Rosie’s #Bookreview Team #RBRT #Chicklit Jennifer Brown Is Moving On by Angie Langley

Today’s team review is from Barb, she blogs here https://barbtaub.com/

#RBRT Review Team

Barb has been reading Jennifer Brown Is Moving on by Angie Langley

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My Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Remember when we loved Bridget Jones? Wasn’t her obsession with her weight, search for a man, and drinking really funny? If you miss her, you’re going to love Jennifer Brown. You know this because everyone in the book tells you that you’ll love her, from her (obligatory gay) BFF to the rich, dashing, er… Jonathan Dashwood-Silk.

‘Because being you—being Jennifer Brown—is…’ her eyes were glistening now. ‘…is the best thing to be. The best thing anyone could be.’

I haven’t read the first volume in this series, but I’m told that we meet Jennifer as an inept admin who can’t spell or type. In almost no time and despite a total lack of experience, she has gone from being a typist who couldn’t spell to managing a country estate and returning it to profitability. From there, she enters the rarified ranks of high-end wine merchants, with an international portfolio of rich, famous clients. Oh, and despite a lifetime of drinking the cheapest plonk possible, she has developed “…a very discerning and educated palate.”

Who is Jennifer? Yes, she’s the Mary Sue—that character so totally, incredibly perfect that instead being the focus of the plot, she bends the laws of physics to make the rest of the universe revolve around her. If spoilers didn’t prevent it, I would tell you about an ending so fantastical, even the most sentimental of victorian children’s stories wouldn’t dare attempt it without a godmother on some serious fairy steroids.

And yet…I like Jennifer. She’s just so sweet and warm and funny that I can’t help liking her—even though I have the distinct feeling that if you pitched her against a wall, she would just stick there a bit, perhaps oozing down slowly until an incredibly handsome and rich person happened by, fell in love at first sight, and whisked her off to their beach mansion in fairyland or Malibu to recover. Even then.

Jennifer is a giant step backward for feminism (as, we must admit, was Bridget Jones). Hardly the “everywoman” claimed on the cover, Jennifer Brown is instead polar opposite to current young women characters such as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s semi-autobiographical Fleabag.

And that’s okay. If you’re in the mood for a fairy tale, if you have a superhuman capacity for the suspension of disbelief, if you just want a bit more Bridget Jones—then Jennifer Brown is perfect for you. You won’t have a moment’s worry, you know all will be spectacularly OTT-well, and you’ll feel like that happily-ever-after is well and truly job done.

Book description

She’s back!
Five feet one and full of fizz, Jennifer Brown has learned to roll with the punches and adapt to whatever life throws at her. It’s thrown plenty in the past and she’s had to use her steely core to reinvent herself, first as cook and housekeeper to a saucy sexagenarian, then as manager of a tumbledown country estate with sensitive secrets. In Jennifer Brown On The Move, this Bridget Jones with knobs on is taking charge of her life again, showing the world she can move in the most exalted, high-power circles and lose not an ounce of her gutsy, down-to-earth charm. Her hilarious cross-dressing confidant Will is on hand once again, with pearls of caustic widsom, and her old boss Jonathan Dashwood-Silk breezes in and out of her life, still dripping charisma but still needing our heroine to dig him out of the odd hole. As she crosses continents and breaks bread with the world’s movers and shakers, Jennifer Brown finds her mind still troubled by thoughts of the quiet man with the warm eyes and the velvet vowels. Then that daydream is torpedoed when she’s invited to his wedding.
But you know Jennifer. She never gives up!

AmazonUK | AmazonUS

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Rosie’s #Bookreview Team #RBRT #HistoricalFiction MAHONEY by @huckfinn76

Today’s team review is from Barb, she blogs here https://barbtaub.com/

#RBRT Review Team

Barb has been reading Mahoney by Andrew Joyce

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My review: 4.5 out of 5 stars for Mahoney

Devin Mahoney, the descendant of kings, lay on the dirt floor of his small, dark cabin, waiting for Death to take him by the hand and lead him out of this world of misery.

It’s not exactly the first line of Andrew Joyce’s new generational saga Mahoney, but I’m betting it was the one he wrote first. Mahoney is a coming of age story in three parts, both for the three generations of an Irish immigrant family it encompasses, and even more for America, the country they help to shape.

When we meet Devin Mahoney in Part One of the saga, he’s dying of hunger during Ireland’s potato famine, probably around 1846. The mixture of absentee landlords, repressive taxes, and remnants of feudal land systems combines with crop failure to create a perfect storm of economic devastation. Devin has already lost his family to the rampaging diseases of the workhouse when the landlord’s agent informs him he’s being evicted from his family farm and sent to America.

The nineteen-year-old’s journey across the ravaged landscape of Ireland, followed by the horrific passage on a “coffin ship” are personal glimpses into the slow-moving train wreck that was Ireland. Devin’s determination to return to his homeland as a rich man after making his fortune among the supposed ‘streets paved with gold’ in America slowly matures into a resolve to make a life for himself and his young family in the new land. In the best generational saga tradition, Devin’s life in America is a clean slate, written in a new country.

Devin Mahoney arrives at a pivotal moment in the history of the young United States. Through hard work, he builds a life and home in America. He becomes a husband and a father. But Devin remembers the virtual slavery of his youth, and feels he owes it to the past and his dead family in Ireland, as well as the future and his new family in America, to join the fight against slavery when the country heads into Civil War.

Part Two of takes up the tale of Dillon Mahoney, Devin’s son. If Part One resonates with my own family history, it’s in Part Two that Andrew Joyce settles into his comfort zone, writing confidently about a western landscape and period he’s researched extensively and knows intimately. While Dillon’s father’s story was of America on the brink of Civil War, the son’s tale embraces that most pivotal of American self images, the Wild West. Never mind that the actual “wild west” only lasted about thirty years (roughly 1865-1895). Revolvers were newfangled inventions that only were accurate to about 50 feet, and (at least in the earlier models) would burn the shooter’s hands. The famous Shootout at the OK Corral occurred when Sheriff Virgil Earp, along with his deputized brothers and Doc Holliday, enforced Tombstone’s anti-gun ordinance. The only things that occurred less frequently than shoot-outs were bank robberies—probably less than ten across that period.But even though history (and Hollywood) got so much of it wrong, there’s still something compelling about that period that defined so much of what we Americans believe ourselves to be—adventurous, brave, and entitled as hell.

Not a stetson between them… [“Fort Worth Five Photograph.” –Supposedly taken after Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall Gang robbed the bank in Winnemucca, Nevada and sent to the bank manager along with a thank-you note from Cassidy.
Front row left to right: Harry A. Longabaugh, alias the Sundance Kid, Ben Kilpatrick, alias the Tall Texan, Robert Leroy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy; Standing: Will Carver & Harvey Logan, alias Kid Curry; Fort Worth, Texas, 1900.
Source: From the studio of John Schwartz.]

It would have been easy for author Joyce to plunk his young hero down in the middle of the stereotype: the cowboy on a cattle drive, the quick-draw sheriff in gun duels with bank robbers and cattle rustlers. But unlike his father’s story, Dillon’s tale is told in the first person, offering readers an intimate look at the next pivotal period in America history, the westward expansion. Hearing Dillon’s voice and sharing his thoughts both makes his story more immediate and compelling, and also keeps him from becoming another stereotypic hard-eyed hero of the Wild West.

I looked down at my still-smoking gun as if I had never seen it before. ‘Keep ’em covered, Bob. I’ll be right back.’

Still holding my gun, on unsteady legs, I walked to the back of barn and emptied my gut, splashing my boots in the process.

On that fiery-hot day in the middle of nowhere, in a godforsaken patch of desert, I learned that it is not easy to kill a man. It’s not easy at all, even if the man needed killing.

Dillon’s is the essential middle generation role, successful owner of his position in the world, fully assimilated and at home in a way his Irish immigrant father never could have been. At the same time, America as a country is coming of age, accepting and embracing its role in the world.

Part Three tells the story of Dillon’s son, David. In a generational saga, this third generation Mahoney’s rebellion against the preceding generation’s values and restrictions echoes his grandfather’s disgust with the past—a similarity only made possible by David’s confidence of belonging to his father’s world.

Again, this coming of age is an echo of America itself as it’s thrust from the glitter, self-satisfaction, and excesses of the 1920s into the grim reality of the Great Depression. In keeping with that loss of identity and confidence, David’s tale is again told in the third person, like that of his grandfather Devin. For example, David watches his world collapse after the stock market crash with the same fatalistic passivity as his grandfather lying on his dirt floor in Ireland waits for death. But David is also the product of his own father’s successful assimilation and confident place in his world. David’s encounters on the road, and especially with survivors of an actual horrific racial attack in Rosewood Florida, awaken the same disgust at injustice and determination to do something about it that connect him firmly to his father and grandfather. Or, as Dillon puts what is essentially the theme of the book,

If good men don’t stand up to evil, the bad men will win, and this land will never be tamed.

David, the grandson of immigrant Irish Mahoneys, is a synthesis of the preceding two generations—a mirror of America’s own struggles to accept a place on the world stage while still coming to terms with a past and present that include slavery, discrimination, and intolerance.

Mahoney isn’t a perfect book. Having just three men embody a hundred years of history meant they had to do too much, be too many places, and sometimes coincidence seemed too forced. But if you look at it as a generational saga of an entire country, as viewed through a small intimate family mirror, the overall effect is mesmerizing.

I already knew Andrew Joyce as a terrific storyteller (in the best Irish tradition?), but in Mahoney I see him as a terrific writer as well, from the overarching vision to the minute details of the story. He gives just enough detail to allow readers to build a scene in our own mind, while allowing his characters to grow, to change, and to learn, and above all, to make their new land into a better place for those who follow.

Book description

 

In this compelling, richly researched novel, author Andrew Joyce tells a story of determination and grit as the Mahoney clan fights to gain a foothold in America. From the first page to the last, fans of Edward Rutherfurd and W. Michael Gear will enjoy this riveting, historically accurate tale of adventure, endurance, and hope.

In the second year of an Gorta Mhór—the Great Famine—nineteen-year-old Devin Mahoney lies on the dirt floor of his small, dark cabin. He has not eaten in five days. His only hope of survival is to get to America, the land of milk and honey. After surviving disease and storms at sea that decimate crew and passengers alike, Devin’s ship limps into New York Harbor three days before Christmas, 1849. Thus starts an epic journey that will take him and his descendants through one hundred and fourteen years of American history, including the Civil War, the Wild West, and the Great Depression.

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Rosie’s #Bookreview Team #RBRT Mild #Horror #Shortstory DOGGEM by @john_f_leonard

Today’s team review is from Barb, she blogs here https://barbtaub.com/

#RBRT Review Team

Barb has been reading Doggem by John F Leonard


My Review: 4.5 stars out of 5 for

Doggem: A Tale of Toy Dogs and Dark Deeds by John F. Leonard

The Velveteen Rabbit meets Rosemary’s Baby.

John F. Leonard’s little story of Doggem is a sweet tale of a little boy, a favorite toy, murder, horror, and (possibly) the end of the world. Narrated by the toy dog Doggem—whose job is to go home with the five-year-olds in Mrs. Snady’s class and inspire them to practice their fledgling writing skills by writing up Doggem’s diary—we soon realize that the recently sentient toy is an unreliable narrator at best. His vocabulary and observations are far removed from those of his tiny guardians’ abilities, while he himself freely admits to ‘many failings’:

I’m already digressing. I fear that will be one of my many failings. Acquiring a voice when muteness was your original condition tends to engender a certain garrulous quality.

If I have any complaint about the story, it’s just that it too short. The genre demands a slow buildup, and I think the questions raised by the unreliable little narrator would have been even more devastating with a little more description behind them. With such a short story, descriptions of people and settings are necessarily pared back to the minimum needed, but are nevertheless razor sharp. Describing George’s mother, for example, Doggem observes, “There was a certain sharpness to Cath Gould’s features that meant her face eluded true beauty. As if God had taken his eye off the ball at the last minute and allowed something snappish to creep into the mix. She was a strikingly attractive woman nonetheless, never more so than when she was charming her way through a difficult subject.”Despite our immediate suspicions, Doggem’s observations and comments convey an intelligence that is both clueless and timelessly jaded. We start to get small hints that George is such an unusual child that he was actually the source of Doggem’s change from toy to sentient being. “Some strange and unknowable energy smeared across the universes and settled behind my glassy eyes.”  But almost immediately we realize that something else is going on as the still innocent toy and child overhear troubling adult comments.

Or as the little family, Doggem in tow, heads for a reluctant and ominous visit to his grandmother, we hear about menace in the surrounding woods. “How heavy the branches sat against the sun. As if they were tears in the fabric of reality rather than vibrant, growing things.”

But as the story swiftly develops into malice, evil, and death, we realize how unreliable Doggem’s observations really are. Is he reporting what actually happened? Is George a strange child or the pivotal result of untold years of plotting with evil? Is Doggem, who owes his awareness and “real” self to George, also part of that growing evil? Or even, is the entire tale something made up by the retired schoolteacher recording the events?

I have my theories, but you’ll have to read this elegantly simple and elaborately confusing little jewel of a cozy horror tale and decide for yourself.

Book description

All the kids adore Doggem, the class cuddly toy.
They each get to take him home. Hug him and love him and show him their world outside of school.
All they have to do in return is write his diary.
It’s George Gould’s turn and he’s going to introduce Doggem to a rather unusual family.
Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out that both the stuffed toy and little boy are far from ordinary.
Doggem is no longer your run-of-the-mill snuggle doggy. Designed to fall apart after a few years. Perfect for squishing and squashing into a comfort blanket.
He’s a million miles from that now. Doggem has just become a living creature. Thinking and reasoning. Trying to make sense of an unexpected existence.
Strange places and scary experiences are in store during this sojourn with his latest custodian. Things no respectable fluffy dog should ever have to witness. It might end up in deadly territory.
Make no mistake, there is magic here. Some of it as black as a starless night.
And George?
Well, George is descended from decidedly dicey stock. There are folk in delightful George’s lineage who have indulged in practices of a somewhat shadowy nature. The ramifications of which aren’t ready to be consigned to history. They want to spill out of the past and have their say in the future.

DOGGEM is a spooky little tale about toy dogs and dark doings. A gently disturbing horror story. But beware, this charming cocktail of witchcraft, imagined folklore and paranormal fantasy might just bewitch you.
Not easy to pin down genre. Without doubt it has a certain heart-breaking beauty to it. Maybe it’s a modern fairytale. A scary one, flavoured with a dash of the occult, written for an adult audience. After all, fairy tales feature the supernatural and have a magical aspect to them.
They often have old cottages and eerie, unnerving woodland settings.
Wickedly enchanting women and innocent children.
Ancient evil and everyday greed.

Doggem is a short story, one in a series of sinister tales from the Dead Boxes Archive.
The Dead Boxes?
Some objects are frightening things and the Dead Boxes definitely fall into that category.
They can be easily overlooked. Ordinary on the surface. At first glance anyway. A mobile phone, a piece of art …a child’s plaything.
Take a closer look. You’ll see something unique.
You could very easily have one and not know it.
Exercise caution.
They hold miracle and mystery. Horror and salvation.
None are the same. Except in one regard.
You don’t need one.
You might think you do, but you really don’t.
Believe me.

A Short Story.
From the Dead Boxes Archive.

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Rosie’s #Bookreview Team #RBRT Cosy #Mystery Blue Lake Christmas by @CynthiaHarriso1

Today’s team review is from Barb, she blogs here https://barbtaub.com/

#RBRT Review Team

Barb has been reading Blue Lake Christmas by Cynthia Harrison

Blue Lake Christmas Mystery (Blue Lake Series) by [Harrison, Cynthia]

In the 1930s, the biggest names in British detective stories formed the British Detection Club. They took an oath—

“Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God? —Oath of the British Detection Club, 1930”.

…which most promptly violated to some degree. But author Cynthia Harrison would be a member in very good standing. Her new cozy mystery, Blue Lake Christmas Mystery, could be a laundry list for the genre’s main tropes—even if there are no little old ladies who like to knit, cats, or even cupcakes.

The action is set in Blue Lake, a tiny town on Michigan’s Lake Huron coast, where everyone (including Holly) is either related or part of generations of family friendships. When we meet the ambitious, painfully young Holly, she’s focussed on using her new role of junior (and only) reporter for the struggling local paper as a springboard to credibility for her secret project—a book revealing an inside look at a recent local tragedy involving her young cousin.Her sleuth, newly-minted college grad and writer wannabe Holly is an amateur journalist and even more amateur detective. She sees investigating a recent Blue Lake scandal as her ticket to fame and fortune. When another murder occurs, she doesn’t hesitate to apply her newly acquired journalist credentials to her self-appointed detective role.

As Holly gets to know the people in the town, however, she begins to understand the trauma that exposing their pain and ongoing suffering for her own gain would cause for relatives and friends still struggling to recover. At the same time as she finds herself falling for the emotionally devastated young architect Bob, Holly is also applying her loose-cannon investigative skills to the latest murder, a much-disliked guest at the holiday dinner for the local Fun Divorce Club.

Also in keeping with the cozy genre, bodies pile up offstage, but actual blood/bodily fluids are kept to a minimum. Same goes for sex, actually. Holly’s on-again/off-again romance with Bob is indeed cozy, with misunderstandings, emotional baggage, and ever-present relatives combining to stall developments and physical demonstrations.

I enjoyed so many aspects of this book. Although there wasn’t much actual description of the town and surroundings, I’ve spent enough time in Michigan to be able to picture the setting. And I loved the authentic sounding interactions between the residents of Blue Lake, with their combination of humor and family snark that hinted at years or even generations of background.

Holly’s is also an interesting voice. She’s funny, immature, ambitious, and clever. “She may have overwhelmed Bob with her comments, because he went silent again. Holly briefly wondered if she should have gone to dental school. Conducting this interview was like pulling teeth.” But over the course of the book Holly learns and even grows into a mature understanding of her ambitions and her responsibilities.

Sure there were things that made me sit up and shake my head. There was the mysterious book agent who was supposedly offering a lucrative contract to the young, unpublished, and untried author who hadn’t even researched, let alone written, the book. (I’d love to live in that writing universe!) Then there were the members of the police and medical profession who apparently couldn’t wait to gift just-met reporter Holly with all manner of detail that must have violated every iota of regulation and ethics. And, of course, there’s Holly’s unexplained but apparently deep pockets which allow her to shrug off details about paychecks, and even on short notice “to buy a dress for the ball with a matching burgundy velvet coat.” 

At first, the numerous coincidences and leaps of faith, instances of journalistic license, and unprofessional secret-sharing bothered me. But then I thought of the small towns I’ve lived in, their gossipy local papers, and the way everybody knows everything as soon as it happens, and I realized these are actually strengths of the book. So really, my only complaint is that Blue Lake Christmas reads like a middle book in a series, with people and events that were introduced and explained in earlier works.

I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys a quick-moving cozy mystery where you’ll figure out the murderer long before the amateur detective but have a great time along the way. It’s a fun winter read, so grab a cozy quilt and snuggle up next to the fire.

Book description

All Holly wants for Christmas is to prove to her parents that her pricey college education was worth it. When she lands a reporting job in tiny Blue Lake, where the chill winds blow off Lake Huron all winter long, and a guest dies at a dinner party, she isn’t sure she can meet that goal. Holly has a second writing gig as a true crime reporter in mind, but there’s only one problem: the new love interest keeping her warm is determined she should not write about the one thing her heart desires.

Bob has one goal: to get his life back on track after a train wreck of a relationship with a fragile first love named Lily. Oh, it would also be nice to feel excited about work again. Not to mention Christmas. Holly’s new in town and she stirs something cheerfully seasonal in him, but when he realizes she’s willing to take down Lily for her own purposes, he decides a holiday romance is the last thing he needs.

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Rosie’s #Bookreview Team #RBRT #thriller Brand New Friend by @k8vane

Today’s team review is from Barb, she blogs here http://barbtaub.com/

#RBRT Review Team

Barb has been reading Brand New Friend by Kate Vane

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My Review: 4  stars out of 5

When I was a child, a relative gave me a surprise ball. It was a sphere made of strips of crepe paper, which unravelled to reveal little surprise gifts along the way. I couldn’t wait to unroll all of it, sure the center must contain the best gift of all. But although it took a while and made a mess, at the end there was just…crepe paper. All the surprises and presents had been in the unwrapping, not in the final result.

The book begins with well-known BBC journalist Paolo getting a call from Mark, a friend from his mildly revolutionary student days at Leeds. At first Paolo has no interest in someone he hasn’t seen in over thirty years. Then Mark points him to an emerging story revealing he had actually been an undercover police officer. Sensing an opportunity to get back into field work, journalist Paolo agrees to meet with Mark. “Paolo was thinking radio documentary. Did he want to go with a hard-news angle or more of a personal story? Perhaps a podcast. Should he start recording now?”When I started reading Brand New Friend, I thought from the blurb and the first chapter that it would be a classic whodunnit, with the talented amateur solving the crime that baffled the police. Instead, like the layers of that surprise ball, each piece that was removed only revealed a small reward…and lots more layers to unwind. And the rewards were all in the unwrapping, instead of solving the mystery at the center.

From there the book divides into two stories, one set in the student days in the mid-eighties, and one in contemporary time. At first I was annoyed and confused by the way the narrative time-hopped with no warning, and I considered it a flaw in the writing. Then I noticed something odd. Nobody was particularly interested in actually solving the crimes—certainly not the murder that had been ruled an accident thirty years ago, and not even the murder that’s discovered when Paolo arrives in Leeds. The past and present stories were deliberately intermingled, with each participant focused on their own reality. For some it was the past—the sloppy student house and its mildly amateur student revolutionaries who are going to change the world (when their revolutionary zeal doesn’t get in the way of drugs, sex, and the occasional University lecture). For others it’s the present and the people they’ve become thirty years on. Brand New Friend is a police thriller where the least important part is actually solving the crime.

In many ways, Paolo and Mark are similar. Both assume new identities when they first arrive at Leeds. The teenage Paul seizes the chance to leave his unexciting family and prosaic background behind, reinventing himself as Italian expat and animal rights activist Paolo. Mark is sent by the Special Demonstration Squad (an undercover unit of Greater London’s Metropolitan Police Service) to infiltrate their bumbling group.

Anyone old enough to remember the University scene at the time will recognize the descriptions of the student house teeming with infatuations, drugs, filth, unrequited lust, and sex. Everything is important, the center of their self-involved universes. There’s a sure reality about those scenes that makes each a perfect little jewel in its own time. I particularly loved the moment when Paolo realizes he can be whatever he wants. He’s jealous of a fellow student reading the (liberal) Guardian newspaper.

‘Paolo thought, enviously, why can’t I do that? And then he realised he could. You could go to the newsagent and they wouldn’t ask for ID, or make you list the founder members of the Fabian Society, or visit your parent’s house to ensure they had a stripped-pine kitchen (ideally with an Aga) with a framed poster on the wall of a recent exhibition at the Tate or failing that a guide to rare mushrooms, they would just sell it to you for money.’

I’m not as convinced about the contemporary story. As journalist Paolo struggles with his current identity as a suburban father with a desk job, missing the excitement of international postings, his marriage and life seem toned down and depressing. The revelation of Mark’s secret identity rocks the foundations of Paolo’s carefully constructed world. “All Paolo’s memories were now unreliable. And it somehow heightened the indignity that while he had seen nothing in Mark, Mark had been closely observing him back then, had spotted his secret, like a proper spy.” If the story stopped there, and simply followed the development of those student characters thirty years on, it would have been absolutely riveting. But instead it reached for less convincing ‘ripped from today’s headlines’ connections—from Russian oligarchs to shady international conglomerates based in Dubai to unscrupulous mercenaries.

But the writing itself is beautifully crafted. Characters are introduced, described, and developed as both Paolo and Mark become the characters they’ve invented. Mark is, in truth, the lifelong revolutionary, working for social change. Claire, despite a surface appearance of poise and happiness thirty years on, is still absorbed by Mark. And Isabel, the beautiful, damaged artist Paolo had lusted after from afar, “…Isabel had stood still. Frozen.” Last-minute flatmate Graham, overlooked by everyone at the time and still invisible thirty years later, is the catalyst to all the revelations. Dudley, only interested in his own life back then, has become more of what he always was—richer, fatter, more powerful, and ultimately unconcerned about those around him.  Paolo is the slightly exotic, always interesting journalist he invented for himself. But where Mark is frozen into his adopted role, Paolo never looks back. In fact, to all of their shock, he finds himself putting journalistic ideals ahead of self-preservation. Ultimately, it’s through that act that Paolo saves himself and the identity he’s spent thirty years building.

In Brand New Friend, the writing is terrific, especially the spot-on descriptions of student life. The characters who invent themselves—both those who escape their past and who become frozen in it—are brilliant, especially as we get to see what happens to them over thirty years. The contemporary plot elements could have been pared back with, I think, very little loss. But either way, this is an excellent book and one I’d recommend to anyone who is interested in a thoroughly character-driven story with a side helping of thriller.

**I received this book from the publisher or author to facilitate an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.**

Book description

Friend. Liar. Killer?

BBC foreign correspondent Paolo Bennett is exiled to a London desk – and the Breakfast sofa – when he gets a call from Mark, a friend from university in eighties Leeds. Paolo knew Mark as a dedicated animal rights activist but now a news blog has exposed him as an undercover police officer. Then Mark’s former police handler is murdered.

Paolo was never a committed campaigner. He was more interested in women, bands and dreaming of a life abroad. Now he wonders if Mark’s exposure and his handler’s murder might be linked to an unexplained death on campus back when they were friends. What did he miss?

Paolo wants the truth – and the story. He chases up new leads and old friends. From benefit gigs and peace protests, to Whatsapp groups and mocktail bars, the world has changed, but Mark still seems the same.

Is Mark the spy who never went back – who liked his undercover life better than his own? Or is he lying now? Is Paolo’s friend a murderer?

About the author

I’m an author of (mostly) crime and suspense, living in Devon.

My crime novel, Brand New Friend, will be published on 5 June 2018.

I have written for BBC drama Doctors and have had short stories and articles published in various publications and anthologies, including Mslexia and Scotland on Sunday.

I mainly read crime and literary fiction with some non-fiction and am a recent convert to audiobooks.

Kate Vane

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Rosie’s #Bookreview Team #RBRT #RomCom In A Jam by @CindyDorminy #TuesdayBookBlog

Today’s team review is from Barb, she blogs here http://barbtaub.com/

#RBRT Review Team

Barb has been reading In A Jam by Cindy Dorminy

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Even as author Cindy Dorminy ticks off the required romance tropes—from the Meet Cute, to the Goal/Issue that drives them apart, to the HEA (happy ever after) required of all romances—she not only makes them her own, but she makes them hilarious.Andie Carson isn’t your usual romantic heroine. She’s defiantly damaged Boston Southie, and just fine with that. With the help of her favorite boys (Jack Daniel and Sam Adams) she can handle anything life slings at her, even Thursday. What she’s completely unprepared for, is the discovery that the beloved Granny she thought dead for years had actually just died, leaving her millions in lottery winnings. There’s just one catch: to get the money, she has to give up her boys—Jack, Sam, and all their friends—and run Granny’s coffeeshop for six weeks. And go to church. And most of all, figure out the secret ingredient in Granny’s prize-winning jam recipe. And she has to do all that by leaving Boston and moving to Georgia.

Take, for example, the required meet cute, which occurs as Andie stops to use a gas station bathroom, despite her own misgivings. “I need to pee fast and get the heck out of here while I still have all my teeth.” But ‘blood’ splattered against her new car has her running back to the gas station, where the attendant helpfully points out the smoking-hot officer reading the Muscle and Fitness magazine—

Bam, those soft-green eyes compliment his tan skin, and he has a dimple too. Have mercy. I am in heaven. They sure know how to grow them down here.

‘Oh, thank God. I’d never get this kind of service in Boston.’ I’m impressed with this town’s emergency response time. It is very, very satisfactory.

‘Can I help you, ma’am?’ His words slide off his tongue, slow and sweet, like George Clooney with a twang.

Yes. Yes, he can.

Like all good Southern fiction, the real story is in the supporting cast, and In a Jam certainly delivers. From the elderly (but unusually tech-savvy) sisters stalking Andie in hopes of catching her fall off the wagon that will mean her inherited millions will go to the local church, to the bewildering array of family relationships common to every small town. “‘Family,’ I say as I wave to Mel. ‘Yeah. Can’t live with ’em. Can’t shoot ’em.’”

The setting was also perfect. You could feel the heat of a Georgia summer, sympathize with the residents’ love of their decaying little town, and picture Andie unwillingly falling for the shabby coffeeshop that only serves regular coffee. “Well, there’s black coffee, coffee with two creams, cream and sugar. Actually, lots of options.” 

Sure there are one or two bones I’d pick with her. Hunky hero Gunnar was supposedly a PhD candidate at Northwestern, but doesn’t show much evidence of the brainpower that would require. Andie’s relationship with Messrs Jack and Sam is never really explained, nor is her ability to go from regular blackout binge drinking to complete sobriety really that likely. But this isn’t Days of Wine And Roses, it’s My Cousin Vinny meets Sweet Home Alabama.

What I loved most about Andie is her ability to separate people from their motives, slowly and surely converting a town full of resentful characters into friends, as she eases ever closer to the realization. “It’s not where you are, it’s who you’re with that matters.”

I can’t recommend enough that you take this journey with Andie to her quirky little southern Georgia town. You’ll love the trip, laugh a lot, and find out how bird poo can look like splattered blood. Bless your heart.

Book description

Andie Carson has to do three things to inherit her grandmother’s lottery winnings—sober up, spend a month running her grandmother’s Georgia coffee shop, and enter homemade jam in the county fair. If she can’t meet those terms, the money goes to the church, and Andie gets nothing. She figures her tasks will be easy enough, and once she completes them, Andie plans to sell the shop, take the money, and run back to Boston.

After a rough breakup from his crazy ex-fiancée, Officer Gunnar Wills decides to take a hiatus from women. All he wants is to help make his small town thrive the way it did when he was a kid. But when wild and beautiful Andie shows up, Gunnar’s hesitant heart begins to flutter.

Gunnar knows that Andie plans to leave, but he’s hoping to change her mind, fearful that if her coffee shop closes, Main Street will fold to the big-box corporations and forever change the landscape of his quaint community. But convincing her to stay means getting close enough to risk his heart in the process. Even though Gunnar makes small-town life seem a little sweeter, Andie has to decide if she’s ready to turn her world upside down and give up big-city life. One thing’s for sure—it’s a very sticky situation.

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Rosie’s #Bookreview Team #RBRT #UrbanFantasy Shrouds Of Darkness by @BrockDeskins

Today’s team review is from Barb, she blogs here http://barbtaub.com/

#RBRT Review Team

Barb has been reading Shrouds Of Darkness by Brock Deskins

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My Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars for Shrouds of Darkness by Brock E. Deskins

“Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be. That sort of reputation might be good business, bringing high price jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy.”—Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, 1942 based on Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel)

Leo Malone is a private investigator, a knight in dubiously-rusty armor who is ten times as antisocial and unfriendly as his hardboiled detective models—and a lot more dead, or at least undead. Told mostly in the first person from Leo’s POV, we soon realize his private eye monologue about how detached he is and how little he cares about people doesn’t exactly match up to his actions. When we meet him, in fact, the first two items on his to-do list are to stop an abusive father and a rapist. But just in case we miss that point, Leo muses, “It’s possible, and this is a stretch, the pretense is me not giving a shit. Maybe I am pretending to be a heartless bastard so I can go on doing what I do without becoming a complete basket case.”

Author Brock E. Deskins goes on to check off most of the remaining hardboiled detective tropes:

  • TrenchcoatYou just know Leo is a spiritual descendant of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe because he wears a trenchcoat. (Although Leo’s is one of a dozen identical three-thousand dollar coats, each a “custom-made Miguel Caballero bullet resistant trench coat.”)
  • Femme fatale: we all know about her—she’s called a “dame” and she has “gams” that defy nature when she appears in our gloomy detective’s even gloomier office with a job for him. In this case, the blonde bombshell comes in the form of Katherine Goldstein, whose father is missing. “Her long golden hair cascades over her shoulders better than halfway to her narrow waist and seems to glow with a light all of its own.”
  • Set up to take the fall: Leo knows he’s probably going down, and has a pretty good idea of who is behind it, but just doesn’t know how to be the kind of person who behaves any differently. What he is, though, is pragmatic about how to face the coming doom. “Fortunately, being a pain in the ass is what I do best, and the more I’m a pain in the ass, the more overt they’ll have to get to deal with me.”
  • Friendly villain: the real monsters are of course, the ones most like Leo. But in true homage to his film noir roots, Leo works as contract bodyguard for Yuri, a good(ish) bad guy who models himself on The Godfather and stays bought. Leo muses, “I don’t know if I would go so far as to say I like Yuri, but we have a mutual sort of respect for each other. I’m not real quick to judge the lifestyles of others.”
  • Girl Friday: For most hard-boiled detectives, an assistant is out of the question. A lucky few like Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade, though, do have the “office wife” to shelter, mother, and cater to their every whim. Leo? Not so much. His occasional assistant is Marvin, a computer genius and would-be badass hampered by the unfortunate circumstances of having a father who is dean of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and a mother who is a world-renowned biologist and Nobel nominee.” [NOTE: Leo must have used his vampire mojo to find out that one, since the Nobel committees do not divulge the names of nominees.]
  • MacGuffin: This could be anything—Jason’s Golden Fleece, the LOTR rings, Indiana Jones’ Arc of the Covenant, and especially hard-boiled detective Marlow’s Maltese Falcon statue—an object that moves the story along without actually being important in itself. In this case, the macguffin comes in the person of mild-mannered Martin, accountant to the mob, and missing father of blonde bombshell Katherine. Oh, and… a werewolf.
  • Bittersweet ending? Don’t be ridiculous. This is just the first of a series which already stretches to three volumes.

Although this book got off to a slow start with a fairly massive info dump about the flavor of vampires and werewolves in Leo’s world, it did pick up with plenty of fast-paced and bloody action, accompanied by lots of suitably snarky observations from Leo. I just had a few problems with some of it. For one thing, there was the racism. Some of Leo’s comments about “squints” (Asians) he attempts to dismiss by playing the age card, claiming that’s what they called them when he was growing up. But he clearly knows better, and in fact refers to the rapist he stops as “black” (instead of the term we all know he would have heard those eighty years past)—although, he doesn’t ever bother to name the races of (presumably) white characters. Women seem to fall into the angel or whore categories, usually by haircolor. In fact, the vampiress who turns him has black hair, while the golden-haired Katherine is a smart and beautiful and willing to sleep with him without any of that annoying wooing or foreplay.

But for me, the missing pieces that usually make all this genre-mashing palatable are humor and a little humility. If the protagonist isn’t just so unstoppably able to defeat every single threat with literally superhuman acts of strength, I might legitimately feel more tension over the outcome. And if there’s a sense that everyone tacitly accepts their whole preposterous world is built on the fluffiest of fantasy, and is thus willing to laugh at themselves and their situations, the reader is so much more likely to willingly suspend disbelief and go along with the fun. At least, this reader is.

Still, if you’re looking for a fast-paced action story with plenty of blood, a clever plot, standard tropes, and comfortably-familiar characters, then Shrouds of Darkness might be for you.  It’s certainly those features which will have me round up my three and a half star rating to four stars for online reviews.

Book description

Leo Malone: Vampire, body guard, Private detective, and all around pain in the ass is hired to find a client’s father who has gone missing, but not only is the missing man an accountant for the mob, he is a full-blooded werewolf.
What seems to be a simple case of a werewolf run amok turns into a massive conspiracy that threatens to reveal the existence of both species as the brutally dismembered bodies of humans begin turning up all around Brooklyn.
Leo quickly finds himself embroiled in fights between werewolves, vampires, the mafia, and the local police. Luckily, violence is what Leo knows best.

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Rosie’s Reviewers #RBRT Madam Tulip And The Bones Of Chance by @DaveAhernWriter #TuesdayBookBlog

Today’s team review is from Barb, she blogs here http://barbtaub.com/

#RBRT Review Team

Barb has been reading Madam Tulip And The Bones Of Chance by David Ahern

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My Review: 5 stars out of 5 for Madam Tulip and the Bones of Chance

I don’t watch TV. I don’t even own a television. But if I did, I imagine waiting for a new episode of my favorite series each week would feel a bit like reading the next Madam Tulip. Certainly all the ingredients are there. You have your (attractive of course) young actress, Derry O’Donnell—permanently broke and scratching for the next job in the Dublin theater scene, consistently dating the wrong flavor-of-the-week, while waiting for The Big Break.

Derry’s supporting cast includes her mother Vanessa—successful American art gallery owner, artist’s agent, and force of nature. Vanessa is divorced from (but still agent to) Derry’s father, Jacko—famous Irish artist whose painting skills are second only to his ability to gamble (and lose) money. Then there are Derry’s acting friends, Bella (black, Belfast-born actress with catch-phrase ‘Say No to Negativity!’), and Bruce (gay ex-Navy Seal, actor, computer expert, and total eye-candy). [note: and in case you didn’t get the gay part, his remarkably prescient parents did, in fact, name him “Bruce”.]

As with favored TV shows, the point is here is not the actual mystery that needs to be solved each week/book, but the way Derry’s character and those of her friends develop and change over the course of each episode. Each episode begins with Derry trying to avoid a day job that involves the phrase, “And would you like fries with that?” or even worse, working as her mother’s Personal Assistant. (“Life as Vanessa’s P-anything would be like being trapped inside a hall of mirrors with a shopping list written in hieroglyphics.”) Derry’s only marketable skill—some psychic abilities which for the most part are both unreliable and fairly useless—lead to the birth of Madam* Tulip, celebrity psychic and fortune-teller. (*That’s Madam without an “e”, because she’s not married to Monsieur Tulip.) 

But Madam Tulip, in her two previous outings, has shown an unfortunate tendency to stumble over crimes and dead bodies, while pitching Derry into life-threatening situations. So when a figure from one of those narrow escapes offers a no-audition role in a movie (at almost Hollywood rates!) being filmed in the Highlands of Scotland, Derry stuns her acting friends by turning it down. Bruce is particularly overcome.

‘No…?’ he said, but couldn’t utter the actual word. Bruce’s pathological fear of auditions was well known to his friends. Remarkably, a man who thought exiting a submerged submarine while carrying a full load of limpet mines a hoot, was terrified to the point of nervous collapse by the prospect of an audition. Now his face shone like that of a saint glimpsing the promised land. The very idea that auditionless casting existed somewhere in the universe promised to change life’s whole complexion.

When the movie company not only offers to change Madam Tulip’s name, but also to cast Bruce, Derry reluctantly agrees. In barely related subplots, her parents also head to Scotland to open a gallery (Vanessa) and recoup his finances with an exhibition (Jacko). This allows for plenty of snide Irish/Scot comparisons (‘Scotland seemed to consist of countless miles of nothing at all…’), and even more snide American/British comparisons (‘But, being half Irish, Derry knew that when someone laments the fact they would soon be buried under the sod, the statement was to be filed under the general heading of weella, weella, wallya or, alternatively, ochone, ochone, ochone. Such lamentations were mostly about the tune, not the words.’). Of course, there’s plenty of obligatory kilt-ogling, and Derry’s developing attraction to both the local millionaire castle owner, and to the delicious Scottish accents of his estate manager, Rab, especially with his ‘Aye’ of agreement.

Derry breathed out as quietly as she could. A small but distinct and unambiguous tingle had developed at the nape of her neck. Could she try one more time?

‘Did you say an estate manager was called a factor here?’

‘Aye,’ answered Rab, gloriously.

Without adding spoilers, I think it’s fair to say the movie shoot doesn’t go well. Derry manages to get through the scene that gives the book its name, in which her character, a gypsy fortune teller, throws some prop bones and reads portents into their runes. Only…in her hands, the bones take on a sinister life of their own, bringing a vision warning of impending doom. A shaken Derry finds herself under attack from the media, maneuvered into giving a seance at the castle as Madam Tulip, shot at, and in peril.

As with many cozy mysteries, the character development, banter, and growing relationships with supporting characters are far more fun than the actual plot. That’s actually a good thing because the bad guys’ identities are telegraphed early on, but it doesn’t matter. Derry and Bruce stumble from one clue to the next, Madam Tulip’s psychic gifts illuminate the motives, and Derry is once more in the villains’ crosshairs. Meanwhile, Derry continues to choose the wrong guy for romance, her parents continue to battle, and Bruce continues to save everyone (while obsessing over his next scene).

I loved the descriptions of the settings, from Ireland to Scotland, and especially the Highlands (“An island-studded sea sparkled, blue and other-worldly. The water was stunningly transparent, so clear you could see a dark band of weed stretch out under the swell for a hundred yards before the sea bottom dropped away and the colour changed to a deep azure. A heather-covered hillside, golden red, rose steeply inland.”)  Later, Derry rides the train used for the Hogwarts Express, “…sweeping around a curving viaduct thrown casually across a broad heather-covered valley of breathtaking beauty.” She’s right. I’ve ridden that train and the scenery is stunning (although I’ve never seen red heather…).

But my favorite part was the relationship between Derry, her parents, and her friends. As with any good series, this just keeps getting better and better. Without it, this would be a much lesser book, but I don’t hesitate to give five stars and say that I can’t wait for the next book. Maybe poor Derry will have a nice date at last.

Book description

A surprise role in a movie takes actress Derry O’Donnell to a romantic castle in the Scottish Highlands. But romance soon turns to fear and suspicion. Someone means to kill, and Derry, moonlighting as celebrity fortune-teller Madam Tulip, is snared in a net of greed, conspiracy and betrayal.

A millionaire banker, a film producer with a mysterious past, a gun-loving wife, a PA with her eyes on Hollywood, a handsome and charming estate manager—each has a secret to share and a request for Madam Tulip.
As Derry and her friend Bruce race to prevent a murder, she learns to her dismay that the one future Tulip can’t predict is her own.

Madame Tulip is the third in a series of thrilling and hilarious Tulip adventures in which Derry O’Donnell, celebrity fortune-teller and reluctant amateur detective, plays the most exciting and perilous roles of her acting life, drinks borage tea, and fails to understand her parents.

About the author

David Ahern grew up in a theatrical family in Ireland but ran away to Scotland to become a research psychologist and sensible person. He earned his doctorate but soon absconded to work in television. He became a writer, director and producer, creating international documentary series and winning numerous awards, none of which got him free into nightclubs.

Madame Tulip wasn’t David Ahern’s first novel, but writing it was the most fun he’d ever had with a computer. He is now writing the fourth Madam Tulip adventure and enjoys pretending this is actual work.

David Ahern lives in the beautiful West of Ireland with his wife, two cats and a vegetable garden of which he is inordinately proud.

David Ahern

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Rosie’s #BookReview Team #RBRT vintage #mystery A Clerical Error by J New @newwrites

Today’s team review is from Barb, she blogs here http://barbtaub.com/

#RBRT Review Team

Barb has been reading A Clerical Error by J New

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Protagonist Isobella (Ella) Bridges is a young widow whose husband died in somewhat mysterious circumstances. Two years after his death, she returns to the little village where her family spent happy holidays and purchases the Yellow Cottage after visiting with its owner—who, Ella later discovers, had already been dead for seven months when they spoke. Her cottage predecessor leaves the young widow several mysteries to solve, including a ghost cat. Ella is a perfect example of her class—posh, casually prejudiced, and so supremely assured of her place in the world that she is perfectly willing to ignore fashion and custom when it suits her while unconsciously adhering to their dictates in almost every aspect of her life.

Wikipedia defines a cozy mystery as “a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.” True to the definition, sex, profanity, and violence are “behind the door” and only gently referenced. Sleuth Ella is an amateur who gathers a posse of essential helpers—in this case the Police Commissioner, his chief medical examiner, and her own well-connected family.Having grown up in and around old houses, Ella accepts the ghosts with the same aplomb as she greets her quirky new neighbors. In the first book of the series, most of the action centers around London, so we also meet Ella’s brother Jerry and his wife Ginny, as well as Ginny’s “Uncle” Albert, Scotland Yard’s Police Commissioner. In the second book, we get to know more of her neighbors in the quintessentially English village setting.

One of the challenges with any ongoing series is to move the backstory forward by adding little unresolved threads, while still solving each book’s central mystery arc. For example, in A Clerical Error, the role of Mrs. Shaw, Ella’s somewhat mysterious housekeeper, is finally explained. But…

[spoiler-ish alert! If you haven’t read the first two books, you may want to skip the next paragraph…] At the end of Book 2, Ella is stunned to receive a call from John, the husband she believed was dead. In A Clerical Error, she is still, naturally, more than a bit upset about this. Without revealing too much, I have to admit I found this development and its resolution unsatisfying. While it did set up Ella’s distrust with authorities, also hinting at the global forces already moving to end the interlude between two World Wars, it was just so… off-screen, leaving me with a strong sense of “what was that about?” It wasn’t until Ella was deeply involved with the new ghosts she meets in A Clerical Error that I was able to step back and realize (or at least hope!) that John’s phone call is the setup to another ghost’s appearance.

Ella’s confusion and absorption with the shocking news about her “dead” husband makes it difficult for her to focus fully on the mysterious death of the local vicar. In her role as a consultant to Scotland Yard, she finds herself investigating the suspicious circumstances, forced to consider which of her new friends and neighbors might be the murderer in their midst.

The element that brings this series to a different level (at least for me) is that Ella sees ghosts, and even talks to them. Her cat, Phantom, is usually a ghost. Except (he’s a cat after all) when he’s not. Mixing the paranormal elements with the main mystery, and adding dessert toppings of secondary mysteries, puzzles, and mysteriously puzzling ghosts, keeps the story lively and makes the reader look forward to learning more about the characters (both living and dead). Still, even with the assistance of the occasional ghost, author J. New plays fair with her readers most of the time. If she delays in explaining a critical clue, I could usually forgive her if—as with the earlier books of the series—it sets up that most essential of cozy mystery tropes, the detective addressing the gathered suspects. Unfortunately, in this case the resolution and final confrontation with the murderer happens off-stage, reported third-hand and unwitnessed by Ella (or the reader).

With the minor exception of the third-person resolution, I still found that its setting and characters make A Clerical Error—as I said in my reviews of the earlier books—an enchanting example of a cozy mystery, a paranormal detective story, and a completely entertaining series in a historical setting. I am delighted to recommend A Clerical Error, and look forward to more adventures with Ella and her family.

Book description

When the crime scene is pure coincidence and there’s no evidence, how do you prove it was murder?

Ella Bridges faces her most challenging investigation so far when the vicar dies suddenly at the May Day Fete. But with evidence scarce and her personal life unravelling in ways she could never have imagined, she misses vital clues in the investigation.
Working alongside Sergeant Baxter of Scotland Yard, will Ella manage to unearth the clues needed to catch the killer before another life is lost? Or will personal shock cloud her mind and result in another tragedy?

‘A Clerical Error’ is set in 1930’s England, and is the third of The Yellow Cottage Vintage Mystery series.
‘Miss Marple meets The Ghost Whisperer’ – Perfect For Fans of Golden Age Murder Mysteries, Cozy Mysteries, Clean Reads and British Amateur Sleuths

About the author

J. New is the British author of The Yellow Cottage Vintage Mystery series. Set on the fictitious island of Linhay in the south of England during the 1930’s, they are an homage to the Golden Age mysteries but with a contemporary twist.

J. New

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Rosie’s #Bookreview Team #RBRT @barbtaub reviews #Fantasy The Jack Of Ruin by @StephenMerlino

Today’s team review is from Barb, she blogs here http://barbtaub.com/

#RBRT Review Team

Barb has been reading The Jack Of Ruin by Stephen C Merlino

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Epic fantasy is an ambitious genre to take on. After Lord of the Rings defined it, great series from the Belgariad to Harry Potter refined it, and Star Wars took it into space, it’s got to be a challenge to extend the tropes into new territory, especially for the middle book of a series. In my review of The Jack of Souls, Book 1 of the wonderful Unseen Moon series, I said that author Stephen Merlino checks off every one of the sacred tenets of epic fantasy consecrated by patron saint J.R.R. Tolkien, paying loving homage even as he turns the genre sideways and makes it his bitch.

The Jack of Ruin is basically the quest portion of the series. Harric, the young trickster, has secretly tapped into magic to save his friends from Sir Bannus, who seeks to destroy his queen and return the kingdom to old ways—which, among other things, would mean that fatherless people like Harric would become slaves again. Unfortunately, the young woman he loves, Caris, is magically compelled by a ring meant for the Queen. Although aware that Caris’ loathing for the ring now includes not only hatred of her magically-compelled lust for Harric, but for Harric himself, he is forced to remain by her side out of fear for what the ring will do if he leaves her. Meanwhile, their small band races ahead of the pursuing Sir Bannus in hopes of getting the alien ambassador Brolli back to his country in time to ratify the treaty he holds, as well as remove the ring’s power over Caris. But each member of their group hides their own secrets, and each holds the seed to their destruction.


  • World building
    ? Is there a “too good” category? Author Stephen Merlino has taken the genre’s standard medieval-with-magic framework and built several worlds within it, from the slightly-steampunk technology workarounds of Harric’s magic-averse home kingdom, to the starkly dangerous quest landscape, to the treehouse world of the chimp-like Kwendi. In fact, the meticulously drawn and consistent landscapes are so detailed that I found myself grateful for the gorgeous maps and illustrations scattered throughout the text.
  • Mystical hero from the past gathering a small band of Heroes, Simple Folk, and (probably) Lost Heir to the throne? The only card-carrying hero is Sir Willard, whose heroic past is only matched by his narrow-minded judgemental dismissal of anyone who uses magic. His courtly romantic decision to abandon his immortality in order to grow old and die with his love, the Lady Anna, is challenged and abandoned when he realizes magic is the only hope to accomplish their mission and save the kingdom. Even as Sir Willard regains the youth and strength associated with his returning immortality, the resultant connection with the mad god Krato threatens his already perilous grip on sanity. Of course, that doesn’t stop his loathing for Harric’s apparent brush with magic, even thought that’s actually what has saved them so far. Their suitably motley little band also includes Caris—Willard’s gifted warrior squire whose magical connection to horses often leaves her unable to function in human terms. Her fundamental loathing for magic not only exceeds Sir Willard’s hypocritical rejection of Harric, but equally hypocritically fails to recognize the magical elements of her own connection with horses.
  • Hobbit? Of course there’s Brolli—the magic-wielding chimp-like ambassador who provides assistance even as his own secrets reveal far more potentially sinister intentions.
  • Super cool sword and horse? Sir Willard’s sword Belle is still as sharp as ever, not to mention Molly—his immortal, bad-tempered, magic horse whose literal blood thirst is both a threat and a enticement for Caris.
  • Dark force from the dark past returning for (unspecified) dark purpose? The villainous Old Ones under Sir Bannus are really, really dark, with the most powerful and insane barely under the control of their deviously evil masters. But here’s the thing about all these old magic-using types—they’re all in Arkendia, a land whose god has given them three fundamental rules: “Let none of you worship or pray gods for favors, Nor bow down to high lords among you. Neither rely you on magic, and you shall be strong.” So—no gods, no high lords, and most especially no magic. Their favorite oath is “Gods leave me.” It’s kind of an uphill slog for the forces of evil. Then there are the ambiguously threatening Kwendi, and the creatures of the Unseen, from Harric’s wisecracking imp partner Fink—“Beneath a long, bulbous nose, a hedge of needlelike teeth stretched in a permanent grin. White, pupilless eyes gleamed like boils tight with fluid”—to Fink’s malevolent sisters headed by the whimsically-named Missy.
  • One ring to rule them all? There was going to be one, but the Queen got really annoyed at the implication that she needed a man, and then it accidentally got stuck on Caris’ hand, and… well the whole ring-thing is kind of a mess. Now Caris loathes Harric even as the ring magically compels her lust for him.
  • Politics? With the fate of Arkendia and her Queen hanging in the balance, with forces struggling to control the powers of the gods, and with those powers potentially capable of destroying the entire world, the stakes are definitely and suitably epic.

Does it sound like I like this book? Well, it’s too big and too complicated and (518 pages!) probably way too long. Actually, I love it. By the end of The Jack of Ruin, almost every character—those who survive anyway—faces their black moment, coming out if it with a greater sense of purpose if not, in many cases, any actual understanding of what’s happening to them. They still have their secrets, their self-imposed limitations, and their goals that define them. I can’t wait to see where that takes them in the last book of the series, and only hope we don’t have to wait too long to find out. Overall, even with the brilliant subversions of the epic fantasy genre, there are two things that I believe take The Jack of Ruin to an “I’d-give-more-stars-if-I-could” level. The first is the fact that every single character is an unreliable narrator. They all have secrets that provide motivation for their actions and decisions. And the second is that they are almost all three-dimensional beings whose surface appearance often masks enormous flaws and unexpected heroism. For example, the gigantic priest, Father Kogan, is an uneducated, drunken, close-minded buffoon—and also capable of epic feats of strength, bravery, and perception. At the same time, the ‘hero’, Sir Willard, is a narrow-minded elitist snob whose fast-returning immortality might provide the physical strength needed to face Sir Bannus, but gives him precious little grasp of the political subterfuges swirling around him.

Book description

Harric’s immortal enemy, Sir Bannus, lies defeated in the valley, his army buried under tons of mountain rubble—a rock fall that Harric brought down with the magic of the Unseen Moon. For now, the quest to deliver the Queen’s peace treaty to the mysterious Kwendi is safe.

But Sir Bannus rises from defeat with Harric’s name on his lips, vengeance in his fist, and a vow to capture the treaty-bearers and spark war to bring ruin upon the Queen. To Harric, death would be preferable, for if she falls, Sir Bannus or another of the Old Ones will reclaim the throne and cast women and bastards like Harric back into slavery.

Yet Harric’s companions condemn his use of trickery and magic to fight Sir Bannus—tools that saved them once before, and which he believes are as vital as swords for the Queen’s protection.

When treachery, discord, and death doom the quest, Harric must choose between the love and regard of his friends and his self-chosen destiny as Her Majesty’s Unseen protector.

It is a choice that will forever bind him to one…and bring ruin to the other.

About the author

Stephen Merlino lives in Seattle, WA, where he writes, plays and teaches English to teens. He lives with the world’s most desirable woman and two fabulous children, one cat, and three attack chickens.

Growing up in Seattle in constant rain drove Stephen indoors as a child, so he ended up reading a lot. When at the age of eleven he discovered J.R.R. Tolkein, Terry Brooks, and other fantasy writers, he dreamed of writing his own epic tales.

About the time a fifth reading of the Lord of the Rings no longer delivered the old magic, he attended the University of Washington and fell in love with Chaucer and Shakespeare and all things English. Sadly, the closest he got to England then was The Unicorn Pub on University Way, & that was run by a Scot named Angus. Nevertheless, he sampled Angus’s weird ales, and devoured Angus’s steak & kidney pie (with real offal!).

Stephen later backpacked Britain, where he discovered a magnificent retrospective of Henry VIII’s body development–from childhood to old age–captured in a dozen suits of armor. Each suit was a 3D snapshot in steel of his exact body shape in a specific moment in time. Stephen observed His Majesty was glorious when young, but as an old man the king corpulent and developed what was either elephantiasis or an unhealthy infatuation with his codpiece.

Stratford-upon-Avon inspired Stephen to return the following year to study Shakespeare at the U of Reading. He now teaches Shakespeare, and, by following The Bard’s example of plot thievery, built one of the subplots of A Midsummer Night’s Dreaminto The Jack of Souls. It’s one of his favorite parts of the story.

Stephen C. Merlino

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