Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Review: Norse Mythology by Neil GaimanNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, mythology
Pages: 293
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on February 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Introducing an instant classic—master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a dazzling version of the great Norse myths.
Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales.
In Norse Mythology, Gaiman stays true to the myths in envisioning the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki, son of a giant, blood brother to Odin and a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator.
Gaiman fashions these primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, Thor must disguise himself as a woman, difficult with his beard and huge appetite, to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir, the most sagacious of gods, is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people.
Through Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerge these gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to duping others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.

My Review:

Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse myths should be required reading for anyone whose primary visions of Odin, Thor and Loki, derived primarily from Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, just as the author’s once were.

Thor wasn’t half that bright, and Loki wasn’t nearly so handsome, although he was every bit as tricksy, and as compelling.

On the one hand, these stories of ancient gods from a world long gone seem like they might have little relevance for the 21st century. At the same time, there’s Marvel Comics, which mined these myths for pure gold. As has every fantasy writer of the 20th and 21st centuries, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Neil Gaiman himself.

These are the stories on which so much of modern literature (and TV and movies) are based, along with opera and many other forms of storytelling. These are the stories behind the stories.

Or at least what’s left of them. What we have, what the author has here to work with, are the written records of what was an oral tradition – stories told around the fire during the very long nights of almost endless winter, passed from skald to skald and mouth to ear, until they were finally compiled into the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda in the 13th century, long after the Viking Age whose tales they tell.

At least in this rendition, what we have is a loose connection of short stories, that the author has strung together, like pearls on a string, into an episodic narrative from the beginnings of Yggdrasil to the end at Ragnarok.

And while they no longer invoke the awe that they once did, the Norse gods are still fantastic.

Escape Rating B+: This collection, or retelling, or reintroduction to the Norse myths should become a classic, right alongside Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. It makes what often seemed like a conflicting collection of tales into a somewhat coherent whole, admittedly a whole like a slice of Swiss cheese, where some parts are missing, deliberately or otherwise.

But readers looking for Neil Gaiman’s particular voice in this collection will only find hints and snippets of it. These aren’t his stories, and that shows. But they are, undoubtedly, the inspiration for many of his best.

If you read American Gods and instantly recognized Mr. Wednesday, then you have already been exposed to these foundational tales, but this version is still definitely worth a read. If you didn’t see through Mr. Wednesday’s rather thin disguise, then you need to read this book before you dive into the upcoming series.

Ian McShane Starring As Mr. Wednesday In 'American Gods' TV Series
Ian McShane Starring As Mr. Wednesday In ‘American Gods’ TV Series

Review: The Wicked City by Beatriz Williams

Review: The Wicked City by Beatriz WilliamsThe Wicked City by Beatriz Williams
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow on January 17th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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New York Times bestselling author Beatriz Williams recreates the New York City of A Certain Age in this deliciously spicy adventure that mixes past and present and centers on a Jazz Age love triangle involving a rugged Prohibition agent, a saucy redheaded flapper, and a debonair Princetonian from a wealthy family.
When she discovers her husband cheating, Ella Hawthorne impulsively moves out of their SoHo loft and into a small apartment in an old Greenwich Village building. Her surprisingly attractive new neighbor, Hector, warns her to stay out of the basement at night. Tenants have reported strange noises after midnight—laughter, clinking glasses, jazz piano—even though the space has been empty for decades. Back in the Roaring Twenties, the place hid a speakeasy.
In 1924, Geneva "Gin" Kelly, a smart-mouthed flapper from the hills of western Maryland, is a regular at this Village hideaway known as the Christopher Club. Caught up in a raid, Gin becomes entangled with Prohibition enforcement agent Oliver Anson, who persuades her to help him catch her stepfather Duke Kelly, one of Appalachia’s most notorious bootleggers.
Headstrong and independent, Gin is no weak-kneed fool. So how can she be falling in love with the taciturn, straight-arrow Revenue agent when she’s got Princeton boy Billy Marshall, the dashing son of society doyenne Theresa Marshall, begging to make an honest woman of her? While anything goes in the Roaring Twenties, Gin’s adventures will shake proper Manhattan society to its foundations, exposing secrets that shock even this free-spirited redhead—secrets that will echo from Park Avenue to the hollers of her Southern hometown.
As Ella discovers more about the basement speakeasy, she becomes inspired by the spirit of her exuberant predecessor, and decides to live with abandon in the wicked city too. . . .

My Review:

I picked up The Wicked City because I absolutely adored A Certain Age and wanted to read more by this author.

The Wicked City is a very different book from A Certain Age, even though the lion’s share of the story is set in the same period, the early 1920s, and among some of the same people. Possibly even the same people.

But The Wicked City is a story split between two very different eras and two very different women, with each story blending just a bit into the other.

In the late 1990s, Ella Hawthorne has just moved into a slightly crumbling apartment with a whole lot of character (and characters) in Greenwich Village. She’s also just left her philandering husband, after catching him screwing a prostitute in the hallway of their condo building while he was pretending to fetch a pizza. If the whole scene hadn’t been so tragic, at least in its consequences, it would have slipped into farce.

But Ella’s drama isn’t in her impending divorce, it’s in the building of her new sanctuary. There’s a stream of hot jazz emanating from the basement of the building next door, and that beautiful music is coming not from a live club, but from the ghost of the speakeasy that once thrived there.

While Ella’s late 20th century story is interesting, the real heart of The Wicked City lies in the events of the 1920s, events that centered around both the speakeasy and the apartment building next door, where Geneva Kelly lived in the 1920s and Ella Hawthorne finds herself in the 1990s.

Ella’s story is a tale of wandering husbands, forensic accountants and handsome jazz musicians of the past and present.

Geneva Kelly’s story, on the other hand, is a tale of cold-hearted bootleggers, hot federal agents, and deadly family secrets.

Geneva’s stepfather was an abusive two-bit criminal back home in Western Maryland, but only Gin seems to have seen his true face. Everyone else saw the charm, while she experienced the rot underneath. But after she fled her Appalachian home town for the bright lights of the big city, Duke Kelly moved from small-time crook to big-time racketeer, controlling a major piece of the illegal booze market in thirsty New York, as well as every single soul in his little town.

It was Prohibition, and the feds were looking for a way to take Duke Kelly down. Gin was too, so when a handsome federal agent offered her the chance to get the goods on the snake, she was all in.

Until she was very nearly all the way out.

Escape Rating B+: At first, the story moved a bit slowly, as did A Certain Age when I look back. Both stories take a while to get themselves set up, but once they do, the action careens quickly from boat chase to shoot out to romance, and back again, with lightning speed.

Particularly Gin’s story. Ella’s story feels less fleshed out, and I’m not convinced it was really necessary. Gin’s story is the one that sparkles like a flapper’s sequined dress.

While we don’t feel much of Ella’s dilemma, we do become all too well acquainted with Gin’s. She fled her hometown in the wake of her stepfather’s abusive, and she tries very hard not to look back. She’s also a young woman with not enough education and no family ties trying to make a living in the big city. Some of her choices arise from desperation, and some from pure pragmatism. It’s a hard-knock life.

She wants to bring her stepfather down, which makes her a plum ripe for the plucking by Prohibition agent Oliver Anson. She’s attracted to his stalwart honor even more than she is his good looks. But like everyone else in her life, Anson is keeping secrets that threaten both Gin’s life and her heart. Everything that happens between them feels screened by a haze of smoke and mist, and neither ever knows quite where the other stands until the very end.

cocoa beach by beatriz williamsIn addition to the connection between Gin and Ella, there’s also a connection between Gin and the characters in A Certain Age, and indeed the characters of many of the author’s previous books. It’s not such a tight connection that the reader needs to worry about having read the other books, and it’s also not completely revealed or resolved. But these people all inhabit the same social circles, and everyone seems to know, or at least know of, everyone else.

I’m looking forward to exploring this more, both in the author’s upcoming novel, Cocoa Beach, and by diving back into some of her earlier works. All in all, I’m glad I took this little trip to The Wicked City.

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Review: The Fifth Petal by Brunonia Barry + Giveaway

Review: The Fifth Petal by Brunonia Barry + GiveawayThe Fifth Petal (The Lace Reader, #2) by Brunonia Barry
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery
Series: Lace Reader #2
Pages: 432
Published by Crown on January 24th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Salem’s chief of police, John Rafferty, now married to gifted lace reader Towner Whitney, investigates a 25-year-old triple homicide dubbed “The Goddess Murders,” in which three young women, all descended from accused Salem witches, were slashed one Halloween night. Aided by Callie Cahill, the daughter of one of the victims who has returned to town, Rafferty begins to uncover a dark chapter in Salem’s past. Callie, who has always been gifted with premonitions, begins to struggle with visions she doesn’t quite understand and an attraction to a man who has unknown connections to her mother’s murder. Neither believes that the main suspect, Rose Whelan, respected local historian and sometime-aunt to Callie, is guilty of murder or witchcraft. But exonerating Rose might mean crossing paths with a dangerous force. Were the women victims of an all-too-human vengeance, or was the devil raised in Salem that night? And if they cannot discover what truly happened, will evil rise again?

My Review:

lace reader by brunonia barryIn spite of the blurb, The Fifth Petal doesn’t have much to do with Towner Whitney, the heroine of The Lace Reader. And that’s a good thing, because I never read The Lace Reader. Instead, this work of twisted mystery with just a touch of psychological horror is all about the old mystery of “The Goddess Murders” and the sudden rush of new clues (and red herrings) related to that old crime.

John Rafferty, the Salem Police Chief, finds himself in the thick of a very big mess that begins on Halloween in witchy Salem Massachusetts. Where once Salem hung accused witches, now the town embraces its creepy past as a way of bringing in much-needed tourist dollars.

Which doesn’t mean that the old feuds, the old resentments, and the old fears are not still bubbling just beneath the 21st century surface.

Twenty-five years ago, three young women were murdered at the site of the 17th century witch hangings. All three were young, beautiful and descended from the original witches. That grisly night left only two survivors, the child Callie Cahill, daughter of one of the victims, and Rose Whelan, a local expert on the historic witchcraft frenzy.

Callie was whisked away, but Rose stayed in town. Or at least she stayed after several months in an asylum. Even though she was never charged with the crime, everyone in town assumed that Rose was the murderer. Whatever the truth was, after the trauma she experienced and her incarceration she was never the same. She became the town madwoman, saying that the trees talked to her and other things even more bizarre.

No one bothered her, and she didn’t bother anyone, until that Halloween, when a bunch of young, privileged idiots decided that threatening her with a knife would be a terrific Halloween prank. When one of them dropped dead in the middle of the confrontation, everyone assumed that old Rose had managed to kill him exactly the same way she killed those young women all those years ago. And the town began a modern day witch hunt, complete with anonymous tweets and Facebook posts, baying for her blood.

All of the hoopla over the latest incident reaches the regional papers, and little Callie Cahill, now an adult, discovers that her caregivers lied to her long ago, and that Rose is very much alive. She drops everything to rush to Salem, in the hopes of saving Rose just as she believed Rose saved her all those years ago.

And all the buried secrets of the past burst wide open. While the town whips up witch hunting frenzy, John Rafferty re-opens the old case. He wasn’t in Salem back them, but he doesn’t believe Rose is guilty, either then or now. There was no evidence back then, and there isn’t any now either. But his investigation brings that long-ago crime back to everyone’s mind. If Rose wasn’t the murderer, then someone else was. Covering up those old murders is an unfortunately excellent motivation for another killing spree. This time with a whole new set of supposed wrongs to be set right, and a whole new cast of victims.

In the end, Rafferty discovers that the old wounds and the old wrongs have sunk deep and poisonous roots in much too fertile ground. Almost too late.

Escape Rating B+: Although the story itself is more a mystery than anything else, there is a creepy overtone of horror and evil that gave me the shivers. And looking back, a lot of that evil has nothing to do with witchcraft or devil worship or anything more obviously sinister. Instead, it is all related to an everyday kind of evil.

Whatever happened to their ancestors in the 1600s, in the 2010s there’s another kind of witch hunt going on in Salem. Everyone wants to believe that Rose is the killer, both in the past and in the present. And it becomes clear that she is being victimized for exactly the same reasons that the women accused of witchcraft were victimized in the 1600s. She’s an older woman, and she’s weird. And possibly mentally ill. That’s all it took in the 1600s to bring out the accusers, and that’s all it seems to take in 2014-2015.

Today’s witch hunt is just more sophisticated. It uses the internet. But it is equally persecution, and just like the victims in the 1600s, Rose is equally innocent. And it doesn’t matter. She is different, and that makes people more than willing to throw her under that metaphorical bus.

Rafferty finds himself investigating two crimes, and neither is the recent death. That young man died of an overdose, and except for his mother, no one is going to miss him. But the more Rafferty looks, the more he thinks that his predecessor completely screwed up the case. The former police chief wanted Rose to be guilty, and the truth didn’t matter. Or possibly mattered too much.

Rafferty wants Rose to be innocent, so he keeps digging. Meanwhile, all the forces in town seem to be colluding to make his job more difficult. Someone clearly has a secret that they still feel the need to keep at all costs.

In the end, the motives for all the deaths are the oldest of all, greed and jealousy. And as is so often the case, the killer is exposed by overreaching. If they’d left well enough alone, they could have remained hidden. But of course they didn’t and they don’t. The reveal is appropriately chilling and does a wonderful job of wrapping up all the loose and trailing ends, no matter how far back they began. Or how creepy they remain.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I am giving away a copy of The Fifth Petal to one lucky US commenter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Review: Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang

Review: Dragon Springs Road by Janie ChangDragon Springs Road by Janie Chang
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on January 10th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the author of Three Souls comes a vividly imagined and haunting new novel set in early 20th century Shanghai—a story of friendship, heartbreak, and history that follows a young Eurasian orphan’s search for her long-lost mother.
That night I dreamed that I had wandered out to Dragon Springs Road all on my own, when a dreadful knowledge seized me that my mother had gone away never to return . . .
In 1908, Jialing is only seven years old when she is abandoned in the courtyard of a once-lavish estate outside Shanghai. Jialing is zazhong—Eurasian—and faces a lifetime of contempt from both Chinese and Europeans. Until now she’s led a secluded life behind courtyard walls, but without her mother’s protection, she can survive only if the estate’s new owners, the Yang family, agree to take her in.
Jialing finds allies in Anjuin, the eldest Yang daughter, and Fox, an animal spirit who has lived in the courtyard for centuries. But Jialing’s life as the Yangs’ bondservant changes unexpectedly when she befriends a young English girl who then mysteriously vanishes.
Murder, political intrigue, jealousy, forbidden love … Jialing confronts them all as she grows into womanhood during the tumultuous early years of the Chinese republic, always hopeful of finding her long-lost mother. Through every turn she is guided, both by Fox and by her own strength of spirit, away from the shadows of her past toward a very different fate, if she has the courage to accept it.

My Review:

In a peculiar way, Dragon Springs Road reminds me a bit of Jade Dragon Mountain. Although both stories are set in China, their settings are 200 years apart. But the similarity is in the way that both stories managed to evoke a “you are there” feeling, at least for me. It was more than reading about something, it felt like being drawn into the story in both cases.

There was also a tiny element of The Tale of Shikanoko, even though Shikanoko is Japanese and not Chinese. In both that story and this one, there’s that sense of the mythic bleeding into the real. In the case of Dragon Springs Road, that mythic element is the fox spirit who protects Jialing and her mother during their residence on Dragon Springs Road.

Jialing believes that Fox is real, and she certainly seems to affect real things. But does she? As this story is told through Jialing’s eyes, we see things how she believes them to be, not necessarily how things are.

We also see a world that is in the process of change. Dragon Springs Road is in Shanghai, and the story takes place during the first two decades of the 20th century, through both the World War I years and the contentious early years of the Republic of China, as factions and warlords fought for power and against the rising tide of communism within, and Japanese imperial ambitions without.

As the story begins, Jialing is a little girl, one who has lived her entire life on the fringes of the Fong household on Dragon Springs Road. But things are not going well in the Fong household, and her mother, the concubine of the master of the house, is particularly vulnerable. Jialing is too young to understand any of this. All that she knows is that one day her mother goes away, leaving Jialing hiding in the decrepit outbuilding where they have lived.

And from that inauspicious beginning, Jialing is set adrift. She is very, very young. And she is mixed race, and therefore despised by both the Chinese and the Europeans. The household that moves into the Fong’s former residence take her in out of charity. And so she lives, dependent on the kindness of strangers, and knowing that she doesn’t belong anywhere, no matter how hard she tries.

Through the years, Jialing grows up. She makes friends, and enemies. She is fortunate enough to receive a Western education. But no matter how much she improves herself, all that anyone sees is the lowest of the low, a woman of mixed race.

Her friend, companion and guide through the lost years is the Fox who watches over the compound, and over Jialing. Fox both teaches her about the world outside, and makes her forget inconvenient questions. And Fox prevents others from asking inconvenient questions about Jialing.

The one thing that Jialing longs for above all others is to find her mother, and to discover why she was left behind all those years ago. And she does. Just as her entire world falls apart.

Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.

Escape Rating A: This is an absolutely lovely story that pulls the reader in and doesn’t let go until the end. It feels as if you are walking that road with Jialing, and not just reading about it. Stories that do that are rare and precious.

Dragon Springs Road is also a very quiet story. Jialing’s life is not the stuff of an adventure tale. She grows up, she does her best to serve, she watches and waits. Much of the action in this story happens to other people, as Jialing watches a second family overtaken by the bad luck that seems to haunt this one house.

And outside the gates, the world changes. Revolutions come, not just to China, but also to nearby Russia. The world that is coming is going to be very different from what has gone before. And Jialing becomes involved, but in the most unlikely of ways.

One of the threads that permeates this story is the prejudice that Jialing faces from all sides, and the ways that prejudice limits her choices. On all sides she is hemmed about by people who consider her less than dirt because she is neither fully Europeon nor fully Chinese. At a time and in a place where lineage is everything, she has none.

And yet she perseveres, making the best choice available to her. And we’re right there with her.

This is a book I simply loved. I was swept away at the beginning and left bereft at the end, gasping and flailing at my return to the real world. It feels like I was in a dream with the Fox, and she just turned me loose.

Dragon Springs Road is a book to get lost in. I loved it so much I’m having a difficult time articulating that love. Why don’t you pick up a copy and see for yourself!

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Review: The Piper by Charles Todd

Review: The Piper by Charles ToddThe Piper: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Story by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Inspector Ian Rutledge #19.5
Pages: 63
Published by Witness Impulse on January 10th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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Scotland Yard inspector Ian Rutledge returns shell shocked from the trenches of World War I, tormented by the spirit of Hamish MacLeod, the young soldier he executed on the battlefield. Now, Charles Todd features Hamish himself in this compelling, stand-alone short story.
Before the Great War, Hamish is farmer in the Scottish Highlands, living in a small house on the hillside and caring for a flock of sheep he inherited from his grandmother. When one spring evening he hears a faint cry ringing across the glen, Hamish sets out in the dark to find the source. Near the edge of the loch he spots a young boy laying wounded, a piper’s bag beside him. Hamish brings the piper to his home to stay the night and tends to his head wound, but by the time Hamish wakes the boy has fled. He tracks the footsteps in pursuit of the injured lad and finds him again collapsed in the grasses—now dead.
Who was the mysterious piper, and who was seeking his death? As Hamish scours the countryside for answers, he finds that few of his neighbors are as honest as he, and that until he uncovers a motive, everyone, including Hamish, is a suspect. 

My Review:

I’m not quite sure whether to call this a prequel or a sidelight to the Ian Rutledge series, but it was certainly a lovely little story. And it doesn’t need to fit anywhere in the series timeline for the story to work. It just is. And does.

In the Ian Rutledge series, Hamish MacLeod is the voice that haunts the police Inspector. In some ways, Hamish is the voice of Rutledge’s shell shock (read as PTSD) from World War I. In other ways, Hamish is the voice of Rutledge’s conscience, or perhaps his guilt, over the deaths of so many young men that occurred under his command during the war. Certainly Hamish’ death is the one that haunts him the most.

But this gem of a story takes place before the Great War, when Hamish is still a young crofter in Scotland, Ian Rutledge is probably at the beginning of his police career at the Met, and the Great War is a looming cloud over the not-too-distant horizon.

And long before Hamish and Ian met, and before Hamish became the voice of Ian’s instincts and perseverance, Hamish solved a murder on his own. No wonder he is so good at helping Ian, even if it is from the back of Ian’s mind. Or it’s all in his head.

The case at first seems open and shut. A young man traveling the Highlands during a raging storm is set upon and wounded, discovered by Hamish, and eventually killed after he leaves Hamish’ croft. It is meant to look like he died in the storm. But he didn’t.

At first, the police try to pin the crime on Hamish. After all, he was the last person to see the boy alive. But there’s no evidence there, and someone else had plenty of reasons to kill the young lad.

He was a piper, and he regularly traveled the Highlands by himself, on his way between gigs. And on one of those lonely trips, he witnessed a murder. Unfortunately for the piper, the murderer witnessed him.

Unfortunately for the murderer, Hamish is more than willing to place himself as bait for a trap to prove that he has already figured out who the guilty party is. Justice will be done.

Escape Rating B+: This is a very short novella. Even shorter than it appears in the Goodreads listing, as the book includes an excerpt from the next Ian Rutledge book. But even though it is short, it is a complete story in itself. It also doesn’t require any knowledge of the series that follows it. Any reader who is looking for an introduction to the works of Charles Todd will find The Piper an excellent starting point.

Hamish, like most detectives, amateur and professional, finds that everyone has something to hide. Including himself. As he goes around to his neighbors, setting up a trap for the killer, he discovers that most of them have some secret, small or large, that they would rather not reveal. Likewise, Hamish doesn’t reveal that the purpose of all of his sudden socializing is to lay a trap for the killer.

His secrecy results in a comedy of errors at the final crisis, as everyone, the killer, Hamish, and his waiting helpers, all stumble around in the dark. But in the end, his dogged persistence pays off, and the killer is unmasked for all to see.

hunting shadows by charles toddHamish is an interesting character, whether readers are familiar with the series or not. I’ve read the first book (A Test of Wills), an actual prequel story (Cold Comfort) and only one of the later books (Hunting Shadows), and found this story enjoyable purely as a mystery. The link to the series is merely tangential. I also found Hamish MacLeod to be a more active and less exasperating Highland detective than Hamish Macbeth in the recent books of that series.

So anyone looking for a little mystery, a little introduction to Rutledge series, or a little taste of the Scottish Highlands will find The Piper to be a little treat.

Review: Breath of Fire by Amanda Bouchet + Giveaway

Review: Breath of Fire by Amanda Bouchet + GiveawayBreath of Fire (Kingmaker Chronicles #2) by Amanda Bouchet
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy romance
Series: Kingmaker Chronicles #2
Pages: 448
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on January 3rd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

SHE'S DESTINED TO DESTROY THE WORLD... "Cat" Catalia Fisa has been running from her destiny since she could crawl. But now, her newfound loved ones are caught between the shadow of Cat's tortured past and the threat of her world-shattering future. So what's a girl to do when she knows it's her fate to be the harbinger of doom? Everything in her power.
BUT NOT IF SHE CAN HELP ITGriffin knows Cat is destined to change the world-for the better. As the realms are descending into all-out war, Cat and Griffin must embrace their fate together. Gods willing, they will emerge side-by-side in the heart of their future kingdom...or not at all.

My Review:

Breath of Fire has a whole lot of quest story, wrapped up in a lovely bit of “plucky rebels vs the evil empire”, complete with extremely evil emperor. Or in this case, empress.

It also manages to provide reasonable (for definition of reasonable that satisfies in-world consistency) of how the Greek pantheon from our own history ended up actively running the show in Thalyria. At least for select definitions of active and running.

And the sheer number of times and ways in which the gods step in to “help” their descendant Catalia Fisa lead the reader to the conclusion that her lover Griffin Sinta has always believed – that their meeting and their relationship were fated by those gods, and that neither of them had a chance at resisting the forces that are pushing them together.

That the gods are so hell-bent on saving Thalyria that they are willing to mess with both Cat’s and Griffin’s lives to make damn sure they happen and it happens puts the forced beginning of their relationship into perspective. Like many readers, I found the transformation of their relationship from kidnapper and captive to lovers to smack of questionable consent at the very least, if not an unhealthy dose of Stockholm Syndrome.

Discovering that they are both pawns of the gods makes the whole thing easier to swallow. So to speak. Not that Cat doesn’t swallow, and other things, fairly often when it comes to her relationship with Griffin.

promise of fire by amanda bouchetBreath of Fire follows directly after A Promise of Fire. Now that Cat and Griffin are firmly on the same side, Cat is all in with Griffin’s plan to sweep out the corrupt Alphas in all the kingdoms and replace them with a rule of law. She just doesn’t think she deserves to live to see it.

Naturally enough, those Alphas want to hang onto their absolute power, and are willing to do anything to keep it. To put a further fly in the sticky ointment, the most powerful of those Alphas is Cat’s mother Andromeda, who will do anything to draw Cat back into her sticky and stinking web.

The story in Breath of Fire becomes Cat and Griffin’s quest for magical items and magical assistance that will allow them to defend Griffin’s kingdom of Sinta while they strike out to bring Tarva and Fisa under their control. It’s not an easy quest, and it is not intended to be. Hope seems lost many, many times along the way, only to be found again either through human ingenuity or the grace of one of Cat’s great-great-great-great-great-uncles. Uncles named Zeus, or Poseidon, or Hades.

She even gets to borrow Cerberus again.

Cat’s destiny has always been as the Harbinger of doom. Doom for the evil system that has held Thalyria in chains for far too long. If only she can get past her mother.

Escape Rating B+: We all have mommy issues. Cat’s are just bigger, and a whole lot deadlier, than most. Andromeda is the bitch to end all bitches. There’s no question she’s evil, but I hope we find out more about why, or how she got this way, in the next book. Or we may find out that Thalyria is simply rotten to the core, and Andromeda’s evil is just one of the more obvious symptoms. The other Alphas weren’t any better than Andromeda, just less powerful.

I don’t know why, but I feel much better about the very questionable consent in Cat and Griffin’s relationship after discovering that the whole thing has an element of deus ex machina. Even though I don’t normally like deus ex machina. But there are so many dei machinating in this story that it works. Also that Cat and Griffin are both pawns feels better than when it looked like only Cat was a pawn.

The quest feels like it has elements of the Odyssey. It certainly is an odyssey. Every step along the way leads to another object that must be found, and which can only be obtained through another trial. It is also an important part of the quest that every member of the team gets tried in their own way, and that Cat and Griffin’s relationship gets tried most of all.

One of the good things about this story is that even though Breath of Fire is the middle book in the trilogy, it doesn’t feel like a middle book. The ending certainly has its climactic moments, but it doesn’t end in a terrible trough. Instead, it ends in hope for the future – albeit a future that suddenly has a deadline attached.

I can’t wait for the conclusion of this series, Heart on Fire. It looks like things are headed for an explosive ending.

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Review: The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Review: The Fate of the Tearling by Erika JohansenThe Fate of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling, #3) by Erika Johansen
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Queen of the Tearling #3
Pages: 496
Published by Harper on November 29th 2016
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The thrilling conclusion to the New York Times bestselling Tearling trilogy.
In less than a year, Kelsea Glynn has transformed from a gawky teenager into a powerful monarch. As she has come into her own as the Queen of the Tearling, the headstrong, visionary leader has also transformed her realm. In her quest to end corruption and restore justice, she has made many enemies—including the evil Red Queen, her fiercest rival, who has set her armies against the Tear.
To protect her people from a devastating invasion, Kelsea did the unthinkable—she gave herself and her magical sapphires to her enemy—and named the Mace, the trusted head of her personal guards, Regent in her place. But the Mace will not rest until he and his men rescue their sovereign, imprisoned in Mortmesne.
Now, as the suspenseful endgame begins, the fate of Queen Kelsea—and the Tearling itself—will finally be revealed.

My Review:

queen of the tearling by erika johansenThis was awesome. As is the entire trilogy, starting with The Queen of the Tearling and moving right through The Invasion of the Tearling. If you like epic fantasy with a touch of SF, get thee hence and pick up Queen right now. This series is perfectly sized for holiday week binging.

At the beginning of the saga, back in Queen, it seemed as if this was pure epic fantasy. Starting in Invasion and particularly in this final book, we see where the story has its roots in SF. Somehow, in ways that are deliberately not made clear, the ancestors of the Tearling made their way from a near-future dystopian Earth to Tear. And deliberately turned their backs on late 21st or early 22nd technology in an attempt to create an agrarian utopia.

Kelsea, physically locked in captivity by the Red Queen of Mortmesne, takes a psychic journey back down through the timeline to see the origins of that long-ago utopia. While Kelsea is looking through the eyes of young Katie Rice three centuries ago, she sees William Tear’s dream of a perfect world die inch by inch, in ways that still have consequences all these generations later.

The problem with attempting to create a perfect world is that the people who populate it are never perfect. Not because they don’t try, but because people simply aren’t, even when they are not deliberately evil. Not that THAT isn’t a factor as well.

Kelsea starts out the story wanting to save her kingdom. She discovers that in order to save her kingdom, she must save the world. In the end, she can’t even manage to save herself.

And yet she does. And she doesn’t.

Escape Rating A: It takes a while for this final book to build to its epic, and thought-provoking, conclusion. As Fate opens, Kelsea is imprisoned, and has no freedom of action. She’s also not thinking too clearly.

Much of the first half of the book is carried by other characters – lots of other characters. The perspective and point of view switch often, and at first it’s just a bit jarring. The reader just has a grasp of one thread when the perspective switches to someone else at a different place, and sometimes at a different time.

Some of those perspectives are obvious – Kelsea’s regent back in the Tearling, the Red Queen in Mortmesne, various other leaders. But some are down among the rank and file, as we see a “lower-decks” version of the ways in which the world is falling apart, and the ways that everyone is using to even attempt to keep it together. Along with the ones who just don’t give a damn.

And the most important perspective of all, besides Kelsea’s in the present, is Katie’s in the past, at the beginning of the Tearling. While we begin with Katie as a child, as she grows up she sees the colony change from what seems like almost a working utopia to a god-bothered, fear-obsessed, evil theocracy. And that’s what survived to Kelsea’s present and has helped to make the current mess into the giant clusterfuck it now is. And there doesn’t seem to be any way in the present to save the day.

But in the view of the past, there is a whole lot being said about the way that the world, any world, works and doesn’t. It’s not difficult for the reader to draw parallels from the Tearling to 21st century America. Which is also a way of coming full circle, as it’s the results of our NOW that the Tear colonists fled which begins Kelsea’s entire saga.

And the implications of all of that will keep you thinking long after you turn the final page.

Reviewer’s Note: The way that The Fate of the Tearling manages its end reminds me strongly of Inherit the Stars by Laurie A. Green, with its choices about extreme means justifying shattering ends, and who does and doesn’t pay the price. If the ending of The Fate of Tearling leaves you gasping, and you want more with a similar heart-stopping and thought-provoking affect, pick up Inherit the Stars for a purely science fictional twist on some of the same results.

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Review: Who Watcheth by Helene Tursten

Review: Who Watcheth by Helene TurstenWho Watcheth by Helene Tursten, Marlaine Delargey
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Inspector Huss #9
Pages: 304
Published by Soho Crime on December 6th 2016
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He watches the women from the shadows. He has an understanding with them; as long as they follow his rules, they are safe. But when they sin, he sentences them to death. A woman is found dead in a cemetery, strangled and covered in plastic. Just a few days before her death, the victim had received a flower, an unintelligible note, and a photograph of herself. Detective Inspector Irene Huss and her colleagues on the Goteborg police force have neither clue nor motive to track in the case, and when similar murders follow, their search for the killer becomes increasingly desperate. Meanwhile, strange things have been going on at home for Irene: first the rose bush in her garden is mangled, then she receives a threatening package with no return address . . .

My Review:

The title of this suspense thriller is a play on a very old Latin quotation: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, literally translated as “Who will guard the guards themselves?” That meaning is only part of the story in Who Watcheth. In this case it also carries the connotation of watching from the shadows. In other words, stalking.

And while the stalker from the shadows forms the bulk of this case, in the end, the question of “who guards the guards?” is the one that is left hanging in the reader’s mind, quivering with possibility. And tragedy.

The story here is one that has been told before, in multiple suspense thrillers. There’s a serial killer on the loose. At first the police, in the person of Detective Inspector Irene Huss, don’t know that the murders of women in their 40s are connected. But as the bodies begin to stack up, the investigators hunt both backwards and forwards, to see if they can determine where the crime spree began, and try to zero in on the man the newspapers are calling “the Package Killer” for the way he leaves his victims neatly bundled up.

The conundrum for the investigators is that the killings appear random. The victims are roughly the same age, and are all unmarried, but otherwise they don’t seem to have much in common. It’s begins to seem as if they all work or at least shop at the same mall, but then, so do thousands of other people. It’s not much of a link.

And it doesn’t help them even when they zero in on a possible suspect. Daniel Borjesson is seriously creepy, but creepiness alone is not a crime. Unfortunately. He gives everyone who deals with him a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, and with good reason. But as much as the man touches off every single investigator’s gut instincts, no one can find a real connection between Borjesson and any of the victims, nor can they find any evidence that the man has access to either the car necessary for transporting his victims or the secure and out-of-the-way premises required to prepare his “packages” so meticulously.

Cop shop politics and the bureaucratic obsession with finances force the detectives to let him go. Their mistake is going to be extremely costly in the end. But for whom?

Escape Rating B+: This is a chilling thriller. It is also a very compelling read. I kept going long after the lights were out, which is a mistake. While this isn’t gory, the atmosphere of creeping menace makes for a tough read when the only light in the house is your iPad. But I absolutely had to finish.

This is the 9th book in the Inspector Huss series and is also part of the current wave of Scandinavian crime fiction. My exposure to that particular wave consists of seeing a few Wallander episodes, and this was my first introduction to Huss, but I still enjoyed the book a great deal, and didn’t feel like I was missing anything by not having read the rest of the series.

On that other hand, the atmosphere of the cop shop and Huss’ relationship with her family reminded me surprisingly of the J.D. Robb In Death series. The investigator’s personal life does find echoes and resonances in her cases, and there are bits about the cop shop and the group dynamics that felt similar across time, place and culture.

In the end, whodunnit is not a surprise to the reader. Much of the compulsion in the narrative revolves around putting the pieces together, and whether the detectives will manage to do so in time. Before the killer strikes again.

And the ending is a stunner.

Review: Her Nightly Embrace by Adi Tantimedh

Review: Her Nightly Embrace by Adi TantimedhHer Nightly Embrace (Ravi PI #1) by Adi Tantimedh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Series: Ravi PI #1
Pages: 320
Published by Atria/Leopoldo & Co. on November 1st 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The first in a trilogy of whip-smart novels—currently in development as a TV series set to star Sendhil Ramamurthy (NBC’s Heroes and Heroes Reborn)—about a destructive private investigator and his eccentric coworkers, who handle cases so high-profile that they never make the headlines.
Ravi Chandra Singh is the last guy you’d expect to become a private detective. A failed religious scholar, he now works for Golden Sentinels, an upmarket London private investigations agency. His colleagues are a band of gleefully amoral and brilliant screw-ups: Ken and Clive, a pair of brutal ex-cops who are also a gay couple; Mark Chapman, a burned-out stoner hiding a great mind; Marcie Holder, a cheerful former publicist; Benjamin Lee, a techie prankster from South London; David Okri, an ambitious lawyer from a well-connected Nigerian immigrant family; and Olivia Wong, an upper-class Hong Kong financial analyst hiding her true skills as one of the most dangerous hackers in the world—all under the watchful eye of Roger Golden, wheeler-dealer extraordinaire, and his mysterious office manager, Cheryl Hughes.
Thrust into a world where the rich, famous, and powerful hire him to solve their problems and wash their dirty laundry, Ravi finds himself in over his head with increasingly gonzo and complex cases – and the recent visions that he’s been having of Hindu gods aren’t helping. As Ravi struggles to stay ahead of danger, he wonders if the things he’s seeing are a delusion – or if he might, in fact, be an unrecognized shaman of the modern world...

My Review:

As I read Her Nightly Embrace, it felt a lot like I was reading a media tie-in book for a TV series. While there is somewhat of an overarching story, the book is divided into sections that read an awful lot like separate episodes.

Which is completely fitting, as the series is in the process of being adapted for TV, and seems to have been written with that adaptation in mind. Which does not keep the book from being a fun and interesting read.

The cast of characters inhabiting the Golden Sentinels Private Investigations Agency is one of the quirkiest bunch of misfits ever to become private investigators. And Ravi Chandra Singh fits right in – even if he doesn’t believe that he does.

Everyone at the agency, from the owner on down, is on the run from something or other. Not literally on the run, but metaphorically. Ravi is as down on his luck, at least for certain definitions of luck, as the rest of them.

He’s a failed religious scholar, and a recently fired schoolteacher. Neither of which makes him terribly employable in most circles. But he is in debt up to his eyeballs to pay for his sister’s fancy wedding and his mother’s gambling debts, so he tells himself he’s just working at the extremely well-paying and equally morally questionable Golden Sentinels to pay off his overdraft.

It takes a long time, and more than a few cases that head towards Crazytown, before he’s able to admit to himself that he’s as addicted to the chaos as the rest of the shop of misfit toys.

But he is in over his head. Golden Sentinels is the agency that very, very rich people, and occasionally governments, hire when they want to make sure that their problems go so far away that no one ever knows they existed in the first place.

Ravi finds himself learning how the world really works, and it is not a comfortable lesson. He is a moral man who finds himself in the midst of work where the ends always justify the means. He finds himself in the awkward position of keeping the people around him from letting those means get too dirty, and not always succeeding. And never feeling completely comfortable with either the means or sometimes even the ends.

They say that God laughs at our plans. For Ravi, that is literally true. He sees the Hindu gods in the midst of his chaotic life, and they are all laughing at him. And seemingly texting each other about him and what they perceive as his foolishness.

Is Ravi crazy, or are the gods really watching him? He doesn’t know, and neither do we. But if they are, he is giving them a very entertaining show.

Escape Rating B: This is a fun book. There’s not a lot of there, there, but it makes for a very entertaining read.

Her Nightly Embrace reads like a caper story, or actually a collection of them. It reminds me a bit of the TV show Leverage, in that you are never quite sure whether the Golden Sentinels are black hats or white hats, and often neither are they. But they solve their cases with a lot of expensive toys, a bit of sleight of hand, and a willingness to do just about anything to take care of their well-paying clients.

Including the CIA. When Ravi finds out exactly who the Golden Sentinels are in bed with, it sends him on a long, dark night of the soul. He’s still a bit out there through the rest of the book.

Her Nightly Embrace is a story of the loss of innocence. It’s one of those stories about someone not wanting to see how the sausage is made, only to find out in the end that he is the sausage – and so is everyone else.

Ravi’s work is so crazy that he needs his family to ground him. Which they do, and at the same time his parents and his sister are also part of the crazy that drives him. When the agency recruits his on-again/off-again girlfriend, the reader isn’t sure whether it’s because her talents are useful or because it gives them another way of tying Ravi to the agency. And after meeting all the characters, it’s probably a bit of both.

Although their methods can be fairly dark, like Leverage the book does come off as entertaining fluff. Maybe dark velvet fluff, but fluff nevertheless. I am curious to see where the series, both the books and the TV series, take Ravi and the Golden Sentinels next.

Review: Spaceman by Mike Massimino

Review: Spaceman by Mike MassiminoSpaceman: An Astronaut's Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Mike Massimino
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: autobiography, science
Pages: 320
Published by Crown Archetype on October 4th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to find yourself strapped to a giant rocket that’s about to go from zero to 17,500 miles per hour? Or to look back on the earth from outer space and see the surprisingly precise line between day and night? Or to stand in front of the Hubble telescope, wondering if the emergency repair you’re about to make will inadvertently ruin humankind’s chance to unlock the universe’s secrets? Mike Massimino has been there, and in Spaceman he puts you inside the suit, with all the zip and buoyancy of life in microgravity.
Massimino’s childhood space dreams were born the day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, but his journey to realizing those dreams was as unlikely as it is captivating. Growing up in a working-class Long Island family, Massimino catapulted himself to Columbia and then MIT, only to flunk his qualifying exams and be rejected twice by NASA before making it to the final round of astronaut selection—where he was told his poor eyesight meant he’d never make the cut. But even that couldn’t stop him from finally earning his wings, making the jump to training in T-38 Air Force jets and preparing his body—and soul—for the journey to the cosmos.
Taking us through the surreal wonder and beauty of his first spacewalk, the tragedy of losing friends in the Columbia shuttle accident, and the development of his enduring love for the Hubble telescope—which he’d be tasked with saving on his final mission— Massimino has written an ode to never giving up and the power of teamwork to make anything possible. Spaceman invites us into a rare, wonderful world where the nerdiest science meets the most thrilling adventure, and pulls back a curtain on just what having “the right stuff” really means.

My Review:

Reading Spaceman feels like the next best thing to going to space oneself. As someone who also dreamed that dream more than a little bit, reading Mike Massimino’s account of his seven-year-old self in Astronaut Snoopy pajamas reaching for that dream of becoming an astronaut with all his heart certainly touched mine with both envy and awe.

And it’s difficult to separate my own wishing self from the life story of someone who got to live that dream. There were plenty of points where I teared up.

Massimino was a boy when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, but that historical journey became his own North Star. He set his heart on becoming an astronaut. And he did.

But one of the fascinating things about the author’s reach for space is that it isn’t about the glory for him. Not at all. It’s only partly about the journey. Instead, it’s about the team. Not merely in the sense of the cliche that “there is no I in TEAM”, but mostly in the sense that becoming an astronaut was about joining the best and closest knit team (also one of the smallest) in the world.

It wasn’t just about “boldly going”, it was also about becoming part of something greater. And that’s the part of the story that resonates. In the end, it’s all about the people. Not just, and often not primarily, the person who wrote the story, but all the people involved in this great and wondrous endeavor.

Read Spaceman, and feel like you’re almost there.

Escape Rating A: If you are looking for a book about space flight and astronauts that doesn’t just pick out the usual suspects, Spaceman is a winner. The author does a fantastic job of taking the reader with him on his journey from seemingly average boy on Long Island to one of the last people to fix the Hubble Space Telescope. While on a spacewalk 350 miles above the Earth.

It’s also a just plain inspiring life story. Massimino saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, and decided that he wanted to be an astronaut more than anything. In spite of the fact that his dream had no real-world relationship to anyone he knew, he hung onto that dream. Even as he scrambled to figure out to reach it.

This is the story of someone who dreamed even bigger than he was, and managed to make that dream come true. Not smoothly, not easily, not without plenty of fits and starts, but come true it did. And it’s awesome. Especially because it tells the story of someone who gets knocked down and comes back up over and over, until he achieves his dream. One of  things that is great about this book is that it doesn’t end with the achievement of that dream as so many stories do. Instead, he goes on and talks about what a person does when they’ve spent their entire life up to that point in the pursuit of a goal that has been achieved. He talks about his joy in his second act, and that’s incredibly important.

It also tells a story that we all have heroes, that we all need them, and that they all suffer the same doubts and fears that the rest of us do. Reading about an astronaut going through his own bout of “imposter syndrome” puts my own day-to-day twinges of that same feeling into perspective.

The book ends with a heartfelt paean to the future of the space program. Today is a struggle, but we will get back out there. As another intrepid space explorer once said, “Risk is our business.” We’ll go back out to see what’s over the next horizon, and what’s in the next galaxy, because that’s what humans do. That’s what we’re made for.