Review: Pets in Space 7 by S.E. Smith, R.J. Blain, Grace Goodwin, Skye MacKinnon, Carol Van Natta, Honey Phillips, Carysa Locke, S.J. Pajonas, JC Hay, Kyndra Hatch

Review: Pets in Space 7 by S.E. Smith, R.J. Blain, Grace Goodwin, Skye MacKinnon, Carol Van Natta, Honey Phillips, Carysa Locke, S.J. Pajonas, JC Hay, Kyndra HatchPets in Space 7 by S.E. Smith, R.J. Blain, Grace Goodwin, Skye MacKinnon, Carol Van Natta, Honey Phillips, Carysa Locke, S.J. Pajonas, JC Hay, Kyndra Hatch
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, science fiction romance
Series: Pets in Space #7
Pages: 1369
on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Pets in Space® is back for a new year of adventures!

Pets in Space is back and better than ever! Featuring 13 original, never-before-released stories from some of today's bestselling science fiction romance authors, starring your favorite sci-fi pets. These furry, feathered, and slightly alien friends are always ready for a new adventure with their two-legged human and alien companions. From dogs to cats to sea creatures and unicorns, these romantic tales show that pets are more than just animals – they’re family.

This limited-edition anthology includes stories by some of the biggest names in science fiction romance. New York Times Bestseller S.E. Smith and USA Today Bestsellers R.J. Blain, Grace Goodwin, Skye MacKinnon, Carol Van Natta, Honey Phillips, Carysa Locke, S.J. Pajonas, JC Hay, and Kyndra Hatch, plus Leslie Chase, Winnie Winkle, and Candace Colt.

The Pets in Space 7 authors continue their vital support of HeroDogs, the non-profit charity that improves quality of life for veterans of the U.S. military and first-responders with disabilities.

★ Don't miss out — grab this limited-edition anthology before it's too late! ★

Exclusively in Pets in Space 7:
◆“Wynter and the Stone Dragon” by S.E. Smith: Love blossoms between a human king and an alien princess when a portal between their worlds opens.
◆“Life-Debt” by R.J. Blain: Hybrid human Viva and her pet fox have two rules: no names and no attachments. Why does the handsome man she rescued makes her want to break both?
◆“Marked Mate” by Grace Goodwin: An elite hunter pursues a dangerous criminal on an unsuspecting Earth, only to be distracted by a mysterious woman and her furry pet.
◆“Alien Abduction for Unicorns” by Skye MacKinnon: Unicorns are real, and alien Bruin is sexy as the stars. Can Scottish tour guide Tara forgive them for kidnapping her in the name of science?
◆“An Entanglement of Griffins” by Carol Van Natta: A space pirate and a pet sanctuary owner suspected of grand larceny get help from genetically-engineered griffins to recover the goods and find love.
◆“Cyborg Rider” by Honey Phillips: Can a bioengineered mole named Eglantine find a way to rescue the scientist and the cyborg who are depending on her?
◆“Healer Heart” by Carysa Locke: A telekinetic healer on a mission and a telepathic killer who is afraid to feel must trust an intelligent cat to help them save a group of children from death.
◆“Myra’s Big Mistake” by S. J. Pajonas: She’s burdened by a lifetime of disappointment. He’s been her secret admirer for years. Will a roll of the dice lead to a cosmic courtship?
◆“Desert Flame” by JC Hay: Dr. Cerridwen Lewis is prickly, foul mouthed, and quick to anger; in other words, she’s everything Captain Kal and his pet scythewing ever wanted.
◆“Death Angel” by Kyndra Hatch: How do you choose between your people and your mate? Especially when you're a Korthan cyborg captain and your human mate unknowingly holds the key to lasting peace or unending war?
◆“Written in the Stars” by Leslie Chase: Megan isn’t looking for love, especially not from an alien mercenary just passing through. But love, and her winged cat Nebula, have other plans.
◆“Liquid Courage” by Winnie Winkle: Powerful sea witch Morgan is determined to save her beloved ocean creatures from thieving aliens. Tony offers to help, but he's got secrets.
◆“Rhea’s Conundrum: A Witch in Space” by by Candace Colt: Eccentric witch Rhea only dreamed of the stars. So how did she and her snarky cat end up in a junk-picker spaceship with sexy alien captain C'tloc?

My Review:

Pets in Space is always an utterly marvelous treat. Every year an absolutely stellar group of science fiction romance writers get together to create this annual collection of space ships and adventure, featuring romance between humans and/or aliens, ably assisted by companion creatures, whether animals or AI, whether furry or feathered or something out of this world.

The proceeds from the sale of each Pets in Space collection go to charity, specifically to Hero Dogs, an organization which provides trained service dogs to heroes, specifically to wounded military veterans and first responders.

So the book supports a terrific cause, and the stories within are always out of this world. This is the seventh collection, and it contains a lucky THIRTEEN science fiction romance novellas in a whopping 1369 page book.

That’s a lot of book, and a lot of treats to savor until the next one arrives!

For me, the annual collection is a reading delight that will last through lots of reading time, especially over the winter with a cat in my lap and a cup of tea or hot cocoa at my side. It’s much too big for one sitting or even one weekend. I always want to take my time and enjoy every page.

This is a book that requires a plan of attack!

I confess that I always read the cat stories first. Partly because it’s always fun to imagine what cats would have to say if they could talk. And because my own feline overlords wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m supposed to reassure them that they’re the best cats in the universe and they aren’t shy about telling me so!

But seriously, I generally do read the cat stories first – as I did this time around. I save the stories about other animals, and in worlds I’m not familiar with, for times when I can dive into the towering TBR pile – or add to it – to get stories in the same worlds featured in the collection that are new to me.

So I’ll be treating myself to more of Pets in Space 7 over the months ahead.

Howsomever, I can’t leave you without making a few review-type comments about those three cat stories, “Healer Heart” by Carysa Locke, “Written in the Stars” by Leslie Chase and “Rhea’s Conundrum: A Witch in Space” by Candace Colt.

“Healer Heart” was interesting because it contained some elements of Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series, particularly her genetically engineered and ruthlessly trained assassins, the Arrows. In the universe of the Telepathic Space Pirates there is also a group of genetically engineered assassins. And like the Arrows, some of those born and bred killers want more from life than just death. Which is where telepathic healer Nayla and the hunter cat Rasalas come in. While she personally wants to help one particular assassin, her assignment is to help assassin-trained children before the training is too deeply ingrained to be countered. She helps the kids with dogs, but it’s the cat pushing her to make things right with the man who broke her heart trying to protect her from himself.

There’s just so much to love in this one. Nayla is beating her head against the wall using her own gifts and training to help people who are determined to blame her for every break from tradition; the man she loves is terrified he’ll kill her if his training overcomes his reason; and the kids she is able to help are heartbreaking but hopeful. This universe is an absolute mess but this healer seems to have a cure for at least a bit of what’s ailing it.

“Written in the Stars” revolves around a woman stranded on a failing space station with her vast collection of books, her flying cat, and her determination to save up enough money to get back to something a little bit more like civilization. Megan is plucky beyond belief, and lucky beyond reason, as she finds both someone to love and a purpose for living in helping to rescue the space station from itself. Her winged cat Nebula is both very cat and very reminiscent of some famous literary felines, as Nebula is an intergalactic traveling version of the winged cats in Nebula-Award winning Ursula LeGuin’s lovely Catwings series.

Last but not least, “Rhea’s Conundrum: A Witch in Space” by Candace Colt. This one was my favorite because Rhea is a witch of a certain age who learns that love has not passed her by, and that she is not yet ready (if, admittedly, she ever will be) to settle down and help raise her grandchildren. Her conundrum is a devastating one, as the necklace that powered her journey to C’tloc’s spaceship can either take her back to her home or power his spaceship so that he can get back home, but not both. If she leaves, he’ll die. If she stays, by the time she manages to get back to Earth her family will probably be long dead. She can only live one life, and she has to make a bittersweet choice between loves – with the help of her very snarky cat. This one was a heartbreaker.

Escape Rating A: This collection is always a Grade A read, no matter when I pick it up or where I choose to dip into it at any given time. The stories are always a delightful range of styles and worlds and pets, and this year is no exception.

That it supports a wonderful cause while giving hours if not days of reading delight is just icing on a very lovely reading cake – with a puppuccino on the side.

But Pets in Space 7 is, as always, a limited edition. So if any – or hopefully ALL – of the stories appeal to you, be sure to get your copy before they fly off to the stars for another year. Because every collection, every year, is a feathery, whiskery, winged delight!

Review: Signal Moon by Kate Quinn + Giveaway

Review: Signal Moon by Kate Quinn + GiveawaySignal Moon: A Short Story by Kate Quinn
Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld, Andrew Gibson
Format: audiobook
Source: publisher
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction, World War II
Pages: 57
Length: 1 hour and 22 minutes
Published by Amazon Original Stories, Audible Audio on August 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Diamond Eye comes a riveting short story about an impossible connection across two centuries that could make the difference between peace or war.

Yorkshire, 1943. Lily Baines, a bright young debutante increasingly ground down by an endless war, has traded in her white gloves for a set of headphones. It’s her job to intercept enemy naval communications and send them to Bletchley Park for decryption.

One night, she picks up a transmission that isn’t code at all—it’s a cry for help.

An American ship is taking heavy fire in the North Atlantic—but no one else has reported an attack, and the information relayed by the young US officer, Matt Jackson, seems all wrong. The contact that Lily has made on the other end of the radio channel says it’s…2023.

Across an eighty-year gap, Lily and Matt must find a way to help each other: Matt to convince her that the war she’s fighting can still be won, and Lily to help him stave off the war to come. As their connection grows stronger, they both know there’s no telling when time will run out on their inexplicable link.

My Review:

This story was so beautiful it just about broke me. It was gorgeous and glorious and heartbreaking all at the same time, and I was in tears at the end.

I want to say this is a timeslip story but that isn’t quite right. It’s more of a time-merging story, or a bit of technological SF sleight of hand story. It’s best to just say that it works. It all works marvelously, and let the how and why of it remain a bit nebulous.

After all, our two principals don’t completely understand the why of it themselves. They just know that it happened. And that it saved them both.

Lily Baines is a signal tech in Yorkshire in 1943, spending her days and nights with a Bakelite headset wrapped around her “bat-like” ears, listening for German signals. She’s a Petty Officer in the WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service), doing her bit for in a war that she’s entirely too afraid is being lost.

Late one shift, she picks up a signal from an American ship, broadcast in English, in the “clear”, detailing an attack on the ship by “Vampires”. An attack that results in the ship sinking with all hands after 42 minutes of harrowing transmission by the U.S. Naval signal tech, ST Matt Jackson, who gives the date as 2023.

While her superiors are certain that Lily has just been working too many days in a row without a break, Lily feels like she owes it to her fellow signal tech, the man she just heard narrate his own death, to try to help him. So she sends him a letter, a 1943-era radio, extra batteries, and a list of frequencies that she promises to listen on at a specific time every day.

There’s no science fiction involved in her package to the future. Her uncle is a solicitor and she contracts with his office to deliver the package to a certain room in a certain hotel in York on the day Matt said he checked in. Law offices do this all the time, just not necessarily for quite 80 years.

When Matt gets the radio, he’s sure it’s a prank, but he dials the frequency anyway. Even when Lily starts talking, he STILL thinks it’s a prank – at least until that night, when an event that she predicted comes true.

They have less than 24 hours to analyze the transmission that Matt hasn’t sent yet, in the hopes of figuring out what is about to go wrong so that he can prevent it. Or save his ship. Whatever it takes to prevent yet another war.

What they get is more than either of them ever bargained for. It’s enough – and it’s not nearly enough at all.

Escape Rating A++: Signal Moon is short and absolutely perfect in its length. It represents a very brief moment in time and needed to reflect that brevity. Also, it’s just so damn bittersweet – and appropriate in that bitter sweetness, that more would be just too much to take.

It’s that good.

But because of that short length, I was able to sit down with the audiobook and finish in one utterly absorbing and in the end completely heartbreaking listen. (If you have Amazon Prime you can get both the ebook and the audio as part of your Prime membership, and it’s so worth it to listen to the audio if you have a mere 82 minutes to occupy your hands while your mind wanders back to 1943 – and forward to OMG next year.)

The strength of this story is in the characters. The author sketches us a complete picture of Lily and her wartime service with just a bit of description and a whole lot of Lily’s internal monologue as she goes through her day pretending that everything is going to be alright even though she’s scared right down to her not-nearly-warm-enough fingertips that all is already lost.

While Matt’s more frank and frequently profane dialog, along with the desperation of his own internal monologue, gives the reader or listener a clear portrait of who he is and what drove him to become the person – and the officer – that he is on the brink of what could be – briefly – his very own war.

In the audiobook, the two characters are brilliantly voiced by their own narrators, Saskia Maarleveld for Lily and Andrew Gibson for Matt and they embody their characters beautifully. The audio would not have worked half so well with a single narrator. (Saskia Maarleveld is also the narrator for several of the author’s novels, including this year’s The Diamond Eye, which just moved up the towering TBR pile as a result.)

The ending of this story is inevitable. There’s just no other way this one works. But it’s easy to get so involved in their story that you just want it to have a different ending anyway. And that’s what broke me in the end. I knew what the end would be, but this was just one of those times where I really wanted a deus ex machina to step in and make that difference happen – even knowing how much I usually hate those kinds of endings. But it wasn’t, and it shouldn’t have been, meant to be.

Dammit.

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

Kate Quinn and Amazon Publishing are giving away a $50 Amazon Gift Card to one very lucky entrant on this tour!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree

Review: Legends and Lattes by Travis BaldreeLegends & Lattes by Travis Baldree
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, cozy fantasy
Pages: 305
Published by Cryptid Press on February 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

High Fantasy with a double-shot of self-reinvention
Worn out after decades of packing steel and raising hell, Viv the orc barbarian cashes out of the warrior’s life with one final score. A forgotten legend, a fabled artifact, and an unreasonable amount of hope lead her to the streets of Thune, where she plans to open the first coffee shop the city has ever seen.
However, her dreams of a fresh start pulling shots instead of swinging swords are hardly a sure bet. Old frenemies and Thune’s shady underbelly may just upset her plans. To finally build something that will last, Viv will need some new partners and a different kind of resolve.
A hot cup of fantasy slice-of-life with a dollop of romantic froth.

My Review:

An orc, a succubus, and Ratatouille (the rat who wanted to be a chef from the Pixar film but in this case a baker named Thimble) open a coffee shop in Thune, a rather typical medieval-style fantasy town that has never seen, heard, smelled or especially drunk coffee before. Then Thimble the rattkin starts baking and honestly, they’ve opened the world’s first Cinnabon – complete with heavenly aromas pumped out to ensnare the masses who are about to learn just what they’ve been missing all their lives.

As much as that opening sounds like the start of a very bad joke, it isn’t at all. Instead, the story is every bit as sweet as one of Thimble’s soon-to-be-famous cinnamon rolls, and sticks in the pleasant corners of the reader’s mind just as much as Thimble’s icing sticks to everyone’s fingers.

This is one of those fantasy stories where the hero (or possibly the anti-hero) of entirely too many battlefields decides to retire while they’re still above ground and have all of their limbs and haven’t had their bell rung too many times.

And it’s a story about what happens after when anyone decides to live their dreams.

Viv visited a coffee shop once, and fell in love with pretty much everything about it. The aroma, the taste, the peace that filled her from both the drink and the ambiance of the place she drank it. She wanted to recreate all of those tastes and smells and feelings somewhere that hadn’t been introduced to coffee – at least not yet.

When she found a legendary treasure that was supposed to guarantee good fortune, she took it and her savings, retired from the mercenary life, and opened the first coffee shop in busy, bustling, Thune.

Along the way she gathered a group of friends and comrades to help her spread the word and run the business, while taking on trouble from both the local “protection racket” and from an old frenemy who believed that Viv hadn’t been honest about that treasure.

As much as Viv is determined to start a new life that doesn’t involve slicing throats or any other body parts, there are plenty of times when she’s tempted to solve her problems the way she used to. Especially when she loses the lucky charm that made all of her success possible.

Only to learn that it wasn’t the charm at all. It was all Viv, and the smell of coffee and cinnamon rolls, and the love and respect of her friends, her neighbors, and her new-found family.

Escape Rating A+: Legends & Lattes is one of those stories that no one knew they needed until they read it. Only to realize that the whole story is pretty much the best thing ever. I pulled this one off the virtually towering TBR pile because I seriously needed a comfort read after last week and I wanted something new at the same time. I also wasn’t in the mood for anyone who didn’t deserve it to die, or for anyone to get abused. I just wanted all good things in an interesting story and that’s actually kind of hard. Fictionally, all good things and interesting are contradictory, there’s no story without at least some drama.

Somehow, Legends & Lattes just delivered on all counts. (The only thing that would have made it better would be if one of Thimble’s cinnamon rolls had popped out of the book while reading!) Viv has a dream and she doesn’t step on anyone to fulfill it. She gathers great people around her, she accepts them as they are, treats them well, and they grow together into a lovely found family.

The course doesn’t always run smooth. There’s a lot of hard work involved in starting a business – especially one that no one is looking for or understands. Her carpenter calls the coffee “bean water” and he’s not wrong.

There are a few books with orcs as protagonists, but usually they’re doing the things that we expect of orcs in fantasy even if the orcs are the good guys. Viv is turning over a new leaf, trying not to be what everyone expects an orc to be. It’s hard but it’s working – mostly.

Her assistant-turned-business partner (and eventual romantic interest) Tandri, is a succubus, another character we don’t see being on the side of the angels. But she’s yet another character in this story who is cast against type and it works.

Viv even manages to deal with the protection racket without paying protection. Well, not exactly paying protection. Also without busting heads. It’s a bit tense and a bit of a gamble but it works.

And honestly, Thimble the rattkin baker is the best character in the whole story. I love Thimble – and I love that the little guy is a genius and that this shy and self-effacing character gets his own chance to shine.

But what makes the story so wonderful is that the treasure wasn’t really treasure. It was a stone full of karma and because Viv put good into it she got good out of it. The next person to own it seems to be on the road to getting exactly what he puts into it as well.

And that’s a story I wouldn’t mind reading – along with anything else this author comes up with. Now that Legends & Lattes has been picked up by Tor Books, maybe we’ll see more stories set in Thune! Pretty please! With cinnamon on it?

Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí ClarkThe Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, steampunk
Pages: 111
Published by Tordotcom on August 21, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In an alternate New Orleans caught in the tangle of the American Civil War, the wall-scaling girl named Creeper yearns to escape the streets for the air--in particular, by earning a spot on-board the airship Midnight Robber. Creeper plans to earn Captain Ann-Marie’s trust with information she discovers about a Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls The Black God’s Drums.

But Creeper also has a secret herself: Oya, the African orisha of the wind and storms, speaks inside her head, and may have her own ulterior motivations.

Soon, Creeper, Oya, and the crew of the Midnight Robber are pulled into a perilous mission aimed to stop the Black God’s Drums from being unleashed and wiping out the entirety of New Orleans.

My Review:

There is just something about New Orleans that makes it seem, not just possible but downright plausible, that there is magic on those streets and always has been. Whether the version of the city is the one we know from history, or some other New Orleans out there in the multiverse of parallel universes and alternate histories.

The U.S. Civil War has its own magic – not that magic with a capital “M” happened, but rather the magic of possibility, that so many never weres and might have beens hinge on the events that occurred during those few years that must have felt like they lasted forever.

It’s not just that the history and meaning of that conflict have been reinterpreted, re-imagined and re-written in the century and a half that followed, but that the entire enterprise balanced on a knife edge and could have tipped in pretty much any bloody direction.

That particular “might have been” has been the stuff of much alt-history science fiction. One very readable toe in that water is Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South, but he needed time-travel to make it work. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and her saga of the grim, steampunk Clockwork Century posits a U.S. Civil War that never ended as collateral damage of a catastrophic event in Seattle during the Klondike Gold Rush that created zombies.

The Black God’s Drums takes place in an alternate version of New Orleans in a world where the U.S. Civil War tipped off the knife edge in the direction of a negotiated almost-peace, into an armistice between the Union and the Confederacy. An armistice that left the crucial port of New Orleans as an independent neutral city-state, governed by its citizens – ALL its citizens, black and white.

The Union counts this New Orleans as an ally, if not officially, while the Confederacy views it as a repudiation of all they hold dear. Under the armistice, the city may not be an open battleground, but it is sometimes a covert one. Which is what takes place in this story.

Right alongside the coming-of-age story of Creeper, a girl on the cusp of adulthood (Creeper’s OK with creeping up to adulthood, but she’s much less sanguine about approaching womanhood in any way, shape, or form) who wants more than anything to find a way out of the city she has lived in all of her life. She thinks her accidental discovery of a plot to drown the city in magically created storms can be traded for a berth on a smuggler’s airship.

But Creeper has magic of her own, a magic that leads her to be in the right place at the right time to save her city. And the knowledge that this place is hers to love and hers to defend – for as long as she has the favor of her goddess.

Escape Rating A-: The Black God’s Drums was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Award for Best Novella back in 2019 – and I meant to read it then but it got swallowed by the “so many books, so little time” event horizon and it didn’t happen. Then I read the author’s A Master of Djinn last year and this popped back up to the top of the virtually towering TBR pile. So when I went hunting for novellas for this week, there it was near the top of the heap.

And am I ever glad that it was – even though this is nothing like A Master of Djinn. Instead, it reads like a combination of every book of magical New Orleans from the Sentinels of New Orleans to The City of Lost Fortunes to The Map of Moments combined then tossed in with steampunk like Boneshaker but stirred with the perspective of the author’s Ring Shout in the way that magic of the African diaspora is interwoven into the story and to the events of the alternate history.

So Creeper’s New Orleans feels like New Orleans even if it isn’t exactly the one that history records. Even though the work (and misuse of the work) of those gods, the orishas, have produced effects that both remind the reader of Katrina and make the hurricane seem tame in comparison.

And on top of all that, we have not just the coming-of-age story, but a pulse-pounding adventure with deadly danger both in the immediate term and in the consequences if things go wrong. As they very nearly do. Along with the possibility of a daring rescue by pirate airship – or an ignominious crash of defeat.

The thing about novellas is that even when they are complete in and of themselves, and The Black God’s Drums does tell its story beautifully in the length it has, I’m left wanting more. This adventure does come, rightly and properly, to its end. But what happens next? And what happened before? There’s so much of this alternate version of the city – and the country – to explore.

So, just as the author’s short works, A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 embiggened their Dead Djinn Universe into the utterly captivating A Master of Djinn, I hope that someday the New Orleans of the orisha and the pirate airships will embiggen into something bigger, bolder and even more grand.

Review: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

Review: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuireIn an Absent Dream (Wayward Children, #4) by Seanan McGuire
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #4
Pages: 204
Published by Tordotcom on January 8, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This fourth entry and prequel tells the story of Lundy, a very serious young girl who would rather study and dream than become a respectable housewife and live up to the expectations of the world around her. As well she should.
When she finds a doorway to a world founded on logic and reason, riddles and lies, she thinks she's found her paradise. Alas, everything costs at the goblin market, and when her time there is drawing to a close, she makes the kind of bargain that never plays out well.

My Review:

As the story began, it was easy – very easy – for me to empathize with Katherine Lundy. In 1964, when Lundy was six years old, she was learning that the world had a very tiny box into which it shoved little girls – and that it was more than willing to lop off extra limbs – or at least what it called inappropriate thoughts, feelings, ambitions and ideas – in order to force those little girls to fit into the box labeled “womanhood” when the time came.

Lundy knew it wasn’t fair – and if there was one thing Lundy believed in, it was fairness – a fairness that this world did not provide.

So she found a door to a world where she could thrive – a world where fairness, absolute fairness – was enforced by an invisible but inexorable hand. Lundy found her door to the Goblin Market, a place governed utterly by the concept of “fair value”.

Which does not mean that there is not a price for everything in this fair and just community – just that the system is set up so that no one can take advantage of anyone else. Whether the Goblin Market takes advantage of everyone it claims as a citizen is a deeper philosophical question than six-year-old Lundy is capable of understanding.

Yet. Or possibly ever.

Unlike many of the worlds behind the doors in the Wayward Children series, the Goblin Market allows children – as long as they remain children – to jump between the Market and the world that gave them birth. In fact, it wants them to see both sides, to “Be Sure” of their choice, before that choice is forced upon them at age 18.

So Lundy jumps back and forth between the worlds, staying in each long enough for the consequences of her absences to be visited upon her when she returns. In the Goblin Market, a friend who loses her way in despair and almost gives up her humanity. In the “real” world, a family that loves her, hates her and misses her in equal measure, that pulls at her to stay and be part of them, and a younger sister who needs her to be her guide, mentor and above all, a sister who will put her first as no one else does. Just as no one ever put Lundy first before she went to the Goblin Market.

Lundy, being a person who likes rules because once she understands them it’s easy to find a way around, wants to, as the saying goes, “have her cake and eat it, too.” She wants to keep her promises on all sides, even though she knows that there is not world enough or time enough for that to be possible.

So she hunts for a loophole. And finds one. But loopholes are cheats. They do not provide the fair value that the Goblin Market enforces at every step.

“Cheaters never win and “winners never cheat.” – or so goes the quote. I remember this saying, or at least a version of it, being flung about during my childhood, which was at the exact same time as Katherine Lundy’s childhood.

It’s a lesson that Lundy should have taken to heart. Because when she finally does learn it – it takes hers.

Escape Rating B+: Everything I picked up this week struck me wrong in one way or another. Sometimes very wrong as yesterday’s book demonstrated a bit too clearly. In desperation I went looking for comfort reads that were short and punchy to get me out of my reading slump, and that’s something that the Wayward Children series has definitely provided.

So here we are at In an Absent Dream, the fourth book in the series that began with the bang of a slamming door in Every Heart a Doorway.

There were parts of this one that I really, really loved. It was terribly easy for me to empathize with Lundy and her total unwillingness to step into the box that society expected her to close herself into because she was female. Along with her frustration at her father who refused to look at her and see her and not just a biddable child he didn’t have to think about much – even though he could have helped make a Lundy-shaped space for her in the real world.

When both Katherine Lundy and I – I was seven in 1964 – were born, the world expected girls to become wives and mothers, have no career ambitions, only work at certain “acceptable” jobs until we married and had those expected children. We were born into the expectations of the 1950s.

Then the 1960s happened. Those expectations were still there, but, if you pushed hard enough, worked hard enough, tried hard enough and were stubborn enough, a space could be made that did not meet those expectations. It was hard, the pushback was intense, but the world for girls did start opening up. With Lundy’s father as a school principal he could have encouraged her academic ambitions and he just didn’t. Because it was hard and he didn’t want to make waves or upset his own personal applecart.

I loved the portrayal of the Goblin Market, and could easily understand why Lundy found it such a compelling place. What fell just a bit short for me was the way that Lundy’s biggest and most catastrophic adventures in the Market were glossed over. That glossing made the story lose a bit of its oomph every time she left.

The choice she had to make was an impossible one – which was something she refused to acknowledge. But the imposition of “fair value” in the Goblin Market doesn’t allow people to cheat. Searching for loopholes is a value of this world and not the world of the Market, because using a loophole is just another way of getting something over someone or something else. And that is not fair value.

But Lundy was young and not nearly as smart as she thought she was. In spite of her time in the Market, Lundy was much too used to having only herself to rely on because she was the only person she could really count on. Which meant that in the end, she cheats herself most of all. And it’s heartbreaking.

This series is special and awesome in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s as though the dreams of all of us who were bookish misfits as children dreamed all our dreams only to see those dreams come true in the form of nightmares. Some gifts come at just too high a price – and sometimes we’re desperate enough to pay that price anyway.

I’ve read the Wayward Children series mostly out of order, so now I have just one book left to catch up to myself before the new books in the series come out next year. Which means I’ll be reading Come Tumbling Down the next time I’m looking for a story with the power to cut me like knife.

Review: The Wedding Setup by Sonali Dev + Spotlight + Giveaway

Review: The Wedding Setup by Sonali Dev + Spotlight + GiveawayThe Wedding Setup: A Short Story by Sonali Dev
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, short stories
Pages: 67
Published by Amazon Original Stories on January 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

From USA Today bestselling author Sonali Dev comes a heartfelt short story about one woman’s journey of self-discovery and what it means to be happy.
Ayesha Shetty lost her brother seven years ago, the same time she lost everything else important to her: her dreams, her fierce independence, and the man she loved. Not wanting to see her mother hurt anymore, she put her wild self away and became the dutiful daughter her mother needed and took on her brother’s role in the family business.
Now her best friend’s big, fat Indian wedding is a chance to get away from her endless duties at the restaurant and maybe even have some fun (if she remembers how). But a setup arranged by her mother, with a doctor no less, is the last thing she needs. The fact that he checks all her mother’s boxes just makes everything better…and worse.
Then Emmitt Hughes shows up. Her brother’s best friend. The love she once chose over family duties and her responsibilities. The one she asked to leave, and who did. The one who knows the real Ayesha. Torn between a love from the past that could cost her the only person she has left and her sense of obligation to her mother, will Ayesha find the strength to stop thinking about what everyone else wants and finally put herself first? Or is the old Ayesha truly gone for good?

My Review:

The Wedding Setup is a short story, so I’m going to try to do it justice in a short review. Especially since this is a jam-packed post with an interview with the author, an excerpt from the story AND a giveaway!

From a certain perspective, this is a story about handling grief – or rather NOT handling grief. Ayesha has put herself in a box in her attempt to be the perfect daughter that she never was – and it’s a straitjacket. But so is the reason for that attempt, the death of her brother and her desperate need to hold onto her mother in the ultimately vain hope of preventing either of them from suffering any more losses. Ayesha’s father died when she was ten, and her mother was the rock that sheltered both her and her brother through the rest of her childhood. When her brother died, they were all each other had left. That and the depth of their grief and the fear of another loss.

But they lost each other along the way – even as they spent 16 hours a day together keeping the family’s restaurant afloat. Hanging onto the last remaining bit of her brother’s dream.

As this story opens, it’s been seven years since Ajay died, and Ayesha’s mother has had enough of living with Ayesha’s obedient ghost – because that’s who it seems has been trudging through the world in Ayesha’s place.

But that is far, far, far from what the story seems to be for most of its length. As Amma does her level best to bring back the old, vibrant, downright combative Ayesha by poking that sleeping tiger with every single stick she can find.

In the hopes that her daughter will come back to life and reach out for her own happy ever after.

Escape Rating A-: I have only one complaint about this story – it’s too damn short. It’s beautiful, it’s marvelous, and all the characters are fascinating – even the ones who only exist in memory. I would have loved this story even more if it had been novel length. But it isn’t so I’ll make do with what I have.

Part of the fun of The Wedding Setup is that the setup of Ayesha is not what either Ayesha or the reader think it is. The story is a gem of misdirection, and the reveal at the end forces both Ayesha and the reader to rethink everything that has happened. And rejoice at the ending.

Also laugh uproariously at the mental picture of a rat in scrubs administering a pap smear. Which is the only way to laugh at one of those necessary evils. Read The Wedding Setup to find out just how that comes to pass. The mental picture, that is.


Interview with Sonali Dev + Excerpt from The Wedding Setup

The Wedding Setup may be a short story, but it is tremendously powerful. How would you describe it to readers?

Thank you. It’s the story of a girl who used to be a rebel who followed her heart and fought for what she wanted, and then her brother’s death leaves her responsible for her widowed mother. It’s about being knocked off your feet and getting stuck, and learning how to stand back up and reclaim yourself.

The story invites us to take an intimate look into a mother-daughter relationship. This is a universal theme, however, you also steep the plot in your own Indian heritage. Can you tell readers what this story means to you as a daughter? What it means to you as an Indian woman?

There is so much of my own relationship with my mother in this book. We’ve always been incredibly close. She’s outspoken and confident and she modeled some powerful behaviors for me growing up about owning her own body and her voice. But there were the other parts where she was a product of her time and culture, believing in absolute terms that it is a woman’s duty to nurture her family, to marry ‘at the right time,’ to be a certain kind of mother. These are things she pushed hard. Things I internalized but also fought to do on my own terms and not hers. Ayesha’s relationship with her mother used to be this way, and then a tragedy changes their dynamic. So, it’s an exploration of how battles for identity get derailed by tragedy and grief and what it takes to heal.

Ayesha’s mom describes her as obedient, responsible, and “always putting everyone else before her own needs.” After hearing this Ayesha (internally) feels hypothermic. Can you explain how these seemingly sweet compliments completely destroy your heroine?

The mother-child bond comes with a kind of intuitive understanding of each other that’s unique to that relationship. So, while Ayesha has lost her fiery spirit and both she and her mother have lost years to their grief and struggle to survive, her mother knows who her daughter is deep down and how much she’s buried. So there’s a very nuanced intent to these ‘compliments’ and they hit the nerve they’re meant to hit. Ayesha’s reaction to these words is her dead parts coming back to life.

It only takes a moment—one second—for Ayesha to break free from her ice…a single word from Emmitt has her coming back to life. Why does she have such a powerful reaction to someone she hasn’t seen in seven years?

Ayesha had a crush on Emmitt for many years before they got together. She’s always had a strong reaction to him. The years they spent together as young adults were years when she came into herself, and felt seen and cherished. Then she loses all of that when her brother dies and they break up. So, it’s a combination of things that come together when Ayesha meets Emmitt again. They have a natural connection, but also, with his return come all the memories of who she used to be and how much she used to let herself feel.

Ayesha has never forgotten how Emmitt turns “her messy, impulsive, unfettered emotion into something beautiful.” But she has forgotten the effect that she has on him. What buried memories are uncovered as she watches Emmitt react to their reunion?

Emmitt has always dealt with the world and the pain it causes him by keeping everyone at arm’s length. But Ayesha destroys his defenses with her ability to love (and do everything else) so fiercely. So, when he loses her he’s already lost his ability to protect himself. Their joint grief is what separated them, so, while they understand each other’s pain they both also understand the loneliness of not having each other to lean on. They’ve had to make the journey to healing individually, but meeting each other again brings up the piece that needs the other to heal.

How did you get to know your couple? How were you able to understand what was needed to heal their broken hearts?

The one theme that threads through all my books is finding yourself on the tightrope between personal freedom and responsibility to family and community. Healing is always about finding or rediscovering your love for yourself. So, I understand my characters through that lens: how have they lost themselves? What about themselves do they need to reclaim and fall in love with? A truly connected couple is one who aids this journey in each other, recognizes it, and supports it.

In a limited number of pages you not only give readers a living, breathing couple, but also an avalanche of equally interesting characters like Ayesha’s best friend, suitor, aunties…and you even create depth with characters that are no longer living. Why was it so important to spend time with these secondary characters? What do they reveal about your hero and heroine?

I believe that as humans we are a sum total of our relationships and the world we live in and build for ourselves. How someone treats other people and how they respond to how they are treated is what constitutes character.

At its heart, every story is about a person who is somehow at odds with the world they live in or with themselves because of the expectations of their world, and the journey they make to resolve that conflict. Ayesha wouldn’t be Ayesha without her mother and Bela, her best friend and the community she was raised in. Bela has been her wild other half growing up, then their paths diverged, but they continued to be each other’s support. Her mother has become a crutch she uses to hold on to her grief. Emmitt’s grief over his friend has run his life for seven years too. So the secondary characters are just as integral to the story as the protagonists.

While the plot focuses on grief, there is also great joy to be found. After all, the backdrop of the story is a giant wedding. What do you personally find the most fun at a traditional Indian wedding celebration?

I’m always only there for the food and dancing! Fine, and getting to dress up. And the wine. Also, maybe the chance to hang out with family and friends I only see at weddings. And the drunk aunties and uncles.

After readers devour The Wedding Setup, which of your other books would you recommend they read next?

First, thank you so much for devouring The Wedding Setup! I’m incredibly proud of my Rajes series, a set of retellings of my four favorite Jane Austen novels set in a politically ambitious Indian American family from Northern California. Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors is a gender flipped Pride and Prejudice. Recipe for Persuasion is a two-generational homage to Persuasion set on a Food Network show. Incense and Sensibility, the love story between a gubernatorial candidate and a yoga therapist who can save him but also destroy his campaign, pays tribute to Sense and Sensibility. And the upcoming The Emma Project (May 17th 2022), which is a gender flipped Emma that explores what it means when a person with tremendous privilege offers charity to someone who has much less.

The Wedding Setup Excerpt

Goose bumps rose across Ayesha’s skin, one sharp dot at a time.

“Ayesha.”

That was it. Just that one word. Her name. In a voice that was its own ghost.

She squeezed her eyes shut. One tight squeeze. Tight enough to hurt, tight enough to almost dislodge the false eyelashes Andre had pressed into her lash line one by one with the precision of a surgeon. Then boom! she was in control again and back to Ayesha on Ice.

Eyes blank, face set, she turned toward the voice.

Emmitt.

The impact of him was a body blow.

The entire universe stilled. Words weren’t a thing. Or sound. Breath? What was that?

Ayesha! Get a grip.

No grip. That’s how it had always been. She’d had no grip when it came to Emmitt Hughes. Not even a little bit. Not when she’d spied on him and Ajay playing Mario Kart and Minecraft and GTA for hours, for years. Not when she’d yearned and dreamed and spun stories with him at the center.

I’ve made my love for you, my god.

It was the cheesiest of lines from one of those Bollywood songs her parents had played on repeat at the restaurant. Amma had loved translating the over-the-top lyrics and explaining their nuances.

Back when Amma was full of stories and songs and laughter. Before Ajay.

Ajay.

Her brother’s unspoken name fell between them like a glass bauble and shattered.

“You remember Emmitt,” Edward had the gall to say.

Bela shot him a glare.

You didn’t tell me he would be here. Ayesha threw the silent accusation at her traitorous best friend, who gave her nothing more than another worried look.

No, Eddie. Remind me again who he is? The snarky words stuck in Ayesha’s throat. Old Ayesha would have said them. Old Ayesha said everything.

“Emmitt,” New Ayesha said, every feeling buried under her customer-is-king voice from the restaurant. “Nice to see you again.”

His Adam’s apple bobbed in the long column of his throat. How was he still so darned beautiful?

One swallow, and then he smiled back. Banking feelings where no one saw them had been his thing. Emmitt the Wall. That’s what Ajay had called him. Her brother had been best friends with him since Emmitt had moved to Naperville in fifth grade after his parents’ divorce. Years of friendship, and he’d still held Ajay at that slight distance he’d been so good at. Something she would always wish she hadn’t cured him of.

You broke me, Ayesha.You broke every defense I’ve ever had against the world.

She, Ayesha Shetty—too tall, too dark, too outspoken, too intense, too ambitious, too everything for everyone else had been just enough to break through Emmitt the Wall.

“It’s nice to see you too,” he said gently, sounding . . . she dug through her brain to come up with the right word. Grown-up? Contained?

Good. Because Ayesha was all those things now too. Not a grenade with its fuse pulled, ready to blow up the world.

Author Biography

USA Today bestselling author Sonali Dev writes Bollywood-style love stories that explore universal issues. Her novels have been named best books of the year by Library Journal, NPR, the Washington Post, and Kirkus Reviews. She has won numerous accolades, including the American Library Association’s award for best romance, the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award for best contemporary romance, and multiple RT Seals of Excellence; has been a RITA finalist; and has been listed for the Dublin Literary Award. Shelf Awareness calls her “not only one of the best but one of the bravest romance novelists working today.” She lives in Chicagoland with her husband, two visiting adult children, and the world’s most perfect dog.

Buy Link: https://amzn.to/3pWDqM8

Social Media Links

Website: https://sonalidev.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SonaliDev.author

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Sonali_Dev

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sonali.dev/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7025918.Sonali_Dev

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

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Review: Pets in Space 6 edited by Carol Van Natta

Review: Pets in Space 6 edited by Carol Van NattaPets in Space 6: A Science Fiction Romance Anthology by S.E. Smith, Veronica Scott, Honey Phillips, Carol Van Natta, Cassandra Chandler, J.C. Hay, S.J. Pajonas, Greta van der Rol, Deborah A. Bailey, Melisse Aires, Kyndra Hatch
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, science fiction, science fiction romance
Series: Pets in Space #6
Pages: 1329
Published by Pets in Space Books on October 5, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Pets in Space® is back for a new year of adventures!
Join the incredible authors in this year's Pets in Space 6 for another out-of-this-world adventure. This award-winning, USA TODAY Bestselling anthology is packed full ofyour favorite Pets in Space®. Featuring 11 original, never-before-released stories from some of today's bestselling science fiction romance and fantasy authors, Pets in Space 6 continues their vital support of Hero-Dogs.org, the non-profit charity that improves quality of life for veterans of the U.S. military and first-responders with disabilities. Don't miss out on this limited-edition anthology before it is too late!

THE STORIES
BEHR'S REBEL

Marastin Dow Book 2
by S.E. Smith
With the help of her two innovative pets, a human woman rescues an alien General and becomes part of the revolution he is leading.

STAR CRUISE: TIME LOOP
Sectors Romance series
by Veronica Scott
Reliving the same terrible day, Raelyn and her pet are in a race to save the interstellar cruise ship…

THE CYBORG WITH NO NAME
by Honey Phillips
Can a rogue robotic horse and a misfit mechanical dog protect a wounded cyborg and a lonely scientist from a vicious new enemy?

ESCAPE FROM NOVA NINE
A Central Galactic Concordance Novella
by Carol Van Natta
She's a space pirate with vital information. He's a wanted fugitive with enemies hot on his afterburner. Will their unexpected attraction survive escaping a dangerous asteroid mine in time to avert a war?

TRADE SECRETS
The Department of Homeworld Security Series

by Cassandra Chandler
She wanted to learn about aliens—and ended up uncovering their secrets!

SEE HOW THEY RUN
TriSystems: Smugglers
by JC Hay
Love blossoms in space, but can it survive being dragged back down to ground?

SURI'S SURE THING
Kimura Sisters Series
by S.J. Pajonas
In this best-friends-to-lover romance, workaholic Suri would rather be in space than deal with her ex-boyfriend. Will she be able to leave him behind and find love with her best friend instead?

THE THUNDER EGG
by Greta van der Rol
Can a freighter captain and an academic outwit their pursuers and get a little alien foundling back where she belongs?

WORLDS OF FIRE: METAMORPHOSIS
by Deborah A. Bailey
When an alchemy student is deceived into using her transmutation skills to assist a smuggling ring, will her gargoyle shifter mentor help her expose the criminals or turn her in?

STRANDED ON GRZBT
by Melisse Aires
Can a resourceful human trust the alien determined to help her and her companions?

ESCAPING KORTH
Before The Fall series
by Kyndra Hatch
An alien interrogator recognizes the human prisoner as his fated mate, leading to danger for both of them.

My Review:

Welcome to the latest iteration of the annual reading treat that is Pets in Space. It’s that time again, and the newest addition to the Pets in Space litter, clowder, herd or what-have-you of marvelous science fiction romance novellas where the pets steal the show will be released tomorrow, October 5, 2021.

It’s time for Pets in Space 6, and I already know that it’s every bit as big a winner as its earlier siblings.

The Pets in Space collections are always huge reading treats, and this year is no exception. There are eleven stories packed into 1,300 pages – that’s over 100 pages per story. So these are not exactly short stories. Rather they are all novelette or novella length.

So none of the stories are small. Some of the pets however – like the mice in one of my favorite stories this year – are a bit on the tiny side. But oh-so-cute all the same.

Because this collection is always a mega-treat, I always go into it with a plan of attack – and this year is no exception. The stories are always so good, and too much of a good thing can be wonderful, but these are always such lovely treats that I like to spread them out a bit over the year.

But first, that plan of attack. Because I definitely want to read some of the stories the moment I get the collection!

I start by looking for stories in worlds that I’m already familiar with. This year that meant Veronica Scott’s Sectors SF Romance Star Cruise: Time Loop. The series as a whole began with The Wreck of the Nebula Dream, but has evolved to cruise around the galaxy on a ship that is crewed and staffed by quite a few retired members of the military.

It’s a cruise ship. In space. Who wouldn’t want to take one of their cruises, in spite of some of the stranger and/or more dangerous things that happen aboard? I’d certainly sign up.

The events of the story in this year’s collection are both strange AND dangerous. Senior stewardess Raelyn Cantorini of the cruise ship Nebula Zephyr has a pet lizard from her homeworld. Eyn is bright and mischievous, as so many pets are. Eyn is also more intelligent than average, which just adds to the amount of mischief the little one can make. But when Eyn breaks a glass ornament that was supposedly an artifact of the Ancients who seeded the galaxy with life, Raelyn finds herself experiencing Groundhog Day. Not the day in February, but the movie, where life repeats the same day over and over until someone, in this case Raelyn, gets it right.

And saves the lives of everyone on the ship. If she can get someone to believe her before its too late.

Eyn’s mischief led me to feline mischief – not that I don’t see plenty of that in real life!

In Trade Secrets by Cassandra Chandler, a confessed space nerd girl learns that not only are aliens out there, but they are also living on Earth – with their ultra-intelligent, hypo-allergenic cats. Gwen points her hacking skills at an abandoned Mars Rover only to discover that lizard-like aliens have fixed and adopted the little machine. Which is very much against the rules – not that Gwen’s hack was any better. The aliens come to Earth to persuade Gwen to give up her recording – and end up taking her back to the stars.

Where the Star Cruise story reminded me a lot of the Stargate SG-1 episode Window of Opportunity, Trade Secrets had the flavor of Earth Girls are Easy – which was a hoot and a half I still remember fondly.

Howsomever, as much as I’d love to go into space, and as easily as Gwen falls for her fated alien mate, much of the charm of this story belongs to the super-smart and super-cute “space cat” Bandit, along with his self-centered and destructive litter-mate Queenie.

After the cruise ship and the cats, I went looking for something cute and fuzzy to round out this portion of my SFR reading and discovered Positive, Negative and Monocle, the lab mice in See How They Run by JC Hay. This story is part of a series that sounds a bit like Firefly crossed with Sisters of the Vast Black, as odd a combination as that sounds. The engineers on the ship Sentinel of Gems, April and Baker, are friends who would like to be more. But Baker has a history of not letting herself get involved, and April has just learned that they may have a genetic time bomb ticking in their lungs. When Baker decides to save her friend by stealing a trio of lab mice from a high tech laboratory that studies just the disease that April fears they have, the situation goes pear-shaped at the speed of light. But while they are all in quarantine together, April, Baker and the surprisingly intelligent stolen mice, the humans figure out that it’s more important to spend what time they have together than to worry about how much time they might or might not have. Not that the mice won’t have plenty to say about that.

Escape Rating A: I love this collection. I love it for its size and its scope, for the endless hours of reading pleasure it gives me, for its promotion of great science fiction romance and SFR authors, and for its annual donations to Hero Dogs, a charity that raises, trains, and places support dogs with U.S. veterans and first-responders.

So this is a win-win-win. I get a great bunch of stories to read every year. A terrific charity gets a nice boost in donations and publicity. And now I get to pass all of that on to you! If any of the stories I’ve mentioned above appeal to you, or if you like the concept of Pets in Space, pick up a copy of this year’s collection and settle in for a long and glorious reading binge!

Review: A Vineyard Valentine by Nina Bocci

Review: A Vineyard Valentine by Nina BocciA Vineyard Valenting by Nina Bocci
Format: audiobook
Source: publisher
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Published by Audible Studios on February 4th 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

An unforgettable night of romance awaits in this funny, charming novella by USA Today best-selling author Nina Bocci!

The annual Valentine’s Day singles soiree is always a big money-maker for Eloisa Giordono’s winery. What could be more romantic than looking for love at a quaint family vineyard on the most romantic night of year? Well, just about anything as far as Eloisa is concerned. She’s a Valentine’s Day Grinch who thinks it’s the lamest, most clichéd holiday ever invented.

Fortunately, she’ll get to hang out with like-minded folks this year by hosting an Anti-Valentine’s Day party on the same night. She’ll just need to alternate between events to keep them both running and she’ll be raking in the profits. But Eloisa is thrown for a loop when a sexy, self-described hopeless romantic shows up at the singles soiree and keeps her captivated. Will he change her mind about the holiday...and about love?

My Review:

If you’ve soured on love, or romance, or simply the commercialization of Valentine’s Day, you’d probably fit right in with winery owner Eloisa Giordono’s Anti-Valentine’s Day shindig – complete with black roses, dead cupids and a much more murdery and depressing vibe than she originally intended.

As a self-proclaimed Valentine’s Day Grinch, Elo was hoping to create an alternative celebration of the holiday of all-things-love for the happily single crowd. A place to celebrate friendship, acknowledge that loving yourself can be enough, and simply a place for those who aren’t ready to jump back into the dating pool to find some like-minded people for a fun evening.

Elo’s anti-love bash – or her bash against love, take your pick – is competing with her vineyard’s annual – and more traditional – Valentine’s Day event, Love at the Vineyard, which may sound hokey and cliché but works. Especially with the planning genius of the vineyard’s PR director – and Elo’s best friend – Mac.

Speaking of planning and genius, the genius plan is for Mac to handle the traditional event while Elo hosts the bashing Valentine’s bash. It’s all going SO WELL – until Mac makes the tired and hangry mistake of eating some leftover Seafood Alfredo that is way, way, way past its “safe to eat” date.

Food poisoning ensues, and the best laid plans of mice, women and vineyard owners go very much “gang aft agley” as Mac wakes up on the day of the dueling events with a desperate need to spend the day – and probably the night – worshipping at the porcelain altar to really bad decisions.

With Mac down for the count for at least a day if not more, Elo is on her own with both events. Now she’s responsible for two things that just aren’t her thing, a traditional love fest and public hosting and event management duties, along with worrying about Mac.

It should be the worst night of Elo’s life, at least recently. But just as the “festivities” are about to begin, Elo runs into Mr. Chardonnay. Literally. With a golf cart. But figuratively, as that’s not his real name.

In between shuttling from “murder Cupid” to “love is in the air” Elo and the mysterious man she has named “Mr. Chardonnay” flirt, banter and play a game of “strangers in the night”.

As the magic of the evening wraps around them both, the two mysterious strangers both start thinking that there might be something to this Valentine’s Day magic after all.

Escape Rating A-: This is kind of an amuse-bouche of a story. A chef’s kiss of a bit of romance. One that goes perfectly with the bite-sized wine and cheese pairings that are being served at the winery’s pro-Valentine’s Day event.

But seriously, this is a short story. A VERY short story. At most 100 pages if it’s length were being measured in pages.

That’s actually the right length. Because this is a story about the possibilities of love and the thrill of discovering that this person might just be the one. It’s the opening of the romance, with all of the internal angst and flirty banter that any romance reader could want.

It’s a meet-cute. And it’s ALL ABOUT the meet-cute. At the end, we’re left with the same possibility that the characters have, that this might lead to a happy ever after. It also might not. But that’s what first meetings are all about when you just click with someone and all you can see in front of you are possibilities.

One of the things that I, as the reader/listener loved about this story was Elo’s internal voice. She’s witty, snarky, and generally honest with herself no matter what actually comes out of her mouth. But she’s marvelously gifted with snarkitude and the reader’s voice was perfect for her.

The reader also does a good job voicing Mr. Chardonnay, but…I would have liked this one more if he’d been voiced by a male reader. Although I probably would have swooned while driving, which would be bad. His dialog is not just flirty but frequently downright sexy, and a second reader would have really put it over the top.

Speaking of over the top, there is one character who, in spite of her inability to leap tall buildings – or jump at all – was the perfect sidekick for the snarky but soft-hearted Elo, and that’s her adorable dog Olive in her equally adorable little cart. Olive steals hearts and scenes every time Elo brings her ANYWHERE and it’s just really, really cute.

So come for the yummy-sounding wine-and-cheese pairings. Stay for the flirty banter that turns Valentine’s Day Grinch Elo into a match with hopeless romantic Mr. Chardonnay. And don’t leave without giving Olive a scritch or three.

TLC
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Review: Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Review: Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia HibbertGet a Life, Chloe Brown (The Brown Sisters, #1) by Talia Hibbert
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Brown Sisters #1
Pages: 373
Published by Avon on November 5, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Chloe Brown is a chronically ill computer geek with a goal, a plan, and a list. After almost—but not quite—dying, she’s come up with seven directives to help her “Get a Life”, and she’s already completed the first: finally moving out of her glamorous family’s mansion. The next items?
• Enjoy a drunken night out.• Ride a motorcycle.• Go camping.• Have meaningless but thoroughly enjoyable sex.• Travel the world with nothing but hand luggage.• And... do something bad.
But it’s not easy being bad, even when you’ve written step-by-step guidelines on how to do it correctly. What Chloe needs is a teacher, and she knows just the man for the job.
Redford ‘Red’ Morgan is a handyman with tattoos, a motorcycle, and more sex appeal than ten-thousand Hollywood heartthrobs. He’s also an artist who paints at night and hides his work in the light of day, which Chloe knows because she spies on him occasionally. Just the teeniest, tiniest bit.
But when she enlists Red in her mission to rebel, she learns things about him that no spy session could teach her. Like why he clearly resents Chloe’s wealthy background. And why he never shows his art to anyone. And what really lies beneath his rough exterior…

My Review:

Because yesterday’s book had a slightly higher, let’s call it “discomfort” factor than I was expecting from something promoted as a play on classic mysteries, I went looking for something a bit lighter in tone – or at least something I could reasonably expect to have a happy ending. My search led me to Get a Life, Chloe Brown, as I have the whole series in the virtually towering TBR pile but hadn’t quite been in the mood for it.

Until now. I was definitely in the mood for something light and maybe even a bit fluffy, and was hoping this would fill that particular bill. And even though the baggage that both of the protagonists are carrying is much too heavy to make this book either light or fluffy, it still gave me the happy ending that I was craving.

And all the better for dealing appropriately with that baggage.

Chloe needs to carve out a tiny bit of space from her loving, intrusive, extremely overprotective family. Not that Chloe doesn’t need a bit of help and protection, because she does. In the aftermath of a nearly deadly bout of pneumonia a few years ago, Chloe found herself living with both fibromyalgia and chronic pain.

It’s a situation that has forced Chloe to learn to manage her illness – with the help of the medical professionals she finally located who believed her and didn’t brush her off. Because if she doesn’t manage her health, the issues with it will manage her. And sometimes they still do, in spite of her efforts.

Along the way she’s lost friends and a fiance who refused to believe her, and her family, her parents, her grandmother, and her two sisters, have all stepped in to fill the gaps in Chloe’s social network.

But they’re smothering her with their good intentions, so after another near-death experience – this time with a drunk driver who swerves away at the last possible second – Chloe decides to go out and get herself a life without her loving family looking over her shoulder and swaddling her in cotton every single second.

She does find a new apartment, although the new social life is a bit harder to come by. What she does have is a new frenemy/obsession, the gorgeous, tattooed superintendent of the building. She sees him as a bit of a rough badass, and he sees her as a stuck up rich girl with a snooty attitude and her head up her very shapely backside.

When he discovers her rescuing a stray cat from a very tall tree, the ensuing mayhem allows them both to discover that neither is exactly who the other thought. And that each might provide the other with the kind of friendship that is forged not from what they have in common, but from the elements each needs and sorely lacks – but that the other has in abundance.

If only they can manage to get their own personal baggage out of the other’s way.

Escape Rating A-: As I said at the top, I was expecting fluff. What I got was a whole hell of a lot more nuanced than that, and I think I enjoyed it more because of that nuance. Not that fluff can’t be a wonderful thing if that’s what you’re looking for at a particular time, but this was just more than I expected and I was very happy with that.

The baggage that Chloe and Red are dealing with is both heavier than I expected and was handled so much better than I expected. The crap they’re carrying around isn’t easy and there are no quick solutions.

At the same time, they both recognize that they have a crapton of crap – even if it takes Red quite a bit longer to figure that out – and they both are coming to terms with their own shit. (I can’t be the only person in the world who had a relationship go to hell because both parties had their own crap and weren’t both willing to deal with it.)

And on my third hand, the stuff they each had to deal with was real and hard and not generally dealt with well or at all in romance. Chloe has a chronic illness. It’s something she has learned how to handle, but it will most likely never be cured. So her illness and her management of it and her health is part of what she has to deal with every single day. Even the good days, because it’s always lurking.

But there’s also the emotional baggage along with it. Not just her family’s overprotectiveness, which comes from a place of love but can be unintentionally belittling, but Chloe’s quite real fears of abandonment – because those feelings arose from reality. Her friends and her fiance didn’t believe her illness was real, so they treated her like she was a lying faker and left her to cope by herself.

The result is that she has walled herself away from people other than her family because everyone else has betrayed her trust when she needed them the most. So when her relationship with Red changes from disdain to friendship to flirting to love, she’s afraid he’ll leave because it’s happened to her before.

When he does leave she’s devastated but determined, because he leaves her not because of her crap but his own. His last girlfriend was a rich girl like Chloe, but she was abusive – something that you don’t see nearly enough in romance but does happen. He leaves Chloe because he panics and conflates her behavior with the ex, even though it isn’t so. But it’s something he has to work through and Chloe can’t do it for him anymore than he can deal with her abandonment issues for her.

No matter how much he can, and does, help her deal with the practical issues of her illness and the management of it.

So there was way more to unpack in this story than I was expecting – and it was all terrific stuff. Stuff that slid very nicely between the lines of this terrific, fun, flirty and very sexy romance – almost as nicely as Chloe and Red slid between the sheets – and eventually managed to stay there.

I loved Chloe Brown, and I liked her sisters Dani and Eve – along with the whole family – quite a lot. More than enough that I’m looking very much forward to reading Dani’s story next – and next week – in Take a Hint, Dani Brown!

Review: Anthems Outside Time by Kenneth Schneyer

Review: Anthems Outside Time by Kenneth SchneyerAnthems Outside Time and Other Strange Voices by Kenneth Schneyer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, short stories
Pages: 372
Published by Fairwood Press on July 14, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Curator's notes from an art exhibition. Exam questions. A children's social-studies textbook. An end-user license agreement from God. From Nebula-nominated author Kenneth Schneyer comes this collection spanning the range from fantasy to science fiction to horror to political speculative fiction. Representing more than a decade of work, these 26 weird, disorienting stories will accost your expectations while relocating your heart. This volume includes such celebrated works as "Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer," as well as two stories never before published.

My Review:

When I read this collection a few weeks ago, I found myself astonished all the way around. And I mean that in the best way possible.

That very pleasant surprised was on two counts. The first being that short story collections usually aren’t my favorite thing. I tend to find them a mixed bag at best, with some strong stories mixed with at least one or two that missed the boat – or in this case the rocket ship – completely. That didn’t happen here. At All. Every story hits its mark – sometimes with a bang. And occasionally – when completely appropriate to the story – with a whimper. Usually on the part of the reader. A kind of contented, contemplative “OH!”

That the collection was written by an author I hadn’t heard of before – in spite of the Nebula nomination – was the second thing that surprised me. I wouldn’t have picked up a collection of something I don’t normally care for by an author I don’t otherwise know without receiving it as an assignment from somewhere.

In this particular case, an assignment from Library Journal. But I loved this book so hard that I felt compelled to signal boost it here, as many reviews in LJ are behind a paywall – although this review might not be. But here we are, just in case.

What I found so compelling about this collection was the way that it does something that SF and fantasy don’t always do well. So much of speculative fiction in general concentrates on the gee whiz of either rocket ships or dragons – or sometimes both – that it misses the human connection.

Not that I don’t love me a good hard SF story. Or for that matter a good time travel story or a good story about dragons either doing or done wrong or a big high-flown epic fantasy. Or a mix of all of the above – although that’s HARD.

But all stories written by humans are about humans, no matter what skin or fur or feather or metal they might be wearing on the outside. And that’s what this collection does so well, whether in its SF or its fantasy stories.

This author is great at letting the reader see the effects of the SFnal or fantasy elements on the humans who are our perspective on what’s happening. And that’s fantastic!

Escape Rating A: This author has what can wonderfully be called a somewhat sideways view of the world. A view that is certainly on display in that Nebula-nominated story, Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer. It’s a story told through the unusual lens of museum case notes. One of this author’s fascinating devices is to tell a story through something else, often something small like the tiny notes next to exhibit entries, and let the pulling together of the story in its entirety occur in the reader’s mind – as it does anyway.

(For the curious, the winner that year was If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky which was itself a nominee for the Hugo the following year. Eligibility periods for the Hugo and the Nebula are confoundingly different!)

The stories in this collection, those Anthems Outside Time, are not fluffy bunnies. Most of them come from the darker corners of the imagination, and all of them are compellingly readable.

The stories in this collection manage to be prescient, heartbreaking and provocative, sometimes by turns and sometimes all at once. They are stories for readers who want their SF and fantasy to make them think, and think hard, about the human condition. And they’re marvelous.

I’ll certainly be looking for more of this author’s work, starting with his previous collection, The Law & the Heart.