Review: Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence

Review: Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie SpenceDear Fahrenheit 451: A Librarian's Love Letters and Break-Up Notes to the Books in Her Life by Annie Spence
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, libraries, nonfiction
Pages: 288
Published by Flatiron Books on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A Gen-X librarian's snarky, laugh-out-loud funny, deeply moving collection of love letters and break-up notes to the books in her life.

Librarians spend their lives weeding--not weeds but books! Books that have reached the end of their shelf life, both literally and figuratively. They remove the books that patrons no longer check out. And they put back the books they treasure. Annie Spence, who has a decade of experience as a Midwestern librarian, does this not only at her Michigan library but also at home, for her neighbors, at cocktail parties—everywhere. In Dear Fahrenheit 451, she addresses those books directly. We read her love letters to The Goldfinch and Matilda, as well as her snarky break-ups with Fifty Shades of Grey and Dear John. Her notes to The Virgin Suicides and The Time Traveler’s Wife feel like classics, sure to strike a powerful chord with readers. Through the lens of the books in her life, Annie comments on everything from women’s psychology to gay culture to health to poverty to childhood aspirations. Hilarious, compassionate, and wise, Dear Fahrenheit 451 is the consummate book-lover's birthday present, stocking stuffer, holiday gift, and all-purpose humor book.

My Review:

There’s a song in this book, or at least a subtitle, “To All the Books I’ve Loved Before”. And that observation also nicely encapsulates the level of snarky librarian attitude displayed throughout.

And this is also a terrific book to highlight Banned Books Week this week, as so many of the classics (and definitely less than classics) that the author pens her virtual missives to have been banned or challenged at one point or another.

Her letter to Fahrenheit 451 is every bit as meta as it should be. This absolutely timeless story about banning books has itself been banned multiple times in multiple places. Reading it reminds all of us librarians and our allies what it is we fight for when we fight for the freedom to read. And it’s a damn good book.

But the letter I particularly loved was her love letter to To Kill a Mockingbird, which has also been banned and challenged for decades. She loves it, because To Kill a Mockingbird is responsible for her lifelong love affair with books and reading. Not because she herself has read it, but because it is the book that turned her older sister into a lifelong reader. And it is her older sister who passed that gift that keeps on giving, to her.

There are love letters, and sometimes hate letters and snark-filled letters, to some other books that may not be classics, but still get regularly challenged. Like Twilight, which is as far from classic as it gets. Many people loved it, but that does not mean it will survive the test of time that makes a classic. Its derivative, Fifty Shades of Grey, also comes in for its fair share of that same attitude.

They’ve both been banned, Twilight for its witchcraft, and Grey for its sexuality. Having read both, these are books that I personally will be happy to see fall into the scrap-head of history – or the weeding pile of many libraries, but not as banning. They’ll always, and they should always, be available to whoever wants to read them. Which doesn’t mean that I’ll ever think they’re great lit – or even terribly entertaining lit. And yes, I read them both.

While her letter to Fahrenheit 451 is the author’s chance to talk about book challenges and book bans, many of her other letters and comments get into some of the nitty gritty of being a librarian surrounded by books. And involves some of the things that librarians have to do to maintain the libraries that surround them. Her letters to and about books that she is weeding, and the reasons that it may be time for some books to go, speak directly to the librarian in all book lovers.

And last but not least, of course, she makes book recommendations. It’s something we all do, because none of us can resist trying to matchmake every reader (and non-reader) with the perfect book for them.

Reality Reading B: I didn’t expect to read this cover to cover. It looks like the perfect book to dip in and out of. But the letters are like potato chips, you can’t read just one.

At the same time, I found myself wanting to quibble and argue with the author – as all book lovers are wont to do about what books they love best – and least. And it does have a bit of a feeling of “insider baseball”. I enjoyed Dear Fahrenheit 451 because it spoke directly to me as a librarian and reader. I have to wonder whether it will have that same effect on someone who is not both.

Except for Agatha Christie, who has definitely transcended her genre and become a “Classic”, the author doesn’t seem to be big on genre fiction. So if you’re looking for letters to science fiction, mystery or romance books, you won’t find much here. (If you’re looking, let me help. I’d be thrilled!) However, there are plenty of YA books that get a mentioned. Which is good, because there are plenty of challenges to YA books.

But the book does say a lot about the book lovers love of reading. And for that it’s awesome. And her letter to The One Hour Orgasm will absolutely leave you in stitches.

Review: Fool Me Once by Catherine Bybee

Review: Fool Me Once by Catherine BybeeFool Me Once by Catherine Bybee
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic suspense, women's fiction
Series: First Wives #1
Pages: 348
Published by Montlake Romance on September 19th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

From Weekday Brides to First Wives, a dazzling series about four women and their alliance of newfound friendship, unexpected love, and second chances.

Cynical divorce attorney Lori Cumberland lives by one motto: Love is grand, but divorce is a hundred grand. With one failed marriage under her own personal belt, Lori had fallen hard and early—and it isn’t something she plans on repeating. She’s content focusing on the temporary marriages of her rich and famous clients. When she joins some of her recent divorcées on a celebratory cruise, her only vow is fun, sun, and new friends. But Lori finds herself tempted by a jury of one.

For Reed Barlow, falling into the world of private investigation was easy. He knows the law and knows how to avoid breaking it—all while doing his job. His rule to live by? No emotion, no involvement…until Lori. His charming smile and cocky attitude distracts Lori and lowers her guard, which is exactly what Reed desires.

But what appears as a one-time-only flirtation may be a plot orchestrated by Reed. As he’s taking his investigation to a dangerous level, it’s Lori who could end up in jeopardy. Reed has only one shot for Lori to grant him a second chance. But if he comes clean with her, he blows his cover. And that just might cost him the opportunity for an alliance of family…and of love.

My Review:

As the old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on ME.” I still hear those words in Jimmy Doohan’s inimitable Scottish brogue, as the first time I ever heard this adage was in Star Trek: The Original Series in the episode “Friday’s Child”.

Although Fool Me Once is the first book in a spinoff series from Weekday Brides, you don’t have to read any of the first series to jump into the second. There are enough explanations about Alliance to get new readers right into the thick of things. But the Weekday Brides are awesome, so if you like Fool Me Once, you’ll love them, too.

The women featured in Fool Me Once and the First Wives Club are all Alliance veterans. Shannon, Avery and Trina were all contract brides, married to rich and/or powerful men in name only, for a year or so, in return for huge payouts at the end, when the inevitable divorce occurred. As intended. As contracted for by both parties.

Except it only works some of the time. Lori, the heroine of this story, is the legal brains behind Alliance. She writes those iron-clad pre-nups and sees all her clients from initial interviews to after-care when the divorce is final and the gossip inevitably hits the fan.

It doesn’t always work. About a quarter of the Alliance-arranged contracts have turned into real marriages. Considering that the divorce rate for non-arranged marriages is 50%, these are not bad odds. But Shannon, Avery and Trina are special cases.

Shannon made the mistake of falling in love with her ex. Two years later she still hasn’t gotten over it. Avery just got her divorce, and is ready to party. Trina’s situation is the one that ends in tragedy, and that sets this story in motion. Trina’s husband-in-name-only committed suicide while they were still married. As if that wasn’t enough, his mother died a few days later, leaving her entire fortune, not to her family, but to Trina. Who is overwhelmed with guilt and constantly in the cross-hairs of the paparazzi – and her father-in-law.

Lori may not believe in love and marriage after years as a divorce lawyer, but she does believe in taking care of her friends. And all of these women are her friends as well as her clients. Trina needs a getaway. And she needs company to help her get out of her funk, as well as to shield her from the press. It seems like a brilliant idea to get away for a week on a high-class cruise in the Mediterranean – but that just puts them in the midst of a whole new set of problems.

And that’s where Reed Barlow comes in. He seems like one of the solutions – not for any of the former Alliance brides, but for Lori herself. He looks like the perfect end to her very long dry spell, and the chemistry they ignite feels more than just physical. That he lives close enough to Lori’s home base in LA to make a continuation of their shipboard romance possible seems perfect. And so does Reed. Maybe just a little too perfect.

Because Reed isn’t part of the solution, he’s part of the problem. At least until he re-discovers his inner hero and changes sides. Too late to save their relationship, and possibly even too late to save Alliance and its secrets.

Or is it?

Escape Rating A-: Fool Me Once is a marvelous cross between romantic suspense and women’s fiction, and I loved every minute of it. As I have all of Catherine Bybee’s books that I have read so far. The number of kindle locations in Fool Me Once made me think that the book was a bit longer than the 350 pages it claims to be, and I didn’t care.

The women’s fiction angle comes in because so much of the backbone of the story is the relationship between the four women. They call themselves the First Wives Club because they’ve all been divorced, including Lori. But instead of the usual version, where the first wives got thrown over for the newer, younger model, these women ended up mostly where they thought they would, with a few kinks in the road. Instead, went into the arrangement intending to trade their contracted sugar-daddy husbands for newer, probably younger models who are their own choices.

Of course, the best laid plans of mice, men, and women often go astray. But the relationship that forms between these sisters-of-choice is forever. Readers who like Shannon, Avery, Trina and Lori will fall right in with them. They are all strong women with their own distinct personalities, but they are all different. It’s easy to identify with one or all of them, and that’s what makes the book.

The romantic suspense angle has its moments of extreme danger, but also plenty of intrigue and mystery. It’s clear at the beginning that Reed enters into the story with an agenda that is funded by someone else, someone who does not have the best interests of any of the women in mind. Although Reed changes sides (he has to or this wouldn’t be a romance) the person who set him in motion is not happy or satisfied, and will probably come back to haunt Shannon in particular and Alliance in general.

But the real mystery and danger in this story comes not from Lori and Reed, but from Trina’s case. Trina’s entanglement with her late husband’s family has caused a lot of resentment, and someone is willing to go through Lori to get to Trina, putting both of them in danger. The threat is very real and nearly catastrophic. At the same time, Trina’s unexpected inheritance provides her with a way forward that no one expected at the beginning. The ongoing story of her new adventures looks like a lot of fun.

When a hero screws up as much as Reed does (and sister does he ever) I usually need for the hero to do a really, really good grovel for the heroine to justify taking him back. While I’m not sure Reed groveled quite enough, he did save her brother’s life. That makes up for a lot of grovel. This HEA is earned!

At some point in this series, there might be a real “fool me twice” possibility. Shannon is, after all, in love with her ex. I can’t help but wonder whether her eventual HEA will be with him, or whether she’ll manage to finally wash that man right out of her hair. And I can’t wait to find out.

Review: Defending Hearts by Rebecca Crowley + Giveaway

Review: Defending Hearts by Rebecca Crowley + GiveawayDefending Hearts (Atlanta Skyline #2) by Rebecca Crowley
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: sports romance
Series: Atlanta Skyline #2
Pages: 236
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation on September 19th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When The Pitch Gets Personal

Atlanta Skyline's star Swedish wingback Oz Terim-or as the fans call him, the Wizard-has an airtight plan for his life, his career, even his meticulously renovated house, but he barely gives a thought to the Islamic faith he inherited from his Turkish parents. So no one's more surprised than he is when he's the victim of anti-Muslim hate crime. Refusing to take the threat seriously, he resists the security detail Skyline insists on . . . until he meets Kate Mitchell. There's no room for her in his plan and she's the exact opposite of what he wants. Then why can't he keep his hands off her?

After ten years in the military-and getting fired from her first post-Army job in Saudi Arabia-Kate Mitchell has slunk home to her Georgia roots. Private security isn't the career she dreamed of, nor is she thrilled to work with an uptight professional athlete who plays a sport she has no interest in. She never expected to be attracted to him-or for him to fall for her, too. As their opposite lives tangle up-and the threat against Oz grows more serious-Kate has to decide who she wants to be in life and in love.

"A well-crafted and very enjoyable sports romance that also delves into a timely subplot of the challenges faced by immigrants to America . . . Crossing Hearts delivers an exciting and passionate read." -allaboutromance.com

My Review:

I picked this one because I live in Atlanta. I always enjoy reading books about the place I live – or places I have lived. I still have a soft spot in my heart for books set in Alaska after three years there.

But this story isn’t really about the city, and the city doesn’t feature much in the story. Instead, this could any big city in the U.S. that is trying to get FIFA-level soccer established in the U.S. And there are lots of medium-to-large cities that could host a team.

The story in Defending Hearts is about more than soccer. Oz Terem could be a star player in any major league sport, and this story would still work. Because underlying the romance there’s a surprisingly in-depth story about irrational hatred and unthinking prejudice, and that’s the part that sticks with readers in the end.

Oz is not just the star player for the Atlanta Skyline. He’s also a practicing, admittedly somewhat loosely and extremely secular, Muslim who is seen visibly praying before each game. And some nutjob out there riding the current wave of Islamophobia has decided that Oz’ somewhat casual adherence to his faith means that he must be a terrorist or at least aiding and abetting terrorism.

When he’s really a soccer player who is otherwise doing a decent job of living his life and observing as much of his faith as he finds comfortable. While he may be of Turkish descent, he actually sees himself as Swedish, because that’s where he was born and raised.

But there’s someone targeting Oz with increasingly virulent threats on all of his social media accounts. The escalation has got his manager worried, enough so that the team decides to get security for Oz.

And that’s where our heroine, Kate Mitchell, comes in. Kate is ex-military, and is currently working for one of Atlanta’s frankly lesser lights in the personal security business. But she’s the agent available when a reluctant Oz and his manager come into the office, so she’s the agent they get.

Kate and Oz strike sparks off each other from the very beginning, even though neither is anything like the other’s type. Kate has a taste for big guys with bigger trucks, and Oz is working from his master plan – he’s not interested in anyone who isn’t wife material. Kate’s more of a Ms. Right Now type, and she’s trying her best not to keep settling for Mr. Right Now. Her track record with men mostly consists of disappointment.

Even though they may not fit each other’s ideas of what they thought they wanted – they are absolutely what each other needs. But as the threats to Oz escalate, and they turn towards each other, neither is certain whether the bond they are forging can survive either the resolution of the crisis or the vast differences between them.

And whether or not it should.

Escape Rating B: There’s something about Defending Hearts that gives it a bit of a “New Adult” feel, and it’s not just that Kate pops Oz’ cherry. While both protagonists are in their mid-to-late 20s, the decisions that they are making and their positions on their life plans (or lack thereof) give the story a New Adult vibe.

The romance also has elements of the “opposites attract” trope that really work. I would say that Kate is from the wrong side of the tracks, but I don’t think that Jasper, Georgia is big enough to even have tracks. It really does exist, and looks like it’s exactly the kind of small rural town that typifies Georgia in the popular mind outside of the big cities of Atlanta and Savannah.

Kate is also interesting because she’s not a typical romance heroine. Not just because of her military service, but because of the reasons behind it. She enlisted to get the hell out of tiny Jasper, got chewed up and spit out, and now that she’s back, she’s come to the realization that as much as she wanted to leave, and as much as her mom and her sister drive her crazy, they are her people and she loves them, and they love her, no matter what.

They need her, and not just because her contributions are what tides both of them over between men. And she needs them as well, even though she desperately wants to make sure she doesn’t fall into the same trap.

Oz on the other hand had a relatively privileged, upper middle class life in Sweden. Yes, he’s a rich diva because he’s a talented man at the top of a world-class sport, but even without soccer he comes from a far more educated and definitely privileged world. His parents are both professionals, and they were able to afford the coaching and training he needed to get him where he is at the time of the story. And unlike Kate, Oz didn’t merely graduate college, he graduated from Harvard, and that’s the rarified (at least from Kate’s perspective) atmosphere from which he draws his friends and his worldview.

Everyone indulges Oz, and he doesn’t even realize just how much they do. He needs Kate in his life because she doesn’t. She grounds him. And he gives her wings.

The crisis that throws them together, the anti-Muslim propaganda and hate-speech that escalates into stalking and violence, is integral to the story. It feels well-done and gives what might otherwise be a fluffy romance quite a bit of depth. And it’s instructive to see the male sports star, someone who is so obviously the good guy, as the victim of a hate crime. He has done nothing to bring any of this on himself. That the haters are so clearly the villains of this piece (and batshit crazy) may give at least a few readers some insights that might not have otherwise penetrated their bubble.

And that’s a good thing in any book, but especially in a good one.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away a digital (ebook) copy of Defending Hearts to one lucky commenter on this tour.

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

Review: Sugar Pine Trail by RaeAnne Thayne + Giveaway

Review: Sugar Pine Trail by RaeAnne Thayne + GiveawaySugar Pine Trail (Haven Point, #7) by RaeAnne Thayne
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, holiday romance
Series: Haven Point #7
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An unlikely attraction brings comfort, joy and unforgettable romance this holiday season!

Librarian Julia Winston is ready to ditch the quiet existence she's been living. She's made a list of new things to experience, but falling for Jamie Caine, her sexy military pilot neighbor, isn't one of them. Julia's looking to conquer life, not become the heartbreaker's latest conquest. But when two young brothers wind up in Julia's care for the holidays, she'll take any help she can get—even Jamie's.

Happy to step in, Jamie reveals a side of himself that's much harder to resist. Not only is he fantastic with kids, he provides the strength Julia needs to tackle her list. She knows their temporary family can't last beyond the holidays, but the closer she gets to Jamie, the more she wonders if things could be this merry and bright forever…

My Review:

It may only be September, but welcome to the first holiday book review of the year!

And we’re back in cozy Haven Point in this follow up to Serenity Harbor and my personal favorite in the series, Riverbend Road.

Sugar Pine Trail even ties up a bit of the story in Riverbend Road, right along with the series’ ongoing efforts to get all the Caine brothers of Caine Tech matched up with the women they’ve been waiting their whole lives for – even if they haven’t known it.

The hero this time around is Jamie Caine, the pilot. Jamie spends his days flying his brothers and the other executives of Caine Tech wherever and whenever they need to go. And his nights with a seemingly endless succession of beautiful but ultimately forgettable women who go in knowing that all they’ll get is a few good rides.

Jamie is a flirt and a charmer, and not in the least shy of using those charms to get whatever, or whoever he wants. While he’s not quite a player – he’s the closest thing that tiny Haven Point has ever seen.

Julia Winston, on that other hand, is the town librarian. And she seems to have bought into the stereotype just a bit too much, even though she’s only in her early 30s. Renting Jamie the upstairs apartment in her huge Victorian house is way outside her comfort zone – if only because Julia, along with more than a few women in town – has an unrequited crush on Jamie.

But Julia has also discovered within herself a desire to finally take charge of her own life, and to stop letting her fears hold her back from all the experiences that she once upon a time believed she wanted. Including an orgasm not brought about entirely by her own efforts.

Jamie’s not the only new male to enter her life. In an act of concern and charity, Julia follows home two little boys who seem to be living in the library – and who don’t seem to have an adult around. Once she discovers their true situation and brings social worker Wyn Emmett (the heroine of Riverbend Road) into the case, she learns that the only way that these two brothers can stay together for Christmas is if someone steps up and can foster them together while officials hunt for their missing.

To everyone’s surprise, including her own, Julia volunteers to step so far out of her comfort zone that there’s no looking back. She fosters them herself, knowing nothing about fostering and even less about take care of children.

Lucky for her, her new upstairs tenant comes to her rescue when she finds herself way, way over her head. Jamie not only takes the two boys under his wing, but manages to even charm her supercilious cats into purring under his hand.

And finds himself, in turn, charmed by the woman that Julia reveals as she opens her heart to the boys and lets her hair down, both metaphorically and physically with him. Once the starch is worn out of Julia, he discovers that the sweet, lovely and slightly flustered woman she is underneath is someone he can’t resist.

No matter how much he tells himself that he should.

Escape Rating B: I like Haven Point a lot. It’s a great place to visit, filled with lovely people that it is a joy to get to know.

On the one hand, the problem that pulls the lives of Julia and the two boys together is one that every library faces in some way, in both large and small places. At the end of the evening, it is not uncommon to discover one or two (or more) children who are too young to be left on their own but who don’t seem to have a responsible adult picking them up. Leaving them feels unsafe, but when it happens night after night, the staff who feel forced to stay overtime end up both worried and resentful. While calling the police seems heartless, it is often the only way to deal with the problem so that everyone, including the library staff, feel safe and protected.

Julia’s solution to this dilemma is unique, but the problem happens more often than people think, although usually not in such dire circumstances. As much as I applauded her in the book, at the same time, that she fostered the children herself made her feel like “not one of us” as did her continual harping on how she both fit and embraced the stereotype of librarian. As a group, we pretty much deride the stereotype whenever and wherever possible. It’s almost a game we play of complaining just how terrible and just plain wrong the old stereotype is.

Of course, readers who are not themselves librarians will not be bothered by this aspect. But I did want to shake her and drag her to a big library conference to see for herself.

The fears that held Julia back in so many ways, while they had nothing to do with being a librarian, felt all too real. She had created a shell around herself, for reasons that often made sense at the time. But her desire to break out of that shell and find out who she really wanted to be was well portrayed.

As a character, I liked Jamie and loved the way that he stepped in, stepped up and helped Julia figure out her sudden immersion in parenting. Not that he had any more experience as a parent, but he did have experience both as a sibling in a large family and in wrangling his nieces and nephews. As the only child of two only children, Julia’s life just hadn’t included much of those kinds of interactions. She needed his help, and as difficult as it was for her, accepting that help was necessary for her to grow up and to break out of that shell.

However, I’m not sure I really bought their romance. The relationship that Julia forged with the boys, and her heartbreak at the end, was sweet and crazy and just right. But I didn’t quite feel the chemistry between Julia and Jamie.

But I still had a great time visiting Haven Point for the holidays, and will be happy to make a return trip sometime soon. Maybe in the spring, when I won’t have to read about SNOW!

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I am giving away a copy of Sugar Pine Trail to one lucky continental US winner

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Review: Tramps and Thieves by Rhys Ford

Review: Tramps and Thieves by Rhys FordTramps and Thieves by Rhys Ford
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: M/M romance, mystery, romantic suspense
Series: Murder and Mayhem #2
Pages: 210
Published by Dreamspinner Press on September 18th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Whoever said blood was thicker than water never stood in a pool of it.

Retiring from stealing priceless treasures seemed like a surefire way for Rook Stevens to stay on the right side of the law. The only cop in his life should have been his probably-boyfriend, Los Angeles Detective Dante Montoya, but that’s not how life—his life—is turning out. Instead, Rook ends up not only standing in a puddle of his cousin Harold’s blood but also being accused of Harold’s murder…and sleeping with Harold’s wife.

For Dante, loving the former thief means his once-normal life is now a sea of chaos, especially since Rook seems incapable of staying out of trouble—or keeping trouble from following him home. When Rook is tagged as a murder suspect by a narrow-focused West L.A. detective, Dante steps in to pull his lover out of the quagmire Rook’s landed in.

When the complicated investigation twists around on them, the dead begin to stack up, forcing the lovers to work together. Time isn’t on their side, and if they don’t find the killer before another murder, Dante will be visiting Rook in his prison cell—or at his grave.

My Review:

Tramps and Thieves is a terrific follow up to its series opener, Murder and Mayhem. And it gets off to an equally explosive start. Last time it was a shoot out over a misidentified Wookie, this time it’s a prank heist that turns up a real murder, and nearly turns into one as well.

Rook Stevens has been fighting with most of his newly re-discovered family ever since his rich and eccentric grandfather discovered his existence back in the first book. His grandfather’s insistence on Sunday family dinners at his over decorated mansion have kept all the relationships on the boil – and none of them are brewing anything tasty.

So when his slimy cousin Harold winkles a collectible Maltese Falcon out from under Rook’s nose, Rook has to get it back. Being able to exercise his disused skills as a thief is just a bonus. Until Rook finds Harold in a pool of his own blood, with the contested Falcon resting on his corpse.

His killer tries to take Rook out on his way out, but when Rook calls the cops, he gets yet another variation of asshole who is just sure he must have committed the crime, and seems willing to bend the rules to make it stick.

LAPD Detective Dante Montoya rides to his lover’s rescue, and they find themselves in the midst of yet another pissing contest with a bad cop, and another trail of dead bodies that leads right to Rook’s door.

This time the question is whether it’s his own past that has caught up to him, again, or if it’s someone else’s. As Rook gets caught by one close call after another, he retreats to lick his wounds while Dante chases down the villains. Only to discover that it was Rook they were after all along.

And that he might be too late.

Escape Rating A-: If you like your romantic suspense with a heaping helping of chaos and destruction, this series is a winner from that first downed Wookie. In Tramps and Thieves, Rook and Dante are driven from crisis to crisis from the very first page, and the action doesn’t let up until the story winds to its breathtaking conclusion.

Where the first book, Murder and Mayhem, was all about Rook’s past reaching out to grab him, and his final decision to let it go, this second book is all about family. And both birth family and family-of-choice.

We see the influence of family-of-choice in Dante’s police partner’s reactions when Dante decides to investigate Rook’s sudden rash of problems on his own. They are partners, and the man rightfully will not let Dante go it alone, even if it is safer for his career.

Speaking of Dante’s partner, he is the link between this series and the fantastic Cole McGinnis series. And in a roundabout way, Cole almost gets dragged into this case. It’s always nice to hear that old friends are doing well.

But the heart of this case turns out to revolve around the birth family that Rook never knew he had until he stepped out of the shadows of his old life.

There are all sorts of variations on this saying, but the one that applies here is “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your relatives.” Rook may be the spitting image of his grandfather as a young man, but the family that has gathered around Archie Stevens hoping for a piece of his massive estate hates Rook with nearly every fiber of their collective being – some of them with more reasons than others.

He has stepped into a stew of boiling resentment, one that splatters onto him because no one wants to challenge the old man. And it’s in that stew that the bodies are bubbling. It’s messy from beginning to end, and an absolute page-turner.

I can’t wait to see what kind of chaos finds Rook and Dante next. If you want to get in on their action, there’s a blog tour for Tramps and Thieves going on now, giving away $20 gift certificates at every stop. There’s also a bit of a prequel story being spun out over the course of the tour. Check it out!

Finally, I gift you with an earworm. I have had this damn song running in my head ever since Rhys sent me the eARC for this book. As the song very much fits Rook’s shady background, I had to share, even though I know that no one will thank me later.

Review: A Casualty of War by Charles Todd

Review: A Casualty of War by Charles ToddA Casualty of War (Bess Crawford #9) by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, World War I
Series: Bess Crawford #9
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow on September 26th 2017
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From New York Times bestselling author Charles Todd comes a haunting tale that explores the impact of World War I on all who witnessed it—officers, soldiers, doctors, and battlefield nurses like Bess Crawford.

Though the Great War is nearing its end, the fighting rages on. While waiting for transport back to her post, Bess Crawford meets Captain Alan Travis from the island of Barbados. Later, when he’s brought into her forward aid station disoriented from a head wound, Bess is alarmed that he believes his distant English cousin, Lieutenant James Travis, shot him. Then the Captain is brought back to the aid station with a more severe wound, once more angrily denouncing the Lieutenant as a killer. But when it appears that James Travis couldn’t have shot him, the Captain’s sanity is questioned. Still, Bess wonders how such an experienced officer could be so wrong.

On leave in England, Bess finds the Captain strapped to his bed in a clinic for brain injuries. Horrified by his condition, Bess and Sergeant Major Simon Brandon travel to James Travis’s home in Suffolk, to learn more about the baffling relationship between these two cousins.

Her search will lead this smart, capable, and compassionate young woman into unexpected danger, and bring her face to face with the visible and invisible wounds of war that not even the much-longed for peace can heal.

My Review:

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And that’s how it seems for much of A Casualty of War, as every time that Bess Crawford attempts to make things better for Captain Alan Travis, she seems to end up digging the poor man an even bigger hole. Bess being Bess, she feels more than a bit guilty about it, and a whole lot responsible.

And it’s that sense of responsibility that gets her in deep trouble. As it usually does.

Bess’ war is ending. Not with a bang, but seemingly with a whimper, as the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 is noted by the chiming of a surgeon’s watch and nothing more at the forward aid station where Bess is currently stationed.

The guns may have finally been silenced, but there are still plenty of casualties pouring into the aid station, including Captain Travis. Bess met Travis once before, as the both spent a brief respite at a canteen in between trips back to the front. She found him pleasant, affable, intelligent and eager to return home to his family estate in Barbados.

Now he’s a patient, claiming that he was shot by someone on their own side. Not merely someone unknown, but his cousin James. His late cousin James. Very late. A year late. Whether James went up or down after his death in combat, he hasn’t been shooting anyone recently. On either side. For more than a year.

And that’s where the story kicks into gear and moves back to England. All the nurses who served in forward positions get sent home for two weeks’ leave, including Bess. She still has a duty to perform, but where that duty can best be provided is something that she’ll learn after a couple of weeks to rest and regroup. Or at least that’s what supposed to happen.

Instead, Bess takes on Captain Travis’ continuing case. Not his medical case, not exactly. Rather, the mess that she feels she helped to land him in. Bess feels as if she was the one to suggest that his supposed assailant, the one who Travis said resembled his great-uncle, might be his cousin James. So when it turns out that James has been dead for over a year, Alan Travis gets classified as a head-case and sent to increasingly worse care.

Shell shock was considered a moral failing, not a disease.

But Bess remembers the man she met in that canteen before he was wounded. She thinks he’s telling a version of the truth. And that he’s definitely not crazy. Just because it couldn’t have been James does not mean that there was not a very real assailant, one who resembled his cousin, in a British uniform, shooting at him. Not once but twice. As Bess treated both his injuries, she knows for certain that the shots were real. The only question is who fired them.

Bess finds herself involved in not just a giant mess, but also a small town mystery. It’s not just that something is wrong with the treatment of Captain Alan Travis’ case, but it turns out that something is also very wrong with the administration of his cousin Lieutenant James Travis’ will. And that those two messes are somehow one and the same.

It will be up to Bess, with the help of her friend (and her father’s right-hand man) Sergeant Major Simon Brandon, to figure out who did what to whom before it’s too late. Not just for Captain Travis, but also for Bess herself.

Escape Rating B+: After the Magpie Murders a couple of weeks ago, I have been itching to sink my teeth into a good historical mystery. I pulled A Casualty of War out of the TBR stack a couple of weeks ahead of publication just to scratch that itch. And I’m glad I did.

A Duty to the Dead by Charles ToddI have loved this series from its very beginning in A Duty to the Dead. And if you like historical mystery or are a fan of Maisie Dobbs in particular, that’s where I recommend that new readers begin Bess Crawford’s journey. While Bess finds herself in the middle of a case during every book, the series is also the story of Bess’ war as a combat nurse. Her journey begins in A Duty to the Dead, while in A Casualty of War it is obvious that her war is coming to an end. Which makes this book not the best place to start.

The war itself is winding down in this book. It actually has wound down, but that’s something we know from history and not something that Bess was 100% certain of at the time. What happened on November 11, 1918 was an armistice, which is not a peace treaty. While the guns were silent, it was still possible that they would roar again. Which of course they did, but not for another 20 years.

So part of the underlying theme to A Casualty of War is that Bess’ war, and her war service, are coming to an end. Bess, like many combat veterans, suffers from PTSD, even if it wasn’t called that then. Her experiences, many of them horrific, will be with her for the rest of her life. And unlike women of previous generations, Bess is used to serving, not just to being useful, but to having a profession and the professional respect and recognition to go with it. Adjusting to peacetime is going to be difficult.

It’s not surprising that Bess involves herself in a mystery during her leave. She doesn’t know what to do with herself if she’s not taking care of someone else.

One of the things that made this particular case frustrating, at least for this reader, is that it was obvious fairly early on that whatever was going on in the village of Sinclair and whatever was going on with Captain Travis were connected, and that the issue revolved around his cousin James Travis’ estate. While whodunnit was not remotely clear, if only because we hadn’t met the perpetrator at that point, the why of things felt obvious.

But one of the fascinating things about the case was the way that Simon Brandon and Bess worked together. Their relationship has always been interesting. Simon is a few years older than Bess, probably ten but not more than fifteen. He’s been a part of her life from her very earliest memories as he joined her father’s regiment in India when she was a child, and when he had to lie about his age to enlist. While he seems to act as an older brother, he certainly isn’t. He is certainly her protector, but his protection never encroaches on Bess’ agency or autonomy, not even when he fairly obviously wishes that he could. Nearly every man who asks Bess to marry him, and there have been several, wonders if Brandon is the reason that she refuses. And so does this reader. He is the one person in Bess’ life who understands and accepts her as she is, and not as he expects a woman to be in that time and place.

So the mystery in A Casualty of War had its anticlimactic moments, and also resembled bits of A Pattern of Lies. But the questions that it asks about not just Bess’ future, but the future of all who served in that war that did not end all wars and must now lay down their guns and their scalpels, remains an open one.

I can’t wait to see where Bess finds herself, and how she finds herself, next.

Review: Away With the Fairies by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Away With the Fairies by Kerry GreenwoodAway With the Fairies (Phryne Fisher Mystery #11) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #11
Pages: 241
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on August 1st 2017
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It’s 1928 in Melbourne and Phryne is asked to investigate the puzzling death of a famous author and illustrator of fairy stories. To do so, Phryne takes a job within the women’s magazine that employed the victim and finds herself enmeshed in her colleagues’ deceptions.

But while Phryne is learning the ins and outs of magazine publishing first hand, her personal life is thrown into chaos. Impatient for her lover Lin Chung’s imminent return from a silk-buying expedition to China, she instead receives an unusual summons from Lin Chung’s family, followed by a series of mysterious assaults and warnings.

My Review:

It feels as if Mr. Butler, Phryne Fisher’s butler and general factotum (particularly as portrayed in the TV series) , must be the direct ancestor of Summerset, Roarke’s majordomo in the In Death series. Or at least that’s what got me picking up Away with the Fairies, the next book in my Phryne Fisher series read, as I searched for comfort reading in the anticipation and wake of Hurricane Irma.

The murder victims in Secrets in Death and Away with the Fairies are also surprisingly similar. Both are women who operated in the gray areas that surround respectable journalism for their times. And both of them had an unhealthy interest in other people’s secrets, and the power that came with possessing those secrets and being willing to use that power.

And that’s what ultimately got both of them killed. It also makes neither of them a very sympathetic victim.

The victim is so unsympathetic in Away with the Fairies, that the case of Miss Lavender’s death isn’t even Phryne’s primary concern during the story. Instead, her sometimes desultory and often parceled out investigation into Miss Lavender’s seemingly unremarkable life and slightly puzzling death serves as a distraction to keep Phryne from her growing concern over her missing lover, Lin Chung.

His trip to China to purchase silks for his family business has gone on much longer than he planned, and Phryne’s dreams of his body being food for rapacious vermin are a disturbing message that something is very, very wrong. A message that is confirmed when Phryne receives Lin’s severed ear and a request for ransom from the pirates who have captured him. Phryne marshalls her best resources, in this case Bert and Cec, to find out everything that can be found about South Sea piracy, and prepares to rescue Lin, even if she must take on the pirates herself.

She’s more than capable of defeating them, single-handed if necessary. Just as soon as she knows where to hunt them down.

But Miss Lavender’s death niggles at her. The more she and her agent, in this case the resourceful Dot, discover, the more motives she finds for the woman’s death. It seems to have been inevitable that someone would finally bump her off, the question is, who managed to do it?

Escape Rating B: This was my second hurricane book. I was having no luck concentrating on anything more serious, or anything where I wasn’t already intimately familiar with the world within. As much as I love to really sink my reading teeth into good and deep worldbuilding, this just wasn’t the time.

When I’m looking for comfort read, I always turn to Phryne, and am swept away – if not quite as far away with the fairies as the victim in this case.

A bit of the story in Away with the Fairies reminded me fondly of Murder Must Advertise from the Lord Peter Wimsey series. Just as Wimsey infiltrates an advertising firm to investigate a murder, Phryne inserts herself into the ladies magazine where the victim and many of her suspects work. While Phryne never pretends to be anything other than who she is, she does conceal her profession as a detective until someone else lets that cat out of its bag.

Just as in yesterday’s Secrets in Death, the victim is a nasty piece of work – albeit on a much smaller scale this time around. She was always poking her nose into other people’s business, and using the knowledge gained to elicit small rewards and small revenges. It is amazing that she lived as long as she did, considering that her life was spent in two relatively small worlds where everyone knew her and ended up disliking her at best and fearing her at worst.

Her signature eccentricity about drawing and writing about fairies never felt fully explained or fully realized. It certainly made her stand out, and it also provided her with a modest living as a writer and illustrator, but it was so excessive that it felt as if it needed a bit more explanation, especially when combined with Phryne’s discovery that the profusion of fairy paraphernalia that overwhelmed the public areas of her apartment was not replicated in her private spaces, which were neat, orderly and most of all, uncluttered.

Having recently re-watched the first season of the TV series, the difference between the TV and literary versions of this story stand out even more clearly. The subplot revolving around Phryne’s concern for Lin Chung and her subsequent rescue of him are completely scrapped in the TV version for the weaker and much less compelling murder investigation. And even though I understand why, the story definitely loses something in translation. The story is much stronger in the book. Miss Lavender’s case was too slight and inconsequential to carry the whole story, and it’s better here where it doesn’t.

But I am always happy to visit with Phryne. And I look forward to reading Murder in Montparnasse, the next time I need a comfortable little murder. To read about, that is.

Review: Secrets in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Secrets in Death by J.D. RobbSecrets in Death (In Death, #45) by J.D. Robb
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: futuristic, mystery, romantic suspense
Series: In Death #45
Pages: 370
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 5th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A new novel in the #1 New York Times bestselling series: Lt. Eve Dallas must separate rumors from reality when a woman who traffics in other people’s secrets is silenced.

The chic Manhattan nightspot Du Vin is not the kind of place Eve Dallas would usually patronize, and it’s not the kind of bar where a lot of blood gets spilled. But that’s exactly what happens one cold February evening.

The mortally wounded woman is Larinda Mars, a self-described “social information reporter,” or as most people would call it, a professional gossip. As it turns out, she was keeping the most shocking stories quiet, for profitable use in her side business as a blackmailer. Setting her sights on rich, prominent marks, she’d find out what they most wanted to keep hidden and then bleed them dry. Now someone’s done the same to her, literally—with a knife to the brachial artery.

Eve didn’t like Larinda Mars. But she likes murder even less. To find justice for this victim, she’ll have to plunge into the dirty little secrets of all the people Larinda Mars victimized herself. But along the way, she may be exposed to some information she really didn’t want to know…

My Review:

Watching the trees whip back and forth in the wind, waiting out Tropical Storm Irma, I scrapped everything I was planning to read and went looking for comfort, for books that I knew would sweep me into their worlds from page one – because I’d been there many times before.

Lucky for me, I had a copy of Secrets in Death in the towering TBR pile, and I can always get caught up in Eve Dallas’ near future New York, whether any particular entry in the series is stellar, or as they sometimes are, just a visit with some very dear old friends.

Secrets in Death, while not quite at the top of the series, was a terrific way to kill a hurricane day by losing myself somewhere else.

As the story begins, Eve is having drinks with forensic anthropologist Garnet DeWinter at an upscale wine bar that Dallas normally wouldn’t be caught dead in, when a dead body literally drops into her lap – or at least dies in her arms. The DB (dead body) is instantly recognizable, not just to Eve and Garnet but to nearly everyone in New York City. Larinda Mars was a screen (read that as TV) gossip reporter with an ear for finding the worst dirt on the best people – or perhaps the other way around.

Even as little as Eve plugs into popular culture, she’s aware that there are plenty of people who will be happy to learn that the scum-sucker is dead – and that’s before Eve learns that Mars didn’t put all her best stories on the air. It turns out that the victim had a sideline, an extremely lucrative sideline, in blackmail.

Larinda Mars had plenty of victims. It’s all too easy for Eve to guess that one of those victims finally turned Mars into theirs. But which one? The line forms around the block, not just the block where Mars ostensibly lived, but also around the block where she hoarded her ill-gotten gains. She liked digging the dirt, she loved having people under her pwoer and she relished making enemies.

But she was incredibly good at judging her marks. Not just who would, and could, pay. But who would be willing to pay (and pay and pay) in order to protect not themselves, but to protect someone else that they loved. Because Larinda didn’t just go for current scandal. That was too easy. She specialized in combing through people’s pasts for secrets buried by decades. And if there wasn’t any current vulnerability, she was more than happy to manufacture evidence to link those scandals to the present.

Larinda Mars was scum. But now she’s Eve’s scum. And it’s up to Eve to find justice for the dead – even as the living cry out for their own.

Escape Rating B+: This was an absolutely delicious story. And more than a bit perverse in that deliciousness. Because, like Eve, the more we find out about Larinda Mars, the less sorry we are that she’s dead.

In order to discover the motive for Mars’ death, Eve has to wade through the deep shit (and there is no other word for it, crap does not even come close!) that made up her life. Mars had an absolute genius for discovering people who had something to hide. But hers was a peculiarly insidious type of genius, because she looked for especially vulnerable people whose secrets protected someone else.

She dies in the middle of one of her shakedowns. And we end up feeling much sorrier for her escaped victim than we do for her. And he’s just the tip of her very slimy iceberg.

A big part of the pleasure in this particular book is watching this disgusting woman’s empire of sleaze unravel. There’s a guilty pleasure in the whole investigation – at least until there’s a second victim. It’s only then that the reader, or possibly anyone investigating the cases, feels any regret. Mars was such a scum-sucker that it’s almost impossible not to see her death as some kind of divine retribution – or merely karma being an absolute bitch.

The second death is nothing like the first, but it does expose the murderer. And it’s a good thing that the story wraps up quickly at that point, because after all the glee of tearing down Mars, the takedown of the actual murderer is more than a bit anticlimactic – as is the individual.

Two final comments about Secrets in Death. This was the second book in a month where death was caused by severing the victim’s brachial artery. The first was in Thief’s Mark. For two books that have to have been in separate pipelines for several months if not years to use the same relatively uncommon (at least for fiction) cause of death was coincidental. But it bothered me until I remembered what the other book was.

Gossip columnists, and the damage they do, have been around a long time. That they would continue to be popular and hated in Eve Dallas’ near-future is not really a surprise. But there was something about this story that tickled an old memory, not related to the cause of death. If you’ve ever heard the song Dirty Laundry” by Don Henley, you’ll recognize all the things about gossip columnists that we love to hate. Some things look like they are never going to change. If you’ve never heard the song, I’ve included a parody video here that really plays up all the aspects of this kind of “news” that people love to hate. And while the video is a parody, the song in the background is the real song. Even though “Dirty Laundry” is now 35 years old, it still rings true. And probably will in Eve Dallas’ time.

Review: Fatal Charm by Blair McDowell

Review: Fatal Charm by Blair McDowellFatal Charm by Blair McDowell
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: romantic suspense
Pages: 252
Published by The Wild Rose Press on September 8th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & Noble
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A perilous scheme to thwart ruthless adversaries hurtles successful young jewelry designer Caitlin Abernathy from her comfortable California studio to the streets of Paris and the beaches of Brittany as she attempts to return a priceless stolen heirloom to the Louvre.

Colin Stryker, the devastatingly handsome history professor from Ireland who has appointed himself her protector, fights to rescue her before her captors add murder to their crimes, while at the same time unraveling the torturous train of events that led to the original theft.

With every moment fraught with danger, can the chemistry already sizzling between the two ignite into passion?

My Review:

Like all of Blair McDowell’s marvelous books, Fatal Charm is a non-stop romantic suspense thrill ride from beginning to end. And in addition to the edge-of-your-seat danger that the heroine is dropped into, we have an enchanting love story as well as a great story about the depths of friendship and just how terrific the love of a family-of-choice can be.

Jewelry designer Caitlin Abernathy is thrown into a boiling hot mess at the beginning of this story, and doesn’t manage to climb out until the very, very end. And the reader is right in the pot with her the whole time.

Her ex turns up dead. Except he’s not really her ex – not because they never broke it off, as seems usual in this kind of story, but because they never seem to have gotten it on in the first place. Allen Thompson was a friend who seemed to want to be more than that, but Caitlyn just never felt any spark.

Not getting any more deeply involved with Allen was possibly the wisest thing she’s ever done. Which doesn’t stop the man from landing her in the soup as he dies. At which point, Caitlin discovers not just that he’s left her with an epic mess, but also that nothing the man ever told her seems to have had much bearing on the truth.

Caitlin thought Allen was an accountant. From Canada. When in fact, he was a high-end thief, a very wanted man on the run, and from France. And those lies are only the beginning.

Allen left Cait with a very hot piece of jewelry, hidden among her samples and uncut stone. It’s a dragon. And everyone who has ever possessed the thing seems to have found themselves in a whole mess of fiery trouble – ending with Allen and Caitlin and beginning with Marie Antoinette. Allen, really Alain, stole the pretty little firebreather from the Louvre, and it’s been nothing but trouble before and since.

When two mysterious and nasty men steal first Caitlin’s sample case, then break into both her shop and her house, her defenders rally round and the mystery begins to unravel. It’s certainly unraveling Cait, while ravelling both her assistant Aristotle Jones and his professor Colin Stryker into the web.

Aristotle and Cait have been friends for five years. In spite of completely different origins, coming from entirely different places, Aristotle and Cait have become a family of choice. There is never any hint of romance, and there never was and never will be. They are brother-and-sister. But Aristotle is currently a doctoral candidate at Berkeley, and when he brings his mentor Colin Stryker to Cait to see if they can figure out what is going on with the little dragon, well, Colin’s feelings for Cait are anything but brotherly.

Still, both Aristotle and Colin close ranks firmly around Cait as they figure out where the dragon came from, what it is, how it ended up being Cait’s problem, and what they should collectively do about the deadly and disastrous little creature.

All the while dodging two increasingly desperate villains who are determined to get the dragon back and get revenge on anyone who keeps it from them, at any cost.

Escape Rating A-: Just as with all of this author’s work, Fatal Charm kept me going back to its mystery and adventure all day long, until I finally gave in and just finished it. I started at lunch and in spite of work and other annoying interventions, couldn’t stop myself from turning the last page after midnight. I just had to see how it all turned out.

The romantic part of this romantic suspense is both simple and complicated. On the simple side, it’s pretty clear that Colin and Cait fall for each other the minute they meet. On the complicated side, they both resist the pull, and for good and sensible reasons. Colin’s last attempt at real romance went down in flames. Cait, while she managed not to “settle” for Allen, is still left not trusting her own instincts. She never even suspected that he lied about EVERYTHING.

And there are plenty of more mundane factors keeping them apart as well. Colin is nearly 40, and worried that he’s a bit too old for the 20something Cait. But more than that, there’s a geography problem. Colin is only a visiting professor at Berkeley – his home is in Ireland. Cait’s life, reputation and means of making a living, work that she loves, are all in California. Neither of them really believes a long-distance relationship can work, even if they survive the current mess they’ve landed in.

That mess provides the suspense angle for this story, and it’s a pot that keeps boiling from the very beginning until the almost bitter end. The brooch unravels secrets on multiple continents, revealing truths and lies about people that Colin has loved and trusted for decades. In order to solve the mystery, he’ll have to believe that some of his dearest friends have been lying to him, just as Cait discovered that Allen was lying to her.

The danger never lets up, and overtakes them all more than once. But in the end, those tasty just desserts are passed around to those who deserve them, and our heroes finally figure out what might be their best chance at a happy ending. If only they can manage to grab it.

If you love well-crafted romantic suspense where the mystery is every bit as mysterious as the romance is romantic, check out Blair McDowell’s work. I found her through a book tour five years ago, and she is one of my happiest discoveries. From the very first book, Delighting in Your Company, she’s kept me enthralled every single time. My only disappointment is that she takes time writing and researching her books (which is a good thing!) so that I only get one of her gems per year. A treat every single time.

Review: The Prisoner in His Palace by Will Bardenwerper

Review: The Prisoner in His Palace by Will BardenwerperThe Prisoner in His Palace: Saddam Hussein, His American Guards, and What History Leaves Unsaid by Will Bardenwerper
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, nonfiction
Pages: 272
Published by Scribner on June 6th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the haunting tradition of In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song, this remarkably insightful and surprisingly intimate portrait of Saddam Hussein lifts away the top layer of a dictator’s evil and finds complexity beneath as it invites us to take a journey with twelve young American soldiers in the summer of 2006. Trained to aggressively confront the enemy in combat, the men learn, shortly after being deployed to Iraq, that fate has assigned them a different role. It becomes their job to guard the country’s notorious leader in the months leading to his execution.

Living alongside, and caring for, their “high value detainee” in a former palace dubbed The Rock and regularly transporting him to his raucous trial, many of the men begin questioning some of their most basic assumptions—about the judicial process, Saddam’s character, and the morality of modern war. Although the young soldiers’ increasingly intimate conversations with the once-feared dictator never lead them to doubt his responsibility for unspeakable crimes, the men do discover surprising new layers to his psyche that run counter to the media’s portrayal of him.

Woven from first-hand accounts provided by many of the American guards, government officials, interrogators, scholars, spies, lawyers, family members, and victims, The Prisoner in His Palace shows two Saddams coexisting in one person: the defiant tyrant who uses torture and murder as tools, and a shrewd but contemplative prisoner who exhibits surprising affection, dignity, and courage in the face of looming death.

In this artfully constructed narrative, Saddam, the “man without a conscience,” gets many of those around him to examine theirs. Wonderfully thought-provoking, The Prisoner in His Palace reveals what it is like to discover in one’s ruthless enemy a man, and then deliver him to the gallows.

My Review:

Today is September 11, 2017, the 16th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, otherwise known as 9/11. As though nothing else ever happened, or ever will, that will ring through history the way that September 11, 2001 did. And that’s possibly true. Even the historic hurricane currently sweeping through Florida, while momentous, isn’t quite as earth-shattering. 9/11 was a day where the universe changed, where before and after are sharply and irrevocably separated.

While Saddam Hussein was not one of the architects of the 9/11 attacks, it is certainly possible to trace a direct line from the events of 9/11 to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled his dictatorship.

This is not a book about the war. Not the U.S. invasion of 2003, nor about the the Gulf War of 1990. Although in some ways it’s about both. A part of me wants to say that the book is about the “banality of evil”, but if there is one thing that Saddam Hussein never was, it is banal.

Instead, this feels like a book about the faces that humans wear, and about one particular human being who wore the face of evil, but only among many, many others. That evil face, the one that the world righteously condemned him for, is not the face that his guards saw. They saw a charismatic and kindly old man. While they were all aware of the evil that he had done, and none ever believed that he was innocent or should be freed, they still guarded someone who was much different. They all went in expecting a monster, only to discover that he was just a man.

The story here is about the twelve young American soldiers, the group that self-deprecatingly named themselves the “Super Twelve”, who had the duty of guarding Saddam Hussein in one of his own palaces during the lengthy course of his trial, right up to his inevitable execution.

The process took well over a year. That’s plenty of time for a group of people to gradually shift from guarded adversaries to respectful acquaintances, if not friends. And that is what happened. Unlike the common perception of “the rich and powerful”, which Saddam certainly was, in his incarceration and forced proximity to these soldiers he acted as a respectful and respected guest, and was treated for the most part accordingly. What small freedoms and little comforts could be provided to the old man, they did. And he appreciated them.

This book is about the relationship that formed among this isolated group. The Super Twelve, the medic who monitored Saddam’s health, the interrogators, and Saddam Hussein. Their camaderie with the prisoner seems odd to the reader, but yet it makes sense. Not only were they all stuck with each other, but they were prohibited from telling anyone what their duty assignment was. The only people they could talk to were each other.

And their prisoner.

Reality Rating A-: This is a hard book to describe, but a surprisingly easy one to get lost in. There are a lot of things packed into this slim volume, and all of them are thought-provoking in one way or another.

It is not really a surprise that the guards became friendly with the prisoner. Or not as the story turned out. If Saddam had been a demanding dictator within the limits of his confinement, the guards would probably have maintained their distance even over the extended time period. But that’s not what happened. Instead, he treated his guards with respect and even affection, and both the respect and affection were returned. They all knew what he’d done, but it didn’t have an effect on his treatment of them or theirs of him.

Instead, many of the guards felt as if this was the first time in Saddam’s life when he was safe. Ironically so, but still, safe. Whether or not he deceived himself about the inevitability of his execution, he was absolutely certain that none of his guards were going to kill him in his sleep – something that had not been true for his entire life. That lack of paranoia led to a lot better rest and attitude – possibly for everyone.

The author does detail enough of Saddam’s atrocities, and there were many, to make the reader certain that the man was the author of countless heinous acts. Even though he may not have seen them as anything more than necessary to cement and maintain his power, there is never any doubt that he was a brutal dictator who used fear and cruelty as potent and effective weapons.

Which does not affect the doubts of any of the soldiers, or of the reader. Not that he deserved death, but, to quote another influential character, “Deserves [death], I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Even as the trial is being conducted, the sectarian violence in Iraq not only continues, but escalates. Even from the soldiers’ limited perspective, there does not seem to have been a plan for what was to happen after Saddam’s capture. And the manner of his execution only feeds the violence. One of the questions that lingers is whether or not the invasion made anything better. War is easy. Hell, but easy. Regime change, on the other hand, while it is also hell, is damn hard. Especially on the people whose regime is being changed.

What we’re left with is the aftermath, not just for the country of Iraq, but on a personal level for those men who guarded and lived with Saddam Hussein in his final months. Watching a man that they had all developed relationships with go to his death punched an unexpected hole in all their lives. Being forced to stand by while his corpse was desecrated made them all sick and heartsore.

Saddam may have died, but none of them recovered. And their reaction haunts me.