Review: The Lost Castle by Kristy Cambron + Giveaway

Review: The Lost Castle by Kristy Cambron + GiveawayThe Lost Castle (The Lost Castle #1) by Kristy Cambron
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Series: Lost Castle #1
Pages: 384
Published by Thomas Nelson on February 6th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Launching a brand-new series, Kristy Cambron explores the collision of past and present as she discovers the ruins of a French castle, long lost to history.

A thirteenth century castle, Chateau de Doux Reves, has been forgotten for generations, left to ruin in a storybook forest nestled deep in France's picturesque Loire Valley. It survived a sacking in the French Revolution, was brought back to life and fashioned into a storybook chateau in the Gilded Age, and was eventually felled and deserted after a disastrous fire in the 1930s.

As Ellie Carver sits by her grandmother's bedside, she hears stories of a castle . . . of lost love and a hidden chapel that played host to a secret fight in the World War II French resistance. But her grandmother is quickly slipping into the locked-down world of Alzheimer's, and Ellie must act fast if she wants to uncover the truth of her family's history.

Sparked by the discovery of a long forgotten family heirloom, Ellie embarks on a journey to French wine country to uncover the mystery surrounding The Sleeping Beauty--the castle so named for Charles Perrault's beloved fairy tale--and unearth its secrets before they're finally silenced by time.

Set in three different time periods--the French Revolution, World War II, and present day--The Lost Castle is a story of loves won and lost, of battles waged, and an enchanted castle that inspired the epic fairy tales time left behind.

My Review:

Instead of a mystery wrapped in an enigma (not that the reference to Enigma doesn’t turn out to be appropriate) this is a fairy tale wrapped in a war story tied up in a romance. Also not that there isn’t romance throughout – just different romances.

Because this lovely story is a “timeslip” tale that is spread over three very different time periods; the French Revolution, World War II, and the present day. And if the reference to the French Revolution wasn’t enough of a clue, most of the story takes place in France during those periods, specifically in the Loire Valley wine region.

And there’s plenty of wine involved and not just by drinking it. The fates of three very different women are tied together by the wines, the vines, and the castle that hides in the middle of it all.

Timeslip stories, as the sub-genre is now termed, are stories that “slip” between multiple time periods. Sometimes by having one of the characters themselves slip between those periods, but sometimes by having the narrative simply move between the periods for reasons that become clear at some point in the story.

The Lost Castle is one of the latter types. We follow three women in the same place but at three different time periods. We begin by meeting Ellie Carver, whose beloved grandmother has slipped into the fog of Alzheimer’s, and is now also slipping away physically. Lady Vi raised Ellie after her parents died, and Ellie feels like her grandmother is all that she has in the world. She is heartbroken and scrambling. Also emotionally scrambled.

Lady Vi’s fog lifts just enough to send Ellie scrabbling through her grandmother’s books to discover a WWII vintage photo of her grandmother, showing her that in the midst of the life that Ellie knew of her grandmother, there is at least one chapter that she was never told. Lady Vi seems to be looking for closure for this part of her life, and in a mad quest to do something, anything, Ellie hares off to the site of the picture, the “Sleeping Beauty” castle tucked away in the Loire Valley in France.

As the story continues we follow Ellie in the Loire, as she discovers the site of the photo, and unearths the history of when it was taken. We also follow Lady Vi’s history as a semi-trained British Intelligence operative who finds herself on the run from the Nazis in the Loire Valley in 1944. When Lady Vi is rescued by the local Resistance, she finds relative safety, purpose, and love.

We also see glimpses of an earlier history of the area, during the French Revolution, through the eyes of Aveline, a French aristocrat for whom the most famous wine of the region comes to be named.

All three women become integral to the past, and the future, of this storied place. And as Ellie uncovers the truth, we learn why. And it is bittersweet, but as delicious as the wine.

Escape Rating A-: Before I say anything else, let me say again that this is a truly lovely book. If you enjoy timeslip stories, I think you’ll really love this one.

As I read The Lost Castle, I did wonder how Aveline was connected to Vi and Ellie. It’s obvious from the beginning that it isn’t a matter of ancestors and descendants – there’s definitely no relation. And it’s not that Aveline’s story isn’t either interesting or important, it’s just that we don’t discover why and how until the very end.

I haven’t read a lot of timeslip stories, at least not under that label, so I’m not sure whether this is a bug or a feature, but neither Aveline’s nor Vi’s stories are told in chronological order. The chapter headings do say where and when each bit takes place, but the slipping forward and backwards within each of their times always took a paragraph or two to adjust to. This was particularly true with Aveline’s story, as we start in the middle and then work both backwards and forwards from that point, sometimes almost at random. The same thing happens with Vi’s story, but she doesn’t flash backwards nearly as much, and proceeds in a straight line from that middle, except for the flashbacks.

All three women are in the midst of great change, and that’s what makes each of their stories so fascinating. Aveline is an aristocrat during the Revolution, but she is a woman who is already uncomfortable with the life that she is supposed to lead. The Revolution provides her with an opportunity to forge a new path for herself, and she takes it.

Vi’s story takes place during World War II. We only get glimpses of her wartime exploits before she reaches the Loire, but they are enough to chill the bones. We do get a fairly complete portrait of her life in the French Resistance, and that comes at a critical time – it is 1944 and the Allied invasion is rumored and imminent, while the Nazis are desperate to hold onto France at all costs, with Vi, her new found friends and the Loire Valley itself caught in the terrible crossfire.

These are also all romances, and the romances are tied together not through the women, but through the place and the family that occupies it, through the men. The Vivay family owns and operates the winery that makes the region famous. Their signature wine, developed by Robert Vivay in Aveline’s time, is named for her. During Vi’s time, it is Julien Vivay who protects the land and is master of the vineyard, using that same signature product to keep the Nazis at bay. And it is Titus Vivay who lived to remember it all, and his grandson who leads Ellie to the answers that she is seeking.

Although the blurbs for this book talk about a “legacy of faith” and as this book is published by Thomas Nelson, a publisher who specializes in Christian faith-based works, one might think that the “faith” being mentioned in those blurbs is religious faith and of a specific type. But it isn’t, or at least it doesn’t seem to be to a reader who is not looking for such. Instead, the faith at the heart of this story seems more like faith in the land and faith in its people. In all three time periods, its the way that the people pull together to defend their lives, but more importantly the lives of those they love, and to defend the land and the work that sustains them, than it is about any belief in a diety.

Your mileage on this subject may definitely vary, but as someone who does not read books that are marketed as “inspirational” fiction this book does not read like part of that tradition.

It reads like excellent historical fiction, because that’s what it is.

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

There is a giveaway for a copy of The Lost Castle and a signed tote bag over at @tnzfiction  on Instagram.

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Review: The Upside by Abdel Sellou

Review: The Upside by Abdel SellouThe Upside (You Changed My Life) by Abdel Sellou, Caroline Andrieu
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: autobiography
Pages: 224
Published by Hachette Books on February 6th 2018
Publisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The true story of a charismatic Algerian con-man whose friendship with a disabled French aristocrat inspired the record-breaking hit movie The Intouchables (American remake, The Upside, starting Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, coming March 2018).


The story of Abdel Sellou's surprising friendship with aristocrat Philippe Pozzo di Borgo has been told and retold around the world-most recently in the major motion picture The Upside, with comedian and movie star Kevin Hart portraying Abdel and his edgy charm. In this appealing memoir, Sellou shows us the real man behind Kevin Hart's smiling face. The book takes us from his childhood spent stealing candy from the local grocery store, to his career as a pickpocket and scam artist, to his unexpected employment as a companion for a quadriplegic. Sellou tells his story with a stunning amount of talent, humor, style, and-though he denies that he has any-humility.

My Review:

The original title of this book was You Changed My Life, and that’s probably a more accurate description of the contents than the new title. The ways of marketing are clearly mysterious to behold.

No matter what the title, this book is kind of a cross between a buddy-movie and a bromance. It’s already been a movie, The Intouchables, filmed in France where the real story takes place. And it will be again – the American version is titled The Upside and seems to have been filmed in 2017, although I’m not sure it was ever in theaters. Considering that the movie was supposed to have come out in October of 2017 as the Harvey Weinstein scandal was breaking, and that the movie was produced by his company and the new edition of the book was supposed to be published by his publishing company, it’s not really a surprise that things got a bit, let’s call it delayed.

However, the story existed long before either the movie or the scandal. But this true story was originally told by only one of the partners in this bromance. This version, the one that I read, is told by the other. And it isn’t quite as fictionalized as the original movie seems to have been.

Not that the author doesn’t tell plenty of stories on himself, because he certainly does. And he is not the most reliable narrator, not even of his own life. Perhaps especially of his own life.

In 1993, French businessman (and noble) Philippe Pozzo di Borgo was severely injured in a paragliding accident, becoming a quadriplegic. In 1995 he hired Abdel Sellou, the author of this book, as his “life auxiliary” or caregiver.

Sellou was an Algerian immigrant to France, having been given by his Algerian parents to his aunt and uncle in Paris when he was a child. A child who was young enough to adapt but old enough to remember where he came from. And he was given to people who had never been parents and seem to have no idea of how to be parents. Or perhaps its that Abdel had no idea that rules or limits ever applied to him.

By his own account, Sellou grew up fairly wild on the streets of Paris, becoming a thief and a con artist. He saw himself as the king of his little corner of the world, and felt like nothing could stop him, not even jail. As he was always a completely nonviolent offender, jail mostly seemed like a bit of a vacation. The rules never applied to him.

He met “Pozzo” when he was basically scamming the unemployment office. He came to pretend to apply for that job as Pozzo’s life auxiliary. He ended up staying for over ten years in a job he never expected to take, and remained as Pozzo’s unpaid caregiver thereafter.

All of Pozzo’s rich friends were certain that the conman was there to take Pozzo for a ride, and bilk him out of all the money he could manage to scam. It never happened.

Instead, they formed an unlikely but life altering and life sustaining friendship. This is the story of that friendship from Sellou’s point of view (as Pozzo has already told his version of the story in A Second Wind)

Reality Rating B: The Upside, by whatever title, is a surprisingly quick read. It’s also not a very deep one, because the author skims over the surface of his life, and never seems willing to dive deeply into his thoughts or feelings.

The story that we’re left with is still interesting. Sellou seems to have grown up without a care in the world, or perhaps a better way of describing it would be not caring much about the world or anyone else in it.

It’s also clear that this story couldn’t be told until the statute of limitations had run out on his youthful crime spree, which seems to have lasted into his 20s. Mostly Sellou was a thief and even a bit of a shakedown artist. He was also a successful small-time conman. His goal never seems to have been to get rich, just to get enough to last until the next day. He saw the world as free for the taking, and if he got caught, well, jail seems to have been mostly a vacation.

There have to have been darker parts to this part of the story, but the author never dwells on them. He seems to be a character who always looks on the bright side, and does not worry much if at all about tomorrow.

Going to work for Pozzo was a life-altering event for both of them. Sellou’s ability to always find a bright side seems to have been just what Pozzo needed to keep him going. It’s not that Sellou wasn’t all-too-well acquainted with everything that did not work in Pozzo’s paralyzed body. It’s that Sellou never seems to have let it stop him from pushing whatever boundaries could be pushed so that Pozzo was able to get outside of himself as much as possible, which turned out to often be a surprising amount.

It’s also obvious from the story that the two men moved relatively quickly from an employer-employee relationship to a friendship to a partnership – even if most of Pozzo’s family and friends never fully come to trust Sellou even after years of being there for Pozzo at every hour of the day and night.

That Sellou seems to feel no bitterness at that lack of distrust is surprising. Or it may be part of his ability to always see the sunnier side of every situation, even the terrible ones.

I find myself wondering how some aspects of the story that seem particularly French are going to translate to American audiences. Perhaps I’ll find out if the movie ever shows up on Netflix.

Review: A Plunder of Souls by D.B. Jackson

Review: A Plunder of Souls by D.B. JacksonA Plunder of Souls (Thieftaker Chronicles, #3) by D.B. Jackson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Thieftaker #3
Pages: 336
Published by Tor Books on July 8th 2014
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Boston, 1769: Ethan Kaille, a Boston thieftaker who uses his conjuring to catch criminals, has snared villans and defeated magic that would have daunted a lesser man. What starts out as a mysterious phenomenon that has local ministers confused becomes something far more serious.

A ruthless, extremely powerful conjurer seeks to wake the souls of the dead to wreak a terrible revenge on all who oppose him. Kaille's minister friends have been helpless to stop crimes against their church. Graves have been desecrated in a bizarre, ritualistic way. Equally disturbing are reports of recently deceased citizens of Boston reappearing as grotesquely disfigured shades, seemingly having been disturbed from their eternal rest, and now frightening those who had been nearest to them in life. But most personally troubling to Kaille is a terrible waning of his ability to conjure. He knows all these are related…but how?

When Ethan discovers the source of this trouble, he realizes that his conjure powers and those of his friends will not be enough to stop a madman from becoming all-powerful. But somehow, using his wits, his powers, and every other resource he can muster, Ethan must thwart the monster's terrible plan and restore the restless souls of the dead to the peace of the grave. Let the battle for souls begin in A Plunder of Souls, the third, stand-alone novel in Jackson's acclaimed Thieftaker series.

My Review:

Today is Presidents Day, so I went searching through the towering TBR pile to find something set in the Revolutionary period. (Yes, I know that Presidents Day celebrates both Washington and Lincoln, but I’m still listening to the utterly marvelous Grant by Ron Chernow, and therefore have all the Civil War I can handle at the moment.)

Which brought me back to the Thieftaker Chronicles and A Plunder of Souls. I read Thieftaker last year for this holiday, and loved it so much I dove into the next book in the series, Thieves’ Quarry, perhaps a bit too soon.

So after most of a year, I’m back to this series. And A Plunder of Souls did not disappoint. Far from it.

The setting for the series is so well done that the reader feels as though they are walking the streets of pre-Revolutionary Boston with Ethan Kaille, complete with seeing the sights and even smelling the smells. If you like your historical fiction and mysteries to give you that “you are there” feeling, this series certainly does that well.

But the Thieftaker Chronicles are not merely historical fiction, and they aren’t quite historical mysteries, although there is usually a mysterious element to the story. The author bills this series as “historical fantasy” because he has taken pre-Revolutionary America and added two elements, one slightly ahistorical, and one definitely fantastic.

Although there were thieftakers in Boston in the colonial period, there were none recorded in Boston during the time the series takes place. What Ethan does for a living is fairly obvious from the name – people hire him to find something that has been stolen, and/or to find the person who stole it.

But the fantasy element comes very much into play in this entry in the series. Ethan is a “speller”, or conjurer. In Salem a century before, he’d have been labeled a “witch” and probably hung, burned, drowned or pressed for it. Ethan can cast spells, and he’s not the only one in Boston who can.

The case that Ethan is hired to investigate is a particularly grisly one. Someone is vandalizing graves of the recently deceased and violating the corpses. The head and right hand of each corpse has been removed, an article of clothing has been stolen, a strange symbol has been carved over the heart of each corpse, and, in a particularly nasty message to Ethan himself, three toes have been cut off of each corpse’s left foot – just as Ethan had those same toes removed years ago.

It’s not just the mutilated bodies that have the local churches and cemeteries in an uproar. The ghosts of the violated dead are returning to their homes, looking just as they currently do in their graves.

And whatever or whoever is bringing back the dead, they are also doing something that draws power away from all the spellers in town. Ethan’s powers are no longer reliable, nor are those of his friends and colleagues.

As the spirits multiply, Ethan finds himself banding together with old friends and even old enemies in order to bring down a mad spellcaster with a taste for power – and revenge.

Escape Rating A-: I read this in a single day. I started it thinking I’d finish it on the plane home from DC, but in the end I just couldn’t wait that long. I got sucked in and didn’t get spit out until the end.

The author brings this historical period alive in a way that makes the reader feel as if they are walking the streets with Ethan. Amazingly, it’s not done by introducing a host of real historical characters, although there are a few historical figures whose work intersects with Ethan’s. It’s more that the story is so steeped in historical details that the reader can’t help but be drawn in, while at the same time that wealth of detail never drags down the story.

As a character Ethan is certainly interesting to follow. He is very thoughtful about his life and his situation. Part of what makes him different is that he does not see himself particularly as a hero, more as someone who is often swept along by events who does the best he can. Ethan is also middle-aged for his time, in his early 40s. The years are catching up with him, and he’s not sure how much longer he can continue as a thieftaker – especially since the increasing presence of British troops (the Redcoats really are coming) has depressed business considerably. With so many soldiers on the streets, the small time crooks who are Ethan’s bread and butter are laying very, very low.

This particular entry in the series is steeped in magic. The crime, while not magical in itself, is done with magical purpose. Ethan finds himself at a crossroads, seeing that his spells are failing,realizing just how dependent he is on his ability to conjure, and uncertain of what to do if his talents fail him.

His enemy this time is thankfully not Sephira Pryce. Her character does not feel as real to me as others in the series, and every time she appears I feel myself gritting my teeth. On the other hand, the villain of A Plunder of Souls is just a bit over the top – and he’s barking mad into the bargain. Very powerful, but also completely nuckin’ futz. He’s very scary and also a bit unfocused.

And apparently the villain in the next and final book in the series, Dead Man’s Reach, as well. I’ll be glad to see the back of this particular character, but very, very sorry to see this series end.

Review: Smooth Talking Cowboy by Maisey Yates + Giveaway

Review: Smooth Talking Cowboy by Maisey Yates + GiveawaySmooth-Talking Cowboy (Gold Valley, #1) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Gold Valley #1
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on February 20th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Welcome to Gold Valley, Oregon, where a rough-and-tumble rancher and the girl next door are about to learn that opposites attract

Olivia Logan has a plan: win back her ex by making him see what he’s missing. But first she needs to find a man who’s willing to play along. With his laid-back cowboy charm and knack for getting under her skin, Luke Hollister is an unlikely hero—but he wants her help convincing her father to sell him land, which means he needs her as much as she needs him.

Luke likes his life—and his women—uncomplicated. So why does good girl Olivia heat his blood like no one else? She’s always been off-limits, but the more time they spend as Gold Valley’s hottest new “couple,” the more real it’s starting to feel. Luke was supposed to help her win back another man…not keep her in his arms. But now that he has her there, he’s not sure he’ll ever let go.

My Review:

It’s not so much that Luke Hollister is a particularly smooth talker – it’s more like Olivia Logan is particularly susceptible to his brand of cowboy charm – even if she can’t admit it, not even to herself.

But then, Olivia has a long and sad history of not admitting what’s important to her to herself or to anyone else. She has become so invested in being a “good girl” for so many sad and bad reasons that falling for Luke’s charm is the furthest thing from her mind.

Until after it happens, and she’s forced to realize, at least in the privacy of her own mind, that he’s just what she’s been waiting for all along – even when she was pining away for someone else entirely.

This author has a knack for getting her heroine’s into really angsty situations, and Olivia Logan is no exception, even if some of her angst, or at least the layers on top, are mostly of her own making.

In the Copper Ridge series, which takes place just down the road from Gold Valley, Olivia Logan was one of the secondary characters. As her friends and co-workers met and fell in love with the men of their dreams, Olivia was absolutely certain that she had already found the man she was destined to spend the rest of her life with.

The fact that it was obvious to everyone that Olivia Logan and Bennett Dodge had absolutely zero chemistry didn’t seem to matter to Olivia. She had convinced herself that Bennett was the perfect man for her. And it turned out that Olivia’s father had convinced Bennett that Olivia was the right woman for him.

This is not the stuff of which dreams are made. Occasionally it IS the stuff of which nightmares are made.

After a year of extremely tepid dating, Olivia expected a ring. Bennett wasn’t ready. It’s dubious whether Bennett would ever be ready, but Olivia wasn’t ready to admit that. She broke up with Bennett in the hopes that her absence would make him realize just what he was missing.

Instead, Olivia discovered exactly what she was missing, in the person of Luke Hollister – a man who delighted in getting her just a little bit riled up every time they met. Sort of like the way that little boys tease the girls they like but don’t know what to do with yet.

Luke wasn’t interested in relationships, and Olivia wasn’t interested in anything but. But without Bennett to fill in the empty spaces, Olivia discovered that being a good girl was kind of a strait-jacket, and that Luke was the perfect person to help her out of it. And everything else she might possibly have on.

If she’s willing to take a risk on not being perfect, on getting hurt, and on saying (and doing) what’s really in her heart.

Escape Rating B+: As I said earlier, Olivia has been one of the secondary characters in Copper Ridge, and in the author’s Copper Ridge series. She has not been one of the more likeable characters, but up until now, we didn’t really know why.

What we do know is that she’s just a bit socially awkward, and not for any of the usual reasons. Olivia has been so invested in being the “good girl” that her parents expect her to be that she has done her best to live a completely disciplined life and remove any and all temptations to stray from the straight and narrow. And she’s pretty judgemental about anyone who does stray from that straight and narrow.

Olivia is a twin, but her twin sister is not in the picture. Vanessa didn’t just stray from the straight and narrow, she ran headlong away from it, into sex and booze and eventually drugs. As happens in so many families, the more that Vanessa turned toward the “dark side”, the more that Olivia felt obligated to become her opposite, the “good girl”. And now that Vanessa is who-knows-where doing who-knows-what, Olivia is kind of stuck in her role. Not only does the entire town expect it, but so do her smothering, overprotective parents who are desperate to hover over the child they still have in their lives.

Marrying Bennett Dodge was part of the life that Olivia was expected to have. It’s only once Bennett is out of her life that she’s able to look at what she really wants – even when she herself doesn’t want to see it.

Not that Luke is much more self-aware. Just as the loss of her twin is at the heart of so much of Olivia’s behavior, and so much of her internal conflict, Luke Hollister is also hiding a deep loss that he hasn’t been able to get past. It’s their traumas that finally bring them together, and nearly tear them apart.

The lesson at the end of the story is both sad and beautiful. You’ll see.

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

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard

Review: The Atomic City Girls by Janet BeardThe Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on February 6th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the bestselling tradition of Hidden Figures and The Wives of Los Alamos, comes a riveting novel of the everyday women who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II

“What you see here, what you hear here, what you do here, let it stay here.”

In November 1944, eighteen-year-old June Walker boards an unmarked bus, destined for a city that doesn’t officially exist. Oak Ridge, Tennessee has sprung up in a matter of months—a town of trailers and segregated houses, 24-hour cafeterias, and constant security checks. There, June joins hundreds of other young girls operating massive machines whose purpose is never explained. They know they are helping to win the war, but must ask no questions and reveal nothing to outsiders.

The girls spend their evenings socializing and flirting with soldiers, scientists, and workmen at dances and movies, bowling alleys and canteens. June longs to know more about their top-secret assignment and begins an affair with Sam Cantor, the young Jewish physicist from New York who oversees the lab where she works and understands the end goal only too well, while her beautiful roommate Cici is on her own mission: to find a wealthy husband and escape her sharecropper roots. Across town, African-American construction worker Joe Brewer knows nothing of the government’s plans, only that his new job pays enough to make it worth leaving his family behind, at least for now. But a breach in security will intertwine his fate with June’s search for answers.

When the bombing of Hiroshima brings the truth about Oak Ridge into devastating focus, June must confront her ideals about loyalty, patriotism, and war itself.

My Review:

The Atomic City Girls straddles the line between pure historical fiction and a genre perhaps best described as “fictionalized history”. Historical fiction takes known historical events or periods and slides fictional characters into them. World War II is a popular time period, but far from the only one.

Fictionalized history, on the other hand, is sometimes referred to “history with conversation”, where all the characters are real historical figures and the author weaves a story either around parts of their lives and history that were less well illuminated but still fit within what is known, or adds gloss to private moments that were naturally not recorded – going into what they might have felt behind what it is known they did.

The Atomic City Girls sits rather uncomfortable on top of that dividing line, as straddles often do.

The author follows the story of three separate individuals at Oak Ridge Tennessee during its years as the secret manufacturing city for the Manhattan Project in World War II. While the individuals featured did not exist, they are intended as composites of many people who were part of Oak Ridge during those years.

One is a young local woman, barely 18, whose grandfather owned some of the land that was purchased by the U.S. to build Oak Ridge. June Walker comes to Oak Ridge as one of many young women who become factory workers, watching the dials on machines whose purpose she is not intended to know and which it  is not expected she would understand if she did know. And for anyone to tell her what those machines do is a violation of the extremely strict security that surrounds the place.

Sam Cantor, actually Dr. Sam Cantor, is one of the nuclear physicists who is responsible for the development of the process used to extract Uranium 235 from ordinary uranium. He knows exactly what Oak Ridge is all about, both in the scientific sense and in the sense of the war. Sam’s family emigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the 1920s. They are Jews, and have lost touch with any family left behind, fearing, rightfully so, that anyone left in Germany has died in the concentration camps.

Sam is also fully aware of Oak Ridge’s scientific implications in another sense. While he wants to be sure that the U.S. wins the war, and that they develop a nuclear bomb before Hitler, once Germany surrenders he is increasing weighed down by the moral and ethical implications of dropping an atomic bomb on a civilian population – any civilian population – as many of the scientists were. The nuclear genie is one that once let out of its bottle, will have untold consequences for everyone, and they know it.

Last, is Joe Brewer, an African-American construction worker who is treated like a second-class citizen at every turn. But Joe is in his early-40s, and his treatment is the life that he has always known. He also knows it’s wrong, but he is certain that he can’t change it. And that he is earning the best money he has ever made in his life. All he wants is for things to get just better enough that his wife can get a job at Oak Ridge too, and that they can bring their family back together. Part of that second-class treatment means that while white workers are permitted to bring their wives and families to Oak Ridge, black workers are not until very late in the war.

So, although the title is The Atomic City Girls, the story is only partly about June and her part of the work. Instead, we watch as young June and disaffected and often drunk Sam drift into a relationship that at first improves life for both of them, but is, in the end, unsustainable.

Sam never recovers from his experiences at Oak Ridge, while June builds on her chance to escape her restricted upbringing for a better life outside of rural Tennessee and a stellar career as a teacher.

Joe, after the tragedy of seeing the younger black workers suffer for their attempts to create better working conditions for their people, survives and flourishes in Oak Ridge as the post-war years go by. His dreams are for his children, and they come true.

Escape Rating B: Each of the stories was individually interesting, but there were just too many of them. The author is attempting to show life and work in Oak Ridge through the eyes of characters of very different perspectives, but the action switches between them too often and we don’t get to invest as much in any of the stories as we would have if she had followed one (or two in the case of June and Sam) exclusively.

I enjoyed reading the individual stories, but they just didn’t gel into a whole, at least not for me. Joe’s story may be the most fascinating, and it feels like the least known, but it’s also the one we follow the least. The primary focus is on June and Sam, and Joe only intersects with them tangentially, which is not surprising in this context. (Whether or not things should have been different, the historical fact is that they were not).

One of the contrasts that was pivotal was between June and her roommate Cici. In the end, both June and Cici were able to use their experiences in Oak Ridge to leave behind the life they would otherwise have had. Both were from rural Tennessee, from similar tiny towns with similarly proscribed lives to look dubiously forward to. But Cici came to Oak Ridge pretending to be an upper class Nashville belle. She lived a lie, and used that lie to snag a rich husband. In the end, she had the life she dreamed of but was not happy. June, on the other hand, never pretended to be anything she wasn’t, so she was able to build on her experience in a positive way.

Because the story ended up focusing on June’s fateful relationship with Sam, we really don’t get the slice-of-Oak-Ridge life that I was initially expecting. In the end, while I ended up interested enough in each of the individuals to want to know more about their story, The Atomic City Girls didn’t build up to quite what I was hoping for.

For a completely non-fictional but quite readable take on this same period, check out The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan.

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Review: Into the Fire by Elizabeth Moon

Review: Into the Fire by Elizabeth MoonInto the Fire (Vatta's Peace, #2) by Elizabeth Moon
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction
Series: Vatta's Peace #2
Pages: 384
Published by Del Rey on February 6th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In this new military sci-fi thriller from the author of Cold Welcome, space fleet commander Kylara Vatta uncovers deadly secrets on her latest mission--shedding light on her own family's past.

As Admiral Kylara Vatta learned after she and a shipfull of strangers were marooned on an inhospitable arctic island, the secrets she and her makeshift crew uncovered were ones someone was ready to kill to keep hidden. Now, the existence of the mysterious arctic base has been uncovered, but much of the organization behind it still lurks in the shadows. And it is up to the intrepid Ky to force the perpetrators into the light, and finally uncover decades worth of secrets--some of which lie at the very heart of her biggest family tragedy.

My Review:

There’s a saying about war being the continuation of diplomacy by other means. So, also, is politics, particularly the politics of Slotters Key in this second book in the Vatta’s Peace series. And in the case of this series, it’s that politics are the continuation of diplomacy by other means, diplomacy is the continuation of politics by other means, and even, finally, that war is the continuation of politics by other means, which was not what von Clausewitz originally meant.

But it all makes for compelling reading.

Into the Fire is the second volume in the series, after last year’s marvelous Cold Welcome. And it is a direct sequel to the first. All of the action in Into the Fire is a result of the mess that was uncovered in Cold Welcome, as well as the culmination of strikes against the Vatta family that have been going on since all the way back in the first book in the Vatta’s War series, Trading in Danger. And it turns out that some of that mess relates to events far, far back in the past of the Vatta family, particularly back into the past of Ky’s Great-Aunt Grace, currently the Rector for Defense (think Secretary of Defense in the US Cabinet). The skeletons in Graciela Vatta’s closet have burst out of hiding, and with a vengeance. Or certainly with vengeance in mind.

The first half of Into the Fire is almost completely political. There are forces moving against Grace, Ky, Ky’s fiance Rafe Dunbarger, and all of the soldiers that she found herself in command of in the snafu that occurred in Cold Welcome. In that first book, Ky and her shipmates crashed on what was supposed to be the barren continent of Miksland on Slotter Key, only to discover that Miksland was far from barren, rich in mineral wealth, and that someone had been conducting military exercises on its supposedly empty landscape. And that whatever may be happening on Miksland now, someone, or rather a whole succession of someones, has been successfully hiding the truth about Miksland not just for years, but for centuries.

There’s a lot rotten somewhere in the military, and its up to Ky to ferret it out. Particularly after whoever is rotten systematically whisks all of the soldiers who were part of Ky’s discovery into quarantine, where they can be abused, drugged and eventually murdered without ever being able to reveal what they saw.

At first, Ky is both kept hopping and stuck in her own version of purgatory. At the same time that she discovers that her crew is imprisoned, she finds herself under house arrest and Grace is poisoned. Someone very high up in the government is questioning Ky’s Slotter Key citizenship, with an eye to having her arrested by Customs and Immigration, and then whisked away to the same drugged confinement as her crewmates.

But Ky is wilier than that, and she has the vast resources of Vatta Enterprises behind her, even if she is no longer a shareholder in the company. She’s still a Vatta. And someone is clearly out to get the Vattas. Still. Again.

And someone has upped their timetable on whatever it was they were planning and plotting out in desolate Miksland. Whether those are the same someones, and what Ky can manage to do about them, take the story from politics straight into war.

But if there’s one thing that Admiral Kylara Vatta is good at, it’s war. She and her allies just have to hope that she is better at it than her well-entrenched enemies. And that the butcher’s bill won’t be too high.

Escape Rating A: This was a “just sit there and read” kind of book. It sucked me in from the very first page, and didn’t let go until the end. Actually, I’m not sure it’s let go even yet.

That being said, this is a book that will make no sense to someone who has not read Cold Welcome. I think that the background from the further past is explained enough that you don’t have to read all of Vatta’s War to get into Vatta’s Peace or at least you certainly don’t have to have read it recently. But if you like mercantile/military SF I highly recommend it.

I initially read Vatta’s War in roughly the same time period that I read the Honor Harrington series and Tanya Huff’s Valor (Confederation) series. All three series feature kick-ass military heroines who we meet roughly at the beginning of their careers and who face bigger enemies and greater dangers as they advance. They also pick up great friends, a cohort of companions, and soldiers that will do sacrifice anything for them, and sometimes pay the ultimate price. In the end I gave up on Honor as she seemed to become her very own deus ex machina, but I’ve stuck with both Ky Vatta and Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr of the Valor series, and still enjoy their adventures. All of this to say if you like one, you’ll probably like the other. And I’d love to be a fly on the wall if Ky and Torin ever go out for drinks together.

Into the Fire is a densely political book. The entire first half is primarily the set up, as Ky and company find themselves stuck in various places, trying to find ways around the corrupt and/or clueless branches of officialdom that are trying to keep the truth about Miksland under wraps for as long as possible.

This part of the story reads very much like a spy thriller, with the villains trying to flush out the heroes and the heroes trying to get information without tipping off the villains. Meanwhile the disinformation campaign fomented by the villains just confuses the civilians and makes the job of the heroes that much harder. A lot goes wrong in the first half of the book, leaving Ky, Grace and the reader all frustrated at just how difficult it is to fix this mess.

The second half of the book is all action. Once Ky and company find enough trustworthy people to work with on both the military and the civilian sides, the official logjam gets broken and Ky and her friends are on the move – rooting out the corruption, investigating the conspiracy and most importantly, rescuing Ky’s people before they can be wiped out. It’s a wild and compelling rollercoaster ride from that point on. The reader just can’t turn the pages fast enough. Or at least this reader certainly couldn’t.

This isn’t a story that delves a lot into personalities. It’s all about the action. And that’s non-stop from the moment Ky gets out of house arrest until the book’s breath-stealing conclusion.

The comment at the end of the book is absolutely marvelous, and so completely true. “Vatta’s peace may not be perfect, but it could have been worse.” The book, on the other hand, could not have been better.

Into the Fire does end in a proper closure, as Cold Welcome did not. However, there are enough small loose ends that the series could continue if the author wished. This reader certain wishes very, very hard.

Review: Midsummer Delights by Eloisa James + Giveaway

Review: Midsummer Delights by Eloisa James + GiveawayMidsummer Delights: A Short Story Collection by Eloisa James
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance, short stories
Pages: 96
Published by Avon Impulse on February 6th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads


A Midsummer Night's Disgrace
​Eloisa revisits the ​scintillating world of the Essex Sisters with a story featuring a young lady, Cecilia Bellingworth, who has decided she would rather ruin her reputation than endure further speculation about whether her children will be "silly," like her brother, Billy.​ ​After two failed seasons, ​Cecilia ​decides she ​will dress as she likes​ (in a scandalous red dress!)​ and flirt outrageously​ (with a scandalous pianist!)​. Fortunately, a gorgeous musician at the Duchess of Ormond's house party presents the perfect candidate for scandal…

​Previously published in the Essex Sisters Official Companion Guide (e only).


At Midnight
​Elias Hempleworth-Gray has one thing and one thing only of value—his title, Earl of Leyton. Determined to leave England and the scandal of his gambler father behind, Elias hopes to turn his fortunes around and come back a respectable man to claim the only woman for him, Miss Penelope White. But Penny has other plans for the man she has loved all her life…plans that include a masquerade, a stolen kiss and a lost shoe.

Previously published in the Fairy Tale sampler (print only).


Ever After
When she was sixteen, Miss Violet Leighton spent one blissful month romping around her family estate with Rothwell Talcott…thirty days of shared kisses, culminating in a very illicit afternoon in a berry patch. As Rothwell leaves for his grand tour, he gives his word of honor that he will return for her. Four years and seven refused proposals later, Violet is about to give up and marry when he finally returns. Now the Duke of Cambridge, Rothwell wants to make her his duchess. But how can Violet trust the man who stole her virtue—and then broke her heart?

Previously published in The Ugly Duchess (print only).

My Review:

This will be a short and sweet review of three short and very sweet (also slightly naughty) historical romances.

All three of these stories have been published before, but in separate collections. And while they all hearken back to earlier series, all three also have something in common.

The stories in this collection are very short. In fact, very, very short. If you are looking for a quick romantic getaway, the individual stories in this collection can probably each be read over a cup of coffee – or certainly over a quick lunch.

One of the dilemmas of romances in short stories is that they can easily smack of insta-love – especially if one is hoping for a happily ever after. In the case of these three stories, the author has worked around that problem by making these, not exactly second chances at love, but returns to, or reveals of, an existing love that is quickly re-established in the course of the story.

In A Midsummer Night’s Disgrace, the heroine has had enough of pretending to be the perfect debutante. While not exactly on the shelf yet, she really wants to be relegated to that shelf, so she can retire to the country and pursue her musical studies. If she had been born male, she would be able to take lessons and possibly even be a musician, but it is deemed unladylike and inappropriate for her female self.

She plans on seducing, or being seduced by, the marvelous and utterly gorgeous piano player at the house party she is attending, only to discover that the mysterious pianist is actually the very well grown up version of the boy who used to put grasshoppers down her dress when they were children. And that he can give her all the music her heart desires.

At Midnight is the story of a young man with a prestigious title and pockets to let, courtesy of a father who gambled away just about everything else the family owned. He loves the young woman whose father bought his former patrimony, but is unwilling to ask for her hand and let it be said that he is only marrying her for the land he once called home. It takes the contrivance of their friends, along with the seeming anonymity of a masquerade ball, for the course of true love to find its way.

Ever After, like A Midsummer Night’s Disgrace, is also the story of a young woman who has turned down all her suitors. But in this case, it’s because none of them measure up to the young man she fell in love with when she was 16. At the time, she believed that he loved her in return, but he has been out of the country for four years and she has received only two letters in all that time. She’s sure he’s moved on, and equally sure that no one else will ever replace him in her heart. Then he arrives, in the middle of a ton ball where she is dodging yet more suitors, and literally carries her off to plead his case. She shouldn’t forgive him, but of course she does.

Escape Rating B: These stories are all, as I said at the top, short and sweet, with just a touch of naughty. In spite of their brief length, each one does a fairly good job of establishing its characters and the connection between them without making it feel like insta-love.

For readers who are familiar with the series from which each story came, I’m sure that it is an extra treat to see familiar characters in the background. But for those who are not, as I am, each story is surprisingly complete within itself, especially considering their brevity.

In addition to these little confections, the book also includes a teaser first chapter for the next book in the Wildes of Ludlow Castle series, Too Wilde to Wed. This teaser is a real tease! I loved the first book in the series, Wilde in Love, and was already looking forward to the next book. Having read the first chapter, now I know that May is much too far away. I want it now!

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

LINK: https://goo.gl/gfG1vy
GIVEAWAY TERMS & CONDITIONS: Open to US shipping addresses only. Two winners will each receive a paperback copy of A Kiss At Midnight by Eloisa James. This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Avon Romance. Giveaway ends 2/10/2018 @ 11:59pm EST. Avon Romance will send the winning copies out to the winner directly. Limit one entry per reader and mailing address. Duplicates will be deleted.

Review: Off the Leash by M.L. Buchman

Review: Off the Leash by M.L. BuchmanOff the Leash (White House Protection Force #1) by M L Buchman
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: romantic suspense
Series: White House Protection Force #1
Pages: 210
Published by Buchman Bookworks on January 26th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

-White House Protection Force Romance #1-

The White House Protection Force Saves the Day! Come meet the behind-the-scenes specialists who keep our White House safe—even while they lose their hearts.

White House Chocolatier Clive Andrews takes pride in the subliminal messages hidden in his State Dinner showstoppers. But there’s more than sensual sweets at risk when his heart begins to melt.

Sergeant Linda Hamlin left the Army after a decade of service. As the newest member of the U.S. Secret Service K-9 Team she expected flak. She didn’t expect to be paired with a misfit mutt named Thor. Together they face down bombers, master spies, and a teenage genius.

All of which might be manageable, if not for the handsome chocolatier who teaches her that a little indulgence can be a very good thing.

My Review:

This was so much fun!

I don’t know what I was expecting when I opened this book, but whatever it was, I was absolutely charmed by the book itself. The opening scenes sucked me right in, where Sergeant Linda Hamlin meets her new dog, Thor, as part of her final exam for the Secret Service K-9 corps.

Linda was just honorably discharged from the Army Rangers K-9 unit after over a decade of very meritorious service. Now she’s a bit burned out and totally at loose ends.

Thor is not what she thought she needed, and neither is White House chocolate chef Clive Andrews.

First there’s poor little Thor. I know it’s difficult to attach the name “Thor” to something little, but this mutt seems to have gotten the name as a very bad joke. He’s a mish-mash of small terrier breeds, and not exactly the prettiest mix of them either. He looks like a purse dog, and he’s not much bigger – maybe 30 pounds. That’s not just small for a police dog, it’s downright tiny.

But he comes with one hell of a training pedigree, if not much of an actual one. Thor and Linda bond instantly, and pass the final exam course with flying colors – much to the chagrin of the exam proctor.

There’s nothing about Clive’s job as a White House chef that should have him watching Linda’s final exam. But when the mysterious Miss Watson, who occupies a hidden office in the White House sub-basement and seems to be on no known org chart whatsoever, says go here and do thus-and-such, people go there and do whatever she said. She “asked” Clive to watch Linda’s final test, so he does.

And he’s instantly captivated.

As Linda gets settled into her new duties as part of the White House Secret Service, she and Thor find themselves in the middle of a case that begins with diplomatic repercussions, but just gets weirder and weirder as it goes along.

It’s possible that two career Japanese diplomats are attempting to smuggle explosives into or near the White House – but that makes no sense whatsoever. And the more that Linda looks into the things that don’t fit about that puzzle, the stranger things seem.

When the likeliest, but oddest, conclusion is that someone is planning to disrupt a state dinner that brings Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian and Philippine diplomats to the table to discuss the real-life situation in the South China Sea, there’s still no clue as to why, who, or what the purpose of the disruption is.

It’s only when Linda, with a bit of help from Thor (and Clive) figures out the who that the why and the what become clear. And in the process, Linda, who has never really felt she belonged anywhere or with anyone, finally realizes that she’s come home.

Escape Rating A-: This was fun. In fact, it was way more fun that I was expecting, and I was certainly expecting good things. This is the second book I’ve received as a member of the M.L. Buchman Special Mission Review Team, and based on the two examples (the other was Big Sky, Loyal Heart) I’m really, really glad I’m in it.

(I received this book in exchange for an honest review. And honestly, I loved it!)

Big Sky, Loyal Heart turns out to be the precursor for Off the Leash and the entire White House Protection Force series, of which this is the first book. But many of Buchman’s series are loosely interconnected, from his first series, Night Stalkers, through Firehawks, Delta Force and Henderson’s Ranch, among others. You don’t have to read them all to enjoy any one of them, but they are all terrific.

There are two plot threads going on in Off the Leash. One is the case that Linda finds herself in the middle of, and the other is her unexpected romance with Clive. Well, it’s certainly unexpected to her, if not to the reader after their first meeting.

While I want to say the romance is a bit of “opposites attract” the more I think about it, the less that feels right. Their careers are certainly nothing alike. Linda has gone from the military to the Secret Service, so effectively into yet another protective role that involves a lot of potential danger. Clive’s career is a totally peacetime operation – he’s a chef! But both of them are driven to be the best at what they do, and both of their jobs, in very different ways, are high pressure, high stress and frequently all consuming. They have similar perspectives on their work, even if the work is very different.

They also have entirely different feelings about love and family and well, feelings. While Clive has not exactly been looking for Ms. Right when he meets Linda, he is very aware that love exists and that families are built upon that foundation. Linda, on the other hand, was a poor little rich girl with a nightmare of a family, and is certain that love is merely a hormonal imbalance that will right itself with time. Their differing beliefs on love and even its existence become the shoals on which their relationship nearly crashes and burns.

The case feels just a bit made-for-television. It was a lot of fun to watch Linda figure it all out, but the resolution was just a bit over the top. We don’t really see enough of the villain or his motivations for the crime to make sense in context. Which didn’t make it any less interesting seeing the whole thing come together.

One final note. That secondary character, Miss Watson, absolutely fascinates me. A long time ago, when I read the author’s first book, The Night is Mine, I said then that the story reminded me of some of the best Jack/Sam fanfiction from Stargate SG-1. Miss Watson, on the other hand, reminds me very much of the inimitable character of Henrietta “Hetty” Lange, the mysterious operations manager in NCIS: Los Angeles. Making the character of Miss Watson tall with her hair in a bun feels like the cosmetic equivalent of filing off the serial number. This is a character I am really looking forward to seeing a whole lot more of. She’ll never be the focus of one of the romances, except possibly in flashback, but she certainly is the proverbial mystery wrapped in an enigma, and I’d love to know more.

I’m also definitely looking forward to seeing more of this series. Off the Leash was both a heartfelt romance and a page-turning bit of romantic suspense. And Thor is a scene-stealer at every turn. I can’t wait for more!

Review: Hell Squad: Levi by Anna Hackett

Review: Hell Squad: Levi by Anna HackettLevi (Hell Squad, #15) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: post apocalyptic, science fiction romance
Series: Hell Squad #15
Pages: 182
Published by Anna Hackett on January 29th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

In the middle of an alien invasion, a bad boy berserker collides with a spunky mechanic on a dangerous sabotage mission.

Levi King has always lived rough. Raised by a biker dad, he fought for everything he had—including being president of the Iron Kings motorcycle club. But when the aliens invaded, he lost it all. Now he wades through the muck with his fellow berserkers, fighting to protect the last of the human survivors. He fights hard and parties harder, and follows no one’s rules but his own. But then he finds himself fascinated by a mouthy, auburn-haired mechanic who isn’t afraid to give him a piece of her mind.

Chrissy Hagan survived months of alien captivity and now she’s found a purpose at the Enclave—as mechanic in charge of the armored Hunter vehicles. She keeps her babies purring…and hates every scratch the soldiers put on them, especially when a certain arrogant, cocky, and annoying biker is responsible. Did she mention annoying? What about tattooed, man-bunned, and far too sexy? Chrissy and Levi do more than strike sparks of each other…they start full blown infernos, and she isn’t afraid to use her wrench on his hard head when required.

But then a vital mission requires Chrissy to step out of the safety of the Enclave, and sabotage and steal an alien vehicle. Working side by side, desire burns white-hot. Levi discovers he will give everything he’s got to keep Chrissy safe and claim her as his…if they both get through the deadly mission alive.

My Review:

OK, we’re now 15 books into the Hell Squad series. And it’s still pretty damn awesome.

This is a post-apocalyptic science fiction romance series that will even work for people who don’t generally like post-apocalyptic science fiction. Like me. In a way, the series is kind of an extended version of the first Independence Day movie. The aliens have landed, and they are determined to wipe out humanity and strip the planet. (Or absorb humanity and strip the planet, as the Gizzida definitely have some Borg-like features).

Unlike the movie, instead of the happy ending where the aliens get kicked off Earth with extreme prejudice happening relatively quickly, and before all of the planetary-wide organization has been wiped out, the Hell Squad series stretches out over a relatively long period of time. At this point in the series we’re definitely a couple of years into the mess, and the human population has been decimated, using something closer to the original meaning of the term. But instead of one person in ten being wiped out, the results of the Gizzida invasion have been more like the other way around – one person in ten has survived.

The series focuses on one group of survivors in Australia. The inhabitants of the Enclave have been taking the fight to the Gizzida, and the aliens are determined to wipe out this last bastion of resistance by any means available. And they are unfortunately very, very inventive at thinking up new ways of targeting the remaining human population.

While all of the books in this series are definitely romances, there is an overarching story about the ongoing resistance to the Gizzida  as well as the neverending search for a way to kick them off our Earth. (I’m really, really looking forward to that story!)

In each story in the series, the romances have featured different people among the resistance. While the original story (Marcus) was all about the romance between one of the soldiers and the squad communications officer, as the series has unfolded the romances have featured every sort of person who would be needed to keep a place like the Enclave running.

In the case of this particular story, the romance is between Levi, one of the members of the Berserker Squad, and Chrissy, an ace mechanic in the equivalent of the motor pool. If it has an engine, Chrissy can fix it, armor it up and keep it running, no matter what.

But as a woman who has always worked in a man’s world, she’s kept her heart to herself. As someone who was once a prisoner of the Gizzida, she also highly values her freedom. That combination has meant that she keeps herself to herself, does her job, and is not impressed by the high-testosterone members of the Squads. Not until Levi breaches her defenses.

As with many books in the series, a situation arises where the noncombatant partner has to go on a mission that will put them directly in harm’s way. In this case, the Gizzida have flooded an area near their Sydney Airport base, and are obviously building something that they don’t want the humans to see. It’s up to Chrissy to help steal one of their amphibious vehicles and help drive it into the underwater compound so that the Berserkers can investigate at close quarters.

And of course the mission goes pear-shaped. Until Chrissy saves the day. And her man.

Escape Rating B+: The first third of this book, while a lot of fun, felt a lot like previous books in the series. A lot of patterns have developed over the course of the series and they are pretty easy to spot. Still fun to read, though.

Howsomever, at about ⅓ of the way in, the book suddenly grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I have no idea why, but once I hit that point, I was all in for the rest of the wild ride.

One of the things that I love about this series is the way that the author keeps expanding the base. It’s not just soldiers, and the women are never damsels in distress. We see all the people who are needed to keep a place like this, and a resistance, up and running and taking it to the enemy. Every single person is busy, and everyone contributes something to the fight.

Chrissy is a terrific heroine for this series. Like many of the women, she’s both strong and vulnerable. That she was a prisoner of the Gizzida and was rescued gives her a different perspective on life in the Enclave. She never mourns what she lost in the invasion – only who she lost. But after her imprisonment, she sees every tiny luxury as a gift to be grateful for. And she is.

I liked Chrissy as a character quite a bit, as was happy to see her find her Happy for Now. All the romances in this series are all HFNs, not for the usual reasons, but because the Now is so precarious.

I hope to see them all become HEAs when the Gizzida get kicked back into space – or into Hell – for good. Hopefully in the not too distant future.

Review: The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

Review: The Wedding Date by Jasmine GuilloryThe Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley Books on January 30th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A groomsman and his last-minute guest are about to discover if a fake date can go the distance in a fun and flirty debut novel.

Agreeing to go to a wedding with a guy she gets stuck with in an elevator is something Alexa Monroe wouldn't normally do. But there's something about Drew Nichols that's too hard to resist.

On the eve of his ex's wedding festivities, Drew is minus a plus one. Until a power outage strands him with the perfect candidate for a fake girlfriend...

After Alexa and Drew have more fun than they ever thought possible, Drew has to fly back to Los Angeles and his job as a pediatric surgeon, and Alexa heads home to Berkeley, where she's the mayor's chief of staff. Too bad they can't stop thinking about the other...

They're just two high-powered professionals on a collision course toward the long distance dating disaster of the century--or closing the gap between what they think they need and what they truly want...

My Review:

This is a rom-com for readers who love rom-coms. It’s also a rom-com for readers who don’t necessarily gravitate to rom-coms. Like moi.

It begins with a meet-cute to end all meet-cutes. Drew and Alexa get stuck in an elevator together, at the fabulous Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. She’s there to catch up with a friend, and he’s there to be a groomsman at his ex’s wedding to one of his friends. Trapped in the elevator with Alexa’s purse-full of snacks and time to kill, they have a much better time together than either of them ever expected. So when Drew asks Alexa to be his “fake date” for the weekend at the wedding he’s attending as penance, she agrees.

And tries desperately not to overthink it.

Their fake date turns into an entire weekend. And it turns out to be anything but fake, even if neither of them is willing to admit it. But as they live in nearly opposite ends of the state (she’s in Berkeley, he’s in LA) they both figure that it’s a one-time fling.

Until it turns into the next weekend, and the next, and the next. And Alexa starts needing to figure out what it really is – while Drew tries to avoid thinking about what it really is.

They both went into this thing believing that it was short-term at best. But as that string of weekends turns into a couple of months, Alexa realizes that she’s in a relationship she hadn’t planned on, while Drew believes that whatever they have has to end sooner or later, because he always ends his relationships before they reach the commitment stage.

This time, it’s too late. It always has been.

Escape Rating A: I loved this one. I say that and I don’t normally like rom-coms. But The Wedding Date just worked for me, and I couldn’t put it down.

One reason that rom-coms don’t normally work for me is that there is so often a misunderstandammit somewhere in the pages. That the crisis is usually wrapped around a big secret that could have been revealed in a simple conversation that never happens.

This time, it felt like all the things that Drew and Alexa weren’t saying, and the reasons that they weren’t saying them, were organic to their relationship and their personalities, and not forced by the need for a crisis. I think we’ve all been there, where we feel that we’re deeper into a relationship than the other person, and are scared to mess up a good thing by pushing for too much too soon. And that usually that instinct means that if we push, the good thing will be over before its time.

As this was a relationship that began with a short shelf life, Alexa’s hesitation is not surprising at all. And Drew is completely blindsided. He never lets himself stick around for anything to develop into a relationship, so he’s unwilling to see that this time it’s happened before he has a chance to back out.

Part of what makes this story so much fun is how likeable both of the characters are. Drew is a pediatric surgeon, so he’s a doctor who works with children. And he’s both cute and caring about it. But Alexa is the character who really shines. She’s the Chief of Staff for the Mayor of Berkeley, and her job is fascinating, adrenaline-inducing, all-encompassing, extremely professional and headache-producing all in one. She loves it and it consumes her life until Drew steps into it. At the same time, she does not stop working or stop being professional or stop loving her job because she’s in a relationship. She does what we all do, she juggles, and she does it well. With a little help from a marvelous coterie of friends.

Another thing that makes this story a bit different is that Alexa is black and Drew is white. She does a really deft job of opening Drew’s, and the reader’s, eyes to some of the issues she faces everyday while never breaking the flow of the story or lecturing either him or the reader. The way that she gets Drew to see his privilege while explaining a program that she is working on at her job works on multiple levels. That he gets it without getting offensive or defensive is part of his character’s charm. That we get it too is part of the author’s charm.

If you’re looking for a book that will make you smile and just plain brighten your day (or even week!) The Wedding Date is a real treat! It’s every bit as delicious as the doughnuts that Alexa is addicted to – without the calories.

Reviewer’s Notes: First, I almost find it impossible to believe that this is the author’s first novel. It is completely polished and utterly marvelous from beginning to end. Second, while I don’t normally have a visual in my head for characters in books I’m reading, every once in a while, I do. For some reason, I kept seeing Drew as Justin Trudeau. It worked for me.