Review: Planetside by Michael Mammay

Review: Planetside by Michael MammayPlanetside by Michael Mammay
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Voyager on July 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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--“PLANETSIDE is a smart and fast-paced blend of mystery and boots-in-the-dirt military SF that reads like a high-speed collision between Courage Under Fire and Heart of Darkness.” – Marko Kloos, bestselling author of the Frontline series

--“Not just for military SF fans—although military SF fans will love it—Planetside is an amazing debut novel, and I’m looking forward to what Mammay writes next.” – Tanya Huff, author of the Confederation and Peacekeeper series

--“A tough, authentic-feeling story that starts out fast and accelerates from there.” – Jack Campbell, author of Ascendant

--“Definitely the best military sci-fi debut I’ve come across in a while.” – Gavin Smith, author of Bastard Legion and Age of Scorpio

A seasoned military officer uncovers a deadly conspiracy on a distant, war-torn planet…

War heroes aren't usually called out of semi-retirement and sent to the far reaches of the galaxy for a routine investigation. So when Colonel Carl Butler answers the call from an old and powerful friend, he knows it's something big—and he's not being told the whole story. A high councilor's son has gone MIA out of Cappa Base, the space station orbiting a battle-ravaged planet. The young lieutenant had been wounded and evacuated—but there's no record of him having ever arrived at hospital command.

The colonel quickly finds Cappa Base to be a labyrinth of dead ends and sabotage: the hospital commander stonewalls him, the Special Ops leader won't come off the planet, witnesses go missing, radar data disappears, and that’s before he encounters the alien enemy. Butler has no choice but to drop down onto a hostile planet—because someone is using the war zone as a cover. The answers are there—Butler just has to make it back alive…

 

My Review:

If Cold Welcome and Old Man’s War had a love child you might get something like Planetside. And it would be, and is, pretty damn awesome. I would say it’s awesome for a debut novel, but that isn’t nearly praise enough. It’s just plain awesome. Period. Exclamation point.

The story is a combination of military SF with a bit of detective work. Because there’s something wrong on Cappa, and it’s up to Colonel Carl Butler to figure out what. And to contain the problem – no matter the cost.

It begins simply enough – except it isn’t simple at all.

Butler is an old soldier, less than a year away from retirement. He’s been stationed somewhere really, really safe and far from the front lines to serve out his remaining time. But his best friend is the current overall military commander of SPACECOM, and needs the help of a friend that he can trust – not just to keep his secrets – but to make the hard choices and do the right thing without caring how bad it might look. Or be.

A High Councillor’s son is missing on a planet where SPACECOM is engaged in a hot war with the natives over natural resources. All the human settlements need silver, and Cappa is rich in it. Some of the native Cappans, who are an intelligent humanoid but not human species, are fighting with SPACECOM, and some are fighting against it.

In military terms, Cappa is a SNAFU (Situation Normal: All Fucked Up). It’s just a much bigger and nastier SNAFU than anyone is willing to admit. Butler comes in and kicks over the local anthill, and all hell breaks loose.

The investigation has been stalled for months, mostly in red tape. There are three commands on Cappa, SPACECOM, MEDCOM and SPECOPS, and the right hand and the left hand don’t know, don’t care, and don’t have to cooperate with each other or the hand in the middle.

Butler can easily see that there’s a coverup going on – he just can’t make any headway on figuring out who is covering up what.

It’s only when he goes planetside and the situation goes completely pear-shaped that he’s finally able to see the forest for the trees. It’s not just that one thing is wrong – it’s that everything is. And has been. And will be.

Unless Butler contains the whole sad, sorry mess – once and for all.

Escape Rating A+: I just finished and I’m still in shock. This one is going to stick with me for a long, long time.

I used Old Man’s War and Cold Comfort as antecedents because Planetside has strong elements of both of them, and they were themselves both absolute standouts.

The voice of Colonel Carl Butler in Planetside sounds very much like the voice of John Perry in Old Man’s War. They are both, after all, old men still at war. The difference is that Perry has taken his long experience into a new, young body, where Butler’s has all the mileage, artificial parts, aches and pains, of a life lived mostly in battle. Perry’s scars are on the inside, Butler’s are on the outside. But their first-person perspectives sound remarkably similar. They both do what needs to be done, but they both think it through, a lot. And they’ve both been around long enough to recognize bullshit when they hear it and hate it every single time.

There is also an element to both Planetside and the Old Man’s War series that what you think you know, what you’ve been told is true, mostly isn’t.

From Cold Harbor there’s the betrayal from within aspect of the story. Just as Butler learns that an awful lot of people in Cappa Base and on Cappa are getting in the way of his investigation for reasons that he has to figure out, so too does Kylara Vatta have to conduct an investigation under extremely adverse circumstances while fighting against an enemy within, facing betrayal at every turn while the situation goes from bad to awful to completely FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition).

So in Planetside we have the story of a man who has been deliberately placed in a terrible situation by a friend who seems to be exploiting the fact that he has nothing left to lose. Butler is trusted to, not sweep something under the rug, but discover all the awful secrets there are to be discovered and make sure that none of them get out.

We’re inside his head. We feel his frustration, we understand his confusion, and we empathize with his hatred of the obfuscation and the bullshit that is keeping him from getting the job done for no good reason whatsoever. In the end, we ache for his choices but we understand his reasons.

At the end, I’m left with two sets of competing quotes running through my head. In one ear, I’m hearing Robert E. Lee, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” In my other ear, it’s Edmund Burke, paraphrased by Simon Wiesenthal, “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.” And there’s quite a lot of irony that the second quote is from Wiesenthal, a noted Nazi hunter.

I have extremely high hopes for more from this author. Soon, please! I already know that Planetside will be on my Hugo Ballot next year.

Review: Tiffany Blues by M.J. Rose + Giveaway

Review: Tiffany Blues by M.J. Rose + GiveawayTiffany Blues by M.J. Rose
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Atria Books on August 7, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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New York, 1924. Twenty‑four‑year‑old Jenny Bell is one of a dozen burgeoning artists invited to Louis Comfort Tiffany’s prestigious artists’ colony. Gifted and determined, Jenny vows to avoid distractions and romantic entanglements and take full advantage of the many wonders to be found at Laurelton Hall.

But Jenny’s past has followed her to Long Island. Images of her beloved mother, her hard-hearted stepfather, waterfalls, and murder, and the dank hallways of Canada’s notorious Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women overwhelm Jenny’s thoughts, even as she is inextricably drawn to Oliver, Tiffany’s charismatic grandson.

As the summer shimmers on, and the competition between the artists grows fierce as they vie for a spot at Tiffany’s New York gallery, a series of suspicious and disturbing occurrences suggest someone knows enough about Jenny’s childhood trauma to expose her.

Supported by her closest friend Minx Deering, a seemingly carefree socialite yet dedicated sculptor, and Oliver, Jenny pushes her demons aside. Between stolen kisses and stolen jewels, the champagne flows and the jazz plays on until one moonless night when Jenny’s past and present are thrown together in a desperate moment, that will threaten her promising future, her love, her friendships, and her very life.

My Review:

This is a story about finding beauty in what is broken. It is also a story about creeping menace among the beauty. And it’s a love story. Not just about romantic love, but also the love of family, the love of making beauty – and love gone very, very wrong.

As the story begins, Jenny Bell is standing in the charred ruins of Laurelton Hall, looking back at her past. Or at least one particular summer of her past, the summer of 1924, how she got there, why she left, and finally, what brought her to come back, and look back, on the events that transformed her life – both the dark side and the light.

Laurelton Hall circa 1924

Laurelton Hall was the real-life home of a school for artists run by the famous artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. Yes, that Tiffany, of the gorgeous stained glass windows and the little signature blue boxes. (At least, the only Tiffany boxes I’ve ever received have been very, very small.)

Tiffany’s Foundation sponsored summer artists’ retreat for several years. (This is real, not fictional.) Jenny Bell and most of the events of the summer of 1924, however, are mostly fictional – with the possible exception of the visit by Thomas A. Edison.

Jenny is an artist, a painter, who is exploring the creation and perception of light through her paintings. But she has washed all the colors out of her work after a terrible tragedy, accompanied by an equally terrible miscarriage of justice. And even though Jenny was not to blame for the events that have cast a shadow over her life – she is the only one left who knows the truth of the day that her stepfather died. Not just why and how his death occurred, but why the events that came afterwards seemed necessary at the time.

But Jenny put that horrible day, and the years that followed it, behind her. Or so she thinks. At least until her past follows her to Laurelton, and takes away her brightest future.

Unless it is not too late to pick up the threads she left behind.

Escape Rating A-: There are so many marvelous things to unpack about this story. All of them fascinating and all of them guaranteed to both keep the reader on the edge of their seat and draw them deeply into the world of Laurelton and the Jazz Age.

Jenny is a great character to follow. She is both very, very strong and completely broken all at the same time. As are the people who become closest to her, her best friend Minx Deering and her lover Oliver Tiffany. But then, all of the artists who come to Laurelton are broken in one way or another. World War I feels just barely over, and even those who did not serve lived in its terrible shadow.

And the frenetic gaiety that followed has caused its own damage.

Jenny tries to be an enigma to those around her, but inside her own head she is all too aware of what happened and what she did. But also what she didn’t. And she’s paid a very high price for protecting her mother and her unborn brother – a price that in its aftermath may not have been worth it after all.

Even though she has tried to bury her past, there is someone at Laurelton who seems to know at least the public version of events, and either wants to reveal her secrets, punish her more directly, or just break her all over again – for reasons that Jenny does not know.

All she knows is that something is very, very wrong, and both she and her friend Minx are in terrible, but terribly different, kinds of danger. The portrait of a woman who knows that there is something wrong, who fears that she knows at least part of what that is, but is too afraid to ask for help and for a long time too willing to disbelieve her own fears is both compelling and all too familiar.

The air of creeping menace is palpable, and permeates the whole story. It casts a shadow over the beauty of the place, much in the way that the contrast between shadow and light creates both beauty and perspective in art.

In the end, the resolution is both cathartic and bitter. Jenny pays a great price, yet again, for a crime that she did not commit. But then there is the sweet, and the ending shows that there is beauty in the breakdown, and even in the shards of our lives.

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

I’m giving away a copy of Tiffany Blues to one very lucky US or Canadian commenter!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Review: Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

Review: Meet Me at the Museum by Anne YoungsonMeet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 272
Published by Flatiron Books on August 7, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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“Warm-hearted, clear-minded, and unexpectedly spellbinding. A novel to savor.” —Annie Barrows, co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

In Denmark, Professor Anders Larsen, an urbane man of facts, has lost his wife and his hopes for the future. On an isolated English farm, Tina Hopgood is trapped in a life she doesn’t remember choosing. Both believe their love stories are over.

Brought together by a shared fascination with the Tollund Man, subject of Seamus Heaney’s famous poem, they begin writing letters to one another. And from their vastly different worlds, they find they have more in common than they could have imagined. As they open up to one another about their lives, an unexpected friendship blooms. But then Tina’s letters stop coming, and Anders is thrown into despair. How far are they willing to go to write a new story for themselves?

My Review:

Meet Me at the Museum is a quietly marvelous little gem of a book. That it is also the author’s debut novel just makes it that much more special.

This is an epistolary novel, which is a fancy way of saying that the entire story is written as a series of letters. In this particular case, the letters are between two semi-accidental correspondents, both in their early 60s, who find themselves asking each other some of the big questions.

Questions like, “Does my life have meaning?” and, “Have I been my best self?”, as well as, “Where do I go from here?” and the big one, “Is this all there is?”

They are both at crossroads in their lives, and neither of them seems to have anyone with whom they can discuss what is really important to them – or to even to reveal what is really important to them.

The well-preserved head of Tollund Man

Tina has just lost her best friend. The friend who has been with her since childhood. And the one with whom she made a vow to go to Denmark and see the Tollund Man. When they were girls, the expert on this archaeological artifact, this Iron Age man who was dug up (or perhaps decanted) from a peat bog in Denmark, wrote a book about the Tollund Man and dedicated to his daughter and to all the children in their class in East Anglia. (This book, with its dedication, really does exist although the rest of this story is fiction.)

Tina writes to that author, all these years later, because she is putting her own thoughts down on paper, thoughts she wishes she could ask, not the old professor, but the Tollund Man himself. If he could talk.

The man who answers her from Denmark is the current curator of the museum, Anders. And at first his answers are rather dry and factual. He’s still grieving the recent death of his wife, and dry and factual seems to be all that he has in him.

But, the writing of the letters is cathartic for Tina, even if at first Anders isn’t very responsive in an emotional sense. So she keeps writing. And he keeps responding, and as he responds they step cautiously towards friendship. A friendship that is lacking in both their lives.

Anders is alone. He has his work and his children. Those children are grown now, and are beginning to have children of their own. He loves them, and they love him, but he cannot confide in them as equals. Writing to Tina becomes a solace for him. Her friendship allows him to hope again.

Tina is married, and also has children who are now having children of their own. But she is also alone – a fact which grows on both her and the reader through this correspondence. She should be talking with her husband but the fact is that they don’t really talk. They have a life together, but it is his life as a family farmer in East Anglia, a life that Tina did not want but was persuaded into when she became pregnant at 20. The person she really is only exists on the margins of her life. Her husband is one of those people for whom the only way is his the right way which is his way in everything, and he ruthlessly suppresses any of Tina’s impulses that don’t mesh with his way of life on his farm.

In her correspondence with Anders she can share her innermost thoughts. For that matter, she can share that she HAS innermost thoughts. They share the hopes, doubts and fears that neither of them is able to express to anyone in their daily lives.

So when Tina’s life finally breaks, Anders is more than willing to catch her. The question is whether she will be able to let him.

Escape Rating A+: This is absolutely completely marvelous. You wouldn’t think that reading a bunch of letters written between two strangers would be so utterly compelling, and yet it is. The reader feels like a secret witness to their correspondence, turning to each new letter as eagerly as its intended recipient.

That the two characters are both 60 or thereabouts is an interesting choice. This is a debut novel, and the writer herself is also (more or less) at that age. As am I. With modern medical science, 60 is no longer truly old, but one is certainly aware that one is no longer young. We may have 30 or even more years of mostly healthy and active living to do, but at the same time some choices are irrevocably behind us and some patterns are now too established for us to want to change even when change is possible.

Much of what Anders and Tina explore in their letters is at that crossroads. They are both aware of the roads not taken, and are searching for the meaning both in the choices they made and the ones they passed by – and whether or not it is too late to pick up some threads they left behind along the way.

This book is also the story of an emotional affair. When the story reaches its end, they have still not met in person. There are no possibilities for actual infidelity on Tina’s part, but she has come to invest a great deal of emotional capital in this relationship – which she has kept secret from her husband. That there is something wrong in her marriage becomes increasingly clear as the story progresses, and her relationship with Anders becomes both a wellspring of solace and a source of guilt as her life reaches its crisis. She has to take time out to recognize that the depth of her correspondence with Anders is a symptom of what is wrong and not its cause – but it isn’t easy.

Then again, nothing worth having or doing ever is truly easy. But Tina and Anders are marvelous and sympathetic characters. As they get to know each other, we get to know them – and we want them to find the answers to all those important questions – and to find their own best happiness.

Both the story and the way it is presented remind me very much of 84 Charing Cross Road, of which I have extremely fond memories. It may also remind readers of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which is unfortunately lost in the depths of my towering TBR pile.

But I like the comparison to 84 Charing Cross Road a bit better, although where Charing Cross has a definitive and slightly tragic ending, Meet Me at the Museum is both less definitive and more hopeful. I like leaving the book with the possibility that Tina and Anders may have brighter days ahead. And astonishingly, Meet Me at the Museum may be the first work of literary fiction that I have not merely liked, but actually, sincerely loved. I hope that you will, too.

Review: The Locksmith’s Daughter by Karen Brooks

Review: The Locksmith’s Daughter by Karen BrooksThe Locksmith's Daughter by Karen Brooks
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 576
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on July 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From acclaimed author Karen Brooks comes this intriguing novel rich in historical detail and drama as it tells the unforgettable story of Queen Elizabeth's daring, ruthless spymaster and his female protégée.

In Queen Elizabeth's England, where no one can be trusted and secrets are currency, one woman stands without fear.

Mallory Bright is the only daughter of London's most ingenious locksmith. She has apprenticed with her father since childhood, and there is no lock too elaborate for her to crack. After scandal destroys her reputation, Mallory has returned to her father's home and lives almost as a recluse, ignoring the whispers and gossip of their neighbors. But Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's spymaster and a frequent client of Mallory's father, draws her into his world of danger and deception. For the locksmith's daughter is not only good at cracking locks, she also has a talent for codes, spycraft, and intrigue. With Mallory by Sir Francis’s side, no scheme in England or abroad is safe from discovery.

But Mallory's loyalty wavers when she witnesses the brutal and bloody public execution of three Jesuit priests and realizes the human cost of her espionage. And later, when she discovers the identity of a Catholic spy and a conspiracy that threatens the kingdom, she is forced to choose between her country and her heart.

Once Sir Francis's greatest asset, Mallory is fast becoming his worst threat—and there is only one way the Queen’s master spy deals with his enemies…

 

My Review:

If you like utterly absorbing, densely plotted historical fiction, then The Locksmith’s Daughter is going to open a key into your reading heart.

This story is set at a time of intense political and religious ferment. It’s also a time we think we know, the Elizabethan period of English history. In fact, a particular piece of that period, the 1580s, the time when religious persecution of Catholics was at its height, right alongside, and considerably as a result of, Catholic plots to overthrow Elizabeth and bestow the crown on some supposedly worthier Catholic monarch. (I’m not making a religious comment here, but I am doubtful that any ruler of any religious stripe could have done a better job for their country in that particular place and time than Elizabeth did for England.)

That decade includes the execution of Elizabeth’s most prominent Catholic rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as the debacle of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Well, it was certainly a debacle from the Spanish perspective. The English perspective, the one we tend to adopt here in the U.S., was that it was a resounding success for England.

History is always written by the victors.

But Elizabeth’s reign in general, and this period in particular, was also a period of political and social upheaval. And whenever there are societal changes, there are plenty of people on both sides of every issue working as hard as they can to ensure that their side is the one that comes out on top.

In other words, politics. Lots and lots of politics. And wherever there are politics, there are plenty of people manipulating events behind the scenes, both by fair means and foul.

Espionage may not be the oldest profession, but it is certainly one of the oldest. One of its foremost practitioners was either a hero or villain of this period. Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster.

Our peek into the skullduggery and machinations at the heart of Elizabeth’s reign is Mallory Bright, the titular locksmith’s daughter. This story of underhanded dealings at the centers of power – or on its shadowy fringes, is told from Mallory’s first person perspective.

For her time and place, Mallory is singular. She’s not merely the daughter of a respected locksmith, but also his unofficial apprentice, better at picking locks than even the master himself. She is also an educated woman at a time when that was not the norm. And as the story opens, she has returned to her parents’ household after her own disgraceful actions ruined her reputation and her prospects.

Mallory needs a future. Her father’s surprising friendship with Walsingham provides her with a means to make her own. With her education in languages and mathematics as well as her skill in lock-picking, Mallory is the perfect candidate to learn the art of spycraft.

At first, it is a game at which she excels. She enjoys the learning of it, and she relishes the challenge. But when the ciphers and secrets turn deadly, she discovers that her challenges come at too high a price. A price that is initially paid by others, but could all too easily be wrenched from her own heart, soul and body.

Escape Rating A: The Locksmith’s Daughter is a LOT of book. An absolutely absorbing lot, but definitely one to tackle when you either have plenty of time on your hands or are willing to forego a certain amount of sleep. Or both.

That being said, Mallory’s first-person perspective sucks the reader right in. Even though we initially know little about her circumstances, we see it all through her eyes and hear her thoughts and feel right there with her. There are two things that make Mallory an excellent first-person narrator. She’s intelligent, so she’s very thoughtful about everything that passes through her head. And she’s lonely. She has very few people to talk to, and no one to confide in. She both keeps her thoughts to herself and works them over in her own mind on a regular basis. Some first-person narrators are either not introspective or are so censorious of their own self-talk that even the view from inside their heads is limiting. Mallory is not that way. She thinks, she ponders, she considers – and we get to see it all.

It’s not just that Mallory is an easy character to empathize with, but also that what she experiences is absolutely fascinating. There are lots of stories where a big part of the story is the training of the character from apprenticeship to master. This is one where that process is done well. It’s doubly interesting to see her master the tradecraft of espionage in a way that shows just how little has changed from the 16th century to the 21st, as well as how much.

If you want to be transported back in time to Elizabethan England, The Locksmith’s Daughter is a fabulous time machine.

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Review: Born to Be Wilde by Eloisa James + Giveaway

Review: Born to Be Wilde by Eloisa James + GiveawayBorn to Be Wilde (The Wildes of Lindow Castle, #3) by Eloisa James
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Wildes of Lindow Castle #3
Pages: 384
Published by Avon on July 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The richest bachelor in England plays matchmaker…for an heiress he wants for himself!

For beautiful, witty Lavinia Gray, there's only one thing worse than having to ask the appalling Parth Sterling to marry her: being turned down by him.

Now the richest bachelor in England, Parth is not about to marry a woman as reckless and fashion-obsessed as Lavinia; he's chosen a far more suitable bride.

But when he learns of Lavinia's desperate circumstances, he offers to find her a husband. Even better, he'll find her a prince.

As usual, there's no problem Parth can't fix. But the more time he spends with the beguiling Lavinia, the more he finds himself wondering…

Why does the woman who's completely wrong feel so right in his arms?

My Review:

While Born to be Wilde certainly has elements of the Shakespearean farce referred to be one of the characters, there are also some interesting and surprisingly serious notes in this glorious romp of a historical romance.

At first this seems like a frenemies into lovers story. We’ve met both Lavinia Gray and Parth Sterling in the previous books in this series. Lavinia, Willa (the heroine of Wilde in Love) and Diana (heroine of Too Wilde to Wed), are best friends. Willa and Lavinia were raised together. In fact, Lavinia had set her cap for the Wilde that Willa eventually married. Lavinia’s mother tried to set Lavinia’s cap for the Wilde that Diana finally married.

Parth Sterling was raised with the Wilde brothers from the age of five. Parth is Anglo-Indian, and his parents sent him from India to be raised by his father’s friend, the Duke of Lindow. When his parents died, Parth became part of the Wilde family – and was every bit as wild a boy as any of his adopted brothers.

But Parth has a serious side. He’s become the richest bachelor in England by profitably owning and operating several factories and even his own bank. He’s a man who works hard and gets things done.

He seems to see Lavinia as merely a fribble. A lighthearted and light-minded woman who fritters away her time and her fortune on gowns, bonnets and gloves. That upper-class women are all supposed to be fribbles doesn’t keep him from seeming to look down upon her at every turn.

And she, in turn, seems to look down upon him. In her presence he always seems to be prim and proper and gloomy and doomy. In his presence she acts almost like a halfwit.

Of course, nothing is as it seems – except that they drive each other completely crazy. It’s exactly what kind of crazy that’s hiding underneath all of their cutting remarks towards each other.

It’s only when Lavinia finds herself in desperate needs of Parth’s undeniable ability to get things done that they discover that there’s more hiding behind both of their surface personas than either of them ever imagined.

But neither of them imagines how difficult it will be to let go of years of preconceived notions about each other – or about themselves. Or how much damage all those accumulated cutting remarks have already caused.

Escape Rating B+: For a story that certainly has its serious side, it is also a tremendous amount of fun, livened up by oodles of witty banter. That the heroine is far, far deeper than the shallow puddle that the hero initially claims her to be just makes the story that much more delicious.

At the same time, the story deals with some fairly serious topics. A big part of the story, introduced very early on, is that Lavinia’s mother is addicted to laudanum, otherwise known as tincture of opium. While laudanum was dispensed quite legally in many forms until the 1860s, the effects of addiction were also known – if usually swept under the rug and secreted within the family.

Lavinia begins this story where Too Wilde to Wed ends. She has discovered that her mother has squandered not just their own money but also all of Willa’s as well. And she’s sold all of her own jewelry, Lavinia’s, and Willa’s and replaced them with copies. And stolen Diana’s jewelry as well, causing the rift between Diana and her family and forcing her into the circumstances she finds herself in at the start of Too Wilde to Wed.

Lavinia needs to marry a rich man, not just to make good on everything that her mother stole, but also because she needs a husband with enough power and influence to keep her mother out of jail and to make sure the scandal doesn’t erupt.

While marrying Parth or one of the wealthy men he introduces her to would solve her problems, Lavinia also has a tremendous amount of pride, as well as one marketable talent. She hasn’t been buying all those bonnets because she’s frivolous – well, at least not just because she’s frivolous.

She’s been studying them. Lavinia has the talent, the taste and the style to become a fashion designer, or what her world calls a modiste. Diana’s upcoming wedding provides her with the opportunity to not merely arrange but actually create Diana’s incredible trousseau – and to receive commissions from all of her suppliers for the materials that are purchased for the wedding party. And from there to build a business that can pay back what her mother stole, fund her mother’s long-term care, replace her own dowry and even live independently.

In other words, more than enough commission to make a serious dent in the financial hole her mother has left them in. And that would be just the start.

But the misunderstandammit in the story is that Lavinia doesn’t want Parth to know that she’s working to pay off that debt. So the more she accomplishes, the more he sees her as still frittering away her time playing with expensive fashion. Even as they finally admit that all of their name calling and backbiting has been hiding their true feelings for each other – they aren’t quite able to let go of the hurt on both sides it has caused.

In the end, Parth has to give really good grovel, not just in begging for forgiveness, but in demonstrating that he finally understands just what a gem and an artist Lavinia truly is, for them to win through.

Lavinia, in some ways, has the harder task. She has to let go, not just of those old hurts, but the even older ones – that still small voice inside her head that sounds remarkably like her mother, that says she’s frivolous and stupid and shallow and insipid and that no one will ever pay any attention to anything she says or does.

Accepting that the voice is wrong is the hardest lesson of all.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

To celebrate the release of BORN TO BE WILDE by Eloisa James, we’re giving away one hardcover set of THE WILDES OF LINDOW CASTLE series!

LINK: https://www.subscribepage.com/BornToBeWilde

GIVEAWAY TERMS & CONDITIONS:  Open to US shipping addresses only. One winner will receive a hardcover set of The Wildes of Lindow Castle series by Eloisa James. This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Avon Romance.  Giveaway ends 8/10/2018 @ 11:59pm EST. Avon Romance will send the winning copies out to the winner directly. Limit one entry per reader and mailing address. Duplicates will be deleted.

Review: Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

Review: Clock Dance by Anne TylerClock Dance by Anne Tyler
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction
Pages: 304
Published by Knopf Publishing Group on July 10, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A bewitching new novel of family and self-discovery from the best-selling, award-winning author of A Spool of Blue Thread.

Willa Drake can count on one hand the defining moments of her life. In 1967, she is a schoolgirl coping with her mother's sudden disappearance. In 1977, she is a college coed considering a marriage proposal. In 1997, she is a young widow trying to piece her life back together. And in 2017, she yearns to be a grandmother, yet the prospect is dimming. So, when Willa receives a phone call from a stranger, telling her that her son's ex-girlfriend has been shot, she drops everything and flies across the country to Baltimore. The impulsive decision to look after this woman and her nine-year-old daughter will lead Willa into uncharted territory--surrounded by eccentric neighbors, plunged into the rituals that make a community a family, and forced to find solace in unexpected places. A bittersweet, probing novel of hope and grief, fulfillment and renewal, Clock Dance gives us Anne Tyler at the height of her powers.

My Review:

Willa Drake is living a life of such quiet desperation that she never quite realized just how desperate she’s become. And just how much of an apologetic doormat she is in her own life. Until circumstances, along with a tiny bit of her own once and future spark, finally crack open, not even a doorway, but at least a window out.

We all tend to marry types, and Willa’s first husband was a real jerk. Her second is an ass. Not quite an asshole, but certainly an ass. And her older son takes after his father – her first husband. But both of them condescend to Willa at every turn, and act like the world revolves around them, because Willa does everything she can to enable them to maintain that belief.

Her second son, who we don’t see all that much of, takes after her. She patterned her own behavior on her father, a quiet, saintly man who married a most likely bipolar or manic depressive drama queen.

The idea that a person either marries Gandhi or becomes Gandhi is depressing as hell, and it’s an idea that Willa seems to have embraced wholeheartedly. She’s been the Gandhi in every relationship – the saintly one who enables everything and forgives everyone all of their trespasses.

And, as one of the characters says, it must be frustrating to be married to such a person because the non-Gandhi always feels guilty, bitter or both pretty much all the time. It also means that the Gandhi-type enables all of their partner’s bad behavior, including abuse, and does not deal with the damage that is being done to any innocents in the household.

Like the children. Willa and her sister Elaine were both abused by their mother, but dealt with it in different ways. Elaine is distant and self-absorbed, Elaine makes peace at any and all costs. Neither is a particularly healthy way to deal.

But this story is finally about Willa breaking free. It happens almost by accident. Her son’s ex-girlfriend is hospitalized, leaving her 9-year-old daughter with nobody and no place. Not that little Cheryl isn’t surprisingly independent, but she’s still too young to be living by herself.

In a fluke, a neighbor calls Willa. And Willa, empty-nesting and looking for a purpose other than mollifying her husband, jumps at the chance to fly from Tucson to Baltimore to take care of a child she’s never even met.

Oh, so slowly, and oh so cautiously, Willa steps further and further out from that life of quiet self-effacement and desperation. And sets herself free.

Escape Rating C+: So many people love Anne Tyler, and I have so many friends who read literary fiction. It’s the stuff of the best seller lists after all. But I usually bounce right off of it, because the stories are so grim, the characters are so quiet, and so little happens.

And that’s kind of true in Clock Dance. The first half of the book was rough going for me. Until the point where Willa agrees to go to Baltimore, it’s so easy to see her making one mistake after another. The way that she gets into (and actually out of) her first marriage is depressing in its predictability. It’s sad to see that when we meet her again years later, she’s essentially recreated the same dynamic with her second husband.

It’s only when she goes to Baltimore to take care of Cheryl and her mother Denise that the story begins to move – just as Willa does. In her own life everyone treats her as a doormat. Her husband even calls her “little one” in a way that is as demeaning as it gets.

But with Cheryl and Denise and their working middle class neighborhood, Willa rediscovers the purpose that she lost along the way. It’s not that she becomes selfish, it’s that she’s helping others who also give back in return. She’s part of the community, not a servant to select members of it.

Her rebellion is as quiet as her desperation, and seems to take her forever to finally achieve – because it takes her forever to finally acknowledge her own wants and needs after years of looking after everyone else.

I wasn’t so much moved by this story as I was frustrated by it. A big part of me wanted this to be women’s fiction rather than literary fiction – because there would be more plot, more action, and more of a sense of resolution at the end. And the first depressing half would have ended a lot quicker.

The most forthright person in the story is young Cheryl. For a 9-year-old she’s pretty self-aware and knows who she is and what she wants. She’s certainly more self-aware than Willa. Willa has been such a cipher in her own life that she continues to be a cipher even when she’s the heroine. Most of her self-talk is utterly self-effacing. I’m not saying that she’s not realistic, because I’m all too aware that she is.

People, particularly women, often “settle” instead of striving. We’ve all done it at times in our lives, often for reasons that seem good at the time. But just because her character is ultra-realistic doesn’t make a book with her at the center all that enjoyable. More like a bit depressing until the very, very end.

If you love literary fiction, this is a book you’ll probably enjoy. If, like me, you have your doubts about litfic, this one won’t change your mind.

Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Review: Day of the Dead by Nicci French

Review: Day of the Dead by Nicci FrenchDay of the Dead (Frieda Klein #8) by Nicci French
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Series: Frieda Klein #8
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on July 24, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Now the final book in this extraordinary series is here. And it's an ending you'll never forget.

A decade ago, psychologist Frieda Klein was sucked into the orbit of Dean Reeve -- a killer able to impersonate almost anyone, a man who can disappear without a trace, a psychopath obsessed with Frieda herself.

In the years since, Frieda has worked with -- and sometimes against -- the London police in solving their most baffling cases. But now she's in hiding, driven to isolation by Reeve. When a series of murders announces his return, Frieda must emerge from the shadows to confront her nemesis. And it's a showdown she might not survive.

This gripping cat-and-mouse thriller pits one of the most fascinating characters in contemporary fiction against an enemy like none other. Smart, sophisticated, and spellbinding, it's a novel to leave you breathless.

My Review:

This is definitely going to be one of those mixed feelings kind of reviews, because I certainly have a whole river’s worth of mixed feelings about this book and the end of the Frieda Klein series.

When this series began back in Blue Monday, we met Frieda Klein as a psychotherapist who sometimes worked with the police, and seems to have sometimes worked against them over the course of her career. But in the background of all her cases has lurked Dean Reeve, a serial killer who has been fixated on Frieda for nearly a decade.

At times, Reeve has acted to smooth Frieda’s way, murdering people who were opposing her. At other times, he has killed people who he perceived as being too close to her, in the belief that those people were getting in the way of her focus on him, or his focus on her. Sometimes he has murdered people as surrogates for her, or simply to remind her that he is still around.

He also murdered his twin brother, to confuse the police and make them believe he was dead, and that Frieda’s seeming obsession with him with delusional.

But at the end of the previous book in the series, Sunday Silence, Frieda finally decides that she has had enough of Reeve’s obsession with her, and the constant danger he poses to any person even tangentially in her orbit.

She disappears, in the hope of taking Reeve’s focus away from her friends and colleagues. But when she is found by a young and extremely naive criminal psychology student, she discovers that Reeve has been trying to get her attention all along.

And that when he can’t find her, he’ll happily find other people to kill to keep himself amused – just so that he can get her attention.

Once he has it, their long history moves to the endgame. And just as in the chess games that Frieda loves to play, only one side can win.

Escape Rating B: While Frieda Klein has been a fascinating character throughout the entire series, she’s also kind of a Sherlock Holmes. Not in the sense that she’s an eccentric genius, although that may not be far off the mark, but in the sense that she seems to be operating on instinct and intuition. Left to her own devices, she doesn’t expose much of her inner thoughts or emotions.

As readers, we need to see what she’s thinking. In the previous books in the series, she has been surrounded by a circle of friends and colleagues, and it is in her discussions with them, or sometimes her probing by them, that we are able to peek inside her head.

In this book she has deliberately taken herself away from her circle, in the hopes of keeping all of them safe. But in order for us to understand and empathize with her, she still needs a ‘Watson’, someone to explain things to so that we can hear. And that’s where this story gave me all of those mixed feelings.

The character who becomes the audience surrogate is young Lola Hayes, that naive criminal psychology student. Lola is a pawn throughout the story. At first, she is a pawn of her thesis advisor and one of her other professors, who set her on a collision course with Frieda Klein in the hopes of scoring points against someone they see as a kind of academic rival.

Neither of them cares what happens to Lola, or seems to give a damn about the tragic body count that has always followed in Frieda’s wake – and whether they’ve just thrown Lola’s body onto that pile.

Lola herself frequently comes off as TSTL (too stupid to live). She’s lazy, she wants everyone else to do her work for her, she’s thoughtless and she’s clueless. She takes the easy way out every time, and as a consequence she gets used at every turn. But most of all she’s just plain annoying.

Lola is there to be used, and she is used by everyone in the story, including, by the end, Frieda. She’s a frustrating inclusion in a series that usually features smart, or at least interesting, characters.

A big part of this story is that of Frieda tying up all the loose ends. She circles back through everything that has happened in the series and every case that Dean Reeve has touched on. While I think there is enough explained that readers don’t need to have read the entire series to be invested in this volume, there’s certainly more resonance if you’ve read at least some of the previous entries, particularly the first, Blue Monday, and the most recent, Sunday Silence.

The cat and mouse game between Dean Reeve and Frieda Klein does come to a satisfying, albeit surprisingly low-key, conclusion. In all of their previous encounters, Reeve has always seen himself as the predatory cat, while he has cast Frieda as his mouse-prey.

Reeve forgets that just as every dog has his day, every once in a while, the mouse roars.

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Review: Kill the Farm Boy by Kevin Hearne and Delilah S Dawson

Review: Kill the Farm Boy by Kevin Hearne and Delilah S DawsonKill the Farm Boy (The Tales of Pell, #1) by Delilah S. Dawson, Kevin Hearne
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy
Series: Tales of Pell #1
Pages: 384
Published by Del Rey Books on July 17, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In an irreverent new series in the tradition of Terry Pratchett novels and The Princess Bride, the New York Times bestselling authors of the Iron Druid Chronicles and Star Wars: Phasma reinvent fantasy, fairy tales, and floridly written feast scenes.

Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, a hero, the Chosen One, was born . . . and so begins every fairy tale ever told.

This is not that fairy tale.

There is a Chosen One, but he is unlike any One who has ever been Chosened.

And there is a faraway kingdom, but you have never been to a magical world quite like the land of Pell.

There, a plucky farm boy will find more than he's bargained for on his quest to awaken the sleeping princess in her cursed tower. First there's the Dark Lord who wishes for the boy's untimely death . . . and also very fine cheese. Then there's a bard without a song in her heart but with a very adorable and fuzzy tail, an assassin who fears not the night but is terrified of chickens, and a mighty fighter more frightened of her sword than of her chain-mail bikini. This journey will lead to sinister umlauts, a trash-talking goat, the Dread Necromancer Steve, and a strange and wondrous journey to the most peculiar "happily ever after" that ever once-upon-a-timed.

My Review:

If Robert Asprin’s Myth-Adventures series had a love child with Piers Anthony’s Xanth series, and then if that love child had a child with Monty Python – or possibly a love child with each individual member of Monty Python, all midwifed by The Princess Bride, you might get something like Kill the Farm Boy.

Or you’d get a cheese sandwich. Or possibly both.

On the one hand, the description of this book can easily be read as a fairly typical epic fantasy. A group of adventurers, including a ”chosen one” set out from obscurity to undertake a quest.

But this particular fantasy is fractured from beginning to end. Like so many fantasies, the adventuring party consists of a wizard or two, a rogue, a warrior, a bard and a trusty steed. The opening salvo in the quest is to rescue a fairy tale princess from a sleeping castle. In a twisted cross between Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast.

That beast is a rabbit. Or at least sort of a rabbit. And sort of a girl. The rogue is a klutz, and a not very bright klutz at that. Of the two wizards, neither is exactly the leader of the Light. One fancies himself a budding Dark Lord, and the other is as grey as grey can get – except for her hair, because the natural color of that has been hiding behind magic for decades at the very least.

The dangers they face are life threatening and never ending. But there’s no farm boy in sight. Oh, there was a farm boy all right, but he gets chosen for death relatively early in the story. The real “Chosen One” is the trusty steed, but he’s neither trusty nor exactly a steed. And he likes to eat boots.

If the tongue was any further in the cheek, it would poke out the other side.

Escape Rating C+:Some of the reviewers make the comparison between Kill the Farm Boy and the Discworld. If that comparison holds at all, it’s only between Kill the Farm Boy and the first two Discworld titles, The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic, where Sir Terry was merely skewering the genre and not exactly plotting a story. And where he clearly had no clue yet that he was at the beginning of something that needed a real plot, sympathetic characters and at least a bit of internal consistency to wrap around that skewer.

While I love the work of both of this book’s authors, Delilah Dawson for the Blud series and Kevin Hearne for the Iron Druid Chronicles, this collaboration does not live up to either of their previous work, nor to any of the many antecedents I mentioned at the beginning of this review.

And that’s a real pity, because Kill the Farm Boy had so much promise. And it does have its funny moments. But in the end it doesn’t deliver – even though it’s obvious that the co-authors had tons of fun in the process of writing this.

The snark is too thick and the plot is too thin. It reminds me of the lesson that Mike the computer learns in Robert A. Heinlein’s marvelous The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Mike is trying to teach himself humor, and his human friend introduces him to the difference between “funny once” and “funny always”. Kill the Farm Boy attempts to be “funny always” by keeping up a nonstop torrent of snark and in-jokes.

And those are almost always “funny once”.

But we’ll be back in Pell for No Country for Old Gnomes. It took Sir Terry until at least Mort (Discworld #4) for that series to really get its legs under it. Maybe The Tales of Pell will manage to get there a little sooner. We’ll see.

Review: Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer

Review: Hope Never Dies by Andrew ShafferHope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Pages: 304
Published by Quirk Books on July 10, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

This mystery thriller reunites Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama for a political mashup full of suspense, intrigue, and laugh out loud bromance.

Vice President Joe Biden is fresh out of the Obama White House and feeling adrift when his favorite railroad conductor dies in a suspicious accident, leaving behind an ailing wife and a trail of clues. To unravel the mystery, “Amtrak Joe” re-teams with the only man he’s ever fully trusted—the 44th president of the United States. Together they’ll plumb the darkest corners of Delaware, traveling from cheap motels to biker bars and beyond, as they uncover the sinister forces advancing America’s opioid epidemic.

Part noir thriller and part bromance novel, Hope Never Dies is essentially the first published work of Obama/Biden fanfiction—and a cathartic read for anyone distressed by the current state of affairs.

My Review:

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

While I will not judge this book by its cover, I will say that I absolutely did pick this book up for its cover. Which I absolutely could not believe when I saw it, and couldn’t resist once I read the blurb.

Which is completely insane – but all too hilarious – both at the same time.

There is no doubt that this is a terrific piece of what is called “real person fanfic”, which is a thing in fanfiction circles. While fanfiction is usually written about fictional characters, no matter the source, just as there is fanfiction about movie and TV characters there is also fanfiction about the actors who play those characters. When it’s romance fanfic, that can seem a bit creepy and/or stalkerish and is frowned upon in some circles.

One thing that is common in fanfiction in general is the way that the stories often go places that the creator of the original work never intended, and generally the further afield those places are the more it adds to the fun.

This is the kind of story where you don’t so much willingly suspend your disbelief as throw it out the window of a speeding muscle car, like oh, say, the Trans Am that Joe and Barack end up powering through the streets of Wilmington Delaware in the course of this case.

Because this piece of real person fanfiction is a noir-ish murder mystery. And a fairly complicated one – with comic relief provided by this extremely amateur pair of occasionally bumbling wannabe detectives.

Admittedly “Amtrak Joe” Biden does most of the bumbling, while Barack Obama provides even more “cool” than he displays in real life.

The scene of Obama rescuing Biden from a motorcycle gang by casually firing a sawed-off shotgun while lying about Seal Team 6 waiting in the wings was absolutely priceless.

There is a mystery at the heart of this wild and crazy road novel, and it’s all about a good man gone wrong and a bad man hiding in plain sight finally brought low by a couple of past and possibly future politicians who are searching for a third act in their lives.

And who discover that their enduring friendship is the greatest gift of all.

Escape Rating B-: As mysteries go, this is no Murder on the Orient Express or even The Word is Murder. The red herrings are plenty tasty, but our amateur detectives do fumble and bumble a lot, even more than Inspector Clouseau.

And I can’t deny that the whole effort has a very strong whiff of the bear dancing, in that you are not surprised that it is done well, you are surprised that it is done AT ALL.

But it is done considerably better than the outrageous premise might lead one to believe.

What makes the mystery part of this work is that we see this fictional version of Joe Biden as an essentially honest man who wants to see justice done for a good friend – and who admittedly is uncertain where he goes next in his life.

His dilemma about what happens after you’ve been to the top, or at least to your own personal top, is pretty easy to identify with. We all get there sooner or later.

What makes the story work, and makes the reader willing to go along for the ride, is the combination of the sometimes over-the-top but occasionally spot on banter between Obama and Biden, and the first-person perspective of the story through fictional Joe Biden’s eyes.

If you are looking for an antidote to the political insanity in every newspaper and on every newscast, Hope Never Dies is a somewhat rueful, slightly nostalgic, always engaging treat.

Review: Between You and Me by Susan Wiggs

Review: Between You and Me by Susan WiggsBetween You and Me by Susan Wiggs
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow on June 26, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Deep within the peaceful heart of Amish country, a life-or-death emergency shatters a quiet world to its core. Number-one New York Times bestselling author Susan Wiggs delivers a riveting story that challenges our deepest-held beliefs.

Caught between two worlds, Caleb Stoltz is bound by a deathbed promise to raise his orphaned niece and nephew in Middle Grove, where life revolves around family, farm, faith—and long-held suspicions about outsiders. When disaster strikes, Caleb is thrust into an urban environment of high-tech medicine and the relentless rush of modern life.

Dr. Reese Powell is poised to join the medical dynasty of her wealthy, successful parents. Bold, assertive, and quick-thinking, she lives for the addictive rush of saving lives. When a shocking accident brings Caleb Stoltz into her life, Reese is forced to deal with a situation that challenges everything she thinks she knows—and ultimately emboldens her to question her most powerful beliefs.

Then one impulsive act brings about a clash of cultures in a tug-of-war that plays out in a courtroom, challenging the very nature of justice and reverberating through generations, straining the fragile threads of faith and family.

Deeply moving and unforgettable, Between You and Me is an emotionally complex story of love and loss, family and friendship, and the arduous road to discovering the heart’s true path.

My Review:

Between You and Me is not quite what I was expecting. Much in the same way that neither Reese Powell’s nor Caleb Stoltz’ lives turn out quite the way that they – or anyone around them – expected.

The unexpected can turn out to be wonderful.

Reese Powell and Caleb Stoltz don’t seem to have much in common, at least not on the surface, and they certainly live lives that should never have intersected. But life is funny that way, and sometimes we meet the people we really need to when we really need them.

Even if, or especially because, they challenge us and everything we thought we believed. The best laid plans of mice, men and especially parents go oft astray.

Caleb’s nephew is injured in a tragic accident, and his tiny Amish farming community does not have the resources needed to keep the boy from bleeding out. His nearly severed arm is a lost cause, but the boy’s life isn’t – at least not yet. When the life flight helicopter comes to take Jonah Stoltz from Middle Grove to Philadelphia, Caleb rides along.

His first ride in a helicopter, something that he has always longed to do.

While Caleb may be Amish, his heart has always yearned for the wider world. When he went on his rumspringa, his version of going wild was to attend college. He had no plans to return to Middle Grove and his abusive father.

But when his older brother and sister-in-law were murdered, Caleb took up his duty and returned to care for his niece and nephew. Not just because he made a promise to his brother as he lay dying, but to prevent his father from abusing the two children who would otherwise be left in his care.

Jonah’s tragic accident gives Caleb a tiny, tempting chance to break away from his life for a brief moment, and in his care for the boy he lets himself take it.

Reese Powell is a fourth-year resident at the hospital where Jonah is taken. She’s part of the trauma team that preps the boy for surgery. And something in her heart reaches out to the boy whose life has just irrevocably changed, and to the lost, lonely man who is truly a stranger in a strange land in the urban setting.

Just as Caleb takes this brief opportunity to break free of the life he is expected to lead, in her friendship with him Reese discovers an opportunity to examine what she wants for herself, and to break free of the heavy weight of her parents’ expectation.

They expect her to become a pediatric surgeon so that she can become a partner in their high powered and highly successful OB/GYN IVF practice. A practice that produced Reese herself. But what they want for her is not what she wants for herself. Not that Reese does not want to be a doctor, but that she wants to be a different kind of doctor than her parents, or than her parents have planned for her to be.

And even though their attempts at any relationship beyond friendship seem doomed to failure, that they try gives both of them the courage to discover what they are truly searching for in life.

It might even lead them back to each other.

Escape Rating A+: Upon reflection, I don’t think that the blurb matches the book all that much, except for its final paragraph. Between You and Me is deeply moving and unforgettable, and it is an emotionally complex story of love, loss, family, friendship and just how difficult it can be to find your own true path and the people who you need to have walking that path beside you.

But this isn’t a story about faith, except possibly faith in oneself. It also is not a story about beliefs, at least not in the religious sense that feels implied in the blurb. Instead, it feels a story about the intersection of duty and commitment, about the weight of promises made and the guilt of promises broken. And how sometimes it’s necessary to break the literal meaning of a promise in order to keep the spirit of it.

Caleb is Amish, but he has never been baptised in the faith. In other words, he has always had plenty of doubts, and those doubts have kept him from becoming a full member of the community. He promised his brother that he would raise his children in Middle Grove, but he did not promise to make any religious commitments of his own to the community.

Caleb has always had a foot in both camps. He lives in Middle Grove, but he works for the English in nearby Grantham Park, as the lead horse trainer for the Budweiser Clydesdales as well as other big, beautiful horses. And he does accounting on the side.

Much of the clash of cultures in the story is about the clash within Caleb’s heart. He wants to leave. He’s always wanted to leave. A big part of this story comprises the circumstances that finally make him realize that he needs to leave, both for his niece and nephew’s sake and for his own.

It’s often a hard choice, and it’s one that we see Caleb struggle with every step of the way.

Reese’s problem often seem much easier, but that doesn’t mean that her difficulties aren’t real or that we don’t feel for her as well. Because we do.

There is a romance at the heart of Between You and Me, but this is not a romance in the genre sense. The story here revolves around Caleb’s and Reese’s separate journeys to find themselves and the truth of their own hearts – not in the romantic sense but in the finding true purpose sense.

The happy ending is their reward for taking the difficult path. And it’s the reader’s reward for following them on their journey.

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