Review: A Cowboy to Remember by Rebekah Weatherspoon

Review: A Cowboy to Remember by Rebekah WeatherspoonA Cowboy to Remember (Cowboys of California #1) by Rebekah Weatherspoon
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Cowboys of California #1
Pages: 357
Published by Dafina Books on February 25, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

An Oprah Magazine Best Romance Novel of 2020
In this brand-new series from award-winning author Rebekah Weatherspoon, a charming cowboy and his sleeping beauty find their modern-day happily ever after . . .
With a headline spot on a hit morning show and truly mouth-watering culinary skills, chef Evie Buchanan is perched on the edge of stardom. But at an industry party, a fall lands Evie in the hospital—with no memory of who she is. Scrambling to help, Evie’s assistant contacts the only “family” Evie has left, close friends who run the luxury dude ranch in California where Evie grew up. Evie has no recollection of them—until former rodeo champion Zach Pleasant walks into her hospital room, and she realizes his handsome face has been haunting her dreams . . .
Zach hasn’t seen Evie in years—not since their families conducted a campaign to make sure their childhood friendship never turned into anything more. When the young cowboy refused to admit the feelings between them were real, Evie left California, making it clear she never wanted to see Zach again. Now he refuses to make the same mistake twice. Starting fresh is a risk when they have a history she can’t recall, but Zach can’t bear to let go of her now. Can he awaken the sleeping beauty inside her who might still love him?

My Review:

To open this happy week, I have the first of several books that are supposed to have happy endings. This one certainly did!

But it doesn’t have a happy beginning. At all. It’s going to take a lot of changes for celebrity chef Evie Buchanan to reach her happy place. Changes in attitude and changes in latitude.

I also just realized that this is a bit of a holiday romance. It’s not that the holidays turn out to be a big deal in this one, and certainly no one gets snowbound, but the holidays are occurring in the background as the story goes in in the foreground.

Let me explain…

The story here is a second chance at love romance with one hell of a twist. Amnesia stories are usually fodder for daytime soap operas, but after an “accident” at a holiday party, Evie Buchanan is living one. The amnesia story, that is, although possibly the soap opera as well.

She “fell” down the stairs, hit her head – badly – and can’t remember a damn thing about anything at all. Her roommate, her personal assistant and her agent all gather round, but can’t help her regain her memories – if she’ll get them back, all or even at all.

Evie’s been pretty close-mouthed about the details of her life before they all met her. All they know is that she’s an only child, her parents and other relatives are deceased, and she seems to have no life outside her work as a celebrity chef and star of The Dish, her daytime cooking show.

Evie doesn’t recognize them, and they don’t know any details of her previous life. Except for the name of her “only in case of deadly emergency” contact, Jesse Pleasant. Whatever their relationship might be or have been. His tangential presence in Evie’s contact list if seemingly not her actual life is all they have to go on.

And that’s where the second chance at love story comes into this story. Not with Jesse. Jesse is the big brother that Evie doesn’t otherwise have. Jesse’s brother, very much on the other hand, was the one that broke Evie’s young heart and sent her on her quest for fame, fortune and a lot of hard work as a chef.

The Pleasant family, with their exclusive “dude ranch”, hotel, spa and wedding venue in California, are the temporary answer to all of Evie’s problems. She can go back to where she grew up, be taken care of by the family who nearly adopted her, and stay out of New York City while her friends at home take a stab at figuring out whether Evie was just unlucky or the victim of something more sinister.

But as dangerous as NYC might be for a woman with a career to protect but no idea who she is or used to be, the risk to Evie’s unprotected heart is even greater in California, spending time with a man who has invaded her dreams like no one ever has. Zach Pleasant is either the key to bringing back Evie’s memory – or the reason she had so much to forget.

Escape Rating B+: I started this book because I was still looking for a happy ending. Not that Friday’s book didn’t admirably fill that bill – rather it did it so well that I wanted a little bit more.

So I turned, technically I returned, to A Cowboy to Remember – and just as it is for Evie and Zach, the second chance at romance was the winner. Also my second time picking up the book and giving it a second chance was a winner.

I had started this once but put it down the first time. Probably because I was looking for happy and didn’t find it in the story’s opening. When we first meet Evie, she still has all of her memories and doesn’t seem to be happy about either her past or particularly her present.

Picking the story up in the aftermath of her “accident” was just what I needed. It turned out that her life-changing injury was, in a perverse way, exactly what Evie needed as well. Not remembering her life gave her the chance to start over and look at herself from the outside. Just as I didn’t enjoy reading her unhappiness in the beginning, she didn’t like what she saw as she looked in the mirror at her old self.

There are several things going on in this story, and they all work together to bring that happy ever after home, not just for the holidays, but for always.

First, there’s that whole amnesia thing. It’s been the fodder for so many soap opera melodramas that it’s difficult to do it for real – or even for something real-ish rather than over-the-top. But in this story it lasts just long enough to not fall into anything stupid or silly and it does work to give Evie a once-in-a-lifetime chance to re-evaluate her life, the dreams she thought she had, and the dreams she believed she’d lost long ago.

The way that her relationship with Zach comes back to life turned out to be bittersweet rather than just sweet – and that feels like the way it should have been. The first time around, they were both young, they both screwed up, and neither of them ever got past those events or each other.

This is a do-over. Evie knows that they almost had it all the last time around, but screwed things up instead. But she doesn’t remember the details of what happened, so she isn’t still replaying in her head all the awful things they said to each other. Still, she hasn’t let them go so much as they’ve temporarily let her go. Zach remembers everything, is worried that someday there will be one hell of a reckoning, but can’t resist attempting to build the relationship they should have had long ago.

But they can’t have anything real until they catch up to each other, and the wariness of waiting for that other shoe to drop, the bitterness when it does and the difficulty of working through the past and the present provides the romantic tension in the story and gives it a surprisingly realistic chop of near-finality, making their eventual HEA hard earned and hard won.

A big part of the charm of this story was the way that Jesse and Zach’s family scooped Evie up and brought her back home to the place she’d grown up and the family that helped raise her. The relationships among the Pleasant family were beyond pleasant, and their re-adoption of Evie was heartwarming, particularly the re-kindling of the motherly/grandmotherly relationship between Jesse and Zach’s grandmother Leona and Evie. A relationship that Evie needed quite frankly even more than she needed the romance – and she needed that pretty damn bad.

It’s a good thing that Jesse and Zach’s family is so much more than merely “Pleasant” as the series looks like it follows the Pleasant sons. The next book in the series, If the Boot Fits, features Jesse and Zach’s youngest brother Sam, the one who followed Miss Leona into the acting business. I’m looking forward to reading it as it’s been praised to the skies everywhere, but the one I’m really hoping for is Jesse’s book. He’s kind of a quiet giant and it’s going to be fun to see him fall!

Review: Death Warmed Over by Kevin J. Anderson

Review: Death Warmed Over by Kevin J. AndersonDeath Warmed Over (Dan Shamble, Zombie PI, #1) by Kevin J. Anderson
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Dan Shamble Zombie PI #1
Pages: 309
Published by Kensington on August 28th 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository

"A darkly funny, wonderfully original detective tale."--Kelley Armstrong
Single Dead Detective Seeks Clue
Ever since the Big Uneasy unleashed vampires, werewolves, and other undead denizens on the world, it's been hell being a detective--especially for zombie P.I. Dan Chambeaux. Taking on the creepiest of cases in the Unnatural Quarter with a human lawyer for a partner and a ghost for a girlfriend, Chambeaux redefines "dead on arrival." But just because he was murdered doesn't mean he'd leave his clients in the lurch. Besides, zombies are so good at lurching.
Now he's back from the dead and back in business--with a caseload that's downright unnatural. A resurrected mummy is suing the museum that put him on display. Two witches, victims of a curse gone terribly wrong, seek restitution from a publisher for not using "spell check" on its magical tomes. And he's got to figure out a very personal question--Who killed him?
For Dan Chambeaux, it's all in a day's work. (Still, does everybody have to call him "Shamble"?) Funny, fresh, and irresistible, this cadaverous caper puts the P.I. in R.I.P. . ..with a vengeance.
"Wickedly funny, deviously twisted and enormously satisfying. This is a big juicy bite of zombie goodness. Two decaying thumbs up!"--Jonathan Maberry
"Anderson has become the literary equivalent of Quentin Tarantino in the fantasy adventure genre."--The Daily Rotation
"An unpredictable walk on the weird side. Prepare to be entertained." --Charlaine Harris

My Review:

After reading, and rolling on the floor laughing over the short story Eye of Newt in the Shadowed Souls collection, I just couldn’t resist diving into the rest of the series. And I’m glad I stopped resisting.

Death Warmed Over is the first book in the Dan Shamble, Zombie PI series, and it both sends up and inhabits the noir detective genre at the same time. This story sets up the series, and it does it in the classic in media res convention, where the action has already begun and it is up to our hero to bring us up to speed on all that action.

At this point in Dan’s life, and the life of his world, the “Big Uneasy” is ten years in the past. Adjustments have been made, although there is still plenty to be worked out.

Ten years ago, a bizarre and hopefully unique event occurred, where the planets were just in the right (or wrong) positions, and a virgin cut her finger over an original copy of the Necronomicon, resulting in an extreme rearrangement of the powers of the universe. Specifically, the dead came back to life. Or unlife as the case may be.

There were so many zombies rising from their graves, ghosts returning to their haunts, and vampires coming out of their coffins that even the monsters who had been hiding in plain sight for centuries (hello vampires! and werewolves) decided that it was time to show the world who, and what, they truly were.

Dan Chambeaux was making a decent living as a private investigator in the Unnatural Quarter when, as so often happens to noir-ish private eyes, he got a little too close to some seriously nasty truth, and somebody shot him. Right between the eyes.

In the old days, before the Big Uneasy, that would have been the end of the case. But things are different now. People in general have about a 1 in 75 chance of becoming zombies, but the odds are much more likely (let’s not get into better and worse) for murder victims, along with suicides. A few days after his funeral, Dan clawed his way out of his grave and went right back to work on his own case. Along with all the other cases still on his desk – including that of the murder of his girlfriend, who was now a ghost as well as his office manager.

So Dan, along with his ghost girlfriend Sheyenne and his human business partner Robin Deyer, are on the case. Actually several cases, as Robin is a lawyer with a soft spot for nearly lost causes and a mania for taking precedent setting cases in the fields of undead law.

As Dan always says, “the cases don’t solve themselves”. But while he is helping Robin with a werewolf divorce case and a mummy suing the museum that owns his sarcophagus for his freedom, he is also looking into the operations of a bigoted “Humans First” group while dodging the smarmy sales pitch of an persistent adman selling “necroceuticals” meant to spruce up the undead.

When all the cases, new and old, converge, Dan finds himself at the wrong end of a gun. Again. But this time he has everything to gain and much, much less to lose. After all, you can only die once.

Escape Rating A-: While Death Warmed Over isn’t quite the laugh riot that was Eye of Newt, I didn’t expect it to be. It does, however, retain a marvelous undercurrent of gallows humor that can sustain a series. I certainly intend to find out.

The concept of a newly undead detective investigating his own death has been done before, and even done before with an urban fantasy/noir detective. If you are curious about a vampire version, hunt for a copy of P.N. Elrod’s  Bloodlist. The setting is real-world Prohibition Chicago, and Jack Fleming is a much more hardened gumshoe than Dan Shamble, but the concept is definitely there.

Back to Dan Shamble…

Part of the fun of this series is the very well-done world-building. The author has taken our world and shaken it up in a whole lot of ways that are both funny and serious at the same time. People, it turns out, are still people, whether they are dead or alive or something in the middle. Working out ways for the monsters among us to coexist creates a lot of opportunity for both humor and social commentary.

There are also a lot of sly jokes centering around the horror genre and its convention. That the new publisher of spellbooks is Howard Phillips Publishing, and that their motto is, “We love our craft” is a joke that makes the reader smile if they get it, but if they don’t, it doesn’t stop the story from still being funny in the right spots.

A lot of this particular story revolves around the human desire to look better, smell better and generally buy into the cosmetics and pharmaceuticals industry in a way that probably hurts all of our wallets in the real world. It’s also an impulse that seems to transcend death, as all of the undead are just as interested in covering up that graveyard aroma as the rest of us are about the smell of sweat. But following the money isn’t enough to solve this case.

In the end, the story rises (or possibly falls, but not for this reader) on whether or not the reader likes Dan’s “voice”, because it is his story. It is told from his perspective, and it is first-person singular, so inside his head and with his running commentary. We only see what Dan sees, and we only know what Dan knows. As he’s only been a zombie for a month, he’s still learning how his new world works, and so are we.

And it’s one hell of a fun ride.

Review: A Change of Heart by Sonali Dev + Giveaway

Review: A Change of Heart by Sonali Dev + GiveawayA Change of Heart by Sonali Dev
Formats available: paperback, ebook, large print, audiobook
Series: Bollywood #3
Pages: 352
Published by Kensington on September 27th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

“A rising talent.” —Booklist
Dr. Nikhil 'Nic' Joshi had it all—marriage, career, purpose. Until, while working for Doctors Without Borders in a Mumbai slum, his wife, Jen, discovered a black market organ transplant ring. Before she could expose the truth, Jen was killed.
Two years after the tragedy, Nic is a cruise ship doctor who spends his days treating seasickness and sunburn and his nights in a boozy haze. On one of those blurry evenings on deck, Nic meets a woman who makes a startling claim: she received Jen’s heart in a transplant and has a message for him. Nic wants to discount Jess Koirala’s story as absurd, but there’s something about her reckless desperation that resonates despite his doubts.
Jess has spent years working her way out of a nightmarish life in Calcutta and into a respectable Bollywood dance troupe. Now she faces losing the one thing that matters—her young son, Joy.  She needs to uncover the secrets Jen risked everything for; but the unforeseen bond that results between her and Nic is both a lifeline and a perilous complication.
Delving beyond the surface of modern Indian-American life, acclaimed author Sonali Dev’s page-turning novel is both riveting and emotionally rewarding—an extraordinary story of human connection, bravery, and hope.

My Review:

This may possibly be the angstiest romance I have ever read. That’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing – it just is. Be prepared to have your nerves jangled and your heartstrings jerked while reading.

Speaking of heartstrings, this is a story about hearts. Transplanted ones, that is. Also livers, kidneys and lungs, but mostly hearts. It’s also about finding ways to move past the most horrible things that life can possibly throw at you, and learning to live again.

But mostly hearts.

Dr. Nikhil Joshi is drinking himself into a very early grave. He used to be a hot-shot doctor with Doctors Without Borders (Medecins sans Frontieres – MSF) until his wife and fellow MSF doctor Jennifer Joshi was raped and murdered in front of him.

That was two years ago, and he’s been pickling himself ever since. He’s stuck somewhere in that anger and denial stage of grief, and it’s slowly killing him. He’s angry with himself for being forced to watch her die but surviving, and he’s also just plain angry at Jen for all the secrets she kept from him – the same secrets that got her killed.

Jen was investigating illegal organ trafficking, with the assistance of the Mumbai Police. Someone was using her organ registry to find poor people and cutting them up for the cash value of their parts. It’s sick and disgusting. It’s also a very, very profitable business. Jen got in their way and got killed for it.

Nic can’t forgive her secrets, and he can’t forgive himself.

Somewhere out there is the evidence that Jen died for. There are a whole host of people who have been waiting for Nic to get his head out of his alcohol-soaked ass and start hunting for it. Some of those people need the evidence to make sure it gets buried along with Jen. Some people need it to finally get out from under being blackmailed by the first set of people.

Jess Koirala needs it because someone is threatening her seven-year-old son. She’ll do anything to protect little Joy, including convincing Nic that she is in contact with Jen’s spirit because she received Jen’s transplanted heart. Finding Jen’s evidence will set Jess free. And Joy.

But when she starts her twisted mission, Jess has no idea that unearthing the past will bring Nic back to the present. And falling in love was definitely not part of her mission plan. Or his.

Escape Rating B+: This story is a roller-coaster ride for the emotions from its stormy beginning to its cathartic end. After everything we go through with Nic and Jess, we need to experience not just the romantic happy ever after, but the wrapping up of all the loose ends as good mostly triumphs and evil gets a big slice of its just desserts.

bollywood affair by sonali devThis story is a very loose follow up to the author’s first two books, A Bollywood Affair and The Bollywood Bride (both group reviewed over at The Book Pushers). It is not, however, necessary to have read those to get all the characters in A Change of Heart. But they are both a lot of fun, and A Bollywood Affair in particular is utterly joyous and highly recommended.

However, while the reader would not be missing much by not having read the first two books, it does sometimes feels like the suspenseful part of A Change of Heart is lost somewhere in the murky darkness. Some of that is necessary. Jess doesn’t know who is pulling her strings, or why. Only that the person is very dangerous and seriously threatening. This figure remains in the shadows all the way through. We think we know who it might be, but are never positive.

In front, we have almost a caricature of a thug. While he is the prime suspect for Jen’s murder, he is not the prime mover for Jess’ journey. So we are left with a bit of a puzzle, even at the end. As is Jess.

Jess is an amazing character. As her layers slowly get peeled back, we see the events that made her who she is, and just how much she has had to overcome. Even though there is much weighing her down, she still struggles towards the light. And in much of her slow revelation to Nic, we hear the voice of so many women who have been victimized and abused merely because they are female. Jess keeps trying, and circumstances that are outside her control keep beating her down – and then blaming her for everything that is done to her. We hear the voice of every institution that blames victims, “she asked for it”, “it’s all her fault”, “what can she expect when she looks like that” and more. And worse.

Nic blames Jen for her death. She was fighting a terrible evil. And yes, she should have told her husband she was working with the police. But it wasn’t her fault she was killed. It was the fault of the man who murdered her. And the system that covered up for him. But never hers. This is just one of many things that Nic needs to get past, if not over, so that he can live again.

The surprising thing is that a romance grows out of the circumstances that throw Jess and Nic together. There are so many lies at the beginning. Jess is, of necessity, holding so much back. That they manage to reach past all of that for healing and love is amazing. And makes for a very powerful story.

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Sonali is giving away 2 copies of A Bollywood Affair & The Bollywood Bride to lucky entrants on this tour.

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Review: The Pages of the Mind by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: The Pages of the Mind by Jeffe KennedyThe Pages of the Mind (The Uncharted Realms #1; The Twelve Kingdoms #4) by Jeffe Kennedy
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Series: Twelve Kingdoms #4, Uncharted Realms #1
Pages: 432
Published by Kensington on May 31st 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

An Orphan's Throne
Magic has broken free over the Twelve Kingdoms. The population is beset by shapeshifters and portents, landscapes that migrate, uncanny allies who are not quite human…and enemies eager to take advantage of the chaos.
Dafne Mailloux is no adventurer--she's a librarian. But the High Queen trusts Dafne's ability with languages, her way of winnowing the useful facts from a dusty scroll, and even more important, the subtlety and guile that three decades under the thumb of a tyrant taught her.
Dafne never thought to need those skills again. But she accepts her duty. Until her journey drops her into the arms of a barbarian king. He speaks no tongue she knows but that of power, yet he recognizes his captive as a valuable pawn. Dafne must submit to a wedding of alliance, becoming a prisoner-queen in a court she does not understand. If she is to save herself and her country, she will have to learn to read the heart of a wild stranger. And there are more secrets written there than even Dafne could suspect…
Praise for The Mark of the Tala
"Magnificent…a richly detailed fantasy world." --RT Book Reviews, 4½ stars, Top Pick
"Well written and swooningly romantic." --Library Journal, starred review

My Review:

crown of the queen by jeffe kennedyI have, for the most part, adored Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms series. Ami’s book, The Tears of the Rose, was the lone exception, because Ami spends the first half of the book as a spoiled princess bitch. While she gets much, much better, the first half of the book drags a bit.

As much as I loved the bridge novella featuring librarian Dafne Mailloux, The Crown of the Queen, Dafne’s own story in The Pages of the Mind drove me batty. I loved the beginning, and liked the end, but in this case it’s the middle that gave me fits.

Let me explain…

Dafne has been the librarian at Castle Ordnang for decades. Her family held the land and castle that formerly sat on the same spot, but when High King Uorsin decided that Castle Columba would be the seat of his new throne, the end was inevitable. He conquered the castle, razed the building, and built his capital in its place. Daphne was the only member of her family to survive the siege. While she may be, as she says, “ a demon on documents” in her early years it was her ability to hide in plain sight that saved her life over and over.

That and the fact that Queen Salena charged her with caring for her daughters, the princess Ursula, Ami and Andi. Ursula is now High Queen, after the events in The Talon of the Hawk and The Crown of the Queen. It is Daphne’s task to be Ursula’s adviser.

talon of the hawk by jeffe kennedyDafne has always been an observer and recorder. That’s what librarians do. So Daphne is more surprised than anyone when Ursula tasks her with the position of ambassador, first to the island kingdom of Nahanau, and then to the court of Dasnaria. Nahanau has been damaged by the movement of the magical barrier that formerly surrounded the Tala, and Dasnaria is the home of Ursula’s lover Harlan. His people might ally with the Twelve, now Thirteen Kingdoms, or might attempt to conquer them instead. The Kingdoms are still recovering from the late King’s treachery and tyranny, Ursula needs to stave off that possible war.

So off Dafne goes, with Harlan’s older brother Prince Kral as escort and guide.

We expect treachery, or at least some double-dealing on Kral’s part. It seems to be what the Dasnarians are known for. So when Kral essentially hands Dafne over to King Nakoa KauPo as either a hostage, sex slave or unwilling bride, readers are not totally surprised.

But the twists and turns that overtake Dafne’s fate from that point forward change the course of her life into directions she never expected. And is never sure that she wants or can even accept.

Escape Rating B-: I loved the beginning. Dafne’s life as librarian turned adviser fit right in with the snippets of her character we have seen in the earlier books. She has been working all of her life towards seeing Ursula crowned High Queen. And she not only expects the job of Royal Adviser, but is totally prepared and qualified for it.

She enjoys being the power behind the throne, and doesn’t see herself as powerful at all. She is merely an instrument of Ursula’s power. And she’s very, very good at it.

But when she is effectively abandoned at the Nahanau court, the story, along with Daphne’s personality, went temporarily off the rails for this reader. Because the story devolved into both the fated mate trope and the magic peen fallacy. That it turns out that both of these issues are actually manipulated into being by a third party redeems things somewhat, but not completely.

Dafne seems to become completely enslaved to sex with King Nakoa, to the point where she loses all her sense at many points. Yes, this sometimes happens when people discover how good sex can actually be, but that level of crazy usually happens earlier in their lives. Dafne is old enough that she believes she is no longer capable of bearing children. Becoming that mushy-headed just didn’t feel right.

For a significant part of the story, Dafne understands little to nothing of the language around her. The Nahanaus speak a language that is not derived from any of the several that Dafne knows. So there is a big portion of the story where a person who is only comfortable when in full possession of all the knowledge available has none to work with. It feels off-character when Dafne is forced to resort to stereotypical feminine wiles that she has never relied upon in order to get information felt wrong.

There is also a huge power imbalance in this relationship. Nakoa essentially kidnaps Dafne and keeps her prisoner. That she falls for him in these circumstances where she is totally dependent on him smacks of Stockholm Syndrome. Which does get called out later in the story, and then all too easily dismissed.

It turns out that everyone in this situation is being manipulated by a third party, one whose eventual advent into the story is explosive enough to kick the story back on track.

One of the things that I liked best about the previous entries in this series is that the princesses did not need to change who they were to find fulfillment and happiness, or to find their equal in love. Dafne has to change completely to get through most of her adventures. It’s only at the end where she goes back to being the intellectual powerhouse that is her true self.

At the end of this story, there are several people still on the loose who seriously need to get their comeuppance, particularly Kral. While events turned out for the best, his duplicity still needs to be accounted for. And I look forward to reading all about it in The Edge of the Blade.

Review: Death of an Alchemist by Mary Lawrence + Giveaway

Review: Death of an Alchemist by Mary Lawrence + GiveawayDeath of an Alchemist (Bianca Goddard Mysteries, #2) by Mary Lawrence
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Series: Bianca Goddard #2
Pages: 304
Published by Kensington on January 26th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

In the mid sixteenth century, Henry VIII sits on the throne, and Bianca Goddard tends to the sick and suffering in London's slums, where disease can take a life as quickly as murder. . .
For years, alchemist Ferris Stannum has devoted himself to developing the Elixir of Life, the reputed serum of immortality. Having tested his remedy successfully on an animal, Stannum intends to send his alchemy journal to a colleague in Cairo for confirmation. Instead he is strangled in his bed and his journal is stolen.
As the daughter of an alchemist herself, Bianca is well acquainted with the mystical healing arts. As her husband, John, falls ill with the sweating sickness, she dares to hope Stannum's journal could contain the secret to his recovery. But first she must solve the alchemist's murder. As she ventures into a world of treachery and deceit, Stannum's death proves to be only the first in a series of murders--and Bianca's quest becomes a matter of life and death, not only for her husband, but for herself. . .

My Review:

Actually, the title should have been “Deaths of Several Alchemists”, but that doesn’t have nearly the same ring to it, does it?

And the story really does center around one particular alchemist’s death, even though the ripples from that death take down one more alchemist, and nearly kill chemiste Bianca Goddard as well. Not to mention a very unlikeable landlady, an alchemist’s daughter (not Bianca, obviously), a ne’er do well husband and a poor unfortunate bird.

Unknotting all the threads of this case while keeping herself alive and out of jail are all in a day’s work for Bianca. What makes the case potentially life-altering is the object that causes all the trouble – a formula for the elixir of life. Too many people want it. And too many people need it. But is it a good idea for anyone to have it?

Bianca’s husband John lies in a coma in their “rent”. Bianca believes that if she can manage to interpret the arcane formula and successfully brew the potion, neither of which is at all certain, she can save John’s life from the deadly “sweating sickness”. A disease that died out long before modern medical science could figure out what it was in the first place.

But she’s not the only one in dire need. So as Bianca races through London trying to secure ingredients and equipment, someone is chasing her and the precious formula. Is her mysterious stalker in search of fame and fortune, or is their need just as dire as Bianca’s?

And why are so many people dying of mysterious, or sometimes not so mysterious, causes in the wake of Bianca’s pursuit? Bianca puzzles over the medical conundrums she discovers even as she desperately searches for everything she needs to brew the potion. All the while worried that by the time she is ready to brew the elixir, the person she needs it for, the man she loves, will be beyond healing.

Bianca races against time, and against the dictates of her own conscience. If the elixir truly gives life everlasting, is it right to go against the natural order of things? There is one figure haunting London who has lived with the answer for far too long, and hopes that the elixir, and Bianca, hold the keys to his salvation.

Escape Rating A-: If churches are sometimes referred to as “smells and bells”, then the view of the English Renaissance in the Bianca Goddard series is all the smells, with no bells at all. The series takes place during the English Reformation, and the church bells are silent. But the author makes it clear to the reader that everything stinks, and those who can afford it wear masks or carry pomanders to keep the stink away from their own personal noses.

Bianca and her husband live in the middle of it all, near the Thames in Southwark. John complains all too frequently that he wants to move someplace that stinks a little less, and Bianca responds with the sensible statement that not only is this what they can afford, but that the surrounding stinks mask the stinks created by her brewing of medicinals. Which also stink.

alchemists daughter by mary lawrenceThis is, as I said in my review of the first book in this series, The Alchemist’s Daughter, life among the groundlings, where life is often nasty, frequently brutish, and generally all too short. This was a time when medicine all too frequently consisted of bloodletting and leeches, and no one knew what caused diseases or what cured them. Bianca’s brewing of medicinal potions and poultices works by observation – she sees what alleviates symptoms, and repeats the process, but the why was beyond her or anyone in the 16th century.

Bianca also applies alchemistry methods to her brewing. Her father is an alchemist, and a spiteful basty-assed nastard into the bargain. But the processes for reduction and sublimation work for medical herbs as well as whatever the next idea is to turn lead into gold.

So when Bianca needs a master to teach her better brewing methods, she is steered to Ferris Stannum, an elderly alchemist with an excellent reputation. She arrives just as he announces that he has managed to create an elixir of life, and has proven its efficacy by administering it to his formerly sick cat, who is now capering around the place in healthy feline glee.

His announcement is followed by a trail of death, as everyone who was in the vicinity of Stannum dies in mysterious circumstances, except for Bianca and the person who chases her all over London. Because someone drops the old alchemist’s formulary into Bianca’s house, and her pursuer will do anything to get it back. Including murder.

This is an absorbing historical mystery from what we would think of as an uncommon point of view. Bianca is an average person with above-average intelligence, getting by the best she can. In this series, we see life as she sees it, not as the nobles loftily prance over it all. Getting inside Bianca’s head is fascinating and often frightening. There is so much that we know that she can’t, and we feel for her every step of the way.


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Mary is giving away a 2-book set of the Bianca Goddard mysteries as part of this tour!

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Review: The Alchemist’s Daughter by Mary Lawrence

Review: The Alchemist’s Daughter by Mary LawrenceThe Alchemist's Daughter (Bianca Goddard Mysteries #1) by Mary Lawrence
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Series: Bianca Goddard #1
Pages: 304
Published by Kensington on April 28th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

“A realistic evocation of 16th century London’s underside. The various strands of the plot are so skillfully plaited together.” —Fiona Buckley
In the year 1543 of King Henry VIII’s turbulent reign, the daughter of a notorious alchemist finds herself suspected of cold-blooded murder…
Bianca Goddard employs her knowledge of herbs and medicinal plants to concoct remedies for the disease-riddled poor in London’s squalid Southwark slum. But when her friend Jolyn comes to her complaining of severe stomach pains, Bianca’s prescription seems to kill her on the spot. Recovering from her shock, Bianca suspects Jolyn may have been poisoned before coming to her—but the local constable is not so easily convinced.
To clear her name and keep her neck free of the gallows, Bianca must apply her knowledge of the healing arts to deduce exactly how her friend was murdered and by whom—before she herself falls victim to a similar fate…
“Unique characters, a twisty plot and a bold, bright heroine add up to a great debut for Mary Lawrence’s The Alchemist’s Daughter. Mystery and Tudor fans alike will raise a glass to this new series.” —Karen Harper, author of
The Poyson Garden

My Review:

Think of The Alchemist’s Daughter as an antidote for all those Renaissance Faires where they make the English Renaissance look festive and clean, tidy and with no bad smells. With Bianca Goddard, we get a perspective on life among the ‘groundlings’, probably short, frequently nasty, and always unfair.

Bianca herself is an absolutely fascinating character, but the world she lives in is not a place any of us would want to visit, not even for an afternoon. The past, as they say, is another country, and they do things differently there.

Also it stinks.

Bianca has an interesting backstory. Her father is an alchemist. In other words, he was one of the the many would-be chemists who believed that there was a ‘philosopher’s stone’ that would turn lead and other base metals into gold. Trying to turn lead into gold, while fruitless, is also harmless. But Bianca’s obsessed father was also a Catholic during the latter part of Henry VIII’s reign, and nearly got executed after being caught up in a plan to overthrow the King. Someone accused him of attempting to poison Old King Hal, and he would have swung for it – if his daughter hadn’t proved his innocence – at least of that crime. (I hope the author gives us the full tale at some point in this series because it sounds amazing.)

But the notoriety brought both Bianca and her father to the attention of some of the powers that be, especially the conniving little ones who have just enough power to make life miserable for common people, which Bianca and her family certainly are.

Bianca is also unusual in that she has chosen to live apart from her family. Her father’s involvement in treasonous plots was the last straw for the independent minded Bianca. She wants to practice chemistry, not alchemy, and use the skills she learned at her father’s knee to find cures for the diseases that make people’s lives so short and miserable. Bianca lives alone in the tiny shack, or ‘rent’ that she, well, rents to practice her art.

Which makes her an all too easy target when her best friend comes to her in distress, and dies right there in Bianca’s arms. It was all too common for whoever was present at a death to be accused (and convicted) of it, and when her friend’s blood is found to be purple instead of red, accusations of poisoning fly at Bianca quicker than you can say “plague”.

The story in this book is Bianca dodging the inept law while trying to determine who really killed her friend. Because unless Bianca can find the real killer, she is the one who will be tortured and executed for the crime that she certainly did not commit.

Escape Rating A-: One of the things I found fascinating about this story is that is bookends the story of Lucie Wilton in Candace Robb’s Owen Archer series. Lucie is a master apothecary in York in the late 1300’s, and is also accused of murder. But so many things about the two women in these stories is a kind of mirror image. Lucie’s story takes place in the years before the Wars of the Roses, and Bianca’s take place in the aftermath two centuries later. Lucie is an acknowledged master of her craft, she owns her own shop and takes her own apprentices. Bianca is barely surviving, and is just as often called “witch” as “healer”. Also, Lucie marries Owen, where in Bianca’s first story, she steadfastly refuses to marry her long-time suitor, John. And Bianca’s reasons are lived out in Lucie. Bianca needs the freedom to devote herself to her obsession with her craft, where Lucie, who gets pregnant and has children and devastating miscarriages, is forced to divide her time between her life as a married woman running a household and her livelihood. Lucie never has the time, or frankly the inclination, for the kind of death-defying experiments that Bianca loses herself in on a regular basis.

In other words, if you find The Alchemist’s Daughter right up your rank and smelly alley, give The Apothecary Rose a try. Also Jeri Westerson’s Crispin Guest series, starting with Veil of Lies. It has the same gritty feel, and is set not long before the Archer series.

But back to Bianca’s life. We see the law that is after her as venal, incompetent and much more interested in finding a quick and easy solution than in actually finding the true criminal. And as the lawman Patch observes, while there is plenty of crime in the wealthy districts, the residents there have enough money to make sure that their crimes go unreported, if not absolutely unmarked or blamed on some poor sod in the poorer quarters.

Bianca has very little in the way of forensic evidence, no official assistance, and very little time to find the guilty party. She also has an entire barrel of red herrings to sort through in order to get close to the real killer and the real motive. All she knows at the very beginning is the very little that her friend Jolyn told her, and it isn’t much. Jolyn found a ring while muckracking – literally combing through garbage and debris on the Thames riverbank in the hope of finding something worth selling for enough money to keep body and soul together another day.

Jolyn believed that the ring she found brought her luck. An older woman offers her a room in her boarding house and a job after seeing Jolyn with the ring. Once there, Jolyn attracts a rich suitor. The ring is clearly a catalyst for something. Jolyn thought it was good luck, but the more that Bianca desperately digs into the history of the ring, the more she believes it was the catalyst for her murder.

We follow Bianca’s desperate quest as it goes at breakneck speed. It’s impossible not to shiver at the dangers she faces. And the legions of rats, not all of them on four legs.