Review: A Wish for Winter by Viola Shipman

Review: A Wish for Winter by Viola ShipmanA Wish for Winter by Viola Shipman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, holiday fiction, holiday romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Graydon House on November 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

“I love this book—funny, perfect and wonderfully good. A not-to-be-missed delight.” —New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery
With echoes of classic Hollywood love stories like Serendipity and An Affair to Remember, Viola Shipmans latest winter charmer following the USA TODAY bestseller The Secret of Snow is sure to tug on heartstrings and delight readers who love books about books, missed connections and the magic of Christmas.
Despite losing her parents in a tragic accident just before her fourteenth Christmas, Susan Norcross has had it better than most, with loving grandparents to raise her and a gang of quirky, devoted friends to support her. Now a successful bookstore owner in a tight-knit Michigan lakeside community, Susan is facing down forty—the same age as her mother when she died—and she can’t help but see everything she hasn’t achieved, including finding a love match of her own. To add to the pressure, everyone in her small town believes it’s Susan’s destiny to meet and marry a man dressed as Santa, just like her mother and grandmother before her. So it seems cosmically unfair that the man she makes an instant connection with at an annual Santa Run is lost in the crowd before she can get his name.
What follows is Susan and her friends’ hilarious and heartwarming search for the mystery Santa—covering twelve months of social media snafus, authors behaving badly and dating fails—as well as a poignant look at family, friendship and what defines a well-lived and well-loved life.
“Viola Shipman has written a captivating story for anyone whose memories run deep… This book keeps faith and hope alive!” —New York Times bestselling author Sherryl Woods

A Country Living Magazine Best Christmas Book to Read This Holiday Season!

My Review:

First of all, A Wish for Winter is a heartfelt love letter to the entire Mitten State of Michigan. Every single square inch and winter snowflake of it, from the hungry lakes to the deep bays to the very rocks, specifically the Petoskey stones that are foundation, the bedrock, the official state rock and the name for the tiny tourist town where the Claus family, officially known as the Norcross family, make their home.

Second, this is very much a paean to the spirit of Christmas – not necessarily in the religious sense but rather in the faith and belief that is strangely but sometimes beautifully displayed by the more ‘Hallmark-y’ aspects of the season. The idea that with a bit of belief in the magic of the season, it is more than possible to reach out and pluck a star – or at least a happy ending – down from the heavens, the top of a tree, or the place where dreams really do come true.

It is also a sometimes heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting story of Susan Norcross, the owner of the Sleigh by the Bay bookstore in beautiful Petoskey, Michigan, where her grandparents play the part of Mr. and Mrs. Claus every December in the front window of the store she inherited from them.

Susan’s grandparents may keep Christmas in their hearts all year round, and display it pretty much every chance they get, but Susan hasn’t felt all the joy of the holiday since she was ten years old. Because that’s the holiday season when her parents were killed by a drunk driver. Susan is now forty, the age her mother was when she died, and she’s been stuck cycling through the first four stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining and depression) for the past thirty years without ever reaching acceptance.

Without ever managing to forgive either the drunk driver – in a coma all these years – or herself.

Not that Susan hasn’t had her own version of a wonderful life. Her grandparents are everything anyone could ever have wanted in mentors, parents AND grandparents. She’s an integral part of a town that loves and supports her and her bookstore, she’s respected in the publishing industry to the point where authors, their agents and their publishers court her for appearances at her store and cover quotes.

And she has the best, most supportive even if sometimes a bit too up in her business best friend in the world. Along with excellent colleagues who have become the greatest found family she could ever have imagined.

As her 40th year approaches she’s becoming aware that there’s something missing. Both her mother and her grandmother met their perfect matches when said matches were wearing Santa suits. As a child, Susan expected to do the same. Then her parents were taken from her and she walled herself off from getting too involved and being too hurt.

But those friends, those wonderful, loving, a bit too intrusive friends, have a solution to Susan’s missing ‘Single (Kris) Kringle’ by putting Susan’s search for the Santa of her dreams on social media and inviting the entire country to watch her hunt for her very own one true Santa.

They’re going to pull Susan out of her uncomfortably comfortable rut – no matter how many likes and ‘thumbs up’ emojis it takes to make it happen.

Escape Rating B: If you’ve ever heard of “sad fluff” and wondered what it was, look no further because A Wish for Winter is a perfect example of the type. “Sad fluff” is a story where a whole lot of sad stuff happens but at the same time there’s an earned happy ending – whether romantic or not – and there are plenty of happy or even funny bits in the story. There’s lots of good support for the main character, but that character is still going through the story with a sucky place inside and the tone of the book is ultimately just a bit, well, sad.

And that’s A Wish for Winter in a nutshell. Susan has plenty of reasons to be sad, reasons that still overwhelm her at times even after 30 years. And there’s no one process or amount of time needed for an individual to process their grief, which in Susan’s case is not just real but also overwhelming. Because Susan suffered such a big loss so young, it has affected her entire life. It’s not something she’s ever going to get over or get past, nor should she. But she’s well past the point where she needs to reach the acceptance stage of grief and not hold onto it quite so tightly because the only person it’s hurting is herself.

The story of Susan taking those two steps forward, one step back towards that acceptance is a bit halting – not in the pacing sense but because her journey is supposed to be halting and uncertain. Still, her journey through that slough of despond hangs over all of the lighter moments in the book.

Although there certainly are plenty of those lighter moments. Her friends are an absolute delight even as they are invading her comfort zone, pushing her out of it and making her hesitant search for her HEA go viral.

I also adored the love of books and reading and bookstores, and the transformative power of all of the above that practically shines through every page. This story has all the elements of being a book lover’s delight from the very beginning.

As a reader, I found the sadness of the sad fluff took a bit too much of the joy out of a story that is ultimately joyful. For me, that pall took a bit too long for the book to process – making no comments whatsoever on how long it took the character to process it because no one can go there for another.

In the end, I liked the book, I liked some aspects of it quite a lot, but didn’t quite love it as much as I did my first exposure to the author’s work in The Clover Girls. Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.

Review: The Twist of a Knife by Anthony Horowitz

Review: The Twist of a Knife by Anthony HorowitzThe Twist of a Knife (Hawthorne and Horowitz Mystery, #4) by Anthony Horowitz
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Hawthorne and Horowitz #4
Pages: 384
Published by Harper on November 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

'Our deal is over.'
That's what reluctant author Anthony Horowitz tells ex-detective Daniel Hawthorne in an awkward meeting. The truth is that Anthony has other things on his mind.
His new play, Mindgame, is about to open in London's Vaudeville theatre. Not surprisingly Hawthorne declines a ticket.
On opening night, Sunday Times critic Harriet Throsby gives the play a savage review, focusing particularly on the writing. The next morning she is found dead, stabbed in the heart with an ornamental dagger which, it turns out, belongs to Anthony and which has his finger prints all over it.
Anthony is arrested, charged with Throsby's murder, thrown into prison and interrogated.
Alone and increasingly desperate, he realises only one man can help him.
But will Hawthorne take his call?

My Review:

In this fourth outing of the extremely unlikely duo of Daniel Hawthorne and his reluctant scribe – and all too frequently foil – Anthony Horowitz (yes, the author, really, truly and probably sorta/kinda all at once), it’s Horowitz himself who is accused of murder and quite thoroughly stitched up into the bargain.

He needs Hawthorne, which puts Hawthorne very much in the catbird seat of their strange partnership. Horowitz, referred to as ‘Tony’ in the book to differentiate himself as character from his real self as author, has just turned down Hawthorne’s request that they pair up for yet a fourth book, after The Word is Murder, The Sentence is Death and A Line to Kill.

Tony feels like he’s both out of punny titles and out of patience with Hawthorne. The former, obviously not as it turns out. The latter, frequently and often.

But Hawthorne is sure they have an entire series in them, and lo and behold, they do!

Escape Rating A+: The Hawthorne and Horowitz series is a quirky read. If you like it, you really, really like it (obviously I do), but if its quirks don’t quite set your tastes on fire, they don’t. It’s a break the fourth wall kind of series, with a heaping helping of art imitating life rather a lot.

The Horowitz of the series title is the author of the book, Anthony Horowitz. He’s a version – at least I presume it’s a version – of his real-life self, Anthony Horowitz the novelist and playwright, the creative mind behind the still totally awesome TV series Foyle’s War, etc., etc., etc. But he is far, far from the hero of this series.

He plays Watson to the Sherlock of ex-London Metropolitan police detective Daniel Hawthorne. And it’s a bumbling Watson who sometimes makes the most vapid and insipid portrayals of Watson look like absolute geniuses. (Edward Hardwicke’s wonderful and intelligent take on Watson in the Granada TV series with Jeremy Brett ‘Tony’ most certainly is NOT.)

In other words, the author resisted what must have been a great temptation to make himself the hero of this series and instead turned himself into its everyman substitute for the audience, the character who is not able to follow the ‘great detective’, in this case Hawthorne, and requires that every clue be explained to him – and therefore to the audience as well.

Which is part of the charm of this series, and also part of why it runs so much against type for me as a reader and yet I still adore the damn thing. Because I usually read mysteries for their competence porn aspects. The investigator in the series usually demonstrates extreme competence in order to solve the twisty murder. And that’s not exactly what happens here.

Tony is far from competent as an amateur detective, in spite of the many mysteries he’s written. He’s always at least two steps behind Hawthorne. Which actually isn’t too bad as the real police are at least three or four steps behind him. But still, he’s made his own character a bit of a nebbish and I can’t help but wonder if that reflects real life AT ALL. I suspect not or he wouldn’t be half as successful as he is.

But I digress.

Hawthorne, on the other hand, is über-competent. He’s just a secretive asshole about it. So we don’t get to see what he’s really doing or thinking until the very end when he makes everyone involved look like utter fools. Because they were. So he’s extremely competent but we don’t get to enjoy it because he’s such a jerk about pretty much everything.

Like most mysteries where the official police are more interested in scoring off the private detective – in this case Hawthorne and by extension his ‘associate’ Tony – than solving the crime, the first suspect is never the real murderer. So it can’t be Tony, no matter how the evidence seems stacked against him.

That the victim was a vile individual that had made a career out of publicly venting their spleen should have led even the dimmest bulb to the possibility that the line of possible murderers would be long enough to circle the country at least twice. To the point where I was beginning to wonder if it was going to turn out to be a Murder on the Orient Express situation.

In the end, the solution is ingenious, the motive was both simple and complex at the same time, the killer was exposed but no one got their just desserts except the woman who was already dead. And that was exactly right.

While Hawthorne got his series after all. Which is fantastic!

While I can’t find any word on when the projected fifth, sixth and seventh (!) books in the Hawthorne and Horowitz series will be out, or even the next book in the Susan Ryeland series which I also love (even when it’s driving me crazy), the first book in that series, Magpie Murders, is now available as a 6-episode TV series. And I’m off to watch it ASAP!

Review: The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer Ryan

Review: The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer RyanThe Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer Ryan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, World War II
Pages: 411
Published by Ballantine Books on May 31, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Three plucky women lift the spirits of home-front brides in wartime Britain, where clothes rationing leaves little opportunity for pomp or celebration—even at weddings—in this heartwarming novel based on true events, from the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies' Choir.After renowned fashion designer Cressida Westcott loses both her home and her design house in the London Blitz, she has nowhere to go but the family manor house she fled decades ago. Praying that her niece and nephew will be more hospitable than her brother had been, she arrives with nothing but the clothes she stands in, at a loss as to how to rebuild her business while staying in a quaint country village.
Her niece, Violet Westcott, is thrilled that her famous aunt is coming to stay—the village has been interminably dull with all the men off fighting. But just as Cressida arrives, so does Violet's conscription letter. It couldn't have come at a worse time; how will she ever find a suitably aristocratic husband if she has to spend her days wearing a frumpy uniform and doing war work?
Meanwhile, the local vicar's daughter, Grace Carlisle, is trying in vain to repair her mother's gown, her only chance of a white wedding. When Cressida Westcott appears at the local Sewing Circle meeting, Grace asks for her help—but Cressida has much more to teach the ladies than just simple sewing skills.
Before long, Cressida's spirit and ambition galvanizes the village group into action, and they find themselves mending wedding dresses not only for local brides, but for brides across the country. And as the women dedicate themselves to helping others celebrate love, they might even manage to find it for themselves.

My Review:

Eustace Westcott was dead, to begin with. And it seems to be a relief for all concerned, especially his family. His deceased presence turns out to be a bigger blight on the lives of everyone who knew him than the war. Even the local pub still boasts “a certain ditty written in the men’s lavatory” proclaiming that “Eustace Westcott should stick his precious checkbook up a certain part of his anatomy.”

His estranged sister, the famous – or infamous in the late Eustace’s mind – fashion designer Cressida Westcott would certainly agree. She only attended his funeral to make absolutely certain the blighter was dead.

But speaking of that war, when the London Blitz takes out both her house and her design house in the same night, Cressida’s not sure where to go or what to do. She’s lost everything except the clothes on her back, the designs in her head, and a reputation in the fashion industry that she’s spent the last 20 years building. Those will see her through – but first she needs a place to live and regroup.

She never thought she’d go back home to Aldhurst. In fact, she’d sworn she wouldn’t. But Eustace is dead and she can at least hope that his two children, now adults themselves, haven’t turned into carbon copies of their not-so-dear old dad. Or that there’s still time for her to help them become functional human beings now that his oppressive influence over their lives has been removed.

What she finds in the old family pile is a second chance. A chance to get to know the village and its people – and become one of them. A chance to find family again by helping her niece and nephew see that their father’s ideas and influence are holding them back from living their own lives instead of repeating all the restrictions of his.

All the restrictions he tried to impose on Cressida and utterly failed at.

Cressida has a chance to explore a bit of the road not taken and let herself have as much of it all as could ever be possible – not in spite of the war but because of it.

Escape Rating A: I was looking for, not exactly a comfort read as most of my comfort reads start with murder, but rather a comfortable read for the end of this week. It’s kind of surprising that led me to World War II, not exactly a comfortable time for ANYONE, but this actually fit the bill quite nicely. I adored one of the author’s previous books, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, and was expecting more of the same – interesting characters who grow and change in a heartwarming story of the British homefront during World War II. And I was expecting a female-centric story because, well, the war.

And all of that is exactly what I got. With bells on!

The story revolves around three women, Cressida Westcott, her niece Violet Westcott, and the woman cressida mentors in Aldhurst, Grace Carlisle. All of their lives have been knocked off their original courses by World War II, but the war also gives each of them a chance to change a course that they thought was set. Hopefully for the better.

Cressida’s change is a driving force in what happens, which is fitting because Cressida herself has always been a driving force in her own life. While her return to Aldhurst allows her to see the place with fresh eyes, her trip back home doesn’t change who she has become in all the years between.

She’s still a driven woman, determined to be in the top echelon of fashion design – and succeeding on her own terms. What her return to Aldhurst allows her to do is to open herself up to new experiences and new friendships. She is still who she has always been, but becoming part of the village – something she was not allowed to do when she was growing up – reminds her that in addition to making a living she also needs to make a life.

Violet and Grace are both in their 20s, and each has planned a certain life for themselves based on what they’ve been taught, what they’ve been told, what they’ve always believed in the “right thing to do.” Violet is honestly a selfish, self-involved little bitch, an upper class twit who believes that marrying a title is her due and that she’s entitled to all the privileges that come with her family’s wealth and status without ever working for them.

Grace is her opposite, the daughter of the local vicar, selflessly devoting herself to the village and parish work, never asking a thing for herself. She’s been shouldering much of her father’s caretaking of the village in the years since her mother died, and everyone else’s need for her has become her life. To the point that she’s planning to marry a clergyman herself, believing that it’s her best chance of recreating the happy family that raised her before her mother’s death.

Violet just needs to grow up – and for that to happen she needs to break out of a role that is designed to keep her childlike and uneducation. Conscription into war work forced Violet to see herself and the world around her with her own eyes, and it’s the making of her.

But it’s Grace’s transformation from colorless drudge to fashion design apprentice that gives the story its heart and its heartbreak. Her involvement with Cressida begins with her engagement, and her desire to wear her mother’s rather moth-eaten wedding gown on her own ‘special’ day.

It’s not just a wish out of love and nostalgia, it’s a necessity. Under wartime clothing rationing, there is no material available for new wedding dresses. There’s little available for repairing old ones, either. But with Cressida’s vast design experience and Grace’s eye for the best ways of ‘making mend and making do’ there’s a chance to make it happen.

Even though the process of design and exploration finally makes Grace wake up and realize that it shouldn’t happen for her – or at least it shouldn’t happen for her with the man she’s currently engaged to marry.

Whether Grace gets to wear the dress herself or not, out of her mother’s old dress both a new dress and a grand idea, The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle of the title, are born. The dress that Violet’s mother gave to Grace’s mother eventually becomes THE dress for many young women of Aldhurst and beyond, in an act of sisterhood that is carried not just around the country, but all the way back home to where it began.

The dress is beautiful on every woman who wears it. And the story of how it came to be is every single bit as lovely.

Review: Ship Wrecked by Olivia Dade

Review: Ship Wrecked by Olivia DadeShip Wrecked (Spoiler Alert, #3) by Olivia Dade
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Spoiler Alert #3
Pages: 416
Published by Avon Books on November 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

After All the Feels and Spoiler Alert, Olivia Dade once again delivers a warm and wonderful romantic comedy about two co-stars who once had an incredible one-night stand--and after years of filming on the same remote island, are finally ready to yield to temptation again...
Maria's one-night-stand--the thick-thighed, sexy Viking of a man she left without a word or a note--just reappeared. Apparently, Peter's her surly Gods of the Gates co-star, and they're about to spend the next six years filming on a desolate Irish island together. She still wants him...but he now wants nothing to do with her.
Peter knows this role could finally transform him from a forgettable character actor into a leading man. He also knows a failed relationship with Maria could poison the set, and he won't sabotage his career for a woman who's already walked away from him once. Given time, maybe they can be cooperative colleagues or friends--possibly even best friends--but not lovers again. No matter how much he aches for her.
For years, they don't touch off-camera. But on their last night of filming, their mutual restraint finally shatters, and all their pent-up desire explodes into renewed passion. Too bad they still don't have a future together, since Peter's going back to Hollywood, while Maria's returning to her native Sweden. She thinks she needs more than he can give her, but he's determined to change her mind, and he's spent the last six years waiting. Watching. Wanting.
His shipwrecked Swede doesn't stand a chance.

My Review:

This third book in the Spoiler Alert series may seem a bit detached from the previous books, Spoiler Alert and All the Feels. Which makes total sense as all of Peter and Maria’s scenes in the infamous (and fictional) God of the Gates TV series (all resemblances to the final seasons of Game of Thrones indubitably intended) were filmed on a tiny, remote island off the coast of Ireland.

The Aran Islands substitute for the remote island where the characters they play in the series, Cyprian and Cassia, were literally shipwrecked early in the book series that was adapted – sometimes very badly indeed – for the hit TV series. An island where their characters spend six long and frustrating years pining for each other, transforming from enemies into lovers.

Into dead. Because it’s that kind of series. As we know even if we never watched the thing.

Life has imitated art more than a bit, as Peter and Maria also spent their six years filming the series pining for each other every bit as much as their characters did. Only to give in to temptation after the cameras film their final scene – just before they are scheduled to leave the island and go their separate ways.

While they don’t immediately end up dead in real life – because they haven’t really been guarding a hellmouth for six years that has finally opened to bring their doom – their much longed-for relationship keeps tolling its own death knell even as they find ways to spend yet more glorious days and nights together.

Both Peter and Maria came to that deserted island with some serious abandonment issues, and not just in romantic relationships. They may love each other, they certainly want each other, but they can’t seem to get past the trauma in their pasts to realize that they both want the same things – but are no good at expressing what they need and want to the most important person either of them will ever find.

Their characters were shipwrecked, and the real-life (relation)ship that fans have been shipping throughout the entire run of the series looks like it’s wrecked as well. Unless they can find a way to turn it into an HEA with a little bit of luck and a whole lot of the one thing that Peter is bad at – communication.

Escape Rating A-: The beginning of this was just a bit jarring – not their one-night stand, not at ALL – but that the story went all the way back to the early days of the series, back when the showrunners were still adapting the author’s work. When the scripts were still more than halfway decent even if the two showrunners were already scum.

The earlier books in the series, Spoiler Alert and All the Feels, started during the final seasons of the series, at the point where the showrunners had gone past the author’s work and were, well, winging it. Badly. Destroying all the character arcs and most of the characters along with them. Both of those earlier stories center around stars of the series behaving badly because they so desperately want to reveal that the final season is AWFUL with a capital AWE and they fall in love either while behaving very badly (All the Feels) or while violating their NDA (non-disclosure agreement) in new and creative – literally and literarily – ways (Spoiler Alert and All the Feels).

Peter and Maria and their film crew, while not exactly shipwrecked themselves, are isolated from the rest of the cast and crew except via group chats and off-season convention appearances. Their story arc was completely separated from everyone else’s and so are they.

Which doesn’t mean that they don’t deal with the shittiness of the showrunners every bit as much as the rest of the cast – or maybe even a bit more because the showrunners think their physical isolation gives them some sort of psychological advantage. Or simply because they are asshats. Which they most definitely are.

And that’s where one of the more interesting threads of the (book) series in general and this entry in it in particular comes in. Peter and Maria are playing shipwrecked Vikings. They are both big people – which is appropriate for the characters they play. So, while the books don’t specify that they are bigger than the usual Hollywood actors, it seems like good casting.

But the showrunners, being slimeballs, have a plan to make Maria – and by extension Peter, but honestly it’s aimed at Maria – go on a crash diet before her second season because they’re supposed to be starving on the island. And she refuses and makes it stick – even in the face of being fired and re-cast. Maria is righteously all about body positivity, and not wrecking her body for life for anyone or anything, and she’s very aware that her body positivity campaign has played extremely well in the media. AND that the slimy showrunners are already in trouble on every side and need her way more than she needs them.

Those showrunners pulled similar shitty stunts on the plus-sized heroines of both Spoiler Alert and All the Feels and got their heads handed to them both times, but it was terrific to see it happen again – with bells on – this time around.

Oh yeah, there’s a romance in here too. And it’s a bit of a heartbreaker – not that it doesn’t come around to an HEA in the end. As it should. Because ALL the best shipping fics do – no matter how much angst the characters have to go through along the way.

But it’s a heartbreaker both because they nearly break each other’s AND because they’ve had both of theirs broken so many times in ways that have nothing to do with romance but still rear their ugly heads when they might just manage to reach that HEA. Because they’re both afraid of getting left – again – and think they’d rather walk away than have it happen. Again.

Not that they’re both equally stubborn and clueless about it or anything like that.

Last but not least, and speaking of things coming around again, the book series as a whole is rooted both in fanfiction as a labor of love and in the complaints and gossip about the final seasons of the real TV series, Game of Thrones. Which also ran two seasons beyond the last published book in its series and also did “interesting” things with its characters and their arcs. Earlier in the book series I wondered whether Spoiler Alert  would lose the pointedness of some of its inside jokes after Game of Thrones finished.

But then House of the Dragon came along, a prequel series based on the same author’s work that is equally unfinished in book form. So we might have more of Spoiler Alert  to look forward to no matter how, if, or whether House of the Dragon ever floats your shipping boat.

And that is an EXCELLENT thing!

Review: Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desire by Sophie Barnes

Review: Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desire by Sophie BarnesMr. Clarke's Deepest Desire (Enterprising Scoundrels #2) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, Victorian romance
Series: Enterprising Scoundrels #2
Pages: 180
Published by Sophie Barnes on November 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

When an earl's daughter falls for a businessman in this secret identities Regency romance, she risks more than heartbreak when his connection to her past threatens her reputation...

How can he build a future with a woman whose father ruined his life?

Having recently suffered the death of her father, Rosamund Parker faces an uncertain future. Intent on retaining her independence, she plans to invest her modest inheritance. But the man whose help she seeks is as infuriating as he is handsome. For reasons she can't comprehend, he's set on thwarting her at every turn, even as he tempts her with kisses she ought not want.

Matthew Clarke needs funding for his locomotive business, but he'll not accept it from the Earl of Stoneburrow's daughter. As far as Matthew's concerned, that entire family can go hang. Unfortunately, Lady Rosamund seems to pop up wherever he goes. Ignoring the fire she stirs in him becomes an increasing challenge. But surrendering to it could prove disastrous. It could in fact ruin both their lives...

My Review:

Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desires, the second book in the Enterprising Scoundrels series after Mr. Donahue’s Total Surrender (I sense a theme in the titles, don’t you?) is a delightfully frothy bit of Victorian romance with some dark notes in the background. And a whole heaping helping of insta-lust in the lush foreground.

A part of me wants to make some terrible puns about Rosamund Parker and her need to have her engines overhauled – or at least her ashes hauled, but that’s not where this story begins. In a perverse way it began way back when, when her late, lamented, dear old dad couldn’t resist forcing their housemaid to haul his – will she or nill she. And of course he fired her when she informed him that she was carrying the inevitable consequence of his actions.

Now he’s dead and buried, and the mourning period has just officially ended. The reading of his will has left his daughter in a bit of a fix of a different sort. As the daughter (and only child) of an Earl, she knew she would not inherit his title or the entailed estate. But she expected a bit more than 500 pounds. Not per annum, but in total. Along with a binding clause that her uncle, the new Earl, was not permitted to maintain or support her.

(If you’re curious, that’s just over $60,000 in today’s dollars. A more-than-decent one year’s salary, but not nearly enough for a relatively young woman to live off of for the rest of her life.)

Rosamund, who does want to marry, also wants to have enough time going about the selection process to ensure that she makes a choice that satisfies both her head and her heart. So, instead of rushing into anything or anyone she plans to invest most of her money and life off the income from her investment while she makes a considered choice.

It’s a sensible plan, which makes sense. Because Rosamund is a very sensible woman. Also a very intelligent one.

But her plans go up almost literally in smoke when she meets Matthew Clarke, the owner of A&C Locomotive. Because Rosamund and Matthew strike more sparks from each other than any one of his engines do when they screech their brakes. Not that either of them can manage much of anything except almost literally screeching at each other.

Matthew’s mother was the housemaid that Rosamund’s father forced into his bed and then out the door, leaving both mother and 12-year-old Matthew destitute. Matthew refuses to take Rosamund’s investment money – no matter how much he actually needs it. He’s still carrying that grudge – and is an absolute ass about it to Rosamund even though she has no clue what he’s so angry about.

After all, she was all of 10 at the time and it’s not exactly a subject that any father would raise with his own daughter – particularly not in the Victorian Era!

But Rosamund is determined to invest in the burgeoning railroad industry, and Matthew still does need investors. Which means that they keep meeting – and meeting – and meeting at various gatherings of industry executives and potential investors. The more often they run into each other, the more sparks that fly – no matter how little Rosamund wants to believe the truth about her beloved father.

The push-pull of their relationship, the way that they hate each other but still want each other desperately, is hot enough to fuel a locomotive or ten without the use of coal. All they need to do is give in – before they make a mistake that will haunt the rest of their lives.

Escape Rating B+: One of the things that I really enjoy about the Enterprising Scoundrels series is that the heroes all work for a living. Admittedly it’s work among the wealthy and powerful, and they’ve done well for themselves, but it’s still real work that gives them real purpose. This is a series where happiness is not just the province of the idle rich to the point where it openly questions whether the idle rich are all that happy.

Matthew Clarke is an especially delicious hero in this mold because he’s a self-made man who has not either lost the threads of his humanity or obtained his wealth outside the law. Both of which are not uncommon backgrounds for heroes of historical romances.

What made this book downright refreshing is that even the bounder who tries to interfere with the romance between Rose and Matthew is really after Rose for her prodigious intellect and genius ideas, while her truly delectable person is icing on the cake of her splendid brain and not the other way around.

But speaking of that bounder, he’s not really a villain – at least not in the bwahaha sense that often happens. He’s out for himself and he does take advantage of a situation, but he doesn’t make the situation and he’s just not evil. Selfish and self-centered, but not beyond human reason.

So I didn’t leave this book, as I did Mr. Donohue’s Total Surrender, with the feeling that there were too many characters who did not receive the desserts they had so richly earned. If there is a villain in this piece it’s Rosamund’s father, and he’s already having that discussion with his Maker when the story begins.

I do have to say that I found the blurb for the book a bit deceptive. This isn’t really a story of secret identities. Rosamund and Matthew know exactly who each other is. She doesn’t know that he and his mother were once in service to her family – at least not at the beginning – but his business success wipes out most of that stigma. They do end up on the wrong end of a lot of social opprobrium, but it’s as a result of their actions in the present and not some hidden secret in either of their pasts.

While I’m not personally satisfied with the amount of groveling Matthew does over that incident, he does manage to screw his courage to the sticking point and fix things before it’s too late – with a whole lot of professional assistance from his soon-to-be bride. Which makes for happy endings all around – as they certainly deserved.

Review: Death on a Winter Stroll by Francine Mathews

Review: Death on a Winter Stroll by Francine MathewsDeath on a Winter Stroll (Merry Folger #7) by Francine Mathews
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: holiday fiction, mystery
Series: Merry Folger Nantucket Mystery #1
Pages: 288
Published by Soho Crime on November 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

No-nonsense Nantucket detective Merry Folger grapples with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and two murders as the island is overtaken by Hollywood stars and DC suits.

Nantucket Police Chief Meredith Folger is acutely conscious of the stress COVID-19 has placed on the community she loves. Although the island has proved a refuge for many during the pandemic, the cost to Nantucket has been high. Merry hopes that the Christmas Stroll, one of Nantucket’s favorite traditions, in which Main Street is transformed into a winter wonderland, will lift the island’s spirits. But the arrival of a large-scale TV production, and the Secretary of State and her family, complicates matters significantly.

The TV shoot is plagued with problems from within, as a shady, power-hungry producer clashes with strong-willed actors. Across Nantucket, the Secretary’s troubled stepson keeps shaking off his security detail to visit a dilapidated house near conservation land, where an intriguing recluse guards secrets of her own. With all parties overly conscious of spending too much time in the public eye and secrets swirling around both camps, it is difficult to parse what behavior is suspicious or not—until the bodies turn up.

Now, it’s up to Merry and Detective Howie Seitz to find a connection between two seemingly unconnected murders and catch the killer. But when everyone has a motive, and half of the suspects are politicians and actors, how can Merry and Howie tell fact from fiction?

This latest installment in critically acclaimed author Francine Mathews’ Merry Folger series is an immersive escape to festive Nantucket, a poignant exploration of grief as a result of parental absence, and a delicious new mystery to keep you guessing.

My Review:

The Nantucket Stroll sounds like a lovely holiday tradition. Setting this mystery at the time of the 2021 Stroll, just after the President’s own traditional visit with his family, the first visit and first ‘regular’ Stroll as everyone hopes the worst of COVID has passed grounds the mystery into the here and and the now.

(No, the President, whose identity is screamingly obvious – and also quite real as he and his family did visit Nantucket for the 2021 Stroll and do have a family tradition of attending – is not an actual part of this story. But the Secretary of State, who is very much and very obviously fictional – certainly does.)

After the President and his Secret Service detail leave the island, Police Chief Folger faces not one but two invasions. There’s the Secretary of State, her husband, his restless, shiftless adult child of a son, the Secretary’s security detail, her staff, her childhood on the island and her husband’s big ego and bad memories of the place.

Pretending that they are on the island for a happy family vacation is just a bit of a stretch.

Then there’s the even bigger incursion from Hollywood filming a direct-to-streaming TV series on the sprawling estate of THE local tech billionaire. Between the director, the co-stars, the producer and chief financial backer and all the other members of the cast and crew – not to mention their egos and outsized personalities, the horde at the property known as Ingrid’s Gift is even bigger than the gang that SecState brought home with her.

Not that all is exactly well in either of the invading “armies” but their problems are not Merry’s problem – at least not until the first dead body turns up, with links to more of the visitors in both parties than could possibly be explained by the long arm of coincidence.

Which Police Chief Folger, being a very good cop, does not believe in. At all.

Escape Rating A+: In spite of its small-town setting, Death on a Winter Stroll is not a cozy mystery, even though it’s a setup that could easily lend itself to one. But Merry Folger isn’t a cozy sort of person – and I like her a lot for that – and the murders she has to solve, at least in this outing – are far, far from cozy. Not so much the murders themselves – as cozies manage to cozy up all sorts of ways that people shuffle off this mortal buffalo. But the motives for these murders and the slime that is revealed in their investigation are simply not the stuff of which cozies are made.

But if you like your murder mysteries seasoned with the nitty-gritty of real life and real people – even really disgusting people – Death on a Winter Stroll is absolutely excellent. And Merry Folger is a terrific avatar for competence porn. She’s very human – not superhuman – but she’s extremely good at her job and not afraid to display it – especially to people who think she’s less-than because she’s relatively young, because she’s a woman, because she’s a small-town police chief and not a big city cop or federal agent – or just because they’re assholes used to throwing around their power and privilege.

Death on a Winter Stroll turned out to be a one-sitting read for me, I sunk right into it and didn’t emerge until I was done three hours later. I was completely absorbed in the mystery, the setting and the characters, and didn’t feel like I was missing anything at all, in spite of this book being book SEVEN in an ongoing series that began with Death in the Off-Season. Whether it’s because this is the first post-pandemic book in the series, or whether the author is just that good at keeping things self-contained, I got what I needed about Merry’s past – including the loss of her grandfather to the pandemic – without having read the previous books.

Howsomever, I enjoyed this so damn much that I am planning to get them all. This series has all the hallmarks of an excellent comfort read, and I need more of those. Doesn’t everyone these days?

In addition to liking Merry as a character, and being able to identify with her in all sorts of wonderful ways, I appreciated the way that the mystery in this story worked, and that it dealt with real, important and ugly issues without either sensationalizing them or trivializing them.

One of the things that also made this story work for me is that the red herrings were more than tasty. There was one character who started out in a hole – or at least a whole lot of suspicion – and couldn’t seem to stop digging himself deeper. It would have been an easy solution to make him the murderer – or to have the cops attempt to pin it on him. The actual solution was much more devious and it was great the way the investigation didn’t fall into the trap of zeroing in on the obvious suspect first.

There was both compassion and redemption for a lot of the people who got caught up in the mess. None of the solutions were easy, most of them included a lot of pain and either past or present trauma. But the characters felt real, Merry and her family, friends and colleagues most of all.

In short, I loved this mystery, am so, so glad that I joined this tour and was introduced to this author, and can’t wait until I have the chance to dive into the rest of the series. And I’m utterly gobsmacked that the author also writes the Jane Austen Mysteries as Stephanie Barron. I think I hear my virtually towering TBR pile piling up another turret!

About the Author:

Francine Mathews was born in Binghamton, New York, the last of six girls. She attended Princeton and Stanford Universities, where she studied history, before going on to work as an intelligence analyst at the CIA. She wrote her first book in 1992 and left the Agency a year later. Since then, she has written thirty books, including six previous novels in the Merry Folger series (Death in the Off-SeasonDeath in Rough WaterDeath in a Mood IndigoDeath in a Cold Hard Light, Death on Nantucket, and Death on Tuckernuck) as well as the nationally bestselling Being a Jane Austen mystery series, which she writes under the pen name Stephanie Barron. She lives and works in Denver, Colorado.

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Review: The Girl with the Emerald Flag by Kathleen McGurl

Review: The Girl with the Emerald Flag by Kathleen McGurlThe Girl with the Emerald Flag by Kathleen McGurl
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Collins on November 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A country rebelling
It’s 1916 and, as war rages in Europe, Gráinne leaves her job in a department store to join Countess Markiewicz’s revolutionary efforts. It is a decision which will change her life forever. A rebellion is brewing, and as Dublin’s streets become a battleground, Gráinne soon discovers the personal cost of fighting for what you believe in…
A forgotten sacrifice
Decades on, student Nicky is recovering from a break-up when a research project leads her to her great-grandmother’s experiences in revolutionary Ireland. When Nicky finds a long-forgotten handkerchief amongst her great-grandmother’s things, it leads to the revelation of a heartbreaking story of tragedy and courage, and those who sacrificed everything for their country.
Inspired by a heartbreaking true story, this emotional historical novel will sweep you away to the Emerald Isle. Perfect for fans of Jean Grainger, Sandy Taylor and Fiona Valpy.

My Review:

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” or so claimed both Winston Churchill and Nicky Waters, the late 20th century protagonist of this dual-timeline story about Ireland’s Easter Rising. But another quote about history, from another continent is equally apropos. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The early 20th century heroine of this story, that girl with the emerald flag herself, Gráinne MacDowd, witnessed the bending of that arc from its beginning in the Eastern Rising to what seems like its right, proper and fitting ending in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, bringing peace – more or less – between the Republic of Ireland and a Northern Ireland still controlled by Britain.

But it all begins, or at least this version of it, with a college student both being rebellious and studying rebellions, and her great-grandmother – who she calls Supergran (best name for a great-grandmother EVER) – who was in the rooms where a lot of a real and significant 20th century rebellion happened.

And has a story that she has been waiting nearly a century for someone to finally want to hear.

Escape Rating A-: Nicky Waters and Gráinne MacDowd are the same age at the opposite ends of their century. It’s only Gráinne’s long life and continued good health and mental acuity that allows this story to happen.

(It’s more plausible than one might think. A friend’s grandmother, not even his ‘Supergran’, crossed the US in a covered wagon with one of the last of the wagon trains and lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.)

I digress.

This story is told in two timelines. In 1998, the year that the Good Friday Agreement was, well, agreed to, Nicky Waters is a bit spoiled, a bit selfish, a lot self-indulgent, and trying to stretch her wings at uni. It’s her need for a project on historic rebellions that kicks things off – even though she resents her mother’s suggestion that Supergran’s experiences would make a fantastic springboard for her project.

But then, she resents her mother a lot at this point in her life. They love each other but don’t seem to be sympatico at all. Some mother-daughter relationships just go that way.

The heart of the book, both literally and figuratively, is Gráinne telling her story to Nicky. And telling it to the reader as she does.

Gráinne’s story takes place over an intense period of time from the fall of 1915 when she becomes the right-hand-woman of Countess Constance Markiewicz (see quote and picture above) through the Rising itself in its glory and its inevitable defeat. And its immediate aftermath, the nights when the survivors huddled together in Kilmainham Gaol and the mornings when they heard but could not see their leaders facing one firing squad after another.

Gráinne’s story brings Nicky up short, letting her see that rebellion without good purpose has no meaning. Nicky’s turnaround was a bit abrupt, but the harrowing events that her Supergran lived through make the story shine – even if sometimes with tears.

What makes this story so touching – although that’s nearly a big enough word – is the way that it allows the reader to experience this history making and in some ways history shattering event in a way that brings the Rising and the people who gave their lives for it to vivid life.

Gráinne and her beau Emmett are the only important characters in the story who are fictional. All of the leaders of the Rising are presented as they were, and this event is more than close enough in history that documentation exists for much of what Gráinne saw, heard and felt. Including the heartbreaking jailhouse wedding between Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford. (I honestly expected that to be a bit of literary license but it was NOT.)

Gráinne as a character reads as both plausible and aspirational. Women really did all the jobs she performed during the Rising, and she makes the reader hope that they would have done as well in the same cause. At the same time, her example leads her great-granddaughter to do and be better, by example and not by exhortation.

Any reader who loves historical fiction, or has any interest at all in Irish history and the Easter Rising will fall in love with The Girl with the Emerald Flag as much as I did. This story is terrific, and it’s told in way that both tugs at the heartstrings and practically compels the reader to look for more.

One final note. That arc of history is still bending. In the Good Friday Agreement, the politicians on both sides basically finessed some of long-standing issues through both countries’ membership in the European Union. Brexit brought many of those issues, particularly the economic ones – as well as questions about how to deal with the border – back to life. While this is not exactly part of this story, considering that it ends when it does as a way of attempting to close the circle, it’s difficult not to point out that the circle keeps on turning.

About the Author:

Kathleen McGurl lives near the coast in Christchurch, England. She writes dual timeline novels in which a historical mystery is uncovered and resolved in the present day. She is married to an Irishman and has two adult sons. She enjoys travelling, especially in her motorhome around Europe and has of course visited Ireland many times.

Social Media Links – 

https://kathleenmcgurl.com/

https://www.facebook.com/KathleenMcGurl

https://twitter.com/KathMcGurl 

 

Review: Cold Fear by Brandon Webb and John David Mann

Review: Cold Fear by Brandon Webb and John David MannCold Fear (Finn Thrillers, #2) by Brandon Webb, John David Mann
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Finn Thrillers #2
Pages: 432
Published by Bantam on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Finn's search for his memory of one fateful night leads him to Iceland--only to be followed by an unhinged assassin intent on stopping him--in the riveting follow-up to Steel Fear, from the New York Times bestselling writing team Webb & Mann, combat-decorated Navy SEAL Brandon Webb and award-winning author John David Mann.
Disgraced Navy SEAL Finn is on the run. A wanted man since he jumped ship from the USS Abraham Lincoln, he's sought for questioning in connection to war crimes committed in Yemen by a rogue element in his SEAL team. But his memory of that night--as well as the true fate of his mentor and only friend, Lieutenant Kennedy--is a gaping hole.
Finn learns that three members of his team have been quietly redeployed to Iceland, which is a puzzle in itself; the tiny island nation is famous for being one of the most peaceful, crime-free places on the planet.
His mission is simple: track down the three corrupt SEALs and find out what really happened that night in Yemen. But two problems stand in his way. On his first night in town a young woman mysteriously drowns--and a local detective suspects Finn's involvement. What's worse, a SEAL-turned-contract-killer with skills equal to Finn's own has been hired to make sure he never gets the answers he's looking for. And he's followed Finn all the way to the icy north.

My Review:

Cold Fear is every single bit as good as Steel Fear, but entirely different at the same time. Which may sound like a bit of a surprise for the second book in a series, but is absolutely excellent and completely riveting all the same – even if that riveting is more than a bit chilling in both the figurative and literal senses. Or perhaps especially because it is.

When last we left our hero, Navy SEAL Chief Finn had just disappeared into thin air, on the run from the agent and/or assassin he was certain was waiting at the dock to pick him up – or take him out – when the USS Abraham Lincoln came into port at the end of Steel Fear.

We meet him at the opening of Cold Fear watching the police cut a woman out of a frozen pond in a Reykjavik city park, on the trail of his missing memories of his team’s last operation in Yemen. He’s still not sure whether he himself committed the atrocity he only half remembers – or if he was merely set up to take the fall for it.

All he’s certain of about that operation is that someone on his team was rotten – and it might be him.

But he’s tracked three of his former teammates – who probably know the truth about that clusterfuck – to a contract job in Reykjavik. They’re on the hunt for someone – and he’s on the hunt for them.

Someone is also certainly hunting for him, but he believes he has a few days’ grace to get the information he needs – or at least the next link in the chain – and get out. But with the way that his missing memories and the possibilities of what he might have done during them haunts both his waking and his few sleeping hours, Finn is not exactly at the top of his game. Not nearly close enough to that top to recognize that he’s letting hope triumph over experience and that his pursuit is both closer and more numerous than he thought.

He should be concentrating on his own problems – he certainly has enough of them. But just as he did aboard the Lincoln, while he’s trying to cope with his own crap, of which there seems to be a literal metric shit-ton, he can’t seem to stop himself from getting involved with another murder.

At least this time he’s sure he didn’t do it. Which doesn’t mean he can resist finding out who did. Even if it gives his pursuit a little too much time to get a bead on him.

Escape Rating A+: While Cold Fear is every bit as excellent as Finn’s first outing, Steel Fear, the stories are completely different. Although Steel Fear wasn’t about the military, per se, it still had the feel of a military thriller because of its setting aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln and the way that the serial killer aboard the ship was manipulating the situation, the rules and regulations of the military, and all the people aboard.

Cold Fear is a bit of a cross between Nordic noir and police or investigator-led serial killer thrillers. (In tone, it reminds me a bit of The Silence of the White City – possibly because of the involvement of the local police). Finn’s investigation into his own situation often takes a backseat to the serial killer hunt being led by the Reykjavik police inspector – who can’t make up her mind whether she’s hunting for Finn or with him.

There are two tracks in this story that dovetail together. One is Finn’s search for the truth about his own past. The other is the search for the present serial killer – who is only in Reykjavik to hunt for Finn. So it’s all his fault even if it’s not directly all of his own making. Watching Finn juggle the two things so precariously creates a lot of the tension in the story.

Although Cold Fear is the second book in the series, it truly does stand alone. The first book is excellent but it is absolutely not necessary to read it to get into Cold Fear. The big thing that Finn learns in Steel Fear is that his memory has had holes in it because he experienced a childhood tragedy and suppressed the memory. Events in Steel Fear, although unrelated, brought that earlier tragedy back into light – and showed him that his past isn’t what he remembered it was. So his quest in Cold Fear is an attempt to close all the holes in his memory. He still doesn’t even know what it is that he doesn’t know when Cold Fear opens, so if the reader doesn’t know either they can learn together.

Howsomever Steel Fear is a riveting thriller and well worth reading. Don’t let the page count turn you away because it reads VERY fast in spite of the length.

And so does Cold Fear. I read the first two books in this series back-to-back because once I got into Steel Fear Finn’s story just wouldn’t let me go. Which means that now I have an unfortunately long wait for the third book, Blind Fear, which is planned for July 2023.

I’m certain it will be worth the wait!

Review: Conqueror by Anna Hackett

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

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

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

No matter what it takes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: A Matter of Happiness by Tori Whitaker

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

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

My Review:

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


1920 Jordon Playboy at Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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