uncomfortable length between novel and novella. And it probably should have been just a bit longer.

It’s a quick, fun read, but that skimpy length forced the author to short a bit on both character development and on background. And this is a story whose plot relies on a lot of that missing background.

It is possible that some of the missing character development is in Flawless, the first book in the New York Confidential series that introduces the Finnegans and Nick’s FBI handler on this case, Craig Frasier.

It’s also possible that we’re meant to just go with the instant connection between FBI agent Nick Connolly and Kody Cameron. After all, he does rescue her. But I am left wondering.

The big piece of background that feels missing is the history of Kody’s Crystal Palace and the mob bosses of Florida. Kody’s expertise on the topic is the reason that Kody gets swept up into this mess. The particular treasure trove in question has been missing for decades, and lots of things and people have been swallowed up by the Everglades. The way that Kody sifts through the tiny clues and puts the pieces together is a process that usually takes days and lots more research. The treasure hunt alone could have made a fascinating story as well as all the dirt on what happened long ago and how Kody figures it all out now. I would love to have read that book.

It might also have explained how and why the ringleader of this band of thugs became so obsessed with the old stash. It all feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

All in all, this was a fun, quick read. And it whetted my reading appetite for the New York Confidential series, which is only two books in. Finnegan’s sounds like a great place!

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

Heather and Harlequin are giving away a $25 Gift Card to one lucky participant in this tour!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: Pistols and Petticoats by Erika Janik

Review: Pistols and Petticoats by Erika JanikPistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction by Erika Janik
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: feminist history, historical fiction, historical mystery, history, mystery, women's history
Pages: 248
Published by Beacon Press on April 26th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A lively exploration of the struggles faced by women in law enforcement and mystery fiction for the past 175 years
In 1910, Alice Wells took the oath to join the all-male Los Angeles Police Department. She wore no uniform, carried no weapon, and kept her badge stuffed in her pocketbook. She wasn’t the first or only policewoman, but she became the movement’s most visible voice.
Police work from its very beginning was considered a male domain, far too dangerous and rough for a respectable woman to even contemplate doing, much less take on as a profession. A policewoman worked outside the home, walking dangerous city streets late at night to confront burglars, drunks, scam artists, and prostitutes. To solve crimes, she observed, collected evidence, and used reason and logic—traits typically associated with men. And most controversially of all, she had a purpose separate from her husband, children, and home. Women who donned the badge faced harassment and discrimination. It would take more than seventy years for women to enter the force as full-fledged officers.
Yet within the covers of popular fiction, women not only wrote mysteries but also created female characters that handily solved crimes. Smart, independent, and courageous, these nineteenth- and early twentieth-century female sleuths (including a healthy number created by male writers) set the stage for Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, as well as TV detectives such as Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison and Law and Order’s Olivia Benson. The authors were not amateurs dabbling in detection but professional writers who helped define the genre and competed with men, often to greater success.
Pistols and Petticoats tells the story of women’s very early place in crime fiction and their public crusade to transform policing. Whether real or fictional, investigating women were nearly always at odds with society. Most women refused to let that stop them, paving the way to a modern professional life for women on the force and in popular culture.

My Review:

I want to make a joke about Pistols and Petticoats being “two, two, two books in one”, but the problem with the book is that it isn’t. Instead it is two books that attempt to be combined into one. Unfortunately the seam between the two books is rather visible, and leaves a nasty and distinguishing scar.

What we have feels like an attempt to yoke a scholarly study about the changing roles of women in detection and police work joined at the slightly non-working hip with a book about the changing roles of women in detective fiction and the lives and careers of women who have made successful and even groundbreaking forays into the mystery genre.

The desire, often stated in the book, is to show how the increased roles of women in novels and later other media often presaged the increasing roles for women in real-life police work. But the two parts don’t flow into one another, possibly because there isn’t much there, well, there.

Instead, in the historical narrative, police work for women was often proposed as, and in many cases restricted to, an extension of the reform zeal of the late 1800s and the belief that dealing with social problems and juvenile crime were a natural outgrowth of women’s roles in the home. Fictional female sleuths, on the other hand, were created first of all to entertain, but created in a way that was not supposed to upset the status quo. Which explains both Miss Marple and the reason that so many young female sleuths’ careers ended in marriage.

Women were supposed to remain in the domestic sphere, and that sphere was supposed to be the pinnacle of all their ambitions. Elderly spinsters like Miss Marple needed something to occupy their time, particularly in eras where so many women were left without spouses after a generation of young men died in warfare.

Pistols and Petticoats does not read like a successful amalgamation of the author’s two “plot” lines. The historical sections that detail women’s real and increasing contributions to police work and detection, read, unfortunately, like rather dry history. It’s interesting, but only becomes lively when the women themselves have interesting lives, like Alice Clement or Kate Warne.

The parts that thrill are where the author sinks her teeth into the history of female detectives and the history of the females who have written successful mysteries. The early years of female writers who made the genre what it is today, but whose works have not continued to find readers, was fascinating.

The information about where certain trends in mystery took their cues from contemporary life and women’s places in it also pulled me in. Not just the heroines of the Golden Age, like Christie and Marple, and Sayers with Harriet Vane, but also how those characters fit into their own society.

murderess ink by dilys winnEscape Rating C+: All in all, the parts of the book that dealt with mystery fiction made for more compelling reading. They also reminded me of a book that I have not thought of in years, Murderess Ink. Murderess Ink, the followup to Murder Ink, was a lighthearted study of the women who created and populated the mystery genre from the Golden Age until its late 1970s present. As much as I enjoyed the sections of Pistols and Petticoats that dealt with the genre, perhaps it is time for an update of Murder Ink and Murderess Ink.

Review: Battlestorm by Susan Krinard

Review: Battlestorm by Susan KrinardBattlestorm (Midgard, #3) by Susan Krinard
Format: print ARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: portal fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Midgard #3
Pages: 480
Published by Tor Books on March 29th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The third installment in New York Times bestselling author Susan Krinard’s first urban fantasy series...
Centuries ago, the Norse gods and goddesses fought their Last Battle with the trickster god Loki and his frost giants. All were believed lost, except for a few survivors…including the Valkyrie Mist, forgotten daughter of the goddess Freya.
But the battle isn’t over, and Mist—living a mortal life in San Francisco—is at the center of a new war, with the fate of earth hanging in the balance. As old enemies and allies reappear around the city, Mist must determine who to trust, all while learning to control her own growing power.
It will take all of Mist’s courage, determination, and newfound magical abilities to stop Loki before history repeats itself.

My Review:

This is one of those stories where it isn’t so much that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” or even “the enemy of my enemy is my ally” but rather “the enemy of my enemy is someone else I can betray sooner or later, probably sooner.”

It feels like Battlestorm is the bastard child of American Gods and Babylon 5, and I’m still not sure whether I mean that in a good way or not.

Just as in American Gods, the primary movers and shakers of the story are gods from the Norse pantheon, Odin, Loki, and for added spice and betrayal, Freya. This is also as complex and dense a story as American Gods, without having any of its lighter moments. Battlestorm is Ragnarök moved to Midgard, meaning our present-day Earth, with all the possibilities for the end of the world as we know it that the idea of Ragnarök implies.

American Gods was much lighter in comparison, and that’s saying something.

Mist by Susan KrinardLike the long story arc of Babylon 5, the story began in Mist and continued in Black Ice has the feel of a long-anticipated and often repeated battle between Good and Evil. However, just as in Babylon 5, now that the forces of Good have revealed themselves in Odin, the contest is nowhere near that clear cut. Instead, we have a battle between the forces of Order and Chaos. Loki represents the forces of Chaos, and he desires a world where all law and order is eliminated, and only the strongest and most ruthless survive. On that infamous other hand, Odin represents Order. But Order with a capital O is not necessarily good. Odin is a force for the tyranny of order, a world where he will be the absolute ruler and utter dictator, and humanity can only exist in a state of blind obedience.

Poor Mist is caught in the middle. She wants to protect the people of Midgard, among whom she has lived for centuries. She believes that humanity should be left to determine its own path, without interference from her gods. But as a Valkyrie, Odin commands her obedience. And Loki holds those she loves captive.

Mist is going to have to betray someone in order to protect those she holds dear. Including the entire human race.

Escape Rating C+: If the concept of the Norse gods coming to contemporary earth to enact their final battle, or anything else, appeals to you, start this series at the beginning, with Mist. The three book series, Mist, Black Ice and now Battlestorm, is one long saga (how fitting!) and must be read in order to make any sense at all.

That being said, I personally think the whole thing probably works better if you can manage to read the whole thing not just in order but also close together. There are so many players in this story, so many wheels within wheels, that it feels impossible to remember who is betraying whom, and why, a year after the previous book. For those readers who, like me, read the books as they came out, I sincerely hope that the finished copy includes a synopsis of previous events. The ARC I read did not, and I really needed one.

A primer on the Norse pantheon probably wouldn’t hurt either, particularly focused on who is related to whom. Loki had a surprising number of powerful and interesting children, who all have agendas of their own, and do not always obey their father. But then, Odin has that problem with his kids as well. In Battlestorm, Loki’s personality and his relationship with his father feel like they owe a lot to Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I found Battlestorm to be dense. It took me twice as long to read it as I expected, because I kept needing to step away and digest what had just happened – meaning what had just gone wrong. Mist never catches a break. She also seems to always be the last person in the universe to find out or be told information that is crucial to her fight and even to her very existence. There are a few too many instances where someone is just about to tell her something she desperately needs to know – only to be interrupted and the opportunity disappear for days and pages. For the daughter of a goddess, Mist seems woefully, or deliberately, misinformed about damn near everything all of the time.

This is the part that reminded me most of American Gods. Not just the Norse pantheon, but Mist’s position is a lot like Shadow’s. She has been created for a purpose that she has no clues about, but is led around by the nose by beings who are much better informed than she is and who are deliberately keeping her in the dark. And in the end, very little is as it originally seemed, to her or to the reader. Also like Shadow.

black ice by susan krinardFor anyone who has read my reviews of Mist and Black Ice, I was dead wrong about Orn’s identity. The true identity of the parrot becomes totally clear very early in Battlestorm. Just call him Mr. Wednesday.

If some of the description of and comments about Battlestorm appeal, try American Gods. It is positively awesome, where Battlestorm has both its moments and its moments of frustration. If the idea of evil being good and good being evil sounds interesting, try Banewreacker and Godslayer by Jacqueline Carey, which explore the same themes.

In the end, I was glad I finished Battlestorm and saw the story begun in Mist and Black Ice come to at least some resolution.

Review: Finding Mr. Right Now by Meg Benjamin

Review: Finding Mr. Right Now by Meg BenjaminFinding Mr. Right Now by Meg Benjamin
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Salt Box #1
Pages: 324
Published by Samhain Publishing on June 2nd 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Reality can be hotter than fiction.
"The Salt Box Trilogy, Book 1"
Monica McKellar, associate producer of "Finding Mr. Right," is desperate. One of the show s bachelors has bailed one week before shooting starts. She not only needs a replacement ASAP, he has to get the temperamental bachelorette s stamp of approval.
Fortunately there s a hot guy right under her nose who s a perfect fit. Unfortunately, he pushes all "her" hot buttons. Until the show s over, her hands and every other part of her body are tied.
When Paul Dewitt signed on to write for the reality show, Bachelor #10 wasn t supposed to be in his job description. He fully expects to be cut early on, which will free him to focus on the real object of his attraction. Monica.
Instead, he s a finalist, and they re all packed in an SUV climbing the Continental Divide, headed for Salt Box, Colorado. Where stampeding horses, vindictive tabloid editors, and one capricious bachelorette s waffling over suitors may conspire to end Paul and Monica s romance before it even starts.
Warning: Contains hot sex on the sly, cold nights, creaking wicker couches, and a gypsy wagon that gives a whole new appreciation for the pioneers."

My Review:

I picked this up because I really enjoyed the author’s Ramos Family Trilogy (Medium Well, Medium Rare and Happy Medium) and was hoping that lightning would strike twice.

Nope.

Instead, I have an entire SUV-load full of mixed feelings and reactions. As you’ll read in a minute.

The love story here takes place on the disaster-prone set of a reality TV show. As many things as go wrong, you’d think this was on a Survivor-clone, but it isn’t. Instead, this is an alternate version of The Bachelor, where one of the photogenic losing bachelorettes becomes the star of the first series of The Bachelorette. Although I think this kind of happened.

In any case, in the book, the shows are produced by a fairly downmarket cable production company, and everything is on a shoestring. That might make good comedy, and probably did for some readers.

But the story here isn’t about the starring bachelorette finding true love through the show. Instead, that starring bachelorette loses her original starry-eyed belief in true love. It’s the long-suffering assistant producer who finds the love of her life.

Unfortunately for both of them, she finds that love with one of the erstwhile bachelors. Which is where a good chunk (hunk?) of the sexual tension comes in. Both Monica and Paul are single and unattached, and would normally be free to explore whatever is happening between them.

But they can’t until the show is over, because it will ruin an illusion that no one is really buying into. And they can’t seem to hang on to their pants for the six weeks needed to complete the show.

Escape Rating C+: It’s hard to rate this one. I found the scenario behind the book incredibly contrived. That could be because I’m not a fan of reality TV.

I liked the two protagonists quite a bit. Monica is incredibly put upon as the assistant producer, but she keeps taking the hard knocks and doing her job. She’s self-aware enough to know that jobs in show business are hard to find, and that this is what she expected when she decided to be in the business. But it isn’t until she meets Paul Dewitt that she starts looking for the next phase in her life. Not just that it would be great to have someone to come home to, but that she has learned all she can where she is, and it’s time to move up the ladder. Or on to a less dysfunctional production company. Or both.

I also liked Paul, although the situation he finds himself in seems as contrived as the TV show. He was not a contestant to be one of the bachelors. He’s a writer for the show who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and got dragooned into the bachelor pool by the self-absorbed bachelorette and the tyrannical producer.

And that’s where things kind of go off the rails for this reader. A big part of this story is all about Monica becoming the “babysitter” for the self-absorbed sweetheart diva of a bachelorette. Little Ronnie probably isn’t half as dumb as she acts, but she comes off as a combination of wide-eyed innocence, total vapidity, and utter self-absorption that made me clench my teeth every time she appeared. She’s also incredibly manipulative, but you’re never quite sure just how deliberate she is in that manipulation.

Except for Monica and Paul, all of the other producers and writers involved with this production company are at best totally overwhelmed and completely oblivious to everything outside their own sphere of crises to solve, and at worst, and this is most of them, they are actively vile. There doesn’t seem to be anyone likable in the company except for Paul and Monica. The photographer on the shoot with them isn’t actively awful, but that’s as high a bar as anyone else in the company manages to reach.

So it feels like the show is toxic, which means that their work environment is toxic. One understands why they both want to escape, but one questions their sanity at being involved at all. It wouldn’t be fun to work in, and it isn’t fun to read about, either.

On that other hand, I liked the town of Salt Box where they get stranded for a couple of days. It’s a quirky place, but it feels more real. Or at least more nuanced in its insanity. While one of the locals is often called “Dick the dick”, when we (and Monica) get to know him a little better, we discover that while he is the curmudgeon that he appears, he isn’t really quite that big of an asshat. He just doesn’t suffer fools, and tests everyone in his orbit to make sure they are not before he lets them in.

At the end of this story, I feel more than a bit of sympathy for Dick. He discovers that Paul and Monica are not fools, and lets them into his circle and out of the circle of Hell they are currently working in. And he makes sure that the rest of the cast and crew of that show all stay OUT.