Review: When the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera Lewis

Review: When the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera LewisWhen the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera Lewis
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 240
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 2, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Marjorie Herrera Lewis’s debut historical novel the inspiring true story of high school teacher Tylene Wilson—a woman who surprises everyone as she breaks with tradition to become the first high school football coach in Texas—comes to life.

"A wonderfully touching and beautiful story…Tylene makes me laugh, cry, and cheer for her in ways I have not done in a long time.”—Diane Les Bocquets, bestselling author of Breaking Wild  

It's a man's game, until now...Football is the heartbeat of Brownwood, Texas. Every Friday night for as long as assistant principal Tylene Wilson can remember, the entire town has gathered in the stands, cheering their boys on. Each September brings with it the hope of a good season and a sense of unity and optimism.

Now, the war has changed everything.  Most of the Brownwood men over 18 and under 45 are off fighting, and in a small town the possibilities are limited. Could this mean a season without football? But no one counted on Tylene, who learned the game at her daddy’s knee. She knows more about it than most men, so she does the unthinkable, convincing the school to let her take on the job of coach.

Faced with extreme opposition—by the press, the community, rival coaches, and referees and even the players themselves—Tylene remains resolute. And when her boys rally around her, she leads the team—and the town—to a Friday night and a subsequent season they will never forget.           

Based on a true story, When the Men Were Gone is a powerful and vibrant novel of perseverance and personal courage.

My Review:

This is an absolute awesome story – and it is all the better for being based on a true one. It also has a surprising amount of resonance. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Tylene Wilson was a real person. She really did coach men’s football in Brownwood Texas during World War II, as the title says, when all the men were gone. One of the differences between the fictional Tylene and the factual Tylene was that the real Tylene coached college football, not high school.

But, as has so often happened, the real Tylene’s achievements, like so many women’s achievements, has been lost to history – and that’s in the spite of the fact that WW2 is still in living memory – albeit for a decreasing number of people. The author of this book was inspired by the case of a real, 21st century woman who is following in Tylene’s fading footsteps, coaching men’s college football.

Without nearly enough historical documentation, the author was forced to fictionalize Tylene’s achievement – and the struggles that she went through to achieve it. The fictionalized version of her story is compelling AND has plenty of resonance with today.

Tylene knows football. And she knows it really, really well. Her dad taught her, both how to play and how to analyze plays. Not because he had a not-to-secret yearning for a son, but because Tylene had rickets as a child. The cure for rickets is Vitamin D, most easily found in good old sunshine.

Girls didn’t play a lot outside, even in small-town Texas, in the early 20th century. But boys certainly did. So Dad learning football and baseball and any other sport or activity that would make his little girl eager to get out into the sunshine – and get well and stay well. It worked.

And it gave Tylene a lifelong love of the sport.

World War II was a period when all the young men went to war – and all the young women went into the factories. I have my parents’ high school annuals from that period, and the teachers all had, as the saying went at the time, “one foot in the grave and the other one on a banana peel”. There were no young teachers. It is easy to imagine that in a small town like Brownwood, there were no young men, period, who were not either medically ineligible (and therefore would have been medically ineligible to have played football) or had served and been invalided out.

There do seem to be plenty of older men. But just because someone can “Monday Morning Quarterback” with the best of them doesn’t mean that they have any of the actual knowledge required to coach a real team, even a high school team. The lack of real knowledge may stop them from volunteering to coach or being qualified to do so. Of course it does not stop them from complaining that a woman can’t possibly know enough to coach – even if she does.

Her situation feels real – only because it was. What adds to the poignancy is that this story takes place in the fall of 1944. She wouldn’t have known it the time, but her desire to keep the high school football program going for one more year would save the lives of those boys who would have enlisted instead of hanging around tiny Brownwood. She just wanted to give them one more year of adolescence before they went to war. She probably saved their lives.

But the forces arrayed against her, while couched in the even more overt misogyny of the mid-century, sound all too similar to the voices that every 21st century woman has heard in her life about why women are unsuited to this, that, or the other thing because whatever it is is supposed to be the province of men.

All those men sound shrill and frightened and very, very real. And they haven’t changed a bit in all the years since.

Escape Rating A-: This was an incredible book – and a very fast read. This is also one of those times when I wish there had been just a bit more of the story. While it does end on a paradoxically high note, I wanted more. At least an epilog where we get to find out how the season went and witness the announcement of the end of the war and the impact on the school, students and town. (Yes, I know it’s fiction. I still wanted more closure.)

Which does not mean that I did not enjoy the book, because I certainly did. And the ending, while it felt a bit premature, was definitely at a high point. Not because her team won the game, but because she won the team – and, it seemed, the town.

But it’s the chorus of naysayers that stick with me, because it all sounded so damn familiar.

Tylene faced endless amounts of sexual harassment – from every side – all the time. The opposing coach for her team’s season opening game was ready to forfeit. He was convinced that it would be less embarrassing for his team to forfeit the game and take a loss than it would have been to play the game and win in a rout. He never considered that it would be a fair and close game, win or lose. He couldn’t believe that a woman could possibly coach that well, or that a team would support a woman coach that well.

While her husband was supportive, he was also very, very shaken. There were points when the negativity and the pressure were so intense that he also wanted her to give in and give up. His best friend and the mainstay of his business refused to do business with him after Tylene became the coach. The school board held a special meeting to remove her from the job – and no one in town told her about the meeting in advance.

And any woman who does not hear the echoes of those scared, shrill male voices rising against Tylene shouting in today’s news hasn’t been paying attention. That kept me riveted to the book from beginning to end – and haunts me still.

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee

Review: Astounding by Alec Nevala-LeeAstounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, history, science fiction
Pages: 544
Published by Dey Street Books on October 23, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

“[Astounding] is a major work of popular culture scholarship that science fiction fans will devour.” — Publishers Weekly

"Alec Nevala-Lee has brilliantly recreated the era. . . . A remarkable work of literary history." — Robert Silverberg

"Science fiction has been awaiting this history/biography for more than half a century. . . . Here it is. This is the most important historical and critical work my field has ever seen. Alec Nevala-Lee’s superb scholarship and insight have made the seemingly impossible a radiant and irreplaceable gift."—Barry N. Malzberg, author of Beyond Apollo

Astounding is the landmark account of the extraordinary partnership between four controversial writers—John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard—who set off a revolution in science fiction and forever changed our world. 

This remarkable cultural narrative centers on the figure of John W. Campbell, Jr., whom Asimov called “the most powerful force in science fiction ever.” Campbell, who has never been the subject of a biography until now, was both a visionary author—he wrote the story that was later filmed as The Thing—and the editor of the groundbreaking magazine best known as Astounding Science Fiction, in which he discovered countless legendary writers and published classic works ranging from the I, Robot series to Dune. Over a period of more than thirty years, from the rise of the pulps to the debut of Star Trek, he dominated the genre, and his three closest collaborators reached unimaginable heights. Asimov became the most prolific author in American history; Heinlein emerged as the leading science fiction writer of his generation with the novels Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land; and Hubbard achieved lasting fame—and infamy—as the founder of the Church of Scientology. 

Drawing on unexplored archives, thousands of unpublished letters, and dozens of interviews, Alec Nevala-Lee offers a riveting portrait of this circle of authors, their work, and their tumultuous private lives. With unprecedented scope, drama, and detail, Astounding describes how fan culture was born in the depths of the Great Depression; follows these four friends and rivals through World War II and the dawn of the atomic era; and honors such exceptional women as Doña Campbell and Leslyn Heinlein, whose pivotal roles in the history of the genre have gone largely unacknowledged. For the first time, it reveals the startling extent of Campbell’s influence on the ideas that evolved into Scientology, which prompted Asimov to observe: “I knew Campbell and I knew Hubbard, and no movement can have two Messiahs.” It looks unsparingly at the tragic final act that estranged the others from Campbell, bringing the golden age of science fiction to a close, and it illuminates how their complicated legacy continues to shape the imaginations of millions and our vision of the future itself.

My Review:

Vintage Astounding from 1937

They were the men who sold the moon – as well as the rest of the universe. Together they were the Golden Age of science fiction – in some ways both the quip that says that the golden age of SF is 12 and in the historical sense.

John W. Campbell, Jr. was the editor of what became the premiere outlet for science fiction writing during its and his heyday, from 1937 through 1946. Back in the days before SF became mainstream, the pulps were all there were, and Campbell’s Astounding was the top of the pulps as far as SF was concerned.

That golden age was when he found, mentored, developed or at least published two writers who became synonymous with SF, Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, and the one who nearly broke it, L. Ron Hubbard.

While Astounding and Campbell both went on after 1946 – Astounding exists today as Analog – and all three writers’ careers flourished in their very different trajectories after that period, SF as we know it today was significantly influenced by them and/or their writing, and they, in turn, were significantly influenced by Campbell’s editorial direction. And in one significant case, vice-versa.

Together, they made the genre as we now know it. And the children who grew up reading science fiction, their particular brand of science fiction, changed the world.

Reality Rating A: First things first, this is surprisingly readable. There’s a lot of information packed in here, and it flows fairly smoothly from one page into the next. I was surprised at how completely I was drawn in and held over a very long flight. I expected to bounce in and out, and I just didn’t.

(That the book is only about ⅔ as long as it appears to be is probably a help. The final ⅓ consists of extensive notes. It is blissfully not necessary to flip back and forth between the text and the notes in order to get the story or the context. The author certainly did his homework, but it’s not required that one read it for the book to make sense.)

Campbell in 1965

While Heinlein, Asimov and Hubbard have all been written about before, and in depth, Campbell really hasn’t. And certainly should have been. For the period when Astounding was at the top of the pulps, and for some time beyond, Campbell wasn’t just the editor of a magazine – he WAS science fiction in a way that just isn’t possible now that SF has gone mainstream. His role hasn’t been recognized, possibly because there is no real equivalent today.

This multi-biography attempts to set all four men in their time as well as their relationships to each other. And while on the one hand it feels both loving and respectful, on the other it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the darker side of all four – even though much of what we now consider that dark side generally passed social muster at the time it happened.

The book does a good job of giving context for why much of what we would consider bad behavior occurred, without ever minimizing it or apologizing for it. I’m thinking particularly of Asimov’s well-known propensity for pinching women’s bottoms and other places without their consent or even seeming to acknowledge that he needed their consent. That all the women in his various editors’ and publishers’ offices literally cleared the building whenever he had an appointment seems to be a message he just never got – and certainly should have.

All of them except Asimov seemed to have drunk to considerable excess. Towards the end of their lives both Campbell and Heinlein crossed the line from conservative to reactionary. None of them gave the credit to any of their wives that was certainly due.

Campbell’s racism undoubtedly affected his gatekeeping of the genre throughout his tenure at Astounding, and is in at least some part responsible for the whiteness of SF through his era and beyond. When some 21st century fans cry out for a “Campbellian Revolution” this is part and parcel of what they are looking back to and wanting to recreate.

And everyone was way more involved in the beginning of Scientology than seems to be widely known. Only Asimov steered clear, and even he got stuck arguing with Campbell about it on multiple occasions.

But we certainly see the hand of Campbell in the underpinnings of Hubbard’s Scientology – and we see a number of promising careers get sidetracked by it. Hubbard’s most of all.

These men were the giants upon whose shoulders the genre now stands, whether their influence was mostly positive, or in Hubbard’s case mostly negative. The author does a deft job of giving them their rightful place in SF history while showing that they all had feet of clay up to the knees. If not higher.

In the end, this is a fascinating study of a group of men who made this most popular genre what it became. And it’s a great read from beginning to end.

Joint Review: Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Joint Review: Exit Strategy by Martha WellsExit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries, #4) by Martha Wells
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Murderbot Diaries #4
Pages: 172
Published by Tor.com on October 2, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Murderbot wasn't programmed to care. So, its decision to help the only human who ever showed it respect must be a system glitch, right?

Having traveled the width of the galaxy to unearth details of its own murderous transgressions, as well as those of the GrayCris Corporation, Murderbot is heading home to help Dr. Mensah — its former owner (protector? friend?) — submit evidence that could prevent GrayCris from destroying more colonists in its never-ending quest for profit.

But who's going to believe a SecUnit gone rogue?

And what will become of it when it's caught?

Our Review:

Marlene: Kind of an ironic title, this. Murderbot really doesn’t have one. An exit strategy, that is. Not for the immediate problem, and not for the overall problem. It is fun and surprisingly heartbreaking watching it try. I say surprising because, after all, Murderbot itself would decry, loudly and often, the concept that it has a heart in anything other than the biological sense – if it actually has one of those. Come to think of it, I’m not completely sure. It does have organic parts, I’m just not sure if it has that part in particular.

Galen: One of the problems with those organic parts is that they sometimes get in the way of certain things that Murderbot would like to do… like fully delete memories it doesn’t wish to carry but nonetheless help to push Murderbot (and the plot) forward. It is fitting that by the end of Exit Strategy, Murderbot finds itself reconstructing its memories… and ending up with, for the first time, a free choice.

Exit Strategy picks off right where Rogue Protocol left off, with Murderbot knowing exactly what GrayCris was up to. The problem? Dr. Mensah needs to be rescued… and GrayGris is gunning for Murderbot.

Marlene: Exit Strategy, along with Murderbot’s lack of an exit strategy, has an “out of the frying pan into the fire” aspect. Or perhaps that should be the “perils of Pauline” with Murderbot substituting for Pauline. It seems to be endlessly in trouble in this one – possibly as part of its own messed-up reactions. It feels a need to help Dr. Mensah, and it doesn’t want to, both at the same time.

Well, really, it does, but it is having endless difficulties admitting why it wants to. There’s certainly a sense that it feels the need to right the wrong that it has inadvertently caused through its actions in Rogue Protocol. It went to investigate GrayCris, at least in part because it wanted to help Dr. Mensah against them. What it didn’t count on was that GrayCris would interpret its self-willed mission as yet another attempt by Dr. Mensah to get to the bottom of whatever crap they seem to be pulling – and that GrayCris would react accordingly. Well, accordingly for an evil corporation at any rate.

Galen: What GrayCris didn’t count on is that Murderbot’s quest changed it. As much as Murderbot likes to talk about retreating to its bad space soap opera media, it spends the entire series of novellas learning and growing. Concretely, this means that by the end of Exit Strategy, Murderbot has taken down opponents that a stock SecUnit has no business even tangling with. While this means that the action in the novella is satisfyingly complicated, Murderbot’s increased capability as a SeUnit is secondary to its growth as an individual. To be clear, not in the Pinocchio-becoming-a-real-boy sense that many stories about artificial constructs and androids follow, as this passage demonstrates:

“I don’t want to be human.”
Dr. Mensah said, “That’s not an attitude a lot of humans are going to understand. We tend to think that because a bot or a construct looks human, its ultimate goal would be to become human.”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Rather, the sequence of four novellas chronicle’s Murderbot’s growth as a being able to make its own choices, including choosing who to associate with.

Marlene: In the end, that is what is so fascinating about Murderbot – not that its line of snark doesn’t have plenty of charms of its own. Throughout Exit Strategy, Murderbot keeps making choices – and those choices increase in complexity and, for lack of a better word, selfishness. Not that it does things that benefit itself – because the ultimate selfish act would be to freighter-hop while playing its melodramas for the rest of its existence. But its actions have become acts of selfhood and self-determination, even if that determination is to sacrifice itself so that the others can escape.

What it does not reckon on is that those others see it as a person in its own right, just as it sees them. And that its ability to grow, adapt, change, try, fail, succeed and ultimately hope is emblematic of its journey to selfhood. A selfhood that is explicitly not humanity. It is on its way to becoming a real person, but not, as Data once aspired to be, a real boy.

And in its confusion of what all that means, we empathize with it, even as it refuses to become one of us, but still manages to become one of itself.

While its growth is far from complete at the end of Exit Strategy, it has reached a point where it has grown enough to begun to acknowledge its own contradictions and confusions, just like the rest of us. And it wraps up the loose ends of this part of the story, the one that began in All Systems Red.

But I’ve just heard a rumor that Murderbot will have a full-length novel coming out in 2020. YAY! Hopefully it will come in time to read on the long plane ride to WorldCon in New Zealand.

Galen: Yay indeed! Which leads me to…

Galen’s Escape Rating A: This is a fitting conclusion to the sequence of four novellas; while it wraps up the central mysteries set up in All Systems Red, there is clearly a lot more we could learn about the setting that Wells has made… and I hope to learn that through Murderbot’s eyes.

Marlene’s Escape Rating A: This is indeed a fitting conclusion to this sequence, while still leaving plenty of open threads that can be picked up in that much anticipated full-length novel. The story as we have it is Murderbot’s journey, in the sense that this is its own story. As the story of a machine being rather than a flesh creature, it is fascinating to see the way that the author has given Murderbot selfhood without falling into any of the traps of either it wanting to be human or of it, heaven forbid, falling in love. Instead, it seems to be reaching for friendship and companionship, and most of all, acceptance. Learning to accept itself as it is will be its biggest challenge – one that it is more than up to.

I hope we get to find out how it manages.

Review: The Secrets We Carried by Mary McNear

Review: The Secrets We Carried by Mary McNearThe Secrets We Carried (Butternut Lake, #6) by Mary McNear
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary fiction, women's fiction
Series: Butternut Lake #6
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on September 25, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Readers who love Susan Wiggs and Susan Mallery will adore New York Times bestselling author Mary McNear newest novel. A young woman travels home to Butternut Lake, confronting her past and the tragedy she and her friends have silently carried with them for over a decade while also facing an unknown future.

Butternut Lake is an idyllic place—but for one woman, her return to the lake town she once called home is bittersweet…

Sometimes life changes in an instant. 

Quinn LaPointe grew up on beautiful Butternut Lake, safe, secure, sure of her future. But after a high school tragedy, she left for college and never looked back. Becoming a successful writer in Chicago, she worked to keep out the dark memories of an accident that upended her life. But now, after ten years, she’s finally returned home.

Butternut is the same, and yet everything is changed. Gabriel Shipp, once her very best friend, doesn’t want anything to do with her. The charming guy she remembers is now brooding and withdrawn. Tanner Lightman, the seductive brother of her late boyfriend, wants her to stick around. Annika Bergstrom, an old classmate who once hated Quinn, is now friendly. Everyone, it seems, has a secret.

Determined to come to terms with the tragedy and rebuild old relationships, Quinn settles into Loon Bay Cabins, a rustic but cozy lakeside resort, where she begins writing down her memories of the year before the accident. Her journey though the past leads her to some surprising discoveries about the present. As secrets are revealed and a new love emerges, Quinn finds that understanding the past is the key to the future. 

My Review:

In my reviews of previous books in the Butternut Lake series I have said that Butternut Lake should be renamed “Second Chance Lake” because those stories have featured a second chance at love for the hero, the heroine, or both.

The Secrets We Carried does not follow the pattern of the previous books, and there’s nothing to keep a reader from starting here and deciding if you like the place and want to go back. I definitely like the place. A lot.

But this story is still about second chances. In the end, there’s even a second chance at love – but that is not the kind of second chance that is the centerpiece of this particular story.

This one is about a second chance at life. And it’s about finally forgiving yourself so that you have a chance at grabbing that second chance.

Because that’s what Quinn LaPointe needs to do. And that’s why she’s come back to Butternut Lake, the place she grew up, ten years after the tragic accident that overtook her senior year in high school. A tragic accident that she has never fully dealt with – or completely healed from. An accident that she feels at least partially responsible for.

But she’s not the only person carrying that particular secret. And she’s not the only person who has not been able to move her life past that terrible fixed point in time.

In her life post-Butternut Lake, she has kept moving forward, but she hasn’t moved on. An anonymous invitation to the dedication of a memorial to the accident, and the three young men who needlessly, recklessly, stupidly died in it, gives her the chance to take herself back to the place she once called home.

And gives her the opportunity that she needs. A chance to finally remember, an opportunity to hopefully understand, and above all, both the proximity and the distance that she needs to finally forgive herself.

Quinn needs to let go of her past, so that she can finally claim her future.

Escape Rating A: I wasn’t in the mood for a romance, and that turned out to be an excellent thing. In spite of the way that the blurb reads, and contrary to the previous books in this series, The Secrets We Carried is not a romance.

Instead, this book is more of a character study, crossed with more than a bit of “women’s fiction”. In other words, if a man had written this story, it would just be labeled “fiction”.

I digress – but mostly because I just finished this book and I’m still reeling a bit. This was absolutely marvelous – especially because it wasn’t what I expected. It went a whole lot deeper than that.

Quinn’s high school career ended in tragedy. Her boyfriend and his two best friends drowned in Butternut Lake under the stupidest of circumstances. Jake Lightman was drunk and so were his buddies. Jake drove his truck out onto the frozen surface of Butternut Lake one night in the late spring and just sat there, in the truck, until the ice gave way and the three young men drowned.

Quinn blames herself. She broke up with Jake that night because she caught him lying to her, and not for the first time. She believes that he drank so heavily because of their breakup, and that he was out in the middle of the lake because she told him that’s where she lost the promise ring he gave her.

So Quinn comes to Butternut Lake for the dedication of the memorial to his death, and the deaths of his friends.

But Quinn isn’t the only person who has spent the past ten years heaping blame on herself for the events of that long ago night. Or rather, a night that should be long ago but seems to be ever-present as Quinn decides to stay in Butternut Lake and finally process the events of that night by writing all of her memories.

As part of her “memory writing” she touches base with not just the events but also the people who were part of that time, and who, it turns out, also have not been able to let things go. The deeper Quinn digs, the more she discovers that there is plenty of guilt to go around.

And like so many burdens, once that guilt is shared, once all of the people who touched and were touched by those events lays out the part that they each feel they played that night, they reach, tentatively and together, for a truth that was hidden by the secrets they all carried. A burden shared is a burden halved. A burden shared by as many people as have a share in this one lightens their load, and their lives, to the point where they can put the past behind them. Forgive themselves but never forget.

This is a beautiful story where the only way forward is through. Everyone holds back and everyone hides pieces of themselves that have come to hurt to much to be revealed. Quinn’s need to get it all out there, at least in her own mind, conflicts deeply and realistically with her desire to bury it all as deeply as possible.

The ending, when Quinn finally reaches it, goes all the way back to the beginning. And it sets her free.

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: A Forgotten Place by Charles Todd

Review: A Forgotten Place by Charles ToddA Forgotten Place (Bess Crawford, #10) by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Bess Crawford #10
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow on September 18, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Though the Great War has ended, Bess Crawford finds herself caught in deadly circumstances on a remote Welsh headland in this tenth entry from the acclaimed New York Times bestselling author.

The fighting has ended, the Armistice signed, but the war has left wounds that are still agonizingly raw. Battlefield Nurse Bess Crawford has been assigned to a clinic for amputees, and the Welsh patients worry her. She does her best to help them, but it’s clear that they have nothing to go home to, in a valley where only the fit can work in the coal pits. When they are released, she fears that peace will do what war couldn’t—take their lives.

Their officer, Captain Williams, writes to describe their despair, and his own at trying to save his men. Bess feels compelled to look into their situation, but the Army and the clinic can do nothing. Requesting leave, she quietly travels to Wales, and that bleak coal mining village, but she is too late.

Captain Williams’ sister tells Bess he has left the valley. Bess is afraid he intends to kill himself. She follows him to an isolated, storm-battered peninsula—a harsh and forgotten place where secrets and death go hand in hand. Deserted by her frightened driver, Bess is stranded among strangers suspicious of outsiders. She quickly discovers these villagers are hiding something, and she’s learned too much to be allowed to leave. What’s more, no one in England knows where she is.

Why is there no Constable out here? And who is the mysterious Ellen? Captain Williams and his brother’s widow are her only allies, and Bess must take care not to put them at risk as she tries to find answers. But there is a murderer here who is driven to kill again and again. And the next person in his sights is Simon Brandon, searching for Bess and unaware of his danger. . . .

My Review:

This tenth story in the Bess Crawford series takes place in December 1918. The war is over, but the peace hasn’t really begun. The fighting officially ended at 11:11 am on November 11, 1918 with the signing of the Armistice. This is the day we now celebrate as Veterans Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in the U.K and the Commonwealth.

Bess Crawford served as a combat nurse during the war. Her service has not yet ended. While a significant part of a generation died on the battlefields, there were also many who came home missing significant pieces of themselves, and not all of those missing pieces were physical.

The war changed all who were a part of it, including Bess herself. Today we might say that she had post-traumatic stress disorder – along with many of the now ex-soldiers.

With the end of the war, the field hospitals are closing down, and the base hospitals are shrinking by the day. All the able-bodied are sent home – to a country that does not have nearly enough jobs for all of them.

Those who are still in hospital are the ones more severely wounded, still recovering as best as the medical science of the time permitted, from the loss of limbs or disfiguring wounds or both.

That’s where Bess comes in, as she becomes involved with a Welsh regiment that was wounded during the last of the fighting. A regiment formed in the coal counties of Wales, where every able-bodied man works in the mines. But the men under her care are no longer able-bodied, missing at least one limb if not more. They are alive, but have no lives to return to.

In the valleys, the only work is in the mines, and it is work they are no longer physically able to perform. They will be burdens to their families – if those families are willing to take them back. Bess does her best to help them prepare both mentally and physically for what is in front of them, but she is worried, and rightfully so, that any preparation is in vain.

So she takes it into her own hands (as she has so often during the course of the series) to follow up with this group of soldiers that has touched her heart and ignited her fears of what will happen to those irrevocably changed by the war after their war is over.

And finds herself stranded, alone and without allies, isolated in a remote Welsh village and caught between a horrifying secret and escalating evil.

All she can do is try to survive, until help comes. If that help can find her in time.

Escape Rating B: The second half of this story is a taut thriller, but the first half moves slowly, as time seems to do out in the remote Welsh villages on the Gower Peninsula.

Once Bess decides to check up on Captain Williams and his regiment, she finds herself traveling laboriously and ponderously from one tiny and remote place to the next. Once she catches up to him, she has discovered that he is the final survivor of his regiment.

That he and his men had sacrificed themselves for their country – but their country had nothing for them now that the war was over, is heartbreaking. But the trouble that finds Bess is not related to any war service – or at least not exactly.

There is a terrible secret hidden in this remote village. A secret that has caused the villagers to close ranks against any outsiders. There is no access to the place except by an uncertain arrangement for hire cars from not-so-nearby Swansea. There is no post office, no telephone exchange, no constable, no doctor. No one from the outside seems to be permitted. Captain Williams, helping his sister-in-law with her farm, is resented and reviled at every turn. Bess faces intense hostility from the second she arrives.

The atmosphere of this particular story will remind series readers of an earlier story, A Pattern of Lies. There is both that same sense of human nature twisted and corrupted, and the same atmosphere of almost Gothic horror.

Bess’ forced sojourn in this tiny place with its close-mouthed and close-minded inhabitants all hunkered around the protection of their dark secret drags on a bit for the reader, possibly in sympathy with Bess and her enforced vacation from her vocation. She does her best to be of use in the household that has been forced to guest her, but it isn’t easy for her and this part of the story isn’t easy for the reader.

Things speed up, as they often do in this series, when Simon Brandon arrives to spring Bess from the trap she has gotten herself stuck in. But also as often happens in the series, Bess refuses to leave until she has solved all of the riddles – even the ones that no one wants solved.

This series has followed the progress of the war, through Bess’ perspective as a combat nurse. Part of what we see in this particular story has a great deal to do with the way that the veterans of the trenches were treated after the war ended – which was mostly abominable. I also find myself wondering whether some of Bess’ concern about the fate of this regiment now that the war was over would have reflected her own unconscious concerns about what happens to her after her war is over – as it nearly is.

As much as I don’t want this series to end, I can’t help but wonder what Bess’ post-war life will be. I hope that we get to find out.

Review: Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds by Brandon Sanderson

Review: Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds by Brandon SandersonLegion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds (Legion, #1-3) by Brandon Sanderson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Legion #1-3
Pages: 400
Published by Tor Books on September 18, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Stephen Leeds is perfectly sane. It’s his hallucinations who are mad.

A genius of unrivaled aptitude, Stephen can learn any new skill, vocation, or art in a matter of hours. However, to contain all of this, his mind creates hallucinatory people—Stephen calls them aspects—to hold and manifest the information. Wherever he goes, he is joined by a team of imaginary experts to give advice, interpretation, and explanation. He uses them to solve problems… for a price.

Stephen’s brain is getting a little crowded and the aspects have a tendency of taking on lives of their own. When a company hires him to recover stolen property—a camera that can allegedly take pictures of the past—Stephen finds himself in an adventure crossing oceans and fighting terrorists. What he discovers may upend the foundation of three major world religions—and, perhaps, give him a vital clue into the true nature of his aspects.

This fall, Tor Books will publish Brandon Sanderson’s Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds. The collection will include the science fiction novellas Legion and Legion: Skin Deep, published together for the first time, as well as a brand new Stephen Leeds novella, Lies of the Beholder. This never-been-published novella will complete the series.

My Review:

I’ve already read (actually had read to me) the first two Legion books, Legion and Skin Deep. And I absolutely loved both of them. So…when this book popped up on Edelweiss, and it included the final Legion book, Lies of the Beholder, I just had to grab it.

Upon opening this one, I dove right into Lies of the Beholder. So if you are interested in my thoughts on the first two books, check out my reviews of Legion and Skin Deep here at Reading Reality.

I’m going to concentrate on Lies of the Beholder. But I can do that because I’ve already read the first two. The Legion series turns out to be one long story, just broken into three parts. You really need to read the whole thing to get the point at the end. Which, by the way, is marvelous and absolutely fitting.

Also just a bit of a mind screw, but then, so is the entire life of Stephen Leeds.

What makes Stephen Leeds so interesting is the way that his mind works. It’s a very busy, and well-populated, place.

He is definitely a genius. The question is whether or not he’s insane. It’s all because of his rather unique way of handling what would otherwise be an out-of-control genius. Leeds absorbs everything he hears, everything he sees.

I think there’s a metaphor for our current age of information glut in there someplace.

The problem for Leeds is processing and synthesis. There is just so much input, all the time, that he can’t control it all enough for it to make sense, or for him to function. Too often, it felt like he was experiencing hallucinations as every piece of data everywhere he went needed to get his attention.

A woman named Sandra taught him a way out the labyrinth. She taught him to take all the input and siphon it off into “aspects”. Those aspects function as independent identities within Leeds’ mind. He sees them as individual people, and to him they have personalities and life histories. They also contain all his knowledge in a particular area. The control the massive amounts of data flowing into his brain and he provides the synthesis.

But when he loses one, he loses all the knowledge that was packed into that aspect. A gaping hole opens in his mind, and he’s temporarily even more lost than normal.

As Lies of the Beholder opens, he’s losing his aspects. Some of them just leave, but some of them go insane and kill some of the others. It feels like he’s losing bits of himself – only because he is.

In the midst of his own chaos, Leeds receives a message from the long-missing Sandra. It’s a one word text message – HELP!

He can’t resist. Not only does he desperately want to help the only woman who has ever really understood him, the only one he’s ever loved, but he feels “beholden” to her – he owes her for providing him with the means to control his mind – even if that method is now breaking down.

In searching for Sandra, finding out what’s happened to her, Leeds is forced to rely on himself, and to find the beauty in his own breakdown. He’s offered what feels like a terrible choice, to either let go of everything that makes him who he is, or to try to forge a new way to live, and cope, alone.

This is one of those stories where both the journey and the destination are the point – and it’s a sharp one.

Escape Rating A-: This series is awesome. Also relatively short and entirely complete. As it is all told from Stephen Leeds first-person perspective, it also makes a great audiobook. I listened to the first two and read the final book because I just couldn’t wait to see how it all turned out.

As I said, this does turn out to be one story divided into three parts, so you do need to read it all. But it is so worth it. And I say that even though Leeds’ flails around a bit more than usual in this final entry.

A lot of what makes this series so fascinating is the character of Stephen Leeds. He thinks he’s sane, but that some of his aspects are the ones who are crazy. He claims that he is always aware that the aspects are just hallucinations, but that some of the aspects aren’t willing to admit that to themselves.

In other words, he’s a mass of contradictions.

As a reader, it is easy to get sucked into Leeds’ perspective. The aspects certainly all feel like separate individuals – and often quite interesting individuals in their own right. Many of them are very likeable (particularly Tobias, Ivy and J.C. – Leeds’ own favorites). It would be fun to read their individual backstories and see more from their perspectives. And yes, they do all have backstories and they certainly have individual perspectives on events – or so it seems.

But where the other two stories were both interesting cases that Leeds’ has to solve, they were also stories about him coping with the world in a way that was comfortable for him but didn’t make him grow. Looking back, in those stories he is so comfortable with the life that he has arranged for himself that he doesn’t need to grow or change. While he doesn’t completely love his life as it is, it has certainly become comfortable and easy for him.

This is a story about growth and change, because the structure breaks down and his support system gets kicked out from under him. He has to change, adapt and find a new way forward. Or stop altogether.

That he has the option of becoming, in effect, a lotus-eater and living completely in a dream world makes his choice all the more stark. Because he has been living somewhat in a dream world for years – just one of his own making. When the choice of absolutes is forced upon him, he has to kick out his own supports and live in the real world.

Or does he? His ultimate solution will blow the reader’s mind. It’s one of those endings that makes you rethink the whole story from the very beginning. And makes you want to start the series all over again.

Review: The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French

Review: The Grey Bastards by Jonathan FrenchThe Grey Bastards (The Lot Lands, #1) by Jonathan French
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Lot Lands #1
Pages: 432
Published by Crown on June 19, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A raucous, bawdy, blood-soaked adventure fantasy debut that's The Lord of the Rings reimagined by way of Sons of Anarchy.

Jackal is proud to be a Grey Bastard, member of a sworn brotherhood of half-orcs. Unloved and unwanted in civilized society, the Bastards eke out a hard life in the desolate no-man's-land called the Lots, protecting frail and noble human civilization from invading bands of vicious full-blooded orcs.

But as Jackal is soon to learn, his pride may be misplaced. Because a dark secret lies at the heart of the Bastards' existence--one that reveals a horrifying truth behind humanity's tenuous peace with the orcs, and exposes a grave danger on the horizon. On the heels of the ultimate betrayal, Jackal must scramble to stop a devastating invasion--even as he wonders where his true loyalties lie.

My Review:

A hero’s journey is still a hero’s journey, even if the hero has tusks, and so does his hog.

In spite of the many comparisons to Sons of Anarchy, the hogs ridden by the Grey Bastards and their half-orc kin are real hogs. The kind that sometimes get turned into bacon – although certainly not in this case. These hogs are bred for riding into battle – and for loyalty to their riders.

The story in The Grey Bastards starts out small, and at the same time in just a bit of in media res. On the one hand, the focus is fairly tight on young Jackal and his band of brothers – even though one of them is actually a sister. Except when she’s not.

The story begins with Jackal’s perspective and Jackal’s point-of-view, in the world that he knows and is completely familiar with – although we don’t. It’s not our world and doesn’t seem to be an analog for any of the traditional mythological or fantasy worlds, in spite of its inclusion of humans, orcs, half-orcs, elves, halflings and centaurs – all under different, descriptive and occasionally vulgar names.

Those familiar casts of beings also have different functions and attributes in this world than in more traditional fantasy. But I hesitate to call these versions twisted because they aren’t that. They feel organic to this created world, just different from what we are used to.

Jackal also doesn’t explain the way that things in his worldview are different from ours, because for him that’s the way it’s always been and always will be – at least at the beginning.

But as the story continues, Jackal’s world expands as the expected patterns of his life begin fragmenting and eventually falling apart. He tries to fix the wrongs that he observes – and they are wrongs – by attempting a takeover of the established order.

However, he’s young and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. He may be partly right, but he is also still partly wrong, and just a bit young and dumb. He gets outmaneuvered and is forced to learn about his world as it really is, and not just the way he’s always told that it has been.

It’s clear that the expansion of his worldview is going to be the making of him – if that world survives the chaos that is rapidly descending upon it.

Escape Rating A+: There are going to be people who want to label this one grimdark. Jackal’s world is certainly in a state of decay, and there are plenty of times when his situation seems pretty grim. But this world isn’t operating in the shades of grey that are the hallmark of grimdark, in spite of the title.

Jackal wants to make things better. That the situation is actually worse than he has any clue about when the story begins doesn’t change the fact that he is always trying to improve the situation for not just his own people but also anyone else that he comes across who seems to be innocent or downtrodden or just caught up in a bad mess that is not of their own making.

Not that he isn’t more than willing to kill anyone on the other side – particularly those who perpetrated some of the “wrong” situations he comes across. He’s not sweetness and light, he’s a warrior from a brutal and warlike people, but he is trying to leave his world better than he found it.

It’s just that he’s naive enough in the beginning not to see just how bad it is – and how much worse it’s going to get. But he does seem to have a very real chance of fixing at least some of the things – once he gets his head out of his own ass.

There are certainly things about The Grey Bastards that will perturb some readers. The book is incredibly profane. Nearly all of the characters in this book cuss as much as Kiva Lagos in The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. These two books otherwise have nothing to do with one another, except that both are first books in series that look to be awesome. But Kiva’s constant stream of cussing is epic in scope. None of the individual characters in The Grey Bastards cuss as much as Kiva does alone, but the sum totals feel similar. And equally appropriate for the characters and the story.

There is also a thread of what could be considered misogyny throughout The Grey Bastards, and not just because the story opens in a brothel. The leader of Jackal’s settlement claims that females are only good for two things, and I quote, “fucking and fetching.” His attitude, that females are only capable of being whores, bedwarmers (whores with only one partner) or errand runners is one that seems to be commonly held among the half-orcs – or at least the old guard.

At the same time, the pivotal character in this story is Fetching, the only female member of the warband. And her importance to the story is not as a love interest, but as a formidable fighter and one who ultimately makes the crucial decisions and takes up the mantle of leadership.

Many of the other strong and/or important characters are also female, the elf female Starling who helps to create a critical partnership and Beryl, the adopted mother of virtually the entire half-orc clan. They are, in every way, the equal of any of the males – and their roles in the story are much more important than most.

It feels like a “do as I say, not as I do” dichotomy. The world seems to be male dominated, while at the same time the female characters are crucial and mostly not in traditional female or in only traditional female roles. And it does seem to be one of the things that Jackal finds repugnant at least some of the time.

On my third hand, there’s definitely an attitude that all the whores are happy and enjoy their work and don’t wish for anything different. And while that’s theoretically possible, it feels beyond unlikely.

Obviously I have divided feelings on this particular score.

While I am completely out of hands on this, one of the things that I found fascinating was the way that foundational myths were used for so many purposes. Jackal and his cohort are taught a version of their story that was designed to inspire pride and loyalty AND cover up ugly truths. When it becomes necessary for Jackal to learn more and BE more, he is forced into learning the REAL truth about the formation of the Lot Lands and their true purpose in the scheme of things. While that truth doesn’t exactly set him free, it does give him better perspective and even more reasons to fight – and it also changes the battlefield.

I absolutely do not have divided feelings on the book as a whole. It was a compelling read from its intimate beginning to its eye-popping and world-breaking end. It feels like the opening of a huge, sprawling, brawling, epic fantasy series.I want more, and I want it now. But I’ll have to wait just a bit. The True Bastards ride next July.

Review: A Notorious Vow by Joanna Shupe + Giveaway

Review: A Notorious Vow by Joanna Shupe + GiveawayA Notorious Vow (The Four Hundred, #3) by Joanna Shupe
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Four Hundred #3
Pages: 384
Published by Avon on September 25, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Joanna Shupe returns to New York City’s Gilded Age, where fortunes and reputations are gained and lost with ease—and love can blossom from the most unlikely charade

With the fate of her disgraced family resting on her shoulders, Lady Christina Barclay has arrived in New York City from London to quickly secure a wealthy husband. But when her parents settle on an intolerable suitor, Christina turns to her reclusive neighbor, a darkly handsome and utterly compelling inventor, for help.

Oliver Hawkes reluctantly agrees to a platonic marriage . . . with his own condition: The marriage must end after one year. Not only does Oliver face challenges that are certain to make life as his wife difficult, but more importantly, he refuses to be distracted from his life’s work—the development of a revolutionary device that could transform thousands of lives, including his own.

Much to his surprise, his bride is more beguiling than he imagined. When temptation burns hot between them, they realize they must overcome their own secrets and doubts, and every effort to undermine their marriage, because one year can never be enough.

My Review:

While A Notorious Vow is the third book in the Four Hundred series, it is absolutely not necessary to have read the first two in order to get into this one – but for an unusual reason.

Although the stories all take place within the same place and time, and even though our protagonists do meet the Hatchers (the h/h of the first book, A Daring Arrangement) the previous couples and previous stories don’t really impinge on this one.

Because for very different reasons, both Oliver and Christina are pretty much recluses. Neither of them moves in society at all, because neither of them wants to. A decision that comes back to bite both of them during the course of this story.

And, in the best romantic tradition, neither of them initially believes it about the other.

Oliver Hawkes, a young, wealthy and brilliant inventor as well as reclusive investor, is deaf, and has been since a bout of scarlet fever in his early teens. He remembers being able to hear, but no longer can. Equally, he can no longer stand the terrible treatment he suffered at the hands of so-called “society” as everyone mocked not just the voice he could no longer hear, but also his ability to “speak” with his hands and his need to write down complex thoughts – and receive their replies, in a small notebook.

He is more than wealthy enough not to need a “day job” and quite capable of living mostly on his own. Within his own house, the staff have all learned enough sign language to communicate, and he lives quite well and is reasonably content. Until Christina quite literally falls into his lap.

Actually she falls in his garden, with the enthusiastic “help” of his dog Apollo, who knocks her down in his enthusiasm to greet a new person.

Christina’s desire to retreat from society is due to an extreme lack of confidence – a lack that has been instilled in her, and is constantly reinforced, by her greedy, grasping mother. Christina is always and forever a disappointment, and her lack of confidence allows the crueler elements of society to make fun of her at every turn.

The truth is that all of them are jealous of her in one way or another, including, most especially, her mother. But Christina has been programmed practically from birth not to be able to see it.

Christina and her parents are in New York out of the necessity of repairing the family fortunes. Christina’s father-the-earl is an inveterate gambler – and not a winner. Both of her parents have always lived well outside their means, even before he gambled away all the means.

They have fled England just barely ahead of their creditors – and those whom they outright swindled – in order to sponge off their New York relations and auction Christina off to the highest bidder.

That said highest bidder is the most disgusting and despicable person imaginable is also a standard of the romantic tradition – although this bastard manages to exceed expectations on all counts – as does the behavior of Christina’s parents. It is up to Oliver, who has no desire to be involved with society at all, to save Christina from not merely her parents but also a fate that is guaranteed to be worse than death – until it turns into actual death.

While at first it seems as if they will have their work cut out for them just trying to make a workable marriage out of what is still a rather nascent friendship, the situation becomes even more dire.

Just how corrupt is Tammany Hall, anyway?

Escape Rating B+: There were several elements that made A Notorious Vow interesting in unusual ways as well as a lot of fun to read. I got sucked right in and didn’t get out until I finished – more or less in one go.

We’ve seen plenty of wallflower heroines in historical romances, but very seldom a “wallflower” hero. Oliver’s exile from society seems mostly self-imposed. He has the money and the social standing to ignore the whispers that he can lip read quite well – but he chooses not to do so. His reasons for withdrawing are certainly valid, and not merely from his own perspective. But he could just as easily have gone the other way, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, and the doubters be damned. And as events later prove, it probably would have resulted in a better outcome after some initial discomfort.

Which is not to say that his discomfort isn’t very real. Like so many other handicaps, deafness was not much written about, talked about, or studied in the late 19th century. Oliver could not hear, but that did not mean that any of his other faculties were affected at all – which did not stop popular imagination from assuming that they had. A problem which is nearly his undoing.

But the crux of the romantic conflict between Oliver and Christina has little to do with his deafness, although that does make it more difficult – but far from impossible – for them to discuss the problem.

Oliver exhibits that unfortunate tendency of very intelligent people to assume that because they are so often the smartest person in any room that they inhabit, they are therefore always the most knowledgeable and always know best for everyone else. And the problem lies in that “always”. Few things are ever “always” true or “always” right. Because it seldom happens to him, Oliver is unable to recognize that it does occasionally happen even to him, and especially when it comes to his dealings with Christina. He doesn’t know what she wants or needs or thinks because he doesn’t ask her – he assumes he already knows. And of course he doesn’t.

This is a problem that would exist whether Oliver could hear a pin drop or can’t hear a thing – because it is an innate part of his personality. (And one that affects plenty of contemporary men as well!)

In addition to having an interesting and unusual hero and heroine, A Notorious Vow also has what can best be described as a surfeit of villains – especially when considering that the three villains are not working together. They are all separately and individually villainous, For the purposes of villainy, I’m counting Christina’s parents as a single villain. For all we see of the earl, they might as well be.

Her parents attempt to sell her to the highest bidder in order to get themselves out from under their debts and swindles. Her mother, in particular, is particularly vile. The highest bidder they attempt to sell her to is a disgusting old man who has probably murdered his three previous wives. When Oliver rescues Christina from their clutches, mommy dearest continues to clutch in the hopes of getting a better deal – even though her continued contact with Christina endangers the deal currently on the table. That there is a deal at all says everything that needs to be said about Christina’s parents.

When Oliver’s equally venal cousin bribes a judge and conspires to get him committed to an insane asylum, the disgusting old man bribes Tammany Hall to KEEP him imprisoned. Yet these individuals do not seem to be working together. I found the continued presence of Christina’s parents at this juncture to be one villain too many.

That does not take anything away from the horrific nature of Oliver’s imprisonment or the appalling stink of corruption that surrounds the entire case – and that unfortunately bears all too close a resemblance to real circumstances at the time.

Taken all together, A Notorious Vow turns out to be an engaging romance of surprised (and surprising) equals who have to overcome more difficulties than expected. And who discover at the end that their hard-won happy ever after is well worth the changes that they both have to make in their lives.

If this is the final book in the Four Hundred series, it is a fitting end. But I’ve enjoyed the whole series very much and would love to see it continue!

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


To celebrate the release of A NOTORIOUS VOW by Joanna Shupe, we’re giving away one paperback set of the entire Four Hundred series!

Link: http://bit.ly/2P4dd94

GIVEAWAY TERMS & CONDITIONS:  Giveaway open to US shipping addresses only. One winner will receive a paperback set of the Four Hundred series by Joanna Shupe. This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Avon Romance.  Giveaway ends 9/25/2018 @ 1159pm EST. Avon Romance will send the winning copy out to the winner directly. Limit one entry per reader and mailing address. Duplicates will be deleted.

Review: Leverage in Death by J D Robb

Review: Leverage in Death by J D RobbLeverage in Death (In Death, #47) by J.D. Robb
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: futuristic, mystery, romantic suspense
Series: In Death #47
Pages: 385
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 4, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Lieutenant Eve Dallas puzzles over a bizarre suicide bombing in a Wall St. office building in the latest in the #1 New York Times bestselling series…

For the airline executives finalizing a merger that would make news in the business world, the nine a.m. meeting would be a major milestone. But after marketing VP Paul Rogan walked into the plush conference room, strapped with explosives, the headlines told of death and destruction instead. The NYPSD’s Eve Dallas confirms that Rogan was cruelly coerced by two masked men holding his family hostage. His motive was saving his wife and daughter―but what was the motive of the masked men?

Despite the chaos and bad publicity, blowing up one meeting isn’t going to put the brakes on the merger. All it’s accomplished is shattering a lot of innocent lives. Now, with the help of her billionaire husband Roarke, Eve must untangle the reason for an inexplicable act of terror, look at suspects inside and outside both corporations, and determine whether the root of this crime lies in simple sabotage, or something far more complex and twisted.

My Review:

At first, this one seemed like it was all about the money. A lot of crimes are all about the money, which is how the mystery solving cliches “follow the money” and the Latin “Cui bono?” (translated as “Who benefits”) came into being. But the way that money motivates in this story felt more like the version from the movie Jerry Maguire, “Show me the money”. Because while it is definitely about the money, it also ends up feeling like the money is as much about keeping score as it is about dollars and cents.

Not that there aren’t plenty of dollars and cents involved.

It all begins with a murder, as so many books in this series do. But not just a simple little murder. This is a big, well, more middle-sized kind of murder. It’s a bomb. It’s a crazy guy in a suicide vest blowing up a big meeting (literally) and taking out a bunch of corporate bigwigs.

Sounds like terrorism, doesn’t it? But if it were that simple, Lieutenant Eve Dallas wouldn’t need to spend an entire book solving it. Terrorism isn’t her beat – homicide is. Once her cops discover that the poor bomber was as much of a victim as all the others who were killed or injured in the explosion, the case becomes a whole lot more local, and a whole lot more complicated.

It’s all about the money. Specifically, as the title says, it’s about leverage. The bomb goes off in the middle of a big meeting to sign a merger between rival airlines. The bomb goes off, and both of their stock prices go way, way down. But both companies are solid, both have succession plans in place, and the merger is back on in less than a day. The stocks go back up, way, way up. Past the point they were before that bomb went off.

Anyone who knew in advance what was going to happen had the opportunity to buy very, very low and sell very, very high. And make a killing – pun very definitely intended. Which makes for a hell of a cold-blooded motive for murder.

But for the killers, the whole thing is so much of a rush that they do it again, this time manipulating the art market instead of the stock market.

It’s up to Dallas, with the help of her expert civilian consultant as well as the rest of her team, to discover whodunit and why, before they move on to play their games yet again – or before they disappear for good.

That it’s also a great excuse for Dallas to avoid the Oscar red carpet, where her friend Nadine Furst is up for multiple awards for her movie based on one of Eve’s more famous cases, is just icing on the Dallas and Roarke cake.

Escape Rating B: This series is comfort read for me. That may sound strange, as the books always begin with a murder. But good triumphs, evil always gets its just desserts,  and all the mysteries are wrapped up at the end in a neat bow. But this series is also a case (no pun intended this time) where it’s the cast and crew that I always love to see. The stories always make me laugh, not because the series is intentionally humorous, but because it’s just the kind of humor that I like, where it arises out of the situations and the characters and isn’t an attempt to BE funny, it just IS funny.

I’m particularly fond of Eve and Roarke’s cat Galahad, who is large and in charge and pretty much all cat, all the time. Galahad, bless his furry heart, does not solve crimes. He is, however, very good at the things that cats are very good at, particularly in knowing when his people need some purry affection, and knowing when the best time to interrupt in the hope of getting treats or attention will be. And the entire bed is his, which is completely normal. Possession is 9/10ths of the cat – even the fictional cat. Perhaps especially the fictional cat.

This is also not one of their regular trips to the angst factory – which is good because that wasn’t what I was in the mood for. Eve and Roarke both had hellacious childhoods, and they both have plenty of trauma that they are still dealing with well into adulthood. But there are occasions when someone either tied into one of their pasts or bearing too strong a resemblance to one of their bastard fathers shows up and drags in a whole baggage train of past crap. One of those every once in a while is more than enough. And that isn’t one of those – the occasional nightmare notwithstanding. Anyone who survived either of their childhoods would have the occasional, or more likely the regular, nightmare.

There are two threads to this particular story. One is the case itself, and the other is more personal for Dallas’ team, but also hearkens back to one of her earlier cases, which has proven to be a gift that keeps on giving – as the ending of this story proves.

The case is chilling enough – although it does seem to be operating at multiple removes. The killers aren’t doing their own dirty work. They create the setup, then send a pawn out to do the actual deed while making sure that they can get away scot free if it falls apart. The psychology of this one is all about fathers and children and sacrifice and turns out to have plenty of disgusting, oozing layers to work through.

The personal stuff works its way around and through this multiple murder case. I say personal, but it all goes back to the Icove case from Origin in Death , way back in the 22nd novel in this series. Eve’s friend, reporter Nadine Furst, wrote up the case in a best-selling true crime thriller, which was turned into a movie, which is now up for multiple Oscars – and which has left behind a trail of bodies at pretty much every step of the way. Eve would rather be dead than walk the red carpet, but it’s a dream come true for her partner Detective Delia Peabody. A dream that Eve and Roarke, in spite of the murders, manage to make happen.

It makes for a lovely ending for an enjoyable book in this long running series. Dallas and Roarke will be back in February in Connections in Death – and I’m looking forward to it. After all, I have to see just what Galadhad is up to next!

Review: The Illegitimate Duke by Sophie Barnes + Giveaway

Review: The Illegitimate Duke by Sophie Barnes + GiveawayThe Illegitimate Duke (Diamonds in the Rough, #3) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Diamonds in the Rough #3
Pages: 384
Published by Avon on August 28, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


United in a common cause...

Juliette Matthews longs to be much more than just another pretty ornament in society. But using her recently acquired fortune to do some good is more complicated than she anticipated. Young ladies are not expected to risk their safety in helping the less fortunate. And the one gentleman who could help in her mission is stubborn, infernally handsome--and far too honorable to act on their mutual attraction.


And in a desire impossible to deny...

Florian Lowell has suddenly been made heir to the Duke of Redding--a far cry from his status as a dedicated physician. Yet even with his new role as the country's most eligible bachelor, the beautiful, fearless Juliette is utterly beyond his reach. The scandalous circumstances of his birth would destroy both their reputations if they became known. But when a more urgent danger threatens Juliette's life, Florian must gamble everything...including the heart only one woman can tame.

My Review:

This is a fish out of water story. In fact, it’s part of a whole school of fish out of water stories. The fish currently uncertain about its welcome in the pond is Juliette, sister of the first two fishes.

Ok, I’ve probably baited that metaphor as far as it can go. In the first book in the Diamonds in the Rough series, St. Giles resident and bare-knuckle boxing champ Raphe Matthews learns that by a strange quirk of fate he has become the Duke of Huntley. And while he might not be willing on his own to return to the social classes that ejected himself and his sisters years ago – he desperately wants to do what’s best for them. It’s not even the wealth of being Huntley that attracts him, but the opportunities that it provides for comfortable and healthy living. His sisters will have much better chances once he takes the title. So he does, and the story of just how that works out for him is told in the first book in the series, A Most Unlikely Duke.

Next in line came his sister Amelia’s story in The Duke of Her Desire, which turned out to be a delightful romp from beginning to end.

The Illegitimate Duke is, of course, the third sister Juliette’s journey to her happily ever after.

(BTW, the whole series is pretty delightful. The Matthews’ make for slightly different historical romance protagonists in ways that really work and are fun to read. You don’t have to start at the beginning of this series, but if you like historical romance, these are a lot of fun!)

Back to Juliette. Like her sister Amelia, Juliette is not content to wrest on her laurels or just sit back and spend her new-found fortune shopping. While living in St. Giles had many, many difficulties, the one thing it did have was that women had to live lives of purpose – even if that purpose mostly consisted of helping to keep the wolf from the door.

In comparison, the life of a society miss feels dreadfully empty. Juliette has a mind that she wants to be able to use, along with access to a fortune that gives her the opportunity to assist her former neighbors in tangible ways – if she is willing to take the bull by the horns and stand up for herself.

It’s not just the figurative bull of what society expects of women of her new class, or even what the gossips expect of a woman with her origins. There’s also a literal bull, Dr. Florian Lowell, soon to become the Duke of Redding. Florian is the physician in charge of the charity hospital that serves St. Giles, and Juliet wants to not merely donate money to that hospital but also have a say in how that money is spent.

And that puts her squarely in Florian’s orbit – and very much vice versa.

They fascinate each other, and it is not just a matter of looks.

Juliette needs to be of use and not merely the ornament that society now expects her to be. She hates the falsity of the marriage mart but would be very happy to find a man who is willing to be her partner and accept her as she is – just as her brother and sister have found with their respective spouses.

Florian, although born to the upper crust, devotes his life to being a physician. While he will inherit a dukedom, he still plans to maintain his medical practice. I would say that he’s looking for a woman who will not merely accept, but actually understand his devotion to his practice and his interest in furthering medical science.

But he has no plans to marry and populate a nursery as his new position will require, because he carries a secret that he feels makes him unfit to court any woman who would be either worthy of his title, or more importantly, willing to be both friend and lover as well as wife.

That secret has come back to London to make all of his hopes, dreams and plans turn to smoke. If the incipient typhus epidemic doesn’t kill them first.

Escape Rating B: One of the terrific things about this series is the way that all of the women have been just a little something extra in ways that make them easier for 21st century readers to identify with while at the same time not stretching the bounds of plausibility too far. Or at least too far too far.

Juliette’s need to oversee the expenditure of her donation, and her willingness to serve on the hospital board, do seem possible, and even the acceptance of her presence by the titled men who are also on that board does not stretch things too far. Women did such things under the heading of doing good for the less fortunate – Juliette is perhaps a bit more active in that regard than most.

The horror of the potential typhus epidemic that hangs over the story, Florian’s attempts to contain it and the tragic results of his one failure in that regard were harrowing and all too real.

But as much as I enjoyed this fish out of water story, and as much as I certainly liked both Juliette and Florian, the difficulty that keeps them apart is all too similar to the secret that kept Amelia and Thomas apart in The Duke of Her Desire.

Like Thomas, Florian has a terrible secret, and it truly is terrible. He fears that society will not merely judge him harshly, but actually ostracize him if it comes out. And his fears are well founded. But what keeps Florian and Juliette apart is not the secret itself, but Florian’s belief that something that is manifestly not his fault is his responsibility and his punishment, when neither is the case, just as Thomas felt in the previous book.

The similarities between the two situations meant that The Illegitimate Duke did not sparkle as much for me as The Duke of Her Desire. The gravity of the external situation – that typhus epidemic – may also have had something to do with that lesser sparkle, because there was less to sparkle about.

But I did like the protagonists a great deal, and it was also lovely to see how Juliette’s sister and brother are getting on with their happily ever afters. The hints about the next book in the series, now that we have run out of Matthews siblings, looks intriguing.

I’ll certainly be back to discover what The Infamous Duchess is up to next spring!

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

To celebrate the release of THE ILLEGITIMATE DUKE by Sophie Barnes, we’re giving away a paperback bundle of The Most Unlikely Duke & The Duke of Her Desire!

CLICK HERE TO ENTER!

GIVEAWAY TERMS & CONDITIONS:  Open to US shipping addresses only. One winner will receive a paperback bundle of A Most Unlikely Duke and The Duke of Her Desire by Sophie Barnes.  This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Avon Romance. Giveaway ends 9/7/2018 @ 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.  CLICK HERE TO ENTER!