Review: Skin Deep by Brandon Sanderson

Review: Skin Deep by Brandon SandersonSkin Deep (Legion #2) by Brandon Sanderson, Oliver Wyman
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Legion #2
Pages: 208
Published by Audible Studios on November 24th 2014
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Stephen Leeds, AKA “Legion,” is a man whose unique mental condition allows him to generate a multitude of personae: hallucinatory entities with a wide variety of personal characteristics and a vast array of highly specialized skills. As the new story begins, Leeds and his “aspects” are hired by I3 (Innovative Information Incorporated) to recover a corpse stolen from the local morgue. But there’s a catch. The corpse is that of a pioneer in the field of experimental biotechnology, a man whose work concerned the use of the human body as a massive storage device. He may have embedded something in the cells of his now dead body. And that something might be dangerous…

What follows is a visionary thriller about the potential uses of technology, the mysteries of the human personality, and the ancient human need to believe that death is not the end. Legion: Skin Deep is speculative fiction at it most highly developed. It reaffirms Sanderson’s place as one of contemporary fiction’s most intelligent—and unpredictable—voices.

My Review:

Skin Deep is the sequel to Legion, and is set in the same universe with most of the same characters. Of course, most of those characters are Stephen Leeds’ aspects – the parts of his genius (and his psychoses) that he envisions as separate people that only he sees.

Like its predecessor, Skin Deep is also science fiction as mystery, and again, the science fictional element is in the case and not the setting. While the method that Stephen uses for dealing with his mental issues is unusual if not unique, there’s nothing particularly science fictional (or fantastic) about it. His aspects are, after all, all in his head.

Even if he does provide separate rooms in his mansion for each of them.

But the MacGuffin he has to find in this case is definitely SFnal. Or at least, I think it still is.

Stephen has been hired (read as slightly coerced by an unscrupulous friend) to find a corpse. But not just any corpse. In this case, it’s the corpse of a scientist who was experimenting with ways to use the human body as a computer. And like so many scientists, mad or otherwise, this one used his own body as his test subject.

Now that he’s dead, everyone wants to make sure that the code he embedded into his cells does not get into the wrong hands. Of course, there are several factions involved in the chase, each of whom believes that all the other parties constitute those “wrong hands”.

The body has disappeared. And it’s up to Stephen to locate it and make sure its secrets can’t be misused. Secrets that range anywhere from industrial espionage to a virus that causes cancer – and makes it a communicable disease into the bargain.

Everyone has an agenda. Including the assassin who has been hired to keep Stephen from finding that body – at all costs.

Escape Rating A-: In the end, I found a work task that I could do without much thinking, just so that I could finish this book. I couldn’t wait any longer to see how it all played out.

One question for readers is just what you think of Stephen Leeds’ aspects. How do they relate to both his genius and his coping skills? And just how crazy is the man, anyway? He sees his knowledge, both of technical and scientific topics and just plain people-skills, as being embodied in one or more of these hallucinations. Which means that he also believes that if a particular aspect is not with him, he doesn’t have access to the skills and abilities they represent. Even more telling, or confusing, when one of them ‘dies’ he loses all access to whatever knowledge they possessed. Or that he believed they possessed.

It sounds confusing, but it is a fascinating way of dealing with the world. Many introverts probably will wish they had an ‘Ivy’ who is a psychologist but also seems to represent what few social skills Leeds possesses.

He’s actually a really nice guy, but his ability to interact with people is more than a bit geekishly ‘off’. We all have days when we could use an ‘Ivy’ to help us interact.

One of the more fascinating bits of the story was the point where Stephen and all of his aspects retreated to the ‘white room’ to work on the case. It is easy to fall into Stephen’s way of thinking, that all of the aspects are separate individuals, when we see all of them seeming to work independently. They aren’t real. Stephen knows they aren’t real. But some of them have difficulty believing that fact. And when they are investigating things he isn’t actively looking at, or interacting with each other to the point of having romantic relationships, it’s difficult for the reader not to fall into the trap of believing that they are real.

That way lies madness.

But the fun of this story, along with the suspense and the marvelous plot twist at the end, revolve around Stephen’s search for the corpse. A search in which, of course, nothing is as it seems.

It is the first time I’ve ever read of an assassination plot foiled by a hostile takeover. But the real solution to the mystery eluded me until the very end. As it should. Skin Deep was absorbing and a tremendous amount of fun. I sincerely hope that the author returns to these characters, because I really want to see what happens next!

Review: Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear

Review: Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline WinspearPardonable Lies (Maisie Dobbs, #3) by Jacqueline Winspear
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Maisie Dobbs #3
Pages: 342
Published by Picador on June 27th 2006
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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London 1930, psychologist investigator Maisie Dobbs must prove Sir Cedric's aviator son Ralph Lawton died when shot down in 1917. In former battlefields of France, she re-unites with Priscilla Evernden, one of whose three brothers lost in the War is somehow connected. The case tests Maisie's spiritual strength and her regard for mentor Maurice Blanche.

My Review:

As part of the lead in to March’s Month of Maisie Readalong I get to dip into the earlier tales of Maisie’s adventures in preparation for reading her newest story, In This Grave Hour, in the middle of Maisie month.

Pardonable Lies was Maisie’s third outing, and even though it is set in 1930, the clouds of World War II are already looming over the horizon. And even though the meat of her case here concerns the Great War now over a decade in the past, it is the oncoming storm that adds the element of danger to her current affairs.

This is also a story about secrets and lies. Not just the kind of military secrets that dog Maisie through this investigation, but also the secrets that we keep in the belief that they protect others, and the lies that we tell ourselves, in the hope that we can prevent more pain.

It is also a story about growing up. Because part of growing up is seeing our elders, our parents and teachers and mentors, as fallible human beings just like ourselves. We reach that point where we see them less as above us and more as our equals. And often, as in Maisie’s case in Pardonable Lies, we come to that point when we discover that our trust in them has been betrayed.

As is frequently the case with Maisie, she is actually working on more than one case during this story. Two of those cases have definite similarities, as they are both missing persons cases leftover from the late war. And Maisie makes the third case tie into one of the other two. There are no coincidences in Maisie’s worldview. When things seem coincidental, as in the two missing persons cases, she views it as the cosmos telling her that she has unresolved issues that will be illuminated in the investigations.

And so it goes. Two families want her to find the final resting place of their lost soldier boys. Actually, flyer boys, as both young men were in the fledgling RAF. A respected barrister made his wife a deathbed promise that he would determine, once and for all, whether their lost son truly died in his plane crash or whether he survived, as his mother always believed.

Maisie’s friend Phyllis Evernden wants Maisie to find out how and where her brother Patrick died. She knows that he’s dead, but now that her own sons are growing up and starting to resemble her lost brothers, she feels the need for closure. She remembers that her parents were notified of his death, but nothing about the circumstances. And now she needs to know.

The cases both lead Maisie back to France. She served as a battlefield nurse, and left too many friends and loved ones behind. She’s worked hard to put it all behind her, but mostly she has just been running as fast as she can to evade the grief and the memories. She knows that returning to the scene of her own devastation is going to bring up things she would rather stayed buried.

Much as both of these cases will resurrect things that other people would prefer she left buried. Especially her now elderly mentor, Maurice Blanche, who returns with Maisie to France with his own hidden agenda.

And someone is trying to kill her. But due to which case? What rock has she turned over that someone will kill to leave unturned?

Escape Rating A: I always look forward to March and Maisie Month. It gives me a terrific excuse to dive into the archives of this series as well as look forward at the latest book. As always, the early book is a treat, as I get to discover where some of the later events took root.

In this particular case, that root is Maisie’s reluctant involvement with the British Secret Service in Journey to Munich. In Pardonable Lies, two of her cases have delved into national secrets that would be better left buried, and the Secret Service as well as her mentor try to divert her attention and make her take the easy way out.

The problem is that the secrets aren’t really buried. They aren’t even dead yet. The spies see the war coming and are all too aware that they will have to mobilize as many of their assets from the last war as are still available (i.e. alive). Maisie’s investigation jeopardizes past, present and future secrets.

The title of this story is very apropos. Maisie normally tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to her clients. In these cases she is caught on the horns of a terrible dilemma. Because of official secrets, she cannot tell her friend Phyllis the whole, entire truth about her brother.

In the case of her other client, the barrister, Maisie discovers the truth that he fears, and that he does not want to hear at any cost. And it is a truth that hurts much less than the lie he wants to believe.

And Maisie herself discovers that the many pardonable lies that her mentor has told her over the years of her apprenticeship may not be pardonable after all. The revelations that arise during this case make Maisie re-think both their past and their future association.

Only one case gets Maisie’s usual whole truth; the case of a young prostitute accused of murdering her pimp. The rush to justice on the part of the police, and their willingness to ignore any and all mitigating or contradictory evidence in order to punish this young woman makes readers see both how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go as a society. Only Maisie, is willing to believe that this woman might be innocent. And only Maisie is willing to delve into the truth to see that justice is actually done.

But in the process of these investigations, we finally see Maisie lay her own ghosts to their deserved rest. It’s an important part of the development of her character, and it is time for her to move on.

As do we. The latest book in the Maisie Dobbs series is In This Grave Hour. I am very much looking forward to reading and reviewing it next month.

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Review: Twelve Angry Librarians by Miranda James

Review: Twelve Angry Librarians by Miranda JamesTwelve Angry Librarians (Cat in the Stacks, #8) by Miranda James
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Cat in the Stacks #8
Pages: 288
Published by Berkley Books on February 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The "New York Times" bestselling author of "No Cats Allowed "and "Arsenic and Old Books" is back with more Southern charm and beguiling mystery as Charlie and Diesel must find a killer in a room full of librarians... Light-hearted librarian Charlie Harris is known around his hometown of Athena, Mississippi, for walking his cat, a rescued Maine Coon named Diesel. But he may soon be taken for a walk himself in handcuffs... Charlie is stressed out. The Southern Academic Libraries Association is holding this year s annual meeting at Athena College. Since Charlie is the interim library director, he must deliver the welcome speech to all the visiting librarians. And as if that weren t bad enough, the keynote address will be delivered by Charlie s old nemesis from library school. It s been thirty years since Charlie has seen Gavin Fong, and he s still an insufferable know-it-all capable of getting under everyone s skin. In his keynote, Gavin puts forth a most unpopular opinion: that degreed librarians will be obsolete in the academic libraries of the future. So, when Gavin is found dead, no one seems too upset... But Charlie, who was seen having a heated argument with Gavin after the speech, has jumped to the top of the suspect list. Now Charlie and Diesel must check out every clue to refine their search for the real killer among them before the next book Charlie reads comes from a prison library..."

My Review:

This series has been on my TBR pile for quite a while, but a couple of relatively recent events got me to finally pick it up. Last year I updated an “Author Read Alike” article for Novelist about the late Lilian Jackson Braun and her Cat Who mysteries. Miranda James’ Cat in the Stacks series came up as a strong read alike. A couple of months ago this particular title came up as I was interviewed for NetGalley’s Reader Spotlight feature. I was asked about book covers I was particularly looking forward to, and this was the book I chose. Why? Not that the handsome cat on the cover isn’t a draw all by himself, but it’s the title that really got me. Twelve Angry Librarians begs a question from most of us. What, ONLY twelve?

But about the book and the series. The series focuses on librarian Charlie Harris and his large and intelligent cat Diesel. Charlie lies in the small town of Athena Mississippi, where he is currently the interim director of the college library at the college he attended way back. Even though he left tiny Athena for library school in Houston and a long career there, he went back to Athena when his aunt left him her rambling house, and he’s made it his home.

Charlie has a penchant for getting involved in murder investigations, strictly on an amateur basis. He seems to have acquired that temporary director job after his predecessor was murdered, and of course Charlie figured out who the culprit was. (I haven’t read the whole series, YET, and it did not in any way spoil my enjoyment of this book. But I did enjoy it a lot, and plan to pick up the rest!)

Whether the job is reward or punishment depends on just how many fires he has to put out that day.

But part of the job is playing genial host to the regional library association when they hold their annual conference in Athena. While Charlie has plenty of friends, the social whirl of the conference isn’t all that appealing. And that’s before he discovers that his library school nemesis is not only the keynote speaker, but has also applied for the permanent job that Charlie is temporarily holding.

Gavin Fong is slime. And saying that is an insult to slime. He has accumulated so many enemies that it’s amazing that he’s lived as long as he has. It is not a surprise that someone murders him at the conference, although spiking his water bottle with cyanide might seem a bit extreme. But no one misses the bastard.

Charlie’s lucky he has an alibi for the crime, after half the conference witnessed him punching the jerk’s lights out the day before, followed by applause from the approving crowd. But with the conference and the murder, Charlie is in the thick of the investigation, whether he wants to be, or not.

When a second dead body turns up, it seems like everyone is a possible suspect. And a possible next victim. But which is which?

Escape Rating A-: This was an excellent cozy mystery, but I have some personal mixed feelings. The description of the crowd of the librarians and the details of the job of librarian were very true to life. To the point where I’m surprised this series is as popular as it is with general readers. The situations described, unfortunately including the nastiness of the victim, were so true-to-life that they almost gave me flashbacks. That the author is a practicing librarian was no surprise to this reader.

Originally I picked this as a read alike for the Cat Who mysteries. But in spite of a few surface details, the series aren’t really alike, although I think that readers of one will like the other. The similarity is that both Charlie Harris and Jim Qwilleran inherited rambling houses in small towns from late aunts and retired from the big city to the small town to live in those lovely homes. And, of course, they have cats. And poke their noses into local crimes.

But Q believes that his Siamese cat Koko helps him solve those mysteries. Diesel, on the other hand, is just a cat. He’s huge, but then, Maine Coon cats are really that big. He walks on a lead, but it is possible to train a cat to do that. Diesel is also very cuddly, and very responsive to the moods of the people around him. Cats that have their own staff, in the dogs have owners, cats have staff sense, can be quite affectionate and responsive. Diesel is a smart cat, but on a scale compared to other cats. He’s not human intelligent or psychic or whatever Q thinks Koko is.

Not that I wouldn’t love to have a Maine Coon. They are absolutely gorgeous cats, and very even tempered. They can afford to be – at 25 pounds (average cats weigh around ten pounds!) they are bigger than most things that might unnerve or threaten them, including small dogs.

More than anything else, the book that Twelve Angry Librarians reminds me of is Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb. The situations are surprisingly similar. Bimbos also takes place at a small convention, in this case a science fiction convention. So it has the same relatively enclosed setting of a bunch of people who know each other casually but see each other regularly and who have something in common. Everyone is away from home, and what happens at the convention, either kind, generally stays at the convention. Both Jay Omega and Charlie Harris are very amateur detectives. And both victims were such disgusting examples of human beings that the reader is almost grateful when they get killed, as are most of the conference attendees. So both are cases where the list of people who did not have a motive is much, much shorter than the list of people who did.

For a cozy series, it is necessary that the protagonist and his family of ‘irregulars’ be both interesting and likable. Charlie and Diesel certainly fit that bill. Charlie is someone I would love to have coffee with and share stories, especially if I could pet Diesel while doing it. The people who populate Charlie’s life and his world all seem to have their own interesting tales to tell. I also like that a part of the story is Charlie’s warm relationship both with his now adult children and with the woman in his life. Long-running mystery series often include a will they/won’t they romance, but having that romance feature 50-somethings is rare and wonderful. (It this factor appeals to you, dig into Marty Wingate’s Potting Shed Mysteries for a similar romantic sub-sub-plot)

I’m glad I finally clawed my way into the Cat in the Stacks series, and I’m looking forward to going back to pick up the beginning in Murder Past Due as soon as I get a copy. From the library, of course.

Review: Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

Review: Thieftaker by D.B. JacksonThieftaker (Thieftaker Chronicles, #1) by D.B. Jackson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical mystery, urban fantasy
Series: Thieftaker #1
Pages: 327
Published by Tor Books on July 3rd 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, August 26, 1765
A warm evening in colonial North America's leading city. Smoke drifts across the city, and with it the sound of voices raised in anger, of shattering glass and splintering wood. A mob is rioting in the streets, enraged by the newest outrage from Parliament: a Stamp Tax . Houses are destroyed, royal officials are burned in effigy. And on a deserted lane, a young girl is murdered.
Ethan Kaille, a thieftaker of some notoriety, and a conjurer of some skill, is hired by the girl's father to find her killer. Soon he is swept up in a storm of intrigue and magic, politics and treachery. The murder has drawn the notice of the lovely and deadly Sephira Pryce, a rival thieftaker in Boston; of powerful men in the royal government; of leaders of the American rebels, including Samuel Adams; and of a mysterious sorcerer who wields magic the likes of which Ethan has never encountered before.
To learn the truth of what happened that fateful night, Ethan must recover a stolen gem and sound the depths of conjurings he barely understands, all while evading Sephira and her henchmen, holding the royals and rebels at bay, and defending himself and those he loves from the shadowy conjurer.
No problem. Provided he doesn't get himself killed in the process.

My Review:

Today is Presidents Day in the U.S. It seemed an appropriate occasion to go diving into the depths of the TBR pile and search for either something relevant, or at least something set in the Revolutionary period. Several friends have recommended the Thieftaker series to me, and this seemed like the perfect time to finally start it.

And all my friends were right. This thing is fantastic.

The series begins in 1767, during the period when Samuel Adams and his friends were just beginning to whisper of the colonies separating from England. But those whispers were still very, very quiet. However, the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767 changed those whispers into a slightly louder muttering. Adams and his cronies fostered boycotts and fomented riots. No one saw it at the time, except possibly Sam Adams himself, but it was the beginning of the end for the British in the still disunited thirteen colonies.

Our hero, and occasional anti-hero, is Ethan Kaille, a man with a very checkered past, and a frequently none-too-pristine present. He may have begun his life in England among the wealthier if not titled class, but time and circumstance have pressed him into scraping his living as a ‘thieftaker’ in the colonies.

Thieftaking is not even the least respectable of Ethan’s activities. He is also a conjurer, what some in that time and place call a witch, although he perceives a difference between those two words. And certainly the Salem Witch Trials, and similar “events’ that took place all over New England less than a century before, punished mostly women who were not actually conjurers. But the laws that convicted them are still very much on the books, and Ethan rightfully worries about just how many people in Boston are aware of his “gift”.

So when a wealthy merchant hires Ethan to find the thief who took his daughter’s necklace just before he killed her, Ethan knows all too well that he is not being hired for his skill at finding thieves. Whoever took that necklace, the girl died by conjuring. And it is up to Ethan to track down the villain before he kills again.

If he can. And if he can survive the powerful and deadly forces raised against him, both magical and mundane.

Escape Rating A-: Now I understand completely why my friends raved so much about this book. It is awesome. It both immerses the reader in its time and place and tells a powerful story.

The blend here is fascinating. The author bills this series as historical fantasy, rather than historical fiction. The fantastic element is, of course, Ethan’s conjuring. He does cast spells and they do work. Nor is he alone in his talent. In this world, while conjurers are rare, they do exist. And like all humans, some are more-or-less good and some are definitely less than good. People are people.

The story also blends historical personages and events with entirely fictional ones. The situation in Colonial America at this point in time was as the book portrays it. This was the beginning of the cry of “No Taxation Without Representation”. The course for Revolution had already begun, even if no one but the visionary Samuel Adams saw the path.

Readers who like this mixture of historical persons and events with “private detection” by brain rather than forensics will probably also enjoy Jeri Westerson’s Crispin Guest series. Crispin’s series is set earlier, and in England, and without the conjuring. But Crispin and Ethan would recognize each other as “brothers” and have much to share.

Ethan’s story, while not in the first-person, is very much his singular perspective. We see, hear and know only what he does. There’s no omniscient narrator describing events elsewhere. But Ethan’s journey of discovery is an interesting one. The only equivalent of all of our forensic tests that he has are his spells, and they are limited by his power and his knowledge. He has to know both how to ask and what to ask, and his inspiration sometimes fails him. He’s fallible and very human.

As much as I enjoyed this book, I did have one frustration with it. There’s something about the character of Ethan’s chief rival, the beautiful thieftaker Sephira Pryce, that felt a bit “off” to me. Not that a woman couldn’t be the rival or the villain. Nor that she would be perfectly capable of running what appears to be the Colonial equivalent of an organized crime ring. But in her personal actions she comes off as petulant and childish. And the person with those characteristics so pronounced doesn’t seem like the same person who could be running her gang with such ruthless aplomb.

However my discomfort with Sephira’s character was not enough to keep me from wanting to dive eagerly into book two of this series, Thieves’ Quarry, as soon as I can possibly manage!

Review: Someone to Hold by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone to Hold by Mary BaloghSomeone to Hold (Westcott, #2) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Westcott #2
Pages: 400
Published by Jove Books on February 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Humphrey Wescott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune and a scandalous secret that will forever alter the lives of his family—sending one daughter on a journey of self-discovery...
With her parents’ marriage declared bigamous, Camille Westcott is now illegitimate and without a title. Looking to eschew the trappings of her old life, she leaves London to teach at the Bath orphanage where her newly discovered half-sister lived. But even as she settles in, she must sit for a portrait commissioned by her grandmother and endure an artist who riles her every nerve.
An art teacher at the orphanage that was once his home, Joel Cunningham has been hired to paint the portrait of the haughty new teacher. But as Camille poses for Joel, their mutual contempt soon turns to desire. And it is only the bond between them that will allow them to weather the rough storm that lies ahead...

My Review:

Someone to Hold is the “flip side” of the marvelous Someone to Love. The story in the first Westcott book was the story of Anna Snow, a teacher at the orphanage where she herself grew up. In Love, Anna discovers that she is the only legitimate child of the late and less-lamented-every-day Earl of Riverdale. She is suddenly and unexpectedly the sole heir to his fortune, while the title goes to a cousin.

But Anna’s unexpected rise encompasses the equally unexpected fall of the family that for 20-plus years has believed that they were the legitimate ones. The woman who has always believed herself to be the Countess of Riverdale discovers that she was never married at all. Her husband was a bigamist. And that makes her son and her two daughters all bastards, in the legal sense if not the behavioral sense.

That particular bit of opprobrium is saved for others.

So Anna is up, and Viola, Camille, Abigail and Henry are down. And out. Out of society and out of money and seemingly out of friends.

Someone to Hold is Camille’s story. Her response to her sudden change in fortune does not at first make her a likable protagonist. She was a high-stickler when she thought she was a lady, settling for nothing less than perfection in all things. Now she herself is considered imperfect, and the perfect life she expect is now far beyond her reach.

During the first book she was particularly waspish and ill-tempered. Her family does love her, but no one seems to like her much, and it is easy for the reader to see why.

By the time that this book opens, she has gotten past some of the early stages of grief. Her life has irrevocably changed, and she comes to the realization that she can’t remain hidden in her grandmother’s house and under her grandmother’s protection, cozy and comfortable as it is.

She has to strike out on her own, and make something of the life she must now live. But what she does is what makes this story so good. Instead of wallowing, or instead of marrying the first man who promises to protect her, Camille determines to find out who she is now, and what she can make of herself.

She does it by marching up to the orphanage where Anna taught and asking for a position as a teacher, just as Anna was. It’s the surprise of Camille’s life when she gets the job. And even though she feels herself gasping and floundering every single day, it turns out to be a job that she is good at, even if in completely unconventional ways.

Along with the job, Joel Cunningham comes into her life. Joel is also a graduate of the orphanage, and is also a teacher. Specifically, he’s the art teacher. He was also Anna’s best friend and fancied himself in love with her.

He is not best pleased with Camille taking over Anna’s classroom. Or Anna’s students. Or even Anna’s room. But as they get to know each other, they come to realize that the way that they upset each other’s apple-carts is the best thing that ever happened to either of them.

If they can just manage to get out of their own way.

Escape Rating A-: Those who have read Someone to Love will be unable to resist Someone to Hold. And anyone who loves historical romance and has not read Someone to Love needs to get thee hence to a library or bookstore and read it!

But there’s a reason why Anna’s story was someone to love and not Camille’s. Camille was not at all lovable in Someone to Love, and she begins her own story still not being all that lovable. Or even, at the beginning, all that likable. It makes her difficult to warm up to as a protagonist.

(I started this book three times before I got past that point. Once I did, it was terrific. But definitely a hard start.)

Camille’s world has crumbled. The society that she had been trained to be perfectly suited for has rejected her, and for an issue where she is completely blameless. Nevertheless, she understands why this is so. But her plans have turned to dust and her prospects are non-existent. She is too proud to claw her way onto the lowest rung of society’s ladder and be content with that, and she doesn’t know what to do instead.

One of Camille’s issues is that Anna Snow is so very likable. Camille wants to hate her and maintain a distance from her, and Anna makes that very, very difficult. It also feels to Camille as if her close family are attempting to pretend that nothing material has changed, when everything has.

She is not who she thought she was, and the world is no longer her oyster.

Taking Anna’s old position and Anna’s old rooms makes an interesting twist, both for Camille’s story and her life. Camille makes it seem logical in her own head, but it is far from logical to anyone else. However, her determination to make a new life for herself is admirable. And fascinating to watch.

Although the relationship that develops between Joel and Camille has a bit more heat to it than the one between Anna and Avery, it is still a relationship that develops first into friendship before becoming love. Falling in love with your best friend IS still a good foundation for a marriage.

Even if in this case it does seem a bit like Camille begins by trying to take over or erase Anna’s life, what happens in the end is that Camille stands in Anna’s shoes and finds her own life. And it’s a lovely story.

Review: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

Review: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer RyanThe Chilbury Ladies' Choir by Jennifer Ryan
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by Crown Publishing Group on February 14th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"Just because the men have gone to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely when we need it most!"
As England enters World War II's dark early days, spirited music professor Primrose Trent, recently arrived to the village of Chilbury, emboldens the women of the town to defy the Vicar's stuffy edict to shutter the church's choir in the absence of men and instead 'carry on singing'. Resurrecting themselves as "The Chilbury Ladies' Choir", the women of this small village soon use their joint song to lift up themselves, and the community, as the war tears through their lives.
Told through letters and journals, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir moves seamlessly from budding romances to village intrigues to heartbreaking matters of life and death. As we come to know the struggles of the charismatic members of this unforgettable outfit -- a timid widow worried over her son at the front; the town beauty drawn to a rakish artist; her younger sister nursing an impossible crush and dabbling in politics she doesn't understand; a young Jewish refugee hiding secrets about her family, and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past -- we come to see how the strength each finds in the choir's collective voice reverberates in her individual life.
In turns funny, charming and heart-wrenching, this lovingly executed ensemble novel will charm and inspire, illuminating the true spirit of the women on the home front, in a village of indomitable spirit, at the dawn of a most terrible conflict.

My Review:

The Chilbury Ladies Choir is the lovely and immersive story of a small coastal village in England during the early years of World War II. The story is told entirely through the letters and diaries of the members of the choir as they navigate the changes that have arrived in their little town in the wake of war.

The first change is the one that gives the choir both its name and its purpose. Chilbury is a small town. All the young men and even middle-aged men are gone. Only the very old and the very young are left. The local vicar, on that side of very old, comes to the traditional conclusion that without any men, without any tenors, baritones and basses, the church choir will have to disband for the duration.

The new music teacher disagrees. There is no reason why the women can’t make a choir of their own, with music altered to fit their soaring soprano and alto voices. And so it begins.

The ladies of the choir, at first hesitant to do something so completely nontraditional, discover that their voices have not been stilled. If anything, their voices have been amplified and expanded by the war, as they are left to take up all the tasks that are still required by village life, jobs that used to be filled by men.

As tradition falls by the wayside, so do many of the social restrictions that governed daily life, and more important for women before the war, the rigors of strict respectability. Things that were simply “not done” are now done all the time, whether that’s work at the nearby government installations or take up with a dodgy artist who claims to be too infirm to enlist.

Their world has been turned on its head, yet they soldier (and sing) on, even as they receive black-bordered telegraphs from the front and as bombs fall on their tiny town.

We view the early years of the war and the remaining denizens of the village through their eyes. Young Kitty Winthrop’s diary, and her older sister Venetia’s letters to a friend in London speak of the mundane and the tragic. We see their still simmering sibling rivalry, we experience almost-fourteen-year-old Kitty’s stops and starts at growing up. We experience the tragedy of Venetia’s love affair through her letters, and observe her through Kitty’s eyes as she changes from a self-absorbed vamp-wannabe to a grown woman who finally matures.

Through the letters of the local midwife and the diary of the local nurse, we see a great swindle unfold. And we see crime finally turned into triumph.

We see all the woman grow and change and expand into their new roles, into this frightening new world. And in the midst of so many tragedies, we see them rise along with their voices.

Escape Rating A: I think that a lot of readers are doing to compare The Chilbury Ladies Choir to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and from the looks of things there certainly are similarities. Enough so that I feel the need to get a copy of Guernsey, which I haven’t read. Yet.

One big difference is that Guernsey takes place after the war, so the characters are reflecting on what happened rather than experiencing it fresh. Chilbury is contemporaneous, we read the letters and diaries as they are being written. We find ourselves in the middle of these characters lives, watching them change and grow. We learn about Kitty and Venetia’s family life by what they write, not by an omniscient narrator telling us that their father the local squire is a bully and a brute who abuses them and their mother. They write about what they feel as it happens, and we watch them try to avoid and justify and self-efface and cower in an attempt to survive. We feel their confusion and triumph as he finally gets put in his place.

We see half the women in the village experience some variation of his bullying and brutality, and cheer when someone finds a way to stand up to him and make it stick.

This is kind of a gentle story, in spite of the war. Some of the women experience tragedy, but because of the epistolary nature of the story, the blood and guts are not described, not even when the village is bombed. But the emotional tsunami in the aftermath is experienced again and again.

In a way, not a lot happens. And yet so much does. The story, much like the choir, works together so well that it is a joy to experience these women’s lives with them, even though we don’t know how it ends. And we don’t need to. The war eventually ended, but these women’s lives, and the lives they touched, went on. While it would be marvelous to see each one’s happy-ever-after (or at least get some resolution if they don’t get one) it doesn’t feel necessary for the story to conclude.

One final note: there is another author named Jennifer Ryan. The other Jennifer Ryan writes contemporary romance and romantic suspense. And was the source of one of my most sarcastic, and most liked, reviews on Goodreads, The Right Bride. The two Jennifer Ryans are definitely not the same.

If you love stories about the homefront during World War II, or women’s fiction, or just want to read a lovely story, I can’t recommend The Chilbury Ladies Choir highly enough.

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Review: Legion by Brandon Sanderson

Review: Legion by Brandon SandersonLegion (Legion, #1) by Brandon Sanderson
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Legion #1
Pages: 88
Published by Audible Audio on October 2nd 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"Stephen Leeds, AKA 'Legion,' is a man whose unique mental condition allows him to generate a multitude of personae: hallucinatory entities with a wide variety of personal characteristics and a vast array of highly specialized skills. As the story begins, Leeds and his 'aspects' are drawn into the search for the missing Balubal Razon, inventor of a camera whose astonishing properties could alter our understanding of human history and change the very structure of society"--From publisher's description

My Review:

I was looking for another relatively short audiobook, and a friend recommended this one to me. I’ve never read anything by Brandon Sanderson before, but always meant to. And after Legion, I certainly will again.

Legion is partially SFF as mystery, and partially a fascinating character study. Or perhaps I should say “characters study”. Because one of the central questions of the story is just how real each of Stephen Leeds ‘aspects’ is. Or isn’t. He treats them as real, but he is also aware that they are hallucinations.

At the same time, he insists that he’s not really a genius. That all of his supposed insights are due to the intelligence and efforts of those ‘aspects’. He just provides the synthesis. And the body that gets them around.

But he insists that most of them believe that they are real, and he doesn’t like to upset them. That he has managed to hire and actually KEEP a butler who is willing to go along with all of this is a testament to the essential sweetness of Stephen’s nature, as well as the depth of his pocketbook.

Stephen Leeds is rich. Seemingly, as they say, beyond the dreams of avarice. Whether the genius is his or belongs to his aspects, the use of that genius has brought him a lot of money in consultant fees. Also an endless stream of annoying psychology students who regularly attempt to breach his privacy by obvious trickery. The aspects catch the fakers every time.

But his new client is no faker. She presents him with a series of black and white photographs that appear to have been taken with a time machine. A photograph of Shakespeare. Another of George Washington, shaving. And the real draw for Stephen – a photograph of the woman who taught him how to manage his crazy genius and then left without a trace.

His aspects insist that the photos are real and not faked, even though the historical ones were taken long before the invention of photography. And his client, Monica, insists that her company has discovered the secret of taking photographs of historic events as they happen – but that they’ve lost both the photographer and his magic camera.

From there, it’s off to the races, as they attempt to track down the missing photographer before someone steals his invention, and before someone uses him and it to unbalance the world.

Escape Rating A-: This was incredibly fun. I found myself driving around a bit more than usual, just so I could finish it. The premise was unique and interesting, and the mystery that it wraps around was quirky and absorbing.

There’s so much to unpack in this short novella. It does lie on that cusp between science fiction and fantasy. The time-traveling camera is technology, so science fiction. But the way that Leeds ‘aspects’ act and react feels a bit more like fantasy. How do they do what they do, especially when he is not present?

But the science fiction and fantasy bits, while not window dressing, feel more like the way the author gets to the heart of the story than the actual story. At heart, this feels like a mystery. Leeds has a missing persons case to solve, he just uses a slightly more ‘out there’ cast of irregulars than is normal.

legion skin deep by brandon sandersonWhich he insists that he is. Normal, that is. Stephen Leeds believes that he is sane and that his aspects are the various forms of crazy. But whatever they are, they do have personalities and specialties of their own, and without the correct specialist Stephen doesn’t think he has access to parts of his genius.

How much the reader falls into his way of thinking is part of what makes this story work so well.

I’m very glad that I picked up Legion, and I’m looking forward to listening to the second book in the series, Skin Deep. I hope the author returns to this world to bring us more of Stephen Leeds’ adventures.

Review: Flying too High by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Flying too High by Kerry GreenwoodFlying Too High (Phryne Fisher, #2) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #2
Pages: 156
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on January 1st 1970
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Phryne Fisher has her hands full in this, her second adventure. And just when we think she’s merely a brilliant, daring, sexy woman, Phyrne demonstrates other skills, including flying an airplane and doing her own stunts!
Phryne takes on a fresh case at the pleading of a hysterical woman who fears her hot-headed son is about to murder his equally hot-headed father. Phryne, bold as we love her to be, first upstages the son in his own aeroplane at his Sky-High Flying School, then promptly confronts him about his mother’s alarm. To her dismay, however, the father is soon killed and the son taken off to jail. Then a young girl is kidnapped, and Phryne―who will never leave anyone in danger, let alone a child―goes off to the rescue.
Engaging the help of Bert and Cec, the always cooperative Detective-Inspector Robinson, and her old flying chum Bunji Ross, Phryne comes up with a scheme too clever to be anyone else’s, and in her typical fashion saves the day, with plenty of good food and hot tea all around. Meanwhile, Phryne moves into her new home at 221B, The Esplanade, firmly establishes Dot as her “Watson,” and adds two more of our favourite characters, Mr. and Mrs. Butler, to the cast.

My Review:

This has been a hell of a week for me, I’ve been both sick and injured, and nothing that I planned to read is holding my interest. But I recognize that it’s not the books’ fault, it’s most likely mine. I’m out of sorts and looking for instant absorption.

So I went back to Phryne, and was instantly absorbed.

cocaine blues by kerry greenwoodAs in Cocaine Blues, or the TV series based on these books, the mysteries, both of them, are slight. Not that the consequences aren’t serious in both cases, but that Phryne solves them with a quick application of her formidable intellect and what seems like a wave of her hidden magic wand. Along with the occasional application of “the old oil”.

And along the way she manages to show up the local police inspector, a man who is so stubborn that even his fellow coppers give him a wide berth. Benton isn’t stupid, exactly, but he certainly does have fixed ideas. And once one of those ideas gets fixed in his head, nothing will dislodge it.

Certainly not a female detective, amateur or otherwise.

William McNaughton is found dead in his garden, and his son Bill is immediately arrested for the crime. Not that Bill didn’t have a motive. Not that half of Melbourne didn’t have a motive. The elder McNaughton was a bully, a wife beater and a child abuser. His own child, his daughter. No one was safe from him, and no one misses him.

But no one thinks Bill actually killed him, except that one stubborn cop. There’s no real evidence, just that the younger McNaughton seems to be the only person in the immediate proximity who had the brute strength required to drive the rock into the late unlamented’s skull.

And if solving this little pickle wasn’t enough, Phryne also gets involved in the rescue of a kidnapped child. The only thing tying these two cases even remotely together is that one of the kidnappers is such a nasty pedophile that his predilections make the late Mr. McNaughton seem a model citizen by comparison.

Of course, Phryne figures out both solutions in one blink of her grey-green eyes. But it takes the mustered forces of all of her friends and “irregulars” to scotch the kidnappers and find the real murderer.

And it’s an absolute hoot from beginning to end.

Escape Rating A-: The Phryne Fisher series are popcorn books for me. By that I mean that I pick one up, expecting to take just a nibble, then a handful, and discover a couple of hours later that I’ve eaten the whole bag. And I don’t mean crappy burned microwave popcorn either. This is the really good stuff, like Garrett’s or KuKuRuZa. Fresh, flavorful and completely addictive.

One of the things that I love about this series is the way that the characters seem to have stepped off the page and into the TV show. Except for Jack Robinson and Mrs. Butler, everyone in the books appears in the show exactly as they should be. It adds to that absorption. I read the book and I see the characters in my head. I hear their voices and it all fits.

It also all floats along on the strength of Phryne’s personality, which is formidable. I would never want to get in this woman’s way, but I would love to have drinks with her. It’s hard not to imagine the stories she would tell, and they would all be marvelous.

One of the things that is more obvious in the books than the TV show is the aspect of the “We Have Always Fought” narrative that is present but not beaten to death. Phryne is a woman who always does whatever she wants and is always capable of accomplishing whatever she needs to. She can fight, she can shoot, she can fly a plane, and she can vamp any man she wants. She seems to have never found a situation she couldn’t conquer, in one way or another. This is something that male heroes carry off all the time, but we seldom read of women, particularly in time periods before our own, who are as omni-capable as Phyrne.

Likewise, Phryne has surrounded herself with a group of equally daring professional women. When she needs a lawyer, she knows just the woman for the job. Likewise when she needs a second pilot, or a doctor. Phryne may not be out there marching for suffrage, although I could certainly see her doing it, but she keeps putting her money where her own actions are, supporting other women in nontraditional roles. And she doesn’t do it by saying “oh look at me supporting another woman” it’s that she sees that the best person for a particular job is always someone she knows and trusts, and in the end, most of that circle is made of highly competent women like herself.

When I need another reading pick-me-up, I know I’ll be returning to Phryne’s world again and again.

Review: The Dispatcher by John Scalzi

Review: The Dispatcher by John ScalziThe Dispatcher by John Scalzi, Zachary Quinto
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Pages: 128
Published by Audible Studios on October 4th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

One day, not long from now, it becomes almost impossible to murder anyone - 999 times out of a thousand, anyone who is intentionally killed comes back. How? We don't know. But it changes everything: war, crime, daily life.
Tony Valdez is a Dispatcher - a licensed, bonded professional whose job is to humanely dispatch those whose circumstances put them in death's crosshairs, so they can have a second chance to avoid the reaper. But when a fellow Dispatcher and former friend is apparently kidnapped, Tony learns that there are some things that are worse than death and that some people are ready to do almost anything to avenge a supposed wrong.
It's a race against time for Valdez to find his friend before it's too late...before not even a Dispatcher can save him.

My Review:

The Dispatcher was the inaugural audiobook for my new car. I love audiobooks, but it’s been a while since I had a car that could play them. I also don’t have a very long commute, so I wanted to ease back into things with a relatively short book. The Dispatcher was perfect for that.

It was also very, very good.

The Dispatcher was written by John Scalzi, one of my favorite science fiction authors. But except for the science fictional nature of the device that makes this whole story possible, The Dispatcher really isn’t SF at all. It’s a mystery. Specifically a missing persons case, solved by a savvy Chicago police detective and her reluctant consultant.

The device that makes this whole story possible, and gives it many of its twists, is a change to the world we know. Murder has become impossible. Death is still very possible, but murder doesn’t happen anymore. Not exactly.

About 8 years before this story begins, someone was murdered. And instead of being permanently dead, they went poof, and found themselves alive, well and naked, on their bed at home, in the same condition they were in a few hours before the shot that was intended to be fatal.

And it kept happening. Murdered people didn’t die. They poofed back home instead. Every single time. Well almost.

1 person in 1,000 doesn’t poof. Still, that’s way better odds than before the poofing began. Whatever the cause of said poofing.

Of course, people being people, this creates all new avenues for abuse. And all new bureaucracies to license the folks who become, effectively, professional murderers. They call them “dispatchers” because they, well, dispatch people.

And it all seems to be going reasonably well. At least until one dispatcher goes missing, and that detective and her reluctant consultant, the dispatcher of the title, investigate the disappearance. With a clock ticking in the background. Because while the missing man hasn’t been murdered, that doesn’t mean he can’t turn up dead.

Unless they find him first. And to do that, they’ll have to unravel a Gordian Knot of illegal side jobs, private medical “remediation” and old school ties between business and the mob.

Even with murder officially off the table, Chicago is still Chicago.

Escape Rating A-: As a story, this is great fun. And it does lead the listener on a very merry chase, because nothing is exactly as it seems.

Our hero, Tony Valdez, is a dispatcher. He’s never had a failed dispatch, so what he does doesn’t feel like murder. So far, at least, everybody lives.

He’s a very reluctant hero. He wants to help find his friend, the missing Jimmy Albert, but he doesn’t want the police to get too close to his business. He’s currently legit, but there are plenty of gray areas in the dispatching business. And once upon a time, Tony seems to have explored all of them.

As the cop says, it’s a shit show. Or it can be. Legit is safer, and a bit easier on the conscience.

The way that the story unwinds is fascinating, and incredibly fun to follow. We see what the world has become, and that it isn’t that much different from now. But the differences represented by Tony’s job open up all sorts of possible ways to talk about the way things are then, and the way things are now.

People, after all, are still people.

And the conclusion is a “people” conclusion, not a technical or an SFnal one. What happens happens because of human nature, love and hate and fear and a rage against that dying of the light.

About the audio performance. The Dispatcher is currently only available in audio, and was scripted for that format. There’s a hardcover coming out in May for those who just don’t do audio (or want to have something for the author to sign), but this is a marvelous place to start if you are curious about what it is like to listen to a story instead of reading it.

The story is performed by Zachary Quinto, of Heroes and Star Trek reboot fame. He does an absolutely terrific job, not just in voicing Tony, but also in portraying the female police detective and the elderly suspect, as well as all the other characters who pass through the story. His performance, particularly his world-weary voice for Tony, add a great deal to the pleasure of this story.

There was a brief period when the audio of The Dispatcher was available free on Audible. I missed that window, so I paid for my copy. And it was so worth it.

Review: On the Sickle’s Edge by Neville Frankel

Review: On the Sickle’s Edge by Neville FrankelOn the Sickle's Edge by Neville Frankel
Format: paperback
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 474
Published by Dialogos on December 31st 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

What we cannot keep. What we cannot lose.
A sweeping masterwork of love and loss, secrets and survival, On the Sickle's Edge is told through the voices of three characters who lay bare their family's saga: the endearing, scrappy South-African born Lena, transported to Latvia and later trapped in the USSR; her granddaughter Darya, a true Communist whose growing disillusionment with Soviet ideology places her family at mortal risk; and Steven, a painter from Boston who inadvertently stumbles into the tangled web of his family's past. Against the roiling backdrop of twentieth-century Russia and Eastern Europe, the novel delivers equal parts historical drama, political thriller and poignant love story.
On the Sickle's Edge takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride through some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century. Instantly immersed in seven generations of the Shtein family, we witness their exhilarating celebrations and provocative controversies, and gain an intimate understanding of the pivotal events in South Africa, Latvia and the Soviet Union. Neville Frankel's ability to combine historical insight and human passion is spellbinding. I couldn't put it down. --Pamela Katz, The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink
In the hands of a masterful storyteller, On the Sickle's Edge pits the weight of an oppressive regime against individual tenacity and profound personal courage. Inspired by Frankel's own family history, this multi-generational epic holds up a mirror to a universal truth: all immigrants face the powerful tension between assimilation and cultural identity. We have--all of us--lived life on the edge of the sickle. --Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director of International Jewish Affairs, American Jewish Committee

My Review:

This book is many things, and all of them awesome.

At its heart, if feels like a fictional history of the Soviet Union, but not as is usually done in historical fiction, from the perspective of the movers and shakers. Instead, this feels like a story set among the “groundlings”, as they were called in Shakespeare’s day. Or a “lower-decks” story set on a ship, whether historical or science fictional.

In other words, this is view of life in the Soviet Union from the Revolution to Glasnost, as seen through the eyes of the people it was supposed to benefit, and so obviously in this case, didn’t. It’s not a pretty story, but it is a powerful one.

And as people say about life during the Depression, the average person didn’t really see themselves as deprived. They knew things were awful, that was kind of hard to miss. And everyone was afraid all the time, afraid of being watched, afraid of their neighbors, afraid of their thoughts, afraid of the “Organs” of state.

But it was all they knew, and it was all they were allowed to know.

The story in On the Sickle’s Edge has another side to it. In the case of Lena and her family, in addition to all of the things that everyday Russians were afraid of, they were afraid of the exposure of their big secret.

When the family entered Moscow during the chaos of the Revolution, they entered under forged papers. Those papers stated that the family were Russian peasants, displaced from their farm by the Revolution, but that was a lie. A big one. Instead, they were displaced Jews expelled from Latvia. In an act of intelligence and courage, mixed with a bit of perhaps cowardice, but mostly pragmatism, Lena’s stepmother Esther decreed that because everything terrible that had happened to them, and it was terrible, had happened because they were Jews, they would take this equally terrible opportunity to reinvent themselves as non-Jews.

In an act of self-effacement and self-abnegation, they did. Conditions in post-Revolutionary Moscow were bad for everyone, but worse for the Jews. If things are bad in general, they are always worse for the Jews in particular. Esther’s act saved her family, especially her children and step-children, at least for a while.

So Lena keeps the secret. Along the way, she loses her husband and her half-sister to the insanity of Stalin’s purges, and late in life finds herself raising her daughter’s child, Darya. And she survives. Lena always survives.

Escape Rating A: I finished this at 3 am. It started out well, but somewhere around the 20% mark it completely grabbed me and didn’t let go until the end. Possibly after the end. I’m still thinking about this one. And probably will for a while.

Although Lena is not the only narrator, it was her story that sucked me in. And that is fitting, as the story is told at least in part as her memoir. A clue to her ultimate survival that the reader completely loses track of in the midst of events. I wanted her to make it out, but there were points where I feared it would not be so, even knowing that it was.

Her story, from a briefly happy childhood in South Africa to the family’s return to Latvia, to being trapped inside Russia as the walls closed down paints a compelling picture. We are there with her through all the long years as conditions go from bad to worse to unsustainable, and yet we also see what sustains her, and how she survives those long years.

Some of the story is her granddaughter Darya’s, as Darya learns the secret yet continues to wear the mask of the Communist Party poster girl, complete with marriage to a party official. Like so many young women who think they are in love, Darya doesn’t listen to her grandmother’s instincts that her husband is a monster. But he is.

(Something in the description of Darya’s husband reminded me of Vladimir Putin. I don’t know whether that was intentional or not, but it certainly added to the chill factor)

This was a wonderfully absorbing story, and there is so much more to it that I’m tempted to get into, but will reach much too far into spoiler territory. For me, On the Sickle’s Edge also contained an element of “there but for the grace of G-d”. My mother’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from Western Russia probably around the time that Lena was born. They got out just in time. But this story could have been theirs, with all the calamities that followed.

And the echoes to current events absolutely chill me to the bone.

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