Review: You Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo

Review: You Sexy Thing by Cat RamboYou Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 304
Published by Tor Books on November 16, 2021
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Farscape meets The Great British Bake Off in this fantastic space opera You Sexy Thing from former SFWA President, Cat Rambo.
Just when they thought they were out...
TwiceFar station is at the edge of the known universe, and that's just how Niko Larson, former Admiral in the Grand Military of the Hive Mind, likes it.
Retired and finally free of the continual war of conquest, Niko and the remnants of her former unit are content to spend the rest of their days working at the restaurant they built together, The Last Chance.
But, some wars can't ever be escaped, and unlike the Hive Mind, some enemies aren't content to let old soldiers go. Niko and her crew are forced onto a sentient ship convinced that it is being stolen and must survive the machinations of a sadistic pirate king if they even hope to keep the dream of The Last Chance alive.

My Review:

This one gave me an earworm. And as a song from just two years later proclaimed, “It’s my own damn fault.” (I’m also experiencing one of those terrible moments when it slaps you upside the head that the 1970s weren’t 20 or 30 years ago but 40 going on 50 years ago.)

“I believe in miracles” is the first line from a 1975 hit by the British band Hot Chocolate. The title of the song is, you guessed it, “You Sexy Thing”. In this particular story, it’s also the name of a self-aware, sentient, sapient bioship.

A ship that thinks it’s being stolen because of that “I believe in miracles” password, given to retired Admiral Niko Larson by the ship’s once-and-future owner. A man who will hopefully be a bit less of a douchecanoe in his next incarnation.

No, he’s not King Arthur, or any kind of hero whatsoever. He’s just a rich, self-indulgent asshat who has paid for the kind of quasi immortality you can buy in an SFnal universe where cloning and downloading one’s consciousness is a thing. Not a sexy thing, but an expensive thing. The kind of thing that is very do-able with enough money.

Niko and her crew are on the run. Not because they’re criminals, but because TwiceFar Station, where they have been operating The Last Chance Restaurant since they managed to leave the military service of the Holy Hive Mind, has just been destroyed as collateral damage in the neverending game played by a race called the Arranti.

It’s what the Arranti do. And it has set Niko’s plans back by years if not decades as the crew scrambles to grab what they can and get off the station while they can. Along with everyone else who isn’t dead yet.

Once aboard the Thing, things start happening. Or rather, things are revealed. The ship is taking them to a prison planet, where their stories will be officially judged. They’re not actually worried, because they’re telling the truth about how they acquired the ship. Not that they don’t have plenty of secrets – just that THAT isn’t one of them.

But there are plenty of secrets aboard just the same. Secrets that are about to bite Niko and her crew in the ass. Because the hijacked ship is being hijacked again, this time for real. And it’s taking Niko and her crew back to the site of her greatest failure, in the domain of her greatest enemy.

A man with a long reach, and an obsessive desire to make Niko pay for even attempting to “steal” something that he had declared was his. Even if he had to twist it beyond almost all recognition to make it so.

Escape Rating A-: There are two stories aboard the Thing. One is an adrenaline-inducing tale of torture and death with little chance of escape, and the other is a sort of Great British Bake Off in space where everyone aboard has the opportunity to learn to cook – including the ship! – while they all figure out who they want to be – and who they want to be with – when they “grow up”.

Not that they are not all adults – more or less – but as a group of people who have spent most of their adult lives either in military service or on the run or both there haven’t been many opportunities for any of them to figure out what they want in life when they’re not either chasing an impossible goal or running from an enemy.

Or both, all too frequently, both.

The heartwarming parts of this story, the bits about figuring out their places in the universe and with each other, are lovely and sweet and a whole lot of fun. One of the best parts is the way that they all treat the ship as another member of their crew and the Thing gets to experience quite a bit of self-actualization along with everyone else. The ship’s perspectives on events – including their thoughts about their own journey, are terrific. I could have been immersed in those parts of the story forever.

The other part of the narrative is what happens after their arrival in the den of that sadistic pirate. The circumstances were obviously terrible. The reason for all that terribleness was even more terrible. What happens there is yet more terrible again.

The danger there is ramped up to 11 and the torment of envisioning how much worse it’s going to get is even, well, worse. It’s every bit as heartbreaking as the parts of the story about all of them cooking together is heartwarming.

I have to say that something about the villainy of the villain didn’t quite work for me. Not in the sense that I didn’t feel their danger, not even in the sense that I didn’t get his motivations – or not exactly. After all, even villains believe that they are the heroes of their own stories.

He just didn’t feel like a person. He was more of a cartoon villain, a supervillain who was consumed with his revenge obsession. He tipped over the top of the villain scale into bwahaha territory. It’s not that he wasn’t a real threat – because he most definitely was – but that he didn’t feel like a real character.

The ship read as more of a real character than the villain did. Also as more of a real character than the ship Moya does in Farscape, I think because we hear the Thing’s comments directly and not through an interpreter.

In the end, as much as the two parts of this story didn’t quite gel, I did enjoy reading about Niko and her crew and I’m terribly curious about what happens next as they jump out of the frying pan and into the fire yet again. So I’ll be back next summer when their (mis)adventures continue in Devil’s Gun. I have a feeling that’s just what they’re going to find – and that it will probably be aimed straight at them.

Review: Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson

Review: Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno DawsonHer Majesty's Royal Coven (Her Majesty's Royal Coven, #1) by Juno Dawson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, paranormal
Series: HRMC #1
Pages: 448
Published by Penguin Books on May 31, 2022
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A Discovery of Witches meets The Craft in this the first installment of this epic fantasy trilogy about a group of childhood friends who are also witches.

If you look hard enough at old photographs, we're there in the background: healers in the trenches; Suffragettes; Bletchley Park oracles; land girls and resistance fighters. Why is it we help in times of crisis? We have a gift. We are stronger than Mundanes, plain and simple.At the dawn of their adolescence, on the eve of the summer solstice, four young girls--Helena, Leonie, Niamh and Elle--took the oath to join Her Majesty's Royal Coven, established by Queen Elizabeth I as a covert government department. Now, decades later, the witch community is still reeling from a civil war and Helena is now the reigning High Priestess of the organization. Yet Helena is the only one of her friend group still enmeshed in the stale bureaucracy of HMRC. Elle is trying to pretend she's a normal housewife, and Niamh has become a country vet, using her powers to heal sick animals. In what Helena perceives as the deepest betrayal, Leonie has defected to start her own more inclusive and intersectional coven, Diaspora. And now Helena has a bigger problem. A young warlock of extraordinary capabilities has been captured by authorities and seems to threaten the very existence of HMRC. With conflicting beliefs over the best course of action, the four friends must decide where their loyalties lie: with preserving tradition, or doing what is right.
Juno Dawson explores gender and the corrupting nature of power in a delightful and provocative story of magic and matriarchy, friendship and feminism. Dealing with all the aspects of contemporary womanhood, as well as being phenomenally powerful witches, Niamh, Helena, Leonie and Elle may have grown apart but they will always be bound by the sisterhood of the coven.

My Review:

Most prophecies are self-fulfilling. Oedipus’ father made that whole story happen by trying his damndest to keep that whole story from happening. And don’t get me started on Harry Potter and Voldemort and bringing that whole prophecy into being by trying to cut it off at the knees when Harry was a toddler.

Or maybe do get me started on that. Because I’ll be getting back to it later.

Because while the blurb for this book compares it to A Discovery of Witches and The Craft, Harry Potter is really a LOT closer to the mark. In the Potterverse, magic is real and it works and there’s an entire hidden society devoted to training new magic users and keeping the secret that there is power and influence to be had by literally waving a magic wand.

The girls in Her Majesty’s Royal Coven are inheritors of a long and grand tradition of using magic on behalf of the Crown of England in order to defend the realm from threats both foreign and domestic that use magic to make and be those threats.

They are, quite literally, the few and the proud, and the night before they make their official witch’s oaths and become part of HMRC, they are sure they will be friends forever.

That’s one prophecy that seldom works out, and so it proves when the story picks up 25 years later. Now they are all adults, and all survivors of a great magical war that scarred their bodies and their futures, freezing them into the places and positions they now hold – sometimes by their fingernails.

Helena, the leader of the girls they were and the leader of the hidebound covert government department that HMRC has been for generations, is facing the impending doom of the organization she heads. Or so she believes.

The witches who watch the future, the seeresses who prophesy on behalf of HMRC and of Britain, are all seeing the same dark future. That the end of their world is going to be brought about by a young warlock of immense power that the prophecies call “The Sullied Child”. He will be their downfall, and he has been found.

The prophecies are right. And they’re wrong. But mostly, they are completely, totally and utterly self-fulfilling to the nth degree and the entirely bitter end.

Escape Rating B-: There are so many things going on in this story, and so many of them are good. But there’s something rotten at its heart that I can’t get past, although I suspect that other readers will have less of a problem with it.

This is a story about feminism and female friendship. It’s also a story about how the ties that bind in childhood can strangle in adulthood.

The four women who are at the center of this story have all gone their different ways. Helena has taken the path of power and leadership that her considerable privilege has led her to believe is her right as well as her duty.

But the noblesse oblige that underlies that privilege has no room for any who would choose a different path – as all of her former friends have done. Helena’s HMRC has no place for intersectionality, so anyone not white, not British, not wealthy and not privileged, in other words anyone not like Helena herself, is a threat to her power.

Leonie is black, Elle has retreated into a mundane life, and Niamh has no desire to be under anyone’s thumb – and certainly not under Helena’s. They have all been, in their various ways, outcast from the HMRC.

When Niamh takes that so-called “Sullied Child” under her wing, she learns that the young warlock who is such a threat to the HMRC is actually a transgirl who wants nothing more than to be the witch she was meant to be and not the warlock that Helena continues to see as the ultimate threat.

Niamh, Elle and Leonie want to do what is right rather than what is easy. Helena wants to preserve the HMRC’s traditions and believes that those ends justify any means she might employ – no matter how heinous. Helena is certain that she is working for the “Greater Good” without ever taking a hard look at who it might be good for.

And prophecies are self-fulfilling.

But what struck me as I read Her Majesty’s Royal Coven was just how much it mirrored Harry Potter considered in context of that author’s heinous beliefs about transwomen. She used Hermione Granger as an avatar for herself in the series, to the point where she had Hermione marry Ron at the end because the author was working out issues in a romantic relationship of her own rather than taking that part of the story in the direction it had been heading from the beginning. (My 2 cents and I’ll get down off this soapbox now).

To me, Helena read like Hermione as her own author; smart, a bit stuck-up, worshipful of authority while determined to join it, and single-minded in pursuit of a goal. Also someone who seems to be doing her level best to destroy her own legacy because she can’t deal with the concept that other perspectives are as valid as her own and especially that transwomen are women. Full stop. For this reader, the obviousness of the woman behind the curtain, Helena as Hermione as her author, is the interpretation that remained fixed in my head through my entire reading and drenches my feelings about the book. I think it would have better served the story if the callback to Harry Potter’s author hadn’t been quite so obvious or so pointed.

Your reading mileage, even if by broomstick, may definitely vary.

Review: The Blue Diamond by Leonard Goldberg

Review: The Blue Diamond by Leonard GoldbergThe Blue Diamond (The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes Mysteries #6) by Leonard Goldberg
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, World War I
Series: Daughter of Sherlock Holmes #6
Pages: 336
Published by Minotaur Books on June 14, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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The fate of the allied forces lies in the hands of Joanna and the Watsons in the next Daughter of Sherlock Holmes mystery from USA Today bestselling author Leonard Goldberg.During a critical stage in World War One, the Governor-General of South Africa journeys to London for a meeting of The Imperial War Conference. Days prior to the conference, the Governor-General is scheduled to have an audience at Buckingham Palace at which time a most precious blue diamond will be presented to King Edward as a symbolic gesture of the colonies’ resolute and never-ending allegiance to England.
The flawless blue diamond, with its magnificent luster, weighs nearly 3000 carats which renders it one of the world’s largest and most valuable gems. On the Governor-General’s arrival, he is ensconced at the fashionable Windsor Hotel under the tightest security, with his entire entourage and formidable security team occupying the entire penthouse floor. All entrances and exits are locked down and closely guarded, and no one is allowed entrance after 6 PM.
Despite the extreme precautions, the famous diamond is stolen from the Governor-General’s suite in the middle of the night, with no clues left behind. With Scotland Yard baffled, Joanna and the Watsons are called in to investigate the theft and it becomes clear that the crime is not simply the work of a master thief, but one that could greatly aid the Germans and turn the tide of war in their favor. Time is of the essence and the blue diamond must be recovered before it begins its travels which could cause irreparable damage to the allied war plans.

My Review:

Up until this entry of this series featuring Joanna (Holmes) Blalock Watson, the Daughter of Sherlock Holmes of the series title, it has very much seemed as if the books in the series have been as much, or even more, in dialogue with Sherlock Holmes himself and the canon of the elder Dr. Watson’s accounts as they were about the investigations conducted in the series’ present by Joanna Watson with the able assistance of her husband, the younger Dr. Watson, and his esteemed father.

But in this entry in the series, even though it does call back to the codebreaking in her father’s Adventure of the Dancing Men, is finally dealing directly with the important events of her day rather than her father’s famous cases.

That is because The Blue Diamond takes place in 1916, and the criminal activities that Joanna and the Watsons are called in to investigate in London are directly related to the war taking place in Europe – even if that is only a suspicion when they are first called in.

At first, it looks like a series of very high-end thefts occurring at equally high-end hotels. The first prize the clearly expert thieves took was a rare Ming vase worth over 100,000 pounds. The second was an even rarer – and much more highly prized – blue diamond. Hence the title of the book.

But the diamond was stolen from the suite of the Governor-General of South Africa – making the whole mess a political nightmare. Even so, the theft of a rare vase and an even rarer diamond are still property crimes – even if the value of the items represented riches beyond the dreams of avarice – if not beyond the dreams of high-end thieves.

The third item stolen shifted the entire investigation from mere grand theft to treason when top secret papers were extracted from a visiting French Minister’s suite. Those papers, which contained top secret plans for a joint operation between the British and the French designed to draw the German army into a trap and then break them in a pincer movement, elevated the crime to one that would get the perpetrators hung – if Joanna and the Watsons can figure out who they are.

And as much as Scotland Yard wanted Joanna and the Watsons on the original case, MI5 was even more eager to have them discover not just whodunnit, but how and why and especially whether or not those plans had been relayed to the enemy.

The tide of the war depended on those answers. It really, truly did.

Escape Rating B: This series always gives me mixed feelings. Probably because at least within the confines of my own head, it is in dialogue with two other series (Mary Russell and Lady Sherlock) that re-work Holmes and each treats the Great Detective entirely differently. (If anyone knows of a story or even fanfiction that puts Joanna, Charlotte and Mary in the same room for what would be an utterly fascinating conversation please let me know!)

Only the Russell series has fully traveled beyond the original canon by virtue of having Sherlock outlive it. Lady Sherlock is still working her way through it. This is the first case of Joanna’s where she is dealing fully with her own contemporary circumstances and not her father’s.

Rather than being rooted in Sherlock Holmes’ old case, this one is rooted in what we now call history. It’s 1916, the Great War is creating great casualties along with victories that seem like defeats. The U.S. has not yet entered the war, and Germany seems unstoppable. The situation is grim. Those plans have the potential to change the tide of the war – but only if the Germans don’t see them (This eventually happened, the plans referenced in the story were carried out at the Battle of Amiens.)

At first, there are few clues beyond the obvious, that stealing the plans benefits the German High Command. If the plans reach Berlin it gives the enemy knowledge of future military strategy. It has the potential to demoralize the Allies. The uncertainty about whether the plans have been seen and/or tampered with throws up confusion and doubt.

While Germany’s motives are obvious, there don’t seem to be any German agents involved. Instead it all circles back to the South African Governor-General and his entourage. South Africa is a Dominion of the British Empire – an ally. And that’s where the case gets more convoluted.

As Joanna becomes more certain that the thefts were an inside job, the reasons for those thefts becomes that much more elusive. It’s only as the noose tightens around 221B Baker Street that Joanna is finally able to determine who is holding the rope – and why.

There are things about this series that I really like, particularly the portrayal of Dr. Watson Sr. as an intelligent man and a dedicated physician who misses his old friend and finds delight and purpose in helping his friend’s daughter and his own son continue in their footsteps. He’s delightful and he feels both real and right as a character. That he’s well into his 80s at this point in the series and has a heart condition makes me sad. He can’t live forever and there are signs that his time is coming.

I want to say that I find Joanna a bit odd – but she comes by that honestly, considering who her father was. Or does she? That, for me, is the greatest puzzle of the entire series so far, as Joanna seems to have every single one of her father’s habits, quirks and eccentricities to the point where she can seem to be a caricature of a man she never met. That she might have inherited his genius would be entirely possible – but not the whole kit and kaboodle of his personality in all its extremities. Rather than ringing true, this particular bell is ringing cracked.

The case she has to solve here is every bit as contrived and convoluted as any that her father faced. But at least this one is hers, born out of the war the world is facing in her time and not his. This feels like a step forward for the series so I’m glad to see it.

In spite of those quibbles, and all the ways in which this series drives me crazy, I know I’ll be back for the next book in the series. I never can resist a Holmes story.

Review: Find Me by Alafair Burke

Review: Find Me by Alafair BurkeFind Me by Alafair Burke
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Ellie Hatcher #6
Pages: 293
Published by Harper on January 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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The disappearance of a young woman leaves her closest friend reeling and an NYPD homicide detective digging into her own past in this thrilling mystery full of twists from the New York Times bestselling author of The Better Sister and The Wife.
Some pasts won’t stay forgotten . . .
She calls herself Hope Miller, but she has no idea who she actually is. Fifteen years ago, she was found in a small New Jersey town thrown from an overturned vehicle, with no clue to her identity. Doctors assumed her amnesia was a temporary side effect of her injuries, but she never regained her memory. Hope eventually started a new life with a new name in a new town that welcomed her, yet always wondered what she may have left behind—or been running from. Now, fifteen years later, she’s leaving New Jersey to start over once again.
Manhattan defense lawyer Lindsay Kelly, Hope’s best friend and the one who found her after the accident, understands why Hope wants a new beginning. But she worries how her friend will fare in her new East Hampton home, far away from everything familiar. Lindsay’s worst fears are confirmed when she discovers Hope has vanished without a trace—the only lead a drop of blood found where she was last seen. Even more ominously, the blood matches a DNA sample with a connection to a notorious Kansas murderer.
In pursuit of answers, the women search for the truth beneath long-buried secrets. And when their searches converge, what they find will upend everything they’ve ever known. 

My Review:

The title has a chilling double meaning in this wild thrill-ride of a story. On the surface it’s about Lindsay Kelly’s search for her missing best friend, Hope Miller. Under the surface of that desperate search, there’s Hope Miller’s search for herself.

Once upon a time, fifteen years ago, the woman now known as Hope Miller crashed a stolen SUV outside tiny Hopewell New Jersey. Her seriously injured body was found by the police chief’s daughter, Lindsay, on her way home.

When Hope regained consciousness in the hospital, she had no memory of the crash – or of any part of her life before it. She was a blank slate with no knowledge of who she was or what she was doing on that road or in that car. She had to start her life over with nothing to guide her.

But Lindsay saw her rescue of the young woman as a responsibility. She stood by the woman now called Hope every step of the way. The entire town protected her once the police chief and his daughter took her under their wing, always looking out for her. And making sure that no one tried to take advantage of her. They even found work for her, always paying in cash because Hope had no ID and no way to get one without a birth certificate. Legally, Hope existed in limbo.

Emotionally, she was a woman who began to want to stretch her wings – however tentatively. Hopewell was safe for her, but it was also a place where everyone was up in her business all the time. Lindsay’s close friendship was comforting but also confining, so Hope struck out on her own.

She moved to the Hamptons, found a place to rent for cash and an under-the-table job as a realtor’s assistant. Also for cash.

And then she disappeared. After a couple of weeks of no calls and no texts, her frantic best friend went to East Hampton to see Hope for herself. Only to learn that her friend hadn’t been seen or heard from for over a week. And that no one, not even the local police, was willing to start even a cursory search for a missing woman who might have just decided to vanish just as thoroughly as she had appeared all those years ago.

But Lindsay refused to believe that. She refused to let go. And in her unrelenting search for her missing friend she turned over a rock that no one even knew was there – until the snake crawled out.

Escape Rating A+: What makes this thriller so suspenseful and so damn, pardon me, thrilling is the way that it turns itself inside out not just once, but over and over and over again. The story starts out simple – a woman is missing and her friend wants to find her.

Then it grows tentacles.

Hope may have scammed her boss out of some cash before she disappeared. It looks like someone left behind a lot of blood in her last known location – and it’s not her blood. Someone claims she was stalking her boyfriend – and the man’s corpse turns up literally dead in the water – but not a drowning victim. No one shoots themselves in the back of the neck, hiding the wound under the hairline to make it harder to spot.

So Hope, whoever she really is, is wanted for murder.

But those tentacles suck in an NYPD homicide detective who has never given up on finding her father’s murderer. Which should be one hell of a stretch of the long arm of coincidence. Except that Hope has no memory of who she was or where she came from, so it’s just barely possible that she had something to do with either the death of a cop in Wichita Kansas fifteen years ago OR that her true identity had some relationship to the serial killer case that obsessed him.

And it’s equally possible that nothing Lindsay Kelly thought she knew about her best friend was really true. Or that someone that either Hatcher or Kelly has relied upon in this crisis is who they think they are. Or both. Possibly both. Frighteningly both.

This is a page-turning, nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat read as ideas and assumptions knot and unknot at breakneck speed with each move that Lindsay Kelly and Ellie Hatcher take. They are both searching for a truth that neither of them really wants to find. A truth that very nearly finds them first.

And just when the reader thinks the story is done, it twists one last time and muddies all the water all over again.

I had not realized when I picked this up that it was the 6th in a series featuring NYPD homicide detective Ellie Hatcher. I was immersed in it immediately without that background as the story focuses more on the original characters Lindsay Kelly and Hope Maxwell than it does Hatcher. But the story was so compelling that now I’m terribly curious about the earlier books in the series, starting with Dead Connection, so I’ll probably go back and pick them up the next time I’m looking for a compelling police thriller.

Because Find Me had me in its grip from the very first page.

Review: A Proposal They Can’t Refuse by Natalie Cana

Review: A Proposal They Can’t Refuse by Natalie CanaA Proposal They Can't Refuse by Natalie Caña
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Vega Family Love Stories #1
Pages: 336
Published by Mira on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Natalie Caña turns up the heat, humor and heart in this debut rom-com about a Puerto Rican chef and an Irish American whiskey distiller forced into a fake engagement by their scheming octogenarian grandfathers.
Kamilah Vega is desperate to convince her family to update their Puerto Rican restaurant and enter it into the Fall Foodie Tour. With the gentrification of their Chicago neighborhood, it's the only way to save the place. The fly in her mofongo--her blackmailing abuelo says if she wants to change anything in his restaurant, she'll have to marry the one man she can't stand: his best friend's grandson.
Liam Kane spent a decade working to turn his family's distillery into a contender. Now he and his grandfather are on the verge of winning a national competition. Then Granda hits him with a one-two punch: he has cancer and he has his heart set on seeing Liam married before it's too late. And Granda knows just the girl...Kamilah Vega.
If they refuse, their grandfathers will sell the building that houses both their businesses. With their futures on the line, Kamilah and Liam plan to outfox the devious duo, faking an engagement until they both get what they want. But soon, they find themselves tangled up in more than either of them bargained for.

My Review:

This story may have elements of a rom-com, but it absolutely does not start with anything remotely resembling a “meet cute”. The first meeting we witness between Kamilah Vega and Liam Kane is clearly not their first meeting. Their grandfathers have been best friends since before their parents were born, Kamilah and Liam have known each other since childhood – even if they can’t seem to stand each other as adults.

But the real reason that their meeting in the opening of this story isn’t a meet-cute is because the first interaction we see between Kamilah and Liam is when she punches him in the junk. Hard and fast. (I can still hear him wheezing in agony from here.)

That opening scene sets up a surprising amount of the action in this “proposal”, even if that’s not obvious to the players in that particular scene.

Both the Vega Family and the Kane Family owe their hearts, their souls and their origin to this two octogenarians, Kamilah’s beloved Abuelo, Santiago Vegas and Liam’s cantankerous grandpa Killian served together, bought a former blacksmithy in Chicago’s Humboldt Park together, and have raised their businesses and their families side-by-side.

Now the old men, the misbehaving delinquents of their senior citizens’ home, have come to their grandchildren with an offer that neither Liam nor Kamilah can afford to refuse.

Kamilah wants to modernize the Vega Family’s Puerto Rican restaurant to compete with the new, bougie eateries that are moving in on the gentrifying neighborhood. Her parents and her siblings never listen to anything she says, always brushing her off with tales of childhood misdemeanors – even though she has a degree in the culinary arts and is the person they all rely on to get shit done.

She still gets shit on to the point of abuse by pretty much everyone in the family – even though she’s right. They have to either compromise a bit to stay in business – or let the family business fade away with so many other local institutions that are being washed away in the tide of gentrification.

Liam just wants his grandpa to stick around long enough for them to realize Liam’s father’s dream. The Kanes are whiskey distillers, and the signature blend that Connor Kane put up before he died in a boating accident is about to mature. Killian has cancer that he’s not planning to even think about treating. Liam wants him to at least try to stick around – because he can’t bear the thought of losing anyone else.

The old men still own those family businesses and the building that houses both the businesses AND the families, even if they’ve left it to the next generation to run those enterprises. So the deal is simple. Kamilah gets her shot at running the restaurant, Liam gets his grandpa to enter treatment, and in return Liam and Kamilah get engaged and move in together – even though they haven’t been able to be in the same room with each other without breaking into a fight since they were children. And in return their grandfathers don’t sell the building out from under them all..

Nobody’s motives are remotely pure in this arrangement, but everybody gets something they want. Except, of course, for Kamilah and Liam’s friends and family – who all believe that this fake relationship is real.

Unless, of course, it is.

Escape Rating B: I’m not exactly sure that this book is a romantic comedy. It is certainly a romance, but I didn’t think a bit of it was funny – at least not once we learn what the grandfathers are up to besides switching out ALL the decaf at their community with espresso. And even that’s not really all that funny, as someone nearly had a heart attack from the caffeine surprise.

These families are both hot messes, with Kamilah and Liam being the biggest messes of them all. A big part of this story is them revealing to each other exactly what’s packed inside the emotional baggage that each of them has been lugging around since they were children. The unpacking of that messy luggage is heartbreaking all by itself without factoring in Killian’s cancer diagnosis.

It’s also not funny that the Vegas’ treatment of Kamilah, as much as they love her and as much as they mean well, borders on abuse. Nothing she does is ever right, nothing she says is ever taken seriously, and she’s beaten down at every single turn with a recitation of her failures going all the way back to early childhood. Whatever they think they’re accomplishing, all they’re really doing is undermining her self esteem while expecting her to pick up everyone’s slack.

That Kamilah has turned into a martyr about it may not be a healthy reaction – but it’s not a surprising one either. She’s learned that the only way to get anything approaching what she wants is to be a big underhanded about it – in ways that eventually bite her in the ass.

Liam still blames his father for dying when Liam was 11. His grandmother died in the same accident and his grandfather drove Liam’s mother away in the aftermath. Liam expects all relationships to end in people leaving him, as his grandfather is about to do. He pushes everyone away and doesn’t know how to make himself stop.

Kamilah’s manipulations run smack into Liam’s need to push people away before they leave him – giving him the perfect excuse to expose everyone’s machinations in this mess into the bargain. It’s not funny at all. It’s downright tragic.

What makes this story work is that they get the help they both need. It’s not so much a complete happy ever after as it is a happy work in progress with a sincere hope of ever after. Love doesn’t conquer or cure all – nor should it. There’s too much that needs fixing in this case. But it does provide a firm foundation to stand on to get the work done.

That’s a lesson we don’t see often enough in romance, but I’m definitely here for it.

Review: As Seen on TV by Meredith Schorr

Review: As Seen on TV by Meredith SchorrAs Seen on TV by Meredith Schorr
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 352
Published by Forever on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Fans of the Hallmark Channel and Gilmore Girls will adore this delightful rom‑com about a city girl who goes in search of small-town happiness, only to discover life—and love—are nothing like the TV movies.
Emerging journalist Adina Gellar is done with dating in New York City. If she’s learned anything from made-for-TV romance movies, it’s that she’ll find love in a small town—the kind with harvest festivals, delightful but quirky characters, and scores of delectable single dudes. So when a big-city real estate magnate targets tiny Pleasant Hollow for development, Adi knows she’s found the perfect story—one that will earn her a position at a coveted online magazine, so she can finally start adulting for real . . . and maybe even find her dream man in the process. 
Only Pleasant Hollow isn’t exactly “pleasant.” There’s no charming bakery, no quaint seasonal festivals, and the residents are more ambivalent than welcoming. The only upside is Finn Adams, who’s more mouthwatering than the homemade cherry pie Adi can’t seem to find—even if he does work for the company she’d hoped to bring down. Suddenly Adi has to wonder if maybe TV got it all wrong after all. But will following her heart mean losing her chance to break into the big time?

My Review:

As Adina Gellar discovers, life is NOT like a Hallmark movie. Except when it is.

It could be said that 25-year-old Adina Gellar is experiencing a “failure to launch”. She’s still living with her mother in their rent-controlled NYC apartment. She’s graduated from college, but she’s looking for a job in journalism – and that’s one field that very much isn’t what it used to be. So she has two low-paying jobs as a spin instructor and a barista so that she can contribute something to household expenses. And she keeps cold-calling the editor of one lifestyle publication hoping that one of her ideas will click. She’s trying, but it seems like not very hard because her nest is much too comfortable.

She’s also fed up with the dating scene after yet another first date where the guy can’t be bothered to show up. She’s done.

But she’s addicted to Hallmark movies, so when she sees a profile of a big time New York City real estate developer who has bought up a huge building site in a little town about 2 hours outside the city, she thinks she’s found a story straight out of one of those Hallmark movies she loves so much.

She even manages to sell the story to that editor she keeps calling. Now all she has to do is spend a week or two in beautiful, rustic Pleasant Hollow and write a story about its wonderful small town ambiance, close-knit community, and fears of losing its identity and heritage in the face of a big, bad developer coming in and gentrifying the place.

Adi assumes that Pleasant Hollow is going to be just like all the quirky, plucky, welcoming little towns that she’s seen in all those Hallmark movies. And that she’ll find a hunky, handsome local who will sweep her off her feet.

None of Adi’s Hallmark fueled hopes and dreams about Pleasant Hollow turn out to be remotely true. Except for one. She does find a hunky, handsome man who does sweep her off her feet – after he laughs at her rather a lot – and justifiably so. But Finn Adams isn’t local.

He’s the on-site representative for that supposedly greedy developer that Adi was planning to cast as the villain in her story. But bad boys need love too – and so do slightly naïve would-be journalists.

Escape Rating C-: I really, really wanted to like this and I just didn’t. The idea had the potential for so many happy feels – rather like the Hallmark movies that inspired it. But it was let down by its main character.

Adi is naïve to the point of ridiculousness. We’re not surprised that Finn has fun misdirecting her, we’re just surprised that she’s so gullible as to fall for it. I know that I lot of people LOVE Hallmark movies – and I’ve certainly enjoyed the books that some of them have been based on, but does anyone believe that anything in them is real? Seriously?
That being said, I kind of liked the schadenfreude of Adi discovering that small towns – or at least the small town she was visiting, were absolutely nothing like what she’d seen on TV.

While I did like Adi’s relationship with her mother, as well as her lovely friendship with her lifelong bestie Kate, Adi herself just wasn’t enough to carry the book. Although it certainly made for a fairytale ending that she not only got the guy but that she managed to fail upwards in her journalism career in a way that would be perfect for a Hallmark movie – but in real life only happens to cis, straight, white men who got much luckier in the difficulty setting for their life than the even the regular lowest difficulty setting would allow.

Your reading mileage may definitely vary, but I think the next time I’m looking for the equivalent of Hallmark movie feels I’m going to go back to Virgin River – even though that’s on Netflix.

Review: The Appeal by Janice Hallett

Review: The Appeal by Janice HallettThe Appeal by Janice Hallett
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 419
Published by Atria Books on January 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This murder mystery follows a community rallying around a sick child—but when escalating lies lead to a dead body, everyone is a suspect.
The Fairway Players, a local theatre group, is in the midst of rehearsals for an Arthur Miller play, when tragedy strikes the family of director Martin Haywood and his wife Helen, the play’s star. Their young granddaughter has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and with an experimental treatment costing a tremendous sum, their fellow castmates rally to raise the money to give her a chance at survival.
But not everybody is convinced of the experimental treatment’s efficacy—nor of the good intentions of those involved. New actress Sam, a former NGO worker, raises doubts. But are her suspicions justified? Or does she have a history with the doctor involved? As tension grows within the community, things come to a shocking head the night of the dress rehearsal. The next day, a dead body is found, and soon, an arrest is made. In the run-up to the trial, two young lawyers sift through the material—emails, messages, letters—with a growing suspicion that a killer may still be on the loose.
A wholly modern take on the epistolary novel, The Appeal is a debut perfect for fans of Richard Osman and Lucy Foley.

My Review:

As the reader opens this story, they are in pretty much the same position as Femi and Charlotte. They, and we, are presented with a pile of correspondence and miscellanea to read through on behalf of a presumably prestigious law firm. There’s an assumption that a crime must have been committed somewhere along the way or they wouldn’t have to read through this mess – but neither they nor we even know what the crime was, let alone whodunnit.

And it is a mess – as are the people whose correspondence they are plowing through. (Although that should probably be “plough” instead of “plow” as this mystery is set in the U.K.)

As we – and they – eventually find out, the point of receiving this pile of email texts and assorted what-nots without any explanatory information is for them to go through said pile with a completely unbiased viewpoint and create that explanatory information. Even if they don’t know what it is they’re supposed to explain – or why.

The story builds upon itself by reading that correspondence with them. As we all sort through the emails, patterns begin to emerge. Whether those patterns will have anything to do with a crime, or for that matter whether those patterns will make any sense at all, is left up to the readers – both the ones who are part of the story and the ones who are following it.

What emerges is the story of a small town with an even smaller and more insular community nestled within it. And what happens when an outsider manages to work their way in and exposes the secrets that lie at the center of everything that the members thought they all held dear.

Escape Rating A: The easy way to describe the appeal of The Appeal would be Noises Off meets Knives Out. A play about the behind the scenes shenanigans of a play combined with a story of all the members of a wealthy family behaving very badly while everyone involved is conning everybody else.

But that description does not convey the sheer, utterly glorious WTF’ery of The Appeal.

What we’re reading right along with Femi and Charlotte, is the seemingly uncensored email correspondence among a group of amateur thespians. The Fairway Players, helmed by director Martin Hayward and leading lady Helen Grace Hayward, have, for the last several years, put on a series of plays with the voluntary assistance of many members of the community who are, or at least who aspire to be, in the inner circle of the Haywards, the most important family in the area.

They’ve just completed their latest production and are casting for the next, when two critical events take place. Newcomers have arrived in the area, Sam and Kel Greenwood, both taking up nursing positions at a nearby hospital after nearly a decade serving in underfunded, overstressed but absolutely vital medical clinics in the Central African Republic.

And the Hayward’s granddaughter Poppy is diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, Medulloblastoma. They have learned about an experimental drug on trial in the U.S. that will give little Poppy a better chance of beating the cancer so they are sending out a high-profile appeal in order to raise the money for the not-yet-proven treatment.

An amount which keeps fluctuating, but always, only and ever upwards.

The genius of this approach to relating and eventually solving this mystery is the way that the readers are all (Charlotte, Femi, the actual reader themself – or at least this reader) is compelled to move from page to page, and email to email, rather in the same way that very few people can resist sticking at least a few pieces into any random jigsaw puzzle they happen to come across.

Each message is another puzzle piece, while just as it is in solving a cardboard jigsaw puzzle, some don’t seem to fit at all and some the reader/puzzle solver is oh-so-tempted to shove in whether they fit or not because the mind wants there to be a discernable pattern and inevitably starts trying to create it whether that pattern is visible yet or not.

What we do learn early on – as the viewer does in Knives Out – is that whatever is really going on these people are ALL hot messes.

At first, it seems as if the crime involved is a financial crime. From the earliest read of the correspondence it’s obvious that something about the medical charity “A Cure for Poppy”, isn’t on the up-and-up. What we – and the investigators – don’t know is whether financial fraud is the only crime being perpetrated.

And we can’t wait to find out.

Epistolary novels like this one, stories written entirely or nearly entirely as correspondence, are difficult to pull off, but The Appeal manages to do so with aplomb. In the case of The Appeal, that we are creating and solving the puzzle with each message – however off the wall either the text or the writer might be – makes the reader part of the solution in a way that compels much the same way as eating one chip from a bag. It’s hard to stop.

Or at least it was for me. I hope it will be for you, too.

Review: The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery

Review: The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan MalleryThe Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 448
Published by Mira on May 31, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery—a story of friends who become family, giving each other courage to start over…
When fate brings three strangers to a charming space for lease on the California coast, the Boardwalk Bookshop is born. Part bookstore, part gift shop, part bakery, it's a dream come true for Bree, Mikki and Ashley. But while their business is thriving, their personal lives are…not.
Bree, wounded by brilliant but cold parents and her late husband's ultimate betrayal, has sworn to protect her heart at all costs. Even from Ashley's brother, a writer and adventurer who has inspired millions. He's the first man to see past Bree's barricades to her true self, which terrifies her. Mikki has this divorce thing all figured out—somehow, she's stayed friends with her ex and her in-laws…until a new man changes how everyone looks at her, and how she sees herself. Meanwhile, Ashley discovers that the love of her life never intends to marry. Can she live without being a wife if it means she can have everything else she's ever wanted?
At sunset every Friday on the beach in front of the Boardwalk Bookshop, the three friends share a champagne toast. As their bond grows closer, they challenge one another to become the best versions of themselves in this heartachingly beautiful story of friendship, sisterhood and the transformative power of love. 

My Review:

Six months after their decision to move their businesses in together, Ashley, Bree and Mikki are all pretty happy with the results. Between the new, more central, beachfront location, and the synergy between Bree’s bookshop on one end, Mikki’s gift shop on the other and Ashley’s cupcakery in the middle, traffic is up, profits are up and all three businesses are booming.

Howsomever, on the personal front, while Ashley believes she’s happy with her live-in boyfriend Seth, and Bree is certain she’s happy with using men for sex as long as she’s up front about her unwillingness to commit for more than a night or two. Meanwhile Mikki believes that she’s content with the company of Earl – her vibrator.

Their business successes are real. Their romantic contentment, on the other hand, is considerably more questionable as each of their respective illusions crash and burn in different and unexpected ways.

Bree meets someone who makes her wish she wasn’t too damaged to let anyone into her heart ever again. Ashley discovers that her perfect boyfriend has commitment issues of his own – he claims to want to be with her forever but refuses to even consider marriage. While Mikki’s realization that a vibrator is far from enough finds her leading not one but two men on while believing she’s doing no such thing.

The story of the Boardwalk Bookshop and its three proprietors is the story of what happens after things fall apart. And how they help each other put everything back together. Not the same as before. Not necessarily and certainly not completely better. But getting up and putting one foot in front of the other no matter how hard it is until it gets just a bit easier. Because they have each other.

Escape Rating B+: Although this book is being billed as a romance, the heart of the story isn’t the romances. The heart of the story is the friendship. It’s not that love doesn’t lift them up, it’s that the love between these women who began as strangers is what gives them the support to make those romances possible.

Bree is the one who comes into the story with the most damage. Her famously intellectual parents saw her as an interruption to their work and were not in the least bit shy about reminding her of that fact. Looking for love and acceptance, she married a man who made her feel important because he needed her to take care of him, not because he either loved her or respected her. She tries to say she’s not capable of falling in love, but what she really means is that she’s too afraid to risk her heart again so keeps people at arm’s length so they can’t get close enough to hurt her. Bree is the one who needs the most help and the most healing, but it’s not going to happen unless she is able to admit that she’s just plain scared.

Ashley’s initial damage is old and scarred over and she’s learned to deal with it reasonably well. Her older brother barely survived a hit and run accident. While her parents were taking care of him, she learned to take care of herself. Her habit of compromising her own needs because others’ were so much greater makes her cling too long to a relationship that just isn’t working because she’s so used to giving up what she wants for others. When she can’t this time she’s crushed. (And IMHO he’s an asshat.)

I have to admit that I found it easier to empathize with Bree and Ashley than I did Mikki. She’s so competent in her business and so ditzy in her personal life that I didn’t enjoy her parts of the story as much as the others – although her frequent conversational gaffes about Earl were hilarious. But Mikki’s dilemma is that she’s considering remarrying her ex-husband while dating someone else. If second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience, what are second marriages to the person you divorced? The triumph of hope over experience AND knowledge? I know it does happen in real life but in her situation it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Getting herself out of the mess that she’d unwittingly gotten herself into required lots of uncomfortable conversations and a whole lot of groveling.

All in all, this is a charming story about three women who help each other to be strong in their broken places – sometimes even in spite of themselves. So come for the champagne-fueled walks on the beach, and stay for the healing power of friendship. It’s all here in The Boardwalk Bookshop.

Review: A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline Winspear

Review: A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline WinspearA Sunlit Weapon (Maisie Dobbs #17) by Jacqueline Winspear
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II
Series: Maisie Dobbs #17
Pages: 358
Published by Harper on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the latest installment of the New York Times bestselling series, a series of possible attacks on British pilots leads Jacqueline Winspear's beloved heroine Maisie Dobbs into a mystery involving First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
October 1942. Jo Hardy, a 22-year-old ferry pilot, is delivering a Supermarine Spitfire--the fastest fighter aircraft in the world--to Biggin Hill Aerodrome, when she realizes someone is shooting at her aircraft from the ground. Returning to the location on foot, she finds an American serviceman in a barn, bound and gagged. She rescues the man, who is handed over to the American military police; it quickly emerges that he is considered a suspect in the disappearance of a fellow soldier who is missing.
Tragedy strikes two days later, when another ferry pilot crashes in the same area where Jo's plane was attacked. At the suggestion of one of her colleagues, Jo seeks the help of psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs. Meanwhile, Maisie's husband, a high-ranking political attach� based at the American embassy, is in the thick of ensuring security is tight for the first lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, during her visit to the Britain. There's already evidence that German agents have been circling: the wife of a president represents a high value target. Mrs. Roosevelt is clearly in danger, and there may well be a direct connection to the death of the woman ferry pilot and the recent activities of two American servicemen.
To guarantee the safety of the First Lady--and of the soldier being held in police custody--Maisie must uncover that connection. At the same time, she faces difficulties of an entirely different nature with her young daughter, Anna, who is experiencing wartime struggles of her own.

My Review:

I love the Maisie Dobbs series, so I had been saving this book for a time when I needed a reading treat. As yesterday was Memorial Day, I was looking for a book about war and what comes after. Considering the origins of Memorial Day, I probably should have been looking for a book set during the U.S. Civil War, but I remembered I’d been saving this one and today seemed like a perfect time. So here we are.

Part of what makes this series so compelling is the way that Maisie Dobbs as an investigator turns some of the mystery conventions on their pointy little heads. A lot of fictional detectives don’t believe in coincidence, so when there are multiple crimes it usually turns out that there’s a single cause or perpetrator at their roots.

Maisie, as trained by the late and often lamented Maurice Blanche, sees coincidences as guideposts – not necessarily to the crime she’s investigating, but to something in her own life that needs looking into. Which means that in addition to the usual questioning of witnesses and suspects, Maisie is quite often questioning herself. Not that she doubts herself, but that she’s always looking for the lesson that the universe is trying to teach her.

The cases and incidents that she undertakes to resolve in A Sunlit Weapon have huge, potentially world-shattering consequences. They will also change the life of one little girl. And all the aspects of that tangled investigation are wrapped around war. Not just this war, but also the one before. And not just the fighting, but the grief that inevitably follows in its wake.

Maisie begins with one case. A young aviatrix, a member of the Air Transport Auxiliary tasked with repositioning planes from one airbase to another, is nearly shot down over Kent by someone on the ground. When Jo Hardy goes back to check out the scene on the ground, she finds, not the shooter, but Mattias Crittenden, a young black American soldier bound and gagged in a deserted barn. She is determined to make sure that the black GI gets justice and not a lynching, so she turns to Maisie for help.

Maisie also has a much more personal case of her own. Her adopted daughter Anna is being bullied at school because Anna is slightly darker skinned than the typical “English Rose” complexion. The children at her school have suddenly started harassing her and referring to her as an enemy Italian, when in fact she’s English. (Her father was a Maltese sailor. Malta became part of the British Empire in 1814.)

What has Maisie perplexed is that Anna was happy in school and eager to learn – up until the past few weeks. Something at the school has changed – and not for the better.

These two “cases” shouldn’t have anything to do with each other. Or to the third case that falls into Maisie’s lap. Her new husband, Mark Scott, is an American attached to the U.S. Embassy. His current task is to handle security for Eleanor Roosevelt’s imminent visit to Britain. Scott has learned that there are plans to assassinate the First Lady while she’s in Britain.

Maisie’s search of the barn where Private Crittenden was discovered turned up two items. The dog tags of Crittenden’s friend Private Stone, who is missing – and coded plans that reference the First Lady’s codename while she’s traveling.

Somehow, Jo Hardy’s mysterious ground shooter and the plot to assassinate Mrs. Roosevelt are linked – even if Maisie doesn’t yet know how. And all of it, along with the mystery at little Anna’s school, may not all be part of the same series of crimes, but are all part of the same thing – the terrible consequences of war.

Escape Rating A-: We’ve followed Maisie from her childhood apprenticeship with Maurice Blanche through her nursing service in WW1, through her grief at the loss of her fiancé, her eventual wedding and subsequent tragic widowhood, her recovery and now her second marriage to the American Mark Scott who she met in a previous book in this series, The American Agent. What we haven’t seen until now is Maisie as a married woman, as the period in her life when she was married happened between Leaving Everything Most Loved and A Dangerous Place. So for those of us who have followed Maisie through her career, this is the first time we’ve seen her in the position where she’s going to have to negotiate how to balance her work life and personal life in a way that she hasn’t had to before.

Because being an investigator is very much core to who Maisie is as a person. It wasn’t easy giving it up to marry the first time around, but she was younger and less well established. At this point in her life she knows she can’t give up being who she is to become a traditional wife and mother – something that the Headmistress of her daughter’s school throws in her face in their first confrontation.

At the same time, a part of the undercurrent of this story is that Maisie’s job is dangerous, and that no matter what she promises she’s not going to stop doing it. And that her new husband hates the danger she throws herself into – even though that kind of danger is the reason they met in the first place.

But the case, or rather cases, that Maisie looks into exemplify the way that Maisie works. She pulls on one thread because it’s part of her initial remit from her client. The more she pulls, the more she investigates, the more complicated and interwoven the threads seem to be – until they send out branches and tentacles into people and places she never thought they’d go.

It’s not a quick process, so Maisie’s stories aren’t page-turners in a thriller sense. And yet they’re compelling because Maisie makes them so. She’s intelligent and complicated, and the way she works through her cases is the same – no matter where they lead her.

In this case they lead her from a black GI accused of killing his white friend even though no corpse has been found. It’s all too clear that this is a rush to judgment or that he’s a convenient scapegoat because of the color of his skin. There is no part of the way that the US military treats its black soldiers, particularly in the persons of its MPs, that does not grate – not just on 21st century readers but on the British public at large at the time. Because racial segregation doesn’t make sense and that’s all too easy to see through the eyes of people who don’t employ it. (That’s not to say that Britain didn’t and doesn’t have plenty of its own problems in regards to class separation, elitism, etc., just that it didn’t run that way at the time.)

But in doing her best to ensure that Pvt. Crittenden isn’t rushed to a hangman’s noose or the electric chair for the murder of a man who might not even be dead Maisie opens up more cans of worms. As she does.

And in the middle of investigating how Crittenden got to be in that barn – no matter how many roadblocks, literal and figurative, get thrown in her way – Maisie links the barn to the shooting, the shooting to a damaged young man, and the young man all the way back to the Headmistress of her daughter’s school. Not because they have the same beliefs or commit any of the same actions, but because they were all, every single one, damaged by the war that was supposed to have ended all wars.

Not because it didn’t, but because war is hell – both for the ones who fight it and the ones who wait behind.

I am already looking forward to Maisie’s next adventure, and not just because I’m wondering how hard (or if) she’s going to have to hit her husband with a clue-by-four to get it through his head that she’s never going to turn away from doing the right thing no matter how dangerous it might be. As this book took place in the autumn of 1943, I expect the next book to cover some of 1944. If Maisie ends up being involved in the planning of or the misdirection wrapped around D-Day I will not be at all surprised. Riveted, but not surprised. And I can’t wait to read it!

Review: Never Coming Home by Hannah Mary McKinnon

Review: Never Coming Home by Hannah Mary McKinnonNever Coming Home by Hannah Mary McKinnon
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, psychological thriller, suspense, thriller
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on May 24, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

First comes love. Then comes murder. Lucas Forester didn't hate his wife. Michelle was brilliant, sophisticated and beautiful. Sure, she had extravagant spending habits and that petty attitude, a total disregard for anyone below her status. But she also had a lot to offer. Most notably, wealth that only the one percent could comprehend.
For years, Lucas had been honing a flawless plan to inherit Michelle’s fortune. Unfortunately, it involved taking a hit out on her.
Every track was covered, no trace left behind, and now Lucas plays the grieving husband so well he deserves an award. But when a shocking photo and cryptic note show up on his doorstep, Lucas goes from hunter to prey.
Someone is onto him. And they’re closing in.
Told with dark wit and a sharply feminist sensibility, Never Coming Home is a terrifying tale of duplicity that will have you side-eyeing your spouse as you dash to the breathtaking end.

My Review:

Lucas Forester probably wasn’t the only person to have more than a few idle thoughts about killing their spouse during the long months of COVID induced lockdowns. He probably wasn’t even the only one to come up with more than a few not-so-hypothetical scenarios to accomplish it. Hopefully there weren’t too many that actually contracted to get the job done once things went back to normal.

Then again, part of Lucas’ normal was that he didn’t like his wife all that much. He married her for her money, and has been playing a long game since the day they met, successfully pretending to be a loving, doting spouse. He’d planned to divorce her and take her to the cleaners in the settlement. It’s not his fault she made him sign an iron-clad prenup, leaving her demise as his only option to collect all the money she was just throwing away anyway.

Lucas thought that he had tied up all the loose ends. He used the darkweb not just to find a contract killer but even to vet the qualifications of the contractor he found. He paid in cryptocurrency. He only used burner phones for the rare contacts. He made sure to have an ironclad alibi for when the hit took place. It was his brilliant idea to make the whole thing look like kidnapping for ransom, because his wife’s family had plenty of money for ransom.

It was supposed to be a flawless performance. A perfect murder. All he had to do was wait until someone else – the police, her mother, the insurance company – declared her dead. He was prepared to play the long game of being the grieving almost-widower for as long as it would take.

Then it all started falling apart – and so did he.

Escape Rating A-: What makes this story surprisingly compelling is that we see it from inside Lucas’ head – which is an honestly funny place to be. Because Lucas is right, there is a little bit of evil in all of us. So as we follow along with him as his plans come apart around his ears, we’re a bit him and we do kind of feel for him as well as with him.

Because he did have a pretty hard-knock life that he’s done his best to leave behind. Unfortunately the way that he’s left it behind is by hiding his true origins and conning pretty much the entire world.

(The idea of being inside the head of the murderer can be squicky, but Lucas isn’t insane and isn’t a serial killer. He’s not interested in blood and gore for their own sake and doesn’t dwell on them at all even in the privacy of his own head. Lucas is all about getting the job done. If it weren’t for the fact that the job that needs doing – at least from his perspective – is murder he’d be an interesting guy to be around. And he’s got such a snarky and wry perspective on life that his observations often ring true.)

It helps a lot that he’s intelligent and brutally honest inside his own skull. His running commentary about everything he does and everyone he interacts with along the way generates a TON of rueful chuckles. His wife was a bit of a Karen. She was an over privileged trust-fund baby who never grew up and never even saw the people she stepped on and over along her self-indulgent way.

And he really, really loves his dog.

This is not the story of Lucas’ original plan to have his wife murdered. When we first meet Lucas that event is already in the past. Instead, this is a story about Lucas’ chickens all coming home to roost. Not just about the bad karma from his recent actions, but going all the way back to all the bad eggs that Lucas has hatched over his entire, never above board life.

At the beginning, it really, really looks like Lucas is going to get away with it all. And he’s pretty proud of himself about it. As the story gets going, we start to get an inkling that maybe it isn’t going to go his way after all, but we’re not sure why or how it’s going to fall apart. Or even how we feel about it because we do feel for him a bit more than might be comfortable.

And his story gets even more compelling as we watch him crash and burn. We’re even with him as he figures out just how he got done in.

As the old saying goes, those best laid plans of mice and men often going astray – and Lucas’ plans certainly have. That saying makes absolutely no mention of the best laid plans of women – and maybe that’s something Lucas should have thought of before he ever got the idea to murder his wife.