Guest Review: Mindkiller by Spider Robinson

Guest Review: Mindkiller by Spider RobinsonMindkiller by Spider Robinson
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, paperback
Genres: dystopian, science fiction, thriller
Series: Lifehouse Trilogy #1
Pages: 246
Published by Berkley on November 1st 1983
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

From the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of Time Pressure comes a pulse-pounding tale of action and suspense as two men and a woman search for--and find--the ultimate frontier of experience. "The new Robert Heinlein . . ".--New York Times.

Guest Review by Amy:

Norman Kent has had enough of life; his experiences in the war, his failed marriage, his dead-end career…and in the opening words of this tale, he’s ready to end it all. But an unfriendly stranger gets in the way of his plan, and he returns to his apartment, only to find his sister there, whom he’d not seen in years and years. Shortly, she disappears abruptly, without a trace.

Hop forward a few years, and a clever, tech-savvy burglar who doesn’t know his own name finds a woman with a wire in her skull, trying to kill herself with pleasure. He pulls her back from the brink, only to go on a crusade with her against the forces that created the pleasure addiction of “wireheads.”

Spider Robinson’s brain just doesn’t work like the rest of ours, I don’t think; if you’ve ever read any of his Callahan’s stories, you’ll understand; in those books he deals in puns and wild stories, while giving the reader a peek into a community of people where “shared joy is increased, shared pain is lessened,” a notion that has created substantial communities of fans here and there around the digital world (full disclosure: I am a member of one such community). The New York Times’ review of this book pinned the label “the new Robert Heinlein” on Robinson, but as a Heinlein fan, I’m not quite going to agree to that; Heinlein fans will enjoy this tale, and feel right at home with Spider Robinson’s style, but it’s…different, in ways I can’t quite put my finger on.

Something I missed early on in this book was that time was jumping back and forth; we begin Norman’s story in 1994-1995, and are jumping to 1999 for the story of the burglar and the wirehead. Once I caught onto that, things started to make a little more sense for me, and I raptly followed both plots, wondering when and how they would converge, and when an antagonist would appear. Once a name was mentioned in both plots, things kind of clicked into place–no other explanation fits the facts at hand, so if you’re watching for it, you’ll figure it out before our protagonists do. Naturally, if you miss it, Robinson helpfully provides an intrusion between the story lines, in the form of Norman’s ex-wife Lois, to help you pull it all together. The apparent climax is not-unexpected, but even here, when you think you’ve got it figured out, the author gives us a lovely new twist, right at the end. Jarring, yes, but utterly necessary, and provided a way to tidy up several loose ends still dangling.

Escape Rating: A. Unlike Heinlein, who aggressively pursued a world that got better over time, and where characters pushed for that, Spider Robinson gives us a world that has clearly spiralled downward; our heroes show no particular desire to turn it around; they’re just trying to deal with it. There is no ultra-rich Howard Family pulling the strings to make things better, just avarice and dog-eat-dog individualism, easily recognizable in our own world at times. Our heroes are hard-boiled pragmatists, jaded by the world around them; so much so that when the burglar Joe heard young Karen talking about her crusade to go after the inventors of the wirehead technology, he thought she was crazy. But Karen had lived rough herself, and was willing to play hardball to do what must be done, and for reasons he doesn’t quite grasp, Joe joins her, because–for the first time he can remember–he actually cares about someone!

Our cast of characters is well-developed, every one of them with clear motivations, and rich description. Once I got past the time-hopping confusion of the first couple of chapters, I was able to track what was happening, and the story moved along crisply, without a lot of needless embellishment. A little bit of a thriller and a little bit of dystopian sci-fi, mixed in just the right proportions with engaging characters, made this a real page-turner for me. If you’re looking for a classic dystopian novel with a great thriller thrown in the mix, I heartily recommend Mindkiller.

Guest Review: Red Lily by Nora Roberts

Guest Review: Red Lily by Nora RobertsRed Lily (In the Garden, #3) by Nora Roberts
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: In the Garden #3
Pages: 351
Published by Jove on November 29th 2005
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Three women learn that the heart of their historic home holds a mystery of years gone by, as number-one bestselling author Nora Roberts brings her In the Garden trilogy to a captivating conclusion, following Blue Dahlia and Black Rose. A Harper has always lived at Harper House, the centuries-old mansion just outside of Memphis. And for as long as anyone alive remembers, the ghostly Harper Bride has walked the halls, singing lullabies at night...
Hayley Phillips came to Memphis hoping for a new start, for herself and her unborn child. She wasn't looking for a handout from her distant cousin Roz, just a job at her thriving In the Garden nursery. What she found was a home surrounded by beauty and the best friends she's ever had-including Roz's son Harper. To Hayley's delight, her new daughter Lily has really taken to him. To Hayley's chagrin, she has begun to dream about Harper-as much more than a friend...
If Hayley gives in to her desire, she's afraid the foundation she's built with Harper will come tumbling down. Especially since she's begun to suspect that her feelings are no longer completely her own. Flashes of the past and erratic behavior make Hayley believe that the Harper Bride has found a way inside of her mind and body. It's time to put the Bride to rest once and for all, so Hayley can know her own heart again-and whether she's willing to risk it.

Guest Review by Amy:

In this book, the climax of the In the Garden series, we spend time peering out at the Memphis mansion of Roz Harper through the eyes of her distant cousin Hayley, who came to the mansion while pregnant with her first child, looking for a new start. Roz took her in, of course, and Hayley joined the busy household, and started working at Roz’s very-successful business. She’s started to fall for Roz’s son Harper, and is a little bit freaked out by that; she’s worried about what Roz will think, but the older woman makes it quite clear that her son is a grown man and can make his own decisions.

The ghost story started in the prior two books continues, and the Harper Bride is turning it up a notch! Clearly insane, the ghostly woman confuses the current Harper son with the one who had done her wrong years ago, and begins sneaking into Hayley’s mind, and taking control of her body. When she does this during an intimate moment, Harper is horrified, and both he and Hayley are quite terrified.

This possession aspect, a new trick for the Bride, really ramps up the suspense and terror of this story for me; it’s suddenly very important that our three couples find out who the Bride was, and how to free her, and the remaining space in the story is dedicated to that. There’s a bit of back-and-forth between Harper and Hayley, as he wants very much to keep her safe, and wants to send her off the property to protect her. She’s having none of it, of course, and the friction between them just adds to the tension as we hurtle toward the finale. The ending, while somewhat predictable, is satisfying to everyone.

blue dahlia by nora robertsEscape Rating: A+. I’m giving this one all-aces. By now, all of our cast of characters are well-developed, and no new major players are introduced. Everyone’s purposes and motivations are clear and straightforward, and the plot is driven hard by the increasingly-unhinged actions of the Bride. The development of the relationship between Hayley and Harper is, given the circumstances, quite easy to buy into. Typically for these supernatural-romance trilogies that Roberts does, the third volume ramps up the suspense/terror aspects pretty sharply, and that makes it a real page-turner, for me. Overall, I’d give the In the Garden series an A-, with two outstanding stories starting with Blue Dahlia (reviewed here)  bookending a merely good one (Black Rose) in the middle.

 

Guest Review: Black Rose by Nora Roberts

Guest Review: Black Rose by Nora RobertsBlack Rose (In the Garden trilogy #2) by Nora Roberts
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, paranormal
Series: In the Garden #2
Pages: 355
Published by Jove on May 31st 2005
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A Harper has always lived at Harper House, the centuries-old mansion just outside of Memphis. And for as long as anyone alive remembers, the ghostly Harper Bride has walked the halls, singing lullabies at night...

At forty-seven, Rosalind Harper is a woman whose experiences have made her strong enough to bend without breaking--and weather any storm. A widow with three grown sons, she survived a disastrous second marriage and built her In The Garden nursery from the ground up. Through the years, In The Garden has become more than just a thriving business--it is a symbol of hope and independence to Roz, and to the two women she shares it with. Newlywed Stella and new mother Hayley are the sisters of her heart, and together the three of them are the future of In The Garden.

But now the future is under attack, and Roz knows they can't fight this battle alone. Hired to investigate Roz's Harper ancestors, Dr. Mitchell Carnegie finds himself just as intrigued with Roz herself. And as they being to unravel the puzzle of the Harper Bride's identity, Roz is shocked to find herself falling for the fascinating genealogist. Now it is a desperate race to discover the truth before the unpredictable apparition lashes out at the one woman who can help her rest in peace...

Guest Review by Amy:

red lily by nora robertsBlack Rose picks up right where Blue Dahlia left off (see my review). Stella and Logan are preparing for a wedding, and the Harper Bride is as much a mystery as before. In the prior entry in this trilogy, we were introduced to a professorish fellow named Mitch Carnegie, whom Roz originally hired to do some of the research to figure out who the Harper Bride is. He was such a bit role in Blue Dahlia that I just didn’t see it coming, at first, but he ends up on Roz’s radar pretty quickly. We start to figure out more about the Bride, and we also start to see a blossoming relationship between Roz’s son David, and her distant relation Hayley, our third-woman and presumably the subject of Red Lily.

Mitch is an interesting man; he has a son from a prior relationship, and is a strong enough man to own up (not only to himself, but to Roz and her extended ‘family’) to what he had done to end it, and what he was doing to prevent it happening again. He’s a bit of an anachronism; the forgetful scholar, who is surrounded by books and so engrossed that he forgets to water his plant. He’s not part of the richer social circles that Roz begrudgingly attends to, and he finds seeing the actions of the upper-crust set an interesting study. It’s quickly clear that he dotes on Roz, supportive without asking her to not be the strong woman she is…which is, of course, exactly the kind of man she needs. Roz waffles a bit at first; she’s used to going it alone, and knows she doesn’t *need* a man in her life for it to be fulfilled and successful. But after a while, she decides that she *wants* one–that one. Her ex is in town causing shenanigans, which complicates matters as she deals with him, but she does it capably and in style, which puts Mitch in awe of her (as well it should). Stella and Hayley are amused by the older couple’s relationship, teasing Roz in a private moment: “…we know you had sex. You’ve got that recently waxed and lubed look,” Hayley quips on the morning after. Roz’s son takes note, and goes on his own to make sure that Mitch’s intentions are good.

The Bride begins pushing back harder against Roz as she lets her relationship with Mitch develop. A non-Harper woman in the house getting involved annoyed her, but Roz is a Harper, and the Bride is clearly enraged by the independent Roz’s actions. On several instances, she directly attacks Roz, raising the urgency for dealing with her. Roz is only briefly frightened by her antics; she mostly feels sorry for the poor woman, and promises her that she will find a way to free her.

blue dahlia by nora robertsEscape Rating B+: I enjoyed this book, because we continue to see the lives of three interesting women unfolding, and the ongoing ghost story, but to me, Black Rose was not as strong a book as Blue Dahlia. The book had some more fantastically fun Southernisms in it (leading me into giggling fits more than once, as my daughter can attest). The strong spot for me was the way that Roz and Mitch let their relationship happen–two older adults, who figure out what they want, and go there, without a lot of misdirection or beating around the bush about it. As an older woman myself, this approach appeals–I do not have time or energy for the sort of games that happen to the younger set, or the chasing around less-than-savory locations to find Mr. Right.

My problem with the tale, mostly, lies in a weakness of this triple-novel format that Roberts is using here. Since we have three women, we must have three novels. We moved the ghost story plot forward a bit, but some of this story seemed like filler, to set us up for the climax of the trilogy in the next book. I know in my review of Stephanie Bond’s I Think I Love You, I complained that the author was trying to do too much putting all three tales in one book, but it seems to me *almost* the case that Roz’s story could be rolled up into the books on either side of it. It’s an enjoyable read, but it’s a quicker read than Blue Dahlia, and left me feeling like there needed to be more said, more tension, more…something.

Guest Review: The Shadow Matrix by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Guest Review: The Shadow Matrix by Marion Zimmer BradleyThe Shadow Matrix by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction
Series: Darkover #25
Pages: 556
Published by DAW Books on September 1st 1997
Publisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

After spending her youth in the Terran Empire, Margaret Alton returns to Darkover, the planet of her birth. There she discovers she has the Alton Gift--forced rapport and compulsion--one of the strongest and most dangerous of the inherited Laran gifts of the telepathic Comyn--the ruling families of Darkover. And even as she struggles to control her newfound powers, Margaret finds herself falling in love with the Regent to the royal Elhalyn Domain, a man she has been forbidden to marry, for their alliance would irrevocably alter the power balance of their planet!

Guest Review by Amy:

Margaret Alton, now holder of the Shadow Matrix, must return to Darkover and learn how to control and use her newly-enhanced laran gifts. But the culture of the Towers is difficult for her; she feels like an outcast, and would much rather be with her beau, Mikhail Lanart-Hastur. Mikhail, for his part, has been handed a difficult job–test the remaining sons of the mad Elhalyn clan, to see if any of them are suitable to be the next king. It’s a small comfort that the Elhalyn king is a figurehead; the real power lies in the Hasturs. The last adult woman of the clan is clearly insane, and under the influence of a rogue laran user, but Mikhail soldiers on, trying to do the job his uncle tasked him with as the Regent of the Elhalyns. He’d much rather be with Margaret–but that alliance has been forbidden, as it would tip the balance of power on the Comyn Council, and that just won’t do. As both of them struggle with doing what they must do, they begin hearing voices in their dreams, voices that would send them on an adventure far, far into Darkover’s past. Their return from that adventure will change the future of Darkover.

darkover landfall by marion zimmer bradleyEscape Rating: B+. I’ll say it right up front: If you’ve not read a lot of other Darkover novels before this one, The Shadow Matrix will be almost incomprehensible to you. There’s backstory a-plenty: the politics of the Comyn, the madness of the Elhalyn family, laran and everything that goes with that, the Darkovans’ experiences with the Terrans, Lew Alton himself, the Shadow Matrix, and so, so much more. Names and terminology are thrown around willy-nilly, and you’re supposed to just know all that stuff. Darkover Landfall or even Thendara House are much better entry points for the Darkover novice.

With that caveat, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover very much is the definition of “epic fantasy milieu,” for me. The world and its people are rich and complex, and every action, every plot line, has multiple complicated angles to it, that the reader can really sink their teeth into. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, really, as I’m pretty fussy about how much brain-power I’ll put into my relaxing reading, and Darkover can soak up a lot of it. But Darkover can capture me, in a way that some other fantasy worlds just don’t, and for me the capturing element is that the culture of Darkover, static for a thousand years, is facing a tectonic shift, with the return of the Terrans to Darkover–suddenly, Darkover isn’t the only world there is, and Earth’s interest in the lost colony is not entirely benign. Darkover’s rulers must cope with this, and deal with the introduction of technologies that have never been seen on Darkover.

For me, this struggle of a society in flux almost echoes the one that our own society is dealing with. Marion Zimmer Bradley died in September of 1999, but in so many ways, her Darkover works portend the struggle of a society trying to learn new things that fly in the face of generations of tradition, and struggling to learn new technologies, and new ways of thinking. Consider this: When I was a child in the 1970s, I could possibly tell you a very small list of facts about a couple of countries other than my own–we did a brief survey of the history of Japan, one year, as I recall. But in the 21st century, our world has gotten so much smaller: I not only have access to all the information I could want and more, I can also connect with someone who is living there without too much difficulty, and learn it from them. That sudden shift is the kind of struggle Darkover’s leadership must deal with–and it keeps Regis Hastur up at night, for sure!

In The Shadow Matrix, Zimmer Bradley sends two young people off on an adventure that will solve one of Darkover’s great unsolved mysteries, and let them meet figures from Darkover’s distant past. I don’t want to spoil it too much, but along the way to begin that adventure, we finally get to understand more about the Elhalyns, something I couldn’t quite wrap my head around in my earlier Darkover reads. The love story between our two protagonists is very well-executed, though stereotypically, for quite a lot of the book, Mikhail has to be the “strong one,” and reassure his more-frail fair maiden Margaret that things will be okay. This strikes a bit of an out-of-tune note for me, as Margaret is an accomplished scholar in her own right. It’s not that she’s a naturally faint-hearted woman, at all; it’s just that, with her growing powers, she’s thrown into circumstances that she does not understand or want. Mikhail is a very old-school Darkovan man, and tut-tuts about it with her. Surprisingly to me, this doesn’t anger her.

When our couple returns from their time apart to the Comyn Castle in Thendara, they’re immediately embroiled in the political intrigues of the Comyn. Margaret, having no background for this, spends time with her mentor’s wife, who has recently come to Darkover to see her. Mikhail, as Elhalyn Regent, is struggling with the unfortunate fact that none of the children of the clan are at all suitable to sit as the King, and he does not want to do it himself! Meanwhile, the lovely (but vapid and scheming) Gisela Aldaran is trying to plot her way into a marriage with Mikhail, as she and her family thinks it would benefit the outcast Aldaran family to be closer to the throne. It’s all very normal (for Darkover), until the height of the Midwinter Ball, when a deep voice suddenly booms out in their mind, and Mikhail and Margaret begin their grand adventure. In true epic-fantasy fashion, it takes us well over 300 pages to get to the beginning of the “real” story!

This book is very much an “amazing adventure.” A lot of my reading has to do with ordinary people, who do interesting things–like, fall for each other–but in this book, we have epic people, doing epically awesome things, that can reshape a world. It’s a different kind of escape, to be sure, but Darkover is a world you can easily escape to, and enjoy.

Marlene’s Note: I discovered Darkover in the mid 1970s, and read (and occasionally re-read) the entire series available in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, I loved them. The world creation is both completely absorbing and felt realistic. It felt like something that could have happened. The culture clash mirrored society in the 1960s and 1970s, and still does today. Those themes are evergreen. But after Zimmer Bradley’s death I became aware of the documented history of child physical and sexual abuse that occurred in her household, and which she certainly enabled and likely participated in. Knowing now what I did not know at the time, I have a difficult time separating the art from the artist.

For a summation of the case and sources for more information, see Jim C. Hines post titled “Rape, Abuse, and Marion Zimmer Bradley”

Guest Review: Blue Dahlia by Nora Roberts

Guest Review: Blue Dahlia by Nora RobertsBlue Dahlia by Nora Roberts
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: In the Garden #1
Pages: 353
Published by Berkley on October 26th 2004
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Three women meet at a crossroads in their lives, each searching for new ways to grow--and find in each other the courage to take chances and embrace the future.

Stella has a passion for planning that keeps her from taking too many risks. But when she opens her heart to a new love, she discovers she will fight to the death to protect what's hers.

Guest review by Amy:

In the contemporary romance genre, there just isn’t anyone quite like Nora Roberts. As a critic, it is easy, on the surface, to say, “ho hum, another Nora Roberts contemporary/supernatural romance trilogy,” but that would do this brightest of stars in the pantheon a grave disservice. Every time I pick up a new one of her trilogies, I find new reasons to love Roberts’ writing–in the formulaic framework of “three women, three love stories, supernatural puzzle to solve,” she always finds new ways to entertain and challenge me.

Blue Dahlia is no exception.  In the first two chapters, we are given crucial backstory–an insane woman, who dies lonely after her only child is stillborn, and a young mother who loses her husband, the centerpiece of her life, in a tragic accident. Then, we cut to Memphis in modern times, and our story is off and running.  Stella Rothschild is a planner, a horticulturist, and a mom of two rambunctious young boys. She set her career aside when her first son was born, but when husband Kevin dies in a plane crash, she picks it right back up. A year or so after the accident, she moves from Michigan back to Memphis, where her father and stepmother live, and where she was born, to start anew.

The Harper family has been among the scions of Memphis society for generations, but Roz Harper is not content to attend fancy balls and teas; she has started a nursery business near the great old mansion, and it’s a growing concern; she needs a manager. It’s a match made in heaven, as she turns over a wing of the huge old house to Stella and her children for a time, and they set to work. On the day they move in, Roz tells Stella about the Harper Bride:

“I meant to ask who else lives here, or what other staff you have.”

“It’s just David.”

“Oh? He said something about being outnumbered by women before we got here.”

“That’s right. It would be David, and me, and the Harper Bride.”

Roz carried the luggage inside and started up the steps with it. “She’s our ghost.”

“Your…”

“A house this old isn’t haunted, it would be a damn shame, I’d think.”

The Bride seems to be a pleasant enough being; she sings a lullabye to Stella’s sons at night, and doesn’t appear threatening, merely sad.

Stella gets to work organizing and improving the business at the nursery, but she finds the landscape designer to be the most frustrating man! Logan just won’t do his paperwork, he comes and grabs stock for his projects without telling her, and he’s just plain abrasive! For his part, he’s not fond of the Yankee-come-lately who’s wanting him to actually sit in an office and do paperwork!

Once we’ve got our setting and personae in place, the progress is almost as predictable as the sunrise; I sha’n’t elaborate for you, but it goes where you’d expect with a few not-unpleasant twists along the way, including meeting our third-woman for this trilogy, a young, very pregnant distant relative of Roz who turns up on her doorstep late one night. We also find that the Harper Bride is a bit insane–she gets anxious and more-threatening when Stella starts seeing more to Logan than the irritation he started out being.

black rose by nora robertsEscape Rating: A+. Too many “supernatural romances” these days just do not appeal to me–werewolves and sparkly vampires are just not my thing. But a ghost story, a mystery, an ancient curse…now those, even my deeply-agnostic soul can sink her teeth into. Nora Roberts has given us a conventional ghost story. No one knows who the Bride is, nor why she came to haunt Harper House, and this first entry in the series does little to resolve that–I expect as I read Black Rose and Red Lily, all of that will be resolved. As usual, I can make guesses about who the other two women get attached to in subsequent books, but it’s not completely transparent yet. The book is jammed with Southern charm, and the odd sayings that Southerners often have make plenty of appearances.

The big prize of Blue Dahlia, for me, though, was our heroine Stella. By nature, like Stella, I am a very detail-oriented, planning-centered person. I like my lists, my catalog of details, and my orderly progression of plans. In Stella, I found a woman who could be…me. The keystone of romance authorship, for so many great authors, is to make the heroine someone the reader can identify with, some who is Just Like Them. The frustrations of raising children alone are things I understand, having single-parented my own children, and her irritations with the too-handsome, but too-cavalier Logan are things that I can find totally believable. At one point in the book, Logan looked up Stella’s father and stepmother, and went to their home without telling Stella what he was doing, in order to ask her father’s permission to marry her. I thought to myself, “Stella is going to kick the gong when she finds out about this,” and sure enough, she did.  I thought that not because it was predictable writing–but because that’s what I would do in her shoes.

Blue Dahlia is top-shelf Nora Roberts, definitely worth a read. I rushed out the next afternoon after finishing it to crawl over my usual used-bookstore haunts to find Black Rose, and can’t wait to read it!

Guest Review: I Think I Love You by Stephanie Bond

Guest Review: I Think I Love You by Stephanie BondI Think I Love You by Stephanie Bond
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, mystery
Pages: 384
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on July 7th 2002
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

So there's some bad blood and bruised egos among the Metcalf sisters. At least they're reuniting. A cause to celebrate? Not for Justine, Regina, and Mica. Their parents are splitting up and the family business is going on the auction block--just a little reminder of how much they really have in common...
Take the local bad boy who proposed to Justine, seduced Regina, and ran off with Mica. Add the unsolved murder they witnessed when they were young girls, and their vow to keep it a secret. Toss in their knack for being drawn to shady men, and there's only one thing left for them to do--put the bonds of family loyalty to the test.
But it takes courage to outsmart a murderer, know-how to avenge the cad who betrayed them, and patience to bring their parent back together. Three talents. Three sisters. And who knows? Maybe even three new chances to fall in love when Justine, Regina, and Mica discover how much they're willing to risk--and forgive--in the name of sisterhood...

Guest Review by Amy:

When I found this well-worn paperback in the clearance bin at my local used bookstore, I knew I was onto something; the spine was bent, and many pages showed evidence of having been dog-eared from many re-readings. The back cover teased me with a tale of intrigue and romance, so I grabbed it, and two days later, was done reading it. I’m a big fan of Nora Roberts’ trilogy format where she has three stories, interconnected, and three romances come out at the end. Clearly, it works for her, and it sells lots of books, so I’m not surprised that she does that. But Stephanie Bond tries to do it all in one volume: three sisters who, despite their dysfunctional family, are bound together by a shared secret, and by a cad of a man.

Twenty years ago, three teenage sisters were witnesses to a murder, a secret they’ve kept for two decades as their lives have taken them to the far corners of the country. But finding out that their parents are splitting up brings one home, while a second is hiding out from an angry woman whose husband she’s had an affair with, and the third is running away from the cad, to give herself time to think about her life and career. Their lives, and their secrets, begin to unravel as the man wrongly convicted of their aunt’s murder all those years ago is seeking a new hearing, and the town is fairly crawling with lawyers and police trying to figure out what really happened all those summers ago. Meanwhile, an attorney-turned-appraiser is busy pricing all the antiques in the family store for auction, so they can settle their debts before the sisters’ parents break up.

Still with me?  Good. It’s all very complicated, I know.  Regina, the bookish middle sister, is intensely attracted to the handsome appraiser who, being a non-practicing attorney, has all sorts of useful skills outside the bedroom. Big sister Justine is running from an insanely angry woman who wants to kill her, and the cop who’s hunting the madwoman is awful darn cute, and he’s got a thing for the tall redhead. Dark-eyed, dark-haired baby sister Mica is running away from the abusive man who she stole from Justine years ago–who had made passes at Regina, before that–and her modeling agent sure is awfully sweet to her. If that’s not enough, Dean follows her back to their hometown, where he has the gall to get murdered–and the sisters’ father is the lead suspect!

Throughout all this mayhem, the three sisters are finally back in the same house after many years apart, and Justine and Mica, in particular, just aren’t getting along, which is kind of to be expected. After all, Dean left Justine on their wedding day to run away with Mica. Not cool. Regina tries and mostly-fails to keep the peace between them, and her exasperation shows in an ironic wit when she’s dealing with the flirtations of Mitchell while she’s helping him with the appraisal work.

A lot of the book is spent chasing around the clues to two murders, one fresh, and one twenty years cold. Regina’s beau Mitchell is most helpful, but we only hear about the other two men from “their” sisters. It isn’t until the very end that they show up for cameos. That would be my one complaint about Bond’s attempt at three romances in one novel: it’s unbalanced, and deeply so. We follow Regina and Mitchell, but Justine’s romance with Officer Lando, and Mica’s with her agent Everett, really don’t start to show until we’ve nearly reached the dénouement. Yes, it’s kind of obvious that they will get together into those pairings, but I’d much rather have spent some time seeing that happen. After we find out who the real villain was–and it’s not who you think, at all!–we wrap things up pretty quickly, with Justine and Mica getting involved with their men only after they get back to their homes.  Happy endings all ’round, of course, but it seemed just a little abrupt to me.

Escape Rating: B+. I like romances, and I like mysteries, and this tale had both. The trail of clues to the murders kept me interested enough that it was hard to put this book down. I was kind of stunned when we finally unmasked the villain, as I’d not seen it coming, and there were some tense moments there. The romance between Regina and Mitchell was interesting and entertaining, and Regina’s character was enough of someone I could identify with that I could get drawn into her story very well. Justine and Mica’s lives are different enough from mine that I had trouble identifying with them, and as noted, the romances for these two women were at-best glossed over, when they could have been more-deeply covered. This story had a lot going for it–interesting characters, romances, mysteries, almost a comedy of errors in some ways, but doing all that in one volume proved difficult for Bond, and while the book is an enjoyable read, there are a few aspects that left me feeling a little unfulfilled.

I’ve not read any of Stephanie Bond’s work before, but I look forward to finding another one.

Guest Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Guest Review: The Martian by Andy WeirThe Martian by Andy Weir
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: ebook, hardcover, mass market paperback
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 435
Published by Broadway Books on August 18th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive — and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive. Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to kill him first. But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills — and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit — he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

Galen’s Review:

As an introvert, I sometimes crave time alone to do my own thing. Having a whole planet to myself would be a bit much though.

What would you do in astronaut Mark Watney’s boots? The only human being on Mars; your crewmates speeding away, thinking you had been killed in a storm; the rest of humanity 12 light-minutes away; any prospect of a rescue years away?

You would have a choice: die, sooner or later, with what degree of dignity you can muster — or fight to survive, knowing that the most likely outcome is still your death.

Escape Rating: A- The Martian breaks no new ground in the genre of near-future hard science fiction: there are no high concepts, no trippy rambles through strange histories, no examinations of alien societies, and no black monoliths. Instead, Weir offers a competent tale of tackling a problem in the face of long odds and indifferent nature… and winning.

A little over half of the book is in the form of Mark Watney’s log entries, and fortunately, his voice is engaging: snarky, determined, and smart, without being the voice of a secular plaster saint. The rest of the book serves as a love letter to NASA and human spaceflight programs in general. I can only hope that when push comes to shove, the nations of the world will demonstrate the same degree of cooperation in solving problems on Earth and beyond that was shown in The Martian.

For the folks who have seen the movie, the book offers pretty much the same experience: the main difference is the addition of a couple more hurdles for Watney to overcome.

The book is not perfect: while the cast of characters working to get Watney home is diverse and women are invariably portrayed as competent, ultimately the tale is that of somebody enjoying the epitome of male privilege: having thousands of people help rescue him and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to so. That’s a bit of a tendentious reading, of course — but suffice it to say that some readers may be left behind: insofar as they may reasonably wonder if somebody who looks like them would have been left behind, or have never gotten to Mars in the first place.

And yet… while we have problems enough on Earth, still ad astra per aspera resonates for me. If it does for you, you may well enjoy The Martian