Past Tense

Nick Marsh’s Past Tense is almost two books in one. The first half of Past Tense is science fiction/horror, and it’s pretty much of a sequel to Marsh’s first book, Soul Purpose (reviewed here). The main purpose of chapters 1 through 44 (or I through XLIV) is to provide a reason for the rest: the marvelous time travel feast that gives Past Tense its name.

The present day bits about the vet Alan Reece and his friends George and Kate, who saved the world from a Lovecraftian-Cthulhu-monster type takeover in the previous book, serve as introduction. The world is going to hell in a handcart again. Alan is not just seeing monsters, he also keeps slipping sideways into a world where Cthulhu seems to be running the place. And this is NOT GOOD.

He’s also being stalked by a couple of guys in ill-fitting suits and rather poor hygiene. When they finally catch up with him, their explanation floors him. They are like him, except from other “Soul Plains”. They are Conduits, with a capital “C”, and so is Alan.

And they are on Earth to help Alan save it, again. Because that last time Alan saved the Earth, he caught the attention of something nasty, and it wants to spoil things at the Soul Plain level, where only Conduits can fix things. Earth wasn’t even supposed to have a Conduit yet, so Alan is special.

About the poor hygiene thing. The other Conduits are just borrowing the bodies of people from Earth. They don’t quite know how to operate the equipment, so to speak. They get the language and general movement, well mostly, but the nuances of hair combing and tooth brushing are pretty much beyond them.

But they can show Alan how bad the problem is. The creature has no physical existence, except what he borrows. But on the Soul Plain level, he consumes Conduits, kills them, and steals their power. And he wants Alan. But he also want the entire Soul Power of the Earth.

The 21st century didn’t work for him. He was drawn to it because that’s where Alan was, but the 21st century doesn’t believe in much anymore, not on a superstitious level. This being needs to be worshipped to manifest. People need to believe in him. So he’s gone back into Earth’s past.

And that’s where the second “book” comes in. The creature has manifested in Britain, during the late period of the Roman occupation, in a fort on Hadrian’s Wall. In order to stop him, Alan has to go back to that same period to stop him from changing whatever piece in history he changed to trigger the wrong turn in history.

Alan has to occupy someone else’s body, just as the other Conduits do. Alan’s spirit, or soul, or Conduitness, or whatever, travels back and occupies the body of a medicus, a surgeon, on the Roman frontier in Britain at around 177 A.D. This glimpse into the life in Roman Britain is absolutely fascinating.

Even better, although worse for her, one of the creature’s minions mistakenly believes that Kate is the Conduit and sends her back to the same place and time. Kate occupies the body of a slave girl.

Between Alan and Kate, they are able to observe Roman life from top to bottom.

Their mission, which they must accept, is to prevent the assassination of the future emperor Commodus. Bastard that Commodus was, his place in history was necessary in order for the Roman Empire to fall at the appropriate time.

The only way they may be able to accomplish this seemingly impossible task is to convince a loyal and rational Roman Centurion that his commander is already dead and that his best friend is a time traveler. Can they do the impossible in time?

Escape Rating B+: I am of two minds. The set up with the part in the 21st century at the beginning, was necessary, but I wanted more of the part in the past. I adored the story once it moved to Roman Britain. Alan’s perspective on life in the fort really shone. It was so ironic that he found his place in life nearly 2,000 years before his birth. And he knew it couldn’t last.

And Kate, trying so hard to hold up at the absolute bottom of society’s ladder, reminding Alan that his current privilege rested on the backs of people like her, on slavery.

The historic bits reminded me a lot of Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove’s excellent Household Gods. This was a marvelous book about a woman whose spirit travels back to live on the Danube frontier of the Roman Empire at the same time period as Past Tense.

There’s a slight hint of the Star Trek Original Series episode City on the Edge of Forever in Kate’s relationship with Lucius the centurion. She wants to save him, to the point where she writes herself a message the second they get back to the 21st century, which she already knows she will find and read at the beginning of this adventure, but he will still attack first and die. And it’s necessary to save the future. And she grieves.

For more of my thoughts on Past Tense, take a look at Book Lovers Inc.


Review: Past Tense by Nick Marsh

Format read: ebook provided by the author
Release Date: October 28, 2010
Number of Pages 238
Publisher Immanion Press
Formats Available: paperback, ebook
Purchasing Info:Goodreads, Author’s Website, Amazon, Immanion Press, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords

Book Blurb:

Alan Reece, an unassuming animal doctor from the West Country, was surprised to discover that he had become the link between reality and the strange world beyond. Unfortunately, ripples from his unwitting transformation have freed a dark and terrible creature from its improbable prison.

My Thoughts:

This was originally posted at Book Lovers Inc.

Past Tense reminded me of the old “Doublemint Gum” commercial. Because it was two, two, two books in one.
And you might think that’s a terrible joke, but it fits with the snarky tone of the first part of the book. Fully realizing that everyone’s taste in both humor and snark varies widely. And wildly.

The beginning of the book takes off about a year after Marsh’s first book, Soul Purpose, left off. It’s not necessary to read Soul Purpose in order to enjoy Past Tense, but if you like British humor of the Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy school, you’ll enjoy Soul Purpose.
(If Ford Prefect had picked up Tristan Farnon from All Creatures Great and Small instead of Arthur Dent, he might have sounded something like Alan Reece, except that I remember Tristan as being lazier, but I digress)
The point is that Alan Reece hopes that he’s going crazy. Because the alternative is that he’s got to save the world again. He keeps slipping sideways into an alternate world where large purple tentacled creatures like something out of H.P. Lovecraft are running things. Alan’s already saved the world once, he thought he could go back to his normal, boring life as a small animal vet.

If Past Tense were only about Alan saving the world from the latest incarnation of the Cthulhu Mythos, it would have been an okay book. But that isn’t the heart of the story.
When Alan saved the world the first time, he stirred up something. And its bad. And it wants the Earth. Of course it does, or we wouldn’t have a story.
In order to save the day, Alan has to go back in time, to the frontier of Roman Britain at the end of the Empire. Actually around 177 A.D.
How does he do it? He gets some help. Alan is special. He’s a Conduit. He’s responsible for the Soul, capital S, of the Earth. Earth isn’t supposed to have one yet. It figures.
Conduits from two other Soul Plains have come to Earth to help him stop the big evil, by teaching him how to send his soul back into the past to stop that big evil. The mechanics really didn’t matter.
What made the story for me was life in Roman Britain. Oh did that part ever work! Alan got dropped into the body of a medicus, a surgeon, just as the poor bloke was about to perform surgery on someone. Alan got the language and the skills, and working on a human turned out to be not that much different from a large animal, without anethesia!
But wow! Figuring out what he needed to do to stop history from going wrong, while living a life he really enjoyed. This part was terrific.

Meanwhile, Alan’s friend Kate got sent back too. By accident. And got to see Roman life from the bottom. As a slave.
Alan and Kate have a mission to complete in the past. They have to make sure history stays on the right course. It takes them a while to figure out what they’re supposed to do. And when they do figure it out, they almost blow the whole thing.
The Emperor’s son is touring Britain. The young man in question is Commodus. Yes, that Commodus, from the movie Gladiator, which hasn’t happened yet. At this point, he’s still a vain young man who hasn’t become emperor. But he has to. He has to become emperor and dictator and general all-around asshat so that the Roman Empire falls when it’s supposed to.
But if he dies in Britain too soon, the result will be that the Empire lives and becomes a world-wide theocracy with the Cthulhu-type monsters in charge. Can’t let that happen.
Alan and Kate decide to trust Alan’s best friend, the Roman Centurion Lucius. Of course, Lucius isn’t Alan’s best friend, he’s the medicus Anicius’ best friend. Alan’s trust is almost misplaced. But after the evil creature masquerading as a Roman Praetor attempts to arrest this loyal Centurion, Lucius throws his lot in with them after all.

I wish I could give Past Tense two separate ratings. The second half of the book, from the second they get to the past, is 4 stars or better. The ending is a tear-jerker for Kate. The first third is 3 stars.

PhotobucketI give Past Tense 3.5 stars because the finish is so good.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Book Bloggers Unite at BBPOC

This has to be the best idea ever! I’m just sorry I missed it last year.

There’s a Book Bloggers and Publishers Conference March 7-11. Where is it? Online, of course!

The schedule looks absolutely fabulous. Starting at noon on Wednesday, with my favorite people in the whole reviewing world, NetGalley.

But there’s more. There are sessions about the nasty legal issues. and what do publishers expect. How to work with authors. And one I’m very, very interested, all about working with private PR companies.

The schedule for the five-day conference is incredibly jam-packed. I’m not sure whether to be amused or consider it a symptom of the book blogging breed that the sessions for “Time Management” and “Online Organization Specialist” are both on the last day of the conference.

But seriously, folks who attended last year say they were glued to their computers the entire time the conference was going on. That’s pretty impressive for a multi-day online conference.

I’m also looking forward to the ebooks the conference is giving attendees. This is just like ALA. Free book galleys. But no sore back this time. Yeah!

All of us bloggers have been incentivized to blog about the upcoming conference. One lucky blogger who promotes the conference in their blog will receive an extra set of books. Do they know their audience, or do they know their audience?

But I have to wonder, who is going to blog about books while this conference is going on?

Synthetic Dreams

If there are no such things as demons, which is something that the main character states unequivocally in Kim Knox’ new cyberpunk science fiction romance thriller, Synthetic Dreams, then why are the hackers named after the Celtic demons of yore, the Fomorians?

But the real demon is Ouroboros. The worm of legend that eats his own tail. Confused? So was I–for a bit.

Synthetic Dreams paints a fascinating picture of a future world where the rich and powerful are able to harness the mental energy of certain individuals to power artificial reality dreamscapes.

The reader’s entry into this world is Vyn. Vyn is a Fomorian, a hacker using the codename Bran-seven. All the Fomorians use Celtic codenames. Hacking seems like half-tech and half-magic, so the Celtic analogies fit. While Vyn is in the Corporation-owned artificial reality world known as the Mind Tiers, she wears a glamour, yet another magic term. Glamour normally means enhancement, usually just enhanced appearance; better hair, better teeth, better body.

But Vyn’s glamour is illegal. All glamours are supposed to be tagged. If a person falls for someone else’s enhanced looks, at least they know what was enhanced. Vyn’s glamour isn’t just untagged, it’s a complete change of appearance and registry. She doesn’t just look better than her real self, she is able to fool the registry into believing that her real-life body matches the simulated person she appears to be.

Vyn has created the “Holy Grail” of hacking: she’s created a Simulacrum. It will make her rich–if she doesn’t get caught.

Vyn’s been pursuing a simulacrum for years, ever since the owners of the Corporation, the March-Goodmans, experimented on her, scarred her body, and had her transferred from the privileged N-sector to the slum S-sector.

Vyn wants to hide her scars. She also wants to find out why she was a victim of their experiments. And why her best friend Liam disappeared when he asked too many questions about her. But that was all a long time ago.

Now Vyn has a way to find the answers. With a simulacrum, she can be anybody, anywhere in the Mind Tiers. Or she can just sell it and get rich.

The Corporation is suddenly chasing her again. In the real world. And with intent to kill. And there’s a very hot security agent suddenly willing to protect her. The Corporation wants the Simulacrum. The security agent wants her to rescue his brother from the Corporation, and is willing to trade her promises of a future he can’t possibly mean in order to save his brother’s life.

Why can’t he possibly be sincere?  Because that security agent doesn’t need any glamour to look perfect. And Vyn knows that no one could possibly be interested in her scarred body except to use her as a tool.

Not even after she finds out what her scars were intended for. And after she discover that her security agent has been watching her, guarding her instead of following his assignment, for weeks.

And that the scars that ruined her life when she was a child–may be the only thing that can save her future now.

Escape Rating B-: This story had so many possibilities, but it’s too short to take advantage of them! It’s so frustrating. How did the world end up at this point? Why? This is like the current internet on steroids mixed with the Matrix, except everyone, well, almost everyone, is awake and aware, and a slight dash of the Roman Empire under the worst of the emperors. The corporate espionage bits are very, very insane.

Vyn is an extremely cool character, but we don’t see enough inside the security man’s head to figure out how he got into this. It’s his brother getting rescued, but he’s way more disaffected than that. This world has layers we’re not seeing.

About the Ouroboros thing…Vyn’s life turns out to be part of a very long plan by the Corporation, a plan that someone else manages to turn back against them. In the chilling sense of “revenge is a dish best served cold”. That part was icily well done.

Ebook Review Central, Samhain Publishing, January 2012

It’s time to warm up a cold winter’s night by taking a look at the titles released by Samhain Publishing during the month of January 2012.

And the reason I said warm up is because all of the featured titles for this month’s issue carry Samhain’s “Red Hots!!!” label. The stories favored by the reviewers for this month were all steamy enough to heat up the coldest winter night.

The other thing that this month’s hits all have in common is that they were all series entries.

The first featured entry this week, is Devon’s Pair, by Jayne Rylon. This is the fourth book in her Powertools series, and the “warning” in the description calls it the first “m/f/m/f/m/f/m/m/f” they think. Call this a ménage with a fairly big crew. Which is part of the point of the story. The Powertools series is about a crew of home renovators that seem to share everything, their tools, their company, and their spouses. By the time this fourth book in the series comes around, every relationship between ever possible combination of partners, triples, etc. is up for exploration in hot and loving detail. And based on the reviews, readers keep eating each new addition to the mix.

Hidden Fire by Jess Dee is part of the Red Hot Weekend series. It is also the sequel to Winter Fire, a novella in the same series from January 2011. In Winter Fire, Rachel Ashberg and Garreth Halt spend one night together, as he indulges her fantasy of being with a man she can never have.  Two years later, it is Garreth’s story, and he is trapped for the weekend with Janna Brooks, the woman he loves but who has always been out of reach. Reviewers must have begged for Garreth’s story, and been thrilled when they finally got it!

Vivian Arend’s Rocky Mountain Heat was a November featured title, and she has continued to heat up the mountains with her Six Pack Ranch Series. Book two at the Six Pack Ranch, Rocky Mountain Haven, captured the reviewers hearts this month. Haven not only contains Arend’s signature wit and heated love scenes, but also captures a complicated second-chance-at-love story between an intelligent and interesting characters. The reviews make this sound like a strong entry in what is shaping up to be a very interesting romantic and erotic series.

Next week will be the January 4-in-1 post, so we’ll look at Amber Quill Press, Astraea Publishing, Liquid Silver Books and Riptide Publishing.

What’s on my (mostly virtual) nightstand? 2-26-12

In the cool beans category, I found a neat new organizational tool, Better Google Tasks, from Bit51. I’ve been tracking the books I’m supposed to read, along with all my other stuff, in Google Tasks. Google Tasks works, but feature-rich, it ain’t. Better Google Tasks has one feature I’ve been dying for. It let’s me move stuff down the list (to a later date) without having to open every entry. For when my calendar, ahem, slips.

Moving right along…

Is anyone else having a difficult time grasping the concept that March begins next week. On the one hand, this is a Leap Year, so there are 29 days in February. And on the other hand, another month bites the dust. March 1 is Thursday. Time keeps on slipping into the future.

March 1st brings new books to be reviewed.

The first book is, fittingly enough, the first in a new series by Nicci French. The title is Blue Monday, and this is a murder mystery thriller. I requested it from NetGalley because I wanted to get some more mysteries, and when I didn’t get it, I also requested it from Edelweiss. Of course, I eventually received permission from both places!

There was a title from the Carina Press catalog that grabbed my attention for early next week. I’ve been on a steampunk kick, and Heart of Perdition by Selah March definitely falls into that category. A love story about a cursed woman and a man doomed to die with the end of the century sounds like not only steampunk, but also a “three-hankie special” unless the author pulls a happy ending out of her hat along with her hatpin.

My paranormal tastebuds will be indulged by a foray into Juliana Stone’s new series, The League of Guardians. The teaser novella, Wrong Side of Hell, is on my list for March 5 from NetGalley. And yes, the novel it is a teaser for, Wicked Road to Hell, was also available from NetGalley, and it’s on my list for a little later (if I can resist temptation after I read the prequel).

Last up, my curiosity is being sated. I have a copy of one of Samhain’s new/old Retro Romances to review for Library Journal. Donovan’s Bed by Debra Mullins is part of their Retro Historical line, and I fully admit I’ve been terribly curious to see how these Retro titles hold up. I’ve read a few reviews at Get Yer Bodices Ripped Here, and their reviews are side-splittingly funny. The older the book, the more hilarious the review. I know the intent of the Retro line is to re-publish romances from an era when the sex was toned down a bit. The problem is that attitudes about a lot of other things have changed since then. This is going to be really interesting, but maybe for the book, and maybe not.

Looking back at last week’s list, I didn’t do so bad. Well, for certain select definitions of bad.  50/50. Reviews for Synthetic Dreams and A Rogue by Any Other Name are both queued up and ready to run this week. I’m about 2/3rds of the way through Arctic Dreams, so I’m well past the point of no return. I really need to find out how it’s going to end.

I sent my editor my first review for the print Library Journal. But because of the very long lead time, my review of Dark Magic by James Swain won’t appear here for months. I will say that I really, really liked the book. A lot. As in I finished it all in one sitting. If you like dark fantasy, it’s well worth putting in your TBR list.

I also finished Humanotica: Silver for Book Lovers Inc. I’m struggling with writing it up. I swallowed the book whole, it was a fascinating world. But some things in the characters and the world bothered me, and it’s making the writing difficult. This is a case where the BLI format of “My Thoughts” may work better than the usual review.

And oh yes did I ever read Celebrity in Death. Not quite New York to Dallas, but yes, yes, yes. This may tell you how much I liked Dark Magic. I was in the middle of Dark Magic at midnight when Celebrity in Death came out, and I couldn’t put the book down to get Celebrity in Death. I had to finish Dark Magic first.

I’ve probably teased you enough about a book that won’t be out until May.

Remember, Ebook Review Central tomorrow with Samhain!


The Iron Heart

The Iron Heart by Leslie Dicken is a terrific steampunk romance. The story takes place in and around Lundun, and yes, the resemblance to Victorian London is intentional and heightened, because there is a serial killer just like the infamous Ripper on the loose, and the hunt for him brings in the suspense.

Unfortunately, his first victim provides the introduction for our hero and heroine, and also points out the class divide in this quasi-Victorian society.

Lundun is where the common folk live. The Greenlands outside it are where the nobility reside. Except for Ella Wilder. She’s been secretly living above her Uncle James’ clockworks in Lundun ever since her cousin Jenny was the first horrific victim of the killer.

At the time, it seemed like a random murder. Lundun is a big and dangerous city, and sometimes, death happens. Even gruesome death. But when a second young woman, one who looks just like Jenny, turns up, Ella knows that Jenny’s death was the start of something horrific, and she wants to get the word out to other young women to protect themselves.

Ella even has a way to get that word out. Ella publishes a newspaper in Lundun, She also knows how to mobilize the upper crust to act. Ella is a member of the Syndicate of Provinces, the Council that governs Lundun. But Council members are required to live in the Greenlands, which is the reason that her actual residence over her Uncle’s shop must remain a secret.

The District Four representative is Bennett Pierce, Lord Barrington. He is alarmed by the recent death of the second young woman. He does not know about Jenny. But the second woman was his brother’s fiancee, before his brother’s accident.

Bennett wants to investigate the girl’s death himself. He is already investigating the girl’s death–by himself. He has reason to believe that his brother Hugh, who he rescued time and time again from excesses large and small, may have gone over the edge into madness, and that it is Bennett’s fault.

But as much as Bennett wants to quiet the Council, Ella wants to involve them. The only way for him to keep her from publishing her findings in her newspaper is to give her some information, and to keep her close enough to him to prevent her from finding out too much.

The difficulty with that plan is that Bennett Pierce discovers that Ella Wilder is the one and only person who has ever distracted him from his single-minded quest to find and save his brother. The only saving grace is that he tempts her every bit as much.

But with a crazed killer on the loose, will their mutual distraction be their salvation or their doom?

Escape Rating A-: I was up until 3 am trying to finish this. I didn’t quite make it, but I really, really wanted to. I wanted to find out how it ended so badly that I picked it up at breakfast the next morning. I got so caught up in the romance I forgot to figure out who the killer really was. Very well done!

This is very steamy steampunk. A genre description might be steampunk romantic suspense. The story is romantic suspense. There’s a serial killer on the loose and the hero is hunting him for personal reasons. The heroine is personally involved because someone close to her was a victim. There are hints she might be a target. This is romantic suspense.

But the world is so, so steampunk. Dirigibles, clockworks, automata. Not just big airships, but small personal vehicles as well. Clockwork parts for people are an integral part of the story. Even a tiny hint of Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics makes an appearance.

I found this book because Heather Massey recommended it (while fanning herself) on The Galaxy Express. She also mentioned that the description of the book on Amazon and Goodreads doesn’t use the word “Steampunk”. And it doesn’t. The description is really cute, but the keyword isn’t there. This is steampunk, and the book description needs to just plain say it for readers who will love this book to find it.

Because steampunk romance fans will adore it.


Celebrity in Death

If Eve Dallas were of a more philosophical bent, she would have meditated on the “life imitates art imitates life” nature of her latest case in Celebrity in Death. But the character that J.D. Robb created over 30 books ago is all hard-nosed murder cop, and that’s why we love her adventures. That’s also why her multi-billionaire ex-criminal husband Roarke loves her too.

But Celebrity in Death is a story-within-a-story. And possibly several iterations beyond that.

For Eve, it’s only been a couple of years since she cracked the Icove case. Dr. Wilfred Icove tried to beat death by cloning human beings, and died for his sins, and his secrets (Origin in Death). The case was so high-profile, and so scandalous, that Eve’s friend and go-to reporter, Natalie Furst, was able to make a best-seller out of her book on the inside story. That book, The Icove Agenda, is being filmed in New York, and the producers want to get all the real-life principals to interact with their actor-counterparts.

The resemblances are eerie, at least the physical ones. Especially when the makeup is in place and the camera is running. But off-camera, the differences are glaring. One difference in particular–Detective Delia Peabody is a genuinely nice woman, but the actress portraying her, K.T. Harris, is an absolute bitch.

Eve Dallas always stands for the dead, whether they are likeable or not. So when K.T. is murdered in the middle of a dinner party Eve is attending for all the movie people and all the original participants in the drama, Eve dives into the hunt for her killer. But not until after she shakes off that cold shiver at seeing a dead ringer for her partner dead in a pool.

At first there are too many suspects, and too few. Everyone detested the dead woman, but no one remembers who left the party and when, because the entire group was watching the movie “gag reel” at the time of death.

As events unfold, Eve discovers that K.T. Harris was both victim and victimized in her life. And although Eve sees the similarities to herself, she doesn’t sympathize much. K.T. made her choices, and they were all the wrong ones.

The case takes a surprising twist, and there are more dead for Eve to stand up for than she expected. But that’s what Eve Dallas does, every time.

Escape Rating B+: While I enjoyed this one, it wasn’t as riveting as New York to Dallas (see review), or my personal favorite, Fantasy in Death.

The dynamics of the cop shop are as much fun as ever. The scene where Dallas and Feeney have to watch a recording of a suspect couple’s private moments to determine whether or not it was tampered with is priceless. Their mutual embarrassment is just so perfect for their relationship.

This story didn’t ratchet up the tension the way that the stories normally do. There isn’t a lot of death, and there just doesn’t seem to be a lot at stake for most of the participants. While a lot of people involved are being bribed, few seem to be getting blackmailed. Something is missing.

Only in mystery fiction do we go looking for more death. But for my taste this story needed a couple more fresh corpses to give it body.


Death of a Kingfisher

I got hooked on M. C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series back when I used to drive a lot. Notice I said hooked. Rather like a trout in Macbeth’s lovely Highland village of Lochdubh, I was caught, and now I can’t escape the net.

The latest entry in the series is Death of a Kingfisher. The Kingfisher in this instance is a beautiful bird, the showpiece of The Fairy Glen, a new tourist attraction at the nearby village of Braikie.

The locals weren’t to happy about The Fairy Glen, not at first, but it’s brought tourist traffic and tourist money to an economically depressed area of Sutherland, and the owner, Mary Leinster, has charmed the pants off of any opposition. In the case of her male opposition, possibly literally. She’s also played successfully on long-held superstitions. Mary doesn’t just claim to have the “second-sight”, her vision of a boy falling in the pond came true, and the boy nearly drowned.

But the death of the beautiful kingfisher was no accident: the bird, his mate and their chicks were poisoned.

The kingfisher is the first to die, but not the last. And the other deaths are human. First a wealthy and elderly woman dies when her motorized wheelchair lift practically skyrockets her up a staircase, and it is discovered that the seatbelt of the chair was tampered with. The woman may have been a cantankerous old baggage, but she didn’t deserve to fly through her own skylight. Then it’s discovered that she was robbed before she was killed.

After that, murders turn up all over the township, as anyone who hints at knowledge of the murder or the robbery is mysteriously eliminated before the police can question them.

And what about the police?

Hamish Macbeth is the local constable in Lochdubh. His tiny station covers most of the small towns and villages in the county of Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands, which is actually very far north.  Hamish wants to be sure he stays in Lochdubh, the place he loves, and does not get sent to the “big city” of Strathbane.

So Hamish usually makes sure that credit for solving the crime goes to someone else, so that he can remain just where he is. However, he continually worries that budget cuts may close all of the local stations, and there won’t be any place for him except Strathbane.

This crime has him stumped. The suspects always seem to have an alibi, and the alibi is usually CCTV. But there are two sets of crimes. The murders, and the robbery. Once Hamish realizes that there may be two sets of perpetrators, and that there are ways to fool CCTV, he’s well on his way to solving this mess, and getting back to his life.

Escape Rating B: Hamish is a likeable character, and this is a police procedural series although sometimes Hamish spends more time trying to figure out a way around the procedures than using them. But once he figures out which way the crime might have gone, it’s easy to get caught up in the chase.

One of the very interesting things about Hamish is that he has found the place he wants to be in life, and is doing everything he can to stay there. At the same time, he needs to make sure justice is done. So he lets others take the credit.

Something I discovered recently: BBC Scotland loosely based a TV series on the Hamish Macbeth series between 1995 and 1997. In the books, Hamish is described as very tall, thin and with bright red hair. The actor who portrayed Hamish in the series is Robert Carlyle, best known in the U.S. as Doctor Nicholas Rush in Stargate Universe, and Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold in Once Upon a Time. Hamish is extremely likable. Rush and Gold are anything but. I keep wondering which one would be considered casting against type?




Robin Hood is one of the best-loved (and most often re-told) English legends, probably just behind the King Arthur stories in the number of times it’s been re-done and re-interpreted. And examined by everyone from Disney to Sean Connery. Cartoon to pathos.

Scarlet by A. G. Gaughen is a slightly different take on Robin Hood and his so-called “Merry Men”, who are certainly not merry in this re-telling of the tale.

In Gaughen’s version, “Will” Scarlet is known as “Scar” for the scar on her cheek. The change twists the tale. Scar is female, passing as male for her own safety. The story of how this young woman came to be hiding as a boy in the midst of a band of outlaws in Nottinghamshire makes something new out of an otherwise familiar legend.

We all know the Robin Hood story. Robin, Earl of Locksley returned from the Crusades after his father’s death. He should have inherited the Earldom. Instead he became an outlaw, a hero, and eventually a legend.

In this story, Robin is the outlaw Earl, still trying to protect his people. The difference is Scarlet, or Scar. All the rest of the familiar players in the drama are present and accounted for.

But Scar is a confused young woman. She hides her nature from the villagers in Nottinghamshire, but Robin and the band know that she is female. No one knows her real identity. And all of her deceptions begin to unravel when the Sheriff hires a thief-taker named Guy of Gisbourne, and Scar is so petrified that she freezes at the mention of his name.

Although the outlaw band do rob the rich to keep the villagers fed and help them pay their taxes, Scar truly is a thief. She loves bright shiny objects and steals for the challenge of it. But she never keeps what she steals. Scar sells everything she takes to help keep the village ahead of the taxman. She doesn’t even eat enough, because she knows someone else, anyone else, is more deserving than she.

Robin worries for her, and has from the day he met her in London when she tried to pick his pocket, thinking he was still a Lord. He sees that something terrible preys on her, but doesn’t know what it is until Gisbourne comes to wreck the delicate balance of their corner of the world.

Scar’s unknown past has become a danger to the outlaw band’s present. But her secrets reveal that Robin has never known anything of who she really was, or is. Once he finds out, can he live with the knowledge? No matter how high the cost?

Escape Rating B-: I have mixed reactions to this book. On the one hand, the concept of changing one of the characters from male to female was a very neat idea. That was terrific. On the other hand, I did figure out what Scarlet’s real identity was pretty early on, so if I was supposed to be fooled, I wasn’t.

The author I think was trying to write Scarlet’s character as using a sort of street vernacular to show that she was not a lady.  Even in Scarlet’s own thoughts, her use of language was not as formal as the “upper classes”. When it’s used for Scarlet’s thoughts as opposed to speech, it can be annoying to read. It is part of her secret, but I wonder if she would think that way. Speak, yes–think, I’m not so sure.

The Robin Hood legend has been re-told so often that it is hard to make it original. For this reader, this version wasn’t quite original enough. Scarlet conceals her female nature so effectively, she often succeeds in hiding it from herself. Where it would have been fascinating to have a young woman’s reactions to being a female in a band of men, most of the issue of Scarlet being female is handled by her suddenly becoming the object of jealousy between two of the band, and her being ill-equipped to cope with the problem.