Review: Last Christmas in Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

Review: Last Christmas in Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather WebbLast Christmas in Paris: A Novel of World War I by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 3rd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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New York Times bestselling author Hazel Gaynor has joined with Heather Webb to create this unforgettably romantic novel of the Great War.

August 1914. England is at war. As Evie Elliott watches her brother, Will, and his best friend, Thomas Harding, depart for the front, she believes—as everyone does—that it will be over by Christmas, when the trio plan to celebrate the holiday among the romantic cafes of Paris.

But as history tells us, it all happened so differently…

Evie and Thomas experience a very different war. Frustrated by life as a privileged young lady, Evie longs to play a greater part in the conflict—but how?—and as Thomas struggles with the unimaginable realities of war he also faces personal battles back home where War Office regulations on press reporting cause trouble at his father’s newspaper business. Through their letters, Evie and Thomas share their greatest hopes and fears—and grow ever fonder from afar. Can love flourish amid the horror of the First World War, or will fate intervene?

Christmas 1968. With failing health, Thomas returns to Paris—a cherished packet of letters in hand—determined to lay to rest the ghosts of his past. But one final letter is waiting for him…

My Review:

Last Christmas in Paris is a bittersweet tale of World War I. Much of that bittersweet flavor is in the title. It’s not so much last Christmas in Paris, as in we spent last Christmas in Paris, although the protagonists certainly did, as it is, this is our last and final Christmas in Paris, because we shall not pass this way again.

The heart of the story is correspondence. Most of the story is told through letters, and occasionally telegrams, between Tom Harding and Evie Elliott, with occasional letters between Evie and her best friend Alice, Evie and her brother Will, and Tom and his father, and eventually between Tom and his father’s business manager.

What we see through their four years of letters is that life changes people, and that life in war changes people all that much more.

At the beginning, in those glorious and naive first months of World War I, Tom and Will volunteer to go off to war. Everyone thinks it will be over by Christmas. Christmas of 1914, not Christmas of 1918 as it nearly turned out to be.

Evie, Will’s younger sister, is stuck at home in the gilded cage that was wrapped around all young women of the upper classes prior to the war. She wants to volunteer, to do something for the war effort, and she is old enough to do so. But her parents won’t LET her, and at the beginning, that means everything.

So she stays home, badly knits gloves and socks, and begins her correspondence with her brother and with Tom, who has been a friend to them since childhood.

Will is an indifferent correspondent at best, but Tom certainly is not. Evie has plans of becoming a writer, and Tom had begun studying English literature at Oxford, with plans of becoming an Oxford don. His father wants him to buckle down and take over the family newspaper, the London Daily News.

But all hopes and dreams and plans are set cock-eyed by the war as it drags on, and on, and on. And eventually drags Will Elliott into its maw, spitting out his bullet-riddled corpse.

Tom and Evie go on. Their letters become each other’s lights in very dark places, as they pour out their minds, hearts and souls to each other over the months and the miles. They tell each other everything, except that somewhere amid the ink and the paper, they have fallen in love with each other – if not long before.

But as peace finally begins to fill the horizon, all the decisions that have been delayed by the war must finally be reckoned with. And all the secrets that have been hidden come to light.

Escape Rating A: Last Christmas in Paris is a beautiful story from beginning to end. It is also ultimately a sad story, but appropriately so.

Epistolary novels such as this one are difficult to write. There is no omniscient third person who sees all and has the ability to tell all. Even if they don’t always do so. In a novel that consists nearly entirely of letters, we see events as they happen, but only what the writer chooses to tell the intended recipient. If they don’t put their thoughts on paper, we don’t know what they are – unless they put them on paper to someone else.

So we know how Evie feels, not because she tells Tom, but because she tells her best friend Alice. And we can only guess about Tom’s feelings, because he is so very careful not to tell Evie what is in his heart. But what he does tell her is heartbreaking, because Tom tells Evie as much as the censors will allow about the true state of his war. And it’s hell.

So much hell that he is eventually hospitalized for what was termed “shell shock”. Amazingly, he recovers, as much as anyone could, and returns to the front. We now know “shell shock” as PTSD, but that in his time it was considered a “weakness of moral fiber” is enough to make the reader weep.

We also see what many considered the breakdown of the social order from Evie’s perspective. At the beginning, her life is completely restricted by her parents. But as the war goes on, Evie escapes from those restrictions, first by volunteering as a postal worker, then by writing a controversial newspaper column on women’s perspectives of the war, and finally by volunteering for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and going to France herself to serve as a telephone operator and secret war correspondent.

Between Tom at the Front and Evie on the Home Front, we see the horrors of war in all their destruction. And it’s brutal in one way or another no matter where they are.

But as I said in the beginning, this story is bittersweet. Not from the contents of the correspondence itself, but from the perspective of when the letters are being re-read. Bracketing each year of correspondence, we have a framing story. It is 1968, 50 years after the end of the war. Tom Harding has set himself the final task of re-reading the correspondence, and returning to Paris for Christmas, one last time. He is dying of cancer, and Evie is already gone.

We find out what happened to Evie as the letters progress. The reader experiences some of those letters with a certain amount of bated breath, as it is more than possible that they didn’t manage to have their happy ever after before it ended. There are so many points along the way where things nearly go smash, and we don’t discover until nearly the end what really happened.

The story is beautiful and quite absorbing. It’s a great book to read if you don’t think you have lots of time at a time, as one can read just a few letters and feel like one has absorbed so much. But I would sit down to read just a few letters and find myself coming up for air at the end of an entire year’s worth of correspondence. I could never resist reading “just one more”.

As much as I loved this book, I kept having the niggling feeling that I had read some of it before. It certainly reminds me Fall of Poppies, last year’s wonderful collection of World War I romances, two of which were written by the co-authors of Last Christmas in Paris. It also reminds me of bits of Jennifer Robson’s lovely World War I stories, as well as a bit of the side plot of one of the later Maisie Dobbs books.

If you love World War I stories, miss Downton Abbey, or just want to read something to commemorate the upcoming 99th anniversary of the end of the war, celebrated as Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, and as Veterans Day in the United States, Last Christmas in Paris is a gem of a book.

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Review: The Sweet Life by Sharon Struth + Giveaway

Review: The Sweet Life by Sharon Struth + GiveawayThe Sweet Life by Sharon Struth
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Series: Sweet Life #1
Pages: 216
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation on September 19th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In Italy, the best attractions are always off the beaten path . . .

Mamie Weber doesn't know why she survived that terrible car accident five years ago. Physically, she has only a slight reminder-but emotionally, the pain is still fresh. Deep down she knows her husband would have wanted her to embrace life again. Now she has an opportunity to do just that, spending two weeks in Tuscany reviewing a tour company for her employer's popular travel guide series. The warmth of the sun, the centuries-old art, a villa on the Umbrian border-it could be just the adventure she needs.

But with adventure comes the unexpected . . . like discovering that her entire tour group is made up of aging ex-hippies reminiscing about their Woodstock days. Or finding herself drawn to the guide, Julian, who is secretly haunted by a tragedy of his own, and seems to disapprove any time she tries something remotely risky-like an impromptu scooter ride with a local man.

As they explore the hilltop towns of Tuscany, Mamie knows that when this blissful excursion is over, she'll have to return to reality. But when you let yourself wander, life can take some interesting detours . . .

Praise for Sharon Struth

"Struth has a gift for layering stories within stories while keeping them all connected." --Library Journal

"Struth is an author to watch!" --Laura Drake, author of RITA-award winner The Sweet Spot

"Sharon Struth writes a good story about love and loss. She knows her characters and has a path she wants them to take." --Eye on Romance

"The plot is refreshing and will definitely keep the reader turning page after page." -Fresh Fiction

My Review:

The Sweet Life is a lovely, sweet story about love, and loss, and letting go. And discovering that the life that’s left after the grief has lost its sharpness can still be very, very sweet – if you’re willing to reach out and grab that sweetness with both hands and seize both it and the day.

Mamie Weber lost both her husband and her daughter in a devastating car accident five years ago. And she’s let her grief consume her every single day since. But five years is a long time to pull up the drawbridge and retreat into the castle. She’s finally come to realize that her “safety” is also a trap – and a prison of her own making.

A colleague steps in and offers her a way out – just a bit. All that she needs to do is get on an airplane and fly to Italy for a two week vacation as part of a tour group to which she does not belong. But a tour that her employer will pay for if she writes her friend’s “Covert Critic” travel book about the tour.

No one knows who the Covert Critic really is. And Mamie is contractually obligated not to reveal that, for just this one tour, she’s it.

The problem is that the tour is for a group of Woodstock “survivors”. Her friend Felix really was one of the thousands who went to Yasgur’s Farm in 1969, but at 39, Mamie is more than a generation younger. The “Woodstock Wanderers” don’t care. They are all more than happy to adopt her as a temporary replacement for the daughter or niece that none of them see enough of at this point in their busy lives.

But the tour guide, Julian Gregory, has some serious problems with Mamie’s intrusion into the tour. For one thing, it’s against the rules. Very much against the rules. And Julian needs to follow those rules. Not just because he needs the job, but because following the rules is what’s keeping him going – more or less. Being strict about the rules is the way that Julian is pretty much not dealing with the griefs and regrets that have piled up in his own life.

As Mamie tests her own limits, she also tests Julian’s resolve to stay on the straight and narrow at any cost. He starts out thinking that limits make life safer, only to eventually come to the same realization that Mamie has – that limits are just plain limiting.

It’s only when they both step outside, far outside, their comfort zones that they are able to finally reach for happiness – and each other.

Escape Rating B: If Eat, Pray, Love and If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium had a love child, it would probably be this book. The Sweet Life has that element of searching for one’s bliss mixed in with the whirlwind tour aspects (but not quite as much of a whirlwind) as that long-ago comedy movie.

Come to think of it, the Woodstock Wanderers are probably the right age to have seen that movie on dates – it’s the right time and the right kind of movie. And the guy does get the girl in the end, in spite of all the rules against it – as well as his own original intentions.

The travel portions of The Sweet Life are a love letter to the Italian countryside. If you finish this book and don’t want to sign up immediately for a tour of Tuscany, you’re probably not paying attention. It all sounds absolutely yummy, and now I have a yen to travel somewhere I hadn’t been thinking that seriously about. A good book will do that.

But the story is about Mamie and Julian both getting over all the things that are holding them back, and discovering that a grief shared is a grief halved – because they both have plenty. Their relationship has a lot of fits and starts, as they both, for very different reasons, try to resist the attraction they feel, and resist the need to tell each other their whole truth even longer.

A bit too long, of course, as that’s what’s sets up the final conflict of the romance.

While the two-steps-forward one-step-back of their relationship goes on a bit longer than it might, and they both do a bit too much wallowing to make the book a page-turner, this is still a very sweet story that provides a lovely and deserved happy ever after for its likeable protagonists.

And leaves the reader desperately seeking good pasta.

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

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Review: Defending Hearts by Rebecca Crowley + Giveaway

Review: Defending Hearts by Rebecca Crowley + GiveawayDefending Hearts (Atlanta Skyline #2) by Rebecca Crowley
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: sports romance
Series: Atlanta Skyline #2
Pages: 236
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation on September 19th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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When The Pitch Gets Personal

Atlanta Skyline's star Swedish wingback Oz Terim-or as the fans call him, the Wizard-has an airtight plan for his life, his career, even his meticulously renovated house, but he barely gives a thought to the Islamic faith he inherited from his Turkish parents. So no one's more surprised than he is when he's the victim of anti-Muslim hate crime. Refusing to take the threat seriously, he resists the security detail Skyline insists on . . . until he meets Kate Mitchell. There's no room for her in his plan and she's the exact opposite of what he wants. Then why can't he keep his hands off her?

After ten years in the military-and getting fired from her first post-Army job in Saudi Arabia-Kate Mitchell has slunk home to her Georgia roots. Private security isn't the career she dreamed of, nor is she thrilled to work with an uptight professional athlete who plays a sport she has no interest in. She never expected to be attracted to him-or for him to fall for her, too. As their opposite lives tangle up-and the threat against Oz grows more serious-Kate has to decide who she wants to be in life and in love.

"A well-crafted and very enjoyable sports romance that also delves into a timely subplot of the challenges faced by immigrants to America . . . Crossing Hearts delivers an exciting and passionate read." -allaboutromance.com

My Review:

I picked this one because I live in Atlanta. I always enjoy reading books about the place I live – or places I have lived. I still have a soft spot in my heart for books set in Alaska after three years there.

But this story isn’t really about the city, and the city doesn’t feature much in the story. Instead, this could any big city in the U.S. that is trying to get FIFA-level soccer established in the U.S. And there are lots of medium-to-large cities that could host a team.

The story in Defending Hearts is about more than soccer. Oz Terem could be a star player in any major league sport, and this story would still work. Because underlying the romance there’s a surprisingly in-depth story about irrational hatred and unthinking prejudice, and that’s the part that sticks with readers in the end.

Oz is not just the star player for the Atlanta Skyline. He’s also a practicing, admittedly somewhat loosely and extremely secular, Muslim who is seen visibly praying before each game. And some nutjob out there riding the current wave of Islamophobia has decided that Oz’ somewhat casual adherence to his faith means that he must be a terrorist or at least aiding and abetting terrorism.

When he’s really a soccer player who is otherwise doing a decent job of living his life and observing as much of his faith as he finds comfortable. While he may be of Turkish descent, he actually sees himself as Swedish, because that’s where he was born and raised.

But there’s someone targeting Oz with increasingly virulent threats on all of his social media accounts. The escalation has got his manager worried, enough so that the team decides to get security for Oz.

And that’s where our heroine, Kate Mitchell, comes in. Kate is ex-military, and is currently working for one of Atlanta’s frankly lesser lights in the personal security business. But she’s the agent available when a reluctant Oz and his manager come into the office, so she’s the agent they get.

Kate and Oz strike sparks off each other from the very beginning, even though neither is anything like the other’s type. Kate has a taste for big guys with bigger trucks, and Oz is working from his master plan – he’s not interested in anyone who isn’t wife material. Kate’s more of a Ms. Right Now type, and she’s trying her best not to keep settling for Mr. Right Now. Her track record with men mostly consists of disappointment.

Even though they may not fit each other’s ideas of what they thought they wanted – they are absolutely what each other needs. But as the threats to Oz escalate, and they turn towards each other, neither is certain whether the bond they are forging can survive either the resolution of the crisis or the vast differences between them.

And whether or not it should.

Escape Rating B: There’s something about Defending Hearts that gives it a bit of a “New Adult” feel, and it’s not just that Kate pops Oz’ cherry. While both protagonists are in their mid-to-late 20s, the decisions that they are making and their positions on their life plans (or lack thereof) give the story a New Adult vibe.

The romance also has elements of the “opposites attract” trope that really work. I would say that Kate is from the wrong side of the tracks, but I don’t think that Jasper, Georgia is big enough to even have tracks. It really does exist, and looks like it’s exactly the kind of small rural town that typifies Georgia in the popular mind outside of the big cities of Atlanta and Savannah.

Kate is also interesting because she’s not a typical romance heroine. Not just because of her military service, but because of the reasons behind it. She enlisted to get the hell out of tiny Jasper, got chewed up and spit out, and now that she’s back, she’s come to the realization that as much as she wanted to leave, and as much as her mom and her sister drive her crazy, they are her people and she loves them, and they love her, no matter what.

They need her, and not just because her contributions are what tides both of them over between men. And she needs them as well, even though she desperately wants to make sure she doesn’t fall into the same trap.

Oz on the other hand had a relatively privileged, upper middle class life in Sweden. Yes, he’s a rich diva because he’s a talented man at the top of a world-class sport, but even without soccer he comes from a far more educated and definitely privileged world. His parents are both professionals, and they were able to afford the coaching and training he needed to get him where he is at the time of the story. And unlike Kate, Oz didn’t merely graduate college, he graduated from Harvard, and that’s the rarified (at least from Kate’s perspective) atmosphere from which he draws his friends and his worldview.

Everyone indulges Oz, and he doesn’t even realize just how much they do. He needs Kate in his life because she doesn’t. She grounds him. And he gives her wings.

The crisis that throws them together, the anti-Muslim propaganda and hate-speech that escalates into stalking and violence, is integral to the story. It feels well-done and gives what might otherwise be a fluffy romance quite a bit of depth. And it’s instructive to see the male sports star, someone who is so obviously the good guy, as the victim of a hate crime. He has done nothing to bring any of this on himself. That the haters are so clearly the villains of this piece (and batshit crazy) may give at least a few readers some insights that might not have otherwise penetrated their bubble.

And that’s a good thing in any book, but especially in a good one.

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

I’m giving away a digital (ebook) copy of Defending Hearts to one lucky commenter on this tour.

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Review: The Long Way Home by Kevin Bannister + Giveaway

Review: The Long Way Home by Kevin Bannister + GiveawayThe Long Way Home by Kevin Bannister
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Fireship Press on September 15th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Set in the turbulent times of the War of Independence, 'The Long Way Home' follows the lives of Thomas Peters and Murphy Steele who are friends, former slaves, fellows-in-arms and leaders of the Black Brigade. Their real-life story is an epic adventure tale as they battle bounty hunters, racism, poverty and epidemic in their adopted country after the war.

'The Long Way Home' has resonated with readers around the world as an unforgettable account of courage, hope and determination triumphing over despair and injustice. Thomas Peters, thoughtful and charismatic, and Murphy Steele, strong and impulsive, lead their followers on an inspirational search for a place where they can be free.

My Review:

History is generally written by the victors. In the case of the American Revolution, that means that the successfully rebelling colonials wrote all the history books, and the British officials and those who were loyal to them end up as footnotes in a history that conveniently ignores their courage and bravery.

Just because they were on the wrong side of history does not mean that they did not exhibit those qualities. Even if that fact is not convenient for the narrative as written by those victorious rebels.

The story in The Long Way Home is one of those inconvenient narratives. Thomas Peters and Murphy Steele were inconvenient heroes of the American Revolution, because they fought on what turned out to be the “wrong” side, for select definitions of both wrong and even side.

The British, just as the Union did in a much later and even bloodier war, offered freedom to any slave able to reach British property and willing to fight for their cause. Thomas and Murphy, both escaped slaves, managed to reach a British warship and take the “King’s shilling” and enlist – even though relatively few actual shillings ever changed hands. After multiple harrowing escape attempts, they had finally succeeded, enlisting in the British Army to fight for the freedom that was promised them.

They became members of the Black Brigade, a small fighting unit of escaped slaves turned soldiers, and participated as combatants in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. And even though the Loyalist cause was eventually lost, their search for freedom never ended – even as the retreating British Army shunted them from New York to Bermuda to Nova Scotia, always promising enough tools for them to make their own future, but never quite delivering.

Until, at last, they took their freedom into their own hands once again.

Escape Rating B: Although The Long Way Home is historical fiction rather than true history, it feels very close to the truth of the events that it relates. Peters and Steele were heroes, just on the wrong side of history. But then, the right side of colonial independence would have left them in chains. For them, the British offered their only option, and they seized it with both hands – wrapped around the stock of a bayonet.

The story is told from Murphy Steele’s perspective, and that’s where a lot of its fictional element comes from. History records what he did, but not what he felt. That’s where the author’s interpretation comes in.

But the history that he saw, that he made, is one that deserves to be remembered – and has been lost. The Black Brigade really did exist, really fought, really left the U.S. for Canada, and then, kept going. That it does not even have a Wikipedia entry of its own does not mean that these men and what they did are not important, because they were, and they still are.

The author uses rather spare prose to convey the thoughts, feelings and actions of Murphy Steele, the life he lived and both the hardships and the joys he experienced. It’s a style that works for the character, as of the two men, Thomas Peters was the one who spoke, and inspired, and Murphy was the one who acted first and seldom regretted those actions. They were a powerful team.

For reasons that had nothing to do with the book itself, this wasn’t what I was in the mood for. But once I got into the story, and once that story past its first harrowing steps through their first escapes, punishments and brief periods of attempting to settle for a life that no one should ever have been asked to settle for, the story pulls the reader along through war, flight, despair and ultimately a kind of triumph.

This is history that should be much better known than it is. The Long Way Home is an excellent start to making that happen.

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

I’m giving away a copy of The Long Way Home to one lucky US/Canadian commenter.

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Review: Thief’s Mark by Carla Neggers + Giveaway

Review: Thief’s Mark by Carla Neggers + GiveawayThief's Mark (Sharpe & Donovan #7) by Carla Neggers
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, romantic suspense
Series: Sharpe & Donovan #7
Pages: 336
Published by Mira Books on August 29th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A murder in a quiet English village, long-buried secrets and a man's search for answers about his traumatic past entangle FBI agents Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan in the latest edge-of-your-seat Sharpe & Donovan novel

As a young boy, Oliver York witnessed the murder of his wealthy parents in their London apartment. The killers kidnapped him and held him in an isolated Scottish ruin, but he escaped, thwarting their plans for ransom. Now, after thirty years on the run, one of the two men Oliver identified as his tormentors may have surfaced.

Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan are enjoying the final day of their Irish honeymoon when a break-in at the home of Emma's grandfather, private art detective Wendell Sharpe, points to Oliver. The Sharpes have a complicated relationship with the likable, reclusive Englishman, an expert in Celtic mythology and international art thief who taunted Wendell for years. Emma and Colin postpone meetings in London with their elite FBI team and head straight to Oliver. But when they arrive at York's country home, a man is dead and Oliver has vanished.

As the danger mounts, new questions arise about Oliver's account of his boyhood trauma. Do Emma and Colin dare trust him? With the trail leading beyond Oliver's small village to Ireland, Scotland and their own turf in the US, the stakes are high, and Emma and Colin must unravel the decades-old tangle of secrets and lies before a killer strikes again.

New York Times
bestselling author Carla Neggers delivers the gripping, suspense-filled tale readers have been waiting for.

My Review:

Thief’s Mark is the seventh book in the Sharpe and Donovan series. I’ve read the entire series and have enjoyed every single one. The series has been a combination of mystery with just a touch of romantic suspense. In the first book in the series Saint’s Gate, undercover FBI agent Colin Donovan runs into art expert, ex-nun and current non-undercover FBI agent Emma Sharpe on an art crimes case that involves their hometowns in Maine.

It’s the start of a beautiful relationship, one that finally results in their wedding at the end of Liar’s Key. Thief’s Mark takes place at the end of their honeymoon. At the end of my review of Liar’s Key, I speculated that it was highly unlikely that Emma and Colin would manage to have an uninterrupted honeymoon, and I’m pleased to say that I was right.

But this case isn’t really about them. Like so many long-running mystery series, part of what keeps readers coming back for more is whether or not they enjoy the adventures of not just the heroes, but whether they like the surrounding cast of characters who inevitably become involved in those adventures over time.

Whether it’s the residents of the small town in a cozy, or the other cops in the shop of a police procedural, if we don’t like the supporting cast, the series eventually loses its charm. At least for this reader.

So, while Thief’s Mark is definitely a part of the series, the mystery that has to be solved is not one of the art crimes that the FBI usually has Emma tackle. Instead, the mystery is that of the long-ago tragedy that set their friend and sometime frenemy Oliver York on the road that led to his becoming a high-class art thief and eventually an MI5 agent specializing in blood antiquities.

When Oliver was 8 years old he witnessed the murder of his parents in their London flat. He was kidnapped by the killers, dragged to Scotland, and escaped while his captors argued about his ransom. The tragedy altered the course of his life.

As this story begins, one of the killers is found dying on the front steps of Oliver’s Cotswolds farm. And Oliver bolts from the scene, leaving his friends behind to await the police and worry about what’s happened to him.

What’s happened is that his entire life has just unraveled, and a few words from a dying man have made him question everything he thought he remembered about that awful night so long ago.

Emma and Colin, dragged to Cotswolds at the end of their trip, find themselves in the midst of an investigation that spans the local police, and MI5, as well as opening up on surprising fronts in Dublin and back home in the U.S.

Thirty years of lies are about to become unraveled. So many assumptions are about to come unglued. Many long ago wrongs finally have a chance at being made right. But at what cost?

Escape Rating B+: I have enjoyed every book in this series, and Thief’s Mark was certainly no exception.

One of the interesting threads in this book was the pivot. The relationship between Emma and Colin, and whether they could manage to get together and stay together, in spite of two meddling families, undercover assignments on his part and a family of interfering detectives on her part who mess with and occasionally mess up their cases. Now that they finally managed to get married at the end of Liar’s Key, some of that tension has to shift somewhere else in the story.

In Thief’s Mark, it shifts to Oliver York. In many ways, Thief’s Mark is really Oliver York’s book, and to a significant extent Emma and Colin are side characters in his story. They are operating in England on the sufferance of MI5, they have no jurisdiction, and Oliver has been a bit too involved in some of their previous cases for them to be considered neutral observers. And Emma’s famous grandfather and Oliver are friends enough that Wendell Sharpe helps him when he’s on the run.

Things are a mess, but it’s definitely Oliver’s mess. Emma and Colin are mostly onlookers. And that’s more than okay. The originating event was Oliver’s tragedy, and the person who needs resolution out of all the current issues is Oliver. And he’s been an interesting character throughout the whole series, from his initial introduction as a mythology expert to his unmasking as the thief who bedeviled Wendell Sharpe to his current incarnation as MI5 consultant. He’s had a rough life and it’s time for his world to get straightened out a bit.

What made this particular mystery so fascinating was just how big it eventually became, and how much it unraveled by the time all the loose ends were tied up. Oliver was not the only person affected by that tragedy, even though he was the one affected the most. He also wasn’t the only one with questions that needed to be answered, and it was good to see that all those dangling messes (along with the red herrings) got cleaned up by the end.

As the story unfolds, Oliver finds himself to be both the thief and the mark.

That the story and the case focused on Oliver rather than Emma and Colin also made for a bit of fresh air blown into this long running series. There are plenty of other interesting characters among Emma and Colin’s band of usual suspects, and I’m terribly curious to see which long-standing mysteries in whose life get untangled next.

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

I’m giving away a copy of Thief’s Mark to one very lucky US or Canadian commenter.

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Review: The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard + Giveaway

Review: The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard + GiveawayThe Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: literary fiction, magical realism
Pages: 304
Published by Melville House Publishing on August 8th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

At seventy-two, Johnny Ribkins shouldn’t have such problems: He’s got one week to come up with the money he stole from his mobster boss or it’s curtains.

What may or may not be useful to Johnny as he flees is that he comes from an African-American family that has been gifted with super powers that are a bit, well, odd. Okay, very odd. For example, Johnny's father could see colors no one else could see. His brother could scale perfectly flat walls. His cousin belches fire. And Johnny himself can make precise maps of any space you name, whether he's been there or not.

In the old days, the Ribkins family tried to apply their gifts to the civil rights effort, calling themselves The Justice Committee. But when their, eh, superpowers proved insufficient, the group fell apart. Out of frustration Johnny and his brother used their talents to stage a series of burglaries, each more daring than the last.

Fast forward a couple decades and Johnny’s on a race against the clock to dig up loot he's stashed all over Florida. His brother is gone, but he has an unexpected sidekick: his brother's daughter, Eloise, who has a special superpower of her own.

Inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous essay “The Talented Tenth” and fuelled by Ladee Hubbard’s marvelously original imagination, The Talented Ribkins is a big-hearted debut novel about race, class, politics, and the unique gifts that, while they may cause some problems from time to time, bind a family together.

A big-hearted novel about a family with special gifts who sometimes stumble in their efforts to succeed in life, The Talented Ribkins draws on such novels as Toni Morrison’s Sula The Intuitionist to weave themes of race, class, and politics into a wonderfully accomplished and engaging novel.

My Review:

The Talented Ribkins is a lovely novel that surprises its readers in the end, in a way that leaves you shaking your head and re-thinking everything that went before. And then shaking your head again.

The blurb for the book talks about the “superpowers” that all the members of the Ribkins family have been gifted (or cursed) with. And those powers do come into play. But that’s not what the book is “about”, not really.

Instead, The Talented Ribkins is part of the great American road novel tradition. Johnny Ribkins, 72 and some days feeling every bit of it, is on what is probably one last road trip. His ostensible purpose is to dig up all the money he buried all over Florida, in order to pay his self-inflicted debt to someone who Johnny took a few too many years to discover was a really, really bad man.

But while he’s digging up all those little bags of money, he’s really digging up his own past. He starts by visiting his late brother’s old home, only to discover something he never expected. His brother left a child behind, and Eloise, now 13, has her own version of the Ribkins family talent.

Johnny makes maps. Maps to anywhere, from anywhere, whether he’s been there or not. Maps that route around any security, any obstacle, any difficulty whatsoever. His brother Franklin, Eloise’ dad, could climb walls. Any walls. Like Spiderman, but he didn’t need web shooters. His hands were sticky enough all on their own.

Johnny and Franklin made a good living, if not exactly a law-abiding one, as thieves. Until they stole something too hot to handle, and had a falling out. Franklin fell into booze and drugs and it was all over. But now there’s Eloise and her talent for catching anything that anyone throws at her. Or so it seems.

Johnny has a week to dig up all his buried treasure. Eloise needs to learn about her family, and how to handle her rather unusual talent in some way other than letting people throw cans and rocks at her to see her catch them.

But while what we see appears to be a broken down old man on a desperate race to save himself, one last time – nothing is quite as it seems. Not to Eloise, not to Johnny, and definitely not to the reader.

And it’s that twist at the end that makes the story as magical as the Ribkins family talents.

Escape Rating B: I was expecting the story to be more about those Ribkins family talents, those just slightly more than ordinary superpowers. But it really isn’t. The story is really about Johnny digging up his past, both the good and the bad, and letting himself remember who he was and what he tried to do.

Once upon a time, Johnny Ribkins wasn’t the only black man with a little something extra. During the Civil Rights era, Johnny and several like-minded and like-talented friends got together and formed their own version of the Justice League. They called themselves the Justice Committee, and they turned themselves into mostly unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Not because they did anything flashy, but because Johnny mapped them into the right place at the right time to allow the flashy things to happen. If a speech was important, the Justice Committee conveniently staged a distraction that took the KKK or the cops in their pockets into another direction. Their interventions, mostly non-violent, if occasionally slightly explosive, allowed the Movement’s movers and shakers to get out of the way of lynch mobs and false arrests so they could continue their work.

As Johnny travels with Eloise, he revisits all his former comrades He visits his family, both the one he was born to and the one he made. He’s looking for money he secretly buried with each of them. But his meandering road allows him to explore his own past, and see where it seems his present has changed course.

Until we discover that his present has arrived where it was meant to be all along, just from a slightly different route – not dissimilar to the way that Johnny handles that debt that set him on his long and winding road in the first place.

The story, like Johnny’s route, wanders a bit. The past and present blend together more than a bit, as they do in Johnny’s memories each time he digs up a bag of money, and his own past with it.

There are lots of times when Eloise wonders where they are going, why they seem to be driving in circles around Florida, and what the point of it all is. And sometimes so does the reader.

But in the end it all comes together, and the surprise, like the truth about Eloise’s talent, turns out to be just a bit magical.

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

I’m giving away a copy of The Talented Ribkins to one lucky US or Canadian commenter.

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Review: The Daughters of Ireland by Santa Montefiore

Review: The Daughters of Ireland by Santa MontefioreThe Daughters of Ireland by Santa Montefiore
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: family saga, historical fiction
Series: Deverill Chronicles #2
Pages: 576
Published by William Morrow on August 15th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Ireland. 1925.
The war is over. But life will never be the same...
In the green hills of West Cork, Ireland, Castle Deverill has burned to the ground. But young Celia Deverill is determined to see her ruined ancestral home restored to its former glory — to the years when Celia ran through its vast halls with her cousin Kitty and their childhood friend Bridie Doyle.
Kitty herself is raising a young family, but she longs for Jack O’Leary — the long-ago sweetheart she cannot have. And soon Kitty must make a heartbreaking decision, one that could destroy everything she holds dear.
Bridie, once a cook's daughter in Castle Deverill, is now a well-heeled New York City socialite. Yet her celebrity can't erase a past act that haunts her still. Nor can it keep her from seeking revenge upon the woman who wronged her all those years ago.
As these three daughters of Ireland seek to make their way in a world once again beset by dark forces, Santa Montefiore shows us once more why she is one of the best-loved storytellers at work today.

My Review:

In this second book in the Deverill Chronicles, following last year’s marvelous The Girl in the Castle, the focus shifts from Kitty Deverill to her cousin Celia, as the ownership of Deverill Castle falls out of the hands of the original line and into Celia’s collateral branch – with its better luck and greater fortune.

At least until the fall of 1929, when everybody’s fortunes take a plunge into the depths of the Great Depression.

The story here is still seen through the eyes of the three young women, those daughters of Ireland that we first met in The Girl in the Castle. In that first book, it was Kitty’s story and Kitty’s castle. But times have changed, and now it’s her cousin Celia in extremely proud possession of the family seat.

But the Deverills are cursed, or at least their castle in Ballynakelly in County Cork certainly is. And that’s where the infamous luck of Celia’s father’s, as well as Celia herself, finally crash to the rocks.

As the story begins, Celia has just bought the burned out castle, with her husband’s fortune and a bit of her father’s as well. She throws herself into the restoration with abandon – as well as oodles of Pounds Sterling. She intends to recreate Castle Deverill as she thinks she remembers it from her idyllic memories of her childhood – but it’s much more of a re-imagining than a re-creation. It’s Celia’s vision of what it was, not what it actually was. The heart and soul are no longer quite there.

Just as she is on the brink of believing that she has brought everything back to the way it was, only better of course, her entire world goes smash. While she has been swanning around Europe, buying every expensive trinket that caught her fancy, her husband has been in a state of quiet desperation, watching his fortune disappear into the Stock Market Crash. And rather than face the music, he kills himself. Completing the ruin of all Celia’s hopes and dreams, her father dies scant months later.

And she discovers that her father was not quite the man she thought he was. That underneath his devil’s charm and his devil’s luck, there was a man who danced with the devil to get what he wanted. Celia, in a welter of disillusionment and grief, sets out to discover the truth of the man she revered all her life.

What she found, and how she found it, allows Celia to discover the woman she was meant to be – that underneath her very feathery little head lies a brain every bit as intelligent and ambitious as her father’s. But with a lot more heart.

Escape Rating A-: Either they don’t make them like this anymore, or it’s been a long time since I’ve sunk my teeth into such a juicy family saga. The trials, tribulations and machinations of Downton Abbey have nothing on the Deverills – and this saga isn’t over yet.

The Deverills would be an interesting family (read that as fascinatingly dysfunctional) even without the compelling historical backdrop – but with the major historical events swirling around them – their reactions make for great storytelling.

In The Girl in the Castle those events were the Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence, as the Anglo-Irish Deverills found themselves on both sides of the Rising, while trusted, in the end, by neither. In this second book, The Daughters of Ireland, the action has moved from the tragedies of the immediate post-WWI period to the next great upheaval – the Depression. And the clouds of WW2 are already gathering on the horizon.

The story in the end is about family, the trials and tribulations, the triumphs and failures, the fissures and the ties that bind – even if sometimes that binding feels like a straitjacket.

As the story began with the childhoods of the three women, now we see them in their 20s and 30s, living with the choices they made long ago, and all of them facing the regrets of the roads not taken. Just at the point where it seems that one of them has found an easy road, instead of facing the envy of the others, they find tragedy instead. Triumphs are always brief, while the tragedies seem endless.

Although parts of the story follow Kitty’s and Bridie’s perspectives, this is Celia’s story. At the beginning, she is not a particularly sympathetic character. She’s not nasty, she’s just selfish, self-centered, and self-indulgent. The universe revolves around her, and her husband and father have both conspired to keep her in a very well-upholstered little bubble.

The person she becomes after it all crashes down around her is much more interesting, and much more capable, than anyone imagined – including Celia herself. Her transformation carries the reader along from London to Ballynakelly to Johannesburg, and it’s the making of her.

Whether it also turns out to be the saving of her family from ruin is the story that we shall discover in The Last Secret of the Deverillswhich may have an entirely different title by the time it reaches these shores. But whatever the book is called, I bet that last secret is a doozy.

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Review: Down Home Cowboy by Maisey Yates + End of Summer Tour + Giveaway

Review: Down Home Cowboy by Maisey Yates + End of Summer Tour + GiveawayDown Home Cowboy (Copper Ridge, #8) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Copper Ridge #8
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on June 27th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

This Texas cowboy has come home to Copper Ridge to put down roots…but will he risk his heart again?
Asked where he'd be at this point in life, Cain Donnelly would have said anywhere but Copper Ridge, Oregon, living with his estranged brothers. But since his wife abandoned them, both he and his daughter, Violet, are in need of a fresh start, so he's back to claim his share of the family ranch. Local baker Alison Davis is a delicious temptation, but she's also his daughter's mentor and new boss. That makes her off-limits…until she offers a no-strings deal that no red-blooded cowboy could resist.
Alison has worked tirelessly to rebuild her life, and she won't jeopardize her hard-won independence. Especially if it also complicates Cain's relationship with Violet. But with Cain offering a love she never thought was possible, Alison has to find the courage to let her past go…or watch her future ride away for good.

My Review:

Maisey Yates’ Copper Ridge series has been a bit of a mixed bag for me. I adored Last Chance Rebel, but let’s just say that I did not feel much love for Slow Burn Cowboy. On my other hand, my Guest Reviewer Amy clearly enjoyed Hold Me, Cowboy. So we were two out of three coming into Down Home Cowboy.

And we have another winner.

Neither Cain Donnelly nor Alison Davis are looking for a relationship. But they are both looking for sex. Four years is a long dry spell for anyone in their early-to-middle 30s, even coming out of their completely different but equally bad relationships.

Maybe not quite equally bad. Alison was abused by her ex-husband for eight years, and her four years post-divorce have been a journey of self-discovery and self-fulfillment. But her baggage is huge and painful, and she’s just reached the point where she is willing to dip her toe back into the waters of sex. But she is unwilling to cede an inch of her hard-won independence to any man for any reason. And it’s impossible to blame her.

Cain’s ex-wife left him four years ago, running off and leaving him with sole custody of their daughter Violet. Dealing with the fallout from that disaster, along with being a single father, has left Cain with little time, energy or inclination to get involved with anyone, until he meets Alison.

But they definitely start out on the same page. They both want sex, but neither of them is interested in the complication of a relationship. Things are already complicated enough – Alison is Violet’s boss at her bakery, and it seems like working for Alison is the first thing that Violet has even half enjoyed since Cain uprooted them from Texas and moved in with his half-brothers in the ranch they all inherited from their grandfather.

(The details of that particular SNAFU are in Slow Burn Cowboy. And while the romance in that book was a bit of a disappointment, the messy drama of the Donnelly boys making themselves into a functionally dysfunctional family was a load of fun. I’m happy to see more of them! Possibly not quite as happy as Alison is to see ALL of Cain, but that’s part of what makes Down Home Cowboy work.)

The problem that Cain and Alison have is that it is difficult to make love without feeling at least a little love (Which was also one of Finn’s issues in Slow Burn Cowboy. This may be a trend.) And no matter what fibs they told themselves about what they were expecting from their liaison, it’s pretty clear from the beginning that they are, quite definitely, making love and not just getting their ashes hauled. Not that they aren’t doing that, quite well, too.

But when Cain challenges Alison to admit that they both feel more for each other than they planned on, Alison lets her past fears ruin her present hopes. Unless she can finally drop the baggage that’s weighing her down for good.

Escape Rating B+: This one was fun. And it was way, way, way more fun than Slow Burn Cowboy, without quite rising to the level of angsty goodness that was Last Chance Rebel.

This is a story where everyone has baggage, and everyone needs to drop it. Or learn to carry it. Or both. And it’s a story where everyone is afraid, and with good reason.
Both Violet and Cain fear abandonment. His father abandoned him, his mother was an alcoholic, and her mother abandoned both her and Cain. Those fears are all real. Alison is afraid of losing herself again, the way she did in her abusive marriage. She’s not certain her new found strength and independence is strong enough to let her love someone without letting them take her over, even though she knows that her ex’s need to take her over and grind her down had way more to do with him than with her. That she let it happen haunts her to the point of preventing her from moving all the way forward, and we understand why.

Watching them all overcome the worst of what’s holding them back and learning to cope with the rest in a healthy and not destructive fashion is what makes this story work. At least, that’s what made the story work for this reader, and I hope for lots of others.

If this review, or any of the reviews, guest posts and spotlights in this End of Summer Blog Tour tickle your reading fancy, you can download a sampler of all the opening chapters from Harlequin.

The End of Summer – Guest Post by Maisey Yates

I love Summer. When it’s not burning hot (which is when I end up hiding in the AC) it takes me right back to being a kid. Our schedule is relaxed, the days are long, the evenings cool and blue, and the mornings…perfect for laying in bed just a little bit longer.

But days like that can all blur together, and then Summer can end up flying by before you know it.

I find that changes in scenery help a little bit with that. We live in Oregon, and it’s an amazing state with totally diverse landscapes that make for some amazing road trips. Or even just glorious back yard hangouts.

We’ve spent our share of time out on the lake paddle boarding this year, and hiking on the trails behind the historic town we live close to, making the most of what we have nearby.

In early July, we took our kids way up in the mountains and lay in the back of the pickup truck and looked at the stars. It makes a huge difference when you can escape the light pollution. We could see the Milky Way and (for the most part) the kids even got along.

Then we went on a big road trip to the eastern part of the state, where we got to enjoy the high desert.

We’re used to a lot of green in the state. I’ve lived in Oregon all my life, and I don’t think I had an adequate appreciation for just how unique the Eastern part of the state is. The red mountains and volcanic rock are a pretty sharp contrast to the evergreen mountains that surround our house.

From there we continued up to Portland, Oregon, which is our major city. (You might know it from the TV show Portlandia. I can’t dispute the accuracy of that show. At all.)

We got to enjoy the museum of science, and Oregon Zoo and some other more urban things that we don’t get a chance to take in very often seeing as we live very, very not urban.

So far this summer we haven’t had the chance to make it over to the coast, which is my other favorite Oregon locale. My husband and I honeymooned in Bandon, Oregon twelve years ago, and it has a special place in my heart. Which, if you’ve read my books your can probably tell, since Bandon served as major inspiration for my Copper Ridge series!

Getting out and enjoying Oregon is one of my favorite summer pastimes. And staying in writing love letters to Oregon in my Copper Ridge books is my favorite thing to do all year long.

I love to write books set everywhere, and I love to travel all over, but Oregon is my home, and that’s where my heart is — when it comes to life and fiction.

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

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Review: A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang + Giveaway

Review: A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang + GiveawayA Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: coming of age, historical fiction, historical mystery
Pages: 350
Published by Lake Union Publishing on August 1st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Just beyond the Gilded Age, in the mist-covered streets of New York, the deadly Spanish influenza ripples through the city. But with so many victims in her close circle, young socialite Allene questions if the flu is really to blame. All appear to have been poisoned—and every death was accompanied by a mysterious note.
Desperate for answers and dreading her own engagement to a wealthy gentleman, Allene returns to her passion for scientific discovery and recruits her long-lost friends, Jasper and Birdie, for help. The investigation brings her closer to Jasper, an apprentice medical examiner at Bellevue Hospital who still holds her heart, and offers the delicate Birdie a last-ditch chance to find a safe haven before her fragile health fails.
As more of their friends and family die, alliances shift, lives become entangled, and the three begin to suspect everyone—even each other. As they race to find the culprit, Allene, Birdie, and Jasper must once again trust each other, before one of them becomes the next victim.

My Review:

At first, it seems like this story is about the party. An engagement party, in New York during the Gilded Age, among the upper crust. A young socialite dies, and everyone wants to sweep her death under the expensive carpet and chalk it all up to an accident. Even if, or perhaps especially because, it isn’t.

But once the focus moves outward, from the singular death to its effects on three young people attending that party, the action shifts into high gear. Suddenly, it’s not about the party, or at least not just the party, any longer.

As we watch our young protagonists (they are all 18) grow and change in the wake of this event, and in the process of their investigation into it, it seems to be about everything but the party. We become involved with them, their worlds, which were once the same but are now divergent, and the mystery expands.

Until it contracts, and we’re back, surprisingly, to that party, only nothing was quite as it seemed.

A Beautiful Poison is a murder mystery, and, it is also a coming of age story. And it’s a story about friendship. And love. Definitely about love.

All three of the protagonists are 18. And although all of them either are about to or already have embarked upon their adult lives, their relative youth and inexperience definitely factor into the story.

At first, is seems like Allene’s story. And also at first, Allene’s story seems like that of a typical poor-little-rich-girl, a bird in a gilded cage that yearns to fly free, even though her sheltered upbringing means that she has no clue what that freedom might cost.

Her friends are all too aware of the cost. Both Jasper and Birdie used to be members of Allene’s charmed inner circle, until tragedy shoved them out and away. And Allene, firmly under her parents’ thumbs, as rich girls were a century ago, let it happen.

Jasper’s parents committed suicide – after his father lost all their money. In the intervening four years, Jasper has lived with his alcoholic, agoraphobic uncle, supported them both, and put himself through college as a janitor at Bellevue Hospital, borrowing textbooks over the weekend in the hopes of someday going to medical school.

Birdie has fallen even lower, as women had many fewer financial opportunities. She and her mother were upper-caste servants in Allene’s household, serving as lady’s maids and dressers to Allene and her own mother. Until Birdie’s mother was suddenly and inexplicably turned out of the house without a reference, forced to take Birdie with her. Hazel is now a prostitute, while Birdie keeps the little family afloat, a family that includes her 4-year-old sister, by being one of the dial-painters in the clock factory.

Birdie knows that her time is running out, and swiftly. She knows she’s dying, although she doesn’t know why. Birdie sees Allene’s invitation to the engagement party as her last chance to get back into Allene’s inner circle, in the hopes of saving her little sister from their mother’s fate. Allene just sees it as an adventure, and a chance to spend time with her besties before she is immured in marriage to a wealthy man who will undoubtedly grow up to be just like her father. Her cage door will lock forever, and this is her last chance to fly free.

As Allene, Jasper and Birdie investigate the original shocking death, more bodies pile up. People around them are dying, and in each instance, they find a note left behind, with only two words on it, “You’re welcome”. But who is welcome for what?

Time is running out, but so are the potential victims. Especially when the influenza epidemic sweeps through New York and nearly takes them all with it – before their amateur investigation is complete.

Escape Rating B+: This story is a circle. It starts with the party, and it ends with the party. But at the end, everyone’s perspective on those events has changed. And their world is a much different place than it was at the beginning.

Once the story moves outward, away from its initial focus on Allene to encompass all three protagonists, it moves at the same cracking pace as the progress of Birdie’s cancer, which is rapid indeed.

Birdie is one of the “radium girls” who painted clock faces with bits of radium that glowed in the dark. As did they before they died. There are books about real-life cases just like Birdie’s, including this year’s The Radium Girls. Those cases led to the first workplace regulatory legislation. It would have been much tidier in some ways for the author to have included the solution to Birdie’s death as part of the story, but radium wasn’t isolated as the cause until well after her death. Instead, her predicament becomes one of the many red-herrings in the mystery.

Upon finishing the story, it felt like the coming of age aspect was more important than it seemed at first, just as all the characters turned out to be much deeper than they seemed, especially Allene, who was rather shallow and self-absorbed at her engagement party. Allene and Jasper grow up during the course of the story, and they discover who they are and what they are to each other.

One of the things that they discover, surprising for both them and the reader, is that as much as this story is about love, it is not a love story. Allene and Jasper do not end up with each other, at least not as anything more than friends. Whether that is because their roads have diverged too far, or whether it’s because they are better as “family” than lovers is up to the reader to decide. But it felt right.

But the story is still about love, and what we will do for love. No matter what the cost, there are times and circumstances where no price is too high.

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

I’m giving away a copy of A Beautiful Poison to one lucky US/Canadian commenter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Review: Another Man’s Ground by Claire Booth + Giveaway

Review: Another Man’s Ground by Claire Booth + GiveawayAnother Man's Ground (Sheriff Hank Worth, #2) by Claire Booth
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: mystery
Series: Sheriff Hank Worth #2
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on July 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The next taut, witty mystery featuring Branson, MO’s new sheriff Hank Worth from acclaimed author Claire Booth.
Called out to investigate the theft of elm tree bark (who knew it made a valuable herbal supplement?), Branson, MO Sheriff Hank Worth meets the talkative and combustible property owner, Vern Miles, who is trying to make enough money off the land he just inherited to pay the taxes on it.
The thieves have stripped so much of the bark that the trees are now dying, so Miles decides to go ahead and cut the whole grove down. The only thing is, he uses undocumented workers to do it, and when Hank and Sam stop by the clearing in the woods to check on things, the whole crew takes off like a flock of birds. One unfortunate runaway laborer tumbles into a deep crevice and lands on not one, but two bodies—a month-old rotten corpse and a decades-old child skeleton.
Hank suddenly finds himself in the midst of two separate murder investigations, not to mention tree bark theft, all while running for re-election as county sheriff.

My Review:

I really like slightly beleaguered Sheriff Hank Worth, to the point where I just spent a good fifteen minutes trying to figure out whether there will be a third book in this terrific new mystery series.

Alas, that is still a mystery, so in the meantime, let’s explore Another Man’s Ground.

There are two stories in Another Man’s Ground and those stories compete with Hank’s, and the reader’s, attention from beginning to end.

Hank is not merely the new sheriff of Branson County, but he is also merely filling out the remaining term of the previously elected sheriff, recently promoted to the state senate. To remain the sheriff, and remain in Branson, Hank needs to run for election. But he absolutely hates everything about politicking. He wants to solve crimes and keep people safe, not make speeches and curry favor with local politicians. He hates making speeches and he detests a good chunk of the local politicians, and with good reason.

But he is the best man for the job – his competition, one of his own deputies, is no good as a deputy and absolutely in the pockets of the politicians. He doesn’t want to actually do the job, he just wants the perquisites.

Hank’s future isn’t the only one that’s riding on this election, either, which just adds to the pressure. He and his wife Maggie moved back to her Branson hometown after her mother died of cancer. Maggie’s family has lived in Branson for three generations, which still doesn’t quite make her “one of the locals”, but close, especially since her late mother was an absolutely beloved school principal in town.

Hank needs to stay in Branson. Maggie is now a surgeon at the local hospital, and her dad, Duncan, needs them around. Equally, they need him, because he’s the one taking care of their kids while they are both working all the hours of the day and night.

Hank’s chief deputy needs him to win the election, because she’ll be lucky just to be relegated to jail guard duty for the rest of her life if Hank loses. The good-old-boys really, really don’t like Sheila, because she’s smart, gifted, female and black. They’ll make her life hell if Hank is out of their way.

And into the middle of all of the election shenanigans, a murder case drops on Hank’s head. Or rather, someone running from the scene of what seems to be an entirely different crime drops on the murder victim’s head – along with the rest of his messily decaying corpse.

In the process of investigating the crime scene where “Rotten Doe’s” body is found (this corpse is particularly ripe), Hank and his technicians uncover another body buried under the first one. The second victim becomes “Child Doe”. While no one seems to mourn “Rotten” very much, everyone grieves “Child Doe”, including the six local families with long-unsolved missing children’s cases.

The two corpses lead Hank and his team on a not-so-merry foray into not just one but two of Branson County’s long-standing hot spots. The Kinney property, where the body is found, and the Taylor compound. Jasper Kinney is the last of a long line of local landowners who once had a lot of power and a lot of clout, and still seem to, mostly out of inherited fear among the locals. The Taylors are just no good – every member of the family has a long rap sheet. The sheriff’s department has always been sure they were cooking meth somewhere on their property, but never had probably cause to search.

Now they do. And when they do, things go tragically wrong, just as so many of the decisions that Hank makes on this case do. But in the end, he figures out the solution. Delivering it is something else again.

Escape Rating A-: I have squeed a lot about this book. I did about the previous book, The Branson Beauty, too. I think I just like the characters, and enjoy watching them work.

I also don’t think you absolutely have to read The Branson Beauty to get into Another Man’s Ground, but who can resist any book that starts with half the crew humming the Gilligan’s Island theme, and with good reason?

The case that sucks Hank and his team in was a real page turner. There was so much going on, so many tempting red herrings, and so much local history that Hank can’t help stepping in. Everything goes way back, and it all matters.

I also enjoyed the way that the case starts rather small and slightly crazy. It begins with tree bark, segues into rising prices for herbal remedies, takes a detour through illegal immigration, trips over drug trafficking, and crashes through a long-simmering feud that feels also too much like the Hatfields versus the McCoys. All while Hank is desperately trying to solve two murders and not totally screw up his election prospects. It’s a daunting challenge.

I will say that when the focus was on the mutating ramifications of the original cases, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. But when it came to the campaign shenanigans, like Hank himself, the events and incidents seem to take forever to finish, even when nobody screws up. I may have felt for Hank just a bit too much in those scenes, because I’d want to be out of there just as badly as he did.

But the way the mystery unfolded, and the way it was finally solved, well, that will keep me hunting for Hank’s next outing.

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

I’m giving away a copy of Another Man’s Ground to one lucky US/Canadian commenter. I hope the winner enjoys this series as much as I do!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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