The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 1-17-21

Sunday Post

It was definitely a grade B sort of week. No real highs, no serious lows. Just some decent reads – along with an audiobook I totally bailed on. C’est la vie. Hopefully this week will be better. The audiobook I started is certainly a vast improvement – which gives me hope!

The picture below proves that cats rule the universe. Lucifer decided to take over Galen’s monitors and his Zoom meeting. Isn’t he gorgeous? I have a multi-day Zoom meeting starting on Friday and I’m hoping that he’ll come invade my meeting too!

Winner Announcements:

The winner of the New Year, New You Giveaway Hop is Wendy H.

Blog Recap:

B+ Review: You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria
B Review: Find Me in Havana by Serena Burdick
B+ Review: The Secrets of Colchester Hall by Sophie Barnes + Giveaway
B Review: Breathe the Sky by Michelle Hazen
B Review: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
Stacking the Shelves (427)

Coming This Week:

MLK Giveaway Hop
Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor (review)
The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson (review)
Conjure Women by Afia Atakora (review)
When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole (review)

Stacking the Shelves (427)

Stacking the Shelves

The stacks are starting to feel “normal” sized, which probably means they are too big. But there are SO MANY good books coming. It’s hard to resist! So I don’t. LOL

For Review:
The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser
Capture the Crown (Gargoyle Queen #1) by Jennifer Estep
Death with a Double Edge (Daniel Pitt #4) by Anne Perry
Her Dark Lies by J.T. Ellison
The Hidden Palace (Golem and the Jinni #2) by Helene Wecker
Leonora in the Morning Light by Michaela Carter
Murder by Page One (Peach Coast Library Mystery #1) by Olivia Matthews
The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat Sebastian
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
Someone to Cherish (Westcott #8) by Mary Balogh
Sugar Birds by Cheryl Grey Bostrom
Sunset on Moonlight Beach (Moonlight Harbor #5) by Sheila Roberts
While Justice Sleeps by Stacey Abrams

Purchased from Amazon/Audible:
The Duke and I (Bridgertons #1) by Julia Quinn
Minor Mage by T. Kingfisher
An Offer from a Gentleman (Bridgertons #3) by Julia Quinn
The Viscount Who Loved Me (Bridgertons #2) by Julia Quinn



Review: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

Review: The Hollow Places by T. KingfisherThe Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, horror
Pages: 352
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on October 6, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A young woman discovers a strange portal in her uncle’s house, leading to madness and terror in this gripping new novel.
Recently divorced and staring down the barrel of moving back in with her parents, Carrot really needs a break. And a place to live. So when her Uncle Earl, owner of the eclectic Wonder Museum, asks her to stay with him in exchange for cataloguing the exhibits, of course she says yes.

The Wonder Museum is packed with taxidermy, shrunken heads, and an assortment of Mystery Junk. For Carrot, it's not creepy at all: she grew up with it. What's creepy is the hole that's been knocked in one of the museum walls, and the corridor behind it. There's just no space for a corridor in the museum's thin walls - or the concrete bunker at the end of it, or the strange islands beyond the bunker's doors, or the whispering, unseen things lurking in the willow trees.

Carrot has stumbled into a strange and horrifying world, and They are watching her. Strewn among the islands are the remains of Their meals - and Their experiments. And even if she manages to make it back home again, she can't stop calling Them after her...

My Review:

At the beginning, this reminded me way more of The Doors of Eden than it did Narnia – at least until it talked about The Magician’s Nephew and “the wood between the worlds”. Because that was a “between” place, and so is the place that Carrot and her friend Simon find themselves in when they step into a passageway between her uncle’s Wonder Museum and Simon’s sister’s coffee shop next door.

A passageway that leads someplace else. An elsewhere that is MUCH scarier than most of the places in the multiverse that those Doors of Eden led to, and much more inherently frightening than that wood between the worlds.

Physically, it sounds a lot more like the Barrow Downs of Middle Earth – at least a version of the Barrow Downs where the evil trees of Mirkwood had moved in and taken over. There’s also a “between” very much like this one, without the creepy trees, in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I have a feeling there was a Doctor Who episode that had more than a bit of the same feel.

Or at least featured a similarly misplaced school bus. (It’s Planet of the Dead, which is a little too on the nose)

(My mind wandered a bit as I was reading, especially at the beginning, because it kept getting pinged by hints of so many familiar things!)

But the place that Carrot – her name is really Kara but her uncle still calls her Carrot – and Simon find themselves is definitely somewhere at the seriously creepy, downright Lovecraftian edge of the multiverse. Well, Lovecraftian if you squint and see tree roots as tentacles.

As Carrot says, everything in Lovecraft had tentacles. As scary as this story is, the tree roots will definitely do.

The story begins innocently enough, with Kara discovering a hole in the wall of the museum. A hole probably caused by a tourist. Because tourists make all the messes.

Kara and Simon both seemed to be afflicted with nearly terminal curiosity. Kara has returned to her tiny hometown of Hog Chapel, North Carolina, to a rent-free room over her uncle’s eclectic museum, after her unsatisfactory marriage ends in quiet divorce. If home is the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in, then the Wonder Museum is certainly Kara’s.

Simon lives next door, also rent-free, over his sister’s coffee shop and earns his keep as her barista. Both Kara and Simon are theoretically adults, but seem a bit frozen in time and lack of maturity. They bond together because neither of them quite fits in, and they have way too much time on their hands, and much too much imagination.

So when Kara discovers that hole in the museum’s wall, she and Simon just have to investigate. When the hole leads to a corridor that simply doesn’t fit within the geography they know, they don’t board it up. They go back to get better supplies for further exploration.

The world that they discover on the other side of that hole in the wall will provide both of them with nightmares for the rest of their lives. If they can manage to make it back alive. And lock the door behind them.

Escape Rating B: I don’t usually care for horror, and I knew this was horror when I picked it up. But I love this author’s voice so I was more than willing to give it a try. After making sure that ALL the lights were on.

At first it did remind me of The Doors of Eden rather a lot. The idea that there was an opening to a “between” place that opened into who knows how many different worlds is something they have in common. And what Mal, Lee and Kay found on the other side of that “between” was every bit as scary as what Kara and Simon found.

But Doors was more science fictional. It might not be real science, but it did its best, and a very damn good best it was, to sound like it was based on something real. Or at least real-ish.

The Hollow Places, even though it started with the same kind of weird, wacky museum as The Museum of Forgotten Memories, took a turn straight into things that go bump in the night in very short order. Because there is definitely something lurking in those hollow places, those bunkers, and it is coming to get Kara, Simon, Beau the cat, and if it can get fully established, all the rest of us.

At the same time, so much of what happens in that other world reads like a kind of fever dream and it feels that way to Kara and Simon as it is happening. Beau just wants to kill any monsters that enter his territory. Or honestly pretty much any other thing that looks like prey that enters his territory. He’s very cat.

What makes the story work are the characters of Kara and Simon. (Also Beau, I loved Beau). To say that they are not adulting well probably sums up their surface. They’ve found a place where they can manage. It’s not exactly comfortable, but they’ve made their lives work. They’re not brave, they’re not heroic, they’re both unlucky in love and not with each other (Kara is straight and Simon is gay) but they hold each other up when the situation is at its absolute worst with a bit of common sense, a whole lot of bravado and just enough of the snarkitude that I read this author for.

Still, Kara and Simon are profoundly there for each other even when neither of them is willing to articulate precisely what it is they are there for, because that way lies madness and they both know it. I started this book for the snark – didn’t get quite as much of it as I was hoping for – but I finished it for them. And Beau.

The ending reminded me of something completely different from anything I was expecting in a horror novel. This may have started with The Magician’s Nephew, but it ended with The Velveteen Rabbit. Because Kara loved the tatty, stuffed and badly taxidermied animals that were such a big part of the Wonder Museum. She loved them enough that for one brief moment, when she needed all the help she could get from whatever place she could get it from, all those animals became, as the Rabbit so poignantly described, Real.

Review: Breathe the Sky by Michelle Hazen

Review: Breathe the Sky by Michelle HazenBreathe the Sky by Michelle Hazen
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books: Penguin Random House on August 18, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Two strangers start out saving animals and end up rescuing each other in this heartwarming romance from the author of Unbreak Me. 
Mari Tucker is a wildlife biologist who scoops bunnies and endangered tortoises out of harm’s way on construction sites. Still haunted by her past, she takes the most remote jobs in the Mojave Desert to avoid people and hide from her ex. It’s a simple, quiet life filled with sweet animals and solar-powered baking until she ends up assigned to Jack Wyatt’s crew.
Construction foreman Jack Wyatt’s loud, foul-mouthed temper keeps even the most rugged of men on his crew in line. No mistake is overlooked, because out in the desert it could mean life or death. In his opinion, the job site is no place for sensitive biologists, especially one as shy as Mari. But instead of wilting from the heat and hard work, Mari wins over Jack and his crew one homemade brownie at a time.
Jack and Mari find a comfortable rhythm, building a friendship that’s rare for both of them. After Jack’s rocky childhood, they have more in common than they’d imagined. But even the Mojave sun can’t chase away the shadows when the past is determined to track them down…

My Review:

This one had me from “turtle rubber”. Honestly, “turtle rubber”, as in a condom for handling turtles. I started chortling along with the characters and didn’t stop, even though I already knew there was an EvilEx™ lurking in the shadows. And I usually don’t have kind thoughts about stories that rely on the return of an EvilEx™ to power their story.

But turtle rubbers? That, along with “consensual grabbing” of the turtle, tickled my funny bone, got me to empathize with the characters – including the poor, grabbed turtle – and got me hooked.

In spite of the chelonian (crossword puzzle answer meaning “relating to turtles”) humor, Breathe the Sky is not exactly a happy book. It does manage to grope its way towards a happy ending, but it’s a hard, rough ride to get there.

Because there isn’t just one EvilEx™ hanging over this romance like the proverbial Sword of Damocles, there are actually, sorta/kinda, two.

Wildlife biologist Mari Tucker begins the story on the run from her abusive ex-husband. That’s not a secret, not even at the very beginning. Everything Mari says and does seems to lead back to the vicious bastard.

Except, hopefully, her trail from her old life to her current job as a nomadic wildlife biologist – or bio – monitoring construction sites in the Mojave Desert to make sure that the towers that are built don’t contribute any further to the endangerment of the region’s many already endangered species.

Like those turtles.

Mari lives out of her truck, stays on the move, and uses most of her hard-earned cash to make inadequate payments on the thousands of dollars of medical debt she got left with after her divorce. Debts that she accumulated in treatment for all of the damage her ex did to her.

And she’s still looking over her shoulder, and still hearing his voice in her head, telling her that she’s stupid and clumsy, and incapable, and that no one will ever love her or take care of her except him.

There’s still a part of her that believes it, too. That is aware that the real reason that she left him was to keep him from killing her – not for her sake but to save him from a murder charge.

As much as Mari is used to making herself as small as possible in order to dodge the next fist, she still recognizes something of herself in construction foreman Jack Wyatt. Jack is rough and loud and yells more than he talks. But Mari figures out that Jack is, in a peculiar way, just like her.

That he’s waiting for the next blow or the next fist. That he’s scared, too. Just that his way of dealing with his fear is to make himself bigger and louder so that no one else ever sees that he’s afraid. That he’s hearing that same voice in his head telling him that he’s not enough and that he’s never going to amount to anything.

One inch, one step, and especially one solar-oven home cooked brownie at a time, Mari and Jack manage to help each other put some of their broken pieces together.

Only for their rising tide of possibility to get swamped by those old voices, reaching out of their past to try to destroy the present. And possibly succeeding.

Escape Rating B: Breathe the Sky is very much of a slow burn romance. And the reason that the burn is so slow boils down to the weight of the baggage that is dragging behind, and dragging down, both Mari and Wyatt. It’s like they are dragging the chains of Marley and Marley in A Muppet Christmas Carol – but without nearly as much of the humor that leavens that particular version of what is, honestly, a pretty dark story.

After reading Breathe the Sky, and particularly the author’s notes at the end, it feels as if this is really two stories combined into one that are both strong and good stories but don’t meld into as strong of a whole – or possibly that don’t appeal to the same audience.

One story, and it’s the one that brings with it the happy ending, parallels the author’s own life as a nomadic wildlife biologist. One who shares her love of working in remote places and that nomadic lifestyle with her very own romantic hero and has found her own HEA.

But it’s the darker story that dominates this book. Both Mari and Wyatt are domestic abuse survivors. Both come from families where domestic abuse is a repeating pattern. Mari doesn’t admit it, but there was abuse in her childhood, and she repeated the pattern with her ex-husband, who also came from a family with a pattern of abuse. Wyatt’s abuse began with his father and continued with his older brother.

They both have shit they haven’t dealt with, because it’s hard and it’s hard to admit that people who say they love you are hurting you. Even though by the time of this story they have physically escaped their abusers, mentally they are both still trapped and it is keeping them from moving on with their lives.

Neither of them trusts their own judgement, and they don’t feel capable of judging whether or not the other is trustworthy.

So the story operates on two different levels. Readers will probably have different thoughts and feelings about the story depending on which they see as dominant. I found the way that the abuse in their earlier lives continued to hang over them and hold them back to be the larger part of the story, which made it a hard slog for me.

One thing about this part of the story that I did love. In the end they each rescued themselves. They didn’t rescue each other. You can only break your own chains, you can only deal with your own shit. No one can do it for you and it was important to show that.

But it still makes for a very hard read.

Howsomever, readers who see their recovery as the lion’s share of the story will probably come out of the story happier than I did. This one is definitely a case where the reading mileage is going to vary.

Review: The Secrets of Colchester Hall by Sophie Barnes + Giveaway

Review: The Secrets of Colchester Hall by Sophie Barnes + GiveawayThe Secrets Of Colchester Hall by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: Gothic, historical romance, regency romance
Pages: 148
Published by Sophie Barnes on January 12, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

As one of six possible candidates vying for Viscount Sterling's hand, Lady Angelica has been invited to stay at his grand manor for a week-long house party. But an unpleasant feeling lurks within Colchester Hall. It's almost as if someone's watching Angelica just beyond the edge of her vision. And while she tries to explain the chill creeping up behind her as merely a draft, she can't shake the feeling that something disturbing might be at play.
When Sterling decides she's the woman he wants, can Angelica accept her new home and the sinister secrets she fears it might hold, or will she give up on true love because of what could prove to be nothing more than her own imagination?
NOTE: This novella was previously included in the anthology, Wicked Liaison

My Review:

It’s not illogical that the result of a man discovering that his late wife was unfaithful would be for him to ensure that his next wife wouldn’t be tempted. Or in the case of Viscount Randolph Sterling’s search for a new bride, wouldn’t be tempting to others.

The problem is that his next viscountess really does need to be tempting to him.

It’s a conundrum that he intends to solve by inviting six women who are “on the shelf” to his home, with their chaperones, in the hopes that one will strike his fancy – even if it seems that the entire ton has labelled them as unmarriageable for one reason or another.

Three are shy to the point of paralysis, which explains their lack of previous offers. One is a bit shy, but is mostly disqualified because she’s already in love with someone else, who of course doesn’t seem to notice that she exists. (I really liked Lucy and wouldn’t mind seeing her story!)

One of the eligible ladies has the personality of a narcissistic velociraptor. And I might have just insulted velociraptors. It’s clear upon first meeting that the reason no one has offered marriage to Lady Seraphina is because she’s a vicious bitch. And again, that’s an insult to both vicious people and bitches. She’s a piece of work.

That leaves our heroine, Lady Angelica. She’s not shy. In fact, many might say that her lack of shyness, certainly her lack of what was considered decorum and proper behavior for ladies, was the reason that no one – at least so far – had wanted to marry her. Angelica speaks her mind, to the point where she is considered to be blunt to a fault.

Angelica is exactly what Randolph Sterling has been looking for. Over the course of a week where he “interviews” all of his prospective brides, he already knows that he has made his choice.

If Angelica will agree. And if the malign spirit that seems to haunt Colchester Hall will let her live long enough to reach the altar.

Escape Rating B+: For a surprisingly short book, The Secrets of Colchester Hall manages to encompass some seriously creepy Gothic chills while solving the mystery of those titular secrets and leading to a satisfactory – and heated – romantic happy ever after.

Of course, the protagonists need the heat of that HEA to get over the chills induced by those terrible secrets.

The Secrets of Colchester Hall is billed as a gothic romance, and was originally published as part of an anthology of gothics. Gothic romances are a subgenre that isn’t as popular as it was once upon a time, so it was fascinating to read one that invoked some of the classics of the genre.

There are hints of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, to the point where that story is deliberately lampshaded in the bookstore when the hero recommends the book to the heroine. A heroine who is a fan of such gothic romances, as is the heroine of Northanger Abbey herself.

But it feels like the real inspiration for this foray into those secrets at Colchester Hall is Dame Daphne du Maurier’s classic creeper Rebecca. The story has several similar elements, enough to let a reader predict at least some of the outcome. But it stands more than well enough on its own to keep the reader shivering and turning pages to the very last.

What makes this one stand out is the character of Angelica. Her bluntness and plain-speaking make her easy for contemporary readers to identify with, and her willingness to say what she really thinks, no matter the social cost, provides the story with many of its best and most lighthearted moments – as well as providing Sterling with all the reasons he could ever want to ask Angelica for her hand.

Like most gothic romances, there is more than a bit of willing suspension of disbelief involved. The actual villain of the piece is flesh-and-blood and certainly among the living, and that person’s machinations are plausible. Sinister, murderous, manipulative, but still plausible. But there’s an element of paranormal woo-woo involved in most gothics and this one was no exception. Angelica is receiving messages from the beyond and those messages are getting her attention – as well as the attention of the villain. That the story requires her to believe those messages and for the hero to believe her and not have her committed, is a bit of a stretch.

A stretch that works, and chills the reader right to the bone.

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

a Rafflecopter giveaway

 

Review: Find Me in Havana by Serena Burdick

Review: Find Me in Havana by Serena BurdickFind Me in Havana by Serena Burdick
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Park Row Books on January 12, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A stunning new novel of historical fiction from the author of
The Girls with No Names
based on the true unsolved murder of Cuban-born Hollywood actress Estelita Rodriguez.
Cuba, 1936. As her family struggles to recover from the Cuban Revolution, Estelita's own world opens when she's "discovered" singing in Havana nightclubs. At fifteen, her dreams to travel to America come true with the invitation to sing at the Copacabana. There, she begins a whirlwind romance with Chu Chu Martinez, a handsome actor she later marries. But when Chu Chu forbids her from performing, Estelita takes their daughter, Nina, and escapes to Hollywood.
Big Sur, 1966. Nina Rodriguez grew up enamored by her mother's beauty and glamour. She still doesn't understand how her vivacious mother could have died so quickly from influenza and suspects a more sinister plot pointing to her mother's most recent romance. When Nina finds herself repeating her mother's destructive patterns with men, she looks to the lessons of her mother's past to find a new way forward.
Based on the true events of Estelita Rodriguez's sensational life and exclusive interviews with the real Nina, Find Me in Havana beautifully captures the love, sacrifice and deep understanding that can only come from a mother-daughter relationship.

My Review:

This is one of those stories that lives up to the adage “fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” Because this is a fictionalized story of a real life, a real death, and a real mystery. The author, having been told this story, filled in the blanks provided by the story of a daughter, 30 years later, telling the story of the mother who died under mysterious circumstances, and whom, quite possibly, she never really knew.

The woman at the center of this story is Estelita Rodriguez, a Cuban actress who was featured in a series of Westerns with Roy Rogers, and whose best known role was in Rio Bravo with John Wayne.

She died young and under rather mysterious circumstances in 1966, at the age of 37, leaving behind a husband she was about to divorce and a 20-year-old daughter whose memories provide the heart of this pseudo-speculative biography.

I say pseudo because Nina Rodriguez, although she tells this story much, much later in her life, is remembering events in her mother’s life that she either witnessed as a child or pieced together long after the events. Much of what she remembers is filtered through her childhood perspective and some of it may be inaccurate, either because of a lack of perspective, a lack of information, or simply the tendency of memories to blur over time.

So Nina’s memory of her stepfather Grant Withers’ death isn’t quite what happened. Or rather it isn’t quite when and where it happened. He did die that way, but four years after her mother divorced him and neither Estelita nor Nina were witnesses.

Time and memory play tricks on us all.

The story is also speculative because the cause of Estelita’s death was not determined at the time, so the mystery surrounding her death has never been resolved. It may be as Nina describes it in the book. That story fits the pieces she had but we’ll never really know.

Estelita Rodriguez

What we do have is a story that blends Nina’s memories with messages that are written as if they came from Estelita. It’s the story of a life that had its highs and lows, but also a life that traveled from, through, and returned to some very dark times and places.

And she survived, even if entirely too often by the skin of her teeth. Until, suddenly and unexpectedly, she was gone. Leaving her daughter to pick up the tiny, broken pieces of both of their lives.

Escape Rating B: In a week where I was looking for stories with happy endings, this one was particularly heartbreaking. Estelita’s story is a walk through some very dark places, to the point where the reader sometimes questions how she managed to survive as long as she did.

It’s also a story where the protagonist has sown the seeds of their own destruction to the point where it’s not really a surprise that it finally reaches out and sucks her under.

One of the things that surprised me while reading is just how much Estelita and the heroine of yesterday’s book have in common. That they are both Latinx is the superficial part of that similarity. The deeper underlying commonality is the way that they both spend their lives looking for validation through the eyes of and in their relationships with, men. Usually the wrong men, at that. The differences begin because Jasmine, yesterday’s heroine, gets herself out of that trap, where Estelita never does. But part of Jasmine’s ability to do that comes from her marvelously supportive family, where Estelita seems to have always been an outsider in hers.

And that the times they lived in were so very different.

The hardest part of Estelita’s life to read, however, relates to her experience of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when she briefly returned to her homeland after her father and two of her brothers-in-law had been imprisoned for their support of the ousted Batista. The harrowing events of those few brief months, at least according to this fictionalized biography, left both Estelita and Nina emotionally scarred for the rest of their lives.

If it happened this way, or at all.

In the end, I have mixed feelings about this book. It is, as I said earlier, a walk through very dark places, whether fictionalized or not. It’s an absorbing read, even if it was not what I was in the mood for, and that colors my perceptions. The story also feels very subjective, as it isn’t so much Estelita’s story as it is Nina’s recollections of Estelita’s story as seen through Nina’s eyes as a child and young adult. The two women don’t relate as much to or understand each other nearly as well as the blurb might lead readers to believe.

In the end, a frequently compelling read, but not a remotely happy one.

Review: You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria

Review: You Had Me at Hola by Alexis DariaYou Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 365
Published by Avon on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Leading Ladies do not end up on tabloid covers. 
After a messy public breakup, soap opera darling Jasmine Lin Rodriguez finds her face splashed across the tabloids. When she returns to her hometown of New York City to film the starring role in a bilingual romantic comedy for the number one streaming service in the country, Jasmine figures her new “Leading Lady Plan” should be easy enough to follow—until a casting shake-up pairs her with telenovela hunk Ashton Suárez. 
Leading Ladies don’t need a man to be happy
After his last telenovela character was killed off, Ashton is worried his career is dead as well. Joining this new cast as a last-minute addition will give him the chance to show off his acting chops to American audiences and ping the radar of Hollywood casting agents. To make it work, he’ll need to generate smoking-hot on-screen chemistry with Jasmine. Easier said than done, especially when a disastrous first impression smothers the embers of whatever sexual heat they might have had. 
Leading Ladies do not rebound with their new costars. 
With their careers on the line, Jasmine and Ashton agree to rehearse in private. But rehearsal leads to kissing, and kissing leads to a behind-the-scenes romance worthy of a soap opera. While their on-screen performance improves, the media spotlight on Jasmine soon threatens to destroy her new image and expose Ashton’s most closely guarded secret.
 

My Review:

I went looking for happy endings again. Is anyone surprised? In that search I discovered a whole bunch of friends’ recommendations for this book, as well as remembering that it had been on several best of the year lists – and that I had a copy! Problem solved for a day – not that I didn’t immediately go looking for more for the rest of this week.

While Jasmine and Ashton do have each other at “Hola”, there’s also a truth that the title is quite a bit catchier than the truth, which is more like a mutual “you had me when you spilled coffee on me” because that’s not half so romantic sounding – or succinct.

This is a story that works in multiple directions. One is that it’s a story of two people who both believe, and for very good but completely different reasons, that they need to concentrate on their careers and absolutely NOT on any possibility of romance.

Second, it’s a story about validation. Again, for entirely different reasons, both Jasmine and Ashton are laboring under the mistaken belief that they are not good enough, not doing enough, not accomplishing enough, not trying hard enough, not doing the right things enough.

In other words, they both have serious cases of impostor syndrome. Some of that arises from their family situations, and some of it comes from the way that the entertainment industry which they are both involved in, suffers from a baked-in preference for not just actors like themselves but also people behind the camera and in the front office, who are not like them.

Both are Latinx and both have had plenty of barriers put in their way in their chosen profession. Which leads to the third thing about this story, in that it is a celebration, not just of LatinX culture in all of its own diversity, but also in the joy of being part of a team that has your back and helps you put forth your best everything because of what you all share – particularly in a world that tells you how “other” you are at pretty much every turn.

The romance is, in many ways, an opposites attract kind of love story. Jasmine is very open. She trusts easily and she falls in love easily – both to her own detriment. As a result, much too much of her personal life gets splashed on the tabloids, even if most of what they write is made up nonsense.

Ashton, on the other hand, is extremely private and closed off. He has a secret that he is desperate to keep, but keeping that secret also keeps him from opening himself up even to friendship, let alone anything more.

She’s public and he’s private. She’s gossip fodder and he ruthlessly suppresses publicity. It shouldn’t work. Neither of them really wants it to work, at least as the story begins.

But they’re playing the romantic leads in a made-for-streaming romantic comedy series. On screen, they have to generate serious chemistry, which means that off screen they need to at least be able to talk to one another.

Talking, as it so often does, leads to a whole lot more. A more that neither of them wants to reveal. Until the paparazzi take care of all of that for them in, of course, the worst way possible.

And very nearly destroy the best thing that’s ever happened to either of them.

Escape Rating B+: While this wasn’t quite as transportive as a couple of the romances from my week of happy endings – I’m thinking in particular of Take a Hint, Dani Brown and Spoiler Alert – a good reading time was definitely had by all. Or at least by moi.

I loved the romance between Jasmine and Ashton. It read like a variation of the fake-romance trope, but a variation that definitely worked. It wasn’t exactly that they were faking a romance, but they were faking a romance. It’s just that everyone knew it was a fake, because it was the onscreen romance between their characters.

Come to think of it, they were really faking NOT being a romance. A kind of double-fake. It worked, and the reasons for it worked.

While Ashton’s reason was more important, that he was a single father who was hiding his son in order to keep him safe, it was Jasmine’s reason that resonated most with me. As a middle child, she often felt overlooked between her overachieving older sister and her younger, always the baby sister. And so many of her family interactions, while well-meaning, intentionally or otherwise reminded her over and over (and over) that her goals and achievements weren’t as important or as successful, from her family’s perspective, as theirs. She felt overlooked and as a consequence looked for validation in romantic relationships – and looked too hard and all too often with men who didn’t value her either.

Jasmine’s feelings, and her response to them, will resonate with a lot of women who felt overlooked or overshadowed in their families and used similar methods to find validation, whether that overshadowing was the result of middle-child syndrome, workaholic parents or some other reason.

Ashton’s reasons, on the other hand, while they make sense were more the result of his understandable paranoia after a stalking incident than anything actually based in reality – as Jasmine pointed out. If he wants to be a famous actor and someday win an Oscar, he can’t keep his private life truly private. It’s understandable that he wants to but his goals are mutually exclusive.

In the story he clung to that overwhelming desire to keep his son a secret a bit too long. The point had been made, and made, and made to the point where it began to feel repetitive and I just wanted the story to get on with it. Your reading mileage may vary.

That being said, the story was lovely and I really enjoyed myself with Jasmine, her team and especially the Primas of Power, her terrifically supportive cousins who always had her back – especially when they needed to push her forward.

So a wonderful romance, a terrific story, and I’d love to see more about the Primas of Power and Jasmine’s entire clan!

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 1-10-21

Sunday Post

I know doomscrolling is bad but have you SEEN the quality of the doom this week? I’m paraphrasing something that Galen saw on the twitters late this week, but the point is well made. This has been a week, and next week promises to be just as “interesting”. At least in the sense that “may you live in interesting times” is a curse and not a blessing.

Which leads directly to the cat picture. Because the clowder absolutely are blessings in our lives, even if they do occasionally go “pointy-side out” with abandon. Especially George. Lucifer is much more of a gentleman, but they are still best buds, as shown below.

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the New Year, New You Giveaway Hop

Blog Recap:

21 for 2021: My Most Anticipated Books for 2021
A- Review: All the Colors of Night by Jayne Ann Krentz
A- Review: Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T.A. Willberg
A- Review: Domesticating Dragons by Dan Koboldt
A+ Review: Paladin’s Grace by T. Kingfisher
Stacking the Shelves (426)

Coming This Week:

You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria (review)
Find Me in Havana by Serena Burdick (blog tour review)
The Secrets of Colchester Hall by Sophie Barnes (blog tour review)
Breathe the Sky by Michelle Hazen (review)
The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher (review)

Stacking the Shelves (426)

Stacking the Shelves

While NetGalley and Edelweiss haven’t quite gotten back to pre-holiday levels, this stack is at least a bit taller than the last few.

Although speaking of normal, this past week was definitely far from that. I don’t know about you but I’m tired. It feels like a good weekend to cuddle up with a couple of cats and READ!

For Review:
The Frozen Crown (Warrior Witch #1) by Greta Kelly
Half Life by Jillian Cantor
Incense and Sensibility (Rajes #3) by Sonali Dev
An Irish Hostage (Bess Crawford #12) by Charles Todd
Murder at Wedgefield Manor (Jane Wunderly #2) by Erica Ruth Neubauer
Peaches and Schemes (Georgia B&B #3) by Anna Gerard

Purchased from Amazon/Audible:
Clockwork Boys (Clocktaur War #1) by T. Kingfisher
Enchanted Again: Author’s Preferred Edition (Mystic Circle #2) by Robin D. Owens
Enchanted Ever After: Author’s Preferred Edition (Mystic Circle #3) by Robin D. Owens (preorder)
Enchanted No More: Author’s Preferred Edition (Mystic Circle #1) by Robin D. Owens
Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2020 Edition (free)
Swordheart (Clocktaur War) by T. Kingfisher
The Wonder Engine (Clocktaur War #2) by T. Kingfisher



Review: Paladin’s Grace by T. Kingfisher

Review: Paladin’s Grace by T. KingfisherPaladin's Grace by T. Kingfisher
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance
Series: Clocktaur War
Pages: 398
Published by Red Wombat Studio on February 11, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Stephen’s god died on the longest day of the year…
Three years later, Stephen is a broken paladin, living only for the chance to be useful before he dies. But all that changes when he encounters a fugitive named Grace in an alley and witnesses an assassination attempt gone wrong. Now the pair must navigate a web of treachery, beset on all sides by spies and poisoners, while a cryptic killer stalks one step behind…
From the Hugo and Nebula Award winning author of Swordheart and The Twisted Ones comes a saga of murder, magic, and love on the far side of despair.

My Review:

The title is a pun. It’s also a clue to the way this story works itself out. Which is bloody damn marvelous every slightly meandering step of the way.

There’s a question about whether Paladin’s Grace is an epic fantasy that includes a romance, or a fantasy romance that happens to also be epic. After mulling it over for a while, I’m pretty sure the answer is “yes!” Or perhaps “hells to the yes!” is a bit more accurate.

The setting of this story is plenty epic. It’s also set in the same world as her Clocktaur War duology and Swordheart but certainly doesn’t rely on any of them to get the reader stuck right into it. I haven’t read either and had no trouble becoming immediately involved, understanding what was going on, or being so damn absorbed I couldn’t put it down.

Not that I didn’t buy all three books as soon as I finished and realized that there were three other books set in this world. Because DAMN! this was good.

The setting dragged me in right away because it leads off with a fascinating concept that powers so much of the story in various ways. This is a world where the gods are real. By that I mean the gods act in and on the world and their worshippers in ways that can be witnessed, not just by believers but by everyone.

In that sense, it’s a world that resembles the world of Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, starting with Three Parts Dead. That’s a world where the lawyers are necromancers, and part of their job is to write contracts for gods both living and dead. But even more than the Craft Sequence, the world of Paladin’s Grace reminds me of Lois McMaster Bujold’s World of the Five Gods, particularly as it is seen through the eyes of the Learned Divine Penric of the White God and his demon Desdemona in Penric’s Demon and the books that follow. Penric has met his god, usually just before or just after said god sends him on yet another errand, and other people in that world have met their gods as well.

The way that the Saint of Penric’s order interacts with their god and the way that the Paladins of the Saint of Steel interact with theirs has some similarities – right up until the paladins’ god dies, leaving all of its paladins reeling as though someone has scooped out their hearts, souls and all the rest of their innards both physical and metaphorical.

The thing about the Saint of Steel is that this god blessed their paladins with divine berserker fits. So when the god dies they all go literally berserk, into a killing rage that results in murders, suicides, explosions and generally a whole lot of the death they were famous for in the first place.

Three years later there are only seven paladins of the Saint of Steel left, barely keeping each other alive and functional, assisted by those who serve the Rat God, an order which has no paladins of its own. But it does have lawyers, leading back to that resemblance to the Craft Sequence I mentioned earlier.

Serving the Rat and protecting its Bishop, the absolutely awesome Bishop Beartongue, gives the remaining paladins enough purpose to keep them going. It’s all any of them expect out of life at this point. (And if the author ever writes an entire book featuring the Bishop, I am SO there!)

Then Paladin Stephen becomes entangled with Grace the perfumer, and he discovers a whole new reason for living. If he can let himself. If he can get over himself. If he can trust himself.

If the Bishop and his brother paladins can manage to extract them both from the political clusterfuck that they’ve bumbled into – in spite of the odds against them all along the way.

Escape Rating A+: Paladin’s Grace was definitely, sincerely, absolutely a case of the right book at the right time.

There is just so much happening in this story, both on the epic fantasy and the fantasy romance sides of the equation. Plus – big huge gigantic plus – the author’s very dry and frequently hung from the gallows humor made me laugh out loud so many times, even as it both developed the characters and pushed the story forward. This is my favorite type of humor, the kind that arises out of character and situation and is never built on cruelty, tearing up or punching down.

I wanted to go out for drinks with pretty much everyone on Stephen and Grace’s side of the story, including them. Even when their world was going to hell in a handcart, the way the author wrote them created plenty of opportunities to laugh with them and not at them.

On the romance side, Stephen in particular is the poster child for the romantic hero who is so fucked up and has so much baggage that he’s certain he couldn’t possibly be good enough for the heroine. Not that Grace doesn’t have plenty of her own baggage, but in comparison, hers is almost normal. Stephen has lost his god and is rightfully afraid of going berserker at any moment. Nothing compares.

The political situation that they stumble into is, on the one hand, fairly standard for epic fantasy, and on the other, wildly different because it is so totally inept and still almost works. There is just a ton about this story to love.

As I said early on, this was the right book at the absolute right time. I was ready to start a new book just as the polls closed in Georgia this week. It was a night that promised to be chock-full of doomscrolling, so I went looking for a book that would suck me in so deeply that I’d be able to forget about the mess for a few hours. (I voted by mail weeks ago, so there wasn’t much I could do at that point except incessantly doomscroll hoping it would eventually turn to schadenscrolling and even gleescrolling at some point.) But constant scrolling is not productive, only anxiety inducing. Nobody needed any more of THAT this week – not that we didn’t all get plenty ANYWAY.).

That’s the point where I remembered I had Paladin’s Grace, and that I absolutely LOVED this author’s Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking which made me chuckle, laugh and outright chortle the entire time I was reading it.

Considering the news on Wednesday, I really, really needed the distraction.

Paladin’s Grace turned out to be EXACTLY the book I was looking for. It didn’t reduce me to completely incoherence, as the paladin Stephen and the perfumer Grace frequently do to each other in the course of this story. But it did take me far, far away from the madness of the real for a while. For which I am so, so grateful.