Review: Fool Me Once by Catherine Bybee

Review: Fool Me Once by Catherine BybeeFool Me Once by Catherine Bybee
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic suspense, women's fiction
Series: First Wives #1
Pages: 348
Published by Montlake Romance on September 19th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

From Weekday Brides to First Wives, a dazzling series about four women and their alliance of newfound friendship, unexpected love, and second chances.

Cynical divorce attorney Lori Cumberland lives by one motto: Love is grand, but divorce is a hundred grand. With one failed marriage under her own personal belt, Lori had fallen hard and early—and it isn’t something she plans on repeating. She’s content focusing on the temporary marriages of her rich and famous clients. When she joins some of her recent divorcées on a celebratory cruise, her only vow is fun, sun, and new friends. But Lori finds herself tempted by a jury of one.

For Reed Barlow, falling into the world of private investigation was easy. He knows the law and knows how to avoid breaking it—all while doing his job. His rule to live by? No emotion, no involvement…until Lori. His charming smile and cocky attitude distracts Lori and lowers her guard, which is exactly what Reed desires.

But what appears as a one-time-only flirtation may be a plot orchestrated by Reed. As he’s taking his investigation to a dangerous level, it’s Lori who could end up in jeopardy. Reed has only one shot for Lori to grant him a second chance. But if he comes clean with her, he blows his cover. And that just might cost him the opportunity for an alliance of family…and of love.

My Review:

As the old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on ME.” I still hear those words in Jimmy Doohan’s inimitable Scottish brogue, as the first time I ever heard this adage was in Star Trek: The Original Series in the episode “Friday’s Child”.

Although Fool Me Once is the first book in a spinoff series from Weekday Brides, you don’t have to read any of the first series to jump into the second. There are enough explanations about Alliance to get new readers right into the thick of things. But the Weekday Brides are awesome, so if you like Fool Me Once, you’ll love them, too.

The women featured in Fool Me Once and the First Wives Club are all Alliance veterans. Shannon, Avery and Trina were all contract brides, married to rich and/or powerful men in name only, for a year or so, in return for huge payouts at the end, when the inevitable divorce occurred. As intended. As contracted for by both parties.

Except it only works some of the time. Lori, the heroine of this story, is the legal brains behind Alliance. She writes those iron-clad pre-nups and sees all her clients from initial interviews to after-care when the divorce is final and the gossip inevitably hits the fan.

It doesn’t always work. About a quarter of the Alliance-arranged contracts have turned into real marriages. Considering that the divorce rate for non-arranged marriages is 50%, these are not bad odds. But Shannon, Avery and Trina are special cases.

Shannon made the mistake of falling in love with her ex. Two years later she still hasn’t gotten over it. Avery just got her divorce, and is ready to party. Trina’s situation is the one that ends in tragedy, and that sets this story in motion. Trina’s husband-in-name-only committed suicide while they were still married. As if that wasn’t enough, his mother died a few days later, leaving her entire fortune, not to her family, but to Trina. Who is overwhelmed with guilt and constantly in the cross-hairs of the paparazzi – and her father-in-law.

Lori may not believe in love and marriage after years as a divorce lawyer, but she does believe in taking care of her friends. And all of these women are her friends as well as her clients. Trina needs a getaway. And she needs company to help her get out of her funk, as well as to shield her from the press. It seems like a brilliant idea to get away for a week on a high-class cruise in the Mediterranean – but that just puts them in the midst of a whole new set of problems.

And that’s where Reed Barlow comes in. He seems like one of the solutions – not for any of the former Alliance brides, but for Lori herself. He looks like the perfect end to her very long dry spell, and the chemistry they ignite feels more than just physical. That he lives close enough to Lori’s home base in LA to make a continuation of their shipboard romance possible seems perfect. And so does Reed. Maybe just a little too perfect.

Because Reed isn’t part of the solution, he’s part of the problem. At least until he re-discovers his inner hero and changes sides. Too late to save their relationship, and possibly even too late to save Alliance and its secrets.

Or is it?

Escape Rating A-: Fool Me Once is a marvelous cross between romantic suspense and women’s fiction, and I loved every minute of it. As I have all of Catherine Bybee’s books that I have read so far. The number of kindle locations in Fool Me Once made me think that the book was a bit longer than the 350 pages it claims to be, and I didn’t care.

The women’s fiction angle comes in because so much of the backbone of the story is the relationship between the four women. They call themselves the First Wives Club because they’ve all been divorced, including Lori. But instead of the usual version, where the first wives got thrown over for the newer, younger model, these women ended up mostly where they thought they would, with a few kinks in the road. Instead, went into the arrangement intending to trade their contracted sugar-daddy husbands for newer, probably younger models who are their own choices.

Of course, the best laid plans of mice, men, and women often go astray. But the relationship that forms between these sisters-of-choice is forever. Readers who like Shannon, Avery, Trina and Lori will fall right in with them. They are all strong women with their own distinct personalities, but they are all different. It’s easy to identify with one or all of them, and that’s what makes the book.

The romantic suspense angle has its moments of extreme danger, but also plenty of intrigue and mystery. It’s clear at the beginning that Reed enters into the story with an agenda that is funded by someone else, someone who does not have the best interests of any of the women in mind. Although Reed changes sides (he has to or this wouldn’t be a romance) the person who set him in motion is not happy or satisfied, and will probably come back to haunt Shannon in particular and Alliance in general.

But the real mystery and danger in this story comes not from Lori and Reed, but from Trina’s case. Trina’s entanglement with her late husband’s family has caused a lot of resentment, and someone is willing to go through Lori to get to Trina, putting both of them in danger. The threat is very real and nearly catastrophic. At the same time, Trina’s unexpected inheritance provides her with a way forward that no one expected at the beginning. The ongoing story of her new adventures looks like a lot of fun.

When a hero screws up as much as Reed does (and sister does he ever) I usually need for the hero to do a really, really good grovel for the heroine to justify taking him back. While I’m not sure Reed groveled quite enough, he did save her brother’s life. That makes up for a lot of grovel. This HEA is earned!

At some point in this series, there might be a real “fool me twice” possibility. Shannon is, after all, in love with her ex. I can’t help but wonder whether her eventual HEA will be with him, or whether she’ll manage to finally wash that man right out of her hair. And I can’t wait to find out.

Review: Defending Hearts by Rebecca Crowley + Giveaway

Review: Defending Hearts by Rebecca Crowley + GiveawayDefending Hearts (Atlanta Skyline #2) by Rebecca Crowley
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: sports romance
Series: Atlanta Skyline #2
Pages: 236
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation on September 19th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When The Pitch Gets Personal

Atlanta Skyline's star Swedish wingback Oz Terim-or as the fans call him, the Wizard-has an airtight plan for his life, his career, even his meticulously renovated house, but he barely gives a thought to the Islamic faith he inherited from his Turkish parents. So no one's more surprised than he is when he's the victim of anti-Muslim hate crime. Refusing to take the threat seriously, he resists the security detail Skyline insists on . . . until he meets Kate Mitchell. There's no room for her in his plan and she's the exact opposite of what he wants. Then why can't he keep his hands off her?

After ten years in the military-and getting fired from her first post-Army job in Saudi Arabia-Kate Mitchell has slunk home to her Georgia roots. Private security isn't the career she dreamed of, nor is she thrilled to work with an uptight professional athlete who plays a sport she has no interest in. She never expected to be attracted to him-or for him to fall for her, too. As their opposite lives tangle up-and the threat against Oz grows more serious-Kate has to decide who she wants to be in life and in love.

"A well-crafted and very enjoyable sports romance that also delves into a timely subplot of the challenges faced by immigrants to America . . . Crossing Hearts delivers an exciting and passionate read." -allaboutromance.com

My Review:

I picked this one because I live in Atlanta. I always enjoy reading books about the place I live – or places I have lived. I still have a soft spot in my heart for books set in Alaska after three years there.

But this story isn’t really about the city, and the city doesn’t feature much in the story. Instead, this could any big city in the U.S. that is trying to get FIFA-level soccer established in the U.S. And there are lots of medium-to-large cities that could host a team.

The story in Defending Hearts is about more than soccer. Oz Terem could be a star player in any major league sport, and this story would still work. Because underlying the romance there’s a surprisingly in-depth story about irrational hatred and unthinking prejudice, and that’s the part that sticks with readers in the end.

Oz is not just the star player for the Atlanta Skyline. He’s also a practicing, admittedly somewhat loosely and extremely secular, Muslim who is seen visibly praying before each game. And some nutjob out there riding the current wave of Islamophobia has decided that Oz’ somewhat casual adherence to his faith means that he must be a terrorist or at least aiding and abetting terrorism.

When he’s really a soccer player who is otherwise doing a decent job of living his life and observing as much of his faith as he finds comfortable. While he may be of Turkish descent, he actually sees himself as Swedish, because that’s where he was born and raised.

But there’s someone targeting Oz with increasingly virulent threats on all of his social media accounts. The escalation has got his manager worried, enough so that the team decides to get security for Oz.

And that’s where our heroine, Kate Mitchell, comes in. Kate is ex-military, and is currently working for one of Atlanta’s frankly lesser lights in the personal security business. But she’s the agent available when a reluctant Oz and his manager come into the office, so she’s the agent they get.

Kate and Oz strike sparks off each other from the very beginning, even though neither is anything like the other’s type. Kate has a taste for big guys with bigger trucks, and Oz is working from his master plan – he’s not interested in anyone who isn’t wife material. Kate’s more of a Ms. Right Now type, and she’s trying her best not to keep settling for Mr. Right Now. Her track record with men mostly consists of disappointment.

Even though they may not fit each other’s ideas of what they thought they wanted – they are absolutely what each other needs. But as the threats to Oz escalate, and they turn towards each other, neither is certain whether the bond they are forging can survive either the resolution of the crisis or the vast differences between them.

And whether or not it should.

Escape Rating B: There’s something about Defending Hearts that gives it a bit of a “New Adult” feel, and it’s not just that Kate pops Oz’ cherry. While both protagonists are in their mid-to-late 20s, the decisions that they are making and their positions on their life plans (or lack thereof) give the story a New Adult vibe.

The romance also has elements of the “opposites attract” trope that really work. I would say that Kate is from the wrong side of the tracks, but I don’t think that Jasper, Georgia is big enough to even have tracks. It really does exist, and looks like it’s exactly the kind of small rural town that typifies Georgia in the popular mind outside of the big cities of Atlanta and Savannah.

Kate is also interesting because she’s not a typical romance heroine. Not just because of her military service, but because of the reasons behind it. She enlisted to get the hell out of tiny Jasper, got chewed up and spit out, and now that she’s back, she’s come to the realization that as much as she wanted to leave, and as much as her mom and her sister drive her crazy, they are her people and she loves them, and they love her, no matter what.

They need her, and not just because her contributions are what tides both of them over between men. And she needs them as well, even though she desperately wants to make sure she doesn’t fall into the same trap.

Oz on the other hand had a relatively privileged, upper middle class life in Sweden. Yes, he’s a rich diva because he’s a talented man at the top of a world-class sport, but even without soccer he comes from a far more educated and definitely privileged world. His parents are both professionals, and they were able to afford the coaching and training he needed to get him where he is at the time of the story. And unlike Kate, Oz didn’t merely graduate college, he graduated from Harvard, and that’s the rarified (at least from Kate’s perspective) atmosphere from which he draws his friends and his worldview.

Everyone indulges Oz, and he doesn’t even realize just how much they do. He needs Kate in his life because she doesn’t. She grounds him. And he gives her wings.

The crisis that throws them together, the anti-Muslim propaganda and hate-speech that escalates into stalking and violence, is integral to the story. It feels well-done and gives what might otherwise be a fluffy romance quite a bit of depth. And it’s instructive to see the male sports star, someone who is so obviously the good guy, as the victim of a hate crime. He has done nothing to bring any of this on himself. That the haters are so clearly the villains of this piece (and batshit crazy) may give at least a few readers some insights that might not have otherwise penetrated their bubble.

And that’s a good thing in any book, but especially in a good one.

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

I’m giving away a digital (ebook) copy of Defending Hearts to one lucky commenter on this tour.

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Review: Sugar Pine Trail by RaeAnne Thayne + Giveaway

Review: Sugar Pine Trail by RaeAnne Thayne + GiveawaySugar Pine Trail (Haven Point, #7) by RaeAnne Thayne
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, holiday romance
Series: Haven Point #7
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An unlikely attraction brings comfort, joy and unforgettable romance this holiday season!

Librarian Julia Winston is ready to ditch the quiet existence she's been living. She's made a list of new things to experience, but falling for Jamie Caine, her sexy military pilot neighbor, isn't one of them. Julia's looking to conquer life, not become the heartbreaker's latest conquest. But when two young brothers wind up in Julia's care for the holidays, she'll take any help she can get—even Jamie's.

Happy to step in, Jamie reveals a side of himself that's much harder to resist. Not only is he fantastic with kids, he provides the strength Julia needs to tackle her list. She knows their temporary family can't last beyond the holidays, but the closer she gets to Jamie, the more she wonders if things could be this merry and bright forever…

My Review:

It may only be September, but welcome to the first holiday book review of the year!

And we’re back in cozy Haven Point in this follow up to Serenity Harbor and my personal favorite in the series, Riverbend Road.

Sugar Pine Trail even ties up a bit of the story in Riverbend Road, right along with the series’ ongoing efforts to get all the Caine brothers of Caine Tech matched up with the women they’ve been waiting their whole lives for – even if they haven’t known it.

The hero this time around is Jamie Caine, the pilot. Jamie spends his days flying his brothers and the other executives of Caine Tech wherever and whenever they need to go. And his nights with a seemingly endless succession of beautiful but ultimately forgettable women who go in knowing that all they’ll get is a few good rides.

Jamie is a flirt and a charmer, and not in the least shy of using those charms to get whatever, or whoever he wants. While he’s not quite a player – he’s the closest thing that tiny Haven Point has ever seen.

Julia Winston, on that other hand, is the town librarian. And she seems to have bought into the stereotype just a bit too much, even though she’s only in her early 30s. Renting Jamie the upstairs apartment in her huge Victorian house is way outside her comfort zone – if only because Julia, along with more than a few women in town – has an unrequited crush on Jamie.

But Julia has also discovered within herself a desire to finally take charge of her own life, and to stop letting her fears hold her back from all the experiences that she once upon a time believed she wanted. Including an orgasm not brought about entirely by her own efforts.

Jamie’s not the only new male to enter her life. In an act of concern and charity, Julia follows home two little boys who seem to be living in the library – and who don’t seem to have an adult around. Once she discovers their true situation and brings social worker Wyn Emmett (the heroine of Riverbend Road) into the case, she learns that the only way that these two brothers can stay together for Christmas is if someone steps up and can foster them together while officials hunt for their missing.

To everyone’s surprise, including her own, Julia volunteers to step so far out of her comfort zone that there’s no looking back. She fosters them herself, knowing nothing about fostering and even less about take care of children.

Lucky for her, her new upstairs tenant comes to her rescue when she finds herself way, way over her head. Jamie not only takes the two boys under his wing, but manages to even charm her supercilious cats into purring under his hand.

And finds himself, in turn, charmed by the woman that Julia reveals as she opens her heart to the boys and lets her hair down, both metaphorically and physically with him. Once the starch is worn out of Julia, he discovers that the sweet, lovely and slightly flustered woman she is underneath is someone he can’t resist.

No matter how much he tells himself that he should.

Escape Rating B: I like Haven Point a lot. It’s a great place to visit, filled with lovely people that it is a joy to get to know.

On the one hand, the problem that pulls the lives of Julia and the two boys together is one that every library faces in some way, in both large and small places. At the end of the evening, it is not uncommon to discover one or two (or more) children who are too young to be left on their own but who don’t seem to have a responsible adult picking them up. Leaving them feels unsafe, but when it happens night after night, the staff who feel forced to stay overtime end up both worried and resentful. While calling the police seems heartless, it is often the only way to deal with the problem so that everyone, including the library staff, feel safe and protected.

Julia’s solution to this dilemma is unique, but the problem happens more often than people think, although usually not in such dire circumstances. As much as I applauded her in the book, at the same time, that she fostered the children herself made her feel like “not one of us” as did her continual harping on how she both fit and embraced the stereotype of librarian. As a group, we pretty much deride the stereotype whenever and wherever possible. It’s almost a game we play of complaining just how terrible and just plain wrong the old stereotype is.

Of course, readers who are not themselves librarians will not be bothered by this aspect. But I did want to shake her and drag her to a big library conference to see for herself.

The fears that held Julia back in so many ways, while they had nothing to do with being a librarian, felt all too real. She had created a shell around herself, for reasons that often made sense at the time. But her desire to break out of that shell and find out who she really wanted to be was well portrayed.

As a character, I liked Jamie and loved the way that he stepped in, stepped up and helped Julia figure out her sudden immersion in parenting. Not that he had any more experience as a parent, but he did have experience both as a sibling in a large family and in wrangling his nieces and nephews. As the only child of two only children, Julia’s life just hadn’t included much of those kinds of interactions. She needed his help, and as difficult as it was for her, accepting that help was necessary for her to grow up and to break out of that shell.

However, I’m not sure I really bought their romance. The relationship that Julia forged with the boys, and her heartbreak at the end, was sweet and crazy and just right. But I didn’t quite feel the chemistry between Julia and Jamie.

But I still had a great time visiting Haven Point for the holidays, and will be happy to make a return trip sometime soon. Maybe in the spring, when I won’t have to read about SNOW!

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

I am giving away a copy of Sugar Pine Trail to one lucky continental US winner

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Review: Wild Ride Cowboy by Maisey Yates + Giveaway

Review: Wild Ride Cowboy by Maisey Yates + GiveawayWild Ride Cowboy (Copper Ridge, #9) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Copper Ridge #9
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on August 29th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

He's come back to Copper Ridge, Oregon, to keep a promise—even if it means losing his heart…

Putting down roots in Copper Ridge was never Alex Donnelly's intention. But if there's one thing the ex-military man knows, it's that life rarely unfolds as expected. If it did, his best friend and brother-in-arms would still be alive. And Alex wouldn't have inherited a ranch or responsibility for his late comrade's sister—a woman who, despite her inexperience, can bring tough-as-iron Alex to his knees.

Clara Campbell didn't ask for a hero to ride in and fix her ranch and her life. All she wants is the one thing stubborn, honorable Alex is reluctant to give: a chance to explore their intense chemistry. But Clara has a few lessons to teach him, too…about trusting his heart and his instincts, and letting love take him on the wildest adventure of all.

My Review:

It’s a wild but very satisfying ride to the angst factory in the latest book in Maisey Yates’ Copper Ridge series.

And there’s no one whose very angsty heroines I like better than the women in this series. The best books in this series, at least for this reader, have been Last Chance Rebel, Down Home Cowboy, and the latest, Wild Ride Cowboy, and they all feature heroines who have more than the average amount of really awful baggage to carry.

There’s just something about the way that this author creates heroines that have really, truly suffered, but still get up and keep on going, that just works for me. What I love is that the angst and heartbreak that these women suffer is not llama drama fodder, nor has some man done them wrong. It’s that life has hit them upside the head by stuff way beyond their control, and that while they may be temporarily down, they are never out.

And that the entry of a good man, or a bad man trying to be good, into their lives does not magically solve all their problems – because their problems, like Clara’s in this particular story, are not ones that can really be solved. Only survived.

Not that Alex Donnelly’s belated re-introduction into Clara’s life doesn’t make things a bit easier for her, because it does. But the real story is the way that Alex’ insertion into Clara’s life and Clara’s ranch gives her the space she needs to get a grip on her own stuff. And that Clara’s advent into Alex’s life gives him the equal opportunity to finally deal with the heavy baggage that he’s been toting around his own life.

These are two people to whom a lot of shit has just plain happened, and neither of them have done the best job of shoveling it out of the way. In their own ways, they’ve spent more time wallowing in it than mucking it out.

Considering that Clara ends up with bison on her ranch, there’s going to be plenty of real manure to step around, without trucking in it from both of their pasts.

Clara has basically had a hard-knock life. She was 12 when her mother died, 16 when her dad went the same way. Now she’s 21, and her brother, her only remaining family, has been killed in action. Clara is all alone with her ranch and her grief, and not much else. There’s been too much death and not enough life in her life, and the accumulated mourning has finally beaten her to her knees. She may look like she’s coping on the outside, but she’s sunk in the morass and just can’t see her way out.

The ranch is all she has, but every corner of it is filled with memories of someone she lost. On her own, it’s going to take her a long time to come out of the dark, but there’s never a sense that she won’t get there one way or another. The problem is that in her grief she’s ignoring a whole lot of things that won’t let themselves be ignored for very long – like the bills she has to pay and the lawyers she needs to see. And it’s not even that she can’t pay the bills, it’s that she’s unwilling to open the envelopes and deal with the finality of her brother’s death.

Alex Donnelly has been ignoring his grief and his responsibilities for far too long. Clara’s brother was Alex’s best friend, and the man is dead because he stepped in front of a hail of bullets that was intended to kill them both. Now Alex is left to mourn, and to take care of the obligation that his friend left him with.

Alex is the executor of his friend’s estate, and the will has made him the “caretaker” of both the ranch and Clara for one year or until the ranch is self-supporting. Alex is in charge of the one thing that Clara believed was all her own. After all, she’s the only person who has been around to take care of it. And even though keeping the ranch has taken up her entire life, it is all she has.

But Alex has put off helping Clara so that he can get as settled in as he ever does at the Laughing Irish ranch that he has inherited along with his three brothers. The opening of that story is a big part of Slow Burn Cowboy. Now that Alex is as settled in as he ever gets, it’s time for him to take care of Clara.

So that he can move on again. Because that’s what he always does. He moves on before someone asks him to leave. Because they always do.

When Alex finds himself making a home with Clara, and wanting to make a real life with her, he doesn’t want to leave. But he knows it can’t last.

Or can it?

Escape Rating B+: Like the heroine in the marvelous Last Chance Rebel, Clara is a woman who has much too much real crap to deal with. She’s only 21, and everyone she’s ever loved has died. When we meet her she is still in the depths of her grief for her brother. She’s not despairing, she’s just beyond numb. It makes the earliest part of the book a hard read, because Clara is in such a dark place.

Alex becomes her light in the tunnel. But there’s an old joke about when you see a light in the tunnel, there’s a good chance that it’s an oncoming train. And that’s what Alex thinks of himself. His foundational experience is that he isn’t good enough for anyone to stay with, including, or perhaps especially, his own parents.

He’s certain that he’s not good enough for Clara, that he’s not worthy of her love or her trust. And he spends a whole lot of time being insulting about Clara’s age and agency, pretending that at 21 she’s not old enough to know her own mind and heart, and that at 31 he’s too old and too damaged for her.

Mostly, he’s just protecting himself. And Clara, rightfully, calls him on his bullshit. Because Alex is both stubborn and scared, there’s plenty of b.s. and she has to call him on it multiple times. It’s easy to wonder if he’s ever going to get the message, or whether she’s going to have to beat it into him with a clue-by-four.

The delivery of said clue-by-four in the hands of Alex’s equally dysfunctional brother Liam, makes for a satisfying ending to Wild Ride Cowboy, and sets things up nicely for Liam’s own story in Christmastime Cowboy. It looks like presents for everyone!

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

Harlequin is offering one (1) lucky winner a $25 Amazon Gift Card! To enter, simply fill out the Rafflecopter below:

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Review: Thief’s Mark by Carla Neggers + Giveaway

Review: Thief’s Mark by Carla Neggers + GiveawayThief's Mark (Sharpe & Donovan #7) by Carla Neggers
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, romantic suspense
Series: Sharpe & Donovan #7
Pages: 336
Published by Mira Books on August 29th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


A murder in a quiet English village, long-buried secrets and a man's search for answers about his traumatic past entangle FBI agents Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan in the latest edge-of-your-seat Sharpe & Donovan novel

As a young boy, Oliver York witnessed the murder of his wealthy parents in their London apartment. The killers kidnapped him and held him in an isolated Scottish ruin, but he escaped, thwarting their plans for ransom. Now, after thirty years on the run, one of the two men Oliver identified as his tormentors may have surfaced.

Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan are enjoying the final day of their Irish honeymoon when a break-in at the home of Emma's grandfather, private art detective Wendell Sharpe, points to Oliver. The Sharpes have a complicated relationship with the likable, reclusive Englishman, an expert in Celtic mythology and international art thief who taunted Wendell for years. Emma and Colin postpone meetings in London with their elite FBI team and head straight to Oliver. But when they arrive at York's country home, a man is dead and Oliver has vanished.

As the danger mounts, new questions arise about Oliver's account of his boyhood trauma. Do Emma and Colin dare trust him? With the trail leading beyond Oliver's small village to Ireland, Scotland and their own turf in the US, the stakes are high, and Emma and Colin must unravel the decades-old tangle of secrets and lies before a killer strikes again.

New York Times
bestselling author Carla Neggers delivers the gripping, suspense-filled tale readers have been waiting for.

My Review:

Thief’s Mark is the seventh book in the Sharpe and Donovan series. I’ve read the entire series and have enjoyed every single one. The series has been a combination of mystery with just a touch of romantic suspense. In the first book in the series Saint’s Gate, undercover FBI agent Colin Donovan runs into art expert, ex-nun and current non-undercover FBI agent Emma Sharpe on an art crimes case that involves their hometowns in Maine.

It’s the start of a beautiful relationship, one that finally results in their wedding at the end of Liar’s Key. Thief’s Mark takes place at the end of their honeymoon. At the end of my review of Liar’s Key, I speculated that it was highly unlikely that Emma and Colin would manage to have an uninterrupted honeymoon, and I’m pleased to say that I was right.

But this case isn’t really about them. Like so many long-running mystery series, part of what keeps readers coming back for more is whether or not they enjoy the adventures of not just the heroes, but whether they like the surrounding cast of characters who inevitably become involved in those adventures over time.

Whether it’s the residents of the small town in a cozy, or the other cops in the shop of a police procedural, if we don’t like the supporting cast, the series eventually loses its charm. At least for this reader.

So, while Thief’s Mark is definitely a part of the series, the mystery that has to be solved is not one of the art crimes that the FBI usually has Emma tackle. Instead, the mystery is that of the long-ago tragedy that set their friend and sometime frenemy Oliver York on the road that led to his becoming a high-class art thief and eventually an MI5 agent specializing in blood antiquities.

When Oliver was 8 years old he witnessed the murder of his parents in their London flat. He was kidnapped by the killers, dragged to Scotland, and escaped while his captors argued about his ransom. The tragedy altered the course of his life.

As this story begins, one of the killers is found dying on the front steps of Oliver’s Cotswolds farm. And Oliver bolts from the scene, leaving his friends behind to await the police and worry about what’s happened to him.

What’s happened is that his entire life has just unraveled, and a few words from a dying man have made him question everything he thought he remembered about that awful night so long ago.

Emma and Colin, dragged to Cotswolds at the end of their trip, find themselves in the midst of an investigation that spans the local police, and MI5, as well as opening up on surprising fronts in Dublin and back home in the U.S.

Thirty years of lies are about to become unraveled. So many assumptions are about to come unglued. Many long ago wrongs finally have a chance at being made right. But at what cost?

Escape Rating B+: I have enjoyed every book in this series, and Thief’s Mark was certainly no exception.

One of the interesting threads in this book was the pivot. The relationship between Emma and Colin, and whether they could manage to get together and stay together, in spite of two meddling families, undercover assignments on his part and a family of interfering detectives on her part who mess with and occasionally mess up their cases. Now that they finally managed to get married at the end of Liar’s Key, some of that tension has to shift somewhere else in the story.

In Thief’s Mark, it shifts to Oliver York. In many ways, Thief’s Mark is really Oliver York’s book, and to a significant extent Emma and Colin are side characters in his story. They are operating in England on the sufferance of MI5, they have no jurisdiction, and Oliver has been a bit too involved in some of their previous cases for them to be considered neutral observers. And Emma’s famous grandfather and Oliver are friends enough that Wendell Sharpe helps him when he’s on the run.

Things are a mess, but it’s definitely Oliver’s mess. Emma and Colin are mostly onlookers. And that’s more than okay. The originating event was Oliver’s tragedy, and the person who needs resolution out of all the current issues is Oliver. And he’s been an interesting character throughout the whole series, from his initial introduction as a mythology expert to his unmasking as the thief who bedeviled Wendell Sharpe to his current incarnation as MI5 consultant. He’s had a rough life and it’s time for his world to get straightened out a bit.

What made this particular mystery so fascinating was just how big it eventually became, and how much it unraveled by the time all the loose ends were tied up. Oliver was not the only person affected by that tragedy, even though he was the one affected the most. He also wasn’t the only one with questions that needed to be answered, and it was good to see that all those dangling messes (along with the red herrings) got cleaned up by the end.

As the story unfolds, Oliver finds himself to be both the thief and the mark.

That the story and the case focused on Oliver rather than Emma and Colin also made for a bit of fresh air blown into this long running series. There are plenty of other interesting characters among Emma and Colin’s band of usual suspects, and I’m terribly curious to see which long-standing mysteries in whose life get untangled next.

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

I’m giving away a copy of Thief’s Mark to one very lucky US or Canadian commenter.

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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: 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.

Review: Highland Dragon Warrior by Isabel Cooper + Giveaway

Review: Highland Dragon Warrior by Isabel Cooper + GiveawayHighland Dragon Warrior (Dawn of the Highland Warrior, #1) by Isabel Cooper
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, paranormal romance
Series: Dawn of the Highland Dragon #1
Pages: 320
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on September 5th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Legend claims
When Scotland fell to English rule
The Highland dragons took a vow:
Freedom at any price.

The war may be over, but so long as English magic controls the Highlands, not even a dragon laird can keep his clan safe. What Cathal MacAlasdair needs is a warrior fierce enough to risk everything, yet gifted enough to outwit an enemy more monster than man.
What he needs is Sophia.
Alchemist Sophia Metzger traveled to Loch Arach in search of knowledge. She never dreamed she'd learn to do battle, ride through the stars on the back of a dragon, or catch the eye of a Highland laird. But as her quest turns to sizzling chemistry and inescapable danger, she'll soon discover the thrill of being caught in a dragon's claws.

My Review:

I picked this up thinking that it was a followup to the author’s earlier Highland Dragons series, the one that starts wonderfully with Legend of the Highland Dragon, continues marvelously in The Highland Dragon’s Lady and comes to its awesome conclusion in Night of the Highland Dragon.

But Highland Dragon Warrior isn’t a followup. Instead, it’s the beginning of a prequel series. Instead of the very tail end of the 19th century, this story is set at the very beginning of the 14th century. The world is a very different place. Thinking about it, this series might be the story of that “legend” that Legend of the Highland Dragon barely touches on.

This feels like a bit of an alternate 14th century. Dragons aren’t the only otherworldly creatures that walk (or fly, in this case) the earth we know from history. Magic works as well, and there are both good and evil practitioners of it. And, possibly because this is the 14th century and mysticism of all sorts existed in real history, alchemy works too.

Our heroine is an alchemist. She is also a world traveler in an era when travel was very difficult at the best of times and women seldom traveled at all. But Sophia Metzger is an exception in a number of ways. She’s a woman, she’s a practicing alchemist, and she’s Jewish at a time when Jews were systematically being expelled from every country in Europe.

It is dangerous for her to travel, particularly through England, where the Jews were expelled only a century before. (This is real history, not fabricated for this story) Sophia hides who she is at every turn, because exposure will mean censure at best, and death at worst. But she has heard a rumor that the MacAlasdairs are dragons, and she wants to see if their scales can provide powerful catalysts for her alchemical potions.

When Sophia and her friend and chaperone Alice arrive at Loch Arrach, she comes at just the right time for Cathal MacAlasdair. He’s had an unfortunate encounter with an evil wizard, who has taken the spirit of his best friend hostage. All the mage wants in return is Cathal’s service. The service of a powerful dragon. Cathal knows that he can’t give in, and doesn’t want to. He recognizes evil when he sees it. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to save his best friend if he can do it without submitting to the wizard.

And that’s where Sophia comes in. He’ll give her a few of his scales for her experiments, if she promises to do her best to save his friend. He’s not even half as unreasonable as he could be. Cathal knows the odds are stacked against them. He only asks that she try, and that she be honest about those trials.

Sophia can’t resist the challenge. And when the wizard starts coming for her, she meets that challenge as well, with every ounce of skill and intelligence at her disposal.

But when Cathal comes for her heart, she resists at every turn. She knows it’s not possible for a laird’s son to marry a Jew, and she is, above all, an honorable woman. But neither of them can resist what’s meant to be, no matter what stands in their way.

Escape Rating B: Highland Dragon Warrior, in spite of its hard-charging title, is a slow-burn, slow-build kind of story on every front. The plot takes a long time to develop, and so does the romance.

The pacing resembles that of Sophia’s alchemical potion-making. Everything has to happen at the right time, in the right place, under the right influences. This isn’t Harry Potter, where potions seem to brew in minutes or at most hours. All of Sophia’s potions take days and even weeks to come to fruition, and the story moves at that pace.

So as much as I liked Highland Dragon Warrior, I can’t claim that it’s a page-turner, at least not until the final 15% of the story, where Sophia confronts the evil wizard.

But I really did like this story. I think one of the big reasons for that is the character of Sophia. We don’t see many Jewish characters in mainstream fiction, and we particularly don’t see many Jewish heroines in romance, neither contemporary nor historical. So one of the reasons that I really liked being inside Sophia’s head was that I could see myself in her in ways that don’t happen often.

As difficult as it was for a woman to be an intellectual, or to travel in her time, for Sophia there is always an added layer of danger because of her faith. And she is always aware that some people will always be prejudiced against her, for her gender, for her intellect, for her profession and for her Judaism. She tries to keep her faith hidden, as much as she can, while not betraying it. Her fears are real, and particularly real for me, in ways that may not resonate with other readers, but do for this one, especially now.

Another thing that made this book so interesting for me is that it is Sophia’s journey. She’s the real warrior in this story, and not the dragon-shifter (and very male) Cathal. She’s the only person with the knowledge and skill to take the fight to the wizard, and the only one who has a chance to prevail. Cathal (and his family) provide much needed support, but Sophia is the skilled warrior on this battlefield, and there is not one moment of doubt that she is the right person to fight this foe.

Cathal wants to protect her, but it always feels like it is in the sense that we all want to protect those we love, and not in the strong man protecting weaker woman sense. He doesn’t see her as weak except in the strictly physical sense, but then, this battle will not be fought by strictly physical, or even mostly physical, means. And while his attitude feels out of his time, it is not outside the way his family functions. Female dragons are every bit as powerful, if not a bit more so, than the males.

And I liked that the difficulties between them were not swept under the carpet in a wave of romantic fluff. Or even obscured by a cloud of lust. There are real issues, and those have to be dealt with in order to arrive at a happy ever after. They successfully compromise, but not in a way where she gives up everything for him. They meet in a negotiated middle, and it works.

I’m looking forward to the next story in this series, Highland Dragon Rebel, to see where those dragons fly next.

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

Sourcebooks is giving away 3 copies of Highland Dragon Warrior to lucky entrants on this tour.

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Review: Halls of Law by V.M. Escalada

Review: Halls of Law by V.M. EscaladaHalls of Law by V.M. Escalada
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Faraman Prophecy #1
Pages: 496
Published by DAW Books on August 1st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Faraman Polity was created by the first Luqs, and has been ruled for generations by those of the Luqs bloodline. It is a burgeoning empire maintained by the combined efforts of the standing military force and the Talents of the Halls of Law. While the military preserves and protects, it is the Halls' Talents—those gifted from birth with magical abilities—who serve as the agents and judges of the Law. For no one can successfully lie to a Talent. Not only can they read people by the briefest of physical contacts, but they can also read objects, able to find information about anyone who has ever come into direct contact with that object. Thanks to the Talents and the career military, the Polity has long remained a stable and successful society. But all that is about to change.
Seventeen-year-old Kerida Nast has always wanted a career in the military, just like the rest of her family. So when her Talent is discovered, and she knows she'll have to spend the rest of her life as a psychic for the Halls of Law, Ker isn't happy about it. Anyone entering the Halls must give up all personal connection with the outside world, losing their family and friends permanently. Just as Kerida is beginning to reconcile herself to her new role, the Polity is invaded by strangers from Halia, who begin a systematic campaign of destruction against the Halls, killing every last Talent they can find.
Kerida manages to escape, falling in with Tel Cursar, a young soldier fleeing the battle, which saw the deaths of the royal family. Having no obvious heir to the throne, no new ruler to rally behind, the military leaders will be divided, unable to act quickly enough to save the empire. And with the Halls being burned to the ground, and the Talents slaughtered, the Rule of Law will be shattered.
To avoid the invaders, Kerida and Tel are forced to enter old mining tunnels in a desperate attempt to carry word of the invaders to Halls and military posts that have not yet been attacked. But the tunnels hide a dangerous secret, a long-hidden colony of Feelers—paranormal outcasts shut away from the world for so long they are considered mythical. These traditional enemies of the Halls of Law welcome Kerida, believing she fulfills a Prophecy they were given centuries before by the lost race of griffins. With the help of these new allies, Kerida and Tel stand a chance of outdistancing the invaders and reaching their own troops. However, that is only the start of what will become a frantic mission to learn whether any heir to the throne remains, no matter how distant in the bloodline. Should they discover such a person, they will have to find the heir before the Halian invaders do. For if the Halians capture the future Luqs, it will spell the end of the Faraman Polity and the Rule of Law.

My Review:

If you are looking for a new epic fantasy series to sink your reading teeth into, and where you can get in at the very beginning without having to read through a huge pile of doorstop-sized books, Halls of Law is definitely a winner.

It’s also an epic fantasy for the 21st century, where we have an absolutely marvelous heroine’s journey from the outset, as well as a hero’s journey that looks like it will take us to some fascinating places.

Our point of view character is Kerida Nast. All her life she’s wanted to be a soldier, just like everyone else in her family since pretty much the dawn of time. But unfortunately for Kerida, and it looks like fortunately for the rest of Faraman Polity, Ker is a Talent, definitely with that capital T, and Talents are special.

Ker turns out to be a lot more special than most.

Talents in the Faraman Polity are psychics, born with a gift that seems to be a lot like psychometry. When a Talent touches an object, they can read the entire history of that object, AND, most importantly AND, they can read the current status and even whereabouts of all the people who have been involved with that object. And they can read people the same way.

No one can hide the truth from a Talent. Which has made the Talents, over time, the instruments and enforcers of the rule of law. They are the law.

But in order to be impartial enforcers of the law, Talents are separated from the rest of the Polity. Once their gift is discovered they are taken from their families, not just for training, but for life, and forced to cut all ties to the rest of the world and renounce all titles and inheritances.

Ker finds it a cage, sometimes gilded, sometimes lined with shit. Or at least with encrusted oatmeal. But just as she realizes that she can make a new and good life for herself within the ranks of the Talented, disaster strikes, and she is forced to combine her new abilities with her old skills as a soldier.

And that’s where this utterly marvelous story truly takes wing. On the back of a griffin.

Escape Rating A-: This is a terrific story, but I have to say that it isn’t really anything truly new in the realms of epic fantasy. For those who have read a fair bit in the genre, there are plenty of recognizable tropes. However, those tropes are put together in some unusual ways.

Throwing more than a bit of The Handmaid’s Tale into a completely epic fantasy setting gives the story many of its chills, and makes the evil that our good Kerida fights particularly malevolent. Her enemies, the Halia, seem to embody the worst of everything that makes Men’s Rights Activists so foul, while embodying their deep misogyny into an epic fantasy setting and adding a few additional twists to make things that much scarier, and the stakes that much higher for our heroes.

But in the best heroine’s journey tradition, the story follows Kerida as she discovers who she is and what she is capable of. She finds herself at the center of events that will not just hopefully drive out the enemy, but also re-shape her world for the better. If she survives – and succeeds.

An outcome that is never certain. When Halls of Law ends, Ker has merely completed the opening stages of the prophecy that she and her companions must fulfill. And the odds are firmly stacked against them.

I can’t wait to find out happens next!

Reviewer’s Note: V.M. Escalada was billed as a debut author in the material I received for my Library Journal Science Fiction and Fantasy article, Galaxy Quests. I chose to read Halls of Law because the information provided about the book sounded so good, and the book certainly was good. I’m glad I read it. But, and for me this feels like a very big but, V.M. Escalada is not, after all, a debut author. Rather, this is a new pen name for author Violette Malan. I loved her Dhulyn and Parno series, which begins with The Sleeping God. I’m thrilled to have something new by her, I wondered where she went. But a new pen name does not a debut author make, and I feel like I was misled in the materials for that article, and that I, in turn, misled the readers of the article. Next time I’ll do more research.

Review: Down Home Cowboy by Maisey Yates + End of Summer Tour + Giveaway

Review: Down Home Cowboy by Maisey Yates + End of Summer Tour + GiveawayDown Home Cowboy (Copper Ridge, #8) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Copper Ridge #8
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on June 27th 2017
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This Texas cowboy has come home to Copper Ridge to put down roots…but will he risk his heart again?
Asked where he'd be at this point in life, Cain Donnelly would have said anywhere but Copper Ridge, Oregon, living with his estranged brothers. But since his wife abandoned them, both he and his daughter, Violet, are in need of a fresh start, so he's back to claim his share of the family ranch. Local baker Alison Davis is a delicious temptation, but she's also his daughter's mentor and new boss. That makes her off-limits…until she offers a no-strings deal that no red-blooded cowboy could resist.
Alison has worked tirelessly to rebuild her life, and she won't jeopardize her hard-won independence. Especially if it also complicates Cain's relationship with Violet. But with Cain offering a love she never thought was possible, Alison has to find the courage to let her past go…or watch her future ride away for good.

My Review:

Maisey Yates’ Copper Ridge series has been a bit of a mixed bag for me. I adored Last Chance Rebel, but let’s just say that I did not feel much love for Slow Burn Cowboy. On my other hand, my Guest Reviewer Amy clearly enjoyed Hold Me, Cowboy. So we were two out of three coming into Down Home Cowboy.

And we have another winner.

Neither Cain Donnelly nor Alison Davis are looking for a relationship. But they are both looking for sex. Four years is a long dry spell for anyone in their early-to-middle 30s, even coming out of their completely different but equally bad relationships.

Maybe not quite equally bad. Alison was abused by her ex-husband for eight years, and her four years post-divorce have been a journey of self-discovery and self-fulfillment. But her baggage is huge and painful, and she’s just reached the point where she is willing to dip her toe back into the waters of sex. But she is unwilling to cede an inch of her hard-won independence to any man for any reason. And it’s impossible to blame her.

Cain’s ex-wife left him four years ago, running off and leaving him with sole custody of their daughter Violet. Dealing with the fallout from that disaster, along with being a single father, has left Cain with little time, energy or inclination to get involved with anyone, until he meets Alison.

But they definitely start out on the same page. They both want sex, but neither of them is interested in the complication of a relationship. Things are already complicated enough – Alison is Violet’s boss at her bakery, and it seems like working for Alison is the first thing that Violet has even half enjoyed since Cain uprooted them from Texas and moved in with his half-brothers in the ranch they all inherited from their grandfather.

(The details of that particular SNAFU are in Slow Burn Cowboy. And while the romance in that book was a bit of a disappointment, the messy drama of the Donnelly boys making themselves into a functionally dysfunctional family was a load of fun. I’m happy to see more of them! Possibly not quite as happy as Alison is to see ALL of Cain, but that’s part of what makes Down Home Cowboy work.)

The problem that Cain and Alison have is that it is difficult to make love without feeling at least a little love (Which was also one of Finn’s issues in Slow Burn Cowboy. This may be a trend.) And no matter what fibs they told themselves about what they were expecting from their liaison, it’s pretty clear from the beginning that they are, quite definitely, making love and not just getting their ashes hauled. Not that they aren’t doing that, quite well, too.

But when Cain challenges Alison to admit that they both feel more for each other than they planned on, Alison lets her past fears ruin her present hopes. Unless she can finally drop the baggage that’s weighing her down for good.

Escape Rating B+: This one was fun. And it was way, way, way more fun than Slow Burn Cowboy, without quite rising to the level of angsty goodness that was Last Chance Rebel.

This is a story where everyone has baggage, and everyone needs to drop it. Or learn to carry it. Or both. And it’s a story where everyone is afraid, and with good reason.
Both Violet and Cain fear abandonment. His father abandoned him, his mother was an alcoholic, and her mother abandoned both her and Cain. Those fears are all real. Alison is afraid of losing herself again, the way she did in her abusive marriage. She’s not certain her new found strength and independence is strong enough to let her love someone without letting them take her over, even though she knows that her ex’s need to take her over and grind her down had way more to do with him than with her. That she let it happen haunts her to the point of preventing her from moving all the way forward, and we understand why.

Watching them all overcome the worst of what’s holding them back and learning to cope with the rest in a healthy and not destructive fashion is what makes this story work. At least, that’s what made the story work for this reader, and I hope for lots of others.

If this review, or any of the reviews, guest posts and spotlights in this End of Summer Blog Tour tickle your reading fancy, you can download a sampler of all the opening chapters from Harlequin.

The End of Summer – Guest Post by Maisey Yates

I love Summer. When it’s not burning hot (which is when I end up hiding in the AC) it takes me right back to being a kid. Our schedule is relaxed, the days are long, the evenings cool and blue, and the mornings…perfect for laying in bed just a little bit longer.

But days like that can all blur together, and then Summer can end up flying by before you know it.

I find that changes in scenery help a little bit with that. We live in Oregon, and it’s an amazing state with totally diverse landscapes that make for some amazing road trips. Or even just glorious back yard hangouts.

We’ve spent our share of time out on the lake paddle boarding this year, and hiking on the trails behind the historic town we live close to, making the most of what we have nearby.

In early July, we took our kids way up in the mountains and lay in the back of the pickup truck and looked at the stars. It makes a huge difference when you can escape the light pollution. We could see the Milky Way and (for the most part) the kids even got along.

Then we went on a big road trip to the eastern part of the state, where we got to enjoy the high desert.

We’re used to a lot of green in the state. I’ve lived in Oregon all my life, and I don’t think I had an adequate appreciation for just how unique the Eastern part of the state is. The red mountains and volcanic rock are a pretty sharp contrast to the evergreen mountains that surround our house.

From there we continued up to Portland, Oregon, which is our major city. (You might know it from the TV show Portlandia. I can’t dispute the accuracy of that show. At all.)

We got to enjoy the museum of science, and Oregon Zoo and some other more urban things that we don’t get a chance to take in very often seeing as we live very, very not urban.

So far this summer we haven’t had the chance to make it over to the coast, which is my other favorite Oregon locale. My husband and I honeymooned in Bandon, Oregon twelve years ago, and it has a special place in my heart. Which, if you’ve read my books your can probably tell, since Bandon served as major inspiration for my Copper Ridge series!

Getting out and enjoying Oregon is one of my favorite summer pastimes. And staying in writing love letters to Oregon in my Copper Ridge books is my favorite thing to do all year long.

I love to write books set everywhere, and I love to travel all over, but Oregon is my home, and that’s where my heart is — when it comes to life and fiction.

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

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