Review: Flirting with Fifty by Jane Porter

Review: Flirting with Fifty by Jane PorterFlirting with Fifty by Jane Porter
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Modern Love #1
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on May 24, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

A sexy and sparkling later-in-life contemporary romance about a woman who leaps out of her comfort zone and takes a chance on love by New York Times bestselling author Jane Porter.
Paige Newsom is finally at a place in her life where she's comfortable. She loves her job as a college professor in Southern California, lives close enough to her mother to visit her regularly, and has three daughters who are flourishing in their own careers. Paige has no plans to upend her life again after her divorce eight years ago, but she's about to embark on a new adventure: co-teaching a course that includes a three-week international field study.
Paige can think of a dozen reasons why she shouldn't go, one being a dazzling Australian biologist who will be teaching alongside her. Professor Jack King is charismatic, a world traveler, and more like Indiana Jones than Indiana Jones, all of which unsettles Paige, who prides herself on being immune to any man's charms. As the two co-professors lead the rigorous program together, first on campus, then in beautiful Tanzania, Paige's biggest challenge will be working closely with Jack while resisting the undeniable chemistry she feels when she's with him.

My Review:

“We are too soon old, and too late smart” – at least according to an old Dutch proverb. Flirting with Fifty is the story of a woman who seems to be caught at the balance point between those two states.

Paige Newsom is just about to turn 50. The big 5-0. But it doesn’t seem all that big a deal to Paige, who finally has her life arranged the way she thinks she wants it. She has a marvelous job, in a place that’s close enough to home to feel “just right”. Also close enough to visit her mother back home on a regular but not too frequent basis.

Her career may have not hit stellar heights, but she’s done well enough for herself and she’s stable enough to be able to afford a home in coastal Southern California, have enough to help out her grown daughters when they need it, and save for her retirement.

Now that’s a bit closer than she likes to think about. Not that she won’t have enough saved. And not that being retired and alone isn’t amazingly better than being retired with her narcissistic, alcoholic, emotionally abusive, bullying ex-husband. It wasn’t all bad, after all, she got her girls out of it and they are her heart, but she stayed more than long enough to make her swear off all men.

So she’s not interested in meeting someone new. At all. Ever. Which means that shaking Paige out of her comfortable but slightly lonely romantic rut is going to require the re-introduction of someone from her past.

Jack King wasn’t the one that got away because Paige never let it get that far. Their one-night stand almost 30 years ago rocked her world. But she saw at the time that she could fall and fall hard for him, someone who clearly wasn’t ready to settle down or settle with someone. Or so she thought at the time.

Of course, at the time, she was only 20 and Jack was 25, pretty much a long time ago in the equivalent of a galaxy far, far away. Actually it was Paris, France, which was pretty damn far away from Paige’s home in SoCal.

Jack’s become a superstar in his field of studying climate change and human effects on the planet. He has his own show on the Discovery Channel and teaches around the world. He’s rather like a 21st century Indiana Jones – without the whip and the aversion to snakes.

And Jack is coming to her university in Southern California to team teach his specialty class and needs a co-teacher for the class who teaches advanced math and statistics. Her Dean has just voluntold her that she’ll be Jack’s co-teacher for the semester.

She’s mortified. Jack is intrigued. Because for him, Paige IS the one that got away. And this time he’s not planning to let her run off in the middle of the night before he has the chance to tell her how he really felt all those years ago.

And how he feels now.

Escape Rating A: I picked this up because of how rare it is to see a romance that centers people past their 30s. The only other one I can think of is Jasmine Guillory’s Royal Holiday. (Which was terrific and well worth a read!) Not that there isn’t plenty of women’s fiction where the story centers around a woman and her daughters where a romance occurs for the mother – not that I don’t love LOTS of those books – but those don’t center the romance the way that Flirting with Fifty does.

What made this work so well is that Paige is more-or-less content in the life she has created for herself. She has what she needs and most of what she wants and she’s not looking for more. It’s a good life. It also works well that we see enough of her thoughts and memories about her ex-husband to understand why she’s in the emotional place she’s in without dwelling on his abuse. She’s still affected by the past – as we all are – but her regrets don’t consume her.

She’s also mature enough to acknowledge that her actions with Jack in Paris happened the way they did because she wasn’t mature at all. She was young and insecure – not too surprising at 20 – and couldn’t cope with her own feelings. She was embarrassed and overwhelmed and she ran instead of dealing with him in what might have been a very awkward morning after.

The romance is lovely because they don’t pick up where they left off. There’s a lot of water under that bridge, and the only way to see if they have something now is to let it happen slowly if it’s going to happen at all. They move from colleagues to friends to more than friends to lovers in a hesitant but natural progression.

It makes sense that way. They’re not who they were 30 years ago. Who is? But they’re also not NOT who they were. Their younger selves are still inside them, and those selves have, if not exactly regrets, at least a certain wistfulness about that road not taken. So this time they decide to take a few steps down that road and see how it feels.

The other thing that made this story work is the way that the author captures the combination of the giddiness of falling in love again with the issues of already having lives and plans that will need to be adjusted and cooperated over to make anything work. And that both of them have pasts that are guaranteed to bite the relationship in the ass at times. As Jack’s certainly does.

He does an excellent patient grovel when required. It’s not glossed over and it’s not leapt past. Which meant that their HEA felt earned and included the acknowledgement that the “ever after” past of that equation was never going to be as many years as it might have been – but that those years will be filled with love.

As they should be.

I am utterly thrilled to learn that this is the first book in a series of romances centered on later-in-life couples. The next book, Flirting with the Beast, is coming in November. YAY!

Reviewer’s Note: As much as I loved Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, the picture of Jack King in my head is Sam Neill – probably because of the accent. Your imaginary casting mileage may definitely vary.

Review: When She Dreams by Amanda Quick

Review: When She Dreams by Amanda QuickWhen She Dreams (Burning Cove, #6) by Amanda Quick
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, paranormal, romantic suspense
Series: Burning Cove #6
Pages: 320
Published by Berkley Books on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook

Return to 1930s Burning Cove, California, the glamorous seaside playground for Hollywood stars, mobsters, spies, and a host of others who find more than they bargain for in this mysterious town.
Maggie Lodge, assistant to the reclusive advice columnist known only as Dear Aunt Cornelia to her readers, hires down-but-not-quite-out private eye Sam Sage to help track down the person who is blackmailing her employer. Maggie and Sam are a mismatched pair. As far as Sam is concerned, Maggie is reckless and in over her head. She is not what he had in mind for a client but he can't afford to be choosy. Maggie, on the other hand, is convinced that Sam is badly in need of guidance and good advice. She does not hesitate to give him both.
In spite of the verbal fireworks between them, they are fiercely attracted to each other, but each is convinced it would be a mistake to let passion take over. They are, after all, keeping secrets from each other. Sam is haunted by his past, which includes a marriage shattered by betrayal and violence. Maggie is troubled by intense and vivid dreams--dreams that she can sometimes control. There are those who want to run experiments on her and use her for their own purposes, while others think she should be committed to an asylum.
When the pair discovers someone is impersonating Aunt Cornelia at a conference on psychic dreaming and a woman dies at the conference, the door is opened to a dangerous web of blackmail and murder. Secrets from the past are revealed, leaving Maggie and Sam in the path of a ruthless killer who will stop at nothing to exact vengeance.

My Review:

When I first visited Burning Cove, back in The Girl Who Knew Too Much, I wasn’t expecting it to become a series – but I’m very glad that it did!

Burning Cove is kind of a liminal place, and the 1930s were a liminal time. Burning Cove is in California, a place where dreams are made and lost and found. It is an offshoot of Los Angeles and Hollywood, the heart of all that dream making machinery at a time when movies and their magic were blossoming into their heyday.

While the 1930s were a time when the world was holding its breath. WW1 was in the rearview mirror, but its avatars are men and women in their 30s – in the prime of their powers and their adulthood – no matter what shadows darken their pasts or their futures. But the world is also on the brink of war, at least for those with eyes to see, while the world’s economy is still in shambles, feeding the causes and hatreds of the war about to be born.

Among all those dreams, visions and nightmares, it seems fitting that Burning Cove has become a center of dream powers, dream research and possibly dream control. Or, in this particular entry in the series, fulfilling a couple of con artists’ dreams of avarice.

And onto that stage, in this 6th entry in the series, step Maggie Lodge and Sam Sage. Maggie is a lucid dreamer with a realistically cynical view of the pros and cons of her talent. In control, she can wield it like a weapon, out of control it can be used as a weapon against her. As too many in her past have already attempted.

Sam is a private detective, still reeling from the hard knocks of divorce from a woman he never should have married, and being fired from his job as an LA police detective for being too good and too incorruptible at his job. He also happens to be the only private detective in Maggie’s tiny California town who is sober at 9 in the morning. He’s sure the job, whatever it is, will be better than divorce work.

Maggie hires Sam to investigate the blackmail attempt directed at her employer, the advice columnist known as “Dear Aunt Cornelia” in newspapers all around the country. Cornelia is out of the country on an around the world cruise, leaving Maggie with her house, her column and her checkbook to take care of any business while Aunt Cornelia, AKA Lillian Dewherst, is away from home.

Sam, Maggie and the erstwhile blackmailer converge on Burning Cove, where a dream research conference – or con game – is being held under the auspices of the suspiciously glitzy Guilfoyle Institute.

Maggie’s suspicions are already heightened, as the scientific legitimacy of what is obviously a con game or even a pyramid scheme is being shored up by the participation of a real dream scientist who once attempted to drug Maggie and experiment on her talents under the guise of “therapy”.

Sam is just as suspicious, because the Guilfoyles are so obvious about their intentions to fleece the attendees – at least according to a hunch that is so strong that it might well be a talent on its own.

And because the would-be blackmailer is found dead of a drug injection on opening night.

Escape Rating B+: Burning Cove straddles a whole bunch of genre lines. In a nutshell it’s historical paranormal romantic suspense, with pretty much the entire kitchen sink encompassed by those genres in evidence.

When She Dreams is the 6th book in this series, but I don’t think you need to have read the previous books to get into this one. While a couple of main characters from previous entries in the series turn up as side characters in this book, they are far from the focus and are not an intimate part of any of the events. The true continuing element of this series is the location, and since it neither has any dialog nor participates in any romance, not having visited before isn’t a problem for first time visitors.

The paranormal element to this series, as it is to much of the Jayneverse as the author (Amanda Quick/Jayne Castle/Jayne Ann Krentz) calls it, revolves around Maggie’s dream talent. She’s not the first character in these interconnected worlds to manifest a psychic power related to dreams and nightmares, and I’d be willing to bet she won’t be the last, either.

It’s not like that particular talent isn’t hotly debated in real life, after all.

What makes Maggie, and the other women in Burning Cove so fascinating is her realistic grasp on what it means to be a woman in a man’s world at a time when it’s all too easy for a woman to be overlooked, ignored, or in Maggie’s case, locked up for “her own good” by people who claim to love her and have her best interests at heart.

Maggie is a fighter who comes by her distrust of the world in general and men in particular unflinchingly honestly. She has carved out an independent life for herself against the odds, and she’s determined to maintain that independence, and the reader likes her all the better for it.

Sam is not as interesting a character as Maggie is. Maggie sparkles, and it’s easy to see why Sam is attracted to her, even if we don’t see a whole lot of evidence of that attraction until fairly far into the book. But he is a worthy partner for her in the investigation, and not just because he’s able to reluctantly admit that they are partners whether that’s what he planned on or not.

What does sparkle is the way that Sam and Maggie close in on this case that did not originally look like a whole, entire case. It goes from blackmail to murder to fraud to murder to obsession and then reaches back into the past to yet more murder. Following in Maggie’s footsteps as she and Sam unravel the clues one dark and dangerous step at a time makes for a terrific, page-turning thriller, clinging to the edge of one nightmare after another.

Review: The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher

Review: The Paris Bookseller by Kerri MaherThe Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on January 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

The dramatic story of how a humble bookseller fought against incredible odds to bring one of the most important books of the 20th century to the world in this new novel from the author of The Girl in White Gloves.
When bookish young American Sylvia Beach opens Shakespeare and Company on a quiet street in Paris in 1919, she has no idea that she and her new bookstore will change the course of literature itself.
Shakespeare and Company is more than a bookstore and lending library: Many of the prominent writers of the Lost Generation, like Ernest Hemingway, consider it a second home. It's where some of the most important literary friendships of the twentieth century are forged--none more so than the one between Irish writer James Joyce and Sylvia herself. When Joyce's controversial novel Ulysses is banned, Beach takes a massive risk and publishes it under the auspices of Shakespeare and Company.
But the success and notoriety of publishing the most infamous and influential book of the century comes with steep costs. The future of her beloved store itself is threatened when Ulysses' success brings other publishers to woo Joyce away. Her most cherished relationships are put to the test as Paris is plunged deeper into the Depression and many expatriate friends return to America. As she faces painful personal and financial crises, Sylvia--a woman who has made it her mission to honor the life-changing impact of books--must decide what Shakespeare and Company truly means to her.

My Review:

Sylvia Beach is one of those people who, if she hadn’t existed, someone would have had to invent her. Her story reads like one of those that, if it were truly fictional, would be a bit too over-the-top to be believed.

But, as happens more often than we think, it’s only fiction that has to be plausible. History just has to be true. And this story, or at least the big, important, supporting bones of this story, are that. Or close enough. (Beach herself wrote a memoir of this period, titled, of course, Shakespeare and Company. There is also a well-known biography of Beach by Noel Riley Fitch, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, that was published in 1983.)

So what we have in The Paris Bookseller is a fascinating, fictionalized version of an equally fascinating life in a time and place that was spectacular when it happened and has taken on a storied life of its own in the century that followed.

The story in The Paris Bookseller is kind of a “portrait of the bookseller as a young woman”. Although the book begins at with Sylvia’s service at the end of World War I, the story really begins in 1919, with Sylvia looking for a way to be a part of the fomenting new art and literature scene in Paris, a place that her heart has already come to call home.

She falls in love with Adrienne Monnier, a Parisienne bookseller, as well as Adrienne’s shop and the warm, homey but intellectual atmosphere it embodies. While Sylvia’s surprisingly accepting parents have always encouraged her to write, Sylvia doesn’t find writing literature to be her calling.

She decides to do her bit – and it turns out to be a VERY big bit indeed – in the rising tide of new and challenging arts and letters by promoting literature instead. She opens the doors of the first English-language bookstore in Paris, Shakespeare and Company.

And through those doors walks the cream of literary ex-patriots, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and, to Beach’s delight but eventual financial ruin, James Joyce. An author on the road to immortal fame, infamy and Ulysses.

Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare & Co. (Paris, 1920)

Escape Rating B: The absolute best thing about this book is the way that it brings the Paris of the “Lost Generation”, the Paris of the 1920s to life. Sylvia Beach and her iconic bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, were at the center of a great deal of at least the literary life of Paris during those storied years. And that’s the part of this book that really grabbed me.

(Also reminded me a bit of Laurie R. King’s The Bones of Paris, which also brings those years and those people to vivid life – just in a much different kind of story.)

But the thing about putting fictional meat on the bones of a real life story reminds me a bit of the rules about time-turners in Harry Potter, in that the author can’t change things that they know to be true. It’s possible to shift minor events around a bit, drop a few characters and amalgamate a few more, but the broad outline of the story is set in the real life history of the person being fictionalized.

What that means in The Paris Bookseller is that I frequently wanted to reach through the pages and shake some sense into Sylvia Beach, at least in regards to her working relationship with James Joyce.

She reads as rather young and a bit naïve – particularly in matters of business. (She was 32 in 1919) And Joyce, as portrayed in both this book and as happened in real life, was focused on his art to the exclusion of practical matters. Or he was a user. Or both. It feels like both. And Beach is certainly one of the people that he used in order to both fund his life as he worked and to get his work published.

At the same time, from our point looking backward into history, that great flourishing of new styles of writing is still being felt today, and it was important and necessary that someone tilt at the windmills of U.S. censorship, just as it was important in the 1950s that someone get Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago out from under Soviet censorship.

To put the quote into its original French, apropos considering the location of Shakespeare and Company, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose “ (the more that changes, the more it’s the same thing).

The 1920s in the U.S. may have “roared” with bathtub gin, but that was because of the repression of Prohibition. There was plenty of repression to go around in that decade. Ulysses was censored under the Comstock Act that prohibited the distribution of obscenity through the mail. Meanwhile Hollywood faced mounting pressure to censor itself by increasingly stringent rules – a pressure that eventually resulted in the Hays Code.

Sylvia Beach’s Paris suffered from no such restrictions, which was a big part of the reason that the ex-pat community was filled with so many luminaries of arts and letters. (That legal discrimination against same-sex relationships had been eliminated during the Revolution didn’t hurt either, and was certainly part of the reason that Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, as well as Beach herself, found Paris such a congenial place to live.) The painters could paint what and how they wanted, the growing cadre of photographers could take pictures of whatever and however they could manage, and the writers could write as realistically and shockingly – often those were the same thing – as they pleased and get their work published.

And the cost of living was relatively low.

The story of The Paris Bookseller is the story of Sylvia Beach at the center of so very much of this. She was neither a writer nor an artist, but she provided the room where much of it happened. And she brought James Joyce’s Ulysses into the world – even though it nearly broke her and her store.

In the end, I liked The Paris Bookseller but didn’t love it as much as I hoped I would. I loved the way that Paris in the 1920s came to life. There was such a strong sense of “being there” at Shakespeare and Company as the store flourished, as the salons and discussions happened, as Ezra Pound came in to fix the chairs. (Seriously, he does, and it’s such a marvelous little detail that makes so much feel real.)

I found Beach’s business relationship with Joyce frustrating in the extreme. It really happened that way, but, as I said, I wanted to shake her for not protecting herself and her business better. But it happened.

As a character, the author’s interpretation of Beach reads as a bit young and naïve. Some of that is the reflection of time, as these events are a century ago and we know how history played out. The hope of the 1920s covered the post-war despair of the same era and led to the Great Depression and eventually – and inevitably in retrospect – World War II.

So we know that Sylvia’s bright hopes and dreams of change are not going to come true. Even scarier, it feels like the forces of censorship and thought repression that she left behind in the U.S. in the 1920s have come around again. Which had me reading more than a bit of today into a story set a century ago.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.“ Indeed.

Review: Guild Boss by Jayne Castle

Review: Guild Boss by Jayne CastleGuild Boss (Harmony, #14) by Jayne Castle
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure romance, futuristic, paranormal romance, romantic suspense, science fiction romance
Series: Harmony #14, Ghost Hunters #14
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley Books on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Welcome to Illusion Town on the colony world of Harmony—like Las Vegas on Earth, but way more weird.
Living in this new, alien world doesn’t stop the settlers from trying to re-create what they’ve left behind. Case in point—weddings are still the highlight of any social calendar. But it’s the after-party that turns disastrous for Lucy Bell. Kidnapped and drugged as she leaves the party, she manages to escape—only to find herself lost in the mysterious, alien underground maze of glowing green tunnels beneath Illusion Town. She’s been surviving on determination and cold pizza, scavenged for her by a special dust bunny, when help finally shows up.
Gabriel Jones is the Guild Hunter sent to rescue her, but escaping the underground ruins isn’t the end of her troubles—it’s only the beginning. With no rational reason for her abduction, and her sole witness gone on another assignment for the Guild, whispers start circulating that Lucy made it all up. Soon her life unravels until she has nothing left but her pride. The last thing she expects is for Gabriel Jones to come back to town for her.
The Lucy that Gabriel finds is not the same woman he rescued, the one who looked at him as if he were her hero. This Lucy is sharp, angry, and more than a little cynical—instead of awe, she treats him with extreme caution. But a killer is still hunting her, and there aren’t a lot of options when it comes to heroes. Despite her wariness, Gabriel is also the one person who believes Lucy—after all, he was there. He’s determined to help clear her reputation, no matter what it takes. And as the new Guild Boss, his word is law, even in the lawlessness of Illusion Town.

My Review:

This entry in the Harmony series has one of the best opening lines in pretty much ever, “The Lord of the Underworld showed up with the dust bunny and a pizza.” Not that Gabriel Jones is actually Hades – even if he does go along with the somewhat macabre joke.

The pizza is a small cheese and olive from Ollie’s House of Pizza. The dust bunny’s name is Otis, and a small is all he can manage to carry. He gets a slice and Persephone, otherwise known as Lucy Bell, gets dinner in the underground chamber she’s been trapped in for the past several, hazily counted days.

Gabriel Jones is there to rescue her – with the help of the dust bunny. After all, Otis has been helping Lucy all along, and Gabriel is just carrying out yet another mission for the sometimes famous, sometimes infamous Ghost Hunters’ Guild.

Welcome to Harmony, a planet in the human diaspora that lost contact with the homeworld a couple of centuries back, and has been not just surviving but thriving ever since. With the help of the dust bunnies and the boost in psychic power that comes from living on this planet with a murky alien past and a wealth of finely tuned resonating amber.

No one knows why the aliens left, only that they left their ruins behind both above and below ground. And that the colonists from Earth discovered that their psychic powers were enhanced by the amber – and that they needed to hone those enhancements to survive on this planet where so much of the weather and everything else could be deadly to those without protection from the psychic phenomena that permeate the place.

But the colonists were part of Earth’s Arcane Society, so they had what it took to make a go of Harmony when their Earth tech began failing after they were cut off.

Two centuries later, everyone on Harmony has at least a bit of talent. Guild members have a lot as they handle security in the most ghost-ridden and psychic phenomena rich areas – and are both celebrated and envied as a result. And occasionally good guild members, like good cops, go bad or get seduced to the dark side by the power and adulation.

But Lucy Bell isn’t a guild member – she’s a weather channeler. She’s able to direct and redirect the deadly power-storms that Harmony regularly throws up. When this story begins, she’s trapped underground among the storms and the phenomena without her amber while recovering from Harmony’s equivalent of a “Mickey Finn”. Even when he locates her, Gabriel doesn’t believe she was drugged by ‘person or persons unknown’. He’s sure, just as everyone else seems to be, that she got herself drunk, took the drugs voluntarily and got herself lost in a blackout. That she’s unstable and damaged.

Even her parents believe it.

That her rescue results in another forced round of hallucinogenic injections only makes her situation worse – but by that time Gabriel Jones is off on his next mission leaving Lucy to suffer the fallout.

He expects her to fall straight into his arms when he returns to Illusion Town as the new Guild Boss. She just wants to give him a piece of her mind over the downturn her life has taken since he carried her out of the Underground and left her in the hands of the men she saw as demons.

It’s only when they combine forces, he looking for a lost Old Earth artifact with still deadly powers and she attempting to revive her reputation and her business by assisting him, that they discover that her kidnapping and his hunt are all part of the same deadly game.

Just because you’re paranoid does not preclude someone being out to get you – and there’s definitely someone, or perhaps more than one – out to get them both.

Escape Rating B: All of the Arcane Society’s chicken have come to roost on Harmony to lay some VERY bad eggs. Some, but not all, are Easter Eggs in this book for anyone who has ever read any of the author’s interconnected series, her historical Arcane Society (written as Amanda Quick), her contemporary Arcane Society (written as Jayne Ann Krentz) and her futuristic Harmony (sometimes referred to as Ghost Hunters) books, of which Guild Boss is the 14th, written as Jayne Castle. (The author referred to it as the “Jayneverse” although I personally prefer “Arcaneverse” as a collective title).

I actually read this back in May when I first picked up the eARC. I have to admit that it didn’t grab me at the time the way that this author’s books usually do, no matter what pen name they are written under. And because I didn’t get into it the way I usually do, I didn’t write it up.

Having reread it over the holiday weekend, I’m not sure what happened the first time that it didn’t work for me, because it certainly did this time. Whether it was the right book at the right time now when it wasn’t then, or I’m just in the mood for an action/adventure type romance, I don’t know. But I did like Guild Boss the second time around quite a lot so I’m glad I went back to it.

One of my favorite things about the Harmony series are the dust bunnies. Every single one of them has a personality that is just so huge compared to their size. And they are, every last one of them, inveterate scene stealers. Otis is no exception. In fact, he loves to be in front of the camera. Any camera. All the cameras. For a dust bunny he’s kind of a ham.

The mystery in this one is big and convoluted and it’s a bit easy to get lost in it. There are a lot of moving pieces and it doesn’t quite all tie up neatly. Likewise, the romance is hot and electric, but a bit on the instalove side of that equation.

I think I felt like a couple of issues were a bit unresolved or got swept under the carpet. When Gabriel comes back to Illusion Town, Lucy, well, I want to say she didn’t make him grovel enough but her situation wasn’t his fault. At the same time, it’s understandable that she blamed him for it. That internal conflict, and it is mostly internal, got wrapped up a bit too easily, especially considering how often she chided him throughout the book about her being just another mission to him and how focused he was on climbing the Guild ladder.

It also seemed like her conflict with her parents was left hanging. Not that life’s conflicts generally get wrapped up with a tidy bow, but their disappointment and disapproval was a bit Chekhov’s Gun, even if the only possible resolution would be inside her head.

All of that being said, my re-read of Ghost Boss was much more fun than my original read, so I’m very glad I took the trip back to Harmony. While it looks like it’s going to be awhile before the author returns to Harmony, I still have two books with her signature blend of romance, adventure and psychic phenomena to look forward to this year, Lightning In a Mirror next month and When She Dreams in May. I expect them both to be marvelous reading treats, just as Guild Boss turned out to be!

Review: Miss Moriarty, I Presume? by Sherry Thomas

Review: Miss Moriarty, I Presume? by Sherry ThomasMiss Moriarty, I Presume? (Lady Sherlock, #6) by Sherry Thomas
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Lady Sherlock #6
Pages: 368
Published by Berkley Books on November 2, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Charlotte Holmes comes face to face with her enemy when Moriarty turns to her in his hour of need, in the USA Today bestselling series set in Victorian England.
A most unexpected client shows up at Charlotte Holmes's doorstep: Moriarty himself. Moriarty fears that tragedy has befallen his daughter and wants Charlotte to find out the truth.
Charlotte and Mrs. Watson travel to a remote community of occult practitioners where Moriarty's daughter was last seen, a place full of lies and liars. Meanwhile, Charlotte's sister Livia tries to make sense of a mysterious message from her beau Mr. Marbleton. And Charlotte's longtime friend and ally Lord Ingram at last turns his seductive prowess on Charlotte--or is it the other way around?
But the more secrets Charlotte unravels about Miss Moriarty's disappearance, the more she wonders why Moriarty has entrusted this delicate matter to her of all people. Is it merely to test Charlotte's skills as an investigator, or has the man of shadows trapped her in a nest of vipers?

My Review:

Charlotte Holmes doesn’t actually utter that paraphrase of Henry Morton Stanley’s famous greeting of Dr. David Livingstone in 1871, although she certainly could have. Miss Moriarty, I Presume? takes place in 1887, during the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

And at the beginning of this story, Charlotte is contracted to determine whether or not Miss Marguerite Moriarty was every bit as lost as Stanley had been. Her father claimed to be concerned about his daughter’s circumstances. Then again, he also claimed to be a Mr. Baxter and not the infamous Moriarty.

It’s a cat and mouse game, with Moriarty, of course, as the cat. And Charlotte and all she holds dear as a pack of mice – possibly even the three blind mice and their kin. Leaving Miss Moriarty, in this analogy at least, as a being of indeterminate species. Not exactly a free agent. Not currently a part of her father’s many criminal enterprises. Not Charlotte’s friend or ally.

Except, just possibly, in the sense that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Because James Moriarty, whatever he might be calling himself at the moment, is certain the enemy of them both.

At first, this story feels like a game of smoke and mirrors and yet more of both. James Moriarty presents himself to Sherlock Holmes as Mr. Baxter, the concerned father of Miss Baxter who has taken herself to a remote religious retreat that may have brainwashed his daughter against him in order to swindle her out of her money.

But Charlotte and Moriarty have crossed paths several times before, and his shadow has loomed over every book in the series except the first, A Study in Scarlet Women. Moriarty knows that “Sherlock” is really Charlotte, and Charlotte is all too aware that Mr. Baxter is Moriarty.

And yet both are pretending that they know nothing more about the other than what lies on the surface. Charlotte is doing her best to protect her loved ones, the hostages to fortune that Moriarty will eliminate the moment Charlotte ceases to be of use to him – or becomes even more of a nuisance than she already is.

Therefore, Charlotte’s true mission is to determine Moriarty’s real purpose for this charade, even as she goes through the motions of fulfilling “Mr. Baxter’s” commission. No matter what the man claims, Charlotte knows that his real intent is to eliminate the pesky woman who has bollixed up his plans several too many times already.

And if he can either imprison or eliminate his daughter in the process – so much the better for him.

Escape Rating A-: Miss Moriarty, I Presume? is clearly meant to be the equivalent of The Final Problem in the original Sherlock Holmes canon. Most of the series has been leading towards this moment, a possibly fatal confrontation between Holmes and her nemesis, Moriarty.

But the original canon has been twisted and so has Charlotte Holmes’ solution of that final problem.

At first, while Charlotte is working out James Moriarty’s motives for setting up this puzzling and forcing her into it, she is also faced with the very real concern about Miss Moriarty’s present circumstances.

The religious community Miss Moriarty has retreated to is unconventional at best and suspicious at worst. Miss Moriarty herself has not been seen by anyone in over three months and her door is guarded by multiple dragons. She has done some slightly questionable things with her money, and more than one member of the community has died under suspicious circumstances.

Just because her father wishes ill on both his daughter and Charlotte does not mean there is no cause for concern – merely that her father’s concern is feigned at best. Charlotte’s concern about Miss Moriarty’s situation is quite real and entirely justified, no matter how much she wonders why James Moriarty has sent her to investigate rather than one of the many agents he clearly has stationed in the area.

It’s up to Charlotte to figure out the trap, evade its jaws, and get everyone out in one piece in a way that will force Moriarty to leave them ALL alone. If she can. If she can convince Miss Moriarty that her plan has a hope in hell of succeeding.

Her solution is clever, it’s every bit as convoluted as the plot of Moriarty’s that put her in this position in the first place. And it just might work.

As a story, this entry in the series was a bit less frustrating and a bit more fun. Many of the issues that have developed during the course of the series so far, not just Moriarty but also Charlotte’s relationship with Ash, her sister’s plight with their parents, her sister’s romantic woes and her half-brother’s escape from Moriarty’s clutches all move toward some resolution, even if they don’t get all the way there. Which they shouldn’t if readers want more of this series – which we most certainly do.

Also, this is the first story in the series where Charlotte, for the most part, is able to set aside the ruse of merely serving as the mouthpiece and amanuensis for her invalid brother “Sherlock”. Moriarty already knows her real identity. She still has plenty of secrets but she does not need to hide her light under the proverbial bushel basket to accomplish what must be done. It’s freeing for Charlotte and it’s freeing for both the reader and the story as well.

If this book is the equivalent of The Final Problem, then there is hope that in spite of the ending we have not seen the last of Lady Sherlock – or, for that matter, either James or Marguerite Moriarty and their minions. I hope that will turn out to be the case, and that somehow the equivalent of The Adventure in the Empty House will occur forthwith.

Review: Fixing to Die by Miranda James

Review: Fixing to Die by Miranda JamesFixing to Die (Southern Ladies Mystery, #4) by Miranda James
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Southern Ladies Mystery #4
Pages: 294
Published by Berkley Books on October 3, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

The New York Times bestselling author of the Cat in the Stacks Mysteries and Digging Up the Dirt returns with the latest Southern Ladies Mystery...
It's autumn down south, and An'gel and Dickce Ducote are in Natchez, Mississippi, at the request of Mary Turner Catlin, the granddaughter of an old friend. Mary and her husband, Henry Howard, live in Cliffwood, one of the beautiful antebellum homes for which Natchez is famous.
Odd things have been happening in the house for years, and the French Room in particular has become the focal point for spooky sensations. The Ducotes suspect the ghostly goings-on are caused by the living, but when a relative of the Catlins is found dead in the room, An'gel and Dickce must sift through a haunted family history to catch a killer.

My Review:

What is it that makes cozy mysteries just so cozy and so much of a comfort to read? You’d think that the fact that they all start with a dead body would act against that, but it doesn’t. At all.

I’m caught up in this question because so many of my “comfort reads” are cozy mysteries. Because this has been a week where the weather has been so wet and gloomy that it makes a person want to curl up with a good book, a hot cup of tea and a cat and just wait for it all to go away – which won’t be until Saturday at the earliest and it’s been raining since Sunday. I couldn’t focus on any of the things I planned to read and ended up looking for a cozy mystery to sink into.

And here we are, Fixing to Die. Because this is the last book in the author’s Southern Ladies mystery series, although the adventures of the Cat in the Stacks seem to be continuing. Thank goodness.

So, on a damp and chilly autumn evening, when I couldn’t get into anything else, I found myself, along with sisters An’gel and Dickce Ducote, traveling from their home in Athena Mississippi to Natchez to help the granddaughter of an old friend out with her haunted antebellum bed and breakfast.

Only to find themselves in the midst of an acrimonious family drama – although thankfully one not even remotely their own this time, unlike the events in Dead with the Wind.

The practical-minded An’gel is certain that the ghostly happenings at Cliffwood are the result of a worldly rather than an otherworldly agent. Dickce is a bit more open-minded about the whole thing. After all, their own antebellum home has its share of inexplicable door-closings and perambulating knick-knacks.

But the humans who have gathered at Cliffwood make both the sisters more than a bit suspicious. Mary and Henry, the owners of the house, are fighting over just how much of their lives should be devoted to the care and feeding of the house and the guests they need to keep on keeping the house up to the standards of the Historical Society.

Mary’s cousin Nathan believes he’s entitled to the contents of one of the rooms in the house – based on an old will that he can’t find. That the room contains priceless antiques just adds to his motivations to make his cousin Mary and her husband Henry’s lives even more miserable. Nathan’s sister invites herself and her lawyer to the house in the hopes of loosening her brother’s grip on her trust fund.

Then a psychic medium knocks on the door, claiming that the spirits in the house have called to her to give them peace, and it’s clear that some kind of fix is in. If not multiple fixes.

When Nathan’s dead body is found in the morning in the room he claimed he owned, it’s more of a relief than it is a surprise. One of the lovely things about this series is that the person you most want to end up dead usually does in short order.

But with a corpse on their hands – again – the Ducote sisters can’t resist playing Nancy Drew in order to figure out how the murderer got into and out of the locked room containing the victim. So they can figure out whodunnit, and why, and how.

Because that’s what they do. They help the police solve murders – even when the police would much, much rather NOT be helped!

Escape Rating B: And we’re back to what makes cozy mysteries cozy, and why this particular series – and this particular author – have turned out to be such a cozy and comforting read for me.

I think what makes cozy mysteries cozy is a combination of two factors. A big one is the gang or group or family (found or birth or a combination) that surrounds the detectives, whether amateur or professional. An’gel and Dickce have each other of course, but they also have their 19-year-old ward, Benjy, and their companion animals, the Labradoodle Peanut who thinks An’gel hung the moon, and the Abyssinian cat Endora, who is certain that Dickce provides the best lap in the universe.

The sisters know everyone in Athena, and their friends and friends of friends, especially Athena’s chief homicide detective Kanesha Berry, extend their reach far and wide. And make everyone they come into contact with feel familiar – only because in a way they are.

There’s also the element of cozy mystery that’s sometimes referred to as the “romance of justice”. The reader knows going in that someone who might deserve it is going to die, and that whoever murdered them is going to get what’s coming to them. And that the murder will happen safely off-screen and that the murderer will receive their just desserts legally as well as righteously. No vigilantes, very little blood and gore, and everybody walks away, with the perpetrator walking away in handcuffs in police custody.

All’s well that ends well. And cozy mysteries invariably end well. It’s part of their charm, and it’s part of the comfort they provide, that the world can be rational, that good triumphs and evil gets an appropriate punishment.

Fixing to Die turned out to be exactly what I was looking for on a very rainy autumn night. The cast of characters is a lot of fun, the family shenanigans are interesting and are somebody else’s, the murder victim needed to be taken out of the gene pool and his murderer got their just desserts. The sisters saved the day – as they always do – and their animals are along to provide just the right touch of comic relief.

This series has just the right amount of sass mixed in with the sweet, and I’m sorry that it seems to have ended with this story. Although I wouldn’t mind visiting with the Ducote sisters again, either in a future book of their own or whenever Athena’s amateur detective and professional librarian, Charlie Harris and his big Cat in the Stacks Diesel need a bit of the Ducote’s local knowledge or wide span of influence around town.

I’ll be back to visit Charlie and Diesel in Athena early next spring with Hiss Me Deadly, and I’m definitely looking forward to the trip!

Review: Deadly Summer Nights by Vicki Delany + Giveaway

Review: Deadly Summer Nights by Vicki Delany + GiveawayDeadly Summer Nights (Catskill Summer Resort Mystery #1) by Vicki Delany
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, historical mystery
Series: Catskill Summer Resort Mystery #1
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley Books on September 14, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

An immersive setting with details of running a Catskillsresort in the 1950s (think Kellerman's in Dirty Dancing) beautifully frame a story with plot twists and a cast of well-delineated characters.--Booklist
A summer of fun at a Catskills resort comes to an abrupt end when a guest is found murdered, in this new 1950s set mystery series.
It's the summer of 1953, and Elizabeth Grady is settling into Haggerman's Catskills Resort. As a vacation getaway, Haggerman's is ideal, and although Elizabeth's ostentatious but well-meaning mother is new to running the resort, Elizabeth is eager to help her organize the guests and the entertainment acts. But Elizabeth will have to resort to untested abilities if she wants to save her mother's business.
When a reclusive guest is found dead in a lake on the grounds, and a copy of The Communist Manifesto is found in his cabin, the local police chief is convinced that the man was a Russian spy. But Elizabeth isn't so sure, and with the fate of the resort hanging in the balance, she'll need to dodge red herrings, withstand the Red Scare, and catch a killer red-handed.

My Review:

Remember the movie Dirty Dancing? That romantic drama was set in the same location as this cozy mystery series, just ten years later. Things don’t seem to have changed much in the Catskills summer resorts during that intervening decade, but that was kind of the point.

One of the real Catskill resorts during its glory days

Back in the 1950s, the time period of this series, the Catskills resorts were in their storied heyday, not just a place but an entire experience, a setting where middle and upper class New Yorkers could retreat from the city’s heat to a beautiful mountain location upstate, close enough that the husbands could come up on the weekends to visit their families but still work in the city on weekdays.

And the resorts were self-contained enough to keep the wives and children entertained and cosseted for as long as the family could afford. An entire summer if they could manage it. Kind of like a cruise ship, just without the shore excursions.

Elizabeth Grady, manager of Haggerman’s Catskills Resort, and her mother, retired Broadway star Olivia Grady, are new to the Catskills. The summer of 1953 is only their second season, and Elizabeth is determined to make a go of the only asset she and her mother have. No matter who, or what, gets in her way.

They seem to be on track to profitability this year – or at least they are until the dead body of one of their guests is pulled from the lake one night.

That a guest might die while at the resort is not unheard of. Many of their guests are neither young nor in perfect health. Families have come to the Catskills resorts for at least two generations at this point, and sometimes those generations pass while at the resort.

But a murder is entirely other matter. Guests come to the Catskills to GET away from it all, not to be done away with as this one certainly was. This pot of scandal is further stirred when the local police chief searches the guest’s cabin, discovers a couple of maps and a copy of the Communist Manifesto, and calls the FBI in on suspicion that the “Reds” that Senator Eugene McCarthy is screaming about in Washington have made their way to the Catskills.

Elizabeth needs to find the murderer before the scandal takes her fledgling business right under the water along with the corpse. While her competition from the other resorts cheer on her business’ demise.

Some of them, at least, are absolutely salivating at the very though. After all, it will just prove what they’ve been saying all along, that running a business like Haggerman’s is simply not a suitable job for a woman.

Escape Rating A-: There is a lot to like in Deadly Summer Nights, and one thing that niggled at me a lot. I’ll get to that in a bit.

What I really liked about this story was the way that it dug a bit deeper into what the real world was like during the 1950s, as opposed to keeping reality at bay as the Catskills resorts were famous for doing in their heyday. Which were, after all, the 1950s.

Elizabeth is a woman running a business at a time when women were expected to stay home with the children and not “worry their pretty little heads” about such things as payrolls and suppliers and invoices and contracts. She’s every bit as competent and capable as any man around her and knows they’re being stupid and ridiculous but she plays as much of the game as she must in order to get by.

And she’s very good at asserting her authority when she has to – as she all too frequently does. That she can’t assert any authority over her mother is an entirely different matter. Most of us can’t manage that particular trick no matter how necessary we feel it might be.

I loved the way this story dealt with McCarthyism and the “Red Scare” of the 1950s. The police chief’s witch hunt is bogus and everyone knows it’s bogus. At the same time everyone has to take it seriously out of fear of very real consequences.

I also enjoyed the way that this series opener creates Elizabeth’s world, the resort and it’s annual three months of frenzy, the relationships between Elizabeth and her mother and her aunt, the way she treats her employees, how she deals with the guests, including the demanding divas, and the symbiotic relationship between the resorts and the towns that they are not quite a part of.

I have to say that the focus of the story is on the worldbuilding rather than the mystery, and that works for a series opener. The red herrings are certainly tasty, but Elizabeth has so many fish to fry on an average day that her investigation gets a bit lost in the chaos. I liked her more than enough to enjoy watching her work, whether on the murder or just keeping the resort afloat.

About that thing that niggled at me.

Although this review is being posted around the publication date of the book, I actually read it back in July. On the weekend I read this one of the last of the “Borscht Belt” comedians, Jackie Mason, passed away at the age of 93. I know this seems like a non sequitur, but it’s not. Because the “Borscht Belt” where Mason and so many others honed their stand up routines was just another name for the Catskills summer resorts where this story takes place. The Catskills resorts catered to a Jewish clientele, served Kosher food and gave a lot of Jewish comedians their start or bolstered their careers.

As is mentioned in the story, Milton Berle really did perform in the Catskills. The comedian who gets caught up in the murder investigation was probably based on Lenny Bruce, who also performed there during his all-too-brief but controversial career.

At first, I couldn’t figure out what was missing at Haggerman’s, until I realized that the context of who the clients were and who many of the owners were was entirely missing. If it was subtext it was so sub that I missed it. And I feel like a lot of the flavor of the area was lost.

Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.

But I really liked Elizabeth, her family and her resort, more than enough that I’ll be back for her next Catskills season in Deadly Director’s Cut, coming next March. Just at the point where winter’s doldrums will make reading about the summer sun seem like a real getaway!


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Review: The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang

Review: The Heart Principle by Helen HoangThe Heart Principle (The Kiss Quotient, #3) by Helen Hoang
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance
Series: Kiss Quotient #3
Pages: 352
Published by Berkley Books on August 31, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

A woman struggling with burnout learns to embrace the unexpected—and the man she enlists to help her—in this heartfelt new romance by USA Today bestselling author Helen Hoang.
When violinist Anna Sun accidentally achieves career success with a viral YouTube video, she finds herself incapacitated and burned out from her attempts to replicate that moment. And when her longtime boyfriend announces he wants an open relationship before making a final commitment, a hurt and angry Anna decides that if he wants an open relationship, then she does, too. Translation: She's going to embark on a string of one-night stands. The more unacceptable the men, the better.
That’s where tattooed, motorcycle-riding Quan Diep comes in. Their first attempt at a one-night stand fails, as does their second, and their third, because being with Quan is more than sex—he accepts Anna on an unconditional level that she has just started to understand herself. However, when tragedy strikes Anna’s family she takes on a role that she is ill-suited for, until the burden of expectations threatens to destroy her. Anna and Quan have to fight for their chance at love, but to do that, they also have to fight for themselves.

My Review:

This is an author who has been recommended to me multiple times, so I’ve tried her first book, The Kiss Quotient, and it didn’t grab me. If it’s even a bit like this book, and it probably is, after all, it was probably the intrusive family thing that wasn’t working for me. But this time, I started in the audiobook, and whether it was the format or the way that the female protagonist’s perspective worked its way into my head, this time it stuck.

Also, I was looking for a fluffy read after the earlier books this week, and at the beginning of The Heart Principle, in the section titled “Before”, I was kind of getting that vibe, and really getting into the story.

So I switched to the ebook because I was into it and wanted to experience more of the fluff I thought I was getting a whole lot faster. By the time I hit the “During” section, where the story switches from being a bit sharp but still a bit fluffy, to the hard, painful, heartbreaking part in the middle, I was completely hooked.

This is Anna Sun’s story. And it’s Quan Diep’s story. It begins as a bit of a 21st century meet cute, but with some very hard edges to it, edges that at first make it interesting, then make it tragic, and end up making it real.

Anna and Quan meet because they used a dating app to arrange a one-night stand. Which doesn’t sound terribly romantic – or even cute. Anna’s looking for a way to break herself out of her rut and get back at her douchecanoe boyfriend who has just declared that he needs to “explore his options” before they settle down and get married.

Anna doesn’t do what many readers will want her to do, which is tell the asshat to go take a long walk on a short pier – they’re in San Francisco so there should be one readily available – or otherwise go straight to hell and don’t look back. But Anna is the ultimate people pleaser, and she can’t make herself say no to his face. Nor can she face disappointing either her parents or his by breaking up with him. She’s so used to masking what she thinks and feels in order to make the people around her happy that she freezes and acquiesces, just as she always does. To everyone.

Even her therapist, who honestly can’t help Anna unless Anna can manage to be honest instead of saying what she thinks her therapist wants to hear.

Anna is trapped in a prison of her own making, she can’t get out and she’s drowning in the words that she never lets herself say. The dating app and the one-night stand are Anna’s attempt to be her real self in a situation where the stakes are relatively low, because she won’t feel the crushing obligation to please a person she plans to never see again.

Meanwhile, Quan needs to get back into his usual routine, which seems to have included a lot of casual sex, after being out of circulation for two years being successfully treated for testicular cancer. He’s well, he’s recovered, and he’s minus one ball. Which makes him more than a bit hesitant about baring himself to someone. For him, a one-night-stand is supposed to be a low stakes way of getting back in the game.

Instead of one and done, Anna and Quan text, talk, meet but never quite make it all the way. Not all the way to sex anyway. Instead, they make it all the way into each other’s hearts and lives.

Just in time for Anna’s world to come crashing down.

Escape Rating A-: This may be what some of my reading friends call “sad fluff”. Anna and Quan’s slowly developing relationship, as it wraps its tentacles around the two of them, is pretty fluffy. But so much of what happens outside that cocoon is hard, sad, heartbreaking or all of the above.

I also have to say that this hit me hard on multiple levels. The ultra-intrusive family is a trigger for me, as is dealing with the death of one’s dad, and this story has both of those elements. I think I was able to read far enough to get into this because the oppressive intrusiveness of Anna’s family is kept at one remove for the first section of the story. Anna knows that spending too much time with her parents or her sister, where they expect her to be quiet and subservient every second, is so wearing that she avoids them as much as possible so she doesn’t have to confront either their behavior toward her or her regression practically into childhood while with them.

Quan’s issues are upfront, not just with other people but within his own head. He doesn’t need to lie to himself or pretend to be someone or something he’s not. He has reasonable fears and worries, about his health, about whether a new lover will accept him or reject him, and about how the long-term results of his illness and treatment will affect his life and options.

Anna has spent her whole life hiding her real self from other people, because she learned early on that her real self wasn’t a safe person for her to be. But she’s been doing it so long and so well that she’s also hiding herself from herself. To the point that now she’s losing control of her masks and losing her joy in the things that once made her heart sing.

Her father’s sudden illness, her family’s assumptions that her father would want to be kept alive under conditions where he has no hope of recovery and no control of his life or bodily autonomy, and that Anna, her sister and her mother must handle 100% of his 24 hours per day medical care all by themselves pretty much breaks her, both because she knows it’s not what her father wants and because he’s dying and they’re not letting go and because her sister simply refuses to see the toll it’s taking on all of them.

The “After” section of the story, was, on the one hand, marvelously cathartic. Anna needed to take control of her own life, and she finally begins that process, but the story does an excellent job of showing exactly why it’s so difficult for her and just how many steps back she HAS to take before she can move forward. Quan read as just a bit too good to be true at this point, not that Anna didn’t deserve a real prince of a partner after dealing with her asshat ex for entirely too long. And the bitterness of the “During” middle part of the book needed some sugar to sweeten up the ending.

Obviously I liked this book more than well enough to try this author again, possibly in audio to get me past the “intrusive family is intrusive” hump. I didn’t realize until after I finished that The Heart Principle is the third book in a series that begins with The Kiss Quotient and middles with The Bride Test. The stories are linked, not through the female protagonist, but through the male protagonists. Quan’s cousin, best friend and business partner Michael is the hero of the first book, and his older brother Khai is the center of the second. So the connection is fairly loose and clearly you don’t have to have read the first two to get into this one. But now that I know that I’m pretty sure I’ll be back!

Review: Wait For It by Jenn McKinlay

Review: Wait For It by Jenn McKinlayWait for It by Jenn McKinlay
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Berkley Books on August 10, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

A woman looking for a new lease on life moves to Arizona where she rents a guest house on a gorgeous property with a mysterious owner--a man who teaches her about resilience, courage, and ultimately true love, in this funny, bighearted novel about hope and healing from New York Times bestselling author Jenn McKinlay. Stuck in a dreary Boston winter, Annabelle Martin would like nothing more than to run away from her current life. She's not even thirty years old, twice-divorced, and has just dodged a marriage proposal... from her ex-husband. When she's offered her dream job as creative director at a cutting-edge graphic design studio in Phoenix, she jumps at the opportunity to start over.
When she arrives in the Valley of the Sun, Annabelle is instantly intrigued by her anonymous landlord. Based on the cranky, handwritten notes Nick Daire leaves her, she assumes he is an old, rich curmudgeon. Annabelle is shocked when she finally meets Nick and discovers that he's her age and uses a wheelchair. Nick suffered from a stroke a year ago, and while there's no physical reason for him not to recover, he is struggling to overcome the paralyzing fear that has kept him a prisoner in his own home.
Despite her promise to herself not to get involved, Annabelle finds herself irresistibly drawn to Nick. And soon she wonders if she and Nick might help each other find the courage to embrace life, happiness, and true love.

My Review:

I could say that this is an opposites attract story – and it sort of is. I could also say it’s a story about two people who have some really serious issues learning to deal with their own shit because no one else can fix your crap for you – no matter how much they might want to. Or need to because of their own crap. And both of those things would certainly be true, but they are not the whole story. Even if perhaps they should have been.

The thing about Annabelle Martin is that she’s impulsive in the extreme. It may have something to do with her being artistic, but mostly that’s just the way she is. She’s open about pretty much everything, including her need to please the people around her – even when she hurts herself in the process.

Her impulsiveness and need to avoid conflict have led her to some pretty strange places. Two marriages and two divorces before she’s even turned 30. A friends-with-benefits relationship with her first ex-husband, along with an engagement ring that she’s just swallowed.

And a desperate need to escape that situation leading her to impulsively accept her best friend’s offer to move from Boston to Phoenix in order to become the Creative Director for her best friend’s PR firm. That’ it’s winter in Boston probably explains the rest of Annabelle’s surprising acceptance. Winters in Boston are cold. And ugly. And did I mention bloody damn cold?

Annabelle’s impulsive move, along with giving up her successful freelance design work – she must be really successful as Boston is an expensive city to live in! – runs her headlong into way more problems than she left behind.

There is something wrong at her friend’s PR firm, and possibly her friend’s marriage. And the place that same friend arranged for her to live in comes with its own set of issues in the form of Annabelle’s mysterious landlord. The one who has presented her with a 10-page list of supplemental rules for her six-month rental of the guest house on his property but who can’t be bothered to meet her in person.

Annabelle is intrigued and annoyed by turns. The rules are ridiculous and have a strong whiff of “get off my lawn”, making her think her landlord is an old curmudgeon. She’s only half right.

Escape Rating B: First, the title of this book gave me a terrible earworm. Actually, I think I picked it up for the earworm, and now I can’t get Wait for It from Hamilton out of my head. The song from the play is only applicable in bits, especially the part that goes “I am the one thing in life I can control” but I still can’t get the damn thing out of my head. Again.

Annabelle’s landlord, Nicholas Daire, is the one who is trying to control a life that went completely out of his control less than a year before, when the 35-year-old property mogul had a stroke. By the time Annabelle moves into his guest house and starts driving him crazy, he’s mostly recovered from the stroke.

Except that he’s stuck in an endless loop of panic, afraid that he’ll have another one. Panic that is so acute that it mimics another stroke. In his fear, he’s become a hermit, retiring from his business, refusing to leave the house except for doctor’s appointments, and relentlessly training his body, when it works, with the idea that he can make himself strong enough to recover completely.

And refusing to even entertain the notion that what’s causing his current problems isn’t his body – it’s his head.

Annabelle, with the help of a tiny cat she names “Sir”, throws Daire’s carefully ordered life and his ten pages of rules out the window the moment she sets foot in the guest house. He’s order, she’s chaos, and they need each other to deal with all the baggage they’ve carted along to the point where they meet. And combust.

For me it felt like there were multiple things going on in this story, any one or two of which would have made for either a terrific romance or a great bit of relationship fiction, but that all together couldn’t devote the necessary time to make the whole feel satisfying.

Annabelle’s work situation was painful but oh-so-real, as the inside candidate for the job she took does his worst to use office politics and his long-time friendship with one boss in order to trump Annabelle’s qualifications, capability and long-time friendship with the other boss. That inside candidate is a user and a douchecanoe, but like many such people in real life and fiction (honestly he’s Spender from Mass Effect Andromeda), Carter West is terrible at doing the job but very effective at keeping it by sabotaging everyone around him. Dealing with this asshole, along with getting her friend to own up to having brought her to Phoenix with ulterior motives in this direction would have made an excellent story of female friendship and empowerment and I wish we’d gotten more of that.

While Annabelle has her own issues, the story on Daire’s side is about falling into a relationship with Annabelle in order to avoid dealing with his own. That they call each other on not dealing with their shit was terrific, because they both have lots. But the romantic relationship between them felt like instalove. Something that Annabelle has been known for but Daire is infamous for keeping people at arm’s length and refusing to admit that he cares no matter how much he does. I bought that they loved each other by the end but didn’t really feel them, or particularly him, falling. Although the relationship he manages to re-establish with his sister felt hard-fought and hard-won every step of the way.

Hence the good but not fantastic rating. Each part was good, but they didn’t quite make a whole for me. Your reading mileage may vary.

Review: What the Cat Dragged In by Miranda James

Review: What the Cat Dragged In by Miranda JamesWhat the Cat Dragged in by Miranda James
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Cat in the Stacks #14
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley Books on August 31, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Librarian Charlie Harris and his faithful feline companion, Diesel, have inherited Charlie’s grandfather’s house, along with a deadly legacy: a decades-old crime scene, in this all-new mystery in the New York Times bestselling Cat in the Stacks series.

Charlie has always believed that his grandfather had sold his house to his longtime tenant, Martin Hale. So when Martin dies, Charlie is surprised to discover the house was not left to Martin but instead belongs to Charlie. As he and Diesel check out the house he remembers fondly from his childhood, he is pleasantly surprised that it is in better condition than expected. That is, until they find a literal skeleton in a closet.

While the sheriff’s department investigates the mysterious remains, Charlie digs deeper into the past for clues to the identity of the bones and why they are there. But the cold case heats up quickly when Martin’s grandson is found dead on the farm.

As Charlie delves into his own family history, he encounters many people who might have been motivated to take a life. But Charlie and Diesel know that things are not always what they seem, and that secrets seemingly lost to time have a way of finding their way back to haunt the present.

My Reviews:

This book has been calling my name, loudly, with increasingly more high-pitched meows, until I finally just gave in and read it. The series features a 50-something librarian with the last name of Harris and his now two feline companions – one of whom is pictured on the cover of every book in the series. How could I possibly resist?

Librarian Charlie Harris has a tendency to get himself involved in investigating local murders, no matter how much Detective Kanesha Berry really, really wishes he could manage to keep his much too inquisitive nose out of police business.

But this time Charlie’s involvement is kind of baked in, along with his own investigation into a surprising number of skeletons in his own family’s closet. Secrets that have been buried for not just years but decades, stuff that Charlie never knew about and now wishes he had learned at his grandparents’ knees back when those knees were still available.

Charlie begins the story surprised to inherit his grandfather’s house and farm outside of town. He thought that the property had been sold long ago, and it’s only upon the death of the man who turns out to have been a life tenant and not the owner that Charlie learns that he’s just inherited another house.

What he discovers, or rather what his Maine Coon cat Diesel discovers when they visit the new/old property, is that Charlie has inherited a literal skeleton as well. Diesel finds a cache of human bones in the attic. Nobody is pleased at this development, least of all Detective Berry.

The discovery of those bones opens up, not just one proverbial can of worms, but can after can after can. Especially when another dead body is found on the property – this one considerably more recent and very nearly as puzzling.

Charlie, who can’t resist any sort of puzzle especially once he’s in it, is caught between multiple mysteries. Those bones might be old enough to be laid at his grandparents’ feet – although the revelation that the body in question has neither feet nor hands just adds to the macabre feel of the whole mess. The new body has something to do with a secret that his grandfather kept long ago and Charlie’s dive into the family tree turns up secrets left, right, center and on the wrong side of the blanket.

While Detective Berry has her hands full with the recent killing, it turns out to be up to Charlie to uncover the identity of not just the old bones but how they came to be in the attic. And when the new case intersects with the old, the answer very nearly adds Charlie’s bones – along with Diesel’s – to the family skeleton pile.

Escape Rating A-: This series is always a comfort read for me. It helps that librarian Charlie Harris, besides sharing a last name, also feels like “one of us” librarians, probably because his author is a real-life librarian. He has the kind of job, or at least the kind of work environment, that many of us wish we had in real life. He’s inherited enough money that he does not have to worry about the librarian’s lament, that “librarians get paid weekly, very weakly.” And of course there are the charms of Charlie’s two cats, the large, in charge and quite well-behaved cat-about-town Diesel, and the rambunctious just-barely-out-of-kittenhood Ramses.

Ramses reminds me a lot of our George, except that our cats are not tempted by “people food” and they don’t beg for any. They’re more interested in the plastic wrappers that some of our food comes in. But I digress.

In this entry in the series, I discovered that the case that Charlie was investigating was way more interesting than the one that Kanesha Berry was dealing with – in spite of the two cases intersecting at the end. At very nearly Charlie and Diesel’s end.

But Charlie’s half of the investigation was wrapped up in family secrets. All the stuff you think you know about your family that turns out to be not what you thought it was. Like discovering, at my grandfather’s funeral, that he was married before he married my grandmother, and that my dad’s sisters were actually his half sisters – if they were related at all. Which they might not have been. Apparently grandpa’s first wife played around, which was why he divorced her. I didn’t find out until I was in college, but it explained so much about the way my grandma treated me as a child. I was her only grandchild, after all.

That’s the kind of secret that Charlie discovers when he starts looking into his own family history. He remembers visiting his grandparents when he was a child in the house he’s just inherited. His dad and his aunt both said granddad had sold it, but clearly he didn’t. What Charlie digs into uncovers a whole bunch of fascinating family secrets that you’d – and he’d – think wouldn’t have much bearing on the present. But they do, otherwise his search wouldn’t be such a big part of the story.

I really liked following the progress, and the two steps forward one step back, nature of his search. The result was a surprise, especially to Charlie, but his reaction was all the more heartwarming because of it.

This series as a whole is very cozy. It’s a small-town, Charlie is one of those accidental amateur detectives who can’t seem to stop stumbling over murders. His friends and family are a big part of the background action and serve as his support team, cheering squad and occasionally attempt to warn him off to no avail. Relationships in town are complicated, everyone knows everyone and knows everyone’s secrets – or at least thinks they do.

And the cats are adorable. Still realistically cats and not super-felinely able, but absolutely adorable. I’d read this series just for Diesel, and sometimes I have. But I like all the characters, I find Charlie’s life and investigations soothing – in spite of the times he nearly becomes part of his own case – and I’ll sign up for another whenever the next one comes out, which looks like it’s going to be Hiss Me Deadly, hopefully next March!

In the meantime, the next time I’m looking for a fix of Athena Mississippi I’ll have to go back to the author’s Southern Ladies Mystery series. They’re a hoot!