Monday, February 11, 2019

Bad Attitude (BAD, Book One): Sherrilyn Kenyon


“NAME:  Steele

“CODENAME:  Azrael—“Angel of Death”—because he goes places where even angels fear to tread

“SPECIALTY:  One shot, one kill

“WEAKNESSES:  Women in high heels, freedom under siege, and eBay

“PROFILE:  Prefers to work alone—except in the bedroom

“MISSION:  Kill the bad guy, save the world, and hopefully end up with the girl

 

New York Times bestselling author Sherrilyn Kenyon has created a major buzz with her stories about the sexy heroes of the Bureau of American Defense.  Now, she presents her first full-length novel featuring the agents of BAD—a story of unforgettable characters and heart-stopping romantic suspense.

 

“BAD agent Sydney Westbrook must find the perfect sniper for a risky counter-terrorism mission.  The assignment is simple:  find and kill a hired assassin before he kills a high-profile world leader during a peace conference on American soil.  JD Steele, a trained military sniper whose attitude problem landed him in prison, seems a good candidate for the job since he doesn’t have many other options.  But it turns out Steele doesn’t take orders easily—not even when they come from an intriguing agent who has his number down pat.  As they’re dragged deep into a secret world of freelance killers, Sydney begins to discover the man of honor and passion hidden beneath Steele’s arrogant fa├žade.  It’s a man even Steele didn’t know he could be.  But how can he fulfill his duties when doing so will risk the life of the only woman he’s ever really cared for?”

 

I’ve been reading a lot of new (to me) authors lately and I wanted a fun read by an old favorite.  I couldn’t locate the next book in Kenyon’s Dark Hunter series (yes, I’m still pacing myself and slowly re-reading that series), so I thought I’d start something new.  I’ve seen a few of her BAD (Bureau of American Defense) books here and there at bookstores, online, and at the local library.  Anyone who glances at my reading history knows I lean away from “modern romances,” especially ones set in the United States.  Kenyon’s Dark Hunter series is a bit of an exception because it contains so many historical and paranormal aspects that it breaks me out of the norm.  BAD is borderline.  It is a modern series surrounding a secret branch of American agents who have access to incredible technology, possess amazing abilities and talents, and come from varied backgrounds.  At the heart of it, these agents are still just people.  Still, I wanted to give this series a shot.  This book is supposed to be the first in the BAD series, but I quickly got the sense that I was missing something.  It was mentioned that two agents were on vacation together, which gave me the impression that theirs was, perhaps, a novella or short story that I hadn’t yet read.  I noted on FantasticFiction.com that there is a collection of stories for this series, but it’s not listed first in the reading order.  Maybe this solves my issue?  I don’t think my enjoyment suffered because I felt like I wasn’t reading the stories in order, but the perfectionist in me doesn’t like doing this (even by accident).

 

We’re introduced to Steele when he’s still overseas.  His best friend and spotter has just been killed and he’s struggling to come to terms with the loss, as well as the pain and anger everyone else is taking out on him, the survivor.  It isn’t until later that he discovers that his CO (commanding officer) is covering up the mission and shoddy intelligence he used to send Steele and Brian out into danger.  The CO blames them for getting lost and making foolish decisions, ending in the loss of Brian’s life.  Steele, blinded by anger and pain, does something very stupid in retaliation and, in turn, he winds up tried and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison back in the States.  This results in his military-oriented family disowning him and Steele finds himself more alone than ever.

 

Two years into his sentence, he’s approached by a strange man and two women.  There’s something very different about the trio and his training instantly tells him that these are no ordinary individuals.  Their mannerisms and controlled expressions tell him they’re well trained and a part of something very dangerous.  The kicker is that they want to draft him into a very dangerous mission, dangling the carrot of freedom and an expunged record if he complies and succeeds.  Clearly there’s only one choice for Steele to make.

 

We quickly learn the intricacies of the secret agency, BAD, and the hidden role it plays in the security of the United States.  Headquartered in Nashville, TN, they have access to the entire country, seemingly limitless technological resources, and licenses to do things other agencies would deem unsavory.  They’re comprised of past criminals, loose cannons, and those who struggle with following the rules and rigid authority.  It’s the perfect environment for Steele.

 

Other than his talent and his past, Steele was chosen for this mission because he was also approached by APS, another secret agency BAD has been attempting to infiltrate, but has yet been unsuccessful.  They need Steele to pretend to accept the position at APS in order to uncover top secret information and, perhaps, prevent another World War.  This, of course, lands both Steele and Sydney in more danger than BAD predicted.  They soon find themselves on the run in a life-or-death game of cat and mouse.  Only if they survive do they stand a chance of stopping an assassination that could cause history to repeat itself.

 

Steele was a good, typical “Kenyon” male lead:  He’s angry, tortured, has a rocky past, and doesn’t care for distractions or interferences.  She has an amazing knack for creating male leads who seem like antiheroes, but they eventually discover that they have it in them to be real heroes (very, very few of them remain antiheros – I can probably list them off using the fingers on only one hand).  Their dark and twisty natures are always well-developed and unique.  I hadn’t read a book of hers where the male lead was once in the (modern) military and I definitely appreciated all of the research she so obviously did.  I felt like I understood the mentality and the world that shaped them.  In Steele’s case, it was his entire history that helped make him the man he was when he met Sydney.  By far my favorite part of his character was his “bad attitude.”  (Don’t you love it when a title comes into play in a review?!  No?  Maybe that’s just me.)  His sarcasm was extreme and I loved how he went out of his way to annoy absolutely everyone.  His attitude was bad to the max.  It’s easy to create a male lead with a generic “bad” attitude, but Kenyon tweaked him enough through mannerisms and comments that he was unique.  I do have some criticisms about him.  The first part of the synopsis indicates he’s a fan of eBay – I didn’t see this once in the book, though it would have been an amusing quirk.  I’ve learned from snippets here and there (not just this book) that snipers do not, in fact, work alone.  They have a spotter and work very, very closely with them.  They form a unique, tight bond born of trust and danger.  To say that Steele prefers to work alone wouldn’t be entirely accurate.  A sniper doesn’t really work alone.  Now, if this is intended to say that he never means to take another spotter/partner because it means risking someone else’s life, then this might be more accurate.

 

Sydney, on the other hand, was less unique.  We’re immediately introduced to her as a slightly curvier, heavier, shorter Angelina Jolie lookalike.  I don’t really care for such blatant comparisons – it makes the characters feel less unique and more based off of impressions of a real person known by everyone.  Granted, it makes it easier to picture a character by giving them a blatant lookalike, but I find it less fun and it actually hurts my sense of imagination.  Personally, I then picture the actress/actor’s mannerisms and speech patterns I’ve seen during interviews or events or even as they act in films.  Maybe I’m the only one who has an issue with this, or maybe I’m just being picky.  I’m not used to Kenyon making such blatant comparisons and I usually find her characters to be much more unique.  This is probably why I didn’t find Sydney to be overly interesting.  She had a decent backstory and reason for wanting to be a part of BAD, but that was about it.  She, herself, had a bad attitude and I didn’t feel like the reason was explained particularly well (over and above her reason for refusing to date coworkers anymore).  I did like her banter with Steele – they seemed well-equipped to go toe-to-toe again and again and again.  I kind of wanted to see her (quite literally) kick his butt because she probably could have, but it was not to be.  In the past, there hasn’t really been an issue with Kenyon writing physically and mentally powerful women who can (and do) kick men’s butts, but I wonder why she didn’t really use that here.  It seemed like a bit of a missed opportunity for this plot.

 

As far as the romance goes (because this is, at its heart, still a romance novel), I found it less believable than in Kenyon’s Dark Hunter books.  The scenarios are similar:  man and woman are thrust together under dire circumstances, they learn to work together as a well-matched team, they save the world and fall in love in the process.  However, while I get that Steele has been celibate for a long time, I don’t quite understand how he “clicked” with Sydney.  He could have been attracted to her, but I would have felt more convinced had he chosen to “scratch his itch” rather than hold off.  He didn’t know Sydney; by all accounts, she could have never given in to his crude advances, why wait?  On the flipside, I was more convinced by the progression of Sydney’s growing feelings for Steele.  Her sympathy felt genuine even if her weakness for him did not.

 

Overall, this is a very different type of plot and brand of storytelling than Kenyon’s wildly popular Dark Hunter books – and there’s a reason those are so much more well-loved.  Kenyon’s genius lies in the way she can craft whole underworlds and histories, fantastic characters and captivating otherworldly plots.  BAD does this to a small degree, but I don’t find it as successful.  I still finished reading this book in less than 24-hours, so that has to say something.  I still enjoyed it.  Had I read this before becoming such a fan of the Dark Hunter books, then perhaps I would have been more enamored.  Echoes of Kenyon’s talent ring throughout – especially in her secondary characters (for those of you who know the world of her Dark-Hunters, then you’ll understand what I mean when I say there are shades of Acheron complexity in BAD’s director, John Q. Public; I also eagerly await reading his story…because he so clearly has one coming).  There was a nice spark between Steele and Sydney, even if I didn’t always find it the most believable.  They did have chemistry.  The fast-paced plot and interesting story kept me very interested and I enjoyed reading this in (almost) one sitting.  Even if I’m not in love with the series thus far, Kenyon remains one of my favorite authors.

A Simple Favor: Darcey Bell

"A Simple Favor is a feverish and expertly plotted tale of psychological suspense--a twisting free fall filled with betrayals and reversals, secrets and revelations, love and loyalty, murder and revenge.  Darcey Bell exposes the dark underbelly of female friendship in this taut, unsettling, and completely absorbing story that holds you in its grip until the final page.


"It starts with a simple favor--an ordinary kindness mothers do for one another.  When glamorous Emily asks Stephanie to pick up her son after school, Stephanie happily says yes.  Emily has a life that would make any woman jealous. She is the perfect mother with a dazzling career working for a famous fashion designer in Manhattan.  Stephanie, a widow with a son in kindergarten, lonely in their Connecticut suburb, turns to her daily blog for connection and validation.  Stephanie imagines Emily to be her new confidante and is shocked when Emily suddenly disappears without a trace, leaving her son and husband with no warning.


"Stephanie knows something is terribly wrong.  Unable to keep away from the grieving family, she soon finds herself entangled with Sean, Emily's handsome, reticent British husband.  But she can't ignore the nagging feeling that he's not being honest with her about Emily's disappearance.  Is Stephanie imagining things?  How well did she really know her 'best' friend?


"Stephanie begins to see that nothing--not friendship, love, or even an ordinary favor--is as simple as it seems."


My friend and I wanted to see the film adaptation of this book when it came out a short while ago, but we never got around do it.  When I finally saw a copy of the original book on the shelf at my local library, I knew it was something I had to check out.  The promos made the book look deliciously twist and suspenseful.  After beginning my journey into this book, I was not disappointed.


We open with Stephanie's blog posts -- a blog she writes to reach out and connect with other moms out in the world, for kinship, validation, and friendship (whether or not she even truly realizes the last).  She and her son, Miles, make their lonely way through life after the death of Stephanie's husband, Davis, and her brother, Chris, in a tragic car accident.  Stephanie, perhaps, doesn't realize how lonely she really is until she finds what she believes to be a true and honest friend in Emily, the mother of her son's favorite playmate in school.  They bond over shared secrets and wine, as well as the challenges of raising sons in their Connecticut suburb after leaving the bustle of New York.  Stephanie is very quickly enamored of Emily and her lifestyle, her seeming perfection and elegance.  Having no one else to turn to, Stephanie quickly turns to her blog when Emily doesn't show to pick up her son from Stephanie's house after school one evening.  At first, Stephanie believes she may have misheard Emily or perhaps Emily's emergency had pulled her away for longer than anticipated.  It's only when Emily's continued unresponsiveness and days pass that Stephanie's concern blossoms into true fear.  She reaches out to Emily's husband, Sean, while he's on a business trip overseas.  At first, Sean's lack of concern and knowledge of Emily's hectic schedule makes Stephanie feel like a worrier.  It isn't until Sean returns to the States and Emily still hasn't returned that the two of them find a shared bond over their fear for Emily's safety.  Where had she gone?  Why had she left?  Was she still alive?  As more and more evidence is uncovered, more questions seem to pop up rather than answers.  What happened to Emily?  These questions seem to be answered...but there were far too many pages left in the book for this to be tied up in a nice, neat little package -- I always find this terrifying; when everything seems to work out, but then there is too much book left for this to actually be the case.  What on earth can the author have in store for me?!  This was absolutely the case with A Simple Favor.


The many twists and turns of this dark and suspenseful story kept me guessing.  I was so sure I knew what was coming right from the very beginning, but I admit that I changed my guess several times over until the truth was finally revealed.  The complex plot and multifaceted characters made for a psychological thriller that was difficult to put down; the tension never really abated.  The first lines of the book ring true throughout:  no one tells the truth and everyone has secrets.  Sometimes even the most innocuous of individuals have the deepest, darkest secrets of all.  Can you ever really, truly know someone?  This book definitely plays off of insecurities about opening up to one another, and the possibilities that people we hold dear are not actually who they seem to be.


At first the narration bounces back and forth between Stephanie's blog and her point of view (which is far more honest and revealing than her public online posts).  This is the first clue that there is a lot more to all of the characters than we see.  Gradually, more is revealed about Stephanie's past and she's not the perfect woman/mother she portrays on her blog -- then again, is anyone really as perfect as the profess to be on social media?  We realize the depth of her relationship with Emily and why Stephanie felt the two of them were so close.  This sets up the tension surrounding Emily's disappearance quite well.


Eventually, we become privy to the points of view of a couple of the other characters.  This adds even more depth and complexity to the plot.  What secrets have these characters kept?  Are they even telling us, the readers, the truth?  What are they choosing to omit and how much will it impact the story?


This is a book that will well and truly keep you on the edge of your seat.  I finished it in the matter of a few days and found it difficult to stop reading.  There are so many violent turns and rapid twists that I couldn't see what was coming at me around the next bend.  This is the mark of a good suspenseful psychological thriller, is it not?  The characters had layer upon layer of personality and secrets.  It was nearly impossible to trust any of them, even when you really wanted to do so.  I was captured right from the start and drawn into this mysterious world of secrets, lies, and questions.


I'm definitely even more interested in seeing the film adaptation of this book.  I wonder how true to its dark nature they will keep.  From what few previews I've seen, I think the casting was done well, given the descriptions in the book.


I recommend this for those of you who like darker psychological thrillers.  Fans of Gone Girl will really enjoy this one as it makes you question reality and the reliability of the very characters themselves.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

All the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella's Stepmother: Danielle Teller

"A LUMINOUS REIMAGINING OF THE CLASSIC FAIRY TALE CINDERELLA, TOLD FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF AGNES, THE BEAUTIFUL GIRL'S 'EVIL' STEPMOTHER


"Compelling fiction often obscures the humble truth...


"We all know the story of Cinderella.  Or do we?


"As rumors about the cruel upbringing of beautiful newlywed Princess Cinderella roil the kingdom, her stepmother, Agnes, a woman who knows all too well about hardship, privately records the true story.  But what unfolds is not the princess's history.  The tale Agnes recounts is her own.


"A peasant born into serfdom, Agnes is separated from her family and forced into servitude as a laundress's apprentice at Aviceford Manor when she is just ten years old.  Alone, friendless, and burdened with a grueling workload, Agnes carves a place for herself in this cold place that is home to Sir Emont Vis-de-Loup, a melancholic and capricious drunkard.


"Using her wits and ingenuity, Agnes eventually escapes and makes her way toward a more hopeful future, serving as a housemaid for the powerful Abbess Elfilda.  But life once again hold unexpected, sometimes heartbreaking twists that lead Agnes back to Aviceford Manor, where she becomes nursemaid to Ella, Emont's sensitive, otherworldly daughter.  Though she cares for Ella, Agnes struggles to love this child, who in time becomes her stepdaughter and, ultimately, the celebrated princess who embodies all out unattainable fantasies.


"Familiar yet fresh, tender as well as bittersweet, the story of Agnes and Ella's relationship reveals that beauty is not always desirable, that love may take on many guises, and that freedom is not always something we can choose.


"Danielle Teller's All the Ever Afters challenges our assumptions and forces us to reevaluate what we think we know.  Exploring the hidden complexities that lie beneath classic tales of good and evil, this lyrically told, emotionally evocative, and brilliantly perceptive novel shows us that how we confront adversity reveals a more profound--and ultimately more precious--truth about our lives than the ideal of 'happily ever after.'"


I picked this book off of the "new releases" shelf at my local library on a whim, though the back of my memory insists that I saw it somewhere in my Pinterest searches and it piqued my interest.  I am a fan of interesting retellings of classic tales, so this one seemed like a good choice.  I love inventive takes and unique perspectives.  However, it is very easy for a book like this to go awry.  We can run into a main character--a villain--who does nothing but justify all of his or her evil actions (which is boring), or there is little-to-no imaginative take on the traditional fairy tale.  This was not the case with Teller's story and I must admit I was impressed.


Readers are immediately thrust into an extremely realistic world of an England ruled by king and, perhaps even more so, church; most people have nothing and live out their short and often tragic lives in serfdom.  They toil as servants or tenants on manors and owe their labors and products to their lord and masters who, in turn, owes his loyalty to the Abbess Elfilda.  Agnes happens to be one of the unfortunates born to a family that cannot support her.  At only ten years of age, she's forced to leave her family's hovel and trek to the manor house in search of a job so she will no longer be the burden or responsibility of her family.  She's given a position beneath the head laundress.  What initially seems like good fortune -- with the promise of food and shelter -- quickly becomes a nightmare as she learns to work and live beneath the cruel thumb of the nasty, gluttonous, slothful laundress.  Agnes quickly learns the politics of the manor house, though she remains somewhat of an outsider.  She works her hands to the bone and survives by the strength of her back and power of her wit.  While employed there for several years, she encounters the lord of the manor, Emont.  His penchant for drinking and disinterest in running the manor earn the derision of other servants.  Agnes, however, feels some form of pity for him.  When he is ill, it is she who is brought in to care for him.  It is clear that Emont trusts her and this affords her some moments where she has a small measure of peace.


This, however, does not stop Agnes from leaping at an opportunity to leave the manor for the Abbey to work for Abbess Elfilda's aging mother.  Through clever machinations, Agnes is allowed to leave and take up the temporary position.  Though it isn't quite what she imagined, she quickly finds her place and discovers that life at the Abbey suits her greatly.  Her joy is short-lived and her decisions land her in a great deal of trouble with the Abbess.  Agnes is forced to leave and, once again, she must find a way to support herself.  Though ingenuity, intelligence, and sheer determination of will, she manages to carve out a new place for herself and attain a measure of comfort.  Happiness, however, is impermanent.  Tragedy strikes yet again; Agnes's life seems to come full circle when circumstances land her once more at Aviceford Manor.  This time, however, she is nursemaid to Emont's infant daughter, Elfilda -- named after her godmother and aunt, the Abbess.  Ella is an odd girl, finicky and withdrawn, unlike any other child Agnes had ever met.  Agnes takes her duties seriously, making sure the child is educated and knows her parents, despite Ella's mother's disturbing habits, hallucinations, and tendency toward manic-depression.  We witness Ella's upbringing at Agnes' hands and it is there that the truth of the "abuses" Ella suffered comes to light.  This book is the epitome of perspective.  To a dramatic, stubborn, spoiled, possibly-disturbed child, any enforcement of rules or authority is perceived as an attack.  Even a small slight quickly becomes enormous in Ella's mind.  These instances build upon one another to create the villain we were taught to believe Agnes was.


The interesting set up of past and present mingling to create a whole story kept the plot interesting.  We learned about Agnes's past and Teller intertwined it with the present in such a beautiful way that witnessing the nuances and correlations kept everything captivating.  Ella's new life at court changes everyone's lot, including that of her stepmother and stepsisters.  Unfortunately, their hardships are not over.  The rumors of Ella's suffering begin as whispers and grow in voracity and ferocity until Agnes and her daughters become pariahs and targets of not only gossip, but threats.  Agnes fears that she will lose everything once more for doing nothing more than trying to be a source of constancy in Ella's otherwise mercurial life.  How are she and her daughters to survive the vipers of court as the looming threat becomes ever greater?  What will they do if Ella -- naturally oblivious to many social nuances -- is not present to protect or defend them?


Agnes uses her history as a form of catharsis during this time.  She doesn't justify all of her actions, but rather uses them as a lens through which we can perceive and understand her more completely.  She admits that she was not always the most loving or affectionate of stepmothers, but I genuinely believe that she tried and did the best with what she could manage.  Her life was one of tragedy and hardships -- something none of her peers at court could possibly comprehend.  In her descriptions of Ella and her daughters, she challenges the traditional conventions and notions of beauty; she demonstrates an appreciation of hard work and having a backup plan.  We realize that there is no such thing as a true villain in any fairy tale.  Something motivated their actions.  Additionally, the hero's perspective isn't necessarily unbiased...


I loved the realism of this story.  If you want Disney's talking animals and glittering magic, then this story is not what you're looking for.  If you want Cinderella set in a realistic time period with believable plot, setting, characters, and (realistic) tragic circumstances, then this book is perfect.  There were more than enough clues and hints at the traditional fairy tale for me to make the necessary connections between the fairy tale and this retelling, but it wasn't overly fanciful.  I actually found it much more insightful than I anticipated.  It was an examination of how we perceive people and their stories, why we believe one person over another (sometimes based solely on appearance and social standing), and how we can really only know someone when we understand their past.  The world is not plainly black and white, so why should fairy tales be so?


I found Agnes to be an excellent narrator.  I loved watching her grow and evolve over the years.  I was struck by her intelligence and perseverance, and I appreciated her ingenuity.  Teller has crafted a unique retelling and one I took great pleasure in reading.

When Gods Die (Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery, Book Two): C.S. Harris


“The young wife of an aging marquis is found murdered in the arms of the Prince Regent.  Around her neck lies a necklace said to have been worn by Druid priestesses – that is, until it was lost at sea with its last owner, Sebastian St. Cyr’s mother.  Now Sebastian is lured into a dangerous investigation of the marchioness’s death – and his mother’s uncertain fate.

 

“As he edges closer to the truth – and one murder follows another – he confronts a conspiracy that imperils those nearest him and threatens to bring down the monarchy.”

 

*I wrote this review on 1/21/19.  We're only in February and I've already messed up my monthly reading count for the year!  We've, unfortunately, had a lot of tragic things going on lately and they've yanked me away from any of my simple pleasures in life -- my reading and reviewing being among the most important.  A few weeks later and I'm finally getting around to actually posting this review.  I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did.  I think it's a great addition to the Sebastian St. Cyr series and an excellent segue from the first installment.*


This is the second installment in the Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery series and it fits in quite smoothly with the beginning of the series.  We encounter Sebastian, Viscount Devlin, a few months after the conclusion of his first investigation (and the clearing of his name).  While life has returned to some semblance of normal for Devlin – he’s taken on Tom as his tiger and he’s begun a comfortable (if somewhat secretive) relationship with the love of his life, Kat Boleyn – it cannot last.  While in attendance at a party thrown by the Prince Regent, the guests are thrown into chaos when Prinney is discovered with a beautiful, young, dead woman in his arms.  There are those who would suspect that Mad King George’s insanity is catching – that his heir is just as twisted and addled – but those behind the monarchy do their best to deflect suspicion by insisting the marchioness died by suicide.  By knife.  In her back.

 

Given the suspicious circumstances, Jarvis invites Devlin to examine the situation and the body; it quickly becomes apparent to the intelligent, observant viscount that the death is not all that it seems to be.  As the investigation begins in earnest, it is obvious that suicide was not the manner of death…and that Devlin’s past may very well have come back to haunt him.

 

Similar to the first installment, this book is filled with twists and turns that keep you guessing pretty much up until the very end.  The plot is multifaceted and complex, making for a well-paced and exciting read.  The suspects were continually changing and shifting.  I would bet that Devlin was right in his suspicion of someone only to have my mind changed in a chapter or two; then, I would believe someone innocent only to have new, damning evidence come to light.  It was a rollercoaster of a book filled with intrigue, subterfuge, and a nefarious subplot.  Could the Prince Regent have lost his mind and killed a woman who didn’t accept his advances?  Or is there something more sinister afoot – a plot attempting to discredit the monarchy and be rid of the lush, unsteady Regent?  Set against the backdrop of a tumultuous England unsure whether the virus of revolution will spread from France, these are troubled times where danger lurks around just about every corner.

 

In addition to Devlin (of course), this book also sees the return of Kat and Tom.  Devlin has made Tom his tiger and the boy has taken to his role.  It’s clear how much he admires and appreciates Devlin, and witnessing Devlin’s attachment to the quick-witted lad is touching and humanizing.  He doesn’t play as large a role in this book, but he does manage to help with the investigation – and land himself into some peril.  The romance between Kat and Devlin has blossomed once more in the months between the first book and the second.  I enjoy the degree to which their relationship features thus far in the series.  There’s enough to make us realize the depth of their attachment and passion – to see just how they can be true helpmates to one another – but it doesn’t take over the plot or turn it into a romance novel.  I enjoy their dynamic and the diversity of their backgrounds.  Devlin doesn’t care what society will think of their relationship, while Kat, on the other hand, isn’t willing to risk Devlin’s future by marrying him – not to mention she has a dark secret of her own, one she doesn’t believe he’ll ever be able to overlook.

 

Overall, I found the plot exciting and fast-paced.  The rapid twists and turns kept me guessing, which, I suppose, is the best anyone can hope for in a book of this genre.  The setting (mainly London) is vivid and richly-crafted, playing to all of your senses, often engulfing you in Devlin’s world and experiences.

 

One comment I do feel I must make is that Devlin is chased quite a bit in this book.  And by “quite a bit,” I mean “a lot.”  Almost to the point of excessive.  I feel like he made a run for it every couple of chapters.  It wasn’t quite to the point of being inauthentic and I do realize that the plot involved a complex network of some very bad men who would do anything to protect their aim, but it did seem to take up a good amount of the story.  It went something like, “Oh, Devlin is going for a night out.  Oh, no!  Someone is after him.”  A few chapters later:  “He’s following another lead and…he’s being chased again!  Hope he makes it out okay!”  A few chapters later, “He’s off again!  And…he’s being chased.  Again.”  Catch my drift?  Additionally, there was another murder mentioned in this book.  I may have missed something, but it felt very unresolved and almost forgotten by the conclusion.  Maybe it was a set up for another book?  We’ll just have to wait and see!

 

Overall, this was a very good book.  It has mystery, history, intrigue, murder, complex plot twists, subterfuge, and a touch of romance.  While I will admit that I found the end of the book came on rather suddenly, I still find the book worthy of the read.  I’m particularly excited to see what some of the discoveries mean for Devlin’s own future – and past.  This is worth the read for fans of period books, mysteries, and those who aren’t too squeamish (since this book does deal with a grisly murder and the darker sides of London’s underbelly).

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Little Shop of Found Things: Paula Brackston


An antiques shop haunted by a ghost.  A silver treasure with an injustice in its story.  An adventure to the past she’ll never forget.

 

“Xanthe and her mother, Flora, leave London behind for a fresh start, taking over an antiques shop in the historic town of Marlborough.  Xanthe finds she has an affinity with some of the antiques she finds:  While she touches them she can sense something of their past and the stories they hold.  When she has an intense connection to a beautiful silver chatelaine she has to know more.

 

“It is while she’s examining the chatelaine that she’s transported back to the seventeenth century, the time of its origin.  She discovers there is an injustice in its history.  The spirit that inhabits her new home confronts her and charges her with saving her daughter’s life, threatening to take Flora’s if she fails.  While Xanthe fights to save the girl amid the turbulent days of 1605, she meets architect Samuel Appleby.  He may be the person who can help her succeed.  He may also be the reason she can’t bring herself to return to the present.

 

“In this first book in a new series, New York Times bestselling author of The Witch’s Daughter Paula Brackston returns to her trademark blend of magic and romance, which is guaranteed to enchant.”

 

I came across Paula Brackston’s books while scrolling through my Pinterest feed (this seems to be the way I’m discovering most of my new reading material).  I was intrigued by the cover and the synopsis seemed interesting, so I gave it a shot and put it on hold at my local library.

 

Xanthe and Flora uproot their London life to move to the country.  There, in an entirely new setting, they begin their new lives as owners of a small antique shop.  This is Flora’s passion and Xanthe’s joy – especially because she gets to do it alongside her mother.  However, Xanthe has a secret of her own.  Some of the antiques she touches retain echoes of their former owners.  She can sense their lives and their love, their histories and their stories.  This comes in handy when choosing special pieces for purchase or sale in their shop.  Nothing, however, prepares her for the visceral reaction she has to a silver chatelaine she encounters at a local auction.  Xanthe takes a great risk and spends most of their meager funds on purchasing the silver chatelaine.  Shortly thereafter, Xanthe realizes something very important and powerful drew her to this piece with a tragic history.  The ghost of a woman makes herself known to Xanthe and their encounter sends Xanthe back to the Seventeenth Century on a mission to save the ghost’s ill-fated daughter from a horrible end.  Along the way, Xanthe must figure out how to hide her modern-day mannerisms and speech, as well as her ignorance of the customs and activities in order to blend in and help prevent the girl’s death, for the ghost has threatened Flora’s life should Xanthe fail in her mission.  Xanthe is drawn to the dark, intelligent Samuel Appleby, who, despite the norms of the day, seems to appreciate her for her knowledge and finds her enchanting despite her quirks and unfamiliar behavior.  Xanthe’s mission is dangerous and, should she make one misstep, it could mean her own end in the tumultuous times of the early 1600s.  Will she be able to save Alice and, by extension, Flora?  Will she be able to return to her own time or will she be forced to remain in 1605 forever?

 

I love a good bit of modern British literature and this one fit the bill; not to mention it has romance and magic, which make for a fun and entertaining read (even if books with magical and time traveling themes are not usually my cup of tea).

 

Xanthe and Flor make for a good mother-daughter pair.  I found their dynamic to be very warm and realistic.  Their backstory seemed realistic as a catalyst to move them from London all the way to Marlborough to open a little antique shop of their own.  The details that go into their shop and the items within demonstrate the obvious love and care put into this book.  The variety of items and descriptions drew me in and, to me, showed just how much Brackston injected into this work; I don’t think the book would have been as successful without it.

 

There were some minor descriptions of Flora, Xanthe, and some of the more important supporting characters (like Liam and Samuel), but I don’t feel like I got an excellent sense of facial features or even age.  This is something I’ve noted in other book reviews and it’s something I look for in every book I read.  I don’t expect an author to give me extensive descriptions and an exact age, but I find I do need something like, “mid-twenties” and at least an eye color or some distinguishing feature other than hair and clothing to really make a character come to life in my mind’s eye.  I don’t think we’re given even a general idea of Xanthe’s age.  I first pictured her in her early thirties, but, having finished the book, I think she may have been much younger, maybe even her early twenties.  This nebulous sense of age (personally) makes it a bit difficult to form a good idea of the main character and I find it detracts a bit from my enjoyment.  I may be alone here, but I wanted to be sure to mention it because it was definitely something with which I came away having formed a strong impression.

 

What I found most successful was Brackston’s descriptions of 1605.  The details and settings were spectacular and well-researched.  The Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Centuries happen to be some of my favorite in British history, so it was a joy to discover that Brackston had done so much background work and integrated so many intricate details and crafted the story and its history in so loving a fashion.  Everything from the houses to the clothing, the political and religious strife to the art and architecture, it was all so well-crafted and pleasantly written that it felt natural rather than as if only a cursory review of the time period had been performed.  This is an aspect of Brackston’s writing that I greatly admire and for which I applaud her.

 

Xanthe was a very good female lead.  She was determined, tenacious, and remained shaped by her history in a believable fashion.  I enjoyed her ingenuity and imperfections.  She is sent on a mission and nothing short of success is acceptable – she simply will not allow harm to befall her beloved mother.  As a driving force behind her mission, I thought it was handled very well.  To have made this into a selfless rescue mission wouldn’t have been as believable (or as believable as magical time travel can be!).

 

Xanthe’s chemistry with Samuel (and Liam) was very realistic and felt organic.  I enjoyed watching their connection grow and develop into something much deeper – a companionship that would span the centuries.  The romance, while present, isn’t overt and does take a backseat to the main plot; however, I found this better than making this story all about the romance.  Though she may not realize it fully yet, I can tell that her chemistry with present-day Liam will create some difficulties for her down the road.  She and the almost Darcy-esque Samuel bond over a passion for architecture and the beauty of what she knows to be antiques and artifacts, but Samuel sees as modern-day creations and developments.  On the other hand, she doesn’t quite realize just how supportive and caring Liam is – how he cares for her and is willing to overlook her half-truths and quirks.  He suits her, but in a different way.  I think we may have a “Gail and Peeta” dilemma, a-la Hunger Games going on, and I am curious to see how this is going to play out.  Which man is more suitable?  Will she venture to the past or choose the man in her present?  I suppose we’ll have to see how the series plays out.

 

A minor plot hole I wanted to mention – you may want to skip if you want to be totally surprised by the plot:  The first time Xanthe is sent back to the past, she sees Alice already captured and in the carriage on the way to imprisonment.  The second time she goes, she watches Alice run away before they can put her into the carriage to be carted away.  Every other time she goes back, the periods are perfectly chronological.  She doesn’t bounce around in time.  I think this was done so she would be aware of her mission, but it doesn’t make all that much sense, especially given the exact passage of time between the past and the present.  They seem to occur almost parallel, with the past traveling at a slightly quicker pace than Xanthe’s present, but it never backtracks other than this very first instance.

 

Overall, I enjoyed the book.  I found it fanciful and realistic, even for a book with magical time travel.  I can tell there was a lot of love in the story and I think this is part of what made it so successful.  The plethora of details and research made this a unique and special book.  The writing was fun (though those who are less familiar with British slang may need a bit of assistance) and well-paced while the plot was lively and entertaining.  I definitely look forward to seeing where this series will go.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Governess Game (Girl Meets Duke: Book Two): Tessa Dare

"HE'S BEEN A BAD, BAD RAKE--AND IT TAKES A GOVERNESS TO TEACH HIM A LESSON

"THE ACCIDENTAL GOVERNESS

"After her livelihood slips through her fingers, Alexandra Mountbatten takes on an impossible post:  transforming a pair of wild orphans into proper young ladies.  However, the girls don't need discipline.  They need a loving home.  Try telling that to their guardian, Chase Reynaud:  duke's heir in the streets and devil in the sheets.  The ladies of London have tried--and failed--to make him settle down.  Somehow, Alexandra must reach his heart...without risking her own.

"THE INFAMOUS RAKE

"Like any self-respecting libertine, Chase lives by one rule:  no attachments.  When a stubborn little governess tries to reform him, he decides to give her an education--in pleasure.  That should prove he can't be tamed.  But Alexandra is more than he bargained for:  clever, perceptive, passionate.  She refuses to see him as a lost cause.  Soon the walls around Chase's heart are crumbling...and he's in danger of falling hard."

What a pleasant way to start the new year:  reading a new book by one of my favorite authors.  And this latest installment in the Girl Meets Duke series took me only a single day to enjoy.  I very much enjoyed the first book in this series and really looked forward to reading the second.  Unfortunately, at that time, it hadn't been released yet.  So I had to wait...and it felt like forever (when it was really only a few months) and I was thrilled when I finally got my hands on a copy of "The Governess Game".  There is little I love more than an excellent series with recurring characters who were once secondary and now have books of their own -- especially when those characters are vivid, lively, unique, and have very strong personalities.

We first met Alexandra and (very briefly) Chase in Emma and Ash's story, "The Duchess Deal".  Alexandra is presented as rather quiet, extremely intelligent, and devoted to her work.  The glimpse of Chase we are given hints that he's in charge of small girls -- though why, we do not know -- and that he's a devilishly handsome flirt.  This book stayed true to that information, though Alex really seemed to find her voice.  I'm glad because a shrinking flower rarely makes a fantastic female lead.  Alex turned out to be determined and interesting, with a very unique and captivating backstory.  I really enjoyed how she handled her accidental position as governess and her reaction made it much more realistic.  I appreciated her methodical thought processes and her determinedness to give Daisy and Rosamund what they so desperately lacked.  Her unconventional tactics were charming and lent an air of fun and fantasy to the story.

Chase was, for the most part, a very good male lead.  I thoroughly enjoyed his personality and his very quick wit.  I believe I said something very similar about Ash; I think Dare has really perfected the art of the charming, intelligent, humorous male lead without making him seem too goofy or macho.  This is one of the things that can really make or break a story in this genre.  So many think it's easy to write good romance (even my husband -- who rarely takes note of my reading materials -- has mentioned that he thinks books of this genre are far too common), but these critics have no idea what it takes to write really captivating male leads.  It takes another level of author entirely to write excellent romance.  They key is to make the readers fall in love with the characters.  To be able to write unique characters (and not simply spout out very slightly different versions over and over again because the formula works) is an art.  I know I can hear some scoffs out there, but I assure you that I've read enough books -- both romance and other genres -- to say that it is not as easy as one might believe to craft characters with whom the readers can truly connect on numerous levels.  Chase is a good example of this.  He has a good backstory and a complicated life.  While there was a good portion of the book from his point of view, I felt like a vast majority of it was dedicated to his feelings about Alex or his past/present/future as it might relate to or impact her.  I can understand the rationale behind his decisions, but he bordered ever so slightly on a dramatic martyr.  This is, perhaps, one of my only critiques.  I just wanted a touch more about his personal life or experiences -- not necessarily solely as they related to Alex.  What were some of his hobbies -- other than perfecting the libertine arts?  I found his personality charming (as charming as the rake was intended to be) and his humor was fun to experience.  By far the quick banter between Chase and Alex had to be one of my favorite aspects of this book.  He was a man after my own heart with his subtle caring ways and his willingness to play along with Daisy's penchant for holding funerals for her beloved doll after gruesome "illnesses."

Daisy and Rosamund were, quite obviously, the most prominent secondary characters.  And I found them spectacular.  They were quick little girls who were bruised by their past and reluctant to open their hearts.  Some might feel them a bit over the top (I'm referring to the repeated doll funerals), but I had cousins just about their ages exactly and I can tell you that these were some rather perfect characters.  Their precociousness and knack for trouble made them fun, but their unique personalities and fascination with "unwomanly" things made them special.  They suited the plot and the other characters quite well.  I was charmed by their determined little spirits and their delightful torture of their guardian and governess(es) -- yes, that was intentionally plural.

We also see Nicola, Penny, Emma, and Ash once more.  Emma and Ash seem to have settled quite nicely into their marriage (yay!  I do so love happy endings); Penny is her usual, animal-loving self; and Nicola is baking away and tinkering -- ever protective of her friends.  I've some reason to believe Penny's will be the next in the series and, with her trusting and open-hearted nature, that could make for a very interesting story, indeed

I absolutely recommend this book; was there ever a question that I wouldn't?  As much as I've always loved Dare's writing, I think it's only continuing to get better.  Her characters are becoming even more alive and their stories are fun and unique.  Her writing has a way of drawing you in and you never want to put the book down.  My only regret is that I finished reading this book so darn quickly..

Monday, December 31, 2018

A Grave Matter (Lady Darby Mystery: Book Three): Anna Lee Huber

"Scotland, 1830.  Following the death of her dear friend, Lady Kiera Darby is in need of a safe haven.  Returning to her childhood home, Kiera hopes her beloved brother, Trevor, and the merriment of the Hogmanay Ball will distract her.  But when a caretaker is murdered and a grave is disturbed at nearby Dryburgh Abbey Kiera is once more thrust into the cold grasp of death.

"While Kiera knows that aiding in another inquiry will only further tarnish her reputation, her knowledge of anatomy could make the difference in solving the case.  But agreeing to investigate means Kiera must deal with the complicated emotions aroused in her by inquiry agent Sebastian Gage.

"When Gage arrives, he reveals that the incident at the Abbey was not the first--some fiend is digging up old bones and holding them for ransom.  Now Kiera and Gage must catch the grave robber and put the case to rest...before another victim winds up six feet under."

I was thrilled to get back into the "Lady Darby Mystery" series.  It's no secret that I very much enjoyed the mystery and thrilling adventure (as well as the subtle, steamy romantic tension between Kiera and Gage) in the first two books of this series.  I had to wait a bit for this book to come in as a loan from another library, but boy did I ever devour it once I finally got my hands on it!  A little over two days later and I'm already writing my review!

We encounter a grieving Kiera a couple of months after Will's death at the close of book two.  She is depressed and seems to have lost a good part of herself in the fog of melancholy -- so much so that she cannot even bring herself to paint.  Though she makes efforts to heal and participate in life, she struggles to come to terms with the permanent and very tragic loss of her friend and mentor.  Her brother, Trevor, does his best to allow her space, but it's clear that he's worried about her grief.  I found him to be a well-rounded secondary character and a nice counterpart to Kiera's often-brooding nature in this book.  He's a good mixture of humor and seriousness.  Having him fall one way or the other would have felt either forced or overwhelming in the unrelenting seriousness.  It was nice to see another of Kiera's siblings since we've already spent a great deal of time witnessing her interactions with her elder sister, Alana, and her husband.  While I adore the relationship that's been cultivated between Alana and her husband, it's refreshing to have a new setting and prominent new secondary character -- it keeps things interesting!

When an unfortunate omen immediately precedes a horrible murder the night of the Hogmanay Ball, Kiera knows what she must do:  she's obligated to put her investigative skills and medical knowledge to good use -- especially in the absence of anyone else suitable.  She's surprised to realize just how willing she is to do such a thing.  Perhaps this is her way of throwing herself into work that would consume and distract her from the reality of Will's death?  Perhaps she's found another calling?  Or maybe the investigation is a way to once more make her feel close to Gage?  Either way, she jumps right into the investigation and, shortly thereafter, it's requested that she call Gage in to assist (because now everyone knows they've worked together before on two (successful) occasions).  She's unsure how she feels about inviting the handsome, charming, intelligent, confusing, frustrating man back into her life, but she really has no choice.  He's been specifically requested and Kiera knows there's no better man for the job.  Gage's arrival unleashes a myriad of confusing emotions within her, but -- as he slowly opens himself up to Kiera and reveals his true intentions -- she begins to realize just how much he's come to mean to her and the real danger he might pose to her future.

The romance is a wonderful undertone to the story, though it does take a more prominent role in this book than the previous two.  This is, of course, not to say that the series has become a "romance series" -- at least not yet.  The captivating mystery and intrigue still remain strongly at the forefront.  The twists and turns of the story and investigation kept me guessing.  I wasn't sure I knew who was at the heart of the crimes almost until Gage and Kiera did.  This is no small feat.  Huber artfully omits just enough information or has her characters skim over important bits in such a way that the readers are kept guessing throughout.  I like to believe that I'm not an easy reader to fool, but Huber manages to do this time and time again.  There's real talent in this writing and mastery to the storytelling.  I find myself pulled deeper and deeper into Lady Darby's world each time I pick up another book in this series.  The enthralling mystery, spectacular characters, artful blend of fiction and historical fact, all set against the stunning backdrop of England and (mainly) Scotland serve to create a fascinating world perfect for a reader's escape.

There were a few grammatical errors (I think they were just missed in the editing process), but they tripped me up where I had to make sure it was a typo and not just a turn of phrase I didn't comprehend the first time around.  I don't blame this on Huber, but the editing process.  These were tiny word errors rather than plot holes or mistakes, so I won't judge them too harshly.

As always, I highly recommend Huber's writing.  She has a knack for writing thrilling stories and amazing characters -- all while managing to stay true to their very strong, individual personalities throughout the series (at least thus far).  I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what the future holds for Kiera and Gage.