Review: The Halo Conspiracy by Michael Murphy

Review: The Halo Conspiracy by Michael MurphyThe Halo Conspiracy by Michael Murphy
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Series: Lucas Nash #1
Pages: 254
Published by Michael Murphy on April 15, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In mid-twenty-first century, solving murders hasn't become any easier. Cutting edge science has created more opportunities for crime than offered solutions.

A ruthless technology company threatens to reveal Project Halo, a scientific breakthrough that will change humanity forever. Layers of secrecy conceal cutting-edge robotics, artificial intelligence and even rumors of synthetic humans. Before scientists can correct flaws that threaten the program, someone or something murders the brains behind the project.

Michael Murphy's witty fast-paced sci-fi mystery introduces Lucas Nash, a gritty, by the book homicide detective thrust into a world he always avoids, high tech. He sifts through a maze of suspects; Rachel, a spirited intern, a brute of a security chief, a treacherous woman, the murdered man's partner, and two ambitious Army officers, one found dead in the arms of a married schoolteacher, and a Colonel who can't be found.

A media starved religious leader warns the world against the evils of technology with his beautiful assistant, Lucas's one-time flame. Before uncovering the killer's identity, an unlikely romance threatens to derail the investigation and end Lucas's career. With pressure mounting from his superiors and the government, Lucas must set aside his feelings and solve the murder before technology makes him and humanity the next victims.

My Review:

This near-future mystery/technothriller begins in the way that all mysteries do – with a dead body. And then another. Along with, of course, a detective to investigate whodunnit.

It turns out to be “who done them?”, because the long arm of coincidence doesn’t stretch to two unrelated deaths at the opening of a detective story.

It’s with that second death, however, that the story draws the second arrow in its metaphorical quiver. The first case looks pretty ordinary, at least at first with its fairly obvious triangle of absent husband, cheating wife and dead one-night stand lying in a pool of his own blood with two gunshot wounds.

But that second body that Detective Lucas Nash goes to examine – that’s entirely different. Because it looks like natural causes, but sets enough of the hairs rising on the back of Lucas’ neck to make him suspicious that it isn’t.

Of course it isn’t. And that’s where this case really begins to twist in the mind of both Nash and the reader.

We’re all presented with a series of red herrings that at first don’t look even slightly pink.

The late Dr. Beltran works for an ultra-secretive and highly profitable company that creates artificial intelligence solutions for both computers and robotics. The company is the financial mainstay of the little town of Green River, and an economic engine for the entire country, with its automated and artificial intelligence tentacles in many, many places. They even have big contracts with the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.

And they have a crack security team that is out sweeping the late Dr. Beltran’s house in the middle of the night in order to cover up something really big. Something possibly really illegal, or unethical, or immoral, or all of the above.

Lucas Nash is determined to get to the bottom of this mess – no matter what he has to compromise along the way. Or what might try to compromise him.

Escape Rating B: I picked this one up because I really enjoyed the author’s Prohibition Era Jake and Laura mystery series (start with The Yankee Club because the whole series is a lot of fun!) So I knew going in that I’d like this one.

What I didn’t expect was how much the setup would remind me of J.D. Robb’s In Death series.

It’s that Lucas Nash’s world, like Eve Dallas’, is set in a future so close that we can see it from here, while being just far enough out that extrapolating future technology from present development creates a world that is recognizable enough to not need a whole lot of technobabble while being just far enough away that the differences that do exist don’t feel so much science fictional as simply logical.

Or to put it another way, this book takes place in 2038. All of the adult characters in the story have already been born. Not just born, but many of them are in high school during the pandemic that we all sincerely hope is ending right now in the real world.

So a future we can see from here and imagine living in fairly easily, and that makes a lot of the SF in the story easily accessible to readers who don’t read much SF.

At the same time, one way of looking at the case is that it’s wrapped around some very high tech concepts that already exist today – artificial intelligence and robotics. Along with a real-world application that has been the stuff of SFnal-tinged nightmares for decades. If AI and robotics get to be good enough, will the government use them to create supersoldiers? Can anyone seriously imagine that they won’t?

After that, the question of how fast we get to Skynet and the Terminator starts to loom pretty large. But we’re not there yet even in 2038 – not that it stops everyone from thinking about it. And making terrible jokes about it.

The technology here is just a means to an end. It’s fascinating and it’s very easy to get wrapped up in it but it’s the human dimension of the suspense that keeps the reader turning pages. Because all those red herrings at the beginning that aren’t even pink? This story is red herrings all the way down, to the point where Lucas – and the reader – go haring off on one false lead after another, thinking that we know what’s REALLY going on only to learn that we’ve been heading down a primrose path – AGAIN – and that we have to re-think everything we thought we had figured out.

In the end, all of the motives are human ones, whether the perpetrators are themselves all human or not. And in the middle of it all, there’s Lucas Nash, who doesn’t do all that well with the technology that surrounds him.

But who can figure out what makes people tick – or what ticks them off into murder – perfectly well with his own, purely human, intelligence. No matter how anyone ends up defining “people”.

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Spotlight + Excerpt: The Stepsisters by Susan Mallery

Spotlight + Excerpt: The Stepsisters by Susan MalleryThe Stepsisters by Susan Mallery
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Mira on May 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

#1
New York Times
bestselling author Susan Mallery pens a love story of a different sort…a heartfelt tale of friendship between two women who used to be sisters.
Once upon a time, when her dad married Sage’s mom, Daisy was thrilled to get a bright and shiny new sister. But Sage was beautiful and popular, everything Daisy was not, and she made sure Daisy knew it.
Sage didn’t have Daisy’s smarts—she had to go back a grade to enroll in the fancy rich-kid school. So she used her popularity as a weapon, putting Daisy down to elevate herself. After the divorce, the stepsisters’ rivalry continued until the final, improbable straw: Daisy married Sage’s first love, and Sage fled California.
Eighteen years, two kids and one troubled marriage later, Daisy never expects—or wants—to see Sage again. But when the little sister they have in common needs them both, they put aside their differences to care for Cassidy. As long-buried truths are revealed, no one is more surprised than they when friendship blossoms.
Their fragile truce is threatened by one careless act that could have devastating consequences. They could turn their backs on each other again…or they could learn to forgive once and for all and finally become true sisters of the heart.

Welcome to the Excerpt tour for The Stepsisters by Susan Mallery. She writes lovely filled with charming people in sometimes messy relationships that sweep me up, take me away, and put me right into the heart of stories that manage to be both heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing The Stepsisters in the weeks ahead, so here’s a teaser to whet all of our reading appetites!

Excerpt from The Stepsisters by Susan Mallery (continued from Friday’s Excerpt at Jathan & Heather)

Someone knocked on her window. She rolled it down.

“You okay?” Sage asked.

“Not really. My car won’t start.”

“Want me to take you home?”

Daisy thought about saying she would call an Uber or Lyft or something, but figured that fate was messing with her and she might as well simply surrender. The sooner she got through whatever hell this was, the sooner it would be over. Later, when the kids were in bed and she had showered, she would review her life and try to decide where she’d messed up so much that she had to be punished. But for now, she had a sick kid and someone willing to give her a ride.

“Thank you,” she said through clenched teeth, looking into the beautiful green eyes of the one woman on the planet she hated more than anyone. “That would be great.”

“How long have you known my mom?” Krissa asked, suddenly sounding significantly better than she had five minutes ago. Yet more proof of Sage’s endless powers, Daisy thought bitterly as she buckled her seat belt.

“Since we were young,” Sage told her. “I think we were eight or nine.”

“I’m eight!” Krissa’s tone indicated there was magic afoot. “But I don’t understand. You were stepsisters. So Grandpa was married to…”

“Sage’s mother,” Daisy explained. “For about six years. Do you remember Aunt Cassidy?”

“I don’t think so.” Her tone was doubtful. “Is she pretty like Sage?”

“Yes.” Annoyingly so. “Cassidy is our half-sister. My father, your grandfather, is her dad and Sage’s mother is Cassidy’s mom. I’m sure you’ve met Cassidy at least once.”

She glanced over her shoulder and saw Krissa’s face scrunch up, as if she were trying to work it all out.

“She’s your aunt,” Sage offered.

“Then why don’t I know her?”

An excellent question, Daisy thought. One of the answers might be that since the divorce all those years ago, Cassidy had made it clear she preferred Sage to Daisy and once Cassidy had turned eighteen, she’d taken off to explore the world. She stayed in touch with Wallace, their mutual father, but not with Daisy.

“You don’t hear from her?” Sage asked, driving through one of the open gates that marked the entrance to Bel Air. “I’m surprised.”

Are you really? But Daisy didn’t actually ask the question. What was the point? In a battle of the sisters, she had always come in last. When she’d been a child herself, she hadn’t understood why she and Sage couldn’t be friends. Unlike many only children, she’d been delighted when her father had told her he was marrying Joanne and giving her a stepsister. She’d imagined having someone to play with, a friend to confide in. She’d wanted a connection, a best friend, a closeness that always seemed to exist between sisters she read about or saw on TV.

But Sage had rebuffed every overture. Even when she was friendly for an afternoon, the next day, she would be cold and distant. At school, she delighted in mocking Daisy. Sage might have been the new girl at their exclusive private school, but Daisy was the one who had felt left out.

Sage glanced in the rearview mirror. “Your aunt Cassidy is a travel writer. She goes all over the world and writes about interesting places and people. Right now she’s in Patagonia studying a group of women selling textiles.”

Krissa’s eyes widened. “She sounds cool.”

“Even saint-like,” Daisy murmured under her breath, before pointing to the street on the right.

“It’s just up there.”

Sage smiled. “I remember where the house is.”

“I wasn’t sure.”

It had been a long time—over twenty years since Wallace and Joanne had divorced, although they’d shared custody of their daughter. Cassidy had gone back and forth between the houses right through high school. Sage had probably dropped her off or picked her up more than once.

Daisy instinctively pointed toward the long driveway. Sage laughed and repeated, “I know where I’m going.”

Which made Daisy feel foolish—a usual state of being when Sage was around.

“I’m surprised you’re in Los Angeles,” she said, mostly to distract herself. “Aren’t you living in Italy?”

“Rome,” Sage corrected. “I was.”

“You live in Rome?” Krissa’s disbelieving tone made it sound as if her almost-aunt had a pied-à-terre on Jupiter. “That’s in the EU.”

“It’s very beautiful there.” She glanced at Daisy. “I came home a couple of weeks ago. My mom was dealing with a cancer scare.”

And just like that, all Daisy’s mad deflated, leaving her feeling small and mean-spirited.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “If you’d like a recommendation for an oncologist, I can get you some names.”

Something flickered across Sage’s perfect face. “Thank you, but it turned out just to be a scare. She’s fine now.”

She reached the end of the long driveway and stared up at the big house.

“It looks the same.”

The inside was different, Daisy thought. They’d updated the kitchen and family room. The master bedroom and bath had also been redone, a remodel completed when Wallace had moved out, allowing Daisy and Jordan to live in the big house. Not that she was going to discuss any of that with Sage.

 

Author Info:

#1 NYT bestselling author Susan Mallery writes heartwarming, humorous novels about the relationships that define our lives-family, friendship, romance. She’s known for putting nuanced characters in emotional situations that surprise readers to laughter. Beloved by millions, her books have been translated into 28 languages.Susan lives in Washington with her husband, two cats, and a small poodle with delusions of grandeur. Visit her at SusanMallery.com.

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Review: An Invincible Summer by Mariah Stewart + Giveaway

Review: An Invincible Summer by Mariah Stewart + GiveawayAn Invincible Summer by Mariah Stewart
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Series: Wyndham Beach #1
Pages: 378
Published by Montlake on May 1, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

It was a lifetime ago that recently widowed Maggie Flynn was in Wyndham Beach. Now, on the occasion of her fortieth high school reunion, she returns to her hometown on the Massachusetts coast, picking up right where she left off with dear friends Lydia and Emma. But seeing Brett Crawford again stirs other emotions. Once, they were the town’s golden couple destined for one another. He shared Maggie’s dreams—and eventually, a shattering secret that drove them apart.
Buying her old family home and resettling in Wyndham Beach means a chance to start over for Maggie and her two daughters, but it also means facing her rekindled feelings for her first love and finally confronting—and embracing—the past in ways she never thought possible. Maggie won’t be alone. With her family and friends around her, she can weather this stormy turning point in her life and open her heart to the future. As for that dream shared and lost years ago? If Maggie can forgive herself, it still might come true.

My Review:

It’s not that summer is invincible, even if it sometimes feels that way. It’s that during this particular summer Maggie Flynn, along with her besties Lydia and Emma, discover that their friendship, tried and tested and true, makes them invincible.

Not in spite of, but because of, the 50+ years it has been supporting and sustaining them. Although definitely in spite of all the challenges that life has thrown their way.

The story begins in the summer of their 40th high school reunion, making all three women 58 give or take a few months. Lydia and Emma have lived in tiny Wyndham Beach Massachusetts all their lives, while Maggie left to work in Philadelphia and ended up staying there for 30 years, through marriage, two daughters – and the still recent death of her beloved husband.

When Maggie comes back for the reunion, she discovers that in spite of the years and the miles and the tragedies, Wyndham Beach is still – or again – the place that she thinks of as home. Even though both of her adult daughters live in the Philly area, and she loves them and sees them often, Wyndham Beach, where she grew up and where Lydia and Emma still live, is the place that calls her heart.

Even if she has to face the heartbreak she left behind all those years ago in order to stay.

Escape Rating A: This is EXACTLY the kind of story I think of as “women’s fiction”. And as much as I dislike that phrase, I LOVED this book.

One of the things I loved was Maggie. It was terrific to see a story centered on a woman near my own age that focused on her and not on her 20something daughters. Not that Maggie’s daughters aren’t important to the story and not that they don’t get their share of pages, or of Maggie’s attention. And certainly not that they don’t have their own issues to deal with over the course of the book.

But the focus here is on Maggie. She’s the person at the center, it’s about her friendships, her adult relationships with her daughters and her possibilities for romance. She’s the one turning a corner in her life and she’s the one who has to make decisions about her future.

A future that the story dives into from all sides with the acknowledgement that at not-quite-60 Maggie still has plenty of life to live and love to give and that she’s not ready to step back from life. The same is also true of her friends Emma and Lydia.

In other words, Maggie may be a grandmother, but that is far from the entire focus of the rest of her life. It doesn’t have to be and it probably shouldn’t be.

The terrific thread that runs through the story is the way that all of the women, Maggie, Lydia, Emma and Maggie’s daughters Natalie and Grace are ALL at inflection points in their lives. And that all of them grasp their respective bulls by their horns and wrestle their lives into the shapes that they want to live. If romance happens for any of them, it’s the icing on a cake they’ve baked themselves with help from each other.

Also, the issue in Maggie’s past that was holding her back, while the shape of it, so to speak, was obvious early on, the exact nature of the original issue and the way it got resolved was both surprising and lovely.

Honestly, the whole book was just a lovely, charming read from beginning to end.

This is one of those cases where a story turned out to be the right book at the right time. I fell into the lives of Maggie, her friends and her daughters with a contented sigh, and was sorry to fall out of Wyndham Beach at the end. So I’m very happy to see that there will be a second book in this series, Goodbye Again, just in time to pull me out of the winter doldrums next February. That beach is going to sound awfully good about then!

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

I am really, really pleased to be able to give a copy of An Invincible Summer away to one very lucky US/CAN winner. I loved this book and hope the winner will too! (As far as the question in the rafflecopter, I haven’t been to a single reunion since the 10th. I wasn’t close to anyone in high school haven’t had the urge to go and probably won’t. YMMV)

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Review: The Three Mrs Greys by Shelly Ellis

Review: The Three Mrs Greys by Shelly EllisThe Three Mrs. Greys by Shelly Ellis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Pages: 320
Published by Dafina Books on March 30, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

One wealthy businessman, a trio of unsuspecting wives, and an explosive turn of events. In this scandalous, twist-filled new series from award-winning author Shelly Ellis, will too many secrets and one devastating bond unite three women--or destroy them?
Noelle. Diamond. Vanessa. Each woman believes she is Cyrus Grey's only wife--until he's nearly shot to death. Now, as he lies in a coma, the deceptions keep coming, unraveling everything they thought they knew...
Gorgeous model Noelle's marriage to Cyrus anchored her--though she couldn't understand why he wouldn't have a baby with her. They certainly had the money. But she's learning fast just how Cyrus became so rich--thanks to his fatally attractive business partner...
For Diamond, marrying Cyrus saved her from the streets--and being a pimp's punching bag. But her past makes her the police's prime suspect in Cyrus' shooting. She's determined to get to the truth--if she can she survive long enough to tell it...
Even with her beautiful house, three kids, and elegant lifestyle, Vanessa sensed something was wrong in her marriage. But she never expected this--or that taking a lover for comfort would change the game completely.
With danger closing in, Cyrus' life hanging in the balance, and collateral damage threatening to take them all down, how far will each woman go to be the real Mrs. Grey?

My Review:

Grey is not an uncommon surname. It’s not out of the question for there to be three – or probably a whole lot more – Mrs. Greys in the Washington DC/Baltimore megapolis.

But Cyrus William Grey is a considerably less common name taken all together. While it’s still possible for the man to have had three wives one after another – divorce is certainly a thing, after all – for three women to all believe that they are CURRENTLY Mrs. Cyrus William Grey is a bit of a stretch.

That they all had a reason to kill him – or to have him killed – after their mutual discovery isn’t actually a surprise. That one of them may have attempted to do the deed before she found out about the other two is what makes this story so fascinating.

The story of the three Mrs. Greys is really about the falling of a house of cards – and just what happens to all of those cards once they’ve crashed to the ground around the builder of that house – in this case Cyrus William Grey.

At first, it seems like the story is all about the women – and just about the women. Mostly because Cyrus is laid up in the hospital after taking three bullets to the chest and is in a medically induced coma. He’s not “there” to keep his house of cards from crashing.

That’s where things get interesting, as the three Mrs. Greys reveal who they are, or who they used to be, or a bit of both, without Cyrus there to keep them guessing or placated or too busy to notice what the man behind the curtain is doing.

Who might not be, or might not only be, Cyrus Grey.

Escape Rating B: I don’t want to say too much about the story, because this is one of those stories where layers keep peeling back, not just the layers that Cyrus deliberately put in place, but also the layers of secrets that his three wives managed to wrap around themselves during all the time when they thought he was away on a business trip.

After all, if each of them was only getting about a third of his time, that means they each had another 2/3rds to spend alone. Or not alone, as at least one of the cases turns out to be.

The story is told through alternating points of view, day by day, for the week after Cyrus Grey gets himself shot. And he certainly did get himself shot. Not that he set himself up, but that he wasn’t keeping track of all the messes he left in his wake as he danced between his wives and his not-quite-successful-enough business.

Supporting three separate households in the style to which they wished to become accustomed is an expensive undertaking. One that threatens to send Cyrus Grey to an undertaker – one way or another.

This isn’t a case where the reader has to like one – or honestly any – of the protagonists in order to get caught up in the story. No one has clean hands in this one, and everyone has secrets that aren’t as secret as they thought they were. But the whole thing is utterly fascinating. The reader – along with all three Mrs. Greys – can’t help but marvel at the whole thing. It’s not a surprise that it fell apart, it’s a surprise that he managed it as long as he did.

So The Three Mrs. Greys is that kind of deliciously scandalous story where just desserts get passed all around. And it’s so satisfying in the sense that the whole thing couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bunch of people. (Not quite like the Thrombey family in Knives Out – but comparisons could be made)

It’s also not over yet. The author plans to continue the story in further books. After all, nobody’s dead yet. Considering just how big of a mess this is, somebody’s going to be a dead body before the last of those just desserts is finally served.

One final note: when I was growing up, Cincinnati was not as big as the Baltimore/DC metro area is now, but it wasn’t exactly a small town, either. We used to regularly get telephone calls for the other Joe Harris who lived in Cincy, whose wife was also named Shirley like my mother. It’s probably a good thing I wasn’t old enough to be interested in books like this one, otherwise I would have been VERY suspicious!

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Review: The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen

Review: The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys BowenThe Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, World War II
Pages: 412
Published by Lake Union Publishing on April 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Love and secrets collide in Venice during WWII in an enthralling novel of brief encounters and lasting romance by the New York Times bestselling author of The Tuscan Child and Above the Bay of Angels.
Caroline Grant is struggling to accept the end of her marriage when she receives an unexpected bequest. Her beloved great-aunt Lettie leaves her a sketchbook, three keys, and a final whisper…Venice. Caroline’s quest: to scatter Juliet “Lettie” Browning’s ashes in the city she loved and to unlock the mysteries stored away for more than sixty years.
It’s 1938 when art teacher Juliet Browning arrives in romantic Venice. For her students, it’s a wealth of history, art, and beauty. For Juliet, it’s poignant memories and a chance to reconnect with Leonardo Da Rossi, the man she loves whose future is already determined by his noble family. However star-crossed, nothing can come between them. Until the threat of war closes in on Venice and they’re forced to fight, survive, and protect a secret that will bind them forever.
Key by key, Lettie’s life of impossible love, loss, and courage unfolds. It’s one that Caroline can now make right again as her own journey of self-discovery begins.

My Review:

This dual timeline story follows the adventures – and misadventures – of two women in two separate eras but in the same exact place, La Serenissima. Venice.

Their stories are linked, not just by the city, and not just by these two women’s relationship to each other, but also to a family that influences both of their lives.

They are also both at points in their lives when they are making fresh starts – and bittersweet endings.

As we meet Caroline, her marriage is ending, and so is the life of her beloved great aunt, Lettie. Lettie and her sister, Caroline’s grandmother Winnie, raised her after the death of her own parents in their tiny country town not too far from London. Caroline loves both women, but Lettie has been both her inspiration and her rock for all of her life, and now that support is gone.

Leaving behind one final request, that Caroline go to Venice, a place that Lettie seems to have loved but that Caroline never knew was such a part of her great-aunt’s life, along with enough money for Caroline to make the trip, scatter Lettie’s ashes, and perhaps figure out what made the request so important to the dying woman that she hung on long enough to make that one last request.

So Caroline goes to Venice to learn what she can, in hopes of figuring out what compelled Lettie, and to take the opportunity to figure out where her own road will lead her next.

What she discovers, or who she discovers, is the woman her staid, upright, prim, proper and utterly respectable great-aunt Lettie used to be. A young woman named Julietta, an art student trapped in Venice when Britain declared war on Italy.

A woman who became a spy, a mother, a prisoner of war and a refugee. A woman who left behind everything she loved and everything she held dear to make a new life back in her old home. A life that seemed to be a complete rejection – or a tomb – for the woman she had once been.

A woman determined, in her last moments, that it was time for someone she loved to uncover her truth.

Escape Rating B-: World War II is a rich period for historical fiction of all types and stripes. To the point where I have three books in a row that are set during the same period, Friday’s The Consequences of Fear, this book today, and tomorrow’s The Last Bookshop in London. This is also not the only book this year to be set in World War II Italy, the other being Our Darkest Night by Jennifer Robson, which is somewhere in my virtually towering TBR pile.

All that’s to say that it feels like parts of this story have been done before, and recently, and perhaps for this reader a bit of World War II historical fiction fatigue has set in. So I found this take on that historic conflict to be a bit too much like too many things I’ve read before, in spite of the change in setting.

And as a result of that fatigue I enjoyed Caroline’s side of the story more than I did Julietta’s. I’d rather have seen Caroline actually researching Lettie’s history rather than just reading Lettie’s diary.

I think that the issues I had with Lettie/Julietta’s part of the story was that so much of what she did has been written before, and the parts of the story that were unique to her were a bit too predictable, especially her doomed romance and its results.

Let’s just say it was a VERY good thing for Caroline that Lettie was her great-aunt and not her grandmother.

One piece of Caroline’s story that I felt a great deal of resonance for was the way that it intersected with 9/11 and its aftermath, both in the portrayal of how countries outside the US both viewed the tragedy and moved on, and the way that it impacted people who were not remotely close to the event. It echoed for a while for all of us, and that was captured well.

So this is a story I’m kind of on that painful fence about. I liked Caroline a lot, I ended up seeing Julietta as both heroic and  incredibly naïve at the same time, and I wanted the 21st century story more than I did the historic one. Your mileage may vary, especially if you’ve not experienced the same kind of WW2 historical fiction fatigue or you’ve not read much about that period in Italy as opposed to the more usual settings of France or Britain..

And on my other hand, I have previously enjoyed several of this author’s WW2 stories, particularly In Farleigh Field and The Victory Garden and will undoubtedly be back again the next time she returns to the period.

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Review: The Stills by Jess Montgomery + Giveaway

Review: The Stills by Jess Montgomery + GiveawayThe Stills (Kinship #3) by Jess Montgomery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Kinship #3
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on March 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

With compassion and insight, Jess Montgomery weaves a gripping mystery and portrait of community in The Stills, the powerful third novel in the Kinship series.
Ohio, 1927: Moonshining is a way of life in rural Bronwyn County, and even the otherwise upstanding Sheriff Lily Ross has been known to turn a blind eye when it comes to stills in the area. But when thirteen-year-old Jebediah Ranklin almost dies after drinking tainted moonshine, Lily knows that someone has gone too far, and—with the help of organizer and moonshiner Marvena Whitcomb—is determined to find out who.
But then, Lily’s nemesis, the businessman George Vogel, reappears in town with his new wife, Fiona. Along with them is also her former brother-in-law Luther Ross, now an agent for the newly formed Bureau of Prohibition. To Lily, it seems too much of a coincidence that they should arrive now.
As fall turns to winter, a blizzard closes in. Lily starts to peel back the layers of deception shrouding the town of Kinship, but soon she discovers that many around her seem to be betraying those they hold dear—and that Fiona too may have an agenda of her own.

My Review:

I picked up The Stills for two reasons. One, because I read the second book in the Kinship series, The Hollows, and was absolutely fascinated with this fictional portrait of a female sheriff in rural southeastern Ohio in the 1920s. A time and a place where the last thing that a reader – or a resident – would expect is that the hand of local law enforcement belongs to a woman. Or that the fictional Sheriff Ross is based on a real historical figure, Maude Collins of Vinton County, Ohio.

The second reason is that Prohibition is a singularly fascinating failure in American history. It is almost a textbook case for the road to hell being paved with good intentions. The concept was laudable, but the result was a disaster. One that we seem to have learned few lessons from.

Those two fascinations combine in The Stills. It’s the winter of 1926. Even before the Great Depression, that part of Ohio was economically depressed, as it has been historically. What is not well known outside of the area is that this particular part of Ohio is considerably more a part of Appalachia than it is the city and suburban Midwest that are typically thought of when Ohio is mentioned.

Which meant, at least in the 1920s and probably a whole lot longer, that in spite of Prohibition the making of moonshine was still a part of the local culture AND the local economy.

The story of The Stills is wrapped around two women. Sheriff Lily Ross, who stayed in Kinship, married, was widowed, took over from her late husband as sheriff and was elected in her own right at the end of The Hollows. Lily, a strong, resolute and pragmatic woman – also a good shot and a grown-up tomboy – is surrounded by a whole phalanx of women as strong as herself who all support her the best they can – which is generally quite well indeed.

On the other side of the story is Fiona Vogel. Fiona was also born in Kinship, but she left for the bright lights and big city charms of Cincinnati. On the surface at least, Fiona is a more traditional example of what women are supposed to be. Under that demure exterior lies a woman who knows that she has shackled herself to a criminal. A man that she is determined to get the best of and get away from before he “takes care” of her the way he has so many others who got in his way.

Fiona is the opposite to Lily in another way. Where Lily is surrounded by a group of friends who stand beside her, a group that is mostly but not entirely female, Fiona is nearly imprisoned by a group of enemies, mostly but not completely male. All of whom are out to subjugate her in as many ways as possible if not just kill her outright.

The Stills of the title are, quite literally, stills. Moonshine stills. It’s about the lengths – and depths – that one man will go to in order to control them and the illegal trade they represent. It’s about the collateral damage that became the wreck by the side of Prohibition’s good-intention paved road to hell.

And it’s the story of one female sheriff doing her very best to follow the law, appease her conscience – and protect those she holds dear.

Escape Rating B+: Where the previous book in the series, The Hollows, wrapped itself around three perspectives – Lily and her friends Marvena and Hildy – The Stills only follows two of its primary characters, Lily and her “opposite”, Fiona.

And as much as Hildy’s dithering and everyone else dithering about Hildy drove me crazy in The Hollows, I have to say that I liked Fiona’s perspectives even less. I would have been a much happier reader if the entire story was told from Lily’s point-of-view, leaving the inner workings of Fiona’s rather twisted mind to be revealed along with the rest of the plot.

Some of which turned out to be Fiona’s own convoluted plot to get rid of her bastard of a husband in order to get control of not just her life but both his legal AND illegal empires. Fiona is a victim who looks like she’s going to perpetuate the cycle. She may begin as a victim but by the end she’s on her way to becoming a perpetrator and I’d rather not have been near her head.

Lily, on the other hand, does an excellent job of, well, her job, but also of being a female character who is both true to her time AND has the kind of agency that makes her perspective dynamic to follow as well as making her easy for 21st century readers to empathize with.

And I definitely did.

I also liked that Lily might be developing a romantic relationship, but that she is taking it very, very slowly, is cognizant of everything that is at risk both personally and professionally, and is very careful about balancing the professional life that she loves – even though she’s not supposed to even have it – with the possibility of falling in love again. Those hesitant thoughts, the stop and start of possibility versus caution, feel very real.

This series, at least so far, combines historical fiction with mystery in a way that brings the historical period to life and provides a background that makes the mystery feel like it is grounded in its time, place, and characters. While I haven’t read the first book, The Widows, this does feel like a series where the individual books can be read as standalone, while creating a deeper story for those who have followed Lily’s adventures from the beginning.

This entry in the series makes it clear that Lily has plenty of sheriffing to do in the future. And I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next!

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

I’m giving away a copy of The Stills to one very lucky US commenter on this tour!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Review: The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper

Review: The Girl in the Painting by Tea CooperThe Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Thomas Nelson on March 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A young prodigy in need of family.
A painting that shatters a woman’s peace.
And a decades-old mystery demanding to be solved.
Australia, 1906
Orphan Jane Piper is nine years old when philanthropist siblings Michael and Elizabeth Quinn take her into their home to further her schooling. The Quinns are no strangers to hardship. Having arrived in Australia as penniless immigrants, they now care for others as lost as they once were.
Despite Jane’s mysterious past, her remarkable aptitude for mathematics takes her far over the next seven years, and her relationship with Elizabeth and Michael flourishes as she plays an increasingly prominent part in their business.
But when Elizabeth reacts in terror to an exhibition at the local gallery, Jane realizes no one knows Elizabeth after all—not even Elizabeth herself. As the past and present converge and Elizabeth’s grasp on reality loosens, Jane sets out to unravel her story before it’s too late.
From the gritty reality of the Australian goldfields to the grand institutions of Sydney, this compelling novel presents a mystery that spans continents and decades as both women finally discover a place to call home.
“Combining characters that are wonderfully complex with a story spanning decades of their lives, The Girl in the Painting is a triumph of family, faith, and long-awaited forgiveness. I was swept away!” —Kristy Cambron, bestselling author of The Paris Dressmaker and the Hidden Masterpiece novels
Stand-alone novel with rich historical detailsBook length: 102,000 wordsIncludes discussion questions for book clubs and historical note from the authorAlso by this author: The Woman in the Green Dress

My Review:

Who are we, really? Are we who we think we are, or are we the person we were born to be? It’s an age-old question about nature vs. nurture, and it plays out in this timeslip story powered by the wing-flap of not the butterfly of chaos theory but rather by the wingbeats of a swarm of almost-forgotten doves.

And it’s the story of two lost girls who are found, in the end, one by the other. Or maybe three lost girls.

The story opens, rather than begins, in Australia in 1906, when math-whiz Jane Piper is rescued from the local orphanage by the equally gifted Elizabeth Quinn and her brother Michael. The Quinns have made a great success of their many businesses in Maitland, New South Wales. Australia has been very, very good to the Quinns, who have never forgotten their roots as desperate Irish immigrants in the 1860s. Jane is the latest in a very long line of young people that the Quinns have taken into their home and businesses from the orphanage.

But Jane’s mathematical talent makes her special. The Quinns, now well into middle age, have expanded their original business enterprises, stores and auction houses, into philanthropy on Elizabeth’s part and politics on Michael’s. Neither has ever married, and in Jane’s mathematical talents they see someone they can train to help them in their many endeavors.

And Jane is more than willing. She’s a math prodigy but not very cognizant of social cues. In today’s terms we’d probably say that she was somewhere on the part of the autism spectrum that includes Asperger’s. Her unofficial adoption into the Quinn’s household turns out to be a boon for not just Jane but also Michael and Elizabeth, as she becomes both their quasi-niece and a valued assistant to both of the Quinns.

It is in that capacity that Jane finds herself in the midst of the Quinns’ greatest secret, as the long-buried past interferes in the suddenly fraught present.

Escape Rating A-: I originally picked this up because I really enjoyed one of the author’s previous books, The Woman in the Green Dress, and was hoping for more of the same. Which I definitely got with The Girl in the Painting.

Both stories are set in Australia, and both feature dual timelines, the historical past and then the past of the main characters, and both are centered around old and nearly-forgotten mysteries, although the stories don’t relate to each other. So if you like the sound of The Girl in the Painting, you’ll love The Woman in the Green Dress and very much vice-versa.

At the top I said this was a story about nature vs. nurture, and that turns out to be what lies at the heart of the mystery as well. A mystery that neither the readers nor the characters are aware of as the story begins.

When we first peer into Michael and Elizabeth Quinn’s past, we see the brother and sister on the gangplank at Liverpool, waiting to board a ship for Australia to reconnect with their parents. It’s only as the story continues that we discover that what we assumed about that initial scene, and what Elizabeth remembers of it – after all, she was only 4 years old at the time – are not quite what actually happened.

It’s a secret that Michael has been keeping from his sister for 50 years at this point, and it’s highly likely he intended to go right on keeping it. At least until Elizabeth has a “turn” or a psychological break, or a breakthrough of suppressed memory, at an art exhibit, and all of his secrets start to unravel.

And even though I guessed what one of those secrets was fairly early on, the story, both in their past and in their present, it still made for a compelling read. Just because I’d managed to fill in one corner of the jigsaw did not mean I had much of an inkling about the rest of the puzzle. Pulling the remaining pieces out of their box and figuring out how they fit – or perhaps didn’t fit – was part of what made this story so compelling for me as a reader.

In order to reconcile the past with the present, it’s up to Jane Piper, now a full-fledged partner in the business, to poke and prod her way into those mysteries that refuse to lie dormant in the past. Not because Jane is any kind of detective, but because she loves the Quinns, is grateful to them, and simply can’t resist her own compulsion to resolve the unresolved, as that’s part of her mathematical gift and her social awkwardness. She has to know, and she can’t rest until she does.

While I found Jane herself to be a bit of an unresolved character, more of a vehicle for the story to be told than an integral part of it, the story of Michael and Elizabeth Quinn’s rise from hardworking poverty to wealth and influence was fascinating in its portrayal of two people who lived a lie that was also the utter and absolute truth.

As much as I enjoyed the Quinns’ story, I have to say that I’m finding this author’s portrayal of Australian history wrapped in fiction to be lovely and absorbing and I’m looking forward to her next book (it looks like it will be The Cartographer’s Secret) whenever it appears.

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Spotlight + Excerpt: Her Dark Lies by J.T. Ellison

Spotlight + Excerpt: Her Dark Lies by J.T. EllisonHer Dark Lies by J.T. Ellison
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 416
Published by Mira on March 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

At the wedding of the year, a killer needs no invitation
Jutting from sparkling turquoise waters off the Italian coast, Isle Isola is an idyllic setting for a wedding. In the majestic cliff-top villa owned by the wealthy Compton family, up-and-coming artist Claire Hunter will marry handsome, charming Jack Compton, surrounded by close family, intimate friends…and a host of dark secrets.
From the moment Claire sets foot on the island, something seems amiss. Skeletal remains have just been found. There are other, newer disturbances, too. Menacing texts. A ruined wedding dress. And one troubling shadow hanging over Claire’s otherwise blissful relationship—the strange mystery surrounding Jack’s first wife.
Then a raging storm descends, the power goes out—and the real terror begins…

Welcome to the Excerpt tour for Her Dark Lies by J.T. Ellison. Ellison is a new author for me, but as I’ve been reading a bit more suspense recently it looks like an absolutely riveting read. I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing Her Dark Lies in the weeks ahead, so here’s a teaser to whet all of our reading appetites!

Excerpt from Her Dark Lies by J.T. Ellison (continued from yesterday’s excerpt at Berit Talks Books)

There is something…wistful on his face. I run my hand from his cheek to his temple, smoothing back his too-long hair. There is the lightest sprinkling of silver in his part, just a few hairs here and there, lending him a serious, studious air.

“A magic bed? What, does it fly?” I tease.

“In a way. Rumor has it ladies tend to get knocked up on their wedding nights. My grandmother and my mother swear by it.”

“Ah.” A deep sense of foreboding seizes me, and I instinctually scan my body for any signs of pregnancy. It’s a reflex, something I’ve done regularly since we first became intimate. An accidental pregnancy terrifies me. I can only imagine the headlines, how I’d be portrayed. Prevailing wisdom: a woman like me can only land a man like Jackson Compton if I get pregnant and he is forced to do the right thing.

I run my mind over our sexual escapades from the past month. I had my implant taken out; it was making me feel terrible. I have been taking my pills on time, haven’t I? We’ve been careful, yes?

Stop it. You’re being paranoid.

Yes, of course we’ve been careful. The dull ache deep in my stomach is certainly my impending monthly, just in time to ruin our wedding night. The malaise I’ve been feeling for the past couple of days is stress and travel related. I’ve never flown well, even short hops leave me with a headache, clammy and uncomfortable. Add in a mild concussion and a boat on slightly stormy seas? I’d gone to the doctor for a preventative motion sickness patch before we left; it is helping tamp down some of the nausea from the bump on my head, too.

The long night coupled with the long journey from Nashville to Naples is catching up to me. We’d been forced—quelle horreur—to fly first class on Delta instead of being chauffeured across the sea in the family jet. Jack’s father is flying in from Africa, where he’s been on business with Jack’s brother Elliot. As heads of the company, their travel needs take precedence.

Yes, it was a terrible burden for me to be waited upon by the dark-eyed flight attendants with their prettily accented Italian and sly smiles for Jack. The wine was plentiful, the carbonara and crusty bread delicious, the lay-down beds surprisingly comfortable. I’d only disliked being separated from Jack. He was in the cozy suite behind me, and I felt all alone, watching the flight attendants’ faces light up with pleasure as they walked past me to tend to Jack’s needs.

The breeze picks up, and I realize Jack is looking at me curiously. “Everything okay?”

“Yes, but good grief, don’t wish a baby on us just yet. I want to be married for a while, first.”

“No promises, darling. My parents will explode with happiness at the idea of another heir.”

There is a certain hopefulness in his voice. Jack is a decade older than me. A widower. His first life was stolen from him. He is ready to start a family. I understand. He’s already experienced so much. I’m only getting started. I’m not ready for a child. I might not ever be ready. I need to tell him that, before the wedding. In case it’s a deal breaker.

I take a deep breath. “Jack?”

“Yes, darling?”

But we are interrupted by a call from the upper deck. Gideon, beckoning. “We need you for a moment, Jack.”

Jack squeezes my shoulder. “Be right back.”

I watch Jack stride away and wrestle my urge to confess back into place. What purpose will it serve? He’ll just get upset, and who knows, maybe I’ll change my mind.

You know what they say about digging your own grave.

I turn back to the island.

Unlike the smoky gray open waters of the bay, the water in the shallower edges of the channel is cerulean and almost clear; schools of dark fish race away. What are they running from? The boat? A predator?

The breeze cools, the azure Mediterranean early summer sky turning hazy. Bad weather is coming. Italy is under a Red warning this long weekend, a severe weather alert, expecting the worst storms in a decade.

I hope everyone gets here in time. The channel crossing to Isle Isola is too dicey to manage anything smaller than the yacht or the hydrofoil ferry in bad weather, and the hydrofoil normally runs to Isola only once a week, though it’s running three days in a row for us to get all the guests on the island. And obviously, the choppers can’t fly if the storm is too bad.

The Hebrides is approaching the cliff’s edge now. The imposing granite face is sheer and unforgiving. We’re so close I can see the striations of the stone, the moss growing in the cracks. At the top, there is a flash of white. What is that?

A scarf, my mind fills in. A woman’s scarf.

And then it is gone.

Someone is watching for us.

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Review: A Vineyard Valentine by Nina Bocci

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

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Rakehell of Roth by Amalie Howard + Giveaway

Review: The Rakehell of Roth by Amalie Howard + GiveawayThe Rakehell of Roth (Regency Rogues, #2) by Amalie Howard
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, regency romance
Series: Regency Rogues #2
Pages: 400
Published by Entangled: Amara on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In this game of seduction, the rules don't apply...
As owner of the most scandalous club in London, the last thing the notorious Marquess of Roth wants is a wife. Keeping up his false reputation as a rake brings in the clients with the deepest pockets—money he needs to fund a noble cause. Even though everything inside tells him not to leave his beautiful, innocent wife behind at his country estate...he must.
But three years later, tired of her scoundrel of a husband headlining the gossip rags, Lady Isobel Vance decides enough is enough. She is no longer a fragile kitten, but as the anonymous author of a women’s sexual advice column, she’s now a roaring tigress...and she can use her claws.
Isobel decides to go to him in London, channeling her powers of seduction to make him beg to take her back. But she didn’t expect her marauding marquess to be equally hard to resist. Now the game is on to see who will give in to the other first, with both sides determined like hell to win.

My Review:

There are marriages of convenience. And there are convenient marriages, which is more the case of the marriage between Winter Vance, Marquess of Roth, and his wife Lady Isobel.

But after  Roth conveniently weds her and beds her and leaves her at his father’s country estate in Chelmsford so he can return to London to run his gaming hell, the girl he leaves behind is most emphatically NOT the woman his father escorts to London three years later.

The little mouse in desperate rescue has grown up into a hell-cat bent on sinking her claws into her wayward husband – one way or another. Although she certainly knows which way she’d prefer she’ll take a win any way she can get one.

Almost any way.

What she wants is a husband and a real marriage, with the possibility of children – even if she has a hard time admitting that her young and innocent heart fell in love with her handsome husband – and that his subsequent dastardly behavior has not killed that love.

What he wants is to be left alone. Not just by Isobel, but also by the rest of his estranged family; his uptight father and his jealous younger brother. Winter’s heart is frozen in the past, with the sister he couldn’t protect and the mother who was betrayed and abandoned by her husband. Both women are dead, and Winter believes that if he couldn’t protect them, he shouldn’t let anyone else get close out of fear that he won’t be able to protect them either.

Winter is pretty much a complete mess. A successful businessman, but emotionally and psychologically more than a bit of a wreck – albeit a VERY well built one.

Isobel comes to London believing that she’s there to get revenge on her wayward husband for the disrespect he’s shown her. And that she’ll be able to return to the country – after he’s groveled at her feet, of course – with her heart intact.

Winter believes that all he has to do is keep pushing Isobel away until she finally gets the message that she’s better off as far away from him as possible. Back in the country at his father’s estate.

Of course, they’re both wrong, wrong, wrong. But watching them figure that out is a whole lot of sexy and scandalous fun!

Escape Rating B+: For all the people who are shying about from this book because the blurb reads as if he cheats – he really doesn’t – and that’s obvious early on so not a spoiler. This book is a fun romp and I’d hate for people who are interested to miss it because of something that doesn’t happen after all.

I have to say that the first chapter is very hard reading. Isobel is so naïve that her attitudes and internal dialog are sweet to the point of tooth decay, while Winter is a cold, jaded bastard – except in the bedroom – where he burns hot enough to immolate them both – only to abandon Isobel as soon as he’s spent. Calling him an ass is an insult to asses everywhere.

Fortunately, in fact very fortunately for the entire story, Isobel’s cloying innocent phase doesn’t last long at all. After Winter leaves immediately upon consummating their marriage (and I do mean IMMEDIATELY and not the next morning), the story picks up 3 years later and Isobel has changed a LOT and for the better.

This is where the story gets to be fun!

It’s not just that Isobel has grown up and gotten righteously angry at her situation, it’s the WAY she’s gotten angry. She and her best friend Clarissa have not just been rusticating at Chelmsford.

Together, they’ve become the early 18th century version of Dr. Ruth, writing and publishing a scandalous sex education column for women under the penname Lady Darcy. Under the guise of research, they’ve acquired a LOT of book knowledge about love, sex, what men want and more importantly, what women want and especially what women need to know. Not about pleasing men or capturing men, but about pleasing themselves. Possibly by capturing, or at least captivating, men.

But it’s sex writing and sex education centered on women. It’s marvelous. It’s scandalous. And it gives them both an independent income. It also gives Isobel the inner fortitude to go to London and confront – and possibly captivate – the husband who has just been featured in the gossip rags for fighting a duel over another woman!

The romance in this one is all about the push and pull between Isobel and Winter. Not just that they burn up the pages like fire, but that the burn has all of the sex positivity in it that The Rakess tried to have and just didn’t, or at least it didn’t for me. The romance between Isobel and Winter is all about the way that they explore every facet of what they have together, including more than a bit of totally consensual kink. And it’s wonderful.

On the other hand, after all of the asshattery that Winter has committed, he doesn’t grovel nearly enough when he finally does figure out that he is both capable of loving and that he really does love Isobel in spite of his protestations.

And that the scene where they save each other from thieves, kidnappers and murderers and then screw each other senseless was the only point where I missed having read the first book in the series, The Beast of Beswick. Because everything to do with their being in danger in the first place circled back to events from that book. Their mutual ravishment in a back alley did, however, make the scene end with a resounding climax even if I didn’t get all of the underlying causes of the fight.

There’s one thing keeping this from being a “Grade A” read for me. The hero who believes his unworthy of love is a tried and true trope that I enjoy when it’s done well. A lot of the reasons that Winter believes he’s unworthy make sense, that he couldn’t protect his mother and sister and has never been able to measure up to his father’s high expectations. But he’s also unwilling to love anyone because his mother was destroyed by her love for his father and his father’s lack of ability to return that love. He’s learned that love is a destoyer and he has no interest in being that vulnerable to anyone. Period.

Even before we discover the truth of that past, this part of Winter’s motivations didn’t quite work for me. Men had so many more options for, well, everything, in the early 19th century than women. Winter proves to be not nearly stupid enough or oblivious enough to NOT be aware of that fact, as some of his later actions prove. I just didn’t buy that part of his story.

But overall, The Rakehell of Roth is a terrific froth of a Regency romp with just enough serious bits to really keep the reader engaged – if occasionally also enraged at the hero along with the heroine. If this kind of story sounds like your cup of tea, it reminded me a lot of The Wildes of Lindow Castle series by Eloisa James and any of Eva Leigh’s three series, The Union of the Rakes, The London Underground and especially The Wicked Quills of London. The heroines of all of those series would find plenty of common cause with Isobel and her BFF Clarissa. So if you find yourself cheering Isobel on and want more like her then those ladies will fill your TBR pile nicely indeed.

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

I’m giving a copy of The Rakehell of Roth to one lucky US commenter on this tour!

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