Over 550 book reviews with full author links

30 May 2014

Charles Rivers Editors: The Greatest Battles in History: The Battle of Okinawa

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The deciding bloody battle of the Pacific War
It has been some time since I have read one of the many short novellas about key events in history. This one didn't disappoint me as it added something to my knowledge of world history.

Okinawa was the deciding battle in the Pacific war when the Japanese fought to the death to prevent a US invasion of the Japanese mainland. It was the fiercest battle in that war with nearly 60,000 US and over 100,000 Japanese soldiers killed. During the battle tens of thousands of Japanese civilians were also slaughtered. This battle also heralded the start of Kamikaze suicide attacks on US ships. It also heralded the start of the cult of suicide bombing for a cause that has been taken up by modern day terrorists.

The most important deciding impact of this fierce battle was a clear indication that hundreds of thousands on both sides would be killed if the US invaded the Japanese mainland and was a key element in President Truman's decision to use the Atomic Bomb. "More Japanese died on Okinawa than in both atomic bombings combined."

These short historical novellas are always a great, quick read to extend one's historical knowledge.

27 May 2014

Adrian McKinty: The Cold Cold Ground (Detective Sean Duffy 1)

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The Heart of the Northern Ireland troubles
Several people advised me to read Adrian McKinty's books and I wasn't disappointed. This is the first book in the Sean Duffy series set in Northern Ireland during the worst times of "The Troubles" between the IRA and the Protestant groups. His writing has a sharp driving force that keeps your attention, his characters and settings are gritty and the action can be fast and furious.

 McKinty gives us amazing descriptions of Northern Ireland in 1981, the seedy desperate housing estates on both sides, the hunger strikes in The Maze prison, car bombs, and enforcers on both sides specialising in knee capping and assassination. Children's homework includes learning how to make and throw Molotov cocktails. The Catholics hate the Protestants and they all hate British forces, Special Branch and especially the local police - the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

Sean Duffy is an enigma, a Catholic university graduate sickened by the conflict who decided to join the predominantly Protestant RUC. He is good at what he does and has solved several murders but hasn't been able to prosecute because nobody is prepared to risk becoming a witness. In a world of murders and assassinations connected with The Troubles, Sergeant Duffy investigates a couple of deaths which at first sight don't appear to be connected with the troubles. One appears to be a sadistic murder of a homosexual man with IRA connections and the other appears to be hanging suicide of a young woman, divorced from one of the hunger strikers, who disappeared under strange circumstances several months before.

Duffy methodically investigates each case, intruding into dangerous territory and talking to dangerous people to try to make sense of the cases. Every time his squad go into the notorious Falls Road area they full riot gear, and go fully armed in an armoured Land Rover.

Sean is a lonely man, living in the middle of a Protestant estate, drowning his sorrows in a vodka gimlet (a pint glass with half lime juice and half vodka) each evening. His romantic endeavours with Laura Cathcart, the local pathologist, start off well and then finish up in a heap. He is persistent with the cases but as soon as he starts to get a grip on what is happening the cases are taken away from him.

This is all great stuff for a police procedural set in authentic and dangerous times. I enjoyed the book, but was a bit iffy about the pretty over-the-top and unbelievable finale. But it left Sean Duffy in a position to come back in two more books in the trilogy which I look forward to reading.

22 May 2014

William Kent Krueger: Ordinary Grace

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Ordinary or Extraordinary?
William Kent Krueger's prize winning novel is about a young teenager living in small town Minnesota in 1961 where his father is the Methodist preacher, and his reactions to what happened that summer when death intruded on his life. It is a story about the effect on Frank Drum and his family when they are visited by several deaths by accident, nature, suicide and murder, which challenges their beliefs and is what Frank later calls "The awful grace of God".

Frank is 13 years old and lives in a loving and caring family. He supports his shy and stuttering his younger brother Jake, his constant companion, who is "two years and two heads shorter". His sister Ariel is eighteen, about to go to College and already a talented pianist and composer. His mother, Ruth, runs the church choir and every Sunday Frank and Jake (mostly reluctantly) have to attend services at the three churches in the district where his father is pastor.

Many adult males in the town still have their own devils from the War, especially Frank's father Nathan who gave up plans to become a lawyer and became a preacher to become closer to God. His wartime buddy, Gus, lives under the Church in the caretaker's quarters and has his own devils which he regularly attacks with alcohol and bar room fights. The person most affected is Emil Brandt, Ruth's former boyfriend, who returns from the war scarred and blind. He is still a brilliant pianist and takes solace in his music. His only companion is his deaf and angry sister, Lise, who shuns most company, but is surprisingly sympathetic with Jake.

Whenever the boys are allowed they roam the town, the railroad track and the surrounding countryside doing things that young boys will do. One day they come across a dead body under a trestle railroad bridge and come face to face with death directly. Later more deaths visit them which will have a lifetime effect on their family and friends.

Was the book ordinary or extraordinary and deserve its prize winning status? It was certainly very well written and evocative of the time and place but was not a page-turner for me. There were certainly a few extraordinary emotional impacts but they they were only a minor part of the book. I found it difficult to empathise with the religious issues that seemed to me to be thinly veiled Christian fiction which I normally avoid. Others who don't have those feelings will probably rate it as extraordinary.

18 May 2014

Fred Vargas: Dog has its Day

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Wacky and strange thriller
If you can take wacky ("funny or amusing in a slightly odd or peculiar way") characters and strange plots, and want a change from your normal NYPD style crime thriller this one may be for you. If not please be entertained by a quick look at this synopsis of French prize winning novelist Fred (Frédérique) Vargas's second book in her "The Three Evangelists" series published in 1996 but only recently translated from the French.

Louis Kehlweiler (or Ludwig because he has a German father) has been a powerful investigator with the Ministry of the Interior. Since he was sacked by newcomers who didn't respect his powers he has still kept up his investigations with the help of his old cronies, with Marthe, an elderly prostitute, leader of the band. He still uses the park benches of Paris as his lookout posts which he has numbered for convenience up to 137.

One problem is that Marthe is getting old and confuses 102 for 107. Louis is also showing the strain and now that his latest girlfriend has left, the "love of his life" is Bufo, a toad that he carries with him almost everywhere except cafè's where Bufo gets a bit panicky and would do the same to the patrons.

Sounds a bit whacky? Sure but it gets even whackier when late one evening Louis spots some dog faeces on a grating close to bench 107 which has been cleaned off by next morning by a violent overnight storm leaving a little white thing - a gnawed human toe bone. With the help of the first "Evangelist" Marc Vandalooser, a 30 something unemployed student of medieval life, they track down most of the regular dog walkers in the park and eventually work out that the dog concerned travels to Paris each week with his owner from a small town in Brittany.

Louis, and then Marc, travel to Brittany to find the dog and the body. They stir up a small hornet's nest in the small town finding the body and trying to track down the murderer.

The other "Evangelists" are an obsessed pre-historian studying human evolution from hunter-gatherers, and a student of the Great War. This time only the first two are used leaving the third in reserve for the next book.

This is a very different wacky thriller that kept the pages turning as strange things kept happening. At times it was brilliant and at others pretty silly. I gave it 3.5 stars for originality.

Small spoiler - you may be interested to know that Bufo the toad survives to the end but has to be watered down because he dried out on long train rides. Vargas left us with a seed for her next book "Sans feu ni lieu" (Without Hearth or Home) published in France in 1997 in which we will probably see more of the third Evangelist when it is translated.

15 May 2014

Joel Goldman: Stone Cold

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Started well but finished badly 
In my review of the novella THE KNIFE I said that the story was too short for any real character development for Alex Stone and I had no idea of how Joel Goldman would  build a new book series around this character. This book gave me some of the answers.

Alex Stone is a public defender dedicated to making sure that the innocent are not convicted - until she meets Dwayne Reed, a scumbag of a drug dealer accused of murdering disfiguring a fellow dealer. While Alex accepts Dwayne's plea that he is innocent she fears that Reed could murder those who give damaging testimony at his trial. After a dramatic conclusion to the trial Alex is very fearful for those involved in the outcome.

The next answer is that Alex has lived with her sapphic and beloved beautiful partner, Dr Bonnie Long, an ER specialist, for seven years. Her worst fears happen when Dwayne is treated by Bonnie for injuries sustained in trying to avoid arrest and when she deliberately makes the treatment more painful than needed Dwayne threatens to find and hurt her. Things then go rapidly downhill as situations run out of control, the body count rises and Alex learns more about the legal system from a personal perspective than she ever imagined.

Most of the book is the kind of edge-of-your-seat legal thriller I expect from Joel Goldman but the finale is over the top stuff that even Perry Mason wouldn't expect. I am intrigued that in the next in the series Alex hasn't learnt any lessons and is still a public defender dedicated to protect the innocent and "Alex becomes the killer's next target".

J D Robb: Immortal in Death

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Eve's Dangerous Wedding Planning
Once again I took a light relief interlude with #3 in this unusual homicide detective/romance series set 50 years in the future when interplanetary travel is common, there are robots a plenty but there is still lots of crime. Lieutenant Eve Dallas is a homicide detective who is now surprisingly engaged to the Roarke, a handsome rogue who is the richest man on the planet.

It is hard for Eve to concentrate on her wedding plans when so many bodies turn up with severe head wounds, including police informers and a beautiful top model Pandora. It is even harder when her best friend Mavis is found unconscious at the scene of Pandora's murder with the victim's blood all over her and Eve has to charge Mavis with murder. It is even harder when the murder takes place at the home of Leonardo, who is designing Eve's wedding dress and just happens to be Mavis's lover.

These complicated cases start to connect via a link to a new powerful illegal and very dangerous drug, Immortality, that increases sex drive, and promotes youth. Eve has to reluctantly allow partnership with Jake Casto from the Drug Squad in the investigation. Robb also introduces us to Delia Peabody, a very efficient policewoman who no doubt will feature again in later books.

This series has always had a little fantasy to make it different and give it a little spice but this time the fantasy takes over a bit too much. I spotted the murderer half way through the book while Eve was so involved in clearing Mavis's name and, every now and then, allowing herself to be involved in the wedding planning. Of course Roarke is always there to support and love her.

You need to read the book to find out how all of this affected the wedding plans. It was a pleasant but not really memorable interlude.

Geoffrey McGeachin: St Kilda Blues

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A great Australian Crime Thriller
This book was a great surprise - a very good surprise. It is possibly the best Australian police crime thriller I have read and is at the top of my list of police crime thrillers worldwide. The reason is pretty simple - this book doesn't include any of the over the top unbelievable rubbish that so many thriller authors use to attract their audience. It is written in clear and mostly simple prose, with great characterisation, solid police work, good intertwining of police and personal plot lines, well researched historical background and above all lots of plot twists which come together with an amazing emotional impact.

The book is set in Melbourne in 1957 when Detective Sergeant Charlie Berlin has been called out of exile in the Fraud Squad to investigate the disappearance the daughter of a rich and powerful property developer which may be connected with a serial killer. Charlie is a great detective but a flawed and troubled character after 29 bombing raids over Berlin and surviving near starvation as a POW. Charlie still has nightmares about witnessing the killing of a Jewish girl by an SS officer. The property developer, a German migrant, has an uncanny resemblance to that officer.

While Charlie and his colleague, DS Bob Roberts start to track down the killer and hopefully save the life of the teenage girl, the book flashes back to the development of the personality of the serial killer via foster homes and abuse at a religious seminary in the bush. The background setting of Melbourne in the 1950's is superbly researched and evocative (I started visiting the city in the early 1960's) featuring Holdens, Essendon's pathetic AFL performance, Jean Shrimpton, mini-skirts, hot pants, no bras, and marijuana,

This not just a crime thriller but also a story about someone who is still struggling with PTSD from the war and family stresses after both his son and daughter have left home under clouds to make their way in life. Charlie reflects "Life goes on. Life always goes on, he knew. Life was a bastard like that." This adds an extra, extremely strong, emotional element for Charlie to cope with as he uncovers clues to the killer.

This is #3 in the Charlie Berlin series and is written so that it can be easily read as a stand alone book. I will certainly go back and read the earlier books in the series. At the end McGeachin leaves us with a seed to a further book in the series which I eagerly await.

5 stars, highly recommended.

10 May 2014

Mike Bond: Holy War

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Intense, chilling and unforgettable
To understand this book you need to know something about the Civil War in Lebanon. Once upon a time Beirut was called the Paris of the Middle East, a mini-paradise where Christians and Muslims lived relatively peacefully together in a cosmopolitan society. After the Jordanian Black September Civil War the PLO was expelled from Jordan and moved to Lebanon militarising, the Palestinian population. Nothing was the same after April 1975 when Lebanon entered 15 years of bitter Civil War which reduced the centre of the city to rubble almost like Stalingrad. Many parties were involved, Christian and Moslem, PLO and Palestinians, Israel and Syria, with allegiances changing by the day.

A multinational peacekeeping force from the US and France was shattered in October 1983 when huge car bombs planted by the Shiite group Hezbollah killed over 400 troops from both countries in their respective barracks. This act is the background to Mike Bond's chilling tale about a world of terror, bombing, torture and death which exposes human nature at its worst. Bond's prose is atmospheric and authentic because of his own experiences in war-torn Middle East. This is not a book for the faint hearted.

Bond introduces us to some amazing characters from all sides of the conflict. Neill is a  war correspondent living in England who covers dangerous stories throughout the world. When he was at University in Beirut he had the love affair of his life with Layla, who is now the wife of Mohammed, a leader of Hezbollah who were responsible for the bombings of the barracks. He goes to Lebanon with the blessing of MI5 to find Layla and get her help with arranging an interview with Mohammed who MI5 believe may be willing to help stop the slaughter and destruction.

André's brother was killed when the French barracks were bombed and is on a revenge mission to Beirut to destroy Mohammed in an "eye for an eye" car bombing. When he is there he tragically meets the love of his life in a bomb shattered cellar.

Rosa is a Palestinian in her twenties who will do anything to promote her objective to destroy Israel. We meet her first smuggling a dozen grenades through the front line to the Hezbollah fighters hidden as a maternity bump in her dress. On the way she kills dozens of Christians by blowing up an arms depot in a cellar of a building they are occupying. Rosa is an enigmatic character, a cold blooded killer, and a liberated and promiscuous woman who uses sex as a weapon and a shield against the horrors of everyday life.

While Mohammed is a leader of Hezbollah and a strict follower of the Koran, his experiences make him contemplate ways to end the war and persuade others to follow him. Rosa and others try to show him that the only path forward is one of violence and power.

Bond left me with a host of memorable quotations about the war and peace - here are some:
"If God hadn't taught us to kill, what good would he be?"
"All wars are holy, because they are dammed. All wars are between Heaven and Hell. And Hell always wins.";  and
"It takes a leader to make peace."

Mike Bond has written an unnerving tale right from the heart with great authenticity. The final chapters are especially chilling. The only good news is that Beirut is now basically at peace and the Green Line devastation is now being rebuilt. However, the warring parties are still around and the fundamental issues of Christian vs Muslim, Palestine vs Israel are still as unsolved as ever.

08 May 2014

James Lee Burke: A Dust Bowl Tale of Bonnie and Clyde: A Short Story

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A new perspective on Bonnie and Clyde
This short story is a great e-book introduction to the remarkable atmospheric and almost poetic prose of James Lee Burke and to his forthcoming book "Wayfaring Strangers".

Weldon Holland grew up in Texas during the Depression and this is his first brush with good and evil which he would never forget. Weldon's early life was changed forever when infamous criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow and associates drove onto his Grandfather's property. He was immediately captured by Bonnie's beauty, an impression that never left him, but things changed when they came back the next day after a bank robbery went bad. After one of them spat on his Grandfather, as they drove away Weldon fired a shot through the car's back window. This first dramatic encounter with good and evil never left him.

This short story gave me a far better perspective of Bonnie and Clyde in a few pages than the whole of the famous movie. It is the first chapter of "Wayfaring Stranger", a very different novel by master storyteller James Lee Burke, which will be released  in mid July 2014. I have been fortunate through Net Galley and the publisher to be able read an advanced copy of that book which follows Weldon's live through the horrors of WWII and the death camps and when he returned home to try to make his fortune. All through his life Weldon has to face up to the consequences good and evil. I highly recommend that book to discerning readers.

John Sandford: Field of Prey

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Bring up the bodies from the "Black Hole"
Hilary Mantel may have already used the title "Bring up the Bodies" but John Sandford has taken this literally in the plot of his latest Lucas Davenport thriller.

Teenager Layton Carlson Jr, of Red Wing, Minnesota, thought he had found a perfect secluded spot to make out with his girlfriend - an abandoned farmyard in the middle of cornfields. It might have been perfect, so private and quiet, but there was a really bad smell. Layton mentioned the smell to a friend in the Sheriff's office and soon they find a body of a woman in a well, then another and then another... at least twenty, and some are only the skulls.

The media is hysterical (calling it "The Black Hole") and the pressure on the police and politicians becomes overwhelming. Eventually, after a dramatic development in the case, Lucas Davenport, an agent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, is brought in to find the killer. Davenport has seen many serial killers in his time and it is clear that the killer has to be local and could have been active for twenty years.

With most of his staff off on various assignments of their own, Lucas has to work closely with Catrin Mattins, the lead investigator from the local police. Catrin is smart but reportedly not that easy to work with. Sandford also introduces another unexpected associate who helps him with the case.

John Sandford has reached his three score years and ten when most authors would be considering co-authorships - I don't believe that is the case although this one is not as snappy as some of his earlier books. This is #24 in the Prey series when authors have to do something different so the series doesn't out of steam. In Silken Prey it was a case with political implications, which IMHO worked well. In this book the emphasis starts with the body count, which verges on the unbelievable and stays there for most of the story as the body count increases.

I enjoyed Silken Prey a lot more than Field of Prey, but because it is still a John Sandford page turner I am sure that many dedicated Sandford fans will again be burning the midnight oil with this one.

04 May 2014

Lynda La Plante: Wrongful Death

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FBI at the Met
After a long running series, such as the DCI Anna Travis series, authors look to something different to liven things up. This time Lynda La Plante has added a new dimension, an FBI officer working with the Met Homicide Command and Met officers working and training with the FBI. Does it work?

Senior FBI Agent Jessie Dewar is seconded to DCI Anna Travis's team investigating a cold case of a suicide that may be a murder. Jessie is brash and insensitive with little field experience and ends up ruffling a few feathers in the team. Strangely Anna doesn't keep her under control, probably because Jessie seems to be a bit of a protege of Anna's mentor DCS Langton and Anna doesn't want to spoil her chances of going to the FBI Academy in Virginia for special training.

As the case develops Anna becomes more convinced that it is a murder. While she would like to see the case through she reluctantly goes off to the prized FBI course. There she finds herself working on a cold case in Washington with the FBI but at the same time gets access to some vital evidence about her own case.

The book was easy reading and the finale was a bit page turning. Did the FBI element work? Partially because it pads out and adds a couple of dimensions to what would otherwise be a pretty ordinary police procedural. On the other hand the whole thing is a bit unbelievable with Jessie and Anna taking key roles in each other's organisations.

Russell Blake: Jet - Ops Files

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How Jet became "the most kick-ass female protagonist in fiction"
Russell Blake is a talented Indie author who has written many thrillers, some of them, notably the Jet series, being unapologetically over the top. Russell is now up to Jet#7 (June 2014 release) about Maya, (aka Jet) an ex Mossad female protagonist who attracts danger and adrenaline filled action wherever she goes.

Russell wrote a very helpful prequel to his successful Assassin series detailing the early days of the Assassin while the rest of the series was underway. Under pressure from his readers, he also felt a need to write a prequel to explain how Jet became such a lethal weapon. He tells us that he put it off as he didn't know how to do this but eventually did so because "you never know until you write it".

Jet - Ops Files takes Maya from being a young woman serving her mandatory military service in Israel to becoming one of Mossad's key field agents. At the beginning Maya attracts the attention of Mossad when almost single handed she tracks down a group of Palestinian terrorists who gunned down another female soldier at a checkpoint on the West Bank. After intensive training Maya shows her real colours in a couple of Mossad operations, especially being able to operate successfully and very lethally on her own against overwhelming odds.

What I like about Russell Blake is that he states up front that some of his books are action-packed escapism without a reality check so I leave my believability barometer behind when I read them. Did he succeed in writing a meaningful prequel? The answer is clear from the positive reaction of his many dedicated followers who lap up everything that he writes.

Mark Gimenez: The Case against William

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The case against American Football
Most of this book is about the the popular cult of American Football and the immense impact on male youths who excel in the sport. As an Aussie I am not familiar with American Football, just as most Americans are not familiar with Cricket, so a lot of this book went over my head and hindered my understanding and enjoyment of this book.

At an early age it is clear that William Tucker has the athletic skills to excel on the football field. His father, Frank, then a successful defence lawyer, is persuaded by an eminent football coach to move his son from a top academic private school to a tough integrated public school to allow him to fully develop his footballing skills and have a chance of a college football scholarship and then at earning megabucks if he is selected to play for one of the top AFL teams.

While this sounds wonderful, William changes from a normal teenager into an over-muscled selfish prima donna who expects everything in the world, especially from the myriad of female football groupies who will do anything to please him. William is on the cusp of being selected for a star AFL career when, without warning, he is arrested for the rape and murder of a cheerleader two years earlier. The evidence is damning with a DNA match to blood on the body.

Frank's life meanwhile has gone downhill badly, impacted by his marriage breakdown and a case where his client had lied big time. He has become an alcoholic and has lost his licence to practice law. William is totally overconfident until he realises that he is only one step away from a death sentence, has no money and no one to help him. Will he let his father help him to avoid the death penalty?

What follows is a struggle for Frank to recover enough to help save his son's life, if his son will allow him to do so. The case is also an opportunity for a politically ambitious District Attorney to pay back a grudge he has had for years because Frank has usurped many of his prosecutions. Frank is supported by a fascinating, almost Camel Club, team of alcoholic friends, an ex-cop, and ex-football coach, and and ex-conman, supported by a court appointed female public defender who used to be a stripper.

Frank's battle to save William is an intense emotional challenge of a basically very good but sensitive man who has gone off the rails to save his son who has also gone off the rails.

Mark Gimenez is one of my favourite authors of legal thrillers, especially as he nearly always takes a shot at some aspects of life in the US - this time the cult of American football and elected judicial and legal officials. While I enjoyed some of the book it was not one of his best and my lack of knowledge of the American football system prevented me from really appreciating this book.

01 May 2014

Nora Roberts: The Pride of Jared MacKade (The MacKade Brothers)

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The Nora Roberts' formula #2
This is #2 in Nora Roberts' quadrilogy about the romantic lives of the 4 MacKade Brothers which I am reading as an interlude from my normal diet of heavy thrillers. In my review of #1 featuring Rafe MacKade I reflected on Nora Roberts' successful but somewhat repetitive plot formula of immediate physical attraction between the main characters but only a slow realisation that the attraction is more than physical.

With Rafe safely married off to Regan and a fully accepted member of the MacKade clan, Roberts turns her attention to Jared, the brother who became the town lawyer. The "strong beautiful female" in the formula this time is Savannah Morningstar - "She was tall - a curvy five-ten ... filling out a drab yellow T-shirt and ripped jeans to the absolute limit of the law. Her leg were endless." Sounds a good start to the formula.

Savannah is not your normal Roberts' female lead. She has part American Indian heritage and a difficult history because she left home at sixteen to become a single mother to Bryan. Savannah has battled for years for her independence and is unwilling to give it up - of course until Jared comes along - but then this seems impossible with a child of her own to bring up.

Did I enjoy revisiting the Nora Roberts' formula again? Yes and No - it wasn't as good as #1 in the series. As usual it had the sparkle of an author at the top of her game and was a little different because of Savannah's background. What remains in my memory is the strength of the MacKade family ties and how they pull together and accept the brothers partners and wives into the family.  The next book in the series about Devin, the local Sheriff, may be a bit predictable as we already know from the first book that he has eyes for Cassie Dolan, whose husband is in prison for wife abuse.

Will I read the other books in this series? Probably because I am still intrigued to see how the formula pans out and because reading this book did give me the interlude I needed.