Review: Best Laid Plants by Marty Wingate

Review: Best Laid Plants by Marty WingateBest-Laid Plants (Potting Shed Mystery #6) by Marty Wingate
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery
Series: Potting Shed #6
Pages: 281
Published by Random House Publishing Group - Alibi on October 17th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A trip to the English countryside turns into a brush with death for Pru Parke, the only gardener whose holiday wouldn’t be complete without a murder to solve.

Pru and her husband, former Detective Chief Inspector Christopher Pearse, are long overdue for a getaway. So when Pru is invited to redesign an Arts and Crafts garden in the picturesque Cotswolds, she and Christopher jump at the chance. Unfortunately, their B&B is more ramshackle than charming, and the once thriving garden, with its lovely Thyme Walk, has fallen into heartbreaking neglect. With the garden’s owner and designer, Batsford Bede, under the weather, Pru tackles the renovation alone. But just as she’s starting to make headway, she stumbles upon Batsford’s body in the garden—dead and pinned beneath one of his limestone statues.

With such a small police force in the area, Christopher is called upon to lead the investigation. Pru can’t imagine anyone murdering Batsford Bede, a gentle man who preferred to spend his time in quiet contemplation, surrounded by nature. But as her work on the garden turns up one ominous clue after another, Pru discovers that the scenery is more dangerous than she or Christopher could have anticipated

Pru Parke digs up buried secrets in this charming series from an author who “plants clever clues with a dash of romantic spice to satisfy any hungry mystery reader” (Mary Daheim).

My Review:

Another garden, another dead body. If one didn’t know better one could easily wonder if master gardener Pru Parke was somehow planting “corpse seeds” wherever she went. Because no matter where Pru travels to consult on gardens, whether in her beloved England or her native Texas, she seems to have a knack for finding a body, and getting herself involved in a murder investigation.

This particular case is return trip to the Cotswolds for Pru, with the intent of helping to bring back a famous Arts and Crafts style garden, visit friends and reminisce about her first trip (The Garden Plot) where she spent much of her time interfering in DCI Christopher Pearse’s murder investigation. Now Christopher is her husband, and this is supposed to be a bit of a vacation.

Until she trips over a body. As Pru so often does.

As Pru’s cases go (and they are all Pru’s cases, in spite of Christopher being a police detective) this one is a bit of a hodge-podge. A fact which is fitting for the garden she has come to restore, which began as rather a beautiful hodge-podge of the early 20th century Arts and Crafts Movement, but has descended into a neglected mess, albeit one with “good bones”.

And, as Pru inevitably discovers, real bones. Pru finds her erstwhile employer dead in the garden, under a fallen statue. But what should have looked like a clear case of accidental death is, of course, anything but.

The statue is all too obviously not the cause of death. It may be trapping the old man’s body, but it isn’t actually touching it. And Pru heard the sound of hammering, which is what drew her to the scene in the first place. The poor statue was quite securely on its plinth until someone viciously attacked it with a sledgehammer – someone who Pru obviously interrupted.

And there’s no blood at the scene. Anyone who has ever watched murder mysteries on TV knows that there’s blood at the actual murder site – especially if falling statuary is involved!

Poor old Batsford Bede was definitely murdered. And while he may have been in a physical decline, and he’s definitely very dead – he was far, far from poor. And wherever there’s a will, there’s a list of people who may have wanted to collect on their inheritance sooner rather than later, and another list of people who are at the very least unhappy that they are not one of the favored few.

This case positively sprouts with potential murderers with heaps of motive, and red herring clues that are so obviously planted that they stink like three day old fish.

It’s up to Pru and Christopher to figure out whodunnit and whydunnit before the wrong person gets convicted of a murder they certainly did not commit.

And, as usual for Pru, she figures it all out, but almost too late to save herself.

Escape Rating B: I love this series, and will cheerfully scoop up any mystery that Marty Wingate writes. (She also writes actual gardening books, and that’s just not my jam)

As much as I also enjoy her other series, Birds of a Feather, the Potting Shed mysteries have a special place in my heart because of, well, Pru’s heart. And Pru herself. It is not often, and not nearly often enough, that our heroine is a woman of a certain age who has found realistically portrayed romance, a new career in a new place, and becomes an amateur detective. Miss Marple falling in love with one of her oh-so-helpful detectives and continuing to solve mysteries – just with more respect.

But I said that this case was a bit of a hodge-podge. Part of that hodge-podge is the way that the story opens. Pru arrives in the Cotswolds with Christopher, and nothing is as it was purported to be – except the state of the garden. It’s not just that their B&B is a throwback to the 1970s disaster. That part of the story eventually becomes surprisingly heartwarming.

The crazy-making bit is the person who hired Pru, and her extremely evasive answers about the nature of the job and the state of the person who owns the estate. Coral Summersun is both there and not-there in a way that drove this reader a bit batty.

And one of Christopher’s exes lives in town. At the beginning of the story, there’s a bit too much melodrama. Once the body falls down, the story heats up. From that point onwards, everything runs at a very fast clip as Christopher finds himself back in harness and, for once, officially enlists Pru’s help with the investigation.

The killer hides in plain sight and keeps the police and Pru distracted, both by arranging for a series of minor disturbances to happen elsewhere, and by throwing false clues everywhere, all pointing to very plausible suspects.

There’s also more than a bit of heartbreak attached to this case. As Pru dives into the weeds of the garden, she learns the story of just how it came to be, and the ultimately tragic romance between Batsford Bede and Coral’s mother. It’s a shared loss that at first united the unlikely pair, and then suddenly divided them. It’s only as her “Uncle Batty” needed her again that he and Coral finally had a chance to regain their lovely father-daughter relationship. That their reconciliation was cut short by such a venal murder is an even bigger tragedy than the death itself.

I left the book satisfied that, if good had not exactly triumphed because a good man was dead before his time, that evil certainly got its just desserts. I look forward, as always, to Pru’s next adventure. In the meantime I have Farewell, My Cuckoo, the next book in her Birds of a Feather series, to look forward to in the spring, appropriately right along with the return of the migrating birds.

 

Review: Wild Justice by M.L. Buchman

Review: Wild Justice by M.L. BuchmanWild Justice (Delta Force #3) by M L Buchman
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military romance
Series: Delta Force #3
Pages: 313
Published by Buchman Bookworks, Inc. on October 17th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

DELTA FORCE
The best counter-terrorism force on the planet.

SERGEANT DUANE JENKINS
• Elite Delta operator—explosives just make him grin •

AGENT SOFIA FORTEZA
• Top Intel Analyst for The Activity—thinks data is sexy•

The team must face their toughest mission yet: take down a massive human-trafficking ring and a corrupt Venezuelan spy agency—without leaving a trace.

Sofia and Duane.
In common: black sheep of extremely wealthy families, renegades against the status quo.
Differences: tactician vs. explosives expert, thinker vs. pure warrior.

Together: fight to keep their team alive, and their love.

My Review:

Wild Justice is a story with layers, like an onion. And also like an onion, some of those layers will make the reader at least sniffle a bit.

Like all of the Delta Force series, this is a story of a crack military team ghosting into someplace where angels fear to tread and governments fear to leave official footprints. Members of “the Unit” go in, they get the job done, and they were never there.

The series, which began with Target Engaged, is about one particular team of Delta operators. Not that they call themselves that. To its members, Delta is just “the Unit”, and they are the best of the best.

As this case begins, they are joined by an intelligence analyst from an equally elite but completely different U.S. Black Ops agency, one known only as “the Activity”.

Sofia Forteza has called in an operational unit to help her take down a Venezuelan military officer who is a local kingpin in the human trafficking cesspool. She’s found her dirtbag, she just needs help with the extraction as well as the rescue of the women and children he is currently holding.

What she gets is Duane Jenkins, nicknamed, of course, The Rock. He may not quite match up to the actor, but he gets damn close. Even more important, when he brings in the rest of his team, he trusts Sofia to have his back, and gives her just enough pointers to help her help him without ever insulting her capabilities or her intelligence.

And he helps her come down from her first field kill without thinking or acting as if she’s weak for any reason whatsoever.

Duane gives her respect, and Sofia is forced to admit that he’s the first man she hasn’t had to prove herself to, over and over and over, even within the top ranks of the elite units – or within her own family.

There’s something between them from the moment they meet, and it’s something that neither of them has ever experienced before. They are fortunate that their coinciding missions give them the chance to explore what it might be.

Even if neither of them believes that love is remotely possible. Not for who they are now, and not for what they came from. But just because neither Sofia nor Duane believes in love, that does not mean that it does not believe in them.

Escape Rating B+: Any reader who loves military romance should pick up the first book in M.L. Buchman’s series of interconnected books, The Night is Mine, and just binge. He starts with an elite SOAR unit, branches some of them off into an elite civilian wildfire fighting operation, and then links others to Delta Force. You don’t have to read all of them to get the sense of any individual book in the series, including this one, but they are all tremendously fun.

And Buchman has a gift for making sure that his female protagonists are every single bit the kick-ass warriors that his male protagonists are. And as they should be under the circumstances. But it’s not something that we see nearly enough.

Wild Justice operates on multiple layers. A big part of the story is the operations that the team takes on to help dent the human trafficking trade in South America. This part of the story is based on very real and very harrowing events. The civilian team they partner with is based on a real organization that works similarly to the way their fictional counterparts are portrayed.

In the middle of the operation, there’s also a romance. Of course there is. Unusual for this series, though, Sofia and Duane are both from similar backgrounds, both, in their own ways “poor little rich kids” who grew up with all the monetary advantages in the world but not much in the way of nurturing or moral support. Sofia had one person who had her back, her grandmother, the powerful owner of a premier wine-making company. However, she also had not merely a narcissistic and nasty mother, but also an abusive older brother.

Duane’s dad is a Coca-Cola executive, his mother is a high-powered attorney, and Duane is a disappointment to both of them. He chose to join the military to try to fix at least a few of the things that can’t be fixed with “a Coke and a smile.” They’ve never forgiven him, not that they ever gave much of a damn about him in the first place.

That both of them grew up as part of the 1% and chose a career in service to make a difference gives them something in common. It also means that Duane is not over-awed by the wealth of Sofia’s family’s winemaking empire – an empire that Sofia will someday inherit.

Although the course of true love never does run smooth, these are two people who plausibly have a chance, and also plausibly have a rocky road ahead of them. It works.

One final note. In the midst of the current #MeToo campaign, one scene early in the book had a tremendous amount of resonance. As part of a training mission, Duane and his Delta team, along with Sofia, take down a cruise ship being “held” by a Black Ops team from another agency. After the operation is over, Duane and Sofia overhear the “losing” team indulging in what is often dismissed as “locker room talk”. They are evaluating the women on the Delta team, including Sofia, by their physical attributes and discussing just how much they want to “punish” the women for beating them. It’s not just disgusting, it’s actual rape talk. Sofia wants to dismiss it. She’s fought this battle all of her life, and it never ends well for her. Her response is one that so many of us often make, that it’s only talk. That it doesn’t really matter. Or most tellingly, that it can’t be fixed.

What makes the scene stand out is the way that the Delta team does indeed “fix” it. As a unit. This is not something they will tolerate, not the men in the unit, and not the women. It’s a joint effort to make these assholes pay.

The physical payback meted out is relatively minor, but the response from the higher ups is stellar. Instead of dismissing the complaint, as we so often fear will happen, because it so often does happen, the perpetrators are punished severely with loss of jobs, loss of promotions, loss of assignments, retraining, black marks in their files. The authorities do what they are supposed to do, and what we always hope they do but frequently don’t. At the same time, there’s the very real world acknowledgement that the worst offenders will go out and offend somewhere else. The powers that be in both agencies can drum these bastards out, and get the word out to all their reputable contacts not to hire them. Which means that, unfortunately but all too likely, the less reputable outfits will hire them. But they have done everything they can reasonably do to pull the rotten apples out of their own barrel.

And that’s still a big win.

Review: Duke of Desire by Elizabeth Hoyt + Giveaway

Review: Duke of Desire by Elizabeth Hoyt + GiveawayDuke of Desire (Maiden Lane, #12) by Elizabeth Hoyt
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Maiden Lane #12
Pages: 364
Published by Grand Central Publishing on October 17th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A LADY OF LIGHT

Refined, kind, and intelligent, Lady Iris Jordan finds herself the unlikely target of a diabolical kidnapping. Her captors are the notoriously evil Lords of Chaos. When one of the masked-and nude!-Lords spirits her away to his carriage, she shoots him . . . only to find she may have been a trifle hasty.

A DUKE IN DEEPEST DARKNESS

Cynical, scarred, and brooding, Raphael de Chartres, the Duke of Dyemore, has made it his personal mission to infiltrate the Lords of Chaos and destroy them. Rescuing Lady Jordan was never in his plans. But now with the Lords out to kill them both, he has but one choice: marry the lady in order to keep her safe.

CAUGHT IN A WEB OF DANGER . . . AND DESIRE

Much to Raphael's irritation, Iris insists on being the sort of duchess who involves herself in his life-and bed. Soon he's drawn both to her quick wit and her fiery passion. But when Iris discovers that Raphael's past may be even more dangerous than the present, she falters. Is their love strong enough to withstand not only the Lords of Chaos but also Raphael's own demons?

My Review:

On the surface, Duke of Desire seems like a much more traditional historical romance than yesterday’s Someone to Wed. In this latest entry in Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series the hero and heroine fall into the standard pattern. He rescues her from grave physical danger. And she, in turn, saves him from the Stygian darkness he believes is inside his own soul.

But the terror that hides in the shadows of those Stygian depths is one that was not spoken of in traditional historical romances. The scarred Duke of Dyemore was the victim of child sexual abuse, at the hands, and other body parts, of his own father. It’s the kind of horror that never truly goes away, even after the death of its perpetrator.

Raphael’s father was the leader of one of the Hellfire Clubs that sometimes appear in historical romance and historical fiction. The Lords of Chaos are demons in human form, and Raphael is determined to bring them down.

But when the Lords kidnap Lady Iris Jordan in the mistaken belief that she is the new wife of their enemy the Duke of Kyle. (His story is told in last year’s Duke of Pleasure), Raphael risks his mission to save her. Iris is not the new Duchess, however she is a friend of Kyle’s. But she’s not the Lords intended victim, and Raphael makes use of the confusion to claim her for himself, right out from the Lords’ disgusting clutches.

Then Raphael’s spur-of-the-moment rescue goes completely awry when Iris shoots him, believing, and understandably so under the circumstances, that he is whisking her away to rape her in private before murdering her.

It is not an auspicious beginning for any relationship. They manage to straight out the mess before he succumbs to his wound. He recovers just enough to bully the local priest into marrying them. She will need the protection of his name to survive the storm that is coming, even if he doesn’t manage to live through her amateur attempt at surgery and the infection that follows.

What he’s not admitting is that he has been thinking of Iris for months, after they danced together once at a ball, and that as much as he believes that she is not for him, he can’t resist the opportunity to keep her for himself now that it has been tossed into his lap.

Iris, the widow of a cold man many years her senior, was hoping for a real marriage on her second time around, one with the possibility of children and even, at least, respect between herself and her husband.

What she has is Raphael, a devastating sexy man, in spite of the horrific scar that mars his face, who is determined to get himself killed in his vendetta against the Lords of Chaos. And who is equally determined not to sire any children before he meets the end he feels he deserves.

It’s up to Iris to probe the darkness that surrounds him, and give him a reason to survive his very necessary fight. Her battle often seems much more difficult than his.

But the rewards should be worth the pain. As long as they both survive.

Escape Rating B+: This was another book that I simply swallowed whole and very quickly. I really enjoyed its riff on the “Beauty and the Beast” tale, including the lovely alternate version of the fairy tale that is included in the chapter headers.

One of the themes underlying the story is about making one’s own choices about the course of one’s life, even if the beginning is in hell. Both the hero and the villain are sons of the previous generation of the Lords of Chaos. As a boy, Raphael chose escape by any means necessary, no matter how terrible. As an adult, he’s chosen to fight back. Instead, his enemy broke, and ended up wallowing in the evil that had broken him. Raphael certainly feels a bit of “there but for the (very questionable in this case), grace of G-d go I.”

It may be a bit of Stockholm Syndrome, but Iris does fall in love with Raphael a tad conveniently. They are effectively trapped together by the Lords’ enmity, and their marriage does make a certain amount of sense, but Iris is all in from very early on – more than just making the best of the situation. And she puts up with some unconscionable behavior on Raphael’s part.

Because he believes he isn’t worthy of love, and that he should never have children for fear that he might become like his father, the early parts of their relationship often feature Raphael at war with himself. He plays a vast game of “come here go away” because he needs Iris and wants her and doesn’t believe he should let himself care for her. So he regularly exhibits the care he believes he shouldn’t feel, and then pushes her away.

She fights back at every turn, as she needs to. But it would be exhausting in real life.

The danger to Iris is very real. The Lords of Chaos are all around them, planning to kill both Iris and Raphael (after raping Iris first, of course) so that they can maintain their secret den of vice, debauchery and murder with no one the wiser of their real identities. Raphael is a threat to their existence, and he must be stamped out.

As the jackals circle closer, Raphael must finally put some of his trust in someone else, and must admit that whether he is worthy of love or not, it has found him anyway, and it is worth preserving at all costs.

It is a difficult but ultimately satisfying lesson, for Raphael, for Iris, and for the reader.

Reviewer’s note: While we all enjoy seeing handsome heroes on the covers of romance novels, the inaccuracy of this particular cover is a bit jarring. Raphael has a terrible scar from above his eyebrow to the side of his mouth. That scar and the reasons for it are part of his story, his pain, his courage, and his redemption. A judicious use of Photoshop would have gone a long way on this cover.

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

Review: Someone to Wed by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone to Wed by Mary BaloghSomeone to Wed (Westcott #3) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Series: Westcott #3
Pages: 384
Published by Berkley on November 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A very practical marriage makes Alexander Westcott question his heart in the latest Regency romance from the New York Times bestselling author of Someone to Hold.

When Alexander Westcott becomes the new Earl of Riverdale, he inherits a title he never wanted and a failing country estate he can’t afford. But he fully intends to do everything in his power to undo years of neglect and give the people who depend on him a better life. . . .

A recluse for more than twenty years, Wren Heyden wants one thing out of life: marriage. With her vast fortune, she sets her sights on buying a husband. But when she makes the desperate—and oh-so-dashing—earl a startlingly unexpected proposal, Alex will only agree to a proper courtship, hoping for at least friendship and respect to develop between them. He is totally unprepared for the desire that overwhelms him when Wren finally lifts the veils that hide the secrets of her past. . . .

My Review:

I’m a little early with this review, but this was the book that was calling my name. So I decided to listen to that little voice and just read it now anyway. And I’m so very glad I did.

Someone to Wed is the third book in Balogh’s historical romance Westcott series, and just like the first two books, Someone to Love and Someone to Hold, it is an absolute treat from beginning to end.

The stories are all tied together, loosely enough that you don’t HAVE to read them in order, but I think it adds a bit more depth if you do. In the beginning, Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, was an ass. Just how big an ass was only revealed after his death, when it was discovered that his countess wasn’t really his countess, his heir wasn’t really his heir, and that his only legitimate child had been raised in an orphanage with no knowledge of her heritage whatsoever.

He left a big, huge, stinking mess. But he didn’t have to deal with any of it, because he was dead. This is probably a good thing, as most of the participants in the drama he left behind, and many readers, would cheerfully wring his neck if it wasn’t already six feet under.

Each story in this series deals with the human fallout from the late Humphrey’s assholishness. This time around it’s his cousin Alexander Westcott turn. Alex, as now the next legitimate male heir, has become the very unwilling Earl of Riverdale.

While one might think that anyone would love to inherit a title, this is definitely not true in Alex’s case. Because Alex has inherited the title and the quite frankly failing entailed estates, but none of the money that should go with them. Alex has inherited a title and a money pit. Money that he does not have.

Just plain Alexander Westcott had just managed to restore his own inherited patrimony to profitability after decades of neglect on his late father’s part and years of hard work on his own. Becoming the Earl of Riverdale means that he has the same work to do all over again, with the same resources he had before spread over much, much larger (and more seriously neglected) lands.

Plain Alexander Westcott could have afforded to marry for love. The new Earl of Riverdale must marry money. And that’s where Wren Heyden comes in. Wren has inherited a fortune and a very successful glassworks from her late and much beloved uncle. Nearing 30, her year of mourning for her uncle’s (and aunt’s) deaths over with, she wants to marry.

But Wren believes that her fortune is all she has to recommend her. Why? Because Wren has a large port-wine stain, in other words a big purple birthmark, covering much of the left side of her face. Long ago, someone convinced her that she was so ugly that no one could ever possibly love her – or even manage to look at her without running screaming from the room. Years of her aunt and uncle’s unstinting love and unwavering support never managed to convince her otherwise.

Wren attempts to buy Alex’s hand in marriage. He needs a rich wife, and she needs a man who will give her children. She begins by believing that she can maintain her life as a hermit, while giving Alex the money he needs to restore Riverdale.

While Alex feels that marrying for love is a now a dream out of his reach, he is still offended by the crassness at the base of Wren’s proposal. He does not want to be bought. But he recognizes the injustices of his feelings – after all, he was planning to present himself in the marriage mart with the hope of contracting just such an alliance.

Even more, Alex wonders if they will suit. He may not be able to marry for love, but mutual respect and eventual affection are surely not out of reach.

But can there be anything else between two people after such an inauspicious beginning? Can there be anything at all?

Escape Rating A: I swallowed this book in a day. Someone to Wed is marvelous because it throws so many of the standard historical romance tropes over within its first pages.

Of course, the thing that makes Someone to Wed so different is that Wren is the mover and shaker of the story. In the beginning, she acts, and Alex is the one who reacts – not always terribly well. What makes it work is the way that he thinks about his reactions, and reminds himself just how unfair so many of them are.

What makes the romance work is the way that both Wren and Alex bend over the course of the story. As unexpected as her proposal is, and as much as all of Alex’s instincts urge him to reject it and her, he does his best to be fair. She is both right and reasonable in her actions – he’s just not used to seeing a woman exhibit that much cold-blooded logic.

That Alex discovers that he actually enjoys talking with a woman who is his intellectual equal and is not afraid to show it – or who is completely incapable of hiding it – comes as a revelation.

Another thing that made this story work for this reader is the way that Wren’s birthmark was handled. It, and her mother’s reaction to it, scarred her, seemingly for life, much more than the birthmark itself does. She feels ugly and unlovable because that’s how she was made to feel as a child – not because either of those things are true. Her journey towards acceptance of herself is marvelously hard won.

Alex’ reaction to her birthmark reminds me of a quote from science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s Notebooks of Lazarus Long, “A man does not insist on physical beauty in a woman who builds up his morale. After a while he realizes that she is beautiful–he just hadn’t noticed it at first.” While there is definitely some sexism in there, the point is still valid. Think of it as a more pleasant version of the old saw about beauty being skin deep, but ugly going clean through to the bone. Beauty is as beauty does. And beauty shines from within.

Wren is beautiful. And it takes Alex much less time to realize that fact than it does Wren herself. But when she finally does, it’s even more beautiful than their romance.

Reviewer’s Note: I don’t always envision the hero or heroine as any person in particular, but Alex is described as incredibly, perfectly handsome so many times that I kept seeing him as Yannick Bisson from the Murdoch Mysteries TV series. Particularly in the early years of the series, Bisson seemed too beautiful to be real. Your imaginary mileage may vary.

Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason FagoneThe Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies by Jason Fagone
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, espionage, history, nonfiction, World War II
Pages: 320
Published by Dey Street Books on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Joining the ranks of Hidden Figures and In the Garden of Beasts, the incredible true story of the greatest codebreaking duo that ever lived, an American woman and her husband who invented the modern science of cryptology together and used it to confront the evils of their time, solving puzzles that unmasked Nazi spies and helped win World War II

In 1912, at the height of World War I, brilliant Shakespeare expert Elizebeth Smith went to work for an eccentric tycoon on his estate outside Chicago. The tycoon had close ties to the U.S. government, and he soon asked Elizebeth to apply her language skills to an exciting new venture: code-breaking. There she met the man who would become her husband, groundbreaking cryptologist William Friedman. Though she and Friedman are in many ways the "Adam and Eve" of the NSA, Elizebeth's story, incredibly, has never been told

In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman, who played an integral role in our nation's history for forty years. After World War I, Smith used her talents to catch gangsters and smugglers during Prohibition, then accepted a covert mission to discover and expose Nazi spy rings that were spreading like wildfire across South America, advancing ever closer to the United States. As World War II raged, Elizabeth fought a highly classified battle of wits against Hitler's Reich, cracking multiple versions of the Enigma machine used by German spies. Meanwhile, inside an Army vault in Washington, William worked furiously to break Purple, the Japanese version of Enigma--and eventually succeeded, at a terrible cost to his personal life.Fagone unveils America's code-breaking history through the prism of Smith's life, bringing into focus the unforgettable events and colorful personalities that would help shape modern intelligence.

Blending the lively pace and compelling detail that are the hallmarks of Erik Larson's bestsellers with the atmosphere and intensity of The Imitation Game, The Woman Who Smashed Codes is page-turning popular history at its finest.

My Review:

Once upon a time in the West, a wealthy and charismatic man whisked a young woman off to a luxurious life on his expansive estate.

And even though that sentence is true, this is not that kind of story. Although it is a love story. And a war story. And a spy story.

The man was George Fabyan, a wealthy businessman who had created a kind of scientific and technical utopia on his estate at Riverbank, outside of Geneva Illinois. The town of Geneva still exists, and its location, and its horrible winters, are still exactly as described.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman

The young woman who was carried from the steps of the Newberry Library in Chicago to Riverbank was Elizebeth Smith, later Elizebeth Smith Friedman. Elizebeth’s career took her from Riverbank to Washington, as she became one of the foundational figures of cryptography and cryptanalysis in America.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman is also one of the many women who played pivotal roles in World War II on both sides of the Atlantic, whose contributions were lost to history. In her case, that loss occurred out of a combination of factors. Sexism certainly played a part. Both Elizebeth and her much more famous husband William were the premier cryptographers of their time. But popular beliefs about women’s brains and women’s places caused many to assume that she was the lesser light, supporting his career, even having some career of her own, but never quite equal.

Her biggest contributions, like those of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in England, were shrouded in top secret classifications for decades after the war ended, and have only been de-classified in the 21st century.

And finally, while Elizebeth (and William) worked in secluded, top secret government offices, J.Edgar Hoover, the powerful director of the FBI, was under no restrictions about what he said and did, or more importantly, what he said that he and his agency had said and especially done. Hoover was more than happy to take the credit and the accolades that the Friedmans’ could not claim for themselves.

(I have yet to read anything that touches on Hoover and written after his death that does not have plenty of nasty things to say. He clearly had a gift for alienating anyone who had to deal with him in person, while capable of doing a splendid job of what we now call “spin doctoring” with the press and the general population)

Like the women in Hidden Figures, Elizabeth Smith Friedman is an important figure in the history of science in particular, and the history of U.S. in general, whose contributions deserve a giant spotlight.

Elizebeth Smith Friedman was the woman who broke the Nazi Enigma machine code during WWII, which allowed the nascent U.S. intelligence forces in South America to prevent Nazi Germany from creating strongholds within easy reach of the U.S. She, with her pencils and paper and absolutely amazing mind, helped to end the war.

She deserves to be remembered, and this account of her life, pulled together from her own archives and collected correspondence, is a fantastic start.

Reality Rating A+: The Woman Who Smashed Codes is nonfiction, It’s all true and it all happened. But the life of Elizebeth Smith Friedman is also the stuff of which great stories are made. And this particular account of her life is so well-written that it reads like the most compelling piece of fiction. But it’s a true story.

The story reaches out and grabs the reader from the first page, when George Fabyan breezes into the Newberry and asks the young Elizebeth if she will come and spend the night at his estate. It does sound a bit like a romance cliche. But it’s not that kind of invitation.

Instead, Fabyan invites her to join a rather strange project. One of the many scientists working at his estate is a woman who was convinced that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays. While she was (and is) not alone in that particular.theory, her application was a bit different. She was convinced, and had convinced Fabyan, that the truth was revealed in code in the typography of the First Folio. Elizebeth was recruited to assist in breaking this code.

While she eventually came to believe that this particular Bacon/Shakespeare theory was a load of bunk, it did teach both Elizebeth and her future husband William the art and science of codebreaking. A science that they spent the rest of their lives building, expanding, cataloging and most importantly, practicing.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman and William F. Friedman

There is a love story here. And what makes the story so interesting, and so relevant, is that the love story between Elizebeth and William is a marriage of equals, and always acknowledged as such by both of them – if not always by the outside world.

And also that the story of Elizebeth’s accomplishments is never overshadowed by that of her husband or her family obligations within the course of this narrative. This is her biography and the tale of her accomplishments and never descends into a family saga. Not that she didn’t also raise two children and often help her husband, but it is refreshing to see a biography of an accomplished woman written in the same manner as that of a similarly accomplished man, with the focus on her career and intellectual achievements.

The story of those achievements is a thrilling ride. She may have fallen accidentally into the field of cryptography, which, after all, did not exist when she began. But once in, she swam strong and swift up the steam, breaking the codes of the organized crime bosses running rum during Prohibition and the Nazis attempting to take over the world in World War II. Her cracking of the Enigma cipher in the U.S. occurred simultaneously and independently of the British crack of the same cipher at Bletchley Park.

She was an amazing woman, and she led an amazing life. She was the founding mother of cryptography in the U.S., and one of the pioneers of all codebreaking in this country, including the creation of the NSA.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is a marvelously told story of a fascinating life that should be widely read. Anyone who has an interest in the lives of true unsung heroines and/or in the history of cryptography and cryptanalysis in the U.S. will get sucked right into Elizebeth’s story.

I certainly was.

Review: Apollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger

Review: Apollo 8 by Jeffrey KlugerApollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger
Format: audiobook, eARC, hardcover
Source: publisher, publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: nonfiction, science history
Pages: 320
Published by Henry Holt on May 16th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The untold story of the historic voyage to the moon that closed out one of our darkest years with a nearly unimaginable triumph

In August 1968, NASA made a bold decision: in just sixteen weeks, the United States would launch humankind’s first flight to the moon. Only the year before, three astronauts had burned to death in their spacecraft, and since then the Apollo program had suffered one setback after another. Meanwhile, the Russians were winning the space race, the Cold War was getting hotter by the month, and President Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade seemed sure to be broken. But when Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were summoned to a secret meeting and told of the dangerous mission, they instantly signed on.

Written with all the color and verve of the best narrative non-fiction, Apollo 8 takes us from Mission Control to the astronaut’s homes, from the test labs to the launch pad. The race to prepare an untested rocket for an unprecedented journey paves the way for the hair-raising trip to the moon. Then, on Christmas Eve, a nation that has suffered a horrendous year of assassinations and war is heartened by an inspiring message from the trio of astronauts in lunar orbit. And when the mission is over—after the first view of the far side of the moon, the first earth-rise, and the first re-entry through the earth’s atmosphere following a flight to deep space—the impossible dream of walking on the moon suddenly seems within reach.

My Review:

Anyone who has lived in Chicagoland knows that while expressways may be designated official numbers from the DOT, no one ever calls them by those numbers. Highways in Chicagoland have names; the Ryan, the Kennedy, the Ike. And if you travel through Northwest Indiana, the Borman.

The Borman is named for Frank Borman, the native Hoosier who was one of the first three people to see the far side of the moon with his own eyes, up close and personal. Frank Borman was the commander of Apollo 8, the first mission by any country to send humans around the far side of the moon.

They may not have landed there, that honor was bestowed on Apollo 11, but they were the first humans to leave not merely the Earth, but to entirely leave Earth’s gravitational field and become temporary residents of a different celestial body, in orbit around the Earth’s moon.

Apollo 8 is the story of not just that one mission, but of as much as possible of everything that came before it. Frank Borman was not one of the original Gemini astronauts. He just missed inclusion in that celebrated group with the “right stuff”. He was, however, part of the second class of astronauts, merely referred to as the “next eight”.

It’s always the ones who get there first who get all the good names.

So this is the story of not just the crew of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, and of their lives and careers in NASA up to that point, but it is also the story of NASA itself. Now that’s a story of “big science”, where there are many, many people who give significant portions of their lives to work together for what they hope (and in this case they were right) is a cause greater than themselves.

There are heroes here, too. Names we’re familiar with like Gene Krantz and Deke Slayton. (Krantz was the Mission Controller who helped bring Apollo 13 back from the brink.) But there are plenty of both sung and unsung heroes among this early corps of NASA movers, shakers and believers, and the author does a skillful job of weaving the parts that they play into the narrative of this one, singular mission.

It is also the story of America in the 1960s. While this book does not attempt to portray the entirety of that tumultuous decade – nor should it – within its narrow scope it does set the missions of NASA in general and Apollo 8 in particular into their historic context. Not just the story of what was done, but why it was done and how it felt to be a part of or even watch as it was done.

And to show why the space program was so important. What it did, and what it celebrated. And just how much was accomplished and how many people around the world celebrated with it.

Reality Rating A: I have a very soft spot in my heart for anything to do with NASA and the space program. I was a child during the 1960s, and the space program, its successes and its tragic failures, formed part of the backdrop of my earliest years.

We accomplished so much. We went so far, and we showed such promise. And now it seems to be gone. Not just the adventure itself, but the promise of the future it provided and the surprising amount of unity it engendered.

(Readers interested in a bigger picture of exactly what it means that we don’t go into space much anymore should read Leaving Orbit by Margaret Lazarus Dean)

Apollo 8, the book, does a terrific job at showing the importance, the risks and the rewards of Apollo 8, the mission. By focusing on the smaller perspective of the three astronauts, and particularly Borman, it allows the author to paint the broader picture in a way that allows readers to empathize with the people and to grasp the size and scope of NASA’s operation and how it worked – and how it occasionally didn’t with disastrous results.

So while the focus is on Borman, Lovell and Anders, this is also very much a book about “big science”. And like The Interstellar Age by Jim Bell, it does a good job of making that “big science” comprehensible. And makes the reader wish they could have been there.

I found Apollo 8 to be compelling reading, to the point where I began by listening on audio and then switched to print to see what happened faster, even though I already knew what happened. I was absorbed in the details and the perspectives. As glad as I was to have the crew get back safely, theirs was a journey that I never wanted to see end.

But it did. As did our journey with them.

I leave you with this iconic photograph taken from Apollo 8. Earthrise.

Review: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Review: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica LockeBluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Pages: 307
Published by Mulholland Books on September 12th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A powerful thriller about the explosive intersection of love, race, and justice from a writer and producer of the Emmy winning Fox TV show Empire.

When it comes to law and order, East Texas plays by its own rules--a fact that Darren Mathews, a black Texas Ranger, knows all too well. Deeply ambivalent about growing up black in the lone star state, he was the first in his family to get as far away from Texas as he could. Until duty called him home.

When his allegiance to his roots puts his job in jeopardy, he travels up Highway 59 to the small town of Lark, where two murders--a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman--have stirred up a hornet's nest of resentment. Darren must solve the crimes--and save himself in the process--before Lark's long-simmering racial fault lines erupt.

A rural noir suffused with the unique music, color, and nuance of East Texas, Bluebird, Bluebird is an exhilarating, timely novel about the collision of race and justice in America.

My Review:

It has been said that the mystery genre is the “romance of justice”. Bluebird, Bluebird is the story of one man who has devoted his career to defending that justice, even though he is all too aware that it seldom applies to him. Not just because he’s a cop, but because he’s a black cop, a Texas Ranger, in rural East Texas.

And pursuing justice, for a black man murdered in a small town, and for himself, is a fast way to run afoul of his bosses at the Rangers, of the local white police who have already decided how things are going to be, and of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas who have multiple reasons for wanting to gun him down.

Not just the obvious one, that he’s a black man with authority and a gun. Or even that he’s a black man who is trying to help take them down. Not that either of those reasons, or just the simple fact that he’s a black man, isn’t enough of a reason for members of this militant arm of the old KKK, with better armaments and access to entirely too much drug money.

That alone is plenty of reason for Darren Mathews to want to take them down, instead. And with more justice.

Although Bluebird, Bluebird is written as a mystery, it’s really all about race relations, a subject that the Texas Rangers as an organization refuse to acknowledge or even talk about.

While at first it seems as if the mystery is all wrapped up in the very sorry state of relations between the black and white populations of tiny Lark, Texas, in the end it turns out to be much more about relations in general, as despite all of the political and social restrictions that attempted to separate the races, the fact is that the entire town, black and white, are all related, and have been for generations.

And that someone has used “the way things have always been done around here” to hide a crime that is about anything but the way things have always been done. Except that it also is.

Mathews finds himself walking a tightrope. Being a good cop requires following the trail of evidence wherever it might lead. Being allowed to remain a cop, good, bad or otherwise, requires that he accept the locals’ willingness to sweep the murder of a black man under the rug in order to prosecute a man who is certainly guilty of the murder of a white woman.

He discovers that he can’t let it rest, even if it means that he loses both his badge and his family. Only to realize, at the end, that the problem at the heart of the mystery has followed him home.

Escape Rating A: This one is a thriller. And a thrill, from beginning to end.

Mathews is a man caught in the middle. Multiple middles, and they all contradict each other. Being a black cop, a black Texas Ranger, is to be a walking contradiction in too much of East Texas. He can’t be an authority figure because he’s a black man, and yet, as a Ranger he outranks all the local law enforcement – including the ones who have to fight the impulse to shoot a black man with a gun on sight.

He has to walk a fine line between the way that things are done and the things that need to be done. The difficulty of straddling this particular line is easily seen through the reactions of the widow of the victim, a black woman from Chicago with an international reputation as a fashion photographer who expects to be paid deference, and who instead has to watch Mathews do his best, which often isn’t very good, to provide just enough deference to keep from getting shut out, or just shot, while still hanging onto at least a scrap of his pride.

The crimes are as puzzling as any mystery. What seems contradictory to the reader, while at the same time feeling completely true to life, is the way that the white authorities have decided the outcome before the investigation even begins – in fact without conducting an investigation at all. As far as they are concerned, it must have happened a certain way because that’s the way that things always happen – even if they didn’t.

The reader wants to rail at the pages, to force someone to see things as they are, instead of as they want them to be – and of course that’s not possible. But it does make the reader empathize with Ranger Mathews as he tries to find a way to make things right – when that is not the outcome that anyone around him gives a damn about.

Mathews is a fascinating and flawed character, who realizes at the end that the person he has deceived the most in this entire investigation is himself. The story ends with a chill that forces the reader, as well as the protagonist, to re-evaluate everything they thought they learned. The hallmark of a terrific story.

Review: Last Christmas in Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

Review: Last Christmas in Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather WebbLast Christmas in Paris: A Novel of World War I by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 3rd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Hazel Gaynor has joined with Heather Webb to create this unforgettably romantic novel of the Great War.

August 1914. England is at war. As Evie Elliott watches her brother, Will, and his best friend, Thomas Harding, depart for the front, she believes—as everyone does—that it will be over by Christmas, when the trio plan to celebrate the holiday among the romantic cafes of Paris.

But as history tells us, it all happened so differently…

Evie and Thomas experience a very different war. Frustrated by life as a privileged young lady, Evie longs to play a greater part in the conflict—but how?—and as Thomas struggles with the unimaginable realities of war he also faces personal battles back home where War Office regulations on press reporting cause trouble at his father’s newspaper business. Through their letters, Evie and Thomas share their greatest hopes and fears—and grow ever fonder from afar. Can love flourish amid the horror of the First World War, or will fate intervene?

Christmas 1968. With failing health, Thomas returns to Paris—a cherished packet of letters in hand—determined to lay to rest the ghosts of his past. But one final letter is waiting for him…

My Review:

Last Christmas in Paris is a bittersweet tale of World War I. Much of that bittersweet flavor is in the title. It’s not so much last Christmas in Paris, as in we spent last Christmas in Paris, although the protagonists certainly did, as it is, this is our last and final Christmas in Paris, because we shall not pass this way again.

The heart of the story is correspondence. Most of the story is told through letters, and occasionally telegrams, between Tom Harding and Evie Elliott, with occasional letters between Evie and her best friend Alice, Evie and her brother Will, and Tom and his father, and eventually between Tom and his father’s business manager.

What we see through their four years of letters is that life changes people, and that life in war changes people all that much more.

At the beginning, in those glorious and naive first months of World War I, Tom and Will volunteer to go off to war. Everyone thinks it will be over by Christmas. Christmas of 1914, not Christmas of 1918 as it nearly turned out to be.

Evie, Will’s younger sister, is stuck at home in the gilded cage that was wrapped around all young women of the upper classes prior to the war. She wants to volunteer, to do something for the war effort, and she is old enough to do so. But her parents won’t LET her, and at the beginning, that means everything.

So she stays home, badly knits gloves and socks, and begins her correspondence with her brother and with Tom, who has been a friend to them since childhood.

Will is an indifferent correspondent at best, but Tom certainly is not. Evie has plans of becoming a writer, and Tom had begun studying English literature at Oxford, with plans of becoming an Oxford don. His father wants him to buckle down and take over the family newspaper, the London Daily News.

But all hopes and dreams and plans are set cock-eyed by the war as it drags on, and on, and on. And eventually drags Will Elliott into its maw, spitting out his bullet-riddled corpse.

Tom and Evie go on. Their letters become each other’s lights in very dark places, as they pour out their minds, hearts and souls to each other over the months and the miles. They tell each other everything, except that somewhere amid the ink and the paper, they have fallen in love with each other – if not long before.

But as peace finally begins to fill the horizon, all the decisions that have been delayed by the war must finally be reckoned with. And all the secrets that have been hidden come to light.

Escape Rating A: Last Christmas in Paris is a beautiful story from beginning to end. It is also ultimately a sad story, but appropriately so.

Epistolary novels such as this one are difficult to write. There is no omniscient third person who sees all and has the ability to tell all. Even if they don’t always do so. In a novel that consists nearly entirely of letters, we see events as they happen, but only what the writer chooses to tell the intended recipient. If they don’t put their thoughts on paper, we don’t know what they are – unless they put them on paper to someone else.

So we know how Evie feels, not because she tells Tom, but because she tells her best friend Alice. And we can only guess about Tom’s feelings, because he is so very careful not to tell Evie what is in his heart. But what he does tell her is heartbreaking, because Tom tells Evie as much as the censors will allow about the true state of his war. And it’s hell.

So much hell that he is eventually hospitalized for what was termed “shell shock”. Amazingly, he recovers, as much as anyone could, and returns to the front. We now know “shell shock” as PTSD, but that in his time it was considered a “weakness of moral fiber” is enough to make the reader weep.

We also see what many considered the breakdown of the social order from Evie’s perspective. At the beginning, her life is completely restricted by her parents. But as the war goes on, Evie escapes from those restrictions, first by volunteering as a postal worker, then by writing a controversial newspaper column on women’s perspectives of the war, and finally by volunteering for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and going to France herself to serve as a telephone operator and secret war correspondent.

Between Tom at the Front and Evie on the Home Front, we see the horrors of war in all their destruction. And it’s brutal in one way or another no matter where they are.

But as I said in the beginning, this story is bittersweet. Not from the contents of the correspondence itself, but from the perspective of when the letters are being re-read. Bracketing each year of correspondence, we have a framing story. It is 1968, 50 years after the end of the war. Tom Harding has set himself the final task of re-reading the correspondence, and returning to Paris for Christmas, one last time. He is dying of cancer, and Evie is already gone.

We find out what happened to Evie as the letters progress. The reader experiences some of those letters with a certain amount of bated breath, as it is more than possible that they didn’t manage to have their happy ever after before it ended. There are so many points along the way where things nearly go smash, and we don’t discover until nearly the end what really happened.

The story is beautiful and quite absorbing. It’s a great book to read if you don’t think you have lots of time at a time, as one can read just a few letters and feel like one has absorbed so much. But I would sit down to read just a few letters and find myself coming up for air at the end of an entire year’s worth of correspondence. I could never resist reading “just one more”.

As much as I loved this book, I kept having the niggling feeling that I had read some of it before. It certainly reminds me Fall of Poppies, last year’s wonderful collection of World War I romances, two of which were written by the co-authors of Last Christmas in Paris. It also reminds me of bits of Jennifer Robson’s lovely World War I stories, as well as a bit of the side plot of one of the later Maisie Dobbs books.

If you love World War I stories, miss Downton Abbey, or just want to read something to commemorate the upcoming 99th anniversary of the end of the war, celebrated as Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, and as Veterans Day in the United States, Last Christmas in Paris is a gem of a book.

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

Review: The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan + Giveaway

Review: The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan + GiveawayThe Bloodprint (The Khorasan Archives #1) by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy
Series: Khorasan Archives #1
Pages: 448
Published by Harper Voyager on October 3rd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A dark power called the Talisman has risen in the land, born of ignorance and persecution. Led by a man known only known as the One-eyed Preacher, it is a cruel and terrifying movement bent on world domination—a superstitious patriarchy that suppresses knowledge and subjugates women. And it is growing.

But there are those who fight the Talisman's spread, including the Companions of Hira, a diverse group of influential women whose power derives from the Claim—the magic inherent in the words of a sacred scripture. Foremost among them is Arian and her apprentice, Sinnia, skilled warriors who are knowledgeable in the Claim. This daring pair have long stalked Talisman slave-chains, searching for clues and weapons to help them battle their enemy’s oppressive ways. Now, they may have discovered a miraculous symbol of hope that can destroy the One-eyed Preacher and his fervid followers: The Bloodprint, a dangerous text the Talisman has tried to erase from the world.

Finding a copy of The Bloodprint promises to be their most dangerous undertaking yet, an arduous journey that will lead them deep into Talisman territory. Though they will be helped by allies—a loyal ex-slave and Arian’s former confidante and sword master—both Arian and Sinnia know that this mission may well be their last.

My Review:

If the Taliban and The Handmaid’s Tale had a hate child, it would be The Bloodprint. Yes, I mixed my metaphors, but it feels correct. And if after reading The Bloodprint there is anyone who does not mentally link the Talisman of the book with the Taliban of real life, I’ll eat my virtual hat.

The Bloodprint is an epic fantasy that feels very definitely part of the grimdark movement. It’s a very grim story, and the world that it portrays is in that terrible place where things are always darkest just before they turn completely black.

And although our protagonists are pursuing that one last ray of hope and light before all is extinguished, by the end it just feels as if all is lost.

The interesting thing about The Bloodprint is that it is, for the most part, a heroine’s story. The characters with agency are all female, and the defenders of the light are a female order of wise women and warriors. The story passes the Bechdel-Wallace test within the first page.

And that seems fitting, because so many of the victims of the darkness that has taken over this world are also female. Women without husbands or children are automatically sold into slavery. And the slave trade is so lucrative (or something even more nefarious) that the men of entire villages are wiped out just so that their surviving wives and daughters can be sold into slavery.

That’s not all that’s wrong. The Talisman, the villainous empire of our story, are systematically wiping out all books, all writing, and anyone who has the ability to write. Our heroes refer to the time that they live in as the “Age of Ignorance” because of this systematic erasure. And the parallels to the real-world Taliban, both in their treatment of the historical record and their treatment of women, feels screamingly obvious.

One of the foundations of the side of the light are its scriptoriums. And its relentless need to pass on any and all knowledge by oral as well as written tradition. Because there’s a reason for all of this erasure of history.

Writing, or at least a particular piece of writing called the “Claim”, is magic. And those who can wield the magic of the claim are extremely powerful. And rare.

Arian is our heroine, and one of the women who can wield the magic of the Claim for both offense and defense. She is a leading member of a legendary sisterhood, and she is tasked with the duty of retrieving a mythical original manuscript of the Claim, in order to bring about the end of the Talisman.

No such quest is ever conducted alone. Arian has companions on her journey, a guardian from her sisterhood, the man who loves her but whom she of course cannot have, and a child she rescues who will probably turn out to be the key to the whole thing at some future point. (I do not know this at all, I merely speculate.)

But equally, no such quest is ever undertaken without grave risk. Arian’s problems begin within the walls of her own sanctuary, as the leader of her order seems to be pursuing a separate, and possibly inimical, political end of her own.

Arian is uncertain whether or not she has been betrayed before she even begins. But as her journey continues through the devastated lands, she discovers that there are more forces arrayed against her than even she imagined in her darkest hours.

And that things are indeed always darkest just before they turn completely black.

Escape Rating B-: I have some mixed feelings about this book. There are some parts of the story that I really liked, and some that left me completely puzzled.

I love the idea of this in a whole bunch of ways. I really liked that the story begins as a buddy-story, with both of those buddies being women. And that our initial antagonist is a woman as well. There is absolutely no reason that any story can’t have women taking on a whole bunch of the roles that men regularly do. Hero, savior, villain, companion.

I also found it interesting that the male character in the story, while he is powerful in his own right, also takes on some of the roles that usually fall to women. This is Arian’s story and Arian’s quest and Daniyar is the one following her while she leads both the party and the story.

I was also fascinated by the way that this story is rooted in an entirely different mythical background than the Norse and/or Celtic mythologies that so often dominate epic fantasy.

But it was difficult to get into the story. At the beginning, it felt like a lot had already happened, and that somehow I’d missed. It. In the end, the impression I’m left with is that The Bloodprint felt like the middle book of a trilogy, even though it isn’t. When the story begins, we’re in the middle of action that has been going on for years. The situation is already desperate. And there’s positively oodles of backstory between not just Arian and her companion Sinnia, but between Arian and Daniyar, and especially between Arian and Ilea, the leader of her order. Backstory and context which readers scramble to assemble from the clues left by the characters’ thoughts and actions.

And the world has already gone completely to hell in that handbasket and it doesn’t look salvageable. Arian’s quest has the feel of a “Hail, Mary” pass, one of those million-to-one shots that only succeed in epic fantasy and the Discworld.

But it also feels like a middle book because the narrative trajectory heads downward. Things start out bad, get steadily worse, and we end on a horrible cliffhanger with the fingers being stomped on. Things began grim and ended grimmer.

On my other hand, the final 25% is absolutely compelling page-turning reading. I could see the end coming, I knew it was probably going to be horrifying, and I could not stop myself from racing to get there as fast as I could.

In the end, The Bloodprint is compelling but very, very dark epic fantasy. I’m very curious to see how our heroines get out of the very hot frying pan they’ve landed in, and how much hotter the fire underneath will turn out to be.

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

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Hell Squad: Ash by Anna Hackett

Review: Hell Squad: Ash by Anna HackettAsh (Hell Squad #14) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: post apocalyptic, science fiction romance
Series: Hell Squad #14
Pages: 200
Published by Anna Hackett on October 1st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

In the middle of an alien invasion, will the bad boy berserker catch the geeky tech genius?

Computer genius Marin Mitchell is doing her part to help humanity survive the raptor invasion, working tirelessly to decrypt alien data. She spends her days working and drooling over a certain tattooed, biker berserker from Squad Three. But Marin knows the rules: geeks do not snag sexy bad boys. She spends her nights playing her favorite computer game where she is a kick-butt badass, and a match for her mysterious online fight partner, SuperSoldier3.

A member of the Squad Three berserkers, Ash Connors knows that whenever he reaches for something good, life slaps him back down. He gave up on his dreams a long time ago, and instead, focused on running his motorcycle club with his best friend. But after the alien invasion, he does what he does best, fight and take down the aliens. When cute, smart, and sweet Marin catches his eye, he tries to steer clear, but can't seem to stay away...online or in real life.

When Marin discovers information about a central alien data hub, her skills are needed to hack into the system. That means a deadly mission deep underground, right into the heart of alien territory. That throws her right into Ash's tattooed arms. As the sexy berserker fights to keep her safe, he also vows to show Marin that while she might follow the rules, he likes to break them.

My (Admittedly Squee-Filled) Review:

I’ve read the entire Hell Squad series so far, and pretty much loved every minute of it. But there’s something about this particular book that really, really worked for me. It took me a while to figure out exactly what made this one special.

It’s Marin, the heroine of the story. She’s a geek girl, and proud of it. She’s a valued member of Noah’s geek squad with a specialty in breaking Gizzida firewalls and hacking their tech. She’s also a girl gamer and one of the champions at the battle game that everyone in the Enclave is playing.

She knows who and what she is, and doesn’t apologize for any it, including the way she completely loses herself in a work the minute she has a new puzzle to solve, and doesn’t come up for air until the problem has been conquered.

She’s also a woman who knows how her world works, and one of the ways that the world works is that geek girls do not end up with hot bad boys. For any of us that grew up listening to Janis Ian’s incredible “At Seventeen”, Marin is a sister. She’s learned the truth that the rest of us have, that “love was meant for beauty queens” and that we aren’t among them.

Some of the heroines of some of the earlier Hell Squad books have been soldiers. While it’s fun to imagine being Claudia or Camryn, and it is fantastic to see them kick Gizzida ass, they are a couple of steps further into the fantasy of it all.

Geek girl Marin is a woman close to my heart. Claudia and Camryn read almost like Wonder Woman, where Marin is someone I could actually imagine wanting to be. It made her incredibly easy to identify with. I really wanted her to get her Happy For Now, but even more than that, I could see myself making some of her choices and also feeling many of her insecurities.

I hadn’t realized quite how much that would mean to my enjoyment of a story until I was in the thick of this one and just felt every step of her journey and loved it.

Escape Rating A-: I’m not going to do a traditional review for this one. If you even think that post-apocalyptic science fiction romance might be your jam, pick up the first book in this series, Marcus, and just dive in. Each individual story is a hot and sexy romance. And, there’s the overall arc of the series, all about the fight against the alien invaders and the need to kick them off Earth – with extreme prejudice to pay for all the death and destruction they’ve caused.

It’s a wild ride from the beginning to where we are now. And where we are now is that I think we’re seeing the light at the end of the long, dark tunnel, and I’m really hoping that it isn’t an oncoming train. It’s time for the Gizzida to go, hopefully with a stand up and cheer, kick their alien asses off our planet big scene just like the first Independence Day movie. Which the Hell Squad series will probably remind you of more than a bit.

I’ll stop squeeing now. Go forth and get ready to go to hell with the Hell Squad. Because the Gizzida devils really, really need an ass-kicking. And it’s all kinds of adventurous, sexy fun to watch the Hell Squad deliver it!