Fiction may be the lie that tells the truth, but sometimes that truism runs headlong into another, the one thatOriginally published at Reading Reality
Fiction may be the lie that tells the truth, but sometimes that truism runs headlong into another, the one that goes, “The truth is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we CAN imagine.” Fiction has to actually feel plausible, or it turns the willing suspension of disbelief into the unwilling, and bounces the reader out of the story. Nonfiction doesn’t have to be plausible, it just has to be true.
The history of The Marriage Bureau is one of those stories that would feel a bit too contrived if it were fiction. But it isn’t. Fictional, that is. It still feels a bit contrived, but because it actually did happen, the reader ends up marveling at human nature in all its sometimes crazy variety (much as the proprietors did) instead of picking apart the characters.
Because if these folks weren’t real, we’d all be sure it was a bit too good or too strange to be true. Mostly strange.
Not bad strange, just, well, people.
In 1939, both Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver had dipped their toes into the marital well, and come out either scalded or completely tepid. Heather was divorced and Mary hadn’t found anyone she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Or even more than few weeks with.
It was Mary’s Uncle George who suggested the idea that became the Marriage Bureau. Providing a registry for people who were looking for spouses, and using interviews, common sense and intuition to match people up, had the possibility of providing both young women with both an independent income and a purpose in life, allowing them to remain single and independent of their families while providing a much needed service.
A service that was much more needed than either of them anticipated. From their very first day the line for interviews went down the stairs from their rented office and practically out the door of the building, three stories below.
The story in The Marriage Bureau is that of the first ten years of the Bureau, a period that encompasses the end of Empire, the Phoney War, the London Blitz and the years of post-war rationing. Through it all, Londoners and many others crossed the threshold of the Marriage Bureau, hoping that the ladies of the Bureau could do for them what they had not managed to do for themselves, find a congenial and suitable spouse.
One of the fascinating things about the way that the Bureau worked was that, unlike many British institutions, particularly of that era, it was not restricted to class. The fees were modest, and structured so that it was in the agency’s best interest to find each client a spouse who would suit them, not anyone else’s ideas for them.
Yes, most people were looking for someone of their own class, or close to it, but the Bureau had clients of every class and station from working to landed to titled and all the gradations in between. Just as today, those who are too busy making a living or caring for others or a combination of the above are often too busy, too shy or both to put themselves out where they have a chance at finding a life-partner.
And for the women who ran the Bureau over that decade (and beyond) it was a labor of love. And a rousing success.
Reality Rating B: The story in The Marriage Bureau is episodic rather than a continual narrative. The story dips into the lives, loves and ambitions of the people who came the Bureau as clients, rather than delving deeply into the lives of its proprietors and agents. Although the years of the London Blitz are part of the story, we read more of the Blitz’s impact on people’s lives and their desire to marry than we follow any one person’s story.
Being a series of dips rather than a deep dive, the story is not a compelling read. One isn’t riveted, wanting to see what happens next, because the narrative doesn’t follow individuals in the way that compels. However, and it is a very big however in this case, it is both easy to dip into and out of, and the story as a whole is quite charming. Even the more “interesting” and less matchable clients get their due. And while there is a certain amount of shared laughter at some clients’ wilder expectations, every client and their story are treated with respect, sometimes including a direct “talking to” about just how wild their expectations might be. And sometimes they are very wild, whether for self-aggrandizement, out of self-absorption, or, on occasion, out of sympathy and hope.
It isn’t all sweetness and light. There are a few stories where the clients tipped over (or barged over) the line, and got shown the door. There is one haunting story of parental interference in what should have been a happily ever after. And, of course, life happens. The war brings an end to some marriages, and the peace brings an end to a few more. Some merely grieve, but some return in the hopes of striking lucky a second time.
In the end, this is a story of two women and the execution of one great idea. And it’s a story that shows that there is someone out there for everyone, even if we occasionally need a little help with the looking....more
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Nanny Arrangement. As much as I love the friends-to-lovers trope, theOriginally published at Reading Reality
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Nanny Arrangement. As much as I love the friends-to-lovers trope, there are a whole lot of other factors in this story that generally drive me crazy, and certainly did this time. And I liked the damn thing anyway!
The Nanny Arrangement is right on the cusp between New Adult and Contemporary Romance. The protagonists are both 20-somethings, and are still figuring out what they want out of life. They also fumble quite a bit along their way.
This is really Hannah’s story. She has come back from a year-long stay in Paris as an au pair to initiate Operation Find My Happy. It’s not that Hannah doesn’t know where her happy is, it’s that she isn’t sure she can manage to grab it. Because Hannah has been in love with Deacon Lattrell for ten years now, and he doesn’t seem to see her as anything more than a friend. Admittedly his best friend in the whole universe, but still, firmly and seemingly irrevocably, stuck in the dreaded friend zone.
But as much as Hannah loves being Deke’s friend, as well as the surrogate mother to his young son Max, Hannah just plain loves Deke, and always has. But Hannah has always hidden herself away in baggy clothes and in the fringes of any group, and it is possible that Deke simply hasn’t seen her as she really is. And that he never got past spending high school defending Hannah from all the schoolyard cruelty inflicted on her as a red-headed girl with a stutter who wore slightly old-fashioned clothes. She was the class freak, and Deke was her lone defender.
There’s plenty of love there, but it isn’t exactly the kind of love that Hannah wants or needs. Running away to Paris didn’t cure her of her embarrassingly unrequited love for Deke, so putting herself out there and making him see her may not work either, but she has to try before she has a chance at moving on.
That’s where the fun begins. Deke is the latest member of the country rock group Blue. The band has been established for years, but they needed a new fiddle-player and Deke has turned out to be it. But Deke doesn’t travel without little Max, and that’s where Hannah steps in. The band needs a live-in nanny on tour, not just for Max but also for the lead singer’s little girl Stella. So just as Deke is on a trial contract as their fiddler for the length of their US tour, Hannah is on a trial contract as their nanny.
In the enforced intimacy of a small group on tour in not-nearly-big-enough buses, Hannah has the chance to open Deke’s eyes. It’s not her fault that as soon as he opens them, the idiot slams them shut again. He wants only the absolute best for Hannah, and he’s sure that’s not him. Not that he’s actually asked her what she wants. Of course not.
He’s an idiot, but while plumbing the vast depths of his idiocy he finally gets smart enough to put on some really excellent grovel to get back the girl he’s always loved.
Escape Rating B+: Throw the tropes New Adult Romance, Rock Star Romance, Friends-to-Lovers, I’m Not Worthy, and Misunderstandammit into a blender, mix with Operation Find My Happy, and come up with a story that in spite of its flaws still makes the reader finish with a big smile.
I say this because I find that I’m hit or miss with New Adult, and very much down on both I’m Not Worthy and the Misunderstandammit. Combining the trope where the hero kicks the heroine to the curb because he’s certain she’s too good for him, and mixing it with the trope where so many of their issues could be solved if they just talked with each other instead of past each other once in awhile does not make for this reader’s favorite frustration.
What redeemed a whole lot of these two issues was that, unusual for romance, Deke put on very good grovel to make up for his errors. Not that Hannah wasn’t going to take him back anyway, but not just Deke but all the guys in the story were conscious that Deke had screwed up big time and needed to make up for it even bigger time.
It was great not to see the guy get a hall pass on this.
But it was Hannah’s Operation Find My Happy that made the story for me. She’s not sure how to get what she wants, and she’s certainly not sure that she’ll get what she wants, but she has internalized the mantra about only getting a different result by taking a different action. Along with the realization that the whole unrequited longing thing just wasn’t working for her. She needed to get on or get over, and she hadn’t found a way to get over so it was time to get on with pursuing what she wanted, even if she lost.
I also loved the way that both the friendships among the women and the friendships among the men developed organically over the story. Expanding their respective circles was something that both Deke and Hannah desperately needed to do, even if neither of them saw it.
And we do see where Deke and Hannah came from, and just how and why they ended up in the pickle that they are in. And we’re thrilled when Hannah’s courage and Deke’s excellent grovel finally locate Hannah’s (and Deke’s and Max’s) happy....more
I really enjoyed the beginning of this book. It was an interesting set up to a slightly off-beat Sherlock HolmeOriginally published at Reading Reality
I really enjoyed the beginning of this book. It was an interesting set up to a slightly off-beat Sherlock Holmes read-alike, with an even more eccentric Holmes and a female Watson who is not a doctor. On the one hand, their respective eccentricities make Jesperson and Lane closer to partners from the beginning. On that other hand, it also begins as a kind of tweak of the nose at Conan Doyle, because Aphrodite Lane becomes a detective after discovering that her friend and employer Gabrielle Fox, who is supposed to be a skeptical investigator for the Society for Psychical Research, is every bit as much of a fraud and a trickster as every medium they have ever investigated.
Miss Lane is willing to believe, but she wants empirical evidence. Evidence that doesn’t involve secret hooks and pulleys under the table. And I applauded her for that.
But about halfway through, The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief turned into the most infuriating book I have read in a long time, perhaps ever.
I fully realize that sentence requires a bit more explanation.
At the beginning of the story, as Jesperson and Lane get started in their consulting detective business, the setting seems to be the same Victorian London as the Holmes and Watson stories. (There is a tip of the hat to Holmes as a fictional character they are both familiar with). There was, at that time, quite a bit of exploration of and belief in the supernatural, and frauds abounded.
Conan Doyle, in spite of his invention of that most rational detective, Holmes, was himself a great believer in spiritualism (and fairies!). Harry Houdini, formerly one of Conan Doyle’s great friends, practically had a second career as a debunker of mediums and psychic phenomena. Their friendship broke over this fundamental difference of belief.
When the first case is presented to Jesperson and Lane, that of the sleepwalking, Mr. Creavey (in other words, the somnambulist) they are looking for a logical and rational explanation. Which Jesperson eventually finds. Someone is controlling Mr. Creavey through a post-hypnotic suggestion.
And while psychic phenomena are bunk, hypnosis is a well-known and reproducible technique.
And this is where the story goes completely off the rails. At least for this reader. Because the so far rational and redoubtable Miss Lane, who is telling the story in the first-person, becomes completely irrational on the subject of hypnotism and hypnosis, when it is obvious to both Jesperson and to the reader that Miss Lane has herself been hypnotized. The only question yet to be completely resolved is whether her hypnotist is the same as Mr. Creavey’s, but even at the outset it seems all too likely. It would be much too coincidental, in the best detectival tradition, for there to be two different hypnotists involved in the same case.
Whether hypnosis works exactly as portrayed in the story is questionable, but it certainly does work and does exist to a significant extent. That the amount of control the hypnotist has over his victims seems rather greater than is considered the norm feels like it falls within the spectrum of fiction.
But it gets worse. While the formerly rational Miss Lane descends into risible irrationality, what drove this reader off the edge into fury was that the story seemed to change its basic premise. While throughout the book it seems to be part of the historical Victorian era, when mostly gullible or desperate people believed in spiritualism but it was not proven, the ending of the story requires that this setting become a world in which psychic phenomena are real and functional.
In other words, we began in rationality and ended with magic, with no explanation for how the basic way that the world works seems to have flipped on its head.
Escape Rating C-: I did finish, which gets the C grade. And I’m still thinking about the book, and still furious, which also keeps it in the C category. But, but and very definitely but. I am so disappointed. What read like a very promising start descended so far on so many levels. Miss Lane’s descent in particular, from rational action to idiocy was particularly galling, especially as we view the story from inside her head.
I enjoy stories where magic works. I love urban fantasy. But if that’s the case, it needs to be established, or at least hinted at, from the beginning. That’s not what happened here. And yes, I’m aware that some of the promotional materials delve a bit into the supernatural aspects, but a) promotional materials don’t always represent the work in hand, b) the switch between absolute belief in rationality to confirmed belief in “magic” is not even subtext in the actual text, and 3) the point-of-view character still changes from an interesting and rational being to a complete idiot.
Color me extremely disappointed. And very, very annoyed....more
The Scribe of Siena is a time-travel whodunnit, or possibly howdunnit, wrapped inside a romance, and filled witOriginally published at Reading Reality
The Scribe of Siena is a time-travel whodunnit, or possibly howdunnit, wrapped inside a romance, and filled with plenty of scrumptious details on life in Medieval Italy, just before it all went pear-shaped.
Beatrice Trovato begins the story as a 21st century neurosurgeon, and ends it as a 14th century scribe. That’s quite a journey, and the beauty of the story is all in how she gets there.
We begin with Beatrice at her home in New York, just beginning to think that her career, while it has its compensations, is also consuming her life. She seems to be on 24/7, because even when she gets a rare day off, there’s always someone who desperately needs her life-saving skills.
Beatrice has a gift, not just for neurosurgery, but also for empathy. She occasionally just “knows” what’s wrong with a patient before the alarms start going off. She’s also more than a little too wrapped up in her work.
And then everything changes. Her beloved brother dies in Siena, Italy, of a heart attack. She’s always known that Ben had a congenital condition, but she also thought they’d have more time. Time she never seemed to make because of her demanding calling.
But Ben was in the middle of his own calling. He was a scholar who tracked the course of medieval epidemics. And he was looking at something potentially groundbreaking about the spread of the Black Death in Siena in the 1300s.
Now he’s dead, and Beatrice finally takes that often imagined trip to Siena to deal with his estate, and possibly pick up the pieces of his research.
The chase enthralls her. Beatrice, who almost followed Ben into historical research, revives long-abandoned skills, and finds herself caught up in the hunt. She falls in love, both with the city of Siena and with its storied, and possibly contentious, past.
And on the hunt for Ben’s elusive quarry, she finds the diary of a 14th century painter who lived at the time of Ben’s research, and may have left behind clues to the mystery. But more than anything else, Gabriele Accorsi imbued his diary with a sense of himself. A sense that Beatrice’s empathy grabs onto and uses to propel her back through time, to Gabriele’s side.
There she must make a life for herself, a lone woman in a medieval city, while she desperately hopes that she can find a way back to her own time before the quite literal oncoming Plague reaches Siena.
But instead of finding a way out, she finds a way of life that fulfills her as the 21st century never has. As she falls in love with both the man and the place, she fears that all is already lost. The Black Death is coming for Siena, and there is nothing she can do to stop it, or to protect those she loves.
Time travel always involves a bit of handwavium, and this book is no exception. That aspect of the story reminded me of Household Gods, where a commonplace object facilitates the time travel back. And also a bit of Somewhere in Time, where a common object of the modern era draws the protagonist forward again.
But the harrowing description of the time travel experience itself feels drawn straight from Outlander, as do the romantic aspects of the story. Beatrice, like Clare, is accidentally pulled back into the past and forced to make a way for herself against seemingly impossible odds. Where Clare marries to provide herself safety, Beatrice finds work as a scribe. It’s a career that both provides a reasonable living and causes trouble. Much as Clare does.
Beatrice also falls in love, but the relationship between Gabriele and Beatrice is very slow-building. She may be a 21st century woman, but he is a man of his times. He loves and respects her, and therefore wants things done properly, even if they must wait for all of the ceremonies to finally take place.
Ironically, even though both Doomsday Book and Scribe of Siena feature a heroine who goes back to the time of the Black Death, the way that the plague is handled is very different. In the Doomsday Book the heroine lives through the Plague in all its heartbreaking detail, and that’s where a lot of the empathy in that story comes from. In Scribe, the heroine escapes the Plague by accidentally sending herself back to the future where modern medicine can cure her. She returns to 14th century Siena in the winter after the Plague has temporarily passed, and is now immune. But she doesn’t experience the cataclysmic deaths first-hand.
The other piece of the puzzle in this story is the historical mystery, which is more of a historical conspiracy theory. The Black Death hit Siena especially hard, even for an epidemic which cut the population of Europe in half. The theory that Ben Trovato was attempting to prove was that political forces deliberately sent Plague carriers to Siena in an attempt to break the back of this ascendant city and let a different one rise in its place. It’s a fascinating idea, and Beatrice finds herself on the wrong side of powerful figures in both the 14th and 21st centuries as she strives to prove what happened. It gives us a glimpse of both 14th century power politics and 21st century academic politics, and while both are fascinating, neither are pretty.
In the end, whether readers will fall in love with this story rests with Beatrice. It is her perspective that we follow from the 21st century to the 14th, and it is through her eyes that we see this brave, old world. I felt for her journey, and in the end I believed I understood why she made the choices that she did. If you do too, you will love this book....more
I wonder how close Burning Cove is to Scargill Cove?
Amanda Quick writes historical romantic suspense, Jayne AnnOriginally published at Reading Reality
I wonder how close Burning Cove is to Scargill Cove?
Amanda Quick writes historical romantic suspense, Jayne Ann Krentz writes contemporary romantic suspense, and Jayne Castle writes futuristic romantic suspense. And they are all the same person. There is often a paranormal, or in the case of the historicals, gaslamp, element to this author’s fiction, which is often but not always tied into her long-running and century-spanning Arcane Society series.
But most of her historicals take place in the Victorian era, so the 1920s seemed just a bit out of period for the author. And it didn’t matter – the story and the suspense were the equal of any of her historicals, with or without the paranormal/gaslamp element.
The only magic in The Girl Who Knew Too Much is of the stage illusionist variety, but there’s every bit as much magic (including the romantic kind) as in any of this author’s marvelous books.
Irene Glasson, nee Anna Harris, arrives in Hollywood (and eventually Burning Cove) seemingly with no past and possibly with no future.
She fled New York City in a cloud of fear of suspicion, after discovering the murdered and mutilated corpse of her employer. Said employer had written the word “Run” out in her own blood just before she died, and Anna heeded the warning. On her way out the door she scooped up the item that had gotten her friend killed, a notebook filled with scientific formulas and no explanation whatsoever.
It’s ironic that Anna on the run becomes Irene the gossip reporter in Hollywood. Now the stars run from her and the scandal she can create. Except for up-and-coming movie star Nick Tremayne. Irene is gunning for Nick because he seems to be leaving a trail of drowned women in his wake, one of whom was Irene’s mentor at the tabloids.
Her relentless pursuit of the new star puts her squarely in the sights of the powerful Hollywood studios, who will go to any lengths to keep their stars scandal-free. It also puts her into the rather dashing clutches of the Amazing Oliver Ward, who owns the Burning Cove Hotel. Oliver used to be an up-and-coming stage magician, until a trick-gone-wrong nearly took his life.
Now he rules his hotel and Burning Cove, with a benevolent but implacable hand. He won’t countenance murder at his hotel, unless, of course, he’s the one who decides that someone needs killing.
So when Irene finds herself, fired, exposed and hunted on his watch, he takes it upon himself to protect her at all costs. She makes him feel alive, even as she nearly gets both of them killed. It’s a race to the finish for Irene and Oliver to figure out who is after whom, and why, before they both get caught in the trap. Because this time, a mistake will be fatal.
Escape Rating A-: I did mix up Burning Cove and Scargill Cove, so I went into this with hope that it would be part of the Arcane Society. And even though that hope was dashed, I did not come out of this book disappointed. Far from it, in fact. I had a ball with this one.
Irene/Anna is a terrific heroine. She’s smart, savvy and running for her life, yet she keeps making a life and making a living and striving for one more day. Her life has become a mystery, with herself as both the heroine and the victim. She doesn’t know what the notebook is, or why it got her friend and employer killed. All she knows is that she needs to hide it at all costs.
In spite of her need to hide, she puts herself out there, in plain sight, hunting for whoever killed one of her friends. She has quite a lot of pluck, and more than a little luck, but like so many of the great Hollywood mystery stories, she’s also fed a bunch of red herrings, some of which turn out to be very tempting.
She’s been so busy running, and surviving, that she hasn’t had a chance to quietly assess. And she doesn’t have anyone to do that assessing with. Two heads really are better than one, especially when the one is much too close to the situation. And that’s where Oliver comes in.
Neither of them are very good at trusting people, for obvious reasons. They’ve both been betrayed or abandoned by people they trusted. And yet, they are both in this mess together, whether they planned on it or not.
In the end, they need each other to survive. And they need each other to live.
The solution to all of the mysteries defied convention just a bit. Usually the long arm of coincidence doesn’t get too long. If there are two series of crime, as there are in this case, at the end we discover there’s a link that makes it one series of crimes. But in this case, solving the puzzle for multiple unknowns keep the reader guessing right along with the protagonists, until the very nearly bitter end.
I listened to Moonglow, and finished a few days ago. Since then, I’ve been mulling it over. It’s a book that maOriginally published at Reading Reality
I listened to Moonglow, and finished a few days ago. Since then, I’ve been mulling it over. It’s a book that makes the reader think. And in my case, feel.
One of those sets of thoughts regards belief, particularly the reader’s belief in how much of this narrative is true, and how much is fictional. And possibly where that blurry line is in the middle.
If, as the quotation says, “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth” then which parts are relatively factual and which are stitched up out of the ‘whole cloth’ doesn’t really matter. The story as a whole still feels true.
It’s a story about the ongoing costs of World War II, particularly on the generation that fought and survived that brutal war. It is also a story about one particular family, a family for whom, as the narrator says, “Keeping secrets was the family business. But it was a business, it seemed to me, that none of us had ever profited from.”
This is the author’s attempt to profit from that family business, both in the literal sense, the hope that the book is a success (which it is), and in the figurative sense of finally laying some of the family ghosts to rest. Or at least of getting the family skeletons out of their hidden closets and finally burying the old bones.
Escape Rating B: On the one hand, I got caught up in Moonglow. On the other, I set it aside for an entire week while on a trip where I didn’t have the chance to listen to it. On my alien third hand, I was able to slip right back into it when I returned.
What made that easier was that the story is not told in a chronological narrative. Instead, the bits and pieces of the life of the author’s grandfather (we never do hear his name) is told in flashes and slightly loopy flashbacks. The man is in the final week of his life, dying of cancer, and pumped up with some major drugs to alleviate his pain. Or make it at least bearable, yet still something that they don’t always seem to accomplish.
But the drugs open the floodgates of memory, not because the man has forgotten anything, but because he was never one to tell stories, and certainly not about himself. It is a fascinating story, one that moves to and from the old Jewish neighborhoods of Philadelphia to the concentration camps of WW2 to NASA to a retirement community in Florida, with stops along the way in Operation Paperclip, space booster conventions, Wallkill Prison in NY and the meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of Chabon Scientific Company, where his grandfather crisscrossed the country attempting to pick up the pieces of his son-in-law’s misrepresentations and lies as a way of helping his daughter get back on her feet. He certainly didn’t do it for his son-in-law.. The author’s grandfather was a very busy man.
The parts of the story that stick in the mind, or at least my mind, were the parts about Operation Paperclip and its aftermath. The author’s grandfather was part of what was then a top-secret mission to sweep up as many of the Nazi scientists as possible and give them safe homes and sanitized backstories in the U.S. The intent, of course, was that they could continue their work, and do it for the U.S. and not the Soviet Union. Operation Paperclip, and its “capture” of Wernher Von Braun led directly to the U.S. Space Program. And also to lots of questions later about whether the ends justified the means. Those questions remain unanswered.
The harrowing scenes from this part of the story reminded me a lot of Slaughterhouse-Five. War is always hell.
But unlike in Slaughterhouse, we see more of the story after the war. And somehow the author makes what should have been a mundane life emblematic of the post-war years. It helps that the life he chronicles seems to have been anything but mundane.
And what he learns about his family, and himself, makes him re-think so much of what he always assumed to be true. So do we.
Although I can describe the plot, well, more or less, the power in this book was that while it told me the author’s hidden family stories, it also made me think about my own family. Some of the stories, and certainly some of the circumstances, parallel a tiny bit. And there are hidden stories that changed things upon their reveal. And it made me wonder how much of the circumstances of his grandfather’s life would parallel that of my own parents.
And the Chabon Scientific debacle, whether real or a metaphor, made me dredge up an old memory. The author’s references to the less than savory actions of both his father and his mother’s uncle made me think of something that my family would have said. In the end, they both turned out to be “no-goodniks from no-goodniksville”. And I hear those comments in voices that I have not heard for decades.
As I said at the beginning, the story made me think, and it made me feel. And it made me remember....more
Ten years before the beginning of Doing It Over, the first book in this absolutely marvelous series, Mel, Zoe aOriginally published at Reading Reality
Ten years before the beginning of Doing It Over, the first book in this absolutely marvelous series, Mel, Zoe and Jo, who truly are BFFs forever, vow that no matter where life takes them, they will meet up in River Bend for their tenth high school reunion. The ten-year reunion is a very big deal, not just for River Bend High School but also for the entire small town. And so are those cheesy predictions that end up in every senior’s yearbook.
Mel was voted “Most Likely to Succeed”, but in Doing It Over we discover that she did anything but. She returns to River Bend to pick up her pieces. Zoe, in her turn, was voted “Most Likely to Stay in River Bend”, so she, too, did anything but. In Staying For Good Zoe returns to River Bend on what she believes will be a temporary hiatus from her career as a jet-setting celebrity chef.
Now it’s Jo’s turn. Jo was voted “Most Likely to End up in Jail”, and she actually fulfilled that prophecy. Well sort of. Jo is on the opposite side of the bars than her high school classmates predicted. Jo is the Sheriff of River Bend, following in her father’s unexpectedly echoing footsteps.
And after nearly ten years as Sheriff, the job has turned into a straitjacket.
Jo pursued the job because she always believed that her dad’s supposedly accidental death was really homicide. And she thought that the best place to discover his killer was from inside his life.
But she didn’t think she’d still be there ten years later, with all her questions still unanswered. In the intervening years, she’s discovered a knack for law enforcement, but she’s less and less willing to live every minute of her life at the town’s beck and call and under the heavy thumb of its expectations.
She’d like some off-time, dammit. She’d like a life. And she’d really, really like to get laid.
Jo would also like to get further than she has so far with her off-the-books investigation into her father’s death. And for that she needs more skills and more contacts. Her quest takes her to the FBI Training Academy in Quantico, not to become an FBI agent herself, but to attend a week-long special training session that the FBI regularly holds for local law enforcement officers from all over the country.
She expects to learn a lot. She doesn’t expect to feel small and embarrassed every minute, because River Bend is a tiny town, she only has one full-time deputy, and certain kinds of crime are still blissfully absent.
She doesn’t expect that her pre-training one-night stand with a hot badass will turn into anything more. At least not until the same guy shows up at her training class as one of the FBI instructors. She’s both embarrassed and turned on, and just a bit sorry that Agent McHottie lives in DC while she’s in Oregon.
Until she finally remembers that he’s stationed not at Quantico, but at the field office in Eugene Oregon, only two hours from River Bend.
Jo and Gill (that’s Agent McHottie’s real name) actually do have a chance to make something of their almost-relationship. But there’s someone in River Bend out to get Jo. Or just the sheriff. Or perhaps there was a lot more going on with Jo’s dad’s murder than anyone counted on.
Or all of the above.
Escape Rating A: I’ve really enjoyed this series (a LOT) but I think that Making it Right is my favorite. And while you don’t have to read the first two books to get what is happening in this one, the whole series really is a lot of fun. If you enjoy small-town romances, and if you like stories about women’s long-lasting friendships, the entire series is a winner.
As much as I liked both Mel and Zoe, I think that part of the reason that I liked this one the best is that Jo felt like the easiest one for me to identify with. I fell into her thoughts and feelings about being a woman in a man’s job, needing to be taken seriously, always knowing that one misstep was all it would take to knock her off the pedestal, and feeling strangled by everyone else’s expectations.
Along with that big slice of regret she can’t manage to swallow, that her dad would have loved to have seen her turn her life around, but that it came too late for them to reconcile.
There are, as there often are in this series, three threads to this story. One is that Jo needs to find some of that elusive work-life balance. The town is eating her alive – not by doing anything wrong, but by dumping everything on Jo’s shoulders. She’s near a breaking point, and something is going to have to give, because Jo just can’t keep giving.
Jo is also stuck, or in a stuck-place, investigating her dad’s murder. She’s right that the whole thing is too pat, something stinks. She’s also equally right that someone doesn’t want her poking into that ten-year-old incident, because that sixth sense we all have that says someone in watching her is on overdrive. She just doesn’t know exactly who or exactly why, and neither do we.
The solution to this particular thread isn’t anything that the reader or Jo expects, which is awesome. Once everything is all laid out, it is obvious where the clues were, but we all miss them as they happen, and that makes the suspense part of this story even more suspenseful.
And of course there’s the romance. Which is perfect. Read Making it Right for yourself and you’ll see just how right Gill and Jo are for each other. Because they definitely are....more
Reading this book gave me an unending earworm for the song “Wouldn’t it be Loverly” from My Fair Lady. This isOriginally published at Reading Reality
Reading this book gave me an unending earworm for the song “Wouldn’t it be Loverly” from My Fair Lady. This is a bit odd in multiple directions – the Broadway musical didn’t premiere until 11 years after the end of World War II, and the setting for the musical, Edwardian London, occurs 30+ years before the start of World War II.
But the book was definitely “loverly”. Or at least lovely. It reminded me of all the reasons why I love Jennifer Robson’s work.
And for readers hoping to start afresh with this marvelous author, Goodnight from London does not follow the other books directly, as they loosely did with each other. Except, again, in so far as WW2 was a fairly direct consequence of WW1.
Instead, Goodnight from London follows the adventures of young American journalist Ruby Sutton, a self-made woman if there ever was one. After a brief but illustrious stint at an American weekly magazine, Ruby receives an unexpected offer that she can’t resist. Everyone knows that war is coming, and the U.S. is hoping to stay well clear of the mess in Europe.
But England will be right in the thick of it, and one of the London weekly papers is looking for a young, female, American reporter who is willing to come to London and write the war. For Ruby it’s a dream job, she’ll get to be where the action is, and she’ll get to learn her craft while having something important to write about. She has no ties in America, no family, almost no life outside her work, so she’s the perfect writer to send to London.
And in the thick of the Blitz, she finds everything she didn’t know she was looking for. Not just the chance to write important stories, but also the opportunity to find a family, a sense of belonging and home, and finally, love.
But more than anything else, Goodnight from London is the story of an intrepid young journalist who finds herself in the middle of the great story of her times, and runs with it. Sometimes she’s down but never out. She never gives up, she never gives in and she never surrenders.. And she always gets the story.
Even, at last, her own.
Escape Rating A-: One of the things that I love about this author’s work is the way that she puts her intrepid heroines in fascinating, real-life circumstances and dangers, and then lets them work. The story here is Ruby’s reporting of the war, both on the homefront and eventually on the front lines. It’s also about her involvement in the real life of London during the war, living through the Blitz, losing all her possessions and becoming part of the fabric of life, while London becomes part of her.
We see her work, we experience her triumphs and her tragedies, we feel her setbacks. But the story is about her experience. While this is a historical novel, it is not historical romance, although Ruby does find love in the end.
It feels like the point of the book is the work, and the happy ever after is her reward. The romance is not the point of the story, and it shouldn’t be. The world was in dire straits. Although life went on, her work was too important to put on hold in the hopes that her prince might come. Or however one wants to put that.
This is a story where it felt more realistic that her career came first, and it is one of the few historic periods where that is realistically true.
It helps a lot that Ruby is a very likable protagonist. She’s both self-made and self-motivated. She’s doing her best (and occasionally her worst) to put her past behind her. The secret almost costs her everything, and that was the one part of the story that didn’t live up to how much I loved the rest. Other readers may feel differently.
But that one “bobble” was not enough to dim my enjoyment of the book. I loved the way that Ruby’s personal story interwove with the history that we know. We got to see World War II London and especially the Blitz through her eyes, and the perspective brought this reader right into her world and to the story.
As I read Goodnight from London, it reminded me a bit of The Race for ParisThe Race for Paris by Meg Clayton, which is also about female World War II correspondents. I liked The Race for Paris but the soap opera of the protagonists’ trainwreck love triangle took a bit out of the story. Goodnight from London is much, much better.
Goodnight from London is, as I said at the beginning, a very lovely book. Read it and you’ll see....more
The Illusionist’s Apprentice was utterly charming, and quite surprising. We’ll talk about the charming first, aOriginally published at Reading Reality
The Illusionist’s Apprentice was utterly charming, and quite surprising. We’ll talk about the charming first, and get to the surprising at the end.
Just like last week’s Blood and Circuses, the story in The Illusionist’s Apprentice is set in a world that is gone. In this case, that world is the vaudeville circuit. Vaudeville flourished during the period just before the American Civil until the 1910s, with the advent of movies. During the period of The Illusionist’s Apprentice, it is clear to the participants that vaude is dying, if not yet dead.
For our main character, the illusionist Wren Lockhart, vaudeville is the only life she’s ever known.
This is also a mystery, wrapped not so much in the proverbial enigma, but in a profound conundrum. Also in a web of contacts and enemies. A web that Wren entered as the late Harry Houdini’s apprentice, but must now maintain all by herself.
Or so it seems.
In the 1920s there was a rise in interest in spiritualism. Everyone had lost someone in recent memory, either to the Great War or the Spanish Influenza Epidemic. Lots of people were willing to latch onto any possibility of communicating with their deceased loved ones. And all too many con artists were willing to latch onto the money of those who grieved.
Harry Houdini, the famous illusionist and escape artist, had almost a secondary career in exposing fake mediums and spiritualists. Wren Lockhart was his apprentice, both as an illusionist and as a fake medium buster.
So she has come to see whether one of those fake mediums that she helped ruin, Horace Stapleton, really can bring the dead back to life. In a cemetery. It’s obviously yet another gag, but how did he do it? And why did someone put him up to it?
The FBI is watching Stapleton and the crowd, because it’s so obviously a scam even if they can’t figure out how. FBI Agent Matthews is watching Wren in particular, when the unthinkable happens. Twice. Stapleton, in a flourish of showmanship, seems to actually raise one of the corpses from the grave. Only to have the man walk a few steps and collapse, dead again.
Among the very meager evidence, Matthews finds a note linking the late Houdini and the still living Wren Lockhart to the crime, or event, or whatever-the-heck it was. And Matthews is all too eager to follow that trail, if only for a chance to speak with the woman who fascinates him.
Wren and Matthews find kindred spirits in each other. Both driven, both workaholics before the term was invented, both using their focus on their work to keep others at a distance. They discover that they need each other. At first, Matthews just needs an entree into the world of vaudeville. He needs Wren’s help to figure out just how Stapleton did whatever it was he did.
Wren needs Matthews. She’s not used to relying on anyone, keeping her feelings and her secrets carefully locked away. But someone is targeting her, and she needs an outsider, particularly a very protective outsider, to help her find the snake in the grass at her feet.
They manage to keep each other alive, long enough to dig up all the truths, not just the ones that Wren has been hiding, but also the ones that have been hidden around her, under the cover of illusion.
Escape Rating A-: This was absolutely charming from beginning to end. Just like a member of her audience, I was sucked into Wren’s illusions from the very beginning of the story. She is an absolutely fascinating character. She is so completely eccentric, so much “out there” even for a female vaudevillian, that one can’t help but be captivated. At the same time, her position in the world of vaude gives her the opportunity to be unconventional in a way that makes her easy for a 21st century woman to empathize with. Her perspectives feel like hers, but they also mirror ours.
FBI Agent Elliot Matthews wants to be a hero. More correctly, he discovers that he wants to be Wren’s hero. But in spite of his status as an FBI Agent, he is not a hero in the usual mold. While he’d like to protect her, he comes to recognize that what he wants isn’t what Wren needs, or is willing to accept. Wren is looking for a hero who will walk beside her, letting her fight her own dragons. And Matthews discovers that he is willing to be that person, even though it isn’t easy.
The story here is one of wheels within wheels within wheels. It’s not a traditional mystery, but it is a mystery. And it’s one with ever widening circles of puzzles as it unravels.
Initially the mystery is all about Stapleton and whoever it is that is or isn’t dead. Then it widens to include who wanted to link Wren to the stunt, and why. Then it’s who is trying to kill Wren, and why. And finally, what is the deep, dark secret in Wren’s past that she has spent so much time, effort and money in concealing, and that someone is trying so hard to expose.
The secret of Wren’s past, and her present, is a very slow reveal, as she comes to trust Matthews more and more over time, and she peels away some of her protective layers. Some of the way that this is done is by skipping backwards into Wren’s past, so that we see those events as they happened. The jumps back and forth are a bit disconcerting at first, but in the end it does work.
And keeps the reader on the edge of their seat until the very end. Just like one of Wren Lockhart’s performances.
Now for why I was so surprised that I loved this book. Like The Hideaway, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, The Illusionist’s Apprentice was published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, a well-known and well-respected publisher of Christian inspirational literature, both fiction and nonfiction. And also like The Hideaway, The Illusionist’s Apprentice is not inspirational fiction, even though it is billed as such. And I was wary of it, like The Hideaway, because of that billing and that publisher. So I am left, as I was after reading The Hideaway, both confused and concerned. It is quite possible that people looking for inspirational fiction will be disappointed by this book. It is excellent historical fiction, but not inspie. It is also very possible that readers like myself, who steer far clear of inspirational fiction, will miss this book because of the publisher. I want this book to find its much deserved audience, and I worry that it won’t.
If you love historical fiction, particularly set in the 1920s (which is a fascinating period that’s getting a LOT more love since Downton Abbey), The Illusionist’s Apprentice is marvelous. And that’s no illusion! ...more
The Baker’s Secret might have been more descriptively titled as Emma’s War. Or perhaps Resistance is not FutileOriginally published at Reading Reality
The Baker’s Secret might have been more descriptively titled as Emma’s War. Or perhaps Resistance is not Futile, or even How to Resist without Joining the Resistance. Or simply, Survival.
Because the story encompasses all of those things, and more.
From first to last, this is Emma’s story. And it is the story of the frog who dies by degrees as his cool pan of water heats up and boils. But unlike that proverbial frog, neither Emma nor her coastal French village actually die during the German Occupation, although they often wish they had. And all too many individual citizens actually do die, whether directly for German atrocities or less directly by being conscripted or simply by being unable or unwilling to drudge through another day.
Emma is the town baker. She has a gift for baking, and that gift is both blessing and curse. It is because of that gift that the occupying Germans discovered her tiny village. And it is that gift which keeps her relatively safe. The Kommandant doesn’t want his baker unduly harassed, or raped, and certainly not killed, without good reason. For admittedly select values of reason.
He wants his morning bread, and for that reason, gives Emma enough of a flour ration to bake a dozen loaves for himself and his officers.
That bread makes Emma the center of a ring of resistance. Not THE Resistance, but a resistance. Emma manages to make those dozen loaves into 14, with just a bit of subterfuge. And with those two extra loaves, she has something to trade. Because everyone wants just a little bit of solace in what are very dark times. So she has her circle of bread for eggs for tobacco for oil for fish for bread. Around and around the village she goes, keeping everyone, if not well fed, at least alive for the duration.
Because Emma brings not only food, but just a tiny bit of hope. Which is ironic, because Emma has none of her own. While everyone around her is certain, to varying degrees of informed certainty, that the Allies will come to rescue them, Emma is not. She hates the occupying army, but also believes that no one will come. Survival is all they have.
Until June 6, 1944, when the Allies storm the nearby beaches. And bring a hell on earth to everyone left in their way.
Escape Rating A-: The Baker’s Secret is a quiet book, and with good reason. For most of the occupation, life goes on, however badly. Emma’s days acquire a dull, unending sameness, only broken by incidents of brutality or audacity, either the Nazis’ brutality or her own audacity. She lives because the village depends on her, and in turn, she helps keep them alive.
We see the village in all its sadness. Too many are gone. Too many have been murdered out of brutality or caprice. And, although it is just a few, too many who have decided, like Emma, that the occupation is forever have also determined that the best way to survive is to capitulate, to cooperate, to collaborate with the enemy.
Emma’s story is about the courage of the small things in the face of the large disaster. She can’t kill all the Nazis, but she can hide a pig from them, getting meat into everyone’s pot for at least a month. She can’t stop baking, but she can stretch the ration by adding straw. It’s a life of tiny but important defiance.
What makes this a hard book is the description of the Nazis’ brutal treatment of the village and its inhabitants. There is no individual evil at work in the village (Hitler may be both individual and evil, but he is not personally present in the village), but there is great evil nevertheless. The way that the Nazis are portrayed in this story feels like a meditation on the saying about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. These young men, and they are mostly very young, however kind and gentle they might be to their families or their fellow countrymen, have decided to swallow the big lie that non-Germans are lesser forms of humans, and that some people, notably Jews and other minorities, are not human at all. And have chosen to use that power and that license not merely by following orders, but to seemingly go out of their way to grind every person down and then punish them both for being ground down and for resisting the grinding.
It does not make for easy reading, but it does make the reader think. It seems to have been so easy to reduce these young soldiers to brutal and brutish beasts. All that was necessary was to drum into them that everyone was less human than themselves. Once non-Germans were made into “the other”, any strike against them could be justified.
I want to say that Emma stands tall in the face of adversity, but she doesn’t. Instead, her posture is always bent over and straining forwards, pulling her cart of burdens behind her like a train. She resisted by hiding in plain sight. I also can’t say that she gets a happy ending, because when we leave Emma in June of 1944, the war is still going on, even if the front has moved until her village is behind it on the Allies side.
I absolutely adore this series. I open each entry with the sure and certain knowledge that I’m in for a good tiOriginally published at Reading Reality
I absolutely adore this series. I open each entry with the sure and certain knowledge that I’m in for a good time. But I think it’s time for the series to end.
Which doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a rip-roaring good time with Theron and Sienna, because I most certainly did.
The Hell Squad series, which begins with a roar and a bang and a whole lot of gunfire in Marcus, is post-apocalyptic science fiction romance. The apocalypse that these events are post of is the invasion of the alien Gizzida and their ongoing attempt to bomb Earth back to the Stone Age while capturing and converting as many humans as possible into Gizzida.
Think Borg, but with more individual free will. Which often translates to even more cruelty and ambition, and even less conscience. And I never thought I’d say that anything had less conscience than the Borg. But individual Borg aren’t aware of the horror of their actions, and individual Gizzida are.
Each story in this series pushes the human agenda of getting the Gizzida off our planet just a tiny bit further, while featuring a romance between two of the many characters who are fighting back against the invaders with everything they have.
In Theron, the alien invasion part of the story revolves around a daring raid on the Australian Gizzida headquarters, with the first order of business to destroy the alien mind control device they are building, and the second order to investigate the rumored superweapon that the Gizzida are developing. The scary thing is that the giant mind control weapon is not the superweapon.
The romance is between Theron and Sienna, two members of Squad Nine. The Squads are the military arm of the resistance, and Theron and Sienna are two of their best. They are also partners in the squad, best friends, and always have each other’s backs in a fight.
And they not-so-secretly want to bang each other’s brains out. I’d say they were also secretly in love with each other, but part of the secret is that neither of them is willing to explore those feelings. They are both suffering from a whole lot of survivor’s’ guilt like pretty much everyone in the Enclave, and they are rightfully afraid that attempting to be anything more to each other will mess up their friendship.
There’s a betting pool on whether and when they will finally give in to each other. Can someone manage to win the pot before it’s too late for them all?
Escape Rating B+: I enjoy each outing in this series, but I can kind of see the patterns coming. Theron and Sienna’s story is a combination of the romances in Marcus and Shaw. Marcus thinks he’s too big and bad-assed for former society princess Elle, and Shaw and Frost are squad partners and friends who are afraid to mess up what they already have for something that might not work out.
Theron is sure he’s too rough for Sienna, and they are both afraid of messing up their partnership for a relationship that might not work out. While I’ve enjoyed each individual relationship, the predictability of the patterns is getting to me. I’m glad there was a few months break between Devlin and Theron.
So it’s the science fiction aspects of this SFR series that keep me going. I really, really, really want to see the Gizzida get kicked off of Earth. And I read each book in the series for the clues about how that longed-for event is finally going to happen.
But there’s something about the Gizzida that made me think. I compared them to the Borg, because that’s who they initially reminded me of. Both species conquer planets purely so they can mine those planets’ resources, and in both species those resources include any desirable DNA characteristics they can add to their own species to upgrade it. In both cases their process is to turn the conquered people into themselves. Borg make more Borg by turning other species into Borg, and Gizzida do the same thing.
Science fiction has managed to discover what feels like a literal “fate worse than death”. Not to be killed, or to suffer a terrible trauma that changes you forever, but to have your entire selfhood erased and converted to the enemy. I’m playing Mass Effect Andromeda right now, and it also explores this same theme, as did the original Mass Effect Trilogy. The worst fate in the universe is not to die, but to be permanently and irrevocably converted into the enemy.
The Gizzida are part of a fine and frightening trend in SF, and I want them kicked off Earth ASAP. But I suspect that our heroes are going to have to suffer through even more awful revelations before that glorious day. ...more
In this Regency romance with pirates, the pirates are all the villains, and the hero believes that he is equally villainous. Ten years previously, AleIn this Regency romance with pirates, the pirates are all the villains, and the hero believes that he is equally villainous. Ten years previously, Alexander Bracken chose to test his courage and mettle in England’s wars with the Barbary pirates of the Mediterranean. Captured by the Turks, he was rescued two years later, leaving his captivity with a craving for opium and a profound shame at the acts he was forced to commit to survive. Two years later, he rescued Hestia Cary, the daughter of his rescuer, from nearly suffering the same fate at the same hands. Hestia worships her savior, her father can’t forget the degradation he rescued Alex from. But when Hestia is under threat yet again, she turns to the man who saved her before, setting them both on a course to either vindicate or repeat their earlier captivity, while being threatened on all sides. Within the small confines of his ship, Alex is forced to confront his feelings for Hestia, and his sense of unworthiness at her feelings for him. Even if he rescues her again, it won’t be enough for her father. But it might just be enough to finally save himself.
Verdict: This is a regency romance set on the high seas, making deft use of one of the standard regency tropes, the debauched rake who feels that he is unredeemable, feeling duty bound to rescue the untouched heroine who is too far above him, not in station but in virtue. But there’s a twist in this one. Alex has spent years fighting his craving for the opium he was addicted to while in captivity. And Hestia’s father, who rescued Alex, can’t forgive the man for surviving what society at that time considered a fate worse than death. It takes Hestia, who knows all and loves him anyway, to heal Alex’s heart. Regency romance readers looking for something just a bit different will love this one. ...more
There are two crimes to be solved in this story. Or is it three?
The first one is easy. Phryne begins the storyOriginally published at Reading Reality
There are two crimes to be solved in this story. Or is it three?
The first one is easy. Phryne begins the story feeling bored to death. Diving headfirst into solving the second crime takes care of that. If she doesn’t discover the perpetrator in time, she won’t be merely bored to death. She’ll just be dead.
But just as Phryne is screwing up her own courage, there’s a murder. And this one isn’t Phryne’s case. At all. At least at first.
Mr. Christopher has been found murdered in his bed at his boarding house. Nothing about this case is exactly as it appears. Not even the corpse.
Mr. Christopher was also Christine. He was a member of Farrell’s Circus, performing as the half-man/half-woman. The circus was the one place where his accident of birth afforded him some respect and a reasonable living. Mr. Christopher was a true androgene. He was born intersex, with both male and female sexual characteristics. He lived his life as Mr. Christopher, and that is how he shall be referred to.
Mr. Christopher’s death is a locked room mystery. And there is only one person in the boarding house who could possibly have entered his second-story room from the window. Miss Parkes, formerly known as Mrs. Fantocci, used to be a star performer in a circus trapeze act. She just got out of prison for murdering her disgusting, abusive husband ten years ago. Some of the police are all too ready to believe that a woman who has murdered before would all too easily murder again.
Jack Robinson is not so convinced. He may not be the Jack we’re used to from the TV series, but he is still a very good, and very fair, cop. Something in the setup does not make sense, and Jack has all sorts of suspicions – he just needs some facts to back them up.
Phryne, meanwhile, is off to Farrell’s Circus. Not as a paying customer, or even as a patron. She is undercover, posing as a trick rider. And all too frequently falling down as a trick rider. It’s not easy to stand up on a horse while it is moving.
It’s also not easy for Phryne to investigate while pretending to be the lowest person in the group and stripped of all her resources. She doesn’t understand how the circus community really functions, not nearly well enough to guess at what is making this particular community suddenly not function. She’s also not used to not being able to bully her way to a solution, whether that’s through her considerable charm or by an application of her considerable fortune.
Phryne suffers from a surprising amount of self-doubt. It’s refreshing to see her have to reach into herself and see what she is made of on the inside.
But Phryne is at Farrell’s because some old friends are afraid for their lives and their livelihood. Whether it’s a curse, an against-the-odds string of very bad luck, or an active conspiracy at work, someone or something is driving Farrell’s into the ground. And it’s up to Phryne to figure out the true source of all their woes, and bring it to a halt.
It seems as if Phryne and Jack are investigating completely different crimes that just coincidentally take place among the denizens of Farrell’s circus. But this string of crimes is bigger than either of them imagines.
And Phryne gets saved by a bear.
Escape Rating B: I bounced off of three books this week, and finally ended with Phryne as my comfort read. However, this may be the least comfortable of Phryne’s books so far. She takes herself far out of her own comfort zone, and finds herself lost, alone and more uncertain of herself than has been shown in the previous books.
That makes the beginning of this story a bit rough going. Phryne isn’t acting like Phryne, and part of the comfort in these stories is that same cast of characters and all of their interactions.
Something that always leaves me thinking at the end of one of Phryne’s adventures are the attitudes portrayed towards sex and sexuality throughout the series. Although the series is set in Australia in the 1920s, the first book was published in the 1990s and the book series is still ongoing, although the TV series is unfortunately in hiatus.
But both the era it portrays and the era is was written in have a profound effect on the ways that sex, whether that be sex roles, sexual activity, sexual preferences or anything else that touches on sex and gender and the morality supposedly belonging thereto are often dealt with in layers.
Phryne can, in some ways, be seen as ultra liberal, for multiple versions of that word. Like male detectives, Phryne has a lover in every port, and in every book. Sometimes more than one. She likes men, she likes sex, and she’s not remotely interested in serious relationships. This has been true for many male detectives over the entire history of the genre, but Phryne feels unique among women.
She also likes and respects everyone for who they are. She doesn’t pass blanket judgments on groups because of what society dictates. That includes whether the people she meets are gay or straight, cis or het, Australian or elsewise, communist or capitalist, and in the case of Blood and Circuses, vertically challenged or average height. Phryne judges people as she finds them individually.
At the same time, particularly in this book, other characters are used to voice the prejudices of society as a whole. The juxtaposition of Phryne’s views with that of conventional society is made clear without putting anything offensive in her mouth. But still portraying that in this era, attitudes were what they were. It’s a very useful way of not pretending that the past attitudes did not exist in all their disgustingness while also commenting on the possibility that at least some people thought otherwise even then.
This is also the second book I’ve read recently that delves into 20th century circus life. (The other book was The Orphan’s Tale). In both cases, it’s hard to let go of the sad irony that in both stories the circus performers believed that the circus, as a concept and way of life, even if not their particular example of it, was strong and would go on forever, no matter what. Even in 1994 when Blood and Circuses was first published, that probably still seemed true. The reality that in 2017 the circus as they knew it is about to raise its very last big top gave this reader more than a touch of nostalgia.
The circus may not be going on, but Phryne certainly is. The next time I need a comfort read, I know I’ll be pulling out Ruddy Gore....more
With great power comes great responsibility, at least according to the Spiderman mythos. But there are plenty oOriginally published at Reading Reality
With great power comes great responsibility, at least according to the Spiderman mythos. But there are plenty of people who want that great power, but want to completely sidestep that whole great responsibility price tag. While history and politics are both littered with the bodies of the victims of those “great” figures, in urban fantasy that shortcut to great power usually travels down the road to hell, often paved with no good intentions whatsoever. That shortcut is nearly always dark magic.
And so it proves in Grimoire of the Lamb.
The Druid now known as Atticus O’Sullivan is 21. That’s 21 centuries old, not 21 years. But his magic keeps him looking much closer to 21 years old, and if that’s what people want to assume, he’s happy to let them.
While Atticus isn’t old enough to have visited Egypt when the pyramids were built, he is more than old enough to have visited Egypt before the Library at Alexandria was burned to the ground. And that long ago bit of library looting is the root of this story.
In the 21st century, Atticus lives in Tempe, near Arizona State University, and owns a shop that sells a combination of new age trinkets, minor magical items for the knowledgeable practitioner, arcane-seeming (and sometimes really arcane) used books and very special herbal teas that help students study just before exams.
While Atticus does seem to sell a few safe or relatively safe used books, most of his collection belongs in the Restricted Section at Hogwarts, or the nearest local equivalent, which happens to be a magically locked case in his shop.
And that case contains at least two books that are on semi-permanent loan from the defunct Library of Alexandria. One is that Grimoire of the Lamb, which Atticus believes is an ancient cookbook. The other is a book he calls Nice Kitty, which he describes somewhat like an illustrated guide to tantric sex to be practiced in the worship of Bast.
Bast is not happy that Atticus has that book. She’s so unhappy, in fact, that Atticus has avoided going to Egypt for centuries. But now he’s stuck.
An evil wizard has just stolen the cookbook, but only after informing Atticus that it isn’t a cookbook. That poor lamb isn’t for dinner, it’s a blood sacrifice to one of the ancient Egyptian gods. And it’s a sacrifice that will let the sorcerer kill his (and his god’s) enemies and place himself in a position of power. Someone has seriously given in to the dark side of the Force, and not just because he discovered the book by conjuring up a demon.
So Atticus, along with his faithful Irish wolfhound Oberon, takes off for Egypt to track down that stolen (or is that re-stolen) book, before it’s too late.
Escape Rating B+: I was looking for something quick and fun, and this certainly filled the bill. I was tempted to say light and fun, but Atticus often isn’t light. There are always plenty of humorous moments, if only within the confines of Atticus’ own thoughts, but there’s also always something darker at work.
And even if Atticus doesn’t provide a lot of levity, Oberon always does. When Bast’s many, many, MANY minions chase Atticus and Oberon through the streets of Cairo, poor Oberon’s attempts to visualize just how many cats are following them nearly breaks the poor dog’s enhanced brain. Bast commands a lot of cats. All the cats. And they all chase Atticus and Oberon with a vengeance. Possibly literally.
Grimoire of the Lamb is a prequel story to the Iron Druid Chronicles. Although it takes place before the absolutely marvelous Hounded, it was written after it, so while it introduces the characters we are familiar with, it also already knows who they are and what they are supposed to be.
This story is more intimate than Hounded in that the only two characters that we are familiar with are Atticus and Oberon. His werewolf lawyer appears in a phone call, but doesn’t participate in the action. This one is all on the druid and his dog.
Especially on Atticus. Just as in Hounded, the story is written in first-person singular, so we are always inside Atticus’ head, even when he’s gibbering to himself in pain. Which is often. Atticus gets knocked around a lot.
Tangling with a crocodile, let alone a crocodile god, is always messy. Especially when, as so often happens with Atticus, he’s making it all up as he goes along.
One of the fun things about this series is the way that it mixes multiple ancient mythologies with contemporary sensibilities. Atticus has survived by adapting from century to century and country to country. He never forgets who he is, where he comes from, or what he remembers, but he doesn’t cling to the dead past. There’s probably a lesson in there someplace.
Most of the time when Atticus is forced to deal with myths, legends and deities, they are from his own Celtic pantheon. But he remembers the other old gods, and they certainly remember him. Bast certainly does. And will. He’s planning to steal Nice Kitty back, as soon as he heals up from dealing with Sobek the Crocodile God. Hopefully for the last time.
But this is certainly not my last time visiting Atticus and Oberon.
Instead I have very much of a mixed feelings review on tap. Very mixed.
The friends-to-lovers trope is one of my favorites, so again, I was expecting to like the story line in this book. But something, actually multiple somethings, don’t quite work.
The set up is excellent, Lane and Finn have been best friends for ten years, ever since Lane left her parents’ home back East and moved to Copper Ridge to live with her brother Matt. At the time, Lane was sixteen and obviously just a bit fragile. Finn was 23 or 24 and more than a bit too old for her.
But that 8 or 9 year gap closes pretty quickly after a few years. Now Lane is in her late 20s and Finn is in his mid-30s. They’re both adults. But they are both still awfully fragile.
They are best friends. Really, truly. They spend time together and they care for each other and they need each other. But they are filling the gaps in each other’s lives that would normally be filled by a spouse or significant other. Not that their relationship isn’t significant, but they have fallen into a situation where they are friends with a different set of benefits. She cooks and buys his clothes, he kills spiders, changes lightbulbs and fixes the porch steps. It works for them.
Until it doesn’t.
Finn’s grandfather has just died. Instead of leaving his ranch to Finn, who has been working with him for that same last bunch of years, the old man left it to Finn and his three half-brothers equally. The Donnelly Brothers are all at crossroads in their lives, and they all move back to the ranch, into the house and the land that Finn expected would be his.
All of their relationships are strained and distant, and no one seems to be happy about any of it. So Finn, in a crazed need to re-establish control over something, anything, in his suddenly chaotic life, decides that he wants more from Lane than he’s ever asked for. He wants to push past their carefully maintained boundaries and turn their relationship into that of friends with the usual benefits.
He thinks its possible to make love and not feel at least a little love. And he’s an idiot.
Finn’s perfectly happy to tear down all of Lane’s defenses and push for whatever he wants. But when Lane turns the tables on him and starts pushing him for what she wants out of a relationship, he pushes her away as hard and as fast as he can.
The question of whether Finn can get his head out of his ass long enough to figure himself out is an open one. Finn needs to open his eyes, and his heart, before he throws away his best chance at happiness. And he needs to grovel.
Escape Rating C+: There was so much potential in Slow Burn Cowboy, but it never quite gels into the book that I was looking forward to.
Both Lane and Finn are damaged people, and neither of them thinks that they are worthy of happiness or love. They protect themselves in different ways. Lane by walling off what hurts her, and Finn by pushing away anyone who might get close enough to hurt him.
It’s amazing that they have managed to sustain a friendship, but they definitely have.
While Finn is a bit of an arsehole about it, his trauma is understandable. His dad seems to have been a serial philanderer, leaving a string of exes with his sons all across the country. Dad left everyone. But his mom also abandoned him. And he’s just sure everyone else will too.
Lane’s trauma just isn’t one that was easy for this reader to identify with. Her sense of loss at giving a baby up for adoption when she was sixteen is understandable, but she’s been wearing the past like a hair shirt ever since, to the point where the hair felt like it had been woven from a drama llama rather than anything real. Her story felt like angst for angst’s sake.
Also, these are two people who live inside their heads an awful lot, which also doesn’t feel right for Finn’s character. It felt like there was much more internal dialog than actual dialog. And Lane tended to think and talk in circles a lot of the time. That’s a habit that drives this reader crazy in real life, not just fictional life.
There are a lot of moments when the reader wants them to just stop talking inside their heads and let those words out where they might do some good!
But, and this is where the good stuff comes in, Copper Ridge just feels like a wonderful place. I like the people a lot. One of the great things in this story is all about the enduring power of women’s friendships. Lane, along with her best female friends, have a terrific, supportive and caring friendship. One of the ways in which Lane comes out of this story stronger than she went in is the realization that she is so much better off than she was when she arrived in Copper Ridge because those friendships will always see her through. She’s not alone, with or without Finn.
Finn’s supporting cast is his family, his three half-brothers and his niece Violet. They have all moved into the ranch and are now part of his life, where they have all been separate and alone up til now. Finn is really, really bad at letting people in, but having them be part of his life, whether he originally wanted it or not, is terrific. They bite and snap and growl at each other all the time, but they are all great characters and I’m looking forward to their stories in future books in the series....more
The story in Mitla Pass is told both in its present, late October 1956, and in its past, the past of all of theOriginally published at Reading Reality
The story in Mitla Pass is told both in its present, late October 1956, and in its past, the past of all of the characters in the novel that led them to be part of that particular moment.
The main focus of the story is writer Gideon Zadok, who has come to Israel to write a book about the birth of the modern State out of the fires of Zionism and the ashes of the gas chambers. Gideon is an American who made his reputation as a writer on the strength of his best-selling book about his experiences as a Marine in the Pacific Campaign of World War II. (Any and all resemblances to the author of the book are probably intended).
After months of research, Gideon finds himself and Israel in the middle of a crossroads. He doesn’t think that he has quite captured the soul of the people. Of his people. And Israel is being squeezed on all sides by its Arab neighbors. The proximate causes of the 1956 Suez Crisis were Egypt’s embargo of Israeli shipping through the Suez Canal, and the English and French desire to take the Canal back from Egyptian control. The alliance between the Israelis and the English and French was very shaky, with everyone looking over their shoulders at probably interference from the Americans, the Russians, or both at any moment.
So Gideon, now somewhat trusted by the Israelis, gets himself attached to a paratroop drop into the western edge of the Sinai Peninsula. But the story really isn’t about that completely FUBAR’ed drop. It’s about everything that came before.
And it’s a marvelous story.
Escape Rating B: It is a marvelous story, and I was caught up in it until the wee hours of the morning. That’s part of what I remember about the author’s work – once you got sucked in, you stayed sucked until the end.
But the world has changed a bit since this story was written in 1988, and even more so since the period it covers, 1956 and the years that came before. And I’ve changed since the 1970s and 1980s, so there are things that bother me now that didn’t raise an eyebrow then.
Gideon’s own story is the one that carries the book, and he’s an absolutely captivating character. A charmer and a storyteller almost from the moment that he first draws breath. Also a cocky, egotistical, selfish, self-absorbed son-of-a-bitch. His thoughts about women in general, and his treatment of his wife and his mistress made me gnash my teeth on more than one occasion.
But what fascinated and disturbed me most, often in equal measure, is that Gideon is so clearly a fictionalized version of the author himself. Both were Marines in World War II, and fought the same battles and were injured in the same places and the same way. Both turned their experiences into best-selling books and later successful screenplays. Both were in Israel in 1956 researching books about the formation of Israel. At the ending of Mitla Pass, Gideon envisions his upcoming book and its first scenes extremely close to where Exodus begins and how Exodus opens.
It’s a little eerie. So eerie that I’m left wondering how much of the earlier history of the character mirrors the author’s own. And because of that I’m left pondering some of Gideon’s background. In particular, the book for the most part clips along at a very rapid and intensely readable pace, with one exception. The parts of the story that dive deep into Gideon’s family background, particularly the experiences of Gideon’s father Nathan, stop cold because Nathan is such a completely unlikable and unfortunately completely predictable character. Also incredibly annoying to read about. It makes me wonder if the author was describing his own father, possibly as a way of exorcising a few ghosts. And if that was so, based on the description, it’s hard to blame him.
Teeth-gnashing aside, I had a good time with Mitla Pass, obviously better than the characters stuck in that seemingly pointless battle. The vast historical background, from the shtetls of the 19th century Pale of Jewish settlement in Russia to the early 20th century Jewish community in Baltimore to the beginnings of Zionism to the brief flourishing of the Communist Party in America are fascinating. The cross-section of people, places and events keep the pages turning. It makes a very tasty goulash....more
The snark is strong with this one. Very strong. And John Charming needs all the help that he can get.
At this point in the story of John Charming and his “Scooby-gang” of Sig, Molly and Choo, they, and the world, are in pretty deep foo-foo. Which is where they do best. And sometimes worst.
The story follows almost directly from last year’s In Shining Armor. At the end of that book, John says that he and Sig are going back to pick up the rest of the gang, and that’s pretty much where we are now. John and the gang heading to New York to meet up with John’s former and possibly future gang, the Knights Templar, along with his semi-present gang, the werewolves of the Round Table.
Those Knights Templar really are the descendants of the original Knights Templar. The werewolves of the Round Table, on the other hand, adopted that name because it was cool and because it fit into their frequently mesalliance with the Templars. And probably because it pisses the Templars off just a bit.
Not that werewolves in general don’t make the Templars very, very twitchy. The Templars aren’t merely charged with, but are actually geas bound to protect the Pax Arcana, the magic (ironic that) that makes it so that us mundanes don’t see or remember magic. And for a very long time, the Templars were taught to believe that the mere existence of werewolves (and vampires, and pretty much anything else that was magic but wasn’t Templar) were an automatic violation of the Pax.
Which they mostly aren’t. Most werewolves, and vampires, and cunning folk (witches) and other magical types just want to live their lives without bothering anyone. They don’t want to be outed any more than the Templars do. But negotiating that particular change in outlook makes the Templars very, very twitchy indeed.
And that’s where John Charming came in. John is a Templar. And he’s also a werewolf. The fact that he didn’t self-combust the minute he discovered those two supposedly contradictory identities has forced, often at swordpoint, the Templars to do a bit of re-thinking. Hence the very shaky alliance between the Templars and the werewolves.
What was discovered in In Shining Armor was that there is a group very much in opposition to the Templars, and that the opposition, the School of Night, had done an excellent job of infiltrating the Templars over the past 500 years. The mission of the School of Night is bring down the Pax Arcana, by any means necessary, to let magic loose in the world again.
And the Templars are bound to oppose the tearing down of the Pax by any means necessary, no matter how vile those means might be. Even to the point of nukes in New York City. They may not want to, but they may feel that they have to.
That’s what John Charming and his Scooby-gang are right smack in the middle of. Their job, and they’ve decided to accept it, is to bring down the School of Night before the Templars bring down Ragnarok. No matter what it takes. Or possibly who.
Escape Rating A-: If you’ve read the other books, this one is a humdinger, slam-dunk thrill-a-minute ride from the beginning to the end.
Let me say this upfront – the Pax Arcana series is one that is meant to be read from its beginning. Although the world starts out being very much like our own, as the series piles on, we see more and more of just how different it is – or rather just how much has been hidden from us by the Pax Arcana. The author makes a brave and hilarious attempt to get new readers into the action by opening with our hero John Charming in the midst of an imaginary interview with a very imaginary Barbara Walters. That intro does a good job of reminding series readers where last we left our heroes, but isn’t really a substitute for new readers actually reading at least most of the rest of the series.
So if you like really, really snarky urban fantasy, start with Charming.
As I’ve mentioned, John Charming definitely comes from the snarky end of urban fantasy. He reminds me a lot of Harry Dresden from the Dresden Files, but John’s attitude towards women in general is a bit more, I want to say enlightened but that isn’t quite right. John, unlike Harry or most heroes in urban fantasy, is managing to have a successful relationship with Sig the Valkyrie. And he’s less of a hound and more of a good man, if only because Sig can perforate him with her spear when he screws things up. He’s learning, and it makes him more sympathetic.
Like other urban fantasy heroes, including Harry Dresden, Atticus Finch of the Iron Druid Chronicles, and John Taylor from the Nightside, the book is literally his story. It’s told from the first-person, and we are inside John’s head. You do have to like his brand of snark to want to occupy that head for very long, but it’s generally a livable space. While he does use humor to lighten what are often grim situations, he is also funnier on the inside than even what comes out, and he says what he’s thinking, and often what we’re thinking too.
The thing in this story that causes all the fuss is an interesting one. It’s a book. An evil book. It’s one of those books from the Restricted Section in the library at Hogwarts (not literally, of course) that should be chained up because when you read it, it reads you. And it’s way more powerful than most people who read it. The School of Night is using it to let magical monsters loose in the world, test the responses of the Knights, and see if they can spread enough chaos to break the Pax. It’s a diabolical plan, from a very diabolical mind.
But the sheer amount of danger that John, his gang and the Templars are tipped into, while awesome and scary on so many levels, also brings out one of the inevitable twists of urban fantasy – that in order to keep the series interesting, the protagonist has to face and overcome more dangerous situations each outing, with bigger and badder villains, and hairier and scarier problems to solve. The hero becomes more powerful, and the villains get even more frightening and evil. The tone of the series gets darker the deeper you go. And so it proves with John Charming. Also Harry Dresden, John Taylor and every other urban fantasy series I’ve ever read.
I wonder where this one is going to end. But I certainly plan on hanging on to the ride. Possibly with my fingernails. And maybe my teeth.
First of all, I love the places that Robyn Carr creates. Thunder Point was a terrific little town, and now TimbOriginally published at Reading Reality
First of all, I love the places that Robyn Carr creates. Thunder Point was a terrific little town, and now Timberlake Colorado, the town near Sullivan’s Crossing, also seems like a fine place to get a fresh start.
And that’s just what Sierra Jones is looking for when she arrives in Timberlake in her beat-up orange VW Beetle, fondly known as “The Pumpkin” for obvious reasons. Nearly 30 and just 9 months sober, Sierra has come to Timberlake planning to spend some quality time with her brother Cal (hero of What We Find) and getting to know her new sister-in-law and the ‘bump’ that will become her niece in a few short months time.
Cal found a new life and fresh start in Timberlake, and healing in the beauties of nature that surround Sullivan’s Crossing at the conjunction of the Colorado and Continental Divide Trails. Sierra hopes for the same.
She ran away to rehab to escape something horrible, only to discover that the events that led up to her break happened, at least partially, because she really was an alcoholic, just like so many people, including Cal, told her. Running away from her messes into rehab was the first smart decision she had made in quite a while.
Sierra got scared straight. And she’s putting in the work to stay straight, one day at a time. But what scared her is big and bad and very, very real, and until she deals with it, she’s always going to feel just one day away from making more bad choices, or having her choices taken away from her, once and for all.
So Sierra comes to Timberlake for a fresh start where she can stand on her own two feet but still have support when she needs it. And so that she can be there for Cal when he needs her. It’s about time.
But just like her brother, Sierra comes to Timberlake looking to heal herself, and certainly not looking for a relationship. And that’s always just when you find one – when you are definitely not looking.
Conrad Boyle, (everyone calls him Connie whether he likes it or not), is a member of the Timberlake Fire Department. He’s also a paramedic who does search and rescue in his “off” hours. He doesn’t think he’s any better at picking the right partner than Sierra is. His last relationship ended in disaster, and he’s sure he’s better off not looking for love, because what finds him turns out to be anything but.
So of course Sierra and Connie fall for each other. Both unwilling at first to admit that what they have found is more than a fling. And Sierra more than a little bit afraid that when Connie learns the whole truth about her, he’ll run away as far and as fast as he can, leaving her devastated and alone. Again.
Instead, her past comes looking for her. But when it finally catches up to her, this time she doesn’t cave in. She nails it to the wall and beats it with a baseball bat.
Escape Rating B: I do love visiting Sullivan’s Crossing. It’s a great place, populated with a terrific bunch of people. Even the local bad apples are reasonably sympathetic and understandably human, if still a bit sour to the local taste.
I also like that the protagonists of the series are all adults with real adult problems. There’s plenty of angst at the right spots, but it’s real-life angst. Everyone has been banged around a bit in the school of hard knocks, and whatever they are agonizing over is stuff that’s really there, not made up drama. The series so far is also blissfully free of ridiculous misunderstandammits.
In spite of his spectacularly bad luck at relationships, Connie is a genuinely nice guy. He’s a good man who does some very hard things. Being a paramedic, even in a small town, means that he’s seen a lot of death and dismemberment, and had to rescue a lot of people from a lot of bad things. Sometimes he fails. So although his life looks mostly sunny, he understands in his bones that there are dark places and dark things in the world. He has the empathy to understand Sierra’s pain without either papering it over or rejecting it, and her.
Sierra, of course, is just certain that he can do better than her mixed-up self. But the heart wants what the heart wants.
The journey in this book is Sierra’s. She needs to decide she’s worthy, and she does it by facing the demons in her past. And that’s where things get both interesting and a bit murky.
I loved watching Sierra build a life for herself. Not just the romance, but everything that Sierra does to make herself part of Sullivan’s Crossing, and the way that it makes itself part of her. The mentor/father-figure relationship she builds with Sully is lovely. I’d say sweet but Sully probably wouldn’t approve.
But the more she reveals about herself, not just inside her own head but to Cal and eventually Connie, the more the reader is certain that her past is coming to get her. Literally. The story builds and builds the tension of Sierra waiting for that very dangerous other shoe to drop, to the point where I wanted to read ahead just to find out if they ever did get Chekhov’s gun down off the wall and just shoot it already.
When that climax finally comes, it gets wrapped up a bit too quickly. The way it gets wrapped up was wonderful, but that other shoe hung up there much longer than the actual drop got wrapped up.
But I loved my visit to Sullivan’s Crossing, and enjoyed it so much that I raced through the book just to see how everyone was doing and get to know the newbies. I can’t wait to go back!...more
It’s a very big butterfly, and it is impossible to keep it from flapping its wings for an entire year.
The problem with time travel is that it is incredibly difficult to spend any time at all in the past and not change something – possibly even something significant. But that’s the dilemma that faces researchers Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane. Their job, which they have chosen to accept, is to go back to the England of 1815 and quite seriously meddle with the life of Jane Austen – but leave no trace of their meddling.
This is truly an impossible mission. And so it proves. But the story isn’t in what Rachel and Liam change about Jane Austen, it’s what changes about themselves in the process.
Time travel always involves a bit of handwavium. In this case, it’s a scientific process that sends them back to a specific place and time, armed with the knowledge (and the money) that it is hoped are necessary to inveigle their way into Jane Austen’s circle, her life, and wherever she stashed her unpublished manuscript. Oh, and by the way, discover what mysterious ailment killed her.
That last bit is Rachel’s job. In her own time (possibly the late 21st or early 22nd century), Rachel is a doctor. But in 1815, all she can be is Liam’s spinster sister, while he pretends to be the doctor. Lucky for both of them if not for Jane, medicine was not all that far advanced. As a well educated man, with a little bit of coaching from Rachel, Liam can fake it. And he does. While Liam is faking being a well-to-do doctor and man about town, Rachel has the much harder task of pretending to be a woman of the early 19th century, shy, retiring, unambitious and unintelligent. She is not very good at it, and wonders just how smart women managed not to go completely insane.
In spite of many, many roadblocks, both expected and otherwise, Rachel and Liam do manage to accomplish their task. Mostly. Only to discover that it wasn’t quite what they thought it was. And now that they are back in their own time, neither are they.
Escape Rating A-: For anyone who enjoys time travel stories, this one is an absolute treat. It will also remind some readers of Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog. There is a bit of that sense of madcap adventure, but not too much, as well as the difficulty of determining what about the past can be meddled with and what can’t. At the same time, the stakes don’t feel too high, or the situation too dire, as it was in Willis’ Doomsday Book.
In some ways, the task before Rachel and Liam seems like a fool’s errand, or an absolutely impossibly unresolvable conflict. To get close enough to the somewhat reclusive Jane Austen to have access to a document she kept well-hidden without affecting the lives of anyone around her is improbable from the outset. It seems impossible to get that close and not change something, and also not to leave evidence of themselves somewhere in the Austen family correspondence.
It is also beyond imagining to live an entire year of one’s life in the circumstances that Rachel and Liam insert themselves into without their coming out of it changed, whether the world they left behind (ahead?) changes or not. And so it proves. And that’s a big part of what I can’t stop thinking about.
The world is what the world is because of what has happened before we came into it. While we may discover documentation of history that we did not previously know, the moving finger has already writ that history, and the effects of whatever happened have already been built into our world. If there are effects of discovering the formerly hidden information (the recent discovery of Richard III’s body comes to mind) that discovery doesn’t change anything written or believed or assumed about Richard III in the past. Shakespeare still used him as the epitome of evil. Future biographies will be affected, but past ones won’t re-write themselves.
That’s not the case in Rachel and Liam’s world. When the past changes, everything between then and their now re-writes itself. In that world, history is a shared delusion, just like paper money. It is so because we all believe it is so, and not because the piece of paper has an intrinsic value. In their world, history changes and everything adapts around it. That particular aspect reminds me more of The Eyre Affair than time-travel. Change the source and everything that derives from the source shifts to match – no matter how disruptive those shifts might be.
There’s also an attitude that it is possible to change the past and know, more or less, what the effects will be. I end up wondering about that. While there are some cases in their history that seem like there’s nowhere to go but up, how can one be certain? One of the short stories in John Scalzi’s Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi deals with this theme, as does Elleander Morning by Jerry Yulsman, a book I read long ago and have never been able to forget.
One part of the story that seems all-too-real and heartbreaking concerns the relationship between Rachel and Liam and the changes wrought both to themselves and to their past by their actions in 1815. We are the sum total of our experiences. The child, and everything that happens to that child, makes the man, or the woman. But they go back in time and experience a year together that does not happen for anyone else. They are both forced to play a part, and of necessity become some of that part in order to survive. At the same time, they are aware, and they are the only people aware, of the nature and the sheer magnitude of the lies that they are living.
But when they come back, the world they return to is not the same. They may be the sum total of their experiences, but the world they return to produced different versions of them than the ones they actually are. How does a person reconcile that? Is it better to remember, or is it better to conform and be, as a consequence, comfortable? And how does one decide which reality to accept, and which to reject?
This is the question that continues to haunt me, long after I closed the final page....more
I finished up the Vatta’s War series nearly ten years ago, when the final and much anticipated book, Victory CoOriginally published at Reading Reality
I finished up the Vatta’s War series nearly ten years ago, when the final and much anticipated book, Victory Conditions, was published. I enjoyed the series a lot, and while I was a bit sad to see it end, it did come to a completely satisfying conclusion.
I read Vatta’s War at the same time that I read two other military SF series with female protagonists, David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, which I eventually got tired of but seems to have never ended, and Tanya Huff’s Valor/Confederation series (the official name is Confederation, I always think of it as the Valor series), which I loved and which also ended not long after Vatta’s War, and also with a satisfying conclusion.
Valor came back two years ago, and now it’s Kylara Vatta’s turn to return in a sequel series. While the first series was very appropriately titled Vatta’s War, this new series title, Vatta’s Peace, feels somewhat aspirational. Although there should be peace after everything Ky and her world went through in the first series, that peace is immediately disturbed at the beginning of Cold Welcome.
Grand Admiral Kylara Vatta is supposed to be returning to her home planet of Slotter’s Key for a ceremonial welcome and a whole lot of paperwork concerning the Vatta family’s vast mercantile empire. Instead, her shuttle is sabotaged and she and its crew find themselves stranded in the icy waters of the south polar sea just as winter is coming on, with no hope of rescue. Not because no one wants to look for them, although there are some who certainly don’t, but mostly because weather conditions are so horrendous that no one CAN look for them.
And no one expects anyone to have survived. The entire polar continent has been cemented in everyone’s worldview as a terraforming failure, and no one has gone there in centuries. There aren’t even any satellite scans of the place – something about Miksland interferes with any scanning equipment. Which should have raised someone’s suspicions at some point, but it’s become an accepted fact that Miksland is uninhabited and unlivable.
But Ky being Ky, she manages to scrape survival out of the jaws of certain death, and keeps right on doing so, one task at a time, keeping the crew together and getting them off the churning ocean and at first just onto dry land, and then into a secret base that isn’t supposed to exist. Knowing all the while that another saboteur likely hides among her battered survivors.
It’s a race to the finish, with Ky determined to keep her crew alive and out of the hands of whoever has protected so many secrets for so many centuries at who knows what cost. And a race for her friends, family and loved ones to figure out just who is after Ky and everyone else yet again, before her luck finally runs out.
Escape Rating B: I expected to love this a lot more than I did. It was great slipping back into Ky’s world again, she’s a fascinating character and the Vatta family and their universe are always interesting, albeit deadly. Both the Vattas and whoever is out to get them.
But the story has a very slow start. The journey of Ky and her crew just to survive one day, and then the next, is cold and brutal, but wears on the reader almost as much as it does the characters. Ironically, except for the initial crash of the shuttle, the whole thing reads a bit like Ernest Shackleton’s famous journey. The cold is relentless, and the problems of surviving it don’t change much from planet to planet or century to century.
It’s only when Ky’s makeshift crew discovers the secret base that the story heats up, just as the crew finally gets thawed out. There’s more to do, more to see, more to explore, more to question, and the action starts to flow. Also, up until Ky discovers the base, we don’t get nearly as much leavening of the unrelieved hardship from Ky’s allies on the outside as we do once she finds that base.
The action heats up on all fronts at the same time and the story clips along at a pace that keeps the reader flipping pages at a rapid pace.
But as harrowing as Ky’s side of this journey is, the big questions are all on the outside. Someone, undoubtedly a lot of someones, have kept an entire continent secret for centuries. For that to be remotely possible, they had to have collaborators across all the offices of government and the military, and for centuries. Something very, very rotten is going on, and Ky has just exposed it. Whatever it is.
And the secret is still ongoing. The base is fully stocked, and the diaries of the base commanders going back centuries show that the base is staffed every summer for some unknown purpose. Last but certainly not least, whatever that purpose is, the base closed up early this year, just in time for Ky’s crash and intended mysterious and watery grave.
The problem I had with the book, as much as I was enjoying the action, is that it just didn’t stick the dismount. Ky does get rescued, which isn’t really a spoiler as there couldn’t be a series without her, but nothing else felt resolved. Ky is back, and in an even bigger soup than she was in the previous series, but so far no one seems to have any clues about who, what, when, where or especially why that base is there and what secrets it is intended to keep. It’s a giant black hole, waiting for future books in the series to fill it. And while there needs to be something for the series to focus on, some answers to some of the many, many more immediate questions would have brought this particular installment to a more satisfying conclusion.
Now we wait, with that proverbial bated breath, hoping that those future installments show up soon....more
I read The Librarians and the Lost Lamp a couple of weeks ago, and I really enjoyed it because it felt so much like an episode of the show, including all of the madcap adventure and especially all of the banter. I had a great time, just as I do when I watch The Librarians. It was fun!
But The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase felt like it was more of a strain. The Librarians, of course, are always a bit strained in the midst of yet another hair-raising case, but there was something about this one that made it feel like a strain for the reader, too. Or at least this reader.
Fair warning, I may get a bit meta here. It’s hard to review a media tie-in novel without some references to the media it ties into, and how it “feels” related to how the original feels, And works. I would say or doesn’t work but the fact is that a person for whom the original does not work is unlikely to read novels based on it. My 2 cents.
Part of what makes The Librarians work as a show is their marvelous team dynamic. The Librarians and their Guardian are a close knit team and also kind of a family. What they do is designed to be a bit outside the mundane world, and they of necessity have bonded together. Along with Jenkins, the combination archivist, caretaker and zookeeper of the Library and the Library Annex in Portland they work out of.
On the one hand, parts of this story provide a marvelous and much broader view of just how big, how strange, and how magical the Library’s collections truly are. Nobody wants the job of cleaning the pen that holds the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs, but it’s a dirty job and somebody has to do it. Usually Jenkins.
On that other hand, the Librarians spend a lot of this story on separate parts of the quest. This group is stronger when it’s together. It’s also funnier and occasionally more heartwarming when it’s together. So for this reader story lost some of its steam when it separated the group, Also the way they were split up felt a bit contrived. Their separate quests seem to rely on their weaknesses more than their strength, and the individuals they were paired up with instead felt like contrivances designed to teach them each something rather than get the job done. As usual, my 2 cents and your mileage may vary.
And the action got a bit bogged down as it split into four separate stories, which at times felt a bit repetitious.
The concept that Mother Goose was not only real but a powerful witch who encoded her spells into nursery rhymes fits right into the mythos of the Library. That her magic could get out of hand if left in the hands of the “wrong people” could make an episode or a great story.
But the way that this one wrapped up, which unfortunately I did see coming a mile away, fell flat. Again, at least for this reader.
So, as much as I love The Librarians, I didn’t have nearly as much fun with Mother Goose as I did with the Lost Lamp.
Escape Rating C+: The scenes where Eve and Jenkins are chasing several of the Library’s more colorful (and volatile) exhibits around the Library are hilarious. My personal favorite is when Jenkins throws Arthur’s Crown at the Sword Excalibur and tells it to play “Keep Away” with the King of Beasts and the Unicorn. Eve’s solution to the problem of the Dead Man’s Chest was also lot of fun. But the gang spends too much time not being a gang, and I missed the way they play off of each other much too much....more
Because this is the start of National Library Week, I was looking for at least one book this week with some kinOriginally published at Reading Reality
Because this is the start of National Library Week, I was looking for at least one book this week with some kind of library theme. When the much more serious book I originally planned on turned out to be a little too serious, I went for the much more fun option.
The Librarians, the TV series, is always fun. And after having watched it, I’ll admit that it gives saying, “I’m the Librarian” just a bit more of kick whenever I introduce myself in certain work situations.
But being an ordinary librarian isn’t near as much of a thrill as being one of THE Librarians, and that’s probably a good thing.
Our more adventurous, and fictional, counterparts are having a much more dangerous time than we are. Not that most of us don’t secretly envy them in one way or another. The seemingly unlimited resources, if nothing else.
The Librarians in this series work for a presumably mythical Library whose mission is to keep the rest of us from finding out that magic really exists, and that all too many of the legends and fables that we believe are purely fiction are in fact based in fact - and fairly dangerous fact at that.
In this particular case, the legend that is being turned on its head is the legend of Aladdin’s lamp, and the genie contained therein, as well as the legend of Scheherazade and the 1,001 Arabian Nights, along with a very specific story among those 1,001 nights, that of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
In the world of the Librarians, nothing is ever quite as it seems. And no great magic ever comes without an equally great price. It’s the paying of that price that the Library attempts to prevent, usually by locking up the magical artifact involved.
The story in The Librarians and the Lost Lamp switches between two different occasions when the Library (and those Forty Thieves) went after the lamp and the djinn imprisoned within, with rather tumultuous results.
In 2006, when Flynn Carsen was the solo librarian, and before the catastrophic events of 2014 that caused the Library to recruit three additional Librarians and their Guardian, a researcher in Baghdad discovered the earliest known copy of the 1,001 Nights. Both the Library and the Forty Thieves criminal organization hoped that the manuscript contained clues to the location of Aladdin’s lost lamp and its djinn. The Library wanted the lamp locked up for everyone’s safety, and the Forty wanted the djinn to grant their wish for power and wealth. The djinn, of course, had a somewhat different agenda.
No one came out of that particular encounter with exactly what they wanted. So in 2016, when the lamp resurfaces, both the Library and the Forty chase after it again, with even messier results than the last time.
In 2006, the lamp was in the middle of an empty desert. In 2016, it turns up in Las Vegas. The chaos that ensues is absolutely epic, and a complete blast of fun and adventure from beginning to end.
Escape Rating B: For anyone who loves the series, The Librarians and the Lost Lamp reads like a terrific episode. And for fans, that’s a great thing. I’m not certain how it would read to anyone not familiar. So consider this one a book for those in the know.
That being said, not all media tie-in books do justice by their source material, either because they mess with the canonical timeline or by just not sounding or feeling like part of their original. Or by not being true to the characters. That’s not the case here. The characters are all very true to their TV counterparts, and this feels like a slightly-longer-than-an-hour episode of the series, complete with the series’ hallmarks of adventure, teamwork and madcap humor.
Again, if you love it, that’s good.
The series itself is out of the urban fantasy tradition, mixed with a whole lot of myths and legends. The place where it plays off of urban fantasy is in that concept that magic is real, and that for some reason most of us don’t see it, no matter how much we want to. In this version of the world, it’s the Library, and the many Librarians who have served it (and usually died) who have kept magic from leaking out everywhere.
The way that the Librarians, in this particular case Cassandra, resolve the dilemma of the djinn who plans to break out of his lamp and burn the world (no pressure!) fits well with the way the Librarians generally work, and with Cassie’s personality and methods in particular. However, it will also feel familiar to anyone who remembers the I of Newton episode of the 1985 revival of The Twilight Zone, or the Joe Haldeman story the episode was based on. Clearly, methods of dealing with the Devil on your doorstep apply equally well to angry djinn.
I had a lot of fun reading this, enough so that I’m looking forward to the author’s next contribution to the series, in The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase. And to going back a rewatching the show!
p.s. I read most of this on a flight from Cincinnati to Atlanta. Wait, what was that? Is that a gremlin on the wing?...more
The Hideaway turned out to be an unexpectedly lovely read for me. I’ll talk about the ‘lovely’ first and get toOriginally published at Reading Reality
The Hideaway turned out to be an unexpectedly lovely read for me. I’ll talk about the ‘lovely’ first and get to the ‘unexpected’ parts at the end. You’ll see why, I promise.
The Hideaway fits very well into a particular sub-sub-sub-genre of women’s fiction/small town romance. This is one of those stories where a woman finds herself obligated to return to the small town she grew up in, after years away in some big city, to take care of some family something-or-other that is left behind when an elderly relative dies (or occasionally has a health crisis). And in the process of taking care of whatever-it-was, she discovers that the relative she sincerely loved but didn’t visit enough had some big secrets that she finds out about much too late, when that person is gone. And that her new knowledge of those secrets both changes the way she views that person, and makes her rethink quite a lot of her own life.
Especially since her return home usually forces her to confront whatever baggage she left behind – because it’s all still waiting for her back at what used to be home.
And for whatever reason, taking care of that final obligation always takes way more time than she planned, and in that time she has a chance to rethink her current life in whatever big city she now resides, the opportunity to fall back in love with her hometown, and the chance to fall in love with someone completely new.
Which also brings her to a major life choice; return to the life she left behind in the city, or stay in the small town she never wanted to return to with a new purpose and a new love.
This particular plot has become a classic for a reason – in the hands of a good writer, it makes a powerful (and lovely) story, as it does here in The Hideaway.
What makes The Hideaway (the book) and the Hideaway (the place) are the people and their stories. Especially Sara and her grandmother Mags. Mags has just died, and has passed the ownership of the run down Hideaway Bed and Breakfast, along with its slightly run down permanent residents, to Sara.
Sara, the proud but workaholic owner of a successful decorating shop in New Orleans, expects to wrap Mags’ estate up in a week, only to discover that it is going to take months to carry out Mags’ final wish that she restore the Hideaway back to its original splendor, and then either sell it or continue to operate it, however she sees fit.
The long-term residents of the Hideaway pretty much HAVE a fit. The four older residents discovered the Hideaway as a safe harbor 30 or more years ago. It’s their home as much as it was Mags’, and they all feel bereft, even though they all know that Mags did the right thing. It was, after all, her house.
But as Sara dives into the renovations, she discovers that there was a whole lot more to Mags’ past than she ever imagined, and that the things she believed, both about Mags and about herself, are not quite what she thought they were.
Knowing now what she didn’t know then, and what Mags didn’t know then, sets Sara free.
Escape Rating A-: The Hideaway is a sweet and lovely take on a tried-and-true trope, and it works very, very well.
The story (and its perspective) flips back and forth between Mags’ arrival at the Hideaway in the late 1950s, and Sara’s return to the Hideaway and Sweet Bay Alabama in 2016. Both stories have a lot of heart. They also mirror each other. Mags has a good life, but she misses her happy ever after. Sara still has a chance at hers – she just has to drop her old baggage and grab it.
On the one hand, there’s that saying about the past being another country, that they do things differently there. There’s also the saying that specifically refers to the South, that the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. Both those versions come into play in this story.
The world, and the options for women in it, were rather different in the 1950s than they are today. That Mags managed to carve a life of her own even somewhat away from the expectations of her parents was a major accomplishment for her and a huge disappointment for them in ways that seem almost quaint in 2017 – but were real at the time. That she fell short of the ultimate goal due to other people’s beliefs and expectations does turn out to be a tragedy, but not as big a tragedy as it might have been.
Sara, on the other hand, has the possibility of having, if not “it all”, then at least most of it. Her journey felt easier to identify with, but Mags’ story had more depth. Mags did the best she could in the circumstances she had, and managed to make a life and world for herself mostly according to her own desires. We wish better for her, but it is surprising that she got as much as she wanted.
And for readers, both Mags AND Sara’s journeys are at turns heart-rending and heart-warming, and we feel for both of them and want them to be happy. That Mags came so close but didn’t quite make it is heartbreaking because we care.
I loved this book. It made a neverending day at an airport absolutely fly by. But I was surprised that I enjoyed it so much, and by this point you’re wondering why. Most readers don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the publisher of a book, and with some exceptions, I usually don’t either. But there are a few genres that just don’t interest me, and one of those genres is inspirational literature, whether romance or nonfiction. The publisher of The Hideaway, Thomas Nelson Publishers, is a well-respected publisher of inspirational literature, specifically Christian inspirational literature. When The Hideaway was offered for tour, as much as the description of the book appealed to me, I just wasn’t interested if it was inspirational. I was assured it was not, and after reading it I completely concur, it isn’t. (There is nothing wrong with inspirational literature, it just isn’t my cuppa, and life is too short to read books that you know upfront are just not your jam.) The Hideaway is not an inspirational romance. It doesn’t have any of the characteristics that make a book an “inspie”. The romances in this book are both squeaky clean, but a well-done “fade to black” is a tried-and-true method of handling romance scenes. And I’d much rather read a well-done fade to black than a horribly or laughably written sex scene. But the lack of sexual scenes does not make a book inspirational. And The Hideaway isn’t. It’s just an excellent women’s fiction/contemporary romance story.
This does all lead up to something. At first, based on the publisher, I was expecting an inspie, and was pleased to discover that this book isn’t. But because I enjoyed it so much, I’m now concerned about it. My concern is about whether this book will find the audience it deserves, because of the publisher. People who look at Thomas Nelson for an inspie are going to be disappointed. And people who stay far, far away from inspirational fiction aren’t going to even look at this book, because of the publisher. It’s definitely a dilemma.
So go back to ignoring the publisher. If you like southern fiction, or small town romance, or stories where there’s a choice to be made between the life you have and the life you’ve come to love, read this book!...more
There is something very, very rotten in the state of Azrimar, but that isn’t what Caitlyn has come to the capitOriginally published at Reading Reality
There is something very, very rotten in the state of Azrimar, but that isn’t what Caitlyn has come to the capital to deal with. Not that all roads and all missions don’t eventually lead that way – but that isn’t how they start.
Instead, Caitlyn has arrived at court just in the nick of time for the annual testing of potential sorceresses, only to discover that her preparation missed the key points of the ritual. It is crucial to her mission that she find a place at court – even if that mission is not what it appears to be.
She succeeds, just barely, but only by earning the enmity of the Crown Princess Bradana, and the intense curiosity of the Witch-Queen’s pet shifter, Kyler. Caitlyn knows she’s going to spend the rest of her time at court dealing with those two very opposite interests, just not in the way that she originally expected.
Because both Bradana and Kyler are much more than they appear. But then, so is Caitlyn.
That Caitlyn is some kind of spy on some type of secret mission is obvious from the beginning, but we don’t learn who, how, or why until we get a bit into the story.
This is a fantasy romance, so Caitlyn’s world is not our own, and not even in our past or future. As this world is set up, Caitlyn is from a kingdom to the south, and is a priestess of the nature goddess on a special mission. Because something is rotten in the central kingdom of Azrimar and apparently has been for quite some time.
Long ago, a relic was stolen from the goddess, and she needs it back. Caitlyn has one year to infiltrate the palace and find the missing article. And that’s more than long enough to figure out just how much has gone wrong, and for Caitlyn to fall in love.
Unfortunately for both of them, Caitlyn falls for Kyler, a leopard shifter who has been oath-bound to the Witch Queen for 10 years. He knows that the Queen has been gravitating towards the dark side of the force, but he also knows that he’s dying. Whatever is going wrong, it isn’t going to be his problem fairly soon.
Until Caitlyn comes along and shakes him out of the depths of his depression. Kyler can help Caitlyn find the relic. Caitlyn can beseech the gods on his behalf. And it will take both of them to even take a stab at all that has gone wrong.
Caitlyn, Kyler, the Witch Queen and her kingdom have all come to a crossroad. The choices they make will have dire consequences, not just for themselves, or even for the kingdom, but for their entire world.
They must choose wisely – or all will be lost in the conflagration to come.
Escape Rating C+: This is a mixed feelings review. There were some things about this story I liked a lot, and some that drove me a bit batty.
I liked both Caitlyn and Kyler quite a bit. Caitlyn is very focused. She has a mission to carry out with a very strict time limit, but she still finds time to make friends and to care for and about people. She’s involved with her world, even for the short time she will be in the kingdom, and her actions always trend towards good. At the same time, Caitlyn is in service to a nature goddess, attempting to conceal herself, her power and her mission in a place that seems to be the antithesis of anything natural. It’s no surprise that she befriends Kyler, as he is the only nature-oriented being in the palace.
Kyler’s situation is tragic from the outset, and only becomes more so as we learn more about it. His captivity began honorably, but as time has gone on the Witch Queen has broken all of her oaths and agreements about it. And he is not free to leave – she has bound him with her magic. He has freedom of thought and some free will, but he literally cannot leave the palace, nor can he refuse the Queen’s use of his magic. Caitlyn’s friendship is his one light in a very dark place, and yet he is afraid to spend too much time with her or show her too much favor. While the Queen needs him alive for his magical power, punishing anyone close to him has become a sport for her and especially for her sister Bradana.
The palace intrigue is nasty and the methods of it feel a bit too predictable. And the characters of evil are a bit too much of evil for evil’s sake, which doesn’t work well as motivation. Or rather, that’s Bradana’s character, the Witch Queen’s motives are entirely too clear. She’s her sister’s pawn, and has let herself be manipulated into the darkness. In spite of her being queen, there just doesn’t turn out to be a lot of there, there. She’s an empty shell. To say that Brandana is evil because she was made that way (and she quite literally was) doesn’t give us much insight into the evil that made her. Hopefully we’ll get more of that in later books in the series.
I don’t expect to like the villains, although occasionally one does, but I need to understand them. And I didn’t here. On my other hand, there’s a tendency in fantasy for the West to represent good and the East to represent evil. The Lord of the Rings isn’t the only story where this happens, and it plays to some very old stereotypes, right along with white hats and black hats. In this series it looks like the West is where evil has its kingdoms, and the center and East are where the good, or at least neutral, kingdoms are. It’s always nice to see stereotypes turned on their heads a bit.
I end where I began, with mixed feelings. I liked the heroine and hero a lot, but found the plot to be on the predictable side and the villains a bit cookie-cutter. And while there were hints at interesting worldbuilding, it felt like too many of the details were left on the cutting-room floor. Hopefully things will be become clearer in later books in the series....more
This case starts out with a very literal (and also very large) bang. Navajo Tribal Police Officer Bernadette (BOriginally published at Reading Reality
This case starts out with a very literal (and also very large) bang. Navajo Tribal Police Officer Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito has a rare night off. Unfortunately it isn’t a night off that she can share with her husband Jim Chee, also an officer with the Tribal Police. Left to her own devices, Bernie does what a couple of thousand other people are doing that night, going to a basketball game.
Although basketball is a VERY big deal on the rez (Bernie herself played back in high school) this game draws an even bigger crowd than usual. The current high school team are playing against a team made up of veterans from some of Championship teams of the relatively recent past. Everybody wants to see the hometown heroes, and discover whether or not age and experience really can beat youth and skill.
Bernie never gets to see the end of the game, because a bomb goes off in the parking lot. Suddenly Bernie finds herself back on the clock, trying to keep the crowd away from the very big mess (cars explode! car lots full of cars explode LOTS!)
Bernie finds herself in the middle of all the chaos, trying to keep the crowd contained and the crime scene relatively uncontaminated, while searching for any possible victims or suspects (or both) and praying that more officers arrive to help manage the 3,000+ attendees along with all the cars showing up to pick up kids at the end of the game. And she needs the FBI, much as she hates even thinking that, because they are the ones with explosives expertise.
It’s a mess that only gets messier, and more confusing, over the days ahead.
Because there are no coincidences in Bernie’s world, as she was taught by the “Legendary Lieutenant” Joe Leaphorn, the bombing ties into a much larger case. It seems like the intended victim was a hometown hero on that Championship team, but now he’s a big-shot lawyer from the big city. And he’s come back to the Rez not just for a basketball game, but to serve as mediator for all of the many, varied, contradictory and non-cooperative factions who are debating (loudly, heatedly and occasionally violently) about whether there should be any development at all at the base of the Grand Canyon.
A debate that feels like it is nearly as old as the Canyon itself. And equally immovable.
In the wake of the bombing, Jim Chee gets stuck body-guarding the mediator on his trip to Tuba City. Chee hates being a bodyguard, but not nearly as much as Aza Palmer hates having one.
Aza keeps giving Jim the slip. Eventually that is bound to catch up with him. With all of them. With catastrophic results. For multiple definitions of “catastrophe”.
Escape Rating A: I have to admit upfront that I love this series. I listened to the earlier books, written by the author’s father Tony Hillerman, back when I had a long commute. (If you have a long drive ahead of you, audiobooks are marvelous, and mysteries are particularly good. It’s nearly impossible to thumb to the end to find out “whodunnit”.)
When Tony Hillerman died in 2008, I assumed this series was over. So when his daughter Anne revived it in 2013 with the absolutely awesome Spider Woman's Daughter, it felt like a miracle. Not just for the opportunity to catch up with “old friends” as the protagonists in long-running series often turn out to be, but also because Anne found a way to make the series her own, by shifting much of the perspective from the two male cops, Leaphorn and Chee, to Bernie Manuelito, giving readers a new perspective on the cases and a different perspective on Navajo life in the 21st century. Unlike both of the men, Bernie is often caught between two worlds and two sets of obligations. While she loves her job, and is every bit as good a cop as her husband or any other male officer, unlike them she still keeps up much of her more traditional role as her mother’s oldest daughter, and as her wayward younger sister’s protector. She often finds herself between the rock of her job and the hard place of her family in a way that neither Leaphorn nor Chee ever experienced.
(While the entire series is great, 21 books in may seem daunting to a new reader. And as much as I loved them at the time, I don’t think it is necessary to read the whole thing to get the background, especially since so much has changed. Starting with Spider Woman's Daughter will bring any new reader up to speed with where the characters are now.)
The case in this story is fascinating, although not really about the bombing. One of the things about mysteries in general is that people are always people, both good and bad. In the end, the motives always turn out to be the familiar ones. And as so often happens, the past catches up with the present.
But in this series the surroundings and the background keep the reader enthralled every bit as much as whatever the mystery is. The background of this particular case is particularly intractable. There are multiple competing interests. Every single group involved is extremely passionate about their argument, whether they want to develop the Canyon, preserve it as it is, or something either in between or more extreme.
Even the groups that seem to be on the same side can’t agree with each other. And on top of that there’s a group that just wants to cause trouble and get media coverage, no matter what they have to do to get it. Everyone has a stake, and it seems like everyone wants to shove their stake into someone else’s heart. The FBI is up to their eyeballs in potential suspects for the bombing.
Watching the mediator attempt to herd all of the cats is both interesting and enlightening. In spite of the rumors that surround the event, his role is to referee, not to promote an agenda of his own. He’s very, very good at his job. And it turns out, very, very bad at family. Which is what the case comes back to in the end.
People are always people. But sometimes lions are more than they seem....more
When I either run out of time, or get full-up on serious, I turn to one of my go-to authors and series. At theOriginally published at Reading Reality
When I either run out of time, or get full-up on serious, I turn to one of my go-to authors and series. At the moment, that’s Kerry Greenwood and her Phryne Fisher series. Kerry and Phryne always deliver a great, fun, can’t-put-it-down mystery, and that is certainly the case in The Green Mill Murder.
There’s also just a bit more serious in this one than I expected, but in an utterly marvelous way.
As always, this episode of Phryne’s story begins with a murder. Detective Inspector Jack Robinson is correct, Phryne should be charged with aiding and abetting, because corpses seem to appear wherever she goes. In this particular case, the corpse is that of a contestant in a dance marathon contest. While the poor man was literally killing his feet, no one expected that particular kind of death to climb up and stick a knife in his chest.
Dance marathons were potentially deadly enough without throwing knives into the mix.
But as soon as the body drops next to Phryne she is on the case. And as much as she dislikes the cause, all too glad to be shed of her odious date. Even though he does a bunk when the police arrive. She doesn’t mind dealing with the cops herself, far from it, but is does make the bastard look guilty of something, and she’s just sure (correctly) that she’ll be stuck getting him out of it, as well as solving the murder.
And so she does. But it is a very, very pretty puzzle, albeit a deadly one. The other dancers were too far away to drive a knife into the poor man’s chest. His dance partner, after 47 hours on her feet, was too far out of it to do it either, even if she had a motive, which she didn’t.
The band members were visibly much too far away, as was the somewhat ghoulishly spectating crowd. So who killed the extremely dead dancer?
As Phryne dives into the lives of everyone involved, she finds that there were plenty of motives for killing the deceased, and plenty of people in the room who wanted him dead. Which doesn’t solve the crime, because none of them were remotely close enough to do the deed.
So who did? And how did they do it? Phryne has to fly far, far out into the silent emptiness of the Australian Bush to find the answers. But no matter how far she travels, or how dark the secrets she uncovers, she can’t manage to escape from the spider who has successfully spun this particular web.
Escape Rating A-: I have been reading, reviewing and absolutely enjoying this series in order, beginning with Cocaine Blues, and continuing through Flying Too High, Murder on the Ballarat Train and Death at Victoria Dock. I didn’t get around to reviewing Victoria Dock – like Phryne so often is, I was traveling, And since I purchased the book, I didn’t feel obligated to write a review. But I definitely enjoyed it.
But as much as I liked Death at Victoria Dock, it wasn’t particularly special as far as Phryne is concerned. Not that Phryne herself isn’t very special. The Green Mill Murder, on the other hand, was quite special, even for Phryne. Not so much about the murder, or even the actual solution, but the lengths and places that Phryne has to go to solve it.
Much of the story is taken up with Phryne’s solo flight from Melbourne to Mount Howitt in the Australian Alps. While today Victoria is the second-most populous state on the Australian mainland, in the 1920s, Gippsland, the rural area that Phryne needs to visit, was far into the Bush. Also airplanes were much more of a curiosity (and a relatively dangerous mode of travel) in the 1920s than they are today.
Phryne’s solo flight is so dangerous that she refuses to take a co-pilot in her tiny, flimsy, Moth Rigel. There are no airports where she’s headed. She has to arrange in advance both for fuel drops and for windsocks to be put up so she knows which direction to come in. One of those windsocks turns out to be an actual sock. She’s flying into an area that seldom sees strangers, and may never have seen an airplane, let alone a female aviatrix.
There is no such thing as instrument flight, or pressurized cabins. Phryne is exposed to the elements, and must negotiate between flying low enough both to see her landmarks on the ground and maintain her own oxygen, and yet not be so low that she flies into clouds, sudden fog, or even more disastrously, a mountain. Any and all of which are all too possible, and equally deadly.
Phryne’s combination of the lyrical joys of her solo flight combined with the practicality of her preparations reminded me more than a bit of Beryl Markham’s West with the Night.
But the place that Phryne has to visit, the Bush towns and great emptiness of the Australian Alps, provide a fascinating portrait of a time and place that is still less than a century away, but has vanished into the mists of time. It was a lovely visit.
Of course Phryne solves the mystery, as she always does, and in her own rather unique fashion. But it’s the lyricism of her solo flight and her reactions to the great quiet places that will stick with me for a long time to come. That and the wombat ex machina who saves the day....more
The series title gives just a bit away. The Island Deception is the second book in the Gateways to Alissia, andOriginally published at Reading Reality
The series title gives just a bit away. The Island Deception is the second book in the Gateways to Alissia, and that’s what this series is, gateway or portal fantasy. There is a gateway, or portal, between our post-industrial, non-magical world and pristine Alissia, which is seems to be just pre-industrial, (our 1600s or 1700s) and definitely magical.
Not just magical in the sense that everyone who travels through the gateway falls in love with the place and wants to stay, but also magical in the sense that magic works.
That’s where our hero comes in. Or came in for The Rogue Retrieval. Quinn Bradley is a stage magician in our world, who discovers in Alissia that the part he has been playing as a magician is surprisingly real. He may be a very late bloomer, but it looks like he might be a real mage. At least on Alissia.
He’s determined to get back there and find out. So when he gets called back to the gateway, this time he’s more than happy to go.
And CASE Global still needs him, because that rogue agent his group was supposed to retrieve in the the first book is still out there, and is gathering power at an astonishing rate. CASE Global’s original concern was that Richard Holt would reveal the existence of advanced technology, and contaminate the world they were studying.
Now it looks like he’s planning to do much more than that. It looks very like he has seized political control in Alissia for the express purpose of preventing CASE Global (and their competitor Raptor Tech) from using their advanced tech to take over Alissia and milk its resources for their own ends.
Or just fight over it until there’s nothing left to save. It doesn’t seem to matter to either of them. But it matters to Richard Holt quite a lot. And, as it turns out, to Quinn Bradley as well.
It looks like it’s time for everyone to decide whether someone else’s bad ends justify their own participation in horrible means, and figure out where their true loyalties lay.
Before it’s too late.
Escape Rating A-: I gave The Rogue Retrieval a B+, because as much as I really enjoyed the ride, the antecedents felt just a bit too clear for me to push it into the A’s. The Island Deception has done a much better job of melding its predecessors into a thing of its own. If you like any of what came before, you’ll like this too, but it also feels more like its own “whole” and not just the sum of its parts.
There’s still a lot of S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador in Alissia, but there are also significant differences. The high-tech world, our world, finds the less developed world in a much more primitive state than happens in Alissia. And the presence of people from the high-tech world is much more exploitative from the outset. It ends up being a place where exiles from our world go to practice deliberately exploitative forms of governance that have been overtly consigned to not the dustbin of history, but the garbage dumpster of history, here. Things like slavery. And apartheid. And the complete subjugation of women, natives, non-Christians and pretty much anyone with brown skin. Or any other color of skin than white.
Alissia, at least for most of our interaction with it, has been left alone to continue its native development, while it gets studied in depth by our world. That appears to be about to change, and could have been predicted to change from the very beginning, but it hasn’t happened yet, and could still be prevented.
The parallels between Alissia and L.E. Modesitt’s Imager Portfolio are much clearer in this book, particularly between the magician’s island on Alissia, The Enclave, and the Imager Collegium as portrayed in the latest Imager trilogy, beginning with Madness in Solidar. Alastor’s dilemma at the Collegium is very much the same as that of the head of The Enclave in Alissia. How does one provide a safe haven for a small but powerful population of magic users in a world where they are vastly outnumbered by mundanes who often fear or envy their powers? Is alliance with the powers that be safer than strict neutrality? And if so, what happens when the powers that be change their course? There are no easy answers, and Quinn Bradley finds himself caught in the middle between his desire to learn magic and his desire to protect his friends and comrades on both sides of the gateway.
Although there are other members of the team, the story rests on Quinn. Even though there are points where the action follows others and he is not present, it is his perspective that we return to, and his character that we know best – at least to the degree that Quinn knows himself. Quinn himself is a bit of a rogue, always sure that his glib tongue can get him out of any trouble. It’s only when both his glibness and his technology fail him that he is able to finally reach inside himself and find out what he is really made of.
But if you like your heroes touched with a spark (or snark) of anti-hero, Quinn is a gem. Whether he’s real or paste is anybody’s guess – sometimes even his own. I can’t wait to discover how Quinn’s adventure plays out (hopefully in The World Awakening next year), whichever side he decides he’s on....more
Mira’s last dance is very nearly Penric’s undoing, and not in any of the ways that the reader, Penric, or his cOriginally published at Reading Reality
Mira’s last dance is very nearly Penric’s undoing, and not in any of the ways that the reader, Penric, or his current companions might have originally thought.
Penric, as introduced in Penric’s Demon, is a Learned Divine of the Bastard’s Order. Lord Bastard is the “master of all disasters out of season” and one of the five gods who are worshiped in this world. While the Father, the Son, the Mother, the Daughter and the Bastard may be deities, do not mistake them for either theoretical or hands off types. They are real in this world, they can manifest to their worshipers (and sometimes to their doubters) and they perform real acts in and on the world.
Penric started on the road to becoming the man he is now by the agency of one of those unexpected disasters. One day on the road, ten years ago, he encountered a dying old woman far from any other assistance. When the old woman died, Penric was the only one around. And he found himself the host to Learned Ruchia’s chaos demon, making him suddenly both a Divine of the Lord Bastard, and a practicing sorcerer who needed a lot of practice.
His life has never been the same, but it certainly has been an adventure. Penric’s current circumstances are no different.
Mira’s Last Dance (the book) takes up immediately where Penric’s Mission, thoroughly off the rails, left off. Penric, along with the exiled General Adelis and Adelis’ widowed sister Nikys, are on their way from Cedonia to the neighboring country of Orban. They rightfully fear that agents of Cedonia are hot on their trail.
Penric’s original mission to whisk Adelis away from Cedonia to Adria has gone completely bust. Penric, his patron and Adelis were all in the midst of someone else’s machinations, and not to their benefit.
And poor Penric has fallen in love with Nikys. Nikys is caught in the middle between finally doing something that she wants to do, and continuing to do her duty by following and caring for, Adelis. Penric thinks he’s still trying to convince at least Nikys if not Adelis to change course for Adria. Mostly he’s trying to convince himself.
In the middle of all this mess the very motley trio is forced to go to ground in the small town of Sosie. Even more unfortunately, the only place that Penric can convince to take them in is a whorehouse with a very bad case of lice.
That’s where Mira comes in. And Desdemona. Desdemona is Penric’s chaos demon. Up until Penric, all of Desdemona’s 12 hosts have been female, although the lioness and mare don’t contribute much to Penric and Desdemona’s internal, and often heated, discussions. But one of those 10 women was Mira, a famous courtesan over a century ago. And when Penric needs to disguise all of them to get them out of town, it’s Mira the courtesan who comes to his rescue.
Leading him right into the arms of the general of the local military garrison, who can’t take no for an answer. And Nikys can’t decide whether she can live with what Penric has done to captivate the general – whatever that might be.
Penric may be in love with Nikys, and Nikys may be in love with Penric, but she just isn’t sure can live with him and all 12 of the voices in his head – or the things they drive him to do.
Escape Rating A-: My one complaint about this series is that each of the stories is just too short. I’m always left wanting more, and knowing it will be months before I get any.
As much as I enjoy Penric as a character, and I do very much, part of the fascination with this series is the number of very interesting issues that it manages to scoop up as it goes. This series is one of the very few in fantasy that deals with its internal theology without being preachy or judgmental. And while being very entertaining and still exploring complex questions of morality. Again, without being preachy in the slightest.
This particular entry in the series also delves a bit into both gender identity and people’s perceptions of it. Penric is, without a doubt, a cisgender (as we would term it today), heterosexual male. But the 10 discernible voices in his head, his demon, are or were all female. When he needs to play the part of the female courtesan, he lets them not just help him, but take over and direct his actions. Not because he can’t bear to play the woman, but because he just doesn’t know how.
We never do discover exactly how he kept that general entertained, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is everyone else’s reactions to Penric’s actions. And while Adelis feels the expected shudders at Penric’s expertise in pretending to be a woman, it’s Nikys reactions that matter to the story. And those reactions are quite interestingly nuanced.
Because the novellas in this series are short, it is easy to read them from the beginning. It’s also necessary, as the stories layer on top of one another, making the world, and Penric’s perspective of it, more complex as it goes.
Also, unlike the first two books in this series, Penric’s Demon and Penric and the Shaman, the story in Mira’s Last Dance as well as Penric’s Mission which immediately preceded it, are not complete in themselves. Mira’s Last Dance comes to a reasonable break, but it doesn’t really feel like an ending. The action has paused, but there is so obviously more to come. I hope it comes soon.