Saturday, March 11, 2017

Review: Then Came You by Becky Wade

Then Came You (A Bradford Sisters Romance #0.5)
By: Becky Wade


I have a weakness for epistolary novels, and having yet to read anything by Becky Wade, I couldn't resist starting with the epistolary-themed prequel to her upcoming Bradford Sisters Romance series. There is a lot (A LOT) going on in this brief story, starting with parental abandonment and single fatherhood, and from there the drama and angst-ridden storytelling doesn't stop. According to the Amazon listing, Then Came You is 129 pages in length, and I expect that includes the two chapter excerpt from the forthcoming True To You, the first installment in the Bradford Sisters series. That means the nineteen brief chapters that make up Garner and Kathleen's story likely cover one hundred pages or less of this novella's length.

And when one considers that this novella covers a four to five year time span and includes (spoiler alert!) premarital sex, single parenthood, depression, rape, murder, guilt, death of a parent -- and let us not forget a business on the verge of bankruptcy -- I was left to wonder if I was reading a novella or a treatment for a Lifetime movie. Now to be clear, I am not opposed to inspy fiction dealing with weighty subjects, in fact I welcome that development. But when one is dealing with subjects of such weight and, frankly, horror, I have to question whether or not one does a grave disservice to the subject matter by cramming so many heavy topics into a novella and dealing with them all in a relatively superficial manner that the format's length forces upon the storyline.

All of this stands in sharp contrast to the slow burning, Working Girl reminiscent romance that develops between the (HIGHLY) wounded Garner and Kathleen, one of his company's customer service representatives with dreams of corporate success far beyond Bradford Shipping. Let me reiterate -- I love the concept of this novella. I love the journal entries and the phone conversations between Kathleen and her best friend, and best of all the LETTERS Kathleen writes to Garner, with no intention of sending, pouring her growing feelings for him out on the page.

Aside from mentions of the age of Garner's young daughters, this novella lacks a clear timeline and thanks to the format's limitations there is simply not enough scope to fully explore the ramifications of every hard, dramatic issue Wade inserts in the storyline. Again, I am very pro realistic fiction. I want characters who grapple with heartache and tough issues and find hope and healing. But throwing so many horrific issues at Garner, particularly, without any sort of depth or context, risks doing a grave disservice to those who have actually lived these experiences, arguably trivializing them by dealing with them in so a perfunctory manner.

This said, I'm nonetheless intrigued by the fact that Wade doesn't shy away from, quite literally, anything in even her short fiction, so I am curious as to how weightier topics are dealt with in a full length novel format. Given room to "breathe," I hope that her storytelling could be less dramatic and more emotionally effective. Therefore I'm definitely going to read True To You, Nora's story, when it releases in May. And inspy authors, take note -- I would love to see more epistolary fiction!

About the book:

A leather-bound journal. A single father. A woman in pursuit of freedom.

Garner Bradford, heir to the troubled Bradford Shipping empire, doesn't know much about babies. But he's going to have to learn fast because he's just become a single father to his newborn daughter. As he confesses through his journal entries, he's not entirely sure how to keep a newborn alive, whether or not he'll ever patch together his shattered heart, or how to forgive himself for his mistakes.

Career girl Kathleen Burke is wholly uninterested in settling down. She has big dreams, and none of them include Garner and his small hometown in Washington State. Yet she can't seem to get her handsome boss out of her head or her heart. There's something extraordinarily tempting about his beautifully sad green eyes. . . . 

Told through journal entries, phone conversations, and letters, Then Came You is a unique, heart-stirring romance novella by acclaimed author Becky Wade.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Review: Murder on the Moor by Julianna Deering

Murder on the Moor (A Drew Farthering Mystery #5)
By: Julianna Deering
Publisher: Bethany House
ISBN: 978-0-7642-1828-6


Although over a year has passed since his last case, amateur sleuth Drew Farthering hasn't lost his passion for solving crimes, and therefore when his old school chum comes calling with a plea for assistance, he is unable to resist the lure of a fresh case. Hubert "Beaky" Bloodworth recently inherited Bloodworth Park Lodge, the family seat located in the Yorkshire moors. In the months since taking possession of his inheritance, he and his new wife Sabrina have been plagued by a rash of mysterious incidents, most recently culminating in the vicious murder of the elderly vicar. With no apparent motive in the vicar's murder, Sabrina has become increasingly paranoid, resulting in Beaky's desperate plea for Drew's assistance in bringing the culprits behind the rash of worrisome events to justice.

Despite his fraught history with Sabrina (as her previous relationship with one of Drew's old friends ended badly), Drew resolves to do all he can to help restore Beaky's peace of mind. He and Madeline journey to Bunting's Nest, there discovering a village as shrouded in mystery as the moors that surround it, populated by close-knit villagers instantly distrustful of outside interference, where rumors of romantic entanglements and illicit activities abound. As the danger surrounding Beaky and Sabrina continues to mount, and Drew's investigation chips away at long-buried secrets, he must confront his own long-held prejudices or risk his bias blinding him to the truth. As long-buried secrets come to light, Drew finds himself in a race against time to stop a vicious killer before he destroys everything Beaky -- and Drew -- hold dear.

Murder on the Moor is the fifth installment in Julianna Deering's Drew Farthering mystery series, and if it is an indication, the best is yet to come for Drew and Madeline's and their penchant for crime solving. With each successive installment in the series, I am both amazed and delighted by Deering's pitch-perfect facility for bringing the tropes and flavor of the golden age of mystery writing to life for a twenty-first century audience. Each volume is fresh take on a tried-and-true formula, breathing new life into a classic genre, a world both familiar and new, peopled with Deering's engaging characters and endless flair for the creative application of mystery's most enduring tropes.

For Drew's fifth outing, Deering blends a pitch-perfect tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles with the romanticism, atmosphere, and a dash of the thematic elements found within Charlotte Bronte's enduring classic,  Jane Eyre. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this may be my favorite Deering novel yet. In both this book and its predecessor (Dressed for Death), Deering places Drew and Madeline within the familiar atmosphere of specific, familiar settings to Anglophiles -- in Dressed for Death, she plays up the very British concepts of Austen and the Regency house party, while within the pages of Murder on the Moor, the famed Yorkshire moors take center stage, the desolate, haunting backdrop of some of English literature's most enduring classics.

As a lifelong fan of Sherlock Holmes, I adored all of the nods to one of that detective's most famous cases.  There's the threat of a mysterious, unnatural hound haunting the moor -- and more specifically, the Bloodworths, along with a dark tangle of family secrets and long-buried, forgotten history. I loved how Deering incorporated Nick Dennison, Drew's irrepressible best friend and estate manager, by having him go undercover as a seedy new arrival to Bunting's Nest, perfectly positioned when he takes up residence in the local pub to learn the area's latest and most explosive gossip. It nicely positions Drew and Nick as a 1920s-era incarnation of the Holmes and Watson dynamic, all while allowing Deering to fully exploit Nick's well-documented flair for the dramatic and an ever-ready sly sense of humor. And although Nick's blossoming romance with Carrie has been temporarily derailed by distance, I'm thrilled by the promise that relationship will be rekindled in the near future.

One of the things I appreciate most about this series is Deering's attention to detail and her meticulously constructed characterizations, particularly of her protagonist Drew. While each novel can be read as a standalone, reading Drew's adventures in order make the reading experience far richer. Deering is careful to never drop a detail or plot threads that has been critical to Drew's character growth. His distrust of Sabrina's motives stems from his own failings and desire to make sure the past isn't repeated, and while well-intentioned, serves as the impetus for an exercise in the power of grace, forgiveness, and second chances.

Deering one of the inspirational market's most accessible voices, ripe for crossover potential in a culture that never seems to tire of the unique flavor of the classic British mystery. Murder on the Moor continues to refine her winning formula of sharply-drawn characters, meticulously plotted mysteries, and an impeccable sense of time and place. Each Farthering mystery is penned with a cinematic flair,  resulting in a deliciously immersive reading experience. Murder on the Moor sparkles with Deering's trademark wit and style, a winning formula she continuously reinvents and refreshes, leaving me more eager than ever for the next release!

About the book:

The rolling, frigid mists that creep in over the Yorkshire moors hide a mystery as challenging as Drew has ever faced.

At the urgent request of an old school friend, Drew and Madeline Farthering come to Bloodworth Park Lodge in the midst of the Yorkshire moors, a place as moody and mysterious as a Bronte hero. There are have been several worrisome incidents around those lonesome rolling hills -- property desecrated, fires started, sheep and cattle scattered.  Worst of all, the vicar has been found dead on the steps of the church, a crime for which Drew can discern no motive at all.

Few in the town of Bunting's Nest seem like suspects, and Drew can't keep his suspicions from falling on his friend's new bride. Do her affections lie more with her husband's money and estate, while her romantic interests stray to their fiery Welsh gamekeeper? As the danger grows ever closer, it's up to Drew to look past his own prejudices, determine what's really going on, and find the killer before it's too late.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Review: Wayfarer by Alexandra Bracken

Wayfarer (Passenger #2)
By: Alexandra Bracken
Publisher: Hyperion
ISBN: 978-148471576-5


In the span of just a few days, Etta Spencer's life has been thrown into turmoil, as she's gone from aspiring concert violinist to time traveler, determined to save her mother from a despot determined to seize an astrolabe that allows one to control time and rewrite history. But when her mission with Nicholas Carter, the handsome privateer -- and grandson of her family's greatest enemy, Cyrus Ironwood -- goes sideways, Etta is ripped from Nicholas's side and left orphaned from her natural timeline. Thrust into a world she doesn't recognize, Etta is captured by the rogue Thorn family. It is among the Thorns that Etta discovers shocking secrets about her own parentage, calling into question everything she once held to be true and rocking her fledgling faith in her mother to her core. As Etta learns about her familial heritage, she discovers that traveling is a sacred trust, and every decision she makes has the potential to transform not only her future, but the entire world's, forever. And her dream of a future with Nicholas may be the price she is forced to pay in order to prevent Ironwood's quest for power.

With Etta lost to time, Nicholas is left trapped with his hostile cousin Sophia as his best ally in his quest to find Etta and break his grandfather's hold on his life forever. As Etta discovers the secrets of the Thorns, Nicholas and Sophia discover the truth behind the travelers' powers -- a terrifying, ancient, age-old battle between long-hidden forces with the power to not just rewrite the timeline, but to destroy the world as they know it. Desperate to reunite with Etta, Nicholas makes a dangerous bargain that leaves him with no choice -- to become that which he hates most, or die, either option promising to compromise every honorable precept he's fought his heritage to claim as his own. As his path converges with Etta's in their race to find the astrolabe, he must find the strength to resist the siren song of the one thing he wants most -- a future with Etta,  a dream that, if claimed, could cost their world everything they know and hold dear.

After finally reading Passenger last month, I immediately dove into Wayfarer, as the thought of delaying the discovery of Nicholas and Etta's fate was simply unthinkable. I was somewhat surprised by the change in tone and the core dynamic of the Wayfarer narrative, as Passenger was tightly focused on Etta's point-of-view, interspersed with Nicholas's perspective, whereas this installment is more evenly divided, and in my opinion heavily weighted to Nicholas's viewpoint. In Passenger, through Etta, Bracken introduces her gloriously absorbing take on the mechanics of time travel and the heady reality of not only seeing history, but the chance to live it. The first installment in this duology is a non-stop adventure with a highly romantic focus, as Nicholas and Etta discover not only each other but seek to reconcile their wildly disparate views and navigate their respective experiences vis-a-vis race relations within the reality of the time periods in which they travel.

With Wayfarer, Bracken sacrifices some of the heady flush of new romance in favor of raising the stakes in regards to the time travel/adventure element of the storyline, diving deep into the history and potential of the travelers' virtually limitless potential. By separating Nicholas and Etta for the bulk of the narrative, each is forced to come to terms with their identity as a traveler and the responsibility such a life entails -- should they seek to use their gift wisely. Accepting their shared inheritance comes at a cost, and in order to do so Bracken forces both Nicholas and Etta to confront the prejudice and privilege of their respective time periods. The tumultuous history at the root of the conflict between the traveling families was a deliciously dark surprise, cementing Bracken as not just another YA fantasy author, but a master  wordsmith capable of spinning a heady web of thought-provoking fantasy, never hesitating to address the twin dark plagues of prejudice and unchecked evil that have colored mankind's experience throughout history.

If Passenger is a romantic journey of self-discovery, Wayfarer is a journey of purpose. Within the pages of each installment, Bracken has reimagined and refreshed the tropes of the hero's journey. In Etta and Nicholas, readers are given two heroes to not only cheer for but who inspire, as they realistically confront the twin capacity for good and evil within themselves and each, inspired by the other, strive to give their better angels sway. While I adored everything about this story, from Bracken's world-building and globe-spanning plot to her breathtakingly human characterizations, I perhaps love most how she subverted my expectations as to the story's outcome. The heavy emphasis on Etta's point-of-view in Passenger lulled me into a false expectation as to Etta's importance relative to Nicholas in the overall arc of the story -- but what I didn't stop to consider was that Passenger and Wayfarer are, essentially, two halves of one giant whole.

Over the course of this breathtakingly original tale, this becomes as much Nicholas's story as Etta's, if not arguably moreso his, as he becomes a man who confronts both age-old prejudice and the temptation of his familial heritage -- from a family who very nearly always grossly underestimated his potential. If Etta is the reader's entree into history, Nicholas is a powerful reminder of how the forgotten and overlooked throughout history possessed stories worth writing and potential worth exploring, not by virtue of their social position  but by virtue of their very existence. For while history is writ large by the victors and socially dominant, it is often those everyday men and women who have the greatest lessons of sacrifice and honor to teach us, if, like Etta, we can learn to see beyond the color of one's skin or social antecedents to the humanity common to us all.

Wayfarer brings Nicholas and Etta's time-traveling thrill ride to a stunning conclusion. These novels have been a reading experience like no other. Romantic, thrilling, and wholly absorbing, this was a story I never wanted to end. I adored Bracken's world-building and carefully-crafted characters, each organic to the time of their origin. That, perhaps, is one of this duology's more stunning feats, as Bracken never sacrifices historical reality for fictional expediency. For every moment of breath-taking, time-travel wish fulfillment, the harsh truths of history that Etta and Nicholas cope with are never diminished for fictional expediency. Wayfarer is that rare treat, a gorgeously-rendered conclusion to a tale that exemplifies intelligent, wildly creative storytelling, and taken as a whole this set of novels marks one of the most wholly satisfying reading experiences of recent memory. Nicholas and Etta and their vibrantly-realized world have taken up permanent residence in my heart, for theirs is a story that has stayed with me long after finishing Wayfarer's final pages, and is one I know I shall be tempted to revisit often.

About the book:

Etta Spencer didn't know she was a traveler until the day she emerged both miles and years from her home. Now, robbed of the powerful object that was her only hope of saving her mother,  Etta finds herself stranded once more, cut off from Nicholas -- the eighteenth-century privateer she loves -- and her natural time.

When Etta inadvertently stumbles into the heart of the Thorns, the renegade travelers who stole the astrolabe from her, she vows to finish what she started and destroy the astrolabe once and for all. Instead, she's blindsided by a bombshell revelation from their leader, Henry Hemlock: he is her father. Suddenly questioning everything she's been fighting for, Etta must choose a path -- one that could transform her future.

Still devastated by Etta's disappearance, Nicholas has enlisted the unlikely help of Sophia Ironwood and a cheeky mercenary-for-hire to track her down. But after a deadly mistake derails their search, they discover an ancient power far more frightening than the rival travelers currently locked in a battle for control -- a power that threatens to eradicate the timeline as they know it.

From colonial Nassau to New York City, San Francisco to ancient Carthage, imperial Russia to the Vatican catacombs, #1 New York Times bestselling author Alexandra Bracken charts a gorgeously detailed, thrilling course through time in this stunning conclusion to the Passenger series.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Review: The Return by Erin Knightley

The Return (Sunnybell #2)
By: Erin Knightley
Publisher: BookShots


Mack McLeroy's star was quickly rising in the professional rodeo circuit until a horrific fall from a bull nearly killed him. Faced with the loss of income and sponsorships, and unsure if he'll even be able to recover sufficiently to return to competition, Mack returns home to Sunnybell, Texas. If he can convince his old high school girlfriend, Ashley Montoya, to use her influence as the niece of his biggest sponsor to save his gig, he might just be able to salvage his dreams of rodeo fame. The only thing he didn't count on was Ashley's ability to hold a grudge...

Following the humiliation of discovering her boyfriend Mack cheating on her, Ashley Montoya was forced to set aside her teenage heartbreak and grow up fast when she became her ALS-stricken mother's primary caregiver. Despite the intervening years she was not ready to forgive Mack when he showed up on her doorstep asking for a favor, until the spark of an idea resurrects her long-cherished dream of becoming a competitive barrel racer. She'll help Mack with his sponsorship woes but only if he'll first use his contacts to help establish her career on the professional rodeo circuit. What neither counted on was the enforced proximity reawakening feelings each though long buried, calling into question the hard-fought dreams each holds dear.

Last year I read Learning to Ride, the first Sunnybell novella and Knightley's first foray into contemporary romance. While I enjoyed it, I had some issues with the unhappy career woman trope and the hook-up between the hero and heroine which felt forced, lacking the characterization I'd come to expect from Knightley's historicals. The Return is a much stronger and more enjoyable contemporary offering. If Knightley continues to pen contemporaries of this ilk I'll happily follow this line of her career trajectory with interest.

I love a good second chances romance, and Ashley and Mack are well drawn characters, sketched with Knightley's trademark warmth and nuance. I did feel that their ages were somewhat deceptive -- Ashley and Mack have each lived a LOT of life for early twentysomethings, and their respective voices often translated older and more world weary than their actual ages on the page. That minor issue aside, is a much stronger contemporary offering from Knightley. There is history in this romance, believable romantic tension, and organic conflict, making this short offering an entertaining, satisfying way in which to while away a few hours. While I suspect I'll always gravitate towards Knightley's historicals first, she's proving to be increasingly adept at penning enjoyable contemporaries, and I look forward to seeing this series continue.

About the book:

With beating hearts and bated breath...

Ashley Montoya was in love with Mack McLeroy in high school--until he broke her heart. When an accident brings him back home to Sunnybell to recover, Ashley's determined to avoid him, but Mack can't stay away. And the more she's with him, the more she can't help but to fall into his embrace...

BookShots Flames
  • Original romances presented by JAMES PATTERSON
  • Novels you can devour in a few hours
  • Impossible to stop reading

Friday, January 20, 2017

Review: At Your Request by Jen Turano

At Your Request (Apart From the Crowd #0.5)
By: Jen Turano
Publisher: Bethany House
ASIN: B01HC1252A


Wilhelmina Radcliff once had all of New York society at her feet, her future glittering with promise. But when her father's unscrupulous business partner lost the family fortune, Wilhelmina went from social darling to wallflower, forced to seek employment as a social secretary to help keep her family afloat. When Edgar Wanamaker, once her closest friend -- and her first proposal of marriage -- appears at a ball where she is employed by the hostess, Wilhelmina is mortified. With the assistance of a few fellow wallflowers she attempts to avoid the utter humiliation of facing the one who got away. But when Edgar convinces her to give him a few moments of her time, for the sake of their once close friendship, a spark of hope rekindles in Wilhelmina's heart. Could it be that an outcast wallflower didn't miss her first, best chance at love after all?

At Your Request marks another reading first for me this year, as it is my first foray into Jen Turano's fiction. As the set up to her new Apart From the Crowd series, Wilhelmina and company's stories promise to be a clean read alternative for those who might otherwise enjoy mainstream historical romance authors such as Lisa Kleypas or Julia Quinn. I loved how Turano set up the premise of the series, as the wallflowers break social barriers and bond over their shared social ostracization. I'm also a sucker for second chance romances, and while the brief length of this novella limits reader engagement in Wilhelmina and Edgar's story, even from this brief sample it is abundantly clear that Turano is capable of telling a charming tale with warmth and humor.

Those looking for historicals with historical depth will not find that here, for At Your Request is essentially a Hallmark romantic comedy with rudimentary historical trappings for color. The dialogue lacks spark or the flavor of historical authenticity, overly formal and often clunky. That said, I believe Turano fills a unique niche within the historical fiction market, bringing humor and a contemporary sensibility to her writing that possesses great potential, leaving me curious to sample Turano's full-length fiction. The first book in the Apart From the Crowd series, Behind the Scenes, releases in April, and follows the budding romance introduced here between Wilhelmina's fellow wallflower, Permilia Griswold, and department store owner Asher Rutherford. I really enjoyed Permilia's character, and her spark-filled introduction to Asher reminded me of Mr. Selfridge -- so I am already invested in their story. At Your Request was the perfect introduction (at long last!) to Turano's lite historical romantic comedies. While not without issues, I enjoyed this sample and am curious to see how Turano's humor and heart translate to a full-length work.

About the book:

After her father lost the family fortune, Wilhelmina was cast out of the fashionable set and banished to the wallflower section. She is mortified when her friend Edgar returns to society for the first time since she rejected his proposal. Ashamed of her fall from grace, she tries to avoid him, but is there still hope for their friendship--or something more?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Review: The Warrior's Seal by Ronie Kendig

The Warrior's Seal (The Tox Files #0.5)
By: Ronie Kendig
Publisher: Bethany House


Cole "Tox" Russell and his Special Forces team were sent to Nigeria to fight Boko Haram. But when the US Ambassador contacts them with the news that VIPs have gone missing in country, the team's mission takes a drastic turn. The VIPs in question are none other than the President and First Lady of the United States, who Cole's brother just happens to be running against in a hotly contested election campaign. When the team arrives at the site of the abduction, they discover that a deadly toxin has been unleashed on the villagers, a trail of destruction that follows the terrorists' use of an ancient artifact known as the Mace of Subjugation.

Archaeologist Tzivia Khalon knows all about the mace's bloody history, but she's more concerned with assisting her mentor in getting the artifact safely loaned to Syria for the swearing-in of the new president -- and safely returned to their university. When the weapon (and her mentor) go missing, Tzivia finds herself drawn into Tox's investigation as her antiquities expertise makes her a valuable asset as Tox's team faces a foe that believes in the legendary powers of the priceless artifact. Everything Tzivia and Tox thought they knew is called into question as the mace's influence ripples through their mission to save a president -- a mission rapidly spiralling out of control.

The Warrior's Seal is my first introduction to Ronie Kendig's writing (yes, finally!). I've long been familiar with her work as I've heard friends rave about her fast-paced novels, but my gigantic to-be-read pile always got in the way -- until her first release through one of my favorite publishing houses downloaded to my Kindle. I expected action and suspense, and on that score Kendig delivers in spades. But what I didn't expect was  the historical/supernatural twist with the introduction of the mace and its impact on current geo-political events. The thirteenth-century prologue starring Tox's Templar Knight predecessor felt forced -- while an interesting concept the Crusades-era action felt rushed and detached when compared to the meticulously constructed Special Forces operation play-by-plays to come.

While some may find the combination of heart-stopping action with a dash of the supernatural to strain credulity, I have high hopes that in a full-length novel the blending of these two disparate genres will come to feel even more seamless. This is a thoroughly entertaining introduction to Kendig's writing and one of the better series intro novellas that I've read, featuring well-developed characters, high-stakes action, and a series set up that calls to mind 24 in its heyday. I cannot wait to see how Kendig develops Tox and his team, and particularly how Tzivia's archaeological endeavors are woven into the narrative. This is an entertaining way to lose an hour or two,  and as the novella is free on most e-book platforms, the risk is little while the payoff of being introduced to one who promises to fast become a favorite suspense author is priceless.

About the book:

A Special Forces team is thrust into a war with the past to save the president after an artifact unleashes a deadly toxin.

Special Forces operative Cole "Tox" Russell and his team are tasked in a search-and-rescue--the U.S. president has been kidnapped during a goodwill tour. The mission nosedives when an ancient biblical artifact and a deadly toxin wipe out villages. Tox must stop the terrorists and the toxin to save the president.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Review: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

Passenger (Passenger #1)
By: Alexandra Bracken
Publisher: Hyperion
ISBN: 978-148471577-2


A gifted violinist, Etta Spencer has spent most of her sheltered life honing her talent and preparing for her debut, the first step being a performance at an exclusive fundraising gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rattled by a confrontation between her mother Rose, and Alice, her beloved instructor, Etta's nerves are shot when she takes the stage, her performance shattered by an inexplicable, incessant, clamoring noise. Following the sound of terrifying screams, Etta finds herself pushed through a shimmering portal by a girl she's never met, waking from her performance-induced panic to a hellish, all too real conflict. Thrust into the eighteenth century, Etta finds herself the unwilling travel companion to her mysterious kidnapper, and heir to a startling family legacy of danger and secrets the like of which she'd never suspected.

For Etta has inherited her mother's ability to travel through passages around the world into other times -- always the same date, but to different countries and time periods. As she quickly learns, those with her "gift," known as travelers, are dying out, and her familial heritage has made her a valuable commodity to Cyrus Ironwood, the ruthless head of the most powerful remaining traveling family. As a descendant of the Linden family, Cyrus wants to leverage Etta's naivete in order to force her to find and turn over her family's greatest asset, a powerful astrolabe that would give its bearer the limitless, unchecked power to rewrite history. 

Partnering with Cyrus's estranged, illegitimate grandson, former slave-turned-privateer Nicholas Carter, Etta flees through time, determined to foil Ironwood's plans and save her captive mother. But as she begins to experience the wonders and dangers of her family's incredible heritage, Etta realizes that the life she's always thought she wanted may be smaller than she'd ever realized. With all of time suddenly at her fingertips and a dashing, protective sailor with secrets of his own at her side, Etta resolves to foil Ironwood's machinations, and do more than simply pass through life and passively accept her fate. But tampering with the laws of time is a dangerous game, and the consequences of one misstep could forever alter not only her life in irrevocable ways, but the lives of all those she holds dear.

Passenger has been on my radar since I first read the raving review posted on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books shortly following its release last year. Thank GOODNESS my to-be-read pile is continually growing, as if I'd read this book last January and had to wait the ENTIRETY of 2016 for its sequel, it is highly questionable whether or not I would have survived the wait. This book this book THIS BOOK. This book is everything I ever wanted and never knew I needed in a time travel-romance-adventure. This book has everything -- EVERYTHING! -- romance, suspense, history, time travel, compelling characters, non-stop action, and does it all so well.

With Passenger, Alexandra Bracken has accomplished the exceptional feat of leaving me with nothing but raves for this gem of a novel. This is the rare novel that not only entertains (and that's putting it mildly, as this book is a non-stop page-turner) but enlightens and challenges a reader's perceptions of how history is viewed. Within the framework of this fantastical world, Bracken manages to deliver a timely treatise on race relations and perceptions through time that never feels forced or inauthentic. Nicholas and Etta's blossoming romance explores the societal ramifications and challenges of their potential relationship in a wholly organic, engaging fashion.  As a modern woman thrust into eras where she is viewed as a commodity and not an equal, Etta is forced to confront through her attraction to Nicholas the prejudices and privileges bestowed upon her by the rights of her time that she's always been able to take for granted.

This is a story begging to be made into a film, as from its opening pages it took hold of my imagination and wouldn't let go. Bracken pens her tale with a break-neck pace and a cinematic flair. Setting aside the inventive concept and the delicious, heart-stopping romance, my favorite aspect of this book has to be that it is a coming-of-age story that isn't. This is a coming-of-age -- or perhaps a more accurate description would coming-into-one's-own -- story that defies the stereotypes. For while Etta begins as a sheltered teenager, her focus and dedication to her music has, in many respects, left her better prepared for her role as a traveler than she would be were she already a more worldly-wise, typical teenager, less driven to succeed. And while her blossoming romance with Nicholas unfolds relatively quickly, Bracken gives it an extra weight and authenticity by forcing both Etta and Nicholas to confront not only their respective worldviews but the historical and societal ramifications throughout history of any potential relationship.

Passenger is a novel to savor, as in the days since completing the final pages I've found my mind often returning to Bracken's gloriously realized world. I loved seeing history unfold through Nicholas and Etta's eyes, as I could not imagine a more intrepid or better-suited pair of time travelers (the one notable exception being, of course, a certain mad man in a blue box). Theirs is a relationship of true equals, their romance all the headier for their partnership based not simply on physical attraction but a true marriage of intellectual and emotional compatibility. Though I must admit I'm somewhat loathe to start Wayfarer as I know it is the final chapter in this thrilling journey, here Bracken has crafted a world I cannot wait to return to and one I foresee revisiting often. Nicholas and Etta have joined the rarified company of characters so real, vibrant, and compelling they've carved a niche for themselves in my bookish heart.

About the book:

In one devastating night, violin prodigy Etta Spencer loses everything she knows and loves. Thrust into an unfamiliar world by a stranger with a dangerous agenda, Etta is certain of only one thing: she has traveled not just miles but years from home. And she's inherited a legacy she knows nothing about from a family whose existence she's never heard of. Until now.

Nicholas Carter is content with his life at sea, free from the Ironwoods -- a powerful family in the colonies -- and the servitude he's known at their hands. But with the arrival of an unusual passenger on his ship comes the insistent pull of the past that he can't escape and the family that won't let him go so easily. Now the Ironwoods are searching for a stolen object of untold value, one they believe only Etta, Nicholas's passenger, can find. In order to protect her, he must ensure she brings it back to them -- whether she wants to or not.

Together, Etta and Nicholas embark on a perilous journey across centuries and continents, piecing together clues left behind by the traveler who will do anything to keep the object out of the Ironwoods' grasp. But as they get closer to the truth of their search, and the deadly game the Ironwoods are playing, treacherous forces threaten to separate Etta not only from Nicholas but from her path home...forever.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Review: Catalyst by James Luceno

Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel
By: James Luceno
Publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 978-0-345-51149-2


Spoiler alert: As this novel is a prequel to the recently-released Rogue One film, this review may contain movie spoilers!

Long before Jyn Erso led a ragtag band of rebels on a dangerous mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, her parents Galen and Lyra found themselves unwittingly caught up in Palpatine's plans to develop a monstrous weapon the like of which the galaxy had never seen -- one capable of crushing resistance -- and hope -- in a single, well-aimed beam of laser fire. As the Clone Wars wind to a close, Galen Erso, one of the Republic's most brilliant minds and an authority on energy research, is more interested in furthering his efforts to make affordable, sustainable, crystal-powered energy available to all rather than in the political machinations reshaping the galaxy outside his lab. As both he and Lyra prepare for the birth of their first child, their shared determination to foil all attempts to convince Galen to turn the potential of his altruistic research toward weaponization bring them afoul of Separatist forces.

When rescued by Orson, Galen's old school chum, the Ersos find themselves drawn back to Coruscant and deep into the heart of the newly-minted Emperor's efforts to coalesce the Empire's power. Krennic is convinced that lying within Galen's brilliant mind is the key to realizing the Emperor's desire to see a game-changing superweapon brought to life, making the Empire's reach -- and Orson's career potential -- unstoppable. But as Galen and Lyra soon learn the cost of doing business with the Empire may exact a cost neither is willing their fledgling family to pay -- but extracting themselves from the Empire's grip will require an act of well-timed rebellion that could cost them everything.

After seeing Rogue One opening weekend, I immediately started the prequel which, thanks to the holidays, took me far long to read than expected. James Luceno is well-versed in Star Wars lore given his previous releases, and this novel is no exception. Media tie-in novels often have a generally poor reputation when it comes to quality, but here Luceno delivers a meticulously executed treatise on the war between conscience versus expediency and compromise. Much like the characters introduced in Rogue One, Catalyst bridges the events between Revenge of the Sith and Rogue One by shining  a light on the regular men and women who found themselves fighting for their lives and freedom while the Republic and its Jedi guardians fell beneath the bootheel of a rising Empire determined to crush any and all opposition.

The first half of the narrative felt a tick sluggish in comparison to its conclusion, but the setup and insight it provided into Galen's character and the crisis of conscience he faces that sets the course of his daughter's life makes the payoff worthwhile. I'll be the first to confess that when the Star Wars expanded universe re-set I was disappointed, as the original expanded universe novels so wholly enriched my love of the world and characters of the films. In spite of some pacing issues, here Luceno delivers exactly what I crave in a Star Wars novel -- a character-driven tale where rebels refuse to buckle to oppression despite the overwhelming odds, one that honors the films while making the epic on-screen, on-going struggle of good versus evil even more intimate and real.

Watching Rogue One I wasn't invested in Galen's character except as to how his absence, and the choices he made, impacted Jyn's arc, even though Mads Mikkelson (SWOON) made the most of his relatively brief screentime. However, Luceno took the angst with which Mikkelson imbued his performance and translates it to the page, giving Galen a noble pathos and completing his transformation into a tragic hero of the Rebellion. The kyber crystals at the heart of Galen's energy research aren't simply a breakthrough to powering the Death Star, but a perversion of the Force, a once a critical part of the methodology used by the Jedi (powering their lightsabers) to maintain order and balance in the galaxy. While Galen's research motives were pure, in researching the power and potential of the kyber crystals he dabbled in a power far beyond his ken.

The revelation that the fearsome power of the Death Star was made possible by the perversion of an item held sacred by the Jedi is a heartbreaking twist in the Star Wars saga that frankly, I didn't see coming -- but I absolutely adored. Galen's growing horror as he realizes that his single-minded fascination with his research and the limitless possibilities of the kybers could come to stand for everything he and the Jedi abhorred broke my heart. But there's sad sort of poetic symmetry in this revelation, humanizing the conflict, a stark reminder that the thinnest of threads separates Empire and Rebellion, for they are truly two sides of the same coin. The potential for good or evil exists equally within each party, while it is the choices that define and delineate the two sides of this classic conflict between dark and light, oppression and hope.

Catalyst is an extremely worthwhile entry in the new Star Wars canon, expanding on events within the films and adding depth and heart to this world I've loved to lose myself within for over two decades. I hope that this Rogue One era in the Star Wars universe heralds a new chapter in the on-going saga focusing on the "smaller," but no less important individuals, that played galaxy-changing roles, often on the periphery of the main action, often without credit, but no less deserving of their moment in the spotlight than a Leia or Luke or Han or Rey. The perfect case in point is Luceno's conflicted smuggler with a heart of gold, Has Obitt (and I'm not just saying that because I have a weakness for dashing smugglers who remind me of Han Solo, no, not at allll... *wink*).

Luceno has delivered an intelligent, methodically unspooled, game-changing chapter that fits nicely within my favorite era of the Star Wars universe -- the period leading up to and encompassing the original trilogy. He knows how this world works and how it should feel and delivers on all fronts. And after this tantalizing glimpse into his characterization of the infamous Grand Moff Tarkin, I'm determined to go back and read his novel focusing on the rise of Tarkin's career at the first opportunity. I sincerely hope that this still-relatively new era of Star Wars publishing continues to make room within its release lists for entertaining, thought-provoking novels of this ilk that sit between the big-screen spectacles as worthy epic miniseries chapters in the on-going story. (I know 2017 has just started but seriously is it time for Episode VIII to release yet?)

About the book:

War is tearing the galaxy apart. For years the Republic and the Separatists have battled across the stars, each building more and more deadly technology in an attempt to win the war. As a member of Chancellor Palpatine's top secret Death Star project, Orson Krennic is determined to develop a superweapon before their enemies can. And an old friend of Krennic's, the brilliant scientist Galen Erso, could be the key.

Galen's energy-focused research has captured the attention of both Krennic and his foes, making the scientist a crucial pawn in the galactic conflict. But after Krennic rescues Galen, his wife, Lyra, and their young daughter, Jyn, from Separatist kidnappers, the Erso family is deeply in Krennic's debt. Krennic then offers Galen an extraordinary opportunity: to continue his scientific studies with every resource put utterly at his disposal. While Galen and Lyra believe that his energy research will be used in purely altruistic ways, Krennic has other plans that will finally make the Death Star a reality. Trapped in their benefactor's tightening grasp, the Ersos must untangle Krennic's web of deception to save themselves and the galaxy itself.