Review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

Review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. KuangThe Dragon Republic (The Poppy War, #2) by R.F. Kuang
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, grimdark
Series: Poppy War #2
Pages: 672
Published by Harper Voyager on August 6, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In the aftermath of the Third Poppy War, shaman and warrior Rin is on the run: haunted by the atrocity she committed to end the war, addicted to opium, and hiding from the murderous commands of her vengeful god, the fiery Phoenix. Her only reason for living is to get revenge on the traitorous Empress who sold out Nikan to their enemies.

With no other options, Rin joins forces with the powerful Dragon Warlord, who has a plan to conquer Nikan, unseat the Empress, and create a new Republic. Rin throws herself into his war. After all, making war is all she knows how to do.

But the Empress is a more powerful foe than she appears, and the Dragon Warlord’s motivations are not as democratic as they seem. The more Rin learns, the more she fears her love for Nikan will drive her away from every ally and lead her to rely more and more on the Phoenix’s deadly power. Because there is nothing she won’t sacrifice for her country and her vengeance

The sequel to R.F. Kuang’s acclaimed debut THE POPPY WAR, THE DRAGON REPUBLIC combines the history of 20th-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters, to devastating effect.

My Review:

I thought that the first book in this series, The Poppy War (also the series title) was absolutely amazing. I couldn’t wait for this second book to come out. Now that I’ve read The Dragon Republic, I have to say that it’s even better than its predecessor. And I can’t wait for book 3, whatever it turns out to be called and whenever it appears.

The action in The Dragon Republic begins in the opium-clouded, blood-soaked aftermath of The Poppy War. (This is a series that desperately needs to be read in order, and as close together as you can manage – which makes waiting for book 3 absolute hell.) Our heroine, Rin, is leading a small remnant of the Cike, the ragtag unit of Shamans used by the Imperial Army.

But the Cike are on the run from their former masters. Or would be if anyone knew that some of them were still alive. Not that their incognito status is going to last long. Because whenever a situation is working in Rin’s favor – it NEVER lasts for very long.

Rin is supposedly their leader, after she got their last leader killed at the end of the first book. Well, at least that’s how everyone seems to see it, and their loyalty to her seems to be tempered by that condition. None of them seem to be sure whether she’s making good decisions or determined to get them all killed in her mad quest for vengeance.

That she spends the first part of this story in an opium-induced haze does not help them put their trust in her, does not lead her to making remotely sensible decisions, and makes the opening moves in this very long game seem as murky as Rin’s thought processes, which are disjointed at best and nightmarish at worst.

Just when it looks like their current employer is finally going to give Rin the weapons she needs to take her war back to the empire – and empress – that betrayed them, she is sold out. But then, that’s what pirate queens do – and what Rin should have expected if she were operating in the present even half the time.

That betrayal, the latest in a long, long line of betrayals that Rin has suffered and survived, is nearly the breaking of her. But she’s been broken before, and just like each of those previous times, Rin rises from her own ashes, only to fall and rise again.

Just like the phoenix that she is. She really, really is. And she’s finally ready to set her world on fire.

Escape Rating A+: I loved The Poppy War, and I loved The Dragon Republic every bit as hard. I say hard because this military epic fantasy is very dark.

I mean dark to the point where in order to call this series grimdark it would actually need to lighten up a bit. This is one of those stories where the light at the end of the tunnel is always the local equivalent of an oncoming train, and where things are always darkest just before they turn completely black.

And yet, Rin always keeps moving forward. Or sideways. Or through. She is relentless, even if, or sometimes especially because, she is heading in the wrong direction.

While the over-story of The Dragon Republic is the story of the doomed Dragon Republic, the underlying story is all about Rin fighting with her demons, trying to find a balance between using those demons, giving into those demons, or becoming those demons, in a scenario where giving into and becoming are manifestly not the same things.

Also there’s an actual demon. Or god. It depends on one’s perspective.

This is also one of those stories where nothing is remotely the way it seems – although many people seem to be aware of that. Just not Rin. She’s trying to avoid or avert her destiny, and one of many methods of avoidance is to allow herself to become someone else’s tool – not that she isn’t often perceived as a tool in other senses of that word.

And certainly not that there are not plenty of tools around. But Rin’s desire to not be responsible for her own actions allows her to be used by the biggest tool around – not that he isn’t also being used by even bigger tools.

It’s tools all the way down.

But Rin blazes at the center of this story, even when her own fires are banked – against her will. Burning is who she is and what she does. She is the living avatar of the Phoenix, and her fire is meant to consume everyone, including herself.

This is the story of her learning to master that fire – and learning to turn that destruction outward and away from herself – to the destruction of her enemies. Even if it’s only at the end that she finally figures out at least some of who those enemies really are.

And that she has the power – and finally the will – to take that fight to them. But not until OMG the next book. AAARRRGGGHHH!

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Review: The Hound of Justice by Claire O’Dell

Review: The Hound of Justice by Claire O’DellThe Hound of Justice (The Janet Watson Chronicles, #2) by Claire O'Dell
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Series: Janet Watson Chronicles #2
Pages: 288
Published by Harper Voyager on July 30, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Dr. Janet Watson and former covert agent Sara Holmes, introduced in the acclaimed A Study in Honor, continue their dangerous investigation into the new American Civil War with the help of fresh allies, advanced technology, and brilliant deduction in this superb reimagining of Sherlock Holmes.

It’s been two months since Dr. Janet Watson accepted an offer from Georgetown University Hospital. The training for her new high-tech arm is taking longer than expected, however, leaving her in limbo. Meanwhile, her brilliant friend and compatriot, Sara Holmes, has been placed on leave--punishment for going rogue during their previous adventure. Neither is taking their situation very well.

Then an extremist faction called the Brotherhood of Redemption launches an assassination attempt on the president. The attempt fails but causes mass destruction—fifty dead and hundreds more injured, and Holmes takes on the task of investigating the Brotherhood.

Holmes is making progress when she abruptly disappears. Watson receives a mysterious message from Holmes’s cousin Micha and learns that her friend has quit the service and is operating in the shadows, investigating clues that link the Brotherhood to Adler Industries.

She needs a surgeon, Micha tells Watson. She needs you.

Reunited once more, Dr. Watson, Holmes, and Micha embark on a mission through the deep South to clear Holmes’s name, thwart the Brotherhood’s next move, and most important, bring their nemesis to justice for the atrocities she’s committed in the New Civil War.

My Review:

The Hound of Justice is even better than A Study in Honor, and I loved A Study in Honor. But Study needs to set itself up in its near-future variation on our world and its not-quite-pastiche of Holmes and Watson.

When the action picks up in Hound, we’re already there. We know who these women are, and we recognize their world – it’s all too close to our own.

It’s a world that feels like a direct – and not very far future descendant – of the world we know now. Obama was president, and so was Trump. And the U.S. flirted with fascism during the presidency of Trump and his enablers.

Resulting in a leftist backlash, and now a right-center response to that backlash. This is a future that is well within the lifetime of all of us reading the book, and it feels all-too-plausible from here.

Damn it.

It also feels like a variation of the alternative history of last year’s awesome American War. Because somewhere in those swings of the political pendulum, the New Confederacy declared war on the Federal States. It’s an ugly, brutal war, because civil wars are seldom civil at all.

And there are entirely too many people on the side of the supposedly liberal Federal States whose beliefs align much more closely with the Confederacy. Along with entirely too many people who profit from the chaos and carnage – and only care that it continues as long as bloody possible.

After the events of A Study in Honor, Sara Holmes and Dr. Janet Watson are living in the aftermath, where they were right for the wrong reasons, and Sara went rogue from her alphabet agency handlers to get the job done.

The problem is that the job was only partially done. Holmes and Watson will have to go behind enemy lines to finish it.

Or be finished.

Escape Rating A: I found the story in The Hound of Justice to be both fascinating and predictable, and those two things shouldn’t go together – but they do in this case. They really, really do.

Partially, it is that I love the setup. I hate that it feels so very plausible, but it works all too well. It feels like a logical extension of the current political climate – to the point that I was glad to see that my present home of Atlanta does stay within the Federal States.

The Federal States haven’t reached the level of being dystopian, at least not yet. And at least not if you are not black or brown or gay or gender nonconforming or female. Also probably not if you are some variety of Christian, but the fault lines on that particularly axis are not obvious so far, as our heroines are black, lesbian professional women.

Or really, heroine, singular. As in the original Holmes stories, Watson is telling the story of her life with – and often without – Holmes. But the Holmes of the Janet Watson Chronicles is even more mercurial – and less forthcoming – than the original. Truly this is Janet Watson’s story, while Holmes is a catalyst for events more than a participant.

And that’s a good thing, because this Holmes seems to have the emotional depths of a teaspoon – and the original, particularly at the beginning, wasn’t much better.

Janet Watson, on the other hand, feels too much. She’s a wounded war veteran (as was the original) who has to cope with the temporary and perhaps permanent loss of her identity as a surgeon. And has to deal with her ongoing PTSD, a condition that is exacerbated by the events of this story.

Because she feels, we feel with her. Her hopes, her fears, her dreams and especially her nightmares. Because she has to live them, over and over again. And yet, she keeps going. It’s the journey that she keeps going on, the road that she keeps traveling in spite of her fear, that make this story so fascinating.

The predictability factor comes from knowing just a bit about the original Holmes. And on the nature of fiction in series.

The villain was who the villain had to be, because there were so many clues about that job not being taken care of the first time. It just couldn’t be anyone else, particularly with such similar methods. The title of this story is a play on The Hound of the Baskervilles, a story which takes place just before Holmes’ “death” at Reichenbach Falls. Another clue to the ultimate ending of this version.

But there is so much marvelously taut tension in how The Hound of Justice gets from its bloody beginning to its cathartic but not quite victorious end that I got sucked in on the opening page and couldn’t put it down.

I hope that the author returns to these characters and this world, whenever. Preferably ASAP.

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Review: Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman

Review: Lady in the Lake by Laura LippmanLady in the Lake by Laura Lippman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, mystery, thriller
Pages: 340
Published by William Morrow on July 23, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The revered New York Times bestselling author returns with a novel set in 1960s Baltimore that combines modern psychological insights with elements of classic noir, about a middle-aged housewife turned aspiring reporter who pursues the murder of a forgotten young woman.

In 1966, Baltimore is a city of secrets that everyone seems to know--everyone, that is, except Madeline "Maddie" Schwartz. Last year, she was a happy, even pampered housewife. This year, she's bolted from her marriage of almost twenty years, determined to make good on her youthful ambitions to live a passionate, meaningful life.

Maddie wants to matter, to leave her mark on a swiftly changing world. Drawing on her own secrets, she helps Baltimore police find a murdered girl--assistance that leads to a job at the city's afternoon newspaper, the Star. Working at the newspaper offers Maddie the opportunity to make her name, and she has found just the story to do it: a missing woman whose body was discovered in the fountain of a city park lake.

Cleo Sherwood was a young African-American woman who liked to have a good time. No one seems to know or care why she was killed except Maddie--and the dead woman herself. Maddie's going to find the truth about Cleo's life and death. Cleo's ghost, privy to Maddie's poking and prying, wants to be left alone.

Maddie's investigation brings her into contact with people that used to be on the periphery of her life--a jewelery store clerk, a waitress, a rising star on the Baltimore Orioles, a patrol cop, a hardened female reporter, a lonely man in a movie theater. But for all her ambition and drive, Maddie often fails to see the people right in front of her. Her inability to look beyond her own needs will lead to tragedy and turmoil for all sorts of people--including the man who shares her bed, a black police officer who cares for Maddie more than she knows.

My Review:

The lady in that lake in Baltimore isn’t actually the lady that everybody thinks is under the lake. She also isn’t the central character of this story about the discovery of said lady, or about all the ripples that discovery causes through the lives of all the people involved.

In spite of the title, and in spite of her ghost commenting on events, this story is not about the lady IN the lake, Cleo Sherwood. Rather, the story focuses on the woman who found that lady in the lake, Maddie Schwartz. And that’s exactly the way that Maddie would want it. Because it’s really all about her. It’s always all about her.

It’s so much all about her that she never seems to have a thought for all the people she leaves damaged in her wake. Not even the lady in the lake who catapults her to fame.

Escape Rating B: The pipes for that fountain in that lake must have one heck of a lot of suction going on somewhere. Because I got sucked into this book almost in spite of myself. I kept thinking I’d put it away for the night, but then just one more chapter, just one more person, and then I was done.

I also got just a bit weirded out at one point. Maddie and my mother were born the same year. Wondering if my mom ever had any of the internal thoughts and feelings that Maddie did kind of gave me the heebie-jeebies. Ironically, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my mom had some of the same career thoughts and aspirations – although hopefully not the rest.

(Two things no one likes to think about – their parents having sex and their children having sex. We all know it happens, but that doesn’t mean we want to dwell on it even for a nanosecond.)

The structure of this story is interesting – and more than a bit distancing. Although Maddie is the main point of view character, she’s not the only one. The first time she interacts with someone, the reader is then given that person’s perspective on the encounter in general and Maddie in particular.

Those perspectives are not kind. Usually pretty spot on, but not kind. Maddie is not a likable protagonist. She’s more like the eye of a hurricane. Everyone focuses on her, and that’s what she wants, while she ignores all the trouble that her storm creates. Like that hurricane, Maddie’s story sucks you in and spits you out – but it isn’t a comfortable journey. Interesting, but not comfortable.

At the same time, the story manages to say quite a bit about a lot of things through those various perspectives. Seeing life in the mid-1960s through that variety of perspectives, we hear about still-rampant Antisemitism, the universality of structural racism, the intractable misogyny of work life in general and newspaper journalism in particular. Through all those thoughts and feelings we get a slice of life in the 1960s, and it rings true.

The story kind of sits at the boundary between mystery and thriller. Except for one brief but telling escapade, Maddie herself is never in true danger. No one is stalking her – this isn’t that kind of story. She puts plenty of other people in danger or at least distress – usually inadvertently. She doesn’t believe she’s really doing anything wrong – even when she is. That her single-minded self-centered laser focus puts other people at risk is never her fault.

But the slow unraveling of the two intertwined mysteries that make Maddie’s career are thrilling. Maddie literally does not know what she is doing most of the time – just that she has a driving need to be the center of it all, again and again and again. And she has an instinct about what parts of a story – or which people – are hiding something that she desperately wants to uncover – and just how to uncover it, no matter what it takes. Or who.

So that’s what she does. But the greatest secret of all, the one that really makes her career, turns out to be not what she expected. And it contains a truth that she can never reveal. After everything we’ve learned about Maddie, it feels like it serves her right.

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Review: Becoming Superman by J. Michael Straczynski

Review: Becoming Superman by J. Michael StraczynskiBecoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood by J. Michael Straczynski
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: autobiography, biography, science fiction
Pages: 460
Published by Harper Voyager on July 23, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

With an introduction by Neil Gaiman!

In this dazzling memoir, the acclaimed writer behind Babylon 5, Sense8, Clint Eastwood's Changeling and Marvel's Thor reveals how the power of creativity and imagination enabled him to overcome the horrors of his youth and a dysfunctional family haunted by madness, murder and a terrible secret.

For four decades, J. Michael Straczynski has been one of the most successful writers in Hollywood, one of the few to forge multiple careers in movies, television and comics. Yet there's one story he's never told before: his own.

Joe's early life nearly defies belief. Raised by damaged adults--a con-man grandfather and a manipulative grandmother, a violent, drunken father and a mother who was repeatedly institutionalized--Joe grew up in abject poverty, living in slums and projects when not on the road, crisscrossing the country in his father's desperate attempts to escape the consequences of his past.

To survive his abusive environment Joe found refuge in his beloved comics and his dreams, immersing himself in imaginary worlds populated by superheroes whose amazing powers allowed them to overcome any adversity. The deeper he read, the more he came to realize that he, too, had a superpower: the ability to tell stories and make everything come out the way he wanted it. But even as he found success, he could not escape a dark and shocking secret that hung over his family's past, a violent truth that he uncovered over the course of decades involving mass murder.

Straczynski's personal history has always been shrouded in mystery. Becoming Superman lays bare the facts of his life: a story of creation and darkness, hope and success, a larger-than-life villain and a little boy who became the hero of his own life. It is also a compelling behind-the-scenes look at some of the most successful TV series and movies recognized around the world.

My Review:

I jumped at the chance to read this book and be on this tour because, well, basically because Babylon 5. Which I’ve watched more than once, and have frequently cited in regards to its treatment of chaos vs. order in the Shadow War. Because that dichotomy rears its head, over and over, in SF, in Fantasy, in life.

It’s what makes Loki such a fascinating character, because he represents chaos. While the MCU may equate chaos with evil, it ain’t necessarily so. There’s a reason why seemingly every mythology has a chaos avatar – because chaos and the response to it pushes us forward.

It’s what makes Ben Franklin’s quote about sacrificing freedom to obtain security so powerful, as freedom is generally a bit chaotic, while security generally aligns with order. But too much of either, no matter how well intentioned, is always a bad thing.

The surprising thing about this autobiography is just how much chaos swirled around the author’s early life. And that his adult response seems to have been, not to fight against the chaos, but to embrace it. To grow stronger from the fight – no matter how much it hurt.

And it’s a fascinating journey from beginning to end – even if – or especially because – it (and the author) took a very long walk through some very dark places.

Reality Rating A+: I opened this book, fell completely into it, and didn’t emerge until I turned the last page. Sort of like the first time I watched Babylon 5, somewhere in Season 3, and got so deeply entranced – or entrenched – that I went back to the beginning to catch up then waited with the proverbial bated breath for each episode thereafter.

One of the fascinating things about the author’s life is the way that he knows and addresses the fact that he might not be the most reliable narrator of the early parts of it. Not because of lies or embellishments – or at least not because of his own lies or embellishments. Rather because the people whose memories he is forced to rely on for the parts that take place before his birth or during his early childhood were themselves far from reliable. His family’s story is a story of lies and coverups hiding multiple essential and nasty truths.

All families have secrets. All families centered around any kind of abuse have particular kinds of secrets designed to protect the abuser from the consequences of their actions. All of that is in this life story.

But the dark heart hidden underneath all of that is even more rotten than most people have to deal with in one lifetime. And it left the kind of damage that makes all too many people not merely dysfunctional, but sets them up for a lifetime of perpetuating their abuse.

What makes this story so special? For one, the book is compulsively readable. I started and absolutely couldn’t put it down until about 2:30 in the morning – and not just because I wanted to get to the good parts. I felt so compelled because the man is a consummate storyteller, no matter how painful the story is. I was hooked and I stayed that way for 5 hours of reading, just as I stayed that way for 5 years of B5.

The story begins as a shitshow of epic proportions, travels inexorably from endless defeats to seeming victories to yet more defeats, only to rise and fall again and again, until the end is, not so much a triumph as a paean of gratitude for all the chances that came, and for all of the million-to-one shots that surprisingly and delightfully paid off.

And it’s an absolutely marvelous read every step of the way. Even the hard parts. Especially the hard parts. Because the author spares no one, particularly not himself.

My one and only regret about this book is that I didn’t have time to listen to the audio, which is read by the actor who played the clown-turned-emperor Londo Mollari on Babylon 5. The only way that could have been better would be if G’Kar were still with us to participate. And now, I think it’s time for a rewatch.

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Review: When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O’Neal + Giveaway

Review: When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O’Neal + GiveawayWhen We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O'Neal
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: women's fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Lake Union Publishing on July 16, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

From the author of The Art of Inheriting Secrets comes an emotional new tale of two sisters, an ocean of lies, and a search for the truth.

Her sister has been dead for fifteen years when she sees her on the TV news…

Josie Bianci was killed years ago on a train during a terrorist attack. Gone forever. It’s what her sister, Kit, an ER doctor in Santa Cruz, has always believed. Yet all it takes is a few heart-wrenching seconds to upend Kit’s world. Live coverage of a club fire in Auckland has captured the image of a woman stumbling through the smoke and debris. Her resemblance to Josie is unbelievable. And unmistakable. With it comes a flood of emotions—grief, loss, and anger—that Kit finally has a chance to put to rest: by finding the sister who’s been living a lie.

After arriving in New Zealand, Kit begins her journey with the memories of the past: of days spent on the beach with Josie. Of a lost teenage boy who’d become part of their family. And of a trauma that has haunted Kit and Josie their entire lives.

Now, if two sisters are to reunite, it can only be by unearthing long-buried secrets and facing a devastating truth that has kept them apart far too long. To regain their relationship, they may have to lose everything.

My Review:

This is the story about the deconstruction of a life. Not in the sense that things fall apart, because the lives of both Kit and Josie Bianchi fell apart a long, long time ago. The echoes of what happened in their childhood have rippled like aftershocks through everything that has happened since.

Including, but definitely not limited to, Josie’s death – and the faking thereof.

When We Believed in Mermaids is rather about the examination, in memory, of those long ago events. What begins as a look back at a seemingly perfect childhood that was ripped apart by the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 reveals cracks in that perfection – just as the girls’ examination of their cliffside house revealed cracks that made the house’s fall inevitable.

There were plenty of warning signs that a disaster was coming – but the adults were too wrapped up in themselves, and much too damaged themselves, to see it. And the girls were children. It’s only as adults that they are able to look back and see that what went wrong was hardly their fault.

But now they are both adults. And both still scarred. Both, in their own ways, isolated because of it. Kit, whose life has come to be confined to her ER practice, her surfing, and her cat. While Josie, who seemingly has it all, is isolated by her secrets. No one knows her true self. Her past is another country, on another continent, and it happened to someone else.

One brief moment in the background in someone else’s camera frame brings Josie’s worlds into collision. And Kit’s walls come tumbling down.

Escape Rating B+: This is a story that can best be described as quietly charming. It feels like one of those stories where not a lot happens on the surface, but that surface is only 10% of what’s happening. Underneath, Kit and Josie are paddling like crazy.

While the comparison is to an iceberg, there’s nothing cold about the story – including its two settings, the California coast and Auckland, New Zealand. Where it’s a hot and steamy late summer when Kit arrives to investigate that three-second sighting of the sister who has been presumed dead for 15 years.

We begin the story from Kit’s point of view as she believes, disbelieves, questions and investigates a possibility that has haunted her for all of her adult life. What if Josie is still alive?

In alternating chapters we find ourselves looking through the eyes of a woman named Mari. Who seemingly has it all, a rich and handsome husband, two terrific kids, a storied house to investigate – and a gigantic secret.

As both Kit and Mari remember their childhoods, with each dive into the past revealing more cracks in that originally perfect surface, their memories converge. It’s obvious fairly quickly that Mari is Josie, and that she’s rightfully worried that her few seconds in that background shot are going to bring her world crashing down – and she’s right.

But until the crash, it’s Kit’s view that holds the attention. While Mari has found the life she dreamed of, and is afraid of losing it – Kit is very much still seeking, not just Josie, but a life that will not merely sustain her but support her and enrich her spirit. Her search, including her hesitant relationship with the handsome Spanish guitarist Jose Velez, opens her heart and shakes her certainties – even as she hunts down the sister she never expected to find.

Kit’s on a quest, and somewhat ironically, Josie is the macguffin she’s looking for. But all the while, both of them are internally exploring their memories of the life they once shared together. As those memories reach toward the present, Josie and Kit reach towards each other.

And the possibility of a shared – and much brighter – future.

I picked up When We Believed in Mermaids because I enjoyed The Art of Inheriting Secrets by this same author very much, with just a few quibbles. The same is true about When We Believed in Mermaids, including the quibbles. Both are stories where events in the present cause the narrator(s) to search through their own pasts as well as the past of a place that they become involved with in the course of the story, so if you like one you’ll definitely like the other.

In The Art of Inheriting Secrets, I had a couple of issues with the way that the hesitant romance in that book proceeded, but loved the look back into the past of the house she inherits and the mother she discovers that she never really knew. There’s also an old house in Mermaids, and I was hoping for as interesting a reveal of its history as there was in Secrets, but alas, it was not to be. The secrets about Sapphire House, when finally revealed, felt anticlimactic. That was the one part of the story where I really expected more.

Then again, I love stories about research done well and filled with fascinating reveals. And there were plenty of those fascinating reveals in Kit and Josie’s hesitant journeys down memory lane. As I said, this story is quietly charming, and I was certainly charmed. If you’re looking for a beach read this summer all you have to do is believe in these mermaids!

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

I’m giving away a copy of When We Believed in Mermaids to one lucky (US/CAN) commenter on this tour!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Review: A Beach Wish by Shelly Noble

Review: A Beach Wish by Shelly NobleA Beach Wish by Shelley Noble
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, women's fiction
Pages: 371
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on June 25, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Shelley Noble returns to the beach in her latest summer read about the family we create and the wishes we make that can shape us.

Zoe Bascombe has never said no to her family. When she blew her Juilliard audition, she caved to their wishes and went to business school. But when her mother dies and leaves instructions for Zoe to spread her ashes at a place called Wind Chime Beach, she defies her brothers and starts out for a New England town none of them has ever heard of and discovers a side of her garden club mother that her wildest dreams hadn’t imagined.

Zoe has another family.

Her first instinct is to run home. Instead she is caught in the middle of her feuding new relatives. With one family fighting among themselves and the other not speaking to her, Zoe must somehow find a way to bridge her new life with her old.

For the first time in her life, Zoe must make a stand for her family—both of them. If only she can only figure out how.

Her answer lies at Wind Chime Beach where for generations people have come to add their chimes to the ones already left among the trees. And when the wind blows and the air fills with music, their secrets, dreams, and hopes are sent into the world. There’s a message for Zoe here—if she has the courage to open her heart.

My Review:

A Beach Wish is purely delightful women’s fiction. Or chick lit. Some of the women who move forward with their lives in the course of this story are young enough to be figuring their lives out for the first time. And some are on their way to second, third or even fourth inventions of self. And one who might be on fifth or sixth – except that she fails, again.

That’s only part of the story.

As so many stories begin, to paraphrase Charles Dickens in his immortal Christmas Carol, Jenny Bascombe was dead, to begin with. But the mess she left behind is very much alive, and plenty of people are getting kicked in the process of resolving that mess.

Jenny left instructions upon her death. Detailed instructions. She was just that kind of organized. Buttoned-up. Controlled. Definitely controlled – at least for all of the life that her three sons and one daughter ever saw.

So her last request makes no sense whatsoever. For her daughter Zoe, and just her daughter Zoe, to take her ashes to a place called Wind Chime Beach and scatter them there.

Her two older brothers are up in arms. Her closest brother, Chris, wants to help her however he can.

But Zoe does what she has always done – she listens to her mother, one last time, and drives north from New Jersey to that beach.

Where she discovers that she never really knew her mother after all – but that there are a whole lot of people who did. And that they have all been waiting for Jenny to finally come home. One last time.

Escape Rating A-: I expected to like this, but I really, really liked this. Finishing at 2 am in the morning liked.

This is one of those stories where the family is hella complicated, and only gets crazier as it goes. Zoe’s two oldest brothers seem to be chips off the old block, meaning dear old (left mom for his secretary) dad. Not that they seem likely to bail on their wives, just that they’ve bought into the whole corporate, suit and tie, climbing the ladder of success, living their lives based on other people’s judgments, kind of thing.

Zoe and Chris are the rebels. Chris is an actor who is out of work as often as he’s in. He’s also gay, but that seems not to be much of an issue for the family (times definitely have changed, at least in fiction). But he’s not ever planning on doing the 9-to-5 routine that his brothers do, and it drives said brothers a bit crazy.

Zoe tried the 9-to-5 – more like the 7-to-whenever, but her job as an events manager to the stars has just dried up. She got into events managing the music business because she wanted to BE in the music business, but now she’s neither. And at more than enough loose ends to be willing to carry out her mother’s last request – no matter how little sense it makes.

Until it does. What makes this story so interesting and so much fun is what Zoe discovers at Wind Chime Beach. Once upon a time, her mother was someone entirely different from the uber-organized uber-planner who raised Zoe and her brothers.

And there are a whole lot of people who remember that Jenny. The Jenny who might have been her best self. Those people are ready and willing to welcome Zoe into their midst. Some with open arms, some with a clenched fist.

Figuring out the who and why of that past, and why Zoe’s strong resemblance to her mother evokes such strong reactions, is the heart and soul of this book. It’s Zoe’s journey of discovery, but that’s not all it is. It’s also a story of grief and reconciliation.

In the end, Zoe and the people Jenny left behind at Wind Chime Beach have a chance to finally say their goodbyes and move on with their lives. It makes for a fascinating contrast that one of them doesn’t. Some people don’t want closure, they want to clutch their hurts like pearls – and isn’t that all too human.

I enjoyed Zoe’s journey of discovery. I also found it refreshing that while Zoe opens her heart and lets plenty of new people into her life, there is no romance here – nor should there be. This is not intended to be a story about finding an HEA. It is appropriately, and wonderfully, a story about finding oneself. A Beach Wish is a terrific beach read – or a lovely read for any time at all.

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Review: Never Look Back by Alison Gaylin

Review: Never Look Back by Alison GaylinNever Look Back by Alison Gaylin
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on July 2, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Reminiscent of the bestsellers of Laura Lippman and Harlan Coben—with a Serial-esque podcast twist—an absorbing, addictive tale of psychological suspense from the author of the highly acclaimed and Edgar Award-nominated What Remains of Me and the USA Today bestselling and Shamus Award-winning Brenna Spector series.

When website columnist Robin Diamond is contacted by true crime podcast producer Quentin Garrison, she assumes it's a business matter. It's not. Quentin's podcast, Closure, focuses on a series of murders in the 1970s, committed by teen couple April Cooper and Gabriel LeRoy. It seems that Quentin has reason to believe Robin's own mother may be intimately connected with the killings.

Robin thinks Quentin’s claim is absolutely absurd. But is it? The more she researches the Cooper/LeRoy murders herself, the more disturbed she becomes by what she finds. Living just a few blocks from her, Robin’s beloved parents are the one absolute she’s always been able to rely upon, especially now amid rising doubts about her husband and frequent threats from internet trolls. She knows her mother better than anyone—or so she believes. But all that changes when, in an apparent home invasion, Robin's father is killed and her mother's life hangs in the balance.

Told through the eyes of Robin, podcaster Quentin, and a series of letters written by fifteen-year-old April Cooper at the time of the killings, Never Look Back asks the question:

How well do we really know our parents, our partners—and ourselves?

My Review:

There are all sorts of sayings about not being able to know where you’re going until you know where you’re coming from. At the same time, there are plenty of sayings about looking forward and not looking back.

This is a book about when happens when you look back a little too hard and a little too deeply. Because when you undermine the foundations of your life, pretty much everything gets washed away in the resulting flood.

It’s also a story about just how small the world, especially the world of a small town, can be. No matter how long its been since you lived there or how far away you managed to escape.

Or how many bodies you buried along the way. Particularly when there are actual corpses involved.

Once upon a time in the 1970s, a couple of teenagers went on a killing spree, until they were themselves killed in a fire that wiped out an entire cult/hippie compound.

But it’s over 40 years later, and one of the many, many people whose lives were impacted by that crime spree is looking for closure. He thinks the case about the killers is open and shut, and that it’s only the mess it made of his own life – even though he hadn’t been born yet – that needs to be resolved.

It’s not that simple. Closure is hard to come by, especially in a case that might still be open after all.

Escape Rating A-: I can’t really talk about this book without giving much too much away. So I’ll get into what I thought and especially what I felt.

This was a book that I really didn’t expect to get into nearly as much as I did. While I like the occasional thriller, that isn’t usually my jam. Too many heroines in jeopardy for my taste. But this isn’t one of those, not at all.

It’s actually kind of debatable whether there’s either a hero (or heroine) of any kind in this one. This is a story about a lot of confused people who are tied to each other in ways that no one expects or even knows at the beginning.

And no one is a reliable narrator of their own life. Not even while its happening. Perhaps especially while it’s happening.

What wrapped me up into this story were the questions that it asked about all the characters, and about how the past is viewed and how much interpretation, both at the time and later, influences what we think.

It seems indubitable that April Cooper and Gabriel LeRoy killed the people they killed back in the 1970s. Certainly those people are all dead, and equally certainly some of the witnesses are still alive. But, and it turns out to be a very big but, we see from the very beginning that even the witnesses interpreted events and motivations in ways that smack of hindsight and putting the pieces together more than they do what was actually seen – and done.

Eyewitnesses are infamously not reliable, after all. And humans want to ascribe causation to events in ways that can’t be verified, because we want things to make sense, even when they don’t. Perhaps especially when they don’t.

The story is about lives unravelling, April and Gabriel’s in the past, and Robin’s and Quentin’s in the present. Not that Quentin’s life seems to have ever been all that ravelled in the first place.

The person I felt for most was Robin. She begins the story believing that her life is a certain way, and that the foundation of it is strong. When it all falls apart, she almost drowns in it, but the truth does set her free.

And I had no idea what that truth would be until it arrived. Which was marvelous!

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Review: Protect the Prince by Jennifer Estep

Review: Protect the Prince by Jennifer EstepProtect the Prince (Crown of Shards, #2) by Jennifer Estep
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy
Series: Crown of Shards #2
Pages: 448
Published by Harper Voyager on July 2, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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First, Evie has to deal with a court full of arrogant, demanding nobles, all of whom want to get their greedy hands on her crown. As if that wasn’t bad enough, an assassin tries to kill Evie in her own throne room.

Despite the dangers, Evie goes ahead with a scheduled trip to the neighboring kingdom of Andvari in order to secure a desperately needed alliance. But complicating matters is the stubborn Andvarian king, who wants to punish Evie for the deaths of his countrymen during the Seven Spire massacre.

But dark forces are at work inside the Andvarian palace, and Evie soon realizes that no one is safe. Worse, Evie’s immunity to magic starts acting in strange, unexpected ways, which makes her wonder whether she is truly strong enough to be a Winter Queen.

But Evie’s magic, life, and crown aren’t the only things in danger—so is her heart, thanks to Lucas Sullivan, the Andvarian king’s bastard son and Evie’s . . . well, Evie isn’t quite sure what Sullivan is to her.

Only one thing is certain—protecting a prince might be even harder than killing a queen…

My Review:

Payback is a bitch.

That truism works in multiple ways in Protect the Prince. After all, this is the second book in the Crown of Shards series, after last year’s absolutely marvelous Kill the Queen. After the events in the series opener, there is PLENTY of payback to go around.

Queen Everleigh Saffira Winter Blair is on both ends of that aphorism in this book. On her one hand, she has the desire, the opportunity, and in many cases the absolute necessity of being the bitch delivering payback to all of the people who cut her down and stepped on her when she was the lowest of the royals in the late Queen Cordelia’s court.

But Queen Everleigh remembers full well every single one of those cuts and slights and insults. The court expects her to conveniently forget, believing that Queen Everleigh is still the doormat that poor Evie pretended to be. But the gloves are off. Queen Everleigh won her throne by right of conquest, and she intends to hold it – and hold everyone’s feet to the fire to keep it.

They may all expect her to be assassinated in less than a year, but she plans to go down swinging. If she has to swing at them first, so be it.

Howsomever, her ascension to her throne didn’t just kill her predecessor, it also upset the plans of the Morta, the “evil empire” next door that planned to conquer the continent using their late puppet queen of Bellona as their stalking horse and the armies of Bellona as cannon fodder – while keeping their own hands clean.

The Mortan assassin who thought she had Bellona under control wants payback after Evie upset all her plans. And she doesn’t care who gets in the way. Or goes down in the way.

Kill the Queen got off to its running start with a red banquet of assassination. Protect the Prince opens with the first of several attempts to assassinate Evie.

But, as much as the Mortans, in the person of the assassin Maevan and her “Bastard Brigade” of illegitimate Mortan royals want to eliminate Evie from the board, she is not their primary target this time around. Not that taking her out wouldn’t be icing on their very bloody cake.

As the title implies, in this second entry in the series it is up to Evie, her friends and whatever help she can enlist, to protect the prince of the neighboring – and formerly allied – kingdom of Andvari. Because the Mortans are playing a very long game, and Andvari is also in their crosshairs.

The only question for Evie is which Andvari prince should she protect? The one she should marry – or the one she wants to.

Escape Rating A+: I finished this in one evening. Well, if 2:30 in the morning still counts as evening. Protect the Prince is utterly awesome and I absolutely loved it.

However, it very much starts in medias res, so for readers who attempt to start the series here it will feel like they’ve started in the middle. Which they have. The actions – and reactions, definitely the reactions – in Protect the Prince all hinge on the events of Kill the Queen. Meaning this is not the right place to start.

For those of us who have devoured Kill the Queen, there is more than enough backstory and reminiscences to bring us right back up to speed. Just not quite enough to start here.

Just as Kill the Queen took off the moment that the first queen in the story was killed, now that Evie is queen the story continues at the breakneck pace set by the last 2/3rds of that first book. Which explains what kept me up until 2:30 am. Protect the Prince starts fast, with a court to lesson and an assassin to eliminate in short order. From that point, the political skullduggery never lets up – and neither does the story.

Kill the Queen was billed as “Gladiator meets Game of Thrones”. I wasn’t sure about that description then, and I’m even less so now. For this reader, the Crown of Shards series feels like a mashup between Queen of the Tearling, The Twelve Kingdoms, and The Goblin Emperor.

Of course, those are awesome antecedents, so being reminiscent of those books is pretty excellent company to be in. The Crown of Shards combines the disregarded royal princess turned queen of Tearling with the ascension by killing mad predecessor of The Twelve Kingdoms (and both have evil magical empires to contend with) while The Goblin Emperor brings in that bit about the disregarded new ruler who isn’t expected to live long and has to garner some respect really, really fast.

At the top, I said that payback is a bitch. In the case of Evie being the bitch delivering the payback, it’s righteous and it feels right. It’s not egregious. She’s not out to kill her own court – no matter how tempting the prospect. But she has to take control and the scene where she does so sets the tone for her reign – and her story. It’s necessary, and I loved the way she fought back with her words and her voice and her appearance, even as under the surface she is dealing with a whole lot of completely understandable impostor syndrome.

A good chunk of Evie’s internal struggle revolves around her both acknowledging that she was not meant to be queen, and is only on the throne by happenstance, but that she is there and has to do the best she can for her people. No matter the cost to herself.

Kill the Queen was all about getting Evie to the throne. Protect the Prince is about her taking control of her place and her power. And it makes for a terrific story.

I can’t wait for the third book in the Crown of Shards, Crush the King, coming next March. I think I know who the king of the title is, I just want to see him get righteously crushed!

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Review: Summer by the Tides by Denise Hunter

Review: Summer by the Tides by Denise HunterSummer by the Tides by Denise Hunter
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 302
Published by Thomas Nelson on May 21, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the bestselling author of The Convenient Groom (now a beloved Hallmark Original movie) comes a heartfelt story of family secrets, forgiveness, and unexpected romance.

Following a painful betrayal, Maddy Monroe's love life is a wreck, and her restaurant career is in shambles. When her grandmother goes missing, she and her estranged sisters converge at the family beach house in Sea Haven, North Carolina. Being with uptight Nora and free-spirited Emma at the place where their family broke apart is a struggle, and undercurrents of jealousy and resentment threaten to pull the sisters under. In the midst of the storm, sparks begin to fly between Maddy and Gram's maddening neighbor, Connor Murphy.

As the sisters pack up the family belongings, memories of idyllic, slow-paced summers are resurrected. But long-buried secrets also come to light as Maddy discovers that all was not as it appeared that last summer in Sea Haven--nor today in the seemingly perfect lives of her sisters.

As family tensions rise and Connor causes tumult in Maddy's heart, the sisters must find a way to accept each other for the women they've become before the bitterness of the past destroys their hope for a future.

My Review:

The Monroe family turns out to be a living embodiment of the Anna Karenina principle. You know the one, it’s that quote that goes, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The Monroe sisters are all unhappy, and all of their unhappy leads back, in one way or another, to one summer 20 years ago when their lives were torn apart by betrayal. Actually, that should be betrayals, plural, because there were plenty to go around – including one that the sisters never knew about.

Secrets cast long shadows, and they hide lots and lots of baggage. Although, as one of the characters puts it very well, adult humans all have baggage. As we do.

Nora, Emma and Maddy are drawn back to the place where they spent that last fateful summer, the last time their family was all together, by their grandmother. Or rather, by their grandmother’s absence.

The feisty old lady isn’t dead – she’s just missing – and she’s still sharp as a tack so whatever has happened to her it isn’t Alzheimer’s. But she seems to have left her cottage on an extended outing of some kind without either cancelling her newspaper, taking her car or telling anyone that she planned to take a trip.

Her worried neighbor (and occasional volunteer handyman) calls the sisters when Gran doesn’t turn up after a few days. He’s not her caretaker – she doesn’t need one – but whatever happened is out of character enough to worry him – and in turn, all three of her granddaughters.

Maddy, at loose ends after discovering that her boyfriend was cheating on her with their boss in order to cheat her out of a promotion, leaves Charleston for the four-hour drive to the North Carolina coast as soon as she comes out of her much-deserved funk. She has nothing to do in Charleston, no idea where she’s going to turn next and welcomes the distraction of her grandmother’s disappearance although certainly not the cause of it.

She arrives at her grandmother’s cottage to discover that both her sisters are on their way – and that neither knows the other is coming. Maddy is stuck in the peacemaker role between her two much older sisters. Sisters who have been at war with each other for 20 years with no letup.

By the time they learn that their Gran is alive and well and set them all up in her cottage for yet one more attempt at family reconciliation, they have all settled into the job of fixing up the cottage and clearing out the attics. And none of them seem to be in any hurry to leave. Maddy knows she has nothing to go back to in Charleston, but has no clue why either of her sisters, both happily married with busy lives and/or careers (at least as far as Maddy knows) seem to be not merely willing but downright eager to stay in Gran’s cottage and fix it up – albeit not with each other – for an infinite amount of time. And neither seems to be calling home.

Very much on Maddy’s other hand, she hasn’t exactly said anything about her sudden lack of either a job or a love life – so who knows what secrets her sisters are hiding?

When all the secrets that all of the Monroe women have been hiding – including Gran! – they pull together to save themselves – and to save each other – as a hurricane rips through Gran’s coastal community – and finally stitches their hearts back together.

Escape Rating B: Fair warning, this is going to be a mixed feelings review. There were a lot of things about this story to love – and one that still makes my blood boil more than a bit.

While the circumstances are different, Summer by the Tides is the kind of story that works well in women’s fiction – and this is more women’s fiction than it is romance although there certainly is more than a touch of romance. There have been several recent books by Susan Mallery that have explored parts or all of this themes, the warring sisters who finally make peace and come together in a crisis, and the family healing that comes after. There’s also been a recent book (whose title I can’t remember and it’s driving me crazy) where three women in a family gather together because all of their love lives and/or careers have gone to hell in a handcart at the same time.

In spite of not having siblings of my own – or perhaps because of it – I generally enjoy these stories. It’s fun to see them putting what’s gone wrong in their relationships with each other behind them, and watching them move forward into a brighter future. Any new romantic relationships they form in the course of the story are icing on the cake and not the actual cake. That’s true in Summer by the Tides as well. Not all of the happy ever afters are romantic, but all finish the book in happier and more fulfilling places than they began it.

I love a good romance as much as the next reader, but particularly for books that feature women in the 21st century I like the story much better when the women find their own fulfillment, whatever it might be, so that any romance they find is an enhancement to that fulfillment rather than the fulfillment itself. People can’t find happiness together unless they have it within themselves.

My 2 cents and I’ll step away from my soapbox for a minute. I’ll be getting back up on it later.

So I liked the story, I enjoyed the relationships between the sisters, and even though I guessed some of what had gone wrong in the past, the revelation was still heartbreaking and there were certainly aspects revealed that I had not previously figured out. The events were devastating, that they left all three sisters with serious trust issues made so much sense. That Maddy first distrusts Gran’s neighbor Connor, and takes hesitant steps towards a relationship fits well into the way the story and characters worked.

Okay, soapbox time, because this seriously affected my enjoyment of the story. Although it doesn’t become blatantly obviously until somewhere close to the halfway point, the characters in this story are explicitly Christian, which shouldn’t have been a surprise to me as the book is published by Thomas Nelson, a noted Christian publisher. That being said, I’ve recently read several books published by Nelson, and those have not been overtly or even covertly religious, so I was lulled and didn’t expect it here.

That some characters are religious is not the issue. People – and characters – do and don’t have belief systems, and those beliefs or lack thereof do affect their lives. What disturbed me greatly occurred in reference to Maddy’s ex, who is an absolute douchecanoe. That’s not a spoiler, it’s his douchecanoe nature that kicks off Maddy’s part of the story. But, and for me it was a huge but, when Maddy talks about her breakup, she says that she should have known he was a douche because he wasn’t a Christian. There’s an implication there that I find disturbing and unnerving, that only Christians can be trusted and that non-Christians by default have no moral or ethical code and should not be trusted.

And now I really will get down off my soapbox.

To sum it up, as I said at the top, there were plenty of things about this story that I liked, elements that I’ve read before and enjoyed, so I was happy to see them again. And there was one element that disturbed the hell out of me and reminded me to be more careful about books from this publisher.

Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.

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Review: The Summer of Sunshine and Margot by Susan Mallery

Review: The Summer of Sunshine and Margot by Susan MalleryThe Summer of Sunshine and Margot by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Hqn on June 11, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Baxter sisters come from a long line of women with disastrous luck in love. But this summer, Sunshine and Margot will turn disasters into destiny...As an etiquette coach, Margot teaches her clients to fit in. But she's never faced a client like Bianca, an aging movie star who gained fame--and notoriety--through a campaign of shock and awe. Schooling Bianca on the fine art of behaving like a proper diplomat's wife requires intensive lessons, forcing Margot to move into the monastery turned mansion owned by the actress's intensely private son. Like his incredible home, Alec's stony exterior hides secret depths Margot would love to explore. But will he trust her enough to let her in?Sunshine has always been the good-time sister, abandoning jobs to chase after guys who used her, then threw her away. No more. She refuses to be "that girl" again. This time, she'll finish college, dedicate herself to her job as a nanny, and she 100 percent will not screw up her life again by falling for the wrong guy. Especially not the tempting single dad who also happens to be her boss.Master storyteller Susan Mallery weaves threads of family drama, humor, romance and a wish-you-were-there setting into one of the most satisfying books of the year!

My Review:

As part of the tour for this book, last week I posted an excerpt from The Summer of Sunshine and Margot. Now we’re back for the rest of the story!

Like so many of this author’s standalone titles, The Summer of Sunshine and Margot revolves around two sisters, Sunshine and Margot. While they are fraternal twins, they don’t seem to be much alike. Margot is tall, willowy and just a bit of an ice queen. Sunshine is short, curvy and more than a bit of a good time girl.

This is all about the summer where both of them plan to make changes in their lives. Those changes have a lot to do with their family’s legendary bad luck with men. Sunshine has picked the wrong men, pretty much over and over, instead of making something of her own life. Now she’s 31 and starting over again.

Margot keeps getting back together with the same wrong man over and over, and it’s past time for her to be done. It would help a lot if her friends would support that decision instead of sabotaging her by giving the jackass her address and phone number each time she cuts him off and changes her contact info.

Summer works as a nanny, but she never sticks – because some guy comes along, sweeps her off her feet, and she leaves. This time she’s fallen in love with her charge, little Connor, and wants to be around for him and his ant farm. She’s started college and make something of herself and stay away from men. Except for little Connor of course. And his lonely and extremely yummy dad.

On the surface – actually on several surfaces – Margot’s job is the more interesting of the two. Her job is to help people fit into new and unfamiliar surroundings. Usually those surroundings involve changes in status or business in foreign countries. Her current client is a free-spirited actress who plans to marry the love of her life, a foreign diplomat. In order to tone down some of Bianca’s wilder tendencies, Margot will live with her and her adult son, a man who makes both Margot’s intellectual side as well as her hidden passionate side sit up and take notice.

Nothing about either of their situations runs smoothly. The only thing that does is the rock solid love and support the sisters give to each other. And that’s enough to see them through.

Escape Rating A-: This was just a sweet and delightful read. From a certain perspective, not a lot happens – or at least not in a big way. At the same time, it just reads so well. I started it at dinner and finished later that evening because I couldn’t put it down.

Not so much because I needed to see what happened next as because I just enjoyed spending time with Sunshine and Margot. Their lives were very, very different, but they managed to maintain a close and loving relationship – something that isn’t always easy between sisters.

Often when I read family relationship stories, I find myself grateful to be an only child. But not with this author. Many of her stories wrap around sisterhood, and her portraits of sisters who manage to pull together or stay together and be there for each other makes me a bit envious.

The romantic relationships that Sunshine and Margot find in this story, and unsuccessfully resist, are as different as they are. But are both equally romantic and equally interesting to follow. And they both earn their happily ever afters, but in completely different ways.

The wild card character in this one is the wild child actress Bianca. It’s so obvious from early in the story that Bianca has both a story of her own, and an agenda that she keeps carefully under wraps. The revelation of what made her the person that she is is heartbreaking, and the reason she finally lets the secret go is reaffirming, both of love and of the ability to set yourself free of the past – at any age.

And it ties in to both Sunshine’s and Margot’s journeys, as they all are in the process of becoming their best selves. Journeys that are marvelous to follow every halting step of the way.

For a good reading time, pick up anything by Susan Mallery. You’ll be glad you did!

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