Review: A Casualty of War by Charles Todd

Review: A Casualty of War by Charles ToddA Casualty of War (Bess Crawford #9) by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, World War I
Series: Bess Crawford #9
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From New York Times bestselling author Charles Todd comes a haunting tale that explores the impact of World War I on all who witnessed it—officers, soldiers, doctors, and battlefield nurses like Bess Crawford.

Though the Great War is nearing its end, the fighting rages on. While waiting for transport back to her post, Bess Crawford meets Captain Alan Travis from the island of Barbados. Later, when he’s brought into her forward aid station disoriented from a head wound, Bess is alarmed that he believes his distant English cousin, Lieutenant James Travis, shot him. Then the Captain is brought back to the aid station with a more severe wound, once more angrily denouncing the Lieutenant as a killer. But when it appears that James Travis couldn’t have shot him, the Captain’s sanity is questioned. Still, Bess wonders how such an experienced officer could be so wrong.

On leave in England, Bess finds the Captain strapped to his bed in a clinic for brain injuries. Horrified by his condition, Bess and Sergeant Major Simon Brandon travel to James Travis’s home in Suffolk, to learn more about the baffling relationship between these two cousins.

Her search will lead this smart, capable, and compassionate young woman into unexpected danger, and bring her face to face with the visible and invisible wounds of war that not even the much-longed for peace can heal.

My Review:

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And that’s how it seems for much of A Casualty of War, as every time that Bess Crawford attempts to make things better for Captain Alan Travis, she seems to end up digging the poor man an even bigger hole. Bess being Bess, she feels more than a bit guilty about it, and a whole lot responsible.

And it’s that sense of responsibility that gets her in deep trouble. As it usually does.

Bess’ war is ending. Not with a bang, but seemingly with a whimper, as the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 is noted by the chiming of a surgeon’s watch and nothing more at the forward aid station where Bess is currently stationed.

The guns may have finally been silenced, but there are still plenty of casualties pouring into the aid station, including Captain Travis. Bess met Travis once before, as the both spent a brief respite at a canteen in between trips back to the front. She found him pleasant, affable, intelligent and eager to return home to his family estate in Barbados.

Now he’s a patient, claiming that he was shot by someone on their own side. Not merely someone unknown, but his cousin James. His late cousin James. Very late. A year late. Whether James went up or down after his death in combat, he hasn’t been shooting anyone recently. On either side. For more than a year.

And that’s where the story kicks into gear and moves back to England. All the nurses who served in forward positions get sent home for two weeks’ leave, including Bess. She still has a duty to perform, but where that duty can best be provided is something that she’ll learn after a couple of weeks to rest and regroup. Or at least that’s what supposed to happen.

Instead, Bess takes on Captain Travis’ continuing case. Not his medical case, not exactly. Rather, the mess that she feels she helped to land him in. Bess feels as if she was the one to suggest that his supposed assailant, the one who Travis said resembled his great-uncle, might be his cousin James. So when it turns out that James has been dead for over a year, Alan Travis gets classified as a head-case and sent to increasingly worse care.

Shell shock was considered a moral failing, not a disease.

But Bess remembers the man she met in that canteen before he was wounded. She thinks he’s telling a version of the truth. And that he’s definitely not crazy. Just because it couldn’t have been James does not mean that there was not a very real assailant, one who resembled his cousin, in a British uniform, shooting at him. Not once but twice. As Bess treated both his injuries, she knows for certain that the shots were real. The only question is who fired them.

Bess finds herself involved in not just a giant mess, but also a small town mystery. It’s not just that something is wrong with the treatment of Captain Alan Travis’ case, but it turns out that something is also very wrong with the administration of his cousin Lieutenant James Travis’ will. And that those two messes are somehow one and the same.

It will be up to Bess, with the help of her friend (and her father’s right-hand man) Sergeant Major Simon Brandon, to figure out who did what to whom before it’s too late. Not just for Captain Travis, but also for Bess herself.

Escape Rating B+: After the Magpie Murders a couple of weeks ago, I have been itching to sink my teeth into a good historical mystery. I pulled A Casualty of War out of the TBR stack a couple of weeks ahead of publication just to scratch that itch. And I’m glad I did.

A Duty to the Dead by Charles ToddI have loved this series from its very beginning in A Duty to the Dead. And if you like historical mystery or are a fan of Maisie Dobbs in particular, that’s where I recommend that new readers begin Bess Crawford’s journey. While Bess finds herself in the middle of a case during every book, the series is also the story of Bess’ war as a combat nurse. Her journey begins in A Duty to the Dead, while in A Casualty of War it is obvious that her war is coming to an end. Which makes this book not the best place to start.

The war itself is winding down in this book. It actually has wound down, but that’s something we know from history and not something that Bess was 100% certain of at the time. What happened on November 11, 1918 was an armistice, which is not a peace treaty. While the guns were silent, it was still possible that they would roar again. Which of course they did, but not for another 20 years.

So part of the underlying theme to A Casualty of War is that Bess’ war, and her war service, are coming to an end. Bess, like many combat veterans, suffers from PTSD, even if it wasn’t called that then. Her experiences, many of them horrific, will be with her for the rest of her life. And unlike women of previous generations, Bess is used to serving, not just to being useful, but to having a profession and the professional respect and recognition to go with it. Adjusting to peacetime is going to be difficult.

It’s not surprising that Bess involves herself in a mystery during her leave. She doesn’t know what to do with herself if she’s not taking care of someone else.

One of the things that made this particular case frustrating, at least for this reader, is that it was obvious fairly early on that whatever was going on in the village of Sinclair and whatever was going on with Captain Travis were connected, and that the issue revolved around his cousin James Travis’ estate. While whodunnit was not remotely clear, if only because we hadn’t met the perpetrator at that point, the why of things felt obvious.

But one of the fascinating things about the case was the way that Simon Brandon and Bess worked together. Their relationship has always been interesting. Simon is a few years older than Bess, probably ten but not more than fifteen. He’s been a part of her life from her very earliest memories as he joined her father’s regiment in India when she was a child, and when he had to lie about his age to enlist. While he seems to act as an older brother, he certainly isn’t. He is certainly her protector, but his protection never encroaches on Bess’ agency or autonomy, not even when he fairly obviously wishes that he could. Nearly every man who asks Bess to marry him, and there have been several, wonders if Brandon is the reason that she refuses. And so does this reader. He is the one person in Bess’ life who understands and accepts her as she is, and not as he expects a woman to be in that time and place.

So the mystery in A Casualty of War had its anticlimactic moments, and also resembled bits of A Pattern of Lies. But the questions that it asks about not just Bess’ future, but the future of all who served in that war that did not end all wars and must now lay down their guns and their scalpels, remains an open one.

I can’t wait to see where Bess finds herself, and how she finds herself, next.

Review: Away With the Fairies by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Away With the Fairies by Kerry GreenwoodAway With the Fairies (Phryne Fisher Mystery #11) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #11
Pages: 241
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on August 1st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

It’s 1928 in Melbourne and Phryne is asked to investigate the puzzling death of a famous author and illustrator of fairy stories. To do so, Phryne takes a job within the women’s magazine that employed the victim and finds herself enmeshed in her colleagues’ deceptions.

But while Phryne is learning the ins and outs of magazine publishing first hand, her personal life is thrown into chaos. Impatient for her lover Lin Chung’s imminent return from a silk-buying expedition to China, she instead receives an unusual summons from Lin Chung’s family, followed by a series of mysterious assaults and warnings.

My Review:

It feels as if Mr. Butler, Phryne Fisher’s butler and general factotum (particularly as portrayed in the TV series) , must be the direct ancestor of Summerset, Roarke’s majordomo in the In Death series. Or at least that’s what got me picking up Away with the Fairies, the next book in my Phryne Fisher series read, as I searched for comfort reading in the anticipation and wake of Hurricane Irma.

The murder victims in Secrets in Death and Away with the Fairies are also surprisingly similar. Both are women who operated in the gray areas that surround respectable journalism for their times. And both of them had an unhealthy interest in other people’s secrets, and the power that came with possessing those secrets and being willing to use that power.

And that’s what ultimately got both of them killed. It also makes neither of them a very sympathetic victim.

The victim is so unsympathetic in Away with the Fairies, that the case of Miss Lavender’s death isn’t even Phryne’s primary concern during the story. Instead, her sometimes desultory and often parceled out investigation into Miss Lavender’s seemingly unremarkable life and slightly puzzling death serves as a distraction to keep Phryne from her growing concern over her missing lover, Lin Chung.

His trip to China to purchase silks for his family business has gone on much longer than he planned, and Phryne’s dreams of his body being food for rapacious vermin are a disturbing message that something is very, very wrong. A message that is confirmed when Phryne receives Lin’s severed ear and a request for ransom from the pirates who have captured him. Phryne marshalls her best resources, in this case Bert and Cec, to find out everything that can be found about South Sea piracy, and prepares to rescue Lin, even if she must take on the pirates herself.

She’s more than capable of defeating them, single-handed if necessary. Just as soon as she knows where to hunt them down.

But Miss Lavender’s death niggles at her. The more she and her agent, in this case the resourceful Dot, discover, the more motives she finds for the woman’s death. It seems to have been inevitable that someone would finally bump her off, the question is, who managed to do it?

Escape Rating B: This was my second hurricane book. I was having no luck concentrating on anything more serious, or anything where I wasn’t already intimately familiar with the world within. As much as I love to really sink my reading teeth into good and deep worldbuilding, this just wasn’t the time.

When I’m looking for comfort read, I always turn to Phryne, and am swept away – if not quite as far away with the fairies as the victim in this case.

A bit of the story in Away with the Fairies reminded me fondly of Murder Must Advertise from the Lord Peter Wimsey series. Just as Wimsey infiltrates an advertising firm to investigate a murder, Phryne inserts herself into the ladies magazine where the victim and many of her suspects work. While Phryne never pretends to be anything other than who she is, she does conceal her profession as a detective until someone else lets that cat out of its bag.

Just as in yesterday’s Secrets in Death, the victim is a nasty piece of work – albeit on a much smaller scale this time around. She was always poking her nose into other people’s business, and using the knowledge gained to elicit small rewards and small revenges. It is amazing that she lived as long as she did, considering that her life was spent in two relatively small worlds where everyone knew her and ended up disliking her at best and fearing her at worst.

Her signature eccentricity about drawing and writing about fairies never felt fully explained or fully realized. It certainly made her stand out, and it also provided her with a modest living as a writer and illustrator, but it was so excessive that it felt as if it needed a bit more explanation, especially when combined with Phryne’s discovery that the profusion of fairy paraphernalia that overwhelmed the public areas of her apartment was not replicated in her private spaces, which were neat, orderly and most of all, uncluttered.

Having recently re-watched the first season of the TV series, the difference between the TV and literary versions of this story stand out even more clearly. The subplot revolving around Phryne’s concern for Lin Chung and her subsequent rescue of him are completely scrapped in the TV version for the weaker and much less compelling murder investigation. And even though I understand why, the story definitely loses something in translation. The story is much stronger in the book. Miss Lavender’s case was too slight and inconsequential to carry the whole story, and it’s better here where it doesn’t.

But I am always happy to visit with Phryne. And I look forward to reading Murder in Montparnasse, the next time I need a comfortable little murder. To read about, that is.

Review: Secrets in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Secrets in Death by J.D. RobbSecrets in Death (In Death, #45) 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 #45
Pages: 370
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 5th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A new novel in the #1 New York Times bestselling series: Lt. Eve Dallas must separate rumors from reality when a woman who traffics in other people’s secrets is silenced.

The chic Manhattan nightspot Du Vin is not the kind of place Eve Dallas would usually patronize, and it’s not the kind of bar where a lot of blood gets spilled. But that’s exactly what happens one cold February evening.

The mortally wounded woman is Larinda Mars, a self-described “social information reporter,” or as most people would call it, a professional gossip. As it turns out, she was keeping the most shocking stories quiet, for profitable use in her side business as a blackmailer. Setting her sights on rich, prominent marks, she’d find out what they most wanted to keep hidden and then bleed them dry. Now someone’s done the same to her, literally—with a knife to the brachial artery.

Eve didn’t like Larinda Mars. But she likes murder even less. To find justice for this victim, she’ll have to plunge into the dirty little secrets of all the people Larinda Mars victimized herself. But along the way, she may be exposed to some information she really didn’t want to know…

My Review:

Watching the trees whip back and forth in the wind, waiting out Tropical Storm Irma, I scrapped everything I was planning to read and went looking for comfort, for books that I knew would sweep me into their worlds from page one – because I’d been there many times before.

Lucky for me, I had a copy of Secrets in Death in the towering TBR pile, and I can always get caught up in Eve Dallas’ near future New York, whether any particular entry in the series is stellar, or as they sometimes are, just a visit with some very dear old friends.

Secrets in Death, while not quite at the top of the series, was a terrific way to kill a hurricane day by losing myself somewhere else.

As the story begins, Eve is having drinks with forensic anthropologist Garnet DeWinter at an upscale wine bar that Dallas normally wouldn’t be caught dead in, when a dead body literally drops into her lap – or at least dies in her arms. The DB (dead body) is instantly recognizable, not just to Eve and Garnet but to nearly everyone in New York City. Larinda Mars was a screen (read that as TV) gossip reporter with an ear for finding the worst dirt on the best people – or perhaps the other way around.

Even as little as Eve plugs into popular culture, she’s aware that there are plenty of people who will be happy to learn that the scum-sucker is dead – and that’s before Eve learns that Mars didn’t put all her best stories on the air. It turns out that the victim had a sideline, an extremely lucrative sideline, in blackmail.

Larinda Mars had plenty of victims. It’s all too easy for Eve to guess that one of those victims finally turned Mars into theirs. But which one? The line forms around the block, not just the block where Mars ostensibly lived, but also around the block where she hoarded her ill-gotten gains. She liked digging the dirt, she loved having people under her pwoer and she relished making enemies.

But she was incredibly good at judging her marks. Not just who would, and could, pay. But who would be willing to pay (and pay and pay) in order to protect not themselves, but to protect someone else that they loved. Because Larinda didn’t just go for current scandal. That was too easy. She specialized in combing through people’s pasts for secrets buried by decades. And if there wasn’t any current vulnerability, she was more than happy to manufacture evidence to link those scandals to the present.

Larinda Mars was scum. But now she’s Eve’s scum. And it’s up to Eve to find justice for the dead – even as the living cry out for their own.

Escape Rating B+: This was an absolutely delicious story. And more than a bit perverse in that deliciousness. Because, like Eve, the more we find out about Larinda Mars, the less sorry we are that she’s dead.

In order to discover the motive for Mars’ death, Eve has to wade through the deep shit (and there is no other word for it, crap does not even come close!) that made up her life. Mars had an absolute genius for discovering people who had something to hide. But hers was a peculiarly insidious type of genius, because she looked for especially vulnerable people whose secrets protected someone else.

She dies in the middle of one of her shakedowns. And we end up feeling much sorrier for her escaped victim than we do for her. And he’s just the tip of her very slimy iceberg.

A big part of the pleasure in this particular book is watching this disgusting woman’s empire of sleaze unravel. There’s a guilty pleasure in the whole investigation – at least until there’s a second victim. It’s only then that the reader, or possibly anyone investigating the cases, feels any regret. Mars was such a scum-sucker that it’s almost impossible not to see her death as some kind of divine retribution – or merely karma being an absolute bitch.

The second death is nothing like the first, but it does expose the murderer. And it’s a good thing that the story wraps up quickly at that point, because after all the glee of tearing down Mars, the takedown of the actual murderer is more than a bit anticlimactic – as is the individual.

Two final comments about Secrets in Death. This was the second book in a month where death was caused by severing the victim’s brachial artery. The first was in Thief’s Mark. For two books that have to have been in separate pipelines for several months if not years to use the same relatively uncommon (at least for fiction) cause of death was coincidental. But it bothered me until I remembered what the other book was.

Gossip columnists, and the damage they do, have been around a long time. That they would continue to be popular and hated in Eve Dallas’ near-future is not really a surprise. But there was something about this story that tickled an old memory, not related to the cause of death. If you’ve ever heard the song Dirty Laundry” by Don Henley, you’ll recognize all the things about gossip columnists that we love to hate. Some things look like they are never going to change. If you’ve never heard the song, I’ve included a parody video here that really plays up all the aspects of this kind of “news” that people love to hate. And while the video is a parody, the song in the background is the real song. Even though “Dirty Laundry” is now 35 years old, it still rings true. And probably will in Eve Dallas’ time.

Review: The Prisoner in His Palace by Will Bardenwerper

Review: The Prisoner in His Palace by Will BardenwerperThe Prisoner in His Palace: Saddam Hussein, His American Guards, and What History Leaves Unsaid by Will Bardenwerper
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, nonfiction
Pages: 272
Published by Scribner on June 6th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the haunting tradition of In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song, this remarkably insightful and surprisingly intimate portrait of Saddam Hussein lifts away the top layer of a dictator’s evil and finds complexity beneath as it invites us to take a journey with twelve young American soldiers in the summer of 2006. Trained to aggressively confront the enemy in combat, the men learn, shortly after being deployed to Iraq, that fate has assigned them a different role. It becomes their job to guard the country’s notorious leader in the months leading to his execution.

Living alongside, and caring for, their “high value detainee” in a former palace dubbed The Rock and regularly transporting him to his raucous trial, many of the men begin questioning some of their most basic assumptions—about the judicial process, Saddam’s character, and the morality of modern war. Although the young soldiers’ increasingly intimate conversations with the once-feared dictator never lead them to doubt his responsibility for unspeakable crimes, the men do discover surprising new layers to his psyche that run counter to the media’s portrayal of him.

Woven from first-hand accounts provided by many of the American guards, government officials, interrogators, scholars, spies, lawyers, family members, and victims, The Prisoner in His Palace shows two Saddams coexisting in one person: the defiant tyrant who uses torture and murder as tools, and a shrewd but contemplative prisoner who exhibits surprising affection, dignity, and courage in the face of looming death.

In this artfully constructed narrative, Saddam, the “man without a conscience,” gets many of those around him to examine theirs. Wonderfully thought-provoking, The Prisoner in His Palace reveals what it is like to discover in one’s ruthless enemy a man, and then deliver him to the gallows.

My Review:

Today is September 11, 2017, the 16th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, otherwise known as 9/11. As though nothing else ever happened, or ever will, that will ring through history the way that September 11, 2001 did. And that’s possibly true. Even the historic hurricane currently sweeping through Florida, while momentous, isn’t quite as earth-shattering. 9/11 was a day where the universe changed, where before and after are sharply and irrevocably separated.

While Saddam Hussein was not one of the architects of the 9/11 attacks, it is certainly possible to trace a direct line from the events of 9/11 to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled his dictatorship.

This is not a book about the war. Not the U.S. invasion of 2003, nor about the the Gulf War of 1990. Although in some ways it’s about both. A part of me wants to say that the book is about the “banality of evil”, but if there is one thing that Saddam Hussein never was, it is banal.

Instead, this feels like a book about the faces that humans wear, and about one particular human being who wore the face of evil, but only among many, many others. That evil face, the one that the world righteously condemned him for, is not the face that his guards saw. They saw a charismatic and kindly old man. While they were all aware of the evil that he had done, and none ever believed that he was innocent or should be freed, they still guarded someone who was much different. They all went in expecting a monster, only to discover that he was just a man.

The story here is about the twelve young American soldiers, the group that self-deprecatingly named themselves the “Super Twelve”, who had the duty of guarding Saddam Hussein in one of his own palaces during the lengthy course of his trial, right up to his inevitable execution.

The process took well over a year. That’s plenty of time for a group of people to gradually shift from guarded adversaries to respectful acquaintances, if not friends. And that is what happened. Unlike the common perception of “the rich and powerful”, which Saddam certainly was, in his incarceration and forced proximity to these soldiers he acted as a respectful and respected guest, and was treated for the most part accordingly. What small freedoms and little comforts could be provided to the old man, they did. And he appreciated them.

This book is about the relationship that formed among this isolated group. The Super Twelve, the medic who monitored Saddam’s health, the interrogators, and Saddam Hussein. Their camaderie with the prisoner seems odd to the reader, but yet it makes sense. Not only were they all stuck with each other, but they were prohibited from telling anyone what their duty assignment was. The only people they could talk to were each other.

And their prisoner.

Reality Rating A-: This is a hard book to describe, but a surprisingly easy one to get lost in. There are a lot of things packed into this slim volume, and all of them are thought-provoking in one way or another.

It is not really a surprise that the guards became friendly with the prisoner. Or not as the story turned out. If Saddam had been a demanding dictator within the limits of his confinement, the guards would probably have maintained their distance even over the extended time period. But that’s not what happened. Instead, he treated his guards with respect and even affection, and both the respect and affection were returned. They all knew what he’d done, but it didn’t have an effect on his treatment of them or theirs of him.

Instead, many of the guards felt as if this was the first time in Saddam’s life when he was safe. Ironically so, but still, safe. Whether or not he deceived himself about the inevitability of his execution, he was absolutely certain that none of his guards were going to kill him in his sleep – something that had not been true for his entire life. That lack of paranoia led to a lot better rest and attitude – possibly for everyone.

The author does detail enough of Saddam’s atrocities, and there were many, to make the reader certain that the man was the author of countless heinous acts. Even though he may not have seen them as anything more than necessary to cement and maintain his power, there is never any doubt that he was a brutal dictator who used fear and cruelty as potent and effective weapons.

Which does not affect the doubts of any of the soldiers, or of the reader. Not that he deserved death, but, to quote another influential character, “Deserves [death], I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Even as the trial is being conducted, the sectarian violence in Iraq not only continues, but escalates. Even from the soldiers’ limited perspective, there does not seem to have been a plan for what was to happen after Saddam’s capture. And the manner of his execution only feeds the violence. One of the questions that lingers is whether or not the invasion made anything better. War is easy. Hell, but easy. Regime change, on the other hand, while it is also hell, is damn hard. Especially on the people whose regime is being changed.

What we’re left with is the aftermath, not just for the country of Iraq, but on a personal level for those men who guarded and lived with Saddam Hussein in his final months. Watching a man that they had all developed relationships with go to his death punched an unexpected hole in all their lives. Being forced to stand by while his corpse was desecrated made them all sick and heartsore.

Saddam may have died, but none of them recovered. And their reaction haunts me.

Review: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Review: Magpie Murders by Anthony HorowitzMagpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Pages: 496
Published by Harper on June 6th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When editor Susan Ryeland is given the manuscript of Alan Conway’s latest novel, she has no reason to think it will be much different from any of his others. After working with the bestselling crime writer for years, she’s intimately familiar with his detective, Atticus Pünd, who solves mysteries disturbing sleepy English villages. An homage to queens of classic British crime such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, Alan’s traditional formula has proved hugely successful. So successful that Susan must continue to put up with his troubling behavior if she wants to keep her job.

Conway’s latest tale has Atticus Pünd investigating a murder at Pye Hall, a local manor house. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but the more Susan reads, the more she’s convinced that there is another story hidden in the pages of the manuscript: one of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition, and murder.

My Review:

I really wish that the Atticus Pünd series existed, because the one we got in Magpie Murders was absolutely marvelous. I’d dearly love to read the rest of the series.

What we have, however, is the final book in the series, encased within a framing story about the death of the fictitious author of this fictitious book, and the many, many ways in which art seems to be imitating life – or vice versa.

The story begins with its frame. Susan Ryeland, editor at a small but prestigious publishing house, settles in for the weekend to read the latest manuscript by her least favorite and most favorite author. Susan loves Alan Conway’s work, but the man himself is far from lovable.

As Susan settles in to read, we do too. We read Magpie Murders by Alan Conway right along with her. And it is a marvelous take on the Golden Age of mystery, reading as though it should sit on the shelf beside Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham.

The detective, the perpetual outsider, comes to a small English village to investigate what turn out to be a series of murders. It’s an absorbing case, and the readers, along with Susan herself, are sucked right into the mid-1950s, the mind of the detective and the murderous goings on of this otherwise unremarkable little place.

Until the story ends abruptly, and we, as well as Susan, are left wondering “who done it?”. The last chapter of Magpie Murders is missing. And its author has just been found dead, an apparent suicide.

So Susan begins by hunting for that missing chapter, and finds herself hunting for the truth about Alan Conway’s life, and about his death. By the time those missing pages are found, Susan has uncovered much more than she, or anyone else, could have bargained for.

After all the times when she has blurbed that “reading such-and-such’s latest book changed her life”, just this once, it’s all too true.

Escape Rating B+: Magpie Murders is really two books in one. There’s a classic historical mystery sandwiched within the pages of a contemporary mystery thriller. And for this reader, the historical mystery wins out.

I absolutely adored Magpie Murders by Alan Conway. It was both a wonderful homage to the mysteries of the Golden Age, and a terrific case itself. Atticus Pünd would make a wonderful addition to the ranks of series detectives, right up there with Poirot, Marple, Wimsey and the rest. In its post-WWII time period, it takes the reader back to a simpler but no less deadly time, and its play on the locked room/locked house mystery keeps the reader guessing.

It gave me a tremendous yen to pick up a “real” historical mystery at the first opportunity. It reminded me how much I love the genre, and gave me a hankering to return. Or just to re-watch Poirot.

The abrupt ending to Conway’s novel jarred me almost as much as it did Susan Ryeland. I felt cheated. I wanted to know who the killer was every bit as much as she did. But I had a difficult time getting into the framing story.

In fact, I started the book once, couldn’t get into it, and then picked it up on audio. Listening to it got me over the hump, to the point where I was so captivated by Pünd’s story that I changed the audio back for the book, so that I could find out whodunnit that much more quickly – only to be disappointed when Susan discovers that the final chapter is missing.

Susan’s own quest turned out to be fascinating as well, but for some reason I didn’t find her as sympathetic or interesting a character to follow as the even more fictional Pünd.

The problem is that Pünd, while a bit distant in the traditional detectival mold, is a sympathetic character and seems to be a generally nice man. We want him to succeed. Alan Conway, on the other hand, will not be missed by anyone, except possibly his publishers.

Conway’s series is the marquee title for small but prestigious Cloverleaf Books. It’s their one big moneymaker, and it tides them over an awful lot of less successful ventures. Conway, or rather Atticus Pünd, pays the bills and keeps the lights on. But no one likes Conway. There are certainly people who benefit from his death in the direct, traditional way, but there are even more who are just happy at his absence from this earth, beginning with his ex-wife and ending with Susan’s lover. While there are plenty of people who will miss Atticus Pünd, no one will miss his author.

Susan finds herself with plenty of motives, too many suspects, and a police investigation that is all too happy to consider it suicide and close the case. There’s plenty of evidence to support that theory, and damn little to support anything else.

Until Susan starts digging, and nearly digs her own grave. In the end, no one is certain that good triumphed and evil got its just desserts. Not even Susan. And that’s what makes the contemporary thriller less satisfying than the historical mystery it contains. Mystery, as a great writer once said, is the romance of justice. Good is supposed to triumph, evil is supposed to get those just desserts. When that formula is subverted, as it is in the contemporary frame for Magpie Murders, it feels wrong, at least for this reader. While there may be a metaphor in there about the world being more complicated than it used to be, or that the real world isn’t half so neat and tidy as fiction, the framing story is also fiction. I want my neat and tidy ending, and I’m disappointed that it wasn’t there.

But we do finally get to read Atticus Pünd’s last chapter. And that was well worth waiting for.

Review: The Summer that Made Us by Robyn Carr + Giveaway

Review: The Summer that Made Us by Robyn Carr + GiveawayThe Summer That Made Us by Robyn Carr
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print ebook, audiobook
Genres: women's fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Mira Books on September 5th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Mothers and daughters, sisters and cousins, they lived for summers at the lake house until a tragic accident changed everything. The Summer That Made Us is an unforgettable story about a family learning to accept the past, to forgive and to love each other again.

That was then…

For the Hempsteads, summers were idyllic. Two sisters who married two brothers and had three daughters each, the women would escape the city the moment school was out to gather at the family house on Lake Waseka. The lake was a magical place, a haven where they were happy and carefree. All of their problems drifted away as the days passed in sun-dappled contentment. Until the summer that changed everything.

This is now…

After an accidental drowning turned the lake house into a site of tragedy and grief, it was closed up. For good. Torn apart, none of the Hempstead women speak of what happened that summer, and relationships between them are uneasy at best, hurtful at worst. But in the face of new challenges, one woman is determined to draw her family together again, and the only way that can happen is to return to the lake and face the truth.

Robyn Carr has crafted a beautifully woven story about the complexities of family dynamics and the value of strong female relationships.

My Review:

This is a story that will get you right in the feels. It certainly did me. And it will probably make you feel all the feels as well, as the story runs from tragedy to hope, if not to triumph, and hits every emotional stop along the journey.

Most of all, it’s a story about one particular extremely dysfunctional family, and their attempt to get to the heart of at least some of their dysfunctions and heal, before it’s too late.

And it’s about one final gift that one member of that family gives to herself, and to everyone that she has to leave behind.

The story begins with Charley and Megan, who seem more like sisters than cousins – possibly because they sorta/kinda are. Once upon a time, a young mother began bringing her two daughters to Lake Waseka, one of the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota, every summer. The two Hempstead girls, Louisa and Jo Anne, had the time of their lives. When those girls grew up, they continued the family tradition, bringing their daughters to the lake, until the summer when it all went smash.

Lou and Jo married Chet and Ray, two sisters marrying two brothers. Continuing to outwardly mirror each other’s lives, they each had three daughters, alternating years, so that the six girls looked more like stair-step sisters than cousins. Even double-cousins.

But their lives weren’t as similar as they seemed. And neither were they. Lou’s husband was boring but responsible and respectable, while Jo’s was every woman’s bad-boy dream, in more ways than one. Ray was an alcoholic and a conman, and every woman’s bicycle – not that he would have thought of it quite that way. Lou was strong and decisive, while Jo was soft and often needed direction. Apart, they drifted into the extremes of their natures, with Lou turning sharp and angry, and Jo being the world’s doormat.

Those summers kept them grounded, and they helped each other stay strong in their broken places. Until they shattered, one summer night, when Lou’s youngest daughter, 12 year old Bunny, drowned on the lake in a tragic accident.

Twenty-seven years later, the cottage is still closed up, Lou and Jo are still estranged, and every single one of the remaining girls, their now grown up daughters with children of their own, are, in one way or another lost or dysfunctional.

Megan decides to spend her very last summer trying to patch the broken places in her family. With her waning energy, she gets everyone back to the lake for one last summer, in the hopes that if they can go back to where it all went wrong, they’ll have one last chance to patch things back together.

To be each other’s strength in all their broken places once more.

Escape Rating A-: As much as I deride the term, The Summer That Made Us is a stellar work of women’s fiction. The story is all about this group of women, their feisty grandmother, their battling mothers, the troupe of sister-cousins, and even their own daughters, and all the myriad ways that those relationships have played out over time, both good and bad.

The men in this story are merely supporting characters, and spend most of the story off-stage, whether in another city or a cemetery. There’s plenty of trauma that relates all the way back to the Judge, Grandma Berkey’s husband who was Lou and Jo’s father. He’s certainly dead, and thank goodness for that!

While there is a romance in this story, the romance itself is a sub-sub-sub-plot. But it is important both as part of one sister’s healing, and as part of clearing up one of the mysteries of Charley’s last time at the lake.

At the beginning of the story, ironically, the one thing that seems marginally hopeful is Megan’s final, experimental cancer treatment, and the one thing that seems beyond all possibility of healing is Charley’s contentious relationship with her mother Lou. In that regard, nothing is as it seems.

But at that beginning, all the relationships seem to be going to hell in a handcart, and it’s a bit of a hard read to get through. Nothing seems to be looking up, and some of the interactions are downright painful.

As things begin, every single member of the family is damaged in one way or another. And all in ways that seem to trace their origins back to Bunny’s death and the abandonment of those idyllic summers at the lake. But the girls were all girls at the time, ranging up from Bunny to somewhere in their teens. They all saw those lake summers as perfect, and were not necessarily aware of all the tensions running underneath, especially the roiling tensions between Lou and Jo.

Bunny’s death was not the only thing that went wrong that summer. But after it, nothing went right. And unfortunately for everyone, one of the underlying dysfunctions of the entire family was that no one ever talked about what was really wrong.

One of the things that is so terrific about this story is that even though it all went wrong and the same time and in the same place, for each one of the women that wrongness burst out into entirely different directions. All of the women, even in the end Lou, appear as ultimately sympathetic and surprisingly unique characters. They never seem alike, they are not cookie-cutters of each other. Each one is distinct, both in their voice and in their manifestation of the family dysfunction.

And that’s the biggest problem they have to work with. Or against. Until they can finally share all the separate pieces of that broken story, none of them will be able to heal.

At the beginning of The Summer That Made Us, it feels like this one, last summer on the lake is Charley’s gift to Megan. But in the end, this summer turns out to be one final gift that Megan gives to Charley, and everyone in her family.

And it’s beautiful.

(Bring tissues)

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

I’m very pleased to be able to give away a copy of The Summer That Made Us to one lucky US or Canadian commenter. I hope that the winner enjoys the story as much as I did.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard + Giveaway

Review: The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard + GiveawayThe Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: literary fiction, magical realism
Pages: 304
Published by Melville House Publishing on August 8th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

At seventy-two, Johnny Ribkins shouldn’t have such problems: He’s got one week to come up with the money he stole from his mobster boss or it’s curtains.

What may or may not be useful to Johnny as he flees is that he comes from an African-American family that has been gifted with super powers that are a bit, well, odd. Okay, very odd. For example, Johnny's father could see colors no one else could see. His brother could scale perfectly flat walls. His cousin belches fire. And Johnny himself can make precise maps of any space you name, whether he's been there or not.

In the old days, the Ribkins family tried to apply their gifts to the civil rights effort, calling themselves The Justice Committee. But when their, eh, superpowers proved insufficient, the group fell apart. Out of frustration Johnny and his brother used their talents to stage a series of burglaries, each more daring than the last.

Fast forward a couple decades and Johnny’s on a race against the clock to dig up loot he's stashed all over Florida. His brother is gone, but he has an unexpected sidekick: his brother's daughter, Eloise, who has a special superpower of her own.

Inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous essay “The Talented Tenth” and fuelled by Ladee Hubbard’s marvelously original imagination, The Talented Ribkins is a big-hearted debut novel about race, class, politics, and the unique gifts that, while they may cause some problems from time to time, bind a family together.

A big-hearted novel about a family with special gifts who sometimes stumble in their efforts to succeed in life, The Talented Ribkins draws on such novels as Toni Morrison’s Sula The Intuitionist to weave themes of race, class, and politics into a wonderfully accomplished and engaging novel.

My Review:

The Talented Ribkins is a lovely novel that surprises its readers in the end, in a way that leaves you shaking your head and re-thinking everything that went before. And then shaking your head again.

The blurb for the book talks about the “superpowers” that all the members of the Ribkins family have been gifted (or cursed) with. And those powers do come into play. But that’s not what the book is “about”, not really.

Instead, The Talented Ribkins is part of the great American road novel tradition. Johnny Ribkins, 72 and some days feeling every bit of it, is on what is probably one last road trip. His ostensible purpose is to dig up all the money he buried all over Florida, in order to pay his self-inflicted debt to someone who Johnny took a few too many years to discover was a really, really bad man.

But while he’s digging up all those little bags of money, he’s really digging up his own past. He starts by visiting his late brother’s old home, only to discover something he never expected. His brother left a child behind, and Eloise, now 13, has her own version of the Ribkins family talent.

Johnny makes maps. Maps to anywhere, from anywhere, whether he’s been there or not. Maps that route around any security, any obstacle, any difficulty whatsoever. His brother Franklin, Eloise’ dad, could climb walls. Any walls. Like Spiderman, but he didn’t need web shooters. His hands were sticky enough all on their own.

Johnny and Franklin made a good living, if not exactly a law-abiding one, as thieves. Until they stole something too hot to handle, and had a falling out. Franklin fell into booze and drugs and it was all over. But now there’s Eloise and her talent for catching anything that anyone throws at her. Or so it seems.

Johnny has a week to dig up all his buried treasure. Eloise needs to learn about her family, and how to handle her rather unusual talent in some way other than letting people throw cans and rocks at her to see her catch them.

But while what we see appears to be a broken down old man on a desperate race to save himself, one last time – nothing is quite as it seems. Not to Eloise, not to Johnny, and definitely not to the reader.

And it’s that twist at the end that makes the story as magical as the Ribkins family talents.

Escape Rating B: I was expecting the story to be more about those Ribkins family talents, those just slightly more than ordinary superpowers. But it really isn’t. The story is really about Johnny digging up his past, both the good and the bad, and letting himself remember who he was and what he tried to do.

Once upon a time, Johnny Ribkins wasn’t the only black man with a little something extra. During the Civil Rights era, Johnny and several like-minded and like-talented friends got together and formed their own version of the Justice League. They called themselves the Justice Committee, and they turned themselves into mostly unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Not because they did anything flashy, but because Johnny mapped them into the right place at the right time to allow the flashy things to happen. If a speech was important, the Justice Committee conveniently staged a distraction that took the KKK or the cops in their pockets into another direction. Their interventions, mostly non-violent, if occasionally slightly explosive, allowed the Movement’s movers and shakers to get out of the way of lynch mobs and false arrests so they could continue their work.

As Johnny travels with Eloise, he revisits all his former comrades He visits his family, both the one he was born to and the one he made. He’s looking for money he secretly buried with each of them. But his meandering road allows him to explore his own past, and see where it seems his present has changed course.

Until we discover that his present has arrived where it was meant to be all along, just from a slightly different route – not dissimilar to the way that Johnny handles that debt that set him on his long and winding road in the first place.

The story, like Johnny’s route, wanders a bit. The past and present blend together more than a bit, as they do in Johnny’s memories each time he digs up a bag of money, and his own past with it.

There are lots of times when Eloise wonders where they are going, why they seem to be driving in circles around Florida, and what the point of it all is. And sometimes so does the reader.

But in the end it all comes together, and the surprise, like the truth about Eloise’s talent, turns out to be just a bit magical.

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

I’m giving away a copy of The Talented Ribkins to one lucky US or Canadian commenter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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

Review: Glass Houses by Louise Penny

Review: Glass Houses by Louise PennyGlass Houses (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #13) by Louise Penny
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #13
Pages: 400
Published by Minotaur Books on August 29th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When a mysterious figure appears on the village green on a cold November day in Three Pines, Armand Gamache, now Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, knows something is seriously wrong. Yet he does nothing. Legally, what can he do? Only watch and wait. And hope his mounting fears are not realized.
From the moment its shadow falls over Three Pines, Gamache suspects the creature has deep roots and a dark purpose. When it suddenly vanishes and a body is discovered, it falls to Gamache to discover if a debt has been paid or levied.
In the early days of the investigation into the murder, and months later, as the trial for the accused begins in a Montreal courtroom on a steamy day in July, the Chief Superintendent continues to struggle with actions he’s set in motion, from which there is no going back. “This case began in a higher court,” he tells the judge, “and it’s going to end there.”
And regardless of the trial’s outcome, he must face his own conscience.
In her latest utterly gripping book, number-one New York Times bestselling author Louise Penny shatters the conventions of the crime novel to explore what Gandhi called the court of conscience. A court that supersedes all others.

My Review:

I started Glass Houses while waiting for the eclipse to reach totality. And read it all the way home (there was a LOT of traffic). For this reader, the new Gamache book each year is every bit as much of a fascinating treat as the eclipse, with the added bonus that there’s a Gamache book every year, while the next eclipse won’t happen over the U.S. for another seven years.

I was not disappointed in either event.

As with several of the books in this series, Glass Houses is about more than it seems, and has its roots far back in the past. Not just Gamache’s past, but the past of the Sûreté du Québec, the agency that he loves, and to which he has given his life and his career.

How the Light Gets In by Louise PennyThere’s a saying that “the fish rots from the head down”. In many of the previous books in this series, culminating in How the Light Gets In, Gamache, while solving normal cases, or as normal as anything gets in Three Pines, is in the middle of getting rid of that rot, no matter the cost. And even though he does manage to get to the heart of the corruption, the fish has been rotting for 30 years. That rot has done a lot of damage, not just to the Sûreté, but to the people of Quebec.

The rotting fish was on the take. Unfortunately, not really a surprise. But what comes as a terrible surprise to Gamache and his inner circle is the terrible result of that rot, that taking. As this story begins, Gamache is now the head of the entire Sûreté du Québec, and not merely his own little corner in the Homicide Division. And what he has discovered is that the rot has gone on too long, and that it was rooted too deeply in the drug trade.

They’ve already lost the War on Drugs. They’ve passed the tipping point, and there’s no going back. Unless Gamache and his inner circle are willing to risk everything on one last throw of the dice. If they are willing to sacrifice  their reputations their careers and even their lives on one final million to one chance. If they can lure the drug kingpins, the snakes in their grass, into one final, fatal error.

Winner take all.

Escape Rating A: As so many of the books in this series, Glass Houses begins in Three Pines, that lost village near the U.S. border. And, also like many of the books in this series, it starts small. Someone is standing in the middle of the village green, black robed and black masked, terrorizing the village. Not by doing anything menacing, but simply by standing there, unmoved and unmoving, watching everyone in the village.

It, whatever it is, is there for someone. But whoever it is there to accuse, or warn, or menace, it is terrorizing everyone in the village with its ominous faceless gaze. And Gamache, now a full-time resident of Three Pines, can do nothing. Not that he doesn’t want to, but he really can’t. Standing on the village green in a mask is not illegal by itself. But when someone dies by its hand, or because of its presence, only then can he act. When it is seemingly too late.

The trial that results, from beginning to end, is a farce. But a farce with a purpose. Gamache and his colleagues, his co-conspirators, are ready to spring their trap. That they must subvert the cause of justice in order to save it is just one of the many tragedies wrapped inside this utterly compelling story.

Gamache is, as always, a fascinating character to watch. Although some of the early books in the series, beginning with Still Life, seem like more traditional mysteries than the later ones, there has always been a psychological element to the stories. Gamache solves crimes by searching for the why first. He’s a thoughtful observer, always looking for the thing or the person out of place. Once he knows why a crime occurred, from there he determines the who and the how. And the answers are never the obvious ones – and neither are his solutions.

(If this type of mystery appeals, then also try Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series. Maisie, like Gamache, looks for why because she searches out who and how. And her stories always have a deeper underlayer below the surface mystery, as does Gamache’s story)

A huge element of what makes this series so marvelous is the village of Three Pines and its quirky inhabitants, including Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie. Added to the mix of villagers (and often well-stirred into that mix) are Gamache’s two principal lieutenants, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, his second-in-command at the Sûreté as well as his son-in-law, and Isabelle Lacoste, his handpicked successor in the Homicide Division.

For those of us who have followed this series from its beginning in Still Life, we know these people intimately. They are all old friends, and it is always wonderful to see them, even in the midst of yet another crisis. Their friendship provides support for Gamache, as well as surprising insights into events. There is always an undercurrent of wry humor, no matter how serious the case, and that humor is rooted in how well we know these people, and just how well they know each other. And how much they care. Just as we do.

They are all FINE, as the crazed poet Ruth Zardo puts it. Where FINE is an abbreviation for Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Egotistical. Because aren’t we all?

Review: You Say it First by Susan Mallery + Giveaway

Review: You Say it First by Susan Mallery + GiveawayYou Say It First (Happily Inc, #1) by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, small town romance
Series: Happily Inc #1
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on August 22nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Fool's Gold romances invites you to visit Happily Inc., a wedding destination founded on a fairy tale
Sculptor Nick Mitchell grew up in a family of artists and learned from his volatile father that passion only leads to pain. As he waits on a new commission, he takes a day job as a humble carpenter at a theme wedding venue. The job has its perks—mainly the venue's captivating owner, Pallas Saunders. Although he won't let love consume him, for ecstasy with an expiration date, he's all in.
Pallas adores Weddings in a Box. But if she can't turn the floundering business around, she'll have no choice but cave to her domineering mother and trade taffeta for trust funds working at the family's bank. Then when a desperate bride begs Pallas for something completely out of the box, her irresistible new hire inspires her. Nick knows she doesn't belong behind a desk, and she knows in her heart that he's right—where she really belongs is in his arms.

My Review:

If I were being mean, I’d say this story is set in a little town that was supported by a very big lie. But I had an absolutely marvelous time in Happily Inc., so instead I’ll say that the town was boosted by an absolutely fantastic public relations ploy.

Pallas Saunders is the proud and still surprised owner of Weddings in a Box, a little company that does theme weddings in the wedding destination town of Happily. As in “Happily Ever After”. Except that Pallas doesn’t have either the time or the inclination to look for her own happy ever after. So it has to come looking for her, in the handsome and downright hunky person of Nick Mitchell.

Pallas needs someone who can restore the huge, gorgeous wooden panels that she inherited as part of the business. Nick, an artist in wood sculpture, needs something to keep himself busy while he waits to see if he gets the overseas job that he assumes is already all his. Assumes in the sense that “assume” makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”.

The panels are beautiful beyond belief, Nick can’t resist the idea of restoring them to their full glory. He doesn’t care that the job pays minimum wage, because he doesn’t need the money. He just needs the work. And working for pretty, quirky Pallas is just the thing he needs to keep him busy while he waits.

Even though, or perhaps especially because, Pallas drafts him to be a palanquin bearer for a Roman-themed wedding the minute she sees him. She’s short one chair-carrier, and Nick looks like he’s up for the job.

That he looks absolutely delicious in a toga is just a fringe benefit. For Pallas, at least. Nick is left praying that his brothers never see a picture of him in this get-up. Or any of the many embarrassing outfits that Pallas talks him into when she needs an extra courtier, or cowboy, for a wedding.

Both Pallas and Nick are wary of relationships. Nick has seen the damage they can do when they go wrong, and just how far the emotional shrapnel can travel. Pallas doesn’t believe that love just happens, her entire life has been a lesson that love only comes when it’s earned. And Pallas’ mother has made sure that she always falls short of the goal – whatever it might be.

Pallas finds herself on the horns of multiple dilemmas. Her overbearing mother wants her to sell the business and come work at the family-owned bank with her. Pallas needs the business to make enough money to support her, it and her employees, and she’s failing. Nick needs a place to wait for his next big thing, and Weddings in a Box looks like it.

But the more they become involved, with the business, with the weddings, and with each other, the more deeply emotionally involved they become – and the harder it is to let go.

Just as soon as they both figure out what they really need to let go of.

Escape Rating A-: I fell in love with Happily and with nearly all the people in it – Pallas’ mother Libby definitely excepted.

Happily is a really cute place. Although this series is a bit of a spinoff from the author’s Fool’s Gold series (which I have not read), the place it really reminds me of is Icicle Falls by Sheila Roberts. Both are small towns which have used some really interesting PR tricks to make themselves into tourist destinations. Also both have residents that are oodles of fun to get to know.

Although Nick has some work to do, You Say it First is mostly Pallas’ story, and that feels right. She’s the person with the most on the line and with the biggest decisions to make about her future.

Pallas inherited Weddings in a Box from her friend and mentor, the previous owner. She loves the business, but, and it’s a very big but for Pallas, she doesn’t have the confidence needed to let it out of the box and grow. And that lack of confidence can be laid squarely at her mother’s door, as Libby belittles Pallas to the point of abuse at every possible turn. And even manufactures additional turns so she can heap more abuse on Pallas. It’s uncomfortable to read, as it should be. It takes Pallas a long time and more than a little bit of help from her friends to realize that the crap Libby’s dishing out isn’t really about Pallas – it’s really all about Libby. That revelation begins to unwind those ties that strangle.

A big part of the fun of this story belongs to Pallas’ circle of friends. Pallas may own Weddings in a Box, but it’s all of her friends in town who supply the business and its owner with moral support and very real business assistance. Everyone is ready to stretch their wings, so when an emergency wedding with very unusual requirements needs to be put together at short notice, everyone pulls together and pulls Weddings in a Box out of its safe little box and launches it into the stratosphere.

Along the way, Pallas learns to stand on her own two feet, to stand up to her abusive mother, and most importantly, to learn that love isn’t earned, it’s given. Whether Nick will figure out that same lesson in time is an open question until the very wonderful end.

I loved my trip to Happily, and am looking forward to going back, in Second Chance Girl. I can’t wait to see what happens next – and who it happens to!

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

Susan and Harlequin are giving away a $100 Amazon or Barnes and Noble Gift Card to one extremely lucky participant on this tour!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas

Review: A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry ThomasA Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock, #2) by Sherry Thomas
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Lady Sherlock #2
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on September 5th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The game is afoot as Charlotte Holmes returns in the atmospheric second novel in New York Times bestseller Sherry Thomas's Victorian-set Lady Sherlock series.
Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.
Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.
In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body that surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

My Review:

I actually read this book a couple of weeks ago, when the Sherlock Holmes book I was planning to read kind of fell through, but I still had a taste for Holmes. So I dove through the towering TBR pile and emerged with A Conspiracy in Belgravia, the second Lady Sherlock book after last fall’s fascinating A Study in Scarlet Women.

While I am familiar enough with the Holmes canon to play spot the analog between a pastiche series like Lady Sherlock and the original, I certainly don’t have it memorized. So as obvious as it was that A Study in Scarlet Women was a play on the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, the derivation of the title of A Conspiracy in Belgravia was much less obvious. As much as it sounds to the ear like A Scandal in Bohemia, the stories are not related. Although, now that I think about it, A Conspiracy in Belgravia does contain hints of The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans.

So a puzzle for another time. Meanwhile, we have the conundrums that Charlotte Holmes and her associates have run across within the rather tony and well-to-do precincts of Belgravia. And, while Charlotte investigates not one but two separate mysteries, she is also mulling over a tempting marriage proposal from Lord Bancroft. The proposal is not tempting because of the man himself, but rather for the sheer number of problems that marriage to him will solve.

None of which resolve the largest dilemma that this proposal creates – that Charlotte Holmes is in love, if that phrase can be used for someone who is usually much more brain than emotion, with the man’s brother Lord Ingram. To add to the difficulties involved, Lord Ingram finally figured out that he is in love with Charlotte. Unfortunately for both of them, this discovery occurred well after his marriage to someone else. That it has become obvious over time that Lady Ingram only married him for his money makes the situation all that much more melodramatic and tragic.

Especially when Lady Ingram calls upon “Sherlock Holmes” so that the detective may discover the whereabouts of her former lover – a man who also happens to be Charlotte Holmes’ illegitimate half-brother.

When the puzzles that Lord Bancroft (who is definitely the analog to Mycroft in this pastiche) run into Charlotte’s commission from Lady Ingram, the intertwining conundrums begin to test even the mettle of Sherlock Holmes. Can she remain free, save her sisters and get to the bottom of all the conspiracies before it is too late?

Only Sherlock Holmes has the capacity to reveal the depths of this conspiracy. But can she? And, in the end, should she?

Escape Rating B: I’m a bit on the fence about this one, and for some of the same issues that were raised by the first book, A Study in Scarlet Women. One of the issues with historical fiction is where the author draws the line between making the female protagonist relatable to a 21st century reader and making sure that the character fits plausibly within her time period. If she’s not relatable enough, readers lose interest. If she’s too much a part of her time, the odds are unfortunately all too likely that her activities will be too restricted to make her the heroine of her own story.

With a Holmes pastiche, even one that plays as much havoc with the original characters as this one, taking Holmes too far away from the character we know and love, creates a third crevasse into which the story can fall.

One of the things that the author has done with this series has been to make Charlotte an unconventional creature of her times. While she may have a singular genius, the world treats her the way all women are treated – her movements are often restricted, she must hide behind her fictitious brother, the police inspector she assists resents her assistance because she is a woman, and her parents have the right to kidnap her off the streets, while the establishment will consider that a job well done.

The dilemma of Lord Bancroft’s marriage proposal is very real. She would regain respectability, her parents would leave her alone, and she can rescue both of her sisters, who very much do need rescuing. But marriage would give Lord Bancroft the right to control her movements and her activities. He has already said that he would not allow her to continue practicing as Sherlock Holmes. While his position as this world’s Mycroft means that he does have fascinating puzzles for her to solve, she knows that marriage sacrifices her happiness and merely her right to be her own person and make her own decisions for a safety that can be restricted or removed at any turn.

Charlotte’s relationship with Lord Ingram also gives me pause. With the notable exception of Laurie R. King’s utterly marvelous Holmes/Russell series, Holmes’ name and the word romance are seldom mentioned in the same breath. Or even in the same paragraph. For someone who so singularly knows her own mind, and gives it precedence over every other facet of her existence, Charlotte’s confused feelings about Lord Ingram don’t quite ring true for Charlotte as Holmes. If it is an attempt to make her seem, at least in this one aspect, more typically feminine, it falls a bit flat for this reader.

None of the above is to say that I did not enjoy A Conspiracy in Belgravia and this alternate vision of Sherlock Holmes, because the intricacies of the mystery were quite entertaining. The revelation of the mastermind behind events was both a surprise and not, as this personage could be expected to appear in some form in this series. But the way that events maneuvered around to the revelation were a pleasant surprise for the reader, and an unpleasant surprise for the characters.

As it should be.