Hell On Wheels: Done

Hell On Wheels has come to the end of the road, with a final episode full of choices, endings, and new beginnings. (And this post is full of spoilers, so if you haven’t yet watched the finale, go watch it now.)

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“Done” (Durant’s one-word message to the rest of the nation) was an episode of human drama, without the raw violence and death that has marked so much of the series. Quiet conversations between Cullen Bohannon and Eva, Governor Campbell, Durant, George Armstrong Custer, and President Grant carried much of the story, settling old questions and raising new options.

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The transcontinental railroad itself, of course, was completed (in episode 13, “Railroad Men”), and “Done” opened with Durant and Huntington bickering over who would drive the Golden Spike. Durant won that argument, but things went downhill for him from then on, as he was indicted and sent back to Washington to stand trial on charges of bribery and corruption. We already knew, from a previous flash-forward (or from Wikipedia), that Doc Durant’s life ended in poverty and disgrace, but Hell On Wheels ended with his passionate defense of his building of the railroad. (Colm Meaney’s performance throughout the series has been magnificent: Durant was sleazy but determined, climbing back from every defeat, both mentor and foil to Bohannon.)

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The Golden Spike Ceremony (from AMC.com)

The Golden Spike Ceremony (from AMC.com)

Eva Toole (one of my favorite characters throughout the series), who has survived everything a hard life could throw at her, tells Cullen that she left her Mohave family long ago to protect them from the white men determined to take her back. When Louise Ellison and her editor offer Eva the chance to write a book and set out on a lecture tour (as Olive Oatman, the inspiration for Eva’s backstory, actually did), Eva agrees, but she weeps when she tries to describe her Mohave family and realizes she can’t live with a version of her story dramatized for the public. She won’t be a victim—or another sort of whore. Instead, she cashes out her share of Mickey’s business, tames her white horse, and rides off into the west, perhaps in search of her past with the Mohave, perhaps the only time she was truly happy.

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Cullen wakes up with a hangover and a piece of silk with Mei’s last message, an address (he learns from an equally hungover Chinese foreman) in Ningpo, China. He stumbles to Mickey’s makeshift saloon and, while Durant and Huntington are driving the Golden Spike, starts a bar brawl that ends in laughter when Governor Campbell (now Secretary of the Interior) comes looking for him with a subpoena to testify against Durant back in Washington. In the capital, Cullen (in evening dress!) is offered a commission by President Grant to lead the 4th Cavalry in protecting the railroad he has built.

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Despite his reservations (“I’m no Indian killer”), he decides to accept the commission (he also has a job waiting with Huntington to build the Southern Pacific, if he wants it), and he appears at Durant’s trial in uniform. There he refuses to throw Durant under the train, insisting that without Durant, the railroad could never have been built.

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Custer and Bohannon (from AMC.com)

Custer and Bohannon (from AMC.com)

A conversation—punctuated by target practice—with George Armstrong Custer shakes Cullen’s decision to return to soldiering. Custer’s delight in killing Indians (and raping Indian women) is exactly the attitude Cullen has tried so hard to leave behind. Still in uniform, he visits the very church in which he began the murderous trail of revenge that brought him to Hell On Wheels in the first place, sees the bullet hole he made in the confessional when he killed a man there, and breaks into tears. “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you.”

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No more killing. Cullen leaves the uniform behind and heads west, taking the train to San Francisco, on a track that exists in large part because of his efforts. No more railroad work, either. Instead (as I hoped, and to the delight of my romance-writer’s heart), he boards a ship to China, following Mei.

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I will miss Hell On Wheels (and perhaps one day will watch it again, all the way through), and I’m sorry to see it end, but I think the writers and actors did an excellent job of bringing the epic to a close and giving the survivors the endings—and opportunities—they had earned.

Tara Holloway Is Back

Tara Holloway, gun-toting Special Agent of the IRS, returns in Diane Kelly’s latest novel, Death, Taxes, and a Satin Garter, and she’s just as feisty—and funny—as ever.

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Death Taxes and a Satin GarterIn this outing, Tara is investigating Flo Cash, owner of a small radio station carrying financial advice shows, including her own Flo Cash Cash Flow Show. Trouble is, Flo Cash’s own cash flow seems to be pretty nearly nonexistent, and Tara can’t figure out how Flo supports her lavish lifestyle without so much as a checking account to her name. She sure isn’t following the advice she gives her listeners. Tara knows there’s something else going on, but what?

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One case won’t be enough to keep our Tara busy. When three intelligent—and somewhat embarrassed—women turn up looking for help cornering the online catfisher who scammed them for two grand apiece, Tara takes a personal interest. She’s an IRS agent, and six grand in unreported income isn’t exactly a major case. But where there are three victims, maybe there are more, and Tara, with help from colleagues Josh Schmidt (the office computer whiz) and Special Agent Hana Kim, sets out to track down the illusive “Jack Smirnoff,” although her activities as catfish bait don’t sit well with her boyfriend, Special Agent Nick Pratt.

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But the Satin Garter of the title has nothing to do with either of Tara’s investigations. Tara’s BFF, Alicia, is getting married on Sunday, and Tara is neck-deep in helping with wedding preparations—and wondering about her own marital prospects.

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Death, Taxes, and a Satin Garter is the tenth in Kelly’s delightful series, with new cases, great characters, and a wild bachelorette party. I enjoyed it immensely. Many thanks to the folks at St. Martins and Net Galley for giving me an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. The book will be available at your favorite bookseller on August 2.

More SF Romance from Veronica Scott

Star Cruise: Outbreak continues Veronica Scott’s Sector Hub series with another tale of disaster on a cruise ship. Dr. Emily Shane, retired military surgeon with PTSD, has certainly never thought of working as a cruise Star Cruise Outbreakship doctor; she prefers keeping as busy as possible in the emergency rooms of her home planet, Harilon. But when an old friend of her father’s needs a replacement on short notice, Emily finds herself dragooned. It doesn’t hurt that Jake Dilon, the ship’s head of security who comes to escort her to the Nebula Zephyr, is a sympathetic fellow veteran.

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I’m not giving much away in saying that an unexpected, and unknown, disease strikes the ship, turning Emily’s near-vacation assignment into a struggle for survival. Emily works to solve the medical mystery with help from an assortment of passengers and crew, not the least of which is Maeve, the Ship’s Artificial Intelligence, herself a military veteran.

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I enjoy Scott’s novels because she delivers solid science fiction adventure with romance. Her characters develop their bonds while working together through tough situations. Star Cruise: Outbreak can certainly be read as a stand-alone story, but it also refers to events and characters from The Wreck of the Nebula Dream and Star Cruise: Marooned. (I enjoyed a few little genre references, too, including a chief engineer named Takkei, and Emily’s remark, “I’m a doctor, not a film agent.”)

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Hostage to the Stars can also be read as a stand-alone, as I just did, but it also brings back characters from Scott’s Mission to Mahjundar, which I haven’t read yet (but it’s waiting on my Kindle, along with Escape from Zulaire—can you tell I really enjoy Scott’s Sector Hub stories?). This tale begins on a freighter ship carrying aHostage to the Stars few passengers, including Sara Bridges, an archivist with little travel experience and no Kidnap & Ransom insurance. When pirates strike the ship, they carry Sara off, along with a high value hostage.

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Johnny Danvers, retired from the Sectors service, joins the rescue mission so that his cousin won’t have to; he has run missions to the pirate planet and expects that the worst he’ll have to deal with is the resentment of the rest of the team. But when the team retrieves the hostage and leaves Sara behind, Johnny stays behind to find her. And that’s only the beginning of their problems.

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I definitely recommended Veronica Scott’s fast-paced Sector Hub novels for anyone who enjoys science fiction romance toward the SF end of the spectrum.

Lark Brennan: Irresistibly Yours

Irresistibly Yours is the second installment in Lark Brennan’s fascinating Durand Chronicles (after Dangerously Yours), romantic suspense with more than a touch of the paranormal.

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Irresistibly YoursWhen Tate Fulbright wanders into a shop in Paris, looking for an entomological collection she’d heard about from her scientist mother, she finds instead an amazing collection of taxidermied animals, as well as Adrien Durand, who seems just as amazing to a girl from Indiana, in the City of Light for a pharmaceutical convention. But despite her inexperience with the high society and wealth that Durand represents, Tate isn’t just another tourist from Indianapolis. She communicates with animals at a deep level, hears voices in her head, feels the emotions of the crowds around her, and has no idea where these abilities—or disabilities—come from.

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Adrien Durand, head of the far-flung Durand clan and its many commercial and charitable interests, doesn’t know where Tate’s talents come from, either, and that worries him. Is she a wild talent, or someone sent to spy on the Durands by one of the other psychic clans, some shaky allies, some outright enemies. For the Durands and their counterparts fight a long and continuing battle to either protect or enslave the ordinaires of the world.

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Adrien finds himself increasingly attracted to Tate, but his responsibilities—and his family—throw barriers between them. Tate has her doubts, too, tossed as she is into a world she never suspected and doesn’t understand. But Adrien’s world may hold the answers to the mysteries in her head, and give her a new purpose in life—if they can both survive.

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The world of the Durands, with its wide array of psychic powers, Protectors and Dissemblers, and family connections—and secrets—going back generations, expands with each installment. I’m looking forward to the next one.

Sarah Andre: Tall, Dark, & Damaged

Tall, Dark & Damaged, Sarah Andre’s second romantic suspense novel (after Locked, Loaded, & Lying) is even better than her first. Her damaged hero, Devon Ashby, has returned to Chicago for the first time in twelve years, since he ran from his wealthy but highly dysfunctional family to build his own life—and his own successful real estate development firm—in New York City. He expects to sign for the trust fund left him by his long dead mother and return to his wealthy and socially active fiancee in short order.

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Tall Dark and DamagedHe doesn’t expect the shocking surprise his vengeful father has for him, which may spell the destruction of everything Devon has worked for.

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When Devon left Chicago, he left his high school sweetheart, Hannah Moore, behind, never quite understanding why she refused to go with him, cutting himself off from her as well as from his family, even dropping his father’s name, Wickham, for his mother’s, Ashby. Running into Hannah, now the owner of an art restoration firm, in his father’s house working to repair damage down by an unexplained fire, is as big a shock, and as disturbing, as anything his father has threatened.

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Tall, Dark & Damaged weaves the never-quite-forgotten relationship between Devon and Hannah with complicated business dealings and long buried family secrets. As Hannah fights to hold on to her business and provide a home for her aged and ailing aunt, Devon struggles to understand the feelings and reactions of Hannah, his siblings, and his father, both of them caught in a web of emotions anchored far in the past.

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Andre does a fine job of painting characters for whom the tragedies of the past and the struggles of the present combine to force them into situations that seem to have no solutions. Love may conquer all, but it has quite a fight to get there in Tall, Dark & Damaged.

Cozy Mysteries

Follow the Dotted Line by Nancy Hersage is a very entertaining cozy mystery, and I enjoyed it immensely. Andrea Bravos is a woman of a certain age (fairly close to my own, which is a nice change), probably over the hill by the standards of her screen writing career, wondering what the rest of her life holds, when that life is shaken up by the arrival of her ex-husband’s ashes. In a styrofoam burger box.

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Follow the Dotted LineAndy is determined, for reasons that aren’t clear even to her, to find out exactly what happened to the late father of her four grown children. The kids don’t much care. The widow who sent the ashes sent nothing else but a tersely worded demand that no one bother her about it. But Andy wants to know.

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The mystery surrounding the ashes is clever and well plotted, but what I enjoyed most about the book was the characters. Andy is determined, smart, and a bit snarky. Her kids are individuals, wildly different but still believable as siblings. Her CPA buddy fills in the blanks. And Andy’s teen-aged nephew, Harley Davidson (yes, and there’s a reason for that), dumped on her by her hippy sister, is a real piece of work, a dim bulb with remarkable flashes of brilliance.

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Follow the Dotted Line is full of sharp, snarky writing and interesting side trails, and it pulled me right in. I was given a copy in exchange for an honest review, and I’ll sum that up by saying that when the next Andrea Bravos mystery comes out, I’ll snap it up.

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I enjoyed the first book in Julie Mulhern’s Country Club Murders series (The Deep End, set in Kansas City in the 1970s), but I think Guaranteed to Bleed is even better—I know I could hardly put it down. Ellison Guaranteed to Bleedand her daughter Grace are faced with some real dilemmas in this one, and the humor is balanced by some serious issues. Ellison’s mother is as insufferable as ever—but Ellison uses a few of the tricks she learned from Frances to good effect.

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As soon as I finished Guaranteed to Bleed, I downloaded the third book, Clouds in My Coffee, and it’s just as good as the first two. I’ve never lived in Country-Club-Land myself, but Mulhern does a wonderful job of bringing it to life. I do remember 1974, and she does a great job with that, too.

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Clouds in My CoffeeIn this adventure, it appears that someone is trying to kill Ellison, and she has no idea why, much less who. But Anarchy Jones is there to worry about her, and give her a ride home from the hospital now and then. Ellison’s aunt Sis turns out to be as formidable in her own way as Ellison’s mother, and then there’s Ellison’s sister Marjorie. And a fire bomb, and a duck pond, and a couple of disastrous parties.

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If you like cozy mystery with a significant helping of snark, you’ll love this series.

Hell On Wheels: Two Soldiers

Hell On Wheels returned last night with the first of its last seven episodes, this one nearly a two-man show. Warning: There Will Be Spoilers Here.

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Instead of the Hatch homestead, where Cullen Bohannon and Thor Gunderson were headed when we last saw them nearly a year ago, Two Soldiers opens in a Union Army camp in 1863, with a cheerful young officer playing a harmonica as his fellows laugh and sing. A young man, with a full head of dark hair, the camp’s quartermaster. Yes, it’s Gunderson.

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In the next scenes, Gunderson ages by decades in the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville. Now mockingly called Swede by the prison guards, Gunderson has lost everything, from his beloved harmonica to the basic rules of humanity. We have a glimpse of how a young man from Norway becomes the odious Swede we have hated for five years.

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photo credit AMC.COM

photo credit AMC.COM

By the time Bohannon reaches the Hatch homestead, the Swede has killed or wounded everyone but Naomi and baby William; he chases them into the woods, Bohannon following. Over the course of the episode, Bohannon, with a bullet in his leg, resists the temptation to drown the Swede, to shoot him, to let him die by snake bite, or to leave him to die in the desert. When Naomi asks him why he doesn’t just kill the man, Bohannon insists he will see the Swede hang for his multitude of crimes.

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After a harrowing two-day journey across the desert to a small army camp, Bohannon receives medical care and the Swede receives a legitimate trial (conducted while Bohannon is unconscious, but after he’s told the Army commander enough to investigate the homestead and bring in a judge from Salt Lake).

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The Swede’s hanging, witnessed by Bohannon, is gruesome indeed, mirroring the last struggles of the snake Bohannon killed in the desert. No courteous professional executioner or well-built trap door gallows (as was provided for Ruth) here, just a crossbar, a noose, and enough soldiers to haul the Swede up and let him strangle to death, with all the hideous details. Yes, this time he’s really dead.

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When we first met Bohannon, at the beginning of the series, he was killing a man in cold blood, in a church, in revenge for the deaths of his wife and child during the war. He has pursued the Swede for years, as the Swede has pursued him. He has more than enough personal reasons for revenge against the man who killed Lily Bell just to spite Bohannon. But when the time finally comes, Bohannon wants public justice more than he wants personal revenge.

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How much did the Swede contribute to that change of heart? Sane or mad, the Swede has functioned as a bizarre conscience as well as a villain, as Bohannon’s mirror as well as his opposite. There was, after all, a human being inside the Swede, driven mad, perhaps, by the war, ruthless, manipulative, as hard to kill as Rasputin. His last words? “I am Thor Gunderson from Norway.”

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The episode left me wondering why Christopher Heyerdahl (who has won many Canadian acting awards) hasn’t won an Emmy for this stunning five-season performance. Maybe this year.

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