Review: Remember Love by Mary Balogh

Review: Remember Love by Mary BaloghRemember Love (Ravenswood, #1) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, regency romance
Series: Ravenswood #1
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley on July 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The undisputed queen of Regency romance is back with a brand-new story perfect for fans of Bridgerton.
The handsome and charismatic Earl of Stratton, Caleb Ware, has been exposed to the ton for his clandestine affairs—by his own son.
As a child, Devlin Ware thought his family stood for all that was right and good in the world. They were kind, gracious, and shared the beauty of Ravenwood, their grand country estate, by hosting lavish parties for the entire countryside. But at twenty-two, he discovered his whole world was an elaborate illusion, and when Devlin publicly called his family to account for it, he was exiled as a traitor.
So be it. He enlisted in the fight against Napoleon and didn’t look back for six years. But now his father is dead, the Ware family is broken, and as the heir he is being called home. It’s only when Gwyneth Rhys—the woman he loved and then lost after his family banished him—holds out her hand to help him that he is able make the difficult journey and try to piece together his fractured family.
It is Gwyneth’s loyalty, patience, and love that he needs. But is Devlin’s war-hardened heart even capable of offering her love in return?

My Review:

Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale and Caleb Ware, Earl of Stratton must have been bosom buddies. Possibly literally. Certainly they seem to have been cut from the same despicable cloth. Both were wealthy aristocrats who lived a lie and expected everyone around them to go along with that lie rather than face up to the uncomfortable truth.

Westcott hid his perfidy until after his death, which makes the shocking opening of the Westcott series, Someone to Love, all that much more upsetting. But at least Westcott didn’t require that others go along with his false front because he kept his secret very well hidden indeed.

Caleb Ware, very much on the other hand, needed admiration, approval and even applause from all those who surrounded him. He projected the image of a loving husband and father with a perfect family because he needed people to love him at every turn. Not that there weren’t plenty of men in his position who lived lives completely separate from the wives and families and didn’t care about the winks and nods that followed in their wake.

But Ware needed to have it all. A perfect family at his country home, and a mistress or two, or three, in London. When he brought his current mistress to his country estate and flaunted his affair in front of his friends and family he expected everyone to turn the same blind eye that they always had. And when one member of his family refused to turn that blind eye, and refused to sweep the entire tawdry incident under the rug for the sake of peace and not rocking the family boat – he likewise refused to take responsibility for his actions. And the rest of the family punished the young man who could not stand idly by after learning that his oh-so-perfect father, his hero, had feet of clay up to the knees – or perhaps a bit higher.

And that’s what kicks this story into a higher gear – that the expected pattern of the lives of not just the Earl and his heir are knocked off course – but that the entire family’s future is irrevocably altered over the course of one disastrous night.

The aftermath of which makes for a much more fascinating – and occasionally dangerous – life than anyone would have expected for the heir to an earldom – and for the woman he once expected to be his bride.

Escape Rating A-: The Ravenswood series is off to a heartbreaking but eventually heartwarming and redemptive start in this opening entry in the series. It has the potential for all the elements that made the Westcott series so fascinating, with Devlin Ware’s condemnation of his father’s behavior and his family’s complicity drastically altering ALL their lives.

What makes the initial break in the story such a huge change is that it encompasses both Devlin’s sharply learned lesson that his father is not worthy of being anyone’s hero, and that the rest of his family would rather keep lying to themselves and each other than try to fix what’s broken. That Caleb Ware is the one who behaved so very badly but Devlin Ware is the one who gets punished for it puts the hypocrisy of the whole mess on disgusting display.

But Caleb eventually does get his just desserts, while Devlin immediately gets a commission in the infantry. During the worst of the fighting of the bitter Napoleonic Wars. From one perspective, it’s the making of him, while in the other it represents the shattering of his heart into pieces so tiny that Devlin is no longer certain he even possesses such an organ.

The heartbreak for Devlin’s family is that the only way he can survive the hell of his war is to compartmentalize his feelings for his family and reject all contact with any of them – except for his father’s bastard son who is serving as his batman. It’s a cold, hard, bitter road that he walks – but he does survive it.

Only to return home after Napoleon’s surrender, two years after his father’s death, to do his duty yet again and pick up the reins of the earldom that he has inherited. He has done his best to cut his family out of his heart, but Devlin Ware is a man who has always done his duty – and taking up the mantle of the Earl of Stratton is his duty.

Once Devlin is back in the place he once called home, doing his best to fit himself into the place that is his duty, he tries to convince himself that it is out of duty alone and not the emotions he swears he’s no longer capable of feeling. He eventually learns that duty does not have to mean burden, and that if he allows himself to feel all the things that he locked away during his war, his peace can be filled with not just true peace, but also real love and belonging.

In the end I enjoyed Remember Love because it is a story where the life that’s supposed to happen gets pushed aside for a life that is harder and darker but in the end much more real, and that’s the same thing that made the Westcott series so fascinating. Young Devlin, before he left, was a bit of a prig. He meant well and generally did well but could really be a self-righteous young man. He’s much more interesting when he’s much less sure of things – as well as a whole lot more approachable and loveable.

Gwyneth Rhys, the heroine of this romance, doesn’t pine. She doesn’t wallow. But what she does is know herself, her strengths, her weaknesses and those situations up with which she will not put. She is not going to change to suit a man, but she does deal pragmatically with the life she has.

The character who turned out to be a complete surprise was Devlin’s mother, the Dowager Countess. The woman who did her best not to know about her husband’s frequent infidelities until he brought them to her very door. At first, she seems weak in that she didn’t protest her husband’s affairs and actually participated in her son’s banishment. It’s only when she acknowledges to Devlin that she did the best she could with the cards she was dealt because women were forced to lie all the time to survive. She lied to herself because that is what she and women like her were trained to do practically from the cradle.

It makes Devlin think. It makes the reader think. And it makes the reader wonder – or at least this reader wonder – whether or not all that much has really changed.

Remember Love is the first book in the Ravenswood series. Now that Devlin is back home and has found his own HEA, I wonder what will happen next in the slightly altered lives of his family and friends in the coming entries in the series. Hopefully we’ll see sometime next year!

Review: When Blood Lies by C.S. Harris

Review: When Blood Lies by C.S. HarrisWhen Blood Lies (Sebastian St. Cyr, #17) by C.S. Harris
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Sebastian St. Cyr #17
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley on April 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, has spent years unraveling his family’s tragic history. But the secrets of his past will come to light in this gripping new historical mystery from the USA Today bestselling author of What the Devil Knows.
March, 1815. The Bourbon King Louis XVIII has been restored to the throne of France, Napoleon is in exile on the isle of Elba, and Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, and his wife, Hero, have traveled to Paris in hopes of tracing his long-lost mother, Sophie, the errant Countess of Hendon. But his search ends in tragedy when he comes upon the dying Countess in the wasteland at the tip of the Île de la Cité. Stabbed—apparently with a stiletto—and thrown from the bastions of the island’s ancient stone bridge, Sophie dies without naming her murderer.
Sophie had been living in Paris under an assumed name as the mistress of Maréchal Alexandre McClellan, the scion of a noble Scottish Jacobite family that took refuge in France after the Forty-Five Rebellion. Once one of Napoleon’s most trusted and successful generals, McClellan has now sworn allegiance to the Bourbons and is serving in the delegation negotiating on behalf of France at the Congress of Vienna. It doesn’t take Sebastian long to realize that the French authorities have no interest in involving themselves in the murder of a notorious Englishwoman at such a delicate time. And so, grieving and shattered by his mother’s death, Sebastian takes it upon himself to hunt down her killer. But what he learns will not only shock him but could upend a hard-won world peace.

My Review:

“Able was I ere I saw Elba,” at least according to a palindrome attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte during his later captivity on the island of Saint Helena. But that’s later. This seventeenth book in the Sebastian St. Cyr series takes place during the spring of 1815 – with Napoleon’s escape from Elba forming the backdrop – and providing some of the motivations – for St. Cyr’s investigation.

Which is where that title comes in.

The St. Cyr series, from its very beginning in What Angels Fear, has revolved around Sebastian St. Cyr’s search for his own identity. As the series began in 1811, St. Cyr used the tools he learned as an agent of the crown, not just in France during the Napoleonic Wars but in other equally dangerous places, to catch a killer and prove his own innocence into the bargain.

Sebastian was operating from a position of relative privilege – even under an accusation of murder. He was the third son and last remaining heir of the Earl of Hendon, carried the courtesy title of Viscount Devlin, and believed that his mother had died 20 years earlier at sea, attempting to escape her marriage and her family. He thinks his father resents him for his mother’s betrayal and their relationship is strained.

Over the course of the series Sebastian has learned that pretty much none of what he believed at the beginning was true. He is not the offspring of the man he calls father – although they have reconciled. And his mother has been alive all these years. Now that the war between France and England is over, Sebastian is in Paris, along with his wife and two children, to meet his mother and ask all the questions that have been churning inside him since he learned the truth.

Only for his mother to die in his arms, stabbed in the back by an unknown assailant for an equally unknown reason. All his questions still unanswered, but swallowed up in the ones that have just presented themselves.

Who killed the wayward Countess of Hendon, better known in Paris as Dame Sophia Capello? And more importantly, not just for St. Cyr but also for the roiling political pot that is on the boil in both France and England, why was she killed? And why was she killed right then, just as Napoleon is about to sweep into Paris from Elba?

Did her death have something to do with her own recent visit to the exiled emperor? Was she a secret Bonapartist? Or was she a spy for one of the other factions hoping to rule a still fractured and bleeding France?

In his search for the answers to Sophie’s death, St. Cyr runs across a possible answer to a question he’s been asking for 20 years – an answer he’s still afraid to discover.

Was the man whose portrait hangs so prominently in Sophia’s house his real father?

Escape Rating A+: If you are looking for historical fiction that is steeped in its time period to the point where you feel the cobbles under your feet as you walk, then the St. Cyr series absolutely cannot be beat. The series doesn’t just wink and nod at its period, it immerses the reader and the story deeply into what is happening as the hero works his way both through his world and through the mystery that confronts him.

The history in When Blood Lies is about what it feels like to be in the eye of a storm. The storm being France for the past 20something years as the country has careened from absolute monarchy to revolution to near-anarchy to dictatorship and quite possibly back around again. Everyone knows Napoleon is coming back, it’s only a question of when. The restored monarchy seems to have made it their life goal to make the field as ripe as possible for Napoleon’s return by adopting the worst behaviors of their predecessors.

Which doesn’t mean that Napoleon’s return isn’t still going to be awful and bloody and bloody awful. Even if his return is what the French people want, there are too many powers-that-be around Europe who won’t allow him to retake his throne without a fight. (Waterloo, anyone?)

As St. Cyr conducts his investigation, conditions in Paris are breaking down around him. The regime is about to change forcibly – and everyone knows it. Lies and loyalties have suddenly become fluid – as if they’ve ever been solid in the recent decades. He’s desperate to find witnesses and perpetrators before they flee the coming storm or are consumed by it. He’s lost his last chance to question his mother, and his chance to find her killer is rapidly disintegrating.

At the same time, this is, as the series has always been, St. Cyr’s quest for identity. He’s made peace with his legally recognized father, the Earl of Hendon. He is Hendon’s acknowledged heir. The truth about his heritage, even if it comes out, might not change that fact, as his mother was married to the man when Sebastian was born, Hendon acknowledged him as his son, and there isn’t anyone else as Sebastian’s two older brothers deceased long before they had children of their own. His older sister knows his true origins and hates him for them, but she has only daughters and so far her daughters have only daughters so he’s it whether she likes it or not. (If one of her daughters manages to have a son things might get dicey in the legal sense but that hasn’t happened yet.)

But he still wants to know who fathered him. From whom he inherited his distinctive yellow wolf’s eyes and his preternaturally acute senses. On his mother’s wall, there’s a painting of a man who might as well be Sebastian himself in 20 or 30 years. A Scotsman who fought on the French side in the late wars. Who Sebastian might have faced on one or more battlefields.

He clearly needs to know the truth, but now isn’t sure he wants to know it. A truth that he’ll not soon have the chance to discover, as France and England are plunged into war again just as the book concludes.

I came into this series at the very beginning, because the original description of St. Cyr was so fascinating that I had to see what the whole thing was about. Over the course of the series, which consumes four years in book-time and seventeen in the real world, St. Cyr has changed and grown, but he has consistently been compelling and his investigations absolutely riveting, while the depth of the portrait of his life and world has increased in complexity every step of the way.

It’s clear from the way that When Blood Lies ends that there is more yet to come, as France and England are about to be plunged back into the war that still haunts St. Cyr’s nightmares. I can’t wait to find out what happens next, whether he fights or spies – or a bit of both – and how much of himself he discovers along the way.

Review: The Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Review: The Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn SolomonThe Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Pages: 338
Published by Berkley on January 26, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Shay Goldstein has been a producer at her Seattle public radio station for nearly a decade, and she can't imagine working anywhere else. But lately it's been a constant clash between her and her newest colleague, Dominic Yun, who's fresh off a journalism master's program and convinced he knows everything about public radio.
When the struggling station needs a new concept, Shay proposes a show that her boss green-lights with excitement. On The Ex Talk, two exes will deliver relationship advice live, on air. Their boss decides Shay and Dominic are the perfect co-hosts, given how much they already despise each other. Neither loves the idea of lying to listeners, but it's this or unemployment. Their audience gets invested fast, and it's not long before The Ex Talk becomes a must-listen in Seattle and climbs podcast charts.
As the show gets bigger, so does their deception, especially when Shay and Dominic start to fall for each other. In an industry that values truth, getting caught could mean the end of more than just their careers.

My Review:

I went into this book predisposed to love it, because the description reminded me so much of a book with a very similar premise that I utterly adored, Turn It Up by Inez Kelley. (It’s been ten years since I read Turn It Up and I still remember it fondly. It was delightful and it’s still available in ebook.)

And I did enjoy reading The Ex Talk. I had a great time with the reading of it and the characters. But I also didn’t like it, because part of the underlying premise doesn’t hold up to even a cursory examination.

This dichotomy results in the following very mixed feelings review.

The best parts of the story revolve around the “insider baseball” aspects of Public Radio, as seen through the eyes of Shay Goldstein. Shay has her dream job of being a producer on her hometown Seattle station, and has been there for a decade when the story begins.

Shay loves her job, she loves the station, she loves working in public radio. It’s been her dream since childhood, when she and her dad bonded over listening to and acting out programs like Car Talk as they did all sorts of wonderful things together. Those memories are the golden parts of Shay’s childhood.

When her dad died suddenly, those memories got trapped in amber, until working in public radio became her dream. And once she achieved that dream, it became her life. Or swallowed her life. Shay’s not very good at downtime, so she’s perfectly suited to being in a job that won’t let her have any.

But, as we know in real life, public radio lives on pledge drives and ratings and grants and sponsors that aren’t exactly called sponsors. And that radio isn’t the media powerhouse it used to be and public radio in particular often has a tough time with ratings and dollars.

That’s where the plot of this story really kicks in – and also where it kicks out a bit.

In the race for ratings, Shay’s slimy boss concocts a scheme that Shay isn’t on board with at all. Or wouldn’t be if her job, any job at the station, wasn’t directly on the line.

Because the scheme is wrapped around a big fat lie – a lie that gets harder and harder to tell with each passing day and each download and each encouraging tweet. The lie is a huge hit for the station – and a huge mess for Shay and her partner-in-not-exactly-a-crime, Dominic Yun.

And thereby hangs a tale, as the saying goes. Also, thereby ends up hanging Shay and Dominic.

Escape Rating B-: The lie that Shay and Dominic end up telling is a doozy. That they are exes who parted in a friendly enough fashion that they are able to co-host a radio talk show about relationships that banks on their supposed status as exes.

As a romance, this is an enemies to lovers story. When we first meet Shay and Dominic, they are rivals. Dominic is the new “golden child” because their station manager is a misogynistic douchecanoe.

Shay, naturally, resents that Dominic has walked into a privilege and status that she’s worked ten hard years for and not managed to achieve. Not because she’s any less good at the job, but because he has one bit of anatomical equipment that she lacks.

Their relationship is prickly (pun slightly intended) because Shay resents Dominic for his easy access to privilege and he envies her for her in-depth knowledge of public radio in general, the station in specific, and just how to get things done and where the bodies are buried.

But they have chemistry that comes through even over the radio, which is what hatches the scheme to lie to the entire city of Seattle and anyone listening to the podcast of the program.

And that’s the part that makes the story fall down. Not that their romance in spite of themselves isn’t a whole lot of fun, but the way that they got there. Specifically the way that Dominic gets there.

Dominic is all about becoming an investigative reporter and ethics in journalism. Seriously. All about it – at least until he lets himself be talked into this program with Shay. The fundamental lie at the heart of their success is something he doesn’t even seem to interrogate himself about much, as he’s spending much more energy dealing with his feelings for Shay – feelings that he’s not supposed to have because in public their relationship is supposed to have already been there and done that.

There’s so much going for this book. Really. So much. But its central premise based on that big lie took it from “willing suspension of disbelief” to “unwilling to suspend disbelief” for this reader just as much as it did for their audience. It’s not so much that I can’t imagine it happening as that I’m not on board with it happening with this particular character. If Dominic weren’t such a stand-up, straight-arrow kind of guy, we wouldn’t understand what Shay sees in him. But the person he’s represented as at the beginning wouldn’t be part of this mess without a whole lot more guilt and angst than we get to see.

That the douchecanoe station manager doesn’t get nearly as much of a comeuppance as he deserved is kind of the scraped off icing on this not quite properly baked cake. But it’s still a fun read. As I said at the top, mixed feelings. Very.

Your reading mileage may definitely vary.

Review: Lightning in a Mirror by Jayne Ann Krentz

Review: Lightning in a Mirror by Jayne Ann KrentzLightning in a Mirror (Fogg Lake #3) by Jayne Ann Krentz
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, romantic suspense
Series: Fogg Lake #3
Pages: 320
Published by Berkley on January 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The final installment in the chilling Fogg Lake trilogy by New York Times bestselling author Jayne Ann Krentz.
Olivia LeClair's experiment with speed dating is not going well. First there was the nasty encounter with the date from hell who tried to murder her and now the mysterious Harlan Rancourt—long believed dead—sits down at her table and tells her she's the only one who can help him locate the legendary Vortex lab.
This is not what Olivia had in mind when she signed up for the Four Event Success Guaranteed package offered by the dating agency. She doesn't have much choice, though, because her psychic investigation firm works for the mysterious Foundation and Victor Arganbright, the director, is adamant that she assist Harlan. There's just one problem—no one knows Harlan's real agenda. His father once ran the Foundation like a mob organization, and Harlan was destined to be his heir. There's a real possibility Harlan has returned to claim his inheritance.
For now, however, it's a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend because others are after the secrets of the long-lost lab. Unfortunately for Olivia, the one thing friend and foe have in common is that everyone is convinced she is the key. Her unique psychic talent is required to defuse the ticking time bomb that is Vortex.
Neither trusts the other but Olivia and Harlan soon realize they must work together to survive and unlock the Bluestone Project's most dangerous secrets before more innocent people die.

My Review:

At least in some variations, “We’re from the government and we’re here to help you,” is one of the three biggest lies. In Fogg Lake, and the paranormally powered world of this series, “We’re from the Foundation and we’re here to help you,” seems to be the psi-powered equivalent.

But so far in contemporary Fogg Lake it actually seems to be true. Well, it’s true NOW. It wasn’t true back in the day. Come to think of it, the government version wasn’t true then or now.

The entire Fogg Lake series, starting with The Vanishing and All the Colors of Night, has been all about dealing with the mysteries and the dangers that remain from the Bluestone Project and it’s offshoot Vortex, that came into being back in that day when both the government – in the form of that top-secret Bluestone Project, and the Foundation were doing their level best to figure out how to enhance and weaponize psychic powers.

Something that never ever ends well. At this point, the Foundation, at least in the person of Harlan Rancourt, is just trying to make sure it ends – before anyone else gets dead in the process. The Vortex process.

Fogg Lake turns out to be part of the ‘Jayneverse’ of connected stories that encompasses the Arcane Society and Harmony. In the Fogg Lake series, that connection is tangential. You don’t have to have read any of the Arcane Society books to get hooked into Fogg Lake in The Vanishing. (But the Easter Eggs sure are fun to find!)

It’s not like we aren’t aware of plenty of shady government projects that have disappeared without a trace – at least in fiction. It’s also possible to see the now-moribund government office that ran Bluestone as the cramped, dusty office that would later house Mulder and Scully.

But Lightning in a Mirror is the last book in the Fogg Lake series, so if contemporary paranormal romantic suspense sounds like your cup of tea, start with The Vanishing.

This story, while the romance is totally encompassed in this one book, the suspense factor is not. The Foundation, both its current directors, Victor Arganbright and Lucas Pine, as well as the investigators of the Lark & LeClair Detective Agency, Catalina Lark (protagonist of The Vanishing) and Olivia LeClair (this book’s heroine), have been hunting for the remnants of Bluestone and Vortex throughout the series.

As this story opens it looks like Vortex is hunting them as well. At least, they’re hunting Olivia LeClair for the Oracle talent that entirely too many people seem to think she inherited from her grandmother. Vortex would have caught her, just as they caught her mother, if not for the intervention of Harlan Rancourt.

Which is where the story kicks into gear. High gear. Rancourt has been hiding from the Foundation for five years, investigating the death of his own father in a mysterious accident. With Vortex on the rise he returns to the fold to prevent the catastrophe that his own talents tell him is coming.

Rancourt is a wild-card to everyone. A chameleon talent who fools everyone, all the time, about the true nature of the threat he presents. But he never fools Olivia. She sees him for the predator he is – and doesn’t run.

At least she doesn’t run FROM him. Running WITH him to keep one step ahead of Vortex – and to stay together – turns out to be just what both of them have been waiting for.

Escape Rating A-: First and most important, the ENTIRE ‘Jayneverse’ is a whole lot of fun – especially if you like a bit of the paranormal mixed with romantic suspense. She writes the historical parts of the series as Amanda Quick, the contemporaries as Jayne Ann Krentz, and the futuristic Harmony as Jayne Castle. And they are all just oodles of fun.

The links between the series are loose, but like a tangled thread, once you pull at one and get invested in THAT part of her world, you’ll be led to the others. (And I prefer ‘Arcaneverse’ as the collective title but that’s a “me” thing)

There are, as usual for this series, two stories blended into the book. One is the overall series arc, which is the suspense part, and the other is the, well, romantic part. Which, as is also usual, isn’t all that “romantic” in a hearts and flowers sense.

Neither Harlan nor Olivia are hearts and flowers kind of people – and that’s been true of the protagonists for most of the series. They meet because they’re on the trail of a serial killer, or a series of serial killers, they’re both in danger and they’re both capable of taking care of that danger themselves (I love that there are no damsels in her series). But they are better – and safer – together than they are apart.

For select definitions of both “better” and “safer”.

So their romance begins with the forced intimacy of being on the run together, combined with the adrenaline thrills and crashes of facing deadly danger together> That rush to romance is ably assisted and enhanced by psychic compatibility that validates the attraction into becoming something more. It doesn’t feel “romantic” in any of the traditional senses, but insta-lust is a real thing and the insta-love that surprises them both does manage to feel earned.

Nevertheless, what captivated me about this book – and about the Fogg Lake series and everything else this author writes – is the overarching suspense plot. I always enjoy a black-ops project/government agency/conspiracy gone wrong kind of story, and this one is a doozy.

It’s not hard to believe that there are government agencies so secret that no one knows about them, because they’re doing things the government can’t afford to acknowledge. In fact, it’s downright easy to believe this and it’s a stock in trade of lots of genres. Bits of it have even happened in real life – just look up the history of the Manhattan Project, secret towns and all.

That such a project would be rife with criminal shenanigans isn’t a stretch either. And neither is the idea that some people wouldn’t be able to let it go. That’s where Fogg Lake and the Bluestone Project sit, at that intersection of conspiracy theories and government black operations.

So the romance didn’t seem all that romantic, but I was all in on the conspiracy parts, and that’s what kept me flipping pages as I poured through this story and this series.

While we may be finished at Fogg Lake, I’m looking forward to visiting another corner of this universe in May, when we return to 1930s Burning Cove, California in When She Dreams.

Review: Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick

Review: Garden of Lies by Amanda QuickGarden of Lies by Amanda Quick, Jayne Ann Krentz
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, romantic suspense
Pages: 359
Published by Berkley on April 21, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Kern Secretarial Agency provides reliable professional services to its wealthy clientele, and Anne Clifton was one of the finest women in Ursula Kern’s employ. But Miss Clifton has met an untimely end—and Ursula is convinced it was not due to natural causes.   Archaeologist and adventurer Slater Roxton thinks Mrs. Kern is off her head to meddle in such dangerous business. Nevertheless, he seems sensible enough to Ursula, though she does find herself unnerved by his self-possession and unreadable green-gold eyes…   If this mysterious widowed beauty insists on stirring the pot, Slater intends to remain close by as they venture into the dark side of polite society. Together they must reveal the identity of a killer—and to achieve their goal they may need to reveal their deepest secrets to each other as well…

My Review:

The popular perception of heroines in historical romance is that their lives were restricted and that they were supposed to be innocent even into adulthood and as a consequence were naïve and/or ripe to become damsels in distress who needed to be rescued by the hero.

An image that probably wasn’t true even among the aristocracy, and certainly couldn’t have been outside it. Which doesn’t prevent it from still being a popular perception. But readers aren’t looking for innocent damsels in distress nearly as much as they used to. We’re looking for women we can manage to identify with.

In that sense, Ursula Kern is a fascinating choice as a heroine. She’s a widow. She’s permitted to no longer be innocent or naïve. She’s on her own, and she owns her own business – not as a member of the demimonde – but a respectable business employing respectable women who are able to earn respectable incomes.

Whatever hopes and dreams she may have, she is expected to present herself as a responsible, respectable, professional adult person. She’s been through enough to know that the only person who will take care of her is her. As a woman with neither a husband nor living parents nor male siblings, there is no one to gainsay her determination to make a living for herself and to provide good livings for as many women as possible in her employ.

Ursula may not have family, but she does have friends as well as colleagues and employees. The late Anne Clifton was all of the above; an employee who became a colleague and friend. Ursula Kern is certain that Anne Clifton was murdered. Finding her killer is the last thing that Ursula can do for her friend – and she’s determined to do it.

She just needs a bit of help. Or at least she hopes for it. And that’s where Slater Roxton comes in. Slater, a man with a mysterious incident in his past that has fueled the gossip rags and gutter press for years, is an expert on finding lost artifacts and tombs – where he once got trapped.

(Come to think of it, he’d probably be a contemporary of Dr. Henry Walton Jones, Sr., the father of archeologist, treasure hunter and troubleshooter Indiana Jones. If there turned out to be some influence there I wouldn’t be at all surprised.)

Slater, for reasons of his own, some more obvious than others, can’t let Ursula go off on her investigation all alone. It’s not that he doesn’t believe she quite capable as an adult and as a businesswoman, but ferreting out the truth about dastardly murderers who have so far been successful at making their crimes look like accidents is a dangerous business.

A business with many more dangerous tentacles – or should I say twisted roots and entangling vines – than either Slater or Ursula ever imagined.

Escape Rating A-: I read this for fun. I was bouncing hard off of everything and went looking for a story that I knew would be instantly absorbing. I was highly tempted to read this author’s Lightning in a Mirror which is out next week, but then I remembered that Garden of Lies was STILL on my “Highly Anticipating” Shelf on Edelweiss. In fact, it was the oldest book on that shelf. So here we are.

Garden of Lies was every bit as instantly absorbing and fun as I hoped, even if I didn’t completely buy the inevitable romance between Slater and Ursula. The rest of the story, especially the uncovering of the full scope of the criminal plotting AND the nefarious dealings on both sides of the pond, was absolutely riveting.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this book was the way that all the women in the story, including the secondary characters, dealt with their world in a way that seemed realistically sensible. Not just that Ursula and the women she employs have made their own way independently, but the way that Slater’s mother, the actress who was the lifelong paramour of a titled noble, knew exactly what she was letting herself in for and moved through the world as she found it and not as anyone dreamed or hoped it would be. That his late father was sanguine enough to not merely acknowledge Slater was his but to trust his illegitimate son to protect his legal widow and legitimate heirs from her abusive father.

Their approaches to their world make sense in a way that isn’t always true in historical romance.

The mystery plot was marvelously convoluted and the reveal of it was appropriately painstaking. Ursula starts with the death of her friend, finds evidence that her death was murder, and then begins to dig. The solution is revealed in layers, as each new bit of information leads to a place that no one had foreseen from the opening. The web was woven very tightly, and it takes and appropriate amount of time and effort to unravel it fully.

As Ursula and Slater eventually manage to do. I liked them as partners, I just didn’t see enough of them “falling” in love to buy that they really were in love. But I’m still glad they found their slightly unconventional HEA.

There was no paranormal woo-woo in this standalone book, as there so often is in the author’s Arcane Society series, yet it still had some of the same feel with its nefarious plot, double-dealing, wheels within wheels criminal organization, and the investigation into dirty deeds done in very dark places for both evil and mercenary ends.

But the author has two books with some of that paranormal vibe coming soon, Lightning in a Mirror next week and When She Dreams in April. My reading appetite for both has certainly been whetted!

Review: Someone Perfect by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone Perfect by Mary BaloghSomeone Perfect (Westcott, #9) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance
Series: Westcott #9
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley on November 30, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Sometimes, just one person can pull a whole family apart. And sometimes, it just takes one person to pull it back together. For fans of Bridgerton, New York Times bestselling Regency Romance author Mary Balogh shows how love truly conquers all in this new Friends of the Westcotts novel.
As a young man, Justin Wiley was banished by his father for mysterious reasons, but now, his father is dead, and Justin has been Earl of Brandon for six years. A dark, dour man, he, nonetheless, takes it as his responsibility to care for his half-sister, Maria, when her mother dies. He travels to her home to fetch her back to the family seat at Everleigh Park.
Although she adored him, once, Maria now loathes Justin, and her friend, Lady Estelle Lamarr, can see, immediately, how his very name upsets her. When Justin arrives and invites Estelle and her brother to accompany Maria to Everleigh Park to help with her distress, she begrudgingly agrees, for Maria's sake.
As family secrets unravel in Maria's homecoming, Justin, too, uncovers his desire for a countess. And, while he may believe he's found an obvious candidate in the beautiful 25-year-old Lady Estelle, she is most certain that they could never make a match...

My Review:

Is there such a thing as historical relationship fiction? Or is that just what used to be called a family saga?

The reason I’m asking is that as the Westcott series has continued it has begun to feel more like relationship fiction (or women’s fiction to use the more popular but also more cringe-worthy name) and less like a romance. Not that romances don’t occur during each book including this one, but rather that the romance doesn’t feel like the central point of the story.

Particularly in this book, Someone Perfect, which feels like it’s more about the family relationships between and around Justin Wiley, the Earl of Brandon, and his estranged sister Maria. Who just so happens to be best friends with Lady Estelle Lamarr, who, through several twists and turns, is tangentially related to the Westcott family this series has followed through nine books now and hopefully counting.

But it feels like Estelle and her twin brother Bertrand are part of this story in order to provide that connection to the Westcotts. Even though Estelle eventually becomes the romantic heroine of this story. Which turned out to be lovely but just didn’t seem to stand at the center of it all.

Instead, that romance occurs in the midst of a story about collateral damage, which has been the central theme of the whole, overarching Westcott saga.

The Westcott series began back in Someone to Love when Humphrey Westcott, the Earl of Riverdale, shuffled off this mortal coil. While going through his papers in the wake of his death, his pernicious bastardy came to light.

Not that Humphrey’s parents weren’t married, but rather that Humphrey’s marriage to the woman who believed she was his countess lo these many years was bigamous – making their four children bastards and his not-exactly-countess a scarlet woman. (She eventually marries Estelle and Bertrand’s father in Someone to Care but that’s another story.)

Humphrey never suffered for his actions – unless he’s occupying a very hot place in hell. But the series as a whole has focused on his collateral damage – all the people whose lives were overturned when his perfidy was discovered.

Justin and Maria are also suffering from being collateral damage as a result of a parent’s unforgivable actions. In their case, the parent at the heart of the mess was Maria’s mother, Justin’s stepmother. Justin and Maria have been estranged for over a decade because of her mother’s actions. Maria has been cut off from her entire family on both sides, all her aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., because of her mother’s actions.

And it’s Maria’s and Justin’s journey that feels like the centerpiece of this book. Not just that Justin has to put his very real hurts and grievances into the past – because all the perpetrators are beyond Earthly justice.

Maria loves her mother, and accepted everything her mother said without question. But her mother is dead, and her entire gathered family is presenting her with an entirely different perspective on the life she thought she knew. If she can accept the love and support they offer – there are questions she needs to ask herself in order to be part of a family that has always loved her even though she never knew it.

Escape Rating B+: I hesitated a bit before starting this, because I was still getting over last week’s foray into historical romance. But I’m glad I picked this one up after all.

At the same time, I still have mixed feelings about this book. In this case, those mixed feelings are the result of being of two minds about what kind of book it is. If this is supposed to be a historical romance, it didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I enjoyed the story, and liked the characters, but if this is a romance then the romance needed to be the center of the story, and it just wasn’t. I didn’t really buy the romance between Justin and Estelle even though I liked them both. His first proposal to Estelle was rather lackluster and she rightfully rejected it. But it did sum up their relationship perhaps a little too well.

Maria’s and Justin’s journey towards being a family again and being welcomed into the rest of their family felt like it was a much bigger and better story. I felt their heartache and heartbreak and just how much they wanted to find their way back to each other even though on Maria’s part, at least, there was absolutely no trust to be found. The big family gathering that Justin arranged – that could absolutely have been a complete disaster on every level – turned out to be heartwarming and utterly lovely.

So the romance occurred and the family story won the day in this one. At the end, neither Justin’s sister Maria nor Estelle’s brother Bertrand had found even a hint of a future romantic partner, and there was nothing to indicate that they were looking at each other at all – which is probably a good thing. Both because it would be a bit TOO neat and tidy, and because it means that there will hopefully be at least two more books to look forward to in the Westcott series!

Review Digging Up the Dirt by Miranda James

Review Digging Up the Dirt by Miranda JamesDigging Up the Dirt (Southern Ladies Mystery, #3) by Miranda James
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery
Series: Southern Ladies Mystery #3
Pages: 296
Published by Berkley on September 6, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The New York Times bestselling author of Dead with the Wind and Bless Her Dead Little Heart is back with more of those sleuthing Southern belles, the Ducote sisters...
An’gel and Dickce Ducote, busy with plans for the Athena Garden Club’s spring tour of grand old homes, are having trouble getting the other club members to help. The rest of the group is all a-flutter now that dashing and still-eligible Hadley Partridge is back to restore his family mansion. But the idle chatter soon turns deadly serious when a body turns up on the Partridge estate after a storm...   The remains might belong to Hadley’s long-lost sister-in-law, Callie, who everyone thought ran off with Hadley years ago. And if it’s not Callie, who could it be? As the Ducotes begin uncovering secrets, they discover that more than one person in Athena would kill to be Mrs. Partridge. Now An’gel and Dickce will need to get their hands dirty if they hope to reveal a killer’s deep-buried motives before someone else’s name is mud...

My Review:

Honestly, I picked this one up because I just felt like it. I was looking for something that would be both familiar and new at the same time, and this seemed like it would be it. And it was.

Also, I really enjoyed the first book in this series, Bless Her Dead Little Heart, so even though I was a bit disappointed in Dead with the Wind I like this author more than enough to want to see if the third time would be the charm. And I had high hopes for a cameo from the main characters in the author’s other series, Cat in the Stacks, so I was very happy to see a bit – but not too much – of librarian Charlie Harris and his gentlemanly Maine Coon cat Diesel.

The story in Digging Up the Dirt reads like it’s at the intersection of two “old” sayings. The first is from the late, much-lamented Terry Pratchett, who said in the book Moving Pictures that “inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.” More likely wondering what the HELL happened, but the thought is definitely there.

The quote it intersects with is something that a friend used to say fairly often when her spouse had just done something she wished he hadn’t. Her comment was that “the problem (with spouses) is that you can’t live with ‘em and you can’t bury ‘em in the backyard because the dogs will dig them up”

The Ducote sisters, An’gel and Dickce, along with the rest of the Athena Garden Club, have been rather abruptly confronted with the truth of the Pratchett quote when Hadley Partridge returns to Athena after a four-decade absence.

When Hadley left Athena all those years ago, he left the entire Garden Club in a veritable tizzy, as he was charming, handsome, rich and flirting with every single member of the club. When he left town, rumor had it that his brother threw him out of the family mansion in a fit of jealousy. Everyone in Athena, including, unfortunately for Hadley, his older brother, was just absolutely certain that Hadley was having an affair with his brother’s wife.

So when that same woman, Hadley’s sister-in-law Callie Partridge, disappeared without a trace a few days after Hadley’s abrupt departure, everyone just assumed that she ran off after Hadley.

At least that’s what everyone assumed until Hamish Partridge died and left the family manse to his brother Hadley. When Hadley returned to Athena, and got the entire Garden Club into pretty much the same tizzy he left them in, he claimed that he had not seen Callie in the intervening 40 years.

Then the Ducote sisters’ labradoodle, Peanut, digs up a body in the backyard of the Partridge estate. A body that goes a long way towards explaining where Callie Partridge has been “hiding” for all these years.

But doesn’t get either amateur sleuths An’gel and Dickce Ducote or Sherriff’s Detective Kanesha Berry much further in their hunt for the person who is killing the members of the Garden Club in the here and now.

Escape Rating A-: Except for the Ducote sisters, whose ages seem to be fixed at 80 and 84 for the entirety of this series, we don’t actually know the ages of the rest of the Athena Garden Club. Just that all of them were adults and Garden Club members 40 years previously, making all of them somewhere north of 60, if not quite as far north as An’gel and Dickce Ducote.

What I loved about all of them, even the ones that are crazy as betsy bugs, is that they are all, to a woman, vital and independent and healthy and active. (Physically healthy at least although there are one or two whose mental health may be – and have always been – a bit iffy.) And that it seems like everything they felt 40 years ago is just as alive in their heads and in their hearts – and possibly other places – now as it was then.

Their spirits are all still as willing as they ever were, even if the flesh occasionally creaks a bit. A feeling I can empathize with all too well – even if, or especially because, some of them were being really silly with it. Every bit as silly as they were 40 years ago. As another old saying goes, “we are too soon old and too late smart.”

The red herrings in this particular story are also steamed to a delectable turn. That there are murders to be solved in both the past and the present just adds to the number of different ways that the detectives and the reader can be led delightfully astray.

And we are all the way to the end. I was convinced until the very end that the present-day murderer was an entirely different party than the person who turned out to be guilty after all, although I did figure out Hadley’s secret slightly earlier than the Ducote sisters. Of course I wasn’t having any nostalgic or romantic ideas to cloud my judgment the way that they were.

There were two things that put this one head and shoulders over the previous book in the series. Except for the Ducote sisters and their traveling household of ward, dog and cat, there were very few likeable characters in Dead with the Wind. Which combined a bit too neatly with the second thing, that the story took An’gel and Dickce away from their home in Athena, robbing them of their usual support network and eliminating several people that the reader could have – and has – happily followed along with.

Which leaves me a tad worried about the final – at least so far – book in the series, Fixing to Die, which also takes the sisters and their household out of Athena. I’ll still be back for it, the next time I need the Ducote’s particular brand of reading comfort.

Review: A Terrible Fall of Angels by Laurell K. Hamilton

Review: A Terrible Fall of Angels by Laurell K. HamiltonA Terrible Fall of Angels by Laurell K. Hamilton
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Zaniel Havelock #1
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley on August 17, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Angels walk among us, but so do other unearthly beings in this brand new series by #1 New York Times Bestselling author Laurell K. Hamilton.
Meet Detective Zaniel Havelock, a man with the special ability to communicate directly with angels. A former trained Angel speaker, he devoted his life to serving both the celestial beings and his fellow humans with his gift, but a terrible betrayal compelled him to leave that life behind. Now he’s a cop who is still working on the side of angels. But where there are angels, there are also demons. There’s no question that there’s evil at work when he’s called in to examine the murder scene of a college student—but is it just the evil that one human being can do to another, or is it something more? When demonic possession is a possibility, even angelic protection can only go so far. The race is on to stop a killer before he finds his next victim, as Zaniel is forced to confront his own very personal demons, and the past he never truly left behind.
The first in a new series from the author of the Anita Blake and Merry Gentry series.

My Review:

First, I have to say that I’m surprised at just how good this book is. Pleased as punch, but also surprised as Heaven, as the characters in the book would say.

Second, I feel the need to say upfront that nobody gets laid in this book. I know that’s a strange place to start a review, but as one of the many readers who loved the first few Anita Blake books before they got to be a sex-fest, I felt like that needed to be said early on because it became such an overwhelming feature of both the Anita Blake and Merry Gentry series.. Not that there isn’t a potential romance brewing – actually more than one – but this book goes back to the good old days of urban fantasy, back when the main character had a magical or mysterious crime to solve and a love life like a sinking ship. When the focus was on the story and the world and the insanely powerful beings who were out messing things up and not on how many people the protagonist could get between the sheets.

The above is probably going to disappoint some readers who are expecting more of like her other series, but it was a relief to me. Your reading mileage may vary.

Zaniel “Havoc” Havelock is a detective in the Metaphysical Coordination Unit of the City of Angels, which is probably a stand-in for the city of Los Angeles, whose name literally translates from Spanish as “the Angels”. His world, and his city, are a variation of our own, not just a place where magic works, as is so often the case in urban fantasy, but a place where angels manifest in the world and where specially talented children, including Zaniel once upon a time, are recruited by the hierarchy that serves the Angels to be their representatives here on Earth.

Zaniel was trained to be an angel-speaker. But something broke – it seems like a lot of things broke – just as he was about to take his final vows. So he left, joined the army, and eventually became a cop who deals with crimes that involve angels and/or demons. And that’s where we meet him, called into a case because an angel has deliberately left a feather at the scene of a rape/murder that otherwise has no ethereal or infernal overtones whatsoever.

Until the angel who left that feather tells Zaniel that circumstances are not at all what they appear, and that there is something infernal going on in the City of Angels that not just should not be happening but that should not even be capable of happening.

And that it is up to Zaniel to pick up the mantle he left behind, or at least as much of it as he is willing to carry, figure out what has gone so terribly wrong, and fix it – along with possibly himself – before the impossible-to-exist demon gets too big for anyone to possibly stop.

First Anita Blake book, cover circa 1993

Escape Rating A: I have to say that I picked this up because my curiosity bump itched something fierce. I loved the early Anita Blake books, back when in the day when they were urban fantasy with just a hint of paranormal romance, but I kept on reading long after they turned into recitations of just how much sex Anita had. At least the Merry Gentry series started out that way, so I knew what I was getting into. But for me, at least, there’s a point where other people’s sex lives gets boring, and Anita passed that somewhere earlier in the series than when I finally stopped reading it.

So I came into this book with a whole lot of reading baggage in the hopes I might get to drop some of it. And I’m extremely happy to say that I was able to drop pretty much all of it. Because A Terrible Fall of Angels harkens back in the best way to the early Anita Blake books. It’s solidly urban fantasy, with terrific setup and just enough otherworldly world building to create a strong foundation for a new series.

And in Zaniel “Havoc” Havelock the author has created an appropriately tormented detective with a fascinating background and a foot in both camps. He’s a veteran police detective in the unit that handles crimes that are wrapped around the axle of angels and demons, who are real and manifest entirely too frequently in our world – to both their and our cost.

Because what’s good for the demons, and even what’s good for the angels, might not be what’s good for humanity. As Havoc knows entirely too well. As the story opens, we don’t know what happened in Havoc’s past to tear him away from his upbringing in the College of Angels and place him on the streets of the city as a cop. We just know that whatever it was it was heartbreaking in a way that is still echoing through his life like the tolling of a bell.

The other thing we know about Havoc is that his current personal life is a mess. He’s separated from the wife and child that he loves because she can’t handle being a cop’s wife. They’re still in counseling but even though there seems to be some hope at the end of this story I honestly hope they don’t make it. It reads like there’s something wrong with her – or wrong with the way she treats him – that can’t be fixed.

On the other hand, and very different from the author’s previous series, Zaniel is still married, still hopeful, and still in love with his wife. He finds other women attractive, and he’s tempted but he never crosses that line. And that was a huge surprise throughout the entire book.

One of the things that fascinated me about the way that this world and its magic systems are set up is that in spite of the influence of angels and demons, all faiths and belief systems are recognized as not just valid but as having actual power – by everyone except those who serve the angels. A conflict that I suspect is going to become more overt and more problematic as the series continues. Or at least I hope so.

This turned out to be a fast one-day read for me. I absolutely could not put it down. It reminded me of the early Anita Blake books in all the best ways, particularly the way that it seemed like there was a force embedded between the pages that kept me reading late into the night because I was so caught up in the story and it was just so good.

The world here is complex and compelling. Even as Havoc keeps unravelling the case and the case keeps on unravelling all the trauma in his past, there’s just so much going on and it was all just so captivating that I kept reading long after the point where I should have called it a night because I could not stop. I loved Zaniel as a character and really liked the cop shop vibe of the people who surround him at work in spite of not really liking his wife at all but still loving his continuing to try to make things better.

And the creeping evil of the crime spree put just the right amount of shiver up my spine. This was just very well done all the way around. I want more! Please!

Review: Dead with the Wind by Miranda James

Review: Dead with the Wind by Miranda JamesDead with the Wind (Southern Ladies Mystery, #2) by Miranda James
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Southern Ladies Mystery #2
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley on September 29, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The New York Times bestselling author of Bless Her Dead Little Heart and the Cats in the Stacks mysteries brings back the Ducote sisters, two spry Southern sleuths.
An’gel and Dickce Ducote tend to stay put in Athena, Mississippi, but a wedding is a good reason to say a temporary farewell to Charlie Harris’s cat Diesel and go visit relatives. But while their stay in Louisiana is scorching hot, the atmosphere at the wedding is downright cold, with bride-to-be Sondra Delevan putting her trust fund above little things like love and loyalty.
When a violent storm supposedly sweeps Sondra off a balcony to her death, the sisters discover that many of the guests attending the wedding had major reasons to object to Sondra’s marriage. Now, it’s up to An’gel and Dickce to use their down-home instincts to expose dubious alibis, silver-plated secrets, and one relentless murderer who lives for “till death do us part.”

My Review:

On what was feeling that Mondayest Monday ever, I needed a comfort read. Since I’m currently caught up with the Cat in the Stacks series, I turned to the same author’s Southern Ladies Mystery series to sink into a whole lot of cozy, with animal companions both around me and between the pages – along with just a couple of dead bodies to add a bit of excitement. But not too much.

Dead with the Wind is a story about family ties. The ones that bind get the Ducote Sisters into this situation, but it’s the ties that strangle that lead to the murder. Not that someone shouldn’t have strangled Sondra Delevan a long time ago.

The Ducote Sisters are in St. Ignatiusville, Louisiana at their cousin Mireille’s antebellum city mansion for Sondra’s wedding. An occasion that does not get off to an auspicious start when An’gel Ducote righteously dumps a vase filled with water on Sondra’s overreacting head.

I’d say Sondra was a bridezilla, but that implies that she’s normally a halfway reasonable human being and is only being such a demanding bitch because of the wedding, and that’s not remotely the case. Sondra is demanding bitch 100% of the time and always has been. She’s one of those adults that people other than her immediate family look at and think that the universe would have been better off if she’d been disciplined instead of indulged a few – possibly a lot – of times in her childhood when it would have done some good.

So when Sondra is murdered, it’s not so much that the reader is surprised that someone killed her as amazed that it didn’t happen a whole lot sooner.

But the circumstances of Sondra’s death are rather suspicious, because her death and the manner of it fall all too closely on the heels of the housekeeper proclaiming that the wedding is ill-omened as it resembles a long-ago tragedy much too much. There’s a long arm of coincidence here that is way too long to convince either of the Ducote Sisters.

That before her death Sondra was such a heartless little bitch as to stage a scene that drove her grandmother, the Ducotes’ Cousin Mireille, into a heart attack and her grave does not help anyone to think well of the recently and spectacularly departed Sondra, but it does make the Sisters wonder just who benefits from both of those deaths.

There’s something rotten in Cousin Mireille’s beautiful mansion. It looks like there’s someone close to the family circle determined to bump off everyone in their way. But in the way of what, exactly?

The Sisters – along with the local police – follow that first rule of investigation. They follow the money, and it leads them straight to the killer. Or does it?

Escape Rating B-: I went into this because I wanted something familiar but not quite so familiar that I’d know every single thing before it happened. And that is kind of what I got. The Ducote Sisters of Athena, Mississippi, introduced in the author’s Cat in the Stacks series, are the power behind nearly everything going on in Athena, and have been for decades. An’gel is 84 and Dickce is 80. They live in a palatial family mansion, they’re the last of their direct family, never married, never had kids, and pretty much keep Athena running, sometimes it seems all by themselves.

So it was fun to see them out of their element in this story, which is kind of a locked-room mystery. Not that the room or the house is literally locked, but rather that everything that happens seems to happen in the house and inside the rather tight family circle. Even if all the members of the family aren’t related by blood.

What made this story a bit less fun than I usually find this author, or even the first book in this series, Bless Her Dead Little Heart, is that no one involved is all that likeable except for Sondra’s little girl Tippy and the family butler and general factotum, Grayson. All the rest of them are pieces of work, from Sondra the spoiled sociopath to her on-again-off-again fiancé to her stepfather and unfortunately but definitely including her mother and grandmother (Cousin Mireille). The mansion seems to be a veritable hothouse of all sorts of -pathy. Except sympathy as there really isn’t a whole lot of that going around.

Also, a big part of the story is that Sondra is marrying Lance because, frankly, Sondra is looking for someone she can control, getting married gets her control of the substantial fortune she inherited from her father, and there’s something not quite right about Lance. There are multiple things about Lance that aren’t quite right, but his maturity level and that of Sondra’s three-year-old daughter are about on a par. The family treats it as an open joke, but are still allowing the marriage because no one wants to cross Sondra. The situation did not sit well, or rather the way everyone treated did not sit well.

This turned out to be one of those stories about families that pretend everything is fine but where things are really, really wrong. Like Sondra’s extremes of behavior and self-centeredness. And Lance’s undiagnosed but joked about issues.

So I felt a bit more discomfort than desired for something I picked up as a comfort read. Even though Sondra’s death was very cathartic. Some characters just need to be let out of a story at the very first opportunity. By the time the killer’s identity was revealed it wasn’t much of a surprise – nor was I expecting it to be as this is not that kind of book.

But the way it got revealed – now that was a surprise. And it made a wonderful ending for a story that had a few more downs than ups.

I’m glad that the next book in this series, Digging Up the Dirt, places the Sisters back home in Athena where they belong!

Review: Someone to Cherish by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone to Cherish by Mary BaloghSomeone to Cherish (Westcott #8) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, regency romance
Series: Westcott #8
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley on June 29, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Is love worth the loss of one's freedom and independence? This is what Mrs. Tavernor must decide in the new novel in the Westcott series from New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh.
When Harry Westcott lost the title Earl of Riverdale after the discovery of his father's bigamy, he shipped off to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, where he was near-fatally wounded. After a harrowing recovery, the once cheery, light-hearted boy has become a reclusive, somber man. Though Harry insists he enjoys the solitude, he does wonder sometimes if he is lonely.
Lydia Tavernor, recently widowed, dreams of taking a lover. Her marriage to Reverend Isaiah Tavernor was one of service and obedience, and she has secretly enjoyed her freedom since his death. She doesn't want to shackle herself to another man in marriage, but sometimes, she wonders if she is lonely.
Both are unwilling to face the truth until they find themselves alone together one night, and Lydia surprises even herself with a simple question: "Are you ever lonely?" Harry's answer leads them down a path neither could ever have imagined...

My Review:

There should be a truly hot place in hell for the late, unlamented Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale. But, and it is now a huge, 8 marvelous books and counting BUT, the results of his metaphorical bastardy, to whit, the legal and actual bastardy he inflicted on his three children who believed they were legitimate, have been glorious.

So maybe an exceptionally hot place in hell with a few occasional luxuries. Because it’s all his fault, including some of the surprisingly good things. Like this series which began with Someone to Love and doesn’t seem to be over yet.

Thank goodness. Or perhaps I should be thanking Humphrey’s badness. Maybe a bit of both?

As big of a factor as Humphrey’s badness has been in this entire series, a more fitting summation of the issues in this entry might be this particular paraphrase of Thoreau, the one that goes, “If you see someone coming towards you with the obvious intent of doing you good – run like hell.” with the added codicil that it goes double if that someone – or many someones in the case of Major Harry Westcott, are family.

There are an awful lot of well-meaning, good intentioned families in fiction who have, let’s call them, boundary issues. As in entirely too many of them ignore any boundaries set by other members of the family. They’re just sure they know best. And maybe, sometimes, they do. But even when they might, even if they do, they can be a bit much and more than a bit annoying and extremely frustrating when the boundaries they are riding roughshod over belong to adults who might, equally and with much better justification, know what they do and don’t want for themselves.

The story in Someone to Cherish centers around two people, both adults nearing 30, so really, really actual adults mostly adulting, whose families are both firmly convinced that neither of these adults could possibly know what they want for themselves, or really mean anything they say about what they want for themselves, and that other people in the family, older if not wiser, know best.

Ironically, or paradoxically, it’s the women of the Westcott family who are certain that Harry doesn’t know what’s good for him, while it’s the men of Lydia Winterbourne Tavernor’s family who are just as certain that she can’t possibly know her own mind or truly desire her own independence.

But there’s a critical difference. When Harry’s family invades his country home to give him a huge 30th birthday party whether he wants one or not, he goes along with their plans because he loves them, because they are already there, and because it would be horribly rude not to. However, that they brought along three young ladies as possible brides for him, all he has to be is polite. No more, no less. His family can’t make him marry or even make him consider one of those young ladies as a possible bride. Even with all of his wealth and titles stripped from him by his illegitimacy, as a man he is still free to live his life as he pleases.

Lydia’s experience is completely the opposite. During her girlhood, her father and brothers did their best to wrap her in cotton wool and protect her from everything she might worry her little head about. Her father refused to allow her a season because London “wasn’t safe” and she wouldn’t be properly protected from the rakehells of the ton. When she married, she went straight from her father’s loving but demeaning protection to her husband’s dictatorial pronouncements about every single facet of her life. As a woman, she has no recourse, the men in her life, who actually do love her, control her very being and expect her to acquiesce. It’s only as a widow with enough money to support herself that she has the freedom to be who and what she wants to be.

A freedom that she will lose if she trusts herself to another man – no matter how much that man claims to love her. After growing up in an environment designed to keep her childlike, and marrying a man she loved but who dictated her every move and thought, the first person whose judgement she questions is always herself.

And yes, this is a personal soapbox that I’ve climbed on and now can’t quite figure out how to get down from. Pardon me a moment while I search for a very tall metaphorical ladder to use for a descent.

All of that being said – and yes, I know I said a LOT – what eventually becomes the romance between Harry and Lydia is very much of a slow burn kind of romance, because they are both slowly burning kind of people. Both have experienced tragedy, both have hidden their true selves behind masks that they are having a difficult time pulling off, and both are very uncertain about trust.

They are also both prominent people in the tiny village of Hinsford, a circumstance that comes to bite both of them in the ass – but also forces them to decide who they are and who they want to be.

It takes them more than a bit of time to figure out that what they want to be is together, because together they have that trust that both of them have lacked.

Escape Rating B: This one turned out to be kind of a mixed bag for me as a reader. I got up on that really tall soapbox because there were a lot of elements of the setup that obviously drove me utterly bananas. It has felt like every other book that I’ve read in the last couple of months has been chock-full of families with boundary issues and generally heroines who have trouble saying “NO” and setting and maintaining boundaries with their well-meaning but annoyingly intrusive families.

The power dynamics of Lydia’s relationship with her birth family AND her late husband add fuel to that fire, as she has no agency until she becomes a widow – and even then her birth family is eager, insistent and downright smothering in their attempts to snatch that agency away from her.

I see that soapbox looming again so I’ll move on.

Lydia has been self-effacing to the point of disappearing in plain sight for most of her life. A huge and lovely part of this story is watching her stretch, grow, and STOP HIDING. Her two steps forward, half step back progress feels real.

At the same time, one of her first steps forward is to ask Harry, in an extremely roundabout and circuitous way, if he’d be interested in starting what we would call a “friends with benefits” relationship. With her.

And every single thing that both of them expect, along with a passion that neither of them knew to expect, happens. Especially all the bad things. It’s their response to those bad things that forms the heart of the romance in this story, but it takes a bit too much of the book to get off the ground – even though they’ve already gotten off. So to speak.

Ahem.

So as much as I’ve enjoyed this series as a whole, the book in the series that this one most reminds me of is Someone to Care, the story I liked the least so far. In that one, the first half was lovely and the second half drove me bananas. With this one its the other way around. The first half was a slog but the second half worked itself out into a lovely HEA.

I’m glad I read this, both to see how the rest of Harry’s large and boisterous family are doing and to see one of the original “victims” of Humphrey’s bastardy finally get his own life fully together and happy.

I’m still fascinated with the Westcott family, so I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series, Someone Perfect – we’ll see about that! – coming just in time for the holiday season.