Review: The Nanny Arrangement by Rachel Harris

Review: The Nanny Arrangement by Rachel HarrisThe Nanny Arrangement by Rachel Harris
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, new adult romance
Series: Country Blues #2
Pages: 266
Published by Entangled Publishing on May 22nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Soft-spoken and shy Hannah Fisher is determined to make the man she’s loved her entire life finally see her as a woman. With the help of a makeover, a new mission—Operation Find My Happy—and the convenient forced proximity of a tour bus, she vows to win her best friend Deacon’s heart.

Former bad boy and current fiddle player Deacon Latrell has the world at his fingertips: a new gig with a famous band, plus his best friend on tour as his son’s nanny. Life couldn’t get much sweeter. Now if only he could stop imagining kissing the daylights out of his childhood BFF...

With one friend set on pushing the boundaries and the other afraid to rock the boat, one thing’s for certain—their story would make one heck of a country song.

My Review:

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Nanny Arrangement. As much as I love the friends-to-lovers trope, there are a whole lot of other factors in this story that generally drive me crazy, and certainly did this time. And I liked the damn thing anyway!

The Nanny Arrangement is right on the cusp between New Adult and Contemporary Romance. The protagonists are both 20-somethings, and are still figuring out what they want out of life. They also fumble quite a bit along their way.

This is really Hannah’s story. She has come back from a year-long stay in Paris as an au pair to initiate Operation Find My Happy. It’s not that Hannah doesn’t know where her happy is, it’s that she isn’t sure she can manage to grab it. Because Hannah has been in love with Deacon Lattrell for ten years now, and he doesn’t seem to see her as anything more than a friend. Admittedly his best friend in the whole universe, but still, firmly and seemingly irrevocably, stuck in the dreaded friend zone.

But as much as Hannah loves being Deke’s friend, as well as the surrogate mother to his young son Max, Hannah just plain loves Deke, and always has. But Hannah has always hidden herself away in baggy clothes and in the fringes of any group, and it is possible that Deke simply hasn’t seen her as she really is. And that he never got past spending high school defending Hannah from all the schoolyard cruelty inflicted on her as a red-headed girl with a stutter who wore slightly old-fashioned clothes. She was the class freak, and Deke was her lone defender.

There’s plenty of love there, but it isn’t exactly the kind of love that Hannah wants or needs. Running away to Paris didn’t cure her of her embarrassingly unrequited love for Deke, so putting herself out there and making him see her may not work either, but she has to try before she has a chance at moving on.

That’s where the fun begins. Deke is the latest member of the country rock group Blue. The band has been established for years, but they needed a new fiddle-player and Deke has turned out to be it. But Deke doesn’t travel without little Max, and that’s where Hannah steps in. The band needs a live-in nanny on tour, not just for Max but also for the lead singer’s little girl Stella. So just as Deke is on a trial contract as their fiddler for the length of their US tour, Hannah is on a trial contract as their nanny.

In the enforced intimacy of a small group on tour in not-nearly-big-enough buses, Hannah has the chance to open Deke’s eyes. It’s not her fault that as soon as he opens them, the idiot slams them shut again. He wants only the absolute best for Hannah, and he’s sure that’s not him. Not that he’s actually asked her what she wants. Of course not.

He’s an idiot, but while plumbing the vast depths of his idiocy he finally gets smart enough to put on some really excellent grovel to get back the girl he’s always loved.

Escape Rating B+: Throw the tropes New Adult Romance, Rock Star Romance, Friends-to-Lovers, I’m Not Worthy, and Misunderstandammit into a blender, mix with Operation Find My Happy, and come up with a story that in spite of its flaws still makes the reader finish with a big smile.

I say this because I find that I’m hit or miss with New Adult, and very much down on both I’m Not Worthy and the Misunderstandammit. Combining the trope where the hero kicks the heroine to the curb because he’s certain she’s too good for him, and mixing it with the trope where so many of their issues could be solved if they just talked with each other instead of past each other once in awhile does not make for this reader’s favorite frustration.

What redeemed a whole lot of these two issues was that, unusual for romance, Deke put on very good grovel to make up for his errors. Not that Hannah wasn’t going to take him back anyway, but not just Deke but all the guys in the story were conscious that Deke had screwed up big time and needed to make up for it even bigger time.

It was great not to see the guy get a hall pass on this.

But it was Hannah’s Operation Find My Happy that made the story for me. She’s not sure how to get what she wants, and she’s certainly not sure that she’ll get what she wants, but she has internalized the mantra about only getting a different result by taking a different action. Along with the realization that the whole unrequited longing thing just wasn’t working for her. She needed to get on or get over, and she hadn’t found a way to get over so it was time to get on with pursuing what she wanted, even if she lost.

I also loved the way that both the friendships among the women and the friendships among the men developed organically over the story. Expanding their respective circles was something that both Deke and Hannah desperately needed to do, even if neither of them saw it.

And we do see where Deke and Hannah came from, and just how and why they ended up in the pickle that they are in. And we’re thrilled when Hannah’s courage and Deke’s excellent grovel finally locate Hannah’s (and Deke’s and Max’s) happy.

Review: The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle

Review: The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief by Lisa TuttleThe Curious Affair of the Somnambulist & the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: From the Casebooks of Jesperson & Lane #1
Pages: 416
Published by Random House Publishing Group - Hydra on May 16th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

To solve some mysteries, one must embrace the impossible.
Has there ever been a more unlikely pair of consulting detectives than Jesperson and Lane? They certainly make a striking duo: Mr. Jasper Jesperson, with his shock of red hair and seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of all subjects—save common sense—and Miss Lane, whose logical mind is matched only by her fascination with psychic phenomena.
Their talents are rare . . . as are their customers. So when Jesperson and Lane are hired to track the nocturnal wanderings of a sleepwalking London business owner, they’re simply happy to be working again. The case begins as a window into the séances and other supernatural parlor games that are so popular these days, and takes a sinister turn as the intrepid investigators pull back the curtain on the cutthroat rivalries underpinning polite society.
But after several mediums go missing, it’s clear that Jesperson and Lane are in over their heads. For they’ve uncovered a presence beyond their understanding—an evil force that won’t hesitate to kill in order to achieve its nefarious ends.

My Review:

I really enjoyed the beginning of this book. It was an interesting set up to a slightly off-beat Sherlock Holmes read-alike, with an even more eccentric Holmes and a female Watson who is not a doctor. On the one hand, their respective eccentricities make Jesperson and Lane closer to partners from the beginning. On that other hand, it also begins as a kind of tweak of the nose at Conan Doyle, because Aphrodite Lane becomes a detective after discovering that her friend and employer Gabrielle Fox, who is supposed to be a skeptical investigator for the Society for Psychical Research, is every bit as much of a fraud and a trickster as every medium they have ever investigated.

Miss Lane is willing to believe, but she wants empirical evidence. Evidence that doesn’t involve secret hooks and pulleys under the table. And I applauded her for that.

But about halfway through, The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief turned into the most infuriating book I have read in a long time, perhaps ever.

I fully realize that sentence requires a bit more explanation.

At the beginning of the story, as Jesperson and Lane get started in their consulting detective business, the setting seems to be the same Victorian London as the Holmes and Watson stories. (There is a tip of the hat to Holmes as a fictional character they are both familiar with). There was, at that time, quite a bit of exploration of and belief in the supernatural, and frauds abounded.

Conan Doyle, in spite of his invention of that most rational detective, Holmes, was himself a great believer in spiritualism (and fairies!). Harry Houdini, formerly one of Conan Doyle’s great friends, practically had a second career as a debunker of mediums and psychic phenomena. Their friendship broke over this fundamental difference of belief.

When the first case is presented to Jesperson and Lane, that of the sleepwalking, Mr. Creavey (in other words, the somnambulist) they are looking for a logical and rational explanation. Which Jesperson eventually finds. Someone is controlling Mr. Creavey through a post-hypnotic suggestion.

And while psychic phenomena are bunk, hypnosis is a well-known and reproducible technique.

And this is where the story goes completely off the rails. At least for this reader. Because the so far rational and redoubtable Miss Lane, who is telling the story in the first-person, becomes completely irrational on the subject of hypnotism and hypnosis, when it is obvious to both Jesperson and to the reader that Miss Lane has herself been hypnotized. The only question yet to be completely resolved is whether her hypnotist is the same as Mr. Creavey’s, but even at the outset it seems all too likely. It would be much too coincidental, in the best detectival tradition, for there to be two different hypnotists involved in the same case.

Whether hypnosis works exactly as portrayed in the story is questionable, but it certainly does work and does exist to a significant extent. That the amount of control the hypnotist has over his victims seems rather greater than is considered the norm feels like it falls within the spectrum of fiction.

But it gets worse. While the formerly rational Miss Lane descends into risible irrationality, what drove this reader off the edge into fury was that the story seemed to change its basic premise. While throughout the book it seems to be part of the historical Victorian era, when mostly gullible or desperate people believed in spiritualism but it was not proven, the ending of the story requires that this setting become a world in which psychic phenomena are real and functional.

In other words, we began in rationality and ended with magic, with no explanation for how the basic way that the world works seems to have flipped on its head.

Escape Rating C-: I did finish, which gets the C grade. And I’m still thinking about the book, and still furious, which also keeps it in the C category. But, but and very definitely but. I am so disappointed. What read like a very promising start descended so far on so many levels. Miss Lane’s descent in particular, from rational action to idiocy was particularly galling, especially as we view the story from inside her head.

I enjoy stories where magic works. I love urban fantasy. But if that’s the case, it needs to be established, or at least hinted at, from the beginning. That’s not what happened here. And yes, I’m aware that some of the promotional materials delve a bit into the supernatural aspects, but a) promotional materials don’t always represent the work in hand, b) the switch between absolute belief in rationality to confirmed belief in “magic” is not even subtext in the actual text, and 3) the point-of-view character still changes from an interesting and rational being to a complete idiot.

Color me extremely disappointed. And very, very annoyed.

Review: Making it Right by Catherine Bybee + Giveaway

Review: Making it Right by Catherine Bybee + GiveawayMaking It Right by Catherine Bybee
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, small town romance
Series: Most Likely To #3
Pages: 348
Published by Montlake Romance on May 9th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

In the final book in bestselling author Catherine Bybee’s Most Likely To trilogy, River Bend’s rebel follows in her father’s footsteps to become sheriff. But it might be time to forge her own path…
Some kids inherit a family business; Jo Ward inherited a badge. Once voted Most Likely to End Up in Jail, the town wild child has become sheriff—hell-bent on uncovering the truth about her father’s mysterious death. Life is quiet in rustic River Bend, but Jo longs for something beyond her small hometown and the painful memories it holds. All that keeps her sane is the support of her best friends, Melanie and Zoe.
But when Jo signs up for an expert law enforcement training seminar, she meets Gill Clausen, whose haunting eyes and dangerously sexy vibe just may challenge her single-minded focus. Commitment-phobic Jo can’t deny her attraction to the arrogant federal agent, and when odd things start happening around River Bend and danger surrounds her, she realizes she’ll need his help to discover who’s out to remove her from River Bend…permanently.
As Jo and Gill work together, it’s clear they make a great team. But can Jo loosen her grip on the past enough to let love in and reach for the future?

My Review:

Ten years before the beginning of Doing it Over, the first book in this absolutely marvelous series, Mel, Zoe and Jo, who truly are BFFs forever, vow that no matter where life takes them, they will meet up in River Bend for their tenth high school reunion. The ten-year reunion is a very big deal, not just for River Bend High School but also for the entire small town. And so are those cheesy predictions that end up in every senior’s yearbook.

Mel was voted “Most Likely to Succeed”, but in Doing it Over we discover that she did anything but. She returns to River Bend to pick up her pieces. Zoe, in her turn, was voted “Most Likely to Stay in River Bend”, so she, too, did anything but. In Staying for Good Zoe returns to River Bend on what she believes will be a temporary hiatus from her career as a jet-setting celebrity chef.

Now it’s Jo’s turn. Jo was voted “Most Likely to End up in Jail”, and she actually fulfilled that prophecy. Well sort of. Jo is on the opposite side of the bars than her high school classmates predicted. Jo is the Sheriff of River Bend, following in her father’s unexpectedly echoing footsteps.

And after nearly ten years as Sheriff, the job has turned into a straitjacket.

Jo pursued the job because she always believed that her dad’s supposedly accidental death was really homicide. And she thought that the best place to discover his killer was from inside his life.

But she didn’t think she’d still be there ten years later, with all her questions still unanswered. In the intervening years, she’s discovered a knack for law enforcement, but she’s less and less willing to live every minute of her life at the town’s beck and call and under the heavy thumb of its expectations.

She’d like some off-time, dammit. She’d like a life. And she’d really, really like to get laid.

Jo would also like to get further than she has so far with her off-the-books investigation into her father’s death. And for that she needs more skills and more contacts. Her quest takes her to the FBI Training Academy in Quantico, not to become an FBI agent herself, but to attend a week-long special training session that the FBI regularly holds for local law enforcement officers from all over the country.

She expects to learn a lot. She doesn’t expect to feel small and embarrassed every minute, because River Bend is a tiny town, she only has one full-time deputy, and certain kinds of crime are still blissfully absent.

She doesn’t expect that her pre-training one-night stand with a hot badass will turn into anything more. At least not until the same guy shows up at her training class as one of the FBI instructors. She’s both embarrassed and turned on, and just a bit sorry that Agent McHottie lives in DC while she’s in Oregon.

Until she finally remembers that he’s stationed not at Quantico, but at the field office in Eugene Oregon, only two hours from River Bend.

Jo and Gill (that’s Agent McHottie’s real name) actually do have a chance to make something of their almost-relationship. But there’s someone in River Bend out to get Jo. Or just the sheriff. Or perhaps there was a lot more going on with Jo’s dad’s murder than anyone counted on.

Or all of the above.

Escape Rating A: I’ve really enjoyed this series (a LOT) but I think that Making it Right is my favorite. And while you don’t have to read the first two books to get what is happening in this one, the whole series really is a lot of fun. If you enjoy small-town romances, and if you like stories about women’s long-lasting friendships, the entire series is a winner.

As much as I liked both Mel and Zoe, I think that part of the reason that I liked this one the best is that Jo felt like the easiest one for me to identify with. I fell into her thoughts and feelings about being a woman in a man’s job, needing to be taken seriously, always knowing that one misstep was all it would take to knock her off the pedestal, and feeling strangled by everyone else’s expectations.

Along with that big slice of regret she can’t manage to swallow, that her dad would have loved to have seen her turn her life around, but that it came too late for them to reconcile.

There are, as there often are in this series, three threads to this story. One is that Jo needs to find some of that elusive work-life balance. The town is eating her alive – not by doing anything wrong, but by dumping everything on Jo’s shoulders. She’s near a breaking point, and something is going to have to give, because Jo just can’t keep giving.

Jo is also stuck, or in a stuck-place, investigating her dad’s murder. She’s right that the whole thing is too pat, something stinks. She’s also equally right that someone doesn’t want her poking into that ten-year-old incident, because that sixth sense we all have that says someone in watching her is on overdrive. She just doesn’t know exactly who or exactly why, and neither do we.

The solution to this particular thread isn’t anything that the reader or Jo expects, which is awesome. Once everything is all laid out, it is obvious where the clues were, but we all miss them as they happen, and that makes the suspense part of this story even more suspenseful.

And of course there’s the romance. Which is perfect. Read Making it Right for yourself and you’ll see just how right Gill and Jo are for each other. Because they definitely are.

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

Giveaway: (1) $100 Amazon Gift Card and (4) prints of winner’s choice from the Most Likely series.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Free Space by Sean Danker + Giveaway

Review: Free Space by Sean Danker + GiveawayFree Space (Evagardian #2) by Sean Danker
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Evagardian #2
Pages: 320
Published by Ace Books on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the follow-up to Admiral, the intergalactic war has ended and hostilities between the Evagardian Empire and the Commonwealth are officially over, but the admiral is far from safe. . . .
"I'd impersonated a prince, temporarily stopped a war, escaped a deadly planet, and survived more assassination attempts than I could conveniently count. After all that, there shouldn't have been anything simpler than a nice weekend with a charming Evagardian girl.
However, some corners of the galaxy aren't as genteel as the Empire, and Evagardians aren't universally loved, which is how I ended up kidnapped to be traded as a commodity.
Their timing couldn't have been worse. I'm not at my best, but these people have no idea whom they're dealing with: a highly trained, genetically engineered soldier in the Imperial Service who happens to be my date."

My Review:

What kind of story do you get when a completely unreliable narrator attempts to be at least semi-reliable? And when the rest of the story is from the perspective of someone who always plays it straight but in this case just doesn’t know what part or game she is playing?

It makes for one hell of a wild and crazy ride, in some ways even crazier than the ride in the first book in this series, Admiral.

We still don’t know the man’s real name. We know that he spent quite a few years pretending to be Prince Dalton of the Ganraen Empire. We know that he used to be an Evagardian Imperial Agent, and that now he is on the run from everyone on all sides. The Ganraens would execute him as a traitor. The Empire just wants to clean up their very loose end.

Whoever he is, he wants to live. But first, he wants one last chance with Jessica Salmagard, one of the three cadets he both bamboozled and helped rescue in Admiral.

But like so many of his plans, this one goes very, VERY “gang aft aglee”. Because the Admiral and Jessica get themselves kidnapped. By accident.

And that’s where all the fun and adventure really begins.

The story is one of those “out of the frying pan into the fire” and then into the oven and then into the blast furnace kinds of things. Events are always on the brink of disaster, it’s just that the disaster they are on the brink of gets bigger and bigger as they go along.

Until the disaster is so big that the only thing bigger is a black hole. And look, there one is, right on the event horizon!

And we’re left wondering who exactly ended up saving whom in this insane adventure. Not to mention, we still don’t know who the Admiral really is. And neither does Jessica. Possibly at this point neither does the Admiral himself.

We’re all left hoping that someday we’ll find out. If the Admiral can manage to escape, yet again, from whomever has captured him. This time.

Escape Rating A-: At the start of this book, there’s a brief portion where events seemed to take a bit to get going. And it takes the reader a bit to catch themselves back up on previous events. So much of Admiral was kind of a locked room (or locked ship) mystery, and it happened so much in isolation that we don’t get much of a handle on events in this universe.

And just like in Admiral, we pretty much get dropped into the middle of the story yet again.

But once this thing takes flight, meaning once they get kidnapped, the ever escalating sequence of perils keeps the reader hanging on tight until the very end.

Unlike in Admiral, the narrative here is split between the Admiral and Jessica Salmagard. The Admiral is a completely unreliable narrator. He never reveals what he’s thinking, what he’s doing, or who he is. He embodies the idea of wheels within wheels within wheels. He’s always playing a part. But in this book we start to get the sense that even he is no longer certain exactly what part he is playing.

But very early on in the story the Admiral and Salmagard are separated. This leaves part of the story tied to her separate actions and events. Unlike the Admiral himself, we don’t see Jessica’s story from inside her head, but rather in an omniscient third-person. We really don’t need to see inside her head, because she is much more of “what you see is what you get” kind of person. She’s mostly straightforward in her actions, even if she is starting to wonder about a whole lot of the things she’s been taught to believe.

The universe, and the people in it, do not conform to the simple stereotypes that she was trained to expect. The experience for her is both unsettling and eye-opening, often at the same time.

One of the great things about the way that Free Space progresses is that the separation works to throw some of the usual expectations on their heads.

Once they are separated, it’s Salmagard and another female soldier who break themselves out of captivity, shoot up a couple of space stations, steal a ship, and generally commit all the mayhem and badassery that is usually reserved for the male protagonists in this kind of story. The two women become the rescuers, and the Admiral and a male soldier kidnapped with them become the rescuees.

Also, it’s the men who suffer from the comedy of errors, falling from one bad situation to an even worse one, tied up, gagged and often drugged through the entire mess as they descend through what feels like, instead of a descent through the seven circles of hell, a descent through the seven circles of illegal intergalactic human trafficking as perpetrated by a pair of unprepared idiots.

This is an adventure where not only does the right hand not know what the left hand is doing, but all the participants are either incapacitated, incompetent, or just plain lying every step of the way. Including the hero and heroine.

At the end, we’re left gasping, wondering if this was a real rescue, or just a setup for even more (and probably worse) yet to come.

In the next book. May it be soon.

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

I really enjoyed Free Space (and Admiral) so I am very pleased that the publisher is letting me give away one copy of Free Space to a lucky US/Canadian commenter.

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Review: The Illusionist’s Apprentice by Kristy Cambron + Giveaway

Review: The Illusionist’s Apprentice by Kristy Cambron + GiveawayThe Illusionist's Apprentice by Kristy Cambron
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Pages: 356
Published by Thomas Nelson on March 7th, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Harry Houdini’s one-time apprentice holds fantastic secrets about the greatest illusionist in the world. But someone wants to claim them . . . or silence her before she can reveal them on her own.
Boston, 1926. Jenny “Wren” Lockhart is a bold eccentric—even for a female vaudevillian. As notorious for her inherited wealth and gentleman’s dress as she is for her unsavory upbringing in the back halls of a vaudeville theater, Wren lives in a world that challenges all manner of conventions.
In the months following Houdini’s death, Wren is drawn into a web of mystery surrounding a spiritualist by the name of Horace Stapleton, a man defamed by Houdini’s ardent debunking of fraudulent mystics in the years leading up to his death. But in a public illusion that goes terribly wrong, one man is dead and another stands charged with his murder. Though he’s known as one of her teacher’s greatest critics, Wren must decide to become the one thing she never wanted to be: Stapleton’s defender.
Forced to team up with the newly formed FBI, Wren races against time and an unknown enemy, all to prove the innocence of a hated man. In a world of illusion, of the vaudeville halls that showcase the flamboyant and the strange, Wren’s carefully constructed world threatens to collapse around her.
Layered with mystery, illusion, and the artistry of the Jazz Age’s bygone vaudeville era, The Illusionist’s Apprentice is a journey through love and loss and the underpinnings of faith on each life’s stage.

My Review:

The Illusionist’s Apprentice was utterly charming, and quite surprising. We’ll talk about the charming first, and get to the surprising at the end.

Just like last week’s Blood and Circuses, the story in The Illusionist’s Apprentice is set in a world that is gone. In this case, that world is the vaudeville circuit. Vaudeville flourished during the period just before the American Civil until the 1910s, with the advent of movies. During the period of The Illusionist’s Apprentice, it is clear to the participants that vaude is dying, if not yet dead.

For our main character, the illusionist Wren Lockhart, vaudeville is the only life she’s ever known.

This is also a mystery, wrapped not so much in the proverbial enigma, but in a profound conundrum. Also in a web of contacts and enemies. A web that Wren entered as the late Harry Houdini’s apprentice, but must now maintain all by herself.

Or so it seems.

In the 1920s there was a rise in interest in spiritualism. Everyone had lost someone in recent memory, either to the Great War or the Spanish Influenza Epidemic. Lots of people were willing to latch onto any possibility of communicating with their deceased loved ones. And all too many con artists were willing to latch onto the money of those who grieved.

Harry Houdini in 1899

Harry Houdini, the famous illusionist and escape artist, had almost a secondary career in exposing fake mediums and spiritualists. Wren Lockhart was his apprentice, both as an illusionist and as a fake medium buster.

So she has come to see whether one of those fake mediums that she helped ruin, Horace Stapleton, really can bring the dead back to life. In a cemetery. It’s obviously yet another gag, but how did he do it? And why did someone put him up to it?

The FBI is watching Stapleton and the crowd, because it’s so obviously a scam even if they can’t figure out how. FBI Agent Matthews is watching Wren in particular, when the unthinkable happens. Twice. Stapleton, in a flourish of showmanship, seems to actually raise one of the corpses from the grave. Only to have the man walk a few steps and collapse, dead again.

Among the very meager evidence, Matthews finds a note linking the late Houdini and the still living Wren Lockhart to the crime, or event, or whatever-the-heck it was. And Matthews is all too eager to follow that trail, if only for a chance to speak with the woman who fascinates him.

Wren and Matthews find kindred spirits in each other. Both driven, both workaholics before the term was invented, both using their focus on their work to keep others at a distance. They discover that they need each other. At first, Matthews just needs an entree into the world of vaudeville. He needs Wren’s help to figure out just how Stapleton did whatever it was he did.

Wren needs Matthews. She’s not used to relying on anyone, keeping her feelings and her secrets carefully locked away. But someone is targeting her, and she needs an outsider, particularly a very protective outsider, to help her find the snake in the grass at her feet.

They manage to keep each other alive, long enough to dig up all the truths, not just the ones that Wren has been hiding, but also the ones that have been hidden around her, under the cover of illusion.

Escape Rating A-: This was absolutely charming from beginning to end. Just like a member of her audience, I was sucked into Wren’s illusions from the very beginning of the story. She is an absolutely fascinating character. She is so completely eccentric, so much “out there” even for a female vaudevillian, that one can’t help but be captivated. At the same time, her position in the world of vaude gives her the opportunity to be unconventional in a way that makes her easy for a 21st century woman to empathize with. Her perspectives feel like hers, but they also mirror ours.

FBI Agent Elliot Matthews wants to be a hero. More correctly, he discovers that he wants to be Wren’s hero. But in spite of his status as an FBI Agent, he is not a hero in the usual mold. While he’d like to protect her, he comes to recognize that what he wants isn’t what Wren needs, or is willing to accept. Wren is looking for a hero who will walk beside her, letting her fight her own dragons. And Matthews discovers that he is willing to be that person, even though it isn’t easy.

The story here is one of wheels within wheels within wheels. It’s not a traditional mystery, but it is a mystery. And it’s one with ever widening circles of puzzles as it unravels.

Initially the mystery is all about Stapleton and whoever it is that is or isn’t dead. Then it widens to include who wanted to link Wren to the stunt, and why. Then it’s who is trying to kill Wren, and why. And finally, what is the deep, dark secret in Wren’s past that she has spent so much time, effort and money in concealing, and that someone is trying so hard to expose.

The secret of Wren’s past, and her present, is a very slow reveal, as she comes to trust Matthews more and more over time, and she peels away some of her protective layers. Some of the way that this is done is by skipping backwards into Wren’s past, so that we see those events as they happened. The jumps back and forth are a bit disconcerting at first, but in the end it does work.

And keeps the reader on the edge of their seat until the very end. Just like one of Wren Lockhart’s performances.

Now for why I was so surprised that I loved this book. Like The Hideaway, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, The Illusionist’s Apprentice was published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, a well-known and well-respected publisher of Christian inspirational literature, both fiction and nonfiction. And also like The Hideaway, The Illusionist’s Apprentice is not inspirational fiction, even though it is billed as such. And I was wary of it, like The Hideaway, because of that billing and that publisher. So I am left, as I was after reading The Hideaway, both confused and concerned. It is quite possible that people looking for inspirational fiction will be disappointed by this book. It is excellent historical fiction, but not inspie. It is also very possible that readers like myself, who steer far clear of inspirational fiction, will miss this book because of the publisher. I want this book to find its much deserved audience, and I worry that it won’t.

If you love historical fiction, particularly set in the 1920s (which is a fascinating period that’s getting a LOT more love since Downton Abbey), The Illusionist’s Apprentice is marvelous. And that’s no illusion!

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

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Review: Slow Burn Cowboy by Maisey Yates + Giveaway

Review: Slow Burn Cowboy by Maisey Yates + GiveawaySlow Burn Cowboy (Copper Ridge, #7) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Copper Ridge #7
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on April 18th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Copper Ridge, Oregon, a cowboy's best friend might turn out to be the woman of his dreams…
If Finn Donnelly makes a plan, he sticks to it. After his brothers left Copper Ridge, Finn stayed behind, determined to keep their ranch going by himself. And when he realized his feelings for Lane Jensen were more than platonic, he shoved that inconvenient desire away. It was easy…until it wasn't. Suddenly his brothers are coming home to claim their share of the property. And Lane is no longer just in his fantasies. She's in his arms, and their friendship is on the line…
He's been her buddy, her handyman, her rock. But until that one breathtaking kiss, Lane somehow overlooked the most important thing about Finn Donnelly—he's all man. They're right together, no matter how much his volatile past has bruised him. Finn wants to hold Lane's body, but he doesn't want to hold her heart. But Lane is falling fast and now she's got a plan of her own…to show Finn there's nothing hotter than friendship turned to slow-burning love.

My Review:

I loved Last Chance Rebel, and my friend Amy loved Hold Me Cowboy, so I expected to love Slow Burn Cowboy. But that’s not what happened.

Instead I have very much of a mixed feelings review on tap. Very mixed.

The friends-to-lovers trope is one of my favorites, so again, I was expecting to like the story line in this book. But something, actually multiple somethings, don’t quite work.

The set up is excellent, Lane and Finn have been best friends for ten years, ever since Lane left her parents’ home back East and moved to Copper Ridge to live with her brother Matt. At the time, Lane was sixteen and obviously just a bit fragile. Finn was 23 or 24 and more than a bit too old for her.

But that 8 or 9 year gap closes pretty quickly after a few years. Now Lane is in her late 20s and Finn is in his mid-30s. They’re both adults. But they are both still awfully fragile.

They are best friends. Really, truly. They spend time together and they care for each other and they need each other. But they are filling the gaps in each other’s lives that would normally be filled by a spouse or significant other. Not that their relationship isn’t significant, but they have fallen into a situation where they are friends with a different set of benefits. She cooks and buys his clothes, he kills spiders, changes lightbulbs and fixes the porch steps. It works for them.

Until it doesn’t.

Finn’s grandfather has just died. Instead of leaving his ranch to Finn, who has been working with him for that same last bunch of years, the old man left it to Finn and his three half-brothers equally. The Donnelly Brothers are all at crossroads in their lives, and they all move back to the ranch, into the house and the land that Finn expected would be his.

All of their relationships are strained and distant, and no one seems to be happy about any of it. So Finn, in a crazed need to re-establish control over something, anything, in his suddenly chaotic life, decides that he wants more from Lane than he’s ever asked for. He wants to push past their carefully maintained boundaries and turn their relationship into that of friends with the usual benefits.

He thinks its possible to make love and not feel at least a little love. And he’s an idiot.

Finn’s perfectly happy to tear down all of Lane’s defenses and push for whatever he wants. But when Lane turns the tables on him and starts pushing him for what she wants out of a relationship, he pushes her away as hard and as fast as he can.

The question of whether Finn can get his head out of his ass long enough to figure himself out is an open one. Finn needs to open his eyes, and his heart, before he throws away his best chance at happiness. And he needs to grovel.

Escape Rating C+: There was so much potential in Slow Burn Cowboy, but it never quite gels into the book that I was looking forward to.

Both Lane and Finn are damaged people, and neither of them thinks that they are worthy of happiness or love. They protect themselves in different ways. Lane by walling off what hurts her, and Finn by pushing away anyone who might get close enough to hurt him.

It’s amazing that they have managed to sustain a friendship, but they definitely have.

While Finn is a bit of an arsehole about it, his trauma is understandable. His dad seems to have been a serial philanderer, leaving a string of exes with his sons all across the country. Dad left everyone. But his mom also abandoned him. And he’s just sure everyone else will too.

Lane’s trauma just isn’t one that was easy for this reader to identify with. Her sense of loss at giving a baby up for adoption when she was sixteen is understandable, but she’s been wearing the past like a hair shirt ever since, to the point where the hair felt like it had been woven from a drama llama rather than anything real. Her story felt like angst for angst’s sake.

Also, these are two people who live inside their heads an awful lot, which also doesn’t feel right for Finn’s character. It felt like there was much more internal dialog than actual dialog. And Lane tended to think and talk in circles a lot of the time. That’s a habit that drives this reader crazy in real life, not just fictional life.

There are a lot of moments when the reader wants them to just stop talking inside their heads and let those words out where they might do some good!

But, and this is where the good stuff comes in, Copper Ridge just feels like a wonderful place. I like the people a lot. One of the great things in this story is all about the enduring power of women’s friendships. Lane, along with her best female friends, have a terrific, supportive and caring friendship. One of the ways in which Lane comes out of this story stronger than she went in is the realization that she is so much better off than she was when she arrived in Copper Ridge because those friendships will always see her through. She’s not alone, with or without Finn.

Finn’s supporting cast is his family, his three half-brothers and his niece Violet. They have all moved into the ranch and are now part of his life, where they have all been separate and alone up til now. Finn is really, really bad at letting people in, but having them be part of his life, whether he originally wanted it or not, is terrific. They bite and snap and growl at each other all the time, but they are all great characters and I’m looking forward to their stories in future books in the series.

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

Maisey and Harlequin are giving away a $25 Gift Card to one lucky entrant on this tour.

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Review: The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase by Greg Cox

Review: The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase by Greg CoxThe Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase by Greg Cox
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: media tie-in, urban fantasy
Series: The Librarians #2
Pages: 288
Published by Tor Books on April 25th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

For millennia, the Librarians have secretly protected the world by keeping watch over dangerous magical relics. Cataloging and safeguarding everything from Excalibur to Pandora’s Box, they stand between humanity and those who would use the relics for evil.
Stories can be powerful. In 1719, Elizabeth Goose of Boston Massachusetts published a collection of rhyming spells as a children's book, creating a spellbook of terrifying power. The Librarian of that age managed to dispose of all copies of the book except one, which remained in the possession of Elizabeth Goose and her family, temporarily averting any potential disaster.
However, strange things are happening, A window washer in San Diego who was blown off his elevated perch by a freak gust of wind, but miraculously survived by landing on a canopy over the building entrance. A woman in rural Pennsylvania who was attacked by mutant rodents without any eyes. And, a college professor in England who somehow found herself trapped inside a prize pumpkin at a local farmer’s market. Baird and her team of Librarians suspect that the magic of Mother Goose is again loose in the world, and with Fynn Carson AWOL once again, it is up to Cassandra, Ezekiel, and Stone to track down the missing spellbook before the true power of the rhymes can be unleashed.

My Review:

I read The Librarians and the Lost Lamp a couple of weeks ago, and I really enjoyed it because it felt so much like an episode of the show, including all of the madcap adventure and especially all of the banter. I had a great time, just as I do when I watch The Librarians. It was fun!

But The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase felt like it was more of a strain. The Librarians, of course, are always a bit strained in the midst of yet another hair-raising case, but there was something about this one that made it feel like a strain for the reader, too. Or at least this reader.

Fair warning, I may get a bit meta here. It’s hard to review a media tie-in novel without some references to the media it ties into, and how it “feels” related to how the original feels, And works. I would say or doesn’t work but the fact is that a person for whom the original does not work is unlikely to read novels based on it. My 2 cents.

Part of what makes The Librarians work as a show is their marvelous team dynamic. The Librarians and their Guardian are a close knit team and also kind of a family. What they do is designed to be a bit outside the mundane world, and they of necessity have bonded together. Along with Jenkins, the combination archivist, caretaker and zookeeper of the Library and the Library Annex in Portland they work out of.

On the one hand, parts of this story provide a marvelous and much broader view of just how big, how strange, and how magical the Library’s collections truly are. Nobody wants the job of cleaning the pen that holds the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs, but it’s a dirty job and somebody has to do it. Usually Jenkins.

On that other hand, the Librarians spend a lot of this story on separate parts of the quest. This group is stronger when it’s together. It’s also funnier and occasionally more heartwarming when it’s together. So for this reader story lost some of its steam when it separated the group, Also the way they were split up felt a bit contrived. Their separate quests seem to rely on their weaknesses more than their strength, and the individuals they were paired up with instead felt like contrivances designed to teach them each something rather than get the job done. As usual, my 2 cents and your mileage may vary.

And the action got a bit bogged down as it split into four separate stories, which at times felt a bit repetitious.

The concept that Mother Goose was not only real but a powerful witch who encoded her spells into nursery rhymes fits right into the mythos of the Library. That her magic could get out of hand if left in the hands of the “wrong people” could make an episode or a great story.

But the way that this one wrapped up, which unfortunately I did see coming a mile away, fell flat. Again, at least for this reader.

So, as much as I love The Librarians, I didn’t have nearly as much fun with Mother Goose as I did with the Lost Lamp.

Escape Rating C+: The scenes where Eve and Jenkins are chasing several of the Library’s more colorful (and volatile) exhibits around the Library are hilarious. My personal favorite is when Jenkins throws Arthur’s Crown at the Sword Excalibur and tells it to play “Keep Away” with the King of Beasts and the Unicorn. Eve’s solution to the problem of the Dead Man’s Chest was also lot of fun. But the gang spends too much time not being a gang, and I missed the way they play off of each other much too much.

Review: Any Day Now by Robyn Carr + Giveaway

Review: Any Day Now by Robyn Carr + GiveawayAny Day Now (Sullivan's Crossing, #2) by Robyn Carr
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Sullivan's Crossing #2
Pages: 384
Published by Mira Books on April 18th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The highly anticipated sequel to #1 New York Times bestselling author Robyn Carr's What We Find transports readers back to Sullivan's Crossing. The rustic campground at the crossroads of the Colorado and Continental Divide trails welcomes everyone—whether you're looking for a relaxing weekend getaway or a whole new lease on life. It's a wonderful place where good people face their challenges with humor, strength and love.
For Sierra Jones, Sullivan's Crossing is meant to be a brief stopover. She's put her troubled past behind her but the path forward isn't yet clear. A visit with her big brother Cal and his new bride, Maggie, seems to be the best option to help her get back on her feet.
Not wanting to burden or depend on anyone, Sierra is surprised to find the Crossing offers so much more than a place to rest her head. Cal and Maggie welcome her into their busy lives and she quickly finds herself bonding with Sully, the quirky campground owner who is the father figure she's always wanted. But when her past catches up with her, it's a special man and an adorable puppy who give her the strength to face the truth and fight for a brighter future. In Sullivan's Crossing Sierra learns to cherish the family you are given and the family you choose.

My Review:

First of all, I love the places that Robyn Carr creates. Thunder Point was a terrific little town, and now Timberlake Colorado, the town near Sullivan’s Crossing, also seems like a fine place to get a fresh start.

And that’s just what Sierra Jones is looking for when she arrives in Timberlake in her beat-up orange VW Beetle, fondly known as “The Pumpkin” for obvious reasons. Nearly 30 and just 9 months sober, Sierra has come to Timberlake planning to spend some quality time with her brother Cal (hero of What We Find) and getting to know her new sister-in-law and the ‘bump’ that will become her niece in a few short months time.

Cal found a new life and fresh start in Timberlake, and healing in the beauties of nature that surround Sullivan’s Crossing at the conjunction of the Colorado and Continental Divide Trails. Sierra hopes for the same.

She ran away to rehab to escape something horrible, only to discover that the events that led up to her break happened, at least partially, because she really was an alcoholic, just like so many people, including Cal, told her. Running away from her messes into rehab was the first smart decision she had made in quite a while.

Sierra got scared straight. And she’s putting in the work to stay straight, one day at a time. But what scared her is big and bad and very, very real, and until she deals with it, she’s always going to feel just one day away from making more bad choices, or having her choices taken away from her, once and for all.

So Sierra comes to Timberlake for a fresh start where she can stand on her own two feet but still have support when she needs it. And so that she can be there for Cal when he needs her. It’s about time.

But just like her brother, Sierra comes to Timberlake looking to heal herself, and certainly not looking for a relationship. And that’s always just when you find one – when you are definitely not looking.

Conrad Boyle, (everyone calls him Connie whether he likes it or not), is a member of the Timberlake Fire Department. He’s also a paramedic who does search and rescue in his “off” hours. He doesn’t think he’s any better at picking the right partner than Sierra is. His last relationship ended in disaster, and he’s sure he’s better off not looking for love, because what finds him turns out to be anything but.

So of course Sierra and Connie fall for each other. Both unwilling at first to admit that what they have found is more than a fling. And Sierra more than a little bit afraid that when Connie learns the whole truth about her, he’ll run away as far and as fast as he can, leaving her devastated and alone. Again.

Instead, her past comes looking for her. But when it finally catches up to her, this time she doesn’t cave in. She nails it to the wall and beats it with a baseball bat.

Escape Rating B: I do love visiting Sullivan’s Crossing. It’s a great place, populated with a terrific bunch of people. Even the local bad apples are reasonably sympathetic and understandably human, if still a bit sour to the local taste.

I also like that the protagonists of the series are all adults with real adult problems. There’s plenty of angst at the right spots, but it’s real-life angst. Everyone has been banged around a bit in the school of hard knocks, and whatever they are agonizing over is stuff that’s really there, not made up drama. The series so far is also blissfully free of ridiculous misunderstandammits.

In spite of his spectacularly bad luck at relationships, Connie is a genuinely nice guy. He’s a good man who does some very hard things. Being a paramedic, even in a small town, means that he’s seen a lot of death and dismemberment, and had to rescue a lot of people from a lot of bad things. Sometimes he fails. So although his life looks mostly sunny, he understands in his bones that there are dark places and dark things in the world. He has the empathy to understand Sierra’s pain without either papering it over or rejecting it, and her.

Sierra, of course, is just certain that he can do better than her mixed-up self. But the heart wants what the heart wants.

The journey in this book is Sierra’s. She needs to decide she’s worthy, and she does it by facing the demons in her past. And that’s where things get both interesting and a bit murky.

I loved watching Sierra build a life for herself. Not just the romance, but everything that Sierra does to make herself part of Sullivan’s Crossing, and the way that it makes itself part of her. The mentor/father-figure relationship she builds with Sully is lovely. I’d say sweet but Sully probably wouldn’t approve.

But the more she reveals about herself, not just inside her own head but to Cal and eventually Connie, the more the reader is certain that her past is coming to get her. Literally. The story builds and builds the tension of Sierra waiting for that very dangerous other shoe to drop, to the point where I wanted to read ahead just to find out if they ever did get Chekhov’s gun down off the wall and just shoot it already.

When that climax finally comes, it gets wrapped up a bit too quickly. The way it gets wrapped up was wonderful, but that other shoe hung up there much longer than the actual drop got wrapped up.

But I loved my visit to Sullivan’s Crossing, and enjoyed it so much that I raced through the book just to see how everyone was doing and get to know the newbies. I can’t wait to go back!

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

I’m giving away a copy of Any Day Now to one lucky winner in the continental U.S.

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Review: Legend Has It by Elliott James

Review: Legend Has It by Elliott JamesLegend Has It (Pax Arcana, #5) by Elliott James
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Pax Arcana #5
Pages: 448
Published by Orbit Books on April 18th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

For John Charming, living the dream just became a nightmare.
Someone, somewhere, is reading a magic book that is reading them right back. Real life is becoming a fairytale: high school students are turning, quite literally, into zombies, subway workers into dwarves, drug addicts into vampires.
John Charming and his motley band of monster hunters are racing to find the villain of this story, following the yellow brick road through a not so wonderful wonderland. And if they can’t find Reader Zero before the book is closed, there won’t be a happily ever after again.

My Review:

The snark is strong with this one. Very strong. And John Charming needs all the help that he can get.

At this point in the story of John Charming and his “Scooby-gang” of Sig, Molly and Choo, they, and the world, are in pretty deep foo-foo. Which is where they do best. And sometimes worst.

The story follows almost directly from last year’s In Shining Armor. At the end of that book, John says that he and Sig are going back to pick up the rest of the gang, and that’s pretty much where we are now. John and the gang heading to New York to meet up with John’s former and possibly future gang, the Knights Templar, along with his semi-present gang, the werewolves of the Round Table.

Those Knights Templar really are the descendants of the original Knights Templar. The werewolves of the Round Table, on the other hand, adopted that name because it was cool and because it fit into their frequently mesalliance with the Templars. And probably because it pisses the Templars off just a bit.

Not that werewolves in general don’t make the Templars very, very twitchy. The Templars aren’t merely charged with, but are actually geas bound to protect the Pax Arcana, the magic (ironic that) that makes it so that us mundanes don’t see or remember magic. And for a very long time, the Templars were taught to believe that the mere existence of werewolves (and vampires, and pretty much anything else that was magic but wasn’t Templar) were an automatic violation of the Pax.

Which they mostly aren’t. Most werewolves, and vampires, and cunning folk (witches) and other magical types just want to live their lives without bothering anyone. They don’t want to be outed any more than the Templars do. But negotiating that particular change in outlook makes the Templars very, very twitchy indeed.

And that’s where John Charming came in. John is a Templar. And he’s also a werewolf. The fact that he didn’t self-combust the minute he discovered those two supposedly contradictory identities has forced, often at swordpoint, the Templars to do a bit of re-thinking. Hence the very shaky alliance between the Templars and the werewolves.

What was discovered in In Shining Armor was that there is a group very much in opposition to the Templars, and that the opposition, the School of Night, had done an excellent job of infiltrating the Templars over the past 500 years. The mission of the School of Night is bring down the Pax Arcana, by any means necessary, to let magic loose in the world again.

And the Templars are bound to oppose the tearing down of the Pax by any means necessary, no matter how vile those means might be. Even to the point of nukes in New York City. They may not want to, but they may feel that they have to.

That’s what John Charming and his Scooby-gang are right smack in the middle of. Their job, and they’ve decided to accept it, is to bring down the School of Night before the Templars bring down Ragnarok. No matter what it takes. Or possibly who.

Escape Rating A-: If you’ve read the other books, this one is a humdinger, slam-dunk thrill-a-minute ride from the beginning to the end.

Let me say this upfront – the Pax Arcana series is one that is meant to be read from its beginning. Although the world starts out being very much like our own, as the series piles on, we see more and more of just how different it is – or rather just how much has been hidden from us by the Pax Arcana. The author makes a brave and hilarious attempt to get new readers into the action by opening with our hero John Charming in the midst of an imaginary interview with a very imaginary Barbara Walters. That intro does a good job of reminding series readers where last we left our heroes, but isn’t really a substitute for new readers actually reading at least most of the rest of the series.

So if you like really, really snarky urban fantasy, start with Charming.

As I’ve mentioned, John Charming definitely comes from the snarky end of urban fantasy. He reminds me a lot of Harry Dresden from the Dresden Files, but John’s attitude towards women in general is a bit more, I want to say enlightened but that isn’t quite right. John, unlike Harry or most heroes in urban fantasy, is managing to have a successful relationship with Sig the Valkyrie. And he’s less of a hound and more of a good man, if only because Sig can perforate him with her spear when he screws things up. He’s learning, and it makes him more sympathetic.

Like other urban fantasy heroes, including Harry Dresden, Atticus Finch of the Iron Druid Chronicles, and John Taylor from the Nightside, the book is literally his story. It’s told from the first-person, and we are inside John’s head. You do have to like his brand of snark to want to occupy that head for very long, but it’s generally a livable space. While he does use humor to lighten what are often grim situations, he is also funnier on the inside than even what comes out, and he says what he’s thinking, and often what we’re thinking too.

The thing in this story that causes all the fuss is an interesting one. It’s a book. An evil book. It’s one of those books from the Restricted Section in the library at Hogwarts (not literally, of course) that should be chained up because when you read it, it reads you. And it’s way more powerful than most people who read it. The School of Night is using it to let magical monsters loose in the world, test the responses of the Knights, and see if they can spread enough chaos to break the Pax. It’s a diabolical plan, from a very diabolical mind.

But the sheer amount of danger that John, his gang and the Templars are tipped into, while awesome and scary on so many levels, also brings out one of the inevitable twists of urban fantasy – that in order to keep the series interesting, the protagonist has to face and overcome more dangerous situations each outing, with bigger and badder villains, and hairier and scarier problems to solve. The hero becomes more powerful, and the villains get even more frightening and evil. The tone of the series gets darker the deeper you go. And so it proves with John Charming. Also Harry Dresden, John Taylor and every other urban fantasy series I’ve ever read.

I wonder where this one is going to end. But I certainly plan on hanging on to the ride. Possibly with my fingernails. And maybe my teeth.

Review: The Hideaway by Lauren K Denton

Review: The Hideaway by Lauren K DentonThe Hideaway by Lauren K. Denton
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, large print, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, small town romance, women's fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Thomas Nelson on April 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When her grandmother’s will wrenches Sara back home from New Orleans, she learns more about Margaret Van Buren in the wake of her death than she ever did in life.
After her last remaining family member dies, Sara Jenkins goes home to The Hideaway, her grandmother Mags's ramshackle B&B in Sweet Bay, Alabama. She intends to quickly tie up loose ends then return to her busy life and thriving antique shop in New Orleans. Instead, she learns Mags has willed her The Hideaway and charged her with renovating it—no small task considering Mags’s best friends, a motley crew of senior citizens, still live there.
Rather than hurrying back to New Orleans, Sara stays in Sweet Bay and begins the biggest house-rehabbing project of her career. Amid Sheetrock dust, old memories, and a charming contractor, she discovers that slipping back into life at The Hideaway is easier than she expected.
Then she discovers a box Mags left in the attic with clues to a life Sara never imagined for her grandmother. With help from Mags’s friends, Sara begins to piece together the mysterious life of bravery, passion, and choices that changed Mags’s destiny in both marvelous and devastating ways.
When an opportunistic land developer threatens to seize The Hideaway, Sara is forced to make a choice—stay in Sweet Bay and fight for the house and the people she’s grown to love or leave again and return to her successful but solitary life in New Orleans.

My Review:

The Hideaway turned out to be an unexpectedly lovely read for me. I’ll talk about the ‘lovely’ first and get to the ‘unexpected’ parts at the end. You’ll see why, I promise.

The Hideaway fits very well into a particular sub-sub-sub-genre of women’s fiction/small town romance. This is one of those stories where a woman finds herself obligated to return to the small town she grew up in, after years away in some big city, to take care of some family something-or-other that is left behind when an elderly relative dies (or occasionally has a health crisis). And in the process of taking care of whatever-it-was, she discovers that the relative she sincerely loved but didn’t visit enough had some big secrets that she finds out about much too late, when that person is gone. And that her new knowledge of those secrets both changes the way she views that person, and makes her rethink quite a lot of her own life.

Especially since her return home usually forces her to confront whatever baggage she left behind – because it’s all still waiting for her back at what used to be home.

And for whatever reason, taking care of that final obligation always takes way more time than she planned, and in that time she has a chance to rethink her current life in whatever big city she now resides, the opportunity to fall back in love with her hometown, and the chance to fall in love with someone completely new.

Which also brings her to a major life choice; return to the life she left behind in the city, or stay in the small town she never wanted to return to with a new purpose and a new love.

This particular plot has become a classic for a reason – in the hands of a good writer, it makes a powerful (and lovely) story, as it does here in The Hideaway.

What makes The Hideaway (the book) and the Hideaway (the place) are the people and their stories. Especially Sara and her grandmother Mags. Mags has just died, and has passed the ownership of the run down Hideaway Bed and Breakfast, along with its slightly run down permanent residents, to Sara.

Sara, the proud but workaholic owner of a successful decorating shop in New Orleans, expects to wrap Mags’ estate up in a week, only to discover that it is going to take months to carry out Mags’ final wish that she restore the Hideaway back to its original splendor, and then either sell it or continue to operate it, however she sees fit.

The long-term residents of the Hideaway pretty much HAVE a fit. The four older residents discovered the Hideaway as a safe harbor 30 or more years ago. It’s their home as much as it was Mags’, and they all feel bereft, even though they all know that Mags did the right thing. It was, after all, her house.

But as Sara dives into the renovations, she discovers that there was a whole lot more to Mags’ past than she ever imagined, and that the things she believed, both about Mags and about herself, are not quite what she thought they were.

Knowing now what she didn’t know then, and what Mags didn’t know then, sets Sara free.

Escape Rating A-: The Hideaway is a sweet and lovely take on a tried-and-true trope, and it works very, very well.

The story (and its perspective) flips back and forth between Mags’ arrival at the Hideaway in the late 1950s, and Sara’s return to the Hideaway and Sweet Bay Alabama in 2016. Both stories have a lot of heart. They also mirror each other. Mags has a good life, but she misses her happy ever after. Sara still has a chance at hers – she just has to drop her old baggage and grab it.

On the one hand, there’s that saying about the past being another country, that they do things differently there. There’s also the saying that specifically refers to the South, that the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. Both those versions come into play in this story.

The world, and the options for women in it, were rather different in the 1950s than they are today. That Mags managed to carve a life of her own even somewhat away from the expectations of her parents was a major accomplishment for her and a huge disappointment for them in ways that seem almost quaint in 2017 – but were real at the time. That she fell short of the ultimate goal due to other people’s beliefs and expectations does turn out to be a tragedy, but not as big a tragedy as it might have been.

Sara, on the other hand, has the possibility of having, if not “it all”, then at least most of it. Her journey felt easier to identify with, but Mags’ story had more depth. Mags did the best she could in the circumstances she had, and managed to make a life and world for herself mostly according to her own desires. We wish better for her, but it is surprising that she got as much as she wanted.

And for readers, both Mags AND Sara’s journeys are at turns heart-rending and heart-warming, and we feel for both of them and want them to be happy. That Mags came so close but didn’t quite make it is heartbreaking because we care.

I loved this book. It made a neverending day at an airport absolutely fly by. But I was surprised that I enjoyed it so much, and by this point you’re wondering why. Most readers don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the publisher of a book, and with some exceptions, I usually don’t either. But there are a few genres that just don’t interest me, and one of those genres is inspirational literature, whether romance or nonfiction. The publisher of The Hideaway, Thomas Nelson Publishers, is a well-respected publisher of inspirational literature, specifically Christian inspirational literature. When The Hideaway was offered for tour, as much as the description of the book appealed to me, I just wasn’t interested if it was inspirational. I was assured it was not, and after reading it I completely concur, it isn’t. (There is nothing wrong with inspirational literature, it just isn’t my cuppa, and life is too short to read books that you know upfront are just not your jam.) The Hideaway is not an inspirational romance. It doesn’t have any of the characteristics that make a book an “inspie”. The romances in this book are both squeaky clean, but a well-done “fade to black” is a tried-and-true method of handling romance scenes. And I’d much rather read a well-done fade to black than a horribly or laughably written sex scene. But the lack of sexual scenes does not make a book inspirational. And The Hideaway isn’t. It’s just an excellent women’s fiction/contemporary romance story.

This does all lead up to something. At first, based on the publisher, I was expecting an inspie, and was pleased to discover that this book isn’t. But because I enjoyed it so much, I’m now concerned about it. My concern is about whether this book will find the audience it deserves, because of the publisher. People who look at Thomas Nelson for an inspie are going to be disappointed. And people who stay far, far away from inspirational fiction aren’t going to even look at this book, because of the publisher. It’s definitely a dilemma.

So go back to ignoring the publisher. If you like southern fiction, or small town romance, or stories where there’s a choice to be made between the life you have and the life you’ve come to love, read this book!

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