Review: A Dangerous Duet by Karen Odden

Review: A Dangerous Duet by Karen OddenA Dangerous Duet by Karen Odden
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on November 6, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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This dazzling new Victorian mystery from USA Today bestselling author Karen Odden introduces readers to Nell Hallam, a determined young pianist who stumbles upon the operations of a notorious—and deadly—crime ring while illicitly working as the piano player in a Soho music hall. Perfect for readers of Tasha Alexander, Anne Perry, and Deanna Raybourn.

Nineteen-year-old Nell Hallam lives in a modest corner of Mayfair with her brother Matthew, an inspector at Scotland Yard. An exceptionally talented pianist, she aspires to attend the Royal Academy; but with tuition beyond their means, Nell sets out to earn the money herself—by playing piano in a popular Soho music hall. And the fact that she will have to disguise herself as a man and slip out at night to do it doesn’t deter her.

Spending evenings at the Octavian is like entering an alternate world, one of lively energy, fascinating performers, raucous patrons—and dark secrets. And when Nell stumbles upon the operations of an infamous crime ring working in the shadows of the music hall, she is drawn into a conspiracy that stretches the length of London. To further complicate matters, she has begun to fall for the hall owner's charismatic son, Jack, who has secrets of his own.

The more Nell becomes a part of the Octavian’s world, the more she risks the relationships with the people she loves. And when another performer is left for dead in an alley as a warning, she realizes her future could be in jeopardy in more ways than one.

My Review:

There are plenty of comparisons to life being like an onion – including the bit about weeping through the process.

One of the characters in this story is a bit more specific. His comment is that people’s stories are like onions, that you have to peel them back layer by layer to get the whole thing. And that’s truer of his story than most as it turns out.

But the life that is really being peeled back in this story is Nell Hallam’s. We first meet her as a young woman in Victorian London who has done something just a bit daring and just a tad dangerous in order to achieve her life-long ambition.

Nell is a gifted pianist, and she wants to win a place at the Royal Academy. But even if she wins, such places are not free. And her much reduced family – just herself and her older brother, a Scotland Yard detective, can’t afford the tuition.

So Nell is earning the money using the talent she has been given. She’s the piano player in a Soho “theater” that we would probably label as a dive. And that might be an insult to dives.

But in Victorian London, “nice” women aren’t permitted in such places, and certainly aren’t allowed to work as musicians. Or work much at all, but particularly in Nell’s circumstance.

That’s where that danger and daring come in, because Nell Hallam is sneaking out at night in men’s clothes and playing piano in Soho as Ed Nell three nights a week while her brother works late at Scotland Yard.

When a new fiddle player turns up at the Octavian, Nell finds herself becoming more and more involved in the life of the club – a life that she has previously held at arm’s reach.

But this isn’t that kind of story. That fiddle player does open her eyes to the deadly world operating in the shadows around her – but she is too canny to let him drag her into either his schemes or his arms.

Which doesn’t stop danger from reaching out for her at every turn.

Escape Rating B: This is a plot driven story rather than a character driven story. By that I mean that we follow Nell as she dives under the surface of the Octavian, and with each twist and turn we can’t help but feel for her as her world opens up and the danger closes in.

At the same time, we don’t get much of a peek into the other characters. Part of Nell’s past has trained her to keep her emotions at a distance, and it feels like we don’t know enough about the other characters in this story to do more than understand them at a bit of distance as well.

But the world that Nell falls into, or perhaps digs herself into, is as compelling to the reader as it is to her. Once she has a glimpse beneath the surface at the Octavian, she uncovers a criminal underground that uses young children to pour wealth into the hands of a select and deadly few.

A few that includes the owner of the Octavian, his son, and that dastardly fiddle player.

It’s also the same criminal underground that her brother is investigating for Scotland Yard. When her two worlds combine – her secrets explode, remaking her life, her world and her very self

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Review: The Lady Traveler’s Guide to Deception with an Unlikely Earl by Victoria Alexander

Review: The Lady Traveler’s Guide to  Deception with an Unlikely Earl by Victoria AlexanderThe Lady Travelers Guide to Deception with an Unlikely Earl (The Lady Travelers Society, #3) by Victoria Alexander
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Lady Travelers Society #3
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on November 20, 2018
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Set sail for love in this sparkling new adventure in #1 New York Times bestselling author Victoria Alexander’s Lady Travelers Society series.

Harry Armstrong has spent years in Egypt, recovering relics and disregarding rules. Now he’s back in England with a new title and a new purpose: penning his exploits. But his efforts are overshadowed by London’s favorite writer about Egypt—a woman they call The Queen of the Desert, of all things. Worse, her stories—serialized in newspapers and reprinted in books—are complete rubbish.

Miss Sidney Honeywell didn’t set out to deceive anyone. It’s not her fault readers assumed her Tales of a Lady Adventurer in Egypt were real! Admitting her inadvertent deception now would destroy her reputation and her livelihood. But when the Earl of Brenton challenges her to travel to Egypt to prove her expertise, accompanied by his dashing, arrogant nephew, what choice does she have but to pack her bags?

With the matchmaking founders of the Lady Travelers Society in tow, Harry is determined to expose Sidney’s secret. But the truth might not be as great a revelation as discovering that love can strike even the most stubborn of hearts.

My Review:

I kept expecting Amelia Peabody Emerson to walk through the lobby of Shepheard’s Hotel at any moment. Not that this is her story, but she and her entourage would have fit right into the adventures of Harry Armstrong, Sidney Honeywell and the gaggle of elderly ladies who are alternately chaperoning and matchmaking the couple – when they’re not aiding and abetting a criminal enterprise or two.

And there’s no dead body – not quite. Not even the one that Sidney and Harry expect to find.

But this is definitely a romp from beginning to end. It’s lighthearted, occasionally light-fingered, and frothy fun.

Sidney has been supplementing her meager income by writing. She has fictionalized the Egyptian adventures of her late grandmother in Cadwallender’s magazine, and the series has been a huge success.

But Sidney knew she was writing fiction, admittedly fiction with an underpinning of fact as well as a scholar’s knowledge of Egypt and her antiquities. However, her readers seem to believe that her stories are absolutely factual from beginning to end.

And the meddling founders of the Lady Travelers Society, not having gotten their members in enough trouble in the previous outings of the series (The Lady Travelers Guide to Scoundrels & Other Gentlemen and The Lady Travelers Guide to Larceny with a Dashing Stranger) can’t seem to resist getting themselves a bit too involved when the Earl of Brenton takes offense at Sidney’s stories.

He claims they are complete bunk, and that Sidney, who writes as Mrs. Gordon, is deceiving her audience unconscionably. What he’s not admitting is that he is incensed that Sidney’s fluff pieces are celebrated while he can’t seem to find a publisher for his earnestly written, utterly factual – and deadly dull – accounts of his own travels in Egypt.

So they’re off on a jaunt to Egypt, paid for by the magazine, so that Sidney can prove her expertise, or Harry can prove she’s a fraud and get a guaranteed publishing contract. With the founding “Lady Travelers” along as chaperones and comic relief, managing to finally take the trip that they’ve always dreamed of.

Sidney claims to be Mrs. Gordon, Harry claims to be his own nephew, and the reporter sent by the magazine hovers over everything, hoping to get a story that will make his career, one way or another.

Then Harry’s somewhat disreputable past catches up with Sidney’s new-found spirit of adventure, and they find themselves in the midst of a classic farce of a treasure hunt.

With so much fun to be had, sun, sand, adventure and the trip of a lifetime, how could they not fall in love? With Egypt, and especially with each other?

Escape Rating B+: This is absolutely wonderful, marvelously tasty, complete and utter fluff. It’s delicious.

It would also make a great Shakespearean comedy. Sidney is deceiving Harry. Harry is deceiving Sidney. The reporter is deceiving everyone. Except that everyone seems to know that everyone is deceiving everyone else and no one is willing to admit it.

And that just adds to the sense of fun and adventure.

It’s also a lot of fun the way that Sidney’s real-life adventures in Egypt seem so much like her fictional adventures. Her friends think she’s been kidnapped by white slavers, when the truth is that an Egyptian princess is a fan of her work, so she gets to spend a night in the harem with the princess and her family.

She steals a priceless Egyptian antiquity from a nefarious smuggler, only to discover that it’s the key to a much greater treasure and a much bigger adventure.

She begins by revisiting the scenes of her grandmother’s greatest adventures – only to have a great adventure of her own. And to clear up her grandmother’s unfinished business.

Her contest with Harry brings out Sidney’s inner adventurer at every turn, and allows her to become the woman she was meant to be. Not because he sweeps her off her feet – although he eventually does – but because he treats her as an equal combatant in their rivalry.

That she also helps him solve the mystery that has been dogging him for two long and lonely years makes them earn their happy ever after – while providing just desserts for the true villain of the piece.

This series is simply loads of fun, and every trip with the Lady Travelers Society is always a lovely adventure. I’m looking forward to their next adventure in The Lady Travelers Guide to Happily Ever After when it comes out in June. It’s sure to be another marvelous lark!

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Review: Apollo to the Moon by Teasel E. Muir-Harmony

Review: Apollo to the Moon by Teasel E. Muir-HarmonyApollo to the Moon: A History in 50 Objects by Teasel E Muir-Harmony
Format: hardcover
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover
Genres: science, science history
Pages: 304
Published by National Geographic Society on October 30, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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A celebration of the 50th anniversary of NASA's Apollo missions to the moon, this narrative uses 50 key artifacts from the Smithsonian archives to tell the story of the groundbreaking space exploration program.

Bold photographs, fascinating graphics, and engaging stories commemorate the 20th century's most important space endeavor: NASA's Apollo program to reach the moon. From the lunar rover and a survival kit to space food and moon rocks, it's a carefully curated array of objects--complete with intriguing back stories and profiles of key participants.

This book showcases the historic space exploration program that landed humans on the moon, advanced the world's capabilities for space travel, and revolutionized our sense of humanity's place in the universe. Each historic accomplishment is symbolized by a different object, from a Russian stamp honoring Yuri Gagarin and plastic astronaut action figures to the Apollo 11 command module, piloted by Michael Collins as Armstrong and Aldrin made the first moonwalk, together with the monumental art inspired by these moon missions. Throughout, Apollo to the Moon also tells the story of people who made the journey possible: the heroic astronauts as well as their supporters, including President John F. Kennedy, newsman Walter Cronkite, and NASA scientists such as Margaret Hamilton.

My Review:

It is very rare for me these days to read a book in print – but for this I’m glad that I made the exception. It’s gorgeous, in its own geeky-techie-nostalgic way, and I am glad to have it on my shelves to pick up and dip into, over and over again.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, than this book is worth all the words, or at least all the words about the Apollo Space Program. It may not be the next best thing to being there – in space that is – but it does feel like the next best thing to being there at the National Air and Space Museum seeing these exhibits in person.

Reading these descriptions, accompanied by the carefully chosen pictures, gave this reader the feeling that I was touring the museum with the best tour guide in the universe standing at my elbow, telling me everything I wanted to know.

I kind of wish I’d had this book when I listened to Apollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger, because these artifacts provide the perfect images to go along with the story as it played in my ears. I think this book could serve as the “accompanying illustrations” for many books about the Apollo Program.

The explanations that go with each picture of each artifact, explaining what it is, what it was for, and most importantly, who designed or created it and who they were and what brought them to the Space Program, brings to light, and back to life, the entire decade of the “Space Race” that put men on the the surface of the Moon.

The sheer scope of the project will make any reader wonder how we managed to accomplish so much in so short a time – and what a waste it is that we not only have not managed to capitalize on those achievements, but that we seemed to have actively turned away from the belief in the power of science that made the journey possible.

Reality Rating A-: I’m tempted to call this an “Escape” rating, or at least to wish that it was. Because I feel like we should be continuing the journey to escape this planet – and we’re not. It feels as if we are about as far from that possibility as we could be, with so many people refusing to believe in science, in the real science that both fueled and was fueled by the Space Program.

This is not a book with a continuous narrative – except the one in my head that says that we should have kept reaching outward. Instead we drew back, and are now amazed that a project this big and this long managed to not only get started but actually successfully completed. And then it petered out.

If you read science fiction, or science fact, have a “thing” for the space program (as I do) or just wish that we were still reaching for that “final frontier”, this book will fill you with nostalgia and sorrow.

But at least this book, and the artifacts that it so accurately and lovingly describes, will remain to speak to the future.

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Review: The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Hazel Gaynor

Review: The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Hazel GaynorThe Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter by Hazel Gaynor
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 383
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 9, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From The New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Came Home comes a historical novel inspired by true events, and the extraordinary female lighthouse keepers of the past two hundred years.

They call me a heroine, but I am not deserving of such accolades. I am just an ordinary young woman who did her duty.”

1838: Northumberland, England. Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands has been Grace Darling’s home for all of her twenty-two years. When she and her father rescue shipwreck survivors in a furious storm, Grace becomes celebrated throughout England, the subject of poems, ballads, and plays. But far more precious than her unsought fame is the friendship that develops between Grace and a visiting artist. Just as George Emmerson captures Grace with his brushes, she in turn captures his heart.

1938: Newport, Rhode Island. Nineteen-years-old and pregnant, Matilda Emmerson has been sent away from Ireland in disgrace. She is to stay with Harriet, a reclusive relative and assistant lighthouse keeper, until her baby is born. A discarded, half-finished portrait opens a window into Matilda’s family history. As a deadly hurricane approaches, two women, living a century apart, will be linked forever by their instinctive acts of courage and love.

My Review:

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter might have been more appropriately titled if the apostrophe had been in a different place. Because this isn’t the story of one lighthouse keeper’s daughter, but instead about two lighthouse keepers’ daughters, living in lighthouses both a century and an ocean apart.

As the story opens, we aren’t sure what links our two heroines – although we certainly do find out.

In 1838 on the coast of Northumberland, Grace Darling is the daughter of the keeper of the Longstone Lighthouse on Farne Island. As a woman, she can’t officially be the assistant lighthouse keeper, or have a hope of inheriting the duties of the lighthouse keeper from her father, but she loves the lighthouse and the work every bit as much as her father and her brothers do.

In the midst of a terrible, Grace, that night’s lookout, sees survivors of a shipwreck clinging to a “so near but yet so far” rock. The storm will sweep those pitiful survivors away if Grace and her father can’t get to them. But the storm is more than capable of sweeping Grace, her father and their tiny boat away if they try.

That trying turns Grace into a heroine, rowing the boat with her father and holding it against the storm as he helped the few survivors into the boat. Her heroism made a her national heroine, and brought her unwanted attention for the rest of her life.

In 1938, Mathilda Emmerson has been sent from her home in Ireland to Newport, Rhode Island, to the care of her cousin Harriet Flaherty, herself the lighthouse keeper in Newport. Mathilda is in disgrace, having fallen pregnant after a night of indiscretion. Her mother intends for her to have the child in America, leave it behind, and return to her life as the dutiful daughter of a politician.

In Mathilda’s possession is Grace Darling’s book of procedures of lighthouse keeping, and her locket. The items have been passed down in her family from mother to daughter for the past century.

Through the eyes of Grace in the 19th century and Mathilda in the 20th, we learn how Grace’s book made its way from Northumberland to Ireland to America, and finally about the ties that bind these two women from such different times and places.

And that those ties are much closer than Mathilda ever thought.

Escape Rating B: For this reader, this was ultimately a sad book, and is both heartbreaking and heartwarming at points. But it felt to me as if the sadness wins out. I think how a reader will feel about this will depend on which of the two women one ends up identifying with. I found Grace’s story to be ultimately tragic. I identified with her strong desire to find and keep a sense of purpose, but I wanted better for her than she had.

Her doomed romance felt like a bit of a misunderstandammit to me. They did love each other, they would have been happy together, but neither of them could break out of the restrictions of their time to actually say anything.

Grace Darling by Thomas Musgrave Joy

As fiction, it felt disappointing. Discovering afterwards that Grace’s part of the book is based on a true story, and that the real Grace Darling never married and died young as she does in the book, makes her part of the story make more sense.

I still wish she’d had a happier ending, or was a bit less of the tragic romantic heroine.

Matilda’s story is the one that is supposed to stick with the reader, and its ending is ultimately hopeful, albeit bittersweet. She does come into her own as the lighthouse keeper, but not until after some rather melodramatic family business that was foreshadowed more than a little bit. And, in keeping with the tone of the book, she has to suffer her own tragedy before she triumphs.

For a story that is for the most part rather quiet – giant storms notwithstanding – the story is very readable and pulls the reader along, or rather back and forth across time and the ocean, from one protagonist to another.

Discovering that Grace Darling was a real historical figure was quite a surprise after finishing the book. They say that truth is stranger than fiction. While her life isn’t stranger than fiction, it certainly made for an interesting story.

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Review: When the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera Lewis

Review: When the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera LewisWhen the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera Lewis
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 240
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 2, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In Marjorie Herrera Lewis’s debut historical novel the inspiring true story of high school teacher Tylene Wilson—a woman who surprises everyone as she breaks with tradition to become the first high school football coach in Texas—comes to life.

"A wonderfully touching and beautiful story…Tylene makes me laugh, cry, and cheer for her in ways I have not done in a long time.”—Diane Les Bocquets, bestselling author of Breaking Wild  

It's a man's game, until now...Football is the heartbeat of Brownwood, Texas. Every Friday night for as long as assistant principal Tylene Wilson can remember, the entire town has gathered in the stands, cheering their boys on. Each September brings with it the hope of a good season and a sense of unity and optimism.

Now, the war has changed everything.  Most of the Brownwood men over 18 and under 45 are off fighting, and in a small town the possibilities are limited. Could this mean a season without football? But no one counted on Tylene, who learned the game at her daddy’s knee. She knows more about it than most men, so she does the unthinkable, convincing the school to let her take on the job of coach.

Faced with extreme opposition—by the press, the community, rival coaches, and referees and even the players themselves—Tylene remains resolute. And when her boys rally around her, she leads the team—and the town—to a Friday night and a subsequent season they will never forget.           

Based on a true story, When the Men Were Gone is a powerful and vibrant novel of perseverance and personal courage.

My Review:

This is an absolute awesome story – and it is all the better for being based on a true one. It also has a surprising amount of resonance. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Tylene Wilson was a real person. She really did coach men’s football in Brownwood Texas during World War II, as the title says, when all the men were gone. One of the differences between the fictional Tylene and the factual Tylene was that the real Tylene coached college football, not high school.

But, as has so often happened, the real Tylene’s achievements, like so many women’s achievements, has been lost to history – and that’s in the spite of the fact that WW2 is still in living memory – albeit for a decreasing number of people. The author of this book was inspired by the case of a real, 21st century woman who is following in Tylene’s fading footsteps, coaching men’s college football.

Without nearly enough historical documentation, the author was forced to fictionalize Tylene’s achievement – and the struggles that she went through to achieve it. The fictionalized version of her story is compelling AND has plenty of resonance with today.

Tylene knows football. And she knows it really, really well. Her dad taught her, both how to play and how to analyze plays. Not because he had a not-to-secret yearning for a son, but because Tylene had rickets as a child. The cure for rickets is Vitamin D, most easily found in good old sunshine.

Girls didn’t play a lot outside, even in small-town Texas, in the early 20th century. But boys certainly did. So Dad learning football and baseball and any other sport or activity that would make his little girl eager to get out into the sunshine – and get well and stay well. It worked.

And it gave Tylene a lifelong love of the sport.

World War II was a period when all the young men went to war – and all the young women went into the factories. I have my parents’ high school annuals from that period, and the teachers all had, as the saying went at the time, “one foot in the grave and the other one on a banana peel”. There were no young teachers. It is easy to imagine that in a small town like Brownwood, there were no young men, period, who were not either medically ineligible (and therefore would have been medically ineligible to have played football) or had served and been invalided out.

There do seem to be plenty of older men. But just because someone can “Monday Morning Quarterback” with the best of them doesn’t mean that they have any of the actual knowledge required to coach a real team, even a high school team. The lack of real knowledge may stop them from volunteering to coach or being qualified to do so. Of course it does not stop them from complaining that a woman can’t possibly know enough to coach – even if she does.

Her situation feels real – only because it was. What adds to the poignancy is that this story takes place in the fall of 1944. She wouldn’t have known it the time, but her desire to keep the high school football program going for one more year would save the lives of those boys who would have enlisted instead of hanging around tiny Brownwood. She just wanted to give them one more year of adolescence before they went to war. She probably saved their lives.

But the forces arrayed against her, while couched in the even more overt misogyny of the mid-century, sound all too similar to the voices that every 21st century woman has heard in her life about why women are unsuited to this, that, or the other thing because whatever it is is supposed to be the province of men.

All those men sound shrill and frightened and very, very real. And they haven’t changed a bit in all the years since.

Escape Rating A-: This was an incredible book – and a very fast read. This is also one of those times when I wish there had been just a bit more of the story. While it does end on a paradoxically high note, I wanted more. At least an epilog where we get to find out how the season went and witness the announcement of the end of the war and the impact on the school, students and town. (Yes, I know it’s fiction. I still wanted more closure.)

Which does not mean that I did not enjoy the book, because I certainly did. And the ending, while it felt a bit premature, was definitely at a high point. Not because her team won the game, but because she won the team – and, it seemed, the town.

But it’s the chorus of naysayers that stick with me, because it all sounded so damn familiar.

Tylene faced endless amounts of sexual harassment – from every side – all the time. The opposing coach for her team’s season opening game was ready to forfeit. He was convinced that it would be less embarrassing for his team to forfeit the game and take a loss than it would have been to play the game and win in a rout. He never considered that it would be a fair and close game, win or lose. He couldn’t believe that a woman could possibly coach that well, or that a team would support a woman coach that well.

While her husband was supportive, he was also very, very shaken. There were points when the negativity and the pressure were so intense that he also wanted her to give in and give up. His best friend and the mainstay of his business refused to do business with him after Tylene became the coach. The school board held a special meeting to remove her from the job – and no one in town told her about the meeting in advance.

And any woman who does not hear the echoes of those scared, shrill male voices rising against Tylene shouting in today’s news hasn’t been paying attention. That kept me riveted to the book from beginning to end – and haunts me still.

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Review: The Silver Shoes by Jill G. Hall

Review: The Silver Shoes by Jill G. HallThe Silver Shoes: A Novel by Jill G. Hall
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 336
Published by She Writes Press on June 19th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In her second novel, Jill G. Hall, author of The Black Velvet Coat, brings readers another dual tale of two dynamic women from two very different eras searching for fulfillment.

San Francisco artist Anne McFarland has been distracted by a cross-country romance with sexy Sergio and has veered from her creative path. While visiting him in New York, she buys a pair of rhinestone shoes in an antique shop that spark her imagination and lead her on a quest to learn more about the shoes’ original owner.

Almost ninety years earlier, Clair Deveraux, a sheltered 1929 New York debutante, tries to reside within the bounds of polite society and please her father. But when she meets Winnie, a carefree Macy’s shop girl, Clair is lured into the steamy side of Manhattan—a place filled with speakeasies, flappers, and the beat of “that devil music”—and her true desires explode wide open. Secrets and lies heap up until her father loses everything in the stock market crash and Clair becomes entangled in the burlesque world in an effort to save her family and herself.

Ultimately, both Anne and Clair—two very different women living in very different eras—attain true fulfillment . . . with some help from their silver shoes.

My Review:

I want to call this one a timeslip book, but it really isn’t. The only thing that exists in both 1929 and today are those titular silver shoes. But the action does alternate between those two eras, with Clair back in the age of Prohibition, flappers, speakeasies and the Great Depression, and Anne today.

Their lives should seem far apart. And they kind of are – but they mostly aren’t.

Besides the shoes, they are linked by two things. They are both constrained by the familial and societal expectations placed on them because they are women. And in the end, they both break free in order to pursue their own needs for self-fulfillment – and live their own dreams.

Neither story ends up being a romance. This is not a book about finding your happy ever after in the traditional romantic sense. As much of both of these women eventually manage to break tradition, it shouldn’t be. In the end, it’s about reaching deep and finding the courage to make your own happiness your own way, whether romantic love comes with it or not.

Escape Rating B-: It is really difficult to talk about this book without giving some of the game away, so the rating comes a bit early in this one.

I loved the way that the theme finally comes out, that both of these women find self-fulfillment through their art rather than love and marriage. Not that I don’t love a good romance, but I also don’t believe that every story with female central characters needs to be a romance. This one is better for not reaching that traditional ending.

On that other hand, a big part of both women’s stories is just how much they knuckle under to the pressures and expectations that constrain women’s lives.

Clair in 1929 is a poor little rich girl. Her businessman father tries to arrange her life so that she will be “taken care of” instead of asking her what she wants. She wants to go to Juilliard to study music, she’s been accepted, but he wants to marry her off. That he chooses badly is icing on a pretty ugly cake in that he never takes her own wants and needs into consideration and doesn’t see why he should until it is almost too late.

Clair takes her freedom at first in teeny, tiny and very secret doses, because she knows he won’t approve and can make her life miserable – as very nearly happens. In the end, it is only when his own pretty awful secrets are exposed AND when the true depth of wrongness of his choices for her is revealed that she is finally able to completely break free.

Reading about how completely circumscribed Clair’s life is may be accurate, but it doesn’t make for easy reading – particularly when it is held up to Anne’s life in comparison. Because Anne’s life doesn’t feel all that much better.

I know that objectively it is, but it didn’t feel that way. I just didn’t buy into her romance with Sergio. That’s possibly because by the time the story begins the romance is in the middle, but they didn’t work for me.

Instead it felt like she was caught up in the romance of a romance with a well-off sexy Italian who lived in New York. They didn’t seem to have enough in common, and she spent way too much time placating him or pretending to be different than she was in order to make things easier for him.

It also felt like she was giving in to pressure much more subtle than the pressure on Clair, but still present, to be involved with a man and get married (and give up her art) because she was 30 and it was time to stop being “foolish” or “childish” or “self-indulgent” or whatever. That she seemed to have no ability to manage her own finances just added to that picture as well as making it seem like she needed Sergio more than she loved him.

Both relationships fall into crises. In Clair’s case part of the crisis was very real and beyond everyone’s control – the Great Depression was called “Great” for a reason. Her father, though misguided, was attempting to do right by her by the lights of their time – admittedly badly.

I liked that she finally rescued herself, even if it took a bit too long and a bit too much melodrama. And Anne, in the end, finally figured out her best course – but in her case only after ignoring a whole bunch of signs that she was heading down the wrong path. And in Anne’s case, the only thing making her ignore that still small voice was herself.

Although I was glad she finally listened to it.

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Review: A Tall Dark Cowboy Christmas by Maisey Yates + Giveaway

Review: A Tall Dark Cowboy Christmas by Maisey Yates + GiveawayA Tall, Dark Cowboy Christmas (Gold Valley, #4) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Gold Valley #4
Pages: 496
Published by Hqn on September 25, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

It’s Christmas in Gold Valley, and this wounded widower is about to get another shot at love…

Grant Dodge didn’t expect to find a woman sleeping in an abandoned cabin on his family ranch. Or to find her so intriguing. Unlike every other woman in town, McKenna Tate doesn’t know Grant’s a widower. There’s no pity in the looks she gives him. McKenna wants him, and Grant has forgotten what it’s like to feel like a man. A no-strings fling for Christmas might be the kind of holiday cheer Grant needs…

With only a suitcase to her name, McKenna came to Gold Valley to confront her birth father. She didn’t plan to work at the Dodge ranch or fall for the gorgeous cowboy who keeps his heart roped off. But there’s no denying the way their broken pieces fit together. Hope brought her to Gold Valley—but will it be the gift that could finally heal Grant, and McKenna’s own wounded heart?

Also includes a bonus Gold Valley novella, Snowed in with the Cowboy!

My Review:

It’s hard to believe that anyone would actually WANT to win a gold medal in the “Life Sucks” Marathon, but when Grant Dodge and McKenna Tate meet they are both serious contenders for that “grand” prize.

Possibly it’s a grand prize in the joke sense that first prize is one week in Hell and second prize is two weeks – although the way they both have been chasing this particular goal, that might actually be the other way around.

We’ve met Grant Dodge in the previous books in the Gold Valley series as his brothers have discovered their own happy ever afters. But Grant is a special case. He already found his happy, and knew perfectly well at the time that there was no “ever after” attached. Grant is semi-famous for having married his high school sweetheart knowing that she had terminal cancer, and caring for her for the eight years she managed to survive.

But he’s also been a widower for eight years, and is more than tired of all the pitying looks he gets from everyone in town and everyone he meets. His tragedy was so touching that it became fodder for one of the morning quasi-news shows, so no one ever lets him forget.

He’s wrapped his misery around him like a well-worn but scratchy blanket and doesn’t let anyone get close – not even his family – even though they are all working on the ranch together.

While Grant should be the first place finisher in that misery marathon, McKenna Tate is still in the running. He finds McKenna camped out in one of the ranch’s few remaining dilapidated (unheated and uninsulated) remote cabins. In December. In Oregon.

He claims he doesn’t want to be bothered, but he still takes her into the ranch house, where his brother and sister-in-law promptly offer McKenna a job and a cabin. She doesn’t want to take the charity, but she NEEDS it. She’s broke and homeless and out of options.

And she needs to be in Gold Valley. Her mother gave up her parental rights back when McKenna was only two, so she was raised in, or survived, foster care. Now she’s 24 and has come to Gold Valley to discover if the man listed on her birth certificate as her father is willing to give her a hand up.

She’s afraid to acknowledge, even to herself, that what she really wants is to belong. To someone. To be part of something. To finally have a place.

But while she tries to figure out how to approach her possible father, who turns out to be “rodeo royalty”, she becomes part of the mixed family of birth and choice that centers around the Get Out of Dodge Ranch.

And just maybe, she and Grant might manage to stop racing towards that first place in the misery marathon and reach for each other instead.

Escape Rating B+: In my review of Good Time Cowboy I called Maisey Yates the cowgirl queen of angsty western romance. The story in A Tall, Dark Cowboy Christmas certainly adds more sparkle to that crown.

Both Grant and McKenna begin the story in a serious bad way. But the bad way they’ve found themselves in, and the equally bad ways that they feel about it, feel like exactly the way a person would feel under their individual circumstances. It’s not manufactured angst or self-inflicted angst. They’ve had terrible things happen to them and they feel terrible because of those things.

Grant, in particular, has been living so much on the periphery of life at the ranch that it is more than possibly to read this book without having read the other books in the series first – not that they aren’t terrific reads. But Grant has done his best to not let other people in, to the point where he only plays a very minor role in his brothers’ lives – and is only willing to let them a tiny way into his.

McKenna has certainly had a lifetime of hard knocks that led her to Gold Valley. But she also has one attribute that draws Grant in like a magnet – she doesn’t know anything about his history. She doesn’t pity him or feel sorry for him. And she doesn’t want either of those things from him. She just thinks he’s hot. And she gets him hot and bothered in a way that he’s never allowed himself to feel.

The begin what becomes their relationship by finally giving into their amazing chemistry. They both think that’s all they have. But as much as Grant tries to stick to a rule of “no talking”, they can’t. McKenna can’t stop herself from talking under any circumstances, and Grant has spent so many years locked inside his own head that once he opens up at all he can’t make himself stop.

There is so much heartbreak in this story. Both Grant and McKenna begin the story as very broken people, and it’s tough reading their emotional turmoil. Watching them slowly heal each other is lovely, especially with their acknowledgement that it’s the hurts that they’ve each suffered that has made them the people they need to be for each other.

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

I’m giving away a copy of Tall, Dark Cowboy Christmas to one lucky US/CAN commenter!

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Review: The Secrets We Carried by Mary McNear

Review: The Secrets We Carried by Mary McNearThe Secrets We Carried (Butternut Lake, #6) by Mary McNear
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary fiction, women's fiction
Series: Butternut Lake #6
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on September 25, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Readers who love Susan Wiggs and Susan Mallery will adore New York Times bestselling author Mary McNear newest novel. A young woman travels home to Butternut Lake, confronting her past and the tragedy she and her friends have silently carried with them for over a decade while also facing an unknown future.

Butternut Lake is an idyllic place—but for one woman, her return to the lake town she once called home is bittersweet…

Sometimes life changes in an instant. 

Quinn LaPointe grew up on beautiful Butternut Lake, safe, secure, sure of her future. But after a high school tragedy, she left for college and never looked back. Becoming a successful writer in Chicago, she worked to keep out the dark memories of an accident that upended her life. But now, after ten years, she’s finally returned home.

Butternut is the same, and yet everything is changed. Gabriel Shipp, once her very best friend, doesn’t want anything to do with her. The charming guy she remembers is now brooding and withdrawn. Tanner Lightman, the seductive brother of her late boyfriend, wants her to stick around. Annika Bergstrom, an old classmate who once hated Quinn, is now friendly. Everyone, it seems, has a secret.

Determined to come to terms with the tragedy and rebuild old relationships, Quinn settles into Loon Bay Cabins, a rustic but cozy lakeside resort, where she begins writing down her memories of the year before the accident. Her journey though the past leads her to some surprising discoveries about the present. As secrets are revealed and a new love emerges, Quinn finds that understanding the past is the key to the future. 

My Review:

In my reviews of previous books in the Butternut Lake series I have said that Butternut Lake should be renamed “Second Chance Lake” because those stories have featured a second chance at love for the hero, the heroine, or both.

The Secrets We Carried does not follow the pattern of the previous books, and there’s nothing to keep a reader from starting here and deciding if you like the place and want to go back. I definitely like the place. A lot.

But this story is still about second chances. In the end, there’s even a second chance at love – but that is not the kind of second chance that is the centerpiece of this particular story.

This one is about a second chance at life. And it’s about finally forgiving yourself so that you have a chance at grabbing that second chance.

Because that’s what Quinn LaPointe needs to do. And that’s why she’s come back to Butternut Lake, the place she grew up, ten years after the tragic accident that overtook her senior year in high school. A tragic accident that she has never fully dealt with – or completely healed from. An accident that she feels at least partially responsible for.

But she’s not the only person carrying that particular secret. And she’s not the only person who has not been able to move her life past that terrible fixed point in time.

In her life post-Butternut Lake, she has kept moving forward, but she hasn’t moved on. An anonymous invitation to the dedication of a memorial to the accident, and the three young men who needlessly, recklessly, stupidly died in it, gives her the chance to take herself back to the place she once called home.

And gives her the opportunity that she needs. A chance to finally remember, an opportunity to hopefully understand, and above all, both the proximity and the distance that she needs to finally forgive herself.

Quinn needs to let go of her past, so that she can finally claim her future.

Escape Rating A: I wasn’t in the mood for a romance, and that turned out to be an excellent thing. In spite of the way that the blurb reads, and contrary to the previous books in this series, The Secrets We Carried is not a romance.

Instead, this book is more of a character study, crossed with more than a bit of “women’s fiction”. In other words, if a man had written this story, it would just be labeled “fiction”.

I digress – but mostly because I just finished this book and I’m still reeling a bit. This was absolutely marvelous – especially because it wasn’t what I expected. It went a whole lot deeper than that.

Quinn’s high school career ended in tragedy. Her boyfriend and his two best friends drowned in Butternut Lake under the stupidest of circumstances. Jake Lightman was drunk and so were his buddies. Jake drove his truck out onto the frozen surface of Butternut Lake one night in the late spring and just sat there, in the truck, until the ice gave way and the three young men drowned.

Quinn blames herself. She broke up with Jake that night because she caught him lying to her, and not for the first time. She believes that he drank so heavily because of their breakup, and that he was out in the middle of the lake because she told him that’s where she lost the promise ring he gave her.

So Quinn comes to Butternut Lake for the dedication of the memorial to his death, and the deaths of his friends.

But Quinn isn’t the only person who has spent the past ten years heaping blame on herself for the events of that long ago night. Or rather, a night that should be long ago but seems to be ever-present as Quinn decides to stay in Butternut Lake and finally process the events of that night by writing all of her memories.

As part of her “memory writing” she touches base with not just the events but also the people who were part of that time, and who, it turns out, also have not been able to let things go. The deeper Quinn digs, the more she discovers that there is plenty of guilt to go around.

And like so many burdens, once that guilt is shared, once all of the people who touched and were touched by those events lays out the part that they each feel they played that night, they reach, tentatively and together, for a truth that was hidden by the secrets they all carried. A burden shared is a burden halved. A burden shared by as many people as have a share in this one lightens their load, and their lives, to the point where they can put the past behind them. Forgive themselves but never forget.

This is a beautiful story where the only way forward is through. Everyone holds back and everyone hides pieces of themselves that have come to hurt to much to be revealed. Quinn’s need to get it all out there, at least in her own mind, conflicts deeply and realistically with her desire to bury it all as deeply as possible.

The ending, when Quinn finally reaches it, goes all the way back to the beginning. And it sets her free.

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Review: The Impossible Girl by Lydia Kang + Giveaway

Review: The Impossible Girl by Lydia Kang + GiveawayThe Impossible Girl by Lydia Kang
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Pages: 364
Published by Lake Union Publishing on September 18, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Two hearts. Twice as vulnerable.

Manhattan, 1850. Born out of wedlock to a wealthy socialite and a nameless immigrant, Cora Lee can mingle with the rich just as easily as she can slip unnoticed into the slums and graveyards of the city. As the only female resurrectionist in New York, she’s carved out a niche procuring bodies afflicted with the strangest of anomalies. Anatomists will pay exorbitant sums for such specimens—dissecting and displaying them for the eager public.

Cora’s specialty is not only profitable, it’s a means to keep a finger on the pulse of those searching for her. She’s the girl born with two hearts—a legend among grave robbers and anatomists—sought after as an endangered prize.

Now, as a series of murders unfolds closer and closer to Cora, she can no longer trust those she holds dear, including the young medical student she’s fallen for. Because someone has no intention of waiting for Cora to die a natural death.

My Review:

In the end, Cora Lee isn’t quite impossible – merely highly improbable. But those improbabilities lead her to a fascinating and dangerous life on the margins of mid-19th century New York City in a way that makes for marvelous fiction – especially because it’s the most improbable aspects of her life that are based in fact.

There really were resurrectionists, not merely in New York City, but certainly in other places where the supply of corpses for anatomical study was insufficient to the needs of doctors, surgeons and their trainees to learn as much as possible about the ins and outs (so to speak) of the human anatomy before going into practice on living bodies.

While the practice of haunting graveyards and digging up recent corpses seems unsavory at best and disgusting at worst, it was necessary – if a bit ghoulish. As distasteful as the concept of digging up bodies for medical study may seem, the idea that all those would-be doctors and surgeons learn anatomy from dead bodies before they start cutting up live ones seems prudent, at least in retrospect.

And for anyone who thinks the practice of opening up the gallery to the general public seems prurient at best and obscene at worst, we still have plenty of examples of more sanitary versions of the same practice, such as the Bodies exhibition currently touring the world. (it’s here in Atlanta at the moment and no, we have not attended and have no interest in doing so.)

Making arrangements for the bodies to become corpses in an untimely fashion, however, is still murder. And that’s where this story gets its mystery from. Resurrectionist Cora Lee just keeps a watch on people who will make interesting (and lucrative) corpses. Someday they will naturally come into her hands, so to speak. Well, at least they’ll die of natural causes. The process by which Cora obtains their fresh corpse is fairly unnatural, not to mention downright criminal.

But someone is anticipating nature and killing the people on Cora’s list. And she fears she’s next.

Cora’s body should prove just as unusual a specimen as any of the recent victims, because Cora has two hearts. Doctors have been interested in “ottomizing” her since the day of her birth. That someone might want to hasten her death in order to open her chest is a fear that she and her family have lived with since the day she was born.

It’s ironic that her business as a resurrectionist gives her a finger on the pulse (so to speak) of any trade in unusual specimens in New York City. It should give her some warning if someone starts looking for her.

But she never expects that her greatest danger lies so close to home – or that her biggest rival may be the instrument of her deliverance.

Escape Rating B+: The story of The Impossible Girl is fascinating and creepy in equal measure. The tone at times feels almost like one of the “penny dreadfuls” so popular at the time, or like that of one of the Gothic mysteries that became so popular.

The character of Cora is one of duality, and not merely as a result of her two hearts. Cora also lives two lives, by day the consummate “lady”, and by night the hard-bitten resurrectionist. In order to maintain that separate between her daily life and her business life she also has two faces. By day she is Cora, and by night she is Cora’s twin brother Jacob. While Cora is a lady, Jacob is no gentleman, being rough, a bit brutish, and ruling their gang with an iron fist while Cora holds the velvet glove.

Jacob is both Cora’s disguise and her protection – as well as her instrument of freedom. As a man, Jacob has the ability to go wherever he wants, do whatever he wants, see whatever he needs to see and punch out whoever needs to be punched.

Even without the need to conceal her anatomical aberrance, Cora, as a female in mid-19th century New York City, is never, ever free. She is constantly hedged around by the restrictions placed on women in her society, restrictions that Jacob allows her to escape whenever she needs to or she must.

While the central mystery of this story is creepy and chilling, it was unfortunately a little too easy for this reader to figure out. I’ll admit that I guessed what was going on, and who was perpetrating it, just a bit too early to give The Impossible Girl an A grade.

But the story is imminently readable. Cora’s character, intelligence and rather unique solution to her own multiple dilemmas is absolutely absorbing. And the portrait of mid-19th century New York City on the margins draws the reader into the center of its mass of contradictions from the very first page.

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

I’m giving away a copy of The Impossible Girl to one very lucky US commenter!

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Review: The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah

Review: The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie HannahThe Mystery of Three Quarters (The New Hercule Poirot Mystery #3) by Sophie Hannah
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Series: New Hercule Poirot #3
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow on August 28, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The world's most beloved detective, Hercule Poirot--the legendary star of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express and most recently The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket--returns in a stylish, diabolically clever mystery set in the London of 1930.

Returning home from a luncheon, Hercule Poirot is met at his door by an imperious woman who introduces herself as Sylvia Rule. "How dare you? How dare you send me such a letter?" Ignoring his denials, Mrs. Rule insists that she received a missive claiming he had proof she murdered a man named Barnabas Pandy and advising her to confess her crime to the police. Threatening the perplexed Poirot with a lawsuit, she leaves in a huff.

Minutes later, a rather disheveled man named John McCrodden appears. "I got your letter accusing me of the murder of Barnabas Pandy." Calmly, Poirot again rebuts the charge. Each insisting they are victims of a conspiracy, Mrs. Rule and Mr. McCrodden deny knowing who Pandy is.

The next day, two more strangers proclaim their innocence and provide illuminating details. Miss Annabel Treadway tells Poirot that Barnabas Pandy was her grandfather. But he was not murdered; his death was an accident. Hugo Dockerill also knows of Pandy, and he heard the old man fell asleep in his bath and drowned.

Why did someone send letters in Poirot's name accusing people of murder? If Pandy's death was an accident, why charge foul play? It is precisely because he is the great Hercule Poirot that he would never knowingly accuse an innocent person of a crime. Someone is trying to make mischief, and the instigator wants Poirot involved.

Engaging the help of Edward Catchpool, his Scotland Yard policeman friend, Poirot begins to dig into the investigation, exerting his little grey cells to solve an elaborate puzzle involving a tangled web of relationships, scandalous secrets, and past misdeeds.

My Review:

This is now the third of Sophie Hannah’s New Hercule Poirot mysteries (after The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket), and there is one thing they all have in common. Actually there are several things they have in common, but the one that strikes this reader first is the sheer, compulsive readability of this series. Whether one considers them continuations of the original, homages to it, or a combination of the two, they are all absolutely brimming with can’t-put-it-down-ness. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. All day.

Another factor that is common to all three books is the new author’s invented “Watson” for Poirot, Inspector Edward Catchpool. Unlike poor Japp in the original series, Catchpool is a young detective, early in his career. While he sometimes (often!) chafes at being caught between his Super’s orders and Poirot’s “requests”, he is aware that he needs Poirot.

One of the gratifying parts of their relationship is the way that Poirot also seems to be aware that he needs Catchpool, and not just to provide official sanction. Poirot is always the lead partner, but there is a partnership developing.

The case in The Mystery of Three Quarters feels very Poirot in that it is convoluted in the extreme. Someone has sent letters, signed by Poirot, accusing the recipients of murder. The four recipients of those letters are various shades of indignant and perplexed. Poirot is incensed, because he did not send the letters – and their grammar and writing style is absolutely appalling. Instead he discovers that the supposed murder victim surely died by accident, and that his purported murderers don’t seem to have much relationship to each other – or even to the late, more-or-less lamented Barnabas Pandy.

It’s up to Poirot, with the able assistance of Inspector Catchpool, to figure out, not so much whodunit, but whydunit, before somebody else gets done.

Escape Rating B: It’s the must-keep-reading-ness aspect of this book that sticks with me. The case, as bizarre as it is (and Poirot’s cases were often a bit “out there”) pulls the reader along from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph and doesn’t let go until the end.

In other words, The Mystery of Three Quarters is a whole lot of fun to read.

Three books into this “new” series, I still feel as if it is more of a continuation of the TV portrayal of Poirot than the original books – or perhaps it’s just that Poirot’s extreme quirks feel even more quirky when one visualizes David Suchet’s performance than they must have when originally published. I always hear Suchet’s voice while reading this new series. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

One thing that stands out from The Mystery of Three Quarters is the utter wackiness of the entire case. As a device to get Poirot involved, the fraudulent letters are a stroke of both absurdity and genius. No one could resist getting to the bottom of the whole mess, and certainly Poirot is incapable of letting someone else take his name in vain. He can’t resist, which was the whole point.

Also the killer’s mistake, but of course that’s all part of the big reveal at the end.

One of the things that surprised me about the entire farrago was just how much of Poirot’s resolution turned out to be based on slightly far-fetched assumptions about motives and emotions. There’s not a whole lot of forensic evidence in this case until the very end. Instead it’s all about what people thought and how they felt and why they subsequently acted the way they did.

It all gallops along brilliantly as its going on, but looking back I’m not quite sure it all hangs together. But still, it was a terrific ride while it was happening, and I enjoyed every page of it.

I’m very happy that the author is continuing this “collaboration” with the late Dame Agatha Christie, and I look forward to more installments of Hercule Poirot’s “new” mysteries!

But I still like the UK covers better for this series. It’s Poirot. It’s the 1930s. Art deco is the right look and feel. Just run with it!

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