Review: A Death in Door County by Annelise Ryan

Review: A Death in Door County by Annelise RyanA Death in Door County (Monster Hunter Mystery, #1) by Annelise Ryan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Monster Hunter Mystery #1
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on September 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A Wisconsin bookstore owner and cryptozoologist is asked to investigate a series of deaths that just might be proof of a fabled lake monster in this first installment of a new mystery series by USA Today bestselling author Annelise Ryan.
Morgan Carter, owner of the Odds and Ends bookstore in Door County, Wisconsin, has a hobby. When she's not tending the store, she's hunting cryptids--creatures whose existence is rumored, but never proven to be real. It's a hobby that cost her parents their lives, but one she'll never give up on.
So when a number of bodies turn up on the shores of Lake Michigan with injuries that look like bites from a giant unknown animal, police chief Jon Flanders turns to Morgan for help. A skeptic at heart, Morgan can't turn down the opportunity to find proof of an entity whose existence she can't definitively rule out. She and her beloved rescue dog, Newt, journey to the Death's Door strait to hunt for a homicidal monster in the lake--but if they're not careful, they just might be its next victims.

My Review:

Yesterday’s book left me with a hankering for a mystery I could really sink my teeth into. I just wasn’t expecting the teeth to be quite as large as they turned out to be in A Death in Door County. This book is the kind of mystery that really takes a chomp out of each and every one of its rather tasty red herrings.

Calling Morgan Carter’s side gig as a cryptozoologist a hobby – as the book’s blurb does – isn’t strictly accurate. It’s more like a passion. Or a calling. Or a way to feel closer to her late parents by carrying on their work.

Perhaps all of the above.

Live Coelacanth off Pumula on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, South Africa in 2019

She also has degrees in both biology and zoology, so she’s definitely a scientifically trained cryptozoologist. And, perhaps as a consequence of those degrees, a skeptical one. She doesn’t believe in Bigfoot or Sasquatch or Chupacabra. Nessie she’s a bit more equivocal on. Not so much on Nessie herself, but rather the possibility that some kind of deep water creature might have managed to hide from humans for millennia – because that’s really happened. Coelacanths, thought to be extinct for 66 MILLION years, turned up very much alive if not exactly flourishing in 1938. The current population is considered either endangered or vulnerable depending on subspecies, but the re-discovery of the coelacanth does give Morgan hope that another such creature could be found in the modern day.

Which is what leads Washington Island Police Chief Jon Flanders to the door of Morgan’s rather eclectic bookstore in mainland Door County. He’s got a couple of dead bodies that look like they got mauled by something that hasn’t been identified. Something with a very large mouth and rather big teeth. He’s worried it might be a cryptid. He’s equally worried that it might be someone or something mimicking a cryptid. Whether it is or it isn’t, he’s really, really worried that if word gets out either the tourists the area depends on for income will get scared away, or that the curious and the cryptid hunters will flock to the area in droves and interfere with the investigation.

So he hires Morgan to go hunting. To either find a cryptid, or reliably rule one out. Before the body count gets any higher.

Escape Rating B: This series opener kicks off its mystery series with a couple of surprising twists for something that is billed as a cozy, beginning with its protagonist Morgan Carter. Cryptozoology isn’t a vocation or even an avocation that is high on the list of ‘usual’ careers for amateur detectives – although bookstore owner certainly is.

But it is what makes her investigation so fascinating. Because she starts out looking at whether or not it’s scientifically possible for a cryptid to be involved in the crimes – but she doesn’t stop there. She’s not looking for Nessie or her Great Lakes equivalent, she’s looking for who or what might have done the damage exhibited on the victims. Which might – or might not – come back to Nessie. Or at least her North American kin.

Which means that Morgan is also looking into the victims, as well as into the conditions in and around Lake Michigan. And it’s in that investigation that she keeps running into Police Chief Flanders – who isn’t always all that thrilled. Because Morgan keeps stepping on, over and around police procedure to get her answers – and locking horns with Flanders.

It’s clear fairly early on that whatever is roiling the waters around Door County is human in origin. After all, sea monsters, no matter how terrifying, do not enter bookstores unnoticed, nor do they hit people on the head and leave notes pinned to knick-knacks with knives.

What’s roiling between Morgan and “Flatfoot Flanders” is even harder to pin down. They are clearly interested in each other but they both have issues in their respective pasts that are going to make any potential romantic relationship a bit dicey.

After all, Flanders got the recommendation to hire Morgan from his uncle, a cop in Delaware who STILL seems to believe that Morgan was responsible for the deaths of her parents.

She wasn’t, but that’s another story that leads to one of my pet peeves about this book, of which I have three. I did really enjoy the mystery, and I genuinely liked that the setting and the characters were a bit different from the ‘usual suspects’.

But, and perhaps this was because of the place and the people not being those usual suspects, there was a fair bit of infodumping about Lake Michigan, its wreck-filled maritime history, and the danger of its currents and undercurrents. Morgan also got rather far in-depth into the nature of potential marine cryptids. While necessary, it felt like both went on past the point of too much of a good thing.

The second quibble was that the solution to the mystery came completely out of deep left field until nearly the end. I knew it was a human agency and not a cryptid, but the human agents weren’t even on the radar until about the 75% mark of the story. I was not expecting a fair play mystery but I would still expect to see some of the perps in advance of the race-to-the-finish ending.

And last but not least we get back to the death of Morgan’s parents a couple of years before this story begins. Because Morgan has an EvilEx™ to beat all previous evil exes. He killed her parents when they finally figured out that he wasn’t who he said he was. He nearly managed to pin the murders on Morgan because no one ever saw him. AND he’s still out there. He was a huge Chekhov’s Gun hanging over the entire story. While it does explain Morgan’s trust issues in regards to men in general and Flanders in particular, the lack of closure in that part of the story hung over this first entry in the series like that proverbial Sword of Damocles. It’s obvious that if this series continues that issue should be resolved. Right now it’s hanging like a shoe that needs to drop in ways that left me unsatisfied at the end of this story.

Not that the villains of this entry in the series don’t get most of what they deserve. But they read like giant red herrings for a true villain left waiting in the wings. But I want to see that villain get his, one way or another. So I’ll be back for the next entry in this series in the hopes of catching him hiding in the shadows.

Review: Sweetwater and the Witch by Jayne Castle

Review: Sweetwater and the Witch by Jayne CastleSweetwater and the Witch by Jayne Castle
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure romance, futuristic, paranormal romance, romantic suspense, science fiction romance
Series: Harmony #15
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley Books on September 20, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Welcome to the world of Harmony, where--despite its name, things are anything but--danger lurks just beneath the surface in this new novel by New York Times bestselling author, Jayne Castle.
If there's something Ravenna Chastain knows, it's when to end things. And after she almost winds up the victim of a cult that believes she's a witch, it's easy to walk away from her dead-end career, ready for a new start. But where to find a job that would allow her to use her very specialized skill set? The answer is clear: she becomes a matchmaker.
But even a successful matchmaker can't find someone for everyone, and Ravenna considers Ethan Sweetwater her first professional failure. After nine failed dates, Ravenna knows it's time to cut Ethan loose. But Ethan refuses to be fired as a client--he needs one final date to a business function. Since Ravenna needs a date herself to a family event, they agree to a deal: she will be his (business) date if he will be her (fake) date to her grandparents' anniversary celebration.
What Ethan fails to mention is that attending the business function is a cover for some industrial espionage that he's doing as a favor to the new Illusion Town Guild boss. Ravenna is happy to help, but their relationship gets even more complicated when things heat up--the chemistry between them is explosive, as explosive as the danger that's stalking Ravenna. Lucky for her, Ethan isn't just an engineer--he's also a Sweetwater, and Sweetwaters are known for hunting down monsters...

My Review:

When I originally saw the title of this latest entry in the Harmony series, at first I thought it was going to be a Western – or at least a Weird West – kind of story. (The rhythm of the words in the title keeps taking me back to the movie McCabe & Mrs .Miller which was a sort of Western. I digress. Again. I know.) Harmony is absolutely wild enough and definitely weird enough to resemble the Weird West, but it’s a far-future lost colony world that presented some unique challenges to the first settlers and still does to their descendants even two centuries later.

The planet of Harmony – which doesn’t generally exhibit all that much harmony or we wouldn’t have this marvelous series – was settled by a group of human colonists that included members of the Arcane Society and their allies back on Earth. Who were people with psi powers as portrayed in the Victorian and contemporary set Arcane Society series and its offshoots, which were published under the author’s Amanda Quick and Jayne Ann Krentz pen names.

(If the setup sounds a bit familiar, it’s also the setup for the Celta series by Robin D. Owens, so if you like one you’ll like the other.)

By the time in Harmony’s history when this story takes place, Harmony has lost all contact with Earth, and the upheavals of that loss have settled back into a history that is still well-remembered but no longer as influential as it once was. Not that there aren’t some people looking to recreate the past glories of their ancestors. Even if those so-called glories are only in the minds of past – and present – psychopaths.

Which is what this entry in the series turns out to be about. Two people who think they can do their criminal predecessors one better, and two people who stand in their way. And eventually stand together to do it.

Escape Rating A-: What makes this entry in the series so much fun is the witty banter and slowly building romance between Ethan Sweetwater and Ravenna Chastain. She’s a police profiler turned matchmaker, and he’s the client she’s supposed to find a match for but it’s not working. At all. Which he refuses to acknowledge or let the project go for reasons that Ravenna doesn’t see but the reader probably does.

It’s only when Ethan helps her take out the trash – by which I mean the comatose body of her first stalker – that Ravenna gets the idea that there’s more to Ethan than initially appeared. Which is, of course, more than true.

He presented himself as a mild-mannered, kind of dorky engineer. And he is. But underneath that unassuming persona lurks a man who knows just who to call and how to dispose of a not-quite dead body. Ravenna is worried that he might be connected to the mob.

Ethan, on the other hand, knows that she’s his match. Lucky for him – in a twisted sort of way – the deadly adventures that keep finding them give them plenty of chances to bond into a relationship where they both know they’ll have each other’s backs through thick, thin, nightmares and flame-throwers.

All they have to do is convince each other it’s for keeps. And keep fighting to make sure that they will be a “keeps” to have.

That this turns out to be a delightful romance to go with the deadly danger has to do with the personalities of the three protagonists; Ethan, Ravenna, and Ravenna’s dust bunny Harriet. They make one hell of a team where each has a crucial part to play in taking down the villains and having a bit of fun along the way.

Dust bunnies excel at finding the fun in EVERYTHING!

One final note; there is obviously a long and storied history to Harmony but each book stands pretty much on its own. The necessary parts of the background history are always explained, while the occasional mention of a particular person or incident is more in the form of an “Easter Egg” that brings a smile if you know but lack of that knowledge does not detract from enjoyment of the book in hand. The romances are always self-contained to the individual book. That being said, the books in the series are a bit like potato chips in that you won’t want to read just one.

And I guarantee you’ll wish you had your own dust bunny to chortle at your side as you read!

Review: Drunk on Love by Jasmine Guillory

Review: Drunk on Love by Jasmine GuilloryDrunk on Love by Jasmine Guillory
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley Books on September 20, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

An intoxicating and sparkling new romance by New York Times bestselling author Jasmine Guillory. Margot Noble needs some relief from the stress of running the family winery with her brother. Enter Luke: sexy, charming, and best of all in the too-small world of Napa, a stranger. The chemistry between them is undeniable, and Margot is delighted that she lucked into the perfect one-night stand she'll never have to see again. That is, until the winery's newest hire, Luke, walks in the next morning. Margot is determined to keep things purely professional, but when their every interaction reminds her of the attraction still bubbling between them, it proves to be much more challenging than she expects.
Luke Williams had it all, but when he quits his high-salary tech job in Silicon Valley in a blaze of burnout and moves back to Napa to help a friend, he realizes he doesn't want to tell the world--or his mom--why he's now working at a winery. His mom loves bragging about her successful son--how can he admit that the job she's so proud of broke him? Luke has no idea what is next for him, but one thing is certain: he wants more from the incredibly smart and sexy woman he hooked up with--even after he learns she's his new boss. But even if they can find a way to be together that wouldn't be an ethical nightmare, would such a successful woman really want a tech-world dropout?
Set against a lush backdrop of Napa Valley wine country, nothing goes to your head as fast as a taste of love--even if it means changing all your plans.

My Review: 

The meet-cute that uncorks Drunk on Love is a classic for a reason. Strangers meet in a bar, at a party, or wherever – although in this particular case it’s a neighborhood bar with excellent drinks and great food. They strike up a conversation on one pretext or another and simply hit it off in a way that neither of them can resist.

So they don’t. A great meal, a fantastic night, and a not too terribly awkward morning after and then they’ll never see each other again. Or so one or both of them believes.

Then they do meet again, later that morning after, in the most awkward way possible. And so it begins.

In the case of Margot Noble and Luke Williams, what makes that awkward morning after into an even more awkward gift that is just going to keep on giving – at least for the reader – is that the new job that Luke walks into in the tasting room of a local winery turns out to be the family winery belonging to Margot and her brother Elliot.

Elliot Noble is the winemaker, Margot Noble is the business manager, which means Elliot mostly gets to work behind the scenes, while Margot is out front, managing the finances, drumming up business, schmoozing restaurants to get them to offer and promote Noble wines – and, you guessed it, running the tasting room at the winery.

In other words, Margot is Luke’s new boss. Which is where this romantic comedy kicks into high gear – and sometimes even gets drunk on the Noble Family Wineries’ products. Because neither of them can forget the best night either of them has had in a long, long time – if ever. And they both know it can’t happen again as long as Luke is working in Margot’s tasting room

But they both want it to. So, so bad. Because they already know it’ll be so, so good. If they can just find a way to make it – or let it – happen.

Escape Rating B: I loved the way that Drunk on Love started, and even more so as Margot was a bit older than Luke which is one of my favorite tropes.

Very much on my other hand, this one middled in places that aren’t necessarily my cup of tea – or that I just wasn’t in the mood for at the moment, leaving me with some mixed reading feelings.

The kickoff for this was a winner. Absolutely. There’s always something delicious in a forbidden romance but there are few non-squicky ways to make that happen in the 21st century. This is one that works.

That there is a certain amount of deception in this kind of romance is a given. What drove me bananas about the story wasn’t so much the coverup of their relationship but rather the lies they are telling themselves about pretty much everything else.

Luke is back home in Napa because he burned out at his high-paying, high-powered, high-tech job but can’t manage to tell anyone about it – in some ways, not even himself. So in order to cover that up he covers up more stuff until he’s at the bottom of a pit of lies and just can’t seem to stop digging.

Margot, on the other hand, is doing very well in her position but can’t believe that her brother thinks she is or even wants her there. Their relationship is filled with nothing but tension that might or might not still have a cause. They’re in the middle of a giant misunderstandammit and can’t seem to find a way clear of it.

It’s not just that Margot and Luke are standing in their own ways, but that the way they are doing so stands in the way of any potential future happiness. It’s hard to watch these two very sympathetic and likeable characters flail around at reaching their HEA, but once they do it’s very much earned.

So if you like a bit of angst mixed with witty banter between a couple of really great people who need a few good swift kicks to move them to an HEA, try a glass – or a chapter or two – of Drunk on Love. If you prefer the witty banter in your romcom to be undiluted, grab a copy of the author’s The Wedding Date – a bubbly delight from the very first sip to the last.

Review: Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

Review: Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna RaybournKillers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 368
Published by Berkley Books on September 6, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Older women often feel invisible, but sometimes that's their secret weapon.
They've spent their lives as the deadliest assassins in a clandestine international organization, but now that they're sixty years old, four women friends can't just retire - it's kill or be killed in this action-packed thriller.
Billie, Mary Alice, Helen, and Natalie have worked for the Museum, an elite network of assassins, for forty years. Now their talents are considered old-school and no one appreciates what they have to offer in an age that relies more on technology than people skills.
When the foursome is sent on an all-expenses paid vacation to mark their retirement, they are targeted by one of their own. Only the Board, the top-level members of the Museum, can order the termination of field agents, and the women realize they've been marked for death.
Now to get out alive they have to turn against their own organization, relying on experience and each other to get the job done, knowing that working together is the secret to their survival. They're about to teach the Board what it really means to be a woman--and a killer--of a certain age.

My Review:

Women of a “certain age” are expected to fade into the background – and if they don’t fade voluntarily society is more than willing to keep shoving them into the shadows until they finally get the hint.

So it’s not a surprise to 60-somethings Billie, Mary Alice, Helen and Natalie that after 40+ years as an elite assassination team working for the mysterious “Museum” they’ve been retired and put out to pasture. They miss the adrenaline of the work, but they’re not totally miserable at the idea of retirement at least on some levels. Living on the knife edge of danger always did get the blood pumping, but the recovery times are a LOT longer than they used to be.

But the offer of an all-expenses paid elite cruise on a luxury yacht is the least the Museum owes them in addition to the generous pensions they’ve all more than earned.

What they have not earned, do not deserve, but discover they have to deal with anyway, is a member of the Museum’s “operations” staff posing as a member of the ship’s crew. As they have not been contacted about a job, or even just given a heads-up about his presence, they realize that they ARE the job. Their former employers are literally out to get them – and they are very, very good at getting the people they set out to get.

But Billie, Mary Alice, Helen and Natalie were an elite team. The best of the best, trained by the best and tested time and time again in the field. Not many people in their profession live to retire and they plan to enjoy theirs for a long, long time.

In order to do that, they’ll just have to eliminate anyone – and everyone – who is out to get them. It’s a difficult job, but it’s one they’ve been doing for over 40 years. And they’re not done yet.

Escape Rating A-: Readers of a certain age, or even something vaguely approaching it, will probably think the outline of Killers of a Certain Age sounds a bit familiar – only because it is. If you remember the 2010 movie Red, about a group of retired CIA agents who are forced out of retirement because someone at their former agency is trying to kill them, it’s hard to miss the resemblance. Just put Helen Mirren’s character in charge as Billie, change her team to an all-female team and substitute the Museum for the CIA (who knows, the Museum might have been a cover for the CIA anyway) and there you go.

Which does not take a damn thing away from either the book or the movie, because they are both a hell of a good time.

As strange as this may sound, Killers is kind of a slow-burn thriller. A lot of prep work and planning goes into this caper, and we see it. This team doesn’t barge in with guns blazing – not because they’re old, but because that was never the way they worked. Their mission was always to get away undetected – and they were damn good at it.

The mission now is to take down all the people – and for people read men – at the Museum who set them up and plan to take them out in order to cover up their own corruption.

So a big part of this story is seeing them do the work of putting a plan together and getting the job done. That the job is to kill people and the plan is all about getting away with it doesn’t trouble them and doesn’t trouble the reader either. Whether this is justice or revenge, the dish is still going to be served ice cold. And the dessert is very, very just.

But the author called this a book about anger – and that feels like a pretty accurate description. Because in between the meticulous planning and sometimes nearly disastrous carrying out of those plans, the story slips back from Billie’s perspective on the rather fraught present to her recollections of the team’s past training and missions.

And every single one of the missions Billie recalls is an occasion where the very same men who ordered their executions underestimated them on a mission – only to get saved by this team of women that they still insisted weren’t up for the job. A nearly fatal mistake for each man then, and an absolutely fatal one now.

Isn’t it all too telling that the women got put out to pasture while the men who weren’t nearly as good got promoted to the top echelons of the organization?

Because the story in the present is told from Billie’s first-person perspective, and the sections in the past follow her even though we’re not in her head, the reader doesn’t get quite as clear a picture of Mary Alice, Helen and Natalie as we do Billie. Which is possibly the book’s only flaw. Their lives have taken such different turns in spite of their shared work so it would be fascinating to get more of their individual perspectives. But with what we do know, we see that their bond is as strong as the day it was formed. They love each other, sometimes they want to kill each other, often they want to tear each other’s hair out – but each would lay down their lives for the others and their sisterhood is both palpable and powerful.

I loved Killers of a Certain Age and sincerely hope that it turns out to be the first book in a series. The ending certainly hints at that possibility and I’d be thrilled to see it fulfilled. In the meantime, if you find yourself enjoying it as much as I did, there are several titles that might hit the same deadly sweet spot.

In addition to watching or re-watching the movie Red, the following books have at least elements of Killers of a Certain Age: The Thursday Murder Club series by Richard Osman, especially the second book, The Man Who Died Twice, the Slough House series by Mick Herron, Woman on Fire by Lisa Barr, and last but certainly not the least or the least deadly, An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten.

Review: The Shop on Royal Street by Karen White

Review: The Shop on Royal Street by Karen WhiteThe Shop on Royal Street (Royal Street, #1) by Karen White
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, paranormal
Series: Royal Street #1
Pages: 384
Published by Berkley Books on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The first in a new spinoff series of Karen White's New York Times bestselling Tradd Street novels.
After a difficult hiccup on her road to adulthood, Nola Trenholm is looking to begin anew in New Orleans, and what better way to start her future than with her first house? But the historic fixer-upper she buys comes with even more work than she anticipated when the house's previous occupants don't seem to be ready to depart. Although she can't communicate with ghosts like her stepmother, luckily Nola knows someone in New Orleans who can--even if he's the last person on earth she wants anything to do with, ever again. Because Beau Ryan comes with his own dark past, a past that involves the disappearance of his sister and parents during Hurricane Katrina, and the unsolved murder of a woman who once lived in the old Creole Cottage Nola is determined to make her own whether or not the resident restless spirits agree...

My Review:

There’s just something about New Orleans. Not just the beignets and chicory coffee at the Café du Monde (although those beignets still loom large and delicious in my memory). It’s the hot, steamy mélange of gumbo and hurricanes – and HURRICANES – and blues and magic that seems to pervade both the area AND the history of it.

New Orleans is a place of stories – the kind of stories that are told in the light and the ones that are whispered in the dark. Which makes it the perfect place to set this combination of ghost story, cold case mystery and gothic thriller.

Nola Trenholm is named for the city, because that’s where she was conceived. (Thank goodness she wasn’t conceived in Poughkeepsie!) So the city represents her birth, but it also represents her downfall, as her first attempt at college – at Tulane University in New Orleans – ended in a haze of alcohol and addiction.

She intends for the city to be her rebirth as well. Clean, sober and with a Master’s degree in historic preservation under her belt, Nola has returned to the city with a job investigating the historical significance of buildings that may be demolished in the name of “progress”, unless her work bears compelling fruit.

Her plan is to do at least some of her preservation work very personally, by buying a historic home that is in need of TONS of professional preservation. And that’s where the mystery really begins.

The old Creole Cottage is meant to be hers. It’s not just that it calls to her in the way that some places do. It’s that it is literally intended to belong to her, at least as relayed by her grandmother Sarah from beyond the grave.

Which should be a red flag that Nola isn’t quite right in the head. But not in her family. Nola can’t see spirits or communicate with the dead, but her stepmother Melanie most definitely can, as is it told in the Tradd Street series of which this is a spinoff.

When Grandmother Sarah calls Melanie from the beyond to tell her that the house is meant to be Nola’s it doesn’t so much take care of Melanie’s many, many objections as it does move them to another sphere entirely.

Nola’s meant to have the house because she’s the one with the resources – or the sheer pigheadedness – to finally lay the ghosts haunting the cottage to rest. Nola’s historic fixer-upper is a murder house. A murder that’s tied into the one person Nola would really rather not see in her return to New Orleans.

But it’s not a coincidence that the cottage – and in some surprising ways that old murder – both belong to Beau Ryan, who once saved her from a ghost, twice saved her from the consequences of her addiction, and has the talents needed to save her yet again.

If she can bear to let him. And if he can let himself admit that, just like Nola’s stepmother Melanie, Beau Ryan can see dead people.

Escape Rating B+: As soon as I picked up a copy of this from the library last week it started calling my name – much like New Orleans itself. The combination of past and present mysteries along with ghostly and other perpetrators hiding in the shadows looked fascinating, and so it proved.

And I always love a good story set in New Orleans.

This is the first book in a new series, spun off from a previous series. Which I have not read, probably because Charleston, while a lovely historic city in its own right, doesn’t draw me the way that New Orleans does. There are plenty of cross-over characters from Tradd Street to Royal Street, but I didn’t feel like I missed too much by not having started there. Not that I might not go back when I’m next in the mood for a story like this one!

The whole point of the move back to New Orleans for Nola is to get a fresh start without her parents looking over her shoulder, which works even better for this series starter than it does for Nola herself. She’s building a new team of friends, helpers and supporters around herself in her new city so the reader gets to be introduced to all the new people and watch the “Scooby Gang” come together along with Nola.

And what a marvelously mixed bunch they are! Especially Nola’s best friend Jolene, who combines Southern Belle with Steel Magnolia, while speaking in metaphors that make perfect sense but seem to come out of an ether that only Jolene can access. Probably the same place that Jolene gets what seems to be magical talents in just about every skill a Southern Belle could possibly need or want. She’s amazing and amazingly offbeat at the same time.

But the mystery – and the ghosts – that haunt the cottage are tied to Nola’s frenemy, Beau Ryan, and especially his family and their relationship with the shady movers and shakers of the city. As Nola’s father says in every one of his best-selling mystery thrillers, there is no such thing as coincidence. And there are no coincidences in the fact that Nola’s new house, which she bought from Beau’s grandmother over Beau’s objections, is tied to Beau’s family all the way back to that long ago murder – and the consequences of that murder that keep spilling over into each generation.

While one piece of the puzzle gets resolved by the end of The Shop on Royal Street, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of a long and bloody history – one that will probably take several books to resolve. As will the glimmer of a romantic possibility between Beau Ryan and Nola Trenholm – in spite of both of their intentions to stay out of each other’s way romantically and otherwise.

It will be fun – with a bit of a ghostly chill – to see all the interwoven threads begin their unraveling in the next book in the Royal Street series, The House on Prytania, coming late next spring. I always look forward to a trip to New Orleans!

Review: A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen

Review: A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa ArlenA Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, historical fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Berkley Books on July 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A sumptuous novel based on the fascinating true story of Belle Epoque icon Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, a woman determined to shatter the boundaries of the fashion world and support herself and her young daughter with her magnificent designs.
Lucy Duff Gordon knows she is talented. She sees color, light, fabric, and texture in ways few other people do. But is the world ready for her? A world dominated by men who would try to control her and use her art for their own gain?
After being deserted by her wealthy husband, Lucy is desperate to survive. She turns to her one true talent to make a living. As a little girl, the dresses she made for her dolls were the envy of her group of playmates. Now, she uses her courageous innovations in Belle Époque fashion to support her own little girl. Lucile knows it is an uphill battle, and a single woman is not supposed to succeed on her own, but she refuses to give up. She will claim her place in the fashion world; failure simply is not an option.
Then, on a frigid night in 1912, Lucy’s life changes once more, when she becomes one of 706 people to survive the sinking of the Titanic. She could never have imagined the effects the disaster would have on her career, her marriage to her second husband, and her legacy. But no matter what life throws at her, Lucile will live on as a trailblazing and fearless fashion icon, never letting go of what she worked so hard to earn. This is her story.

My Review:

In historical fiction it seems as if behind every successful woman there’s either a rotten first husband, a harridan of a mother, or both. In A Dress of Violet Taffeta, this fictionalized biography of groundbreaking British couturier Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, there’s both.

(Historically, we’re certain about the rotten first husband. She divorced him for multiple infidelities and her divorce was granted in 1895. Whether her mother was quite the harridan portrayed in this fictional account of her life is not so certain – but it makes for an even better story.)

What made Lucy special, and fascinating enough for her to be portrayed more than once in both fiction and biography, are the choices she made and the life that she led. She’s famous, not for who she married or who she knew – although she absolutely married better the second time around and certainly knew the rich and famous of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but because of what she did.

She had a dream, and she worked for decades to achieve it. And succeed – which she certainly did. To support herself, her daughter, and her widowed mother (see harridan above) Lucy took her talent for not just dressmaking but dress designing and turned it into a worldwide brand of haute couture at a time when all the famous fashion houses were headed by men.

Lucile dress designed by Lucy Duff-Gordon

Her company, her brand, Lucile, Ltd, was an innovator both as a business and as a design studio, inventing trends that became the foundation of the modern fashion industry. She was the first to train models and use shows to display her creations. And that was only one of her “firsts”.

She was a pioneer and a trailblazer in a world that may have been changing but still expected women like her to sit and look pretty. She chose to make a life, a business and a career out of making other women look pretty instead.

In some ways, her story is a “rags to riches” tale. Lucy pulled herself up – and as many women as she could take with her – by her own shoebuttons if not bootstraps – going from wondering whether she could pay the rent and feed her family to opening shops in Paris and New York in addition to her signature London shop and studio.

But that wealth and fame bought her – along with her second husband, Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, a first-class cabin on the maiden voyage of the ill-fated RMS Titanic. Both Lucy and Cosmo survived their harrowing ordeal – only for them to lose their reputations in the relentless search for scapegoats in the aftermath.

Whatever the ratio of facts to conjecture in this particular fictionalized biography, the life of Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon makes for a fascinating read.

Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon

Escape Rating A-: Lucy Duff-Gordon led a great big huge storied life. Hers would have been a larger-than-life story even without the misadventure of the Titanic. With it, she becomes an English version of the “Unsinkable Molly Brown”, another famous female entrepreneur – albeit American – who survived that disaster. (And they did meet afterwards!)

Lucy’s story as written here is utterly compelling. She starts with nothing but a dream and the barebones of a plan. With a bit of help from her sister (who also became famous as the novelist Elinor Glyn and creator of the concept of the “It girl”) Lucy turned that dream into, a somewhat more realistic plan that was going to take all of her time, effort and attention for years to turn into a success. Which she eventually did.

This was the part of the story I loved best, where Lucy is working flat-out all the hours of the day and entirely too many of the hours of the night to turn her dream into something that will keep them all afloat. This was also the part of the story where the second perspective, that of Celia Franklin, her once scullery maid turned right hand woman was best presented alongside Lucy’s own. We see what Lucy is thinking and feeling but also get a glimpse into what an opportunity it was and how many opportunities it, in turn, provided to others.

(Celia was not a real historical person, but rather a combination of two separate people. Her perspective on Lucy sheds a lot of light, but certainly made me wonder how much of that perspective was fabricated rather than based on history. Lucy’s insistence on bringing other women up in her studio by providing them with good jobs at decent wages under excellent working conditions reads well in 21st century terms but may or may not reflect her actual views. I wish we knew.)

But as much as I loved the part about building her business, once it was built the story shifted to her second marriage (a bit, as much as Lucy seems to have) and to her higher and higher rise into the upper echelons of society – at least in New York City. The parts about the business are a case of the journey being more interesting than the destination, but if her relationship with Cosmo was meant to portray a grand romance I’ll admit that I wasn’t feeling it.

Which doesn’t mean he wasn’t an excellent choice for Lucy. As her husband, he could have forced her back into the kind of life that women were expected to have. Instead, he was as much of an iconoclast as she was and they were a good match. I bought that their marriage was successful but not the romance of it. And that may have been an accurate impression after all.

There are things in Lucy’s life that are either left out or elided over, and the biggest of these was in the manner and timing of its ending. The aftermath of the Titanic disaster was disastrous in an entirely different way for Cosmo Duff-Gordon. He was one of the scapegoats of the inquiries and his reputation was ruined in the press. While he was eventually exonerated, the public and the press never forgot, and the loss of his reputation cast a pall over his remaining years. That the author chose to end Lucy’s story on a note of recovery made sense fictionally – we want stories to end happily, after all – but probably didn’t reflect the reality of the rest of their lives.

I’ve written a LOT about this particular book. Obviously I was caught up in it and it gave me a lot to think about. Also, there always seem to be two issues in historical fiction that is based this closely on real history. One is the question of how it reads, while the other is the question about how much it does or does not match the historical facts that are known.

In the case of A Dress of Violet Taffeta, it reads very well indeed. And most of the variations from history make sense in the course of the story’s narrative, even though they niggle a bit as the amateur historian in this reader. All in all, a compelling read about a woman whose achievements made her larger-than-life.

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
Goodreads

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 DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

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
Goodreads

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
Goodreads

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 chickens 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!