Stacking the Shelves (522)

A few more books this week because last week a faithful follower of Reading Reality recommended Combined Operations as a readalike for Steel Fear. And I was tempted…

In other reading notes, someone in my reading group made the observation that publishers have been using “romcom” as a replacement description for “contemporary romance” – even though not all contemporary romances are romcoms. Far from it. But the observation continued that the cartoon-style, drawn, cover art seems to be leading everyone down a primrose path of thinking that the stories within are lighter in tone than they actually are. I’m thinking in particular of A Proposal They Can’t Refuse of a few months back, which was, most definitely, a romance, but deals with a lot of very serious stuff and isn’t really a comedy at all.

I’m curious if anyone else has any thoughts on the matter?

For Review:
The Archive Undying (Downworld Sequence #1) by Emma Mieko Candon
Death Comes to Marlow (Marlow Murder Club #2) by Robert Thorogood
Full Exposure by Thien-Kim Lam
Good Night, Irene by Luis Alberto Urrea
Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desire (Enterprising Scoundrels #2) by Sophie Barnes
Playing it Safe (Electra McDonnell #3) by Ashley Weaver

Purchased from Amazon/Audible:
Between Two Graves (Combined Operations #4) by Dorothy Grant
Blood, Oil and Love (Combined Operations #2) by Dorothy Grant
Going Ballistic (Combined Operations #1) by Dorothy Grant
A Perfect Day, With Explosions (Combined Operations #3) by Dorothy Grant


If you want to find out more about Stacking The Shelves, please visit the official launch page

Please link your STS post in the linky below:

Veterans Day 2022

Cat on the HMAS Encounter sitting in a ship's gun barrel
The feline mascot of the Australian light cruiser HMAS Encounter during WW1

Since the beginning of armed conflict, soldiers have had to find small comforts where they could. Sometimes that comfort has come in the shape of cats and other furry pets.

Soldiers’ and sailors’ cats often had jobs — killing vermin, acting as mascots, and so forth — but as this piece by Nick Barnett put it,

Why does a soldier in the trenches make a pet of a cat? Sure, a playful cat can relieve boredom, and in a setting where hugs generally aren’t going to happen, it can provide a warm little body to cuddle.

Tucking a cat into the crook of your arm, feeding it, giving it life amid wreckage and danger, would have been a way of reminding themselves that there was reason for going home, and that they were still human.

That, to me, is the other great job – alongside the mousing – that cats have played in war zones. They’ve lifted men’s spirits and reminded them who they are.

On this Veteran’s Day 2022, we are 104 years past the end of the “war to end all wars” — that expression of a hope doomed to be left unfulfilled for the foreseeable future. Thus, cats still find themselves in war zones and in the care of soldiers, although nowadays the cats of war sometimes have Instagram accounts.

Of course, the cats are not the center of any war — just a sideshow, really. Give a thought to those who have found themselves in war, that uniquely inhumane yet all-too-human circumstance.

Also, Слава Україні!

Review: Conqueror by Anna Hackett

Review: Conqueror by Anna HackettConqueror (Galactic Kings #4) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, science fiction romance
Series: Galactic Kings #4
Pages: 276
Published by Anna Hackett on November 6, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

After two years of alien captivity, Evie is free, but her captors have changed her. Now struggling to control a terrifying new power, her only hope is one formidable, dangerous alien king.

Logistics manager Evie Mason is no longer a prisoner on an alien space station, but she’s far from Earth, suffering nightmares, and fighting to ignore the growing power inside her. She just wants to be normal, but when she comes face to face with the intoxicating ruler of the planet Taln, normal isn’t an option. He speaks to the power inside her, and ignites a fierce desire she’s never felt before.

Conqueror Graylan Taln Sarkany is the king of Taln and its people, who can control the geological forces of their planet. He’s dedicated to protecting Talnians from his evil father and uses his immense power to command the rocks, soil, and earthquakes. But Gray must always keep a part of his power leashed. The part that’s too volatile, too enormous, too dangerous. Then one small, tough woman from Earth threatens all his control.

As a final, violent showdown with Graylan’s father draws closer, Gray and Evie are swept into a whirlwind of power and passion, their powers connecting them in ways neither of them understand. With Gray’s brothers, their mates, and allies by their side, they will fight, and Gray will unleash everything he has to protect his planet, his people, and Evie.

My Review:

There is clearly something very wrong with King Zavir Sarkany, but his four sons are all very, very fine indeed. And they’ve banded together to do something about ‘not-so-dear and not-so-old dad’. They’re going to pay him back for all the damage he’s done to their solar system, their individual planets, their people, their families and themselves.

Unlike their tyrannical father, the Sarkany brothers all put themselves last behind the needs of their respective peoples. Their joint problem is that the one thing all of their planets’ peoples need most is to eliminate the man who fathered their respective rulers. Preferably before he manages to destroy all of their worlds so he can ‘get his sons back’. Zavir is delusional. And narcissistic. But unfortunately, quite charismatic when he want to be and extremely powerful all of the damn time.

Nevertheless, his sons have managed to beat back Zavir’s seriously overclocked, over-enhanced and over-genetically-engineered constructs on Zhalto (Overlord), Damar (Emperor) and even on Zavir’s space station based experimental monstrosity lab (Captain of the Guard). Now it’s time for the Sarkany brothers to get together and kick him off Taln and out of their lives for good.

No matter what it takes.

But in his quest to rule his planetary system and his sons, Zavir managed to sow the seeds of his own destruction. There’s something about the women from Earth that both enhances his horrific experiments AND makes them easy to genetically engineer. He intended to create weapons, and they are. But the moment they get free of his scientists’ clutches, each one of them has bonded with one of his sons, giving them yet one more reason to fight him with everything they have.

In this final story in the Galactic Kings series, Conqueror Graylan Taln Sarkany is juggling the protection of his world, the plot to destroy his father, the healing of Earth-refugee Evie Mason (her rescue is part of Captain of the Guard) and fighting his attraction to this woman who is still in mourning for the ‘normal’ person she used to be.

It’s a lot for any person to handle, but Graylan eventually gets the message that he’s capable of conquering anything and anyone – as long as he has Evie by his side.

Escape Rating A-: As Conqueror is the final book in the Galactic Kings series – and a marvelously cathartic one at that – this is not the place to start the series. Start with Overlord because the whole thing is just a terrific science fiction romance read from beginning to end.

Or, if you’re in the mood for a big reading binge, you can always start with Gladiator, the first book in the Galactic Gladiators series. Why? Because the wormhole that brought so many Terrans from the Jupiter outpost to their system all the way across the galaxy is just a gift that has kept on giving, with Conqueror just the latest in a long and wonderful line of interstellar romances.

A line which seems to be continuing in the Oronis Knights series early next year. But we’re not there yet.

The story in Conqueror has all the captivating elements of the previous books in the series. Evie Mason was rescued from the clutches of Zavir’s evil scientists – who honestly make the Nazis look like fluffy bunnies by comparison.

Her blood was used to make Zavir’s experimental creatures even more powerful, and she was genetically engineered to have the same capabilities as the people of one of the planets in the Sarkan system – in this case Gray’s planet Taln. She’s not ‘normal’ anymore by Earth standards and she can’t go home – even if she could.

She wants payback. She also, surprising even herself, wants Gray, although she knows that it can’t possibly lead anywhere. He’s a king and she’s basically a refugee. Also, he’s being an idiot and pursuing an arranged marriage because he thinks it will be easier if he doesn’t love his spouse. For…reasons. As I said, idiot.

So their reluctant romance is a big part of this story, but what makes this one so much fun is that it’s all about finding a final solution for Zavir – and the conflict that Gray and his brothers all have about plotting to kill their father. Who really, really needs it but is still their father. Who can be very, very charming and very, very twisted, sometimes even at the same time.

Their solution is not the one that I was expecting. At all. Which is terrific. That it’s a take on events in Star Trek: Next Gen brought a smile to my face even as I breathed a huge sigh of relief that all was well that ended well. (Although the solution in STNG is about to be undone in the final season of Picard, so who knows? Zavir could be back, too…)

If you are looking for kickass, action-adventure romance in a science fiction setting, where all the protagonists take charge, take names and definitely get the hardest and most heartbreaking jobs done with style and sass, the Galactic Kings – and their queens! – are all winners in love and war and every single one of their stories is a fantastic read!

Review: A Matter of Happiness by Tori Whitaker

Review: A Matter of Happiness by Tori WhitakerA Matter of Happiness by Tori Whitaker
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, historical fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 364
Published by Lake Union Publishing on November 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A cherished heirloom opens up a century of secrets in a bittersweet novel about family, hard truths, and self-discovery by the author of Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish.
Melanie Barnett thinks she has it all together. With an ex-fiancé and a pending promotion at a Kentucky bourbon distillery, Melanie has figured out that love and career don’t mix. Until she makes a discovery while cleaning her Jordan MX car, a scarlet-red symbol of the Jazz Age’s independent women that she inherited from her great-great-great-aunt Violet. Its secret compartment holds Violet’s weathered journal—within it an intriguing message: Take from this story what you will, Melanie, and you can bury the rest. Melanie wonders what more there is to learn from Violet’s past.
In 1921 Violet Bond defers to no one. Hers is a life of adventure in Detroit, the hub of the motorcar boom and the fastest growing city in America. But in an era of speakeasies, financial windfalls, free-spirited friends, and unexpected romance, it’s easy to spin out of control.
Now, as Melanie’s own world takes unexpected turns, her life and Violet’s life intersect. Generations apart, they’re coming into their own and questioning what modern womanhood—and happiness—really means.

My Review:

Melanie Barnett and her ‘Great Aunt Grape’ were simpatico in a way that Melanie and her judgmental, disapproving and disappointed mother were not. So it wasn’t at all surprising that the late and much lamented Violet Bond left her classic 1923 Jordan Playboy car to Melanie when she died.


1920 Jordon Playboy at Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum

What is surprising is the treasure trove of her personal papers and memories that Violet hid inside the car – just waiting for Melanie to check all the compartments and bring them to light.

As this story opens, Melanie is finally claiming that legacy, wishing that she had taken a look a whole lot earlier. But the time is now, and Melanie discovers the whole truth of Violet’s story just in time to help her decide the path she should take for her own.

In spite of her mother’s constant needling that Melanie’s choices are all the wrong ones. Inspired by Violet’s story, Melanie takes a good hard look at what she’s doing and where she’s going, and figures out that when it comes to the matter of her happiness the choices will have to be her own.

Just as Violet’s did. No matter what anyone else might think.

Escape Rating B+: I picked up A Matter of Happiness because I loved the author’s first book, Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish. I liked A Matter of Happiness quite a bit, but it didn’t quite match up to the first book, although I think that the nostalgia of its Cincinnati setting pulled a bit more at my personal heartstrings than this one did. But I think that’s a ‘me’ thing and not a commentary on either book. A Matter of Happiness was definitely worth the read.

Like Millicent Glenn’s story, this one also exists in two time frames – but it is also told by two rather different people. Melanie’s story is set in pre-COVID 2018 (I have a feeling that authors are going to avoid the COVID years a LOT because they were just SO WEIRD). Melanie is at a bit of a crossroads in her life. The man she thought she’d marry thought that she would be happy to give up her career for his big promotion. But that promotion was taking him to Silicon Valley, and her career is in the Kentucky bourbon industry, which necessitates that she live, unsurprisingly, in her home state of Kentucky.

And now she’s sworn off men, devoting herself to her career, pursuing a promotion to management at the company she’s been working at for several years. She hopes that if she reaches a management position that her striving, seeking, disapproving mother will finally be proud of her.

But she’s found her great-aunt’s diary in the hidden compartments of that old car. A diary of Violet Bond in the 1920s, in her 20s, at a crossroads in her own life. Going off to Detroit to get a job in the burgeoning automobile industry, living on her own by her own wits and on her own wages, pursuing a career and swearing off men – albeit for different reasons than Melanie.

Melanie sees a bit of her own journey in her beloved great-aunt’s story. And we see a bit of our own in both of theirs. And in reading about the choices and the sacrifices that her aunt made in order to live the life she wanted, Melanie finds her own way forward.

Along with a secret that changes her perspective on how both she – and her mother – see their past and their places in a family they thought they knew.

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

Super Stocking Stuffer Giveaway Hop

Welcome to the Super Stocking Stuffer Giveaway Hop, hosted by  The Mommy Island & The Kids Did It!

Does it feel early to you? I mean, the whole idea of holiday stockings, stuffed or otherwise? I know it’s time to be thinking about what to stuff in said stockings, but it still feels early to me. Or perhaps it’s just that this year feels like it’s gone by very, very fast.

Thanksgiving will be over by the time this hop ends, and the Xmas Carol onslaught will be in full swing. Although it IS a bit apropos that the carols start up much too soon after Halloween. After all, the dead do come back to life, at least on music channels, whenever Xmas carols get played. 😉

But this hop is about the stockings, and the stuffing thereof. What would you like to see in yours this holiday season?

Answer in the rafflecopter for your chance at the usual Reading Reality prize, the winner’s choice of a $10 Amazon Gift Card or $10 in books.

Seasons Greetings and Happy Holidays!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

For more super prizes, be sure to visit the other stops on this hop!

Review: When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb

Review: When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha LambWhen the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb
Narrator: Donald Corren
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, historical fiction, magical realism
Pages: 400
Length: 9 hours
Published by Levine Querido on October 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

For fans of “Good Omens”—a queer immigrant fairytale about individual purpose, the fluid nature of identity, and the power of love to change and endure.
Uriel the angel and Little Ash (short for Ashmedai) are the only two supernatural creatures in their shtetl (which is so tiny, it doesn't have a name other than Shtetl). The angel and the demon have been studying together for centuries, but pogroms and the search for a new life have drawn all the young people from their village to America. When one of those young emigrants goes missing, Uriel and Little Ash set off to find her.
Along the way the angel and demon encounter humans in need of their help, including Rose Cohen, whose best friend (and the love of her life) has abandoned her to marry a man, and Malke Shulman, whose father died mysteriously on his way to America. But there are obstacles ahead of them as difficult as what they’ve left behind. Medical exams (and demons) at Ellis Island. Corrupt officials, cruel mob bosses, murderers, poverty. The streets are far from paved with gold.
P R A I S E
“Liars, lovers, grifters, a good angel and a wicked one—all held together with the bright red thread of unexpected romance, enduring friendship and America’s history. You don’t have to be Jewish to love Sacha Lamb—you only have to read.”New York Times Bestseller, Amy Bloom
★ “Steeped in Ashkenazi lore, custom, and faith, this beautifully written story deftly tackles questions of identity, good and evil, obligation, and the many forms love can take. Queerness and gender fluidity thread through both the human and supernatural characters, clearly depicted without feeling anachronistic. Gorgeous, fascinating, and fun.”Kirkus (starred)
★ “Richly imagined and plotted, this inspired book has the timeless feeling of Jewish folklore, which is further enhanced by the presence of two magical protagonists, and not one but two dybbuks! In the end, of course, it’s the author who has performed the mitzvah by giving their readers this terrific debut novel.”—Booklist (starred)
“I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH!!!! I read it in two days and then I spent the next two weeks thinking about it. Literally forgot to take my lunch break at work because I was busy thinking about it. This book is SO fun and funny and beautiful. Inherently, inextricably deeply queer-and-Jewish in a way that makes my brain buzz. I am obsessed.”—Piera Varela, Porter Square Books
“I love this book more than I can say (but I’ll try!) I was delighted by the wry narrative voice of this book from the first paragraph. The author perfectly captures the voice of a Jewish folk tale within an impeccably researched early 20th century setting that includes Yiddish, striking factory workers, and revolutionary coffee houses. It gave me so many feelings about identity, love, and their obligations to the world, themselves, and each other. This story will forever have a place in my heart and in my canon of favorite books. I can’t wait to have it on my shelves!”— Marianne Wald, East City Bookshop
“A beautiful story of an angel and demon set on helping an emigrant from their shtetl, and the fierce girl that joins them on the way... A must read for all ages—one filled to the brim with heart.”—Mo Huffman, Changing Hands Bookstore

My Review:

This is utterly lovely, but I’m not sure any description could do it justice. It’s just such a surprising mélange of fantasy, historical fiction and magical realism set in a time and place that manages to be both far away and very close, all at the same time.

It’s also steeped in the experiences of Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe to the new, exciting, strange and sometimes dangerous “golden land” of America. And in this particular case, all the ways they got fleeced and all the ways they fought back and endured along the way.

What makes the story so much fun and works so very well is that the story is told from the perspectives of Little Ash the demon and his study partner – an angel who begins the story with no name at all. Little Ash is a very small demon with very little magic, while his friend the angel hears the voice of heaven and lets it guide him into good deeds. Which, most of the time, consists of keeping his friend the demon busy studying the Torah and the Talmud.

But Little Ash is getting bored in their tiny shtetl, so small it doesn’t even have a name. The demon wants to follow all the young people from their shtetl who have left for America, because they were all the interesting people he enjoyed following while they made a bit of mischief. Which Little Ash likes very much.

Little Ash searches for a way of convincing the angel to go to America with him. When they learn that Simon the baker’s daughter Essie arrived in America but hasn’t written since, they have a mission. A mitzvah, or good deed, that the angel can undertake, and a whole lot of mischief that Little Ash can make along the way.

Neither of them is remotely prepared for what they find, not along the way, and certainly not after they arrive in America.

Escape Rating A+: In the foreword, the publisher claims that they’ve been referring to this book as the “queer lovechild of Philip Roth and Sholem Aleichem” – which is a lot to live up to. I think it read as Good Omens and Fiddler on the Roof (the original story for which was written by Sholem Aleichem) had a book baby midwifed by The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten (which I wish I popped up every time there was a Yiddish or Hebrew phrase that I don’t remember – but don’t worry, there’s a glossary at the end) resulting in When the Angels Left the Old Country. Up to and including the ineffable relationship that is finally acknowledged at the end.

The story is told from the perspectives of Little Ash and the angel, who initially does not have a name and never takes on a gender no matter what its identity papers say. And the story is significantly the angel’s journey from being an entity that exists mostly as a vessel to serve the purposes of heaven to a person in its own right. Without a name, it doesn’t have an identity of its own to hang its memories on, to help it retain any purpose of its own. It’s easily overwhelmed by competing thoughts and missions.

Little Ash likes that his friend is a bit forgetful and easily manipulated. He’s able to get away with rather a lot. But Little Ash is a small demon with little magic and small sins. He likes causing trouble but even that is a bit childlike. As childlike as the angel’s innocence.

One of the things they lose on the trip to America is their naivete. The angel, now calling himself Uriel, still tries to see the good in everyone – but now it can see the evil as well even if it doesn’t want to. Little Ash, who always looked for people’s sins, can see more of the good and feel more duty towards fostering that good than he ever imagined.

When they arrive in America they become deeply involved with the Jewish immigrant community on Hester Street, taking on the cheats who keep people nearly enslaved to the garment shops, getting caught in the middle of a strike – and doing their best to exorcise not just one but two dybbuks – malicious spirits who haunt evildoers hunting for revenge.

With the help of their friend Rose, a young immigrant they met in steerage on the way to America, with more than a little bit of mischief and a whole lot of seeing the best while preparing for the worst, they manage to rescue Essie and make a new life for themselves in America.

Still studying Torah and Talmud, and always together.

Personally, I found this book to be utterly enchanting. An enchantment that was multiplied by listening to the audiobook as narrated by Donald Corren. My grandparents were part of the same immigrant generation as the characters in When the Angels Left the Old Country. My mom’s parents came from the Pale of Settlement just as everyone in this story did. (My dad’s parents came from a bit further south and west.) Everyone in my grandparents’ generation spoke Yiddish as well as English – and generally used Yiddish as a way of hiding what they were talking about from child-me. The rhythms of their speech, whether in Yiddish or in English, sounded just the way that the narrator reads this book. It was a bit like sitting in the room when they spoke with my great-aunts and uncles, hearing the sounds of all their voices and the way that the ‘mother tongue’ of Yiddish influenced not just their accents but the way they phrased things, even in English.

In other words, I loved this book for the story it told, and I loved the narration for the nostalgia it invoked. For this listener, the entire experience was made of win. I hope you’ll feel the same.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 11-6-22

Galen has been away most of this week (he’s back now) which leaves me alone to tend to FIVE very demanding felines. Tuna is on overwatch every single time I prepare their food. This is literal, as his head is at my waist when he stands at the table next to me watching every step and scoop. It’s a bit daunting.

I swear I saw him acting as Lucifer’s food tester the other night as well. Not that Tuna scarfed the old boy’s food. That he watched me put it down, took a sniff and one nibble, then moved out of the way for our Elder Statescat to get his due. It’s adorable and disconcerting at the same time.

And I looked down to THIS the other day while I was peacefully working at my desk. (Tuna on the left, Luna on the right with her white feets.) Aren’t they adorable? And don’t you wonder what they’re really up to? I certainly did!

Current Giveaways:

$10 Book or $10 Gift Card in the Thanks a Latte Giveaway Hop
$10 Book or $10 Gift Card in the Fall 2022 Seasons of Books Giveaway Hop

Blog Recap:

A- Review: Lute by Jennifer Thorne
Thanks a Latte Giveaway Hop
A- Review: Mission: Uncovered by Anna Hackett
A+ Review: Steel Fear by Brandon Webb and John David Mann
B Review: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen
Stacking the Shelves (521)

Coming This Week:

When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb (audiobook review)
Super Stocking Stuffer Giveaway Hop
A Matter of Happiness by Tori Whitaker (blog tour review)
Conqueror by Anna Hackett (review)
Veteran’s Day 2022 (post by Galen)

Stacking the Shelves (521)

Out of a mere nine books, I have one I’ve just finished, one I’ve been waiting for for months, one that requires me to check to see if I’m caught up with it’s series and one book in a new series by a favorite author that I’m terribly curious to read. All of that, and the prettiest cover this week goes to Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter which is none of the above. A short stack filled with absolutely oodles of intriguing choices!

For Review:
Conqueror (Galactic Kings #4) by Anna Hackett
The Fourth Enemy (Daniel Pitt #6) by Anne Perry
Hel’s Eight by Stark Holborn
In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune
Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter by Lizzie Pook
The Peacekeeper (Good Lands #1) by B.L. Blanchard
Queens of Wonderland (Defenders of Lore #2) by Gama Ray Martinez
The Three Dahlias (Dahlia Lively #1) by Katy Watson
The White Lady by Jacqueline Winspear


If you want to find out more about Stacking The Shelves, please visit the official launch page

Please link your STS post in the linky below:

Review: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen

Review: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan BannenThe Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance
Pages: 448
Published by Orbit on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Hart is a marshal, tasked with patrolling the strange and magical wilds of Tanria. It’s an unforgiving job, and Hart’s got nothing but time to ponder his loneliness.  
Mercy never has a moment to herself. She’s been single-handedly keeping Birdsall & Son Undertakers afloat in defiance of sullen jerks like Hart, who seems to have a gift for showing up right when her patience is thinnest. 
After yet another exasperating run-in with Mercy, Hart finds himself penning a letter addressed simply to “A Friend”. Much to his surprise, an anonymous letter comes back in return, and a tentative friendship is born.  
If only Hart knew he’s been baring his soul to the person who infuriates him most—Mercy. As the dangers from Tanria grow closer, so do the unlikely correspondents. But can their blossoming romance survive the fated discovery that their pen pals are their worst nightmares—each other?
Set in a world full of magic and demigods, donuts and small-town drama, this enchantingly quirky, utterly unique fantasy is perfect for readers of The House in the Cerulean Sea and The Invisible Library.

My Review:

Hart Ralston and Mercy Birdsall each think they have a fairly big problem when the story opens. Each other. And they are both so, so wrong, which is what makes this fantasy romance so cozily familiar even in the midst of all the dangerous creatures that are getting more numerous – and ever more dangerous – in nearby Tanria.

What makes their mutual enmity an even bigger problem is that they have to work together – sorta/kinda – in dealing with all of those dangerous creatures. Or at least in handling the remains of all of their victims.

Marshal Hart Ralston’s job is to go into Tanria and hunt down both the dangerous, deadly and also quite dead drudges – as well as get any illegal poachers out of the area before they become victims of those dead and deadly drudges and are turned into drudges themselves.

It’s a thankless job, but somebody has to do it. And lone wolf Ralston prefers to do it alone, so he doesn’t have to try to protect anyone else – and fail at it.

Mercy Birdsall is the only actual working member of Birdsall and Son, one of the undertaking companies in Eternity, just over the border from Tanria. It’s her company’s job to provide funeral rites for the dead victims – and occasionally for the dead monsters – that marshal’s like Ralston bring back from Tanria.

Hart and Mercy got on each other’s bad side the very first time they met over Birdsall and Son’s shop counter. And it’s been all downhill ever since.

Or has it?

Escape Rating B: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy, besides being a very punny title, is one of those stories that invokes that question about whether two great tastes go great together. This is a fantasy romance, but romance readers may think it leans too much on the fantasy side and fantasy readers may have the same reaction to the romantic angle that Hart and Mercy initially had to each other.

Or, as in my case, this may seem like a strange setting for a reimagining of the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romcom classic movie You’ve Got Mail. Although it does work – particularly because of the marvelously sarcastic nimkilim that deliver the mail – there are a few scenes where it seems like the graft didn’t quite take. Or that the stitching of the graft is just a bit too obvious. Or both.

Not that the idea doesn’t work well in this setting because it does – with the help of the nimkilim. Hart is lonely and withdrawn. He desperately needs to reach out to someone but doesn’t know how and is afraid to try. Hence his anonymous correspondence with his nameless “friend”.

Mercy, on the other hand, is lonely in a crowd. She has family and some friends, but she’s carrying a boatload (literally in this case) of secrets and responsibilities that consume her energy while isolating her from anyone who might be able to help her in dealing with them. Which results in her responses to those letters addressed by heart, from Hart, to his nameless friend. Who turns out to be Mercy, the woman he believes is his worst enemy.

This is kind of a fence-straddling book, complete with the inevitable splinters up its ass. It was presented to me as a romance, and there certainly is a romance in it. But the fantasy setting is more than just setting. It’s an important enough element of the story that the book as a whole doesn’t sit comfortably in romance because it has more than a foot over that line into fantasy.

Even if that foot belongs to a dead body that has become a drudge.

At the same time, as much as I loved the banter between Hart and Mercy, there was something about Mercy’s situation that just didn’t sit right. I never fully got why she couldn’t take over the family business – at least until the villain of the piece took his villainy to heights (or depths) that the business couldn’t survive no matter who was in charge of it. I understood that her father wanted to pass it to her brother – who was not suited to the work AT ALL and did not want it under any circumstances whatsoever. Work that Mercy wasn’t merely suited for but actually loved.

A fact which Mercy’s family totally ignored. She does the work, she loves the work. She wants to keep doing the work. But her entire family decided that the business was a burden on her and that it would be best for her if it was sold. Without asking her what she wanted. (BTW Mercy is THIRTY YEARS OLD and very well able to decide what is best for her for her own damn self.) A lot of story water goes under that bridge before the Birdsall family stops assuming they know what’s best for each other and have an honest conversation about what each of them as an individual actually wants.

The story picked up its pace – or at least stopped frustrating the crap out of me – after that conversation finally happened.

For this reader, the thing is that this was presented to me as a romance, but it reads like a fantasy that includes a romance, which is a bit of a different beast. Both elements have to be present and fully-fleshed out for a fantasy romance to succeed. If only one is working, it falls over.

In the end, this doesn’t fall over. It works – although it does take a while to get all of its (auto)ducks in a row. In fact, it works a whole lot like Can’t Spell Treason without Tea and Legends & Lattes. Between the life of the town of Eternity and the Birdsall family dynamic – along with Mercy’s lovable big dog Leonardo – the fantasy is very cozy, with just the right amount of danger. The romance is angsty in a way that really works well, and the issues between Hart and Mercy feel real in spite of the fantasy setting, but also rising at least in part from elements that are integral to that fantasy setting.

Readers coming to The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy just for the romance may find this to be more fantasy than they bargained on. But if you loved Legends & Lattes or Can’t Spell Treason without Tea, or if you’re a fan of T. Kingfisher’s Saint of Steel series you’ll fall for The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy every bit as hard as Hart and Mercy eventually realize that they have for each other..

Review: Steel Fear by Brandon Webb and John David Mann

Review: Steel Fear by Brandon Webb and John David MannSteel Fear (Finn Thrillers, #1) by Brandon Webb, John David Mann
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Finn Thrillers #1
Pages: 441
Published by Bantam on July 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

An aircraft carrier adrift with a crew the size of a small town. A killer in their midst. And the disgraced Navy SEAL who must track him down . . . The high-octane debut thriller from New York Times bestselling writing team Webb & Mann—combat-decorated Navy SEAL Brandon Webb and award-winning author John David Mann.

The moment Navy SEAL sniper Finn sets foot on the USS Abraham Lincoln to hitch a ride home from the Persian Gulf, it's clear something is deeply wrong. Leadership is weak. Morale is low. And when crew members start disappearing one by one, what at first seems like a random string of suicides soon reveals something far more sinister: There's a serial killer on board.
Suspicion falls on Finn, the newcomer to the ship. After all, he's being sent home in disgrace, recalled from the field under the dark cloud of a mission gone horribly wrong. He's also a lone wolf, haunted by gaps in his memory and the elusive sense that something he missed may have contributed to civilian deaths on his last assignment. Finding the killer offers a chance at redemption . . . if he can stay alive long enough to prove it isn't him.

My Review:

Steel Fear wasn’t any of the things I expected it to be. But it sure was good.

At first, this seems like it’s going to be a military thriller. Navy SEAL Finn has been hustled aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, stationed in the Persian Gulf, after a failed SEAL operation in Yemen. What he doesn’t know is why. Why the operation failed. Why he’s cooling his heels on the Lincoln with no orders to head either back to the U.S. for a debriefing reaming, or back to his Team for further assignment.

Why no one on his Team is getting back to him, even on a back channel, to let him know what he’s being blamed for or what he’s heading into. Which is currently nowhere at all.

As he determines that there’s something rotten about the way he’s being kept on ice on the Lincoln, he also determines that there is something rotten going on ON the Lincoln. And that if he doesn’t figure out who is doing what and why, he’s the one who’ll get blamed for it.

After all, it’s clear that he’s already been set up to be the scapegoat for something that went wronger than he remembers in Yemen. He’s the perfect patsy to take the blame for everything amiss on board as well.

But the problems aboard the Lincoln are bigger than just one man – even a Navy SEAL at loose ends. In Finn’s estimation, that fish has rotted from the head down. But it will still slime all over him unless he can figure out whodunnit before he leaves.

Even if his manner of leaving will put an even bigger target on his back from an even more deadly opponent.

Escape Rating A+: I skimmed this last year but wasn’t able to give it the detailed read it really deserved. But I remembered it as being very good competence porn and whatever was going on last year, I was definitely in a mood for it right now. Especially since I’ve been having such good luck with rereads recently. So I decided to go back to this book and am I ever glad that I did!

The story combines a military thriller with a murder mystery. While in the end it leans heavily on the mystery side, everything about the setup, from the protagonist to the location grounds the whole thing very deeply on the military side.

And it is definitely on the thriller side of mystery.

There are two plots running in parallel. On the one hand, there have been an escalating series of deadly incidents aboard the Lincoln. First a helicopter went down with all hands, leaving behind an aching grief and an endless number of questions.

Then it starts looking like people can’t cope with the resulting stress and start throwing themselves off the ship. Into the Gulf. Then things get worse. And worse.

In the middle of all this is Finn. He can’t help but observe everything and everyone around him. It’s what he was trained for. And those observations are telling him that the escalating series of events are escalating because someone is getting off on the chaos they’re creating. He senses that he’s circling in on the perpetrator even as that perpetrator is closing in on him.

What makes this story so compelling, however, is its third track. Because in the midst of Finn’s meticulous detailing of the ship and the ever-spiraling circle of tension and stress is Finn’s increasing realization that there are holes in his memory. That he can’t even rely on himself any longer.

He might be the killer, and he might not remember. He might have committed atrocities in Yemen – and he might not remember. He doesn’t remember vast swathes of his childhood. There’s something in his memories that his conscious mind refuses to approach. He might not be who or what he thinks he is.

And someone seems determined to make sure that he doesn’t find out.

If you’re looking for a thriller within a thriller, for a compelling story of people doing their best jobs in the face of the worst that can be thrown at them, if you enjoy a story where the tension ratchets up every second and then finds itself a whole new ratchet to climb, Steel Fear is a winner that will keep you on the edge of your seat for every single fast-reading page.

And there’s more! The second book in the Finn Thrillers series, Cold Fear, is already out and I dived straight into it. So far, it’s every bit as compelling as Steel Fear turned out to be.