Review: All the Ever Afters by Danielle Teller

Review: All the Ever Afters by Danielle TellerAll the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella’s Stepmother by Danielle Teller
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow on May 22, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In the vein of Wicked, The Woodcutter, and Boy, Snow, Bird, a luminous reimagining of a classic tale, told from the perspective of Agnes, Cinderella’s “evil” stepmother.

We all know the story of Cinderella. Or do we?

As rumors about the cruel upbringing of beautiful newlywed Princess Cinderella roil the kingdom, her stepmother, Agnes, who knows all too well about hardship, privately records the true story. . . .

A peasant born into serfdom, Agnes is separated from her family and forced into servitude as a laundress’s apprentice when she is only ten years old. Using her wits and ingenuity, she escapes her tyrannical matron and makes her way toward a hopeful future. When teenaged Agnes is seduced by an older man and becomes pregnant, she is transformed by love for her child. Once again left penniless, Agnes has no choice but to return to servitude at the manor she thought she had left behind. Her new position is nursemaid to Ella, an otherworldly infant. She struggles to love the child who in time becomes her stepdaughter and, eventually, the celebrated princess who embodies everyone’s unattainable fantasies. The story of their relationship reveals that nothing is what it seems, that beauty is not always desirable, and that love can take on many guises.

Lyrically told, emotionally evocative, and brilliantly perceptive, All the Ever Afters explores the hidden complexities that lie beneath classic tales of good and evil, all the while showing us that how we confront adversity reveals a more profound, and ultimately more important, truth than the ideal of “happily ever after.”

My Review:

As Agnes says, “The stories we tell ourselves have great power.” And that is as true of the story that Agnes tells of her own life as it is about the fairy tale that becomes wrapped around the life of her stepdaughter Ella – known to legend as Cinderella. Although Ella never spent a day amongst the cinders in her entire privileged life.

Well, there was that one day, but it wasn’t exactly like the fairy tale. Then again, nothing was like the fairy tale. Because fairy tales aren’t real. They are just more compelling than day-to-day reality.

At least reality according to Ella’s not-so-wicked stepmother. Who may, of course, be an unreliable narrator of her own life – but then, aren’t we all?

Agnes begins her life as the second daughter of a poor serf in the village of Aviceford. Her family is too poor to feed her along with everyone else, so she is sent to the manor to become a laundry maid. It’s the best/worst thing that ever happens to her, and pretty much sets the pattern for her entire life.

Agnes is a woman who never manages to take two steps forward without taking at least one step back. While there are some happy moments in her life, they seem to mostly occur in spite of every single deck stacked against her pretty much all the time.

It’s a sad tale.

Just when it seems Agnes has finally found a way to have a fairly good and productive life, if not exactly a happy one, she finds herself face to face, or tantrum to tantrum, with her stepdaughter Ella. The world may see Ella as a fairy tale princess, but Agnes has to deal with her as a spoiled little brat who grows into a spoiled and self-indulgent young woman.

Not that Agnes ever says any of that to herself. She’s doing her level best to raise Ella, and she’s actually a pretty reasonable stepmother, but circumstances, along with the girl’s father and her godmother – who is certainly no magical being – thwart any attempt at the slightest amount of discipline at every turn.

What we’re left with is the story of a young woman who managed to get her way all her life, and the poor woman who has been cast as evil not because of anything she actually said or did, but because it fits the fairy tale so much better.

Escape Rating B: The obvious comparison is to Wicked, which I admit I have not read. Just as in Wicked, we have the “true” story, told in her own words, of a character that myth has turned into an absolute monster. Of course no one ever sees themselves as a monster.

At the end, I found myself sympathizing with Agnes and her two daughters, and thinking that Ella is at best a spoiled and self-indulgent little brat, who barely has the intelligence to keep manipulating circumstances to her own advantage.

Agnes’ story, on the other hand, reads like a tragedy. She does her best, and life knocks her down at every turn. But I did like the way that the author turned the whole “ugly stepsister” trope on its tiny little head.

It is true that we have an unfortunate tendency to equate beauty with goodness, and that correlation is far from proven. Ella’s stepsisters Charlotte and Matilda are objectively not beautiful by the standards of the time. Their father was one of the Moors from Spain, and as a consequence their skin is too dark for conventional beauty. Charlotte suffered an accident with scalding water as a child, and Matilda survived a terrible case of smallpox. Both left scars. But they both are considerably more beautiful on the inside (and a whole lot cleverer) than Ella has the wit to be. I wish we saw a bit more of them.

I also enjoyed the way that Agnes simply questioned the logic of some of the stranger conclusions drawn by the fairy tale. Of course the Prince could easily find Ella. That’s what loyal retainers are for. And while he may have been completely smitten, he would instantly recognize her the moment they were face to face again. And that whole business of cutting off toes and heels – UGH!

I enjoyed Agnes journal entries in the present much more than her memories of the past. Her story seems to move from downtrodden tragedy to downtrodden tragedy, and while it feels at least somewhat true to medieval life and its lack of opportunities for women, it becomes disheartening to read after a time.

The story ends with poor Agnes worrying that she was not charitable enough in her behavior towards Ella. Not because that behavior has resulted in her current circumstances, but because she finds herself believing that she didn’t bend over backwards to indulge the child nearly enough.

In this version of the fairy tale, at least, the stepmother has nothing to feel guilty about.

TLC
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Review: Lowcountry Bonfire by Susan M. Boyer

Review: Lowcountry Bonfire by Susan M. BoyerLowcountry Bonfire (Liz Talbot Mystery #6) by Susan M. Boyer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Liz Talbot #6
Pages: 268
Published by Henery Press on June 27, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Private Investigators Liz Talbot and Nate Andrews have worked their share of domestic cases. So when Tammy Sue Lyerly hires them to find out what her husband is hiding, they expect to find something looney but harmless. After all, this is the guy who claims to have been a DEA agent, a champion bull rider, and a NASCAR driver. But when he turns up dead the morning after Liz and Nate deliver the incriminating photos, Tammy is the prime suspect.

Questioning the truth of Zeke Lyerly’s tall-tales, Liz and Nate race to uncover small town scandals, long buried secrets, and the victim’s tumultuous past to keep Tammy Sue out of jail and the case from going up in flames.

My Review:

After a few serious books, and with a few serious books yet to come, it felt like time for something a bit lighter and fluffier, even if that light and fluffy included just a bit of murder. So I was more than ready to return to the Carolina lowcountry, the island of Stella Maris, and the investigations of Liz Talbot and her husband Nate Andrews.

This particular entry in the series takes off like a house on fire. Although it literally begins with a car on fire. There’s no mystery about the fire. Tammy Sue Lyerly sets her husband’s prized Mustang, an absolutely gorgeous classic car, on fire. In the middle of the street. With all his clothes inside it.

Tammy Lee just found out that her husband has been cheating on her. She hired Liz and Nate to find out what she didn’t want to know. And they found out.

But what no one expected to find was the body of her husband, Zeke Lyerly, crammed into the trunk of his Mustang. The only saving grace is that the body was found before the fire reached the trunk.

Of course Tammy Lee is the prime suspect. But Liz doesn’t believe she did it. Not that she wasn’t angry enough, or even that she was completely overcome when the body was discovered. Liz doesn’t think Tammy Lee committed the murder because she’s pretty sure that Zeke died of strychnine poisoning, and that’s not exactly the hallmark of the crime of passion that Tammy Lee would have committed.

So who did?

Some cases are all about the how. Those are the ones where forensics play a big part, and the investigators find themselves trying to figure out the complicated shenanigans that resulted in murder.

There are plenty of complicated shenanigans in Zeke Lyerly’s death, but when Liz and Nate investigate, the most difficult question they have to solve is “just who the hell was Zeke Lyerly, anyway?”

It’s not just that he was away from Stella Maris for 20 years, but that those 20 years seem to be a complete blank. The deeper that Liz and Nate dive into Zeke’s life, the more they begin to suspect that a whole lot more of Zeke’s really tall tales were really true. Especially the ones about his being in the CIA.

Did someone from his mysterious past track him down and kill him? Or is the motive, after all, a lot closer to home?

Escape Rating B+: This was one of those ‘right book at the right time’ situations. I’ve read a few heavier and weightier books recently. Even I Met a Traveller in an Ancient Land has a surprising amount of emotional heft considering its small size. So I was in the mood for something a bit less fraught.

This series always serves a tasty slice of pecan pie along with a juicy murder. And just a bit of paranormal woo-woo to add a bit of spice to the body. I suspect that how one feels about this series may relate, at least in part, to how one feels about the character of Colleen, Liz’ childhood friend. Colleen is a ghost, perpetually stuck at age 17 when she committed suicide. And her ghostly, perhaps even heavenly mission is to protect the island of Stella Maris. A mission she often stretches just a bit into protecting and helping Liz.

Like all cozy mysteries, there’s a group of regulars that surround Liz and Nate. In addition to the ghostly Colleen, that case of regulars is mostly made of up Liz’ family, all residents of Stella Maris, including her older brother Blake, the island’s chief of police. And he’s usually just thrilled to be working with his kid sister.

As a coastal island, Stella Maris has a lot of seafood restaurants, and that’s very appropriate, because this series always serves up some tasty red herrings. This case is interesting because it starts out so mundane, veers into some surprisingly strange places, but eventually, returns to motives that are close to home. And says a lot about acts and their consequences along the way.

As always, this was a fun read. I like Liz as a character to follow, and her relationship with Nate is still romantic without the romance getting in the way of solving the mystery. In real life, her parents would drive me bonkers, but then, this is fiction and not real life. A little of them still goes a long way.

But it is Liz that we follow, and she always leads her readers to interesting places and cases. I’ll be back in Stella Maris for the next book in this series, Lowcountry Bookshop.

Review: I Met a Traveller in an Ancient Land by Connie Willis

Review: I Met a Traveller in an Ancient Land by Connie WillisI Met a Traveller in an Antique Land by Connie Willis
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: books and reading, fantasy, science fiction
Pages: 88
Published by Subterranean Press on April 30, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Jim is in New York City at Christmastime shopping a book based on his blog—Gone for Good—premised on the fact that “being nostalgic for things that have disappeared is ridiculous.” Progress decides for people what they need and what’s obsolete. It’s that simple. Of course, not everyone agrees. After Jim bombs a contentious interview with a radio host who defends the sacred technology of the printed, tangible book, he gets caught in a rainstorm only to find himself with no place to take refuge other than a quaint, old-fashioned bookshop.

Ozymandias Books is not just any store. Jim wanders intrigued through stacks of tomes he doesn’t quite recognize the titles of, none with prices. Here he discovers a mysteriously pristine, seemingly endless wonderland of books—where even he gets nostalgic for his childhood favorite. And, yes, the overwhelmed and busy clerk showing him around says they have a copy. But it’s only after Jim leaves that he understands the true nature of Ozymandias and how tragic it is that some things may be gone forever…

From beloved, multiple-award-winning, New York Times best-selling author Connie Willis comes I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land, a novella about the irreplaceable magic of books.

My Review:

If you love books, this is a terrific story.

Although the blurbs say it’s all about the magic of books, and it is about that, it feels as if it is also, and possibly first and foremost, a book about obsession. And nostalgia. And obsolescence. And definitely books.

I say that it is about obsession because of the main characters reaction to his discovery of and at the strange and mysterious Ozymandias Books.

The name of the bookstore, Ozymandias, probably sounds familiar, but you probably couldn’t place it unless you googled it, as I did. Ozymandias is the title of a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which begins with the line, “I met a traveller from an antique land”.

Ironically, the theme of the poem is hubris, overweening pride, that comes before an inevitable fall. In the case of the poem, it references the inevitable fall of once great empire. One Ozymandias’ other famous lines references that directly, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

But our protagonist Jim is not mighty. His work, his blog Gone for Good, is all about the inevitable obsolescence of pretty much everything, including printed books, and the way that societies routinely toss things they no longer find needful into the scrapheap of history. And that the things being tossed should not be mourned in their passing, because if they were truly needed they wouldn’t be tossed in the first place.

People, however, have an emotional attachment to those things being tossed, as well as the times they represent. People particularly have an emotional attachment to books, because they represent both the escape of reading their contents and the times and places where we read them. For those of us who are readers, those memories are indelible.

When Jim sneaks his peek into the depths of Ozymandias Books, he finds himself re-captured by that love of books and his own particular memories of the books of his childhood. In other words, he finds the magic and wonder of books and reading all over again, and realizes that their passing away is something to be mourned, and if possible prevented.

But he is ejected from this book lovers paradise, and in the end sacrifices everything to find his way back.

Can we blame him?

Escape Rating B+: I’m pretty sure that most librarians and book lovers are going to love this story. Particularly the people who love books as objects, and not just those who love books for the stories they contain but don’t care as much about the container.

Ozymandias Books, the store, reminds me of two of the libraries in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. As Jim plumbs the depths of Ozymandias, its neverending row upon row and floor upon floor of bookstacks, it is clear to the reader that he is in a magical space that is not limited by the constraints of geography, geology, logic or common sense. Like a TARDIS, Ozymandias Books is infinitely bigger on the inside. Or, and more likely, it connects to the L-space created in the Discworld, where all great libraries flow into one another by magic.

But the nature of the collection at Ozymandias Books, and the way it is acquired, seem more like Death’s two libraries. One is the library of all the books that were ever written, whether or not those works were lost to the mists of time, fate, or mold. The other, and infinitely larger library, is the collection of all the books that were never written. (I probably have a couple of volumes in there myself)

Unlike many of this author’s other short works, I Met a Traveller is not a funny story. It is ultimately sad. It is a story about the death of books as objects. It is also the story of Jim’s growing obsession with finding this place where it seems like books go to die. As the story ends, it looks like he’s going to devote his life to the search, without leaving the reader feeling as if he has a chance at success.

This is a story that asks questions, and does not provide answers. It will make you think. And leave you with more than a bit of nostalgia for those good old days when books were objects that readers carried around proudly, and that carried readers away.

Review: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Review: Warlight by Michael OndaatjeWarlight by Michael Ondaatje
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, literary fiction, World War II
Pages: 304
Published by Knopf Publishing Group on May 8, 2018
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From the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author of The English Patient: a mesmerizing new novel that tells a dramatic story set in the decade after World War II through the lives of a small group of unexpected characters and two teenagers whose lives are indelibly shaped by their unwitting involvement.

In a narrative as beguiling and mysterious as memory itself--shadowed and luminous at once--we read the story of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel, and his older sister, Rachel. In 1945, just after World War II, they stay behind in London when their parents move to Singapore, leaving them in the care of a mysterious figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and they grow both more convinced and less concerned as they come to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women joined by a shared history of unspecified service during the war, all of whom seem, in some way, determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? And what does it mean when the siblings' mother returns after months of silence without their father, explaining nothing, excusing nothing? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all that he didn't know and understand in that time, and it is this journey--through facts, recollection, and imagination--that he narrates in this masterwork from one of the great writers of our time.

My Review:

I picked this one up because of the World War II angle. It sounded like a combination of coming-of-age and voyage of discovery. At least it sounded like a boy with a murky past grows up and discovers what the murk was all about.

But it isn’t. Or he doesn’t. Perhaps a little bit of both.

The beginning is certainly promising. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his 16-year-old sister Rachel are left in the guardianship of someone who begins as a temporary lodger in their house – at least as far as the children know. It is 1945 and the war is over. But for Nathaniel and Rachel, it seems as if the peace is going to be even more dangerous than the war.

Warlight is the semi-luminous shadowed darkness that existed at night, in Britain, under the blackout of World War II. Things were only seen in shadow, and people acted in that shadow.

In this story, the shadowy deeds conducted in that warlight continue to haunt the post-war period, and it is the warlight of his memory that Nathaniel attempts to navigate.

The first part of the book takes place during that immediate post-war period, when Nathaniel and Rachel are abandoned in the care of a man they nickname ‘The Moth’. They believe he might be a criminal. Certainly the lives that Nathaniel and Rachel lead while under his care are highly irregular, as are the characters that come to inhabit that life.

Those post-war, post-Blitz years are highly chaotic, and so is everything that surrounds them. But our perspective of those years is through Nathaniel’s memories, viewed through the lens of his adulthood in the 1950s, and his work with an unnamed secret agency, probably MI5 or MI6. His job is to sanitize the parts of the war that were conducted in a grey area. Probably in very deep shades of grey. Shades that seemed as if they were conducted ‘for the greater good’ in wartime, but that in peacetime are going to appear pretty damning. If they ever come to light.

It’s part of Nathaniel’s job to see that they don’t.

But his real purpose in the depths of that nameless agency is to hunt for traces of his mother. Because during the war, she was one of those people who operated in that grey. And during the peace, the results of those actions eventually came for her.

Nathaniel wants to learn why. Not just that why, but all the whys. And his search leads him back into his memories – and back into the grey warlight.

Escape Rating B-: I’m not actually sure I escaped anywhere with this one. It’s a weird book. From the description, I expected something more definitive, at least in the part of the book where Nathaniel is an adult and is searching for the past and the truth about that past.

But it doesn’t feel like there are any truly definitive events, at least until the very end when Nathaniel reconstructs what he thinks happened. But even then, he doesn’t really know, he’s only guessing.

And he is a very unreliable narrator. He doesn’t find much in the way of names and dates and places and documentation of any of the above. He finds bits and pieces and suppositions and suggestive blank spaces, both because his mother deliberately tried to erase her past and because the agency she worked for has erased anything murky in its past, and a lot of that murk is wrapped around his mother and her colleagues – many of whom were people that Nathaniel knew and didn’t know, both at the same time.

This is a book that I think people are either going to love or hate, but not much in the middle. It is very much literary fiction, in that it meanders a lot and not a lot clearly happens. But underneath that it says a lot of interesting things about what is condoned in war and condemned in peace, and the lengths that people and governments will go to in order to make sure that certain truths don’t ever see the full light of day.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 5-20-18

Sunday Post

This is going to be a very busy week here at chez Reading Reality. In addition to the books you see scheduled for this week, I also have two reviews to write for Library Journal. Although I sometimes do review my LJ books here also, I can’t use the same words in the review. And the LJ reviews are usually prepublication, so even though I’m writing the review now I generally can’t publish it for a couple of months. One of this week’s “extra” books will show up here later, the other is “to be determined.”

I’m also going to finish up listening to Tricked, the fourth book in the Iron Druid Chronicles, sometime this week. And I may use that review instead, just to not drive myself too crazy. I learned something new listening to Tricked, the relative sizes of shitload, buttload and fuckton. You really do learn something new everyday!

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Life’s a Beach Giveaway Hop

Winner Announcements:

The winner of the $10 Gift Card in the May I Suggest Giveaway Hop is Birdie

Blog Recap:

A Review: King of Ashes by Raymond Feist
Life’s a Beach Giveaway Hop
A- Review: By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis
B- Review: Fall of Angels by Barbara Cleverly
B- Review: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
Stacking the Shelves (288)

Coming Next Week:

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (review)
I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land by Connie Willis (review)
Lowcountry Bonfire by Susan M. Boyer (review)
All the Ever Afters by Danielle Teller (blog tour review)
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Stephen Brusatte (review)

Stacking the Shelves (288)

Stacking the Shelves

Looking around the shelves in my office (and the piles of books on the floor) I’m starting to think I need a library cart just to, well, cart things around. We got some new furniture last week, including a new desk and hutch in Galen’s office. Which necessitated moving two of the bookshelves out of his office into the spare room. Which necessitated emptying said bookcases before moving. Hence the piles on my office floor. We’ll probably do a bit of a weed before we put them back up, but it’s getting crowded in here.

So many books, so little time, so much fun!

For Review:
Aroused by Randi Hutter Epstein
The Art of Inheriting Secrets by Barbara O’Neal
Becoming Belle by Nuala O’Connor
Census by Jesse Ball
The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton
A Gift of Griffins (Faraman Prophecy #2) by V.M. Escalada
High Risers by Ben Austen
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
The Magnificent Esme Wells by Adrienne Sharp
The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory
These Truths by Jill Lepore
Us Against You (Beartown #2) by Fredrik Backman

Review: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

Review: The Female Persuasion by Meg WolitzerThe Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction
Pages: 454
Published by Riverhead Books on April 3, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Greer Kadetsky is a shy college freshman when she meets the woman she hopes will change her life. Faith Frank, dazzlingly persuasive and elegant at sixty-three, has been a central pillar of the women's movement for decades, a figure who inspires others to influence the world. Upon hearing Faith speak for the first time, Greer--madly in love with her boyfriend, Cory, but still full of longing for an ambition that she can't quite place--feels her inner world light up. Then, astonishingly, Faith invites Greer to make something out of that sense of purpose, leading Greer down the most exciting path of her life as it winds toward and away from her meant-to-be love story with Cory and the future she'd always imagined.

My Review:

There was just so much buzz about this book that I couldn’t resist picking it up. But now that I’ve finished it, I have a whole boatload of mixed feelings.

I started this book in the morning, and kept returning to it. In the end, I finished it in one day, all 454 pages of it. It is extremely readable – at least after the first chapter. But once I finished, it just didn’t feel like there was all that much there, there.

As I said, mixed feelings.

The story feels like it sits right on the border between literary fiction and women’s fiction. If it wasn’t for the heaping helpings of feminism and feminist history, I’d be certain it was women’s fiction, because the focus isn’t just on the women in the story, but primarily on their relationships with each other. The few men who feature in the story are very much secondary characters.

Not that the women are not themselves interesting, because they certainly are.

The protagonist of the story is Greer Kadetsky, who is a college freshman when the story begins. Shy, awkward, withdrawn and miserable, at first it seems as if Greer is a character who will not be much fun to follow. That first chapter is all Greer’s perspective, and it is pretty shallow and self-absorbed. She’s eighteen, so while it may be forgivable, it doesn’t make particularly thrilling reading.

But her story really begins when she meets Faith Frank, an icon of second-wave feminism. (If Faith seems modeled on Gloria Steinem, that’s probably close to the mark.) When Greer meets Faith, she is inspired to do more, to be more, to step outside her comfort zone and finally begin speaking up for herself.

There’s no question it’s the making of her.

Fast forward to Greer’s graduation. Her arrival at the offices of Faith’s feminist magazine for an interview occurs on the day the magazine closes. But again, that event galvanizes Greer, and when Faith starts up a new venture, Greer is one of the first people she calls.

Faith’s new venture, Loci, a combination speaker’s bureau, event management company and charitable foundation, all focusing on women, seems too good to be true. When Greer finally discovers that truth, it nearly breaks her. It certainly breaks her relationship with Faith.

And it’s the making of her, all over again.

Escape Rating B-: As I said, a whole boatload of mixed feelings. A boat the size of a container barge might be about right. Or an oil tanker.

While the first chapter almost threw me out of the book, once I got past that point – in other words once Greer stops being so inward-turning and actually starts doing things, she gets less self-absorbed and the story becomes difficult to put down.

At the same time, this is very much in the literary fiction tradition that not a lot happens and when it does it happens offstage. While traumatic events definitely do occur, we see them through the characters chewing them over (and over) and dealing with the aftermaths – with one notable exception, we’re not actually present for the event itself. So the book feels more like its about how the characters feel than about what they do.

For a book that purports to be about feminism, or at least about a feminist icon, or even about said feminist icon passing the torch to a new generation, it still seems very much rooted in second-wave feminism, which was mostly about middle and upper class cisgender white women and didn’t have a whole lot of intersectionality. And while the fact is that Faith’s new foundation definitely has a problem in this regard, that the problem gets lampshaded repeatedly does not actually solve the problem. And while it may not be intended to solve the problem for Faith’s foundation, it remains a problem with the book as a whole, and adds to the ultimate sense of shallowness. At least for this reader.

In the end, The Female Persuasion doesn’t feel so much like a book about feminism as it does feminist-adjacent airport fiction. But it will probably make an excellent movie.

Review: Fall of Angels by Barbara Cleverly

Review: Fall of Angels by Barbara CleverlyFall of Angels (An Inspector Redfyre Mystery) by Barbara Cleverly
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Inspector Redfyre #1
Pages: 384
Published by Soho Crime on May 15th 2018
Publisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Great Britain, 1923: Detective Inspector John Redfyre is a godsend to the Cambridge CID. A handsome young veteran bred among the city’s educated elite, he is no stranger to the set running its esteemed colleges and universities—a society that previously seemed impenetrable to even those at the top of local law enforcement, especially with the force plagued by its own history of corruption.

When Redfyre is invited to attend the annual St. Barnabas College Christmas concert in his Aunt Henrietta’s stead, he is expecting a quiet evening, though perhaps a bit of matchmaking mischief on his aunt’s part. But he arrives to witness a minor scandal: Juno Proudfoot, the trumpeter of the headlining musical duo, is a woman, and a young one at that—practically unheard of in conservative academic circles. When she suffers a near-fatal fall after the close of the show, Redfyre must consider whether someone was trying to kill her. Has her musical talent, her beauty, or perhaps most importantly, her gender, provoked a dangerous criminal to act? Redfyre must both seek advice from and keep an eye on old friends to catch his man before more innocents fall victim.

My Review:

I keep wanting the author’s name to be Beverly Cleverly, but it’s not. Fall of Angels, however, is a very clever little mystery, filled with interesting characters and tempting red herrings – and a few flaws.

I picked this book up because I was looking for something a bit less weighty than the rest of my books this week. But while it is a bit shorter, after finishing it I’m not so sure that it was actually lighter, at least not in the end.

It feels as if there are two books in one in Fall of Angels, one a rather lightweight between-the-wars mystery, and the other an exploration of the suffragist movement in England in the post-WWI era counterpointed by the rise of misogyny as backlash to that same movement – with a few other even darker things thrown into the not completely well-stirred soup.

I’ve mixed my metaphors. Let me explain.

This is the first book in a new mystery series featuring Detective Inspector John Redfyre of the Cambridge CID. That part of the story feels like an homage to the classic mysteries of the era, with the attitudes of the principals updated a bit to appeal to 21st century readers. Redfyre feels like a combination of Lord Peter Wimsey and the TV version of Jack Robinson from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

Like Wimsey, Redfyre is from the upper-crust, although exactly how is not specified. So throw in a bit of Campion for spice on that score. Likewise, Redfyre is university educated, but Cambridge rather than Wimsey’s Oxford – although Campion was also a Cambridge man. Also like Wimsey, Redfyre served as an officer in the Great War, but seems to have come out relatively unscathed, at least in comparison with Wimsey’s horrific bouts of PTSD.

In his actions, Redfyre reminds me of Phryne’s Jack Robinson – the TV version and not the one in the books. They are both police officers, and even both have the same rank. And they are about the same age, somewhere in their 30s, and both came out of the war relatively unscarred. They are also both methodical investigators, and they are both above reproach as officers. And they are both rather handsome – but handsome is as handsome does, and they both do quite well.

The investigation that Redfyre finds himself in the middle of is dark and deadly. A young female trumpet player is receiving deadly poison pen letters, and an attempt is made on her life after a Christmas concert at the college – an attempt that Redfyre witnesses due to machinations on the part of his redoubtable Aunt Hetty.

As he investigates, he finds himself following a trail of bodies, all of young women who in one way or another challenged the status quo. A status quo that kept most women on their Victorian pedestals and subservient to or chattels of the men in their lives – even after all the changes wrought by the war.

Redfyre discovers that all the victims are members of an unnamed group of women’s suffragists who want universal female suffrage and so much more, and are willing to use rather underhanded means to reach their goals.

While those underhanded means fall short of murder, someone is willing to murder them to stop them from taking what he sees as places that are rightfully and properly reserved for men.

It’s up to Redfyre to figure out whodunnit before the killer gets to his Aunt Hetty’s name on his murder list.

Escape Rating B-: I have mixed feelings about Fall of Angels. I liked John Redfyre, his “beat” in Cambridge, and what looks to be his cast of regulars.

The between-the-wars period is always interesting. The way things used to be was the first casualty of the Great War, and most people are aware that whatever happens next is going to be very different. It is also the period called the “Roaring 20s” when everyone was celebrating hard to forget the war. That it all comes crashing down at the end of the decade is not yet on the horizon in 1923 when this series begins.

University towns, and Cambridge is certainly that, are also hotbeds for mysteries. The college brings in lots of outsiders, and the town vs. gown conflict is ever ready to produce criminal activities, whether violent or not. And the faction rivalry results in a lot of conflicting pointing fingers once the deed has been done.

So there’s a lot to like. But the crime that Redfyre has to solve in his initial outing feels anachronistic, or at least his attitudes do. Or both.

Not that there were not plenty of women agitating for universal suffrage after the war. They were eventually successful in 1928. But much of what this nameless group is proposing feels too serious for the story, while their actions to achieve their ends seem almost farcical. It felt like it should either be melodrama or drama, but not both at the same time. Other readers may feel differently.

So for me, the blend did not quite work. But I liked Redfyre enough that I’ll probably come back for the next book in the series, just to see how things turn out.

Review: By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis

Review: By Fire Above by Robyn BennisBy Fire Above (Signal Airship, #2) by Robyn Bennis
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, steampunk
Series: Signal Airship #2
Pages: 368
Published by Tor Books on May 15, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"All's fair in love and war," according to airship captain Josette Dupre, until her hometown becomes occupied by the enemy and her mother a prisoner of war. Then it becomes, "Nothing's fair except bombing those Vins to high hell."

Before she can rescue her town, however, Josette must maneuver her way through the nest of overstuffed vipers that make up the nation's military and royal leaders in order to drum up support. The foppish and mostly tolerated crew member Lord Bernat steps in to advise her, along with his very attractive older brother.

Between noble scheming, under-trained recruits, and supply shortages, Josette and the crew of the Mistral figure out a way to return to Durum―only to discover that when the homefront turns into the frontlines, things are more dangerous than they seem.

My Review:

By Fire Above is the direct sequel to last year’s absolutely awesome The Guns Above. If you enjoy your SF with a hint of steampunk, really snappy dialog and fantastic kick-ass heroines, The Guns Above might just be your jam. It certainly was mine.

That this is a direct sequel to the first book is a zeppelin-sized hint that this book makes no sense whatsoever without having read the first book first. Not only is that where the situation is setup, but it’s also the foundation of all of the important relationships that power this particular series.

By that I mean the all-important frenemy relationship between Captain Josette Dupre and the foppish spy/supernumerary Lord Bernat Hinkal. If you don’t know how they began, you can’t really understand what happens between them here.

In this world where airships are not merely blimps but actual weapons of war not dissimilar to naval ships, Josette Dupre is an anomaly. Women are barely tolerated in the Garnian Signal Corps. She’s not supposed to be a “real” officer, and she’s certainly not supposed to command either ships or men. That she has turned out to be the best captain in the Signal Corps provides no end of embarrassment, consternation, annoyance and downright obstructionism at every turn.

Josette has no idea how the game is played, and she’s no good at playing it. She just wants her ship back in the air and back in the fight. But most of the first half of By Fire Above is tangled up in all the ways that the powers that be try to prevent that from happening.

So Josette spends the first half of the story on the ground playing politics badly and dealing with personal relationships she has no clue about. What makes this part of the situation so incredibly messy is that her hometown of Durum was captured by the enemy Vinz at the end of The Guns Above, with her mother trapped inside. She is desperate to persuade someone, anyone, that Durum can and should be retaken.

To make matters more confusing, Lord Bernat, usually called Bernie, seems to be in love with her mother. While on the ground, Bernie’s older brother Roland begins courting Josette. The relationship between Bernie and Josette was messy enough before their romantic lives became so weirdly intertwined.

The part of this story that focuses on the neverending war between the Garnians and the Vinz is way more compelling, and once the ship lifts, the story moves into high gear. And then it really flies, headlong into danger, trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and keeps pouring on more power until the absolutely wild conclusion.

And we’ll be back, and that’s the best thing of all.

Escape Rating A-: I absolutely adored The Guns Above. It was my first A+ review of 2017, and definitely made my Hugo ballot for the year – even if it wasn’t nominated.

So I had high hopes for By Fire Above. And those hopes turn out to have been a bit higher than the Mistral can actually fly. Which does not mean that I did not enjoy By Fire Above, or that it is not a good book and a great continuation to a marvelous story.

It just didn’t quite live up to its predecessor.

This story flies highest when the ship is off the ground, even when Josette isn’t actually aboard her. The first part of By Fire Above is all on the ground. The Mistral is in tatters, Josette has to battle the quartermaster to scrounge parts, and she has to spend a lot of time biting her tongue.

Her side is losing the war. It is obvious to all of those fighting it, but to none of the aristocrats and fops back in the capital. It is axiomatic that generals fight the last war, not the current one. Garnia has not lost a war in over 3 centuries. None of the ruling class are able to wrap their tiny minds around the idea that just because it hasn’t happened before does not mean it can’t happen now – especially if that reputation is not backed up by well-trained boots on the ground and strong ships and crews in both the air and the sea. Garnia has been resting on its laurels for far too long, while the Vinz have lost too many times and are determined to win this time – and have the trained soldiers and top-notch equipment to make it not just possible, but downright likely.

A lot of what makes this book interesting is the relationship between Bernie and Josette, and so far at least, that relationship is not a romance and is not veering into “will they, won’t they” territory. Bernie is in love with Josette’s mother, and Josette is falling for Bernie’s brother. Whether those relationships are at least partially about dealing with their feelings for people they can’t have is anyone’s guess.

But Josette’s romantic life is certainly a distraction from her true calling as an airship captain, and her continuing battles against the bureaucracy to retain her rank, ship and crew. I found those battles in The Guns Above much more riveting than any digressions into Josette’s love life in By Fire Above.

However, Bernie’s character arc continues to fascinate. He began as a self-absorbed and self-confessed spy for the government, determined to bring Josette down by fair means or foul. But by the end of this book, he has both changed and not changed. He is still a fop, and he is still self-absorbed, although it feels like some of that is an act. He has also discovered that he has found a place where he belongs, whether because or in spite of the violence it requires. Underneath that overdressed exterior lurks the heart of a warrior, and Bernie is just as surprised as anyone to discover it.

One of the things that ties Josette and Bernie together, particularly in By Fire Above, is the way that both of their identities are shaken, and in completely different directions. On the one hand, Josette discovers that everything she knows about herself has been a lie. Whether those revelations will shake her in the present or the future are yet to be determined.

On the other hand, Bernie has spent his life, at least until he first boarded the Mistral, as an example of the dangers of being a second son. He had no purpose, no ambition, and nothing to spend his time on except wasteful frivolity. He was in danger of dying of boredom. Now he isn’t certain of who he is or what he is becoming, not to mention whether he’ll live to see the next morning – but he’s alive for every second of it. It may be the making of him. We’ll see.

The twists and turns of the battle to retake Durum kept me on the edge of my seat. It wasn’t just about war and fighting – so much of that story had a surprising amount of depth and resonance, and definitely set the stage for book 3. This series is clearly not over.

Amazingly, By Fire Above ends on both a bang and a whimper – even if that whimper is coming from the reader. I can’t wait for the next chapter in this saga, hopefully this time next year!

Life’s a Beach Giveaway Hop

Welcome to the third annual Life’s a Beach Giveaway Hop, hosted by The Kids Did It and The Mommy Island.

it is now time for that great summer question – what on earth is a beach read? And how many of them can I cram into my summer?

Everyone has a different idea of what constitutes a good beach read. Based on the annual lists of “best beach reads” and the places one finds such lists, one might believe that there’s a lot of light fluffy reading involved. While you’re baking in the sun, a heavy book just doesn’t seem like the thing.

Although something that puts a chill up your spine on a steamy hot day might be just the ticket. Whatever floats your boat – especially if you are actually floating in a boat!

So here’s your chance to win either a $10 Amazon Gift Card or a $10 Book from the Book Depository – so that you can get started on your own beach reads, no matter where you actually plan to read them.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

And for more fabulous prizes, be sure to visit the other stops on the hop!