In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear (2017)

Note: Other books in this series, and stand alone books by Winspear, can be found using the tag “Winspear” on the right hand side of this site’s main page. This post may contain spoilers for earlier books in this series.

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In This Grave Hour, the thirteenth installment of the fantastic Maisie Dobbs Series, opens on a somber note on September 3, 1939 at the very moment that the British government declared war on Germany and entered World War II. On that same morning, Maisie Dobbs — a “psychologist and investigator” in London — is assigned a new case: find a murderer who is targeting Belgian men who came to England as refugees during the first World War.

After years of personal turmoil, including losing her husband and baby, and working as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War, the summer of 1939 finds Maisie Dobbs returned to London and Kent: her city-based investigative business thriving and her weekend life in the country with her father and in-laws stable and contented. However, the declaration of war changes everything immediately: children removed from their city homes and relocated to the live with strangers country; London bracing for bombings; and everywhere young men enlisting, terrifying their parents who still keenly remember their loses in WWI.

Against that back-drop, Maisie follows the trail of a handful of WWI Belgian refugees who came to England as orphaned boys and stayed to build a life after Armistice, men who are now turning up dead, executed one-by-one. Together with her two assistants, the local police, a Secret Service agent, and a Belgian diplomat; Maisie begins to uncover the connection between the then boys, now men, and their murderer and the reasons for these apparently long-delayed executions.

Told in Winspear’s signature style — calm, methodical, precise, and rich with historical details — In This Grave Hour is yet another mesmerizing investigation unfolds and more hints about the future in store for Maisie Dobbs are revealed. Wonderful!

Echoes In Death JD Robb (2017)

For an introduction to the In Death series, see this post https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/10/18/in-death/

For a review of the In Death book that proceeded Echoes in Death in the series, view this post https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2016/10/14/apprentice-in-death-by-jd-robb-2016/

echoes in death cover

Echoes in Death, the 44th book in JD Robb’s prolific futuristic, science-fiction murder mystery series, opens with Lt. Eve Dallas and her husband, Roarke, discovering a naked and battered woman wandering the frozen New York City streets. After racing her to the hospital they learn that she is the young wife of a prominent surgeon. Once the hospital staff confirm her identity and concur that the young woman has been the victim of a brutal physical and sexual attack; Dallas and her partner, Peabody, arrive at her home to find her husband has been murdered, presumably by the same attacker as his wife.

On the surface the attacks appear to be a rape/murder perpetrated in the course of a home invasion. All evidence points to that conclusion: the home of a wealthy couple invaded, the couple attacked, and the attacker had left only after stealing artwork, cash, and jewelry. As the wife begins to regain her memories of the evening, and Dallas and Peabody interview friends of the couple, information that suggests that the husband abused his wife (and possibly a previous wife) comes to light and the cops have to work out whether she killed in self-defense or if someone else was involved in an elaborate escape plan.

Two fellow NYPD detectives approach Dallas and Peabody with evidence that links two of their cold cases with her murder investigation and all four detectives agree that the three cases are similar enough that the attacker most likely is a serial rapist who has escalated into murder.

Tracing the intricate relationships between the three cases, the team begin to uncover a pattern: the murderer is targeting prominent, wealthy couples in which the wife is extraordinarily beautiful. Dr. Mira, the department psychiatrist and recurrent character in the series, creates a chilling profile that suggests the killer is attacking “surrogates” who reminds him of someone he has long known and long wanted to harm.

Although this series can be formulaic and repetitive, this book felt reinvigorated and the plot and details kept it feeling fresh and fast paced. A dark series, too dark for those sensitive to graphic murder mysteries, but one that has fought to remain vital after forty+ books.

Thankless in Death by JD Robb (2013)

I was startled to learn that I had missed a book in JD Robb’s In Death series, a series which I have been reading for years. Even though the series is loosing a bit of its appeal after more than 40 books, for loyalty sake, I checked out the missed book, Thankless in Death, and read it yesterday.

An introduction to the series, and a commentary on the series and its author, was written by me and published on this site in 2015.

Devoted in Death is the forty-first book in the Eve Dallas “…in Death” series by prolific writer JD Robb (nom de plume for Nora Roberts, who has written hundreds of additional books under her real name). I have read all of the books in the series, many of them more than once, and always find they are well worth the read. The books are science-fiction murder mysteries set in the 2060’s, following the life and work of NYPD detective Eve Dallas. Despite the futuristic settings and high-tech gadgetry, the books are largely told in the traditional police-procedural style. The stories portray, in graphic detail, the murders committed (often in very dramatic ways) and the minutiae of police work required to solve them.

A moment of commentary here seems in order. I know that serialized books in general are dismissed as overly simplistic and often formulaic. Some readers would say that murder-mystery serials sensationalize crime and gore and sentimentalize the work of the police. Novels such as the In Death series may not be “literature,” but the author never sets out to write a Pulitzer, she sets out to entertain readers. I suggest that there can easily be room in any reader’s book list for novels such as these. It can be tiresome and confining to only read books at the high-end of the literature spectrum. While there is much value in books that demand a lot of their readers, there is also value in books that ask just a little. Books such as the In Death series demand only two things: that we come willing to be entertained (even if we have to suspend disbelief at times) and that, especially when we read serials, we are looking to form deeper connections to story’s main characters.

We meet Eve Dallas in In Death Book One as she is both becoming a NYPD detective and forming relationships with a slew of characters who will appear in most of the following books including: her billionaire lover-turned-husband, her hippy police partner, a savvy news reporter, an orphan turned rock-star, the police department shrink, and many more. My continued love of the series is largely tied up in these relationships, more so than the detective stories (although those are compelling as well). An abused former foster child, Dallas must open her life to welcome in more and more friends and loved ones, something that does not come easy. She must also deal with her unexpected celebrity resulting from both her sensational police work and her marriage. These caring relationships, and the steamy love life she shares with her husband, Roarke, are a nice counterpoint to the otherwise dark material of the books. (Another comment: the fact that her books include romance — and not just sex — is often cited as evidence of their inferiority to similar books written by men.) — Originally posted October 18, 2015

Thankless in Death finds Eve Dallas and her partner Peabody working to solve a double homicide in the days before Thanksgiving 2060. A husband and wife were murdered in what appeared, initially, a home invasion. Discrepancies on the scene do not sit right with Dallas, and she soon suspects that the couple’s adult son is their murderer. Once it becomes clear that her hunch is correct, Dallas and Peabody begin begin to work the case assuming that the son has gone into hiding. They are both shocked and angered when they learn that this was not a one-time crime of passion and the man has not run, but rather he has decided to use his new found “skills” to hunt down and kill everyone against who he has a grudge. Knowing that they are now dealing with a unstable serial killer, Dallas and Peabody are racing the clock to catch him while the try to puzzle out whom he plans to target and in what order.

Thankless in Death also finds Dallas and her husband preparing to host a large family Thanksgiving in their New York home — an event that makes our main character feel panicked and claustrophobic.  After spending most of her adult life dedicating herself to her police work, she still finds it a shock that she has a family that she has married into, and a family of friends and loved ones she has grown. While she feels fiercely protective of her extended family, she still finds it a tremendous challenge to have to welcome them — and their opinions, their drama, their chaos — into her life.  Despite her inclination to cut herself off from others, something she can easily justify since her work as a police detective is all-consuming, it is her husbands insistence that she make time for family and holiday celebrations that, in the end, fill Eve’s heart of love and gratitude.

The Bride Quartet by Nora Roberts

The Bride Quartet books: Vision in White, Bed of Roses, Savor the Moment, and Happy Ever After

After reading and enjoying Maybe Next Time ( http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1Rd ) on Valentine’s Day, I was inspired to re-read four of my favorite romance novels of all time, Nora Robert’s Bride Quartet. I love this series of books: they are fresh, modern, full of humor and friendship, as well as love. At the center of the series are four women: Mackenzie, Emma, Laurel, and Parker, best friends since childhood and present-day business partners, who run the wedding planning company Vows. The books tell the story of the women’s lives through the framework of the weddings they plan and execute; while the partners work to make their clients dreams of love and romance come true on their wedding days; they also work together as friends, supporting one another as each follows her own path toward love and marriage. While the books are full of romance, it is the love and friendship these women share that is the foundation of the series and what makes it so enduring.

Vision in Whitev

In the first book of the series, we meet Mackensie Elliot wedding photographer and one-fourth of the wedding planning company Vows. Mac is a fiery personality who approaches life with gusto, energy, and humor. Devoted to her work and her friends, Mac is happy to record images of romance and love for her clients, but she has no patience for either in her personal life. Love and marriage, she believes, do not last forever and only always end in heartbreak. When she meets the klutzy, nerdy English professor, Dr. Carter Maguire she agrees to a causal relationship. Unsure of himself but desperately in love, Carter sets out (with the help of his bumbling co-worker) to help Mac get over her fears and let him win her heart.

Bed of Roses bed-of-roses

Book two in the series centers of Emma Grant, the florist for Vows, and the most unabashedly romantic of the quartet. When she envisions her future, Emma dreams of love, marriage, babies, and endless years of romance and passion. As a result, she is always dating a string of men, reasoning that she won’t ever meet Mr. Right if she is not out there searching.  Love finds her in a most unexpected place, the arms of her long-time friend Jack Cooke. Jack, dazzled by Emma’s beauty and sweetness, is happy to have some fun, but he bristles at commitment and works hard to keep Emma at an emotional distance. Jack reasons this will protect Emma’s heart when he moves on, in reality all it does is drive Emma away and force him to confront what he wants for his future…and whether it includes Emma.

Savor the Moment savor-the-moment

Laurel McBane is the master pastry chef at Vows and considers herself the most low-key and relaxed of the group. While she is happy that two of her best friends have recently found love, she does not see wedding bells in her future. Men, she reasons, are simply too much trouble. When her life-long crush on her business partner Parker’s older brother, Del, resurfaces Laurel feels she must keep her feelings secret to protect her friendship and the business she and her friends have worked so hard to build. Nothing can come of out of a relationship with a man like Del, too out of her league she believes, but it turns out that Del might have other ideas about the two of them getting together.

Happy Ever Afterhappy-ever-after

Parker Brown is the steely, determined, and powerful leader of the Vows team. A wedding planner extraordinaire, Parker is perfect down to the very last detail…in her work and in her life. Impossible to ruffle and deadly to cross, she makes sure that every wedding at Vows comes off flawless and that “her” brides have their every wish come true, without ever revealing how much work goes on behind the scenes to make those wishes come true. Her life is planned to down to the tiniest detail and nothing, she reasons, will get in the way of her successes. Known as icy, emotionless, and too focused for something as trivial as love, everyone is shocked when an edgy outsider, Mal, becomes part of her inner circle, and his rule-breaking and passion breathe new life into Parker’s orderly existence.

An Unsuitable Job for A Woman by P.D. James (1977)

” ‘I should have thought that the job was –‘ Cordelia finished the sentence for him. ‘An unsuitable job for a woman?’ ‘ Not at all. Entirely suitable for a woman I should have thought, requiring infinite curiosity, infinite pains and a penchant for interfering.’ ” (100)

 

 

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Cambridge University, England.

I am a long-time fan of P.D. James mystery fiction (or, as she calls them, her “crime novels”) but up until this week, I have read only books within the Adam Dalgliesh series. While those are superb novels and every single one is well-worth a read, I found this novel (part of the “Cordelia Gray series,” of which there are only two books) to be refreshingly light and more energetic while still containing the signature intelligence and wit of James.  No doubt, the youthful air of the novels comes from the fact that their heroine is a young London woman running her own private investigation firm. Compared to her much more famous counterpart, Cordelia Gray has no weighty history to contend with nor any bothersome police procedures to adhere to. As a result, An Unsuitable Job For A Woman, presents us with a thrilling, fast-paced novel without the density of James’ other works.

Our short-lived heroine, Cordelia Gray, was a child raised in the British foster-care system who was forced to abandon her education during her high-school years, and as a result found finding work in 1970’s London rather challenging. A temporary typing gig turns into an apprenticeship with a shady PI who, upon his untimely death, leaves the business to Cordelia to run. Tough and scrappy after years of upheaval and poverty, Cordelia may be inexperienced in her new career, but her street-smarts and work-ethic make up for some of what she has yet to learn.

“Despite its look of deceptive youth it could be a secret, uncommunicative face. Cordelia had early learnt stoicism. All her foster parents, kindly and well-meaning in their different ways, had demanded one thing of her — that she should be happy. She had quickly learned that to show unhappiness was to risk the loss of love. Compared with this early discipline of concealment, all subsequent deceits had been easy.” (21)

Her first case comes just days after she inherits the struggling detective agency: a wealthy scientist of some distinction wants to hire Cordelia to investigate the reasons behind his adult son’s suicide. Cordelia, her client reasons, will more naturally fit in as she makes inquiries among his sons colleagues and classmates at Cambridge University. Soon Cordelia finds herself taking temporary (and free) lodgings in the very cottage where Mark Callendar took his life and mixing with the students and staff at the university.

Cordelia is determined to prove herself to her client, and more importantly to herself, that despite her age, gender, and lack of formal education, she can not only investigate the circumstances of his son’s death, but also hold her own among the elite academics and wealthy residents of the town and college. Indeed Cordelia soon finds her stoicism and keen observation skills allow her to mix with her peers, while insulating herself from their often causal cruelty and their dismissiveness of her based on her lack of social and academic standing.

Readers find Cordelia in 1970’s Cambridge, a time of loosening social mores and outright questioning of all authority figures. The educational formality that had reigned in Cambridge for hundreds of years was yielding to freer ideas about sex, drugs, religion, philosophy all while the students themselves were living without the supervision of previous generations.

“Cordelia was intrigued by the overt sexuality, she had thought intellectuals breathed too rarified air to be much interested in the flesh. Obviously this was a misapprehension. … She found herself intimidated by the underlying ruthlessness and the half-understood conventions of these tribal matings.” (98)

By befriending those who had been close to Mark, at wild parties and during punting trips down the river Cam, Cordelia begins to get a sense of the quiet, bookish young man who had undergone a recent revolution in his worldviews and had begun to questioned his place among the wealthy elite. Clue by clue, Cordelia retraces Mark’s steps to find just what led to this transformation and whether or not Mark learned something during his period of discovery led — not to his suicide — but to his murder.

A short, fun read for those who love a cozy PI mystery, told by a wonderful story-teller. If only PD James had found Cordelia interesting enough to fill more books!

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (2000)

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The Goblet of Fire at HP World.

As I have mentioned before, several times, on this blog: I am a Harry Potter fanatic. I love the books, — they remain my seven favorite books of all time — I love the movies, I love The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And I am not alone in my HP fandom: my husband, all our sons, and many members of my extended family are fans as well…this is why we have had not one but TWO family reunions at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Recently, my husband, our two oldest sons, and three of our neighbors formed a team — GO TEAM EXPELLIARUMS! — to compete in a series of Harry Potter Trivia contests. Last Sunday, our team placed fifth overall in the competition and we have advanced to the finals in March. The competition is not for the causal Harry Potter fan but rather the super, Super-Fans and the questions are obscure and complex. In preparation for this next round of trivia questions, our entire team is doing a deep dive into the Harry Potter books and films. My first assignment was to re-read and take detailed notes on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Year Four at Hogwarts). Over the past few days I have done just that and, being reminded once again of my love for this book, decided to blog about it.

For those of you who might not have read the Harry Potter books yet I must ask: what in the world are you waiting for? Go out right now and read the first book and have the second book ready…once you finish Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone you will want to immediately begin the second book. However, if you have not read the books yet, read no further as this post contains many spoilers from the book!

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the book in the seven-book series in which the wizarding world that Harry has become a part of expands exponentially — in size, in scope, in complexity, and in danger. The events that unfold in the fourth book force Harry to look beyond the small corner of the wizarding world that he has inhabited for the past three years and begin to seen just how vast it really is. Over the course of the year, Harry comes to understand that Hogwarts and the UK represent only a fraction of the global wizard and witch community, along with a menagerie of magical creatures that exist as well. There is an entire universe of magic — with its differing customs, laws, and practices — that Harry discovers exists and his world-view bursts wide open.

This expansion of knowledge begins in the opening chapters with Harry’s trip to the Quidditch World Cup Finals; an international sporting event that witches and wizards from across the globe come to England to attend. His experience at the match — both traveling there, attending the game, and the experience of being around 100,000 wizards — reveals the complex underpinnings of the wizarding bureaucracy which, until that point, Harry had only a vague sense. He realizes that the Ministry of Magic has a huge job keeping the wizarding world a secret from muggles under ordinary circumstances, and it faces an almost impossible challenge of keeping their world a secret under extraordinary ones. Harry is amazed the learn of the magic needed to make the Quidditch World Cup happen — to build the stadium, to repel muggles from the area, coordinate visitors from around the world — and is thrilled by the new kinds of magic he sees while at the World Cup.

The events that take place during and after the Quidditch World Cup match also expose Harry to the complexities within the Ministry of Magic. Various departments exist with unique and difficult jobs — from regulating magical creatures to enforcing laws to protecting muggles — that are all critical to keep the world Harry loves so much running smoothly and safely. The Ministry is revealed both through its successes and its failures during the novel and Harry learns that while it is a necessary institution, he cannot rely on its officials to always act in his best interest — he must do that for himself.

Also of note in this installment is the expanding world of magical creatures that co-exist with the wizards. Not only does Harry meet more magical creatures than ever, he also learns about the complicated relationships many of them — house-elfs, goblins, giants, and others — have with humans. Exploitation, racism, ignorance are all very real threats for these non-human creatures and Harry must face the fact that wizards often chose to oppress their counterparts, rather than embrace them.

When the action moves back to Hogwarts castle the spirit of international competition continues when it is announced that the Tri-Wizard Tournament, a seven-hundred year old tradition, will be held at the school. Immediately, Harry and his classmates embark on a year that is unlike the previous three. Not only will castle host students and teachers from two other European schools for the duration of the year; but the three tasks of the Tri-Wizard Cup competition will be a central focus for students. These disruptions seem thrilling at first, but when Harry is chosen — in violation of all the rules — to be a fourth champion in the Cup, he suddenly finds himself in the middle of an international scandal. Soon Harry is caught up in whirlwind of espionage, cheating, deception, and danger.

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Tri-Wizard Cup at HP World, Universal FL.

Harry’s world, although never ordinary or boring, suddenly becomes much more sinister and the distant threat of death at the hands of his enemy, Lord Voldemort, grows into a much more real possibility as the year passes. Book four marks the first time that Harry must face his battles — real and imagined — on his own. As a Tri-Wizard cup competitor he is barred from receiving help from anyone and he must compete alone. It is brought home for Harry that he must shoulder the very real, very adult responsibility of taking care of those around him. He must be careful not to reveal his godfather’s whereabouts to the Ministry; he must reach out to the other competitors to warn them of danger; he must represent his school and his country in the competition; and he must protect the relationship he has built with his best friend Ron when it is threatened by rumors and jealousies. All of that pales in comparison, however, to the responsibility Harry must face in the book’s concluding chapters: he must face Lord Voldemort and his supporters and fight for his life. When he is successful, he must shoulder the burden of telling the world of the Dark Lord’s return…even when no one wants to believe it can be true.

I would be remiss in not adding one more concluding sentiment: Hermione Granger once again establishes herself as one of the most influential characters in the series. Her role as an advisor, an advocate, a caretaker, a researcher, and a brilliant teacher is critical to Harry’s success in the tournament and, it has to be argued, his ability to escape Voldemort with his life. Although Harry, as the titular character, is alone when he battles hand-to-hand with Voldemort and his supporters, it is the knowledge he learns from Hermione that allows him to survive. She is, in my opinion, the single most important factor in Harry’s many successes.

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Hermione’s dress to Yule Ball, at HP World, Universal.

All the photos are from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, in Orlando, Florida.

Island of Glass by Nora Roberts (2016)

Book #3 in The Guardians trilogy. A review of Book #1 of The Guardians trilogy can be found here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-2K  (Note: Although I read it, I did not post a review of Book 2.)

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Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland

 

 

Readers who follow this blog are well aware that I love Nora Roberts. After first discovering her as a teenager, I have been an unabashed fan of her work since then and I have read — although people often doubt me! — every single one of her more than two hundred and seventy-five books. Nora Roberts consistently delivers exactly what I want in a romance novel (or, in the case of her JD Robb books: a science-fiction murder-mystery) and always ties up every single storyline, just in time, with a happy ending.

All that praise aside, I have to admit that I do not like this most recent trilogy. The books have some of the elements of her books that I do love: a steamy romance between two sexy consenting adults; a great supporting cast of characters; an enviously luxurious setting; and a larger story of being on a quest — in this case, to save the world. Somehow, though, the story feels lacking in some indefinable element. After some thought, I have decided that she has written past stories that are similar to these but also better than these and, by comparison, I find The Guardians lacking. Not terrible, not unreadable…but somehow less than her supernatural-fantasy-romance best.

SPOILER ALERT: If you continue to read this post, I might spoil some secrets that are revealed in books one and two. As always, I strongly suggest that you read every book series in order! (Side note: some of this material appeared in my blog review of book #1 http://wp.me/p6N6mT-2K )

Officially classified as a romance, the book actually belongs in the sub-genre of supernatural romance, of which Roberts has written more than a few novels. The story of Stars of Fortune follows six gifted young people — Bran, Sasha, Riley, Sawyer, Doyle, and Annika — who come together to complete an epic quest searching for three priceless jewels, the Stars of Fortune, that have been hidden on earth by three goddesses from a distant world. They must learn to live, search, and fight as a team in the hopes of finding the jewels and of defeating the evil sorceress who is searching for them herself.  All six of the characters are all supernaturally gifted: Riley is a bright archaeologist and a Lycan; Sawyer is a time-traveler; Doyle is a weapons-wielding immortal; Sasha is a seer; Bran is a wizard; and Annika is a mermaid brought to the surface for a short time to help the others.

In Island of Glass, we find our heroes newly arrived at the final destination on their quest: a mansion on the coast of Ireland. Here, surrounded by sumptuous furnishings and gorgeous scenery, they begin the work of locating the last Star of Fortune. Using a combination of ancient texts, excursions to remote parts of Ireland, and magic, the team grows closer and closer to finding the Star. Along the way, they learn that a much deeper magic than simple friendship has linked them together and — of course — the final two characters, Doyle and Riley, fall in love.

Even though I do not always love supernatural and fantasy romance novels, I still have loved some of Robert’s previous books in that genre (see two suggestions below.) This time, however, things just seem super-supernatural, to the point of being silly: distant planets, hidden parallel worlds, everyone a supernatural being, everyone on a life and death quest to save the world; and there is still time for a lot of steamy sex!  Oddly, even with all that going on, there is still quite a bit of the novel dedicated to domesticity. Every time the action slows, there are discussions of who’s doing the dishes and whose turn it is to do the laundry. While I applaud Roberts’s attempt to address the issue of shared work between the men and women, at times it gets to be too much of the plot.

Those criticisms aside: Roberts’s book is populated with likable characters and her signature romantic story-arc is, as always, nice to read. The simple fact is this: she has written similar stories before that make Stars of Fortune seem less than her best.

Among the similar books that Roberts has written, there are several I would recommend in place of Stars of Fortune. If you are in search of supernatural romance, try Three Sisters Island trilogy which follows three witches who must use their powers to stop an dark, menacing presence haunting their beloved island. If you like the idea of a story about six people fated to fight evil together, a better read is the Signs of Seven trilogy which finds a group of six living and working together to defeat the ghost that infects the residents of their town every summer.  If you prefer traditional romances rather than supernatural stories, try The Reef (a stand alone novel) and The Chesapeake Bay Saga (four books told by four male narrators). Reviews of many, many of her books can be found by clicking the Tag “Nora Roberts,” on the right hand side of the main page of this website.

Find a list of all her series, including the ones I mentioned, here http://noraroberts.com/trilogies-and-series/